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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Five Solas

One of the things to come out of the Reformation was the Five Solas. You may have heard of them. The term "sola" is Latin for "alone" or only. Only it seems sometimes that good things come with clever misunderstandings. Intentional or not? I'll let you decide.

The Five Solas are sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria -- Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone. What could be clearer? Okay, maybe a lot. Look first at the obvious problem. How is it possible to say "alone" five times? I mean, doesn't that mean that none of them are alone? So I wanted to take just a moment to explain what these things do not mean, because I'm pretty sure that there is some confusion out there.

First, the purpose of these "alones" was to counter a specific teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of their day. Keep that in mind as you consider the individual components.

The first, sola scriptura, was the starting point of this opposition. While the Roman Catholic Church holds to three points of authority -- the Church, Tradition, and Scripture -- the Reformers argued that the Scriptures alone were the sole authority (See that word "sole"? Thus, "sola".) in matters of faith and practice. As such, this sola was the primary point from which the rest of the solas and the rest of the Reformation proceeded. Sola scriptura did not argue that there was no value in either tradition or the Church. It did not argue that the Scriptures were the sole source of knowledge or even authority in the realms of, say, civics or mathematics. These and other nonsensical accusations have been floated on this sola. It is a failure to comprehend (at best).

The second, sola fide, is popularly attacked because it is quite clear that we are not saved by faith alone. We are saved by faith, grace, Christ ... I mean, come on! There's a lot to this! Again, what we have here is a failure to comprehend ... at best. The point was to counter the Roman Catholic argument that we are justified by works. The Reformers, pointing to such passages as Paul's "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Rom 4:3), argued that we are not justified (declared righteous) by any works. We are declared righteous by God on the basis of faith in Christ. The Roman Catholic view was that we are initially justified by faith but must proceed to actual righteousness if we are to be ultimately saved. That was justification by works. Thus, when the Reformers argued for sola fide, it was not that faith was the only thing required for salvation, but that faith was the only thing required for God to declare us justified. Nor is it an abdication of the need for works (a very common mistake in the Protestant realm). Luther was famous for saying that we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Faith has its results which, according to James, is demonstrated in works. Thus, sola fide is not a dismissal of the need for works, but a counter to the claim that works in some way save us.

As for sola gratia, the point was not that grace alone is required for salvation. Any casual reader of the Scriptures would know that we are saved "by grace through faith". Clearly that is not grace alone. This sola was intended to deny the Roman Catholic doctrine of merits. The Roman Catholics argued that it was possible to acquire sufficient merit so that God would be justly obligated to save us. Further, it was possible to achieve super merit that would allow others to make it to heaven based on this aggregated merit. Sola gratia was laid out in direct opposition to this doctrine. We are not saved by merit of any type. Grace is biblically defined as unmerited favor. It is God granting us favor that we haven't earned. Please note, however, that grace does not mean that the favor is not earned. "Oh, come on, Stan. Now you're just contradicting yourself." No, grace does not mean that the favor was not earned. It means that we didn't earn it. It means that sinful humans do not earn God's kindness. The Scriptures are clear that Christ did earn God's favor. "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." God said that about Him more than once. Jesus earned God's favor and, on behalf of the favor earned by Christ, God shows us favor that we don't merit. Thus, grace does not mean that the favor wasn't merited, but that it was not merited by the recipients -- us. Nor does sola gratia mean that grace alone is required for salvation. That is not what the Scriptures hold and that is not what the sola is for.

Solus Christus was aimed at the pope and others venerated by the Roman Catholic Church. The reference is not to justification, but to the sole mediator. We don't pray to Mary or the saints. We don't have the pope or the priesthood as go-betweens for the people to God. Christ alone is our mediator. Christ alone is our salvation. We are a priesthood of believers with no one between God and us except Christ Himself. Christ alone does not save. Christ is our sole Savior, but salvation requires God's grace granted through our faith in Christ.

The fifth sola, soli Deo gloria, says that we glory in God alone. That could probably stand by itself, but remember the point. It was intended to counter a Roman Catholic doctrine. The doctrine in mind here was the veneration of the saints. We do not offer glory to saints, to people, even to ministers or priests or bishops or the pope. God alone gets the glory. Anything else is idolatry.

Perhaps, having understood the intent of these Five Solas, you might not get led astray on their meaning. We are not saved by faith alone or grace alone. The Scriptures are not the sole source for knowledge, but the sole authority in matters of faith and practice. We are saved by faith apart from works, by grace that we did not earn but not apart from faith, by Christ as the only name given under heaven by which we must be saved, but not apart from the favor earned by Christ applied to those who did not merit it and on the basis of faith in Him. Anything less is a failure to comprehend and a minimizing of salvation, justification, and sanctification. In all cases, soli Deo gloria.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I'm sure you've heard it before: "You Christians are all alike." Generally it's followed with stuff with which even you likely disagree. "You caused the Crusades." "Your always interfering in people's fun." That kind of stuff. Or there's always the old, "You guys can't agree on anything." And if you press that one too far you'll find that the "anything" in mind is something like "Some of you believe in Jesus and some of you don't." Big stuff. Stuff that, as it turns out, all Christians agree on.

Well, don't let it get you down. Remember this. It was Jesus who assured us that there would always be the problem of "tares among wheat", those who appear to mimic genuine Christianity but are, in fact, not the real thing. He also used the illustration of the bad fish caught with the good fish. Same concept. Jesus warned about wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt 7:15). What did that mean? They weren't genuine sheep, but they would try to look like it. John warned that there would be false prophets -- "antichrists". You know, people who claim to speak for God. John warned that these antichrists would come from us -- the Church. So there is something I'd like you to remember. The presence of the counterfeit does not disprove the genuine. Don't let it get you down.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Okay, that was an obscure title. You know WWJD -- What would Jesus do? And then we play that difficult little game trying to figure out exactly how Jesus would handle the Palestinian request for statehood or whether or not He would buy a hybrid car or the other odd questions people ask that seem impossible to answer. This one is not that one. This one is What would Jesus care about? And we're not going to play a guessing game for this one.

Jesus told His disciples how to pray. He taught them what should concern them the most. Thus, He taught them His highest concerns.
Pray then like this: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (Matt 6:9-13).
What do we learn about the things Jesus cared about (or desired that His disciples care about)? Avoiding temptation and avoiding evil are on the list. Forgiving others is prevalent. (Remember, He went on to say, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt 6:14-15). So that's important.) And, of course, it is fitting and proper to care about having your basic needs met. This is something that the Master taught His disciples to pray.

There are a few more, but I wanted to try a little experiment (the data from which I will never be able to gather). Looking at the text, what is Jesus's first petition? There is every reason to think that the first thing Jesus tells His disciples to ask for would likely be the most important thing -- His highest priority. What is that first request?

Most people would say that His first request is "Your kingdom come." Most people would say that the first sentence (as it is structured in this version) would constitute the address. To whom are we praying? Well, we're praying to our Father in heaven, the one whose name is holy. Thus, the first petition is that His kingdom would come. That, however, would not be quite accurate. Look at the choice of words. If Jesus had intended to say that the Father's name was holy, He would have said, "Hallowed is Your name." He didn't. Jesus's first prayer, His first petition, His highest priority is rather that the Father's name would be regarded as holy -- "Hallowed be Your name."

What did Jesus care about? If His instruction on prayer was any measure, He cared about our forgiveness and whether or not we forgive others. He cared about our daily needs and He cared about our sin avoidance. He cared that God's will would be done and that His kingdom would be present. But above all -- before anything else -- Jesus's highest concern and first request was that the Father's name would be regarded as holy.

As a follower of Christ, is that your highest concern, your first petition, your life's aim?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I work with DNA. (Okay, my software works with DNA, but ...) DNA does not resemble the thing that it makes. It is, in form, simply a double helix of billions of bits of data that are used to define and shape whatever the thing is that it makes. Science tells me that the the DNA of a human and the DNA of a monkey are perhaps 95% alike. (Please, set aside the possible misleading conclusions to which you might jump from that data point.) Yet we know that monkeys are not humans. So, what makes a human as opposed to a monkey? At what point is it human ... or not?

Of course, my question isn't at all about DNA and humans versus monkeys. My question is about Christianity. While there are lots of things out there that call themselves "Christianity" and while they often resemble in many ways what people perceive to be "Christianity", there is that fundamental "5% difference" (or more) that makes them, in fact, not Christianity despite the similarities and even the claims to the contrary. So what makes Christianity as opposed to something similar but not?

I've been reading the positions of a pastor of the PCUSA, the liberal outcropping of the Presbyterian church. He claims (quite obviously) to be Christian. Is he? Where Christianity has always held that homosexual behavior is a sin, he claims it's perfectly acceptable. I do not point to that as "proof", but a starting point of divergence. Where Christianity has always held to Creation, he has jettisoned that as myth and actually has an Evolution Sunday. Indeed, he has tossed off all those Old Testament stories as not factual accounts, but myth, legend, epic texts, a loose account with some touches of fact and a large dose of prehistoric mysticism and superstition. The Bible holds that "all have sinned"; he believes that people are basically good and that, indeed, there are lots of people (essentially all children) who have not sinned. While the Scriptures plainly hold that sinful humans justly deserve God's condemnation, he argues that God is a kind God and condemns no one. While Jesus spoke clearly and often of Hell, he is quite sure there is no such thing. The New Testament holds the blood of Christ as the fundamental premise upon which we are justified, but he says that this is an archaic and barbaric belief and that Jesus died to show us a better way, not "for your sins" like some heathen-god-sacrifice thing. Paul says, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor 15:14), but he assures his congregation that no resurrection took place. That's mere rhetoric, myth, a nice idea but not real.

