December 17, 2009

Do We Know What Jesus Knew?

The Internet Monk posted an interesting list of questions about Jesus' knowledge. And it's followed by about thirty pages of comments about what the answers mean to our understanding of the God/man incarnation.

Some of my favorites:
3. Did Jesus miss any questions on the test? Did he have to study?
4. Did Jesus use tools to measure in his carpentry work? Or did he just know what to do?
8. Were Jesus questions real questions? Or were they all rhetorical?
9. If Jesus did not have exhaustive divine knowledge as a human being, does this impact our view of him as God incarnate?
Or, in the words of Relient K's lovely Christmas tune, I Celebrate the Day:
And the first time that you opened your eyes
Did you realize that you would be my savior?
And the first breath that left your lips
Did you know that it would change this world forever
Yet another example where language, story, and theology collide, hinting that the certainty of our formulations might just be more easily said than realized. It is one thing to affirm, in the words of the Athanasian Creed, that Jesus was "fully God, fully man," but what does this mean, practically speaking? That he always won games of chance? That the other kids as he was growing up stopped including him in riddles and jokes because he already knew the punchlines? Or that there is something about the nature of Jesus' omniscience that we haven't fully comprehended?
The faith of the Christian rests on the clear statements of Scripture alone even when we are not able to rationalize them.
The "clear statements," as opposed to the not-so-clear statements that the Bible also contains. There are some things that we just don't know—even if we read the Bible. We can speculate, opine, and argue, but we really don't know, at least in a way that we can articulate with words. As A.W. Tozer said, "Truth lies deeper than the theological statement of it" (That Incredible Christian). And that's OK, for we are known, and loved. And I'll take that over my own knowing any day.

December 8, 2009

Explaining Our Differences

[Salvation #5]

Now, we could conclude from the church's differences on salvation that we really don't know what it is, or really don't get it, or really don't have it, even. And that, therefore, we really don't have any basis for communion, for community, or for witness. We could conclude that perhaps we really aren't Christ's body. Or that most of us aren't part of it, anyway. We could conclude that salvation is unknowable, or even fictional.

Another, less-troubling explanation for why we have different definitions of salvation is that we have allowed our focus to drift from knowing or experiencing salvation to defining salvation, to reducing something amazing and miraculous into words of a particular language. Perhaps we do understand what salvation is, but just have trouble explaining it—in words, at least. Which isn't the only way to explain something, to be fair. Some words have very broad definitions; other defy easy pigeonholing. We might have similar difficulties when defining other words, such as hero, art, America, or beauty. We might have similar difficulty explaining in words how much we love someone.

Language is a very tricky thing. Some languages are much better at expressing certain kinds of ideas. Some languages make certain tasks much harder to accomplish, like explaining whether an event is past, present, or future, for example. Some languages cause more airplane crashes. Different languages perhaps can even create different types of thought and can shape different views of reality. If God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts, can we really expect that each of our human languages fully expresses God's thoughts, or that our words can fully define the wonders of salvation?

God's gift to us was not a dictionary. Therefore, we've written most theological definitions by ourselves. And some of these come from attempts to harmonize numerous verses of Scripture, written by numerous authors, over the course of more than a millennium, in three languages, in various genres from poetry to history to apocalyptic literature, and often with cultural, historical, and literary context that has been lost to most of us over the last 3,000 years. Is it any wonder that we might inadvertently add at least a little of our own interpretation to the original meaning in the Bible when we construct our clever definitions, when we create what the Bible itself has failed to give us?

And interpretation is a problem.

Next stop: Why didn't God give us a dictionary?

December 4, 2009

Behold the Lamb of God

If you haven't heard Andrew Peterson and friends perform Behold the Lamb of God, then you're missing a Christmasy musical treat. Buy It Now! And join me in looking forward to one of their ensemble concerts if you ever get the chance.

Here is AP's telling of the tale of its writing. And here's my favorite part:
I was compelled to tell Jesus’ story with the gifts he gave me–the biggest of those not being my songwriting at all but the community of the Kingdom itself. And telling that story hundreds of times has changed me. I love the Gospel more for it. If you’ve been to one of these concerts you know I can hardly make it through a night without a lump forming in my throat (something that makes my voice go terribly flat). It usually happens when I look out in the audience and see someone with tears on their cheeks, and I realize that, by God, that dream I had ten years ago has come true: the story connects. The Spirit moves. The apostle says in John 20:31, “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” However the songs were written, I remember well the reason for the writing, and that was so that men, women, and children would believe that the stories are true, and that by believing they would find life in Jesus’ name.

December 3, 2009

Harmonize Or Read Mystically?

David Opderbeck's comment about 3rd century Origen and how to read the apparent discrepancies in the gospels is well put:
We can see how great pre-modern Christian thinkers wrestled with concerns that continue to confront us in Biblical studies today, and we can see that what are sometimes criticized as post-modern approaches in fact are rooted deeply in the Tradition.
Check out the full quote by Origen, which includes the phrase, "anagogically, (by mystical interpretation)," at Euangelion. Tasty!

