December 23, 2011

The Advent of Love

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 21, 2011.

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn easily to love. We think of those we love as we prepare for family gatherings and purchase gifts. Christmas is also a time when we think a little more carefully about God's love for us demonstrated in the sending of Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem. The truth of God's love revealed through Jesus has been on my mind as I've read several times through the stories of his birth in the gospels this Advent season. As I read these stories once again, though, I was struck that the word "love" doesn't appear in them. In recounting the stories of Jesus' birth, the gospel writers never describe that event in terms of God's love. So, that got me to thinking: Where do you turn in the Bible when you need help thinking about the revelation of God's love in the advent of Christ?

It wasn’t long before I remembered 1 John 4:9, "God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him." On the surface, this verse may not look like a Christmas verse. Remember, though, that Christmas is about the coming of Christ, and this is a verse about the coming of Christ. In fact, any verse that talks about God's purposes in sending Jesus to be with us and offer himself for us is a Christmas text, because those verses are about the coming of Christ.

So what does 1 John 4:9 tell us? It tells us simply and beautifully that God sent Jesus, his only Son, as an expression of his love. God sent Jesus so that we could experience his love in a way that no one had ever experienced it before. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was not like any other baby. He was the unique expression of the Father's love for us. Jesus came to fill the world with the love of God, and after the birth of Christ, love could never again be reduced to an abstract concept. With the birth of Mary's baby, love had come, and love had a human face.

But that's not all. This verse not only explains that the coming of Jesus is the revelation of God's love, it also tells us about God's purpose in that expression of love. And that purpose is to give life. Christ came so that we might have life through him. You don't have to look far to see that the world is lost in a sea of darkness and death. Just watch the evening news. Jesus came to infuse this tired world with the life of God. He came to take what was broken and restore it. He came to take what was dead and dying and give it life. And that's good news. That's the good news of Christmas.

As Christmas morning arrives, my hope and prayer for you is that you experience God's love and life in a way that you never have before. May the Christ, who is the perfect expression of the Father's love, make his presence known to you and fill you with his life this Advent season.

December 21, 2011

The Advent of Joy

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 14, 2011.

Have you ever been to that place? You know the one, the place where you are willing to do what you know you have to do but you are not excited about it. You know the task at hand, but you are not eager to face the challenges. So, you approach it with hesitation, timidity, and perhaps a little fear. You want to be joyful, because you know it's the right thing to do, but all too often, the right thing is the hard thing. I bet you've been there before.

Mary of Nazareth certainly had. After being visited by a messenger from God who told her that she would miraculously conceive a child who would be God's Messiah and the world's true king, Mary was committed to the plan. Remember her words: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." Mary may have dreamed of being the mother of the Messiah, but she never dreamed it would be like this. She may have hoped that one of her sons would be the Christ, but she didn't expect it to endanger her life or cause her the shame of the whispers and sideways glances, having become pregnant before she was married. Mary was certainly committed, but the Christmas narratives give us no initial indication that she was joyful about it. At least, not yet.

Instead of celebrating, Mary ran away. She went to the home of her relative Elizabeth, where Mary would spend the first three months of her pregnancy. The journey to Elizabeth's home would have likely taken about nine days on foot, a journey she probably made with a caravan. You can imagine the thoughts that swirled through her mind during those nine days. What will I do? What will I tell my parents? What will I tell Joseph? Who will believe me? Why is God putting me through this? Mary must have thought Elizabeth would understand. She must have thought there was no one else to whom she could turn.

When Mary entered Elizabeth's home, and before Mary could even tell Elizabeth about her unusual circumstances, Elizabeth knew and greeted Mary with excitement and reminded her that God keeps his word and that he can be trusted. Only after this do we read that Mary rejoiced. Only then did joy come to her heart.

I think there's a lesson to be learned there. When focused on her challenging and adverse circumstances, there is no indication that Mary was experiencing God's joy. In fact, the text suggests that she fled looking for a safe haven. It was only when Mary's attention was drawn to the consistency of God's character that joy returned. We need to learn what Mary had to learn: the source of our joy is never in our circumstances; it's always in God's character. Circumstances change; God remains the same. Life happens; God is consistent. Challenges and adversity will come; God is faithful and true. Joy comes in knowing the character of God, not in trying to navigate life on our own.

Perhaps you are in one of those places this Christmas season. Perhaps you are feeling the tension between what must be done and the challenge of doing it. My prayer for you is that your attention will be drawn to God's character and that you will be reminded that he is trustworthy. Perhaps this knowledge will be for you the advent of joy.

December 20, 2011

Are you ready?

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 7, 2011.

Advent is a season of preparation. As we celebrate the coming of Christ as the child of Mary, we also prepare ourselves for the day when he will come again. So, the Advent season is not merely about waiting passively for something to happen to us; it is an active preparation for the coming of God in Christ. This invites the question: what are we doing to prepare ourselves to receive the Christ?

We can find some help with this question in the familiar story of Mary. You remember the story; don't you? Mary was a young girl, engaged to a young man named Joseph. She was from a small and unimportant town called Nazareth. One day she was visited by a heavenly messenger named Gabriel, and his message was exceptional, strange, and even somewhat scary. The messenger told Mary that she would be the mother of a very unique child. Indeed, his conception and birth would be nothing short of miraculous. And God would make him a great king, and he will be called the Son of the Most High.

With all the joy and celebration that surrounds the Christmas story, it is easy to forget what a shocking and scary message this would have been for Mary.  We seldom realize that she was probably only 13 or 14 years old, the typical age for a Jewish girl to be married. And we often forget that, in first century Jewish world, becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a crime punishable by death. Even if her life was spared, she would live with the shameful looks and hurtful jokes of those who lived in Nazareth. Here she was, barely an adolescent, and this messenger from God brought news that could endanger her life and result in public shame.

In light of these things, Mary's response to Gabriel is nothing short of stunning. What did she say? Only this, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Even though it would be costly for her, Mary was already actively preparing for the coming of Christ. And she made preparation by offering herself completely and totally to God for his plan and his purposes.

With that in mind, we are left with the question of whether we are making ready to receive Christ. What are we doing to prepare for his coming? We would be wise to follow Mary's example and give ourselves fully to God and to his purposes. Allow me to invite you to do just that and to use Mary's prayer as a tool. Every day between now and Christmas, will you pray Mary's prayer: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." When you rise in the morning and before you go to bed at night, pray these words to God. Perhaps, if we do this, we will be increasingly ready to see God at work in a variety of ways, and perhaps we will be more ready to be involved in that work. Imagine what it might be like if our whole community prayed this prayer together throughout the month of December. Imagine what God might do through us and in this place. Just imagine. Are you ready?

December 12, 2011

Evangelicals Favor Nukes?

