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.

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 (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 4 and 5)

The fourth and fifth Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection fit together so tightly that I decided to handle them together. Also, number 4 is really self-explanatory. Number 5 deserves a few words, though.

4.  The Bible is a record of the relationship God formed with man, his creation. It is also a record of man’s failure to live within this relationship.

5.  Theology is man’s attempt to understand this relationship between God and man. The beginning of theological reflection is the careful study of the Bible.

I do not know what else to say about number 4. The Bible is truly a story – a story about God and man. The story begins and ends with God, but from beginning to ending the content of the story revolves around God’s relationship with his finest creation – the only creation that was made “in our image.”

I think it is number 5 that people will misinterpret, or misunderstand. I believe that the average “sit in the middle of the pew” Christian simply does not understand the meaning and purpose of theology. I do not blame them – because for the most part theologians have done a rather pitiful job of explaining theology.

For the curious, I have read two books that do a wonderful job explaining the practice of theology, and of explaining how everyone who claims to live a Christian life is in some sense a theologian. The first is Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson. The second is Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson. If you only want one, I would recommend the first, first. However, both are wonderful books and do a much better job of explaining this than I do.

Stated as simply as I can: everyone who reads and attempts to live out the words of Scripture is a theologian! Theology is not the private domain of some old graybeard cloistered in some ivy covered tower. If you read the Bible, and if you attempt to live the Christian life, you are a theologian, plain and simple. The only question that remains is this: are you going to be a good theologian, or a bad one?

Subsequent explanations of the following “Undeniable Truths” will unpack just exactly what I mean when I use the words “good theology,” but suffice it to say here that the key is found in the last phrase, “the careful study of the Bible.”

Good theology is the result of careful, diligent, intentional study of the Bible. Bad theology is the result of shoddy, reckless, or inattentive reading of Scripture. Good theology is never an accident, while good theologians are sometimes guilty of producing bad theology, for the simple reason that even good theologians occasionally get careless. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to approach the story of the Bible as carefully and intentionally as we possibly can, each and every time we pick it up to read it.

As always, please refer to Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 1, and repeat often.

We can only ascend by climbing lower.

Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection (#3)

Continuing my series on my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” . . .

Building on truth #2, if the authors of Scripture intended their writings to be understood (for me that is axiomatic), then they also intended their writings to achieve their intended purpose:

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

Here again, the casual and non-observant reader would glance at these sentences and say, “sure, no problem” and then go out and violate the meaning that I intended for them (pardon the irony).

What I am trying to say is that if a writer composed a narrative, he (or she, but most authors/scribes in antiquity were males) intended his narrative to convey the truth of the narrative (historical truth, didactic teaching, command, parable). If he composed a poem, he intended the poem to convey its intended purpose (comfort, frustration, lament, confession, rejoicing). If he composed in the wisdom tradition, he intended his writing to convey some aspect of wisdom. Point is, when we take a piece of poetry and turn it into a piece of history, or even worse yet, a command, we violate the meaning of Scripture. Let that last little phrase sink in. We can love Scripture, quote Scripture, memorize Scripture; but if we misinterpret or misapply Scripture, we are violating the meaning of that Scripture!

To take a well-worn, but never-the-less powerful example, look at Genesis 1-3. Nothing about this text indicates that it is a lesson in history, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, genetics, or anthropology. Yet, I have seen, and heard, Genesis 1-3 used as a text to explain all of these, if not more. That is to violate the meaning of Genesis 1-3! If I can boil the meaning of Genesis 1-3 down to one sentence, it would be this: Genesis 1-3 is a narrative story, set in a poetic structure, that explains (1) who God is, and (2) who man (male and female) is, and (3) what the relationship is between God and man, God and creation, and man and creation. Anything beyond that is pure speculation, and the more specific the speculation the more harmful the results.

However, the same can be said of the historical sections of the Old Testament (they are not written to be examples in ethics courses), the Psalms (written from man to God, not God to man), the wisdom literature  and, in the New Testament, the parables (not cute little stories for VBS) and (my pet peeve) the book of Revelation (not a “road map to history”).

Undeniable truth for theological reflection number 3 teaches us that before we can say “this is what the Scripture says to us” we have to ask the question, “what kind of Scripture is this?” Then, once we have determined the kind of Scripture we are dealing with, then we can begin to work on determining its purpose, and for us, its intended meaning.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, #2

Continuing my explanation of my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” –

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

Um, this should be painfully obvious. I guess for some, pain just does not work. I was tempted to add, “. . . by the original audience” but I decided not to, for the very real reason that if the Scriptures are inspired (and I believe wholeheartedly that they are), then the authors of the Bible intended that their words could be understood years, even hundreds of years, after they were completed.

I find this truth being violated most frequently in terms of the prophetic and apocalyptic writings in the Bible. There seems to be among many theologians an unwritten rule of interpretation: “If you can point to an obvious fulfillment of a prophecy, the prophecy has been fulfilled; if not, then it relates to the second coming of Jesus.” Just a curious question, but don’t you think Isaiah was writing to his fellow countrymen in the “. . . days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”? If so, don’t you think that his hearers, or readers, could understand what he preached and wrote? Now, I have no doubt that Matthew (and other N.T. authors), writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not see a “fuller” and “more complete” fulfillment of many of his prophecies. Matthew’s vision does not erase Isaiah’s original intended purpose, however, and it is especially dangerous to read the Old Testament ONLY through the glasses of a New Testament perspective.

