Archive | November, 2009

Frustrations from the Front: The Myth of Theological Liberalism

Last week nearly 10,000 people invaded the French Quarter of New Orleans for a three-day conference. It wasn’t a convention of Mardi Gras mask-makers, a congregation of Bourbon Street miscreants, or an assembly of Hustler devotees. No, this was the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. This is a collective of the world’s religious scholars. SBL is the largest society of biblical scholars on the planet. The program of lectures and meetings is the size of a phone book for a mid-sized city. Too many choices! So many great biblical scholars were there: N. T. Wright, Jon Dominic Crossan, D. A. Carson, Bart Ehrman, Stanley Porter, Frederick Danker, Alan Culpepper, Craig Evans, Robert Stein, Joel Marcus, April Deconick, Elaine Pagels, John Kloppenborg, R. B. Hays, Peter Enns, Buist Fanning, Harold Attridge, Luke Timothy Johnson, Peter Davids, Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, Rikki Watts, Robert Gundry, Emanuel Tov, Walter Brueggemann, Eric Myers, Eugene Boring, J. K. Elliott—that’s just a small sampling of the names. Liberals and evangelicals, theists and atheists, those who are open and those who are hostile to the Christian faith—all were there.

Overall, the Society of Biblical Literature is comprised of professors who teach religion, humanities, biblical studies, history, ethics, English literature, and theology at virtually all the schools in the nation that offer such subjects. Not just the United States, but a multitude of other countries are represented (although because of the long distances and short conference, many scholars did not come). Private schools, public schools, elite schools, and unknown schools—all were represented. Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Tübingen, Chicago, Duke, Dallas Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Fuller Seminary, Princeton, Yale, Biola, Claremont, Manchester, Durham, St Andrews, Westminster Seminary, Wheaton, Gordon-Conwell, Emory, TCU’s Brite Divinity School, SMU, University of Texas, Northwestern University, Rice, Brandeis, London School of Theology, Münster University, Notre Dame, community colleges, even unaccredited schools were represented.

As remarkable as it may sound, most biblical scholars are not Christians. I don’t know the exact numbers, but my guess is that between 60% and 80% of the members of SBL do not believe that Jesus’ death paid for our sins, or that he was bodily raised from the dead. The post-lecture discussions are often spirited, and occasionally get downright nasty.

The annual SBL conference is a place where young scholars can present their papers, meet senior scholars, and talk to publishers about book projects. Great opportunities are at SBL! Master’s students meet with professors whom they’d like to study with for their PhDs. They make appointments, go out for coffee, or just happen to bump into them at the conference. Continue Reading →

Bucer and Newton and Theological Tact

I have been talking a lot about being passionate, yet cool, calm, and understanding when contending for the truth. I have also said that you can quickly disqualify your voice with rhetoric that lacks tact (especially today). I think we have a lot of people out there who have good theology but terrible tact. Hence, they are simply not effective.

Friends, this needs to change if we are going to have an impact (and this is coming from a Calvinist!).

Here are two great and classic examples about how to handle yourself tactfully in theological discussion. Listen well…

Martin Bucer

“If you immediately condemn anyone who doesn’t quite believe the same as you do as forsaken by Christ’s Spirit, and consider anyone to be the enemy of truth who holds something false to be true, who, pray tell, can you still consider a brother? I for one have never met two people who believed exactly the same thing. This holds true in theology as well.”

This is a good starting point to gain perspective. Remember, there is no one who looks exactly like you do theologically. Be careful here as this type of attitude can quickly exhume your soul from death, but leave every other living person in hell. This is worse than just about anything you could accuse your opponent of. We have answers, but we don’t have all the answers. We have truth, but we don’t have all the truth.

John Newton’s Works; Letter XIX – On Controversy

A minister, about to write an article criticizing a fellow minister for his lack of orthodoxy, wrote to John Newton of his intention. Newton replied as follows:

“Dear Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours, might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method’s sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public and yourself. Continue Reading →

Three Important Announcements

1. The site is changing servers. Therefore, there will not be much activity here for the next week or so. (We are scared we will lose it).

2. Tonight, you are invited to www.livestream.com/reclaimingthemind to join our live theology session. It will be a Converse with Scholars as, author, professor at DTS, and pastor Dr. Mark Hitchcock will join our session from 10-11 EST. (No more Paltalk!!)