At some point in all of that (and so much more), most of my readers would have concluded, "No, that's not 'Christianity'. That's something else." Where? When did it cease to be Christianity? I say "most of my readers" because a few would argue that it is Christianity simply because he professes "faith in Christ" although neither the faith nor the Christ in which it is placed resembles any of the biblical image. If this is the case, is there any point at which it becomes "not Christianity"? Or, back to the DNA analogy, are monkeys human simply because they share some DNA?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Does This Hurt?

My wife and I were visiting friends out of state last year. My wife invited them to come visit sometime. "We can put you up," she told them. I quipped, "Of course, some of you will have to decide who gets the bed and who sleeps on the futon" because, of course, some of the couples were not married. "Really?" one asked, amazed."You wouldn't let them sleep in the same bed just because they're not married?" The words weren't added, but the implication was clear. "How rude! How archaic! How puritan! How judgmental!"

It is a common problem for me and those like me. We are viewed as judgmental, as meddlesome, as outdated and morally indignant. In fact, none of these apply. (To be fair, I would guess that they do apply to some, but I specified "me and those like me".) We are viewed as killjoys interested in invading others' enjoyment for no good reason. This is farthest from the truth. But getting this across seems to be pretty nearly impossible.

In the Bible we read a variety of rules and commands from God. I see two factors here. First, God is God. That means that what He says goes. He is the Creator, the Master of the Universe, the Big Boss. He gets to tell His creation what to do. On that basis, it would be a bad idea to violate what He says. On the other hand, I do not believe God to be a cosmic killjoy, making creatures for the purpose of limiting their fun and cutting off their happiness. So I do not believe for a single instant that the rules and commands we have received are simply arbitrary. They are not intended at all to be rude, archaic, judgmental, meddlesome, or less than pleasant. I believe that, as the Maker, He knows what makes the creature work best and has, therefore, laid out instructions. I see His commands as a User's Manual, a guide from the manufacturer on the proper care and use of the product we call "the human being". "Do these things and you'll get the best results. Don't do those things or you'll damage it. Follow these instructions and you will get optimum pleasure and use out of your device."

Given this view, I am completely stuck here. You see, there are lots of people about whom I care a lot. I want them to have optimum pleasure in life. More importantly, I do not want to see them run afoul of the Creator. A possible loss of pleasure is nothing compared to the wrath of God. So I want to live and speak in such a way that they would have the best possible outcome -- avoid the wrath of God and enjoy the optimum life. That, however, gets me labeled as rude, meddlesome, and judgmental. The fact that they disagree with me on what is optimum is beside the point. My motivation is their best interest and my source document is from the Manufacturer Himself. I can be pretty confident, then, that it's right.

I've often used the analogy of a fictional arsenic user. This arsenic user is a friend, someone you care about. He is coming to visit and you're looking forward to the visit and it's good. He tells you, "Be sure to have lots of arsenic on hand because you know how much I like the stuff." And you, as a warm and non-meddling and certainly non-judgmental friend provide him with bottles of the stuff, right? Well, I would hope not. Not if you care about your friend. Of course, what people tell me when I use this analogy is "I'm not drinking arsenic." And therein lies the problem. In our analogy, the user likes arsenic. He doesn't know or doesn't believe or, at least, doesn't care if arsenic is killing him. Sure, you know and care, but he doesn't. And that's the point. That's the problem.

Sins are not "bad things we do". They aren't violations of a moral code. They aren't transgressions of someone's perception of right and wrong. They aren't "socially unacceptable acts". They aren't part of a cultural ethos. It is so hard to get that across. Sin is Man's message to his Maker: "I don't care what You want!" Sin is a violation of what the Creator says is right and an assault on the Master Himself. When it comes down to it, drinking arsenic would be much safer than this kind of activity. Arsenic would only kill you. Jesus said, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Now that is a frightening thing.

How do I get that across? How do I warn people that I care about? How do I get across that they're not merely "doing bad things"? "Bad things" would simply be a violation of my ideas, my morals, of someone's opinion of right and wrong. But this stuff isn't "bad things". This stuff does real harm the likes of which they are often no more aware than our arsenic user is of the damage his habit is causing him. Worse, it puts them in the path of a God who, if He is righteous and just, is obligated to be angry. And it's a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. So how do I express this stuff without coming across as merely rude, judgmental, or meddlesome? It is no small matter. "Just ignore it" seems to be really bad advice. What do you recommend?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Unnatural Emotions

Humans operate on emotions much of the time. It would make more sense, of course, to operate on reason, but we don't. According to the dictionary, emotions are the natural response derived from one's perceptions of one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. In short form, then, emotions are the natural response to your perceptions of your circumstances. We have them. They're built in. And they are not, on their own, good or bad.

Emotions are fairly common to most people. Just look at how we respond to movies. We all get teary eyed at a sad scene in a movie or laugh at the funny stuff. We are inspired by the heroic and angered at the evil. I'd venture to say that our emotional responses are, in fact, basically the same. The differences occur when we view events and circumstances differently. Sticking with movies as an example, while most of an audience will shriek with horror at one of those bloody scenes in a scary movie, the guy that sees these things as special effects might chuckle. Now, that same guy that laughed in the horror film would shriek if faced with the same perception of horror that the rest of the audience did at the movie. It's just that in this case he perceived it differently and, so responded differently.

The Bible is not without reference to emotion. However, the Bible presents a sometimes odd set of emotions for Christians. The emotions that a Christian might or ought to experience are not the natural emotions that a non-believer will encounter. Take, for instance, James's bizarre "Count it all joy when you encounter various trials" (James 1:2-5). "Ummm, James, 'joy' is not the typical response to 'trials'. I think you missed something there." No, he gives his reasoning. Trials produce patience and patience produces perfection. That's a good thing. So in this case, if we view events through God's lens, we will see that it is a good thing even though everyone else would see it as bad (and have a negative emotional response).

There is more, of course. Jesus's famous Beatitudes are a series of "Blessed are" statements which, frankly, make no sense on the face of it. The term, "blessed", means essentially "happy". So in what sense does the sentence "Happy are those who mourn" make sense? Isn't mourning the opposite of "happy"? Yes, in natural terms, it is. But the outcome of "poor in spirit" and "mourn" and "hunger" and "meek" and so on is an unnatural joy because God is at working doing something good in these things.

Paul tells his readers, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:6-7). Prayer and thanksgiving provide an emotional response that is not natural: "the peace of God". Indeed, this aspect is so vital and effective that he says elsewhere, " And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful" (Col 3:15). That is, peace is to be the governing principle in your heart.

This sense of unnatural emotions changes things for believers. While most of the world is working at acquiring a positive set of emotional responses via supposed positive circumstances, we can have these things apart from circumstances. The world, for instance, seeks happiness in marriage and, when they aren't happy there, terminate it. A believer finds joy in all circumstances and, therefore, doesn't require "pleasant circumstances" at all times in marriage since that is not the source of joy. They can then be the spouse they promised to be -- the spouse they are commanded to be -- even when the circumstances aren't as pleasant as they would have liked them to be. A group of believers encountering difficult circumstances can respond with peace knowing that God is in charge when everyone else is responding in terror and unrest. While the normal result of the diagnosis of terminal cancer would cause debilitating depression to many, a believing pastor can tell his congregation, "I've tried to show you how to live; now I'll try to show you how to die", can say with Paul, "To live is Christ and to die is gain." We have the remarkable benefit of a different perspective which provides love, joy, peace, and a host of other positive emotional responses to situations that would be negative to those without Christ. Knowing Christ has its benefits. You just have to accept them.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Terms of Endearment

Recently Pat Robertson informed his listeners to the 700 Club that divorce for the sake of Alzheimer's was a certainly acceptable course of action. I wanted to ask the reverend, "What about 'for better and for worse' or 'in sickness and in health'? What about 'til death do us part'?" Oh, he answered that last one. Alzheimer's, he assured us, is "a kind of death." I'm reminded of a line from a movie I enjoyed where a husband gave his wife a skunk. "It's a lot like a cat," he assured her. "Not enough like a cat," she responded. Not enough like death, Pat.

But I'm not writing about Robertson or divorce. I'm writing about our terms of endearment. No, not those words or phrases that we use to express affection. I'm talking about the terms we place on the love we give. In the case Robertson addressed, the healthy spouse had terms. "I will remain married to you ... as long as I get what I want/feel I need." Okay, maybe it's not completely accurate to call that terms of endearment. Maybe he/she would still say they loved their spouse. But it is still terms. It is, in fact, extremely common in our society. "If you don't give me what I want (make me feel good, satisfy my desires, do what I say, lose weight, whatever), I will withdraw what I am terming 'love' and we will part ways. The promises we've made and the commitments I've taken are null and void because you do not meet my terms." You see it in divorce. You see it in relationships. You see it in the employment world. You see it in families. It's all around. "Meet my terms or it's over."

