Definitions – Scripture

I love words – a gift I gratefully acknowledge that came from my father. If a lover of books can be called a bibliophile, then I am a logophile. I love words for the power that they have, for the humor that many contain, and for the manner in which we use them. I also find it both amusing and frustrating that, especially in religious conversations, we cannot come to a common understanding about what words should mean.

I have previously discussed the word baptism. Today I take my pitchfork to the word scripture to see if I can sift out anything concerning that word. Spoiler alert – not much of a chance. Just like baptism, the meaning of the word scripture is totally in the eye of the beholder, but maybe I can cause us to think more deeply about what we mean when we use the word.

I begin by noting that there are a number of ways in which we differ when we use the word scripture. For some it is a matter of ecclesial, of church, dogmatics. For example, in the Roman Catholic church, many books are considered as part of Scripture that are not included in the Bibles used by Protestants. These books are identified by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical (added second to the canon) or by Protestants as apocryphal (hidden). Thus, which branch of Christianity you claim to follow can have a bearing on what you consider to be scripture.

There is another manner in which a person can identify scripture, and that is purely utilitarian. In this process one sifts the wheat from the chaff by deciding if the book, or passage, in question actually works in real life. Thus, for an increasing number of egalitarians and feminists, much of what Paul wrote is simply not scripture because it is outdated, patriarchal, and sexist. Great swaths of the Old Testament are removed for the same reason, or because God is pictured as being a warrior, or for his seemingly unquenchable desire for ethnic cleansing. Although it would not be defined in quite so bluntly, this method of identifying scripture can be labeled, “It’s not scripture if I disagree with it.”

Then there is the paring down of the totality of scripture through either ignorance or avoidance. In his category I place many “New Testament” Christians, who avoid much or all of the Old Testament because it is unfamiliar, or because it challenges them too severely (very similar to the utilitarian approach discussed above). Genesis is okay, because there are some really cool stories written therein, but the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus – Deuteronomy) is verboten – too much law and not enough gospel. Heaven forbid any sermon or class come from the prophets – especially those pesky (and incriminating) minor prophets. So, while they are technically included in the canon of scripture, these books are carefully and intentionally excised in order to preserve a level of safety and comfort.

So, how do you determine Scripture? (and I now return to the practice I believe is proper, that of capitalizing the word when used to refer to the entire and normative Word of God.) In my opinion, we can only stand under Scripture when we confess that there are many teachings within that canon with which we are going to disagree, and therefore we are faced with a decision. We can either allow those passages to be normative, or we will use some other point of reference to decide what is Scripture and what is not. If we use some other point of reference, we are no longer standing under Scripture, but we are standing over it – the as-yet-unidentified point of reference then becomes normative, and Scripture becomes its servant. For some that point of reference is their gender, or their understanding of gender. For some it is their idolatrous understanding of who and what God should be (idol in the sense of something created that is less than God). For some it is their wealth, which has displaced God. For some it is their nationalism, their racism, their philosophy of economics, or any one of a dozen more issues which compete with a person’s view of Scripture.

I will admit I am biased in certain directions. I just do not understand how we can appeal to Paul for his powerful exposition of God’s grace and at the same time utterly dismiss his directives for congregational polity. I do not understand how we can fawn over Jesus’s words of love and forgiveness and blithely reject his commands regarding justice. How can we adoringly quote from 1 Corinthians 13 and just completely disregard Amos?

I will also admit to being imperfect in applying my hermeneutic of Scripture – which is why I am all the more adamant that Scripture remain normative. If I get to decide what is Scripture and what is not, I have, in the immortal words of Pogo, become my own enemy. I will further admit that it is not always easy to determine what is normative for all time and across all cultures, and what was recorded because it was normative (or simply descriptive) of one time and in one culture. I think we can have those conversations, but only if we first agree that the words of the Bible must be their own judge, and not any aspect of our temporally limited understanding of such.

So, just as with baptism, the issue remains clear – as mud. I believe with all my being that there is a way forward – but it can only be successful if we first agree to ascend lower in our search for the meaning of Scripture.

Of God and Guns

Public disclaimer #1 – I do not generally like to write on specifically political issues. Sometimes I will, but to the best of my ability I try to restrict myself to the point where politics intersects with theology. This is a theological blog, not a political one. However, political discussions often do intersect with theology, and when and where that occurs I feel justified to offer my opinion.

Public disclaimer #2 – I own a number of firearms myself. I rarely shoot them anymore, first because of the price of ammunition, and second because I do not have a place where I feel comfortable shooting. I hate professional “shooting ranges,” and would much rather shoot at a knot on a log or a coffee can sitting on a rock. The one gun I loved the most was a muzzle-loading rifle, and it was just a kick in the pants to shoot. However, it was equally a pain in the pants to clean up afterward.

