Thursday, July 23, 2009

Evangelical Confusion: What Is the Gospel?

I've been thinking about confusion in Evangelical thinking lately, particularly around the core message of the Gospel.  This thought from David Wells seems to capture both the problem with the movement's underlying philosophy - and the results succinctly... It's a sad commentary, and I think his choice of descriptives is both helpful and Biblical.  But what do you think?

If we mute the biblical gospel by our misunderstanding, or by our practice in the church, we destroy the possibility of spiritual authenticity in the church. In theory, most evangelicals assent to all of this. In practice, many evangelicals – especially those of a marketing and emergent kind – are walking away from the hard edges of these truths in an effort to make the gospel easy to swallow, quick to sell, and generationally appealing. They are very well aware of a deep cultural hunger for spirituality in the West, and they are trolling in these waters. The problem, however, is that this spirituality is highly privatized, highly individualistic, self-centered, and hostile to doctrine because it is always hostile to Christian truth. Evangelicals gain nothing by merely attracting to their churches postmoderns who are yearning for what is spiritual if, in catering to this, the gospel is diluted, made easy, and the edges get rounded off. The degree to which evangelicals are doing this is the degree to which they are invalidating themselves and prostituting the church.” (The Courage To Be Protestant, page 372, emphasis added.)
Ouch.  I see too often churches who "mute the Biblical Gospel by ... misunderstanding" and even open hostility to doctrine.  Have you seen this in your experience?  Is Wells right or wrong in his assessment?  Comments are open!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Genesis Confusion - What Can We Really Know?

Christianity Today published an interview last week with Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project, who also recently launched the BioLogos Foundation, which "promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives."  Collins gave a personal account of his attempt to harmonize faith and science in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, published in 2006.  Karl Giberson (who became Executive Vice President at the request of Collins  in 2008) conducted the interview. There's certainly a lot one can say regarding this article.  (By the way, if you are interested in a solid, Biblical response to the theory of evolution, I'd highly recommend listening to John MacArthur's talk on Creation, Theology and the End of the Universe from the opening of the 2009 Shepherd's Conference.)  But what stunned me in the interview was the pejorative tone used by Mr. Gilberson - sanctioned apparently by the editors over at CT.   For example, what is one to think of the introduction to this question posed by Mr. Gilberson (on page 4 of the website)?

"One of my theologian friends once said, in great frustration over this issue, "I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people." It seems to me that we need to take more seriously the teaching ministry of the church. We encourage people to read the Bible on their own, but certain misunderstandings are bound to emerge with that approach. Young people are going to read Genesis and think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race..."
What a shocker, Karl.  Imagine that people might read the Bible and actually believe what it says.  What has happened to CT - and the Evangelical movement that it seems to represent?  Has the idea of creationism really become that unpalatable?  Not surprisingly, Collins reviews favorably Dr. John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One:  Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, in which Walton advances his theory that Genesis 1 isn't about creation at all (not withstanding Genesis 1:1), but rather a description of the functional ordering (as opposed to material creation) of the Earth, in a pattern recognizable to the ancient middle-eastern culture. 

I guess I'm just too simple minded.  The point of much of this seems to be to make the Bible obscure... why anyone is seeking to apply scientific law to a miraculous event seems to be a category error to my limited way of thinking.  I remember sitting in a class listening this theory once, and hearing from a good friend and younger Christian afterwards who said this:  "Wow!  He's smart.  I'll never understand the Bible!"

Maybe that's what some are aiming at these days - and one wonders what the Reformers would have thought of the re-institution of the Magisterium... and counter to the Reformation principles we're remembering following a half-millennium since Calvin's birth.  There was a time when we recognized the supremacy of theology over the other sciences; now, folks like Collins seem to assume it's subordination to science!

For those of you who don't accept the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2, here's a question:  Why not?  Have you considered the following?

  • If you believe in evolution as the origin of humanity, when did "the fall" happen?  
  • Evolution, by the way, requires death - in the process of natural selection.  Where did "death" come from prior to the fall of man (who, under the theory, is the product of evolution)?
  • Is it not possible for God to have operated outside of the laws of science in creation - and why do you insist on judging the account of creation by something that may not even be applicable?'
  • If you don't believe Genesis 1 and 2, just when do you start believing the text?  What other chapters would you have us not believe?
Perhaps most importantly, for people who don't believe in God's miraculous intervention in creation (and, as a result, don't accept Adam's headship and representative status for the human race), how do you explain man's sinful condition? 

So many questions... and here's mine:  Why not just take God at his word, and believe Him?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why This Blog??

I’ve been asked on some occasions why this blog exists. I assume that the question isn’t referring to a philosophical question (“Cogito Ergo Blog” or “I Think, Therefore I Spam”), but rather what my point is in the eclectic series of periodic posts published here.

I think that’s a fair question… one that I’ve been thinking about for some time.  So, I thought I’d “re-boot” the blog with a modest attempt at articulating an answer.

I am a student of history. Or at least a product of the History Department of a Christian liberal arts college, a frequent reader of history and a person with a life-long interest in the ebb and flow of “what-has-gone-before” us. In addition to history generally, I have grown up with a love of the history of the Church. I love this not merely culturally, but because it is the Bride of Christ – He laid down His life for it, He loves it, He will glorify those in it. I think that anyone who gives up on the Church really misses the heart of our Lord.

But things aren’t going so well for the church in America these days – and especially for the Evangelical church. Watching it, participating in it, praying for it, grieving for it… You’ll note that I focus on this frequently, and this is the heart of the question I’ve gotten: Why focus on what’s wrong – why not just talk about what is right? Why be “negative” anyway?

J. Greshem Mechan was faced with this same question early last century. If you don’t know him, you should… at least read his book Christianity and Liberalism. Here’s his take on the question:
“ tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.  Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address.  In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, said he in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.  In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.” [“Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the Faith," in J. Greshem Machen: Selected Shorter Writings (Pages 148-149, emphasis added).
I’m not comparing myself to Machen, mind you. But I share his understanding of the authority of the Bible, and the clarity of its message.  But is it possible today:
  • Even with all of the talk about “humility” in our theology, that there is much that God has revealed clearly - and that the Evangelical church obscures it by alternative views on every possible theological issue? 
  • That the Bible really is God’s word to us and that He intends for us to know it - and that the Evangelical church dilutes it through a variety of means (from Archeology to bad hermeneutics) which undermine the practical authority of Scripture? 
  • That somewhere, deep in our sinful hearts, we rejoice in the confusion some find in Scripture because it gives us an excuse to “wriggle off of the hook” of the conviction we’d experience from a clear presentation of Scripture?
The sad fact is that when reading the Bible, you are repeatedly confronted with the disparity between what we are supposed to experience in a corporate body and actual experience.   You'll also see our clear responsibility to stand up against the doctrinal error constantly confronting us from all sides within the Church.  But to recognize the disparity and stand against error is a sure-fire way to be vilified and marginalized in the average Evangelical congregation.

I'm no longer surprised by teaching which seems to “darken counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2), which is so prominent in pulpits and Sunday School classrooms (that's in the rare cases where adult Christian education even exists anymore).  I am surprised though that so few Christians seem to want to stand against it!

Loving Truth requires me - no, all of us - to recognize that it is wrong to obscure the truth of God's Word by make disputable that which God makes clear in the Bible.   The results can be seen in tolerating broken relationships, abusive and disfunctional authority structures – and most clearly in lack of sound, Biblical doctrine taught. 

To acknowledge the existence of this type of error in many Evangelical churches is one thing - which seems undisputable to me.  It is heart-breaking when you see it in your own community of faith.  It cries out for someone to stand up and point it out.

It's interesting to me that I usually don’t get much push-back on the existence of the problem…  In fact, the people I’ve found myself in debate with seem comfortable to agree that things aren't what they should be, but they assume that things always have been this way, and that they will always continue.  The argument I most usually get is that even though these problems exist, we shouldn’t focus on them because to do so is "negative."

So what does the Bible intend for us to do with calls to “contend for the faith once for all delivered” (Jude 3)?    How ought we rightly emulate the Berean attitude towards teaching (Acts 17:11)?  The answers - however uncomfortable - seems clear to me.  

Those are the question I’m wrestling with in this blog… and the reason I write.  And in light of the usual reaction received, I've been slower to post lately as I have been asking this:  When "contending for the Truth," what should our heart attitude be? I love John Piper’s words in this regard, in setting the stage for the great battles for truth in the lives of Athanasius, John Owen and - coincidentally - J. Gresham Machen:
Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride. Some necessary tasks are sad, and even victory is not without tears—unless there is pride. The reason enjoying controversy is a sign of pride is that humility loves truth-based unity more than truth-based victory. Humility loves Christ-exalting exultation more than Christ-defending confrontation—even more than Christ-defending vindication. Humility delights to worship Christ in spirit and truth. If it must fight for worship-sustaining truth, it will, but that is not because the fight is pleasant. It’s not even because victory is pleasant. It’s because knowing and loving and proclaiming Christ for who he really is and what he really did is pleasant.(John Piper, Introduction in Contending for Our All, page 17.)
So why do I blog? Because the Truth of Jesus is far better, far more desirable, far more profitable than the error… even today.  I long to see the day – even in my lifetime – when the error is confronted appropriately and dismissed, Christian unity is based on a common Truth rather than merely a shared program and where real love is embraced and displayed – even (or maybe especially) in how we pursue the Truth.

I may fail in the process of contending well, but I'll go with A. W. Tozer when he says that "what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us."  A.W. Tozer, Chapter 1 of Knowledge of the Holy, page 9.)   And that's my heart behind these musings.  Perhaps you'll help in dialogue, leading to a more Biblical understanding of God and His Truth.