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Saturday, January 23, 2010


Bosco Peters is concerned:

I think the word “orthodox” might be in trouble. Let’s try and save it from losing its meaning.

I am seeing a lot of people calling themselves “orthodox” Christians and using the term to put down others as “unorthodox”, “heterodox”. But actually I don’t think these particular people should be allowed to use the term “orthodox” – as they are changing its meaning (and hence emptying its meaning IMO).

These self-proclaimed "orthodox" Christians, according to Bosco, are better described as "homodox," a term meaning, "of the same opinion."

Many people who are misusing, abusing the term “orthodox” are in fact not orthodox at all, they are homodox (let me preempt the comment now: it does not mean worshipping gays ) They want everyone to think exactly like them (yes, often particularly about gays). Orthodox can cope with diversity, do not need everyone to agree about everything, celebrate diversity, honour difference: In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas. (In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.)

Above all else, says Bosco, the term "orthodox" refers to "right worship":

If you call yourself orthodox, at the very least it should mean that most Christians for the first 1500 years or so of Christian history should be able to walk into your worship and pretty much feel at home.

See the full post.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

where does evolution leave god?

Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins offer their answers to this question.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

next time, don't invite the baptists

When Rebecca Middeke-Conlin's church sent out invitations for her installation service to other churches in her area, they probably weren't expecting the reply they received from one Baptist pastor:

We, desiring to please Almighty God, have separated ourselves from the Lutheran churches as disobedient to the Scriptures and from Rebecca Middeke-Conlin as a shameful person, for thus saith the Lord.

Therefore we cannot accept your invitation but rather exhort you to receive what the Scriptures say and repent of this disobedience or to cease calling yourselves a Christian church.

And what does Ms. Middeke-Conlin do that is so shameful?

See her post to find out.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

the difference

“I don’t go to church, Parson. I’m a bit turned off with the church. I’m not a Christian. I’m just a follower of Jesus.”

See the whole story from the Questing Parson.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

on challenges to creationism

Michael Spencer has travelled a road many of us have travelled. He grew up accepting young earth creationism and hearing horror stories about evolution. Then he went to college:

My views on the relationship of scripture and science were more affected by my college Bible classes than my science classes. I learned that scripture must be rightly interpreted. It must be understood within its world, and interpreted rightly in mine. If I came away with any suspicions that the young earth creationists might be wrong, it came from my developing an appreciation for Biblical interpretation, not from the Biology lab. Secular science didn’t turn my head. I learned that the people waving the Bible around weren’t necessarily treating it with the respect it deserved.

Seminary only increased the divide:

My Bible instructors taught me to respect the Biblical text by not imposing my interpretations and favorite hobby horses on the scriptures. What became clearer to me over my seminary career was that many of my evangelical and fundamentalist brethren were not willing to let the scriptures be what they were or to let them speak their own language.

And what is the language of Genesis? Not the language of scientific hypothesis:

Does it match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? Here I differ with Hugh Ross and the CRI writers. I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way.

In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless. Utterly and completely worthless and I will freely admit to being bored the more I hear about it.

Spencer asks:

Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself?

Part of the problem, I think, is that we live in a vastly different world from that of the Bible writers. Modern science has become such an integral part of our everyday lives that it is hard to imagine a culture that wasn't concerned about how well the biblical text fit with astronomical observations and fossil excavations. But if we are even going to attempt to understand what these stories meant to their first hearers, we need to separate ourselves from our own cultural prejudices. It won't be an easy task, but we'll never understand the Bible if we don't.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

reading genesis 3 literally

A website that calls itself "The Truth Problem" looks at what it would mean to take the Garden of Eden stories literally, and concludes that no Christian actually does.

Evidence tells us that in the early Christian Church, most theologians and leaders believed that the Creation account was at least partially, if not wholly symbolic. Many modern Christians, however, especially in America, say that this account must be read literally. They feel it is dangerous to treat portions of the Bible metaphorically when they are not explicitly stated to be metaphorical.

But here's the rub. Even those who say we should read these chapters literally do not, themselves, read them literally.

The Truth Problem demonstrates this by looking at Genesis 3, the story of the serpent and the tree. Under a strictly literal interpretation:

  1. The serpent is a talking animal

  2. The serpent deceived the humans

  3. The serpent was cursed above all other animals

  4. The serpent's punishment is to crawl on its belly

  5. The serpent will bite humans' heels

  6. The serpent will be crushed by humans

Under the traditional Christian interpretation of Genesis 3, these six statements are all understood metaphorically. They are understood to mean:

  1. The serpent represents Satan

  2. Satan is the deceiver of humanity

  3. Satan is cursed above all created things

  4. Satan's power is diminished

  5. Satan will attack the Messiah

  6. The Messiah will triumph

Why is it that so many Christians who have no problem reading Genesis 3 metaphorically, can't do the same with Genesis 1 and 2?

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Monday, September 14, 2009

are you certain?

I knew, as soon as I saw her standing there with a handful of tracts, what her intentions were. But when I didn't break eye contact soon enough, she started the conversation.

She: Do you have a few moments to take a survey?

Me: I guess so. [thinking: I know this whole script. There was a time in my life when I was the one handing out tracts. It shouldn't take long.]

She: Great! Do you live around here?

Me: Yeah. [I'm going to keep close. I don't feel like getting into a theological fight today.]

She: Do you have a church that you attend?

Me: Yeah.

She: Oh really? Which one?

Me: Grace United Methodist.

She: Oh. Well, I go to We're More Christian Church [or something like that], and I'd like to invite you to join us if you're ever interested in visiting.

[She hands me the tract.]

She: And one more question…If you died today, are you certain of where you'd spend eternity?

[I pause, thinking: I wouldn't word it exactly that way, but I really don't want to get into an argument over semantics like I did the last time.]

Me: Yes.

She, after seeing that I'm not going to elaborate without further prompting: And where is that?

Me: Heaven.

She: And if God asked you, "Why should I let you into heaven? What have you done to deserve it?" How would you answer?

Me: God's not going to ask me that. Ultimately it's God's decision, not mine. [Oh no, I am going to get into a theological argument after all.]

She, opening one of the tracts: Well, if you'll say this prayer with me, you can be sure of getting into heaven. Just repeat after me, "Heavenly Father…" [pause] "Heavenly Father…"

Me: Yeah, I've said one of those before. [That'll throw her off her script!]

She: But I thought you said you weren't sure? Didn't you just say it's not your decision? But if you've said this prayer, you can be sure. So next time someone asks, say you're certain. Don't let the devil tell you you're not.

Me: Yeah, OK. Bye. [Whew, that was close.]

Here's my problem with her type of theology: It turns prayer into a magical incantation, and God into a genie who must do our bidding if we get the words right. We earn our way into heaven by casting a spell that forces God to overlook our sinfulness.

That's why I had to tell her it's God's decision, not ours. I'm not denying that we do make decisions to follow the will of God. In fact, as a good Methodist I believe we must in some way respond to God's call on our lives if we want to claim to be followers of Christ.

But ultimately, it's up to God. We don't get into heaven by our own merits, and we can't recite a magical formula to force God to turn a blind eye to our shortcomings. If we can't absolutely know the mind of God, we can't be absolutely certain that we've got a free pass.