September 22, 2009

Jesus, Satan, and Bible Kryptonite

"Jesus defeated the devil with the Word of God." This commonly heard saying refers to Jesus' temptation by Satan in the parallel passages of Luke 4 and Matthew 4. Is this adage correct, however, and what is usually meant by those who say it? Using the terminology of the OIA method, we can analyze this statement and note the range of interpretations (I) and applications (A) that are assumed or implied by it:

The devil was defeated (I)
Scripture (not Jesus?) defeated the devil (I)
3. The devil would have / might have been victorious if Jesus hadn't quoted the Scripture (I)
4. The devil did not decide to leave, or choose to leave, or agree to leave Jesus, but was powerless to resist the Bible quotations (I)

And therefore:

1. We can use scriptures to defeat the devil, just as Jesus did (A)
2. Scripture should be our primary weapon against the devil (A)
or perhaps
3. Scripture is our only weapon against the devil (A) 

Backing up however, we should also note some facts or observations (O) about this story:

1. Jesus quoted some Bible verses to the devil (O)
2. The devil "left him" (Matthew 4:11, Luke 4:13) (O)

The devil left him. The question is whether it was because of the Scripture quoting. This is a possible case of the Correlation / Causation error.

Two nearby events can but don't always mean that one caused the other.

If we were to spend more time in the Observation stage of our reading, and if we held back the urge to jump to the "obvious" conclusions, then we should also notice the following:

3. The devil did not immediately disappear after hearing the first scripture (O)
4. The devil did not eventually leave after the first instance of Jesus quoting the Scripture, either (O)
5. The devil still hadn't been driven off after the second scripture (O)
6. The devil himself knew and quoted the Scripture (O)
7. The devil quoted the Scripture, seemingly without harming himself (O)
8. Jesus (in Matthew's account) eventually added some other words to a third scripture (O)
9. Those words were "Away from me, Satan," by the way (O)
10. After the third Scripture quote, and (in Matthew) the command to leave, the devil left (O)
11. In Luke's gospel, the devil left—not "driven off by the scriptures," but when he "had finished all this tempting" (O)
12. In both accounts, the verb used is translated as "left" or "departed," rather than "fled" or "retreated."

So, when we try to interpret and apply this story, we have several questions to ponder. If scriptures have the power to drive away the devil, why did it take three tries? Wasn't the Scripture powerful enough? Wasn't Jesus powerful enough? Wasn't scripture in the mouth of Jesus powerful enough? And what does this mean for us?

Now, is the Bible important? And relevant when facing temptation? I believe so, from experience, and from Jesus' example. But is the Bible the devil's Kryptonite? I don't think the two versions of our gospel story support such a conclusion, and I'm wary of creating a doctrine out of a single episode in the Bible. Especially a doctrine that trivializes the Scriptures by reducing them to magical incantations and charms to ward off Satan or his minions. "The devil is a better theologian than any of us," A.W. Tozer cautions, "and is a devil still." He already knows the Bible—and in the original languages, I'll wager.

Could Jesus have defeated the devil without the Scripture? I would hope so. Are we powerless without Bible verses? Is that the source of all power we have? I would hope not. How about you?

September 21, 2009

The OIA Method of Studying the Bible

There are many ways to study the Scriptures. Supposedly, Watchman Nee used "twenty different methods," though I haven't seen a list.

A simple but helpful technique that any of us can use has been called the OIA Method: Observe, Interpret, Apply. Studying the Bible this way is also referred to as "inductive," study because the goal is to read more like a detective, drawing careful conclusions from the particulars of a specific text, rather than making vague claims based on a mishmash of memories of various passages or simply rehearsing prior knowledge or opinion about the text at hand.

Step 1 (Observe): Observe what the passage appears to say to its original audience.
Step 2 (Interpret): Interpret your observations. What do they seem to mean or imply in the context?
Step 3 (Apply): Apply the interpretations to your own life or to the modern day.

One strength of OIA for believers or others more familiar with the Bible's common interpretations is that we are more likely to strip away some of the baggage of prior interpretation that so easily entangles, and to better hear what the scriptures are saying. When successful, we are freed from some of the filtering lenses that we all have received from our own cultures, families, and church traditions, and which color, alter, and delete what our senses take in.

A second strength of this method is that it helps us read a text more like a newcomer to the passage or to the faith would, to find common ground for discussion of scripture with those who are curious, and to see the obstacles to understanding that a particular passage presents.

Much could be said about the details of the OIA method, but here are a handful of keys that I have benefitted from in my own study of the Bible.

Keys to Observation:

  1. Temporarily set aside previous understanding of the passage. Try to read with "fresh eyes."
  2. Make a list of everything you notice. Don't evaluate or filter your observations yet.
  3. Include what the passage does not say, in contrast to what it does say.
  4. Be patient. Don't jump to the "what this means" step.
  5. Record your questions. Questions don't mean failure. Far from it, when approaching an ancient text from another culture. They might just mean that you're now actually paying attention, finally able to see something that you never saw before.
  6. Note what surprises you, or what you expected to find.
Keys to Interpretation:
  1. Fight the urge to trot out a familiar interpretation. Ask whether the observations actually lead you to such a conclusion.
  2. Be willing to wait for more evidence. Don't panic, thinking that you must know the meaning, or thinking that a real believer or a smarter reader would surely be able to figure everything out immediately.
  3. Ponder what your observations might have meant to the original audience in the original time, language, and culture. Obviously, this is difficult to know with certainty, but think about it. And consider becoming more educated on this critical topic.
  4. Ask why these facts were included in the passage and others weren't.
  5. Keep your focus tight. Don't jump around among other passages that you think might be related, or that you have always heard discussed alongside this one. Be particularly careful of parallel passages in the gospels. Your immediate goal should be to understand what the author was driving at, not just to create harmonized timelines or similar distractions.
  6. Be willing to entertain interpretations that are novel, problematic, or even "heretical." These will energize your quest for better understanding.
Keys to Application:
  1. Realize that application doesn't have to be universal. "What does the passage mean to me?" is a valid question.
  2. Look for similarities between the characters in the passage and yourself.
  3. Ask how you are similar to the original audience and how you are different from them.
  4. Question the assumption of superiority for your modern context. Maybe this ancient text should speak to your life, too.
  5. Decide what points are still not clear to you, and move on to the next section of the book. Extended context often sheds more light.
  6. Pray for understanding, wisdom, and patience. Before, as, and after you read.
Frankly, much of this list applies to critical reading of any text and to reaping personal profit from reading—to being changed by it. And really, isn't that the point of worthwhile reading?