3. Reclaiming the Mind Ministries is in serious financial need. Specifically, we need $22,000 by the end of this week. We are also on a campaign to gain 250 supporters who will commit $1000 per year ($80 a month). If you believe in or benefit from what we are doing, please consider partnering with us in a significant way. To give either one time or monthly, go here: http://store.reclaimingthemind.org/donate.asp.

A Theology of Me

Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver a 15-minute sermon at a preaching lab that is part of a Student Fellowship that I am affiliated with on campus.  Once a month, 2 students are given the opportunity to preach, encourage fellow students and get critiqued by an alumnus with several years preaching experience.  So in November, I got a chance.  While I was preparing the message, I thought about the fact that I wasn’t using some type of personal story in the introduction.  There was so much in the text to deal with (I was using 2 Chronicles 20:1-12), I only had 15 minutes and I wanted to make sure I covered the points I was wishing to draw out in the text.  All I needed to do was set up the context, or so I thought. Of course, the one critique I received from Kevin (the evaluator), is that he would have appreciated a better introduction with some type of story.  Another classmate, encouraged me with the same point indicating that while he and I were people that didn’t necessarily need that type of introduction, most people need to hear some type of personal connection in order to engage with the topic.

Flash forward to the this past week.  This came across my radar a few days ago – a personalized Bible where you can insert your name into the text where personal pronouns are present.   Here is the caption

Have you ever inserted your name as you read the Bible to make it more personal? Now you can experience the reality of God’s love and promises in a way you never thought possible. In the Personal Promise Bible, you will read your first name personalized in over 5,000 places throughout the New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs, over 7,000 places throughout the complete Old and New Testaments.

Why the need to do this?  Why is it that we can only experience the promises of God’s love by personalizing the Bible?  Why is the Biblical text only relevant unless there is a personal interest?

I hate to say this, but I’m afraid that we have engaged in a form of Christianity that is only meaningful as long as we are personally impacted by it.  We have accommodated me-centered theology because we long for the personal touch.   That desire in our souls for a personal touch from God for Him to fill every nook and crevice has translated into rampant subjectivism that focuses how we are impacted by the Bible, by theology and by the learning process.  I think its why Bible study is only meaningful if it makes a personal impact on us, why learning can create this imaginary disconnect from our head and heart.  Who wants to just let the Bible say what is says?  Who wants dry intellectual learning, boring systematic theology books and commentaries that will assist in arriving at reasoned understanding of the Biblical text when you can have life application versions that get right to that personal impact?    We want love, we want feelings, we want joy, we want God.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should not be impacted personally by God and learning about Him.  I am not saying that faith should involve a lack of emotions.  God did reach down to make himself known, to reconcile lost people to Himself, to make those who were spiritually dead alive in Christ and incorporated into His family.  The indwelling of the Holy Spirit ought to infuse every believer with the reality of the presence of God.  It should inspire awe in every believer that God invites us to participate in His plan and program.  That truth most assuredly will evoke a range of emotions and automatically captivate personal interests.

But that is just it: it is His plan and program and the central focus is Christ, not us.  I’m afraid that quest to personalize Christianity has pried it away from the central focus.  God has condescended to reveal Himself to humanity, with the ultimate revelation in Christ.  He has provided a means to communicate His message to His people.   The Bible expresses His heart, His story, His plan.   Learning what the Biblical text is saying is learning about Him.  And there is a danger in jumping too fast to the personal impact such as the personalized Bible.  We’ll miss the significance of collective nature of God’s promises delivered specifically to Israel and God’s program established in the church.

We can’t bypass learning about God that is centered in His revelation to get to a personal impact nor should we insist that there be some personal connection in order for us to participate in the learning process.  We have to learn about God about Him on His terms.  This entails understanding how God revealed Himself progressively by understanding the layout of the Bible, understanding the major themes and correlations.  We must understand proper Bible study methods to derive the meaning of the text as the author intended it.  Bypassing the investigative process to get directly to personal application and engaging only if it means something to us not only circumvents learning about what God has provided, but, I dare say, is a rather selfish thing to do.

