Category: Bible Study

Subjectivity & Inspiration

2_peter_1_20-21


Encountering

Crump, David. Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith. GrandRapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

I am of two minds when it comes to David Crumps’ Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture. On the one hand, I see it as a very useful response to the implications of higher criticism. I even find myself  agreeing with Crump about the importance of subjectivity as the only way to come to terms with these  implications. This is no small accomplishment, as I am generally reluctant to acknowledge the veracity of  anything that grounds itself in the philosophical insights of Sören Kierkegaard. [Yes, I have issues with the great Dane.] On the other hand, I find myself concerned over the implications of Crump’s approach, especially as it relates to our understanding of the nature of Biblical inspiration.

Crump begins his work wrestling with a problem that has been around for centuries, the Crump Picseemingly reckless manner in which the New Testament authors handled Old Testament passages identified as Christological prophecies. To Crump, the  messianic interpretations presented by Matthew are forced and unconvincing. There is no rational justification for Matthew’s approach, no harmonization that works. Here Crump draws upon insights from Kierkegaard to establish the only grounds upon which the believer can accept these as authentic: a leap of faith. We come to accept Matthew’s usage of these verses in the same way we come to Christ – through a subjective encounter with the living Christ. While I cannot agree with everything that Crump is saying, I do agree that these problematic passages are only fully understood through the lens of faith. I also agree with his assertion that while reason is not excluded from faith, embracing articles of faith is not a deduction from logical or historical arguments. But this is where my agreement ends.

At times, it seems that Crump is hesitant to characterize the Gospel writers handling of Old Testament scripture as divinely inspired. Crump describes their approach as one of “intuitive apprehension” when it comes to interpreting Christological prophecies. Of course, Crump would disagree with even characterizing these verses as Christological. He believes that the Gospel writers re-interpreted them, re-purposing them for the proclamation of the Gospel. The New Testament writers did not draw out what was hidden (or prefigured) in the Old Testament, they created an entirely new interpretation. This leads him to ask the very question that was foremost in my own mind: “What force directed the trajectory of this interpretive leap?” What led them to do this? An apropos question given the claims of higher criticism. But Crump’s response is far from resounding. He uses words such as artistic imagination, creative inspiration, and even personal inspiration rather than more traditional formulations. To be sure, he eventually characterizes it as “Gospel-inspired imagination activated by the Holy Spirit.” But this is the closest he comes to saying divinely inspired (and even that is the only reference to God’s role in the process in the entire book). Is Crump simply trying to articulate orthodoxy in phrasings that are more amenable to postmodern readers, or is he saying something more?

The something more comes through as Crump proceeds to demonstrate how this approach to the interpretation of scripture was not limited to the four evangelists. Jesus and Paul also made use of what he calls backward illumination, where modifications (or reinterpretations) are made to the scripture and convention. Crump is setting up a pattern that he maintains applies to all Christians. This is the way we operate in faith. While he places his exhortation primarily within the context of life experiences and our interpretation of them, he also commends this approach when “wrestling with the connections between Exodus and Calvary.” Unfortunately, he overlooks a key distinction between New Testament authors (to include the words of Jesus), and the average Christian alive today. They were divinely inspired. We are not. If we limit our understanding of inspiration to mere creative imagination fueled by our subjective experience of faith, then it is easy to see how Crump makes this connection. But if we view biblical inspiration in
the terms in which it has been traditionally articulated, then we are bound by the very words of scripture. No prophecy of scripture has ever been a matter of one’s own interpretation, or reinterpretation. The Bible is very clear on this point (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21 above). Their creative license comes from God. Yes, something we can only come to accept by faith. But faith alone, and the accompanying encounter we have with Christ, is not a sufficient license for us to creatively reinterpret scripture. I am not certain Crump is actually advocating this, but his ideas certainly lend themselves to this unfounded notion. And for that reason I did not enjoy this book.

For example, let’s apply Crump’s backward illumination to the issue of homosexuality. It is increasingly becoming more common for church leaders to “re-interpret” Old Testament passages in light of contemporary social mores. Yes, the church has traditionally interpreted passages in Leviticus, Genesis, and the writings of Paul to be condemning homosexual behavior. She has held that interpretation for centuries, and it has largely gone unquestioned. However, today’s Christian finds herself in a different context, with different experiences. We encounter homosexuals in our churches, living in monogamous relationships, and identifying as evangelical believers committed to the authority of scripture. This was not the experience that early believers, or even the people of Israel would have had when encountering homosexuals in their communities. They knew of temple-based homosexuality, pedophilia, and prostitution. Not exactly the face of homosexuality in the modern church. In light of the contrast between their experience in faith, and our experience in faith, would it be wrong for today’s Christian to view these scriptures differently? What are we to make of evangelical Christians who are increasingly re-interpreting these scriptures to only refer to the negative manifestations of homosexuality? After all, doesn’t our own personal experience of Christ’s love compel us to encounter these passages differently?