The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) has issued a critique of a document released by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) expressing concerns about nuclear armament and proliferation. The critique laments the loss of insight and the so-called leftward slide of the NAE not only because it has denounced things like alleged systematic torture but now also appears to be increasingly in favor of reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The subject line of the IRD e-mail linking to this critique read: "Evangelicals for Nuclear Disarmament?" The question mark at the end suggests that the IRD finds it a strange curiosity that evangelicals would find nuclear disarmament desirable, an odd and curious suggestion from my point of view.

As with so many issues, the IRD once again seems to think evangelical Christianity has basically the same values as conservative American politics, but this matter of nuclear proliferation seems to illustrate the problem with that presupposition more clearly than some other issues. Evangelicals are typically identified by having a high Christology that affirms the full deity and full humanity of Jesus, believing in the full trustworthiness of scripture, and emphasizing the cruciality of the gospel in conversion. What is it about these basic tenets of evangelicalism that necessitates an affirmation of the value and necessity of nuclear weapons and a rejection of favoring nuclear disarmament? One wonders what the Prince of Peace thinks of the presupposition that his gospel commits his people to affirming the value of weapons capable of ending the lives of myriads of people and destroying the lives of countless others, of whom all are not only made in his image but objects of his sacrificial love.

I am reminded of the time that the sons of thunder thought it might be a good idea to call down fire from heaven to consume some Samaritans who would not receive Jesus (Luke 9:54). Their Lord and ours rebuked them indicating that, in his kingdom, we don't do things that way.

December 7, 2011

Inerrancy and Interpretation: The Licona Controversy

It is unfortunate indeed when members of the same team set their sights on one another. It is all the more tragic when the team on which they all play is evangelical Christianity. You have heard it said that, "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and misguided potshots certainly undermine the coherence of the larger whole. These reflections refer to the recent and volatile criticisms aimed at Michael Licona by Albert Mohler and Norman Geisler with regard to Licona's interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53 in his magisterial defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

The details of the controversy are available in other places; so I'll simply sum up the core issue. In his massive book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona devoted a few paragraphs to Matthew 27:52-53, which says that at the time of Jesus' death, "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." Licona suggests that this passage is apocalyptic "special effects" rather than historical detail (552). In response to Licona's interpretation of the passage, Norman Geisler, a prominent evangelical apologist, sent two open letters to Licona (1, 2) charging him with dehistoricizing the text, thus violating biblical inerrancy, and called upon him to recant his interpretation of the passage in question. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed Geisler calling Licona's argument "shocking and disastrous." Licona responded to these criticisms by affirming his commitment to inerrancy and stating his willingness to revise that portion of his argument in a future edition of the book, though he did not satisfy his critics by recanting.

One disturbing aspect of Mohler's and Geisler's criticisms is that they are not acknowledging that Licona understands his interpretation to comport with the truthfulness of scripture. The issue here is not one of inerrancy. The issue is about how we interpret and understand what the Bible is actually saying. Everyone involved in this debate knows that meaning depends on genre and authorial intent. So, the question is not whether Matthew was telling the truth. The question is whether he was intending to communicate apocalyptic symbolism or historical detail. If Licona is right, and Matthew is exhibiting a bit of apocalyptic flair in order to make a certain point, then Mohler and Geisler are guilty of not taking the text on its own terms. Instead, they are reading their presuppositions into the text, which subverts the truthfulness and authority of the text. Inerrancy is not incompatible with symbolism. Licona is not rejecting the literal truth of the text. Indeed, if Matthew is intending to communicate in apocalyptic poeticism, then the text is literally symbolic, and Mohler and Geisler have themselves missed the literal meaning of the text. Is it true and literal history or true and literal symbolism? That is the question on which this debate should turn.

Further, the charge that Licona is dehistoricizing the text is unfounded. Before a text can be dehistoricized, it must be shown that the author intended the text to be read as history. Licona is suggesting that Matthew did not intend the text to be taken as historical fact. Thus, he is not technically dehistoricizing this passage. Instead, he is suggesting that the genre of the text is something other than history, namely apocalyptic, and is interpreting it through the lens of what he takes to be the author's intent. This does not conflict with grammatico-historical exegesis, as Mohler suggests; it is grammatico-historical exegesis, which takes into account genre, literary form, various textual devices, and the use of similar concepts and ideas in other relevant primary source literature.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Mohler and Geisler are not arguing for the inerrancy of the text but for the inerrancy of their own particular interpretation of the text. They have mistakenly granted to their understanding of scripture a quality held only by scripture itself, namely authoritative truthfulness. Their interpretation may be right; but it could just as well be wrong. And the same is true for Licona.

At the end of the day, the issue here is not inerrancy but interpretation, not history but hermeneutics. The truly sad thing is that Licona's contribution to evangelical theology is being overshadowed by this silly and misguided controversy. More so, Licona has had negative professional repercussions as a result of all this. I hope that Mohler and Geisler will withdraw their mistaken attacks, apologize for their ill-founded criticisms, and respectfully agree to disagree with Licona with regard to the interpretation of this text.

UPDATE: Here's a link to Licona's response to Geisler entiteld "When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic, Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy." This paper was given at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.
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N.B. This is not to say that all criticism is out of line within the larger evangelical tent (or any tent, for that matter). It is simply to say that such criticism should be fair and charitable. One can be fair, charitable, and level strong criticism all at the same time. I've attempted to hold all of these qualities in balance in this post (and others), even as I'm arguing that the criticisms of Mohler and Geisler are unfair and ill-founded.

UPDATE: Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

Hope Is with Us

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on November 30, 2011.

I love Christmas! I love it for so many different reasons. I love singing my favorite Christmas carols in church every Sunday. I love all the special gatherings and events, the decorations, the meals, the giving, and everything else that goes with Christmas. I look forward to Christmas months before it ever arrives, and I'll bet some of you do, too.

I especially love Christmas because it marks a special season in the church year. That season is Advent, which is observed in churches around the world during the four weeks preceding Christmas. The word "advent" comes from a Latin word that means "to come." The time of preparation during the weeks preceding Christmas is about getting ready for the coming of Christ, not only as the babe born in Bethlehem but also as the king who will one day come to fulfill his kingdom of love, justice, and hope. One of the ways the Church observes advent is by lighting special candles, which are placed together in an Advent wreath. Each candle represents an Advent theme; the first candle represents hope. We lit the candle of hope this past Sunday, because hope is at the heart of everything Advent is about.

We learn about the extraordinary events surrounding the birth of Jesus in the opening chapters of Matthew's gospel, and one key element comes when we are told that Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, which means, "God with us." What a stunning statement: God is with us! The almighty creator who reigns in holiness and majesty is with us, and he comes to be with us through Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Matthew doesn't say it outright, but the entire narrative of Jesus' birth carries tones of hope. Hope has come because God has not abandoned us; indeed, he has come looking for us, not for what we can do for him, but because he simply wants to be with us. It's almost too good to be true.

