Archive for October, 2014

Follow-up to last Sunday’s sermon

October 30, 2014

I thought my “Bible Heroes” sermon series, which focused on faithful heroes of the Old Testament, reached a rousing climax last Sunday with my sermon on Josiah. (I’ll post the sermon soon.) What impresses me most about Josiah’s comprehensive reforms in what remained of Israel was this: he renewed his people’s covenant with God and implemented these costly reforms after he found out that his nation was doomed. In other words, nothing he did or didn’t do would avert God’s wrath against Judah. His nation was going to be destroyed; it was only a question of whenSo Josiah chose to fight an uphill battle for the sake of a lost cause. But he did it anyway—because it was the right thing to do. When Josiah had nothing to gain in return, he remained faithful to God.

His courage resonates with me in part because, as I’ve said before, I’m not like him!

I’m not like him because I know the answer to the question that Satan asked of Job, which was also the question at the heart of Abraham’s test when he lifted the knife to his son Isaac: At my sinful worst, I don’t serve God for nothing. I expect God to give me something in return for my sacrifices. I expect to be successful by the world’s standards. I expect the admiration of my colleagues. I expect gratitude from the people I serve. I expect self-respect. God owes me these things, right?

Meanwhile, Abraham and Josiah are content to serve God for nothing. With them there is no quid pro quo.

Lord, make me like them!

Save us from “Methodist middle”!

October 30, 2014
United Methodist "centrists," like theological progressives, also want to change church doctrine on sexuality. They're just willing to bide their time.

United Methodist “centrists,” like theological progressives, also want to change church doctrine on sexuality. They’re just willing to bide their time.

On social media yesterday, I saw several of my clergy colleagues linking with approval to this new movement among so-called “centrist” United Methodists.

It’s disingenuous nonsense.

After all, is there some large “Methodist middle” (especially among clergy) who haven’t made up their minds on this issue? I’m not buying it. There are three sides on this issue: People like me who believe in the unanimous verdict of nearly two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject. Theological progressives who want to overturn that verdict immediately. And “centrists” who also want to overturn that verdict but are willing to bide their time for a little while.

The authors write: “We are torn both by scripture which addresses issues of what is acceptable sexual practice and by the call of the prophets to love justice, offer mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord.”

Why are they torn? Weren’t the prophets always the ones calling us back to being faithful to God’s Word? In which case, the only question that should concern us is, What is “acceptable sexual practice” according to scripture? If we get that answer right, I trust the prophets will also support us.

“Relying on God to make an argument against God”

October 28, 2014

David Murray has a nice summary of an essay in The Atlantic by atheist Crispin Sartwell, “Irrational Atheism:
Not Believing in God Isn’t Always Based on Reasoned Arguments—and That’s Okay.” Murray summarizes Sartwell’s piece as follows:

  • The atheistic worldview “is similar to the worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”
  • His view of the universe as a natural, material system is based on his interpretation of his experience not on a rational argument.
  • “I have taken a leap of atheist faith.”
  • Atheism can be as much a product of family, social, and institutional context as religious faith.
  • “The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false.”
  • Just as religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on church dogma, so some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data.
  • Science rests on emotional commitment (that there is a truth), a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up.

Sartwell concludes his piece with this:

Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I’ve experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don’t—I can’t—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I’m here, and I commit. I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

Who can’t sympathize with Sartwell? If I were an atheist, my atheism would be based on indignation that the world is deeply unjust. Nevertheless, as pastor and author Tim Keller points out, this kind of reasoning has a “boomerang effect”:

It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?

We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it shows you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.[†]

† Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

Does God speak to us personally through his Word?

October 27, 2014

As I blogged about last year, theologian Phillip Cary, an evangelical, would say that the only way we hear God’s voice is through scripture. How we apply this word from God to our lives is a matter of God-given wisdom, not any kind of divine revelation. I appreciate what Cary is saying: among other things, it guards against believing that the Spirit will reveal to us something that contradicts God’s Word, which is near the heart of my disagreement with fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger Jason Micheli. Moreover, whatever word we “hear” from God will never be as authoritative as the word that he’s given us in scripture.

