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What If I’m Wrong?

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

What happens then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for flying with me in the fog…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conspiracy Theorists, Deniers, Lunatics and the Story of Jesus

Last night I was watching a documentary on the Apollo space program on YouTube. After the episode was over I surfed those “recommendations” that are over on the side of the screen. One happened to be about how the “hoax” of the Apollo program was finally, incontrovertibly, proven. I clicked on the video, more out of curiosity than anything. At first I was amused, then concerned. Finally I just became angry. Reading the comments below the video only made me more angry.

Now, I must say that there is a certain little voice in the back of my head that whispers, “These people are just out to rock the boat, get a little rise out of people. They don’t really believe all this conspiracy garbage, but they want you to think they do, just to provoke a response.” I cannot really be sure – but from watching the video and from reading the comments, it certainly appears that a great many people believe the whole Apollo space program, and especially the lunar landings, were all one huge hoax, filmed by Stanley Kubrick on some desert wasteland in Arizona.

But it is not just the Apollo space program. There are people who do not believe the space shuttle actually flies into space, that the massacre of the school children at Sandy Hook elementary school actually took place, or, of course, that Lee Harvey Oswald killed president Kennedy.

This might all be mildly amusing if it were not for more than a few some troubling issues. One, these “conspiracy theorists” refuse to consider any conflicting evidence. The more evidence that is presented to them that contradicts their hare-brained ideas, the more they insist that your argument proves their conspiracy. Take, for example, the Apollo space program. How many thousands of individuals would have to be in on the hoax that the US supposedly sent 12 men to walk on the moon? Yet, confronted with this question the “conspiracy theorists” simply argue that proves their point – the power of the government was so overwhelming that it could and did keep those thousands of people (a large number of whom are still living) so utterly silent about the hoax. Never mind the photos that were recently taken that show the bases of the lunar landers still on the moon, with numerous foot and rover tracks all around the landers. Hoaxes, all of them. If you can fake an entire lunar landing, you could certainly fake a few “supposed” satellite pictures.

The conspiracies around the Sandy Hook massacre are more disturbing, so I will not dwell on those. Anyone who denies the carnage that took place at that school is not just deluded, they are psychotic. They are genuinely mentally ill.

As I was pondering all of this, a related though occurred to me. People have been denying the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ever since the first century. These “conspiracy theorists” have created all manner of convoluted stories as to how the “myth” of Jesus was created – from the virgin birth, through his miracles, and finally ending with the crucifixion and resurrection. No matter how much evidence is provided to these people, their only response is, “See, that just goes to prove that my theory is correct – Jesus never existed!”

This goes a long way to prove a theory that I have – that the field of apologetics is basically designed for those who already believe in the truth of Scripture. While all the various attempts at “proving” the truth of Scripture are interesting, and some are more convincing than others, it is readily apparent to me that no amount of “evidence” demonstrating the truth of Scripture will convince anyone if they initially choose to reject the basic premise of the Bible – and that is that God exists.

If God had wanted men to prove that he exists, he would have given us the exact manner in which to do so. But he did not – he gave us the Bible, a story that relates how he created us, loved us, and eventually became one of us so that we might at some point choose to accept his love. Scientific proof (the stuff of apologetics) demands adherence to scientific theories and laws, but it does not require any kind of a loving relationship. God, however, does not want a mindless adherence to a set of laws, even his laws. He wants a relationship with that which he created – us. God loves us, and wants us to enjoy the blessings of loving him in return. The field of apologetics misses that point entirely. Apologetics is about science. The Bible is about faith and love. Science never created a Christian. Only the cross can create a Christian. And there is no “incontrovertible” evidence that the cross of Jesus ever existed. Unless, of course, you are willing to accept the eyewitness accounts of both his followers and his enemies. But, never let contradictory evidence foil a good conspiracy theory!