Perhaps, at this point you are ready to castigate me for reading too much into Crump’s little book. Please note that I am not saying that David Crump advocates embracing homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle for Christians. What I am saying, is that Crump’s ambiguity in his treatment of the interpretation of scripture, leaves the door open for others to make such claims. It provides a philosophical justification for such a view. When speaking about the interpretation of scripture, I would not expect a theologian (one who has committed his life to the study and teaching of scripture), to be less than resounding. When it comes to what we think of scripture, how we interpret it, and how we present it to others, we should be clear and emphatic. It’s God’s word. If we are to maintain that it encapsulates truth, that it is authoritative, and that it reflects God’s unchanging character, then we should do so with equal authority and force.

Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Seminary, makes the argument that the ideas reflected in scripture do not necessarily correspond to human experience today. The interpreter’s context is important to how one interprets scripture. Since the context of the one interpreting scripture changes over time, Pauw would argue that the interpretation of scripture must also change.

. . . there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality that seem very odd to both contemporary Christians and contemporary Jews—the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

The reason Dr. Pauw can say that there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage, is because she has bought into the notion that scripture is open to reinterpretation as individual experiences and social contect change. So it would seem that my reading of Dr. Crump’s book is not entirely out of line with the practice of modern theologians, especially those that share very close connections to Dr. Crump and Calvin College (where Crump teaches). [for the full text delineating Pauw’s views, visit http://covnetpres.org/2013/11/time-amy-plantinga-pauw/]

Unfortunately, such views fail to take into consideration that true inspiration involves the guidance and activity of the Holy Spirit. Not only is God involved with the original composition of scripture (to the point where it does not represent the thought and opinion of man), he is also involved in our own reading of scripture. This is not to say that God somehow ensures that we will always properly interpret scripture. There are simply too many contradictory interpretations of scripture to make that kind of claim. But, it does ensure that we are not left to our own creative devices. We do not have the license to interpret and reinterpret scripture according to our own whims. There is a metaphysical grounding for the interpretation of scripture, and that grounding is the unchanging nature of God.

Having asserted that point, I think it is important to conclude by circling back around to the very thing that moved Crump to make the above assertions about backward illumination: the problem of how the New Testament authors seemingly reinterpreted Old Testament scriptures to have entirely new meanings. After all, my above assertion would leave open the idea that we could re-interpret scripture, so long as we could demonstrate that it is rooted in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to modern experience. There are two reasons that such an idea should never be entertained.

  1. If in fact the New Testament authors reinterpreted scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did so having received direct permission from Christ. As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no such permission given in scripture. That license was only given to the apostles, not every follower of Christ. John 16:13 is often misapplied to all Christians. It is important to note that in this passage Jesus is addressing the apostles and providing a future promise regarding biblical inspiration. This promise is never repeated in relation to the church in general.
  2. The New Testament authors may have divinely re-purposed certain Old Testament passages, making them prophecies about Jesus, but it is simply inaccurate to claim that they reinterpreted these passages. There is a subtle distinction to be made here. The Old Testament passages re-purposed to have Christological meaning, never lost their original meaning. And yet, this is exactly what Pauw, and others who would like to change the Bible’s narrative on homosexuality, are advocating be done with Old Testament verses regarding the biblical view of marriage. Giving a verse added meaning, and giving it a meaning contrary to the old, are two entirely different things. If we are to maintain that the writing of the scripture was guided by our unchanging God to reflect his unchanging will, then a passage of scripture can never come to have a meaning that is contrary to the original. More pointedly, even if we somehow accepted the idea that God divinely inspires today’s Christians to interpret scripture, he could never inspire them to reinterpret it.

Of course, it would be more consistent with the traditional understanding of inspiration to simply maintain that today’s interpretations of passages dealing with the biblical view of marriage and sexuality are not reinterpretations, but rather corrections of previously held misinterpretations. This is a harder argument to make, but nonetheless one that is being made quite popularly by several leaders in the gay Christian movement. Wisely, this is not the path that most theologians have taken. Such a path involves denying the clear facts of history and appearing as nothing more than a blind ideologue. For most, it is simply easier to undermine the nature of inspiration. See my earlier post Should Evangelicals Evolve on Homosexuality? for an evaluation of such attempts.

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Shouldn’t We Expect More From Theology?


Charry, Ellen T. By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


The purpose of Christian Doctrine ought to be the formation and reformation of one’s character – the production of excellent persons. This is the vision that Ellen T. Charry had in mind when writing By the Renewing of Your Minds. It is a vision that she maintains has been largely lost by today’s theologians. Her modest goal is to reestablish the salutary (beneficial) nature of theology. She seeks to do this by highlighting a variety of past theologians (all of whom wrote prior to the seventeenth century), who exemplify this unity of pastor and scholar. She does not simply want to reawaken the reader to voices that have been largely neglected by moderns; she desires to distill a pattern which can be used to guide us in returning theology to its pastoral role.