On the other hand, if we know God and have a strong relationship, we've got something even better: trust. We can trust God to make the right decision, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. What could a magical incantation give us that could possibly compare to that?

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

on the theology of health care reform

Marie Callahan Brown, blogging in support of health care reform, asks some pointed questions:

I was raised in a loving and respectful Christian environment. In it, I learned that Jesus wanted humanity to be generous, forgiving, supportive and loving in every aspect of life. If you come across people who are hungry, feed them. Someone who’s cold, give him your coat. To people who are down, and not “being all they can be”, give them kindness and respect, not advice and condemnation.

That said; I genuinely want to know how certain, other viewpoints are honestly justified. If this is a Christian Nation, how is it that citizens are so afraid of losing anything or everything here? Why is sharing so difficult? What about “reaping what we sow” aka “what comes around goes around”?

I find myself in an awkward position here. While I too support health care reform, I don't think it has anything to do with the question of whether the United States is, in any sense of the term, a Christian nation. So at this point, I'm already leery of where this is going. Sure enough:

Jesus shared His fish and bread without reserve, and I feel pretty safe in saying He believed in Free Healthcare with all that healing and comforting He did pro bono.

That's quite an exegetical stretch. Christian teaching has always been that genuine healing comes only from Christ, so it's very hard to see how Jesus' healings can be taken as support for "Free Healthcare," whatever that is.

And let's be honest: Even under the most radical reform of the system, health care would not be free. Medical care has a cost, and that cost must be paid by someone. It's likely that any system we put in place would lower the overall cost, but some cost will remain.

I think perhaps the only request put forward by Jesus when He healed people, was that they continue to share with others the same loving kindness He showed them. Why don’t Christians do more of this?

A good question, but one that is easily answered by opponents of health care reform. The most common reply is that charity must be voluntary, not mandated by the state.

And therein lies one major problem with attempting a theological defense of national health care reform. Jesus didn't ever explicitly give his opinion about the political issues of our day. He barely touched on the politics of his own time. Since we have no clear mandate from him, it's easy for people on both sides of the issue to read their own politics back into the gospels. In my experience, that's not a healthy way to grow as a Christian.

There are other problems with this approach, too, as Ms. Brown seems to recognize later in her blog:

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether someone is a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Satanist or an Atheist. At healthcare reform rallies Americans have been known to drive by shouting “FU#K THE POOR!” Forget religion. That is the most UNAMERICAN thing I’ve EVER HEARD.

Now we're getting somewhere. In a nation whose founding documents speak of equality of all people, we are being untrue to our heritage if we don't want poor people to have the same opportunities as the rest of us. This is a foundational American value. On the other hand, it is not a Christian value. Jesus didn't die on the cross to give us greater opportunity for personal advancement.

It seems to me that our politics and our theology will both be healthier if we can remember which of our values belong to which sphere. There are some very good reasons why overhauling America's health care system is morally necessary, but "Jesus would have supported it" is not one of them.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

jimmy carter and the southern baptist convention

In a recent article for the Australian online news site The Age, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter explained his reasons for cutting ties with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This was reported on several blogs I follow, and I was surprised because I remembered hearing the same thing several years ago.

But now, Beliefnet reveals that there may be much less to this story than first appears:

But I have this question: What does it mean for Jimmy Carter to resign from the SBC when (1) individuals aren't members of the SBC but of local churches that are associated with the SBC? And, more importantly, (2) when he continues to be a member of his SBC church and teaches Sunday School there?

I have a great deal of respect for Jimmy Carter because of his humantarian work since he left office, but I have no idea what he is trying to do here. Maybe it's a Baptist thing that I just don't understand, but how can a person cut ties with his denomination while continuing in a leadership position in a church that still belongs to that denomination?

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

is jesus a sinner? an etymological survey

The ninth chapter of the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus healing a man who was born blind. Because the healing happens on a Sabbath, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being a sinner. The man who was healed tells them a sinner wouldn't be able to cure blindness. The Pharisees tell the man he can't possibly know that; his blindness is a sure sign that he is a sinner too. The story ends with Jesus telling the Pharisees that they are the ones who are truly blind.

According to Gary Amirault of Tentmaker Ministries, most of us are the blind Pharisees. Amirault's logic is as follows:

The word "to sin" in the Hebrew is the word "chata" which literally means "to miss," as in missing a target with a bow or sling. The Greek word is "hamartano" which means "to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize), to err." It means to fall short of a goal or a purpose.

Amirault explains that Jesus' goal or purpose was to save everybody. So, if even one person is not ultimately saved, Jesus missed the mark; he "sinned". Therefore, if we don't believe in universal salvation, we must believe Jesus is a sinner.

Amirault, on the other hand, is above all that:

I once was blind to the Truth and like most Christians, I declared Jesus a sinner like the religious people in Jerusalem did. I said He was not going to save everyone. Then one day He opened my eyes and I saw clearly that He had to save everyone in order to fulfill His mission of doing the Father's will. My eyes were opened to the Scriptures in a new and exciting way. I saw Jesus not "missing the mark," but perfectly completing everything He planned from the foundation of the world. "If I be lifted up from the earth will draw (drag in the Greek) all mankind unto Myself." (John 12:32)

It all sounds beautiful. In the end, love conquers all and everybody goes to heaven, where we all live in sweet harmony. Unfortunately, there are so many flaws in Amirault's logic, it would take several posts to deal with them.

Today I'm going to consider Amirault's definition of sin. Is Jesus a sinner unless he saves everyone?

Amirault defines sin as, "to fall short of a goal or a purpose," based on the etymology of the word. But how reliable is etymology as a guide to a word's meaning?

Let's look at a few words to see:

cabinet: From Old French cabinet meaning "small or private room". It's not hard to see how this could morph two ways into today's terms "kitchen cabinet" (which is rather smaller than a room) and the Cabinet, the President's top-level advisors (who meet with him in a private room). But the original definition no longer matches either sense of the word.

sunrise: From Old English sunne meaning "sun" + risan meaning "to go up". This one looks fine, until you consider that the sun does not rise the way an airplane or a rocket rises into the sky; the earth spins on its axis creating the optical illusion of the sun's movement. It would be a mistake to take the meanings of the two words as evidence of a geocentric universe.

tofu: From Chinese dou, "beans" + fu, "rotten". OK, that one's probably accurate.

strike: From Old English strican, "pass over lightly, stroke, smooth, rub," or "go, proceed". None of the modern definitions of the word quite match; the closest is probably the baseball term for a swing and a miss. But the same word "strike" has acquired many additional meanings: to hit with a fist, to mark something out, to collide, to stop working, to knock down all the pins in bowling. These are all derived from strican; the etymology is completely unreliable as a guide to meaning.

Etymology can be dangerously misleading: The word pedophile is derived from the Greek words for "child" and "loving", but I wouldn't recommend hiring one as a babysitter.

And sometimes even when a word does mean the same as the term it was derived from, it doesn't. We get the word neighbor from Old English neah "near" and gebur "dweller", someone who lives nearby. But in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, neighbor has an entirely different meaning.

So is Amirault being fair when he claims that to say Jesus will not achieve his goal of saving everybody is to say that Jesus is a sinner? My answer is a word derived from the Old English na, meaning "no, never".