With those two disclaimers acknowledged, I offer the following:

In the immediate aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the national conversation turned to the debate over the right of citizens to own weapons such as was used in the shooting, and to a lesser degree, the kind of ammunition that was used in the shooting. The responses were so typical as to be caricatures – the far left pushing for the banning of all firearms, the far right suggesting that every person (or at least, school teachers) be required to carry weapons. There is an increasing middle ground – with variations of the two extreme positions being suggested.

While having my own opinion about gun ownership, I want to state unequivocally that neither extreme presents a realistic solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States. The call to ban all weapons is simply ludicrous – far too many people use guns for sport shooting or hunting. Our system of justice does not allow for the confiscation of anything that is both legal and harmless, without clear and convincing proof that such an object is inherently dangerous. The undeniable evidence is that a gun, in and of itself, is not a dangerous object. It clearly can be used, and is used, in dangerous ways, but a gun properly used is no more dangerous than a vehicle – or most medicines for that matter.

However, and here is where my theological brain kicks in, the extreme promoted by the National Rifle Association is just as erroneous as the extreme calling for the banning of all weapons. I offer three succinct reasons for this conclusion:

  1. The NRA and many adherents argue that gun ownership is necessary in order for citizens to protect themselves from the government. However, the 2nd Amendment was ratified when virtually every firearm (private or military) was of flint-lock construction. Each round had to be carefully loaded from the end of the muzzle, and the firing mechanism depended upon a hammer hitting a small piece of flint, which would then create a spark that was directed to a small pan of gunpowder, which would then ignite the powder that had been carefully loaded into the muzzle of the gun. Each “reload” took quite a bit of time, and if done too quickly, could result in some fairly significant damage if the powder was poured down a barrel that still had a smoldering spark. And – this is the kicker – for many years there was no “military grade” weapons. There was no “army.” The military was comprised of state militias, and each man brought his own rifle to fight with. Even as late as the Civil War, many soldiers used their own gun, not a government issued weapon (that did quickly change, however, during the course of the war). If the NRA wants to go up against today’s highly trained and expertly equipped army with a bunch of shotguns and deer rifles, be my guest. To equate today’s weapons to a 17th or 18th century muzzle-loader is simply to argue from false pretenses -and in my way of thinking that is to lie. If the NRA wants to defend firearm ownership based on 17th century technology and military practices – then fine, let them restrict gun ownership to flintlocks – and not even percussion cap muzzle-loaders.
  2. Conspicuously absent from most, if not all, arguments defending the unrestricted use of firearms, is Paul’s message to the Roman Christians in Romans 13. Let’s just be blunt here: there is no support for armed rebellion against the government in Romans 13. The American Revolution was, in terms of Paul’s teaching, completely unjustified. That really is a hard pill to swallow if you enjoy the fruit of the revolution as much as I do. But – the truth is sometimes hard medicine. The founding fathers had no scriptural right to take up arms against England – and in fact the Declaration of Independence makes no such claim. The call to become independence from the King of England is based entirely upon reasons founded in the Enlightenment, not the Bible.
  3. The most egregious claim made by the leader of the NRA is that the right to “bear arms” is a right granted, not by any human government, but by God himself. This is just so scandalously wrong – and profoundly heretical. Nowhere in God’s word is there any defense of gun ownership. It is plainly and unequivocally an act of government that grants its citizens the “right to bear arms.” Any who agree with the NRA in this regard have no knowledge of either the Bible nor the Constitution. It is a shameful thought to even consider.

As I said above – I consider myself a responsible gun owner. I have hunted in the past (although comically unsuccessful), I have some guns that are deeply special to me, and given the right circumstances, I do love to shoot them. My plea is that those who share my convictions about the Bible and about responsible gun ownership will think long and hard and deep and careful about the defenses we present to justify our ownership and use of such guns. In my opinion, there simply is no justifiable reason to own a weapon whose designed purpose is to kill people, and to kill a large number of people quickly. Even if such a weapon is justifiably only used for sport (target) shooting, there is absolutely no reason for the availability of ammunition so powerful that it can penetrate a kevlar (bullet-proof) vest worn by law enforcement officers. To categorically defend the use of such guns and ammunition is to reject the sanctity of human life.

Dear Christians, we can do, we must do, so much better. There is room in this debate for the passionate defense of our cherished freedoms, but there is also room for the realization that far too many people are being murdered by people using weapons that have no other purpose than to destroy the life of God’s most special creation – another human being.

