Posts Tagged ‘Scot McKnight’

The angel at the empty tomb doesn’t say, “Take my word for it”

April 25, 2017

In my Easter sermon from this year, which I will post on my blog soon, I spend about half the sermon talking about evidence for the resurrection, based on clues from the sermon text, Matthew 28:1-20. The text itself invites us to look at the evidence. Frederick Dale Bruner, the theologian whose commentary on Matthew has proven so valuable for my sermon series in Matthew, certainly thinks so. He writes the following in relation to verse 6 and the angel’s words to the two Marys: “Come and take a look at the place where they put him.”

Among other things, this is the Gospel’s invitation to scientific research. The angel does not say, “Don’t look in here! Take it by faith! Don’t ask any questions!” Instead, the angel invites the women to check out his assertions with their senses. “Come, use your eyes and your mind, and see if what I say is true.” The scientific study of the biblical documents (called the historical-critical method) asks critical questions: “Did this happen? Is this historical? Is this parabolic? How does this fit with other and differing accounts? What is to be made of this in light of that?” These questions are not unbelief; rather, they are one form of obedience to the command to “come and take a loot the place where they put him” to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)….

The Christian does not get a lobotomy when he or she makes the decision to be a disciple. Jesus wants his people to be honest, to think about their faith, and to be able to investigate its problems. The angel’s command to empirical investigation is wonderfully freeing, and rightly heard it can protect the church from anti-intellectualism.

I affirm this, with two caveats: First, no purely “scientific” investigation can begin to answer questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that it won’t also require faith to believe in it. Ultimately, we only come to this faith by revelation from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

Even an apologist like William Lane Craig—who has been criticized by some Reformed Christians (or at least one that I’ve heard, James White) for being too rational in his approach to God and the resurrection—believes that saving faith comes only by a revelatory act of the Spirit. By contrast, on his Reasonable Faith podcast, he said that when he was an undergraduate at Wheaton, one of his professors said he was so committed to the reasonableness of Christianity that he would abandon the faith if it proved unreasonable to believe it.

Craig said he was shocked: “If one of my arguments for God or the truth of Christianity proved false, I would assume that a better argument existed—because I already know Christianity is true. And I know that by revelation.”

My second caveat is that the historical-critical method will never prove that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Inasmuch as it’s “scientific,” this method isn’t, by definition, equipped to offer a judgment on the question. For that we need faith. By all means, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible can become more reasonable when we consider Jesus’ own high view of scripture. As a rule of thumb, when deciding whether something is true or not, always go with the opinion of the guy who was raised from the dead!

But in my own experience over the past eight years—having gone from doubting the Bible’s authority to believing in it to the utmost—I will say this: most of the Bible’s “problems,” such as they are, can be resolved once we ask ourselves this question: “What should I expect to be true if God the Holy Spirit guided the author to write what he wrote?”

As an example, consider this debate between skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? podcast. McGrew was discussing “undesigned coincidences” in the New Testament: when one small part of the New Testament unintentionally corroborates another small part—such that the two parts fit together like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. McGrew was right: undesigned coincidences are a powerful apologetic tool, but only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the Spirit inspired the different authors of the New Testament.

Are you willing or not? If not, why not?

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, a trolling progressive Christian whose name I won’t mention often comments on McKnight’s blog posts. In even the most innocuous post that affirms the authority of scripture, you can count on a skeptical comment from this reader. I want to say to him, “Yes, but suppose the evangelicals are right after all, and the Bible is reliable and true when it reports this or that. Why are you against that? What’s at stake for you in believing that the Bible isn’t historically reliable? Why do you prefer to believe that the Bible is, at best, only true in a metaphorical way?”

If I believed I could have a productive conversation I would ask him, but I know from experience I can’t.

Come to think of it, I could ask the same of my progressive Methodist clergy colleagues!

Where do evil and suffering fit into God’s plans?

January 24, 2017

A regular contributor to Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who calls herself “RJS,” wrote a post that further illustrates the problem with the way that many evangelicals discuss issues related to God’s sovereignty and providence. If you didn’t read my post on the subject last week, please do so. Then read RJS’s most recent post.

I wrote the following comment, to which I hope RJS responds.

