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?

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#15)

And so we come to the end of my mostly tongue-in-cheek list of “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.”

15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15.a.  However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.

This “truth” reveals a long-simmering pet peeve of mine, which I find within congregations of the Churches of Christ, but also within virtually every nook and cranny of Christianity (real or imagined). That peeve is that this generation believes that this generation is the ONLY generation to have everything all figured out, that earlier generations were populated with ignorant boobs, and that future generations will only screw up what this generation has perfected.

I am so tired of a cabal of cultural observers who have anointed the coming generation of “millennials” as the smartest, the brightest, the most observant and intellectually astute generation to have ever walked the face of the earth. I remember reading a report by someone who had interviewed a group of graduating theology students that was so gushing it was nauseating. According to that observer, the group of 22-25 year olds that he was visiting with was so theologically radiant as to overcome the light of the sun.

Really? A generation that has not, or has barely, reached their 30th birthday, and they have already “understood all mysteries and have obtained all knowledge”?

A little confession here, but I am half-way through my fifth decade, and I am only now starting to understand the questions, let alone have any idea about the answers.

Which brings me to my point in Undeniable Truth #15 and 15a. Theology is second only to the field of History that is bound to a study of the past. The old maxim that we are gnats standing on the shoulders of giants is hyperbole, but a warranted hyperbole. We cannot understand our present, let alone make any projections about the future, unless we have a deep and broad understanding about our past.

Where this particular truth disturbs me the most is within my fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To be blunt: the average member of a Church of Christ is pathetically ignorant of his or her spiritual heritage. I don’t just mean historically foggy – I mean historically blind. I hear it in comments both from the pulpit and from the pew. It is embarrassing to hear it from the pew – it is revolting to hear it from the pulpit. For far too many people, the past 2,000 years of Christian theology simply do not exist. It is not that this history is minimized – it is excised! But what that leaves is a person who is struggling to live the life of discipleship with no memory. Imagine waking up each morning with absolutely no memory. How could you function? Yet, we attempt the same impossible task each and every time we disparage or remove any attempt to learn from Christian history.

[A mea culpa here – how can people learn what they have not been taught? Church leaders who do not insist on a basic understanding of church history (including Restoration History) are impoverishing their congregations. A course covering some aspect of church history must be a part of any healthy Christian education curriculum, preferably beginning in the high school years, but continuing on a rotating basis throughout an adult education program. Sermon over.]

The opposite extreme is by no means any improvement. An ignorance of our spiritual heritage has caused some to idolize certain figures who have obtained some measure of notoriety. It is a curious truth: those who are the most historically ignorant tend to idolize historical figures the most. The only problem is, it is not the real person (or the person’s teaching) that they turn into an idol. Being ignorant of the real historical person (or teaching) the modern sycophant creates a straw man (or ideology) and then reads that gilded idol back onto the pages of history.

I have just one teensy, tiny little example. How many members of the Churches of Christ revere some understanding of Thomas and Alexander Campbell? Now, how many of those same members also hold very firmly (even obstinately) to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” to discover how the Christian is to live his or her life today? Okay, now, how many of those who revere Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and who hold unswervingly to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” are aware that Thomas Campbell was firmly convinced of the command part, was reticent about the example part, and was emphatically against using any kind of human inference in determining Christian doctrine! You read that last part right – Thomas Campbell flatly rejected “necessary inference” in his hermeneutic – at least as it related to binding one’s conclusions on others. Yet, if you challenge “CENI” today you better be wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Sigh.

I do not want to worship any human being – and believe me I have my theological heroes! Every human that ever lived has lived in some measure of error – except, of course, our Lord. However – from the second century church fathers all the way through history down to and including such modern writers as N.T. Wright – great minds have wrestled with the teachings of Scripture and the questions of human life. Not all of their answers have been right, and a good many have been wrong. We can no more erase their contributions from our understanding of the Christian life than we can erase our memory of what happened yesterday or last year.