September 5, 2009

Those Who Oppose Our Message

[Salvation #4]

So, we're confronted with the possibility that we're blundering through life without a clear understanding of the gospel. And the apparent fact that we, "the saved," disagree on almost every aspect of what salvation is and what one has to do to be saved. We nod our heads and say the lost must be born again, but we have very different ideas about what that phrase means, how it works, or what it has to look like.

No surprise that this causes some heavy-duty cognitive dissonance—when many of us grew up with the gospel neatly packaged and delivered to us with a fistful of cliches about how simple the gospel is. But the bigger problem with our disagreement may be what it tempts us to believe about or do to those who disagree with us, though they are our brothers and sisters, our family, the church.

Let us be clear: disagreement coming from those in our own faith community, from those we thought we didn't have to persuade or defend against, can be very threatening. Especially when our criterion for being in community turns out to be the very point of controversy. If I can't convince you, might that mean my claims are weak? If you don't agree with me, might I be wrong? And if those in the church don't agree, why would we expect anyone else to believe our message?

Confused or threatened by our differences, our first instinct is often to question. Weren't we on the same side? Aren't we children of the same heavenly Father? Our hurt and puzzlement are understandable, perhaps. Disagreement, difference even, is the opposite of what causes community in the first place. Especially, as in the case of the church, when our solidarity is defined in stark absolutes: heaven and hell, the lost and the found, the redeemed and the damned. Especially when the stakes are life and death, and the consequences eternal.

The speed with which we move from confusion to suspicion, however, is much more problematic. If we disagree, his faith must be weak, we reason. If we differ, she must not take the Bible as seriously as the rest of us. We bolster our own rightness at the expense of the other. Our fear of being wrong and our need to justify at all costs are sad but all too predictable. I in the middle, again. The sin thing. Rather than preferring the other, always trusting and always believing the best, we entertain doubts about motives, allegiance, or even spiritual maturity. They probably aren't even saved. That would explain everything. Such ultimate accusations reveal how far we will go to justify our own position; how readily we will sell our own kin down the river to discredit their views and vouchsafe our own beliefs; how willing we are even to sacrifice relationships, rather than give up what we hold dearer than love and loyalty.

Difference leads to disappointment, suspicion, and, perhaps, eventual betrayal on our part. Which—far from apologizing for—we defend as our right. As though we founded the club and wrote its membership rules. How great our disappointment in those who should have seen the reasonableness of our wisdom. How great the offense of those who, if they were really saved, should have known better. As though, even worse than letting us down, they have actually sinned against us by not agreeing with all of our cherished convictions, our self-defining opinions, and our precious, precious preferences.

August 6, 2009

Faithful Questioning

Some humorous and some meaty quotes on asking questions and Christian scholarship, from James K.A. Smith in his interview at the often-excellent Through a Glass Darkly blog:

  • The tipping point was a sermon I preached entitled "Trivial Pursuits: Or, Things That Bother Us that Don’t Bother Jesus."
  • I also have some letters in my files from my former Bible college professors in which they describe me as a "student of Judas Iscariot."
  • I guess I would be hesitant to set up these two different worlds–the "questioning" world of Christian scholarship and the "confessing" world of the church. I think there’s inseparable intermingling here. Or let me put it this way: every question is its own kind of confession. Even our questions are articulated from somewhere, on the basis of something–however tenuous. And some of our best confessions are questions: Why, O Lord? How long, O Lord? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? As I think about it, the confessions are not boundaries that mark the limits of questioning; rather, the creeds and confessions are the guardrails that enable us to lean out and over the precipice, asking the hard questions.
  • Our churches often are not comfortable with fostering an ethos of curiosity and questioning, even though God is not at all frightened by such things. Again, I think it’s important for Christian scholars to model what faithful questioning looks like.
I'm no scholar, but I think that advice applies to the rest of us, too.

August 5, 2009

How Necessary Is the Bible?

There has never been a time in history at which we have all had the same Bible.

Ponder that one for a moment.

Setting aside that fact, consider that millions of believers both throughout history and today have lacked some or all of what Christians now call the Bible. The "New Testament church" did. The masses before the printing press (c. 1440). Much of the underground church still does. Many who have been imprisoned. Many who are poor, or blind, or infirm. Those who are illiterate. Those without a Bible in their own language (200 million people, at present). Those without a written language, even.

If the emphasis (or even overemphasis) placed on the written scriptures by some parts of the modern Christian church is correct, and if the near-legalistic expectation of "personal" Bible studyeven if only for a trivial number of minutes or verses per dayis correct, then several questions come to mind regarding those who go and have gone without, those already in the prophesied "famine of the Word," as some might call it: What is their Christian life focused on? How are they to truly know God or hear his voice? And if faith comes by hearing, and hearing (by?) the word of God, then on what basis can they come to faith in the first place? Are they inevitably stunted in their spiritual growth, compared to those who have the complete Bible? Weaker brothers and sisters, to be pitied, perhaps?

It seems that we should conclude thusly.