A Serious Question – Who Influences You?

I just read an advertisement about a book that sounded interesting to me – until I read down to the obligatory “praise” section where the reviews of well-known authors or preachers are prominently displayed. I looked at the names of the first two fawning minions and decided, nope, that book was not for me, regardless of how interesting the content of the book first appeared.

Am I alone in my estimation that if a book is praised by someone with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, then I will probably not like the book? I mean, on one hand that sounds so churlish, so immature. I do not even like the way it sounds, and I’m the one who feels that way.

On the other hand, Jesus taught that the way we know what is in a person’s heart is by examining the fruit of their life. The fruit of an author’s life includes (although is not limited to) his or her books. The fruit of a preacher’s life includes (although is not limited to) what he proclaims as the word of God, and what he publicly approves of.

If an author or preacher rejects the biblical teaching regarding sexuality and marriage, if he or she rejects the biblical teaching regarding salvation or sanctification, if he or she approaches the Scriptures from a point of view 180 degrees opposite of my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture – how can I then take his or her word regarding the value of a book and use that affirmation to go out and buy that book?

I totally get that in the book marketing business, reviewers are chosen in proportion to their share of the book selling market. I genuinely do not want to avoid or reject a quality piece of writing just because the publisher invited some doofus to review the book and give some patronizing applause in order to sell a few hundred more copies.

I do not want to drop any names here (because I could list quite a few), but I do read reviews and promotions carefully, and if the preponderance of the acclaim comes from on particular stream of moral or theological understanding, then I can rest assured that the content of the book will not be something that I want to waste my time on. Likewise, if I read a review or a positive advertisement from someone I trust to be a serious student of the word, even if I disagree with that person on certain points, I am more willing to buy that book.

Anyway, this might just be me, and you may buy your books based on an entirely different set of criteria.

How do you select your books? And, how do you decide if you will purchase a book especially if you are not familiar with the author, and are equally unfamiliar with the quality of the reviewers?

How NOT to Handle a Controversy (Apparently)

A follow-up to the unfolding saga of Eugene Peterson and the confession that never was. Here is what I have been able to discover so far. (All of this can be easily confirmed – I subscribe to Christianity Today online, and all relevant links are embedded in the stories)

  1.  Eugene Peterson was approached about conducting a phone interview by Jonathan Merritt. He agreed, and agreed to having the interview tape recorded. The interview lasted approximately 33 minutes
  2. Merritt had some hints (the language here gets kind of nebulous) that Peterson no longer held the traditional view of homosexuality (if he ever did) and that he now endorsed homosexual marriage. At the conclusion of the interview Merritt posed two specific questions regarding this possibility.
  3. Peterson answered the first question (regarding homosexuality) in somewhat of a rambling answer, basically saying that culture has evolved, the question of homosexuality has been answered, and he had no problem in accepting practicing homosexuals in his church. He even mentioned his acceptance of a practicing homosexual as music minister for the church where he had recently retired.
  4. Merritt then asked if he was approached to perform a same-sex marriage, would Peterson perform the ceremony. Peterson responded with an unequivocal, “yes.”
  5. When Merritt published the interview an instant storm blew up, and one of the largest Christian booksellers threatened to pull Peterson’s books off of the shelves – this was no idle threat. Lifeway Books does not mess around with authors they feel have rejected clear biblical teaching.
  6. A day after the interview went public, Peterson had a strange “Damascus Road” moment of conversion, recanted what he had said about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, claimed to have been distracted by a flurry of hypothetical questions, and concluded with perhaps one of the biggest equivocations in history, “I affirm a biblical view of everything.”
  7. Apparently (I have not viewed the video), Merritt responded to the recantation by providing a video in which Peterson certainly leaves the door open that his views on homosexuality were changing.
  8. Somehow or another, as is so often the case in these situations, Merritt is being made to look like the bad guy, when all he did was report on an interview that was pre-arranged and was in no way coercive or deceitful.

I have some additional thoughts to my post of yesterday.