Take Michael’s example in this post about the husband or boyfriend that did not care to know anything about the woman, but just wanted to love her.  Now suppose that same woman, in expressing her love for this man, wrote him letters so that he could get to know her better.  She describes her past, her passions and plans.  She lets him know all about her.  What if he just read the letters in a way he wanted that assured maintaining his same level of feelings about the girl?  He might skim over the confusing information, reject the difficult information, and maybe impose his own meaning of what she intended.  He is only interested in hearing what will make him tingle.  He just wants to love her and feel good about the relationship.  Would that not be selfish on his part?  He has made the relationship all about him.

Friends, I’m afraid that this is exactly what we do with the insistence of personal interests – we maintain a self-focused interest in an eternal program that is not about us although we do have the immense privilege to participate in it.  It is a program that should motivate learning as much as we can, loving as much as we can, and serving as much as we can, whether we are personally impacted by it or not. 

As one who takes great care in understanding what God has communicated on His terms, I have discovered the beautiful thing  is just how personal God really is.

"I Don't Want to Know About God, I Just Want to Know Him" . . . And Other Stupid Statements

Added to the “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” series.

Albert Einstein once said “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing . . . so is a lot.”

I have been in discussions with a gentleman who reads this blog and, occasionally, will take one of my theology courses. The main topic of discussion is the necessity of theological discourse for the average Christian. Whether it be big words, concepts, or ideas, this gentleman does not think such things are necessary for the Christian life. He prefers the simplicity of loving God and leaving the rest to the theologians. His basic argument is that such things can and often do take away from our ability to live the Christian life due to their “side-tracking” nature.

Let me paraphrase a comment he would typically make:

“Whether you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, a traducianist or creationist, believe in soul sleep or intermediate bliss, believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or memorialism, none of these ultimately makes any difference. In fact, these beliefs serve more to bring about sinful divisiveness than anything else.”

In other words, this is illustrative of those people who would say, “I don’t want to know about God, I just want to know him.”

This attitude with regard to theology is not uncommon at all. In fact, it seems that it has a lot of truth to it. It would seem that simplicity in our confession and faith would ultimately bring about the most unity and acceptance as well as provide more energy for the things that really matter. Right?

Well, if you are saying that more knowledge is dangerous, I agree. Knowledge can puff up. Knowledge can provide ground for strong opinions, lack of perspective, and, ultimately, division. But if you are saying that because of the dangers of knowledge it is not worth the risk, I disagree.

Let me give you an illustration that I think provides a sufficient parallel to the current issue. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot. Knowledge of what? Well, anything. But most specifically, we could apply this to relationships. When we enter into a relationship with someone, we take risks. Relationships involve us becoming vulnerable. When we allow someone to get to know us, there is always the possibility of misunderstanding, rejection, and a sort of Trojan horse pregnability of our heart. The same is true concerning those with whom we enter a relationship. Knowledge about them is dangerous. Not only for them, as they expose themselves, but for us as we put our own idealism about them on the line. In other words, you may know someone from a distance who you have placed on an idealistic pedestal. Once an opportunity comes for you to deepen that relationship, closing the blissful distance, you are entering into dangerous territory. Why? Because now you are opening yourself up to knowing the real person. All masks will soon come off and then you will have to nuance this relationship based upon your more up-to-date and accurate knowledge of the person. This process is certainly reciprocal and it is risky—it is dangerous—for both parties. While new discoveries will certainly bring about joy and depth in the relationship, they can also bring about a great deal of pain and emotional distance. Continue Reading →

A Theology of Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously or "Strategic Comic Relief in Theology"

I remember many years ago talking with a friend of mine about another friend. There was something about this guy that we did not like, but we could not put our finger on it. We knew this: He made us uncomfortable. He made things stuffy. You really did not know what to say when he was around. Time with him was always awkward. We would have to walk on egg shells in fear of saying the wrong thing. The wrong thing would always cause the conversation to go in a totally unexpected way.

Finally, we figured it out. He took himself too seriously.

Since last week I have been in a conversation with a guy that thinks differently than I on many theological issues. From a distance, I would think that we would not get along at all. But such is not the case. Though we differ in many ways—passionately differ—we are having the best time in this long-distance fellowship. Why? Because this guy knows how to lighten things up in order for conversation to take place. He is very wise. He intentionally does not take himself too seriously at pivotal points. He lightens the conversation when it begins to become burdensome. He recognizes it is not about him or what I think of him. 