Speaking of foil, those people who doubt the Apollo space program, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot president Kennedy, or the fact that the 9/11 terrorists flew jets into the World Trade Center, causing them to ultimately collapse, need to tighten their tin-foil hats around their heads a little tighter. They are a living definition of the concept of lunacy – the idea that the moon has demonic power over human beings. Reality is a scary thing – especially when you refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual pieces of evidence and testimony. Those who have a theory that men never walked on the moon, that the FBI, the CIA, and the mafia all conspired to kill Kennedy, and that the US government was complicit in detonating bombs in the twin towers to destroy them probably hate this post.

That’s okay by me. I don’t believe any of them really exist. They certainly cannot prove they exist, even if they think they do. The proof of their existence is all just one big hoax.

Try to deny that fact!

Informed Does Not Mean Educated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Hearing God’s Voice (Tom Olbricht)

Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press,1996).

I just finished writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I learned so much in writing that paper. One of the things I learned was that no matter how much information I thought I had gathered on a particular topic or sub-topic, there was always one more (or a dozen more) reputable sources to consider. When men have been thinking and writing about the Church and Christian topics for almost 2,000 years it is just impossible to be original.

One of the sources that I discovered in the process of writing my paper was Tom Olbricht’s, Hearing God’s Voice. I have been vaguely aware of Dr. Olbricht – he was at ACU when I started my undergraduate program there. I was always intimidated by Dr. Olbricht. He was a large man, and it would be kind to say that his suits were never impeccably tailored. Scuttlebutt was that you only took Dr. Olbricht’s classes if you had a suicidal wish to blow up your GPA, or if his course was required. Because he was primarily in the grad program, I never had to make that decision. When I did finally enter ACU to earn my Masters degree, Dr. Olbricht had moved on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. By that time I was not so easily led by whispers and gossip, and I took every course I could from Dr. Everett Ferguson. Since that time I have regretted not having had any classes with Dr. Olbricht. After reading this book I regret that lack even more.

Hearing God’s Voice is a book about hermeneutics within the Churches of Christ, but it does not read like a typical book on hermeneutics. It is mostly an autobiographical journey through Dr. Olbricht’s life, showing how hermeneutics (or how a person interprets the Bible) both shapes and is shaped by life experiences. It is a fascinating story, and if you are interested in the history of the Churches of Christ in the mid to late 20th century, you will want to get this book and read it. The book is part “who’s who” within the Churches of Christ, part pedagogy on how to obtain advanced academic degrees, part critique of the Restoration Movement, and, finally, part hermeneutic.

You have to get to the end of the book before Dr. Olbricht explores his hermeneutic in any great depth, except that you have to really read all of the early parts of the book, because his hermeneutic is inseparably connected to his life’s story. He did not just get his hermeneutic out of a book, and he does not want anyone to try to get their hermeneutic out of his book. At least, I do not think he does. I think, in perfect professor fashion, Dr. Olbricht would say, “Now that you’ve read my book, go forth and discover the art of hermeneutics!”

Dr. Olbricht is certainly one of the premier theologians within the Churches of Christ. Few men have attained the level of expertise, both theologically and in rhetoric, of Dr. Olbricht. I think I would still be intimidated by Dr. Olbricht, but having challenged myself with Dr. Ferguson’s classes, I think I would have greatly enjoyed listening and learning from Dr. Olbricht.

I do not agree with everything Dr. Olbricht says in this book – especially with his understanding of hermeneutics. After all I have said in praise of Dr. Olbricht, that may sound heretical, but no man is perfect, and, while I deeply appreciate many of the moves that Dr. Olbricht proposes in this book, I also identify some significant weaknesses in his approach. Perhaps the greatest is that I sense Dr. Olbricht’s approach is simply too open-ended. To use a sports analogy, he has an impressive wind-up, and the pitch leaves his hand in a blur, but by the time the ball gets to the plate it is barely rolling across the ground. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Olbricht places upon the reader (or auditor), but in the end it appeared to me that the reader/auditor had a greater place in Dr. Olbricht’s hermeneutic than the Scripture did. I believe his two examples illustrate that. And, today, approximately 20 years after the book was written and published, I believe that the steady march of same-sex relationships and gender-bending would support my contention.