The place that most disturbs me, however, is not in marriage or in family or in friendships. Oh, those do disturb me, but the one that really upsets my apple cart is the terms of endearment that we place on God. And we do it ... regularly and fervently. People routinely place terms on God that He has to meet in order to receive their affection. "I'll be religious as long as I don't have to stop doing what I like to do." "I'll worship God as long as He is a nice God who doesn't do things I don't like." "I'll follow God as long as I get what I want out of it and He makes no demands on me." And, indeed, when the terms aren't met (as they will not be), it is catastrophe. It is "losing my religion". It is "I won't believe in a God like that." "If that's what God is like, I don't want anything to do with Him." It's "I was once a Christian, but not anymore." And it's "I tried that born-again thing, but it didn't work."

When negotiating a contract, it is wise to have terms. (In fact, they define a contract.) When entering into relationships, terms are not so wise. "If you don't meet this, it's over." When entering into a relationship with the Creator of the Universe, there are no terms. Placing provisions on that relationship is not only foolish; it's dangerous. When it comes to meeting God, it has to be purely on His own terms. No other options.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Amazing Justice

We sing "Amazing Grace" and it warms our hearts and we're all happy about that, but I would suggest that it is not grace that we find so amazing most of the time, but justice. Mercy and grace we get and we like and we often take for granted and, unfortunately, we often demand, but justice is something that we tend to find amazing. Why do I say that?

Recently I discussed the biblical account of the judgment of the Amalekites. Like many of the biblical stories, that account is difficult to read. Men, women, children, infants, and even little baby goats were killed. That's horrible! Is it? Well, according to the biblical account it isn't horrible. It is the command of God on the basis of justice. But we are caught off guard by it. Take some less "Israelite" accounts, where there is no intermediary. God, for instance, didn't command anyone in the case of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10). They offered "strange fire" and God burned them to death on the spot. "On the spot??? I mean, that's kind of extreme, isn't it?" That's the sense of it. Aaron, their father, is outraged, but when Moses tells him that God warned that He would be regarded as holy, Aaron shuts up. It was just. Or how about Uzzah (2 Sam 6)? This is another one that baffles many. They were bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem on an ox cart. The oxen stumbled and Uzzah did God a favor by putting his hand out to steady the Ark and God struck him dead on the spot. When I say that it baffles many, I include those present in the account. David was so mad at God that he shuffled the Ark into a local farmer's house and left. Extreme, isn't it? Or is it? These Old Testament accounts are often explained away by modern folk as "myth" or "legend" or "the mistaken explanation of an early race of people" or "epic literature". So let's shift to a more modern account. How about Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? Their crime? They didn't give full disclosure on a piece of land they sold. Bam! Dead on the spot. Both of them. Seriously? Isn't that a bit extreme?

"Well, okay," some might suggest, "these people were all sinners. God warned that the wages of sin was death. They got what they deserved. But not in the case of babies, man! Not them!" Perhaps. Still, without intermediaries as in the case of Amalek, we still have events that we can't push aside that easily. It cannot be argued or even hinted at that there were no babies killed in Noah's Flood. I'm sorry. That just can't be. So, without asking anything of anyone, God Himself flooded the world and killed every single human being (except for Noah and family), regardless of age, with far more effectiveness than Israel's attack on Amalek. And God considered that justice. This concept is actually explained in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19). In that event Abraham was told that God planned to annihilate the two cities. He was told why: "Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave" (Gen 18:20). Abraham had the very same response that we might have. "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" (Gen 18:23). Abraham bargains with God who refuses to destroy the cities if 10 righteous people can be found. Just 10. Should be easy. Go find 10 babies and we're done! Easy! Of course, that doesn't happen. God removes Lot and his family (without any recognition that they were righteous) and drops fire and brimstone on the cities. To this day we cannot find these two locations. The Judge of all the earth did what was right.

Why do these events trouble us so? I would suggest that it is not because we see the grace and mercy of God as amazing. I would suggest that we are more amazed at the justice of God. We are used to grace and mercy. We're so acclimated to God's grace and mercy that we scarcely see it at all. We don't recognize, for instance, that the Old Testament is a vast story of God's astounding grace and mercy. "What? With all that death and destruction, how can you say that? With all those laws about death penalties for so many things, how can you even suggest it?" See what I mean? We don't even see it. You see, the Law of Moses represent a grand reduction of death penalty requirements. What was the original? To answer that, let me do a pop quiz. What is the first act of mercy in the Bible? Some would see Noah and his family as the first one (or not). Closer to the truth would be the fact that God spared and even protected Cain after killing his brother. But the first act of mercy in the Bible was before Cain. What did God tell Adam and Eve? What did God's death penalty cover at the beginning? "On the day that you eat it, you shall surely die." At the beginning, all sin was punishable by death at the moment of transgression. Sure, Adam and Eve died spiritually, but they did not die physically at that moment, a remarkable act of mercy on God's part. And when the Law of Moses came out, that number (all sin) was drastically reduced. Mercy in a big way. Or how about the existence of Israel at all? Moses told them, "God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people" (Deut 9:6). They weren't better than the Canaanites they drove out or the Amalekites they killed. God gave them grace -- undeserved favor -- when they deserved (justice) annihilation with those God was having them kill.

We are not really amazed by grace and mercy. We expect it. We are often offended at justice because we're so used to grace and mercy. In the New Testament, Paul gets to this point. He addresses the outcry of his listeners that God would show mercy to whom He would show mercy that "That's not fair!" He tells them that they just don't get it. "What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?" (Rom 9:22). God's desire? God's will? To show His wrath and make His power known. God's act? Mercy on "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction". Paul says that it is not surprising that God chooses to save some. Paul says that it is surprising that God chooses to save one! Jesus said the same thing. When asked about the Galileans killed by Pilate, He assured His listeners, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:2-3). The message? Everyone deserves to die. Horribly. Without mercy. Even me. Even you. That is not mean or evil or unkind. It is justice. But we are amazed by justice because we are accustomed to grace and mercy. I suspect that we need to get a clearer view of the justice of God and the guiding holiness that makes it so if we really want to see how amazing grace is.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Gospel without Christianese

There are words that we use that are common to Christianity. "Christianese", I call them. We mostly know these words, although the common usage often makes me question that assertion. One would think, for instance, that we would have a common understanding of common terminology like "justification", "faith", "salvation", you know ... prevalent biblical concepts. We don't.

Of course, there are a couple of problems that often arise when we use these terms. One is the assumption that we know what we're saying. We can end up two people separated by a common language. The other, however, is triggered by the fact that so many of these words carry emotional baggage with them. I once, for instance, pointed out to a class that Paul called himself a "bondslave". "Oh, no!" several of them assured me. "We're not slaves!" Because, you see, "slave" carries emotional baggage.

One of the real killer terms that we use all the time (because, after all, the Bible does) is "sin" or "sinner". This one suffers from both problems. On one hand, while we might think the term is self-explanatory, it turns out that there is disparity in how various ones understand it. On the other hand, it is a trigger term, often turning off listeners before you get to finish your sentence. Tell people, "We are all sinners in need of salvation" and they likely won't hear much beyond that term. This can be disastrous if you are trying to share the gospel (another one of those terms), because they won't hear with that trigger word at the beginning. "What are you saying? I'm a terrible person? I'm evil? I'm bad? I'm not such a bad person! You're just being judgmental, meddling in other people's lives." And so it goes.

In view of this problem, I'm going to try an experiment. I'm going to try to share the gospel without using a single trigger word. Let's see how this goes.

I have a something remarkably good to tell you that you'll want to hear. This is something that is truly amazing and well worth your attention. Of course, in order to help you see the value of this information, you have to know what the problem might be. The fact is that all humans are in crisis. We are creatures, beings who were created. As such, we owe the One who made us our allegiance. Unfortunately, we are in the habit of withholding what we owe in that regard. Each of us has gone independent, has told Him, "No thanks; I'll be my own God. I don't care what You tell me; I will make my own choices." As a result, we are charged with treason against our Maker. And we are guilty of the charge and without recourse except to pay the ultimate penalty. It's bad, folks, really bad. And it's each one of us.

That's where this good news comes in. There is a solution. You see, although each of us has committed this treason and although the penalty for treason is death, God Himself has provided a remedy. It is God's desire to restore a relationship with you. Since the cost of treason is death, He sent His Son to die in your place. His Son lived on this earth and never committed the treason of which we are guilty. Instead, He lived a perfect life. Still, the people around Him performed the worst possible execution they could imagine and He took it. He took it in your place.

Now, at this point you have to wonder, "What does He want from me? Where's the catch? He did all that; what do I have to do?" Here's the deal. His plan is to reconnect with you by giving you a new life. His idea is to remove the animosity between you by loving you even though you are a rebel against Him and to give you His own power. He does this when you recognize that you are indeed without any other alternative and that your only hope is to place all your confidence in His ability to rescue you from your own just penalty of death. That's it. You give Him your trust and He considers your penalty as paid in full. You exchange all your shortfall for His abilities and strength.

