Posts Tagged ‘Scot McKnight’

Have we really misunderstood the gospel?

July 24, 2014

A clergy friend of mine is reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. My friend says that McKnight argues that we evangelicals have misunderstood the gospel in at least one important way: we overemphasize individual salvation through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection at the expense of the rest of the gospel, including most of the red-letter words of Jesus.

While I haven’t read this particular book by McKnight, I’ve been a daily reader of McKnight’s blog for the past five years, and I’m well familiar with his criticism of what he calls the “soterian gospel,” a gospel centered mostly on individual salvation rather than a more robust kingdom-centered approach.

Nevertheless, as I told my friend, I believe that McKnight overstates his case—in precisely the same way that N.T. Wright overstates his case about popular talk of “heaven” versus resurrection, what Wright often calls “life after life after death.” Even in the Billy Graham sermon from 1962 that I posted on my blog last week, Graham emphasizes “heaven” as an embodied existence. He says explicitly that heaven doesn’t mean the end of our world, but the beginning of a renewed world. In other words, while Graham doesn’t use the word “resurrection” to describe our lives on the other side of death or the Second Coming, the doctrine is there beneath the surface.

My point is, all of us preachers have shorthand ways of referring to deep theological truths—and there’s nothing wrong with that! What’s the alternative? My 25-minute sermons would be 45 minutes if I had to explain all the nuances of every theological statement I make. I have opportunities on this blog and in Bible studies to go deeper, which I do.

My friend goes on to say that McKnight must be onto something because, after all, Jesus proclaimed the gospel (Mark 1:15) at the beginning of his ministry. What was he proclaiming? Given what Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us, not his atoning death and resurrection.

And that’s true, although to press the point too far is to argue from silence. We know for sure that Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection in all four Gospels, and his closest disciples misunderstand him. Whatever Jesus did or didn’t say about these subjects early in his ministry would have been lost on the multitudes.

Still, I concede that Jesus was mostly proclaiming humanity’s need for repentance in response to God’s kingdom, which had drawn near to us in him, Jesus. He was proclaiming, from Isaiah, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. And more than anything, he was proclaiming that through him God’s forgiveness was available to all.

Do faithful Christian preachers somehow contradict any of this message even as they emphasize Christ’s atoning death and resurrection?

Of course not! Indeed, everything Jesus said in his gospel looks ahead to and is made possible by his atoning death and resurrection. See Jesus’ many statements in John’s Gospel about his coming “hour,” or, in several places, when he speaks of being “lifted up.” (For example, John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”)

Surely no one would argue that John’s Gospel gets Jesus’ message of good news wrong!

As for the emphasis on “personal salvation,” how could we not emphasize its personal nature when the stakes for us, individually, are so high? Doesn’t it mean the difference between heaven and hell? Even in the Gospels, Jesus is constantly calling individuals to repentance and salvation. Our decision to appropriate this good news in our life is the most important decision any of us can make in life—and continue to make throughout life.

Am I missing something? Thoughts?

Around the blogosphere

February 4, 2014

Or at least the small corner of which I happen to read…

satans_downfallLast year, Roger Olson’s writing on the subject of Satan and spiritual warfare helped convince me that I had shirked my pastoral responsibility to educate and warn people about the dangers we face from the principalities and powers. In earlier posts, he recommended Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, which I’d also recommend to anyone. It’s out of print, but I bought a used copy through Amazon.

This week, Olson wrote another post on the topic, “Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)?” He writes:

Few evangelicals will outrightly deny the reality of a personal power of evil called Satan or the devil. When you ask people many say “Oh, I read The Screwtape Lettersyears ago.” But you get the sense they (average  North American evangelicals) haven’t given the subject any thought since then (if even then). (I suspect many people read Lewis’s classic much as they read his fiction.)