You say Genesis 50:19-20 shouldn’t be a “catch-all propositional truth thrown at people in times of pain.” For that matter, what propositional truth should be “thrown at” anyone in the midst of their pain. Pastoral sensitivity is necessary no matter what. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t propositional truths. I wouldn’t necessarily quote James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, my brother and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…”) when someone is in pain, even though someone’s pain would usually qualify as a “trial.” Right?

Regardless, if God can work “even through the evil actions of humans,” as you say in your last paragraph, I fail to see the distinction between what counts for “God’s plans” and what doesn’t. You seem to imply that God’s plans only use “good events.” But if God foreknows what sinful humans will do, and he’s at work, a la Romans 8:28, through everything, how can “every evil and tragic occurrence” also not be part of his plans—unless you accept some form of open theism and believe that these events take God by surprise. (Not judging here, just trying to understand your point of view.)

I’m speaking as a Wesleyan-Arminian, by the way. I’m not a Calvinist troll. But in my way of thinking, if God has plans at all, how can those plans not take into consideration the evil and sinful things that humans do—or even so-called “acts of God” that harm people?

Besides, every event that happens in the world—for good or evil—has a ripple effect on history, affecting the lives of hundreds, thousands, or more. At what point will God start enfolding these myriad consequences into his “plans”?

With that in mind, I still find Timothy Keller’s words about providence and the “butterfly effect” persuasive. As I wrote in an earlier blog post:

In the scientific realm of chaos theory, there’s something called the “butterfly effect,” which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[1] Should it be any easier to figure out God, and why God is doing or allowing something to happen?

Pastor Tim Keller reflects on this and writes: “If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.” Yet often when things don’t go our way, we’re the first ones to think, “That’s not fair! If I were God, I would run the universe differently.” But as you can imagine, we’re not really in a position to judge.[2]

1. Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Ibid., 101.

We love you, Tom Wright, but haven’t you said this many times before?

October 27, 2016

No one on this blog will question my bona fides as an admirer of N.T. Wright. Heck, I just quoted him a couple of hours ago!

But I don’t think I need to read his new book on atonement. I feel like I’ve already read it, based on Scot McKnight’s blog posts about it, including this one. I had to reply to one commenter who said the following about Wright’s views on penal substitution:

He uses a lot of plural pronouns (as in “…we have paganized soteriology”) and hints at widespread distortions (as in “The danger with this kind of popular teaching, and examples of it are not hard to come by…”). As though he, and all the rest of us, have been doing it all wrong. Or is it maybe just us?

I’m a fan of his, even when I disagree, but he often does come off as being the guy who’s finally figured it all out. Most of the caricatures he tilts at are routinely spoken against by committed PSA advocates. So who and what exactly he is refuting?

To this I wrote:

Exactly! Very well said. Even Wright’s constant refrain against speaking of “heaven” as opposed to “new creation” rings a bit hollow to me—at least by the 348th time he’s labored to emphasize that distinction.

One of my eccentric hobbies is collecting sermons by Billy Graham on vinyl records. My point is, I’ve heard a lot of old sermons. Most of these are from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s true that Graham always referred to our eschatological future as “heaven,” but he never did so in a way that implied, as Wright would have us believe, that heaven was disembodied or independent of resurrection and new creation. On the contrary, he spoke of these things, too.

Wright’s “Yes, but…” approach regarding heaven also misses one important point: While I totally appreciate that Christ’s victory on the cross and his resurrection mean so much more than “heaven when I die,” I can’t escape the fact that, selfishly speaking, the best part of Christ’s victory is… ahem… heaven when I die. Say whatever you want about it, that’s incredibly good news!

That when I die, I don’t lose the best of this life, including my loved ones within it… How could that not be the best news of all?

I don’t think I’m wrong to feel that way, even as I appreciate the importance of new creation, victory over the principalities, etc.

If God is “open and relational,” God knows nearly everything except probability

July 14, 2016

In this blog post on Scot McKnight’s blog, McKnight continues a review of Thomas Jay Oord’s new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. It sounds like the book is another well-intentioned effort, as I’ve discussed recently, to “get God off the hook” for evil.

From Oord’s perspective, God doesn’t have foreknowledge because

God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting Kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.