The role of many of the great theologians of the past was not simply to formulate and elaborate on the meaning of doctrine, but to use it (and present it) in the same way as a pastor. Today’s church sees the pastor as the one who exhorts, evangelizes, comforts and heals; this is not how most view the theologian. Modern theology has lost its practical and affective aspects, focusing solely on the intellectual justification of Christian Doctrine. It has become too scientific. As a result, it is detached, lifeless and impractical. Once theologians and their work become irrelevant, so too does Christian Doctrine. This is not how it should be. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact. Doctrine, by definition, should be pastoral.

In the first chapter, Charry attempts to counteract much of the ideas that have led to the separation of theology from pastoral function. She maintains that while knowledge precedes character (character reform requires a renewing of the mind), practice is also needed. Expounding on knowledge is not sufficient. Knowledge must be coupled with practice; it must be engaged if it is to truly result in developing excellence. Charry refers to this as sapience. She then takes the reader through the ideas of the three leading figures who have contributed most to the loss of sapiential theology: Locke, Hume and Kant. She follows this critique by utilizing clinical medicine as an example of how knowledge and science can (and should) go hand in hand with trust. In the case of the medical practitioner, knowledge is useless without practice (the application of the knowledge). Returning to her initial epistemic thoughts, medical knowledge must precede medical practice, but medical practice in turn enhances and refines medical knowledge. She further drives home her point by turning to literature as an example of written work that contributes greatly to moral formation. Just as literature is aretegenic (conducive to virtue), so too should be theology. Of course, whereas literature utilizes characters and real-life scenarios to form and reform, Doctrine goes beyond these aspects and is far more effective than literature; this due largely to the work of the Holy Spirit and communal practices within the body of Christ.

In the final chapter of the book, Charry looks back on the theologians she has presented in chapters two through nine to analyze the process and principles they utilized in developing sapiential theology. She does not want us to simply re-read these great theologians; we must follow their lead. Key to this is her admonition for theologians to reconnect the concepts of truth and goodness, both in their thinking and in their writing. Theologians must also come to see themselves as pastors and spiritual directors. Once they do this, Christian Doctrine will regain its relevance and speak anew to the Church.

Dancing with the Devil

We were having a discussion in class Wednesday about how universities in America have become incredibly intolerant of Christianity. The following link is to an Op-Ed in the New York Times last month, acknowledging this fact. It’s a great read.

The whole discussion got me thinking about a philosophy class I took back in the 80’s. I was a relatively new Christian at the University at Buffalo and wanted to take classes where I could debate the existence of God.  Unfortunately, there was not a single Christian philosophy professor on staff. It was rare to hear the Christian perspective in a classroom discussion. That’s not entirely uncommon in a philosophy department.

I was part of a small group of Christian students who requested that the department offer a philosophy of religion class. We were told that such a course had not been offered in over a decade, and that there wasn’t a single professor interested in teaching it. Since I worked in the department office on a work study program, I had ample opportunities to continue to bring the issue up whenever I got a chance. After several months, the department chair told me that Dr. Paul Kurtz was interested in teaching the class. Knowing I was a Christian, Dr. Barber asked me if I still wanted the class offered. I appreciated how considerate he was being. You see, Paul Kurtz just happened to be the most famous atheist on the planet at that time. He was back then, what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are today. He was one of the primary authors of the Humanist Manifesto, wrote numerous books against Christian Faith, and had famously debated Christian Philosopher Norm Geisler. Did I really want to take a philosophy of religion course from a professor I knew would use the class as a platform for promoting his atheistic beliefs? You bet I did. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was a little concerned. I remember a friend of mine saying that Kurtz was the devil incarnate.

As it turned out, I was the only Christian philosophy student who actually took the class. On the very first day Kurtz stood in front of the room of about twenty students and asked, “Who here believes in God?” Several hands went up. One by one, Kurtz asked the students why they believed in God. One by one, he completely dismantled their reasons and made the case for atheism. Yeah, it was at that point I realized I was probably in over my head.

When it came time to write my research paper for the course, I decided to write on the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. I knew I was taking a big chance. Would Kurtz give my paper a fair evaluation, or would he simply give me an F? It didn’t matter to me. All I needed to do was speak the truth and trust God with the results. On the day the papers were being handed back, Kurtz took the time to say a few words about each paper in front of the entire class. Very intimidating. Unbeknownst to me, there actually was another Christian in the class. Apparently this guy had also decided to use his paper to make the case for the Christian Faith.When Kurtz got to him, he openly criticized the student’s work, telling everyone it was the worst paper he had ever read. I really felt sorry for the guy. Of course, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about him; in just a few moments it would be my turn to dance with the devil.

Before I go any further, I want to say a few words in defense of Paul Kurtz. He comes across as pretty hostile to Christians in my description above. The reality is, that while he didn’t like Christianity, he was never hostile. He never got angry in his attacks of students’ comments. He might ridicule ideas that he felt were poorly grounded, but he never ridiculed students. And of course, he was always smiling. You see, Paul Kurtz was actually one of the best professors I ever had. He was friendly, quick to share a humerous story, and always willing to listen to everyone’s views and opinions. That’s a far cry from the kind of environment we see on college campuses today.