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

on following human leaders

I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. I had a comment deleted from another blog.

It happened with Adam Smith's post on the dangers of following human leaders rather than Christ, where I left a comment that he considered inappropriate and argumentative.

Not only did he delete my offensive comment, but he has evidently also removed comments I've left on his previous posts (see, e.g., here, where Kevin Jackson and David Barnett both reference one of my comments).

Now I'm not upset about the censorship. Mr. Smith has every right to determine what content appears on his blog, and he was probably right to delete my comment. If I want to call him a cultist, I have my own blog.

Smith, in his post, tries to draw a distinction between Christianity, which "does not have a human leader," and other religions, which do have "human leaders and/or false gods, and that makes them false religions."

In his list, Smith includes:

Catholicism – The Pope

Emergent Church – Brian McLaren

Now I am neither Catholic nor Emergent, but I don't think it is either accurate or fair to label these groups as non-Christian religions that follow human leaders. Especially when you call yourself a five-point Calvinist.

If I had phrased my original comment like that, it might not have been deleted.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

no respect for john calvin

Kevin Jackson presents an essay by Roger Olson on Calvinism. Olson pulls no punches:

Above all I want to make clear that I admire and respect my Calvinist friends and colleagues. We disagree strongly about some points of theology, but I hold them in high esteem for their commitment to the authority of God’s Word and their obvious love for Jesus Christ and his church as well as for evangelism.

However, I do not admire or respect John Calvin.

It's not just Calvin's role in the murder of Servetus that Olson finds objectionable, though that itself is enough reason not to hold the man in any esteem.

But Olson also objects to Calvin's theology, which

…elevates God’s sovereignty over his love, leaving God’s reputation in question. What I mean is that Calvin’s all-determining, predestining deity is at best morally ambiguous and at worst morally repugnant.

Calvin's teachings on predestination are harsh:

God decrees that the sinner shall sin while at the same time commanding him not to sin and condemning him for doing what he was determined by God to do. To Calvin this all lies in the secret purposes of God into which we should not peer too deeply, but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who regards God as above all love.

Any being that sets up people to fail this way is not worthy of worship. Olson notes that this theology makes it hard to tell the difference between God and the devil.

I'll have more to say on this in a later post.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"god is not a moderate"

Sam Harris:

Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love your neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God's loving machinery of justice.

Is he right?

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

cafeteria christianity

Whenever I've heard the term "cafeteria Christianity", it's always been used in a negative sense — until now. James McGrath has peeled open the metaphor and served up a meaty defense of the idea.

Now before you get all steamed and rush off to flame him for it, simmer down and feast your eyes on the way he dishes out a new understanding of the phrase:

All who consider themselves Christians are in the cafeteria. The difference is that some of us enter delighting the buffet, eager to taste new things and help ourselves to a little of this and a little of that, aware that we are not eating absolutely everything that is on the menu. Others simply enter and say "I'll have what he's having" and believe that they are tasting everything, when in fact what their pastor, family, church or denomination is serving is never everything Christianity has to offer, never everything "the Bible says", never everything that Christianity is, was or has been.

I'm sure some people will find this interpretation hard to swallow. They will decide this is a half-baked idea, not worth its salt, a recipe for disaster.

But I'm going to chew on it for a while. The extended metaphor seems a bit raw; I'm not sure whether it would withstand a grilling. But McGrath does have a point: if we limit ourselves to the white bread teachings of one church, we won't get the whole enchilada of the Christian experience.

So I'm going to let these ideas marinate overnight.

For now, I'll just savor this tasty morsel from McGrath:

Let me close by noting that the cafeteria is full of people debating the merits of this or that food. But the point of the cafeteria is not simply to stay there, but to feed there and then go forth with fresh strength and energy to do something more useful than simply debate food tastes.

That's a delicious way to refer to the work of the church.

Please, go devour McGrath's entire post. It's some good food for thought.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009


In a comment on my recent post The Stumbling Block, philobyte said:

the comment about God creating flagella of viruses that kill children, is really just a special case of why an Omnicient, Omnipotent God allows for evil in the world.

Some apologists are quick to defend the idea of God's omnipotence. Here is what Answers in Genesis has to say:

But the Bible says that God is omnipotent; He is all-powerful. He is a God of love. He performs miracles, and He speaks to us through His Word. We have reason to love this God. We have reason to trust and to worship this God. And above all, we have a reason to hope.

This line of reasoning strikes me as naive. Why should we believe that an all-powerful, all-loving God who stands idly by while our loved ones suffer is worthy of our love, our trust, our worship? How can such a being offer us hope?

That's too great a leap for me to take.

The Catholic Encyclopedia takes a different route. It asserts that "Omnipotence is the power of God to effect whatever is not intrinsically impossible." And just what does that entail?

As intrinsically impossible must be classed:

  1. Any action on the part of God which would be out of harmony with His nature and attributes;
  2. Any action that would simultaneously connote mutually repellent elements, e.g. a square circle, an infinite creature, etc.

Well, that's a very convenient loophole. The Catholic Encyclopedia goes further, defining "Actions out of harmony with God's nature and attributes":

(a) It is impossible for God to sin
(b) The decrees of God cannot be reversed
(c) The creation of an absolutely best creature or of an absolutely greatest number if creatures is impossible, because the Divine power is inexhaustible

The net result of all this, it seems to me, is that the term "omnipotent" can be preserved even though it has been sucked dry of all real meaning. I don't see how this is any better than the Answers in Genesis approach.

Tony Campolo is led to a different conclusion:

Perhaps we would do well to listen to the likes of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who contends that God is not really as powerful as we have claimed. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say that God is omnipotent. Kushner points out that omnipotence is a Greek philosophical concept, but it is not in his Bible. Instead, the Hebrew Bible contends that God is mighty. That means that God is a greater force in the universe than all the other forces combined.

Now I don't know the Hebrew language, so I can't say whether Rabbi Kushner or Answers in Genesis is correct about the meaning of the Hebrew words used to describe God's power. But Kushner's view makes a lot more sense to me.

I can't put it any better than philobyte does in his comment:

If he knows everything, and can do anything, and loves us, well then surely close to the top of his agenda would be stopping bad things from happenning to good people.

But this is not what we see happening. Rabbi Kushner wrote his classic book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" after the death of his son Aaron, who was born with progeria, a condition which caused accelerated aging. Aaron's skin grew wrinkled, he lost his hair, his body became frail, and he died at age 14.

Why would an all-knowing, all-loving God let children be born with progeria? For that matter, why would an all-knowing, all-loving God let anyone continue to suffer for years without relief?

Some people would say we just don't understand the ways of God, that God's love is so much higher than ours that what we call love might not truly be love. In some cases that might even be true. BUT, that's not an answer; it's an excuse. If God is trying to use needless suffering to teach us what love really means, his pedagogical skills are seriously lacking.

On the other hand, I don't see that we've really answered anything if we accept that God is not omnipotent. I like the view espoused by Kushner and Campolo, but it seems to me that this just leads to more questions: Exactly what IS God capable of, then? Can we trust a God who might not be able to always take care of us? Is such a being worthy of our worship? Do we have a reason to hope?

I have no answers, only questions.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

the stumbling block

I don't think the title was meant to be humorous.