Usually when you hear something that sounds too good to be true, it is. Welcome to the exception.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Innocent Blood

There are words and phrases that we understand and use without actually analyzing and, perhaps, understanding. This is one we all know: "innocent blood". Now, don't think about it too hard because it becomes silly if you do. What is "innocent blood"? It must be blood that hasn't committed a crime, right? Well, no, of course not. So what is innocent blood? What do we know about it?

We know that the Bible is clear that shedding innocent blood is a bad thing. In Deut 19, God tells Israel to set up cities of refuge. These cities are safe places that people who accidentally commit manslaughter can go to be safe from reprisal. God told His people, "You shall add three other cities to these three, lest innocent blood be shed in your land" (Deut 19:9-10). In Deut 27 there is a series of curses including this one: "Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood" (Deut 27:25). The psalmist bemoaned the horrors of Israel's idolatry when they sacrificed their sons and daughters to demons and "poured out innocent blood" to the idols of Canaan (Psa 106:38). Joel says that "Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, for the violence done to the people of Judah, because they have shed innocent blood in their land" (Joel 3:19). From these we see that God doesn't want "innocent blood" to be shed.

So we see this concept of "innocent blood" and we see that God doesn't want "innocent blood" to be shed. What does that mean? "Come on, Stan, aren't these stupid questions? Seems rather obvious, doesn't it?" You'd think so ... until you start to think it through. You see, Paul was adamant. "There is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom 3:10ff). "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). So if there is a category of human beings who actually have "innocent blood" -- who are genuinely innocent of all sin -- then we also have a category of Scripture that we would call "contradictory". That is, either all have sinned or there is such a thing as people who have not sinned ("innocent"), else we have contradiction. There is another possibility. What does "innocent blood" mean?

The dictionary lists as the first definition, "Uncorrupted by evil, malice, or wrongdoing; sinless" and uses the phrase "an innocent child" as an illustration of the idea. If this is the definition of the term as it is used in the examples I offered, then we have an absolute contradiction without remedy. But the second definition is equally as common: "Not guilty of a specific crime or offense; legally blameless." We would say, for instance, "He was innocent of the charges" in a court case without implying in the least that he was sinless or uncorrupted by evil. So what is intended in the biblical texts?

Well, in the first example from Deut 19, it is clearly a reference to the second definition. The person who was "innocent" in this case was not guilty of a specific crime, the crime of murder. The word in Hebrew is naqiy (sort of) which means "to clean or acquit". Thus, the language here is not of someone who is sinless, but who is not guilty of a specific charge. It is possible, therefore, to be "innocent" and "not innocent" at the same time if we understand that we are speaking of innocent in two different senses. (The definition of a contradiction is for something to be "A" and "not A" at the same time and in the same sense.) A person can be innocent of specific crimes without being wholly innocent of all sin. If this is the case, then the concept of shedding "innocent blood" would reference people who were killed for crimes they did not commit or by people who did not have the authority to prosecute such guilt and not a reference to being sinless.

This, of course, may be viewed as gymnastics with semantics. "You're just jumping through hoops for no good reason." And why would I be going through such "gymnastics"? Well, I contend that there is no such thing as actual "innocent blood" except in the sense that I have offered. That would include the concept of "the innocent child". There is none who is sinless. No, not one. So am I playing games with semantics? Perhaps. If I'm wrong, however, we do have the problem of Scripture contradicting Scripture. We also have another problem. Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me" (Matt 28:18). That means that the authority to determine when someone lives or dies is also in His hands. And that means that any time a child dies, it is on the basis of His authority. Therefore, if there are genuinely innocent children, little ones completely untainted by sin, uncorrupted by evil, actually sinless, God Himself is guilty of shedding innocent blood. And that's a whole other problem.

I would agree with Paul that there is none righteous. I would agree that all have sinned. The Bible lists three categories of "innocent". One is to be genuinely and completely without sin in any form. That category is occupied by a single human being in all of history -- Christ alone. The second category is "blameless". This one refers to people who have sinned, but have dealt with the guilt of that sin. These people are not without sin. They no longer owe anything for that sin because it has been dealt with. There are no pending charges. Believers fall in this category. The third category is "innocent". These are people not classified as guilty of a specific charge or set of charges under current scrutiny. To say, for instance, that many Israelites were "innocent" of idolatry would not require that they were sinless. If this is the case, then when God ordered the deaths of men, women, and children (or, more to the point, when He carries it out Himself), He is not "shedding innocent blood", but acting justly. If this is not the case, the contradiction of Scripture and the charge of injustice laid at God's feet will need to be dealt with.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shaken to the Core

I've been handling some of the more difficult subjects in Scripture lately. This may come as a shock to you, but I have not received universal applause for it. (I get a lot more emails than I get blog comments.) I feel like sometimes it looks like what I'm saying comes naturally, comes easily for me. I thought you should know that it doesn't. This stuff takes time, effort, diligence, careful examination, and long thought. Sometimes there seems to be the perception, "Well, sure, easy for you to say." No, not so much. The fact is that much of what I know today did not come naturally to me at all. The fact is that close scrutiny of Scripture has managed to radically reshape many areas of reality for me.

The thing is, if you don't find that to be true for you, I wonder what you're reading. Look, the Bible is supposed to be "God-breathed". That, alone, should take your breath away. God breathed it out and some of His people wrote it down in their own vernacular, guided by His Spirit. Now, God is not a man. In fact, one of the things of which He assures us in that God-breathed Scripture is "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa 55:8). So if you find as you read through Scripture that it's all sweetness and light, that it simply confirms what you always thought, that God is just like you imagined and the universe operates just like you thought, I would like to suggest that you're not paying attention or you're not getting it right. Look, no one who ever encountered God walked away with a lilt in their step. No, it was always catastrophic. Equally significant, if you read the Bible and find it boring, you are seriously missing out, because these are words from God -- no small deal.

Now, it's true that you cannot measure truth by "It shakes my thinking." A guru who tells me "It's like the sound of one hand clapping" might shake my thinking for awhile, but then I realize it's because he was speaking nonsense. And I've heard more than once during the writing of this series, "Do you know how that looks to the world???!!!!" Frankly, how it looks to the world is also not a valid measure of truth.

I also need to point out that I am not suggesting that the Bible is hard to understand. That's not the problem. It's not that it's hard to understand. It's that we operate from a sinful mind. Paul commanded us to "be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2). You see, sin rots the brain and sin is opposed to God and here we are in various stages of insanity trying to look at God's reality, as Paul put it, "through a glass darkly". It's not that it's hard to understand. It's that it is in opposition to Natural Man. Indeed, it is in opposition to the direct efforts of "the god of this world" whose aim it is to blind us. In fact, given the sinful nature of human beings and the attacks of Satan, we'd be out of luck if it wasn't for the fact that we have the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth.

Well, you've got your Bibles and you've got time. You ought to see if your world doesn't get shaken to the core as well when you let the Holy Spirit open your eyes to Scripture and let the Word of God shape your view of reality. I am certain it will shift your worldview. I guarantee you it won't be simple or easy. If it is, I suspect you need to meet the Author first.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Is Biblical Inerrancy New?

The Bible has come under attack in the last half century. Well, longer, I suppose. Beginning in the late 19th century with "higher criticism", many have moved away from any sort of "reliable Scripture" to "a nice book that has some really good things in it" or something like that. Liberalism had come upon the Bible. Of course, a counter response was forthcoming and two groups, the Fundamentalists and the Evangelicals followed, standing firmly on the inerrancy of Scripture. That concept, that the Bible is without error, has really come across hard times at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. In the 70's, the "conservative" Fuller Seminary moved from "the Bible is the Word of God" to "the Bible contains the Word of God". Today, the whole concept of inerrancy is considered silly by liberal Christianity and questioned by those who still call themselves "Evangelicals". "You know," they tell us, "the inerrancy of the Bible is a new idea. It was never held before you fundamentalists held it" because, you see, only one who is a fundamentalist (whacko, although that descriptive is usually implied, not spoken) would hold that doctrine.

John D. Woodbridge is a research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He has written an interesting article on the topic that denies this accusation. Rather than being a new doctrine, Woodbridge says that it has been the case since the beginning.

The accusation was that A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield were feeling the press of higher criticism and responded in 1881 with a new concept -- biblical inerrancy. The accuser, Ernest Sandeen, back in 1970 claimed that the doctrine didn't exist before them. Hodge and Warfield, on the other hand, claimed that their view had been the standard view of the Church since the early church fathers. So, who was right?

Augustine was not unknown, nor was he unknown for his statements on the subject. In a response to the suggestion from St. Jerome that Paul wasn't being completely honest when he wrote Gal 2:14, Augustine said, "It seems to me that the most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false." He went on to say, "If you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement ... , there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, ... the author declared what was not true." Now, you may disagree with Augustine (as many have disagreed with me when I've made similar claims), but what you cannot disagree with is the claim that this idea of biblical inerrancy is new, or that the concern about the outcome of denying that doctrine would be dangerous to Christianity was a product of modern silliness. Augustine went on from there. He wrote The Harmony of the Gospels and said, "in order to carry out this design to a successful conclusion, we must prove that the writers in question do not stand in any antagonism to each other." The Gospels, he assured us, did not contradict each other. Augustine's approach to Scripture was that the original documents were perfectly inerrant and reliable. Regarding translations of the originals, he said, "If in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand." What was not in question was the actual text.

