Friday, December 29, 2006

The Constructive Curmudgeon on "Fifteen Refusals for 2007"

I don't make New Year's Resolutions, and I've been wondering what to blog on during this week. Douglas Groothuis appears to have beaten me to the punch. This post, "Fifteen Refusals for 2007," is very thought-provoking. I'm pretty sure I can subscribe to at least 13 of them. Check it out.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas and the Search for Significance

You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat. --Fame

In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.--Andy Warhol

Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super... no one will be. --The Incredibles
You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. --On the Waterfront

I read recently that over half of bloggers say they blog for themselves, not for an audience. I have a really hard time believing that. You don't need online web space to have a journal; all you need is a blank book and a pen. Or if you'd rather type, a Word file will do. I think that even if we don't care about having a large readership, most of us posting into cyberspace are trying, at some level, to etch our own "Kilroy was here" into the ether. We hope that there is at least one kindred soul out there somewhere who "gets us." We want to "be somebody." Our whole culture is saturated with an irrational fascination with celebrity. Why else would anyone care about the verbal slugfest going on between Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump?

Some years ago, a friend recommended the book The Search for Significance to me. It discusses the ubiquitous need we have to be recognized in the eyes of others, and the solution to the dilemma in recognizing God's investing us with worth by creating us in His image and by giving His Son to redeem us. I liked it in many ways, although frankly that insight, by itself, doesn't seem to remove the appetite to "be special" in the eyes of other people.

And it is in this context that I reflect on the birth of our Savior. We tend to discuss the "humble" birth of Jesus in a sort of sweet and sentimental way. We use quaint and obsolete words like "manger" to avoid saying that Jesus was laid in an animals' feeding trough. We talk about Mary and Joseph being "poor," and conceive of that as being modest working class, without dealing with the reality of the struggle for survival that poverty entails. More to the point, we forget about the total obscurity that someone like Jesus would have lived in. The details of "One Solitary Life" are very true: Jesus never wrote a book, never led an army, never traveled more than 300 miles from where he was born. He was, at most, a working-class laborer, the (apparent) son of a working-class laborer, and an itinerant preacher, among an oppressed, conquered people at the outskirts of the Roman Empire. By the standards of the intellectuals of the day, the Jews would have been considered an uncouth, barbaric people. Jesus had a brief popular ministry among them, which ended up getting him into a conflict with some of their religious authorities over some obscure points of their religious dogma. So they trumped up some charges and handed him over to the Governor, who had him executed in order to avoid a riot. He died the death of a criminal, in a humiliating fashion, the Romans' favorite object lesson on What Happens to Those Who Dare Oppose the Empire.

And other than some odd stories his followers began telling a few days after the execution, that was it. God could have sent his Son to the political capital, Rome, or the intellectual centers of Athens or Alexandria. Jesus could have been somebody. He could have been world-famous. Satan offered him just that at one point. But he lived his whole life in virtual obscurity, and if his followers hadn't written about him, no one would know that he had ever existed. It wasn't necessary for him to be known, or liked, or admired, or any of the other things that most of us crave. He came to die for us, and he also set an example for us. "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus," Paul writes to the Philippians (2:5),and goes on to outline Jesus' humility to the point of death and his subsequent exaltation by the Father.

So as we celebrate Jesus' birth and recall the events surrounding the Incarnation, let's recall Jesus' willingness to be one of us--even to the point of being a nobody. Let's take note of all the "nobodies" that cross our paths, and remember that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matt. 25:40).

Friday, December 22, 2006

Baptism in the Didache

As a response to my post, "Faith Validates Baptism," I received an email from someone interested in the history of believer's baptism. One of the strongest arguments for paedobaptism is that it came early in the history of the church. I'm not sure it came as early as the Catholic and Orthodox churches would claim; evidence in the first few centuries is thin and ambiguous. Delaying baptism until one was on one's deathbed (e.g. Constantine) so that one could not sin after being baptized was also practiced in early years.

So far as I know, the earliest extra-biblical reference to baptism is in the Didache ("The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 7 section 6), generally dated around AD 120. The whole passage reads as follows:
And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
Not that the Didache is authoritative, but it does give us some light on baptismal practices in the early post-Biblical era. What can we learn from it?
  • Baptism was conducted using the formula Jesus gave in the Great Commission, not (as some churches hold, based on statements in the book of Acts) merely in the name of Jesus;
  • Baptism was normally done by immersion; pouring is suggested as an alternate method if water (evidently meaning a sufficient quantity of water) is unavailable;
  • Running water and cold water were to be preferred over still and warm water, perhaps for health reasons;
  • There was some flexibility in the administration: it was considered better to be baptized in less-than-optimal conditions than to delay baptism;
  • Baptism was evidently understood to be for believers, since the one being baptized is instructed to fast for one or two days prior.
Once again, the Didache is not authoritative, and it may not describe the baptismal practices of the church as a whole. Nonetheless, it does belie claims that "the whole church" had "always" practiced infant baptism until those crazy Anabaptists started re-baptizing one another in the sixteenth century.

Adrian and David Square Off on Baptism--In Adrian's Mind

This is one of the funniest things I've read in a long while. Trying to figure out what to disagree with David Wayne about, Adrian Warnock imagines debating with him about infant vs. believer's baptism, and plays out the whole scenario. I won't ruin it by quoting the whole thing in full, but here's how it ends: "I would go away thinking I have won and he would go away thinking I had missed the point." Check it out.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Faith Validates Baptism: A Note on Wayne Grudem's Change of Mind

Justin Taylor discusses Wayne Grudem's second thoughts about churches allowing individual pastors and families to make the decision regarding believers vs. infant baptism for themselves, a la the Evangelical Free Church of America. Grudem recognizes that the differing administrations of baptism do imply differing theological convictions about baptism and what it means, and appears to be moving toward a more traditional Baptist position.

Although my convictions are also strongly in favor of believer's baptism, in seminary I did have to grapple with the issue of solid Christian brothers whom I knew to be serving the Lord with all their hearts who had been baptized as infants and were satisfied that their baptism was legitimate. Since I recognized from Colossians 2:11-12 the important parallel between circumcision and baptism--essentially, baptism functions like circumcision in the Old Testament: it is the entrance and sign of being among the covenant people--I therefore couldn't regard it as a simple doctrinal difference. If infant baptism has no legitimacy whatever, then an infant-baptized Christian is an unbaptized Christian, which is sort of analogous to an uncircumcised Jew!

Baptism was essentially the New Testament altar call.The position I eventually came to is this: faith is what validates baptism. This may seem a little obvious, but there are large implications once it is fleshed out a little. Faith validates baptism regardless of whether that faith comes prior to or subsequent to baptism. I'm still convinced that the biblical model is that one enters into baptism as a profession of the faith that one has already entered into--i.e., baptism was essentially the New Testament altar call. So it's really appropriate only to believers. But I also believe that if a person were baptized before coming into faith (e.g., as an infant), and that person subsequently did come into faith in Christ, that person's faith in Christ would validate the baptism that he or she had already undergone. Such a person would, in fact, be a baptized believer. I would have no objection if a person who had been baptized as an infant and later came to faith chose to be rebaptised--once again, as a profession of faith and as a sign of having come into the covenant community--but if that person chose to accept his or her infant baptism as now legitimate, having been validated by their faith, I would have no objection to that either.

So as a pastor, I would only baptize those who had come to faith. As a father, I have only allowed my children to be baptized when I felt that they were able to make a credible profession of faith. This, as I said before, is because it is faith that validates baptism; there is no reason to baptize someone who has not come into faith in Christ. The great danger of infant baptism is that it gives a false sense of security; people believe that their status with God is acceptable because they have been baptized as infants. (It also has the tendency to "lock" a person into a particular denomination before they have the ability to choose.) Nonetheless, as a believer, I will look on a person who trusts in Christ for salvation and has been baptized as an infant as a fellow baptized believer, because I believe that that person's faith in Christ has validated the baptism they had as a child.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Nativity According to Luke

The versions of the nativity given by Matthew and Luke are strikingly different in their details, and we can gain insight from looking at each separately, rather than collapsing them together as we so often do. While Matthew largely gives us the story of Joseph, Luke largely gives us the story of Mary, and if Matthew stresses the regal and prophetic elements of Jesus' birth, Luke stresses the humble and human elements.

