Monday, May 11, 2015

Here I Stand

In the 2nd century a man name Justin, a Christian from Samaria, wrote a defense of the Christian faith and sent it to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Christianity was held by many to be a danger to Rome and to the authority of the Emperor. Justin wrote to explain that Christians were not a danger, that they were Rome’s best citizens. History affirms he was right.

Eighteen hundred years later, Christianity is again spoken against by many. In China and India it is regarded as a danger to the state and culture. In America it is considered antagonistic to the public good. Maybe it is time for another Justin. 

I make no claim to be a modern day Justin. But I do believe Christianity deserves a defense. It may not make a difference. Justin’s stand did not make a difference in his day either, and his public defense ended up costing him his life. But his defense created for Christians a framework of reason. It affirmed the reasonableness and rightness of what  they believed and spurred them on to persist in the faith. Maybe that is what is needed today. 

The hot button issues of Justin’s day were the questions of authority and morality. Christians were thought to be a danger to the state because they would not revere the emperor as the supreme authority. They insisted on obeying and worshiping God as sovereign. They were also considered strange if not immoral because their lives and worship were so different from the lifestyle of Rome and the worship in pagan religions.

The hot button issues today are still authority and morality. Christians bow ultimately to one authority, God. Christians follow one set of moral imperatives, those given to us in the word of God, the Bible. Does that make us a danger to society? No. It makes us the best citizens. We are not blown about by the winds of currently popular ideas or cultural change. We are solidly anchored to what is right and good, principles that have stood the test of centuries. And we follow those principles even when the personal cost is great. Our stand on those principles is no threat but to the rule of tyrants.

Not only so, but our presence in any society is a benefit to the public good.

In India Christians are engaged in working for social justice for those who are oppressed by poverty and by the lingering prejudice of the caste system. They rescue young girls who have been enslaved in the sex trade and young boys who have been enslaved in forced labor. They run hospitals and clinics for the poor, providing care at minimum or no cost to people in villages where there is no health care. They respond to disasters such as the recent earthquake in Nepal providing food, shelter, medical care, and assistance in rebuilding. 

In India Christians serve poor communities, developing water supplies and sanitation and teaching better farming techniques in rural villages. These are not foreigners doing this, but Indian Christians. They are India’s best citizens. 

In America the list of benefits Christians provide for our society is, if anything, larger. We provide hospitals and clinics and disaster relief in every emergency from Katrina to the wild fires in California that displaced so many. We work in organizations that are rescuing girls enslaved in prostitution. We provide help to the homeless and a way out for the addict. We man rescue missions and provide food and shelter. We collect food and clothing and distribute it freely to those in need. We qre America's best citizens.

Yet for a growing number of Americans, Christians are just trying to lure the unsuspecting or to recruit the vulnerable. Faith based social services, it is argued, run counter to the modern American value of separation of church and state. Never mind that in almost every instance there is no pressure applied to adopt our faith, and assistance is given without any condition of faith. 

The benefit of Christian social service in America is so great that if it were to be curtailed by law or by changing culture, America, whether the government or non-religious charitable institutions, would not be able to take up the slack. The suffering of the poor would certainly increase.

But are Christians to be trusted? Are they loyal citizens? The record should be more than clear. Christians serve in every branch of the military and in every level of political service from elected officials to volunteers in our local communities. We believe in America. We believe that America was founded upon the values we hold dear, values that came directly or indirectly from the Bible itself.

Christians are involved in politics because we believe in America. Despite the popular opinion, we are found among both Democrats and Republicans. We sometimes disagree even among ourselves as to the best course to follow to preserve America and the Christian values that have made America great. But there is no question that American Christians are pro-America. 

And that is why Christians are willing to stand our ground when American values are threatened. We look around us today and see the values of respect for others and for freedom threatened by a growing centralization of government authority. We fear a big brother government, and rightly so, for in every place where government has become absolute people have suffered. We believe too much in America to stand by quietly. 

We believe God has blessed America with her foundational values. But we believe too much in those same principles, principles we see as biblical as well as historical,  to force those upon anyone. Americans will decide the future. It is their God given right. We only wish to be a voice for the values that made our nation great. 