We are who we are because of those who have walked before us. If we see greater truths in the Scriptures (and, let’s hope that we do!) it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Let’s just remember that they too, were gnats standing on the shoulders of their giants.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#14)

If I have not made clear by now, I need to emphasize something – these Undeniable Truths are NOT something that I have mastered. I struggle to live out all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day or week or month. They are not mountain peaks that I have conquered, but rather signposts to (hopefully) keep me on the straight and narrow path.

So, please do not think that I offer #14 as some kind of “do what I say and what I do” kind of moralism. Rather, #14 in given because I believe we all struggle with the intersection of doctrine and discipleship, of orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action).

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.

I have heard it said that right action can lead to right thinking. I disagree – at least on the level of principle. I do not want to suggest that right behavior can never lead us to right thinking, but in my experience what passes for behavior leading to doctrine is simple eisegesis, the practice of coming to a conclusion and then searching for an acceptable proof text. Let me illustrate:

In a textbook that I was given to read for my doctoral studies, the author used an incident in the life of the seminary in which he was working as proof that behavior can lead to a positive change in doctrine. It seems the faculty of this seminary was confronted with a crisis – young women were demanding to receive the same ordination for ministry as young men. Many women had been taking the courses leading to ordination, but could not be ordained because of denominational practices. It was decided to change the policy and procedures and to ordain the females. A fervent search was then made to justify the decision on the basis of biblical precedent, and, lo and behold! The precedent was discovered after thousands of years of mysteriously being hidden in the bowels of a male dominated, patriarchal church. The author was emphatic that, had it not been for the change in practice, the change in the doctrinal position would never have been made. His point was that orthopraxy (at least, in his mind) can effect a change in orthodoxy.

As I said, I am not going to categorically deny that this can occur, but as the above case study suggests, the change in the doctrinal position had much more to do with political correctness and the financial stability of the seminary than in any guiding of the Holy Spirit. This, in my mind, was as blatant a case of eisegesis, of a decision in search of a proof-text, as I have ever seen or read.

No! Right action, right behavior, faithful discipleship comes as a result of right thinking – of proper doctrine. A change in circumstance might drive us to re-read and re-study Scripture – in fact it should. But we must never change our behavior or re-structure our discipleship and then go rummaging through the crevices of Scripture looking for a piton upon which to hang our conclusions.

I believe my Undeniable Truth #14 can be beautifully illustrated by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Early in his youth he was as nationalistic a German as a young boy coming to age during World War I could have been. In his early sermons he clearly taught that wars could be fought and killing could be justified if one’s nation or family was at risk. Years later, as he witnessed the developing violence of the National Socialists (the Nazis), he realized the gospel taught another truth: no wars should ever be fought and no killing can ever be justified. But Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist or conscientious objector and then look for a Scriptural blessing. He was driven into his pacifist convictions through a long and painful study of Scripture, primarily the Sermon on the Mount.

[Technical aside here. Much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s compliance with, and some would say promotion of, the attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. At this point in my study, and I believe with adequate justification, I do not believe Bonhoeffer would have attempted a biblical justification of Hitler’s assassination. He would have justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to end the war and to save thousands, if not millions, of lives, but I am not sure he would have done so on a purely theological basis. He wrote frequently enough about the guilt that the conspirators were acquiring to convince me that he would have confessed that the assassins (and conspirators) were clearly guilty of murder, but that God’s grace was sufficient to cover their guilt, and the value of saving innocent lives was worth the death of one “tyrannical despiser of humanity.”]

Right doctrine, without faithful discipleship, is meaningless. We can have all the “i”s dotted and all the “t”s crossed and all the jots and tittles in their right places, but if all those teachings do not result in changed lives, what good do they do?

I think we need to spend more time thinking about the eternal consequences of passages such as Isaiah 58:1-1-8, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13 (and 12:7), Matthew 23:23-24, and James 1:27 (among many others).

