Monthly Archives: August 2011

Jesus and Contemporary Culture

I have been working on launching a new website addressing the relationship between Christ and Culture. Therefore, I have been doing a lot of thinking about Jesus and our contemporary world. I know that there are multitudes of sites that address this question. However, I do feel like I will be able to add something to the conversation.

While I cannot put my finger on the exact cause of my unease, I have a growing discomfort with the direction the church seems to be heading. Every day I read an article or see a story in which some Christian leader somewhere is advocating a position that has for the past 2000 years been considered heretical or immoral or at the very least schismatic. In my opinion the root cause is a growing desire for the church to be praised by, or at least accepted by, modern culture and that means primarily the leading media sources.

Citizens registered as an Independent, Democra...
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Yet, when I read the gospels, even as Jesus walked and talked and moved about in his Jewish/Roman culture, he lived and taught a profoundly counter-cultural message. He challenged the Jewish leaders on their false religiosity. He certainly challenged the power based secularism of the Roman establishment. He laid bare the Greek emphasis on education and human achievement. As the gospel of John makes especially clear, his one driving passion was to fulfill the will of his Father. Faithfulness, not popularity, was his mission. If we are to follow Jesus we must have that same mission.

Our civilization has many challenges. However, it seems to me that if a group of people claim to have committed their lives to the crucified one that they should be willing to stand up for what he stood for – and not allow public opinion and the politically correct speech police to interfere and set the terms of the debate.

Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, white collar and blue collar – everyone wants the church to look like them and to champion their agenda. We’ve got it backward, folks. We must champion Jesus’ agenda – not the other way around. Jesus said he would build HIS church.

So, hopefully in the next few weeks I will add yet another voice to the conversation, and I hope that you will consider what I have to say, and if you feel it is worthy, let me know what you think (good or ill). Until then, keep the shiny side up and may the number of your take-offs never exceed the number of your landings.

Morality, Doctrine, Orthodoxy and Church Discipline

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

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Just some random thoughts on a Monday morning…

I just wonder how many “Christians” are going to be disappointed when on the judgment day God does not use the latest polling data or the latest issue of the American Journal of Psychology to define “sin.”

The more I read David Lipscomb the more I am convinced that he had things right. A lot of things right. More things right than many (if not most) of his contemporaries.

The more I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer the more I am convinced that he had things right. A lot of things right. More things right than many (if not most) of his contemporaries.

Just call me a David-Dietrich BonLipscombHoeffer fan. Oh, and add C.S. Lewis too. And John R.W. Stott.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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One concept that Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer shared was the unshakeable belief that the Kingdom of God was not to be confused with this world. The disciple of Christ was to be radically different. Bonhoeffer especially made this clear with his emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount. Lipscomb was ridiculed and even black-balled for his insistence that the disciple of Christ should avoid political entanglements and focus entirely on the Kingdom of God. One of the first books I read on the Sermon on the Mount was Stott’s commentary entitled “Christian Counter-Culture.” When a conservative preacher for the Church of Christ, a Lutheran, and two Anglicans can all agree on something, you just have a feeling that they were all right. More right than many (if not most) Christians realize today.

When “Christians” today depend on the polling data of George Gallup, when they consider the proclamations of modern medical journals to be more trustworthy than the inspired Scriptures, when they are willing to re-invent the church so that no one has their feelings hurt or that no one is excluded then I really wonder…is it Christ they are following or culture?

I forget his name, who was it that said, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you?” Some Galilean carpenter. Shook a lot of people up. In fact, he died for saying it. I’m pretty sure it was not George Gallup, or Sigmund Freud.

A Precise Language – Necessity or Luxury?

By Rembrandt.

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One of the tenets of Postmodernism is the idea that language is a “game” (variously defined) that we are “inside of,” and because we can never be outside of it we can never view it as absolute. Language, we are  told by the philosophers, can never be so fixed that both author (or speaker) and reader (or hearer) both understand exactly the same message.

Those philosophers have never earned their pilot’s certificate!

Aviation, as well as medicine, law, sports, and many, many other fields, has a language that is both absolute and determinative. It is precise to the point that a pilot is always cleared for takeoff and to land, but never to takeoff or for a landing. A pilot in instrument conditions is cleared to a destination airport, but he or she is cleared for an instrument approach to that airport. Exact, precise words have exact, precise meanings, and woe be to the controller or to the pilot who decides to alter those definitions.

Should theology be any different? Can we say with reckless abandon that because the gospel writers were in one culture and we are in another that we cannot understand the words they used, or even make the attempt to do so? Is Paul’s use of terms such as “grace,” “faith,” “law,” and “forgiveness” so obscure that we have to throw up our hands and say that the best we can do is approximate his intended purpose? Are we utterly incapable of discerning the intent of the biblical author just because he (or she) was writing in a pre-modern, unscientific context?

