Thursday, March 29, 2007

Does Your Theology Honor God?

Does your theology honor God? By asking this question, I do not mean, do you have The Right Theology, the one that objectively honors God by having all its "i"s dotted and its "t"s crossed and will at the Judgment be decreed The Final Truth about God. What I mean is, do you honor God by your interest in theology? Is your desire to read and write about it motivated by a love for God and a desire to honor Him?

This question has been prompted by my on-again, off-again conversations with Timotheos, a Reformed brother. He and I have gotten into some comment discussions on Peter Lumpkins's blog, as well as on this one and via email. During one of these discussions, I was quite moved by recognizing that Timotheos deeply cared about what he was writing about--that his theology was motivated, more than anything else, by his desire to honor God. I felt at that moment that even if I could have served up a definitive rebuttal to his position, I would not have desired to do so: it would have been robbing Timotheos of something that was precious to him and contributed to his appreciation for God. Timotheos was just as concerned to honor God by defending God's thorough and unasked-for transformation of His elect, as I was to honor God by defending His mercy and genuine offer of forgiveness to all of humanity. At that moment, the specifics that we were debating paled into insignificance compared with the desire we both had to honor God by what we believe about Him.

It is not always this way with theological debate. We are all too often motivated by the desire simply to Be Right--to be proven right, to show our superiority over the other person's argument, to defeat our opponent in verbal battle. Do we hold to a theological system because we truly believe that it honors God, or do we hold to it because it's the most logical, or the most experiential, or the most contemporary, or the most rooted in history and tradition, or the most evangelistic, or the most strongly opposed to the theological tradition we like the least? We can hold any theological position--even the correct one--for all kinds of wrong motivations. Ultimately, I think God cares more about why we believe what we believe than He does about the precise specifics of what we believe. It seems to me rather obvious that all of us are going to have some of our positions, er, adjusted in eternity. Probably much of what we squabble about will prove to be a false framing of the question. Meanwhile, the real issue will have been, were we honoring God with our theology?

It would be reasonable to wonder, at this point, why I bother taking theological positions at all. What does it matter exactly what we believe, as long as we have a heart that desires to honor God? Well, in a broad sense, content does matter: we can't be honoring God if we're honoring the wrong god. And in a narrower sense, Jesus did say that the Great Commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Especially for those of us who have that bent, loving God with our minds involves pondering these things, trying to make sense of what the Bible tells us about God. And it's inevitable that we should come to some conclusions, even if they're tentative, and end up in discussions with others who have come to differing conclusions.

But ultimately, the specifics of our conclusions matter less than our desire to honor God through them. One thing I know about my brother Timotheos: he loves God with all his heart, and his conception of God contributes to that love. My conception of God contributes to my love for Him. Maybe the real challenge is to love God, and to love one another, more than we love our conceptions.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Are Charismatics New Testament Believers?

Mark from Ephesians 4:14 kindly commented on a post of mine, and wrote a post himself questioning whether charismatics are New Testament believers. His essential thesis is that with their commitment to the gift of prophecy, charismatics revert back to the Old Testament hierarchy in which only some are allowed to be prophets. I responded to his post, but decided I may as well crib from myself and rework the response into a blog post here.

Mark has an interesting thesis, but the only passages he cites in support of it are from the Old Testament. The New Testament does not support his view of what a "New Testament Church" ought to be.

We are all familiar with Paul telling the Corinthians that there is indeed a gift of prophecy, one that some, but not all, exercise (1 Cor. 12:10, 29). There is also Agabus the prophet, who foretold a great famine, precipitating Barnabas and Saul's famine-relief visit to Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-28) and also foretold Paul's arrest (Acts 21:10-11). Philip the Evangelist also had four daughters, of whom it is written that they prophesied (Acts 21:9). And in the church at Antioch, named among the "prophets and teachers" were Barnabas and Saul. It seems clear to me that the New Testament itself bears witness to many instances of a practice that Mark writes, "deserves no place in a New Testament church."

The usual cessationist response is that until the Canon was complete, there was a need for continued prophecy. However, that argument undercuts Mark's position. It makes of the actual New Testament church--the one in the New Testament--a sub-New Testament church. A practice that Mark writes "reverses Pentecost" is being carried out and cited approvingly in Scripture.