And if we insist that any challenge a specific passage of scripture presents can be made sense of by "the whole Bible," and that the whole Bible is required for proper understanding of (any of? much of?) its contents, then what must we conclude about those without the whole Bible, now and throughout history? And those without any Bible? That these unfortunates are doomed to misinterpretation and misunderstanding on "all matters of faith and practice"? Even on essentials, such as ... the Trinity; the relationship between sin, faith, grace, and works; or the nature of their own relationship to God?

It seems that we should conclude thusly.

And what if our own favorite translation of the Bible contains mistakes? Or if, someday, we were to find the autographs (the original books of the Bible), written in the very hands of the original authors and/or scribesdepending on your view of how the Bible was writtenand different from any of the manuscript witnesses (the later copies of the books), from which all of our various and varied translations have been made? Should we conclude that we have not hadhave never hadthe true "Word of God"? That nobody has ever had the correct Bible?

It seems that we should conclude thusly. That we the privileged, despite our feast of Bibles and Bible study tools, have actually been in a similar position to those who lived before the closing of the canon, or those behind the Iron Curtain, or those with no Bible in their own language. That we didn't have every answer at our fingertips. That we didn't have every last word. We should conclude that some of our opinions may have been misguided, some of our emphases misplaced. We should conclude that some of our knowledge, our certainty was actually error, or naivety. Or perhaps even arrogance.

And what would this mean about Godif he has allowed all of us to wander in such imperfect light?

Or what would it mean about the Bibleif a perfect, loving, and holy God has not thought it necessary to provide one complete, uniform, and error-free Bible for all of us and for all of this time?

Despair not, gentle reader! More on this topic later.

July 17, 2009

What If We Are Wrong?

[Salvation #3]

What does it mean that our agreement on salvation appears to fall apart once we move from terms to definitions? Some of the implications are unsettling, at best:

1. That we—collectively, as the church—don't understand what the gospel is, apparently. Or particularly well, at least. Or well enough to explain it. Without contradicting or vexing other brothers and sisters who have spent just as much effort, study, and prayer to understand salvation as we have—if not more. Including those who have lived under persecution, who have sought truth with more desperation and at greater cost.

2. That there is a real possibility that many of us, individually, don't understand the gospel correctly. That we really don't know what we're talking about. Though we may think we do. Or at least act as if we do whenever we judge the salvation of those around us.

3. That those who sense these possibilities, who see the speck of error or uncertainty in our brother's eye and know what the mirror will reveal, live out their salvation with a gnawing insecurity about our apparent inability to get the story straight.

Insecurity would explain the gymnastics we require of people when we present the gospel—lest anyone fall short of the threshold due to our flawed understanding.
What if I miss a step in the recipe? What if I don't explain all necessary hoops? What if I forget the password? We act as if we fear we might be doing it all wrong—thwarting the great commission, even. As if someone's salvation was really up to us, dependent on how perfectly we make the pitch and close the deal.

Insecurity would explain our many lines in the sand, our lists of preferences, convictions, and doctrinal enemies. Our insistence on defining ourselves by our personal and denominational differences hints at a need to be recognized, approved, and proved right—or at least
more right than others. Where does the self-justification end? Splitting the church into micro-denominations, into pieces tiny enough finally that all members of our group agree with us? Would we then be content? Or is empire building necessary to buttress the worth and rightness of our opinions?

Insecurity would explain our longing for doctrinal absolutes and our passionate self-defense against ambiguity. We fear that our theological house of cards will come crashing down if we acknowledge any uncertainty. To acknowledge, even to myself, that I might have misunderstood
the gospel opens the door of possibility that I might be wrong about anything and everything. What else? How much? For how long? And what about my own salvation?

These are paralyzing questions.

July 12, 2009

Harmonizing the Scriptures

Allow me to pause in our discussion of salvation to briefly consider an interpretation issue. 

Many verses in the Bible seem to make no sense, or to be contrary to what we already believe is true, or -- worst of all -- to contradict what we thought the Bible said. Consider these examples, and how some might deal with the stickiness: 
  1. The Old Testament God seems grumpy, if not downright steamed. On the other hand, New Testament Jesus seems loving. But Jesus is God, and God is the same "yesterday, today, and forever." So, God isn't actually an angry God. 
  2. Creation took only six days. Fossils suggest that species popped out of the ooze over the course of millions of years. But "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." So, creation actually took six thousand years -- and the fossils are wrong.
  3. Jesus said "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." Therefore, Jesus is not equal to God, or Jesus doesn't realize that he is God incarnate. But Jesus also said "I and the Father are one." So, Jesus is actually equal to God -- and was probably just messing with the rich young ruler. Or it was a test.
We have a moment of doubt. We find another verse that dispels our doubt. We latch onto the second verse and ignore the first verse (or assign a new harmonized interpretation to it which may be totally contradictory to the actual words in the original verse). Verse 2 trumps verse 1. Problem solved. 

We explain away the problems by "harmonizing" the scriptures, and this is seen by many as a reasonable practice -- or even the definition of "rightly dividing" the Bible, and thus evidence of one's own advanced skill. How is this different, however, from simply picking the verses that seem true to us and declaring that these ones have the correct meaning? How objective is our filter for sifting through the contradictions? Where does our filter -- our presuppositions -- come from? 

The verses that already made sense to us? Circular reasoning. 

What we were taught in Sunday School, or at mother's knee, or in seminary? Traditions of men. 

What seems right in our own eyes? Ouch. 

More on this another day.

July 6, 2009

Are You Saved If...?

[Salvation #2]

Continuing from my previous post, many would say that salvation is the central issue of Christianity, the very heart of the gospel, but agreement on the meaning of the word appears to have eluded the church throughout most -- if not all -- of its history.