Luke starts with a parallel story: the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. John is Jesus' forerunner from his very conception, and each element in John's story is recapitulated and heightened in Jesus' story. John's birth is foretold by an angel to Zechariah, and the angel tells him of the importance of the child's life and ministry. Six months later, Jesus' birth is foretold by the angel Gabriel to Mary, a virgin in the rather low-class town of Nazareth. The angel tells her that she will have a child who will "be called the Son of the Most High" and will be given "the throne of his father David," and his "kingdom will never end" (1:32-33). We have here a stark contrast between what is now and what is prophesied to be in the future.

Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who acknowledges the greater importance of Mary's child. Mary, for her part, gives voice to what we now call the Magnificat: essentially, a psalm of praise to God and a recognition of the great things God will do through her son, in large measure conceived as overturning social and economic inequalities. She voices the longing in the hearts of a downtrodden people, looked down upon by their countrymen in Judea and treated as captives by the Romans.

Luke narrates the birth of John the Baptist, and then turns to the circumstances of Jesus' birth. While Matthew relates the conflict with Herod after the child's birth, Luke relates the unwitting involvement of the Roman Emperor himself in the circumstances of the birth. A census is taken, in which all are required to return to their home towns to register; Joseph, being descended from King David, returns to David's home town of Bethlehem, and Mary comes with him. It is here in Luke that we find that Jesus was born, apparently, in a stable, because a feeding trough was improvised as a crib. Although from a royal line, Joseph and Mary are reduced to giving birth in the lowest possible circumstances.

Luke's Witnesses

In Luke, Jesus' birth is witnessed, not by foreign dignitaries, but by shepherds, who are socially outcast and ritually unclean by virtue of their work, and yet reminiscent of David. The birth is announced to them by angels, the shepherds come to Bethlehem, and there is no doubt that they in fact were there on the night of Jesus' birth, because they saw him in the feeding trough. Unlike the visit from the Magi, these witnesses draw no attention from the earthly authorities, although the shepherds do spread the word of what they have seen and heard.

Joseph and Mary fulfill the Law of Moses by having Jesus dedicated at the Temple and by offering the sacrifice appropriate to the poor. His destiny as savior of his people is attested to by Simeon and Anna--not the priests or temple officials, but elderly righteous people who were there at that time. Luke doesn't relate the flight to Egypt, simply collapsing the narrative down into "they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth" (2:39).

So by contrast to Matthew's narrative of Jesus' birth breaking into and threatening the earthly powers, Luke relates the humble, even humiliating circumstances of Jesus' birth. An underclass of people, waiting at the brink of hopelessness for a savior. The news of his birth, far from having to remain a secret, is spread indiscriminately--because the class of people who know are irrelevant to the powers that be. But there is hope: echoes of David the shepherd-king, raised from obscurity to power, a man after God's own heart.

Monday, December 11, 2006


So this is the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.


Friday, December 08, 2006

The Nativity According to Matthew

I began arguing, at the end of When Did the Wise Men Get There, Anyway?, that it might be instructive to reread the separate accounts of the Nativity as the Holy Spirit inspired them--that is, as separate stories, each complete in itself. By suggesting this, I do not mean that the Evangelists invented or altered details in order to fit each one's own version of the events, but they did clearly select events that fit with the portrayal of Jesus that each one was being inspired to write.

In looking at the events of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke, it is startling how little overlap there is, and yet how the stories have so many parallel elements. Both stress the virgin birth. Each one portrays a visitation by an angel announcing the event, but not to the same person. Each one involves visitors to the child, but not the same ones. Each one relates some governmental interference, but not the same level of government. Each one mentions both Nazareth and Bethlehem, but in Matthew the movement is from Bethlehem to Nazareth, and in Luke it is from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We can add up all the details of both stories to get a picture of What Really Happened, but by doing so, we miss the thrust of each individual story.

Matthew's gospel was probably the first one written that presents the story of Jesus' birth. It is startling, when read on its own, how much of our traditional Christmas story does not appear in this narrative. Matthew's focus is on the birth of a King. He begins by presenting the royal lineage of Jesus, tracing His descent through David back to Abraham. We see nothing of the Annunciation to Mary; she is simply "found to be with child by the Holy Spirit" (1:18). Matthew's narrative is largely Joseph's story; it is about how he reacts to Mary's pregnancy, how he is led to marry her, preserve her virginity until Jesus' birth, and protect his family from Herod. Although Joseph was doubtless devastated by the appearance of infidelity on Mary's part, he was still concerned not to disgrace her: his plan to quietly divorce her would have been an act of mercy, not judgment.

But here, God intervenes. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream, and tells him not to "be afraid" to complete the betrothal process and take Mary home as his wife. This would have been a hard command for him to obey, because it would amount to a tacit admission of infidelity: in the eyes of the community, Joseph would be acknowledging that Mary's child was his, and he would share in her disgrace. Nonetheless, he does take her home, in obedience to what the angel has said, trusting that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that his name is to be Joshua (Hebrew, Yeshua; Greek, Iesous, anglicized as Jesus) because he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew presents the birth of Jesus as the prophesied entrance of the Son of David into history, threatening the powers of this world, gaining the attention of foreign dignitaries, and attested to by the very heavens themselves.This is a child of destiny, an important child, which Matthew underscores by pointing out that the birth of this King is a fulfillment of prophecy, another of Matthew's important themes. Joseph obeys the angel's command to the letter, preserves Mary's virginity until after the birth, and gives the child the name that the angel had decreed.

Matthew places Jesus' birth in "Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod" (2:1). One would not know from Matthew's account that Joseph and Mary had come from some uncouth town in the hills up north; that would not fit with the portrayal that Matthew is giving. Just as in Luke, there are visitors to the child, but what visitors! Magi - exotic wise men "from the east" (probably Media-Persia), who first come to Jerusalem, because where else would one expect to find the heir to the Jewish throne than in the capital city? And they came because the heavens themselves have borne witness to his birth--he has his own star! And these distinguished visitors have come to worship (they themselves probably only mean to pay proper homage and respect to) him.

And so Herod enters into the picture. He is "disturbed," and when Herod is disturbed, the whole city is disturbed (2:3). He was a paranoid tyrant, a puppet of Caesar who had appealed to Rome for the title of "King" and killed anyone whom he imagined threatened his continued rule, including several members of his own family. He finds out from the priests and teachers of the law that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (more fulfillment of prophecy) and learns from the Magi when the star had appeared, then sends them on their way, asking them to report to him when they found the child. Although just born, Jesus is already a threat to the established powers of the world.

The star leads the Magi to "the child with his mother Mary" (2:11), and they worship him and give strange and wonderful gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Various symbolic meanings have been attached to these gifts; at the very least, they are costly gifts befitting a royah heir. God sovereignly intervenes again through dreams--to the Magi, letting them know not to return to Herod; and to Joseph, warning him to flee to Egypt, which he does, taking Mary and Jesus by night (and fulfilling more prophecy). Herod has all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger killed (yet again fulfilling prophecy).

Once again, an angel appears to Joseph in Egypt, this time telling him to return to "the land of Israel" because Herod has died (2:20). Israel is not usually denoted by that name at this time: it has been carved up into the Roman districts of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee; but Jesus, the King, is returning to his rightful land, and so it is called by its rightful name. In Matthew, it is because Joseph learns that Herod's son is on the throne in Judea that he withdraws to a small town in the relative obscurity of Galilee, the north country of Israel. The place that he chooses (we are not told that he came from there in the first place) once again fulfills prophecy: "He will be called a Nazarene" (2:23).

Matthew presents the birth of Jesus as the prophesied entrance of the Son of David into history, threatening the powers of this world, gaining the attention of foreign dignitaries, and attested to by the very heavens themselves. No sweet, sentimental, humble birth here! This Christmas, let's celebrate the inbreaking of the heavenly powers into the vain rulers of this world.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

So When Did the Wise Men Get There, Anyway?

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.

I was told, growing up, that this carol was completely wrong in all its details. We all-too-often make assumptions based on what the Bible does say, and come to conclusions that may be plausible but are not necessarily warranted by the text.There were not (at least, not necessarily) three of them, they were not kings, and they were not, in the modern sense, Oriental (that is, Asian). We get three from the number of gifts that were given; they are called "Magi" in scripture, which to the best of our knowledge were a class of "wise men" from Media-Persia (i.e., northwestern Iran). And although nativity scenes, Christmas pageants, and the movie The Nativity Story place them at the stable on the night of Jesus' birth, they most probably were not there.

