Archive for August, 2016

Did Christians really believe that Jesus loved them before the Bible told them so?

August 31, 2016


Can someone tell me what this quote means in context? My guess is that Andy Stanley is trying to vouch for the historicity of events and teaching later compiled in the books of the New Testament.

Out of context, however—which is the way the vast majority of people will read it—it sounds as if Stanley is denigrating the authority of scripture. I’m sure he would say that old-fashioned Bible preachers like me are bound to misunderstand him. We’re part of the problem. We’ve been preaching and teaching wrong for decades, at least.

But seriously, how is this quote even true?

First, Christians in the first three centuries had the Old Testament, which they believed did tell them that Jesus loved them—even if it didn’t use his name. Indeed, the Christian movement wouldn’t have gotten off the ground to begin with if the apostles didn’t believe wholeheartedly that Christ was the fulfillment of scripture. Read Peter’s sermons in Acts: they are all about the Bible.

Second, churches had copies of at least some gospels and epistles. Third, even if they didn’t, they had apostolic teaching, which the Holy Spirit ensured would be written down and compiled in our New Testament.

If his point is that Christians didn’t have a book in their hands called “The Holy Bible,” well, that’s true, but only trivially so. Absent anyone teaching people that Jesus loved them—and what that means and why it matters—who would know it, or care?

Sure, process theology solves one problem, but at what price?

August 25, 2016

This is the third and final part of my response to a blog post by fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Valendy.

Here’s the heart of his second response to me:

When I take up the struggle you ask me to consider, I come on the side that no one, not even God, is “in control.” Just as there is great comfort in your responses about God being in control, I find comfort in believing that no one is in control. In the language of the “omni’s” of God, I yield the omnipotence of God to the divine goodness of God (omnibenevolent). I see there are many scriptures that point to God in the way you speak of and understand this theology and even respect it. I also find there are scriptures that point to God not being all powerful and thus the role of intercessory prayer changes from trying to get God to intervene to God being the companion that walks with us and is able to take the berating that comes in authentic prayer (see the Psalms that call God out on all sort of reasons).

I find the most powerful thing that God can be in a time of suffering and pain is companionship. We are never alone. God does not abandon us or leave us wondering if God could correct the pain then why would God not do such a thing…

Now his cards are on the table: Rev. Valendy “yields the omnipotence of God to the divine goodness,” presumably because he believes that, in this world of evil, God’s power is in conflict with his goodness—just as David Hume famously did:

Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

While Valendy believes that God is not quite impotent, he does believe that God’s power is severely limited: As much as God might want to prevent evil and suffering, he can’t.

This is process theology, in other words. Yuck! What comfort does it bring Valendy to believe that “no one is in control”? Only this, I imagine: God is off the hook for evil. It was somehow already there before he started creating. He doesn’t have the power to defeat it. In which case, how can God ensure the eschatological promises that are writ large across Old and New Testaments? How can God ensure his kingdom will come in all its fullness?

Elsewhere in his comments, he writes that if God were in control as orthodox Christianity has maintained, then that would mean that God doesn’t “needs us to companion with God to help usher in the Kingdom.” Given that this flies in the face of the doctrine of God’s aseity—that God is utterly self-sufficient and needs nothing from anyone or anything—I thought Valendy might have been speaking carelessly. Given his words above, however, I now believe that he meant it literally.

From his perspective, God does need us human beings to ensure God’s promised future. If that were true, well… we would be in deep trouble.

I wrote the following in response to his comments. If I’ve misrepresented Valendy, I hope he will correct me:

I sense that you are ready for this conversation to end. At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I have a few more thoughts I’d like to share.

My original challenges to you assumed that you and I share the classically orthodox position that God is all powerful. I’m guessing you don’t, as you indicate when you write that God’s (mere) companionship never leaves us “wondering if God could correct the pain then why would God not do such a thing.” By this, you imply that God doesn’t always (or often) have the power to change our circumstances, even if he wants to.

But you’re O.K. with God’s not being all-powerful because, you believe, this attribute conflicts with his goodness. No all-good and all-powerful God would allow human suffering or evil without doing anything to stop it. This is the old Hume argument.

I’m sure you’ve heard the classic theodicies (there are many) defending God’s goodness in the face of evil without, at the same time, sacrificing God’s omnipotence. I’m guessing you don’t find them persuasive? Still, I would love to see you engage the arguments some time.