Toward the end of the course I got the feeling that Kurtz had run out of things to talk about. He believed he had sufficiently disproved the existence of God, made the case for secular humanism, and simply had nothing more to say about it. So one day, he asked the students if anyone wanted to take over a class and present on a topic related to the philosophy of religion. I really can’t remember if anyone else volunteered. After the class, I asked him if I could present a lesson on the authority and reliability of the Bible. He agreed. The following week I recruited John Mansfield, the campus director for Cru (and my Bible study leader), to give the presentation. John was simply amazing. To this day he remains one of my biggest heroes. The whole time Dr. Kurtz sat in the front row, listening intently to everything that was said. He never interrupted. He never made fun of what was being presented. But I can only imagine how intimidating he must of have come across, sitting directly in front of John. John never even broke a sweat. Every once in a while Kurtz would gently utter a brief comment. “Really?” “I’ve never heard that before.” “Is that so?” At the very end, John shared the Gospel and I handed out contact cards. Several people indicated that they were interested in learning how to have a personal relationship with Christ. Kurtz never filled out a card.

I honestly don’t remember what happened the following class. I’m pretty certain Kurtz never even mentioned it. But that one Christian student who Kurtz had so openly put down, ended up joining one of our Bible studies. To God be the glory! Even when it seems like you are going up against the devil incarnate, God is greater. “Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world!” 1 John 4:4 (NASB)

Thanks John for your faithfulness to the Kingdom. Not only were you instrumental in leading me to Christ, but you showed me what it means to stand up for the truth.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. What about that paper I wrote on the resurrection? What grade do you think Kurtz gave me? I still have the original paper in my personal files. I will treasure it until the day I die. It serves as a reminder of my experience in that class and what God can do when his children are faithful to the truth. Kurtz wrote a single sentence on the cover page: “While I disagree with your conclusions, you gave a valiant defense of the resurrection.” The big red A underneath still surprises me to this day.

Getting In Touch With My Unconscious Mind

For the past week I have been wrestling with a severe bout of insomnia. It’s funny the random things that run through your mind as you stare at the ceiling at 2:30 a.m. I was remembering that many years ago I fancied myself a bit of a songwriter. Don’t laugh. It was about 15 years ago to be exact, and it seems that I managed to write three worship songs. Don’t be too impressed, you haven’t read them yet. Apparently they were so good that I hadn’t thought of them in about 10 years. If not for my persistent sleeplessness, I might have never remembered them. After counting sheep, counting backwards from 100 (at least seven times), and then trying to name all of the triple crown winners in order, I was desperate. I suddenly found myself trying to see if I could recover these lost gems from the hidden recesses of my unconscious mind. After all, what better way to try to induce sleep.

For better or worse, I offer up these slightly dated, Dewey originals. Music not included. Trust me, it’s better this way. Enjoy.

Or should I say, sleep tight!



Captured

I don’t deserve

I have not earned

The way you feel about me Lord

It’s beyond words

The way you gave

Your life for me

The way you take me back each time I turn away

It’s your kindness, Lord

That leads met to

Repentance, Lord

I’m captured by your grace

And all I can say

Is thank you

And all I can do

Is give my life to you

Lord Jesus you have captured me (3x)

With your unfailing love


 

No Longer Undone

As I come into your holy place

At first I need to hide my face

I hear the angels singing

Holy, holy, holy Lord

It is here I clearly see my sin

And I know I’ve failed you Lord again

I cry, I am undone

Holy, holy, holy Lord

But then you spoke into my night

Your glorious light, shining around me

You picked me up

You cleansed my lips

You made me whole

And I’m no longer undone

How can I walk away from you?

How can I do the things I do?

How can I give you less than everything?

Jesus you came and died for me

Opened my eyes and set me free

Jesus I want to give you everything

I’m no longer undone (3x)

Lord send me


 

 

I Stand Waiting

I stand in your Church

With my heart laid open bare

Casting down all my burdens

You’re the only one who cares

And I know that your promises

Will always hold true

So I lift my hands to receive your power

As my eyes are fixed on you

And I stand waiting

Anticipating

All the glory, all the blessing

You will pour out on this man

And you are faithful

Your Word will never fail

So send your Holy Spirit

Wash away what’s past

And fill me with the strength of your own hand

In Defense of Christian Scholarship

sbts


This is a follow up on an earlier post, in which I wrote a review of A. G. Sertillanges classic The Intellectual Life. Here I expand on what it means to be a Christian scholar and defend it as a legitimate calling for the Christian.


Critics of religious belief dismiss the notion of Christian scholarship, maintaining that faith and scholarship are epistemological opposites. For much of the intellectual community, the Christian scholar is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, many Christians would agree with these critics. A survey of the history of the church indicates a long tradition of skepticism (at times hostile) regarding the relationship between faith and learning. Many have latched on to Tertullian’s oft misunderstood words, “What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the academy and the church?”[1] These believers would have us hold that God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom are contradictory. If faith is a gift from God, why would anyone feel the need or desire, to study the wisdom of the world? Such a study would be unproductive at best, and potentially damaging to faith. And so, the Christian who finds herself called to pursue academic scholarship faces the unenviable task of being criticized by enemies of the church, as well as the church herself. Why would anyone want to be placed in such a position? The answer is simple –the call to Christian scholarship comes from God. He has ordained it. The reality is that faith needs scholarship.