I say "most probably," although many would dogmatically proclaim that they definitely weren't there, and that they arrived two full years later. It is that dogmatism that is the subject of my post. Old certainties that prove to be incorrect are often supplanted by new certainties that are also most likely incorrect. We all-too-often make assumptions based on what the Bible does say, and come to conclusions that may be plausible but are not necessarily warranted by the text. One such is the statement that "It took 120 years for Noah to build the Ark." This is nowhere stated in the Genesis account. What is stated is as follows:

  1. The LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years" (Gen. 6:3);
  2. "God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways" and therefore He gave Noah the instructions on building the Ark (Gen. 6:12-21).
  3. "Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth" (Gen. 7:6)
This is literally all the information we have. So if one assumes that the "120 years" in 6:3 refers to the time period between the judgment and the flood (it has also been thought to refer to a maximum life span, aside from extraordinary exceptions, of people born after the flood), and if one assumes that God immediately came to Noah and gave him the instructions, and if one assumes that Noah immediately began working on the ark as soon as he received the instructions, then yes, it took 120 years to build the ark. But that's a lot of assumptions. The most that is really warranted to say is, "It may have taken as much as 120 years for Noah to build the ark." We really don't know anything more than that.

So it is with the Magi's visit to Bethlehem. Here is what we are told in Scripture:
  1. The visit of the Magi came "after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod" (Matt. 2:1; we shouldn't press "after" too strongly; the Greek uses a temporal participle which may mean "after" or "when");
  2. "Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared" (Matt. 2:7);
  3. "After they had heard the king ... the star ... went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.... On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary ...."(Matt. 2:9-11).
  4. Herod "gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi" (Matt 2:16).
It is generally argued, based on the age of the children killed by Herod being linked to when the Magi saw the star, and also based on the fact that Jesus is described as a "child" (i.e., not a baby) and that they appear to be in a "house" by this point, that Jesus was two years old when the Magi arrived.

Once age again, this is based on a series of assumptions. The major one is assuming that the star appeared to the Magi at the same time that Jesus was born; we don't know that. God may well have placed the star ahead of time. The argument also assumes that Herod didn't add in a "cushion" of time when deciding the age of the children to be killed; that the "house" was Joseph's and Mary's house (rather than, for example, the inn, with the stable nearby); and that the word "child" is intended to be distinct from "baby." In fact, Matthew wants to stress the royalty of Jesus, so he minimizes the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth--he would naturally describe Jesus as a "child" rather than as a "baby," and refer to the "house" rather than to the "manger" (i.e., feeding trough) that Luke mentions.

Am I trying to argue that the Magi were at the scene of Jesus' birth after all? No. If we're getting stymied in trying to figure out something, we're probably heading off on a rabbit trail, and missing the main point of what the author wanted us to see.I think it's likely that Joseph and Mary settled in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth, to get away from the stigma of illegitimacy that they would have had in Nazareth. I think that the Magi arrived some time later, although not necessarily two years later. But the key words here are, "I think." I don't know. And whether they want to admit it or not, neither does anyone else.

A little humility is a very good thing when we're about the business of interpreting Scripture. We need to recognize that Scripture doesn't tell us everything we might be curious about, and so there are things that we simply can't know for sure. One thing we can be reasonably sure of, though, is that if the Bible doesn't give us full information on something, it probably isn't crucial for us to know it. If we're getting stymied in trying to figure out something, we're probably heading off on a rabbit trail, and missing the main point of what the author wanted us to see. It might be a good idea, this Christmas season, to forget about what we know of the whole Christmas story, and to read the individual Christmas stories once again, and see the different angles that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew and Luke to tell us about. Come to think of it, it might not be a bad thing to blog on....

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Growing Split between Evangelicals and Republicans

Ben Witherington passes along an article from (accessing the original will require registration with the site) that discusses the growing divide between Evangelicals and the Republican party. The main thesis is that the Republican coalition was largely between libertarian conservatives who wanted limited government for its own sake and Evangelical conservatives who wanted limited government because they were opposed to the secularism of government social programs. In my own point of view, this portrayal is too reductionistic, but is a useful vantage point in looking at the developing split.

Some quotes from the article:
The sense among the evangelical grassroots is that the Republican Party has used them, but only paid lip service to their goals, aspirations and values. [... Former White House aide David Kuo] alleged that the nonreligious White House staff scoffed at the evangelicals, referring to them as "crazies" and treating them like a captive political group; on this last point akin to how Democrats treat African-American voters.


At the core of this new political outlook [recently advocated by Evangelical leaders] is a growing sense that the libertarian battle is lost, but the Christian mission of helping the poor remains. Evangelicals argue that by shunning aggressively secular government involvement in issues relating to poverty and other things, libertarian approaches were preferable, but they now add that failing in the libertarian mission is not an excuse to stop helping the poor or working toward other Christian missions such as environmental stewardship.
[Emphasis mine]
A friend of mine and I were recently talking about politics, and he made the statement that, because of Democratic hostility toward biblically-based positions on such issues as abortion and homosexuality, Christians essentially had nowhere else to go but the Republican party. It seems to me that this is only true if one narrows the field of issues on which there is a discernable "Christian" point of view to those particular issues--and that's what we have wrongly done. If one broadens the field to include such issues as poverty and social justice, then one may have to choose between two candidates, neither of whom supports all the issues one may hope he would, based on which one supports more of one's issues, and also based on which of these issues that particular office will have an impact on.

If nothing else, reexamining the reasons why we support the candidates and parties that we do is a healthy thing. I, for one, have for a long time expected American Christians to be squeezed out of the political process, between an increasingly libertarian Republican party and an increasingly socialistic Democratic party. I don't relish this development, but I don't think that being taken for granted in the back pocket of one party is a viable alternative.

The Pope Prays Toward Mecca

Pope Benedict XVI made what Al-Jazeera called "something beautiful, a gesture ... even more meaningful than an apology" (quoting Mustafa Cagrici, the mufti of Istanbul). He "assumed an attitude of Muslim prayer while facing Mecca in Istanbul's Blue Mosque."

I am willing to grant that the Pope wasn't praying to Allah, and that he did not consider himself to be participating in a Muslim rite. Nonetheless, I find this move completely astonishing.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding participation in the worship of other religions:
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
--1 Cor. 10:18-22.
It is one thing to exhibit kindness, generosity, and mercy toward people from other religions. It is quite another to validate them by participating in their worship.

(HT: Smart Christian)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pray Without Ceasing
A note on 1 Thessalonians 5:17

The Apostle Paul’s injunction to "pray without ceasing" (KJV) or "pray continually" (NIV) is a familiar scripture to which evangelicals often appeal, but it is also one that often occasions frequent discussion due to its apparent impossibility. How can one pray while going about one’s daily business, for example? How can one continue to pray throughout a day? How can one pray while sleeping?

The standard answer to this problem lies in redefining the word "pray." We are to "pray" continually by having a "prayerful attitude" at all times; i.e., by meditating on the things of the Lord, by silent prayer throughout a day, etc. The objection concerning sleep or other states of unconsciousness is met either by asserting that the mental processes going on while falling asleep continue throughout sleep, by claiming that certain states of mind such as sleep are obvious and therefore inconsequential exceptions to the command, or that the command itself, like "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," is a goal to be sought, but is unachievable in our present life.

Watered-Down Prayer?

The problem with this line of interpretation is that it seems to water down the meaning of the word "pray" (προσευχεσθε) to a level that becomes effectively meaningless. Even leaving aside the problem of sleep, reducing our understanding of prayer to a mental state that can be maintained under all conditions, without regard for what the mind is otherwise concentrating on, would appear to be pointless. The likely effect on those who hear this teaching is to cause them to attempt to engender a vaguely pious feeling whenever they recall this passage. Aside from the fact that this seems hardly worthy of a command from the apostle, it doesn’t fall within the lexical range of the word προσευχομαι.

Although a middle deponent, προσευχομαι has the meaning of active communication with God throughout the New Testament. Out of 87 references in the New Testament[1], six refer to specific and recurring times of prayer (e.g. Matt. 6:5, "When you pray"; also Matt. 6:6, 7; Mk. 11:24, 25; Lk. 11:2). Twenty references are imperitival forms indicating commands or requests to pray for specific persons or in specific circumstances (e.g. Lk. 22:40, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation"; 1 Cor. 14:13, "Anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret").[2] Specific occasions of prayer, by particular people and in specific places or times (i.e., in narrative), occur in 49 places.[3] All of the above 75 references imply concreteness and specificity in prayer; i.e., praying at a specific time, or going to a specific place for the purpose of praying, or praying with a specific object in mind. There is therefore no support among these references to the idea of prayer as merely a "prayerful attitude." If such an interpretation can be supported, it must lie among the remaining twelve citations.