Any hermeneutic, if it is to faithfully transmit God’s word to a new generation, must begin with the full and unquestioned authority of Scripture. We need to make sure the message of Scripture is heard in new and fresh ways, but the reader NEVER is to be allowed to determine the meaning of Scripture. The reader/auditor is to discover the meaning of the text, but the skill of discovery and the power of determination are two completely different concepts.

Oh well, sorry for the sermon. Bottom line – if you are interested in hermeneutics, and especially if you share a love for the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ, I highly recommend this book.

Book Review – “Dissident Discipleship” (David Augsburger)

I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.

But, some things are just too good to pass up.

As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for  the material.

Cover of "Dissident Discipleship: A Spiri...

Cover via Amazon

The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.

Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.

The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.

However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.

But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.

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“Jesus Was Not God”

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balance scale (Photo credit: winnifredxoxo)

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)

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Credulity Crisis – Critiquing Christian Themed Entertainment

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test (Photo credit: DaveBleasdale)

This post is a continuation of my last post. In this installment I will be making a careful examination of the claims of the book and soon to be released movie, “Heaven is For Real.”

For those who have not read the book, the story is about a little boy who suffers terribly from a misdiagnosed appendicitis attack, comes close to death and experiences a vision in which he claims to have seen (among other things) Jesus, his deceased grandfather, and his sister, who was actually never born. In his vision the grandfather has become younger in heaven, while his never-born sister has aged to a young girl. There are many problems with the story, but I just want to focus on the theology.

I need to make something absolutely clear here as I begin. In no way do I want to suggest that the little boy on whom the book and movie is based did not have the visions that are claimed in the book. I have personal reasons for allowing that he did, indeed, have those visions. This critique is not an ad hominem attack on that little boy. However, the interpretation of those visions has become the basis of a multi-million dollar enterprise, and there are serious repercussions that flow from the veracity or falsity of those religious interpretations. It is to those interpretations that I now turn.

Disciples are commanded, not merely encouraged, to test the veracity of the spirits that claim to be from God (1 John 4:1). I do not have to guess that a book or movie that discusses a vision of heaven and the residents thereof to be a message from God. The parents of the little boy, the publishers of the book and the producers of the movie all claim that the message comes from God. So, I can rest on a firm foundation that I am not arguing against a straw man. I am testing a spirit that claims to be from God.

So, I begin by asking, “Does the message support or contradict a portion of Scripture that we can all agree upon as being a clear message from God.” The first text I want to point out is Luke 16:19-31. The relevant words are found in v. 27-31:

He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (NIV, emphasis mine)

This, of course, comes from the mouth of Jesus in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. If we cannot agree that this passage is from the mind of God then I suggest we cannot agree on anything.

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second passage is much longer – 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. I can only summarize here, but I encourage you to read the entire passage. In sum, Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians that our resurrection bodies will in no way, shape or glory be similar to our present human body. While we will have “bodies” they will be as different from our human bodies as the leaf is different from the seed.

Once again, unless you want to remove one of the greatest teachings on the resurrection from the New Testament, we have to say that this passage came from the mind of God.

Third, I would turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, but for length we will only point out v. 15-17:

According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of The Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet The Lord in the air. And so we will be with The Lord forever. (NIV, emphasis mine)

Here again we have the apostle Paul writing one of the foundational texts on the nature of the resurrection, and quoting Jesus no less; so I take this passage to be from the mind of God.

What do we learn from those passages? We learn that Jesus himself rejected the idea of sending someone back from death, or even near death, to accomplish the purpose for which the written Scriptures are more than sufficient. How much more sufficient is the story of the resurrection of Jesus and the rest of our New Testament?

Second, we learn that our post resurrection bodies will not resemble our present bodies. Simply put, we will not resemble what we look like now. To say that someone can take a peek into heaven and recognize its occupants is to contradict what Paul said about our resurrection bodies.