Also, in my view, Mark seriously misunderstands how prophecy is viewed and used in pentecostal and charismatic circles, and it is worthwhile for all of us to recognize that this misunderstanding exists and why it does. It is simply not true, as Mark asserts, that "those who are not prophets must go to those who are to find out what God’s will is for them." What we do believe is that
  1. God can speak personally to any believer who is open to hearing His Voice;
  2. Anything we think we hear from God must be tested against Scripture--anything that is contrary to Scripture is automatically invalidated;
  3. God may use some people more often than others in this gift of prophecy, but what they say never has the authority of Scripture, and God speaks through them what He wants to say: we don't get "prophecy on demand."
Admittedly, there are some fringe groups that may operate more like Mark describes, but these are the fringe, not the mainstream; nonetheless, when non-charismatics think of us, that is what they think.

Overall, it seems to me that the main criticism cessationists have against those of us who believe in the continuation of miraculous spiritual gifts is that miraculous spiritual gifts are messy. They doesn't fit neatly into a logical system. A God who can still speak to people and work miracles--why, He could do anything! We want so badly to have the loose ends tied up, to be able to say, "Thus says the Lord--and no more." But Aslan is not a tame lion, and our God is not a tame God. Those who most strongly assert His sovereignty should know better.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Interesting New Directions with Earl Creps

I'd gotten away from reading Earl Creps on a regular basis, and decided to check him out again today. Turns out he's starting a church plant in Berkeley, California. (Yeah, the one with the legendary 60s college campus.) He also has some interesting posts on contrarian explanations of the emerging church movement and what he calls the X factor, the factor that differentiates a growing, dynamic church from a stagnating, lifeless one. The scary thing is that even he doesn't know what this X factor is: "Consulting with faith communities has left me in some ways feeling like I now know less than I ever have."

Anyway, stuff well worth reading. Check it out.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hearing God's Voice
John Piper and the role of present-day divine revelation

Update: Added a pull quote and a note at the bottom regarding Piper's affirmation of a present-day gift of prophecy.

John Piper wrote an interesting piece entitled "The Morning I Heard the Voice of God." He describes a majestic experience of hearing God's voice, intensely and personally. The "reveal," of course, is that the words he "heard" were from a Psalm.

This would be unobjectionable, except that Piper contrasts his experience with that of an anonymous professor contributing to Christianity Today in a piece called, "My Conversation with God." Piper appears not to dispute the validity of the experience shared by the professor, but writes that
What’s sad is that it really does give the impression that extra-biblical communication with God is surpassingly wonderful and faith-deepening. All the while, the supremely-glorious communication of the living God which personally and powerfully and transformingly explodes in the receptive heart through the Bible everyday is passed over in silence.
Which is a little unfair, since that was not the point of the professor's article at all. Piper appears to think that describing extrabiblical divine communication is somehow threatening to the truth that God communicates also, and primarily, through His written Word.

The very Scriptures that cessationists are so desperate to guard are the witness of God's communication to human beings through means other than ScriptureThe roots of this issue stem from the Reformation. Since the Reformers had concluded from their reading of Scripture that the medieval Church's position on important doctrines was incorrect, they had to reject the authority of the Church and substituted for it the absolute authority of the Bible. Sola Scriptura. All well and good. But then a further corollary of this position developed: that there can be no longer any direct communication between God and human beings, because that (in the eyes of those who hold this position) directly undercuts the supremacy of Scripture. This is the root of cessationism: the idea that any present-day communication (or, for some, even experience) of God will undermine the authority of Scripture in determining faith, practice, and doctrine.

As I argued in "The Logical Quandary of Cessationism," this is a self-refuting position, because the very Scriptures that cessationists are so desperate to guard are the witness of God's communication to human beings through means other than Scripture. To be plain: Scripture records numerous instances of God talking directly to people. Not capriciously, not on-demand, but He does speak to people. And apart from some pitiful instances of eisegesis (think 1 Corinthians 13:8-12), there is no biblical witness to the idea that this communication will ever stop. Why should it?

Well, because that would set up a rival authority, says the cessationist. Nonsense. That's like saying that Job sets up a rival authority to Moses, or like saying that Paul sets up a rival authority to Jesus. All we have to do is be clear on the fact that God doesn't speak with forked tongue. And in fact, those of us who do believe that God continues to speak--apart from Scripture--make clear that God's voice in Scripture is authoritative in a way that any direct divine communication today is not. I might be mistaken about hearing God's voice; I'm not mistaken about the truth of John 3:16.