Marcia Segelstein has a guest column at OneNewsNow, titled Intelligent Design for dummies. (Ron Britton at Bay of Fundie replies, Why Yes! Yes It Is!)

Segelstein claims not to be interested in the whole debate over ID:

As far as I was concerned, all that mattered was my belief that God created the universe and everything in it. How He did it, when He did it, and what complex processes were involved were beyond my extremely limited understanding. They still are. And what continues to matter most to me is that God get the credit for creation.

And yet, she is drawn to the story of one Brian Westad. His experience

made me understand how the predominance of Darwinism can be a stumbling block to faith, even for believing Christians.

In short, Westad learned about evolution in college, but had trouble reconciling it with his belief in an active God. He leaned toward theistic evolution for a while, but began to drift toward atheism.

Then Westad began a research project with another student who introduced him to ID and to Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box. Behe is the originator of the hypothesis of "irreducible complexity," the idea that some things in this world — the rotating flagellum of certain types of bacteria, the blood clotting cascade found in most vertibrates — simply would not work until all the parts were assembled.

Behe's ideas gave Westad a reason to believe again. Westad is now the Executive Director for the IDEA Center, a non-profit organization for promoting ID in schools.


Segelstein's article contains some glaring errors: She calls Phillip Johnson "a leading I.D. scientist," though he is by profession an attorney, a college professor, an author, and a leading strategist for the ID movement. He is not, however, a scientist. Segelstein refers to "the fact that the bacterial flagellum could only function when all its components were present simultaneously." [emphasis mine] Unfortunately, other scientists have discovered ways in which the flagellum could have been built in stages.

But that's really beside the point. The point of Segelstein's article is that "Darwinism" can be a stumbling block to faith, and that ID is more sympathetic toward Christianity.

This view is disturbing on more than one level.

First, and most basic, is this: We are not allowed to choose our science based on how easily it integrates with our faith. It doesn't matter whether ID meshes better with what we want to believe. What matters is which hypothesis gives us a more complete understanding of the workings of the natural world. Just by the way the hypothesis was formed, ID cannot win that battle; it insists that some things are just too complicated to explain.

But ID is disturbing at a deeper level as well. Segelstein's article makes a big deal about Westad's difficulties reconciling evolution with faith in God. Yet, for me at least, ID presents the greater challenge.

Proponents of ID ask us to believe in a creator who went to great lengths to build a rotary motor to help H.pylori and E.coli bacteria navigate our digestive tracts. Yet this same creator sits idly by while 25,000 children die every day, most from preventable diseases.

The ID proponents say their hypothesis tells us nothing about the creator. I disagree. We can infer from the ID hypothesis that this creator cares more about germs than humans. I don't see any way of reconciling the implications of ID with Christianity.

I grant that if Christians accept the modern evolutionary synthesis, we still have to grapple with a God who lets 25,000 children die every day. Still, that is a problem for Christians of all stripes, including those who believe in young earth creationism and those who maintain that we can't possibly know how we got to this point. But only the ID proponents propose a model in which the creator shows such loving care for the little germs that can make us sick or kill us.

If that's not a stumbling block for Christians, I don't know what is.

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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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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

new testament use of the old testament

I'm not sure how accurate this is. Not being an evangelical, I'm not particularly fond of the grammatical-historical method of Bible study. Still, it's an interesting quiz.

Hat tip: Peter Kirk

NT Use of the OT -- Test Your View!
Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view You seem to be most closely aligned with the Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view, a view defended by Peter Enns in the book “Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” (edited by Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, Nov. 2008). Since the NT writers held a single-minded conviction that the Scriptures point to and are fulfilled in Christ, this view suggests that the NT writers perceive this meaning in OT texts, even when their OT authors did not have that meaning in mind when they wrote. It should be noted, however, that advocates of this view are careful not to deny the importance of the grammatical-historical study of the OT text so as to understand the OT authors on their own terms. For more info, see the book, or attend a special session devoted to the topic at the ETS Annual Meeting in Providence, RI (Nov. 2008); Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Darrell L. Bock, and Peter Enns will all present their views.
Fun quizzes, surveys & blog quizzes by Quibblo

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Monday, September 22, 2008

agenda-driven or christ-driven?

Keith McIlWain has a good post on competing Christologies within the United Methodist Church.

He begins with a quote from Mark Tooley's book Taking Back the United Methodist Church. (See Keith's post for the details.)

Keith offers this insightful comment about the competing views of scripture:

I would take issue with Mr. Tooley's depiction of conservatives viewing Scripture as divine while liberals view it as a human document. We affirm that Jesus is both divine and human; surely, we can do the same for Scripture, without losing sight of the fact that it is our primary authority. Jesus, then, is both Savior and Liberator. For conservatives or liberals to forget this would be (and has been, at times) painful for the Church.

I agree. Christology has always been more a case of both/and rather than either/or. The paradoxical nature of Christian theology doesn't necessarily mesh well with modernist binary logic that would force us to choose one or the other, but we can't really expect any secular culture to be a perfect fit with Christianity.

Keith then adds:

That said, in all honesty, it is my opinion that in recent years it has more often than not been the theological Left which has forgotten these truths. Many on the theological Left (not all) seem to be more agenda-driven than mission-driven, doctrine-driven, Scripture-driven, or Christ-driven.

Here I disagree, not with Keith's assertion about those on the theological left who are agenda-driven, but with the implication that this is not equally true of some on the right.

In fact, in a post that begins with a quote from Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, it's highly ironic to accuse the theological left of being agenda-driven. Tooley is the poster boy for agenda-driven right-wing nationalism gilded with a thin layer of Christ-talk.

Mark Tooley supports torture and nationalist warmongering, against broad coalitions of conservative, moderate, and liberal Christians whose agreement on these matters is remarkable primarily because there are so few issues that unite Christians so strongly.

Confessing Christ in a World of Violence (CCWV) is a statement signed by many Christian leaders, both Protestants and Catholics, including liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

CCWV includes five confessions, of which the first two are:

1. Jesus Christ, as attested in Holy Scripture, knows no national boundaries. Those who confess his name are found throughout the earth. Our allegiance to Christ takes priority over national identity.
2. Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war. The wanton destructiveness of modern warfare strengthens this obligation. Standing in the shadow of the Cross, Christians have a responsibility to count the cost, speak out for the victims, and explore every alternative before a nation goes to war. We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies.

We've seen the benefits of international cooperation in the recent past: George Bush Sr. built a coalition of 80 nations, including 30 nations that supplied more than a quarter of a million troops, before the first Iraq war. George W. Bush, on the other hand, gave speeches dividing the world into "with us" and "against us," Donald Rumsfeld ridiculed any foreign leaders who voiced reservations, and we ended up with a much smaller force for a much larger task. The first Iraq war was finished in three months; the second has lasted longer than U.S. involvement in Word War II. International cooperation makes a difference.

Somehow, though, Mark Tooley manages to twist cooperation to mean idolatrous faith in the United Nations. He writes:

CCWV places great hope on "international" processes. "A policy that rejects the wisdom of international consultation should not be baptized by religiosity," it declares near the beginning, and "We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies" near the end. While warning that "no nation-state may usurp the place of God" it did not likewise insist that neither the United Nations nor any other international force can usurp the heavenly throne.