Let us consider what salvation actually means at the level of the individual. Would we say that someone is saved if ...
  1. he has begged for forgiveness of sins but feels no love, only terror, towards God?
  2. she is four years old and "just loves Jesus"?
  3. he is a (choose one) bigot / child abuser / bigamist / homosexual / addict?
  4. she continues to sin (choose one) regularly / after a certain period of time following her conversion / only certain sins -- drunkenness, for example, or rock music?
  5. he died very young -- or even was aborted?
  6. she has been mentally retarded from birth?
  7. he "confessed Jesus with his mouth," but doesn't fully understand or believe in his heart that "God raised him from the dead"?
  8. she prayed a Sinner's Prayer as a child but now is apathetic about personal spiritual discipline or church participation?
  9. he commits suicide?
  10. she is (choose one) demon-possessed / mentally ill / chronically sick / poor?
  11. he believes that well-meaning people from all religions can be saved, though he believes his own salvation has something to do with Jesus?
  12. she believes she is, but never asked to be saved -- never "invited Jesus into her heart"?
  13. he isn't sure whether he is saved or not?
  14. she doesn't believe in (choose one) literal heaven and hell / inerrancy of scripture / the divinity of Jesus?
  15. he claims to be a Christian, but has no intention of giving up his sexually active lifestyle?
Do all Christians agree? All pastors and priests? All theologians and scholars?

Though no biologist (or perhaps because I am not), I am reminded of the disagreement between Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins over the mechanism of evolution. If these two keepers of the flame, examining the same "scientific record" each thought the other's model was rubbish, then their shared belief in evolution seems to be more of a consensus on a single term to call their contradictory views -- or agreement on a Platonic form. 

Maybe that seems good enough. Agree to disagree, and all. Semantics. 

But if my wife and I agree that fruit is the tastiest food on earth, and my wife is referring to mangoes while I am referring to blackberries, then our agreement is nonsensical. And if my "soon" doesn't correspond to her "soon" when I reassure her that I haven't forgotten about taking out the garbage, then it seems a bit strained to say that she and I really agree in a meaningful way on when I'm going to finish conquering the world and come downstairs. 

In like manner, if many Christians agree that salvation is key to understanding the gospel, that "you must be born again," but disagree on what salvation is, and what is required, and whether or not the person we are speaking with is already saved, then what agreement is that? If we have different definitions of salvation, then what do we actually have? Agreement on vocabulary, only? 

June 30, 2009

What Must I Do to Be Saved?

[Salvation #1]

Salvation. It doesn't get more basic than that, does it? The gospel. The good news. The great Rescue Plan, as The Jesus Storybook Bible puts it.

But what exactly does "salvation" mean?

Christian salvation has been understood in different ways by different people at different times in history. See how many from this short list ring bells:
  1. Salvation is only for the Jews.
  2. Salvation is also for the Gentiles, but circumcision is still required (Acts 10 - 11).
  3. Salvation is also for the Gentiles, and circumcision is not required -- but abstaining from blood and a handful of other duties are still (choose one) required / expected / requested / encouraged (Acts 15).
  4. Salvation occurs through baptism (choose one) for believing adults / for any adult / even for infants / even for the dead (I Cor. 15: 29).
  5. Salvation requires water baptism, and the method might be important, too.
  6. Salvation requires speaking in tongues.
  7. Salvation requires evidence of good works (Matt. 25: 34 - 45) or of some definition of "holiness."
  8. Salvation (choose one) can / can't be lost.
  9. Salvation (choose one) can / can't be rejected, once a person is saved.
  10. Salvation requires hearing or reading the gospel in the King James translation.
  11. Salvation requires proper understanding of one or more doctrines: nature of God, nature of Jesus, nature of man, nature of sin, nature of the Bible.
  12. Salvation requires following a specific procedure or ritual, perhaps including confession of sins, or public confession of a specific sentence ("Jesus is Lord," for example), or repeating certain doctrinal statements in a prayer -- even though such a "Sinner's Prayer" typically contains more theology than most new converts actually understand.
  13. Salvation (choose one) does / doesn't depend on us (the free will vs. predestination debate).
  14. Salvation can be requested but refused by God.
  15. Salvation requires someone going and "preaching the gospel," first.
More to come. Next time: Are You Saved If...?

June 5, 2009

How We Read the Bible

What happens when we read the Bible? How do we interpret what we read? In other words, how do we understand? Let's break down the process a bit and consider some theories about what might be happening:

First, our eyes look at the words--translated into our own language, of course. And then ...
  1. We understand the exact meaning intended, because that's what always and automatically happens when we read.
  2. We understand the exact meaning intended, because of good intentions and careful concentration.
  3. We understand, because of a miracle, the one exact meaning ever and always intended.
  4. We understand, because of a miracle, the unique meaning that God wants us to have at that moment.
  5. We understand something, based on our understanding (= our interpretation) of what the words mean to us in our own culture and time, but the meaning may be different from what was originally intended by the author--or the translator--or what was originally understood by the original audience of native speakers from those cultures 2,000 - 5,000 years ago. Therefore, only the history scholars and language experts among us can aspire to perfect understanding.
  6. Even if we are scholars and experts, what we understand is filtered through our own personal experience (as per Rosenblatt's transactional theory of reading), and will change as our experience changes. Our understanding of verses about God as father, for example, is affected by our own experiences with our own fathers and our experiences with or without children of our own.
  7. We understand something, but not necessarily the complete and perfect, higher-than-our thoughts of a supernatural, eternal, and omniscient God.
Experience should tell us that options 1 and 2 are ridiculous. Those of us who have ever taught students at any level know this full well.