My biggest issue with this “misinterpretation” of Scripture relates to the book of Revelation. The piecemeal manner in which passages are used as proof-texts for virtually every bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible theory of the end-times is just infuriating. It is almost as if people think that John muttered to himself, “I have no idea what all this means, but I’m going to write it down and somebody living in the 21st century will be able to figure it all out.” Hogwash and balderdash, I say. John intended his readers to know EXACTLY what he was writing, or he never would have put pen to paper.

All of this relates specifically to Undeniable Truth #1. If we do not approach Scripture with humility – if we just treat the Bible as some ancient book of folklore and whimsy – then we will completely miss its intended purpose. In other words, we must first come to Scripture with the question, “What did it mean?” before we can ask the question, “What does it mean?” How did Isaiah’s hearers (and readers) hear and read his prophecies? How would a church reading the gospel of Matthew understand his use of Isaiah? And, how would one of the seven churches in Asia have interpreted John’s majestic apocalypse? Only after we come to the Bible with those questions answered can we sit down and say, “Okay, what does this have to say to me today?”

If the meaning of a passage of Scripture we derive is completely foreign to the meaning that it’s original audience would have derived, then I would suggest that our interpretation is completely wrong. Jeremiah was not prophesying that God has mapped out every single detail of our human existence (Jer. 29:11). Jesus was not prophesying about the rise of Muslim terrorism in Mark 13. And the anti-Christ has absolutely nothing to do with Adolph Hitler or Ronald Reagan. (1 John clearly states who the anti-Christ is, to the chagrin of many Christians).

As the old sergeant on Hill Street Blues used to advise his officers at roll-call, “Let’s be careful out there.” Let us be extremely careful with the words of Scripture, because they are God’s words, not ours. Let us ascend higher, by first descending lower, that we might know as fully as possible what God intended for us to know.

Can We Admit We Are Wrong?

Pardon me if the next post or two seem to be vaguely connected, yet seemingly confused. Working through some things here “on the fly,” but hopefully something will make sense.

I am struck by a strange contradiction between our words and our actions. We (and I include myself here, but am speaking generically) praise humility and our ability to admit error and failure. And yet, on a very basic level we never do so. We are always, without exception, 100% correct on every single issue 100% of the time. This, amazingly enough, even though another person claims to be 100% correct, and his opinion (or facts) are diametrically opposed to ours. It is a mathematical miracle. Two completely opposite “truths” which are both correct, even though both completely reject the other. (confused yet?)

I shall start (in good prophetic style) by pointing out the error of someone I disagree with, and then (much more quickly than Amos did) step on my own toes. It is a common belief – nay, mandatory conviction – among most “evangelical” Christians that those who have been redeemed by Christ have been saved “by grace alone through faith alone.” The problem with this conviction is that it is only half true. The apostle Paul himself wrote that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8). However, the word “alone” simply does not exist in the text. It is an invention of Martin Luther as a hedge against his Roman Catholic opponents. Yet, try to get a good Lutheran (or Reformed) pastor to admit that simple truth. You may get them to admit the word is not present, but you will never get them to admit the concept is also not present. To believe we are saved by grace through faith is to believe Scripture. Add the word “alone” to either concept and you have fundamentally changed the meaning of the text.

Now, for my own toes. How many times have members of the Churches of Christ said that “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” And yet, and yet…

How many times have you also heard that someone who is divorced for a reason other than adultery is “still married in God’s eyes”? How many times have you heard that God created the world in “six 24 hour periods”? How many times have you heard the world is a mere “6,000 years old”? How many times have you heard that if you consume one “drop” of an alcoholic beverage, you are “one drop drunk”? Now, I do not want to aver that any of those statements is wrong on a propositional level. Each may be 100% true. What I DO want to point out is that NONE of the above statements can be found in Scripture. ALL of them are inferences, or deductions, from statements made in Scripture. Thus we SAY we are only going to speak in words mandated by Scripture, and then we build entire theologies and moral structures on ideas that are NOT in Scripture.

[Self-disclosure: I do believe God created the world in six days (Gen. 1). I do believe divorce is a sin, and that God hates that sin (Malachi 2, Matthew 5, 19, 1 Cor. 7). I do not believe in Darwinistic evolution, and I am most assuredly not promoting the practice of social drinking. I merely pointed these statements out because they appear to me to be some of the most egregious “speaking where the Bible does not speak” – at least in explicit terminology. This is where I can agree in principle, and yet still disagree with the language, and sometimes the motivations, of some of my brothers and sisters in Christ.]

Suffice it to say that I have been tripped up enough by my own self-righteous prattle to know that ANY deduction made from Scripture needs to be put under a dispassionate microscope. There has only been one person who lived in perfect unity with God the Father, and that was his Son Jesus. There is only one perfect description of the true and unchangeable will of God, and that is the Bible. All other humans, and all the most deeply studied understandings of that Bible are flawed in some degree or another. To deny that fact is the ultimate in human arrogance.

Simply put, no human can ever be 100% correct about every question or be 100% knowledgeable about every single verse of every chapter of every book in the Bible. Even that which we think we know about the text of the Bible must be re-examined in light of more recent discoveries concerning language, geography, and biblical history.

I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting some post-modern “there is no truth” or “truth is all relative” intellectual garbage. I most assuredly believe there is ultimate truth, and to the extent that God desires that we know it, we as humans can know it, and should strive to learn it.

But Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 scares me, and as one who earns his living by speaking (and writing) words, I believe I am bound to a very precious calling, and I do not take that calling lightly.