But direct divine communication may be personal, in a way that Scripture cannot be. I don't mean that one can't personally experience the message, as Piper writes that he experienced Psalm 66:5-7. But Piper's experience was simply that: an experience, an emotional response to reading the words on the page. It didn't, to be blunt, tell him to do anything specific. The professor, by contrast, was given the idea and outline of a book to write, and told to give the royalties to a struggling student. This should not be threatening from a doctrinal standpoint--he's not saying that all writers should give their royalties to struggling students--but it applied scriptures about generosity and about all wealth ultimately belonging to the Lord specifically to the professor's situation.

That's what present-day divine revelation does: it applies the truths of Scripture to personal circumstances that don't apply to everyone else. Denying even the possibility that God can and does communicate directly and personally with people cuts off personal guidance from the Christian life, and that's a very sad thing indeed.

Update: Dr. Piper's blog has put up a post entitled, "Does God Speak Outside the Bible? in order to clarify that he is not a strict cessationist. While I am very glad to hear that, a quick perusal of the material that that page links to suggests that Piper acknowledges present-day revelation in only a very limited way. My issue was not so much discerning an implied cessatioinism in Piper's former post, as it was his apparent distaste for someone to describe a moving experience of extra-biblical revelation without finding a way to make sure everyone knew that revelation through Scripture was somehow superior.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

I'm Not Dead Yet!*

Just a quick note to let anyone who cares know that I haven't been abducted by aliens and I haven't discarded this blog. Just been busy. I'm trying to get a post on John 10 rolling, I've got an old paper on the theory of a Wednesday crucifixion that I need to put into bloggable form, and I've also been doing some thinking about contextualization.

It seems to me that "traditional" church (whatever that means) has been deemed irrelevant to our culture (I guess I'm talking USA specifically, and perhaps Western culture as a whole), and that both the "seeker sensitive" and some aspects of the "emerging" movements are intended to make church more relevant. In most cases, the attempt is to make church (and by extension, our view of Jesus) more similar to the lives of the people we're trying to reach. In essence, put Jesus into a polo shirt, or give him some funky tattoos. But is that what is really going to reach people? Maybe people don't want more of the same; maybe they want something different. Or maybe that's what God wants for them. It doesn't seem to me that most revival movements have occurred because people have been given a more palatable Jesus; rather, people have been challenged and responded in a life-changing manner.

So anyway, that's as far as I've gotten. Maybe I need to think more like a blogger (as Joe Carter recently wrote) in order to keep things going. Or maybe if I toss out my half-baked ideas, some of you will come along to fully-bake them. Any takers?

*For anyone who recognizes my Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference in the title, this is one of those famous movie sayings that never happened, like "Play it again, Sam" from Casablanca. Just thought I'd share. For no particular reason.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Two Types of Apologetics

Stephen from Y Safle wrote a kind response to my post on the Jesus Family Tomb. Based on his and others' responses, however, I get the feeling that many people may not have understood where I was coming from. If I link to and approvingly cite others' reasoned objections to the Jesus Family Tomb television program and book, why do I on the other hand appear to dismiss their contentions and wave the whole thing away as irrelevant?

My post was primarily a reaction to the piling-on that was being done by Christian bloggers, which appeared 1) to want to preemptively snuff out any consideration of the program before it ever aired, and 2) to deal with the issue without any mention of what Stephen correctly termed the elephant in the room: namely, the Resurrection, believed in by all those who were vociferously challenging the program's stats.

Stephen wrote that while I might be right that the special would be irrelevant to a convinced Christian, there would still be value in trying to convince a nonbeliever that the claims of the special were false. In order to discuss this, I need to examine two types of apologetics. The usual type is evidential: gather the evidence that supports Christian claims and present it to the intellect for a verdict. The problem is that our intellect is fallen; a confirmed nonbeliever can always find more reasons to remain a nonbeliever. Nobody ever gets argued into saving faith.

