Posts Tagged ‘Justin Brierley’

Devotional Podcast #19: “Nothing to Show for Ourselves”

March 8, 2018

In this episode, I reflect once again on Billy Graham’s life, as seen through the eyes of Washington Post columnist George F. Will, who wrote a column deeply critical of Graham. Reading that column helped me to learn something unflattering about myself, which I want to share with you. Maybe you can relate?

Devotional Text: Philippians 4:11-13

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Wednesday, March 7, and this is devotional podcast number 19.

You’re listening to a sweet song called “Blue, Red and Grey.” It was written and performed—on ukulele, no less—by Pete Townshend. It appears on his band’s 1975 album, The Who by Numbers. Townshend, who swore one time that he never wrote a proper love song, is likely singing about God when sings,

I like every second
So long as you are on my mind
Every moment has its special charm
It’s all right when you’re around, rain or shine

But what appeals to me here is the contentment expressed by the song. I’m sure Townshend would be the first to tell you that it’s aspirational. In the context of an otherwise deeply unhappy album, the song’s optimism is jarring. But he’s exactly right to aspire to this level of contentment, no matter how elusive it may be.

But what if it doesn’t have to elude us? What if the apostle Paul is telling the truth when he writes the following in Philippians 4:11-13?

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

In the wake of Billy Graham’s death two weeks ago, Washington Post columnist George Will—wasting no time, apparently, to speak ill of the dead—published an editorial critical of the evangelist—on the very day that the Rev. Graham died. Graham was “no prophet,” Mr. Will said—as if he ever claimed or aspired to be. Why? Because he never challenged the status quo—otherwise how could he have been so beloved by millions? “Prophets are without honor” and all that, Will reminds us. So Graham must have been some kind of people-pleaser.

Except… even Will conceded that Graham did challenge the status quo on matters of race: as early as 1952, years before the tide turned against Jim Crow and segregation in the South. As a white southerner myself, born a generation after the fiercest battles of the civil rights movement had been fought and won, 1952 seems heroically early for a white southerner like Graham to speak in defense of equality and desegregation. Nevertheless, Will said, Graham “rarely stepped far in advance of the majority.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”

January 18, 2017

unbelievable_banner

A recent episode of the Unbelievable? radio program (and podcast), “How I Lost My Child but Kept My Faith,” featured Jessica Kelley, who describes the heartbreaking experience of losing her 4-year-old son to brain cancer. To cope with her son’s suffering, she adopted what’s often called a “warfare” view of human suffering, influenced by pastor and theologian Greg Boyd. As best I can tell, it’s a form of “open theism,” which limits the extent to which God knows the future and his power to change circumstances in our world.

Open theism is such a non-starter for me, on biblical grounds, I haven’t investigated it deeply: I’m not sure if Boyd would say that God limits his foreknowledge (if that were possible) or that God can’t know the future with certainty. Boyd’s concern, I think, is his mistaken belief that if God knows the future infallibly, this knowledge therefore determines it, thereby overriding human free will. I’ve heard him say that God can only know (whether by choice or by necessity) probabilities of events occurring—given every antecedent event happening at any given moment.

This seems crazy to me. Even fallible human parents can often know, with a high degree of certainty, what their child will do under a certain set of circumstances. Yet God can’t?

Besides, God’s foreknowledge does not determine. As William Lane Craig, among other apologists, has argued, while God’s knowledge of future events is chronologically prior to the events happening (obviously), it is logically subsequent to these events happening: God “sees” humans and other free agents (including angels and demons) making choices, and “what God sees” becomes the basis of his foreknowledge. God can intervene to change future outcomes as he sees fit without running roughshod over free will.

In other words, God factored in the free choices of human and angelic beings (including, in the case of humans, our prayers) when he created the world. He factored in the sin, evil, and suffering that would often result from these free choices. He factored in our human need for discipline and punishment. And he factored in the need for our world to be governed, as a rule, by stable physical forces. Whatever else God factored into this world that he created, he did so according to his good purposes and for his glory.

Therefore, having done so, we can be confident that what God causes or allows to happen right now is in accordance with his will: even—and I say this with fear and trembling—a 4-year-old dying of brain cancer. (I’ve written at length about the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will, which might prove helpful. Click here for more.)

I find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty immensely comforting. But if you don’t, what’s the alternative? One Unbelievable? listener, “Wallace in Charleston,” puts it like this:

One question I would have liked to have asked Jessica, especially when she spoke of Jesus’ miracles of healing, is whether she believed God had the power to heal her son? Given her theological comments, it seems she would have had to answer no—”God didn’t have the power, because of these other wills and forces in the universe that, at least in my son’s case, were stronger than God’s.”