Let us not be guilty of becoming theologically perfect, and practically useless.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 12 and 13)

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, numbers 12 and 13, probably came from a time when I was really struggling to express how the two biblical concepts of grace and faithful response to that grace relate to each another. This relationship has posed problems for the church from its very earliest days, and I do not consider my feeble attempts at dissecting it to be the last word in the discussion. However, phrasing it the way I have has helped me understand the correlation of the two subjects. Hopefully it will help you . . . and if not maybe it will spur your thinking to create an understanding that is first of all biblical, and applicable as well.

12.  Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13.  The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.

The theological problem, and therefore the practical problem, that arises from this discussion relates to the elevation of either one of these two concepts above the other. For example, most evangelical theologians emphasize grace over faithful response. In fact, some will even go so far as to say that grace eliminates the need for faithful response. The thinking is thus: if God wills you to be saved, and if God’s will cannot be defeated, and if God’s grace is efficacious (and who would argue otherwise?), then you will be saved and nothing you do or do not do will change that verdict. This is Calvinism in the extreme, and is increasingly being promoted by a young and vociferous cadre of Calvinist theologians.

On the other end of the continuum are the radical Arminians, those who believe that Christians have to put a chair on top of a table, and then put a ladder on top of the chair, and then we have to climb to the top rung of the ladder, and then we have to stretch out our hand to God, and then, and only then, will he condescend to reach down and offer his grace. They do not deny grace, but grace is only extended when man has bathed himself in the sweat of climbing Jacob’s ladder.

I opine that both extremes are equally wrong, and pernicious. I believe that while grace is prior to a faithful response, it in no way precludes the necessity of a faithful response.

Without listing numerous passages (I have listed examples of grace preceding covenant, and covenant following grace above), I believe the consistent message of Scripture is that God always bestows his grace on mankind first, but that grace always contains an element of covenant, whether is it explicitly stated or not. The explicit covenants are numerous enough. God blesses first; but God always expects a faithful response.

Where “the rubber meets the road” for many people is the debate over the importance of baptism. I believe I can say with some measure of confidence that the prevailing attitude among evangelical writers and preachers is that individuals are saved when they “believe” or “accept Jesus in their hearts as their personal savior.” Some would ascribe the repetition of the “sinner’s prayer,” but even that is not a universal stipulation. Baptism, then, might be an appropriate response to one’s salvation, but is by no means necessary, and is believed by many to be a “mere” human work that does nothing other than signify the person’s willingness to become a member of a church.

Biblically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth! Baptism is NOT a human work. Baptism is always (and I repeat always) referred to as a passive act in the New Testament. Baptism is a submission to a command, that is true, but it is far more – it is a submission to a person, it is a submission to God’s act of grace demonstrated by Jesus’s death on the cross. We submit to baptism, we do not baptize (or save!) ourselves!

God’s grace is that Jesus died for our sins. God’s covenant with the believer begins with his or her submission to that death in the waters of baptism.

If you do not enter the covenant, how can you be covered by the grace?

We do not put a chair on the table, and a ladder on the chair, and reach up helplessly hoping God will somehow take notice of us. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, if you are curious), but the same author stressed that the only way we can come into contact with that grace is by participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1-11, if you are curious).

Let us put aside Calvin and Arminius and focus on the Bible. So much rancor and division could be ended if we could all agree to ascend – by bowing lower.

Formal or Dynamic; Word-for-Word or Thought-for-Thought?

Sorry for the egg-head stuff here. This post is the result of a rabbit that I was chasing while preparing my sermon for last week. In a recent post explaining my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection (#9) I discussed two major translation theories, formal (or literal) and dynamic (or thought-for-thought). This post is an interesting (at least to me) example of the significance of these two theories.