Theories 1 - 3 are also contradicted by our experience of doctrinal arguments between different denominations. Universal understanding even by well-meaning clergy and laity is not what history reveals.

Theory 4 is harder to refute, since we don't know what voices people are hearing in their heads. Any argument against personal experience is difficult unless we can read minds. However, most honest people would admit to errors in their personal understanding of scripture, to thinking God had told them something but realizing later that it was fear, emotion, or their own desire to believe, and not the voice of God. This happens to even the brightest among us.

The perfect understanding held out to us in theory 5 would appear to be contradicted by the lack of agreement among scholars and experts.

Theories 6 and 7, then.... For us mere mortals, we appear to be left with incomplete understanding, and no certainty about how accurate we actually are when interpreting a given passage. And this uncertainty, this ambiguity is very threatening to some.

Interestingly, this is our condition even if we hold to the most extreme doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and infallibility. Every word may be the exact and perfect one, and perfectly true and authoritative, but this doesn't mean that we understand fully or that we all have the same understanding. Confidence in the Bible is different than confidence in my ability to fully grasp the thoughts of God after carefully reading it once--or a hundred times.

I love and believe the Bible. My argument here is not that the Bible is irrelevant or that we read it without hope of understanding. Rather, I see the need for patience and care when reading, for diligence to learn more about the language and context, for prayer that the Holy Spirit would aid in the understanding, and for humility when interpreting or when disagreeing with somebody's interpretation.

More importantly, I love and believe in the Lord himself--amazing mystery though he may always be to me. I believe that I can know him--as I am fully known. This is different from knowing about him through reading the Bible. I can know information in a book, or a book itself, but those will always be qualitatively different from knowing a Person. As in other relationships, perfect knowledge and perfect understanding on my part are not requirements or priorities. We know in part, and ultimately, knowledge will pass away.

May 5, 2009

The Speck in the Other's Eye

Mart De Haan, Our Daily Bread guy, offers a succinct analysis of the "Emerging Church" controversy.

Referring to the seven churches in Revelation, he writes,

"But what if the seven churches had been doing the equivalent of writing books, posting Internet articles, and adding to the rumor mill about the problems of the other 'six.' What if they had been calling attention to the failures of one another as if there were not serious issues with themselves?

So it is today. Whether in emerging or traditional evangelical churches, all of us have our blind spots. Only when we are willing to listen to one another, and to come to terms with the downside of our own way of 'doing church,' will we have the humility and spiritual sobriety we need to work for, rather than against, the body of Christ we share."

April 30, 2009

Not a Christian Nation

I'm no fan of the "coexist" bumper sticker fad, or the darker side of tolerance and relativism that it can epitomize, but I really don't agree with all of the mythology about how godly this nation used to be, or that we used to be so righteous but some shadowy conspiracy ruined it. And I don't think most Americans believe these tales either--including Christian Americans who have read enough American history. The truth is that the Founding Fathers--though many of them were religious--were not interested in creating a religious system of government. And the church has had plenty of opportunity to shape our culture, but we have chosen to fill our days with money, TV, and now the Internet, instead. The government, the devil, and "the world" aren't our biggest problems in this country; we are.

Is President Obama wrong that we are not a Christian nation? What percentage of Americans do we actually believe are saved--and living like followers of Christ? What percentage of our politicians? I would think that Obama is only saying the same thing that most evangelists believe today. Recall that we've shifted to being a destination for Christian missionaries from around the world. There still may be large groups of older white people and rednecks who oppose gays and "socialism," in the Bible Belt or somewhere, but a majority of spiritually healthy and growing Christians?

Was it "Christian America" that drove the Native Americans onto reservations and broke our treaties to grab their land? That wrote 3/5 representation for slaves into the Constitution? Do we really portray Christ to the world--or ourselves--when our "Christian" presidents insist on wars for oil and torturing prisoners, or when we thrive on corporate greed--often on the backs of third world child labor--and continue to mistreat minorities in our own country? When we are the market that demands the world's drugs and pornography? I'm not eager to call that kind of nation "Christian," and the tiny percentage of our wealth that we share with the poor doesn't make up for how we spend the rest of it.

So, what are we? And what do most Americans unfamiliar with our myths believe we are? America is what it has long or always been: a diverse society. The proverbial melting pot. A crazy mix of everyone. The selfish and the sinful, mostly. Catholics and Jews and immigrants, even when they were persecuted by their Protestant Christian majority neighbors. Blacks and other minorities, even when those groups were blatantly denied civil and human rights by the "more-godly" government of the day. We are a country (sometimes) open to the dregs of the world, to the "huddled masses yearning to be free," even if not yearning to be Christian.

America is a place for religious freedom, not government-sponsored Christianity. I don’t believe we ever had a religion quiz to become a citizen. I hope we never had "Jew quotas" to maintain political dominance by Protestant Christianity. And I doubt that Pentecostal Christianity, for example, would have been allowed to take root here if the Founding Fathers had given the government the power to say what correct religion was. Our Constitution makes possible the freedom to be whatever we see fit--as long as we don’t violate the rights of others. Even if we want to be homeschooling atheists, or granola-eating Christians, or college-educated members of the NRA. That isn't something new that the liberals have foisted on the rest; that's our heritage. Freedom. To worship as we see fit, but not required to worship. 

Government isn't God's tool to make or keep America godly and Americans' attitude toward government probably wasn't all that godly. The Founding Fathers thought government was a power-hungry beast. Go to the library and read the Federalist Papers. The American colonists thought it was their right to seize control of their own destiny when they didn’t like the (Christian) government of England. We revolted instead of submitting to God-established authorities. What are we? We're a federal republic of government-suspicious rebels, not a theocracy or a Christian democracy. 

Yes, Christians should participate in the political process. Why did we ever stop? But look to government as the solution to our culture? Look to just one political party, specifically? And tell our kids yarns about someone stealing our birthright? Until large numbers of radical Christians are willing to be politicians, I don't plan to waste much hope on government solutions. I have more hope in the possibility of a grassroots revival than in trickle-down salvation of America from a someday-Christian government. And we are wasting time and energy blaming the president, the godless media, or the United Nations instead of looking into our own hearts for the cause of our culture's demise.

We're not a Christian nation, and that's why we need Jesus here in America more than ever. Jesus, not the return of a fairy tale government to love us and save us. The sooner we accept this truth, the better.

Onward in Post-Christian America

Is Christianity dying out in America? Is it time to abandon hope?

"Many younger Christians are poised to lead a nimble and embodied twenty first century faith. But they are still struggling to wrestle the microphone from those who are clinging to Christendom."

"We have only just begun to recognize the damage we’ve done to the faith. We must start by acknowledging how unloving we’ve been to those we’ve disagreed with. The perceptions compiled by David Kinnaman in the best-selling book unChristian are withering. We are seen as judgmental, anti-intellectual, anti-homosexual and too political. It is tough to sustain a faith based upon what or whom we’re against."

Read the complete article for suggestions on what Christians might consider doing in post-Christian America.

April 20, 2009

Stories for Boys and Girls

N.D. Wilson says: “I am regularly asked why I write stories for children. The easy answer? I’m childish. But to be honest, I have no intention of limiting myself to children’s stories. At this phase of my life, however, they are the most important stories I can tell. I have children, I love children, and imaginations need food. The world is big. The world is wonderful. But it is also terrifying. It is an ocean full of paper boats. For many children, the only nobility, the only joy, the only strength and sacrifice that they see firsthand comes in fiction.

Even when children have plenty of joy in their lives, good stories reinforce it. As long as I’m dealing in honesty, I may as well admit that I have been more influenced (as a person) by my childhood readings of Tolkien and Lewis than I have been by any philosophers I read in college and grad school. The events and characters in Narnia and Middle Earth shaped my ideals, my dreams, my goals. Kant just annoyed me.”

March 7, 2009

The Appeal of Buddhism

Buddhism appeals to me in several ways. Primarily in terms of fashion, mind you. Who wouldn't jump at saffron robes and a shaved head? Also, mystical disciplines. And the lure of kung fu powers, of course. More philosophically, Buddhism's greatest appeal concerns its understanding of what causes human suffering: our desires or, as I think of them, our expectations.

Some people do a much better job of setting aside their expectations and taking life as it comes. My Uncle Bill, for example. And Llonio in Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer, who smiled and created a feast from whatever his children brought to him each day. These people see serendipity all around them. These people's lives are marked by joy and grace.

Most of what awareness I have of my expectations I credit to ESI, who gave me six weeks of training before sending me to a post-apocalyptic, third world wasteland to teach English.

"Expectations. What are my expectations?" was the mantra. What do I expect that I will accomplish? What do I expect from others in this crazy land? What do I expect from my teammates? Gene Edward's The Prisoner in the Third Cell later taught me to ask myself what I expect from God and what I will do when God disappoints my expectations.

The latter question is the more important one. How will I respond when my expectations are not met? And whose fault will it be? More on this another time.

These are crucial questions in a marriage. These are crucial questions in all relationships, including the church. What are reasonable expectations to place on the church, or on a pastor? Do I expect that people read my mind when I need prayer or am cowering in my sin caves? Do I expect that the music match my preferences? That the sermons address my most pressing spiritual needs each week? That a red carpet be rolled out for my gifts and talents to be used in the main weekly service? That the pastor become my best friend and invite me over for holidays and birthdays? Or do I expect that I "be fed," according to my definition of what spiritual feeding is, of course, and with the spiritual foods that I find tastiest--and as if my feeding were not my own responsibility.

If I am honest, I bring such expectations to my church, though I rarely voice them. Their common theme: Me. The "I" in the middle of "sin," as some have said. Are these expectations reasonable? Biblical? Selfless? Are they consistent with "preferring one another" (Romans 12:10)? Do they lead to greater maturity or testify of Christ's resurrection to a lost and dying world? Do they glorify God or bring him delight? Hardly.

What is worse, I often confuse my expectations with my rights, but not my right to remain silent, or my right to take up my cross daily--to "Die, sucker, die." And now I have a problem greater than disappointment, greater than the Buddha's "suffering." Now I am tempted to justify my displeasure, my boredom, my lack of love. And I fit my neck for a millstone.

February 5, 2009

(Possible) Future Posts

  • Eggs in One Basket
  • Why We Believe Anything
  • The Feeding Trough
  • Our Own Tents
  • Divorce Culture
  • The Arms Race
  • I Could Be a Buddhist If....
  • The Bible's Limitations
  • Tozer Quotes
  • Bible Verses That Don't Exist
Feel free to vote for your favorites in the Comments section.

January 30, 2009


"It seems everywhere I look these days I’m reminded of the soul-searing danger of avoiding community...."

Great quote from Stephen Lamb, posted at The Rabbit Room, along with some good thoughts on the necessity of community for truly knowing God.