  1.  Peterson’s mea culpa sounds forced and overly affective. What in the world does “I affirm a biblical view of everything” mean? Why, if Peterson does not accept the traditional view of homosexuality (as being aberrant and a human perversion) would he approve of a practicing and unrepentant homosexual being hired as a congregational music minister? But, why, if he thought the issue was decided in favor of committed, faithful homosexual relationships, would he then so emphatically deny he accepted homosexual behavior as being blessed by God? Why even attempt such a nebulous statement like, “I affirm a biblical view of everything?”
  2. It really bothers me that Merritt has been attacked as being the heavy here. Peterson has such a cult following that, apparently, some people cannot stand to see the altar of Baal being destroyed. Instead of searching their own culpability in the situation, they want to kill the messenger (see Judges 6, also 1 Sam. 5). As I wrote yesterday, it should not come as any shock at all that Peterson accepts the homosexual lifestyle as being compatible with Christianity. Although he may nowhere confess such a belief, it is thoroughly reconcilable with his voluminous writings.
  3. Peterson’s defense that he was temporarily confused or distracted by a hypothetical question has got to rate in the top five of all sophistic statements of all time – right up there with Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.” If Peterson was a pastor for a large congregation in the Presbyterian Church, he was inundated with hypothetical questions every week, if not every day. He cannot argue that one fairly straightforward question somehow tripped him up – unless he is dealing with the onset of dementia, and that is something that no one is suggesting. I hate hypothetical questions – but I learned how to recognize them a LONG time ago. If I knew that an interview was being taped, and I sniffed out a hypothetical question that was virtually impossible to answer (and Merritt’s question was really very direct), I would have blown it up. If Peterson is only half as intelligent as his defenders claim, that question should have caused no problems at all. And, that is exactly my point. At the time of the interview, Peterson answered with a direct, unequivocal “yes,” indicating he understood the question about conducting a same-sex marriage and his willingness to officiate such ceremonies.
  4. All of this goes to demonstrate how NOT to handle a controversy. Peterson’s original answers have caused a tidal wave of accusations, counter-accusations, recriminations and other fall-out that directly relates to the esteemed position he holds in the minds of many. His recantation sounds forced and artificial. Merritt’s motives and his integrity have been impugned. He has further angered many with his attempts to defend his initial reasons for asking Peterson the questions he did.

No one knows how this whole sordid affair will end. Quite possibly it will dissipate as does a little tempest in a tea-pot, with everyone going away licking their wounds and vowing never to trust the “enemy” again. There may be some residual damage to either Peterson or Merritt or both. But it does illustrate that the best policy is to state what you believe with conviction, defend your convictions with the facts you hold to be true, and when challenged, answer with grace and humility.

Arrogance, Humility, and Institutional Memory

We are living in a time in which the disease of arrogance is approaching pandemic proportions. Humility, never in the history of man something that was found in over-abundance, has disappeared from all but the most remote corners of discourse. Humility is now considered to be the chief deadly sin. It used to be that mud was only thrown after all facts were depleted. Now, the storehouse of facts remains untouched, while the mud has all but been expended.

While far from being alone, the Churches of Christ have long been accused of arrogance – “You people think you’re the only ones going to heaven” is a refrain oft repeated – and not without some justification. Some members do hold such a belief. However, even among those who do not hold such exclusionary beliefs, there is a sense that, if the Bible is inerrant, and if I believe the Bible teaches something, then my understanding of what the Bible teaches must therefore also be inerrant.

Like I said – we are not alone in harboring such members, but it seems to me that we do have more than our fair share.

This is so peculiar to me, for one reason. The early leaders in the Restoration Movement did not hold such exclusionary beliefs, and the exact opposite concept is enshrined in one of the founding documents of the Restoration Movement.

In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell (father of Alexander), wrote this as his sixth proposition explaining the desire to withdraw from the evils of denominationalism:

6.  That, although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they see the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession. (Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, Mission Messenger, 1978 printing, p. 46)

The target that Campbell had squarely in his sights was the numerous creeds and Confessions of Faith that were used to divide Christians in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It is significant to me, however, that the very language he used “deductions…inferences…formally binding” are those that are used with a reckless abandon by his 21st century spiritual heirs.

Today you let some preacher or blogger infer something from Scripture, and it automatically becomes enshrined as a binding truth for the confession of the Church.

There is a key phrase in the middle of that paragraph is is, to me, astounding – incredible even. Thomas wrote, “. . . for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.” Here we have a statement that could come from the pen of virtually any “postmodern” theologian, and it was written almost 200 years ago!

If you convert someone to a deduction or an inference of man, all you have done is to create a follower of a denomination. If you convert someone to Jesus Christ, you convert them to the power and veracity of God. Anytime you tell someone (or anytime someone tries to tell you), “you have to believe the Bible plus this book” or “you have to accept the Bible and this confession of faith” or “you have to believe in the Bible and this creed” understand that person is trying to get you to accept the deductions and inferences of men as equal to that of Scripture! I wish I could say that such things do not happen within Churches of Christ, but I am wise enough to know otherwise. Preachers and members of the Churches of Christ may not have a written creed, but far too many of them have just as binding and just as distinct unwritten creeds, and those are probably more dangerous than the written versions. At least you can object to a specific written statement. Trying to pin down the unwritten creeds of some members is virtually impossible.