Third, we learn that there will not be “stages” of progressive resurrections. “We who are alive will not precede those who have fallen asleep” and “we will be caught up together with them” means that they (the saved dead) will not precede us, and we will not precede them. We make the final journey together. Once again to be blunt, our dearly departed loved ones are not in heaven – unless you want to reconstruct 1 Thessalonians 4 (and 1 Corinthians 15).

I would like to stop here and ask the question, “For what purpose was the book written and the movie produced?” The best answer that I can decipher is that God wants us to know that he loves us and he wants us to go to heaven. That’s it. The opening chapters of Genesis are not sufficient. The soaring poetry of Isaiah is not sufficient. The melancholy songs of Jeremiah are not sufficient. The life of the Son of God as recorded in the gospels is not sufficient. The hours of agony suffered by that Son of God on the cross are not sufficient. No – it takes a little boy suffering an extended illness and coming close to death and returning to life to get the message out that God loves us and wants us to go to heaven.

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Píse...

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Písek, Czech Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The publishers of the book and the producers of the movie have placed anyone who criticizes the book in a difficult position. All they have to do is accuse the opponent of despising a little boy, disbelieving in God, rejecting the power of God or maybe all three. Obviously I reject that accusation. I believe the theology of the book and movie is horribly flawed – certainly sacrilegious and bordering on blasphemous. Whatever the little boy did or did not see, the resulting production is unbiblical and dangerous.

I started this post by saying I do not disbelieve the little boy’s experience. I would be a reprehensible fool to suggest that I have knowledge that the little boy did not have the vision he claims to have experienced. I can, however, hold the interpretation that a group of adults have made regarding that experience up against the measure of the Word of God. As I have demonstrated, that interpretation fails miserably.

Two other issues bear very quick mention at this point. The interpretation told in the book and movie has made a lot of people a lot of money. This is not some altruistic telling of a gospel story. Serious amounts of money are exchanging hands here – and all based on the events that took place when a little boy was experiencing tremendous pain, was receiving numerous drugs, and was for a time under anesthesia. The entire process just seems scandalous to me.

Second, what pressures are being placed on this young boy? For the rest of his life he will be known as “the little boy who went to heaven.” We have all seen how notoriety destroys the lives of child actors. What happens when the boy grows, and, heaven forbid, stumbles or experiences a valley to match the mountain top experience he had as a child? How will his “adoring fans” respond? How will the world respond? But, more important, how will he respond? You cannot live a perfect life. Somewhere in his life he will experience the desert of spiritual emptiness. I hope the adults in his life are preparing him for that eventuality, so that when it does happen (NOT IF it does happen) he will be prepared to come out on the other side unharmed.

We are not supposed to check our brains at the door when we enter the waters of baptism. To think critically does not mean that we reject everything we see, hear and read; but to be a disciple does not mean that we uncritically swallow every story that claims to be “Christian,” whether that story is titled, “The Passion of the Christ,” “God’s Not Dead,” or “Heaven Is For Real.” Let us test the spirits, and that means some will pass the test, and others will not. Let us pray that God helps us make those decisions humbly and with extreme caution.

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Super Christians or Servants?

Stubby is better than you

Stubby is better than you (Photo credit: aloha orangeneko)

It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.

And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”  (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)

It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.

There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?

The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.

I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??

Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)

See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert....

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Life, death, and meaning of existence are intertwined. (Woman gazing into boudoir mirror forms shape of skull.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.

So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.

And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.

Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.

One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)

Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.

Amen?

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Why Contemporary Theological Debate is Virtually Impossible

English: "Debate and Oratory". Image...

English: “Debate and Oratory”. Image for first page of “Debate and Oratory” section of 1909 Tyee (yearbook of the University of Washington). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are a child of the American Restoration Movement you are the product of debate. Not many of us realize that, but it is as certain as the brightness of the sun or the scent of a rose. We may describe it differently, but the reality exists. The overwhelming majority of our theological beliefs have been hammered out and refined through the process of written or oral debate.