The idea of God with us doesn't show up a lot in Matthew's gospel, but it does show up in two very important places. We've already looked at one of them in the first chapter of the gospel; the other comes at the very end. After being raised from the dead, and commissioning his followers to disciple the nations, Jesus declares, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Did you catch that? This idea of someone being "with us" bookends the whole gospel, except there is one significant change. God with us at the beginning of the gospel has become Jesus with us by the end. That is the good news of Christmas. In the person of Jesus Christ, the only God is personally and uniquely present with us. And because Jesus is with us, hope is with us.

My prayer for you this Advent season is that you will experience the presence of God in Christ in a unique and surprising way. I pray that your hope is renewed as you come to a deeper knowledge of the Christ child who is also the resurrected Lord of the cosmos and Savior of all who have faith in him. He is our hope, and he is with us. Thanks be to God.
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December 6, 2011

Advent Evangelism

It's Christmas time. So, I've been spending a fair bit of time reading the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. As I was taking a look at Luke's account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds near Bethlehem, something occurred to me that before had not. Take a look at Luke 2:17. After the sheep herders go to see the child spoken of by the angels, Luke says that "they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child." After they heard the good news about the birth of Jesus, and after they encountered him just as they had been told, their response was to begin spreading the news. They told others what they had heard and seen. I didn't expect to find the evangelistic imperative in the birth narratives, but the more I think about it, the more it makes a great deal of sense. Evangelism is at the heart of Advent. A couple of things in this text jump out at me.

First, the shepherds didn't mess with the message. They are said to have made known that which was said to them. They are courriers for the message, not the authors of the message. Likewise, when we engage in the ministry of evangelism, we are courriers of the message. We are not responsible for altering the gospel; we must simply share what we have heard. Indeed, if we were to alter the good news, it would no longer be the good news; it would be some other news. Like those shepherds, we must make known what we've heard.

Second, Luke reports that all who heard their message were filled with wondrous awe. This reminds us that Jesus is not boring. He comes into the world as the God-man on a rescue mission. He comes with good news for the poor and the marginalized. He comes to offer new life and abundant life. He comes to make new creation. He comes to make his blessing known. And if we are to be faithful, then we should tell the story in a way that evokes amazement, wonder, and awe. If we don't, we may not have the story straight.

The birth of Christ the Savior is good news. And we see in the shepherds that an appropriate response to receiving that news is to spread that news. We may not always think of it this way, but Advent should motivate among us a passionate evangelistic zeal that evokes a response of amazement from those who hear.

December 5, 2011

Did Paul Write Letters or Speeches?

The study of Paul's letters in light of classical rhetoric has gained a significant foothold in the larger field of New Testament studies. Nevertheless, the analysis of the Pauline letters on the basis of Greco-Roman rhetoric remains somewhat controversial and continues to be criticized in a variety of ways. One of those criticisms declares that classical rhetoric is a method for writing and evaluating ancient speeches, and, since Paul wrote letters, the suggestion that the canons of classical rhetoric should be used to analyze his writings is simply a category mistake, a barking up the wrong tree. Paul's letters should be studied as letters, it is said, not as speeches. This, of course, raises the question: What exactly did Paul write? Letters or speeches?

Several points should be made here. First, Paul's letters are remarkably dissimilar from typical letters in the ancient world. They don't look much like the other letters of his day. For example, Paul's letters tend to be a good bit longer than other epistles from the Greco-Roman world. This might suggest that while the documents that bear Paul's name were certainly addressed and delivered as letters, there may be something else going on as well.

Second, given this dissimilarity between Paul's writings and other letters of the period, there are limits to what can be done when his letters are analyzed on the basis of ancient epistolary convention. The beginnings and endings of Paul's writings can be compared to other ancient epistles, but little is to be gained beyond that.

Third, we know that Paul's writings were delivered to the various churches to be read aloud when the congregation assembled. Thus, when the original hearers first encountered the Pauline documents, they encountered them as speeches. When added to the evidence considered above, it is entirely plausible to suggest that Paul's writings are certainly much more than letters. They are really manuscripts of speeches made in the presence of the addressees, speeches that Paul might have made himself were he present with the assembled congregation.

If Paul's letters are indeed speech manuscripts, then the study of Paul's letters in light of Greco-Roman oratorical standards is warranted. The letters are persuasive documents that were read like speeches; we should study them as such. Despite the ongoing criticism from some quarters of Pauline studies, rhetorical criticism is worth the time and attention of students of the apostle. Given the many rhetorical studies of Paul available, the question remains: where do we go from here? 

December 1, 2011

I want to share my faith, but I'm not sure how

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on September 14, 2011.

It can be very difficult to talk to other people about our faith in Jesus. There are a variety of reasons for this. We know something happened to us when we came to believe in him, but we're not quite sure how to describe it. We may really want to share our faith, but the thought of it scares us to death. Life is so busy. We work; we have family; we have things that must be done. And, after all, how often do we run into people that don't have some church or religious affiliation? I can come up with excuses to avoid sharing my faith all day long, and I bet you can too. And, as a result of those excuses, there was a time in my life when I rarely had evangelistic conversations with people. Here are a few simple ideas that have helped me become increasingly faithful in sharing my faith.

The first one is this: think about what you might say ahead of time. Take some time to sit down and write out your testimony on paper. Think through it. What changed about your life after you came into a new and living relationship with Jesus Christ? Write these things down and commit them to memory. When you come to the point of your conversion, be sure to explain what it means that Christ died for your sins. This is the key element where God promises his power will show up in your story. It is also helpful to memorize a some key passages of scripture. John 3:16-18 and Romans 10:9 are clear and concise summaries of what God wants to do in the lives of every person that he has made.

Another idea is to think of a few people that may not have a church or may not know Christ, and begin to pray for them, asking God to provide an opportunity for you to talk to them about faith in Jesus. Sometimes we overlook those who are nearest to us. So take some time to simply think through some people you already know, and look for opportunities to talk to them about the gospel.

The last thing is intentionality. What do I mean by that? To borrow the slogan of a well-known athletic clothing manufacturer, just do it. This is really the big one for me. When I realize it's been far too long since I've talked to someone about Jesus, then I just have to make myself get out and go talk to people. I've discovered that it's really quite fun. I've met all sorts of interesting people and have had some great conversations about Jesus. And let me tell you, there is little in life more exciting than being there when someone meets Jesus for the first time. The Bible says that the angels rejoice when that happens; you will too.