Chuck Swindoll used to say (you know I have a quote from him!), “Don’t take yourself too seriously…after all, no one else does!”

Sometimes we get caught in a trap of taking ourselves too seriously about everything. We take ourselves so seriously that our relationships suffer. We take ourselves so seriously that no one wants to be around us. We take ourselves so seriously that we lose all our influence. We take ourselves so seriously that the very thought of being around us becomes burdensome. Some of us just need to lighten up . . . a lot!

Some characteristics of those who take themselves too seriously:

  • Can’t look bad in front of others
  • Are always concerned about their image as they think others see it
  • If someone thinks badly about them they respond in anger, sometimes even violence
  • Disgruntled attitude 
  • Always have to get in the last word (or they might look bad)
  • Always must respond (book length) to what others say bad about them
  • If they get a hate email they delete it and never think about it again
  • Always trying to prove themselves to everyone else
  • They are the martyr in every circumstance
  • Can’t take it when people make light-hearted jokes about them
  • They are always right
  • Joyful and lighthearted
  • They see themselves as the example of truth, stability, and excellence in humanity
  • Never can be the butt of a joke
  • Most certainly, they will  never be found making fun of themselves

Oh, and here are some adjectives that go along with it: annoyed, testy, bellyaching, crabby, cranky, always disappointed, peeved, put out, discontent, discontented, griping, always irritated about some thing, malcontent, malcontented, and sulky. Continue Reading →

The Beginner’s Guide to Christianity: Thirty-Two Things You Need to Know Right Now

Revised, updated and massively expanded.

(Please note: these are not really meant to be serious. This in no way reflects my doctrine—don’t go there. Lighten-up! After all, it is categorized under “funny”).

1. “Heads bowed, eyes closed . . .”: During a church service, you may hear a preacher abruptly break into this unexpected dialogue with the audience: “Heads bowed, eyes closed. If you have accepted Christ into your heart [more later], I want you to raise your hand.” Don’t get scared. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. It is not a fancy way to steal your money or pull anything sneaky. It is the preacher’s way of helping the uncomfortable seeker feel more at ease about accepting Christ. It is best if you just follow instructions here.

2. “Into the Word”: This is a portion of an important phrase that may be communicated by seasoned Christians in many different contexts. It always has reference to the Bible. Yes, I know, the Bible is more than one word, in fact it is thousands, but once you are a Christian, it becomes singular and has a definite article, “the,” attached to it. If you hear someone say, “Are you in the Word?,” this is another way of saying, “You need to read the Bible if you are going to be spiritual like me.” IMPORTANT: This has no relation to the phrases, “Word to your mother,” “Word up,” or just plain “Word.”

3. Backslidden: This has no reference to the past event of sliding down a hill on your back. It is used to refer to those Christians who are now suspect in their original confession due to their current participation in a particular sin.

4. “Ask Jesus into your heart”: Although there is nowhere in Scripture that people are commanded to ask Jesus into their heart, this has become the primary means by which Evangelicals believe a person becomes a Christian. Don’t be scared here. Heart surgery, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular exercise (or lack thereof) have no bearing on Christ’s presence in your heart. He does not actually live there.

5. Soul Winning: Please understand, this  is not a game. It is the act whereby one person tells another about Christ and the person believes, thereby having their souls “saved” (i.e. “won”). I know that normally if there are winners, you would think there are losers, but not in Soul Winning.

6. “I see that hand . . .”: This is related to #1. The pastor has just asked for raised hands while everyone’s heads are bowed and eyes closed. “I see that hand” can mean one of two things: 1) Someone is indicating that they have accepted Jesus by raising their hand. 2) The pastor is acting like someone has to be more heroic and finance the new building. VERY IMPORTANT: Avoid any temptation to look for the hand when the pastor says “I see that hand.” Although science is inconclusive, we are not sure if you looking for the hand raised has any bearing on the effectiveness of the salvation process. It is best to be safe and avoid giving in to this temptation. To be very spiritual, just thank the Lord for that person and pray that they become a Calvinist.