While some criticize this, or bemoan it, in reality this is a healthy process. In fact, we can see the very first “ancestor” of the debate process in Acts 15. Two groups of people, each with differing opinions and with differing evidence to defend those opinions, meet together for an open airing of the differences and the resolution of the problem. In several of his letters the apostle Paul carries on “debates” of sorts with his readers. He offers what is, or what he believes might be, an argument against his position, and then demonstrates why that particular argument or statement is false.

Debate is NOT an evil thing.

However, I am growing more convinced by the day that civil debate in a modern setting is virtually impossible. There are many reasons why I think this is true, so let me list a few:

1.  Theological positions become emotional positions, and the resulting language makes it impossible for the opposing side to articulate any kind of positive position. They are always on the defensive, and are in a no-win situation to begin with. Case in point: I just read a tweet (message on the social media Twitter) in which those who disagree with the full inclusion of women in every aspect of a Christian worship service are guilty of “gender injustice.” Now, because I disagree with the position that women can participate in every aspect of leadership within a congregation, including leadership within a worship service, automatically I am guilty of injustice. Let’s parse that for a minute – what does injustice mean to you? Cruelty? Viciousness? Overweening power and brutality? The denial of basic human dignity? How, might I gently respond, does a complementarian position in which women are viewed as equal in every sense of the word, but have differing roles to fulfill in the Christian economy, equate to injustice? Yet, the inclusion of that word precludes any rational debate.

2.  Those who hold a particular opinion refuse to consider the weakness of their position, or any possible exceptions to their opinion. Case in point: growing up within the Churches of Christ I was taught from a very early age that the Greek preposition eis means “for the purpose of.” Thus it was crystal clear that when Peter said “Repent and be baptized eis the forgiveness of sins” he meant “for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing could be clearer. I was told that those who translated the word eis as “because of” were completely wrong, both in Greek and in theology. Imagine my surprise, then, when in doing maybe the most exhaustive research that I have ever done for a series of sermons, that I discovered that there is, indeed, a use of the Greek preposition eis that has to mean “because of.” The passage is Matthew 12:41, where Jesus very clearly states that the men of Nineveh repented eis the preaching of Jonah. Now, eis cannot mean “for the purpose of” in this passage! It has to mean “because of” or “as a result of.” Now, do not get me wrong. I still believe eis in Acts 2:38 means “for the purpose of.” But I learned an important lesson. We cannot summarily dismiss every challenge to our conclusions without carefully considering the basis of that challenge. Yet, today, objections and challenges are routinely dismissed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is mentioned in point #1 above, if you disagree with me all you are is a mean, nasty, inhuman person, and probably ignorant as well.

Debate Logo

Debate Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3.  The differing sides cannot even agree on the measure that would be used to decide the truthfulness or falsity of any position. In Acts 15 the disciples relied upon Scripture and the leading of the Spirit to come to a unified position. Today that appears to be all but impossible. Returning to the issue of women and leadership roles in the church, I have repeatedly asked how it could be that Paul would so clearly and unambiguously state in Galatians 3:27-28 that women are to be full and equal partners in every possible scenario in the Lords kingdom, and yet in writings which were either possibly or even certainly produced much later than the Galatian letter reverse himself and teach that only men are to lead in certain aspects of the church. We are not simply arguing two different interpretations of Galatians 3:27-28. We are approaching the question from two entirely different philosophical and epistemological  foundations. If we cannot even decide on a mutually agreeable measuring stick, how can we even begin to engage in profitable debate?

In pointing these issues out I have to admit my own weakness and shortcomings in the process. I am emotionally invested in my conclusions. After all, if a position is not worth defending it is not worth holding. And, as I pointed out in point #2, I have been guilty on more than one occasion of assigning false motives and conclusions to my opponents. I hope I am better now, and I hope I get even better with time, but human flesh is human flesh and I still catch myself violating my own standards from time to time.

I hope I am wrong, I hope that as disciples we could gather and join in a decent “conference” or debate and constructively address some of these issues. I just do not see that happening any time soon – and that saddens me.

For a people immersed and raised in the cauldron of discussion and debate we owe it to our forebears to be able to acquit ourselves better.

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