Of these, six refer to hypothetical situations; i.e., to discussions of prayer rather than incidents, commands, etc. These discussions, though hypothetical, do have concrete ideas about the prayers that are envisioned. Lk. 11:1 is the disciples’ question, "Lord, teach us to pray," and Rom. 8:26 refers to the Spirit interceding for us when "we do not know what we ought to pray for," both implying conscious volition in the prayers envisioned.[4] A prayerful attitude does not need to be taught (and Jesus’ response in the form of the Lord’s prayer certainly indicates concreteness and purposefulness), neither is there frustration in not knowing how to pray if a frame of mind is all that is intended. 1 Cor. 14:14-15 (four references) refer to praying "in a tongue" as opposed to praying "with my mind," and in this case alone does scripture specify prayer that is mentally (but not spiritually) nonvolitional. However, it is doubtful that anyone, including Pentecostals, would understand "pray continually" in 1 Thess. 5:17 as continuous praying in tongues (although they might see silent and verbal prayer in tongues as a part of the continual prayer we are to do). Moreover, Pentecostals view prayer in tongues as purposeful—as something done volitionally—and though Pentecostals praying in tongues may not know the subject matter of the prayer, they know that they are praying: they are making a choice to pray at that moment. It does not constitute a mere "prayerful attitude."

This leaves six references to continual or prolonged prayer. The first introduces a parable, in which Jesus demonstrates to his disciples "that they should always pray and not give up" (Lk. 18:1). Here, the two phrases form a hendyadis, in which always praying is synonymous with not giving up; that is, the opposite of continued prayer is to give up altogether. This is illustrated by the parable of the unjust judge that follows, in which a woman "kept coming to him" with her plea. It is not to be assumed that she continuously pled with the judge, but that she repeatedly did so, and did not cease these repetitive requests until they were granted.

Col. 1:3, 9; and 2 Thess. 1:11 occur within the opening sections of Pauline epistles and refer to the apostle’s prayer for the Colossian and Thessalonian churches respectively. In all these cases, it is inconceivable that Paul is praying continuously for these churches (while simultaneously praying for all the rest, writing the rest of his epistles, founding churches and suffering in prison, tentmaking, etc.; cf. 2 Cor. 11:23-28!). These passages are generally understood in context as referring to continuing, but periodic prayer.

Finally, we come to Eph. 6:18 and the passage in question, 1 Thess. 5:17; both are exhortations to continual prayer. The Ephesians passage stresses prayer "in the Spirit" for a diversity of reasons; other than that, it does not shed any more light on the issue. Therefore, in the absence of any support in the New Testament, other than prayer "in a tongue" in 1 Cor. 4:14-15, it is unreasonable to view the exhortations to continued prayer in Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians as referring to anything but volitional mental or verbal communication with God. It often presupposes an object for the prayer to be "about," it frequently involves removal to a particular place or the choice of a specific time. Of course, this does not resolve the difficulty concerning how we are supposed to continually pray in such a purposeful way.

It may be objected that keeping a prayerful attitude does not preclude specific times of more concentrated prayer, and that of course most references to prayer in scripture would be to such specific prayers. However, if it is shown that all other citations of προσευχομαι assume purposefulness, we may suspect that its dilution in this passage is invented to reduce its difficulty.

What does "continually" really mean?

I would submit that another line of interpretation is possible, by focusing instead on the word "continually" (αδιαλειπτως). This word only occurs four times in the New Testament; its adjectival cognate αδιαλειπτος occurs twice.[5] Aside from the passage in question, the three occasions of αδιαλειπτως in Rom. 1:9 and 1 Thess. 1:3; 2:13 refer to prayers or thanksgivings for the Roman and Thessalonian churches; i.e., with objects in view that could not literally be held in the mind continuously. Similarly with the adjectival αδιαλειπτος, 2 Tim. 1:3 speaks of constant prayers for Timothy, and Rom. 9:2 refers to unceasing anguish in Paul’s heart for the Jews who were not accepting Christ. Although one may imagine (regarding the Romans passage) that an undercurrent of regret for his kinsmen could have formed a constant backdrop in Paul’s mind, providing impetus for his tireless work for the gospel, it would again seem impossible for Paul literally to be praying specifically for Timothy (in the 2 Timothy passage) on an unceasing basis, if by unceasing we mean uninterrupted.

It would seem clear, then, that we must not force αδιαλειπτως to indicate perpetual action without interruption. It more clearly refers to action, whether continuous or intermittent, that does not come to an end, and whose regular performance is not omitted. This understanding of the adverb accords with the lexical range of the verb προσευχεσθε, which is in the present tense and the imperitive mood. Although the present tense is often understood as being strictly durative (or continuous, without interruption), it can also be iterative (or repeated).[6] It is even more important not to force a durative construction when the verb is in the imperitive mood, which occurs in only two aspects—present and aorist—and in which the temporal aspect is minimized. The general idea behind the iterative present would have to do with the faithful carrying out of the action of the verb.[7] This would accord well with the context: v. 18 reads "give thanks in all circumstances (εν παντι), for this is God’s will concerning you." "In all circumstances" suggests, again, not continuous action, but repetitive. Therefore, the imperitive to "αδιαλειπτως προσευχεσθε" in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 might best be interpreted, "Continue your practice of regular prayer without cessation or omission."

The implications of this study go beyond the mere interpretation of this verse. If it is shown that throughout the New Testament the verb "to pray" has the meaning of conscious, purposeful communication with God, something that one does at particular times and places, it precludes New Age ideas of "prayer" that minimize this aspect. Evangelicals over time have gone from a mentality that considered prayer legitimate only when on bended knee in a church or in one’s "prayer closet," to one in which we stress that prayer can take place at any time—while driving, working, etc. While doubtless this is true—conscious, purposeful mental prayer can occur under these circumstances—many may have used these teachings to avoid or omit particular times and places of prayer. If Jesus found it necessary to remove himself for private prayer at particular times, how much more may we have that need? We may in fact have substituted a pious sort of prayerlessness for the prayer that scripture enjoins upon us. We need to heed the apostle’s words: to pray (not merely keep a "prayerful attitude") without ceasing (regularly, without quitting or omitting times of prayer). Along with always being joyful and giving thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:16-18), the apostle writes that "this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."

© Keith Schooley 1999.


[1] Wigram, George V. and Green Sr., J. P., The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1982), p. 757.

[2] Also Matt. 5:44; 6:6, 9; 24:20; 26:41; Mk. 13:18, 33; 14:38; Lk. 6:28; 22:46; Col. 4:3; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 13:18; Jas. 5:13,14; Jude 20.

[3] Matt. 6:5; 14:23; 19:13; 23:14 (omitted in best mss. and NA26 text); 26:36, 39, 42, 44; Mk. 1:35; 6:46; 12:40; 14:32, 35, 39; Lk. 1:10; 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28, 29; 11:1; 18:10, 11; 20:47; 22:41, 44; Acts 1:24; 6:6; 8:15; 9:11, 40; 10:9, 30; 11:5; 12:12; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17; 28:8; 1 Cor. 11:4, 5, 13; Phil. 1:9; Jas. 5:17, 18.

[4] If the Romans reference to "groans that words cannot express" (NIV) is construed to refer to "speaking in tongues," it would fall into the category of the following 1 Corinthians references.

[5] Wigram and Green, 16. A few other scattered references occur in early Christian literature—in Ignatius’s letters to the Ephesians and to Polycarp, in the Shepherd of Hermas, and in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians; cf. Bauer, Walter; Arndt, William F.; and Gingrich, F. Wilbur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 17.

[6] Brooks, James A. and Winbery, Carlton L., Syntax of New Testament Greek (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979), pp. 85-86.

[7] Snyder, Steve, "GL 201 Intermediate Greek Supplement," photocopied supplement to second-year Greek language class (South Hamilton, MA: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1988), p. 13.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Silly Flap over "Happy Holidays,"
and the battle over the two Christmases

'Tis the season for all right-thinking Americans to get a bee in their collective bonnet regarding "Happy Holidays" being substituted for "Merry Christmas." It's an insufferable umbrage, we are told, to hear the generic holiday greeting, since the overwhelming majority of people in our culture do celebrate Christmas. This deeply important issue precipitated a boycott of Wal-Mart last year, in response to which Wal-Mart has gone back to "Merry Christmas." We are encouraged to think that a moral victory has been won.