You say there are scriptures that indicate that God isn’t all powerful. Which ones? And how are you reading those scriptures?

You told your other commenter that you don’t take scripture “literally.” Why, then, are you reading those scriptures that suggest God isn’t all-powerful in such an overly literal way? “I don’t interpret the Bible literally,” you told your other commenter. “But when it comes to this verse here and that verse over there, I’m going to take them very literally, because they happen to support what I already believe.” That doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

After all, even inerrantists believe in progressive revelation (see Article V of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy), and we understand that God is sometimes portrayed anthropomorphically. We also read scripture “literally” in the sense that we read it with respect to genre and the author’s intentions. Poetry, metaphor, parable, figurative language, hyperbole… we inerrantists believe that these aren’t meant to be taken as literal history.

With these things in mind, I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that scripture as a whole affirms anything other than God’s omnipotence. Even the few scriptures I cited for you (2 Cor 12, Gen 50, Rom 8:28) should be enough to challenge what you’ve said about God’s sovereignty or providence. But you didn’t engage my argument. You told your other commenter that you take scripture seriously—yet you don’t argue from scripture? Why?

You also told the other commenter that you don’t believe scripture is the Word of God; Jesus is. That’s fine. I know where you’re coming from. But can you name even one thing that you know about the Word of God that is Christ, which isn’t also revealed in the word of God that is scripture? [ed. note: Or put another way, one thing that we know about Christ today that is contradicted by the Christ portrayed in scripture?]

Finally, when you pray an intercessory prayer, do you believe that God might do something other than “be present with” the person you’re praying for? If so, how does that do justice to Christ’s own words about the power of prayer?

Again, he says he takes scripture seriously. I see no evidence of serious engagement with scripture in this blog post—or others of his that I’ve read.

Is God “in control” of chaos? I hope so!

August 24, 2016

I’ve new exchanged a few comments with Jason Valendy, the United Methodist pastor whose blog post I referred to on Monday. Here is his first response to me:

What I am trying to get at is the idea of “something is in control” is a false god. What I am trying to get at is that even God is not subject to “having to control” things. God, freed from enslavement to control things, is beyond all limits. The reality of chaos, mystery and chance is scary as heck. I believe that God walks with us through the chaos, mystery and chance of life but is not “in control” of the chaos. The nature of God is one of companionship and not of dictatorship.

I agree that God isn’t “enslaved” by his need to control things. But is that our only choice? God is either enslaved and controls things, or he’s free and God’s providence and sovereignty don’t exist? How is it not gracious on God’s part that he chooses to rule over his Creation—even without, I would argue, routinely overriding human freedom?

Here’s my comment back to him:

Jason, I’d still like for you to wrestle with the challenge of answered prayer and how it relates to God’s sovereignty. Does God, even occasionally, give his children what they ask for in prayer? The Bible, including the words of our Lord, says yes—emphatically. Conversely, if we pray for something and God doesn’t give us what we ask for, does God have a good reason for doing so (whether we know the reason or not)?

I should hope so. In fact, Jesus’ words about human fathers giving their children good things and not giving them bad things (like scorpions instead of eggs) implies that the reason God either grants or doesn’t grant our petitions has to do with his goodness: only God, in his foreknowledge, can see the consequences of giving us what we pray for.

So there’s a reason God either grants our petitions or doesn’t. The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12, shares his personal experience with this very issue when he writes about his “thorn in the flesh.” The thorn itself was evil—from the devil himself, Paul says. But not so fast: the thorn was at the same time something that “was given” (divine passive) by God, and it’s good purpose was, Paul says, to keep him humble.

I also think of Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

In either case, God isn’t overriding the free choices (however evil) of free creatures (human or angelic), but he is using them, providentially, to his good ends.

Is God, therefore, the author of evil? Of course not. But God has the power to transform evil into good. He does this all the time: If he can take the greatest evil the world has ever known—his Son being crucified—and transform it into the greatest good the world has ever known—the defeat of evil and the means of our redemption—then he can certainly take all lesser forms of evil and do the same.

Hasn’t this been true in your own experience? Can’t you say that there are some terrible things that have happened to you for which you are nevertheless grateful? That’s God and his providential hand, not luck. It’s the promise of Romans 8:28: “In all things God works for the good…”

Regardless, it’s hard to square the teaching of scripture with the idea that God’s only role in pain and suffering (if indeed this is what you’re saying) is “companionship.”