For this, we are more and more regarded as immoral. When we stand for the values of freedom and life and family we are called bigots or meddlers. When we preach moral standards of faithfulness and purity, we are called hateful. Why?

Christians believe in life. We have been foremost in the right to life movement because we believe that life is a God given gift. We believe no one has the right to take a life, least of all for simple convenience or personal
benefit. We believe an unborn child is not “tissue.” She is a person. He is sacred. They are lives made in the image of God. 

When our culture made a turn toward what we consider self-interest rather than respect for life, we stood for the rights of the unborn. It is our culture too. And we believe the kind of selfishness that has killed millions of unborn children is a crime against God himself. It will have consequences. It has had consequences. We desire not only to save the life of the unborn but to save our culture from those consequences. Is that immoral? 

Yet Christians have been vilified for our attempts to rescue our culture from moral disaster.
When our culture made a turn toward sexual permissiveness and immorality, we spoke up. We believe that sexual immorality whether it is heterosexual or homosexual endangers our society. Pornography, for example, diminishes women. It turns them into objects of lust, abuse, and enslavement. As pornography became mainstream it spread that exploitation into every corner of the culture, from fashion and music and films to the seamy, ugly underworld of sexual slavery, gay bath houses, and pedophilia. We believe we must take a stand. 

Does that make us immoral? Does that make us the enemy? You would think so from the reaction of the press and the murmur on the Internet. But we believe too much in the greatness of the dream of our Christian American forefathers of a just and good society and in the guideline of God’s word to relent. We will speak. We will stand for righteousness because we believe it is right. We will stand for righteousness because we believe it is the only hope for America. 

Perhaps the evil of self-interest and greed that drives our culture will prevail. We pray not. We pray for a return to righteousness across this land. 

But whether we as a culture repent or not, we Christians will continue to stand for righteousness - despite the increasing personal cost. We will continue to speak. We were given no assurances from the Lord that righteousness will prevail. Rather we were forewarned that we would be hated, just as he was hated. 

Jesus himself and Justin, who is called Martyr because of his determination to live by what is true rather than by what is expedient, remain models for us. They took a stand. They  spoke, even though it cost them their lives. And we will speak.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Jude: A Word for Today

Who reads Jude? Not one in a hundred Christians, I’d guess. But maybe we should.

Jude addresses a crisis of immorality that has reached epidemic proportions and is metastasizing like a cancer  into rebellion toward God (v. 8, 10) or anyone else who would speak correction or rebuke.
The danger though is not that these people to whom Jude writes live in an immoral culture. Outside the culture of the Jewish people, the world largely was immoral, celebrating it in their mosaic murals and painted pottery, even incorporating immorality into their religions. No, the danger was that there have been some who have preached that sickness to the church as normal and good (v. 4, 12). Ultimately this sickness leads to death (v. 7).

If we find parallels to our day, it is not by chance. Jude seems to be writing not merely for his day but for ours.  There is a sense that those to whom he writes are living in a time close to the return of the Lord. That describes us more than the church 2000 years ago. And the picture he paints certainly fits. 

There is no question that we live in a particularly immoral time and culture, particularly in America. Sexual promiscuity and selfish greed is embraced as the norm in every novel and film. What fifty years ago was regarded as pornography is now mainstream. And the culture of America is being exported around the world via the media. Places as far away from America as India and China have been infected. Bollywood in India has adopted the morals of Hollywood. It is becoming a world culture.

Then there is the celebration of perversion that is sweeping America and the world. Behaviors that only a few years ago were spoken of in the closet are now front page, proudly paraded in every city, and licensed in almost every state in America.  

Perhaps more alarming than these things is the pervasiveness of the ME culture. If I want it, I can have it. No rules. Mobs looting Baltimore, kids blowing away their school mates, and crowds stoning out on  marijuana in Seattle are examples of the ME culture in the extreme. 