Our test passages are Acts 9:7 and 22:9. These verses are embedded in the accounts of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion. The first is told in the third person by Luke, the second is Saul’s (now Paul’s) first, first-hand recounting of that event (Paul would repeat the story again in chapter 26). Reading the two verses in the Revised Standard Version, one is struck with an immediate contradiction: in Acts 9:7 the traveling companions of Saul hear the voice that was speaking to Saul; and in Acts 22:9 they do not hear the voice.

Now, if you do not know Greek, but you have an idea about what might be happening, you might think two different words are being used for the English word, “hear.” Nice try, but no, its not true. In 9:7 the companions hear (from the word we get our English acoustics) the voice (from the word we get our English phonetics); in 22:9 they do not hear the voice. So, being the translation nerd that I am, I set off to see how other translations handled the two statements.

I checked a baker’s dozen translations. In 9:7 every single one had some form of the word “hear,” either as a verb or as a participle. Where it got interesting was in the translation of the same word in 22:9. Here is how they broke down:

Some form of the verb “hear” – King James Version, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, Common English Bible, The Message, and the American Standard Version. I have to admit, seeing the CEB and The Message in this column really surprised me. I really did not expect them to use the word “hear.”

The word “understand” or equivalent – English Standard Version, New International Version (1984 edition), Gods Word Bible, the NET Bible, and the New Living Translation. Those I sort of predicted. However, the one that really surprised me in this column – the New American Standard Bible! That’s right – one translation that claims to be among the most formal, or literal, actually chooses a more dynamic translation word here.

So, there you have it. Out of my 13 different translations, seven kept the same meaning in both verses for the word “hear.” Six had the more common translation for the Greek word in the first occurrence, but in the second verse they realized that if they kept the translation identical, there would be an inherent contradiction with 9:7. That is, you cannot have the companions hearing and not hearing at the same time. That makes either Luke or Paul ignorant of what was going on.

However, one legitimate (although less common) connotation of the word used in both verses is “understand, comprehend.” So, taking the context of the two verses into mind, the translators of the ESV, NASB, NIV, God’s Word, NET, and NLT all realized that the companions heard the words that were spoken to Paul, but they did not understand, or comprehend them. The two passages are not in contradiction – they make perfect sense. Only if you insist on a overly rigid translation principle is there a problem.

[By the way, here is where the preacher in me comes out. I think Paul is making a subtle point here as he speaks to his Jewish adversaries. Just because you hear some words does not mean that you understand them. It takes a willing heart – Jesus called it “ears to hear” – to take the words of Jesus and to accept them. The Jews to whom Paul was speaking in Acts 22 had no doubt heard Jesus and the apostles, but just like his companions on the road to Damascus, were unwilling to comprehend them. They heard, without hearing. End of sermon]

Here is the moral to the story: if you insist on a direct 1:1 translation theory, arguing that “a literal word-for-word” translation is always best, sometimes you can get yourself in a interpretational bog. By accepting that sometimes you need to look past a strict 1:1 equivalency, you can actually create a far better translation, one that conveys the actual sense of a passage.

By the way, as I stated in my earlier post, I really do like the RSV. But, it is not always perfect, and in this situation I do not like that they stayed with the same English word for the Greek word used. Using just the RSV, someone with no understanding of translation theories could, and most probably would, come away with a belief that Acts 9:7 and 22:9 contradict each other. That is unfortunate, and our translators owe us a more carefully nuanced product.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#11)

This post shall be rather brief (I’m trying to make promises I can keep) –

11.  The choice of imagery used in Scripture has as much value as the message communicated by those images. Example: the many metaphors used to describe the “people of God.” (Which is in itself a metaphor).

My point here was (and is) that we should not view Scripture as a “flat” piece of literature. The Bible contains some excruciatingly boring lists of genealogies, some breathtaking poetry, some captivating narrative, and some mystifying views of the future. To treat the genealogical material in the opening chapters of Chronicles with the same significance as the parables of our Lord is just wrong. As Jesus himself said, there are “weightier” matters, and by definition that means there are less weighty matters.

