Posts Tagged ‘The Candler School of Theology’

“Angels unawares”: my gratitude for a stranger who helped to rescue my soul

January 5, 2019

I’m currently enjoying a Christmas gift: Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s latest Bootleg Series album, a collection of outtakes from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, perhaps his best album—which is to say, it’s among the best collection of songs ever committed to tape. These sparsely arranged, previously unreleased “alternate” versions—featuring only Dylan, his guitar, and, occasionally, a sympathetic bass guitar played by Tony Brown—may even be better.

It’s about as good as music gets, in my opinion.

But that’s not the point of this post. I’m merely pointing this out to say that this album has put me in an introspective mood. If you know the album, you know it has the power to do that.

For the past few weeks, I have felt profound gratitude for someone whose name I can’t even remember. If you recall, he was the retired NASA engineer and amateur astronomer whom I referred to in this recent Advent devotional. (Please read it to refresh your memory.) I don’t know if he’s still alive. He wasn’t a member of the church I was serving at the time, Alpharetta First United Methodist. But he called our church looking specifically for a pastor who could visit him during a long convalescence from an illness. There were two other pastors on staff at the church, but I happened to get the call, thank God!

I ended up visiting him several times, including at least a couple of times at Emory University Hospital, after he had surgery. But the visit I described in my Advent devotional was one of the most formative events of my life, which I’ve only recently come to appreciate.

Why was it so important? Because I was living at the time through a long season of doubt and despair in my Christian faith. I had recently graduated from a mainline Protestant seminary, the Candler School of Theology, and was commissioned as a “probationary elder.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’ve been very critical of my education and experience at Candler: By all means, most of my trouble was self-inflicted. I was ill-prepared to fight the spiritual warfare that inevitably comes the way of anyone who answers God’s call into pastoral ministry. That’s my fault, not Candler’s.

But Candler didn’t help, to say the least.

For example, consider this experience from 2006: I took a popular elective taught by a theology professor who was himself an ordained Anglican minister from India. (His name is unimportant for this post; if you went to Candler, you’ll know whom I’m talking about. He’s retired now.) Like many professors at Candler, he embraced universalism and syncretism of different religions—because, in his mind, they all (or many of them, at least) ultimately reveal the same God.

As troubling as you may find this teaching, which is commonplace in liberal mainline seminaries, I’m far more troubled by an event in which I, alongside dozens of my future fellow UMC ordinands, participated. The professor took our class on a field trip to a Hindu temple, located south of the Atlanta airport in Riverdale, where he had us take turns—I’m not making this up—offering a “sacrifice” (of bananas and grapes, as I recall) to a literal idol, which stood above an altar in the sanctuary of this temple.

We handed our offering to a HIndu priest who then rang a bell (or something like that) as a way of indicating that the god accepted our sacrifice.

From the professor’s point of view, our behavior wasn’t sinful because the god to whom we were sacrificing was the same God in which Christians believe.

I’ll let you be the judge. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and share my convictions about scripture, you know better. What did Martin Luther say? “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it”—or, I would add, even a popular and highly credentialed doctor of the church! Not to mention fools like me who should have known better, yet blindly followed.

Am I wrong? Did we not commit literal idolatry in a pagan temple as part of our coursework at an allegedly Christian and United Methodist-affiliated seminary?

Moreover, how many thousands of future UMC clergy (like myself) took part in this same idolatrous exercise? And what kind of spiritual or demonic harm can come from this behavior?

Am I overstating the case? Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 that while idols are nothing, we must avoid them because demons work through them to our great harm. “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

I have repented. I cling to the promise of 1 John 1:9, concerning this and all other sins I’ve committed and commit: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I know our Lord has forgiven me of all my sins through his precious blood shed on the cross. Moreover, I know that my “old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6). I know that on the cross an exchange took place: “For our sake”—including for my sake—God “made him”—Jesus—”to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we”—including even me—”might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We Protestants rightly say that Christ imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift, whereby we already stand before God as holy and perfect—even as the Holy Spirit empowers us to overcome sin in our lives.

Nevertheless, I urge my fellow United Methodist clergy who participated in this idolatry to likewise repent. Because make no mistake: You and I committed the gravest sin of all: we broke the first two of the ten commandments like it was nothing at all… without giving it a second thought. How is that possible? How did we have so little fear of God?

Now, the following is strictly hypothetical, because God knew, even as I was wandering in a wilderness of sin and waywardness, how he would transform experiences like these and use them for my good. (Thank you, Jesus!) But consider this: Wesleyan Christians, including even we watered-down United Methodists, are supposed to believe in the possibility of backsliding—literally losing our salvation, which can happen through willful, unrepentant sinning.

Suppose, around the time I bent my knee to that idol, without remorse, on that terrible spring afternoon so long ago—suppose I had died in a car crash on my way home to Forsyth, Georgia, where I was (poorly) serving a church as a licensed lay pastor? Would I have even been saved?

I don’t know. I can’t say with any confidence I would have been. I didn’t fear God. I disdained his holy word. I was lost. But thank God he had mercy on me! Thank God he let me live long enough to repent!