If those things were limited to the world around us, it would be serious enough, but they are not. They have infected the thinking and the actions of the church. We are very much people of this generation, just a little more refined about it. Maybe.

What shall we do? Jude’s prescription is to grow in personal faith. Make our relationship with the Lord more central to our lives. Pray. And rescue those we can. There will be those who are walking the fence not sure on which side to land. Rescue them. 

There are those who have been burned by the immorality of the ME culture. Their lives are a cinder. Pull them from the fire. Show mercy, not hatred. (v. 23) Get into the fray to pull people out, being careful not to get sucked in yourself. 

Sadly, that is rarely what we do. Either we get sucked in because we don’t see the dangers or we push people away because of the vileness of their lifestyle. Jude’s message is rescue those we can. 

And there is one final thing, more the example of Jude than his message: tell the truth of what is happening. Despite the glowing predictions of the blind, our world is going to hell. Tell it like it is.

The Hard Work of Holiness

I was face down on the floor in front of the altar of our small church. Two brothers lay beside me praying. We were seeking holiness, and we were wrestling with God that he might bless us with it. We had been wrestling every Saturday morning for months. And I do not know if any one of us could have witnessed to having received that “second blessing.”

After an hour or so, we would get up from our places of prayer head out to our Saturday. My Saturday was the evening shift at a gas station. 

During off hours when I was not working on college classes or lubing cars, I would read the books of the old holiness preachers. I had a library of them. I would ask why it was that if God desired my sanctification he did not bless me with it. It was not that I did not want to be sanctified. But how?

That was fifty years ago. I belonged to a denomination that described itself as Holiness. Sanctification (just another name for holiness) was the theme of many of the messages we heard both in church on Sunday and in the various special meetings throughout the year, and of course in the camp meetings during the summer.

I remember forceful men at those meeting proclaiming that God not only desired our holiness, he provided for it, if we would ask. If.  But I was asking. It still seemed elusive. 

I was told to wait upon the Lord. The example of the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit was often evoked. I waited. But except for brief moments when I thought God had given me sanctification, I waited in vain. Was the problem me? 

Holiness was one of the major planks of our theology as a Wesleyan Holiness church. In its extreme form the doctrine was that God would remove all sin from our lives if we would believe him for it. It was called total eradication. In more moderate versions, it was that God would enable us to live holy lives free from sin. Interestingly sanctification was often conceived of as moral holiness rather than the practical holiness that Peter writes on in 1st Peter. We could enter that place of blessing and remain in it by faith. 

I continued to read the books of those who had gotten the blessing, trying to understand. I read, too, the other takes on sanctification. Yes, there were others. In particular there was the version called progressive sanctification. I hear it spoken of in some Reformed circles today, and it is a plank in the theology of most baptistic churches.  In those days progressive sanctification sounded like sanctification by works rather than by God, and I had tried that without any more success than I was experiencing. 

Years passed.  One day sometime in my forties I picked up a little book by Watchman Nee called Sit, Walk, Stand. It it as meditation on the book of Ephesians. In it Nee develops the truth that we all are seated with Christ. We are the beneficiaries of every blessing God has for us. They are our now. We do not need to wait for them. 

But we must stand by faith in those blessing. They are not automatically imparted to us. We must grasp them by faith. Finally, Nee goes on to say that we then are able to walk in the blessings. They can become real in the daily of life.

It was a life changing insight. I recommend the book. But there was more to learn.

And I did learn. In particular I found myself returning again and again to the book of Colossians where Paul says we are dead to the world’s influence and the power of sin that dominates the world (2:12) and we are alive in Christ with a new life in which we have been brought to “fullness” (2:10). Without parsing the word fullness in detail that means completion. I am complete in Christ. That means I am sanctified. It does not mean I can be if I believe it or that I will be if I work at it but that I am.
For those who must have grammatical support, the critical verbs are in the aorist tense, having the force of something that is done and is a fact. 

In Reformed theology that would be described as my position in Christ. But all too often that becomes an excuse for not quite experiencing it in practical living as a pump jockey in a gas station or for gradually implementing it in practical living. I was uncomfortable with that. It seemed too much my work and not God’s. 