7. Contemporary Christian Music: Avoid at all costs. Yes, many of your Christian friends will act as if they like it. Musicians, sociologists, and psychologists are perplexed as to the reasons why. We believe it is due to the pressured environment of the Christian community for Christians to do all things Christian, but this has no bearing on your salvation. Please, don’t feel pressure to like it.

8. Christian Movies: See “Contemporary Christian Music.”

9. Baptism: The spiritual act of going under water. Yeah, I know, most people don’t understand it, but you must do it anyway. Oh, also, someone else has to push, drop, or lower you; otherwise, it is ineffective.

10. “Blessed”: This word must take the place of many words, but the most important replacement is with the word “luck.” Super-spiritual Christians (SSC) will often be offended and pugnaciously correct you if you ever say, “Good luck.” Even if you are just using it as a casual phrase with the best of intentions, the SSC will see it as an opportunity to correct you and show you how Christian they are compared to you by saying “I don’t believe in luck, only God’s blessings.” When you have someone correct you, just act as if you have learned something and then be on your way.

11. The Water that Jesus Turned into Wine was Diluted to a Watery Grape juice: Although there is no biblical, historic, or cultural evidence to suggest it, you must believe that Christ did not turn the water into wine, but into watery grape juice. This is a cardinal doctrine.

12. Lord’s Table (Baptist): It goes by many other names, but this represents the time when you eat a really small cracker and a small cup of grape juice and afterwords are more spiritual because of it. Think mystery. It is very important to know that this is not the church providing lunch. As well, those who are on the Atkins diet cannot become Christian because of the high carbs in both the juice and cracker.

Lord’s Table (Presbyterian/Anglican/Methodist/Catholic): Free booze.

13. Public Prayer: You will often find yourself in a situation where others are praying and you don’t know what to do. As a general rule, you should remain quiet and attempt to pray with them. If your mind drifts just try to make a quiet, yet slightly audible, sounds like “um” (not “ummmm”), “yes Lord,” and “amen.” They may be completely out of context, but you will still be better off. This is very well accepted.

14. God D*%n: The only phrase that you can use that will immediately let others know that you are not a Christian and the only exception to the once-saved-always-saved doctrine (despite the fact that it is not really taking God’s name in vain).

15. “Jesus”: This is an acceptable answer to pretty much every question in the Christian community. For example: Who is God? Jesus. Why are you alive? Jesus. Why are we here? Jesus. What website were you looking at? Jesus. What did you learn about today? Jesus. What is your favorite music? Jesus. What book are you reading? Jesus. Why don’t you want to go to _________ with me? Jesus. What planet is that? Jesus. It always works.

16. “Jesus!”: Bad word, see # 14.

17. Rush Limbaugh: This is the only person in existence who has not asked Jesus into their heart but is nonetheless going to heaven. Continue Reading →

Inerrancy and the Problem of Matthew 4:8

“The devil took him [Jesus] up into an exceedingly high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.”
– Matthew 4:8

What is being communicated here? It seems rather bizzare. How could Satan have shown Christ all of the kingdoms of the earth from a single mountin? There is simply no mountin that can carry such a task. Does Matthew make a blunder here, exposing his archaic flat-earth worldview?

How do we interpret such a passage as those who believe in inerracy?

Options:

1. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. There was a mountain that actually was this high and Christ could see all the kingdoms of the earth. (Ouch! Really?)

2. The devil had the supernatural power to show Christ all the kingdoms of the earth.

3. It was not really all the kingdoms of the earth, but a representation of the kingdoms (maybe one or two kingdoms).

4. Deny inerrancy.

Hagner simply says that this is not to be taken literally (Word).

Calvin says “It is asked, was he [Jesus] actually carried to this elevated spot, or was it done in a vision? … What is added, that all the kingdoms of the world were exposed to Christ’s view … in one moment … agrees better with the idea of a vision than with any other theory. In a matter that is doubtful, and where ignorance brings no risk, I choose rather to suspend my judgment than to furnish contentious people with an excuse for a debate.”

According to Leon Morris “The fact that there is no mountain from which all the world may be seen literally favors the view that the tempter brings all this before the mind of Jesus” (Pillar)

What do you do with this passage?