Oord sees a conflict between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom. Since God’s nature is love, which “logically precedes” his sovereign will, God doesn’t merely decide not to know the future (as some proponents of “open theism” maintain), he can’t know the future. If God did know the future, this knowledge would violate his loving nature, since love requires freedom.

This is confusing to me. If it’s impossible for God to know the future, then why does Oord talk about God’s “always giving” freedom and agency to his creatures? Freedom in this case isn’t a gift from God: We creatures can’t help but be free. It’s the default state of Creation. God couldn’t have created us otherwise.

If, like me, you worry that “open and relational” theology compromises God’s omniscience, contemporary philosophy, Oord believes, comes to the rescue:

Hasker and other open and relational thinkers believe God is omniscient. They believe God knows everything that can be known. God knows now what might occur in the future, but God cannot know now all events that will actually occur. To put it philosophically, God knows all possibilities and all actualities, but God cannot know which possibilities will become actual until they are actualized (123).

For free will to be genuine, the future must be open, not settled (124).

God knows all possibilities and all actualities, but God cannot know which possibilities will become actual until they are actualized.

In other words, God can know everything that’s possible, but he has no idea, apparently, what is probable. This is incomprehensible. Even we human parents, knowing as little as we do about the world, can often predict, with some degree of certainty, what our young children will do in a given set of circumstances.

But what if it were possible for us parents to have perfect information about every aspect of our child’s mind, motives, and behavior, along with perfect information about everything else happening in the world at a given moment? Then the power to predict our child’s behavior would approach perfect foreknowledge.

Nevertheless, God, who knows perfectly well all “actualities”—we are an open book to God in every respect at every moment—can’t do what human parents routinely do with a relatively infinitesimal amount of information.

Even if it weren’t incompatible with what the Bible reveals about God’s providence, it would be nonsense.

Does spiritual warfare let God off the hook for evil?

July 9, 2016

We’ll see what kind of response my comment gets on this blog post from John Frye on Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog. (It’s a Patheos blog with unmoderated comments, however, so I don’t have high hopes.) In a nutshell, Frye argues that we need to emphasize spiritual warfare when we consider evil and suffering in the world. Give some of my own recent blog posts, who am I to disagree?

But does Frye’s post, which summarizes the theme of a book by Greg Boyd, solve the problem that he wants to solve? Does an emphasis on spiritual warfare “get God off the hook” for evil? Would we want to live in a universe in which God is off the hook—especially when it comes at the expense of his omnipotence, foreknowledge, or sovereignty? Never mind what it does to our understanding of the Bible as a fully truthful revelation of God.

So I’ll pass.

Anyway, nothing new here, but here’s my comment:

Like the author of this post, I believe that we don’t emphasize spiritual warfare enough. But for me, this post doesn’t solve any problems.

Did the man in the prayer circle who was having the terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day pray that God would deliver him from it? If so, did God grant his petition? It sounds like God didn’t. In which case we have three options: 1) God didn’t grant the man’s petition because he’s incapable of doing so. 2) God didn’t grant the petition because whether or not God does so is completely arbitrary. 3) God didn’t grant the petition because, after considering it alongside all other petitions and everything else happening in the world, including God’s desire to direct history to a certain goal, God had a good reason for not doing so.

It seems to me like the third option is the best one for us Christians. If so, there is a reason God allows some bad thing to happen, even if he doesn’t cause it directly. Indeed, Satan may have caused it. But God created Satan and allows him some measure of freedom to operate. Right? Does God have a good reason to do so? Or are God’s hands tied?

My point is, the difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing isn’t nearly so great as many think.

Besides, what about, as one example, Paul’s discussion of the “thorn in his flesh” from 1 Corinthians 12? Paul describes the thorn as both a “messenger from Satan” and something that “was given” him (divine passive) by God—in order to benefit Paul in some way. Paul sees that when it comes to evil and suffering, it’s not either/or, but both/and. God is someone who constantly redeems evil. If he could do it with the cross of his Son, he can do it with all lesser forms of evil in our world.

Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is both “pleasing” and “necessary”

March 24, 2016

Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and blogger with whom I’ve disagreed vigorously over the years on a number of issues, guest-blogged over at Scot McKnight’s blog today on atonement theology. He sees irreconcilable tension between those (many) parts of the Old Testament in which God delights in Israel’s temple sacrifices and those parts, such as Psalm 51 and prophets like Amos, in which he disdains them.

