Archive | February, 2012

Theological Nudity

Last night I was talking to a hungry young “seeker” who has been coming to “Coffee and Theology” for four weeks now. After class each week he patiently waits for everyone from the study to leave so that he can sit down and drill me with questions. He is not antagonistic and has no intention of showing how much he knows. I appreciate his quiet, patient demeanor. However, make no mistake about it, this guy, who cannot be over twenty-three, has thought through the issues with vigor. He will catch you off guard. This is not him trying to be a wise guy. He really knows what needs to be asked. I get the sense that he can spot a phony from ten miles away. Really, he is just a postmodern seeker who has no time for naiveté. I get the sense that if he gets any more cliché, trite answers-that-rhyme, he will just seek truth elsewhere (think “it’s training time for reigning time” or “the Bible is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” and you will be in my boat). I get the sense that he will only seek truth in a place where he can tell that people have truly wrestled with the issues.

Chuck Swindoll taught me to do everything I could to be real. Now, sometimes I don’t know which end is up in my own life, so I cannot always define what “real” is in every circumstance. However, the point is that the time for polished answers is gone. The time when every point in the sermon starts with the same letter is history (although, I admit, I still do this sometimes!). The time for feeling the pressure to answer every question is no longer on the calendar. People want you to be real. They can spot a fake. In fact, if you have too many answers, they may get up and leave. Isn’t that odd? We don’t like people who know it all. We don’t like those who immediately respond to sincere questions – those we have wrestled with for years – with a response with a red bow on it. We like things to be a little messy. We like things to be cracked. We like things to be bare, raw, unfinished, and imperfect. Kind of a “nude” theology.

Notice, I changed from the third person (“those postmoderns”) to the first person (“we”) mid-paragraph. Why? Because I am the same. I have quite a bit of postmodern blood flowing through my system. No, not in the sense that truth cannot be found. No, not in the sense that all roads eventually lead to God. No, not in the sense that hell is not a bad place to go. But in the sense that I get quite suspicious when people think they have all the answers. Know-it-alls need Jesus too, I know. However, it is harder for me to carry on conversations with pretty-boy know-it-all fresh-out-of-seminary theologians, even when it does actually seem like they know it all! Continue Reading →

To Whom Do We Pray? The Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?

To pray to someone is an act of worship. Most essentially, prayer is transcendent communication with someone who does not, during the communication, share your “plane of existence.” In other words, it is an expression of fellowship with someone with whom you are in a non-empirical relationship. Let me put it another way: I don’t pray to my wife, friends, co-workers, or parents. I have fellowship with them, but this fellowship takes place in the same dimension. We pray to God not only because we believe that he exists, but because we believe that he listens from a “place” of transcendence. We believe he has the power to hear and respond to millions of people at once. It is an act of worship, not only because we believe he is transcendent, but because of the power we must ascribe to him to assume that he hears, engages, and responds. Indeed, it is the power of divinity that must facilitate such an act as prayer.

We believe that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but they are not each other. We call this “the Trinity.” But when we pray, to whom do we pray? Do we pray to the Trinity (as an ontological unit)? I start prayers out this way all the time: “Dear God, ….” I can see the members of the Trinity looking at each other in confusion as they attempt to figure out which one I am praying to. “Ummm, I think this one is for you, Jesus,” says the Holy Spirit. “No, it is for the Father,” Jesus responds. “Not me! He just said ‘God.’ That could be any one of us. Rock, paper, scissors?”

Forgive my blasphemous humor here. But I think this illustrates an often unspoken issue for those of us who are Trinitarian. To whom do we pray?

In seminary, Dr. Jeffery Bingham, chair of theology and professor of historic theology (an Irenaeus madman), made it clear what the traditional formula was: We are to pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Did you get that?

TO the Father

THROUGH the Son

BY the the Spirit

Christ, when asked by the disciples about how to pray, starts his prayer with, “Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9). Seems to be quite a slam dunk. We are to pray to the Father. Origen backs this up when he says that we pray to the Father alone “through Jesus” (ANF, Chapter XXXVII). As well, Christ is called the “high priest” who intercedes for us (Heb. 4:15). To whom does Christ intercede? To the Father. Therefore, we enter into the Father’s presence “in his name,” not our own – through the Son (John 15:16).

And there is nothing in the Scripture about praying to the Holy Spirit at all. In fact, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is one of empowerment (Acts 1:8) whose ministry is to point to Christ (John 16:14).