Woodbridge goes on to cite a string of "witnesses", including Johannes Eck (1496-1543), a contemporary of Martin Luther, and Richard Simon (1638-1712). Eck warned Erasmus, "Do you suppose any Christian will patiently endure to be told that the evangelists in their Gospel made mistakes?" (Is that a claim that only false Christians would endure such an accusation regarding mistakes in Scripture?) Simon is considered by many to be "the Father of Higher Criticism." Simon wrote about the belief of the Jews and Christians regarding biblical inerrancy, "One is not able to doubt that the truths contained in Holy Scripture are infallible and of a divine authority, since they come immediately from God, who in doing this used the ministry of men as his interpreters." Thus, the Father of Higher Criticism confirmed that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy preceded higher criticism as well as Hodge and Warfield or modern Evangelicalism.

Well, there is a lot more in there and it's a good read. Woodbridge goes far in dispelling the myth that the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy is a new thing, but demonstrates that it has always been the case for the Church. From Augustine through modern times, the doctrine has been maintained by the orthodox and revived repeatedly when opposition forces tried to take it down. It was held up in Augustine's day as an assault on the reliability of Scripture, repeated through the Roman Catholic period when some would claim otherwise, agreed upon by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers, sustained in the 19th century when higher criticism and the new god, science, attempted to tear it down, and continued to be one of the premier marks of Evangelicalism. So, I suppose I'm not entirely accurate when I say that the Bible has come under attack lately. But you can certainly set aside that tired old argument that "no one believed that before the 19th century" or the like. Lies, all lies. The Church has always believed it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa 55:8-9).
Last week we recognized the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Last week, in my remembering that event, I recalled the certainty that God "works all things after the counsel of His will." I assured my readers that God has a purpose -- a purpose for good -- in all that occurs. I have to point out, with God's words from Isaiah in mind, that I don't know what that is. I can be absolutely certain that the parents who lose a child to leukemia, for instance, can know for a fact that God was in control, that it happened with His full knowledge and that it was for certain good, but I lack the information required to tell them what that good is. You see, His thoughts are not my thoughts.

I know from Scripture that tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes and floods and all are actually caused by God (Amos 3:6), and I know that God is good. But His ways are so far beyond mine that it would be foolhardy to suggest I understand all that goes into that or all that comes out of it. I can know that God did it and that God is good, but, given the distance between God's ways and thinking and mine, it's highly unlikely that I'll get a glimpse of His plan in it.

That's why I avoid the details inherent in the question, "Why, God?" People want to know why God would allow those people to suffer so or why this family had such great loss or "why do bad things happen to good people?" and I would not venture to give details. His ways are not my ways.

Here's what I recommend. Given that God is sovereign and given that God is good and given that God is always right and given that God Himself claims such events for Himself, what will you believe? I can't give you particulars in your case, but I can assure you that indeed God's enemies "meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Gen 50:20). So who are you going to believe? God's enemies or God? Since I have always found God to be reliable, I will say with Joshua, "Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve ... but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD" (Josh 24:15).

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thinking it Through

One of the very popular spots that skeptics attack the Bible is the passage where God orders the death of innocent men, women, and children (and, in fact, donkeys, camels, and sheep as well). Horrible ... simply horrible.
"Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey'" (1 Sam 15:2-3).
The anti-Christian skeptic accepts the text as written and uses it to point out how contradictory (Is it or isn't it wrong to kill children?) and evil (In all cases, genocide is wrong.) God is. The ... non-anti-Christian simply says, "Yeah, that's what it says, but that's not what it means. It's a ..." and they'll explain that it is myth or legend or epic literature that is only loosely based on genuine events but not an actual representation of what God actually said or it is an actual event but not really commanded by God, but simply an attempt by early Israelite writers to justify what they did. So one side assaults God with it and the other assaults the Bible (my conclusion, not theirs). Is there an alternative? Or are we going to hold that God indeed ordered the deaths of innocent men, women, and children and it's all good?

I will point out from the outset that this logical construct that I've just offered (and is often offered to us) is what is known as the fallacy of the false dilemma. The suggestion here is that either we can concur that either God or the Bible are not quite right in what is given here or God is actually in favor of killing innocent people and we're happy with that. As if those are the only two options. "Mr. Jones, answer yes or no. Have you stopped beating your wife?" But ... but ... there is another alternative!

The other alternative, retaining both the righteous status of God and the historical narrative accurately portrayed in Scripture, is that God did not order the deaths of innocent men, women, and children, but guilty ones. Is there a reason to conclude such a thing?

First, the account itself offers the reasoning behind the command. "I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt." It is not, in the account, simple genocide to remove a group of people that God (or Israel or whomever) doesn't like. These people did something wrong. In the story I like so well in Exodus 17, it was Amalek that came against Israel right after Moses (rightly) struck the rock to give them water. In this event, for no apparent reason, Amalek attacked Israel and it was only by a miracle (Moses holding his arms up) that Israel defeated them (Exo 17:8-16). At the end of that battle, the text says, "The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Exo 17:16). Thus, this event in 1 Samuel was an outworking of that vicious attack in Exodus (as well as another in Numbers 14). What else do we know about the Amalekites? Well, they were part of Canaan, the offspring of Esau. Thus, by birth they were opposed to God's chosen people. And we know of Canaan that Israel was in slavery in Egypt until the iniquity of Canaan was complete (Gen 15:16). In fact, according to Jewish law, among the Orthodox Jews, of the 613 mitzvot (commandments), three refer to the Amalek: to remember what the Amalekites did to Jews, to not forget what the Amalekites did to Jews, and to destroy the Amalekites utterly. These were commands from God to be followed. So, keeping the biblical accounts intact, we see that Amalek was part of the group known as the Canaanites, and Amalek was marked out by God for their sinfulness and their opposition to God's people.

It's not too hard to see, then, that in the list of those to be killed, "men" and "women" would fall into the category of "guilty" rather than "innocent". Reading later texts like Romans 3:23 would certainly confirm this. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That would certainly include all the men and women of Amalek. But we're still left with the question of the children. The passage in question specifies "child and infant". And we all know that children (likely) and infants (certainly) are innocent. I mean, they haven't even had the opportunity to know what sin is let alone commit it, right? How could they not be innocent?

The Bible takes a different view on innocence than we do. David claimed, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psa 51:5). That's not a reference to his mother, but to himself. From birth he was a sinner. All humans since Adam have been born spiritually dead, opposed to God, sinners at the outset. The events we recognize as sin are the natural results of this condition, not the other way around. We sin because we are sinners; we are not sinners because we sin.

"But, really, are you claiming that infants are not innocent? What could be more innocent than a baby??" Well, I make the claim based primarily on various statements in Scripture. But it's not just me. The Telegraph reports that behavioral experts have determined that children begin lying very early in life. Psychologists thought they couldn't do it before the age of 4, but new studies suggest they're lying as early as 6 months. "Dr Vasudevi Reddy, of the University of Portsmouth's psychology department, says she has identified seven categories of deception used between six months and three-years-old." That's science. Scripture says that humans are born spiritually dead and require a new birth in order to be spiritually alive. Scripture says that the best human righteousness is "filthy rags". And while this sounds outlandish on the surface, it becomes not so hard to see when we realize that the fundamental rule of living is "to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31) and "by faith" (Rom 14:23). In fact, in the absolute indictment against all humans of Romans 3:23, the claim is that "all have sinned" -- we got that -- and "fall short of the glory of God". Since this is the baseline rule and since James assures us that "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it" (James 2:10), who is it that has never failed to bring glory to God and, therefore, who is it that is genuinely innocent? Including babies.

It is true that babies do not have the knowledge that adults do to commit sins. I have seen, on the other hand, where extremely young children respond with guilt when caught doing something they knew they shouldn't before they were told they shouldn't. But experience is not the measure. Nor is ignorance. Sin in ignorance is still sin. The Bible indicates that humans are sinners from birth. If this is accurate, then there is no "innocent infant" in the absolute sense -- in God's standard of measure. And if this is the case, then it would not be an order in the text in question to kill innocent people, but an act of divine judgment on genuinely guilty people (of all ages) using God's chosen people as His tool to accomplish it. In fact, the question would not be "Why would God command the deaths of the Amalekites?" but "Why would God not command the deaths of each and every one of us?" The alternatives to that give us an evil god or a questionable Bible ... and the ramifications of questions to the sin nature, the failure of the New Testament to recognize that the Old Testament wasn't literal history, the error of Judaism and the Church to see this truth, the failure of the Holy Spirit to tell anyone until modern days -- oh, this goes on and on.