If you disagree, please show me where I’m wrong. Thanks.

Sermon 08-14-16: “The Inside Out Gospel”

August 22, 2016


In the movie Inside Out, Riley’s mother—along with Riley’s emotion Joy acting as accomplice—encourages Riley to “put on a happy face,” even though Riley has good reason to be sad. We often feel like we have to fake it. As I point out in this sermon, however, the apostle Paul isn’t like us: When he describes the “fruit of the Spirit,” he’s isn’t talking about what people see on the outside; he’s talking about inward transformation—so that our outsides match our insides.

Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide this kind of transformation.

Sermon Text: Galatians 5:16-25

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

The first clip introduces us to the five emotions that drive Riley’s thoughts, words, and actions: Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust, and Anger. A confrontation between Riley and her parents at the dinner table shines a spotlight on the role that anger plays.


We were having dinner on Friday night at a Japanese steakhouse. And you know how you’re forced to socialize with strangers when you go to these places… Well, the gentleman sitting nearest to us at the hibachi was a Delta pilot. I said, “Oh, Delta had a bad week this week.” And he was like, “Delta had a terrible week!” As you probably heard the airline’s main computer network, which handles everything from flight dispatching to crew scheduling, passenger check-in, airport-departure information, ticket sales, and frequent-flier programs, went down, and caused unprecedented flight delays and cancelations. Delta has lost a ton of money.

The CEO of Delta told the public, “I apologize for the challenges this has created for you with your travel experience.” AJC columnist Bill Torpy took issue with these words. He particularly had a problem with the CEO’s use of the word “challenges.” He wrote:

I’m sure those stuck at the airport day after day, who paid unexpected hotel bills, who missed family events, business meetings, funerals or vacations might think of something stronger [than the word “challenges”].

A more correct, or honest, term might have been problem. Or predicament, hardship or plight. There’s also misery, mess or distress. He later did concede “inconvenience,” which is akin to having to open a garage door manually.

Torpy went on to lament all the jargon and buzzwords and euphemisms that people use to avoid “telling it like it is.” Corporations—and churches for that matter—don’t have “problems”; they have “challenges.” But there are plenty more examples. We speak of change agents who leverage their skill sets and drill down to a granular level to find a robust and sustainable solution for their stakeholders. You get the point.

But not so fast… I kind of like using the word “challenges” to describe the problems that Delta passengers faced last week. Why? Because everything that tempts us to get angry also creates a challenge—a challenge to our faith. As Jesus warns us, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Read the rest of this entry »

“Blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings”

August 22, 2016

Pity us Methodist pastors!

We are simply not well-equipped to handle questions of God’s sovereignty. We rarely if ever use the word, in part because we know that Calvinists use the word a lot—and we’re certain we’re not Calvinists. We might be Arminian, but we can’t say for sure: we studied Arminianism in seminary even less than we studied Greek or Hebrew, which is saying something.

Here’s yet another blog post by yet another UMC pastor complaining about the expression “Everything happens for a reason.” Read it alongside his response to a commenter. I wrote the following:

Jason, I understand why your previous commenter was confused. You begin by talking about our need to be in control, when (of course) we’re not in control. That’s true enough. Then you conclude by saying we need to “live in trust,” presumably to God our Father, just as Jesus did.

If we’re going to live in trust, what are we trusting in if not the fact that God is in some sense “in control”?

The moment we concede that God can and will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions, then we run into a problem: What about those many times when God doesn’t? Unless God’s answering our prayers is arbitrary, then we must conclude that “God has a reason” for not answering them.

At this point, it’s just a matter of tracing the logic toward its conclusion: everything does happen for a reason in God’s providential plan. I’ve done it many times on this blog—here, for example.

But if I’m right, here’s some good news: If you don’t like a situation in which you find yourself, you have someone (or Someone) to blame other than yourself—however much such blame will be warranted. You can blame God. You can even be angry with God. In fact, God is probably the only target toward whom it’s safe to express anger without falling into sin.