The other type of apologetics is presuppositional: make the assumption that people really do know the existence of God but are suppressing it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-21). From this point of view, arguments over whether God exists or not are quite beside the point, and actually shift the argument onto the nonbeliever's ground. He can continue debating a point that the Bible indicates he already knows the truth of, while not having to deal with the claims that that truth make on his life. A presuppositional apologetic approach is two-pronged: on one hand, the apologist attempts to expose the contradictions inherent in the nonbeliever's worldview--contradictions that are necessary to maintain this suppression of the truth--and on the other hand, simply proclaims the gospel, regardless of the hearer's protests that he does not believe it.

An example of the presuppositional approach would be as follows: an unbeliever maintains that she cannot believe in God, since there is so much evil in the world. The apologist maintains that the unbeliever's recognition of evil is an implicit recognition of a transcendent moral authority--she does not mean by "evil" simply things that she personally dislikes--and thus the unbeliever's very contention demonstrates her knowledge that God exists. If she is really concerned about evil, she should place herself under God's moral authority and trust in Jesus as the solution to the moral issues in her own life.

In the end, I think both types of apologetic have value; but the value of the evidential variety does not lie in the ability simply to argue another person into becoming a Christian. That will not happen. The value, rather, lies in correcting the misgivings of those who may want to believe but feel that Christian faith is intellectually indefensible. C.S. Lewis was once called the "best persuader of the half-convinced." But the real battle is in getting people to the point of being "half-convinced," and that is not to be done by a merely logical approach. It's no use trying to overcome a person's every objection in order to get him to believe; get him to believe, and you'll find that most of the objections evaporate. (The ones that don't become real questions with hope of an answer, not just obfuscations.)

Conversion doesn't happen merely in the mind; it happens in what the Bible calls the "heart," the center of our personality, of who we are. The heart is influenced quite a bit more by the examples it sees from the people around it than by logical argumentation. A Christian who sews up his airtight logical argument with an exultant "Gotcha!" probably alienates the person he is attempting to persuade; the one who says, "I don't have all the answers," but demonstrates the love of Christ is likely to be far more persuasive.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Brouhaha Over the Jesus Family Tomb

If you read Christian blogs at all, it would be hard to miss this year's version of the Lenten tradition of debunking some radical new theory or "discovery" that purports to invalidate the historic claims of Christianity. The current entry is a Discovery Channel special on the Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem, which the special argues is the "lost tomb of Jesus." There will also be a book by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino entitled The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History. So the usual suspects are giving us the typical full-court publicity press timed to exploit the Christian practice of reflecting on Jesus' crucifixion and celebration of his resurrection.

Articles opposing the special and the book have been written by many; some of the most helpful have been those by Ben Witherington (including an interesting and detailed comment on statistical analysis) and Nathan Busenitz at Pulpit Magazine. The basic argument that these and other Christians are making is that the names on the ossuaries in the tomb are common, and therefore should not necessarily be identified with the figures in the New Testament who bear those names, and also that the statistical analysis used by Cameron, Jacobovici, and Pellegrino--to the effect that the cluster of names is highly unlikely to refer to anyone other than the family of Jesus--is flawed and skewed to produce a predetermined outcome. I think that this type of evidential apologetic has its value, but I also think that in a significant sense it misses the point.

Dr. Witherington and Mr. Busenitz do not oppose the identification of the Talpiot tomb as Jesus' tomb because they've conducted a dispassionate statistical analysis and found the idea without merit. Rather they believe, as do I, that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and therefore his body is not to be found in any tomb. That belief means that we have an a priori commitment to reject any purported evidence to the contrary, and we may as well admit it. This doesn't mean that critical assessment of these annual theories, always timed to exploit the season just prior to Easter, is incorrect or without value. But in responding point-by-point to the charges and slogging it out in the world of statistics, we end up lending credence to the charge and actually helping to publicize it. There must be something to it if we're this worked up about it, right?

Like I said, I'm divided on the issue. Of course, someone does need to respond to these theories, for the sake of those who may be led astray by them. It's worthwhile to demonstrate that even if you don't assume Jesus' resurrection, the claims being made are without merit. Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who oversaw the excavation of the tomb in 1980, told the Jerusalem Post, "It’s impossible. It’s nonsense.” At the same time, I think that scurrying to preemptively answer charges sends the wrong signal. Alongside the evidential apologetic, I think we need a bit of a presuppositional mindset as well. God's truth hasn't been suppressed for two millenia. It's not going to happen now. There's something to be said about standing above the fray and simply being the witness that the world needs to see. 

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