August 26, 2011

An Unfalsifiable Prediction does not a Prophet Make: Pat Robertson, the Signs of the Times, and the DC Quake

Whenever I begin to think we might have finally learned our lesson with the whole bet-I-can-predict-the-end-of-the-world bit, someone comes along and proves me wrong. After the triply-failed prediction of Harold Camping, you would think people might just get out of the prediction business. Guess not. 

Earlier this week, Pat Robertson made the statement that the recent Washington DC earthquake "means that we're closer to the coming of the Lord." He went on to say:
“It seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power. It has been the symbol of our great nation. We look at the symbol and we say ‘this is one nation under God.’ Now there’s a crack in it... Is that sign from the Lord? ... You judge. It seems to me symbolic.”
Three things: First, Robertson's statement that we are closer to the coming of the Lord is true regardless of whether or not there was an earthquake in DC. Every day that passes puts us one day closer to the coming of the Lord, whether that day is one week from now, one year, or ten thousand years. The earthquake in DC has no precise link to the timing of Jesus' coming again. If the quake had not happened, it would have had no effect on the date of his return. Sometimes, on people's birthdays, I like to say: "Well, you're older than you've ever been." I get a kick out of it, because, while it seems like an appropriate thing to say, the fact that it's their birthday doesn't really have anything to do with the fact that they are older than they've ever been. That's true all the time. We're closer to the second coming of Jesus is true all the time also, earthquake or not. I will say that Robertson has learned a lesson that Harold Camping apparently never did. That is, vague and unverifiable predictions can't be used against you by the media when they don't come true. Nevertheless, an unfalsifiable prediction does not a prophet make.

Second, it seems to me that we easily see symbols where we want to see them. Are there cracks in the pavement outside the capitol building? Does that mean that the nation's power is crumbling before our eyes? You be the judge!  The crack in the monument may perhaps function as a somber parable reminding us that we are not invincible, but it seems a far stretch to me that it is a sign of our coming doom and the Lord's return. Are there not many other much more clear signs warning us to change our ways? An unsustainable economy that values the radical consumption of goods, perhaps?

Third, these sorts of predictions often come from very, very, very unhelpful readings of texts like Matthew 24. I have neither the time nor the inclination to get into a full-blown discussion of this text right now; I will say that Matthew 24 is apocalyptic literature, and apocalyptic literature should never be read as if it were the newspaper. And if Matthew 24 is all about something that is coming in our future, then why did Jesus tell his original hearers not to waste time going back for their jackets (Matt 24:18)?

August 24, 2011

New Column: Finding Faith

"Finding Faith" is my (mostly) weekly column in the Union Springs Herald. I write about life, faith, hope, grace, and whatever else may be storming around my brain. I am archiving the columns on a new page here at Incarnatio and tagging them with the name of the column. Here's the first one from a couple of weeks ago.

That's What Faith Looks Like

Faith is a buzzword in our culture. From political campaigns to professional sports, we hear about faith in a variety of venues. But what is faith? And what does it mean to have faith?

It's easy for me to mistakenly think of faith as simply a matter of agreeing with a certain set of beliefs. But faith is not mere intellectual assent to a proposition, though there are certainly specific beliefs that define different religious traditions. Faith is much more than that, though. For the Christian, faith is a matter of trust. Faith is trusting Jesus to do for me that which I am unable to do for myself. It is a matter of confidence in Christ for forgiveness and salvation.

One morning not too long ago, I walked into my toddler son's room to find him on the changing table with my wife tending to him at his side. When he saw me coming toward him, his eyes lit up, and he gave me the kind of look that warms a daddy's heart. In an instant, he was standing and leapt from the changing table into my arms.

I spent some time that morning reflecting on that moment, and it occurred to me that in that instant my son did not question whether his father would catch him. He did not pause to consider whether or not I would be there for him. The thought that he might fall to the ground never entered his mind. In the joy of the moment and with full confidence that daddy's arms would be there when it mattered, he simply jumped. And that's what faith looks like. Faith is confidence that the arms of Jesus will be open to us when we leap to him.

Now this does not mean that faith is irrational. When my son jumped into my arms, he did so on the basis of an established relationship of trust. He knew that daddy had always been there when it mattered. A track record of love formed the foundation of his confidence. He leapt without fear because he knew that daddy's love would ensure his safety.