At the end of the day, sharing the good news with people is really just a matter of following Jesus. He is the one who told his followers to teach the nations to obey everything he commanded. And helping people find faith in Christ is the first step in learning to obey him. My prayer is that these reflections will help you to become an increasingly faithful follower of Christ as you share with others what he has done for you.
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November 30, 2011

UPDATE: Pelagius Redivivus

Should Pelagius, a fourth century heretic, be reinstated and his positive contribution to Christian theology be acknowledged? This was the proposal in a resolution of Rev. Benno D. Pattison in a resolution submitted to the the 105th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. I reported on the proposal prior to the vote, and a commenter on that original post was kind enough to inform us of the Council's decision.

The measure to reinstate Pelagius was rejected, as reported in a summary of the actions taken at the Council meeting. I am glad to see that the members of the 105th Council did not adopt this resolution. They likely understand that it would bear virtually no real ecclesiastical weight. The teachings of Pelagius are widely regarded as error, and no declaration of a single diocese in a single denomination is going to have much effect on the position of the world Christian community. Indeed, the move would likely only further distance the Episcopal Church from worldwide historic Christianity.

It is worth noting that many ecclesial polities allow for any sort of legislative petitions or resolutions to be submitted for a vote by the ecclesial body. Unusual and eccentric items can easily come before the larger voting body; it would seem that this was one of those times. We can be grateful that the 105th Council exercised wisdom in rejecting this peculiar resolution.

November 10, 2011

Come What May

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 31, 2011.

Life is full of transitions. Whether it's a different job, a new marriage, the loss of a loved-one, a move to a new community, a new baby, or the move of a grown child out into the world for the first time, we all go through transitions, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Transitions sometimes bring grief, and sometimes they bring joy. They often bring new challenges even in the midst of excitement. Given the certainty of seasons of transition, the question for all of us is this: how will we navigate the changes that are a natural part of life? Several things come to mind.

First, we simply need to recognize that new seasons of life will come. Growth and change are natural parts of life. The scenery will change as we travel this journey. Transitions are often the most difficult when they are unexpected. So, when new things come, if we've learned to expect surprises, then they can be a little easier to navigate. We may not know what the specifics are, and it will never be the case that everything just works out nice and neatly, but if we expect changes to come in life, we'll be more prepared for them.

Second, it's important to remember that God is always at work to draw us ever closer in relationship to him. And transitions in life can be a big part of that. When things are least certain, when we are unprepared for what will happen next, these are some of the times in life that God is able to do some of his greatest works. It's easier for us to look to God in challenging times. And God uses those times to draw us into a deeper relationship.

I find it helpful to remember that, come what may, God is always busy about his work of making all things new, and the day is coming when God will remove the veil from his grand masterpiece of new creation and we will dwell in the new heavens and the new earth. In the meantime, we are on a journey forward. Will we be able to see what God is doing to make us into new creatures as we find our way forward through the challenges that are a part of life?
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Image: anankkml/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

November 4, 2011

Knowledge & Life after Death: The Surprising Epistemology of Shane Hipps

It seems the hoopla over Rob Bell's last book just won't go away (to the joy of the folks at HarperOne, I am sure), and more has been said from both sides than I have time (or, for that matter, care) to read. But one item that came across my desk this week struck me as quite interesting and somewhat peculiar considering the source.

The folks at ChurchLeaders.com are hosting some interchange between Shane Hipps, successor to Rob Bell as teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church, and Francis Chan, who wrote a book in response to Bell. With this post, I'd like to respond to some of what Shane Hipps' said, especially with regard to how knowledge is to be had.

Let me say up front that this is not a post about hell, Rob Bell, or universalism. It is a post about logic, consistency, and epistemology (the discipline that studies how we know things). Those matters are significant, because if we are to say anything at all, especially in print and not least with regard to important and sometimes controverted issues, then we must speak with clarity, consistency, and wisdom.

Let me say up front that I appreciate much of what Shane Hipps has written. I certainly disagree with him on some things, but I do so with gratefulness for much of what he has said. He has thought more and more deeply about the relationship between changing media forms and the Church than most, and his work in that area has had significant impact on my own understanding of those issues. So, even though I write today with some concerns about Hipps' epistemology, I aim to do so with charity acknowledging that much of his work has had a weighty effect on my own thought and is valuable for the Church.

That said, let's turn to the issues at hand. In his essay at ChurchLeaders.com, Hipps said this:
As a Christian who believes in the Bible and Jesus, I have found the intensity and certainty of the debate all very bizarre. It’s strange that so much passion and ink has been spilled over something that is all speculation.
Here’s what I mean: If you died, took pictures, and came back to life again, then you would know with certainty what happens after death. Of course, you would only know what happens to you, not everyone else. But if you haven’t died, you can only speculate about what happens to you and everyone else.
Hipps here reveals what he believes is necessary to have certain knowledge about something (or, at least, life after death). That is, he reveals something about his epistemology, and what he reveals is striking to me given other things that he will say later in the post. For Hipps, it would seem that certain knowledge needs (1) personal experience and (2) verifiable evidence. With regard to life after death, to be able to speak with certainty, one would need to die and come back to life (personal experience) and have pictures (verifiable evidence). And even with these two things, you can only speak with certain knowledge about your own experience and not that of others. No one presently available to us has either personal experience of life after death or pictures; thus, we are right to be skeptical of their speculations.

The reason all this strikes me as peculiar is because Hipps identifies himself as one empathetic to the postmodern ethos (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, 17), but his comments above on knowledge come across as deeply modernistic. Modern epistemology demanded verifiable empirical evidence as the only source for true and certain knowledge. And if such evidence could not be produced, the only other option was doubt and skepticism, because, after all, if it's not verifiable, it's just speculation, fantasy, a waste of our time.

The problem with modernist epistemology was that it was driven by a presupposition that ruled some answers out of court before the questions were even asked. This is precisely why many modernists rejected the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. "We know things like resurrection don't actually happen," says the champion of modernism, "no one available to us has ever experienced or witnessed such a thing. And we certainly can't verify such claims. Thus, they are not to be considered available to be known." The modernist presupposition rules out the possibility of something like resurrection before the question is even raised.

Hipps here falls prey to the same critique. He has specific presuppositions about how something can be known with certainty, namely through personal experience and verifiable evidence. And his presuppositions about how things are known rule out all sorts of answers (indeed, even all answers) when the question of life after death is raised. From the perspective of Hipps' epistemology, there is no reason to even ask such questions, because we can't know anything about that; it's all speculation. Is it fair to rule out some answers before the question is ever asked?  One reason that modernism failed is that it did precisely that.