Over the years I have come to love the Scriptures as literature. I have come to recognize the artistry of each gospel writer, I have been shown both the tenderness and the pugnacity of the apostle Paul, and, in particular, I have been enthralled with the deep layers of the book of Revelation. I cannot explain all of this in a tidy little blog post, so I will end with as simple an encouragement as I know how: as we sit down to read the Bible, let us open our minds – and our hearts – to absorb the words of Scripture with all the variety and beauty that they have to offer.

Once we recognize, and value, the beauty of the presentation, we can far more deeply recognize, and value, the content of the message.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#10)

Not really sure who I stole this from . . . but I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to put all of this together as compactly as it appears –

10.  Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.

Undeniable Truth #10 expresses a pet peeve of mine. I repeatedly hear the statement that, “it’s just my opinion” or “you can believe what you want to believe, it really doesn’t matter.” Well, it may be your opinion, but it is not “just” your opinion. And, while we are all entitled to believe anything we want, what we believe really does matter. It matters a great deal.

Adolph Hitler and his henchmen did not achieve their hideous reign of terror by just building some concentration camps and suddenly murdering people. Hitler was placed into power in January 1933, but it was not until almost a decade later that the mass deportation and extermination of entire sections of German society began. What transpired between 1933 and the early 1940’s was a slow – but diabolical – attack on the attitudes and beliefs of the German people. Hitler murdered the German conscience before he murdered over 6 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other disenfranchised peoples.

To illustrate the power behind the truth of Truth #10, let us examine the downward trajectory of American culture since the legalization (and normalization) of abortion in 1972. The right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy through abortion has been framed almost entirely on the belief  that a woman has the “right” to make her own health decisions. Who in their right mind would disagree with that? But is that what abortion is really about? A health decision? This is all predicated on the belief (against all scientific evidence) that the product of a fertilized human egg is not a human being.

If you believe a Jew is nothing more than a rodent or a cockroach, then killing a Jew is actually a benefit to society. If you believe a baby is nothing more than a “mass” inside a uterus, then removing it is a “health decision.” Beliefs really do have consequences.

But no one, and I mean no one, can argue that our culture has not become more crass, more violent, less tolerant, and more dangerous in the decades since 1972. If you devalue human life in the womb, you devalue all of human life. If all we are is a highly evolved reaction of egg and sperm, then does it really matter if that development is suddenly ended? Why is infanticide wrong if the infant is totally dependent upon an adult? And, why would it be wrong to selectively eliminate those whose “development” is somehow defective? I think you get my drift here.

Those who promote life have another belief entirely – that an abortion kills a living human. Abortion is murder – a human life is destroyed by a premeditated action. You just cannot get around the implications. A human life begins at the moment of conception. A genuine ethic of the value of human life works to ensure that all of human life is protected – regardless of race, creed, or culture. A belief that human life is created in the image of God translates into action that seeks to safeguard that image.

A belief, enshrined in the Supreme Court decision known as Roe V. Wade,  empowers the entire abortion industry. A belief that one’s sexual orientation can be freely chosen and changed on a whim is fueling a radical re-structuring of human interaction. The belief that a divine god can and does will the murder of innocent bystanders is sanctioning a horrific expansion of terror throughout the world.

Every action that you might perform today – from the decision whether or not to take a shower to your decision to risk your life to save another – is based upon a belief or an attitude that you hold to be important. Some attitudes and beliefs are obviously more important than others, some are even life changing. How we choose to express those beliefs and attitudes, both by words and actions, have consequences. How we choose to express our belief in God and Jesus Christ have eternal consequences.

What you believe matters! Your attitudes matter very much to God, and you will demonstrate your beliefs and your attitudes in your every action.

Let us make every effort to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) If our thoughts are bound to Christ, our actions will not be far behind.