And that does not seem to be what Paul means. He goes on to say in chapter 3 that we should therefore, because of the fact of our being dead in Christ to the old and alive in him to the new,  put off the things of the old life and put on the things of the new life. Those words put off and put on are also aorist. That implies we may do so now, not by gradual steps of improvement but by walking in the truth of our standing by faith. 

That study in Colossians was life changing for me. It provided biblical, theological support for what Watchman Nee wrote. And it reinforced the truth that the first work of sanctification was faith. That may be the hardest work of all. It requires that I believe in the fact of my standing in Christ and all it provides today, tomorrow, and every tomorrow. It is not a one time “faith.” It is a continuing faith. It is the work of faith. And that is what was missing in my earlier search for holiness. But there is more.
I have been recently reading in Hebrews. The reason for writing the letter was to encourage Christian Jews not to return to their old traditions and hope in the works of the Jewish religion but to hold firmly to what God had done and was doing for them in Christ. The last few verses in chapter 5 caught my eye. 

These Jewish Christians were finding those traditions easier and less demanding than pushing on to real righteousness (v. 13). Ah! How like me, I thought. How like us. But what is real righteousness?
I thought about that. Righteousness simplified is right living. It may be described as holiness. It is the application of my life to relationship with God and the practical living out of God’s pattern for life in loving and serving.  

Those words need to be fleshed out, of course. And that is part of the hard work of holiness. As I understand more and more truly what God’s pattern for my life is, a pattern that is both common to all believers and specific to me, I apply faith in my standing in Christ to live it. And I practice it. (The NIV in verse 14 says “train” myself.) 

That word reminds me of the training necessary for every athlete. It is hard work. 

So how do I train myself in holiness? The first thing I do is understand the coach’s directions; I read the Word. 

The next is that I work at putting those directions into actions. In faith. 

Working at developing a skill that I don’t have is really hard work but doable. If I do not have the physical capacity it is impossible. If I need to run 100 yards in 10 seconds and do not have the physical capacity for that - if I have no legs - it is futile to try and build myself up to achieve that goal. I may drag myself along and crawl the 100 in a minute, but that is the best I can do. That is what so many truly dedicated Christians try to do. They try to crawl.

Biblically it is impossible work to create holiness by such effort. It leads to failure and sometimes to giving up. But if I have the capacity and just lack the skill, the goal is possible. So I train myself.
Success is not instant. There are many directions for holy living. They need to be tackled one at a time. That is part of the hard work of holiness. But they are possible because God has given me the capacity, my standing in Christ as a new person. 

What is the result? It is described in Hebrews 5:14 as maturity. 

That is really what I was desiring those many years ago. I was just wanting it NOW without the hard work of holiness, the daily faith and training.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Foreknowledge and Predestination

If God knows all things in advance, then he knew when he created man that he would one day destroy virtually the entire earth. That makes God a sadistic monster. That is the challenge tossed at me a week or so ago. And the logic seemed impeccable. But was it?

The argument was built on a barstool version of God's omniscience (barstool being a bunch of guys talking). The reasoning was that God knows everything that will be in advance (foreknowledge). If he knows everything in  advance, there was no way that the people of the pre-flood era could have avoided destruction. It was predestined. They had no freedom to even repent. That makes God evil. He destroyed people who had no chance to avoid it.

Most Christian would be uncomfortable with that idea. I am uncomfortable with that idea. But what could possibly be wrong with the argument. It seems both valid and sound. Done and out, as far as my friend was concerned. (Valid and sound are technical terms for a deductive argument that is true.)

A little reflection, however, revealed that there had to be some flaw. For one thing, if foreknowledge locked people into a predetermined future, it locked God into that predetermined future also. That means that people are not free agents, but neither is God. What people do, they must do. What God does, he must do. But that creates a dilemma. If God is locked into a future  and is not free, how could he be free to predetermine? The idea is self-contradictory.