Another issue that comes up is whether Hipps' criteria for knowledge meet their own standard for knowledge. That is, can we experience and verify that experience and verifiability are indeed the basis and criteria for certain knowledge? Hipps says that to have certain knowledge we need personal experience and verifiable evidence. But how do we know that he is right? Let's apply his own criteria for certain knowledge to his criteria for certain knowledge. Does anyone have an experience to show us that experience and verifiability are necessary for knowledge? Is there some data somewhere that we can verify in order that we may know that these criteria are indeed the standard for how you know things? What if there is some other way of knowing? Have tests been done to rule out other possibilities for how things can be known? Does anyone have pictures?

The reality is that there are plenty of theories of knowledge out there that do not take Hipps' criteria as the exclusive standard for knowledge. Perhaps things can be known in other ways. Perhaps there are other kinds of evidence, legal or historical. Perhaps we can know things because they are revealed by a trustworthy source. If so, it is not the case that experience and verifiability are the only means by which a thing may be known.

The last concern I'll raise here is this. At least one other affirmation that Hipps makes in the very same post does not stand up to his criteria for knowledge. He says:
Now having said this, I’m only aware of one person who died, and I mean really died, like three days dead, and came back to life again. His name was Jesus. Upon his return from the dead, he didn’t believe anymore; now he knew.
Hipps emphatically affirms that the very dead Jesus of Nazareth was raised again to life. Whether Hipps would say he has certain knowledge of this, I don't know, but he certainly doesn't seem to put the resurrection of Jesus in the category of speculation. He affirms it emphatically. The problem for Hipps is that the resurrection of Jesus does not meet his criteria for knowledge. No one alive has a credible experience of meeting the embodied Jesus and there is no verifiable evidence (like a photograph) that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. So, according to Hipps' own epistemology, we can only speculate about the resurrection of Jesus. Nothing can be said of it with certainty or definiteness. The inconsistent thing is that Hipps affirms definitely and emphatically that Jesus was raised from the dead, even though his epistemology says such a thing cannot be known. And in public discourse and debate inconsistency is a problem; unless, of course (and with a tip of my hat to my college logic prof), you are not worried about little things like consistency.

At the end of the day, Hipps here falls prey to the postmodern critique of modern epistemology. I would have thought that Hipps would recognize this, and I would have expected to find him on the other side of the modern/post-modern debate. Perhaps I've simply not read enough of his work, but given his affinity for postmodernism, his epistemology surprises me.

November 3, 2011

Abundant Life

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 24, 2011.

I enjoy watching my children do new things. Naomi and I recently took the kids off for a short weekend get-away, and we made sure they got to have some new and fun experiences. Our son enjoyed attending his first major league baseball game. He had a great time learning the chants, clapping his hands, and cheering for the home team. I loved getting to watch him take joy in it. We also took him to an aquarium where he could see all sorts of fish and other sea life. He especially liked seeing the big whales. It's a great deal of fun for him to get to do things like that, but I think it's even more fun for me to watch him enjoy life and experience it in a full and abundant way.

My experience as a parent has been a big part of my ongoing theological education. So many different aspects of my relationships with my children have led me to think more carefully about the way my own Heavenly Father desires to relate to me. And when I get to watch my children enjoy life, it reminds me that God wants to see me enjoy life also, and that he has gone out of his way to make that possible.

So much about the Christian faith continues to amaze me. One of those amazing things is the picture of God as one who seeks us. God is a seeking God. Even when we were far away and estranged God sought us out to initiate a new kind of relationship with us. This is the mystery and the beauty of the incarnation, which is that event in which the God who called all things into existence took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, in order to be with us so that he could enjoy us and we could enjoy him.

God knows that we can only enjoy his best for our lives when we are in a life-giving relationship with him through Jesus Christ. In order to make that possible, he came to us when we could not come to him. That is a big deal. So, the next time you are enjoying time with the people you love, I hope that you are reminded just how much God loves you and longs to enjoy you and share his abundance with you. And I hope you receive that abundance.
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Image: Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitialPhotos.net

November 2, 2011

Free Grace

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 17, 2011.

Many of our relationships operate on a give and take basis. We give something; we expect something in return. I scratch your back; you scratch mine. We go into relationships expecting to get something for what we put in, a return on our investment. This kind of expectation permeates our professional, recreational, and religious lives. Such expectations even find their way into our marriages. This is not new to our culture. This attitude of expectation has been present for centuries. We often come into relationships with a natural give-and-take mentality. What can this person do for me? Perhaps there are a few exceptions. Sometimes we will see a marriage or a friendship in which there is virtually no thought for the self. But I suspect if we could examine hearts, such a find would be rare. All too often, we accept or reject people, whether explicitly or more subtly, based on how well they live up to our expectations. It comes to us naturally.

All this leads me to think that many of us believe we can approach God in a similar way. I know at least that I have. We think we can do something for him that will make him want to do something for us. We think: if we only go to church more often, God will be more pleased. If we put a little something in the plate, maybe God will answer our prayers. If we live the right kind of life, God will favor us and save us. That's how we relate to others. Why would we think our relationship with God should be any different?

But it is different. What do we have that God needs? What could I possibly bring to God that he just can't do without? Nothing! There's nothing that I have that God needs. He is fully sufficient in himself. I can do nothing to put him in my debt or to make him favor me. God doesn't bargain, barter, or negotiate. There's no give-a-little and get-a-little. God doesn't want his back scratched.

God doesn't relate to us like that, and I'm sure glad that he doesn't. If my relationship with God depended on what I could do for him from day to day, then I would be a wreck. If God's attitude towards me depended on how well I performed, then life would be a constant worry of whether or not I had performed well enough, whether I had lived up to his expectations. I am deeply thankful that God relates to me differently from the way other relationships often go.

But if God relates to us differently, what is the difference? The God revealed in Jesus Christ offers himself to us as pure gift. He desires to relate to us not for what we can do for him but simply because he is kind. He longs to bestow his extravagant mercy on us. He is eager to extend the generosity of his grace. He doesn't want to bargain; indeed, he will not bargain. He doesn't want us for what we can do; he wants us simply because we are.

I don't know where you stand with God, but I'm guessing there's at least one person out there who has been trying to wheel-and-deal with God, and it's killing you. My hope and prayer for you this week is that you will be able to feel the warmth of God's free grace, given without a bargain and just because he loves you. It might even change the way you related to other people.
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November 1, 2011

Purgatory Now?