Given the antipathy I recently expressed regarding "Happy Turkey Day," you might think that I have similar feelings toward "Happy Holidays." The latter expression is, of course, a silly concession to political correctness, and another example of how Christians are expected to accept marginalization in favor of supposedly neutral secularism. Nonetheless, I really don't mind "Happy Holidays." The reason why is related to what has happened to Christmas in our culture.

Two Holidays

It is commonplace to complain that Christmas has been too commercialized; the real issue came earlier: Christmas being secularized. For a long time now, two separate holidays have coexisted by the same name and on the same day, often being celebrated by the same people at the same time. One commemorates the birth of the incarnate Son of God, and the incidental aspects of that birth become the symbols of the holiday: angels, shepherds, wise men, a man and his young pregnant bride, the animals in a stable, and one special star. There is music associated with this holiday: "O Come, O Come, Immanuel," "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus".

The other holiday is a celebration of sentimentality and childhood fantasy. Its central event is the annual magical appearance of presents, and the incidental aspects of that event are the symbols of that holiday: snow, reindeer, evergreen trees, stockings, and the Right Jolly Old Elf himself, Santa Claus. There is music associated with this holiday as well: "White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "Jingle Bell Rock."

These two holidays have coexisted for a long time, but have had great difficulty in being integrated. There is always the attempt by Christians to relate gift-giving to the gifts of the Magi; and it used to be fashionable for adults in the secular world to talk about the "real meaning" of the holiday as being The Birth of a Child (without, of course, any discussion of Who that Child was). But that was before it became fashionable for adults to proclaim, Peter Pannish-like, True Belief in Santa Claus, thus getting rid of any necessity of mentioning a Child at all. The secularization of Christmas has a long history. It was considered scandalous to the Puritans, who opposed its celebration at all.

Which Christmas?

I think that celebrating the entrance of the Son of God into the world is a good thing, and if it contains some of the trappings of Secular Christmas, I frankly don't mind, as long as the two Christmasses are kept in perspective. But over the last several years, I have noticed a virtual monopoly of Secular Christmas music, to the exclusion of Christian Christmas music, on the radio and in public places. It's easy to find snowmen and reindeer to put on your lawn; much more difficult to find nativity scenes. Rather than coexisting with Christian Christmas, Secular Christmas has been supplanting Christian Christmas for some time now. That, in turn, makes me a little uneasy when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas." I'm beginning to wonder, "Which Christmas do you mean?"

The reality is, you have to know Christ to appreciate the Real Meaning of Christian Christmas. Sentimental hogwash about the Birth of New Hope is just meaningless words if you don't believe in the hope that Jesus came to give. And the majority of people you meet don't believe, and so they don't know, and can't appreciate what Christmas means to those who do know Christ. I'm frankly not sure I want everyone and their dog wishing me a "Merry Christmas." I'm not sure I want to wish everyone else a Merry Christmas, if some of them are going to understand by that phrase getting drunk on eggnog and maxing out their credit cards. It's a communication thing. "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Happy Holidays

On the other hand, I don't mind wishing people "Happy Holidays." I truly want Jewish people to enjoy their week of Hanukkah; I don't even mind secular people enjoying Secular Christmas. If they celebrate the day differently than I would, it doesn't matter. It's not my holiday they're trashing. And I don't mind them wishing me a happy holiday. I will gladly celebrate Christian Christmas, and be glad that they wished me a happy one. They spoke better than they knew, God bless 'em.

So don't get bent out of shape when you hear, "Happy Holidays." Better a genuine "Happy Holidays" than a fake "Merry Christmas." And when you do hear "Merry Christmas," maybe it will actually mean something. Better yet, it may mean the right thing.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Don't "Happy Turkey Day" Me!

For a long time now, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. This is undoubtedly to some extent because of how much I like to eat, but it was mostly because it seemed to me to be the least corrupted of the major holidays. Christmas was completely commercialized, Easter had been co-opted by bunnies and candy. Thanksgiving, of course, was dominated by feasts and football, but it seemed to me that I could more easily ignore that - I wasn't being bombarded by commercials from toy and candy manufacturers. Yes, the major focus was the Big Dinner, but sharing food with family is a bonding time. It wasn't about the meal; the meal was about the celebration, and yes, we always did remember to give thanks, to express our appreciation to God and to one another.

And so it was with dismay that I began hearing "Happy Turkey Day" years ago. To me, it was the equivalent of wishing someone a "Merry Presents Day" or "Happy Chocolate Bunny Day." Nothing like isolating the most superficial aspect of a holiday and identifying the whole with that one incidental part. And now I am seeing more encroachment on the actual meaning of the day. I'm sure it's just me paying more attention, rather than a significant, recent change. But I was watching the Thanksgiving Day parade today and noticed how few of the floats and balloons had anything to do with Thanksgiving at all. If one didn't know better (which I'm beginning to think I don't), one could have sworn that it was a Christmas parade. Which, of course, it was. The function of Thanksgiving these days is to power-shift the Christmas shopping season into high gear.

It seems clichéd to talk about the "real meaning" of holidays. And having brought it up, you may expect me to say something about Pilgrims and harsh winters. But the "real meaning" of a holiday isn't a history lesson - although it would be good if we remembered that glib talk about "harsh winters" obscures the reality that a full half of those who came across on the Mayflower had died by the time of that first Thanksgiving. All of those giving thanks (well, the English, anyway) were grieving loved ones who hadn't made it to that day; they had all been through a horrific experience and were still thankful.

But the "real meaning" of Thanksgiving is simply the giving of thanks - expressing gratitude to God for all the things He has given to us, and perhaps more importantly, remembering that they are blessings from God and that we owe gratitude for them. Thanksgiving is our cultural harvest festival, which has less meaning to us since we can get any kind of food we want at any time of the year, but nonetheless functions much as the Feast of Weeks (Lev 23:10-21) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:34-43) did for the ancient Israelites (in the Israeli climate there are two harvests). Harvest is a good time to remember the Lord for His blessings. A farmer can plant and tend his crops faithfully, only to lost the whole thing in a drought. In an era in which so many consider themselves "self-made men" (and consequently feel no responsibility to others - "If I can do it, you can too"), it is important for us to recall that anything we do will come to nothing without the favor of the Lord.

For this, O Lord, please make us truly thankful.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

40 Things to be Thankful For

My pastor gave us all an assignment: come up with 40 things we are thankful for between Sunday and Thanksgiving (American Thanksgiving Day, fourth Thursday in November, for my international readers). 40 is a number of testing and judgment in the Bible, isn't it? Hmmm.... Well, anyway, here goes:
  1. My salvation, the forgiveness of sins, given as a free gift of God's grace, on the basis of the sacrifice of His son Jesus.
  2. My wife, the greatest gift God ever gave me in this lifetime.
  3. My children. I don't talk about them much on this blog, because I want to preserve their privacy, but I cherish them beyond what words can say.
  4. My parents, who raised me to know Jesus and to know what that really means.
  5. My sister, an answer to prayer, whom I love deeply and was my best friend growing up.
  6. The salvation of my whole immediate family. I'm so grateful not to have to worry about their future.
  7. My health and the health of most of those near to me.
  8. A home to live in, and the kindness of those who helped us out when we were in transition.
  9. The ability to provide for my family.
  10. The written Word of God, God's gracious gift to reveal Himself to us.
  11. The work and sacrifice of many who copied the Bible and translated it, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, so that I might have a Bible to read in my own language.
  12. The witness of generations of Christians who kept the faith alive, often in the midst of persecution, so that the truth of my faith might be passed down to me.
  13. My friend Bob, who understands me better than most, and who has been generous, kind, and thoughtful toward me and my family in more ways than I can count.
  14. My friend Dave, who helped me hammer out what I believe and who I am, and helped me get through that time of being single and not very happy about that fact.
  15. My friend and pastor Bill, who went out on a limb to marry my wife and me, and proved to be a friend as well as a pastor.
  16. My friend Tom, who was my guitar buddy in seminary and my support in not following the crowd. I'm sorry that we lost touch. I hope you're doing well.
  17. My friend Scott, also from seminary, now a professor, and one of the most genuinely goodhearted and humble people I've ever known.
  18. My friend Ron, who was my best friend growing up in junior high, high school, and college. He was always a faithful friend, during my most introverted and shyest years.
  19. Shiloh, the band I was in in high school and early college - which is to say, Dave, Ron, Phil, and Melody. You were my social life during those crucial years, and I'm sure kept me doing the right thing.
  20. The privilege of living in a nation that is still, by world standards, pretty free, where I can believe and worship without fear of persecution.
  21. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I learned to order and shape and make coherent and self-consistent the truths of what I believe.
  22. My years at Wayne State, where I grew from a boy to a man, and my understanding of life was broadened and deepened immeasurably.
  23. C.S. Lewis, who could take the most mundane of commonplace truths and build it up through a logical sequence to a conclusion that would leave you breathless.
  24. The example of Corrie ten Boom, who did what was right in the most difficult circumstances, paid the price, lived to tell the tale, and became an inspiration.
  25. The example of Brother Andrew, who risked everything to bring the Word of God to those who couldn't obtain it, and who still seeks out the suffering church to reach out to those in greatest need.
  26. The example of my mother, who through debilitating health and personal circumstances, has persevered in her faith and convictions without wavering.
  27. Beautiful fall days with blue skies (today is one).
  28. Holidays. I think we forget how much of the world is in a day-to-day struggle for existence, with no special days off.
  29. Joyful days - those rare occasions when my generally melancholy self takes a rest and my soul sings.
  30. The ability to read - something else we take for granted, but how many people throughout history and even now don't hold this key to the pleasure and enrichment that the written word holds.
  31. Music - the ability to appreciate it and whatever small talent I have for making it, and especially being able to praise God through it.
  32. The hope of life eternal with our Lord.
  33. The assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  34. Truth. In a world which says there is no truth - or no truth that can be assuredly known - we are told, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
  35. People who are faithful in ministry. It's much more difficult than most people imagine. God bless those who do it faithfully for the long haul.
  36. Food to eat, water to drink, air to breathe - the things we take for granted almost every moment of our lives.
  37. Prayer - the infinite honor of direct communion between us and the Sovereign Lord of all creation.
  38. The ability to cooperate with God in accomplishing His plan, through prayer and action, and to be rewarded for obedience as a result. As Pascal said, in prayer, God allows us the dignity of being causes.
  39. The way in which God redeems, changes, and restores lives; not scrapping them and starting over with others, but healing what is already there.
  40. God's infinite mercy, patience, and grace, without which I would have been lost ten thousand times over.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Scot McKnight's "What Is the Emerging Church?" 2