January 25, 2009


So we've begun watching the first season of Lost on DVDs from the library. What struck me pretty quickly was the recurring "every man for himself" theme. Even the characters who seem the most likable, or reasonable, or heroic suddenly go winging off into the jungle on some personal Quest that just has to be done. Right now, of course. In the rain, at night--it doesn't matter. Of course, the hero's quest inevitably intersects the path of at least one innocent bystander, and moving at such speed tends to make it hard for the hero to even see said bystanders before running them over.

The first lesson I see in this is that "no man is an island" (Sorry!). When trying to survive in a foreign land, we need each other. How well we get along doesn't change this at all; we still need each other. Nobody has all strengths and no weaknesses. Some jobs can't be done well alone--if at all. Nobody sees the whole picture. C. S. Lewis argued that a map--the collection of many people's experiences, stale though it may seem--is more useful than one's personal experience of the sea if one actually wants to leave the beach and sail somewhere. How much more we need others in the church, the body of Christ, if it is God who joins us together and gives to us different gifts and talents.

Furthermore, what we do has an impact on everyone else. How important we believe our fool's errand to be doesn't matter; our actions ripple out across the pond and can't be taken back if we realize it was a bad idea. The kid can't just run off with the dog whenever he's upset with his father, because then the dad has to follow him to keep him from getting eaten by the polar bears and monsters. The doctor's personal demons don't change the fact that people in need of medical care are lying back on the beach. "I just needed to be alone" doesn't cut it when a rescue party has to be sent out after you. Or when someone in the rescue party gets hurt in the process.

The second lesson is not to make important decisions while the adrenaline is flowing. Adrenaline produces many amazing physiological changes to help us in the "fight or flight," but one of them, tunnel vision, is not so amazing when our choices affect others. Not so useful when trying to analyze a complex situation. Not so helpful when when we ought to be thinking through the consequences that our decisions will have on those who are just a little too far to the side to focus on properly. The WORST time to make an important decision is during a crisis, when emotional, while under stress. That's when we are most likely to fight or flee to protect ourselves. When the "I" rears its ugly head.

How often we wish we could take back what we said in the heat of the moment. How much harder to take back our actions. To restore the confidence that others once placed in us. To reassure them that we actually do think they matter. To prove that we really aren't as selfish as we looked. To rebuild trust once it has been lost.

January 22, 2009

Stay in the Boat, Jackson.

I'm the firstborn, so rules and being right come naturally. Add to that my amazing brain power, and it's a wonder that I haven't taken over the world already. As I have become (ahem) wiser, however, I have decided that being right is not so important--is not the main goal of life. I recognize (often much too late) that I have made some terrible mistakes; I know that I am capable of doing so again. But these do not signify the end of the world to me.

I am blessed to be part of a family, a great circle of friends around the world, and a church community. What these have in common is relationship, if we are willing. And relationship provides the means for someone, the "other," whomever that may be, to help me see the plank in my eye--and faster than I might by myself, even if I were willing to look for it. Relationship relieves the pressure to be right all the time. We don't have to figure everything out by ourselves; I don't have to make myself perfect. That won't happen "until we see him face to face" anyway.

Spiritual maturity isn't about being right more often. Relationship isn't happy-happy all the time. And we don't even get to choose the family relationships we are born into--neither our immediate family members nor Adam, for that matter. When I enter into relationship--serious, covenant-type relationship--I "sign up for" heartache, disappointment, and as much nonsense as God knows I can bear. And I know that I will be the source of these, as well.

So, I can be very tolerant of others' mistakes, others' ignorance, others' faults, unhappy though I may be. And I can hope and expect that others in community will extend the same grace to me. I can endure a lot of arguing about where the boat should be going. There is a fundamental requirement, however, in relationship. Not "rightness," and not that everyone agrees with me, even when I'm right. What is required is that we stay in the family, in the circle, in the community.

That we stay in the boat.

Staying provides the opportunity to work out the process. To sharpen the dull iron. To take as long as it has to take. Staying means that we are "there" together, wherever that is. Recall Ruth's willingness to make Naomi's country, people, and even God her own. If we leave, how can we hear reason from those who love us? Who can speak sense into our nonsense? Who will help us? Who will slap us when we need it? Whom is God more likely to speak through than those whom we already know and who know us better than anyone else does? Those whom we have already committed ourselves to.

We don't have to be right, or smart, or lovely, or strong. But we have to stay in the boat.

January 21, 2009

I'm a genius!

I'm a smart guy. Really, I am. My standardized test scores growing up were unreal. But for some reason, I have friends who, on occasion, don't seem to value the thoughts of a smart friend. Friends who would apparently prefer to muddle through with input from others less gifted in the area of intelligence. Now, my wife appreciates my intelligence. She said to mention that. On most days, she attributes this to her own intelligence. "I'm a genius!" she is fond of announcing.

My point is that I feel some measure of frustration at what I view as my inability to be the kind of friend I would like to be--inability that is due to these friends' unwillingness to talk about their questions and ideas before launching out into the waters of a bad decision or adopting some kooky opinion. Frustration at how hard it is to talk someone out of something they've already decided is more important than the truth. For Pete's sake, why would someone want to be friends with me if not to benefit from my genius!

Now, my vast intellect can be intimidating, or so I've been told. I get that, though it kills me. Intimidating is about the last thing I want to be, most days. But one would think that a friend would be able to get past that. If not, how would one ever become friends with such a smart guy?

I also understand the "itching ears" tendency. Everyone likes to be told that what they've come up with by themselves is brilliant. Some might say that I am this way, too.... More on that, later.

I believe that we're born and wired this way, sadly. Self-centered, fearful, and preferring the cave. C. S. Lewis's Dufflepuds come to mind.