MalikIn his well known address at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, Charles Malik asserted that Christians have a necessary duty to pursue scholarship. “It is not enough to be set on fire for evangelism alone,” declared Malik.[2] He argued that the truths of the Judeo-Christian faith are constantly beset with false ideas and empty philosophies competing for the allegiance of the hearts of men (especially at the university level). Failure to address these, as part of the work of evangelism, is failing to actually do evangelism. “The problem is not only to win souls but also to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover that you have not won the world.”[3] Malik’s words reflect a holistic view where mind and soul are both involved in the conversion process. While saving souls is not merely a matter of intellectual assent to the facts of the Gospel message, it cannot be accomplished apart from it. If this is so, then it becomes imperative that the evangelist pay careful attention to the ideas she communicates, as well as the ideas she is communicating against. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig supports this notion by asserting that the Gospel is never proclaimed in a philosophical vacuum, “It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieus in which one lives.”[4] Left uncontested, these philosophical and cultural background noises become like thorns choking out a person’s ability to hear and receive the truth.[5] John Gresham Machen said it best:

Machen. . . it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.[6]

If we fail to engage in scholarly discourse, the work of evangelism becomes increasingly more difficult. While God most certainly can transcend these barriers without human involvement, he has chosen to use his church in this process (a point I will make below). The evangelist and the Christian scholar work together in the work of evangelism. When error goes unchecked, when bad ideas are allowed to proliferate, the truth becomes ambiguous.  In such an environment, even the message of evangelists can become imbued with false notions and philosophical baggage. The Church needs the intellectual as much as she needs the evangelist.

But need alone does not establish a calling to Christian scholarship. Does God explicitly call men and women to pursue academic study and the intellectual life? In Colossians, the Apostle Paul provides us with an often misunderstood admonition.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.[7]

I have long wrestled with the meaning of these words. On the surface, this passage seems to disparage the notion that Christians should pursue the study of human knowledge, and particularly philosophy. It is important to note exactly what Paul is saying in this verse. Philosophy is not categorically condemned. What is condemned is a philosophical worldview that sets itself against the things of God and the truth of the Gospel. It is not philosophy itself that is cast in a negative light; it is philosophy according to human tradition.

In a very real sense, philosophy is unavoidable. We all think. We all have ideas, accept ideas, and share ideas. In many ways, these beliefs and ideas are deeply ingrained in our unconscious thinking. The question is not whether we choose to engage in philosophy. We do it every day without even thinking about it. Our deeply rooted beliefs about the world come through in what we say and do. We are all philosophers. The only question is whether we are good philosophers, or bad philosophers. Have we taken the time to think about the ideas and beliefs that are daily confronting us? Have we allowed ourselves to be unknowingly carried along by things that may very well be contrary to the truth of Christ? If we are to avoid falling prey to bad philosophy, wouldn’t that mean that we have to know what it is we are avoiding?  We would have to be able to distinguish good philosophy from bad philosophy. In other words, anti-intellectualism is not an option for the Christian. Failure to make ourselves aware of bad philosophy is to leave ourselves open to its influence. How can we avoid what we can’t identify? How can we ensure that we are not taken captive, if we can’t recognize or distinguish truth from error? Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. . .”[8]  These words convey action on the part of believers. God wants us to confront and dismantle arguments that are in conflict with the knowledge of God. This is clearly something that God is calling his representatives in the world to do. Christian scholarship is a genuine work that Christians are explicitly called to do.

It seems apparent to me that to be faithful to this calling, the Christian scholar must be committed to two things. First, the Christian scholar must be committed to grounding all truth in the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God is the framework for how we view and approach the world. This is not to say that the Christian scholar blindly accepts belief in God and then forces all other beliefs to arbitrarily conform. It means that once we come to accept the truth that God has created the universe (philosophers and theologians disagree on how we come to that knowledge), it necessarily guides us. It is all encompassing. John Piper conveys this idea succinctly:

It is an abdication of scholarship when Christians do academic work with little reference to God. If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is not scholarship but insurrection.[9]

PiperFailing to do as Piper suggests, will only lead the Christian scholar away from truth. God is the hermeneutical key to all knowledge. If we accept that he has designed the world, then we cannot approach it, interpret it, or describe it from any other reference point. James Sire elaborates on this in Habits of the Mind, within the context of discussing Henry Newman’s notion of the perfection of the intellect. As the rational creator of the universe, God necessarily imprints his rational nature both on the created order and upon thinking human beings. This results in a thread of rationality knitting together all knowledge into one whole.[10]  That thread of rationality originates in God. Therefore, our knowledge of God is the key to understanding the universe. The Christian scholar sees all things through the lens of the Christian worldview, the eyes of faith. Attempting to see the world any other way is to force upon it a pattern that is not inherent within it. All truth originates in him, points to him, and should be used to proclaim his glory.