One other point. Regardless of whether or not infants are innocent, the history of the Amalekites versus Israel is long and singular. The only relationship was one of tension and attack. Amalek attacked them in the desert. They attacked them at the border to Canaan. They attacked them during the period of the Judges. It was an Amalekite who killed King Saul (2 Sam 1) and it was an Amalekite who planned the annihilation of all Jews. (In the book of Esther, Haman was an Amalekite.) The fact is that offspring of people that hated Israel continued to hate Israel. I would think that God might know that.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The New on the Old

It has been suggested by the latest "modern scholars" that the Church and the Jews before them have always been wrong for reading the Old Testament as if it was genuine history, a reliable record of accounts prior to Christ. It is epic, allegory, myth, legend, even fantasy, but certainly not real. At least, not as written. The fact that the Jews before and the Church since have always seen it that way is irrelevant. They were all wrong. Fortunately, we are much smarter now and we've figured it out.

Is that the case? Are we the beneficiaries of better scholarship that was denied all who went before us? Or are we the victims of a fraud perpetrated by enemies of God? I would like to look at the best interpreter of the Old Testament to answer that question -- the New Testament.

Early in the New Testament we begin to get references to the Old. Matthew references Isaiah (7:14) in the first chapter (1:23). But no one is talking about the prophets. What about those first 17 books, the books that appear to be historical in nature? Do New Testament references treat them as factual accounts or epic and allegory? Jesus in Matthew 4 quotes Scripture several times. It is Deut 8:3 that says, "Man shall not live by bread alone ..." He references Deut 6 when He warns Satan not to test God (4:7) and to only worship God (4:10). Apparently Jesus believed that the commands of Deuteronomy were valid commands rather than simply the opinions of a nomadic desert race trying to justify their actions. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to expand on the Old Testament laws rather than diminish them. Murder was a sin, sure, but anger against a brother was classified as murder. Adultery continued to be against God's law, but lusting after a woman was classified as adultery. God had told His people not to swear falsely in His Name (Lev 19:12), but Jesus warned to always speak with integrity rather than relying on oaths. Jesus made a practice of referencing the Pentateuch, treating it as not merely legendary, but genuine.

One prime example is the story of David and the shewbread. In 1 Sam 21, David went to Ahimelech the priest and asked for bread. The priest told him that there was nothing but consecrated bread. Jesus referred to this story in Matt 12 when He explained to the Pharisees that "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." No one then regarded it as a mere story. It was looked at as an actual event. Later in the same chapter Jesus used the 3 days that Jonah spent in the great fish as a parallel of the 3 days He would spend in the grave. He warns that the Queen of Sheba who came to hear Solomon's wisdom would rise up against that generation, a reference to 1 Kings 10. Over and over and over again, Jesus harkened back to the Old Testament as sources for truth, as references for reality, as examples of ongoing principles. Rather than explaining that that stuff wasn't really true, but just principles to live by, Jesus assured us that "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away" (Matt 24:35). Indeed, "not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law" (Matt 5:18)

But it wasn't just Jesus (like "just Jesus" is a small thing). The rest of the New Testament kept that theme. Peter assured his listeners that God had promised (mythical?) King David that his descendants would sit on the throne (Acts 2:30). Now, no matter how you read it, there are no practical "descendants" of a person who wasn't genuine. "Descendents" is as genuine, literal, down-to-earth as you can get. There are hundreds of references in the New Testament to Old Testament characters and events without the slightest hint of "epic" or "legend" or "myth" -- Adam, Abraham, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, David, and on and on.

Paul bases many of his principles on the Old Testament. "Death reigned from Adam until Moses," (Rom 5:14) he assured us. He refers to Adam as "the first man". In his controversial "I do not permit a woman to teach or usurp authority over a man" (1 Tim 2:12) section, Paul gives this rationale: "It was Adam who was first created, and then Eve" (1 Tim 2:13). Now, if the Creation story listed in Genesis is "epic", some sort of legend or lore written to expound on a reality that is not actually presented in the text, then Paul's argument isn't merely questionable, it's pointless. If there was no actual Adam who was the first man, created chronologically before Eve, then the entire argument is null and void and Paul needs to surrender his claim to writing Scripture.

One of the classic passages of the New Testament that references the Old is the marvelous Faith chapter. Hebrews 11 takes a quick walk through early history to demonstrate what faith looks like for the reader. In this "faith walk", such "fanciful" Old Testament characters as Abel, Enoch (who never died), Noah (Who believes in a flood? Apparently the author of Hebrews does.), Abraham, Sarah, and on it goes. One of the much maligned stories of the Old Testament is God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The author of Hebrews doesn't seem to think it's a difficult story at all. Abraham "considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead" (Heb 11:19), so what was the big deal? Jacob, Esau, Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho, the judges, prophets, and kings, these are not regarded as some distant stories about which we can't be certain. They are referred to as actual events and real people.

Well, maybe now we can begin to see why the Jews first and the Church that followed viewed the Old Testament not as merely "epic" literature, a fanciful representation of principle and exaggerated events, but as genuine historical narrative. It's because the Bible views it that way. Start to strip off this literal nature of the Old Testament and you start to strip off the underpinnings that built Christianity itself. Jesus, the Apostles, the authors of the New Testament, every writer and almost every book all quote from the Old Testament without a hint of viewing it as anything but genuine, historical fact. So, are we the beneficiaries of better scholarship that was denied all who went before us, or are we the victims of a fraud perpetrated by enemies of God? Based on the New Testament, I'd say we need to cry, "Fraud!"

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Whose Side Are You On?

In my latest installment on some of those difficult passages in the Old Testament, I talked about the Midianite affair. I said in that entry, "This passage, without a doubt, is not pleasant to our modern thinking. I don't like it either." I got to thinking about that. Of course it's not pleasant. But the real question is why I don't like it. The question arises, you see, because there are multiple passages where God orders the deaths of entire cities. So the question is if God ordered it and I don't like it, isn't that a problem? And, indeed, it is.

Why don't we like these passages? There is almost a universal response even among believers who see these portions written as the Jews and the Church have always seen them -- historical narratives. The response is a collective wince. "Oh, that doesn't sound right." We see it as cruel and mean and perhaps, at first glance, even evil. I suppose it's when we get to that last part that we pull ourselves short and say, "Wait, hold on ... this is God we're talking about." So either we decided "It doesn't really mean what it says" (by whatever means you wish to employ) or we argue like I have that it was right and just and correct. But we still have that collective wince or, as in my case, that "I don't like it either." Why?

I think I've figured out the problem. We're sinners; God is holy. We see people; we don't see God. We understand sinfulness; we do not grasp sinlessness. In other words, we far more readily identify with the sinners than with God. Consider, as an example, the difficulty of human justice. Biblically, the death penalty is a valid tool of justice. It was approved in Noah's day (Gen 9:6), perpetuated in Israel's laws (lots of references), and confirmed in Paul's day (Rom 13:4). Yet, we tend to stay the hand, so to speak. The Roman Catholic Church has said that they are essentially opposed to capital punishment. Why? Well, because we just don't like the idea of putting someone to death. Vengeance is a bad reason and, while justice is a good reason, we just don't like the idea of going that far. Most civilized people, again, have that collective wince at the idea. And that's because we can all think, as John Bradford said, "There but for the grace of God go I." Or, as the world tends to think, we all have the capacity to do the same.

The answer to the question, "Why do I no like these stories?", then, is problematic. The reason, at the bottom line, is that I am siding more with sinful Man than with a Holy God. The answer is that I think I am more merciful than God and have a clearer view of things than He does. The final answer is that sin, since I engage in it, just isn't that bad, really. We have not arrived at the point where we say with the psalmist, "O you who love the LORD, hate evil!" (Psa 97:10). We don't actually believe "The fear of the LORD is to hate evil" (Prov 8:13). You see, as God demonstrates, the proper response to sin is wrath. We want to make it not so bad. We are, at the bottom of this problem, on the wrong side. That is the real problem we need to face and deal with.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Correcting Jesus

We've come a long way from the 1st century. We've figured out quite a bit, not just scientifically, but culturally, socially, and all that. Today, in our enlightened existence, I think that we (and I mean a lot of us, not just "the left" or "the liberals" or the like) might be tempted to correct people we see who lived in that time from our own perspectives. Take, for instance, Peter in the Book of Acts. Peter's first sermon (Acts 2) was, well, not too bright. He wasn't sensitive. He wasn't seeker sensitive. He wasn't careful of not offending his listeners. He didn't do it right. I mean, really, Peter, what makes you think "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know -- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:22-23) was the kind of approach that would win converts? Come on!

Or look at Stephen's sermon in Acts 7. Seriously, man, did you even think about what you were saying? You know that if you're on trial for your life and you want to get the Gospel across to a gang of unbelievers who are trying you, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it" (Acts 7:51-53) is not the way to get it done. Wise up, Stephen. I mean, you see the outcome, right? They stoned you to death. If you had only been more sensitive, more aware, more tactful, you might have had a better outcome.

The worst, however, is our tendency to want to correct the One that cannot be corrected. That would be Jesus Himself. Oh, no, we may not actually say it, but we surely think it. Or maybe, most likely, we "censor" Jesus in our own minds. Here, test yourself. Is your view of Jesus "meek and mild", perhaps a "laughing Jesus", a quiet, soft-spoken guy? Is He the compassionate one who never said a harsh word? Well, then, I suggest that you are correcting Jesus, because that's not the biblical image. Consider the following.