For another, our experience is that we daily make choices that seem to us to be freely made. That is, we have many options and chose from among those. When I want a bowl of ice cream I may choose vanilla or chocolate.  Unless that is an illusion, the fact that we can and do choose means we are free to do so. And that means whatever God knows in advance cannot lock us into a particular action or choice.

And finally, from a biblical theological point of view, if we were not free morally we could not be culpable of sin. We might do things that if we were free to choose would be called sin, but because we were not free to choose, we are not sinners. We are no different from the lion on the plains of  Africa. The lion kills an antelope, he may even kill  another lion (male lions do kill  lion cubs) but the lion is not immoral. His actions are instinctive with no moral overtones. We do not condemn the lion. It would be unjust. In the same way,  God's condemnation of our actions would be unjust, at the very least, and immoral if that condemnation resulted in judgement, as in the destruction at the flood.  (Or so my friend claimed).

But common sense, formal logic, and the Bible tells us otherwise. So how is the deductive argument that seemed so sound wrong?

That argument is formulated this way:
      P1: Foreknowledge and predestination are linked.
      P2: God knows all things in advance.
      Conclusion: Therefore, God determines all things in advance.

The most obvious fault in the argument is in P2. (P stands for premise.) Barstool theology imagines God's omniscience as total and absolute. As it is usually formulated - God knows all things both actual and potential - it sounds total. So I suppose we can forgive these barstool philosophers. But there is fine print.

God does know all things both actual and potential. BUT, with some exceptions, he does not know future events as actual until they happen. (Those more astute theologians who may be lurking, please hear me out and follow the biblical evidence with me.) He knows them as potential, potential among a variety of potential alternatives. And that is where free agency is allowed. We can and do choose from among the potentials. That allows God free agency as well. And that is important as we'll see later.

But first, what are the exceptions? The first are those things that God decrees. That word decree is a technical term meaning the basic purposes of God by which he works out his plan for history. They include among them consequences for sin, but not sin itself; the cross and forgiveness and mercy provided; the final end, which is glory for the redeemed and perdition for the unrepentant. And free agency within the bounds of our nature.

We might view God's decrees as A. W. Tozer, one of my favorite Bible guys, described them. The decrees are like a ship that has a predetermined (decreed) destination.  The passengers cannot determine after they have embarked where they are going. But they do have freedom to roam about the ship as they please. In such a way God's decrees allow for limited freedom. But the destination is certain.

There are a few other exceptions. God predestines believers to be conformed to the image of Christ. He works all things together for good, for example, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). And God predestines the details of these believers' lives. There is the famous passage most often recalled, Psalm 139: "all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16)" The limitation is that these all speak of believers.

We should not go beyond that to assume the infamous "sixth point" of Calvinism that God predestines others to perdition. Though that may seem logical to us, given the predestination of believers, it is not supported in the Bible. We should let the Bible speak. Recognize systematic theology as one step away from biblical theology. It may be correct, but it may not be. Just notice how many conflicting systematic theologies have been written over the years. Which one is correct? You choose. But better, let the Bible speak.

Prophecy would also be an exception. But is an exception not because God knows the future but because God determines at least these events of the future. Some prophecy is conditioned upon the actions of people. And those people have the freedom to act. And in that case the consequences are decreed.

So what is the biblical support for this, admittedly controversial idea that God knows all things in the sense described but only predestines some things? (This will need to be brief, but I hope adequate.)

First, the decrees: Sin has consequences. Romans 6:23, "The wages of sin is death." There are no exceptions. It is not that sometimes sin results in  death. It is that it always does, and that by God's decree. But there is another decree in the same verse: "But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." That is by God's decree and is just as certain. That is why Peter says in Acts 4:12 that "there is no other name [Jesus] given among men whereby we must be saved."  God has decreed that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). They must be saved. No exceptions. It is decreed. If you have not called upon the name of the Lord Jesus in faith and trust, you may because God gives you that freedom. Do so and God will be faithful to his promise.

The end of history is decreed as well. In 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 Paul writes: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." There will be an end. All opposition to God's sovereignty will be destroyed. Eternity and eternal life for the redeemed will ensue. It is not potential. It is decreed. No exceptions. 