Throughout scripture we find God's track record of love and faithfulness. God has never broken a promise. He has never gone back on his word. And he has demonstrated his faithfulness most perfectly through the gift of his presence in Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. He is present with us in times of joy and grief. That is a God who can be trusted, a God in whom we can be confident, a God who is worthy of our faith.

Whether through TV, radio, or some other medium, it probably won't be long before you hear the word faith. My hope and prayer for you is that the next time you do hear about faith, your thoughts will be drawn to the God who is worthy of your confidence and who can always be trusted. 

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on July 29, 2011.
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August 22, 2011

A Wet Dedication? One More Thought on the Baptism Debate

I've been interacting with Mike Bird's recent posts (1, 2) on dual baptism in which he calls paedobaptists and credobaptists to peace and unity. I really appreciate what he has to say on the matter and wish very much that this wasn't the big deal debate that it is. In my last post, I suggested that the difference between paedos and credos might be beyond reconciliation in that the views contain fundamental theological contradictions. In this post, I want to consider one implication of that contradiction.

Bird helpfully pointed out in his first post that both paedos and credos have a ritual both when a child comes into a believing family and when a child comes to a personal experience of faith. Credobaptists usually have a ceremony for dedicating an infant and then baptize that person when he or she later makes a profession of faith. Paedobaptists baptize their children in infancy and then have a ceremony of confirmation (of the baptism) when the young person later professes faith in Christ. The question for Bird then is: where do you put the water? Sooner or later? The first ritual or the second?

In my previous post I said that paedobaptists see baptism as God acting toward the baptized while credobaptists see it as the baptized acting toward God. This essential difference also sheds light on why paedos baptize infants and  credos dedicate them.

For the paedobaptist, if the action is on God's part to initiate a covenantal relationship with the baptized, then it's easy to see why that action comes early in the life of the child. God is the one who acts and calls the child to himself long before they are ever aware of it. Any faith on the part of the child is then a response to the covenantal initiation of baptism. The children of believers are not like the children of unbelievers. The children of believers are disciples before they profess faith. Indeed, they are being taught to obey everything Christ commanded long before they are ready for a public profession of Christian faith.

In contrast, the credobaptist sees baptism as a sign of personal faith directed towards God. And when a new child enters that family, there is a dedication of the child to God. But notice the direction of the action here. The family acts to dedicate the child to God. The human agents are active; God is passive. So, the act of dedicating a child is consistent with the act of believer's baptism; both are human actions directed towards God.

So, the issue is not so much when to bring out the water but who it is that acts. And where you land on the issue of who is acting explains when you bring out the water. Who is the agent in the baptismal act? God? Or the baptized? I've often heard it said that a baptism is just a wet dedication. Indeed, I think I may have said as much before taking a closer look at the matter. But such is not the case. A baptism is not a dedication. An infant dedication is a dedication of a child to God. An infant baptism is a covenantal act of grace from God. So, I take this to be more evidence for why the difference is probably irreconcilable.

Let me conclude by saying that the position Bird is articulating is really the paedobaptist position, which is probably why his reflections appeal to me. I long for credobaptists to recognize the validity of the baptisms not only of my own children but of all covenantal children. To my knowledge, all Protestant paedobaptists not only baptize newly believing and previously unbaptized adults, we also recognize the baptisms of other Christian denominations regardless of whether they are paedobaptistic or credobaptistic. So, the change for which Bird is calling would require much more give from the credobaptists than from we paedobaptists. That kind of give would be an essential change in a fundamental tenent of credobaptistic theology and a monumental denial of a previously long held view. And while unity and affirmation are desireable here, I don't expect my credo friends to change their minds on a matter in which they have such deep conviction. So I'm not holding my breath.
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August 19, 2011

The Baptism Debate: Is there a middle way?

Baptism has been a point of contention among Christians for centuries. Who should be baptized? Should it be limited to those with a credible profession of faith? Or are children of believing parents proper canidates also? And how much water should or must be used? For some, full immersion is essential for authentic baptism. But since the early centuries of the Church, baptism has been administered through sprinkling and pouring as well. The line is typically drawn between paedobaptists (who sprinkle infants) and credobaptists (who immerse upon a credible profession of faith). Both groups have exchanged strong words more than a few times. Could there be a middle way?