That reliance on international groups might be just as idolatrous as nation-state patriotism, it did not admit. Nor did it explain why international consensus must be a prerequisite for virtuous action in a world that is, according to Christian teaching, perpetually fallen and in rebellion against the divine order—and in which those the United States would consult and cooperate with have their own self-interests, which may include collaboration with oppressive regimes.

Note how Tooley deftly changes "cooperation" to "consensus" in the second paragraph. That's a much easier target to attack, but the word consensus does not appear in CCWV. Nor does the document mention the United Nations. But Tooley is more focused on his political agenda than on the actual contents of the CCWV document.

Another of CCWV's confessions is this:

4. Christ shows us that enemy-love is the heart of the gospel. While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8, 10). We are to show love to our enemies even as we believe God in Christ has shown love to us and the whole world. Enemy-love does not mean capitulating to hostile agendas or domination. It does mean refusing to demonize any human being created in God's image.

To which Tooley replies:

CCWV was also very concerned about America’s “demonization” of “perceived enemies.” One wonders if the signers acknowledge the possibility that America has enemies, or that any of those enemies may be demonic in their behavior. Is criticism of the Iranian theocracy, or of North Korea’s Stalinist regime, an act of “demonization”? Or is it simply describing the reality of those regimes?

Surely Mark Tooley is intelligent enough to know the difference between criticism and demonization. It's one thing to criticize someone's actions; it's quite another to degrade the person and treat them as less than human. But Tooley is clever enough not to directly criticize the language of the CCWV. Instead he leads with a hypothetical, "One wonders if..." and follows up with insinuating rhetorical questions, leaving the reader to consider possible answers. Again, Tooley is concerned with advancing his political agenda rather than actually considering the text of the CCWV confessions. Belittling the signers of the CCWV is only a side effect.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is a faith-based organization trying to press our government to take the high road in matters of human dignity. Because the U.S. is global economic leader, we have a responsibility to set a good moral example as well.

I've written previously about Mark Tooley's issues with the NRCAT. Essentially, he complains that the NRCAT is not foucsed on torture by other nations.

The torture committed by nations like Syria, China, Iran, North Korea, and other nations is reprehensible, to be sure. But we have no moral authority to speak against it if we remain silent when our own government commits acts of torture. Because the United States is a democracy, its citizens have the power to affect our nation's policies. It is our responsibility to speak up when those policies violate human dignity. That's why the National Religious Campaign Against Torture focuses on abuses by the U.S. government.

Mark Tooley's agenda, on the other hand, is to neuter the church in its role as an independent voice. In Tooley's vision, the church should be a lap dog that passively accepts anything decreed by the powers of this age.

This is not the sort of renewal the United Methodist Church needs.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

does scripture interpret scripture

Simon Cozens, a missionary in Japan with WEC, examines the hermeneutic of "Scripture interprets Scripture" and finds it wanting.

His first issue is that the Bible writers themselves do not appear to have used this principle:

Indeed, when characters in the Bible make use of other Bible passages, they often do so in an obtuse and allegorical way. Paul wonderfully reinterprets "You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain" as "Give money to missionaries."

His second issue with "Scripture interprets Scripture" is what is missing from the equation:

Take a copy of the Bible. Put it down on a table. Observe it for a while. What does it do? Does it write a commentary on Galatians? Does it exegete some of the trickier passages in Romans? No. That's what we do.

It's worth your time to read the whole post.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

omniscience and prayer, theology and evolution

Peter Kirk has a thought-provoking post entitled Does God know the future? Does prayer make a difference? For me, it's an especially timely post, because I've been wrestling with this very issue lately. If fact, it was a recent post by Henry Neufeld, Dealing with the Theological Implications of Evolution, which nudged my thoughts onto the path that has led me to considering this.

I don't have my thoughts sorted out sufficiently to blog about them yet, so go read Peter's and Henry's posts. See you later.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

every word of god?

I'm not a Bible scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. In college I considered majoring in religion and philosophy, and took two semesters of New Testament Greek, but that hardly qualifies me to speak with authority about Bible translation and interpretation. Still, I try to be as informed as I possibly can, so I often read blogs of people who actually do something about the Bible.

And so, I've seen a lot of commentary this week responding to a post by one Tim Challies, who apparently is no more a scholar than I am, but who does presume to speak with some authority about Bible translations. Specifically, Challies prefers the English Standard Version translation (ESV) over the New Living Translation (NLT) or the Contemporary English Version (CEV), two translations which Challies describes as "less literal". In Challies' own words:

What I mean to show in these examples is that anything other than an essentially literal translation of the Bible may work to subtly undermine the Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures.

The key to choosing a good translation, according to Challies, is this:

We cannot overestimate the importance of ensuring that what we study is the clearest, best, most accurate translation of God’s Words that we can possibly find.

Challies gives some examples of how the ESV translates a couple verses, and how these other Bibles translate the same verses. Let's see how the "less literal" translations undermine our confidence.

The first example is from Romans 13:4. Here's the ESV:

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

Now the NLT:

But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.

And the CEV:

If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.

For good measure, Challies also includes The Message paraphrase:

But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

The issue, for Challies, is the word "sword".

The translators have seen fit to provide what they feel is the main idea of the passage, that the civil authorities have the right to punish those who do wrong. But this is a verse that has long been used to discuss the Christian view on capital punishment. It is an important verse in this context and in others. But in these three translations there is nothing to discuss, for the “sword” has been removed and punishment, which may be imprisonment, fines or community service, among other things, has been substituted.

This is Challies' first mistake: He doesn't understand the context of this verse. Paul is not writing instructions to the civil authorities on how to handle wrongdoers; he's encouraging the Christians in Rome to do what's right and not get themselves into trouble with the law. If they obey the law, they will have nothing to fear. (History has proven Paul wrong about this; in the year 64, the Emperor Nero had some 7,000 Christians killed as scapegoats after a fire swept through the city, though the Christians had no part in setting the fire. It's likely that Paul himself was one of those who were executed.)

To turn this verse on its head, though, and say that capital punishment is justified, is the same mistake pro-slavery advocates made two centuries ago.

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

That's 1 Peter 2:18, in the New Revised Standard Version. A less literal translation might say "servants" instead of "slaves".

Here's the same verse in the ESV:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.

But I digress.

Clearly, this verse is not saying that it's OK to own slaves, or to treat them harshly if you do -- or even to be unjust to your servants. The instructions in this passage are written to those who are in a position of indentured service. At the time, some Christians were slaves. That should not be taken as a justification of the institution of slavery. Likewise, the word "sword" in Romans 13:4 should not be used as a justification of capital punishment. That's not what the passage is about. To understand a Bible passage, we have to begin by understanding its intended audience.

Surely Challies, the author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, ought to know that much.

Here's Challies' other example, Psalm 32:1. First, he quotes the ESV:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Then The Message:

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.

The NLT:

Oh, what joy for those whose rebellion is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!

And the CEV:

Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away.

Here, Challies' concern is for the word "covered". In the "less literal" translations,

It has been replaced by "wiped clean," "put out of site," or "wipe away." But is "covered" not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book?