At some point the conversation becomes ludicrous. At some point we have to say that man has become too smart by half. My second and third undeniable truth of theological reflection are as follows:

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

I really know no other way to read the Bible, nor do I know why we would want to if we felt otherwise. If the authors of our text felt that language was just a “game” that we are “inside of” and that their message could be interpreted in as many ways as there would eventually be readers, they sure had a funny way of communicating that belief.

Precise language is a necessity, not a luxury. We may debate and discuss and disagree about the precise meanings of terms or ideas within the text, but that very debate is an indication of the seriousness of the issue.

If a preposition can get the attention of the entire aviation world, how much more important should we consider the entire Word of God?

Who Is Responsible For Your Faith?

When I was flying for the freight company where I last served as a pilot I had many opportunities to just sit and let my mind wander as I flew to my destination or back home. In a Cessna 402 the pilot sits very close to and slightly behind the left propeller. I remember sitting and watching that propeller spin its several thousand revolutions per minute and wondering just how I got to be where I was. Those Cessna 402s and I had a pretty cozy relationship – and one that I cherish every day.

Cape Air cessna at HGR.

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First of all I had my mom and my wife to thank for my pilot schooling. My wife encouraged me to learn how to fly, and my mom made it possible. Then there were the dozen or so flight instructors who gave me my basic training, my instrument, commercial, multi-engine and flight instructor instruction. Then there were the employers that gave me opportunities to teach others and to fly commercially. Behind all of the pilots in my life were the dozens and dozens of mechanics that kept the planes in an airworthy condition. At the company where I last worked I got to know the mechanics pretty closely, and I would have flown anything they said was airworthy with absolutely no question about their judgement. But even back behind the mechanics were the engineers and the craftsmen who actually designed and built the airplanes that I flew.

I haven’t done the math, but on those days when the weather was clear and the winds were calm and I had hours and hours to just ponder, I realized that I owed my existence at that moment to hundreds of individuals. Some I knew and interacted with daily. Some I had never met. Some were long dead. All had a hand in keeping me alive and in keeping the plane shiny side up.

So, how many people are responsible for your faith today? How many Bible school teachers, ministers, elders, deacons, sweet little old ladies, professors, friends and co-workers have had a hand in developing your faith? Not too long ago I started a list of people that I remembered from the congregation my family attended in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was astounded by the names I could remember if I just worked at it. A little help from my mom and sister added to the list. It was a humbling exercise. My faith is made up of so little that I can actually call “my own” that it seems sacrilegious just to type the words.

Spend a few moments today or tonight thinking about all the precious people who had a hand in your faith development. And think about that list the next time you are tempted to say, “my faith.”

To all the people who helped keep me alive, and to all the people who gave me a reason to be alive, Thank You.

Hebrew and Greek and Latin, Oh My!

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps...

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I’ve reached the point in my life where I probably have more memories and regrets than I have dreams and possibilities. I say probably, because you never really know how much time you have left. As the old aviation saying goes, you never want to run out of altitude, airspeed and options all at the same time. So, I still have a fairly long list of things to do, but the list of things completed does get longer and longer.

One item on my “regret” list is the fact that I never devoted enough time to the study of the Biblical languages. I wish I had a counselor tell me early on just how important Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic were to a long and fruitful life of theology. I probably would have rejected the advice, seeing as how I was so brilliant when I was 18 or 19 years old. But, still, it would have been nice to have been told something instead of finding it out for yourself many years later.

In addition to the main biblical languages I would also throw in the modern languages of French and German. So much modern theology is based on, or is connected to, earlier studies that are written in these beautiful languages. Someone who does not have at least a reading knowledge of French and German soon discovers that they are significantly handicapped, especially if they want to go on for advanced scholastic degrees.

I hate to say it, but this path is boring and monotonous. But you know what? The maneuvers that a pilot must master in a state-of-the-art fighter jet are the same basic maneuvers that a beginning pilot must master in a little Cessna 152. The size and power of the jet dwarf the capabilities of the Cessna, but the fundamentals are the same.

So, do you know of a young person who is considering a life of ministry, theology, or a related field? Share these thoughts with them. There is always time later on to focus on the modern subjects that are so sexy and appealing. But the subjects that are absolutely critical at the very beginning are Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, French and German. Master these and the world of theology will open up like a Daffodil in March. If you ignore these or only give them the minimum effort you will struggle and be handicapped your entire career.

Now, about that list of regrets…I wonder if the Minnesota Vikings would be interested in a 49 year old wide receiver with a bad back…?

Ministerial Job Description??

Alexander Campbell (Restoration Movement) at A...