All that to say, like Cary, I’m suspicious of Christians who speak with great confidence about what God “told” them. How do they know for sure that they’re hearing the voice of God, rather than their own intuition? If what God tells us, by contrast, is written in black and white (and sometimes red) in the Bible, then at least the answer is clear.

My friend Tom Harkins shares my concern. In the comments sections of this blog, he’s described an experience in which he heard a Christian singer-songwriter say, “The Lord gave me this next song.” Upon hearing it, Tom thought, “If that were true, then the Lord must be a really bad songwriter!”

Nevertheless, I can’t agree completely with Cary. I think all of us Christians have a sense from time to time of being “led” by God or “spoken to” by God. (The scare quotes indicate that, as far as I can tell, God rarely speaks to us in an audible voice.) I certainly have had that sense! I don’t see anything wrong with that. In my own Methodist tradition, all of us clergy have had to defend our “call” from God to the Board of Ordained Ministry. We believe that God does tell certain individuals that he wants them to go into ministry. This call seems more personal than merely saying that, given this combination of gifts, talents, and interests that I possess, going into ministry would be a wise thing to do. (As best I can tell, that’s Phillip Cary’s position.)

So I would say that the Bible is the primary means by which we hear God’s voice. I would also say that when we read scripture, we may have a supernatural encounter with God—and that the Holy Spirit may speak a personal word to our lives and situations.

But what is that experience like? How do we discern God’s voice speaking directly to us and and the situations we face through scripture? As I said in my sermon yesterday, N.T. Wright offers some helpful words from his commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16-17. He says that when Paul talks about the Bible’s “rebuking” us,

It means, clearly, that as we read scripture it will from time to time inform us in no uncertain terms that something we’ve been doing is out of line with God’s will. Sometimes this will lie plainly on the surface of the text; other times, as we read a passage, we will begin to hear the voice of God gently, or perhaps not so gently, telling us that this story applies to this area of our lives, or perhaps that one. When that happens—as it may often do for those who read the Bible prayerfully—we do well to pay attention.

This seems exactly right to me. Do any of you disagree?

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 121-2.

The law, in highlighting our failure to keep it, points to Christ

October 24, 2014

This Sunday I’m preaching on Josiah, a relatively unsung (to us, anyway) king of Judah. I guess all kings of the divided kingdom are unsung, whether they were good or bad. Still: Josiah was a very good one—perhaps the best of all. He’s the only person in the Old Testament who was said to fulfill the Torah with his whole heart. Unlike even David, Josiah led his people in the celebration of Passover, the only king of Israel, divided or otherwise, to do so.

And what does all this Torah-observance get him? Not salvation for his people, as Peter Leithart points out in his commentary on 2 Kings.

Great as he is, Josiah cannot save Judah from destruction. Like the house of Ahab (1 Kgs. 21:27-29), Judah is doomed despite the repentance of the king, and as with the houses of Jeroboam 1 (14:13) and Ahab (2 Kgs. 3:2), the final prophecy of doom comes to a king who is comparatively good. Wisdom does not save Israel from division; Torah, even when kept with incomparable faithfulness, cannot reverse the effects of generations of idolatry. The message of the reign of Josiah is not that the temple must yield to Torah, but that Torah is as impotent as the temple for saving the people of Yahweh. The law is powerless to purify the idolatries of Judah, and Judah is doomed to exile. As Habakkuk says, the law has “become impotent” (Hab. 1:4), and Josiah points to Jesus largely because of his failure, by showing that the law is weak and by leaving Israel desperately hoping for a greater king to perform what he law cannot accomplish.[1]

And this failure of the law is exactly the failure that Paul points to in Galatians and Romans, especially Romans 7. Leithart writes: “Because of sin and the dominance of flesh, the person who receives the law is radically divided, schizophrenic, in a state of living death torn apart between inward desire to obey God and total inability to do so… The law drives to Christ and to faith in him.”[2]

This is, he writes, the “gospel of 2 Kings 22-23”: the “impotence of the law and the absolute need of an incarnate word who shares his Spirit.”[3]

This is precisely one important point we’ve been talking about so far in my Romans Bible study on Wednesday nights.

1. Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 270.

2. Ibid., 271.

3. Ibid.

People don’t often reject Christianity because it’s hard to believe

October 23, 2014

While John Lomperis doesn’t say at which “stage of heresy” Bart Campolo was when he served as a United Methodist youth minister (one hopes a very early one!), I otherwise appreciated this reflection on Campolo’s journey, as the son of progressive evangelical leader Tony, from growing up evangelical to becoming the “humanist chaplain” at USC.

We often speak of faith as if it’s something that happens in spite of ourselves: either we believe or we don’t, and there’s not much we can do about it. Campolo’s story, told briefly in this Forbes magazine profile on leadership, gives the lie to that. Faith is as least as much a matter of the will. We choose it, and the rest of our life follows.

My point is, I don’t think it’s very hard, intellectually, to believe in Christianity. We may reject Christianity for other reasons, but it’s likely not because we’ve weighed all the evidence for its truth claims and find that we just can’t believe it.

I completely agree with this, from Lomperis:

Christian churches obviously differ on all sorts of important but ultimately secondary issues such as infant baptism, women’s ordination, congregational autonomy, episcopal succession, and charismatic gifts. But once one crosses the line of rejecting matters of core, historic Christian orthodoxy (like the eternally triune nature of God, His omnipotence, His performance of laws-of-physics-breaking miracles, Christ’s bodily resurrection, or whether or not we can simply jettison parts of Scriptural teaching that seem too demanding or counter-cultural), this has a way of throwing up everything for grabs. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who has crossed such a very fundamental line of faithfulness in belief or personal practice, but in every other respect is truly a model of Christian purity in doctrine and life. Unfaithfulness has a tendency to spread, like a cancer, until it has overwhelmed its host.

Sermon 10-12-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 9b: Elijah”

October 22, 2014

superhero graphic

In today’s scripture, a drought has caused widespread famine. A widow is worried about having enough food to feed herself and her young son. In spite of this, the prophet Elijah asks her to feed him first—and then feed herself and her boy. This was a major test of faith. The question she must have asked herself was: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will I have enough left over for me?” This sermon explores some ways in which that same question is relevant for us today. This is the second of two sermons on this text.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the early 2000s, when I was working as an engineer, I traveled frequently. And once I was slated to go to Toronto, Canada, where I was going to be working at a Coca-Cola plant. It just so happened that there was an outbreak of a potentially deadly virus in Toronto called SARS. Remember SARS? And on the news, they showed people walking around the streets of Toronto wearing surgical masks out of fear that they, too, would catch SARS. And I was worried, too, frankly. I didn’t want to fly to Toronto and catch SARS while I was there. But I was also way too vain to go to Toronto and walk around wearing a surgical mask like the people I saw on TV. I didn’t want to look dumb. So I had pretty well convinced myself that I was going to go to Canada and get this deadly disease. Oh well…

As it turns out, the trip to Canada got canceled anyway. So I didn’t end up getting SARS.

But I’m reminded of that same kind of fear when I follow the news today. Because now, once again, we face a new public health crisis—a deadly new contagious disease that some of us are worried about: Ebola.

In fact, I sense that we’re living in a new season of fear… And our fear is way out of proportion to the actual threat. When it comes to Ebola, for example, from what I’ve read, it is very difficult to contract the disease. An Ebola sufferer doesn’t become really contagious with the disease until they’re really, really sick. So of course doctors and nurses have to take great precautions when treating someone with Ebola, but it’s unlikely that Ebola could be spread on a subway car… or out in public.

And we’re afraid And if we’re not afraid of Ebola, there are plenty of other things to worry about: like the renewed fear of Islamic terrorism. So we’re trying to contain the threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And there’s even fear that the Secret Service can’t protect the President and the first family—there have been break-ins at the White House!