Purgatory is one of those interesting theological ideas that Protestants and Catholics wrangle over, not least because it carries rather significant implications for one's understanding of the work of Christ and salvation. Have our departed brothers and sisters in the faith entered into a time of suffering during which they are prepared for entrance into the presence of God? Or do they enter immediately into paradise made fit for the presence of the Holy One by the blood and righteousness of Christ alone? And what will happen to us? Where will we be found after our deaths? Well, in honor of All Saints' Day and the hope that is before us, here's provocative quote from N. T. Wright's little book, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed:
In fact, Paul makes it clear here (Rom 8) and elsewhere that it's the present life that is meant to function as purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some post-mortem state, are the valley we have to pass through in order to reach the glorious future. The present life is bad enough from time to time, goodness knows, without imagining gloom and doom after death as well. In fact, I think I know why purgatory became so popular, why Dante's middle volume is the one people most easily relate to. The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection, from the present on to the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story. It is where we are now. If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus as Lord, if we are baptized members of his body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings which form the gateway to life. Of course, this means that for millions of our theological and spiritual ancestors death will have brought a pleasant surprise. They had been gearing themselves up for a long struggle ahead, only to find it was already over (34-35, italics original).

Purgatory now? Much could be said. What do you think about that? 

October 31, 2011

The Role of Experience in the Life of the Christian

The people called Methodists have always recognized the importance of experience in the Christian life. It is the common privilege of the children of God to personally and authentically appropriate the loving forgiveness of God in Christ and the redemptive embrace of God's own Holy Spirit. The authentic experience of being rightly related to God brings the truth of God revealed in scripture to life in each of us. At our best, we Methodists have understood this and made it a priority in our preaching and teaching.

As with many things, we must exercise caution to avoid allowing experience to do more than it was ever intended. Unfortunately, experience is sometimes granted ultimate authority over reason, tradition, and, at times, even scripture. We are tempted to think that if something feels right, then it must be right. We Methodists are reminded, though, that we must "interpret experience in light of scriptural norms" (2008 Book of Discipline, para. 104). Experience is not always a reliable guide, and it is an ongoing necessity to discern between personal preference and the genuine experience of being led by the Spirit. This is why the scriptures must be the norm. When experience and the Bible contradict, experience must surrender to scripture. The Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures will never lead anyone in a manner that contradicts those scriptures.

Experience is not an authority above or even on par with the Bible; rather, experience functions to make the truth of scripture a real factor in our lives as disciples of Christ. Experience is that authentic knowledge that God affirms our faith and obedience. It is Wesley's warm heart. It is the feeling of forgiveness and the assurance of God's love for us. Experience is not to be granted authority to contradict or trump the Bible; rather, it is the conviction of the Spirit when we stray from truth. An authentic experience of God's love and grace are essential to the Christian life, but like every aspect of life, experience needs to be conformed to the image of God in Christ as revealed in the scriptures.
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October 26, 2011

Pelagius Redivivus

As hard as I tried, I was unable to resist the temptation to write about this. It would seem that the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta hasn't much important to do given their intent to vote on the reinstatement of the 5th century heretic Pelagius at the upcoming 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta which meets November 4-5, the last such meeting to be presided over by Bishop Neil Alexander.

The move to reinstate Pelagius is being led by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta. You can read all about it in this article at Virtue Online, which summarizes Pattison's motivation:
According to Pattison, the historical record of Pelagius's contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire and their ecclesiastical dominance. "An understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition."
The article also cites the disdain of retired Bishop C. FitzSimmons Allison:
As one considers the theologically inept accommodation to the secular world there should be no surprise that Pelagian doctrine of the will's freedom without grace would be dug up again. A world losing its trust in God will compulsively trust in the human will to obey if it is sufficiently rebuked, exhorted, threatened and scolded. No wonder Richard Hooker and St. Augustine called it a 'cruel doctrine'.
There are so many things that could and should be said about this. And while I'm tempted to spell out precisely what I think, I suspect you already know. Try to imagine my red-bearded chin dropping with incredulity and then shaking, back and forth, praying this is someone's idea of a little good-hearted ecclesiastial prankish fun. Yes, at any moment someone will pop out from hiding with a camera that has recorded the look of shock still on my face and tell me that this whole thing was cooked up to add a little humor to my day, and then we'll share a hearty laugh and talk about how silly such a proposal would be. I'm waiting.

October 24, 2011

Theory or History? The Difference is Important

It has become common in theological circles for historic doctrines related to the work of Christ to be described as "theories." Different aspects of the atonement have been commonly referred to in terms of models or theories for some time (e.g. penal substitution, Christus victor). Now, especially it seems since the release of Douglas Campbell's latest book, justification is being increasingly discussed in terms of "justification theory."

It's one thing for this to be the language of professional academic guilds, but I hope this language doesn't work it's way into the Church. Why? Well, I'm glad you asked. It's important because atonement and justification have to do with how we come into a right relationship with God. And from a pastoral perspective, I don't want to leave that up to theory.

Paul wrote of sinners that, "they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith" (Romans 3:24-25). And whatever that means, it is no mere theory. It is history; it is simply what happened. How do we gain access to God? Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. How are we justified? By his grace as a gift. These are not theories for Paul. They are theological truths grounded in the historic event of Christ's death and resurrection. I don't want my relationship to God through Christ dependant on someones theory; I want it dependent on something that Jesus actually did.

The language of theory grants competing interpretations of atonement and justification some level of mutual credibility. The problem is that not all competing interpretations are credible. Not all are to be believed. Did Jesus propitiate the wrath of God or didn't he? Does God justify sinners or doesn't he? And the matter of whether and how he does that is not simply a matter of theory; it is an issue of what actually happened. It is a matter of what transpired on the cross, of what happens when a person believes the gospel. We must do the hard work of understanding what scripture means when it speaks of what Jesus actually did and what actually happens to us. Theories are of limited help; history is the key thing. There is a difference, and the difference may very well bear eternal significance.
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October 19, 2011

Context Counts: Conflict Resolution in Philippians

Philippians 4:4 is a well-known verse: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." It's brief. It's happy. It is easily recalled. There's even a song about it that we all learned as children. And that's good. It's a worthy exhortation to be committed to memory.

But in Philippians this command to rejoice in the Lord does not come without context. There was a problem in the church in Philippi. There was some element of divisiveness. To what extent, we are not sure. But we can be certain that Paul felt it important enough to publicly call out the two parties at the heart of the disunity: Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).

Paul's exhortation to rejoice comes on the heels of his call for the Philippians to resolve their differences and maintain the unity of the church, and in many translations it is marked by the beginning of a new paragraph. I wonder whether this is helpful. It gives the impression that Paul is moving on to some other topic. It seems to signal that he is finished with the call to unity and is moving on to more general instructions about rejoicing, gentleness, and gratitude (4:4-7).

But what if that's not what is happening at all? It is worth remembering that the original manuscripts did not contain paragraph breaks. So, in the original text, Paul's instruction to pursue and maintain peace was immediately followed by his command to rejoice. What if the commands to rejoice, be gentle, not worry, pray, and be grateful were really intended as keys to resolving the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche? If that's the case, verse 4 is probably not the best place to begin a new paragraph.