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As a few folks already know, I am in the process of looking for a new ministry position. Therefore, I am more than just a little familiar with the various job postings and “job descriptions” relating to ministers within the Churches of Christ. Pardon me for just a few moments, but I would like to ask what might appear to be a monumentally stupid question – but what exactly is the minister’s “job?”

It is obvious that some congregations expect the minister to be the sole, or at least the predominant, evangelist for the congregation. They prescribe a certain number of Bible studies they expect the minister to teach.  Some congregations expect the minister to be a full time, paid elder (pastor/shepherd) who spends 4 to 6 hours a day visiting the sick, counseling the dysfunctional, praying for the Kiwanis or the Rotarians. It is obvious some expect the minister to be the CEO, with a job description stretching onto two typewritten pages.

In other words, it would appear each congregation has their own concept of what a minister/preacher/pastor/evangelist/counselor/congregational CEO is supposed to do. I would imagine there are just as many ideas from ministers themselves. I know I have my own opinion.

What say ye? Is there a predominant image for a minister given in the New Testament? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, does God give a man a certain set of gifts and abilities and thereby give him a special role to serve in any congregation who accepts his giftedness? Should a man bend and twist to fit a codified “job description,” or should a congregation recognize that the Spirit gives gifts of varying purpose, and therefore look for the total “package” that a minister brings to the table, and work in a collaberative manner to fashion a list of objectives that is both workable and beneficial to the minister and the congregation.

I look forward to hearing from you!

“TST” – An Energetic Example

As a final installment in this series of thoughts on making stupid mistakes in theology I wanted to find a perfect text – but not so perfect that my illustration would be lost in denominational or cultural bias. That pretty much eliminated any discussion of baptism, women’s role in the churches, the Lord’s Supper, etc. Then it occurred to me that I had just discussed such a passage in my Sunday morning Bible class – Philippians 2:12.

Now, in and of itself Philippians 2:12 poses no huge issues that have divided christendom. There is, however, a misunderstanding involving the last phrase of the verse that plagued me for many years. In the last phrase Paul tells the Philippian Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Now, if that was the only verse in the Bible that dealt with a person’s salvation it would probably be no big issue. However, if you compare and contrast Philippians 2 with Ephesians 2 and Galatians 2 we apparently have a real problem. In Ephesians and Galatians Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace through faith, and there is nothing that works have to do with the equation. Many understand Philippians 2 to teach the opposite – we work our fingers to the bone in absolute terror that we may fail, and hopefully God will reach down and make up the difference.

That is the stupid mistake. Anytime we arrive at an interpretation of a text that stands in 100% contradiction to another text then either we have misinterpreted one text or the other – or both.

So, if we back up and say, “Something is wrong with this picture here” what is the clue that puts everything back into focus? What gets us back on the correct course?

The key is found in the root of a Greek word that occurs three times in the last phrase of v. 12 and v. 13. The ESV does a fairly good job of translating the phrase, putting the word “work” where the word appears. To transliterate the word into English it would be better to use some form of the word “energize,” although that would be a little tough in v. 12. Paul is telling the Christians to “energize” their salvation, to “work out” their salvation, to “put their salvation into energy.” Why? Because, as he makes so perfectly clear in v. 13, it is God who “energizes” them both to will and to “energize” his good will.

Think of the Energizer battery bunny. He just keeps going and going and going because of the energy stored in his batteries. Perhaps a better example would be the sun. Does the sun radiate in order to be the sun? Or does the sun radiate because it IS the sun, and because it has so much inherent energy that it HAS to radiate its heat and light. Christians are to radiate their salvation because God has given them so much energy that to do anything else would cause them to explode! They don’t work, and most important they do not have to work, in order to earn their salvation. They work because they have been given their salvation and God has given them a place in his world to shine. Philippians 2 fits with Ephesians 2 and Galatians 2 just perfectly.

I have to thank a very dear professor, Dr. John T. Willis of Abilene Christian University for opening up this passage for me. Ironically, Dr. Willis’ field of expertise was the Old Testament, but he taught a seminar on Philippians one semester so that he would be forced to apply his Greek and other New Testament exegetical skills. It is due to Dr. Willis’ indefatigable joy in studying the Scriptures that I owe so much of my own inspiration. My mistakes, however, are fully my own, and I blame them on no one else.

There is blue sky above, and the earth beneath

In the world of flying through the fog there are many certainties. Two that were always of some comfort to me were the facts that there was blue sky somewhere above me and the earth was always beneath me.

In New Mexico very often the cloud layers did not extend to such altitudes that we could not climb above them. This was of great importance in the winter and early spring as ice layers made continually flying in the clouds dangerous. But if you could climb through the ice into the sun, your wings would clear off and you had a gorgeous view of the cloud formations beneath you.