In a word, no. The members of the ESV translation committee are listed on its web site, and God's name is not among them. If you like the ESV translation, then by all means use it. But don't try to claim that every word of the ESV is identical to every word of God. That's putting too much confidence in the translation committee.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

god the artist

We talk about artists as creative geniuses, but what do we really mean by that? The best artists are not the ones who exercise absolute, teeth-gritting control over their medium. Rather, the best artists are those who see a work of art beginning to take shape, and are able to exercise just the right amount of control to let the art have its own way. The true artist serves the work of art, and not vice versa. This shows up differently in different artistic media, but the underlying principle is the same. A good painter will use what others would call an accidentally misplaced brush stroke as a source of inspiration. A novelist will exclaim with delight that her characters have run away with the plot. A jazz musician taps into the random quantum fluctuations of his own brain in order to improvise. A game designer will purposefully design games in which polyhedral random number generators are used. Also known as dice.

So why do we hold God to a lower artistic standard? Some folks seem to think that if God used random evolution to create people, he must have been holding his nose while he did it. I don't think so. Einstein himself said that God doesn't roll dice. But he was wrong. And in fact, anyone who has played role-playing games knows that God probably had to roll quite a few dice to come up with a character like Einstein. :-)

It is part of the artistic genius of God that he invented an artistic medium like the universe, a universe in which evolution could happen, a universe in which characters could run away with the plot. I think God delights in how the universe works. He even said as much: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."

- Larry Wall, The Culture of Perl

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

on intelligent design: first thoughts

The movie Expelled, released last week and featuring Ben Stein, is garnering a lot of attention for the intelligent design (ID) movement. At the core of ID seems to be the hypothesis known as irreducible complexity. Michael Behe -- professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a leading intelligent design advocate -- says that biological features such as the blood clotting cascade, the light sensitivity of photoreceptors in the eye, and the bacterial flagellum are examples of complex systems containing individual parts that could not function in isolation of each other.

Behe argues that the existence of irreducibly complex systems is evidence of fine-tuning by an outside agent, an "intelligent designer," who apparently is dissatisfied with the monotony of earth's life forms, and feels compelled to make inexplicable tweaks in obscure places. This designer might be a supernatural being, or it might be a space alien; the intelligent design hypothesis makes no claims about the nature of the designer.

Is intelligent design good science? Is it good theology? Based on my understanding to this point, I would have to answer no on both counts.

By setting up their hypothesis as a competitor to darwinian evolution, Behe and other ID advocates are trying to blur the line that marks the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Science is the study of the workings of the physical world. Science gives us explanations of natural phenomena. There are many areas of knowledge that are outside the scope of science: ethics, art, philosophy, and, of course, theology, to name a few. There's simply no way to squeeze God into the box of scientific inquiry.

What happens if we try to reduce the creator of the universe to a scientific hypothesis? We end up with the "god of the gaps." God is only useful when we need to explain something that we don't fully understand at the moment.

This is bad science because it can discourage further research. If we believe that increased human knowledge would decrease the power of God, we may turn a blind eye to the research into the evolution of the eye. It's bad science also because it accepts a non-conclusion as a conclusion. Merely because something is not understood scientifically does not automatically place it in the realm of external intelligent agents. There is a wide gulf between "We haven't found a natural explanation," and "We can't find a natural explanation." There is also a wide gulf between "We haven't found a natural explanation," and "An unknown intelligent being has been tinkering with life forms again." (And that's not even considering the fact that many of the "irreducibly complex systems" have been explained through natural processes, specifically through the process of exaptation. That's an issue for a separate post, which probably needs to be written by someone more able than I.)

ID is bad theology, too, as the implication of a god in the gaps theology is that God can only be seen in those things that can't be explained otherwise. So the birth of a baby, for example, could not be considered a miracle, because we understand the physical processes by which offspring are produced. But bacterial rotors... those are truly divine in origin! If intelligent design proponents took their own claims at face value, they would be followers of one strange cult.

They certainly wouldn't be followers of one Jesus of Nazareth, who said to a doubting Thomas, "You believe because you have seen my wounds," but did not add, "Blessed are those who understand the irreducible complexity of the blood clotting cascade." (Hey, that gives me an idea for my next Bible translations update...)

Anyway, thus far I've not been impressed with the intelligent design movement. Its major proponents seem to be trying to blend science with religion in a novel way, but the result is that they are making a mess of both.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

both sides do it

In response to recent post a look at uncommon descent, commenter gleaner63 said:

A few months ago an interesting exchange took place on the Neil Cavuto Show (Fox News). The debate was between a Global Warming advocate and a skeptic. The advocate, a member of Greenpeace said (paraphrased); "...look, you *are not* a climatologist so no one should take what you say seriously...". Cavuto stepped in and asked the Greenpeace rep what his feild of study was; " training I am an economist...".

Aside: What I find puzzling about this is why Fox News presented a debate about climate science without inviting a climatologist. But I guess there's more than one way be "fair and balanced".

gleaner63 continues:

The point is both sides engage in this. When Dawkins or Sagan or Asimov condemn Christianity, a lot of non-believers take their opinions as gospel, although none of the aforementioned have any credentials in theology or anything closely related.

I don't like the phrase "both sides," with its implication that there can be only two possible positions to take. Still, gleaner63 raises an important point about atheists and theology.

I've written repeatedly about Dawkins' failure to grasp even the basics of Christian theology. It's not just a matter of having no credentials -- I'm no theologian myself -- but of willfully ignoring the contributions of those who do know somthing about the subject.

When Richard Dawkins speaks about religion while dismissing the insights of theologians, and when William Dembski speaks about evolution while dismissing the research of biologists, they are being willfully ignorant. And when Fox News presents climate change as merely a debate between environmentalists and skeptics, it's being willfully ignorant.

Sadly, willful ignorance is currently in fashion in the United States. We see it in politics, where most people get their information second hand, from sources that pre-spin it into sound bites. We see it in television news, where the sound bites are welcomed because the half hour news format does not allow time for in depth analysis of any topic.

Laypeople can become knowledgeable about almost any subject, but it takes some effort. You won't learn annything by watching Fox News or reading a popular book by a pontificating expert-in-another-field. Go directly to the people who know the most about the subject, and you'll get the best information.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

becoming a christian

Robin Russell at the UM Portal describes an article from the Baptist Standard,
explaining step-by-step instructions on how to become a Christian. (Hat tip to John Meunier) After listing them, she asks,

And I wondered if a United Methodist were asked, "How do I become a Christian?" what would be the response?

A colleague here in the newsroom only half-jokingly commented: "Perhaps that's why we have problems with evangelism."

Any fresh responses out there beyond: "Um, come to church with me?"

Part of the difficulty, I think, is in the question itself. I'm reminded of the old joke, where a visitor to New York asks a local, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" The local, who happens to be a professional musician, replies, "Practice, practice, practice."

Christianity is not like building a bookshelf from a kit. You can't just follow a short set of step-by-step instructions -- Insert tab A "grace" into slot B "guilt," and you're done! No, Christianity is a transformation of the whole self, a journey that lasts a lifetime (and beyond).

And the roads that lead us there may be different for different people. For myself, it was a sense of loneliness, not the "lostness" the Baptist Standard requires, that paved the way for me to first experience God. And it was a mystical experience, not an intellectual understanding about Jesus' sacrifice, that started me along the journey.