Paul Zahl makes this point in the January 28 entry of the Mockingbird Devotional:

I recommend we express our anger at God. He can take it. He is in the “business” of absorbing it. “No one does it better.” Jeremiah expressed his anger at God. Paul expressed it in a plaint concerning his “thorn in the flesh.” Jesus almost did it—but not quite. Rather, Christ expressed his dereliction to the Father. The psalmist seems often on the verge of expressing anger at God. Oh, and Studdert-Kennedy did it, that old “Woodbine Willie,” in his immortal spiritual poems from World War One.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, even though I don’t expect anyone to pick up on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Sermon 08-07-16: “The Gospel According to Monsters University

August 17, 2016


As I’ve done the past couple of summers, I’m preaching a sermon series using clips from Disney movies. This week’s sermon is based on the Pixar’s Monsters University. The movie is mostly about Mike Wazowski’s efforts to be someone he’s not. His struggle, as I discuss in this sermon, is not unlike our own. The good news is that God loves “losers” like us.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

The movie is set in a world inhabited by monsters, some of whom cross over into our human world at night and scare children as they sleep. In the opening clip, we see one aspiring “scarer,” Mike Wazowski, start his college career in the prestigious Scare School of Monsters University. Although Mike is a great student, he isn’t naturally scary, and we see him struggle for acceptance by his classmates.


As someone who is already plagued with nightmares of being back in school—of not fitting in, of failing to make the grade, of being embarrassed and humiliated in front of my classmates—I confess that this first clip hits rather close to home.

I remember, for example, my first day of high school. The year before, I played Pop Warner football, and I earned the nickname “Mad Dog” for my toughness, for my persistence. And one of my high school classmates on that first day of high school, Jonathan Pearson, was also on my football team back then—so he knew that my nickname was Mad Dog.

And on the first day of high school he proceeded to tell everyone—people who hadn’t yet even met me, who otherwise had no idea who I was, including all these cute girls—he said to them, “Hey, look, there’s Mad Dog. Hey, Mad Dog!” And pretty soon complete strangers were passing me in the hall, “Hey, Mad Dog!”

So my efforts to be cool on that first day of high school were doomed from the start.

Read the rest of this entry »

God wants us to choose him, not feign loyalty

August 17, 2016

Last year, I praised Clay Jones, a professor at Biola University, for an informal debate he had with atheist philosopher Richard Norman on the Unbelievable! radio show and podcast. As he said then, he believes that we Christians can offer much more in response to difficult questions about why God allows evil and suffering than “It’s a mystery.”

By contrast, at the mainline Protestant seminary I attended, we were only ever supposed to appeal to mystery and paradox in response to any difficult question. No wonder I find Dr. Jones’s clarity so refreshing.

In this new essay, he tackles one of the most difficult questions of all: Why does God allow children to suffer and die?

While urging humility, he offers three reasons:

First, children suffer and die due to pestilence and disease enabled when the Lord cursed the ground after Adam and Eve sinned. He banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, thus barring humans from the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life. God warned Adam and Eve that if they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17), and He didn’t add “at a ripe old age of natural causes.” He just said, “You will surely die,” and we’ve been attending funerals ever since. Second, children also suffer and die because of the mistakes and sins of others, such as leaving a pool gate unsecured, drunk driving, murder, and so on. Third, children suffer and die because natural laws work in regular ways: the gravity that keeps us on planet Earth also enables fatal falls; the fire that warms also burns; the water in which we swim can also drown.

If you’re still unconvinced, he challenges us to consider alternatives: What kind of universe would we live in if this weren’t the case?

His answer is a universe in which miracles happen frequently. God would be constantly intervening to protect us from ourselves and others. We would no longer be free. He quotes Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne:

If God is to allow us to acquire knowledge by learning from experience and above all to allow us to choose whether to acquire knowledge at all or even to allow us to have a very well-justified knowledge of the consequences of our actions—knowledge which we need if we are to have a free and efficacious choice between good and bad—he needs to provide natural evils occurring in regular ways in consequence of natural processes. Or rather, he needs to do this if he is not to give us too evident an awareness of his presence.

Did you catch that last sentence? What’s wrong with God’s giving us “too evident an awareness of his presence”?

It’s not that God doesn’t want everyone to come to saving knowledge of him through his Son Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4); it’s that he wants us to freely choose him. As Jones writes, God “gives enough evidence of His existence so that those who want to believe will have their beliefs justified, but not so much evidence that those who don’t want to believe will be forced to feign loyalty.”

Christian apologists spend a lot of time justifying belief in God’s existence. I do that, too. But God doesn’t want us merely to believe he exists, that he possesses certain attributes, or even that he came into the world through Jesus. As James says, “You believe in one God. Good! Even the demons belief and shudder.”