I will not back down one inch from the truths clearly taught in Scripture. I will not easily back down from my deductions and inferences, because God gave me a brain to use and legitimate tools to help me understand his word. But – and this is critical – I cannot bind my deductions on you as a matter of Christian obedience any further than you can agree to my deductive skill and resulting conclusions.

Humility demands that we approach our deductions, inferences, and conclusions with the greatest of reticence and care. As Campbell said, they may well be rock-solid biblical doctrine. But, just as easily, they can become tainted and be less than pure.

Arrogance will not allow that we be mistaken, in any way, shape, or form, in our “human wisdom.” Arrogance demands that everyone bow their knee to our special insight and judgment. When all the facts are used up, arrogance has no fear to start throwing mud. Arrogance is always self-righteous, but never quiet.

I would so much rather be quietly correct, than loudly wrong.

How to Win a Complex Theological Argument Without Really Trying – A Lament

I saw it again today. A complex theological discussion ended abruptly, yet without a legitimate conclusion. One side walked away feeling euphoric, the other feeling cheated and abused. The discussion was over, yet nothing had been settled. Neither side was changed; indeed, because of the nature of the argumentation neither side could be changed. What is sad is that through the specific use of tactics the conversation is likely never to be honestly entered into again. The “victor” obviously sees no need to, and the “vanquished” rejects the inherent dishonesty of the other. Never again shall the twain meet.

How do you win a complex theological argument without ever really trying? It is profoundly simple, actually. All you need to do is appeal to experience. Experience is the “Mother of all Debate Bombs (MOADB).” Drop it once and your enemy is reduced to picking up the splintered shards of whatever evidence they might have produced. Its effect can be devastating – although virtually never appropriate or legitimate.

Consider the two examples where I see this most frequently used. (No names will be provided to protect the guilty). A respectable, although intense, discussion begins over the significance of baptism, both in terms of salvation and the larger issue of ecclesiology (who should be considered a member of the church). At a critical point in the discussion one of the participants asks a rhetorical question: “Are you saying my father, God rest his saintly soul, will not be in heaven?” The MOADB was just dropped. How can there be a response? Say, “no” and all the fiery pit of hell will explode. Say, “yes” and derail the entire discussion into who has the mind of God. Say, “I do not know” and the discussion then becomes moot. Why discuss something with an ignoramus? (Never mind that option three is clearly the best, unless someone DOES have access to God’s infinite wisdom.) The point is that with the introduction of the dearly departed saintly relative, the issue becomes one of experience (the experience of having to deal with relatives/loved ones who disagree with me) and the playing field never will be level again.

Example two: A proponent of gender egalitarianism defends his (and it is almost always “his”) change in understanding the increased leadership role of women in a worship service. “I knew I was wrong when I looked into the eyes of my sweet little 10 year old daughter and realized she would never be considered worthwhile in my church.” Here is a case of the double MOADB. First, who wants to accept the role of arguing with a “sweet little 10 year old girl.” My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger ever since the day she entered this world. Two dogs and a turtle are ample proof of that, and my fortress of arguments against a rabbit is crumbling by the minute. But I digress.

The second, and more insidious, experiential argument in the above statement is the declaration (accusation, actually) that a female is considered “worthless” in a congregation that places the role of leadership solely upon qualified men. But I hear it all the time! In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer stipulated that one of the factors in deciding whether a congregation was “healthy” or not was whether there were females participating in significant leadership roles in the worship service. Clearly, not having women (plural) on the stage means a congregation hates women (and, I would assume, that means the women in the congregation hate themselves – a rather pernicious loathing, I might add).

However, once dropped, the MOADB cannot be recalled. The discussion is over, regardless of whether the subject is a dearly departed relative or one’s precious little progeny. Move the discussion from reason (logic, exegesis, historical examples, etc) to emotion (experience) and the battle is won. You really do not even have to try very hard. It is so simple it is astounding.

All of this is to illustrate, and to stress, my Undeniable Truth of Theological Reflection #1 all over again. If your goal is to win the argument (or at least prevent your opponent from answering you), then by all means drop the MOADB. But if your goal is to humbly submit to the truth of God’s word, and to lovingly attempt to correct someone else who you feel is in error, then the pretentious use of empty emotionalism is absolutely forbidden.

To paraphrase a teaching of our Lord, it is far better to lose an argument and maintain your virtue, than to win a debate and lose all sense of your honor.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.