So, it seems pretty clear. We are to pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Right? Not so fast . . . Continue Reading →

A Short History of Lent

Millions of Christians around the world will spend the next 40 days celebrating a Christian tradition which predates every denomination. The season of Lent refers to a 40 day period leading up to the celebration of Easter. The English word “Lent” is a funny one. If you lived at a time and in a place where Latin was spoken you wouldn’t call this time “Lent,” you would use the more precise word Quadragesima which is a direct translation from the Greek term for “fortieth.” When sermons in the Middle Ages started to be spoken in the language of the people, instead of the elitist Latin (thanks be to Martin Luther and others), the word “Lent” was chosen to speak of this period of 40 days. Technically the word comes from the Germanic root word Lenz which simply means long. The days get longer during the Spring, so it’s no surprise this word in German and Dutch is used for the word “Spring.” Since springtime is the time we celebrate Easter, the word “Lent” was adopted to speak of this time of new life during Spring. Who knew?

Did you know, additionally, the 40 day period of Lent may be a translation mistake? Before you call me a heretic, let me explain.

We can trace Lent almost all the way back to the disciples. This is quite extraordinary. The heroic theologian Irenaeus (who died in 203AD and was discipled by Polycarp who himself was believed to be discipled by the Apostle John) wrote a letter to Victor I. This letter was thankfully recorded by the early church historian Eusebius. Irenaeus is telling Victor about their Easter celebrations. In this letter he writes:

“The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers” (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24).

Interestingly, the earliest of Christians believed Jesus was dead in the grave for 40 hours. The number 40 has held significant importance throughout biblical history. The rains fell on Noah in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses was on top of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments for 40 days and 40 nights. Elijah walked 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of the Lord. Jesus, most importantly, fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights before starting his public ministry.

The earliest of Christians put the 40 day fasting of Jesus in the desert together with his 40 hours in the grave. It appears Irenaeus is telling us the earliest of Christians spent 40 hours, not days but hours, fasting and praying in preparation for Easter celebrations. This is where a translation mistake changed the way we have and continue to celebrate Easter. A man named Rufinus translated Eusebius’ History of the Church from Greek into Latin. For some reason he put a punctuation mark between “40” and “hours.” It gave people reading the letter of Irenaeus the idea that Irenaeus meant “40 – 24 hour days.”
Continue Reading →

Warnings About the Validity of Subjective Experience As An Apologetic for Your Faith

Why do you believe in God?

“Because I know deep in my heart that he exists.”

Why do you believe Christ rose from the grave?

“Because I have experienced the same power in my life.”

Why do you think the Bible is true?

“Because it speaks to me in places that no other book has.”

Why do you believe God loves you?

“Because I was healed of a disease.”

These are all common answers given by well-meaning Christians concerning the validity of their faith. However, I have made the argument that these types of answers are not good apologetic outposts for the faith and can be misleading and, sometimes, destructive.

I have told this story before, but it is well worth saying again. Three months before my sister committed suicide, I was on suicide watch with her. After all, I lived right by her in Dallas and so the obvious go-to guy to run to her house and check on her. Over the previous year, I had to make that dreadful trip to her house no less than 17 times (if I remember correctly – things have gotten hazy over the years). I remember very clearly the first and the seventeenth. On the first time, I broke down the back door and found her in her bed with an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bed and a note pad with letters to all of her family. I could not wake her and immediately rushed her to the hospital for treatment. She survived. The last time, I went to her house to check and make sure she was okay. I always feared what I might find and how she might have found a way to pull the plug on her life. Would she be in the bed again? Nah…she knew that I would come and find her too quickly. I figured either the garage or the bathtub. But what I feared most was…a gun. She had talked about a gun a lot lately, believing it would be the quickest way to pull off her departure and she figured it would be the one method my rescue missions would not be able to circumvent. When I got to her house on trip number seventeen, she was not there. I figured she had gone to work or something. I called my mother and told her, but she was not relieved. She said that Angie was particularly bad that day and that she knew Angie was going to try something. I told my mother I was sure it would be a gun since I showed up at her door within 15 min of her being out of contact. I decided to stay around the house to wait and see if she came back. After about 30 minutes she pulled up. I was in her front yard. When she saw me, she took off very fast. This behavior, in my mind, meant only one thing: she had a gun and she was planning on using it at home. I jumped in my car and tried to track her down. However, my diesel was not fast enough to keep up and I lost her after the first turn. I wanted to continue the pursuit, but did not know which direction to go to. Left or right at the stop sign in the neighborhood? Left, right, or straight at the light? Left, right, or straight at the next light? I had no idea. I just started making random turns. At this point, I thought about calling my mother and giving her the bad news: Angie is dead – well, as good as dead. She must have had a gun to react the way she did. But I did not make that call. I just drove around. Where? I don’t know. Whichever way the wind took me. I did not even pray for God to tell me which way to go. It seemed that hopeless. I was exhausted from praying about this and just did not want to put this on his table again at this time. He was going to do what he was going to do. The one rational thought I had was that I, were I to kill myself, would do so closer to Oklahoma City (our home town), not further away. So I made my way to the highway back home. I drove for a bit, thinking how crazy this was. How am I going to find her? However, driving down 121 on my way to I35, I passed a hotel and I was compelled to check there (though I had not been compelled to check anywhere else). I drove around back and there it was: Angie’s black Mercedes. I ran to the front desk in a surprised panic. I told them the situation and was eventually able to call her hotel room. She answered. She was surprised, to say that least. I got into her room and quickly searched for the gun. I could not find one so I asked Angie, “Where is it? The gun…where is it?” Looking even more surprised and deflated, she finally led me back to the bathroom and got it for me. I took it, unloaded it, got Angie in my car, and took her to our mother’s house. Continue Reading →