Finally, freedom within the bounds of our nature is decreed.  Here the Bible implies freedom more often than directly states it. But the implication is very strong. From Revelation: "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (chapter 22:17). If the "whoever" means anything at all, it must mean whoever. There is a choice. An invitation without a choice is a mockery. 

That choice is implied even in the passage about the flood in Genesis 6 where my friend and I began. It says of God that he was grieved over the wickedness of men: "The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain." It would be nonsensical for God to grieve if men could not but do what they did in rebelling against God. It would also be nonsensical to talk of judgement, for judgement presumes culpability, and men who are not free are not culpable. And it would be nonsensical to speak of mercy or grace, yet in the same narrative it says Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. If there is no choice for man or for God, as my friend concluded,  then grace would not be possible, for grace is a choice freely made by God. We have hope because God is free.

Finally, what about the idea that God does not know an event as actual until events happen? The most intriguing passage is in Genesis 22. God commanded Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him. Abraham obeyed. But at the last moment as Abraham's hand and knife are raised, God said stop. He said:  "Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." God knew that Abraham feared (reverenced) God in actuality, not simply as a maybe,  because Abraham obeyed him even in his willingness to sacrifice his son. 

What Abraham did he did freely. His action was not predetermined by God. It would not be obedience if it had been. However, we must remember that our tomorrows are God's yesterday. Just as my knowing today what I ate yesterday does not determine what I ate, so God's knowledge of what I will eat tomorrow does not determine what I will eat. It is yesterday to him.He knows because he is there.

I know this is brief. An adequate treatment would require a treatise. But it is in brief what I think the Bible says. And it is an adequate answer to the puzzle about foreknowledge and predestination.  Both men and God are free agents - within the bounds of their natures and God's decrees. And we should be thankful for both. 

Monday, March 30, 2015


The winning of freedom in the West was hard-fought, and it took several centuries for freedom to become the character of nations. It could be argued that only in the American Revolution did freedom come to be written into the constitution of a Western nation and survive the challenges.But maybe I am premature. Has it survived, even in  this land of freedom? Will it survive the challenges of the future. The answers to those questions are yet to be seen.

One of the challenges to freedom in America is legislation that requires people to act against their conscience and moral principles. Specifically, it is the legislation that requires the approval of  and participation in what many regard as immoral - homosexual relationships. Recent court cases in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado indicate that the courts are ready to punish those who cannot in conscience endorse homosexual marriage.  

That is a serious step back from the freedoms that characterized our country in the beginning.

The argument for these laws is that homosexual individuals should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. And I agree they should not. In America their civil rights should be the same as mine. They should be able to live in this country without fear of discrimination on the basis of who they are. But the laws go beyond that.

The laws require that I not only accept their rights as human beings and Americans but that I accept their behavior. Now, I do not wish to offend, but I need to be clear about the moral convictions that drive me and many others. My conviction is that homosexual relationships are immoral. It is not simply that I do not like the idea of homosexuality. It is not that I hate or distrust or find unclean homosexuals themselves. I have friends who are homosexual. But I do believe that homosexual relationships are immoral.  I believe they immoral in the same way and to the same degree that heterosexual promiscuity and adultery are immoral. I believe those actions to be immoral to the same degree that I believe abortions are immoral. I believe they are immoral to the same degree that I believe cheating on your income tax is immoral or lying when you intend people to believe what you say as the truth is immoral.

I know our culture has changed. I know many no longer believe that promiscuity or adultery or abortion are immoral or homosexual relationships are immoral. But I do. That make me something of a throwback to an earlier age. But it should not label me as immoral. However, that is what the legislation does.

It makes acting on my convictions illegal and it implies that my holding of them is wrong.  That is the modern equivalent of saying that I am immoral.

But I am a realist. I know the culture has changed. And I do not believe my moral convictions must be those of others. I do not believe I must force those convictions on others. So laws that allow homosexual marriage, even though I think them unwise, are nevertheless the law of this land. I am personally still free to act on my conscience - until recently. Now in many states I no longer can act on my conscience. Those actions are label illegal and hateful.