This is the second part of a series summarizing and reflecting on Scot McKnight's "What is the Emerging Church?", a talk given at Westminster Theological Seminary on October 26, 2006. The first part is available here.

At this point of the talk, Dr. McKnight is using Lake Emerging as a metaphor for discussing the emerging movement, with four rivers flowing into it: Postmodernism, Praxis, Postevangelicalism, and Politics.

The second river Dr. McKnight discusses as flowing into Lake Emerging is that of praxis. Emerging types are more interested in what believers do than the minutia of what they believe. Orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy (living right as opposed to believing right) is what is focused on, largely because no two theologians have perfectly agreed on every point of doctrine, and Jesus didn't call us to a doctrinal position but to a way of life. The emerging movement is focused on "living the way of Jesus." Scot makes clear at this point that emerging leaders don't think that our relationship to God is established by what we do, or that it doesn't matter what we believe; they simply see how we live as being more important, on balance, than has been regarded previously.

Another current in the praxis river involves worship. Those in the emerging movement are interested in exploring different ways of worship, and recognizing that aesthetics matters in how one experiences God. They regard praxis as influencing theology, as well as the reverse, and wonder if the very layout of the places in which we worship influences the content of that worship and what we believe about God and His people. A third current is that of social justice. The emerging movement places great emphasis on justice, defined largely as eradication (or at least ameleoration) of poverty, racism, and social inequality. The main issue is engagement and involvement with the world: Christians are not to remove themselves from the world and hope for the return of Christ, but rather work for justice in the here and now.

What Scot regards as the heart of the praxis river is the missional element. This might best be described as being involved in God's redemptive work in the world. Whereas Evangelicalism was concerned with reaching people in the world and drawing them out of it and into the church, the emerging movement is concerned with the church itself moving into the world and participating in God's redemption of it. This involves more than just the spiritual aspect of people getting saved; it involves the whole person--physical, emotional, social, as well as spiritual.

The Post-evangelical River

The emerging conversation is also something of a protest movemet against evangelicalism--not to say that it rejects evangelicalism in toto, but that it views itself as rejecting what it sees as some of evangelicalism's flaws and limitations and going beyond evangelicalism. The emerging movement regards evangelicalism as reflecting a "Bible study piety," concerned more with doctrinal precision and condemning those who disagree than it is with living out the command to love. The goal of the Christian life is not to master the Gospel, but to be mastered by it and to exhibit it by living it out.

For something of the same reason, the emerging movement is rather suspicious of systematic theology, at least in terms of trying to formulate a definitive statement of the Gospel. The definitive statement of the gospel should be the lives of its adherents, not a linguistic formulation. The emerging movement is also suspicious of the "in vs. out" mentality of Evangelicalism--they're less sure that we can know with any confidence who is truly in the family of God and who isn't. For this reason, they prefer to view everyone as in or moving into the family of God, and trust that showing God's love to them will continue to draw them in. Scot offers a warning at this point: the good news is not just to be lived out, but also to be proclaimed, and our efforts at "living missionally" still need to have as their goal the redemption of everyone possible through Christ.

The Political River

The final river flowing into Lake Emerging is political (this aspect is largely on the American scene). Although emerging leaders sometimes talk about a bipartisan or non-partisan political involvement, they are largely on the political left. This comes from the social justice element of the praxis river: emerging believers tend to believe that part of working toward social justice in the world is prodding the government to do the same. Essentially, the emerging movement rejects the dichotomy between evangelism (how conservative Evangelicals relate to the world) and the social gospel (how the mainline churches relate to the world), drawing both together in its missional emphasis.

It appears to me that this "political river" is really little more than an outgrowth of the social justice aspect of the praxis river; perhaps not best described as a "river" in its own right at all. Scot's division may be valuable, however, because I think a number of people who consider themselves emerging in the US are basically Evangelicals with liberal political sympathies.

This short blog series has been less concise than I would have hoped (it was intended as one post) , and also more of a simple synopsis as opposed to a synopsis and reflection. I would welcome two things: if any of my readers haven't read Scot's paper for themselves by this time, please do download and read it. And I would appreciate any responses you might have to these ideas--either corrections to my understanding of what Scot has presented, or your impressions on any aspect of the subject matter itself.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Scot McKnight's "What Is the Emerging Church?" 1

I've discussed before my gratitude to Scot McKnight for presenting the emerging movement in a way that is comprehensible to those who are just discovering and learning about it. On October 26, 2006, Scot spoke at Westminster Theological Seminary on the topic, "What is the Emerging Church?" The full text of Scot's talk is available at the Sacred Journey blog in PDF format for easy download and printing. I really recommend anyone interested in the emerging movement to check it out: it is highly readable, written with humor and grace, and appears to get to the heart of the component aspects of the emerging movement in a way that both makes sense and is very challenging.

I'm going to do Dr. McKnight an injustice now and summarize his summary, which I'm sure he already considered shorter and less nuanced than he would have liked. My hope is not to replace his work with a condensed version, but to give people a taste in hopes that they will check out the whole thing.

Scot makes a plea to allow people from within the emerging movement define themselves, rather than be defined by outsiders. This is a reasonable request, although my experience has been that most people from within that movement have a strong resistance to defining themselves, leaving the rest of us to our own devices in trying to get a handle on them. There's a bit of a private lingo going on (similar, I'd say, to the churchspeak that many emerging types find so exclusive among traditional evangelicals), and a sense that, "If you don't get it, you're simply not one of the 'in' crowd." Hence my gratitude to Dr. McKnight, once again, for being willing to bridge the gap and communicate to those of us who really want to know.

McKnight's Response to Carson's Response to Emerging

Scot's plea for the movement to be allowed to describe itself is proffered in response to D. A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, the best-known critique of the movement. Scot argues that Carson boils the emerging movement largely down to Brian McLaren and postmodern epistemology. Although Carson recognizes the nuances that distinguish "hard" and "soft" postmodernism, he doesn't apply these nuances to the differing currents within the emerging movement. Essentially, Carson equates emerging with postmodern epistemology, postmodern epistemology with a denial of truth, and then discusses at length what the Bible has to say about truth--which of course amounts to a categorical rejection of emerging. By contrast, Scot argues that in two years of close conversations with and prodding questions of leaders in the emerging movement, he has "never once heard any of them deny the truthfulness of the gospel or deny that there is truth in a hard postmodernist way" (the above-referenced pdf document, page 3; hereafter, "McKnight 3").