But think about the devastating implications of such an admission for Christian hope. How can I trust that a God who was powerless to heal my child will someday have enough power to raise him from the dead? How could such a God could ever accrue enough power to raise all the dead and create a new heaven and a new earth?…

I can sympathize with how Greg Boyd’s theology has appeared comforting to Jessica as she watched little Henry die, but I’m afraid that comfort comes at too high a price and has implications that are not comforting at all. Better to own the sovereign hand of God and say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Another listener, “Tim from Saskatchewan,” emphasized that we believe in God’s sovereignty because of scripture.

[Jessica] stated that most Christians start with the assumption that God is sovereign. But through her experience, she’s come to understand that God is not fully in control, but works on the side of good. She quotes John 10:10 to defend her position, which says Jesus came to bring life.

The issue I have is that Christians don’t assume God is sovereign: the Bible states it explicitly. Jesus didn’t come to make alive people feel better; he came that dead people may receive life. It’s impossible to read John 6 and not think that the Bible is clear that God is in full control of everything. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” The fact that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world [Rev. 13:8] shows that the immeasurably horrible suffering of the cross was part of God’s plan. He didn’t do the best he could; he did exactly as he planned.

I would only add that our belief in sovereignty is based on much more than John 6.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I like Jessica. I’m sympathetic with her. And I find her story deeply moving. I also agree that Satan and his evil forces are at work in our world, opposing God’s people and the work of God’s kingdom—possibly even causing the evil of brain cancer. By all means!

But if I were Justin Brierley, I would have asked her: Does God have the power to prevent Satan from causing this harm? If her answer is yes—and how could it not be if God has the power to create the universe and everything in it, including Satan himself—then the difference between God’s causing and God’s allowing the disease, while important, isn’t as great as it first appears. Her version of open theism hardly solves the “problem” of evil.

The “affirming” word to Christians like me: “You have a message of death and I pray for your soul”

April 27, 2015

This week’s episode of Unbelievable, a podcast I praised a while back, hosted a debate on The Issue last week between Dr. Robert Gagnon, the foremost mainstream (and mainline Protestant) Bible scholar defending the church’s traditional doctrine on homosexual practice, and Jayne Ozanne, an evangelical Anglican revisionist on the subject, who came out as gay earlier this year.

I have often cited on this blog Gagnon’s seminal book from Abingdon Press, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which defends the historic Christian position.

I linked to this debate on Facebook, inviting gay-affirming clergy colleagues and those in the infamous “Methodist Middle” (who, let’s face it, are often one and the same) to listen. I said: “Pay attention to the care with which each one uses scripture to make his or her case. Which side is more faithful to our Wesleyan understanding of the role of scripture in guiding our faith and practice?”

A friend commented that the affirming side was poorly served by Ozanne, who seemed unprepared to match wits with Gagnon on what the Bible actually says about homosexual practice. Why not have a gay-affirming Bible scholar go at it with Gagnon? Wouldn’t that be a fairer fight?

Two responses: First, Dr. Gagnon himself, who is a Facebook friend, pointed out that while he’s “happy to debate any biblical scholar, theologian, ethicist, etc. at any time at any place,” he can’t get anyone to do it any longer. “For the first 5-7 years after my first book came out, I could get debates. Then I went through them all and word spread. This includes Brownson, Gushee, and Vines, none of whom will meet me for a rigorous discussion of what Scripture says and how it is to be appropriated faithfully in our contemporary context.”

Second, the debate was useful because it lays bare the shallowness of the arguments upon which so many of our colleagues are willing to overturn the church’s unanimous, two-millennia verdict that homosexual practice is a sin. Ozanne, who mostly argues from personal experience, repeated many of the things I’ve heard from our colleagues. What Ozanne believes, they also believe.

If, like Ozanne, my “affirming” colleagues are unwilling to engage scripture on the subject in the same serious way in which Gagnon does, then what they are saying, in so many words, is this: “I don’t care what the Bible says: here’s what it means.”

In doing so, they have moved far beyond any Wesleyan, much less Protestant, understanding of the authority of scripture.

Around the 49:00-minute mark, Ozanne, unable to meet his arguments head-on, resorts to attacking Gagnon’s character and Christian faith.

Sadly, this feels familiar to me: In my limited experience defending the same doctrine that, at one time or another, all of my fellow clergy said they agreed with, even some of them have resorted to ad hominem attacks against me. That’s fine—sticks and stones and all that. But let’s call a spade a spade.