Jesus wasn't some "nice guy" when He instructed His disciples on their traveling mission:
Whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. The one who hears you hears Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me" (Luke 10:10-16).
Oh, my, that's pretty harsh language. Even more so when you understand that the biblical "woe" isn't our standard "woe is me", but a curse pronounced against a sinful person or group. I mean, seriously, how is a Jew of His day supposed to take it when He says "it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom"? That can't be considered "warm" or "sensitive". It is certainly not "inclusive". Wasn't Jesus supposed to be the lover of all sinners? What's all this?

His diatribe in Matthew 23 is much worse. At least seven times He describes the local religious rulers as "hypocrites". He has "friendly" (not very) descriptions like "white-washed tombs", "vipers", and "blind fools". He accuses them of making converts and then "you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." Oh, it's big, and its an entire chapter. Seriously, Jesus, describing them as "a child of hell"? That's not friendly at all. It doesn't coincide with our "nice guy" image of Jesus. The image of Christ in the Temple with whip in hand doesn't really fit well with the soft-spoken, laughing Jesus we like so well. His repeated references to people who will "be thrown into the fire" (Matt 7:19; 13:40; 18:8-9; 25:41; John 15:6) don't come across as humble or kind. Jesus, in fact, has the most definitive descriptions of eternal judgment in terms of "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched".

Jesus certainly embodied perfection. He did precisely what the Father told Him to do all the time. We'd like to think that a kinder, gentler Jesus is the right one because, well, we really like that image. And we'd like to correct anyone who thinks otherwise. The problem, of course, is that the Bible does not depict Jesus solely as that nice guy, but also as a tough-talking, hard-hitting Savior who confronted sin when He saw it and pulled no punches, so to speak. When we try, then, to depict Him otherwise, we are actually trying to correct Jesus. I don't know about you, but I'm certainly not comfortable doing that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Midianite Assault

One of the most troublesome passages of Scripture can be Numbers 31. It is a popular one for skeptics to flag as proof that the Bible is false (at best). It is a popular for so-called Christians to point to as proof that we can't take the Bible as written. Even the genuine Christian who is trying to make sense of the Bible will find that this one can be tough.

The first problem is the text. Taking the text out of context is a real problem (and that's usually how you're going to get it):
"Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day. And you shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats' hair, and all articles of wood" (Num 31:15-20)
See? That's pretty tough. So let's take a look at it. First question: Who is speaking? If you guessed that it is God, you'd be normal ... but wrong. It's Moses. Second question: What exactly is Moses telling them to do ... and why? That is the real question.

Note, first that this text follows Num 25. In that passage, Midian and Moab launched a massive campaign to destroy Israel. Balaam had been called in to curse Israel but couldn't. But before he left, he told Midian how they could get Israel's God to destroy them. The attack wasn't by army, but by sex. Based on the fact that 24,000 Israelites died in Numbers 25, the sex attack must have been massive. Tens of thousands of Midianite women were involved with their husbands' and fathers' and government's full knowledge.

Note that the first to pay for this sin was Israel (24,000 dead).

Only 12,000 Israelites went to war (Num 31:5). That fact combined with the Midian nomadic culture of the day and the fact that Midian came back later to cause more problems for Israel says that this was not genocide. It was a small portion of Midian that was attacked. Note, also, that the one(s) who commits a crime is responsible for the crime. Taking away someone's freedom may seem bad, for instance, but a judge who sends a thief to prison isn't guilty of anything bad; that's the responsibility of the thief.

Note that this fight was not to gain sex slaves. Moses was angry that they spared the women (Num 31:15). Justice was in mind, not conquest.

The women that were not killed in the battle were ordered put to death because of their involvement in the Midianite plot. Girls not involved in the plot were spared.

We consider it evil that the male children were killed, and that's tough for anyone to defend. However, keep in mind that in a blood-succession based civilization like Midian's, the living males represented a threat. (See, for instance 1 Sam 29. David served slave the Philistines, but the Philistines recognized that he could turn on them.)

Please, please, please, when you get this accusation against the Bible and against God, be sure to notice this. There is no reference in the text to rape. When it says to keep them "for yourselves", this is not a reference to sexual slavery, but used in distinction to statements regarding things "for the Lord". Since females wed as soon as they were able to bear children and these girls were virgins, it is most likely that these girls were under the age of 12. They were absorbed into Israel's care as household servants, not sex slaves.

This passage, without a doubt, is not pleasant to our modern thinking. I don't like it either. However, keep in mind that there is no command to rape. The intent of this battle was not conquest or loot or acquiring sex slaves, but divine justice. There are no innocents. The fact that they saved so many speaks of a greater mercy than might have been expected. Assuming that rape took place requires an assumption, an a priori belief that God is bad or Scripture is unreliable (in the final analysis) or both. Nor did the command regarding women and children come from God. Don't make the mistake of seeing this as either a false representation or normative. The suggestion that "God commands killing the men and saving the women for sex slaves" is a lie, and, again, we know who the father of lies is.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 Years Later

I still remember that morning 10 years ago. I got in my car to go to work, turned on the news, and heard ... that airplanes were running into buildings???!!! No, that can't be right. I pulled into the nearest gas station and went inside. "Hey," I said, "I'm hearing weird stuff on my radio. Are you hearing the same stuff?" He nodded gravely. When I got to work, the TV in the breakroom was on and there it was in all its horror. The company for which I worked in California had an office in one of the World Trade Center buildings, so our group was particularly keen on watching what happened. (Everyone from our company got out okay.)

The week went on from that awful Tuesday morning. Non-stop news of death and destruction. It was mind-numbing. I remember, then, on the Sunday following as I got ready for church that I suddenly didn't want to go. I'd heard 5 solid days of nothing but this stuff, and I was pretty sure the pastor would follow up with more of that stuff. I'd heard enough, thanks. And then I remembered that he had been preaching on Ephesians 1 and the next verse in his sequence was verse 11 and my heart sang. That was something I wanted to hear.

Well, the pastor missed his cue, I'm sorry to say. He glanced right over the topic and the verse and kept going. There was no passage more delightful to my ears at that time in history, but he missed it and I was disappointed. So today, the 10th anniversary of that nightmare day, in remembrance of it all, I want to be sure to point out the good news that the pastor back then seemed to miss.
In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of [God] who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory (Eph 1:11-12).
There it is, in all its wonder. Oh, you didn't miss it, too, did you? Look at what Paul says. He says that God "works all things according to the counsel of His will." Imagine that! He worked the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 according to His will. He worked Hurricane Katrina according to His will. He worked the tsunamis in both Indonesia and Japan according to His will. Every natural event on the planet falls under the category of "all things", so the Lord God worked them all. But the events of 9/11 weren't natural events. They were the product of evil men acting on evil intent to produce an evil outcome. So I ask you, do the events that people cause fall under the category "all things"? I think they have to (or it's a much smaller category than it seems). That means that God intended "according to the counsel of His will" to allow those evil men to produce their evil outcome for His good purposes.

Back in Genesis some other evil men intended to snuff out the life of their hated brother. They didn't, but they sold him instead into slavery. Through a series of events, this hated brother ended up the second in command in Egypt, saving the lives of his brothers and the rest of his family. Fearing their brother's revenge, these evil men urged him to forgive them. You remember what he told them, don't you? "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Gen 50:20). In the final analysis of the events of 9/11, we can say precisely the same thing. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. It certainly resulted in a lot of evil. Yet, faith is premised not on sight, but on what cannot be seen. We can, then, based on the character of God, His goodness, and His sovereignty, be absolutely sure that, even if we can't enumerate all the good, the events that we recall 10 years ago were allowed by God for His good purposes and He has and will accomplish the good He intends. Let me tell you, when I have that kind of certainty, the horrors that we face in this world pale in comparison to His goodness and His sovereignty.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Christian Divorce

To me, divorce is a big issue. I've written before that I don't think it is possible to find a valid reason for divorce in Scripture. I am, without a doubt, thoroughly and completely opposed to it. God said He hated it. Jesus said, "From the beginning it was not so." The only reason it is allowed at all is "because of the hardness of your hearts". It's really pretty clear that the Bible is solidly opposed to divorce.

In that essay of a couple years ago, I stated as clearly as I could that I did not consider divorce and remarriage the "unpardonable sin". (That idea in itself created a 2-month argument.) Indeed, I cannot say with absolute certainty that all remarriage in the case of divorce is sin.

"Now, wait a minute, Stan. Aren't you talking out of two sides of your mouth? You say there is no valid reason for divorce, and yet you say that maybe there is a valid situation that would allow remarriage? Make up your mind!"

I've made the case before against divorce. However, I would like to point out that in our society today (and in all societies before) sometimes divorce happens. What I mean is that sometimes a person gets divorced. They didn't intend it. They didn't want it. They may have fought against it. They were opposed to it. And, yet, they find themselves divorced. He didn't divorce her or she didn't divorce him, but he or she finds him/herself outside a marriage. So, does that equate to "permission to remarry"? I'm hesitant.