New Testament scholar Mike Bird has written two thought-provoking posts with precisely this aim of finding a middle way (part 1, part 2). Bird helpfully points out that both credo and paedo baptism have roots in early Christian history, and that both have something to teach us. He also reminds us that it is very difficult to get a very clear picture of how children of believers were regarded when it came to baptism in the New Testament period. I particularly appreciate his language of "gospel baptism" as an effort to get beyond the standard debate and a call to various demoninations to recognize one another's baptisms. I also appreciate Bird's irenic tone and his desire to urge the Church towards unity with regard to our chief initiatory rite.

There is one point I'd like to press a little, and it is a point that Bird touched on briefly in the first post. Bird points out that paedobaptism helpfully points us to God's prevening grace while credobaptism reminds us of the importance of a personal experience of God and warns us against nominal belief. The difference between paedos and credos is much deeper, though. Paedobaptists see baptism as primarily a sign of God's gracious covenant while (if I understand correctly) credobaptists see baptism as primarily a badge or sign of personal faith. For the paedobaptist, baptism is something God does through his Church; for the credobaptist, baptism is something the person does. There is a fundamental difference here that could be spoken of in terms of the direction of the action. For the paedobaptist, God acts towards the baptized person; for the credobaptist, the baptized person acts in faith towards God. I'm not sure it is simply a matter of emphasis; it seems to me to be a fundamentally different view of baptism. I'm with Bird on searching for common ground and unity on this issue, and I'm curious how he would respond to this apparent point of contradiction in our common endeavor for middle way.

For the sake of clarity, let me add that when paedobaptists (like myself) baptize adults after they become believers, we are not actually practicing believer's baptism. Our understanding of baptism does not change depending on the age the candidate. When I baptize an adult, I explain to them that this is a sign of God's covenant bestowed on them out of his grace. It is, of course, recieved in faith, but it is not primarily a sign of faith. We are not both paedo and credobaptists. We are paedobaptists who understand that baptism is a sign of the covenant and rightly belongs to all who are participants in that covenant, whether they are our children or newly believing adult brothers and sisters.

What do you think? Is there a middle way in the baptism debate? Or is there a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction?
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August 15, 2011

Why Did Paul Write Romans?

Paul's rationale for writing his most famous letter has been no small matter of debate among contemporary readers of scripture. Among historic Protestant interpreters, Romans is generally seen as a declaration, exposition, and defense of Paul's gospel. And certainly the gospel takes a chief place in the letter. However, if that were Paul's only reason for writing, then the second half of the letter is difficult to account for. In the last thirty years or so and in an effort to account for the rest of the letter, the view has become popular that Paul is writing to resolve the dispute between the weak and the strong (see chapters 14-15). And this view has much to commend it, for it is the dominant matter in the final chapters of Romans and, as such, would have been the last thing on the minds of the original hearers as the letter was read to them. But while the issue of reconciliation builds on the truth of the gospel presented earlier, it is difficult to suggest that these two chapters alone comprise Paul's full purposes in writing. More recently it has been suggested that Paul writes to prepare and gain support for his hoped-for Spanish mission. One wonders, though, that if this is Paul's primary purpose in writing, why he doesn't mention the Spanish mission until 15:24.

As a solution to this problem, Frank Matera has proposed that the purpose of Romans is a matter of "both/and" rather than "either/or". He suggests that Paul writes to: (1) summarize his gospel, (2) prepare his defense at Jerusalem, (3) gain support for the Spanish mission, and (4) resolve the problem of the weak and the strong (Romans,8). I think this view has much to commend it. Letters, speeches, and arguments often come with multiple purposes and can function in a variety of ways. Why should we think the complex argument of Romans should be limited to a single purpose? The apostle Paul was certainly capable of complex thought and nuanced argument intended to accomplish various persuasive goals. Matera's proposal accounts for the content of Romans and the circumstances both of Paul and the Christians in Rome, and I take it to be quite helpful. We shall have to wait and see how how his argument fares in larger and famed Romans debate.

What do you think? Is Matera's proposal helpful? What are its strengths? Weaknesses?