Thank God he appointed me to visit that wonderful amateur astronomer in the fall of 2008, who had been studying the Bible, astronomy journals, and star charts, trying to discern what it was the magi saw when they stared into the Babylonian night sky around 6 or 5 B.C.

It doesn’t matter whether this man was correct in his conclusions. What matters is that this brilliant man with a Ph.D. from Harvard believed that God did something, either supernaturally or providentially, to move these pagan astrologers seven hundred miles southwest to see the newborn king of the Jews. Did this man know my heart? Did he know that I had come to believe, alongside many of my professors at Candler, that the story of the magi—along with the Virgin Birth—wasn’t historical fact but “pious fiction,” meant only to communicate something theological about Jesus?

Did he imagine that he was planting a small seed of faith within me, which would help bring me back to my senses (Luke 15:17 NIV)?

When I left his house that day, this thought crossed my mind: “What if he’s right? He’s smarter than I am, after all… What if he’s right?

God used other people and events to bring me to repentance, but thank God he used that man! He was an angel—at least figuratively.

But who knows…?

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

I love you, Jesus! Use me to save others the way you used this man to save me. Amen.

“Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks”

January 10, 2017

brunerIn his commentary on last Sunday’s scripture, Matthew 3:1-12, Frederick Dale Bruner, a Presbyterian, argues that John the Baptist’s “Fire Sermon” is a “sustained attack on a false eternal security (‘once saved, always saved’), an attack my own Calvinist tradition needs to hear.” One scholar he quotes puts it this way: “The Christian equivalent of ‘We have Abraham as our father’ is ‘We have Christ as our Savior.'”

Is that true? While my Protestant tradition doesn’t hold to the doctrine of eternal security, I’ve at least been inching in that direction for many years now (as my friend and blog reader Tom, who himself holds loosely to the doctrine, and I have discussed). So Bruner’s words are a challenge to me, too.

But maybe they should challenge us all. While I laughed out loud at this recent Babylon Bee article (headline: “Arminian Feeling Pretty Saved Today”), I’m not sure it reflects reality. After all, I’ve known few Methodists who’ve worried about the state of their soul. Why? What is the source of their confidence? Perhaps all of us need to reevaluate our security in Christ—be it “eternal” or, for many of us Wesleyan-Arminians, a shade or two more provisional.

Bruner continues:

Whenever I teach this verse and the sense of privilege that Israel felt in belonging to Abraham, I think of my own relation to the Reformation and my heritage in the theologies of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. And I squirm. Do I stand in an advanced relationship with God because I stand in this heritage? John the Baptist wants to disabuse me of this conviction for a moment. My relationship with God does not depend on the heritage to which I belong, but on something deeper. It is a great privilege to be an heir of Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. I believe that to imbibe Luther is to imbibe catholic theology at its best. And yet if I advance my Lutheran, Calvinist, or Reformation heritage before God as a kind of shield behind which to hide the reality (or unreality) of my faith in Christ, then the Baptist point his long, bony finger in my face and says, “Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks!”[†]

In my current situation in the United Methodist Church, I know the spiritual pride of identifying as a “theologically conservative evangelical.” It can easily become my way of saying, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other Methodists are—progressives, open theists, ‘red-letter Christians,’ or even those United Methodist ‘centrists.'”

Not too many years ago, God rescued me from the precipice of hell by convicting me of my sin and pointing me once again to the cross of his Son. While the theological liberalism of the Candler School of Theology played a harmful role, the main problem was in my heart, not my head. In other words, plenty of evangelicals whose hearts are in the right place make it through Candler just fine.

So if I’m going to be proud of anything, let me be proud of what Christ did to save me, not the theological camp in which I now stand as a result.

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 93-4.

Did the magi really visit the Holy Family?

December 15, 2016

I said in an earlier sermon that Matthew and Luke wouldn’t have included a potentially embarrassing story of a virgin birth (or, more accurately, virginal conception) unless they also believed it was historically credible. (In Luke’s case, at least, he likely got the story from Mary herself.)

So it is with the magi of Matthew 2:1-12. To say that neither ancient Jews nor Christians held these practitioners of astrology and magic in high regard is an understatement. That Matthew includes them in his birth narrative anyway lends credence to their historicity.

I’m writing this, by the way, not for my own edification, but for anyone who went to mainline Protestant seminary, as I did, whose professors taught them, as some of mine did, that Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 are strictly “legendary.”

Oh, the damnable nonsense that I learned during those years! It’s not for nothing that I can’t find my diploma from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, whereas my two from the Georgia Institute of Technology are prized possessions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the experience of Candler—God used it, mercifully to make me a better person—but it’s like being grateful in retrospect for a flood or fire or some other disaster.