Secondly, the Christian scholar must be committed to living the truth. Since all truth comes from the divine, there is a close connection between the good and the true. Good character is necessary for truth to be manifested; and once it is made known it must be acted upon (put into practice). Sertillanges provides the insight that, “Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her, and this love cannot be without virtue.”[11] He stresses that one must become a slave to truth; truth comes only to those with the resolve to serve it. “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us.”[12] Sertillanges uses the imagery of a garden to drive this point home. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good . . . By practicing the truth that we know, we merit the truth that we do not yet know.”[13]  Just as poor health affects sight, so also a sick soul and poor character affect our ability to perceive truth. Virtue is necessary for knowledge and a prerequisite for the intellectual life. To think true thoughts, we must have a true (pure) soul.

I have focused a great deal on Christian thought. While it is true that Church history demonstrates the dangers of anti-intellectualism (which is why we desperately need Christian Scholars), it also demonstrates the dangers of over-intellectualism. I am not advocating scholarship and academic pursuit at the expense of love and devotion to Christ. No one wants an overly rational faith. I believe that properly exercised, Christian scholarship should result in increased spiritual fervor and a changed life. As John Piper shares, “the mind serves to know the truth that fuels the fires of the heart.”[14] Faith and knowledge go hand in hand. Knowledge should properly result in faith, passion for truth, and a changed life. If it doesn’t, then it is not true knowledge. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact on our actions and affections.

So, what are we to make of this notion of Christian scholarship? In the past, pastors were not only seen as spiritual leaders in the community, they were also looked upon as intellectual leaders.[15] Contrast this with today, when doctors and scientists are seen as intellectual authorities, and pastors are ridiculed as buffoons. Sadly, it is our failure as a Church to cultivate Christian scholarship that has led to this situation. It can only be rectified by once again placing a high value on Christian scholarship. As Mark Noll famously said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind . . . modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life.”[16] Os Guinness goes much farther than simply declaring anti-intellectualism a scandal:

guinessAt root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds. Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety.[17]

These words represent a serious charge. While much of the church has not overtly adopted an anti-intellectualist stance, her failure to fully embrace scholarship represents a sin of omission. To take Christ’s command seriously, she must seek out ways to cultivate this calling in all facets of her mission. This means that Christian scholarship is not relegated to a Bible study only reserved for those curious enough to attend. A proper representation of faith and scholarship needs to be reflected in sermons, Sunday School lessons, missions work, financial contributions, and doctrinal statements. Only then will the church once again take her proper place as the definitive source of knowledge and truth, both spiritual and intellectual.

 


[1]Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

[2]Charles Malik, “The Two Tasks,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23, no. 4 (December 1980): 294.

[3]Ibid.

[4]William Lane Craig, “In Intellectual Neutral,” in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copen and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2007), 8.

[5]Here I am making an allusion to Mark 4: 18-19. The thorns in Christ’s parable represent all the things in the world that prevent the word of God from fully taking root in a person’s life. While the passage specifically refers to cares and desires, it is not hard to imagine that false ideas and beliefs could also serve to choke out the word.

[6]J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11, no. 1 (1913): 7.

[7]Colossians 2:8 (ESV)

[8]2 Corinthians 10: 3-5

[9]John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 168.

[10]James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2000), 60.

[11]A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 19.

[12]Ibid., 4.

[13]Ibid., 19.

[14]Piper, 36.

[15]J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 188.

[16]Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[17]Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 11.

A Call to Compassion

“And seeing the multitudes he felt compassion for them, for they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd.”

What do you see when you look at other people? What do you see when you look at your best friend? The man or woman of your dreams? The teacher who always seemed to go the extra mile to make sure you passed Algebra 2? What do you see when you look at the drug addict? The homosexual? The atheist? The adulterer? The guy who just cut you off in traffic and angrily flipped you the middle finger? Often what we see when we look at someone depends upon what we know of them personally, or how we feel about them. We form judgments. We react with either repulsion or acceptance based upon how we perceive them as moral beings. Once upon a time you may have looked up to Jared Fogle and admired the determination he displayed in losing over 200 pounds. You saw him as a role model for obese children. Now you only see him as a child predator. The natural response is disgust. Is it wrong to feel that way? We should be repulsed by the sexual abuse of children. We ought to hate adultery and the devastating effects it has on families. We should avoid the casual company of immoral people who would influence us to join them in their bad behavior. It would be wrong to hire Jared Fogle as your sixteen year old daughter’s private tutor. There is something deep inside of us that hates sin, even though we, ourselves are personally plagued by it. It is part of being made in the image of God. Even though we are fallen, the moral law within still speaks to us. It judges us. And thus, we are prone to judge others.