I’ll freely admit my own guilt and complicity in this neglect. I grew up on a form of evangelical life that made Satan very prominent and lived in fear of him and his power—even though pastors, evangelists and Sunday School teachers often said “Greater is he that is in you….” I just wasn’t so sure about that because of how much they talked about the devil and his power—sometimes more than they talked about Jesus!…

I suspect many evangelicals in North America have simply over reacted to the over emphasis on Satan and demons in certain circles around the fringes of evangelicalism. And, really, the main reason I’m talking about this is to raise a question about that—our tendency to over react to extremes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

In order to avoid dualism, many intellectual Christians have abandoned Satan altogether or absorbed Satan into God (or at least God’s will and plan). I, too, want to avoid dualism, but I don’t know how or why Satan is real and powerful and “the prince of this world.” All I can say with confidence is that he is a conquered enemy of God who is still causing a great deal of chaos. Why God allows it, I don’t know. That’s God’s business. That he will eventually take away all of Satan’s power and free us from his influence lies at the heart of biblical hope.

keller_bookScot McKnight’s blog includes an interview with Tim Keller about his most recent masterpiece, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. If I haven’t convinced you to read this book by now, you’ll never be convinced.

Here, Keller discusses one of the book’s prominent themes.

Moore: It is common for people to get tripped up by the conundrum about the impossibility of God being both all-loving and all-powerful.  He may be one of the two, but He can’t possibly be both or there would be no suffering.  Not surprisingly, God’s wisdom, which changes everything, is always left out of the supposed dilemma.

How can we grow in our confidence of God’s wisdom when we are suffering?

Keller: There are two ways to grow in confidence in God’s wisdom.  The first may sound strange—we need to be less confident of our own wisdom.  This may be very hard for modern people.

Throughout history, people struggled with suffering and asked God ‘why?’ all the way back to Job.  But virtually no one on record thought suffering and evil made God’s existence impossible until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Why the change? By the mid-18th century the earliest forms of secularism had begun to develop.  In the past it was assumed that if God was infinite and ineffable then his ways would have to be beyond our comprehension.  So evil that was inexplicable to us—made perfect sense.  If there was a God who created all things—of course he would be infinitely wiser than we are and we could never have the insight to call him on the carpet for how things are going in the world.  But the modern belief was that all truth could be discovered by human reason.  As we got larger in our own eyes and more sure that we understood how the universe worked, and how history should go, the problem of evil became so intolerable.

But this was all to a great degree because of our own hubris.  If we can recapture that bigger view of God and the more realistic view of our own limitations, it would be easier to trust God’s wisdom.

The other way, of course, is to look at the Cross.  There we see something that, to the onlookers, appeared to be a defeat.  God had abandoned the best hope of the world. How could God bring anything good out of that?  But we have the vantage point such that we can get at least a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of the Cross.  If God can work his wisdom in suffering like he did in Jesus’ life—he can do it in ours as well.

Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, pointed his readers to this post by Andrew Comiskey on the problem of gay marriage:

It shows no dignity to our fellow humanity to ‘high five’ bad moral decisions. We can still love others while disagreeing with their choices. In fact, disagreeing with ‘gay marriage’ is much more costly today than blessing it. Young people who applaud gay weddings are not lampooned as haters and bigots. Rather, they are extolled as loving and tolerant, on the ‘right side of history.’

The core issue, however, is not ‘gay marriage.’ What has been lost in this debate is the truth that something is wrong with homosexuality. We no longer understand moral disorder in the context of same-sex attraction. Power brokers of all sorts have successfully brainwashed a generation into believing that being gay is natural and good, not disordered in the least.

Of course, our gut reaction is a bit different. Most wonder if an intense longing for one’s own gender isn’t a little off, and if the ‘wedding’ of same-gender friends is really a marriage at all. Still we stifle that hunch for the sake of being ‘nice’ to gay people. Perhaps it is not so much that we are loving as we are cowardly.

Finally, on the same subject, I listened to last Sunday’s sermon by fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli, who attempts to analyze homosexuality from a Wesleyan Quadrilateral perspective. Micheli supports changing our church’s traditional stance. I credit him for talking about the issue (as part of a sermon series he’s been preaching on marriage). Nevertheless, while he purports to stand above the fray in this sermon, the game is rigged. Here was my initial comment that I posted on his blog, to which he replied. (Click on image to expand.)


To which I wrote the following:

“Fairly fair”? By your score, it was 3.5 to 0.5 against the traditional position. That’s a laugh. You wrote as if the only reason we have our traditional position is because of a few stray verses here and there, mostly in Leviticus (as if just because it’s in Leviticus it no longer applies). Isn’t the Great Commandment also in Leviticus? Is that no longer binding?

What about Genesis 2 and Paul’s echo of that in Romans 1? What about Jesus’ affirmation of marriage between man and woman in Matthew 19? Reason itself seems to affirm that given complementary nature of our sex organs, God intends for sex to be a gift shared between man and woman only. (And before you bring it up, anal sex is physiologically harmful.)