He sees a conflict, for example, between Psalm 50 (pro-sacrifice) and Psalm 51 (anti-sacrifice: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”)—as if he doesn’t notice that Psalm 51 itself ends on a pro-sacrifice note: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”

So, according to the end of Psalm 51, the problem isn’t with sacrifices per se, but sacrifices offered in the wrong spirit—without accompanying repentance. Why is that hard to understand? What am I missing? One important theme of the Sermon on the Mount, after all, is that the condition of our heart matters more than any law-abiding action on our part.

He asks the following rhetorical questions:

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

So wait: He thinks God might be unhappy that we’ve turned the cross into “pleasing, even necessary sacrifice”?

As for its being “pleasing,” why does he think the church has called tomorrow’s holiday Good Friday? Christ’s submitting to death on the cross is the most “pleasing” event (from God’s perspective) in human history! As for its necessity, this is one question that has separated progressive Christianity from orthodox Christianity for the past couple hundred years.

Micheli, offering a sop to Christian orthodoxy, concludes with these words:

Is our thinking, I wonder in Holy Week, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

For me, what’s at stake is this: Does the cross of Christ accomplish something objective in reconciling sinners like me to God?

I hope so, because if my atonement depends on me—and my “broken and contrite heart”—I’m doomed!

Christ is the Word of God, and so is the Bible

January 18, 2016

Here we go again… In November, I voiced agreement with Derek Rishmawy over against those who draw an overly sharp distinction between Christ the Word of God and the Bible as the Word of God. For example, popular pastor and blogger Brian Zahnd put it like this:

rishmawy

As I said back then,

Notice the false choice he sets up: one has to choose between Jesus or the Bible. As if we can know who Jesus is independently of scripture! 

Honestly: What can we know about God’s eternal plan of salvation, for which Christ’s death and resurrection is the climax, apart from scripture, whose authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote? Unless I’m badly mistaken, nothing at all!

Well, the issue has resurfaced in this guest post, “Is Jesus or the Bible the Word of God, and Does it Matter?” by Austin Fischer on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. My short answer is, “It doesn’t matter very much, certainly not as much as ex-evangelicals like Zahnd and others think.”

No one has convinced me otherwise, certainly not the commenters on Fischer’s post—a post with which I mostly agree, by the way. Subtlety and nuance are not widely appreciated on Patheos blogs, unfortunately. First, someone named Max commented, “If there is a Jesus different from the one revealed in the NT, then he is a fictional character created in the person’s own mind, a creation to affirm whatever that person likes and condemn whatever that person dislikes.” I agreed, saying:

This first sentence is an excellent point: We know of no Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture. So the primary way to know the Word of God that is Jesus is to read the Word of God that is scripture. Therefore, I’m not sure the distinction is as important as many people believe.

Where I say “primary,” I’m tempted to say “only.” By saying “primary,” however, I recognize that we come to know Jesus not just through information from the pages of the text, but also through the Holy Spirit speaking through them.

Often, I suspect that progressives are referring to mysticism when they say that Jesus rather than scripture is the Word of God—as if they’ve come to know him apart from the Bible.

Someone named Terry jumped on this, saying:

Brent, so you just read Austin’s entire essay and have concluded that he’s out to lunch? It seems he made a very solid case for the distinction having merit, in spite of some who have overcooked it. Are you indicating that Austin is referencing mysticism and is a progressive *which seems to be polemical)? Is the Scripture, and the Holy Spirit via the Scripture really the only ways to “know the Word of God”?

I replied:

I don’t think you’ve read my comment very charitably, but this is a Patheos blog. Fighting comes with the territory, I guess.

I agree with Fischer! I would, however, make the connection between “knowing Jesus the Word” and “knowing Jesus through the Word.” (Indeed, I think I blogged about this issue a while back and made that point.) And no, I wasn’t implying that Fischer was endorsing mysticism, and he’s clearly not progressive. That sentence was a response to the general tendency, as Fischer points out, to denigrate scripture by appealing to Jesus (only) as the Word of God. I do think Christians who identify themselves as progressive (whether they take that pejoratively is up to them) often appeal to a Jesus of mystical experience rather than the one revealed in scripture. Is that controversial?

