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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

on bible inerrancy

Dr. Ken Schenck of Indiana Wesleyan University offers some of his thoughts, from a Wesleyan perspective, on the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.

The Chicago Statement is something I've seen before, and I recall being uneasy with many of its statements. There were some I disagreed with, but even those where the words did not seem objectionable, something did. Dr. Schenck gives voice to what I couldn't find the words for:

In a theme I will no doubt express throughout this series, the problem with the Chicago Statement is neither its spirit nor its basic affirmations. It is that it underestimates the profundity and complexity of God's Truth. God is smarter than it accounts for, in my opinion. It is a statement of arithmetic in a glorious God-created world of calculus.

For example, where the Chicago Statement says:

Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.

Dr. Schenck notes:

Absolutely! Indeed, this statement sounds characteristically Wesleyan in terms of our holiness tradition. The problem of course is that the Chicago statement does not understand this statement in a characteristically Wesleyan way. The nineteenth century holiness interpreters understood the Spirit's speaking potentially to be a "more than literal," spiritual meaning the text could take on. Similarly, Wesley understood the Spirit to inspire understandings of the text for us in a way similar to how He did the original inspiration.

The Chicago Statement means nothing of this sort. In fact, all the signatories would have soundly rejected this characteristically Wesleyan hermeneutic.

The Chicago Statement, on the other hand, continues thus:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.

The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

In other words, if I don't believe in a talking serpent, the sun standing still during a battle, or a giant fish that swallowed a man and spit him out on the beach, I've compromised my faith. The letter of the law is just as important as the spirit.

But isn't this the same Bible that explicitly denies that very doctrine? If I'm not mistaken, there's something in one of Paul's letters about how the letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. (Possibly somewhere around 2 Corinthians 3:6.)

The value of the Bible is found in the way it speaks to our lives today, not in its ability to infallibly transmit historical data about the past. To insist that we must accept both or neither is, as Schenck says, to underestimate God.

If you're at all interested in discussions of inerrancy, I recommend you read the whole series, linked above.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the coming evangelical collapse: the core

In my last post, I offered some thoughts on Michael Spencer's blog series The Coming Evangelical Collapse. On the whole, I think Spencer has identified some real problems, which all stem, IMO, from one core issue. And it's not limited to Evangelicals.

American Protestant Christianity is, to borrow a phrase, a mile wide and an inch deep. Now I want to make two things clear: 1) I say this as an American Protestant; I think Protestant Christianity has some life in it, and I think it does have something unique to offer. 2) I've met many dedicated people, both staff and laity, in American Protestant churches, people who are sincere in following the call God has placed on their lives.

But the American Protestant churches have been seduced by power. Not just political power, but the economic power that comes with being the majority in a wealthy and influential nation. Not only have we ignored the growing inequity in American society, we've largely been responsible for it. Ken Lay, founder of Enron, was a well-respected member of his church in Houston. Former CEO Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth, now in prison for bribery and mail fraud, donated a million dollars to his church during his trial.

When we're too cozy with the oppressors, we can't speak out against injustice. We are — to borrow another phrase — rich and prosperous, thinking that we need nothing, failing to see that we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

If it takes a monumental collapse to rejuvenate the church, then I'm ready for it.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

the coming evangelical collapse: some thoughts

A couple weeks ago, I pointed to a series by Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, on The Coming Evangelical Collapse. After considering some of the things Spencer says, I think he's mostly right about the direction Christianity is going in the U.S. Mainline Protestantism has been in a steady decline for decades now, and I don't see any indication it's going to change. Evangelicalism, after more than 20 years of growth, both in numbers and in power, has reached its peak and may already be starting to decline. Spencer suggests that the main beneficiaries will be the megachurches, Pentecostal churches, and Catholic and Orthodox churches. I think he's probably right.

I have perhaps an unusual perspective, as I'm a member of a Mainline denomination and my wife belongs to an Evangelical church. We split our time worshipping at one or the other. Since moving to a new city about two years ago, we've had some adventures looking at several different churches.

I'm going to be making some sweeping generalizations here; these will not be true of all churches, and almost certainly don't apply outside the U.S. But here's my two-sentence summaries of Evangelical and Mainline churches:

  • Evangelical churches seem to be moving away from being worship centers, and toward being community centers. From singles' programs to seniors' programs, from aerobics to art classes, from basketball to ski trips, from coffee shops to bookstores in the lobby, there's something for everyone. But in all that activity, is worship getting lost?
  • Mainline churches have lost their identity. While some congregations are rediscovering practices that Catholics and Orthodox have never lost, others are trying to imitate the Evangelicals. Is there any reason for the Mainline denominations themselves not to be absorbed into one or the other?