I find the journey metaphor helpful in another way, too: If you're giving someone directions to get to your house, the first step is to find their starting point. "Go south on I-35 to the 119th Street exit," might get some people started on the right road, but it is likely to get other people completely lost.

Likewise, "How do I become a Christian?" is a highly subjective question. How they will get there is going to depend largely on where they are right now.

When the rich young ruler asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." To the thief on the cross, Jesus simply said, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

So how do we answer someone who asks, "How do I become a Christian?" First, we get to know them, understand who they are and where they are. It is only as we build relationships with people that we can help them answer that question. Otherwise, we may unintentionally lead them away from where they need to go.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

why i will not be raptured, part ii

In part i, four months ago, I erroneously said that rapture proponents claim Matthew 24:37-42 as support for the rapture doctrine. That was incorrect. Rapture proponents do not claim that Matthew 24:37-42 supports the rapture. They do, however, claim that Matthew 24:32-34 does. (This is just one of the reasons I can't buy into the whole rapture thing. What kind of theology builds doctrines on isolated snippets forcibly removed from their original context?)

Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

- Matthew 24:32-34

There are two sets of "these things" in Matthes 24:33-34. If you fail to distinguish between them, you will not understand what our Lord said. They are definitely not the same. The first "these things" in verse 33 refers to the tumultuous events begun by verses 7 and 8. The second "these things" refers to the prophetic future, including the Tribulation and the glorious appearing of Christ.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 57

Why does LaHaye believe this?

The key is found in verse 34. Jesus said, "This generation will by no means pass away until all these things [the second "things"] are fulfilled." The crucial issue concerns the meaning of "this generation," for whatever generation He had in mind would not pass away until the Second Coming occurred.

In Greek, the demonstrative pronoun haute (this) always refers to the person or thing mentioned immediately before it. The thing mentioned just before "generation" involves those who see the sign of Israel as she either becomes a recognized nation or when she takes possession of most of Jerusalem.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 58

How does LaHaye get all this from Matthew 24:32-34?

Many prophecy students interpret this passage to mean that when we see the rise of Israel as a nation (as we did in 1948), we will know that the time of the end is "near--at the doors." They reason that when a fig tree is used symbolically in Scripture, it usually refers to the nation Israel. If this is a valid assumption (and we believe it is), then when Israel officially became a nation in 1948, that was the "sign" of Matthew 24:1-8, the beginning "birth pains"--it means that the "end of the age" is "near."

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? pp. 56-57

How does LaHaye extrapolate all this from "fig tree"?

chirp, chirp, chirp

- crickets

A quick Bible search on the phrase "fig tree" turns up a number of different symbolic uses, some of which clearly refer to Israel, and some of which just as clearly do not. But none of them, as far as I can tell, mention the modern secular Israel founded in 1948. So to recap, LaHaye is saying, essentially, that "these things" in Matthew 24:34 refers to a different "these things" than the same words in verse 33, and that the fig tree in verse 32 refers to Israel, but to a different Israel than the one of Jesus' day.

This is the same guy, recall, who has said, "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise."

Common sense would tell me that the phrase "these things" used twice in consecutive sentences refers to the same things both times. Common sense also tells me that the words "fig tree," in a literal sense, refer to a fig tree. But I don't have LaHaye's sophisticated theological training.

So much for Matthew 24. On to the biggies.

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

- 1 Corinthians 15:50-52

Of all the verses we've looked at, this appears to be the most promising yet as support for the rapture doctrine. With its talk of the dead being raised and such, it sounds very much like an end times verse.

And indeed it is. The problem for LaHaye's theology is that this passage cannot refer to a secret rapture.

Recall LaHaye's rationale for splitting Christ's second coming into two events:

The first is the Rapture, when all living and dead Christians will be snatched up to be with Christ in the Father's house. The second is for all the people of the world, who will be judged for rejecting Christ. The first is secret, for a special group; the second is public, for everyone left on the earth. They are entirely distinct events!

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 104

LaHaye insists that the rapture is "secret, for a special group," yet 1 Corinthians 15:52 speaks of a trumpet -- twice. (Presumably in LaHaye's theology these are two distinct trumpets, but that's another issue for another time.) An event heralded by a trumpet blast is not a secret.

What's more, the larger passage clearly indicates (verse 42) that this is the resurrection of the dead -- not a secret snatching away of the faithful. The passage ends with the promise, "Death has been swallowed up in victory." In LaHaye's theology, the rapture marks the beginning of seven years of tribulation -- hardly a time for a victory celebration.

No rapture yet, and we've only got one verse left.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Surely, if the rapture is taught anywhere is scripture, it is taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The very word rapture comes from the Latin translation of harpazo ("caught up") in verse 17.

Unfortunately for Tim LaHaye and other rapture proponents, this passage suffers from the same problems as 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. The phrase, "with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet," hardly sounds like the way to keep a secret. But then there it is: "we... will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever." So the Bible does teach the rapture after all.

Or does it?

If Christ is returning to earth, and believers meet him to "be with the Lord forever," then regardless of what it means to be caught up in the clouds, the believers must be planning to return to the earth with Christ.

There's more. Bible scholar Barbara Rossing puts it this way:

Paul's description of "meeting" the Lord in the air employs a very specific Greek word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times: apantesis, a practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then accompanied him into their city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids who go out to "meet" the bridegroom and then accompany him into the feast, and also in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who go out to "meet" Paul as he arrives in their city.

- Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed p. 176

In both Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15, those who "meet" the arriving person then turn around and escort him to their home. So 1 Thessalonians 4:17 ought to be understood in the sense of believers leaping up into the clouds -- perhaps in ecstasy at his return -- to welcome Christ and accompany him back to earth.

Here's how Orthodox archbishop John Chrysostom put it:

If He is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain within. We are carried upon the chariot of our Father. For He received Him up in the clouds, and “we shall be caught up in the clouds.” (Acts i. 9.) Seest thou how great is the honor? and as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him.

- John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Thessalonians, Homily #8

Chrysostom clearly understood this passage to refer to a king returning to a city to pass judgment. To those "who are in honor," the king's visit is a happy occasion, but to those who are condemned, it is a somber one. There is no need to invent a second return of Christ: The same occasion can seem very different to people who have different perspectives.

John Chrysostom understood the New Testament in a way that Timothy LaHaye -- or you and I -- never could. LaHaye may have studied NT Greek in seminary, but Chrysostom learned it as an infant. As a native speaker of ancient Greek, Chrysostom -- like the other leaders of the early church -- was more in tune with the thought processes of the New Testament writers than we will ever be. And not one of the ancient Greek-speaking Christians ever suggested that there would be a secret rapture of the faithful before Christ's ultimate return. I'll take their word above a modern self-styled prophet any day.

The Left Behind series has proven to be wildly popular fiction. But personally, I'm not going to get caught up in all that hype.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

international blog day

Today is the 3rd International Blog Day (hat tip: Richard at connexions), the purpose of which is to encourage bloggers to "post recommendations of 5 new Blogs, preferably Blogs that are different from their own culture, point of view and attitude."