Finally, to your last question, I don’t know. I’m really not into mysticism, so I’m tempted to say “yes.” What would any of us learn about Jesus that is in addition to, or outside of, or inconsistent with the Jesus revealed in scripture?

Terry again:

Brent, my apologies if I misread your initial comment. I think the connection you want to make is a valid one, but the overall content of your comment, to me, read as general disagreement with Fischer. Wrongly perhaps, but I read fight in your comment.

I don’t think any of us would learn about Jesus in a way that is inconsistent with Jesus as revealed in Scripture; the church being the Body of Christ puts forth at least one option whereby we could learn of Jesus outside of Scripture; God’s people could learn of Jesus, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, outside of Scripture.

Me:

But would they learn something that they wouldn’t know from scripture itself? Would they learn something that they could then write down and say, “This knowledge is as authoritative and real and true as anything else found in the Bible”? If the answer is no, then—again—I don’t see how the distinction between the Word who is Jesus and the Word that is scripture is all that important.

And on it went. You can read the comments. It’s a very important distinction, everyone seemed to say. Only no one could tell me what practical difference it made in understanding who Jesus is. All I can figure is that these Christians are coming at the question from far more conservative or fundamentalist backgrounds than myself. I’m coming from the other side—as a former progressive Christian turned evangelical. That experience convinces me that attempts to draw sharp distinctions between Christ as the Word and the Bible as the Word come from an embarrassment about the Bible and are an attempt to denigrate it and undermine our trust in it.

Rishmawy’s response to the original post was best of all. It included these words:

I’ve got little to disagree with in terms of the general points about semantic distinctions, the Image/image, etc. Indeed, part of my original post made the argument that we call the Bible the Word of God precisely because it’s a Trinitarian one, uttered by the Father, about the Son, through inspiration of the Spirit. Viewed this way, we can see that it is God’s word in terms of its origin, content, and agency. And that’s, I think, one of my points of pushback. The derivative nature of the Bible as the word comes in terms of the content. As the testimony about the Word Incarnate, we see that its secondary and derivative. That said, it’s also had through the direct, but humanly mediated activity of the Triune God. As Divine self-testimony, then, there is a sense in which it’s not derivative and secondary. It is properly God’s speech and is to be treated as such. Especially since the Scriptures as the word of God are the only way that we know anything about Jesus as the Word of God.

McKnight: the witness of Emanuel A.M.E. and the Amish

June 22, 2015

As Scot McKnight says, the same spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, is at work in the lives of Emanuel’s victims’ families as was at work in the Amish who forgave the murderer of their schoolchildren. As I preached yesterday, Emanuel A.M.E. faces a heartbreaking “assignment” from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:17) right now. As Peggy Noonan points out in the linked article from the Wall Street Journal, it’s clear that they’re going to handle it just fine.

You may well remember the images of the Amish after the senseless slaughter of the children at school — offering compassion to the shooter’s family and making it clear that they would not seek revenge. The same spirit of the Amish, which is the Spirit of Jesus, the cross, and the way of life of those who follow Jesus, is seen now in the witness of the Christians of African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston…

Assessing the “problem of pain” with Dallas Willard

May 22, 2015

I’ve talked and blogged a lot recently about theodicy and the problem of evil—I even enjoyed a lunch conversation yesterday with a clergy colleague on that very subject. As if on cue, on his blog this morning, Scot McKnight summarizes the late Dallas Willard’s argument from The Allure of Gentleness. Willard is addressing the David Hume argument that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he wouldn’t allow people to suffer.

Willard answers this argument, in part, by appealing to freedom—as everyone must. But his words about the necessity of freedom are powerful. They include:

They overlook the fact that by surrendering responsibility they surrender freedom and the capacity for virtue as well. The person who cannot be blameworthy cannot be praiseworthy either (121).

So what we must look at is the question: Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil? (122)

A world that permits the development of moral character—one that makes it possible for persons to become the immeasurably precious and even glorious beings that they sometimes do become—is of much greater value than any world that does not (126).

But the moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom (126).

This seems exactly right to me.

Here’s a thought I’ve been playing around with: At the risk of being self-centered, suppose that God wanted me to exist and to become this person that I am—understanding, of course, that I haven’t fully arrived as the person God wants me to be, nor will I until resurrection.