In today’s scripture, the people of Israel were afraid. It hadn’t rained in over a year with no end in sight. As God had communicated through the prophet Elijah, God was withholding the rain from Israel and the surrounding nations as punishment for God’s people turning away from him and worshiping Baal instead. Baal was considered the god of rain. Baal supposedly controlled the weather. So our God, the one true God, wanted to prove to his people that he was actually in control. So God keeps Elijah alive by sending him out of Israel, about 90 miles north to a city called Zarephath, in Sidon. God tells Elijah that there’s a widow there who will feed him. We talked about how Elijah answered that call to go there in last week’s sermon. This week, I want look at the widow herself. Read the rest of this entry »

The false choice between being devoted to Jesus and being devoted to the Bible

October 20, 2014

Popular blogger and United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli said in a post last week—as he has said many times before—that, contrary to the Bible, including the red-letter words of Jesus, God doesn’t really have wrath toward sin. Wrath is something that we project onto God, out of guilt for our sin. (How on earth Micheli comprehends Paul’s letter to the Romans is beyond me.) Saying that he’s simply regurgitating ideas espoused by Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus (from whom, I note with pleasure, the word “dunce” derives), he argues that God doesn’t experience anything resembling emotion because to do so would contradict the idea that God can be changed by anything, including the sorry plight of us sinful human beings.

I’ll leave it to my Catholic brothers and sisters to decide whether Micheli has accurately represented scholastic theology from the Middle Ages. I couldn’t care less. There are reasons I’m not Catholic, and if Aquinas and others argue God’s “impassibility” precludes God’s having wrath toward sin (or anything else suggesting that God, like humans, experiences actual emotion) then that’s just one more reason.

As I’ve said on this blog before and as I said to Micheli last week in a Facebook thread, if our tidy theological ideas constantly grate against our best understanding of what the Bible tells us, at what point do we say, “Maybe our theology needs to be revised”?

After all, as Roger Olson pointed out when discussing this very topic, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Regardless, given everything else Micheli has said about the Bible, no one can be surprised that Micheli preached this sermon yesterday entitled, “My Problem with the Bible.” (But really: “problem,” singular? Surely this is part one of a lengthy sermon series!)

I only wish I disagreed with the sermon more than I do. I agree that the bumper-sticker affirmation, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” is wrong. Obviously, we have to bring our best exegetical and hermeneutical resources to bear on discerning what God is saying to us through scripture. I agree that biblicism is heretical and idolatrous (although I’m sure I would disagree with his definition of it). We don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God revealed by the Holy Spirit through its words. And I agree that Jesus is the Word of God, God’s complete and perfect revelation of himself. (That doesn’t mean, however, that the Bible isn’t also the capital-W Word of God, although in a different sense from Jesus.)

But my big objection to the sermon emerges at the end: With rhetorical flourish, he lists some of the sins that a “community devoted to the Bible,” rather than to Jesus, would naturally commit. Then, by way of contrast, he concludes with this:

But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes in Jesus Christ and believes him to be the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.

It has to be a community characterized by love. Humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love.

The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

The Bible says that Jesus- NOT THE BIBLE- is the full revelation of God.

I believe Jesus is the Word God speaks to us. I believe Jesus has made the Father known.

So that settles it- if we want God to be known- seen- then we have no other way in this world but to love as Christ loved.

Oh my goodness! How does he not see that he’s begging the question?

By all means, let’s be a community devoted to Jesus, characterized by his example of sacrificial love, which is “defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.”

Who could disagree with that?

Except… How do we know anything about Jesus and his “humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love”? It’s only by reading and studying God’s written revelation of himself, the Bible! How would we know about the woman caught in adultery in John 8? How would we know that Jesus healed on the Sabbath? How would we know that John says that Jesus is the “Word,” the full revelation of God? The apostles and other eyewitnesses aren’t around anymore. We have no reliable revelation of Christ outside of scripture—unless he would argue that a believer in Jesus has some private revelation, independent of scripture, which teaches us who Jesus “really is.”

There’s no way around it, Rev. Micheli: Being a community devoted to Jesus also means being a community devoted to the Bible.

Why does it matter? Because if we’re so confident that the biblical writers, inspired as they were by the Spirit, got the parts about Jesus right—including but not limited to his “red-letter” words—then shouldn’t we be very humble about what we think they got wrong?

This is especially true considering how often Jesus himself affirms the truthfulness of the Old Testament. Please see Andrew Wilson’s excellent essay on the “Jesus Tea-Strainer” for more on the false choice with which Micheli presents us.