Regardless, as the late R.T. France wrote in his commentary:

Many uses of magos, especially in a Jewish or Christian context, are clearly pejorative, notably of the “false prophet” Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6, 8. Not every mention of magi necessarily refers to what we now call “magic,” but it was a grey area from which Jews and Christians preferred to keep their distance. It is therefore remarkable to find Matthew introducing magi into his story without any sign of disapproval. However widely respected the magi may have been in Mesopotamia and more widely in the Greek and Roman world, their title was not one which a careful Christian would willingly introduce without warrant into his account of the origins of his faith. The most satisfactory explanation for their presence in Matthew’s narrative is that this was an element which he had received in his tradition and (probably because the role of the star required them to be identified as such) did not feel at liberty to disguise.[†]

1. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 66-7.

Bad ideas we accept uncritically in mainline Protestant seminary

March 3, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnOr at least I did, until too recently… I’m referring today to the idea that when Jesus questions the Samaritan woman at the well about her husband in John 4—and exposes the fact that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage—he isn’t speaking literally; and the woman herself understands this. Or if he is speaking literally at one level, he isn’t judging the woman for her sexual sin; rather, he’s using her sexual history to make a point about Samaritan idolatry: her five husbands represent the five deities worshiped by the nations that settled Samaria after the Assyrian conquest. Again, this very perceptive woman understands what Jesus is up to.

Of course, since “John” (whoever he is) often doesn’t bother to narrate historical events, the Samaritan woman is probably only a literary character anyway.

Sandra Schneiders teaches this in her commentary on John. Gail O’Day does the same in hers. My professor at the time made the same point.

In fact, these and other scholars say, the “Johannine Jesus” never cares about any sin other than failing to believe in him. This is why he doesn’t tell the woman to repent. Instead he commends her for her honest answer in v. 18. (It’s easy to see how comfortably this viewpoint fits in with today’s cultural preoccupations.)

I’m not making this up. Think for a moment about the doctrine of scripture implied by this understanding of John’s Gospel. Ugh! And you wonder why United Methodist preachers don’t preach the Bible anymore! We’re being brainwashed in seminary! Only Christians with more spiritual maturity than I possessed at the time can escape unharmed. (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!)

Be that as it may, in his commentary on John, D.A. Carson attacks this allegorical reading head on:

The most common allegorical interpretation of John 4 holds that the five husbands represent five pagan deities introduced to the residents of Samaria by the settlers who were transported there (cf. notes on 4:4) from five cities in Mesopotamia and Syria (2 Ki. 17:24); the Samaritan woman represents the mixed and religiously tainted Samaritan race; and the sixth man, to whom the woman was not legally married, represents either another false god or, more commonly, the true God to whom the Samaritans are connected only by an illicit union. In fact, the details do not work out. The transported settlers originally worshipped seven pagan deities, not five… and these gods were all worshipped at the same time, not serially. Moreover, although it is true that John frequently uses institutions and details in symbolic ways…, his symbolism in such cases is not only commonly predicated upon larger typologies connecting Jesus with the Old Testament, but in any case the symbolic value is tied to broader and demonstrable themes in the Fourth Gospel. The proposed symbolism in this instance fails both tests.[1]

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 232-3.

The “terrible paralysis” from believing “it’s all up to us”

January 23, 2015

Lord_teach_usAs you may know, I’m currently preaching a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. I preached a similar series five years ago—a lot of water under the bridge since then—and used a book on the Lord’s Prayer called Lord, Teach Us, by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, as one resource. As I’ve revisited this book—on the other side of my “evangelical reawakening”—I find that I’m far less sympathetic than I once was with both the book’s tone and its substance.

For example, I’m now a convinced “just warrior” who believes that violence can be good and necessary under some circumstances. I oppose Christian pacifism. I believe strongly in the police’s role in maintaining law and order, even through violence (as perhaps even Hauerwas now does—the big softie!). I deeply love my country, warts and all—and I don’t believe I’m kowtowing to “empire,” or the world’s “domination systems,” or whatever, by doing so. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a few classes at a mainline Protestant seminary.)

Don’t get me wrong: Like the good Candler graduate that I am, I believe that the gospel should liberate people in the here and now, not just in the sweet by and by, and that the Church should take the lead to make the world a more just place, as it has for two millennia. But even if the most oppressive nations on earth were suddenly as egalitarian as, say, Sweden, these nations would still need Jesus to save them from their sins. The Swedes still need Jesus!

Nevertheless, while I was tempted to throw the book out the window after re-reading their chapter on “Your kingdom come,” their chapter on the next clause, “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven,” is strong. I especially like the part in which they relate this petition to the story of Joseph and his brothers at the end of Genesis. As part of a discussion about the “amazing resilience of God’s purposes,” which “cannot be stumped by our plans,” they write:

We modern American people are so accustomed to thinking life as a choice or chance. Life is what I do and decide or else life is a roulette wheel of sheer luck. Is that why we often feel so helpless and hopeless? If life is all up to us, then we know enough about ourselves and our brothers and sisters to know we are doomed. A terrible paralysis comes from thinking that it’s all up to us. If the fate of the world, the outcome of the future is solely of my doing, or even yours, then—a good freshman course in the history of Western civilization should convince us that we are without hope. No wonder we feel frail and fearful before the bomb, AIDS, the ecological crisis, thinning ozone, or even the department of motor vehicles—it’s all choice or chance.

William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 63.