Of course, I and others can simply withdraw from the playing field. We can choose occupations that will not bring us into moral conflicts.Why fight?  And that is what many suggest. But that is to give up a freedom that I not only enjoy but I believe is crucial to continued freedom in America. That is worth fighting for, at least on paper.

If we allow my freedom to act on my conscience to be limited, what freedom will be next? If freedom is redefined in every generation, is there any guarantee of freedom for anyone. If freedom to act on conscience when there is not real harm done to anyone, is constrained is there freedom of conscience at all?

Americans must decide. Will we stand our ground for freedom or give way to the interests of whatever group is currently in favor?  The stakes for our children are great. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Be Honest

I've been following the storm of reaction to President Obama's message at the annual prayer breakfast. Perhaps you have too. If you follow the chatter on the Internet, it appears a lot of people have noted Obama's speech. And reacted. Most of the vocal have been condemnatory. But let's be honest.

President Obama's reference to the evils that have been committed in the past in the name of Christ were sadly all too correct. If there was any lack it was that he did not go far enough. He could have mentioned the bloody fighting between Christians over the Nestorian controversy in 430. He could have mentioned the Protestant Reformers in the 1500s who tortured the Anabaptists because they did not baptize infants. He could have mentioned the brutal treatment of native Americans by the Catholics when they did not convert to the gospel spoken to them in Latin or Spanish, or the Protestants who murdered whole Indian tribes for their land because they were less than pagans. He might have mentioned the American church that seems to want to draw boxes around ourselves and  everyone else. If you are a Democrat, you are outside the Christian box, no matter your personal confession of faith. Or vice versa. Yes. That all happened. It is happening. Let's be honest.

 God thankfully does not draw boxes. He does not know me by my political party or by the strictness of my theological orthodoxy. He knows my heart. And if there is evil there, God calls it evil. He does not gloss over sin. He forgives sin and evil, but he does not condone it.

Obama's call to humility was right. If I think that I, of all the millions of believers who have gone before me, am right in my theology and practice, and they are wrong, I am simply being stupid. There are no doubt errors in faith and practice which I am not even aware of. I am a person affected by my culture as much as any. And my culture is hardly Christian. Yes. Humility. Let's be honest.

 I am tired of this idea: my country right or wrong; my religion right or wrong; my theology right or wrong. I am tired of people coming to blows over issues that are meaningless to God. Does God really care about politics? Does he not rather care about people? Does he care about the fine points of our theology? Does he not rather care about the heart?

If the heart is toward him, is that not what matters? The heart that is toward God he can correct. That is the story of history.  Let's be honest. With ourselves.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark's Gospel and Inspiration

During the 1800s and early 1900s the Liberal movement in Christianity brought serious challenges to historic Christianity. Under scrutiny were long-held assumptions about the historicity of Jesus, the inspiration of Scripture, and the authorship, dating, and transmission of the New Testament books.

In reaction to the Liberal movement a counter movement took shape that came to be called the Fundamentalist movement. That movement morphed into the Evangelical movement in the mid-twentieth century.

But the debate about the fundamental doctrines of Christianity continues into  the 21st century, though it is much more defined; some of the categories include form criticism, source criticism, textual criticism, and redaction criticism. If those sound pretty technical, they are simply the closer examination of the text and manuscripts of the Scriptures and the culture of the time and place during which they were written in an attempt to discover the original source, the authors, and the editing that may have been done by later authors or copyists.

The objective, whether as Liberals or Evangelicals,  has been to understand better our inherited faith. 

The topics of the debate are all quite beyond the average Christian or non-believer who may never have heard of any of these things.  But the repercussions of this scholarly work does reach the Christian in the pew, so to speak, via articles that appear more and more frequently in popular news magazines and on the Internet. And the various controversies are often turned into attacks on Christianity by those who wish to discredit the foundations of our faith.It is a good idea to think through the claims and evidence.