That’s what Gagnon does in the following exchange, and good for him. Please notice that Ozanne insinuates that something is spiritually wrong with Gagnon for having these convictions—convictions that I share. So his problem is also my problem—and Pope Francis’s problem, for that matter.

What is wrong with all of our souls?

In the following transcript, which begins at 49:04, after Gagnon has just finished citing gay-affirming Bible scholars who agree with him that the Bible’s witness against homosexual practice is unambiguous, Ozanne begins her personal attack.

OZANNE: Robert, I admire your certainty on everything, and I have to be honest, I frankly don’t care how many hundreds of pages people have written. I’m very much reminded of the ‘wisdom of the wise I will frustrate.’ For me it’s about the nature of God and his love for us.

I’m afraid your certainty that this is so wrong leaves no room whatsoever for giving life to people who, um, I thinking of a teenager who’s just committed suicide. I mean, you have a message of death, and you’re so certain about it, I pray for you and your soul. Because I think—I hope—that your listeners, Justin, will listen with their hearts about what they feel is truly happening here… And the ultimate thing is, what is going on in our spirits beforehand to try and help us interpret [what scripture says about homosexual practice].

And I would suggest the ultimate place to start is looking at what Christ has done for us, which is to ensure that in his death on the cross, there is nothing else that is needed to bring everyone into the kingdom

GAGNON: I think you’ve distorted and given a truncated version of the gospel, and I think that’s part of the problem with your whole picture. But I also want to address the fact that earlier you had somewhat of an ad hominem attack on me with regard to my certainty, which I think is inappropriate.

O.K., first of all, it may be that a particular case in scripture does have overwhelming evidence. So it’s then a kind of manipulative argument to say that your ‘certainty’ is a problem. Maybe it’s your lack of an ability to respond to the arguments in question, and then you lash out with an ad hominem attack at somebody—that it’s their ‘certainty’ that’s the problem. Maybe your problem is your inability to actually defend the position.

And then you have an overarching presentation of the gospel that seems to completely leave out the fact that Christ doesn’t just call us to get what we want. He calls us to take up our cross, to lose our lives, and to deny ourselves. That doesn’t, to me, sound like getting what I want, when I want, with whom I want.

[Crosstalk]

Let me finish my train of thought because you’ve interrupted me again… My train of thought is that you have a notion about what fullness of life is. And that fullness of life is not reflected in the gospel. Paul, on a regular basis, had a life that was much more troubling than yours, mine, or anyone else around here. Every day he would get up in the morning, he could be beaten by rods by secular authorities. He could be whipped forty lashes minus one in the synagogues. He could be stoned, and we’re not talking about drugs here. He was poorly sheltered, poorly clad, poorly fed. In constant anxiety for his churches.

By your token or definition of what a meaningful existence is, he should have been absolutely miserable, and blamed God every day of his life for the kinds of experiences he had—even beaten up en route to share the gospel without actually sharing it—what’s the point of that? Shipwrecked, et cetera.

His point is that he’s rejoicing, because as he’s carrying around in his body the dying of Jesus, the life of Jesus is being manifested in him. As he’s brought to the point of whether he’s even going to live the next day, as he talks about in 2 Corinthians 1, he is brought to the point of relying on the God who has raised Jesus from the dead.

The gospel in 30 seconds

March 24, 2015

welby2

As I discussed last week, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a remarkable speech on the importance of personal evangelism, not simply for the “professionals” like me, but for everyone. The most recent episode of the podcast Unbelievable? includes the audio of that speech, along with an exclusive interview with Welby.

Here, the host of the show, Justin Brierley, asks Welby to imagine that Brierley were a non-Christian and asked Welby to explain the gospel in 30 seconds: what would he say?

Here the archbishop’s response:

I’d go straight in simple language to John’s gospel, chapter 3, verse 16, and say, ‘There’s a problem with human beings, which is that we don’t know God. In one way or another there’s a barrier between us and God. God has solved the problem, and it’s open to us to take that solution into our lives by opening our lives to his presence. And the Bible says that God so loved the world—because this is about love—that he gave—because it’s him taking the action—his only Son Jesus Christ—he himself—so that all who believe in him—that’s just put the weight of their lives on him—should not perish but have everlasting life. This is about hope. It’s positive. It’s really good news.

Welby is a theologically sophisticated person. Yet, notice how simple this short presentation is. It requires remembering one Bible verse, which we probably already know. Any of us can remember and recite something like this to someone.

Right?