The problem is that most people don’t openly display their moral flaws. Instead they put on a moral front; displaying the admirable qualities, hiding the ones they know others will find unacceptable. In other words, all of us are very good at hiding the sins with which we struggle. If you suddenly had the power of omniscience and could know everything there is to know about the people that surround you, and the people that you come into contact with on a daily basis, how would it change your perception of them? Not only would you see all their good qualities, but you would also see every flaw. You would know every sin that they have committed, and every sin that they have yet to commit. Every secret thought would be on display. In short, you would see everything . . . The good, the bad and the ugly. And believe me, there would be a whole lot of ugly. How would you see them? More than likely, it would change the way you react to and interact with them. Would the affections you have for someone suddenly morph into hatred if you discovered that they secretly wished you ill will? That two-faced #%$&! Would you think twice about hugging your dear uncle if you knew that he was viewing child porn on his computer each night? Creepy, right? Would you shake the hand of the smiling stranger who you suddenly knew  was involved in human trafficking? Slapping cuffs on their wrists would be more fitting. Thank God we do not have the power of omniscience! If we did, we would find it impossible to form any kind of loving relationships with others.

Of course, there was one person who had this ability. Jesus was God incarnate. He had the ability to see anything and everything. He often demonstrated this ability when he encountered people in the New Testament. The woman at the well is a perfect example. The verse above is from Matthew 9. The latter half of the chapter reflects back upon Jesus’ interactions with the many groups he encountered as he was going about teaching and healing. It tells us in verse 36 that each time he encountered a different crowd, he had compassion on them – every single one of them. He could see every secret sin in their lives; the verse above even hints at that. He saw their sin-plagued condition. They were distressed and downcast, much like fallen sheep who are in need of someone to help them get back up. The ESV uses the words “harassed and helpless.” The idea is that he saw every one of them as being in bondage to sin, and suffering the consequences. He saw it all.

Matthew is very clear in telling us how Jesus reacted upon seeing the multitudes in this way: he felt compassion. He understood their condition and wanted to do something about it. In the very next verse he issues a call for God to raise up laborers who will go out into the crowds and continue his work. We should react the same way our Savior reacted. The God of the universe, the one who sees all, and who hates sin, reacted far differently than what one might expect. Instead of revulsion, we get compassion, and the compulsion to reach out and help the afflicted.  He was gripped with a love that would eventually send him to the cross to redeem his creation and free them from the power of sin. Contrast this to how we humans react upon seeing the sinful multitudes. The God of the universe who sees far more sin than any of us, and hates it far more deeply, reacted with compassion. Not hate. Not judgment. Not rejection. He went to them. He healed them. And he asks us to do the same.

Returning to my questions above, what do you see when you look at the multitudes? What do you feel when you see a group of people protesting in favor of gay marriage and equal rights for homosexuals and transgenders? If it is anything less than compassion and love, and the compulsion to minister to their needs, then you need to ask Jesus to soften your hardened heart. But keep this in mind: Jesus felt compassion because he saw their sinful condition. He didn’t overlook it or deny it. It was the very thing that drove his compassion. The call to go out into the harvest is not to simply be among the people, taking up their cause. Our task is not to try and convince people that they really aren’t distressed and downcast, harassed and helpless. It is not a call to show solidarity for our fellow man. How shallow is that? It is a call to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom and to heal “every disease and affliction,” as verse 35 clearly indicates. This is what Jesus did. It is what he is calling his laborers to do as well. Anything less than freeing people from the sin that harasses them, is not showing love and compassion.

Hairball Theology, part 1

It seems like a lifetime ago since I had the privilege of teaching for Howard Payne University’s El Paso campus.  It was truly an amazing experience that lasted over ten years.  One of the classes I taught regularly was Christian Doctrine.  Next to Hermeneutics, it was my favorite.  This was due largely to the caliber of students who had to endure my so-called “hairball” theologies.  I cherish the interactions with these gifted brothers and sisters in Christ, and I actually believe that the absence of those interactions is what has lead me to start this blog.  I learned a lot from them, as they regularly challenged me both intellectually and spiritually.  It was a great experience.

The first class of Christian Doctrine always began with a quiz I playfully entitled Am I a heretic?  It was a simple agree or disagree sheet designed to expose the little heresies that we all undoubtedly hold to as Christians.  It is not that we set out to be heretics, mind you, it’s just that we often hold them in ignorance.  When we fail to reflect on our beliefs, or properly take the time to explore God’s word, we fall into beliefs that are less than orthodox.  It’s understandable.  It’s our nature.  I always made sure to include a few statements on the quiz that represented neither heresy nor orthodoxy, just to see what kind of discussion it would generate.  I generally referred to these statements as heterodoxical in nature.  While some equate heterodoxy and heresy, it should more properly be understood as other than orthodox.  Heterodox beliefs are not orthodox (not the commonly accepted views of the Church through the ages), but not quite heretical either.   They exist in the gray areas; the areas the Bible does not definitively address.

Hairball Theology #1: Did Adam and Eve have children prior to the fall?