Far from being a theological movement based on a denial of truth, Dr. McKnight argues that emerging is an ecclesiological movement--an attempt to think about and "do" church in a different way. He recommends the book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures by Gibbs and Bolger, as an introduction and analysis of the movement from within, and which defines the emerging movement in this way:
Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses the nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities. (Quoted in McKnight 7; italics in original.)

So emerging tends to look at itself based on what it is doing, as opposed to defining itself based on a particular theological position. It's also important to note that the emerging movement is broader and more diverse than Emergent, which properly refers to Emergent Village, a website and clearinghouse for a subset of emerging leaders who officially associate themselves with it.

Lake Emerging

In the heart of his address, Scot describes the emerging movement as "Lake Emerging," into which are flowing four rivers: postmodern, praxis, postevangelical, and politics. Various emerging types favor one or more of these rivers more than others; some are just dipping a toe into one or two, while others are paddling about in the middle of the lake itself. So even a description of these four won't completely describe every emerging person, but it will at least give a description of the various aspects of the movement.

River Postmodern may be the most controversial of the four, as well as the most difficult to pin down. While the flat denial of truth embraced by the harder postmodern philosophers is simply incompatable with Christianity, some aspects of postmodern thought are proving congenial to some Christians. In essence, the postmodern perspective simply recognizes that all individuals exist within a place, time, and culture, that to some extent defines what appears reasonable to them; getting outside the cultural circumstances of one's existence is impossible, so a body of objective, universal knowledge (e.g., a definitive systematic theology) is impossible to construct.

Scot distinguishes between three different types of "postmoderns" represented by the emerging movement. There are those who minister to postmoderns--i.e., viewing postmodernity as a part of the contemporary human condition that Christians need to reach into in order to rescue others from it. There are those who minister with postmoderns--i.e., they accept postmodernity as an inevitable fact of life in contemporary society, and so therefore that is the "world" in which we now are called to live out the Gospel. This would, in a sense, be a "seeker sensitive" model: adapting to the world in order to reach it. Most emerging Christians and churches, according to Dr. McKnight, fit into these two categories. The third kind are those who minister as postmoderns. What this means is not that they categorically deny truth, but they will say that only God Himself is Absolute Truth, and that truth can be experienced and lived out, but not known as a logical chain of propositions. Trying to pin God down in language and claiming that that language is the truth is called by some "linguistic idolotry" (LeRon Shults, quoted in McKnight 14).

Next up: the Praxis, Postevangelical, and Politics rivers

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ben Witherington Throws Down the Political Gauntlet

I finally got around to reading Ben Witherington's recent post, "Evangelicals in a Post-Haggard, Post-Rumsfeld World." I had initially assumed that Dr. Witherington was merely discussing the fallout from the recent election, but there is a great deal more there than that. It's a very provocative piece, even though it doesn't grab the attention immediately, and well worth a serious read.

I've discussed my political perspectives briefly in two posts: one on the relationship between conservative Christians and the Republican party, and another on the philosophical concept of "rights" that so dominates American politics. It's an issue that I'm interested in, and yet a little reluctant to discuss in a public forum, partly because emotions run so high and partly because so many people have certain political opinions so wedded to their faith that questioning one appears to involve apostasizing from the other. And yet, that's all the more reason to speak out.

Dr. Witherington writes,
[T]he alliance between Evangelicals and the hard line conservatives in the Republican party has made it difficult for many Evangelicals to see the difference in our time between being a Christian and being an American, and in particular being a certain kind of an American—namely a Republican. The problem is that this reflects a certain kind of mental ghettoizing of the Gospel, a blunting of its prophetic voice on issues ranging from war to poverty, and sometimes this even comes with the not so subtle suggestion that to be un-American (defined as being opposed to certain key Republican credo items) is to be un-Christian.
In other words, many people have adopted being a conservative Republican as a part of their faith--for some, the most important part. I actually do understand this point of view, partly because of the hostility held by many on the liberal side of the political fence to Bible-believing Christians, partly because of the overwhelming nature of abortion as a political and social issue, and partly because of the ever-increasing social agenda of those who wish to push the normalization of practices that many Christians find intolerable. Social-issues conservatives have felt that they had nowhere to go but the Republican party, and have as a result largely adopted its economic and foreign policy positions as well. The war in Iraq may have done us the inadvertent service of forcing us to reconsider this political alliance, and look to see if there are issues that demand our moral attention other than the ones focused on by the leaders of the "religious right."

This is largely Dr. Witherington's point. He argues that the moral issues discussed in the New Testament have to do with wealth and poverty, taxes (paying them), sexual behavior (mostly heterosexual issues), behaviors and attitudes that divide believers, and war; many of these issues have been ignored or glossed over by the "religious right." He also sees the body of believers as responsible for the amelioration of social ills, rather than the government; and he is a (self-described) pacifist, so he sees no New Testament support for war at all and therefore no reason for Christians to support a government that is prosecuting a war.

My own response to Dr. Witherington's post is mixed. I'm not sure I agree with his list of issues that the NT focuses on; it doesn't seem to me that taxes and war are discussed in great detail, and there is plenty of evidence against the pacifist position in the Old Testament that is not contradicted in the New. Moreover, to argue that the New Testament writers don't place a burden on the government for the amelioration of social ills is to ignore the fact that all of the NT documents were written to people who had no immediate hope for any influence on governmental policy; they focus on individual and group behavior in the context of a hostile, pagan ruling order. The NT simply doesn't address principles for running a government; once again, one has to go to the OT for that, and there the evidence is clear that rulers were to care for the socially disadvantaged ("widows and orphans") and even to practice some degree of economic redistribution (the "year of Jubilee"). Ezekiel 34, which rails against the "shepherds" of Israel for a lack of care for the sheep, is almost assuredly referring to secular rulers--i.e., kings and lower governmental rulers.

It's my conviction that no political party will ever (or can ever) represent Christians fully. I see a greater openness these days to rethinking what Christians should regard as important in our political discourse. I think that doing that rethinking is important. What shouldn't be done (and what I have seen rather frequently) is a dismissal of the traditional foci of religious right issues (opposition to abortion, the gay rights agenda, pornography, euthanasia, etc.) so as to favor traditionally liberal policies (social justice, assistance for those in need, environmentalism, internationalism, reluctance to pursue war). I don't see why both of these foci cannot be pursued (if indeed we view them to be biblical); the only trouble is in finding candidates who support all of these issues. We may have to weigh positives and negatives of various political candidates, instead of following a more narrowly construed agenda that can be identified with a single party. But who said being more biblical would be easy?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Expandable Posts in Main Page

I'd like to thank both Hans and Ramani for their joint work on "Super Peek-A-Boo Posts," a hack for Blogger Beta that allows posts on main and archive pages to appear condensed, with a link reading "Read More" that expands the post to its full size, and then another link reading "Summary Only" at the end of the full-size post that allows you to condense the post back to its first few lines. (Short posts like this one won't be affected.)

If you are using Blogger Beta and would like to implement this hack, click on either of the two hyperlinked names to get to their site that shows how to set it up. Also, if you restrict javascript, you may need to allow it for in order to see the effect; I believe that if you don't allow it, you'll simply see the full text of all posts without any being condensed (i.e., the way it's always looked before).

Once again, thanks guys.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why Evangelical Christians Can't Confess Sin

In the midst of all of the pontification from Left and Right regarding Ted Haggard, Scot McKnight as usual cuts directly to the heart of the real issue: Evangelical Christianity creates a situation in which it is virtually impossible for believers to confess sin.

Of course, we believe in confession, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. That's the bait we present to unbelievers: come to Jesus and He will save you from your sins. He will rescue you, restore you, change you, and forgive you. And we really believe it. We love to see someone come to newfound faith in Christ, to fall upon the mercy of God. We don't expect them to be perfect; it's because they're not perfect that they need a Savior. We needed a Savior too; we understand; it's okay. Each of us comes to the Lord Just As I Am. The Amazing Grace the Lord offers us is there "to save a wretch like me." We're all in the same boat. Not one of us could stand before God on our own merits; it's only by the sacrifice Jesus made for us that we can be reconciled to God.

And then, the newfound believer begins his Christian walk.

And at first, we expect missteps. They're new in the faith; we don't want to be harsh toward a baby Christian. Stay with us, get discipled, learn what this Christian life is all about. You got questions; we got answers. Still struggling in some areas? Let's pray. You seem confused on this issue; let me show you what the Bible has to say on it. And the new believer really is changing; old things really are passing away; everything really is becoming new. It's a wonderful experience.