It’s unlikely (and science certainly doesn’t prove) that people are “born gay,” but what of it? People are born with all sorts of congenital illnesses, many of which are fatal. You hardly prove your point that because people are born a certain way, that’s the way God intends.

Regardless, you don’t contend with the New Testament’s affirmation of celibacy as a viable and blessed way to live.

You’ve surely heard or read people like N.T. Wright demolish the idea that “Paul couldn’t have imagined lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationships.” In fact, they existed in Paul’s day, philosophers wrote about them, and Paul was a smart guy.

But not just Paul… What about every other Christian thinker until about 1971? See, that’s the weight of tradition that you haven’t contended with. Why did all these otherwise smart, compassionate Christian saints fail to imagine that homosexuals could live together in lifelong, monogamous relationships? Why did none of them question the biblical teaching?

And would you really have us believe that prior to the 20th century, no one imagined that some people had a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation—even if they didn’t use the word “homosexual”? That seems incomprehensible to me.

You know that arguments from silence (“Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.”) are spurious. First, we have no idea what Jesus did or didn’t say about it. It’s not recorded in the Gospels. Second, given that we know for sure that first-century Judaism outlawed homosexual behavior, we could as easily interpret Jesus’ “silence” as a tacit endorsement of the status quo.

You also know that while Jesus loved and accepted the marginalized, he didn’t do so without the demand for repentance of sin.

You talk a lot about love, but you never concede that if homosexual behavior is a sin, it would be unloving not to warn people against it—to recommend change (which is possible in many cases, especially with lesbians) or celibacy.

All that to say, you haven’t been close to “fairly fair.”

In case you’re not Methodist, the Quadrilateral says that scripture is our primary authority guiding Christian belief and practice. We properly read and understand scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

By the way, Wesley himself never talked about a Quadrilateral. Some Wesleyan scholars in the 20th century argued that it was implicit in the way he did theology. Seems reasonable enough, although it doesn’t say all that much, and it’s nothing unique to Methodism: the Anglican tradition of which Wesley was a part speaks of a trilateral source of authority, leaving out experience.

Regardless, contrary to the way Micheli speaks of it, the Quadrilateral is not a four-legged stool (which will always wobble). It’s a three-legged stool. The “seat” is scripture, which is supported by these other things. So, even if Micheli made a slam-dunk case using tradition, reason, and experience (which he didn’t), none of these three sources of authority get a veto over the Bible.

No theory of the cross should make us the “good guys”

January 28, 2014

I’ve been outspoken on this blog and in sermons over the past few years about my support for the good, old-fashioned “penal substitution” theory of atonement. It argues that on the cross Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins, dying our death and experiencing our hell—in our place, so that we wouldn’t have to: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Indeed, when I hear “In Christ Alone,” I want to hear the couplet: “And on the cross where Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied.” That sounds like great news to me.

In the last Billy Graham television special, Christian hip-hop artist LaCrae put it like this: “Jesus lived the life that we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved to die.” That sounds exactly right to me. I’ve used that in sermons since then.

Still, to say that I believe in penal substitution isn’t to say that I believe that that theory exhausts the full meaning of the cross. By all means, throw in some Christus Victor and even a dash of Abelardian Moral Example (because it does move us by the power of love it demonstrates).

I’m with C.S. Lewis who said that it’s less important to know how the cross reconciles us to God than to know that it does. And, I would add, it’s important to know that whatever the cross means, it means that something objective has happened that takes away our sins, and it doesn’t simply depend on our subjective response to it. Because if it depends on my response (aside from saying “yes” to the gift of forgiveness that it affords), I’m in trouble.

So for my brothers and sisters who object to penal substitution (usually because they object to some caricature of it as “cosmic child abuse”), I would ask them to at least agree with me that the cross represents something objective. I don’t know of a better alternative to penal substitution that makes more sense of the full scope of scripture.

In this blog post, Scot McKnight puts his finger on one interesting problem with the Moral Example theory and its variants (so popular in mainline Protestant circles):

But the Abelardian and Girardian have an oft-missed sinister side, even if you may object to my saying so. In these theories we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death. We end up being the good guys, the victims, while the bad guys — Roman and Jewish leaders, the gutless disciples, the whole damned human race — are the ones who put him there. We, on the other hand, know better. We’re innocent, they’re guilty.