The second fact was that, somewhere down there, there was land; and if everything worked out okay there was an airport where I expected it would be. Unless you have done it you have no idea what it feels like to pop out of the fog a mere 200 feet above the ground at approximately 100 miles an hour and see the lights of the runway in front of you. Just even thinking about it makes my heart start pumping a little faster. It has to rate among the most amazing feelings a human can experience.

Much of life is lived in a fog. We can only see many things here darkly. But, ever so often, the clouds break and we can see the blue sky above us. And, God has promised, the earth is always beneath us. If we follow his leading faithfully and obey the rules of flying in the fog, when the times comes we will break out of the fog and the welcoming lights of the runway will tell us that we have reached our destination.

As I type this it is Saturday evening, and I have my thoughts on our worship service tomorrow. So much of worship involves the process of flying through the fog of life. We know there is a God – but as yet we have not fully experienced him. We know there is solid ground beneath us, it is what launched us on our journey.

But for today we must fly trusting our instruments, thoroughly enjoying the freedom we have as humans to experience the gift we call life.


“TST” (pt. 4) Mandatory Reading To Avoid Stupid Mistakes

In composing this series of thoughts my mind has been racing with ideas and examples of how I have made mistakes and how I have heard and read other mistakes. The other day I was sitting here thinking to myself, “I sure wish someone would write a book to warn folks like us how to avoid these stupid mistakes.”

And then it hit me. Someone has written a book doing that very thing!

Today’s thoughts will be very brief. Buy the book Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.) by D.A. Carson (published by Baker Academic). If you are a preacher, buy this book and study it. If you are a church leader, buy this book and study it. If you are a member of a church and you are serious about Bible study buy this book and study it.

As with any book there are some things I may not agree 100% with Carson. But it occurred to me that much of what I have come to object to in modern biblical exposition relates to the fallacies that Carson identifies in this book.

As preachers, teachers, church leaders and student’s of God’s word we must do a better job of handling the text. We must avoid making stupid mistakes. Mistakes of ignorance and misunderstanding will be made, to be sure. Those can be corrected easily enough if we are humble and willing to submit to examination.

Buy, read, and study this book. Disagree where you must – but be honest and see if your pet conclusions are not tweaked just a little, if not deflated completely.

“TST” (pt 3) – When Possible Does Not Equal Necessity

In my last post I discussed the important difference between ignorance and stupidity. We are all ignorant of a great many things, and even as specialists we can still be ignorant of aspects of our specialty. However, stupidity carries with it a moral aspect. My example in part one illustrated that culpability. I was no green horn student making a run-of-the-mill mistake. I was a certificated pilot who flat-out made a stupid mistake.

I turn now to a common mistake among theologians, and when made by a freshman Greek student it is excusable; but when made by a 20 or 30 year veteran is simply indefensible.  This is the “possible – probable – absolute certainty” progression. It is a dragon that slays many young theologians, and not a few older ones.

It begins something like this: I get an idea. A search of passages in the Bible reveals a text that can be used to fit my argument, but I am not quite sure. A quick look at the original text and a cursory look at a dictionary lets me know that, yes, indeed, that interpretation is possible. A further search reveals that a 4th century writer used that very same text in exactly the way that I want to use it. Shazaam! I now have the evidence I need. If a 4th century writer used the passage the way I want to use it, that certifies beyond any doubt that the original writer used the idea in the exact same way. Now all I need are three points and a poem and I have my sermon for the week.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been slain by that dragon.

The only problem with that scenario is, well, the whole scenario. First, to arrive at a conclusion and then to search for a Scripture to justify it is the most dangerous kind of Bible study. Second, if we search long enough and hard enough we can find just about any interpretation for every passage in the Bible. And finally, reading interpretations back (or forward) several generations or centuries into an original text is, once again, the worst type of biblical study. That type of conclusion moves us beyond mere faulty study. It moves into the realm of a deceptive practice. There is no place for this type of “reading into the text” – or eisegesis, for the technical term.

For one clear example I offer the practice of infant baptism. The baptism of children might be inferred from some N.T. passages, and it was discussed as a possibility and an occasional practice in the first few centuries, but it only became a full-blown doctrine many centuries after that. There is certainly no definitive proof infants were baptized in the first century, and there is sound lexical and contextual evidence to suggest that in the first several centuries only believing adults were baptized. But possible became probable, and over a long enough period of time, probable became a necessity.

To escape the “stupid” trap we need to examine the evidence against out position as strongly as we produce evidence in favor of  our position. Not only is that being intellectually honest, it is being morally responsible.

[Update and correction: I stated above there is no definitive proof that infants were baptized in the first century. That is an incorrect statement. What I meant to say was that there was no definitive command or example in the New Testament of infant baptism. What I was thinking and what I typed were two different statements. Mea Culpa.]

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