I'd say, on average, a new believer is given about six months to get his act together.

And then, you know, you really should be beyond that struggle. We've talked about this several times; you know what the Word says. God gives you the power to overcome; you just need to give it all to Him. It's time to get past the milk and get on to the meat, you know. Do you think Jesus would be pleased with that?

And the wierd thing is that unless we're Wesleyan perfectionists (which hardly anyone is anymore--even Wesley held it as a theoretical and didn't claim it for himself), we all believe that sanctification is an ongoing process in each one of our lives and that we will not be totally perfected in this lifetime. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be growing or changing, or that we shouldn't find victory over sinful patterns, but it does mean that we will have issues that God is dealing with--which is to say, issues of sin, throughout our lives. And depending on the person, they just might not be the kinds of safe, innocuous sins that nobody really worries about.

And this includes leaders.

I've heard the quote from James a thousand times: "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (3:1). Which, of course, means that if you're going to presume to teach others, you darn well better have your act together. Right? Interesting, then, that James follows it up with, "We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check" (3:2). And unless you're a Wesleyan perfectionist.... well, you get the idea. We all stumble in many ways. But how many leaders, of any denomination, from any tradition, with any theology, seriously acknowledge that?

We have created a situation in which believers, and especially leaders, cannot acknowledge failure--which is to say, sin, to one another, even though James also says, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (5:16). This is the Bible, this is a command, and it's a command that most of us are disobeying most of the time. And so issues that begin as temptations grow and fester in the darkness, because we're taught not to be real about where we are and what we're struggling with. It grows to the point where there is overt sin, not just in the imagination, not just in private, but with others, because it's not being dealt with through the very means that we offer to unbelievers. The grace that we offer to them, we don't take for ourselves. And so we're not healed, we struggle in silence. Until the silence is broken by scandal and disgrace, and people's lives are shattered.

Just to be clear: this is not an excuse for Ted Haggard. It is an indictment on how he, and most of the rest of us, don't deal with sin issues, because we feel we have to maintain an image that's above all that.

And that's how we're caught.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Ted Haggard Scandal
How will we, and how should we, respond?

Yet another evangelical scandal.

I wonder if the body of Christ as a whole will ever learn how to deal with the moral failures of its leaders. The predictable reactions have already begun. First, separation into two camps: Shoot the Wounded and Excuse the Sinner.

The Shoot the Wounded crowd has already begun to get its digs in. There are two motivations: a desire to distance oneself (and one's chosen Christian subsgroup) from the offending party (and his chosen Christian subgroup), and a sense of vindication that it's the other guy's brand of Christianity that got tarred. For example, we have Phil Johnson arguing that
The fashionable brand of NAE/Christianity Today-style "evangelicalism" actually abandoned historic evangelical principles long ago, and hasn't taken a firm stand for biblical and evangelical doctrine for some time. The current scandal is only a symptom of that much deeper problem.
And Ingrid Schlueter writes
The sad truth is that evangelicals have asked for this for a long time. Rather than be about the Great Commission left us by Jesus Christ, Christians have sought temporal and political power and influence.
So you see, Ted Haggard isn't just Ted Haggard and a moral failure isn't just a moral failure; it's a Symptom of the Sad State of the Apostate Church of Our Day.

The logic that is being attempted here can be expressed syllogistically as follows:
  1. Ted Haggard has been a representative of the kind of evangelical / charismatic / megachurch / politically-conservative / seeker-sensitive / arminian / market-driven (choose one or more epithets) "Christianity" that I (to put it mildly) disapprove of;
  2. Ted Haggard is guilty of moral failure and probably of living a double life;
  3. Therefore, the kind of evangelical / charismatic / megachurch / politically-conservative / seeker-sensitive / arminian / market-driven "Christianity" that I disapprove of has been demonstrated to be morally bankrupt.
Of course, this is not only completely bogus, but is identical to the logic that the unbelieving world uses when it dismisses Christianity as a whole on the basis of the moral failures of its prominent leaders. A person's moral failure reflects on that person, period. Anything else is speculation and extrapolation, at best.

I haven't seen much from the Excuse the Sinner crowd yet, but it will happen. We can't possibly imagine the stresses Brother Ted was under; we are all sinners, after all; who among us could cast the first stone; it's our duty to forgive; what would Jesus do? (This last one is taken in the most marshmallowy sense possible.) There is truth in all of these statements, but there is a crucial difference between forgiveness and restoration on one hand, and making excuses and denying responsibility on the other.

At the time of this writing, Haggard claims that he "purchased methamphetamine from a gay escort after contacting him for a massage, but never used the drugs." I'm sorry, but this smacks much too much of admitting only what on has to, based on what the hard evidence has already proven to be true. Who buys meth with no prior history of drug use? And Haggard could have gone to a health club for a massage; why hire an, erm, escort? If Haggard wants any credibility in the future at all, he needs to come clean with what really was going on in his life. Which is not to say that he needs to do that publicly right now; I don't think he needs to talk to the press at all during this time. But if he's going to do so, saying something plausible might be a good way of going about it.

Thank God that those two crowds aren't the only ones out there. I do think that some people are getting it right. Michael Spencer writes,
I’m a preacher and a sinner. I have intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be the person who is preaching against an issue where I am personally failing.... If we aren’t willing to be humiliated to know Christ, we are quite likely not going to know him at all.
David Wayne writes,
Christian engagement with the world (whether political, social, evangelisitc or otherwise) is not based on a position of moral authority. It is based on grace.... But let's also be careful that we not assume some moral superiority to, or moral authority 0ver, Ted Haggard.
And Ben Witherington makes some very good points on accountability and being real with temptation and sexual issues among pastors.

The truth is, Christian leaders are just people. If they're doing their jobs right, they merely act as signposts, pointing others to Christ. The attempt to make them more than that, to elevate them on a pedestal, to follow them rather than the Lord they serve; or conversely, to make them emblematic of All that is Wrong with the Church Today, is a form of idolatry. And the sin of idolotry is committed, not by the idol, but by the one who worships it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Maintenance or Mission?

The following excerpt from the article, "Good News People," by Harold Percy, allegedly appeared on the Crossmarks website, although I couldn't find it there, and has been republished on A Peculiar Prophet and Danno's Dangerous Mind. I think it has a lot of very, very good stuff on how churches need to look at reaching the world.


  1. In measuring their effectiveness, the maintenance congregation asks, "How many pastoral visits are being made? The mission congregation asks, "How many disciples are being made?"

  2. When contemplating some form of change, the maintenance congregation says, "If this proves upsetting to any of our members, we won't do it." The mission congregation says, "If this will help us reach someone on the outside, we will take the risk and do it."

  3. When thinking about change, the majority of members in a maintenance congregation ask, "How will this affect me?" The majority of members in the mission congregation ask, "Will this increase our ability to reach those outside?"

  4. When thinking of its vision for ministry, the maintenance congregation says, "We have to be faithful to our past." The mission congregation says, "We have to be faithful to our future."

  5. The pastor in the maintenance congregation says to the newcomer, "I'd like to introduce you to some of our members." In the mission congregation the members say, "We'd like to introduce you to our pastor."

  6. When confronted with a legitimate pastoral concern, the pastor in the maintenance congregation asks, "How can I meet this need?" The pastor in the mission congregation asks, "How can this need be met?"

  7. The maintenance congregation seeks to avoid conflict at any cost (but rarely succeeds). The mission congregation understands that conflict is the price of progress, and is willing to pay the price. It understands that it cannot take everyone with it. This causes some grief, but it does not keep it from doing what needs to be done.

  8. The leadership style in the maintenance congregation is primarily managerial, where leaders try to keep everything in order and running smoothly. The leadership style in a mission congregation is primarily transformational, casting a vision of what can be, and marching off the map in order to bring the vision into reality.

  9. The maintenance congregation is concerned with their congregation, its organizations and structure, its constitutions and committees. The mission congregation is concerned with the culture, with understanding how secular people think and what makes them tick. It tries to determine their needs and their points of accessibility to the Gospel.

  10. When thinking about growth, the maintenance congregations asks, "How many Lutherans live within a twenty-minute drive of this church?" The mission congregation asks, "How many unchurched people live within a twenty-minute drive of this church?"

  11. The maintenance congregation looks at the community and asks, "How can we get these people to support our congregation?" The mission congregation asks, "How can the Church support these people?"

  12. The maintenance congregation thinks about how to save their congregation. The mission congregation thinks about how to reach the world.