No, God wants us to love and trust him. God knows that faith is the best vehicle for this love and trust.

As Jones writes, “Because the Lord doesn’t want to interfere with our free will, He gives enough evidence of His existence so that those who want to believe will have their beliefs justified, but not so much evidence that those who don’t want to believe will be forced to feign loyalty.”

Sermon 07-31-16: “Fishing with Jesus”

August 15, 2016

My dog, Neko, in her cone of shame.

If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, no aspect of your life is off-limits to him. No matter what you’re doing or where you are, you are here to love, serve, and glorify him. Does your life reflect this fact?

Sermon Text: Luke 5:1-11

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

A few weeks ago, I talked about my dog, Neko, and the fact that she had to wear a “cone of shame” over her head. Remember? I didn’t go into detail about why she had to wear it. But I want to now… I took her to the vet because she had a large bulge under her hind leg that she had been licking constantly—as dogs tend to do—thus her need for wearing the cone of shame.

I thought the bulge was the result of a infection. I wasn’t too concerned about it. The vet, however, when he inspected it, said—and I quote—“Well, we can rule out the possibility that it’s an infection. It shows every indication of being a tumor. I can’t say whether it’s malignant or benign without a biopsy, but I know for sure it’s a tumor.” That’s exactly what he said. So we scheduled surgery the following Wednesday. And remember, I asked some of you to pray for my doggy, and many of you said you would. And I prayed for her, too.

I’ll never forget my very first Sunday here as your pastor, Allison Burley asked us to pray for one of her cows, who was about to deliver a calf. Rick was at home with the animal. And then, before the service was over, she got a message from Rick: the calf was delivered. Hallelujah! And someone said, “Welcome to Hampton, Pastor Brent!”

But I didn’t think it was strange or unusual that we prayed for the Burleys’ cow! Nothing is too small to pray about. If something is important to us, it’s important to God. We sometimes act as if God is just a bigger, better version of ourselves. We live and pray as if God only has a limited amount of time, and a limited amount of attention, and a limited amount of power. So that if we ask God to devote some of his time, attention, and power to this small part of our lives—like the health and safety of one of our animals—then that means that God will have less time, and less attention, and less power to devote to the really big problems of the world—like world hunger, or world peace, or the presidential campaign.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 07-17-16: “Greater Love Has No One than This”

August 13, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Jonah’s story should give us great hope as Christians. He’s probably the most successful prophet in the Bible—in terms of all the people who repent and believe as as result of his ministry. But notice that his success mostly comes through his failures. Do you believe you’re not good enough for God to do powerful things through you? Think again.

This is the last sermon in my “Opening the Scriptures” series. No audio or video this week. 

Sermon Text: Jonah 1:1-17

There’s a satirical Christian news website called the Babylon Bee—it’s the Christian equivalent of the Onion, if you’re familiar with that purveyor of fake and funny news stories and headlines. But the Babylon Bee ran a story last week entitled, “Church Attendance Spikes Nationwide Due To Influx Of Pokémon Go Players.” You’ve probably heard by now about Pokémon Go… It’s a so-called “augmented reality” app on your smartphone that directs you to different places around the world to capture animated Pokémon characters using your smartphone camera. It’s pretty cool, I’ll be honest. But if you see someone walking down the sidewalk, holding their phone out like this and bumping into park benches and fire hydrants and other people, chances are, they’re playing this game. It has become a huge sensation.

Indeed, before I had even read this article in the Babylon Bee, I saw a United Methodist church sign, which read: “Our church is a Pokéstop. Feel free to come inside.”

Has anyone checked to see if our church is a Pokéstop?

Anyway, this fictitious article quotes one pastor who said: “We just open the doors and let them wander in unaware. Then, when they’re busy catching a Pokémon or taking advantage of our Pokéstop module, we lock the doors behind them and fire up the worship songs. Poor guys don’t know what hit ’em until it’s too late.”

For all I know, the Pokémon Go craze may get unchurched people through the doors of a church. But if you really want them to get religion, and fast, try sending a life-threatening storm their way. That’s what God does to the prophet Jonah and a boatload of seafaring Gentiles in today’s scripture.

It begins: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’” Jonah is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In fact, his hometown is near Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. He even gets a mention in 2 Kings chapter 14. Read the rest of this entry »

Why I don’t trust mystics

August 10, 2016

Around the same time I wrote this blog post from last week, I commented on John Frye’s original post over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. My comment was an abbreviated version of what I wrote on this blog. I said:

John, you affirm the following from Enns:

“God is bigger than the Bible” (149).