Still, if God wanted me to exist, this world, through which God has shaped me (and is shaping me), would also have to exist as it is. Otherwise, I would either not exist, or I would be an entirely different person. Therefore, if the world were any different, I wouldn’t be in it. Since I’m grateful to be here, how loudly should I complain?

Maybe somebody smarter than me can properly frame and defend that argument.

McKnight concludes Willard’s argument as follows:

Hence, many things happen that on their own cannot be good; God is not the author of these things; a world like ours is better than a world not like ours when it comes to pain; and there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal.

If your God is big enough there is no problem with evil — he claims here to be re-expressing David Hume (133).

Predictably, some commenters on McKnight’s blog dislike even attempting a justification for suffering and evil. We should remain silent, they say, and concede that it’s a mystery. I’ve blogged against that idea plenty of times. One commenter put the objection like this:

This is pretty standard Christian apologetic (free will, suffering somehow is “good” for us) and IMO it’s pretty weak. For starters, tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will. How is a 2 year old with bone cancer engaging in or the recipient of any free will? And how is that suffering “good” for her or her family? What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative “benefit” of that suffering? Gapaul is right . . .trying to rationalize theodicy away just makes the problem worse.

My response? I would first ask this person if, in his own experience, suffering has “somehow” been good for him. If he’s honest, he would say, “Of course it has,” at least in many cases. We are often shaped in beneficial ways by our suffering. If his suffering had been any different—remember—he would be a different person (and remember, God wanted him to exist). It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that if his suffering were any different, someone else besides him would be experiencing it.

He then says, “tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will.” While I’m not sure how to quantify “tons,” especially relative to the rest of the suffering that happens in our world, I would first say we can’t know to what extent that child’s cancer is related to free will—and I’m not speaking of the child’s free will (to which he wants to limit the conversation) or even necessarily the parents. For example, we probably can’t say with certainty what causes someone’s cancer, but there are often environmental factors that likely contribute to it. Some of these factors are caused by the free choices of human beings, aren’t they? Air and water pollution, diet, pharmaceuticals, radiation… you name it.

Moreover, since I’m a Satanic realist, I don’t discount the role of demonic beings who have some measure of freedom to influence our world and cause great harm. God gave these angelic beings freedom, which they in turn abused, just as we have.

Finally, the Bible describes Creation, in general, getting out of joint because of initial human sin, and giving rise to pestilence, for instance. Again, this initial sin was freely chosen.

He asks how suffering could be good for the child or her family. Let’s first be humble and admit that we can’t know. For one thing, we can’t foresee the consequences on the world if the child hadn’t gotten cancer. I’ve been close to enough to people who have suffered and died with cancer—including my father—to know that God can and does bring good from it.

And as for our loved one who is suffering and dying, there is nothing that they’re going through in this life that won’t instantly be redeemed by heaven.

When we talked about theodicy in seminary, we tended to leave heaven out of it—as if it were “cheating” to smuggle that consolation into the discussion. Without heaven, I completely agree that the problem of evil can’t be solved. But since our hope for resurrection is the central tenet of Christian faith, why would we justify suffering on any other basis?

He goes on to ask: “What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative ‘benefit’ of that suffering?”

Whether we undergo the same kind of pain as someone else, does any of us make it through life without a considerable amount of it? If so, I’m unaware of it. There are all kinds of pain, after all, and physical pain isn’t always or usually the worst, right? Regardless, I’ve experienced enough pain to know that God can redeem it.

Finally, every one of us will face our own death sooner or later. No one escapes it. Death is ultimately the worst kind of democrat. Is there potentially any crisis more potentially painful than that?

The early Christians used to be deeply concerned about “dying well.” Our generation would do well to recover their concern.

Billy Graham wasn’t wrong to emphasize Jesus as a “personal Savior”

September 15, 2014

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A pastor friend of mine asked me to share my thoughts on this blog post about contemporary evangelism by a Northern Seminary professor named David Fitch.

Fitch opposes “formulaic” presentations of the gospel, “[w]hether it be a Billy Graham Crusade, a Seeker Service or a 4 Spirtual Laws booklet,” because they rely on “techniques to convince someone of their need/sinfulness and a process for receiving the gospel. Today, among the masses, these techniques are perceived (most often) as coercive.” Worse, because the goal of these techniques is to convince someone of the truth of the gospel, they effectively “deny the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit.”