So when Spencer says:

I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

I think his only error is in thinking that the U.S. church scene is typical of the Western nations. U.S. Protestant Christianity bears little resemblance to the religion practiced by 2 billion people worldwide.

Again, when Spencer says:

We are soon going to be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century in a culture that will be between 25-30% non-religious.

I think he's largely correct, at least on the numbers. Recent numbers I've seen put the number of non-religious in the U.S. at 15%; it's not hard to imagine that number will double within the next generation, or perhaps even sooner.

Spencer's next statement, however:

This collapse, will, I believe, herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian west and will change the way tens of millions of people see the entire realm of religion. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become particularly hostile towards evangelical Christianity, increasingly seeing it as the opponent of the good of individuals and society.

is just paranoid drivel.

Let's look at the numbers again. Current U.S. demographics show:
75% Christian
15% non-religious
10% all other religions

Now suppose Spencer is right that the non-religious group will double in size, from 15 to 30 percent. Let's suppose, too, that the other religions will grow, as a group. This seems highly unlikely, but let's say they increase by half, from 10 to 15 percent.

That would give us 45% of the U.S. population belonging either to a religion other than Christianity, or to no religion at all. The remaining 55% would, by default, have to be Christian.

Does Spencer seriously think that a still-majority Christian nation could produce an "anti-Christian chapter" in U.S. history? Does he think that a 30% minority of non-believers would (even if they could) create a public policy that is "hostile towards evangelical Christianity"?

The only way this might be possible is if Evangelical Christianity sets itself up against all comers, fortressing itself against non-believers, other religions, and fellow Christians alike. I don't see that happening except in hardline fundamentalism, which even Spencer agrees is headed for extinction.

No, I think what we are more likely to see is U.S. Evangelicals simply ceasing to engage a society where their voice is no longer dominant. And that may be a worse fate than facing outright hostility.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

the coming evangelical collapse

Steve Hayes points to a three-part series by the Internet Monk on The Coming Evangelical Collapse.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Internet Monk's prediction:
I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Some interesting food for thought. I may have more to say about this after I've digested it all.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

more evangelical than i realized

In a recent post, John Meunier comments on Mark Noll's book The Rise of Evanglicalism, which discusses David Bebbington's four ingredients of evangelicalism. By this definition, John says he qualifies as an evangelical.

How do I rate?

  1. Conversion - the belief that lives need to be changed

    I certainly agree with this one.

  2. Biblical priority - the belief that the Bible contains all spiritual truth

    I'd have to hedge on this one. I think the Bible contains enough spiritual truth. If someone had nothing but the Bible as a guide, they could still learn everything they need about spiritual life and salvation. But I would have to say I see the Bible as the first word, not the last word, in spiritual matters. I may need to expand on this in a separate post.

  3. Activism - dedication of all believers to lives of service for God, especially the spreading of the good news and the carrying of the gospel to those who have not heard it

    I agree with this one to a point. I think all believers should be dedicated to lives of service for God. I also think sharing the gospel is important, but it is only part of the work of the Kingdom of God.

    Having been involved in several missions projects, both locally and globally, I have learned what my skills are, and evangelism is not one of them. I think the church of Acts 6 was wise to recognize that different people could serve in different capacities, and that some people "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" might indeed be better suited for waiting on tables than for preaching.

    Evanglicalism, it seems to me, has a tendency to belittle these other forms of ministry.

  4. Crucicentrism - Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin

    Here I agree fully, although the word "sin" probably has more definitions than there are Christian denominations. So here's my definition: Anything less than perfection is sin. Not a single person among us has the inherent power or ability to reach perfection on our own, so Christ's death is important to us all.

So by this standard I'm mostly evangelical. On two of the four points I agree, and on the other two I agree with reservations.

But the word evangelical still makes me queasy. In the United States, the word has taken on disturbing connotations: An evangelical is someone who attends a megachurch, suspects the end of the world may be near, hopes to Christianize the culture anyway, views the nuclear family as the essential building block of society, and votes Republican. I'm sure this does not reflect all evangelicals, but I've met a lot of people who fit this entire profile.

Personally, I like Bebbington's definition much better. I'd like to see American evangelicalism move back in that direction.

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