Context matters here. Paul doesn't command unity and then leave the Philippians to figure out how to implement it. If the Philippians were focused on rejoicing in the Lord, they are less likely to be antagonistic towards one another. If they are acting with gentleness, it will counteract the easily enacted harshness that comes with conflict. Recognizing the presence of the Lord should lead them to think twice about their bickering.

So, while the verse with the double command to rejoice is commendable as a memory verse, we would do well to remember it's original context and original application. Rejoicing in the Lord is at the heart of maintaining the unity of the local church.
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Image: Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

October 18, 2011

The Homiletic Task

The task of the preacher is to proclaim the glory of the triune God, revealed in the cross of Christ and experienced in the communion of the Spirit, such that the Church gains an ever-enlarging vision of the trustworthiness of God, in order to foster a constant increase of confidence among the people of God, which results in obedience that transforms the world and fills the earth with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.


October 17, 2011

Embracing Eschatology

J. R. Daniel Kirk posted recently on the importance of embracing the biblical vision of the future; his exhortation: Don't give up on eschatology. He writes:
With great confidence (and financial expenditure), May 21, 2011 is declared to be the day of Jesus’ return. Or the rapture. Or whatever.
But, of course, it wasn’t.
Neither was 1994 or 1982.
When the obsession with eschatology (ideas about “the end”) produces such crazy results, it’s tempting to leave eschatology aside altogether. Let the obsessed have their little obsession while the rest of us get on with the business of real life, and real faith.
But it would be a mistake to give up on eschatology altogether.
Kirk is addressing this post to many who have simply given up on eschatology because of being overwhelmed and exasperated by some of the unusual and unbiblical eschatological constructs out there. The post struck me because it resonates with my own experience. There was a time in my own theological journey when I, like many, simply avoided eschatology. There was too much; it was too confusing; too fearful.

I soon realized, though, that a pastor who avoids eschatology won't have much to say to the Church about our certain hope, and I finally gave myself to the study of the biblical vision of the future. What I discovered was deeply satisfying and mysteriously wonderful. I soon learned that God's plan for his world was not one of doom, gloom, and destruction but hope, joy, and redemption. Eschatology was not a fearful thing; it was the glorious reality of Christ's promise to come and restore all that has been tainted or damaged by sin. I fell in love with biblical eschatology, and it has even become a significant portion of my own research in New Testament. Kirk's post is much needed and right on target.

Read the rest here.
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Image: Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

October 14, 2011

What About Justification?

After reading this recent post, someone may wonder, "If 'the righteousness of God' in Romans 3:21-22 is God's own righteousness and not the righteous status granted to believers in justification, then what about justification by faith?" If we take "the righteousness of God" to be an attribute of God rather than God's justification of sinners, have we lost justification? The certain answer is that we have not. Μὴ γένοιτο.

We don't lose justification because the doctrine is clearly taught in the very same paragraph that we have been considering. Paul says that sinners who believe in Jesus are justified by God's grace as a gift (Romans 3:24). And it is because of God's own righteous character that he grants justification to sinners as a gift of grace through faith in Christ. Even if we take the controverted πίστεως᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ (3:22) to be "the faithfulness of Christ" rather than "faith in Christ", we do not lose justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Paul is clear that God's action to justify, which is the fruit of his own righteous character, comes by his grace as a gift (3:24a) in Christ Jesus (3:24b) through faith (3:25). It's right there.

So, in taking "the righteousness of God" to be a description of the divine attribute of righteousness, we haven't tossed justification by faith out the window. It's a both/and rather than an either/or. I would even venture to say that a more robust doctrine of justification emerges that is exegetically grounded in God's eternally consistent righteous character.

October 13, 2011

What is the Righteousness of God?

One of the ongoing debates in New Testament studies is the question of what is meant by the phrase "the righteousness of God" (Gk. δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ). At the center of the debate is Romans 3:21-22, where the phrase in question appears twice. The Greek phrase can be nuanced this way and that, but the two major options for "the righteousness of God" are (1) the righteous status that God grants to believers or (2) God's own attribute or quality of righteousness. With the first option, δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ would be translated along the lines of "a righteousness from God" (NIV); with the second, it would be "the righteousness of God" (NRSV) or "God's righteousness." I've wrestled with the evidence for each interpretive option for several years now, often having difficulty settling on one or the other. I now find myself settling into the view that "the righteousness of God" in Romans 3:21-22 refers to God's own attribute or quality of righteousness, and I intend to use this post (and likely a few following posts) to highlight a few of the exegetical matters that have led me to hold this particular view of the righteousness of God (for now, at least).

A key determinant in translating δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ ("the righteousness of God") is the flow of the argument in the whole of Romans 3. Romans 3 begins with a question: what advantage has the Jew? This question follows logically from the previous material in that Paul has just finished indicting his fellow Jews right alongside the non-Jewish nations arguing that they properly and justly stand under the condemnation of God. So, if the Paul's Jewish kinsmen are justly condemned along with the Gentiles, then the question is natural: what's so special about being a Jew?

Paul's answer is that the Jews are special in that they were made stewards of God's self-revelation (3:2). The problem is that they did not faithfully steward that with which they were entrusted. They did not proclaim the name of God to the nations. This raises the question as to God's own faithfulness. God has promised to bless all the nations of the world through Israel; yet if God is to be just, he must condemn Israel for her lawlessness. So, God finds himself in a catch-22: how will God be faithful to keep his promise to bless the world through Israel and still act in righteousness in condemning Israel for her unfaithfulness? What is God to do?

All this is to make the point that the central question of Romans 3 is whether or not God will act according to his righteousness. Paul asserts that God must be proved true, justified in his words, and prevail in his judging (3:4). But how exactly is he going to do that when the law silences the mouths of all and makes the whole world, Jew and Gentile, accountable to God?

If the question of Romans 3 is how God will be found righteous when he must both bless the world through Israel and simultaneously condemn Israel, then the answer to that question comes in Romans 3:21-26. God reveals his own righteousness (δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ) through Jesus. Jesus is both the faithful Israelite through whom the world will be blessed and the one who propitiates (ἱλαστήριον, 3:25) the just wrath of God that condemns sin. He does all this to demonstrate his own righteousness (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:25) and to prove that he himself is righteous (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:26) by showing himself to be both just (or righteous), in that he condemns sin, and justifier (or the one who makes righteous), in that he blesses the world through Jesus, the faithful Jew.

So, what is the righteousness of God? In Romans 3 it is that attribute whereby God always does what he ought to do. He always does what is right. He keeps his promise to Abraham to bless the world through Abraham's descendant. He maintains his justice by condemning sin. And he does all this so that he may be justified in his words and prevail in his judging. He does it to reveal his own perfect righteous character. That's the righteousness of God.