Why My Back Healing Does Not Prove Christianity True

Left unchecked, experience is the most powerful source of belief in our lives. As the old saying goes, “You can’t argue with someone’s personal experience.” This is true in a limited yet real sense. Once someone has a personal experience, it becomes personal and it is very hard to take it away or argue against it.

I had a guy at the Credo House last year who told me his story. He was a college professor. He grew up as a Christian, but after he went to the university, he began to lose his faith. By the time he was a professor at the university, Christianity was nothing more than a naive folk religion with no basis in fact and very little, if any, evidence to be believed. He spent the majority of his career as an atheist, never giving God a second thought. However, things changed when he turned sixty. What changed? He died. At least this is how he tells the story. He had a heart attack and died. While dead, his experience changed his beliefs.  He experienced what is called a NDE (near-death experience). As he described it to me, his view of the afterlife persuaded him that his beliefs about God and Christianity were wrong. God was indeed real and Christ was indeed God. Now he is a committed Christian and a changed professor. I cringed a bit when I heard this story. In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to talk him out of founding his beliefs on the volatility of personal experience.

I believe that my back was (at least temporarily) healed by God. It was a supernatural event. It was direct intervention. It was a very personal experience. It would be hard for any of you to argue against, because you are not me and you do not share my experience. All you have is my word. You can either believe that I am lying, that I am self-deceived, or that God really did heal my back. I think those are the only three options. I lean toward the last, but am open to the first two. But I don’t think you have much of a chance at changing my leanings here. Remember, this is personal. Continue Reading →

My Back Has Been Healed – Am I Charismatic Now?

Wonderful news. My back has been healed.

Wait. Shelf that. I need to back up.

The moment I proclaim victory over something is the moment it usually comes back with a ferocious force and undermines (to say the least) my victory procession. I remember when I prayed for my sister Angie when she was fighting the war of her depression. It was a very particular time when hope was all but gone. The ultimate defeat seemed immanent. My other sister called me and asked me to pray. I paused on Lebanon Rd., just before I got to HWY 720, and prayed with all my heart that God would heal her. A little bit later I got a call saying that Angie suddenly “snapped out of it.” Excited beyond belief, I immediately asked when this changed occurred. I wanted the exact time, to coordinate it with my prayer on Lebonon. As it turned out, the “snap” came at the exact moment I prayed. Victory in the Lord! Praise God! So be it. Amen. These were all my thoughts as I began to spread the good news about the miracle God pulled off just in the nick of time. However, my excitement was short lived as Angie “snapped” back into it about an hour later. Some spiritual humiliation and embarrassment (spiritual mud in my face?) overwhelmed me as I had to tell all those that I had asked to join our victory dance to stop dancing. Eventually (a few months later), as many of you know, the depression took my sister’s life.

I could tell you a couple more stories exactly like that. That is why I am very tentative about my proclamations of victory. I don’t assume things upon the Lord and am very timid about reading too much into my experiences.

As most of you know, I am not charismatic. What I mean by this is that I don’t believe the supernatural gifts (sometimes called “sign” gifts) of the Spirit are continuing, normative, or should be expected (all three extremely important words). You know, gifts such as tongues, miracles, healings, and the like. As I have argued before, I don’t necessarily have any theological bias against them, I just think that ecclesiastical and personal experience says that they are not normative. As well, most of you know that I have been discussing this with my friend Sam Storms, who is a committed charismatic. Over the last year, we have been in dialogue about this issue. Our dialogue has been published both here on this blog and on the Theology Unplugged Podcast. I have been seeking God during this time, trying to be open to change. In fact, I want to change. I often tell people that I am the most want-to-be-charismatic non-charismatic that they will ever meet. And I am serious about this.