One such controversy regards the integrity of the text of the Gospel of Mark. Almost all Bible scholars, whether Liberal or Evangelical, recognize that the verses at the end of Mark, chapter 16
verses 9-20,  seem to be added to the original text. Most modern versions of the Bible indicate in footnotes that there is some question about them.

There is another passage in Mark that seems to be an addition. That is the narrative about the death of John the Baptist in chapter 6. The passage does seem like a parenthesis in the narrative, which does seem to have more continuity if read without it. But there is a second problem. The author of the passage may have been mistaken about who Herodias was married to before marrying Herod Antipater (Antipas). The fact that there were several men who were related to Herod the Great and thus were named Herod and several Philips, one of whom was also related to Herod, gives some modern scholars pause to question whether the author of the passage in  Mark got it right. 

All this speculation, when it hits the popular media, creates a question in the minds of many Christians whether the Bible is accurate and reliable - and whether it is inspired and without error, as the Fundamentalists of the early 1900s declared. Those questions have undermined the faith of some I meet on the Internet.They should not.

It is important to understand two facts. First, the text we have today is not totally without error. There are many variations in the old copies. By far most of the errors are copyist mistakes and are as simple as the spelling of a word.  Christians would be well to simply accept this fact.

But there are passages like those I've noted in Mark (there is another passage in  John 8 that may have been a later addition also). They are not found in all the old manuscripts and under the microscope of the modern critical methods don't seem to be by the same author as the rest of the text.

Do anomalies like those discredit the inspiration of the Scriptures? I do not think so. I think the Bible is clearly inspired as Christians from the earliest days of the church to the present affirm. But it would be well for Christians to not draw lines in the sand where the Bible does not.

Two of the lines we have drawn are on the issues of inerrancy and on what I was taught early on as verbal plenary inspiration. (Verbal plenary inspiration means that the Bible is inspired word for word and that it is all inspired.) In biblical theology - that is, doctrine that is clearly and directly taught in the Scripture -  neither of those ideas are declared. They are inferred from indirect statements.

What is declared directly in the Scriptures is the Scriptures are God breathed, that the authors were moved upon by the Holy Spirit, that they are truth, that they are useful, that they are alive and powerful, and that they come from God. These truths declared in the Scriptures are not limited by the imperfections in copies and translations. Verbal inspiration is a theoretical idea, a doctrine, with little practical value, for we do not have in any case the actual manuscripts written by the original authors. And if inerrancy is dependent upon having the precise words that are inspired, we do not have assurance of that either. But what we do have is far better than a doctrine. We have the powerful words of God, no matter the perfection of the texts or the translations 

Some years a go I talked with a Wicliffe Bible translator who had translated part of the Bible into the language of the Aztecs in Central Mexico. Looking back from a distance of many years, he said that his translation was crude. It certainly was not a word for word translation, and much of it was either translated from  English translations, not the original Greek, or checked against English translations. Yet, those translated words resulted in many of these Aztec speakers turning genuinely to God in faith. It resulted in lives truly changed.  The power of the word was not hindered by the imperfection of the translation.

Nor was the power hindered by the possible inclusion of pieces that were not written by the original authors. The story of the adulterous woman in John 8 or the ending of the Gospel of Mark may not have been the work of the original authors. But they do not run counter to the message.

 In the case of the John 8 passage, that story is so in tune with the character of Jesus and the message of John about Jesus that few reject it as uninspired. It has life and power. In the case of Mark 16, the brief history of what happened among the Apostles and in the church in the early years is confirmed by other histories. It is not "made up." Neither do either introduce any new doctrine, something that is foreign to the body of Scripture. Those were among the criteria used by the early churches and church fathers to identify inspired works.

So let's let the Bible speak. Let's not draw lines where the Bible does not nor allow those who may wish to discredit the Bible to do so. Let's not be easily disturbed by the speculations that sometimes get featured as "truth" in news magazine or on Youtube. The Bible speaks for itself. But let's not be afraid of inquiry either. Legitimate inquiry will not undermine the word of God. In fact, legitimate inquiry has buttressed my trust in the Bible. stand more sure today than ever that the Bible is God's word and is powerful unto salvation for all who believe.