“Jesus is bigger than the Bible” (170).

“For Christians, then, the question is not ‘Who gets the Bible right?’ The question is and always has been, ‘Who gets Jesus right?’” (227).

While I agree with the first two statements, how is the third not a false choice? What do we know about Jesus outside of the Bible? How can we possibly get Jesus right except by getting the Bible right?

I also wonder if your daughter Leah isn’t confusing inerrancy with fundamentalism. While I’m an inerrantist, I believe that the Old Testament is factual history only where it purports to describe factual history. Of course we look at context. Of course we consider genre.

But this isn’t the same thing as implying, as Leah does, that we inerrantists “believe that each word of the Old Testament is an historical fact.” Even poetic words? Apocalyptic words? Figurative words? Hyperbole? Idioms?

Frye, among other commenters, said:

Brent, you apparently assume because Enns questions some portions of the OT regarding hermeneutical issues that he has bailed on the whole Bible. Do you recall he taught at Westminster Theo. Sem. for 14 years?! Because he’s pushed the envelope on some OT texts, he now can’t find his way to Jesus in the New Testament? Your panic is uncalled for.

To which I replied:

Who’s panicking? Besides, I wasn’t responding to Enns so much as your post. I don’t know whether Enns can “find his way to Jesus” in the NT by reinterpreting the OT, but that’s beside the point. Many of Jesus’ own words about judgment and hell, not to mention most of Revelation, fit comfortably alongside the passages in the OT on which Enns seems eager to “push the envelope.”

Again: Can we “get Jesus right” apart from getting the Bible right? Do we know anything about Jesus that isn’t revealed there? This is why we Protestants have insisted from Day One on the primacy of scripture. We’re not, historically, mystics—and for good reason.

Frye then wrote:

Brent, I hear stories of Muslims who can’t get near a Bible getting Jesus right because he shows up to them and they convert at the risk of their lives. Is that too mystical for you?

I responded:

You’re not suggesting that these Muslims are converting to Christianity without even hearing the gospel, are you? Reductio ad absurdum. Illiterate people can be converted without reading a Bible. You know that’s not my point.

Is there something that these Muslims (or any other converts) are learning about Jesus to which scripture itself doesn’t also bear witness?

I guess some people just like to argue (he said, without a hint of irony). 😉

Another person, Andrew Dowling, who has trolled me nearly every time I’ve commented on McKnight’s blog, wrote:

Christians for 300+ years knew lots about Jesus absent any Bible.

I said:

Not really. They had portions of the Bible. They had some gospels. They had some epistles. They had preachers proclaiming God’s word. They had teachers teaching it. They had memories of apostolic witness. Absent anyone telling them anything, what would they know about Jesus?

I should also have pointed out that they had the Old Testament. Regardless, he said:

Most Christians relied on oral tradition. Which was filled with material different from or absent from what made it into the canonical Gospels (although it also included a wealth of material that is in the canon). And I’m not talking Gnostics.

Oxyrynchus 1224, the Fayyum Fragment, Gospel of the Hebrews, and various Patristics quotes of Jesus sayings not In the Bible point to a robust, proto-orthodox oral Gospel tradition that does not begin or end with what eventually made it into the official Canon.

I said:

Fine. And inasmuch as these extrabiblical words and documents were truthful witnesses to Christ, then they were good and useful to the early church. I’m not sure what your point is. From my perspective, the Holy Spirit saw fit to preserve all necessary oral tradition in the books that comprise our New Testament, without which no one today would be able to “get Jesus right.”

The fact is, there are many progressive Christians who want to insist that the Bible isn’t God’s Word—that Jesus (alone) is God’s Word. Why do they do this? It’s a false choice.

Can someone please name one thing we know about Jesus that isn’t revealed in the Old and New Testaments? Just one thing? 

Of course this knowledge isn’t the same as having a saving relationship with God through Christ. Of course people who don’t possess Bibles—or don’t know how to read—can be converted. Of course conversion itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, who draws people to Christ. But can people be converted without someone proclaiming the gospel to them? How is the gospel not the means by which they’re saved? “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Or elsewhere:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear (B)without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 ESV)

By all means, “knowing Jesus” is more than words and knowledge; it is a spiritual event and an ongoing relationship. But it isn’t less than words and knowledge.