In the well-known 1 Cor. 7 case, Paul writes about a believer married to an unbeliever. He concludes, "If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not bound" (1 Cor 7:15). Not bound. Not tied up. It's not the end. What is it? Paul goes on to say, "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned" (1 Cor 7:27-28). Now, see? Here we have an exception. Assuming the connection between verse 15 ("not bound") and this text, we see a person who finds himself "free from a wife". That is, he was married (you can't be "free from a wife" if you never had one), but is not now. Paul's recommendation? "Do not seek a wife." Fine. But he goes on to say that for such a person to marry would not be a sin. So, I have real difficulty suggesting that all remarriage after divorce would be classified as sin ... you know ... since Paul says it's not.

There is one other catch in my "solid stand" on divorce and my mostly solid stand against remarriage. As it turns out, I can find a clear case of one very godly person who divorced and remarried in Scripture. Who might that be? Well, it was the godliest person there is, because it was God Himself. In Jeremiah 3:8, God says that He divorced Israel and would divorce Judah. The reason was "whoredom" which was His way of saying "idolatry". We also know, however, that we will be "the Bride of Christ". So God (the Father) divorced Israel and God (the Son) will marry the Church.

I don't know of too many Christians these days that take a really serious view of divorce. It's bad ... unless the other one cheats ... or the other one leaves ... or the other one is mean ... or the other one makes you unhappy ... well, not a lot of rules at all, it seems. We've moved from Christ's stand -- "What God has joined together let no man separate" -- to a more popular principle -- "If it feels good, do it." Most Christians I know fall on that continuum someplace. Me? I'd never get started. I would never suggest to anyone (myself included) that divorce was a good option ... ever. Divorce happens. It's possible to be divorce without divorcing someone. It's even possible that there might be an "innocent party" in a divorce. As such I can see possibilities that not everyone who is divorced committed sin and not all remarriage is banned. But we've come way too close to mimicking the world in our perceptions on the subject and no Christian should be comfortable with that position.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Jobs Plan

Well, now we have it, the President's $450 billion plan to bolster the slumping jobs market. He urged Congress to "stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy." And, he assured us, the American Jobs Act "will be fully paid for."

Onlookers are skeptical. Like the President, they are sure that the GOP will play its hyper-partisan politics and put on another "political circus". Why? Well, obviously because Republicans are opposed to anything that the reasonable, caring, compromising Democrats might suggest. Politics.

We've heard a lot about the "race card", that nasty little trump card that gets pulled out of the deck whenever someone wants to win an argument if there is the least possibility of the remotest connection of the hint of racism. The President, for instance, was opposed because he was black. The race card. I'm so very tired of the race card. But I'm equally tired of the politics card. If Republican A is opposed to Democrat B's plan, it can only be politics. Tea Party members of Congress are not out to push an agenda; they're out to block anything the Democrats might do. The politics card.

One commentator said, "This is not the time to stand on ideology. This is the time to get things done." Right. Let's see if I understand that. "This is not the time to approach our national problems from a principled basis. It's the time to do whatever the President asks. Failure to comply is simply playing 'circus', being 'hyper-partisan', trying to stand for something. Stop it!" It appears that the only possible course of action that is not "political circus" is "whatever the Democrats say to do". Anything else is partisan politics. Anything else in this climate is incompetence, pig-headedness, approaching treasonous behavior.

I'm tired of the race card. I'm tired of the politics card. One other thing I'm tired of, and this isn't pointed at "them". I'm tired of the number of people that seem to think that the President of the United States can create (or eliminate) jobs. I'm tired of the monolithic "White House Administration" (where "White House" is replaced with the name of whoever is in office) that seems to wield god-like powers to create wealth, increase or decrease taxes, elevate or depress the economy, pass laws good or bad, and generally create or eliminate the general welfare. Let me clue you in. It ain't necessarily so. Ours is a government of checks and balances that prevent one branch from having too much power. The President can only do so much. Congress can only do so much. And the combined efforts of 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators along with the President of the United States and the additional effects and influences of the Supreme Court are almost necessarily going to be clumsy, slow-moving, divided by principle, ideology, personality, and, yes, even politics. Really, what do you actually expect of a president and the Congress? Could it be that your expectations are a bit too high?

Sure, sure, a president and the rest of our government, whether local, state, or federal, will certainly have effects on our lives, our jobs, our pocketbooks. They can do things that might encourage jobs and they can do things that might discourage them. They can minimize or maximize their squabbling. They can act purely pragmatically and do whatever feels good to them at the moment or they can act on principle and take stands for what they deem to be right. They can choose to boost your taxes or cut them, although economists are not agreed on the results of either on the national outcome. But, listen, people. Ours is a government of the people, meaning that we need to be responsible. We need to be responsible for who we support, vote for, or vote against. We need to avoid silly concepts like "partisan politics" as if that's all there is as well as the foolish idea that the President can solve our problems, whether he (or she) is a Republican or Democrat. If that's where your faith is, folks, I have bad news for you.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Reliable Bible

In the discussions of late regarding biblical slavery and such, one of the key problems from my perspective has always been that the standard objection to these texts would either make God a monster or make Scripture unreliable. And, of course, those who would like to keep these texts in question as meaning such horrendous stuff as the protesters would have them mean tell me this just isn't the case.

Some would argue that these texts aren't to be taken at face value. They were the product of their times, not to be understood as literal. They were legend, myth, lore. I mean, no intelligent person would actually believe that there was an historical Adam. Surely no one would believe there was a literal Flood or some real Noah person who built an ark. There was no "crossing of the Red Sea", no "Mount Sinai", no God-given law. It's all made up to express what they believed. The Romans had their gods and the Greeks had their gods and the Iroquois believed the world was on the back of a giant turtle and Israel believed that they conquered at God's command -- myths created to justify their existence. This, of course, would come from the rank skeptic.

The more sophisticated skeptic would want to retain something "biblical" and would want to believe that the Bible is "inspired", even if that does not mean that it was actually "God-breathed" as per the traditional, historic view. This approach would then say that this text is an accurate reflection of their beliefs at the time and, as such, "reliable", but certainly not a factual representation of God's words or His character. We know this because God would never do the things in question, right? So in this version, the writers reflected the viewpoint of the day, but did not accurately reflect God. The argument then goes that as long as you understand that, you still have a reliable Bible.

There are a couple of major problems here. First, if the claim is that they did not accurately reflect God and His words, then you are at the point where you have to determine what is accurate and what is not. That is, if the presentation of facts as given in the texts are not, indeed, facts, then they are not a factual representation of historical events. The suggestion, in fact, is that first 17 books of the Bible (at least) are not historical literature accurately reflecting what happened, but a sad attempt by mistaken men who inaccurately represented their own history. You can call that "reliable" all you want, but it isn't in any genuine sense of the word.

A second major problem is a biblical one. In the Bible, a "prophet" was not merely a "foreteller". He wasn't just one who told the future. A biblical prophet was a "forthteller". He was the one who said, "Thus saith the Lord" and expounded on what God said. Sometimes it was future events. Sometimes it was not. Moses was, prior to Christ, the highest prophet they had. He was a prophet when he predicted their release and he was a prophet when he brought the Law from God. Both were functions of the office of prophet. Now, biblically, there was a test for prophet. Anyone who wished to do so could claim to speak for God. However, the test was that their words had to be true. If it turned out that they were not, this prophet was a false prophet and would be put to death. (The death penalty for misrepresenting the words of God was a serious penalty.) So, if you look at the texts in question of late, you'll find that they all are presented as God speaking. They are all written from the perspective of "Thus saith the Lord." They are, therefore, all written from the prophetic perspective. So, if, as the skeptic of any stripe claims, the texts in questions are not an accurate representation of what God actually said, we are not dealing simply with the culture of the day or a faulty perspective of a writer. We are dealing with false prophets. To claim in any sense that a Bible written by so many false prophets is reliable would be nonsensical.

The bottom line problem, however, is that these texts always been understood to be historical narratives. The Jews took them that way. Historic Judaism has taken them that way. The New Testament takes them that way. Jesus took them that way. The Church has taken them that way. It is only the skeptics and "modern scholars" (who, as it turns out, are ultimately skeptics) who have decided that they know better than ... well ... Christ. Now that is a problem.

I know that the Bible is under assault today. I know that it has always been under assault. It was the first assault. "Did God say ...?" And it will continue to be. True believers have always held the Bible in high regard as the Word of God. As such any faulty, "culturally-based-and-mistaken", "not-to-be-believed-as-genuine-history", "not-to-be-taken-as-it-appears" Bible cannot be understood as reliable in the final analysis. Claiming "The Bible shouldn't be understood in any sort of literal fashion, but is certainly reliable" doesn't make it so. If the accounts of Scripture are not an accurate representation of God's words (that is, some Scriptures actually present God's spoken words), they are not merely unreliable, but to be rejected as the product of false prophets, and that eliminates the possibility of a source document for Christianity and any grounds on which to disagree. Further, it eliminates the Jewish heritage, the New Testament confirmation, and any sense of a reliable Church (and its inherent functioning of the Holy Spirit to leading His own to truth). That is not a safe place to stand.