A totally frivolous question, right? What one believes regarding this question does not matter one bit in regard to accessing one’s status as orthodox. For me, I am convinced that Adam and Eve had children prior to the fall. It is one of my little eccentricities. I’m even convinced that it is somewhat important. Does that make me crazy? My HPU students would have emphatically said yes. Of course, I like to think that is what they loved about me.

Why do I think this question matters? It matters, because I spend my time wondering about who Adam and Eve’s children married. Did they marry their siblings? Did God somehow spontaneously create other people in order to provide non-incestuous sexual partners? Would the whole question of incest even have mattered at that time? Mind blowing questions, right? You may be wondering how it is that you have never before considered this important issue? You can thank me for bringing it to your attention.

Let’s pretend that this actually is important. Is there any textual evidence to support the idea that Adam and Eve had children prior to being expelled from the garden? Consider the following:

  1. The curse: In Genesis 3:16 God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply” her pain in childbirth. This might be a stretch, but it could be argued God is implying that Eve had already experienced childbirth. The implication being found in that He will greatly increase what she has already experienced.
  2. The sending out:  The end of Genesis 3 has God sending out “the man” from the garden of Eden (v.23-24). It specifically states that he sent him out. It does not say that God sent them both out, or him and her. And yet, we know that it was not just Adam that was barred from returning. The lack of specificity means that the possibility of children being put out as well, cannot be ruled out. While arguments from silence are not strong, these verses actually support such an argument. Given that these verses are intentionally silent about Eve, it is not unreasonable to wonder if they are also being silent about children.
  3. The commission: The first few chapters of Genesis repeat the mandate given to both Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Is there any reason to believe that they took their time in acting upon God’s command? When reading Genesis 2: 18-24, you get the sense that Adam is lonely. He sees the partnering of the animals and wonders about his own lack of a partner. He may even see them having intercourse. I can attest that if you spend enough time around animals you will eventually see them mating. I have only been to the zoo on a few occasions and I’ve seen it multiple times. Ever see turtles getting busy? Trust me, it will make you blush. I particularly love the language of verse 23. Reading your English Bible you will notice how these words are formatted differently. It is something we usually see in the more poetic passages of Scripture. I can assure you that this is not polished poetry that Adam is speaking upon first laying eyes on Eve. The original language reveals a sort of staccato nature to these words. The thoughts come across as jumbled and disconnected in the original. Care to venture a guess as to why? Rabbinic tradition holds Eve to have been one of the most beautiful women that ever lived (along with Rahab). You can be sure that Adam was instantly smitten. Who wouldn’t be? These are the stammering words of a guy who is love-struck. If I had been in Adam’s shoes, it would not have taken very long to “be fruitful and multiply.”
  4. The passage of time. How long were Adam and Eve in the garden? The chapters flow in such a way that it feels like a matter of days. However, there are no textual indicators revealing the passage of time. Were they only together for one day? Two days? A week? For all we know, Adam and Eve were in the garden for hundreds of years. I don’t actually believe that, but we don’t need hundreds of years in order for children to be born prior to the fall. A few years would suffice. Obviously, the longer they were in the garden, the higher the probability that they consummated their relationship and bore children.

You may be asking what difference it would make if they were born before or after the fall. Wouldn’t each child still need to marry a sibling? Correct. However, the issue of incest (and the Bible’s commands against it) would not apply prior to the fall. No sin means no byproducts of the fall (e.g. genetic deformities). No pain in childbirth prior to the fall, increased pain after. No toil in working the ground prior to the fall, thorns and thistles after. Incest is an issue after the fall, not before.

Genesis four proceeds to state that Adam and Eve had relations after they exited the garden. It was after the fall that both Cain and Abel were conceived and born. Wouldn’t this seem to undermine my thesis? Not necessarily. First of all, Genesis 4:1 does not indicate that this is the first time that Adam and Eve had relations. Nor does this passage indicate that Cain was the first child. Even though chapter four only describes the births of Cain and Abel, the passage contains several references to other people. After Cain receives his curse for having killed Abel, he laments the fact that other people may seek to kill him as he wanders the earth.  In v. 17 Cain is said to have relations with his wife. In v. 15, even God makes a reference to other people out there in the world. The feel of the passage is that there are numbers of people all over the earth. To be sure. v. 3 does seem to indicate the passage of time between the birth of Cain and Abel and the subsequent murder of Abel by Cain. But if we are going to get to the point of there being numbers of people scattered all around the world, how many years would have to had passed? It seems within the bounds of reason to entertain the possibility that there were other children born prior to the fall and that these children were scattered out across the earth as a result of this traumatic experience.

So, there you have it: hairball theology, part one. For those who might be inclined to think that this was all just a waste of time, I offer the following quote from James Sire:

An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life (Habits of the Mind, p.27-8).

I am not claiming to be an intellectual. I do consider myself an aspiring intellectual. My hope is that a discussion such as this be taken in the spirit that Sire conveys, as a playful wrestling with the truth. If you have found it distasteful, cough it up and spit it out like a cat does a hairball. After all, that’s why I call it hairball theology.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts.