Wednesday, March 26, 2014

No-fault Divorce

World Vision today divorced itself from its policy decision, announced March 24th, to recognize gay marriage by hiring gays living in monogamous, faithful relationships.

To be fair, World Vision claimed in that same news release that they were expressly not recognizing gay marriage.

To be real, that’s precisely what they were doing.

World Vision states unambiguously that they require from their employees sexual abstinence outside of marriage. Unless World Vision has also redefined “abstinence,” one can hardly consider anal sex as sexual abstinence. Hence, they did recognize gay marriage as marriage, despite their sophistry to the contrary.

They proclaimed that this move was made to foster unity among the churches. Um, would that be the same sort of unity that has split The Episcopal Church, because last time I checked that's precisely what endorsing homosexuality did for TEC? Would that be the same sort of unity that is splitting the PCUSA? 

And of what unity do they speak, anyway? The prayer in which Christ sought for unity among His people in John 17 also included a request for their sanctification—their holiness, by means of the truth. On what grounds does World Vision see homosexuality as a move toward sanctification?

Does World Vision ignore the great disdain in which the global south holds the practice of homosexuality? Do they wish to subject their workers to added danger as Muslims in other countries react with anger to this decision, as one more example of the decadence of the West?

This was not a policy or procedural error. This was an abandonment of truth.

In his explanation for their decision to divorce gay marriage after having married themselves to it, Richard Stearns said that he did not consult enough Christian leaders. Perhaps he could have saved himself a bit of trouble by consulting the Bible instead.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Letter to a Seminary Student

A young man I respect very highly is taking seminary classes and beginning to wonder whether it is worth it. At the graduate level of theological study one gets exposed to much material that is of questionable value in terms of truth, but is necessary simply so that the student is aware of what's going on out there in the theological world. Sometimes it can get a little frustrating. He wrote, and here are snippets of his questions and my responses.

1. I'm noticing that we read and study a lot about the various theories and methodologies used to approach scripture, rather than the content in and of itself. It is feeling like man's words are being elevated above God's. I understand that there is much to be learned from men who God has blessed with scriptural understanding and the ability to communicate that material. I welcome that sort of instruction.

You’ve hit on a perennial problem in theological studies. Do we study the Word, or do we study what others say about the Word?

Some believe it is better to read nothing but the Bible. Anything else is the word of man, and not worthy of our time. On the other hand, no one in their right mind would argue that we should only study what others say about the Word, but in practice that is what some seem to do.

So what’s the answer? Study the Word, or commentaries and theologies? The answer is, “yes.” In other words, we should do both. In fact, God would have us do both.

According to Ephesians 4:11, one of the gifts God has given the church are pastor/teachers. In Acts 13:1 there are teachers at the church of Antioch. Note well: God gave the church teachers, not simply Scripture readers. In 1 Timothy 4:13 Paul instructs Timothy to give proper attention to the reading of the Word. But in the same verse he adds, “to exhortation, to teaching.”

Books written by men about the Bible are nothing other than their teaching ministries put to paper. They may be good teachers, poor teachers, or false teachers but the fact remains—God gives to His church teachers. And if the Lord gifts men for such a role (Romans 12:7), and gifts the church with such men (Ephesians 4:11), one can only assume we should be listening to them (and we should also be discerning who are the bad and false teachers so that we may reject those).

Having established that there is a place for reading the works of men—theologies, for instance—let me advocate a balance. One of the unfortunate tendencies I have seen among Internet theologians is a skillful use of theological terminology and concept, coupled with a shameful ignorance of the biblical text and an inability to deal with it. This is one of the reasons we have started limiting admission to our ATT class to those who have read the entire Bible through at least once. Theological literacy should always follow, never precede, basic biblical literacy.

One of the (many) things I really appreciated about Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia is the mandatory English Bible Exam all potential graduates must take and pass before being granted a degree. Someone wisely realized that it’s possible to produce propeller-heads who are experts in the languages of the Bible, skilled in theological concept and nuance, but basically ignorant of the text. And so the school insists that one must be able to name the Bible books in order, identify which books which texts come from, and other basic facts of biblical literacy before graduating. Unbelievably, there are enough people who fail the test that WTS has a remedial course for those who don’t get it on the first go-round.

Therefore, it is your job to establish that basic biblical literacy as you are taking your classes. If your classes are not requiring a significantly challenging amount of reading in the Bible itself, then you should be doing it in your own devotions. The purpose of a class in theology is to teach you theology: the results of someone else’s systematic, inductive study of the biblical text.

But to conclude that the study of theology is unnecessary is an equally bad mistake in the other direction. Whenever you encounter a verse in the Bible that is hard to understand, your reflexive instinct is to look for other passages dealing with the same period of time, or topic, or context, so that you may compare Scripture with Scripture and hopefully come to a better understanding. This practice has a name: “the analogy of faith.” Your interpretation of a passage needs to be compared with other passages to see that it does not contradict other texts.

Anytime you begin comparing one Scripture with another in order to determine meaning, you are employing a theological system. You may not be aware of it and it may not be a good theological system, but it is nonetheless true. You already have a theological system in place when you first approach the Bible. One of the goals of biblical and theological studies is to refine your personal theological system so that it is informed by the text and accurate in its understandings.

So let’s immediately dispense with the idea that you can read the Bible without doing theology. Not possible. The question is not whether you can dispense with theology (you can’t), but whether your theology is accurate to the text as a whole.

2. Yet, I question the motives of some (they seem prideful). I desire growth in the knowledge and understanding of God and His relationship with men.

Yes, generally speaking what you are seeing is real, and no one is exempt—not me, not you. Pride is a constant problem in theological studies. I think most recognize it and all godly theologians hate that capacity within themselves. Pride is something I struggle with every time I write or speak (and some will question why, seeing as how I have little to be proud about!).

In any sort of advanced theological studies (advanced being that which is done at the seminary level), you are going to be required to read materials you simply detest. There will be some articles and books that cause you to wonder whether the author is even regenerate. This is the price of learning at this level. Yet it will ultimately be helpful as you grow in your capacity to spot error. Someday you may need to be protecting your sheep from that same error, whether you are a pastor, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, or simply an older believer mentoring a younger one.

At BFC I have to edit our children’s church material, to eliminate the Keswick theology it contains. I am asked to identify books that can—and cannot—be used by our teachers for Sunday School. I am constantly asked by earnest believers about this doctrine, and that radio preacher, and this tract or that book. All pastors, counselors, teachers, mentors, are faced with a constant stream of material, some of which may be toxic to the spiritual health of the people for which they are responsible. It’s exposure to the nasty stuff in a seminary-level theology course that will prepare you to identify and reject unbiblical teaching.

3. We focus so much on "scholarly" writing that it is as if my entire purpose is to be published, when all I want is to know God more and be more equipped to share Him and His word with others.

You may never be a writer; but you will always be a communicator. This is the time for you to learn to write well and communicate precisely and clearly. Don’t short-circuit it. There is a certain rigor attached to seminary-level study. Don’t hate it and don’t fight it lest you be miserable.

And think about this: you have always heard teachers say things like, “I never learn so much as I do when I am preparing to teach others.” This is true. The care, time, energy, and sweat you expend to write well is helping you to formulate, clarify, and understand your own beliefs. It is helping you express those beliefs, which is what you will be doing when you “share Him and His word with others.”

Your wrestling coach would say, “Suck it up and just do it!” but since I’m not a wrestling coach and I’m much kinder and gentler, I won’t say that. Even though it is good advice.

4. Am I misunderstanding the point of what I'm reading/writing in these early courses? Are we laying a foundation to build upon? If so, why isn't the foundation the Word of God and not man's?

Yes, yes, and it is.

At every turn in your required reading you should be evaluating the truth/error of what you are being exposed to. You should be doing what the Hebrew believers in Hebrews 5:11-14 did not do, and they earned a rebuke from the Spirit of God for not doing so. In your studies, you are training your senses to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:14b).

The foundation you are laying is that of the Word of God only to the extent you are evaluating what you are reading, and are comparing and contrasting it with the Bible, and accepting or rejecting it only as it passes or fails to pass the measure of the canon of Scripture.

When I attended Westminster I had to exercise discernment in every lecture and every reading. Most of the professors were godly Christ-honoring men at whose feet it was a privilege to learn. A few instructors were playing fast and lose with the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture (some have since been dismissed by WTS). I cannot speak highly enough of the value of both: with the one group I learned more of the Word of God and with the other I learned how to be discerning and gracious in what at times was a somewhat adversarial atmosphere. I learned how subtle error can be. I learned to stick to my guns.

5. Are we laying a foundation to build upon?

Let’s get to the bottom line with a closing comment about the difference between classes from the Bible department and classes from the Theology department. There is a difference.

In your Bible classes you are going to be doing a lot more reading of the Bible itself, and gaining a stronger biblical literacy. Your OT and NT survey classes will be among the most helpful, and will probably really scratch the itch you have for the Word of God.

Your Theology classes—depending on their level—are assuming a basic biblical literacy. They are going to be concerned with how the various statements of Scripture can be combined to result in a comprehensive theological sketch of God, man, sin, salvation, etc. Different theological systems will create somewhat different sketches. Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology are not going to produce identical pictures, for instance.

You need both Bible and Theology to prepare you to serve others. Do you know where my theology gets the most vigorous workout in ministry? It’s not in the Advanced Theological Training classes I teach. It’s in my biblical counseling work. A very wise pastor once said to me at the beginning of my seminary career, “Chris, if you want to counsel, take theology classes.” It was good advice.

So stay the course. You can do it. It will be worth it. And it will equip you to serve Christ by serving others.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.  (Mariner Books, 2003 edition).

This volume ranks among the best works of military history that I have read. Sears is a top-drawer writer and historian, and this book displays both those skills. It’s one of the few histories I’ve read that could be legitimately described as a page-turner.

Sears does a great job of unfolding the context for the Battle of Antietam—of 336 pages in the main body of the book, fully 180 are devoted to establishing the background. Much of that material is spent elaborating General George B. McClellan’s personal history and conduct up to the collision between the armies on September 17, 1862. I didn’t come away feeling that any of the detail was unnecessary. In many respects the book is an examination of McClellan, and Sears is not among his fans.

Those looking to redeem the general from history’s opprobrium will need to look elsewhere. By the extensive use of original documents, Sears has documented the man’s failings as a combat commander, although he balanced his critique with a fair assessment of McCellan’s strong record of organizing and training the Army of the Potomac.

The threads of political intrigue that were whirling about Washington are well represented, as is the dithering of the Great Powers as they grappled whether or not to support the Rebellion.

From the first bullets of the skirmishers to the slow withdrawal from the battlefield, Sears is able to narrate the action in such a clear way I was able to follow it without difficulty. The biggest problem was keeping track of which commanders were attached to what unit, as the officers were mowed down so rapidly even regiment and brigade commanders were quickly used up. The maps Sears has included are excellent; you might want to mark the maps with post-notes to enable you to find them easily.

This book will be a treat for those who enjoy military history, especially as regards the Civil War. I recommend it highly.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The trajectory of unbelief

Just finished reading Calvin on the credibility (trustworthiness) of Scripture (chapter 8 of book one of the Institutes). Calvin begins with this statement (emphasis mine): "In vain were the authority of Scripture fortified by argument, or supported by the consent of the Church, or confirmed by any other helps, if unaccompanied by an assurance higher and stronger than human judgment can give. Till this better foundation has been laid, the authority of Scripture remains in suspense."

What Calvin is saying here is something that outrages modern scholars: the truth of the Word of God is not something known by human investigation: it can only be known by regeneration (i.e., getting saved), followed by the illuminating activity of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Word can not be known by unaided rationality. This gets to the heart of the argument between theologically conservative scholars and theologically liberal scholars.

The points I am about to make have more to do with scholars, academics, and pastors than it does the average person in the pew. There are many true Christians who wrestle with the question of biblical Creationism, but they do so because they are unaware that theological belief resembles more a web than it does a rope. Most average Christians are unaware of the contradictions they create for themselves elsewhere in Scripture when they do not believe the literal account of creation. Scholars and pastors, on the other hand, are fully culpable. This essay applies to those of us who presume to teach the Bible to others.

Conservatives and liberals have terms that we sling at one another: fideism and rationalism. Liberals accuse conservatives of fideism: taking positions based on faith alone, flying in the face of evidence. Building our belief in young-earth creationism from our convictions regarding the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture is to modern liberal critics a flight of anti-intellectual fancy in which faith silences, squelches, and suppresses modern science. It’s fideistic.

On the other hand, conservatives accuse liberal critics of rationalism: of refusing to believe anything that can not be supported by the consistent use of human rationality as informed by empirical evidence.

In one sense we are talking past one another. We conservative, Bible-believing Christians do not engage in irrationalism in order to practice our faith. We use rational thought to process what the Bible tells us. Systematic theology is the one of the fruits of a tightly reasoned faith. Biblical theology also is a rational (but not rationalistic) endeavor. The distinction between us is that when we conservatives bump up against something that seems to go against modern evidences, we anchor our belief on the Bible and best-practices of interpretation. We will gladly fly in the face of modern thought if we believe the biblical text compels us to do so, and we don’t give a flying fig about what the evangelical, academic, or cultural world thinks of us. We do this with confidence because of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit as to the truth of His Word.

Consequently whether one speaks of the paradoxes and other difficulties involved in the Trinity, human responsibility versus divine sovereignty, the existence of evil, the creation of the cosmos, miracles, or bodily resurrection, we will surrender to the text, even though we may be incapable of explaining it at some points. For this we are called fideists. Okay, guilty—and faithful.

While the charge of rationalism that we conservatives bring against liberal Christians and liberal critics is mostly true, it is not completely true. Liberal Christians reject out of hand most meaningful notions of creation, and accept almost all the provisions of evolutionism, claiming that God does what He does by natural processes. They reject Creation and a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 not on the grounds of exegesis but on the grounds that they do not fit the conclusions of modern science. Having been persuaded by science, they return to the text and eisegete it: they “read into” a perfectly understandable account of creation all sorts of interesting “figurative” language. Never mind that the vast bulk of the history of orthodox Christianity never saw the text that way. There are a few exceptions, of course, but they are in the clear minority. There’s nothing new in the playbook of unbelief: just recycled arguments.

I mentioned that Christian liberals are not necessarily thorough-going rationalists: they are rather, inconsistent rationalists. The dead giveaway is their view on the resurrection. While modern science completely pooh-poohs the notion of a real, bodily resurrection, liberal Christians—for a while—insist on believing it. Thus are they inconsistent with themselves: they deny the creation account because of the verdict of modern science; they believe in the resurrection against the verdict of modern science.

At this point the careful reader might think, “Okay, Cobb, what’s the diff? You conservatives are inconsistent, the libs are inconsistent—so what? At least they land correctly on the big point—the resurrection—as a matter of faith. Is this not proof of the reality of their faith?” Yes, it possibly is proof of precisely that. I certainly hope it is, for their sake. But I am concerned that it might be a demonstration, rather, of a sentimental attachment to vestigial orthodox Christianity than a genuine, vigorous faith. The reason I believe this also points out the distinction between our inconsistency and theirs: it’s the matter of the ultimate source of authority. The conservative believer takes the Bible as his source of authority: end of story. That’s why we dispute evolution, abortion, homosexuality, modern morality, etc. We do so because the text compels us to. On the other hand, for the liberal, it appears that science has become their highest source of authority. If so—and many of the signs point this way—the Christian faith of the liberal is merely a waypoint on an evolving journey to somewhere else.

You see this all over the blogs: “I used to be a fundamentalist, and then I realized it was a cult of narrow-minded, hateful, abusive people. I was liberated when I finally realized that evolution makes creation impossible, and that you don’t have to believe that silly stuff to be a Christian . . . ” Unfortunately, they do have a point. There are a lot of horrible examples of fundamentalists, such as Fred Phelps and Jack Hyles and many, many others—people who seem to believe that the Bible licenses hate, condemnation, dictatorial control, etc.

But the misuse of the Bible does not argue for its invalidity any more than the liberal misuse of 1 John 4:8 (“God is love”) argues for the invalidity of that text. Where will that former fundamentalist be in another five years, or ten? That’s the real question. I believe the truth of the matter is that many Christian liberals don’t have a settled position. They are, rather, on a trajectory of unbelief. The unbelief at the core of their being comes to slow flower: among the first things to be jettisoned is a meaningful notion of the inspiration of Scripture. Oh, they claim to believe it—they just continuously restrict its meaning until it no longer governs their exegesis and remains little more than a meaningless bullet point on their statement of faith.

Keep an eye on them. While on their trajectory of unbelief it is inevitable that they will cross a number of other markers. At some point the resurrection will be redefined (“it’s a spiritual resurrection, not a bodily resurrection”), as will the nature of God (they will return to something like a modal view of the Trinity, and possibly to a benign, Christianized pantheism). It will take years. Their sentimental attachments to the form and pageantry and mystery of worship will keep them in a church of one nature or another. But there will be neither redemptive truth nor redemptive power in their belief. John Shelby Spong is a perfect example of this trajectory of unbelief. Spong is the famous Episcopal bishop who argued that Christianity must change or die, and that we can no longer conceive of God as a truly personal being. He has jettisoned all of the major aspects of Christianity and is little more than a thorough-going humanist who has retained the word “god” in his personal lexicon.

Book one, chapter eight of Calvin’s Institutes, closes with these sentences (emphasis mine): "But it is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This it cannot be known to be, except by faith." Apart from the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, the Bible remains a closed book. Amen.