We are not the authorities, pockmarked as they are by injustice; we are for justice, and we see Jesus as suffering a colossal injustice. We tell a story in which we side with Jesus against the world and against the sinners and against the perpetrators of injustice. We thereby become guiltless and just. The opposite of what the cross’s message teaches. We end up where the Holocaust perpetrators were: we see in the leaders those who killed God. But not us, we are on Jesus’ side. We find Jesus as our model for sacrifice for justice. He becomes a moral example — not against us but as one of us.

Such approaches mask their inner reality: self-righteousness.

To use the words of Francis Spufford, in Unapologetic, we make the crucifixion scene “a story about a special shiny person, whose side we’re all on as we listen, being abused by especially evil persons.” He says such an approach to the crucifixion scene is no longer about Jesus being crucified but Jesus being crucified. He’s innocent, we know it, and we’re for him. Cheer the just man on, folks, cheer him on! Raise a toast for justice as activists for justice!

But the cross contains another message: that we, each of us, because we are sinners and hate to be confronted with the utter sickness that stains us, are the ones who put him there. To read that narrative well is to see ourselves as complicit in the condemnation of the innocent man.

The only “theories” of the cross that make any sense of the cross then are theories that begin right here: I am guilty of that death.

N.T. Wright on God’s creation and Adam and Eve

January 23, 2014

Here’s a thoughtful post from Scot McKnight discussing a recent interview with N.T. Wright in which he’s asked the question: “Why would a God whose loving character is revealed in Jesus create us through a process of suffering and death, which evolution evidently is?”

Wright responds first by saying that suffering and death don’t seem to be a problem in the animal kingdom. Death is a natural process like the changing of the seasons. (I would add that without self-consciousness, animals are unable to worry about death the way we humans do. And isn’t that a large part of what makes human suffering so painful?) Moreover, suffering and death leading up to Adam and Eve are only a problem if we divorce evolution from God’s loving involvement in creation. We moderns or postmoderns have adopted an Epicurean worldview that says that this life is all there is; God is nowhere to be found; so we’d better enjoy life while we can.

According to such a worldview, death can only be an unwelcome intruder which destroys life’s meaning.

Over against that it seems to me, the Christian has to hang onto a biblical vision which is of a God who is both other than the world and strangely involved in the world. And the strange involvement of God in the world is precisely a loving involvement, which means that it isn’t simply a matter of God making a machine. It’s a matter of God’s generosity, of God letting be: Let there be light, let there be whales, let there be trees, humans, whatever. And when God let’s there be, there is a sense of God saying “Get on with it guys. I want you to be autonomous in that sense, not that you’re outside my world, not that you’re outside my love, but that I want you to be real creatures and not just puppets.” And so, all the sorts of questions we have rise out of that rather complicated but very important view of creation. The thing to hold on to is the generous love of God, that’s where it all comes down to.

This seems exactly right to me. We want to say, “All this suffering and death is meaningless and wasteful.” But it’s not meaningless or wasteful if it’s being directed by God toward God’s good ends. Besides, if it had happened any other way, we wouldn’t be who we are. And don’t we like who we are? And all life, no matter how long or short, is good, and God loves his creatures. We humans weren’t around to enjoy dinosaurs, but God was.

Finally, I like the way Wright affirms the historicity of the first couple, Adam and Eve. He gives, I believe, an historically plausible explanation for them: that it doesn’t matter whether they were the first humans, or that there were other humans around. What mattered is that God called these two to a special task, just as he later called Noah or Abraham and Sarah.

What happens with Genesis 3; and I do think there is a historical correlate. OK, Genesis one, two, and three is wonderful picture language, but I do think there was a primal pair in a world of emerging hominids, that’s the way I read that. … But it seems to me that just as God called Abraham and Sarah out of a welter of wandering nations and said I’ve got a special purpose for you, the way that I see it is that God called one pair of hominids and said “OK, this place is a bit chaotic, you and I together, we’re going to have a project. We’re going to plant this garden and we’re going to go out from here and this is how it’s going to be.” So when Cain goes off he founds a city. Excuse me, who else is in the city? … And ancient Jewish readers knew this perfectly well, they knew that this was not the first ever humans or anything like them.

Is primacy of scripture a hill worth dying on? If not, why be Protestant?

January 15, 2014

In a recent sermon, I criticized our United Methodist Church’s slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s the middle term I don’t like. For one thing, the catchphrase reinforces the popular but misguided stereotype that Methodists don’t have strong theological convictions. For another, open-mindedness is strictly a temporary virtue. As Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” When it comes to the most important questions of Christian faith, our minds should already be closed by now. Right?

Sadly, not everyone agrees. But they should. (What can I say? I’m closed-minded.)

Still, as Protestants, not to mention Methodists, one idea that we should happily close our mind around is the primacy of scripture in guiding our theological thinking—often called sola scriptura.  Yes, I know that we Methodists talk about a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as our authoritative guides, but the quadrilateral isn’t a four-legged stool: neither tradition, reason, nor experience gets to have veto power over the Bible. Any time that our best understanding of scripture comes into conflict with one of the other three, we side with God’s Word.

I thought of this Protestant conviction in an online conversation I had yesterday with evangelical converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was part of this blog post from Scot McKnight. Like me, McKnight is an evangelical Protestant. I assume most of his readers are, too. The comments section, however, became an Orthodox love-fest—not simply because of several Orthodox converts who commented, but also sympathetic evangelicals.

I know it’s cool to be Eastern Orthodox these days. And why not? After all, “eastern” is cooler than “western.” Plus, it’s exotic, unfamiliar, and weird—while still being Christian.

McKnight points out that while the EOC tends to be more communal in nature than most of Western Christianity, the spike in conversions among American evangelicals is an ironic expression of American individualism. I’m sure he’s right.

Honestly: If you’re an American Protestant who wants to become Orthodox, why not become Roman Catholic? Wouldn’t that make more sense? We don’t live in Turkey or Greece, after all. Wouldn’t it be much easier and more convenient? You get all the pedigree, all the tradition, all the liturgy… Plus there’s a Catholic church nearby! Or have these new converts chosen Orthodoxy because they’re convinced that the addition of “et filioque” to the Nicene Creed was a tragic mistake? Please!

No, they can’t become Catholic for the simple reason that there are too many Catholics.

(For some reason, I just thought of the Seinfeld episode in which George decides to convert to Latvian Orthodox for the sake of impressing a new love interest.)

What bothered me about the conversation in the comments section is that few people seemed committed to the best reason to be Protestant, which is the primacy of scripture.

It would be one thing if Orthodox Christians simply disagreed with our understanding of scripture on these key points, but nevertheless held scripture to be their primary authority. Instead, as in Roman Catholicism, they make an appeal to that other authority, capital-T Tradition: they are guided not simply by scripture, but by the teachings of the Apostles themselves, which didn’t always find their way into scripture but are equally authoritative.

It is through this tradition that we know, say Catholics, that Mary was sinless, bodily assumed into heaven, and perpetually a virgin; or that the elements of Communion literally become the body and blood of Christ, such that it’s even appropriate to worship the Host; or that asking saints in heaven to pray for you, even though we have the same access to the throne room of God, is A-OK; or that Jesus sacrifices himself all over again every time Communion is celebrated. Not to mention differences related to justification and the afterlife.

So, assuming you’re Protestant, how does that strike you—that your interpretation of scripture must be wrong if it conflicts with any dogmatic teaching of the Catholic churches, either Roman or Orthodox—because, after all, their interpretations derive directly from the apostles themselves? That our reading of scripture, no matter how well-informed and guided by tradition, is insufficient apart from the teachings of these churches?

Is the primacy of scripture a hill worth dying on? Since many Protestants have died on that hill, I hope so for their sake. If it is, then “crossing the Tiber” or “crossing whatever large river lies in Istanbul” is out of the question.

I’ve written about these issues before: here, here, and here. Also, read this post from Glenn Peoples.

Why is Mark Driscoll’s voice stuck in our heads?

September 2, 2013

As I try to do in every sermon I preach these days, I brought yesterday’s sermon, which focused on Luke 6:37-42, back home to Jesus’ victory on the cross. I said that one way we can avoid hypocrisy and be transparent to others is by remembering who we are:

Remember that you are a sinner. Saved… redeemed… a child of God… by all means! But still a sinner. We have no reason to hide this fact from one another. Why? Because Jesus himself took that giant wooden beam sticking out of my eye and the giant wooden beam sticking out of your eye and had himself crucified on it. We have nothing to be ashamed of because Christ took our shame away and nailed it to the cross! We have nothing to feel guilty about because God took our guilt and nailed it to the cross.

(Thanks to Tim Keller for the part about Jesus’ being crucified on our wooden beams.)

I concluded the sermon with the following paragraph:

Every sin we’ve ever committed or will ever commit, every shameful thing we’ve done or will ever do, everything we’ve done to hurt ourselves and other people—God took these things away from us and nailed them to the cross of his Son Jesus. So we don’t have to be guilty or ashamed anymore. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Who cares if other people condemn us for our sins and failures and shortcomings? Who cares if we condemn ourselves for our sins and failures and shortcomings? Although we got to stop doing that too! But who cares because the only One whose opinion of us matters tells us, “There is now no condemnation. You are a beloved child of God.”

I left a loose thread in this paragraph: “Who cares if we condemn ourselves…?” Note to self: say more about this in a future sermon.

Judging and condemning others is a huge problem for most of us (and I related yesterday’s sermon to the controversy surrounding Miley Cyrus), but what about our sinful tendency to judge and condemn ourselves? For me, that’s at least as big a problem.

When I preach, I’m always, in part, preaching to myself, but yesterday’s message was one that I especially needed to hear. In Christ, God doesn’t condemn me. Why do I so often condemn myself?

Jason Micheli, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, picks up this same theme today in a sermon posted on Scot McKnight’s blog. He begins:

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

For the Apostle Paul, they’re rhetorical questions.

They’re Paul’s way of implying that if you sense any ambiguity about the answer, if you feel any uncertainty about the conclusion, then you should go back to chapter 1, verse 1 and start over.

In his sermon, Micheli is reacting to a recent sermon by Mark Driscoll called “God Hates You”—which sounds pretty horrifying, although I have no interest in listening to it to find out. I like this part a lot:

Even though you’d never say it in a sermon, you tell yourself that surely God’s fed up with you for the mess you made of your marriage or the mistakes you made with your kids or the ways your life hasn’t measured up.

Even though you’d never dream of saying to someone else ‘there’s no God will forgive that’ that’s exactly what you tell yourself when it comes to the secret that God knows but your spouse doesn’t.

Even though there’s no way you’d ever consider saying it to someone else, you still tell yourself that there’s no way your faith is deep enough, commitment strong enough, beliefs firm enough to ever please God.

Even though it would never cross your mind to say to someone else ‘God must be angry with you for something…God must be punishing you…’ many of you can’t get that out of your mind when you receive a diagnosis or suffer the death of someone close to you.

God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you.

I can’t think of one of you who would let a voice like Mark Driscoll’s into this pulpit on a Sunday morning.

And yet I can think of a whole lot of us who every day let a voice just like his into our heads.

Micheli blogs over at Tamed Cynic.

Andy Stanley and the authority of scripture

June 3, 2013

Scot McKnight, whose blog I read daily, highlights a dispute between Andy Stanley and a Southern Baptist professor named Denny Burk (about whom I know nothing, but that’s not Burk’s fault). Recently, Stanley preached about the authority of scripture and said,

The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. The foundation of our faith is something that happened in history. And the issue is always – Who is Jesus? That’s always the issue. The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story…

Stanley went on to say that he believes Adam and Eve were a literal couple, not because the “Bible says so” but because Jesus does. As Stanley said, “[A]nybody that can predict their own death and resurrection and pull it off – I just believe anything they say.” (Unless I’m mistaken, Stanley makes this same point in Deep & Wide.)

Burk objects that “our only knowledge of what Jesus says comes to us from the Bible. There can be no bifurcation between ‘what the Bible says’ and ‘what Jesus says.’ The former gives us the latter.”

Burk isn’t completely wrong. Stanley’s argument is weak. We can’t know, based on “something that happened in history,” that Jesus said what the Bible says he said about Adam and Eve. As N.T. Wright and others (including me), have argued, history (by which I mean, history alone, apart from scripture and faith) can tell us that Jesus was very likely raised from the dead. The resurrection, based on historical evidence alone, is at least as likely as many other historical events that we take for granted as fact. The reason many historians don’t say the resurrection happened is not because they’ve scrupulously followed the evidence and have reached this conclusion; rather, they say the resurrection didn’t happen because of course resurrections don’t happen.

Nevertheless, if history alone can tell us that the resurrection probably happened, then history tells us a lot. Moreover, to Stanley’s point, if the resurrection didn’t happen, no one would know or care what Jesus had to say about Adam and Eve or anything else for that matter.

But even if the resurrection happened (which of course I believe strongly that it did), who’s to say that Jesus predicted it? Many Bible scholars, even some who believe in the resurrection, argue that the historical Jesus didn’t predict it, that his death caught him by surprise—that the apostles or their followers wrote the gospels in light of Easter, and Easter transformed how they viewed the historical events leading up to it. Jesus’ predictions, in other words, were a post-Easter innovation.

Ugh! Even as I describe this argument, it strikes me as ridiculous. But I’m not wrong: this is the kind of stuff you read and hear about in mainline Protestant seminaries. And it is a counterargument to what Stanley says.

My point is, the resurrection doesn’t prove that Jesus said and did the things attributed to him in the gospels. But we may rightly ask, “Since we believe on good historical evidence outside the Bible that Jesus was resurrected, is it also reasonable to believe that the gospels paint an accurate picture of what Jesus said and did?”

Maybe this is what Stanley meant, but he didn’t say it clearly enough.

Another problem with Stanley’s argument is this: If Jesus had never spoken about Adam and Eve in the gospels, we would still have to reach some conclusion about the historicity of the first couple, right? Is everything in the Old Testament that Jesus didn’t speak about up for grabs?

Some of my fellow United Methodists who disagree with our church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality make that argument: “Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, therefore who’s to say that homosexual behavior is sinful?” Aren’t they following Stanley’s logic? Do the red-letter words of Jesus carry more weight, theologically, than Paul’s letters or the rest of the New Testament? I don’t think so.

The missing ingredient in Stanley’s and Burk’s arguments is the Holy Spirit. Why do we have the Bible we have? Why do we believe that it’s a trustworthy revelation from God? It’s because of the Holy Spirit. We have the Bible we have today because God wants us to have it. God is the ultimate authority behind the authority of scripture. This authority can’t be proven from historical events or the extent to which the Bible accurately reflects history; it takes faith, which is itself a gift of the Spirit.

I disagree with Stanley when he says, “The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story.” Beware of someone using the word “simply”: it’s rarely that simple. The Bible isn’t simply anything: It is the Holy Spirit’s actively speaking to us through the words on paper. When we read scripture through the eyes of faith, something supernatural happens: We are in conversation with the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself. It isn’t only that God spoke a long time ago through the writers of scripture and we have their words to guide our lives; it’s also that God continues to speak to us through these words today. I think my belief accurately reflects our Wesleyan understanding of scripture—it at least passed muster with the Board of Ordained Ministry! 😉

I think Scot McKnight would agree with me, too. He describes a doctrine of scripture based on Jesus as the Word of God. I recommend the whole post to you, but I’ll leave you with this:

So any articulation of our faith that is not first God in his authority before Scripture’s authority makes a fundamental mistake.

To be sure, we know Jesus because of the Word but we have the Word because God spoke the Word and the Word God speaks has a name, Jesus. So first the Word, the Living Word, and then the Word, the Written Word. And it is really a silly game to think we need to argue about which one is most important: both.

How God is in control without controlling us

April 23, 2013

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, Scot’s science blogger reviews a recent book called Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith by Daniel Harrell. He finds Harrell’s analogy about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom (and the freedom of natural processes) quite helpful, as do I. It helps answer how it’s possible that God is in control while at the same time not controlling us:

What if God is like a grand-master chess player playing with an eight-year-old novice? The game has its rules and regularities (created by God), such that whatever move the eight-year-old makes, the grand master already knows its outcome. There’s no doubt who will win in the end. Likewise, with human freedom and evolutionary processes (the eight-year-old novices in this analogy), God knows what will happen in any scenario with any moves that are made. He can make any of them work for his victory. (p. 80)

I also like this joke. Nature must exist in order for natural processes to run their course:

A scientist tells God that he’s figured out how to create life from the dust of the ground, just like God did in the beginning. Consequently, the scientist says, he’s shown that God is no longer a plausible hypothesis for the origin of life. Impressed, the Lord tells the scientist to do it again; he’d like to watch. So the scientist picks up a handful of dirt. But the Lord stops him right there.

“Uh-uh” God says. “Get your own dirt.”

A good reason to believe in God

January 16, 2013

For a few months now, Scot McKnight has allowed a philosophy professor named Jeff Cook, a Christian, to guest-post on his Jesus Creed blog. Cook’s first series of posts was the Top Ten best reasons not to believe in God. The second series, which finished up today, is the Top Ten best reasons to believe in God. As interested as I am in apologetics, I found most of these reasons to be persuasive (why wouldn’t I, right?), if a bit mind-numbing. Not being a philosopher myself, all those P’s and C’s make my eyes glaze over. I prefer my arguments to be more narrative, if you know what I mean.

Still, even I thought the argument for today’s reason—love and freedom—which ranks #1 on his Top Ten reasons to believe in God, was straightforward and easy to follow. You might think that “love and freedom” are two reasons, but his point is that love is only possible if we are also free. (This should be uncontroversial, except to the most hardened Calvinist!)

Anyway, I’ll excerpt the argument and then add a few words to his.

P1  If materialism is true, love is a chemical reaction in your skull.
P2  Love is not simply a chemical reaction in your skull.
C1  Materialism is false.

Very few of us are able to look at our beloved, at our child, at our comrades and actually believe that our connection to them is *exclusively* chemical activity. Certainly some of it may be. But I would suggest many of us experience something more.

P3  If materialism is true, all our thoughts and actions are determined by the unthinking, non-rational movement of chemicals in our skulls.
P4  If P3, then if materialism is true we have no freedom of thought and action.
P5  We experience freedom of thought and action (we are in fact free of total coercion in both our thinking—what we believe—and our behavior—what we do).
C2  Materialism is false.

We think the human beings around us ought to do certain things (“avoid abusing children” for example) and believe certain things (“other human beings are valuable”). But if materialism is true our beliefs and actions are all determined by the unthinking matter in our skull over which “we” have no control.

He goes on to argue not only against materialism but for God. See the post.

In my view, this is a strong argument. Human freedom is a major problem for the philosophical materialist. Why? Because they live their lives as if freedom and love (and justice and any number of other things) have real meaning. In fact, we all do. We want badly for love and freedom to be real.

As far as I know, we can offer a strictly scientific or materialistic account for why we have the (illusory) experience of love and freedom, but this account is unsatisfying to those of us who aren’t complete nihilists.

And I know the counterargument: So what? We can want love, freedom, justice, beauty, God—and anything else—to be real and objectively meaningful, but our desire, no matter how strong, doesn’t make it so.

And of course that’s true.

But I used to hear the late Christopher Hitchens (and probably Richard Dawkins) talk a lot about “Occam’s razor”—the idea that the simplest explanation is best. So why resort to the “God” hypothesis if the atheistic hypothesis works just fine: Darwinian processes explain everything, so why bother with God?

I disagree that Darwinian processes “explain” everything, for a number of reasons. One thing it doesn’t explain, as Jeff Cook’s post pinpoints, is this desire. Throw the Christian God back in and suddenly that makes sense, too.

Wesley’s theology, in one nice package

August 9, 2012

Methodist preacher’s kids!

I’m sympathetic with Scot McKnight, an Anabaptist writer and theologian, when he says that Wesley’s theological ideas are “hard to access.” Wesley, after all—unlike Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin, not to mention many theologians of the past century—never bothered to organize his theology into one neat package that we call “systematic theology.” Wesley was a preacher first and foremost. His theology came across mostly in sermons, Bible commentary, journal entries, and letters. And—good heavens—as many others have said, he never had an unpublished thought!

Fortunately, for those of us interested in Wesley’s theology, United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden has come to the rescue. I just ordered the first volume of a new four-volume project to systematize what had previously been, um, unsystematizable. (I have to occasionally use words like that so you’ll know that I’ve been to seminary.) Oden has organized and synthesized Wesley’s ideas as if Wesley himself had written systematic theology. The project is called John Wesley’s Teachings.

I haven’t read it yet, but I trust Oden to do the job. I frequently refer to his previous work of systematic theology, Classic ChristianityIn that three-volume work, he aspired, he said,  to say nothing new. Rather, he created a systematic theology based on the consensus of Christian thought: here’s what most Christian thinkers over the past two millennia have believed on topics related to God, humanity, Jesus, salvation, atonement, the Holy Spirit, etc. I often use Classic Christianity to make sure that I’m not coloring outside the lines.

Along with McKnight, I hope Oden’s new work will mean that theologians will “no longer be able to ignore Wesley.”