Now to my back. In 2005 I discovered that I had significant disc issues. An MRI revealed “Severe Degenerative Disc Disease.” Since 2005, the pain has become increasingly constant and debilitating. Those of you who have back issues know what I am talking about. For the last seven years, I have been to doctor after doctor, trying medicine after medicine, exercise after exercise, and hope after hope. I could not begin to tell you the number of people who have had “the” solution that I just had not tried yet. Nothing has worked with any degree of significance. The pain is there every day. Some days I am more functional than others, but for the most part, for the last few years, I have had to learn to live with radiating pain down my left leg; it has become a chronic butcher to my soul. I have been functional, yes, but you need to know this back story in order to know my back story. Continue Reading →

Rethinking Ordination and Apostolic Succession

(While the following story is true, names, addresses, and particular details have been changed for obvious purposes.)

While on the internet the other day, my friend came across a pastor whom he thought had some interesting comments. This pastor had the title of “Reverend.” This means one of two things: 1) he is a self-proclaimed minister, or 2) he has been ordained in an official capacity by an organization that has the legal right to declare someone a minister.

Theoretically, an ordination gives the ordained party the approval of an established community to minister in the Church. From the standpoint of the government, this party is then recognized as a “religious worker.” Once the approval is official, the newly ordained Rev. has many benefits; among those is tax exempt status with regards to housing allowance (whatever bills you pay with respect to your home, you don’t get taxed on). In the Christian church, they are recognized as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and can lead, pastor, or even start a church with more legitimacy.

My friend went to the website of the organization that ordained this individual and noticed that they take ordination applications online. Here is what it said:

“Get ordained fast and easily, and begin your own ministry! As a legally ordained reverend, you will be able to conduct weddings, perform funerals, baptisms and other functions of the ministry.”

This was a bit confusing to him; even though he did not know anyone from the ordination committee, and they did not know him, they were going to allow him to apply?

I know what you are thinking—there must be a catch. Money has to be involved somehow. But this is not the case. The website says:

“There is no charge or obligation connected to your ordination. Ordination is for life, without charge . . .”

You heard right: “no obligation.” (How would you like to go to a doctor who got approved to practice medicine by this type of group?)

“Well,” you might say, “this cannot be that easy. How would this group know whether or not I have been truly called into ministry?” The answer is that your ordination will be reviewed by a team of pastors (who may have been ordained by the same organization!) who will carefully and prayerfully consider your application. Here is what they say:

“Your ordination request will be reviewed by pastoral staff.”

Just in case you thought this was a little fishy, the committee adds, Continue Reading →

Could Jesus Have Gotten a Math Problem Wrong?

Can you imagine it? Jesus, five years old, sitting in math class, 1 A.D. (Okay, maybe he was homeschooled, but just roll with me here!) He gets back the quiz he took the previous day. The result? 95%. Jesus missed one! But wait…could Jesus have erred?

Back up. Pop quiz.

  • Did Jesus ever stumble and fall down?
  • Did Jesus ever get sick?
  • Did Jesus have any grey hairs?
  • Did Christ ever get depressed?
  • When did Jesus know he was God?
  • Could Jesus have gotten a math problem wrong?

These are interesting questions, as they all center around the relationship of Christ’s humanity to his deity while here on the earth. I think I know the answer to most of these. I am sure that Christ could have misstepped and fallen down. Yes, I imagine he got sick from time to time. Grey hairs? Why not? No, he did not have a sin nature, but he did live in a fallen world whose inhabitants suffered the effects of the fall. Concerning being depressed, I imagine that Christ was depressed from time to time. He was a “man of sorrows” and even cried.

When did Jesus know he was God? That is a good question. I am not sure about this one. It seems as if he knew by the time he was twelve, at least, as he expresses this self-realization in Luke 2:42-49. But how long before that? Who knows? However, I do think his understanding was a realization that was communicated to him by the Father and the Holy Spirit according to “the plan.” In other words, I don’t think he knew it from his time in Mary’s womb. I think his human self had to grow as any normal human would; therefore, his knowledge was limited by his humanity. After all, Luke 2:52 says that Christ “grew in wisdom.” In other words, he went from the lesser to the greater in his humanity, even in knowledge and wisdom.

This brings us to the question of the hour: Could Jesus have gotten a math problem wrong? Here are some options and their implications:

1. Yes, he could get a math problem wrong. He was human. Continue Reading →