October 11, 2011

Is There a Carefully Reasoned Christian Critique of Capital Punishment? A Response to Mark Tooley

America's debate over the death penalty was reignited recently with the execution of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia. The case itself was swamped in controversy and religious leaders on both sides of the issue spoke out with regard to the Davis case in particular and to the validity of capital punishment in general.

Mark Tooley
Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and a United Methodist layman, wrote an article summarizing some of the religious debate surrounding Davis' execution that appeared on the websites both of the IRD and American Spectator. Tooley's summary featured especially the commentary of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who argued strongly in favor of capital punishment saying, "The death penalty is intended to affirm the value [and] sanctity of every single human life, and thus by the extremity of the penalty to make that visible and apparent to all." After quoting Mohler extensively, Tooley went on to cite a few contrasting examples of Protestant denominations, including our own United Methodist Church, that are opposed to capital punishment, though he gave little to no attention to the rationale behind such opposition. He rounded off the article by pointing out that, while the Roman Catholic Church is often popularly portrayed as being opposed to the death penalty, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles has "insisted that Roman Catholicism has 'never advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.'" Mr. Tooley concluded his essay with this peculiar statement: "Absent a few voices like Mohler's, such careful reasoning rooted in Christian tradition is mostly absent in today's religious debates over the death penalty and likely will remain so."

This statement is peculiar because it ignores those thoughtful and carefully reasoned Christian voices that have argued against the death penalty on the basis of Christian scripture. One need not look long to find the work of the late John Howard Yoder, who was Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. A number of Professor Yoder's previously unpublished writings critiquing the death penalty have been made available just last month under the title The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder (edited by John C. Nugent). Among his other published work against the death penalty is Yoder's contribution to The Death Penalty Debate (Issues of Christian Conscience Series), which includes an annotated bibliography pointing the interested reader to many more thoughtful perspectives on both sides of the issue. One might disagree with Yoder, but one cannot disagree with the reality that his arguments are not only carefully reasoned but grounded in Christian scripture and tradition.

Mr. Tooley unfortunately paints a misleading picture of the capital punishment debate. He appears to prefer bestowing the liberal label upon those who disagree with him rather than respectfully pointing to and interacting with those thoughtful, detailed, and articulate Christian advocates of the position contrary to his own. If Mr. Tooley is unaware of these voices, then his qualifications to speak to the issue are in question; if he does know of them, then his seeming suggestion that the only thoughtful position is that which favors capital punishment is not only erroneous, it is deceptive. And the quickly locatable volumes of literature on both sides of this issue easily bear the weight of my assertion. Sadly, Mr. Tooley's refusal to engage seriously with dissenting voices within his own Christian tradition undermine the credibility of his writing and leave it with the odor of propaganda. Indeed, one is left with the impression that Mr. Tooley has forgotten to make use of the "careful reasoning" he claims to value. 

With issues as serious as capital punishment, mere name-calling  and propaganda simply will not do. When human life is on the line, we are obliged to responsibly and carefully weigh all of the arguments on both sides of the issue. Perhaps, in the future, Mr. Tooley and the Institute on Religion and Democracy will find it possible to contribute to that responsibility rather than merely distracting us from it.

October 5, 2011

A Contemporary Account of Christian Perfection

John Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection is not only his most significant contribution to Christian theology but, perhaps, his most misunderstood as well. Wesley had a very specific understanding of Christian perfection (or entire sanctification) that is oft maligned and is, unfortunately, seldom given serious interaction. As a result, the doctrine has been forgotten by many, not least the people called Methodists. This somber state of affairs is even more grave since the mission of the Methodists, when first we came to the Americas, was to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

The doctrine of Christian perfection needs to be recaptured and restated today. And a recent, if unexpected restatement of some core elements of Wesley's thought can be found in Francis Chan's Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. The suggestion that Chan has given us a contemporary account of Christian perfection may come as a surprise to many, not least Chan himself. Nevertheless, Chan's book reflects a number of elements central to Wesley's own thought. A few quotes will illustrate:
"Are you willing to say to God that He can have whatever He wants? Do you believe that wholehearted commitment to Him is more important than any other thing or person in your life? Do you know that nothing you do in this life will ever matter, unless it is about loving God and loving the people He has made?" (97, italics original).
"When we love, we're free! We don't have to worry about a burdensome load of commands, because when we are loving, we can't sin" (102, italics added).
"In the same way, you have to stop loving and pursuing Christ in order to sin. When you are pursuing love, running toward Christ, you do not have opportunity to wonder, Am I doing this right? or Did I serve enough this week? When you are running toward Christ, you are freed up to serve, love, and give thanks without guilt, worry, or fear. As long as you are running, you are safe" (104, italics original).
Compare Wesley's own comments from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection in answer to the question: what is Christian Perfection?
"The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love" (19).
He later says:
"Scripture perfection is, pure love filling the heart, and governing all the words and actions...Pure love reigning alone in the heart and life, - this is the whole of Scriptural perfection" (19).
For both Chan and Wesley the result of a heart full of love for God and others means freedom from sin. I'm sure these two men would nuance the doctrine in different and various ways, but the essence of Wesley's understanding of entire sanctification is present in Chan's work. Francis Chan has blessed the Church with a contemporary account of Christian perfection, and if Wesley were alive to restate his views on Christian perfection to today's world, it would look a lot like Crazy Love. Christian perfection is crazy love.

October 3, 2011

A Novel Idea?

From the opening chapter of Tom Oden's book, After Modernity...What? Agenda for Theology:
What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be "fresh" or "self-expressive" or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some decisive improvement" on the apostolic teaching."
Yet from the first day I ever thought of becoming a theologian I have been earnestly taught and admonished to "think creatively" so as to make "some new contribution" to theology. Nothing at Yale was drummed into my head more firmly than that the theology I would seek would be my own, and my uniqueness would imprint it. So you can imagine that it took no small effort on my part to resist the repeated reinforcements of my best education in order to overcome the constant temptation to novelty. And you can understand how relieved I was to see such an intriguing epitaph prefigured in a dream, one that at last seems to be coming true on these pages - "to make no new contribution to theology" - Laus Deo (22).
It would seem, according to Oden, that the thing most needed by present-day theological studies is a revival of interest in the ancient and historic teaching of the Christian faith. Oden is certainly right that the task of passing on what has been handed down goes against the grain of contemporary theological studies where every graduate student is charged with making an "original contribution to knowledge" in his or her specialized discipline. My question is this: is there any wisdom for the practice of ministry in this statement from Oden? Where is the balance between finding new and effective ways to reach new people and ensuring the preservation of what we have received?