Let us always believe God is drawing people to Himself, including us through our non-believing friends. Then let us tend to His presence by being present to the other person allowing for His presence between us. This space then becomes the arena for the in breaking Kingdom.  Evangelism happens in the space of His presence between us and other people, not in a coerced set-up presentation.

He also believes that it’s time to abandon or at least deemphasize “forensic” theories of atonement such as penal substitution in favor of the Christus Victor model, which emphasizes the victory that God has inaugurated over the powers of sin, death, evil, and violence.

Substitutionary models of atonement in my opinion (and this includes Anselm) were later contextualizations (not that there is anything wrong with that). Their forensic nature connects less and less with cultures of the West. Expand your understanding of the gospel. Read Scot McKnight, NT Wright, Gustaf Auelen as a start.  Come to see evangelism as the inviting of people into the world where Jesus is Lord, not merely leading people to accept Jesus as their “personal” Savior.

Finally, he argues that evangelism should be aimed less at convincing people of the truth of the gospel than proclaiming that truth and letting the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting within the non-Christian’s heart.

I think I’ve fairly represented his argument.

As for my response, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you can probably predict it. First, I disagree strongly that substitutionary atonement was some medieval innovation by Anselm with which we Protestants later fell in love. I believe it is the primary (though hardly exclusive) biblical way to understand how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God. Christus Victor is fine and true enough, but it doesn’t offer an explanation of how the victory of the cross happens.

Wherever we come down on atonement, I would insist that we emphasize that God has done something—objectively, once and for all—to take care of my guilt (and your guilt) for the sins that I’ve committed (and you’ve committed). This is incredibly good news to me personally, so if that means that I overemphasize Jesus as a “personal” Savior, well, so be it.

How can the gospel not be deeply personal? Eternity hangs in the balance of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation through Christ. What a relief that God has done something through the cross of his Son that saves me from the eternal consequences of my sin!

Billy Graham and his fellow evangelicals didn’t invent the doctrine of hell, and Jesus himself spoke about it more than anyone in scripture. Was Jesus being coercive when he did so?

Well, I’ve covered all this ground before. If you have doubts about penal substitution and its central place in scripture, please see Dr. Robert Gagnon’s excellent essay, which I discuss and link to here.

Here’s what I wrote, rather quickly, to my pastor friend (who agrees with me):

Thanks for the link. I actually disagree… Strongly, I’m afraid. How would we (in the mainline especially) know whether the Billy Graham approach works anymore? When was the last time anyone tried it? We can “be present” with non-Christians all we want… At some point we must use words to share the gospel. This author’s words have a nice post-modern ring to them, but they seem to endorse the status quo of evangelism is mainline churches. The status quo doesn’t work.

As for substitutionary atonement versus Christus Victor, first, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, but I’m sorry: each of us must confront the fact that we are sinners. Christus Victor doesn’t say how the cross reconciles us to God, only that it does. How? What happens? To the credit of “forensic” models of atonement, they purport to offer an explanation—one which, frankly, is writ large across Paul’s letter to the Romans and which makes good sense of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Any atonement model that fails to say that each of us is a sinner who needs God to have accomplished something objective on the cross to deal with our “personal” sin against a holy God is deficient, in my opinion. Substitutionary atonement does that very well. And Tim Keller is one of the world’s great preachers, in my view, because he communicates that clearly in every sermon!

And I’m tired of the old knock against the “personal” Savior and Scot McKnight’s put-down of what he calls the “soterian” gospel. Of course the gospel is deeply personal to those whose lives have been changed by Jesus! It’s personal first of all… then we can talk about where we go from there!

Is there any decision that an individual can make that’s more important than to accept God’s gift of salvation through Christ? Unless there is, don’t tell me Billy Graham has been surpassed!

The words about how the old model fails to depend on the Holy Spirit? Oh please! Should we instead do a really crummy job presenting the gospel—one which fails to address felt needs of an individual’s life, one that is unclear and confusing—because, if people still convert in spite of our efforts, then we’ll know that the Holy Spirit was responsible?