As was the case with the "thinking blogger" meme, I had a hard time limiting myself to five blogs. I enjoy reading different points of view, and I read more blogs than I should. In keeping with the spirit of the event, I've excluded all bloggers living in my home country.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

the radical center

Last month Andy Bryan wrote a post, Unclaiming the Center, in which he responds to a friend of his who thinks the solution to divisiveness in the church is for liberals and conservatives to look for common ground in the center.

Andy replies:
Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing.

...for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are.

Call him liberal, but don't even think about calling him wishy-washy.

He makes some good points in his post, and I urge you to read the whole thing if you haven't already.

Nevertheless, I tend to disagree with his main point. I think it is vitally important that we do look to reclaim the radical center. But perhaps this disagreement is more in perception than in fact. I may be using the word "center" differently than either Andy or his friend are using it.

As I understand them, "liberal" and "conservative" are political terms that have spilled over into other areas of our lives. In American presidential politics, it is customary for candidates to play up their "liberal" or "conservative" credentials during the primary season, to appeal to the party's "base," then to "move to the center" as the general election approaches, to try to appeal to a wider range of voters.

This can be represented by the following image:

The black part of the line represents the center, and the white parts represent the liberal and conservative wings. Under this paradigm, Andy is correct that liberals (or conservatives) are not being authentic if they try to "claim the center" as a common ground.

But it seems to me that this entire paradigm is missing something.

A few weeks ago my wife took our 4-year-old son to the farmer's market and let him buy something with his own money. He spent a quarter, and got a home-grown peach.

Normally, when he eats fruit from the grocery store, he will eat a little bit from one side and leave the rest. So when they were in the car, and Nicki heard, "I'm done," from the back seat, she didn't expect him to have eaten the whole peach. Yet when she reached back for the remains, he handed her just the pit.

A peach pit is a better metaphor than a political campaign, I believe, for the radical center of the Christian faith.

Here we don't have two fringes at opposite ends, just a solid inner layer with a protective outer layer. The outer, fleshy part of the peach actually provides the nutrients necessary for the seed to grow -- or for a four-year-old boy. One way or another, though, the flesh will be consumed, and only the core will remain.

The core of the Christian faith can be found in the gospels, throughout all of Scripture, and in the ancient creeds. That's not to say that there is nothing more to Christianity than this. The church is one body with many parts, and God calls each of us to fill different roles.

But whether you're anti-oil or anti-abortion, and regardless of how important you personally think those issues are, those are not the essentials of the faith. Likewise, Christianity is not primarily about creationism, fair trade, gay rights, or even a living wage. Our faith may inform us about those issues, but we are almost certain to find ourselves at some point fellowshipping with those who hold different views.

That's when we need to affirm the radical center -- the core -- of our faith. If we cannot fellowship with those who hold differing views on the peripheral issues, we've failed to understand what Christianity is all about.

Unless I'm misreading him, that's essentially what Andy is saying too. So perhaps I don't disagree with him after all.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

they would not have crucified the lord of glory

The atonement has been a big topic of discussion lately among several blogs I read (I've trid to link to one sample post from each blog, but I'm sure I've missed at least one blog). I don't really have anything to add to the conversation; I'm still trying to absorb all the ideas and piece the puzzle together.

The fact that I've been thinking over all this is probably the reason the following passage jumped out at me in my daily Bible reading:

But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

- 1 Corinthians 2:7-8

Let's suppose, hypothetically, that things had happened differently: Upon hearing Jesus' teaching, the high priest Caiaphas suddenly realized that he was in the very presence of God. Or Pilate, upon examining Jesus, decided that he should set Jesus free no matter the personal political cost to himself. What if they hadn't crucified the Lord of glory?

These two verses are just a side note in Paul's discussion of the wisdom of God, but he seems to have considered it a genuine possibility that the rulers of the age could have recognized Jesus for who he was, and changed the course of events on that fateful Passover week.

If Jesus hadn't been crucified, how much different would our theology be? Did God have an alternate plan for our atonement just in case Jesus failed to get himself killed?

Did the atonement really rest on the dicey possibility that those in power would not recognize Jesus? Or is there possibly something about power that it necessarily renders those who have it unable to see God at work?

Now I know even less than I did before.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

in defense of arminianism

A blogger who uses the name "The Preacher" has an interesting post entitled Making Jehovah into a Lovesick Girl. He asks, "Can I submit to you, that this is exactly what we do when we preach an Arminian gospel?"

The answer is no. Perhaps that's how it appears to Calvinists. And, truth be told, I think I actually heard the gospel presented like this once or twice by well-intentioned but misguided youth leaders back in my teenage years. But to reduce God to a lovestruck girl hoping to be invited to prom, waiting for us to make the first move -- that's a distortion of genuine Arminian theology.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Arminianism is often defined in opposition to Calvinism. Calvinism, as I understand it, teaches that we have no say in our salvation, that it's completely God's decision. Perhaps a Calvinist might assume, by contrast, that Arminians believe that salvation is entirely in our own hands.

But defining any idea solely in relation to a competing idea is the easiest way to distort it. In fact, Arminianism shares with Calvinism the foundation that human nature is sinful, and that, left to our own devices, we could never achieve righteousness.

Arminians departs with Calvinists on the extent of God's grace. Calvinists believe that God's grace is limited to a predetermined group of people, the elect. Anyone not in this group is doomed.

Arminians believe, along with 1 Timothy 2:4, that God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." We believe, along with Titus 2:11, that "the grace of God has appeared to all." We believe, along with Romans 2:4, that "God's kindness is meant to lead [us] to repentance." We believe, along with Philippians 2:12-13 that as we "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling," we recognize that "it is God at work within [us]."

Arminianism is not the opposite of Calvinism. Arminians don't believe we are the authors of our own salvation. We don't believe God's love is merely a product of pubescent hormones running wild. We don't believe God is so helpless as to pine over unrequited love.

Instead, we see God's grace at work in the world. This grace that has appeared to all, not just to a select few, is known as prevenient grace. That's not the grace that saves us, but it does enable us to respond to God. So even though we don't have it within our nature to choose God, we have something within us that is not part of our own nature.

Our very ability to choose God is itself a gift from God.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

my theological worldview

You scored as Emergent/Postmodern. You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.



Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Classical Liberal


Neo orthodox


Roman Catholic




Modern Liberal


Reformed Evangelical




What's your theological worldview?
created with

At first glance, it looks like I haven't changed much in the 14 months since I first took this test. I'm still classified as Emergent/Postmodern, though I've never fully embraced that label. Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan is second on the list, followed by Classical Liberal.

But a closer look reveals significant change. My Emergent score has dropped by 11%, while Wesleyan has increased 14% since the first test. At this rate, in another four months I'll be a true Methodist.

Also increasing by double digits were Neo orthodox (15%) and Roman Catholic (11%).

I think two factors have grown in their influence in my life over the past year, and these have influenced the direction my journey has taken. First was my involvement with Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness before I left Wichita. Working with Christians from so many different denominations has helped me to have a greater respect for those with whom I disagree theologically.

The second factor has been a growing interest in practices of the ancient church. From Lectio Divina to labyrinths, the more I learn about the historic Christian faith, the less I want to forge a new Christianity for a new world. The more I read about the saints of old, the more I want them and not modern society to be my frame of reference.