The Bible assumes that “God is involved in this world, even in its wickedness”

October 17, 2014

esther_for_everyoneIn yesterday’s post about the missionary nurse who contracted and was then cured of Ebola, I said that many Christians resist the idea that human suffering could have any role to play in God’s plans for our world. But as I’ve said many times, the alternative is far worse: God is hands-off when it comes to evil and suffering; he may hate it for us, but he has no power to prevent it, transform it, or use it to serve his purposes. Nevertheless, the moment we say, “God answered my prayer and prevented this evil from happening,” is the moment that we assert God’s involvement in and control over evil and suffering. It’s the moment we say, “This—even this bad thing—is happening for a reason. It’s serving God’s purposes.”

As he does on so many pressing issues, John Goldingay sheds light on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and evil in his For Everyone commentary. Here he’s commenting on Esther 2:1-18:

Gross self-indulgence for which other people pay the price, sexual oppression and abuse, anti-Semitism, and slaughter are facts of the world in which we live. One of the great characteristics of the Bible is that it faces those facts. It does not deal with issues of a merely spiritual kind. It deals with how things are in our world. It invites us to face the fact of what happens to young girls in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Then, most scandalously, it invites us to assume that God is involved in this world, even in its wickedness. The Persian king is about to seek to eliminate the Jewish people, and the means whereby God will avoid the fulfillment of that intention is the sexual abuse of the teenage Esther. Esther pays a price and her entire people lives. It might seem disturbing that God is prepared to use such means to bring about the defeat of evil. It would be even more disturbing if such horrors happened and were incapable of having any significance.[†]

John Goldingay, Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2012), 164-5.

Glenn Peoples asks, “What makes you doubt?”

October 17, 2014

Glenn Peoples, to whom I’ve referred often on this blog, is one of my favorite Christian bloggers, apologists, and theologians. In his most recent post, he asks his readers—both believers and atheists—to step into the “public confessional” and say what makes them doubt either their belief or lack of belief in God. It is surely for the benefit of “professional Christians” like me that he writes the following:

Don’t worry that you might be “giving away” too much [if you admit that you doubt]. If you think that non-believers really accept that you have no doubts at all, you’re kidding yourself. A lot of them, I am sure, think that really you know the whole thing is nonsense, but you pretend to believe it in order to dull your fear of death. The admission of one real doubt then is hardly going to be a great revelation. You may even demonstrate to people that you have honesty and humility after all, and that you are secure enough in what you know that you can admit what you do not know. What’s more, as a public defender of Christianity, your admission that you have some doubts will be encouraging to other Christians, who will be able to say “I’m not the only one! I don’t just lack faith after all. It’s OK to have doubts.” Lastly, while you might worry that admitting your doubts gives away too much information, any intellectually honest atheist who has spent much time thinking about the God question will have at least as much doubt about their view that God isn’t there. Anyone who can look you in the eye and say that there is absolutely no reason for pause at all, and that every piece of information that we have supports their believe that God does not exist is either a worse liar than our hypothetical scientist or else far, far more deluded than anyone suffering from what Dawkins called “The God Delusion.” C. S. Lewis recalls his own moments of doubt:

Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.

Dr. Peoples confessed that he doubts that petitionary prayer accomplishes anything—that what happens is what would happen anyway, regardless whether we pray or not.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments section:

Great post, Glenn! My biggest doubt has to do with this question: Why is God as difficult to believe in as he is? What I mean is: why doesn’t he offer more direct evidence of his existence—theophanies like those, for example, given to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, or Isaiah? I understand that nature bears witness to God; that there is excellent historical evidence for the resurrection, which itself confirms the truth of the gospel; that we have lots of good arguments for God’s existence, etc. I even have much personal experience that confirms my strong intuition that God is real. But believing still requires a lot of faith on our part. I trust that God knows best, but why should it be so?

Even as I write these words, I feel a need to defend my faith—to argue myself out of this doubt—but, in the spirit of Glenn’s post, I’ll let this question stand for now.

The point is, it’s O.K. to doubt. What did Tennyson say? “There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.”