Book Review – Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Duane Litfin)

Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) 359 pages plus 27 pages of bibliography)

I have been struggling with how to create an appropriate introduction for my review of this book. This morning I finally settled on what I think is the best way to communicate how I feel about not only the content of the material, but the manner in which it was presented: this is the book I wish I had available to me when I was a young man considering becoming a preacher.

First, for want of a better term, I will address the “style” of the writing. Many authors are absolutely brilliant in their field of study, but seem to be genetically prohibited from getting that brilliance out of their heads and onto paper so that others can share their illumination. Litfin’s book is the polar opposite of that obtuseness. I love reading this book because it was just such a joy to read. Once again, some authors are so in love with their thesis that they do not take the time to explain why their thesis is important to begin with. Litfin begins (part 1), not with explaining what he thinks Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 1-4, but rather by explaining the cultural understanding of rhetoric and the power of persuasion (Greco-Roman rhetoric) that Paul would be familiar with in Corinth. Then, in part 2 he turns to 1 Corinthians 1-4 and demonstrates that Paul was specifically rejecting this view of persuasion. Litfin could have cut the length of the book in half by simply arguing his position from 1 Corinthians 1-4. However, the value of the material would have been reduced by far more than 50 percent. Litfin’s knowledge of, and presentation of, the material in part 1 is, hopefully not to be too effusive, magisterial. When he moves to part 2, the reader (student) is thoroughly conversant with the basic understanding of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Here I must also praise Litfin’s use of primary writings. He quotes ancient writers at length, but not so many and so long as to make the material unreadable. I repeat what I said at the beginning, this book is so well crafted, so well written, that whether you want to be a preacher or not, just reading this book is an education in how to present your arguments.

But, let us move on to the content. Litfin’s thesis boiled down to a simple sentence is this: the apostle Paul was well aware of the prevalent culture of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but he (Paul) made the conscious decision to reject the art of that rhetoric in order to present the gospel message as an obedient herald, a simple proclaimer of the cross. On a simple reading, one might be tempted to say, “ho, hum, next . . .” But this message cuts against the grain of so much of what is taught in preacher training courses that it demands to be heard. I could not help but think as I read and digested this material – “wow, if Litfin’s thesis was widely promoted and accepted, hundreds of instructors in preaching trainings situations would suddenly be unemployed.” The reason for such a response is simple – we are training preachers to do exactly the opposite of what the apostle Paul presented as his guiding theology for both ministry and preaching.

Today preachers are taught the art of communication (we do not use the word rhetoric anymore, but that is what it is). Preachers are taught how to evaluate an audience (age, economic background, educational level, etc) and to decide how to “get under the audience’s skin” (my words) so as to manipulate the audience’s feelings in order to generate the greatest amount of positive response. The preacher may be after conversions or a greater commitment to giving, or to motivate people to become a short-term missionaries. But the process is all basically the same – how do I take my message to this audience and what tools do I use in this setting to achieve my greatest goals? That, in a very crude way, is to use the “art” of rhetoric. It is the basic skeleton of the process I was taught in my speech and preaching classes.

Litfin argues persuasively that Paul takes all of that and throws it out the window. Paul was well aware of that theory and all of the tools of rhetoric. However, Paul’s theology, Paul’s foundational motivation, was not to be an accomplished speaker/preacher/rhetorician. Paul’s goal was to be an obedient herald. Paul simply wanted to preach the message of the cross. The result was up to the Holy Spirit. Paul preached, God converted. Paul’s goal was not to be successful, it was to be obedient. Success, in other words, for Paul was not in the number of conversions, but it was to be measured in how faithful he was in presenting the gospel.

Now, to be sure, Paul was aware of his audience, and to Jews he referred to the law of Moses and to cultured Greeks he referred to secular poets. But this was not to use (or abuse) the art of rhetoric – Paul was simply adapting his presentation of the gospel message to the level of understanding of his audience. He was educating his audience, not manipulating them. There is a significant difference, and one that I believe is lost in much of contemporary preaching classes.

I will leave it to the reader to follow Litfin’s argument. I found it to be both profound, and profoundly significant. The author’s style is not elegant in the sense of flowery language, but it is indeed elegant in the sense of its structure and presentation. I think I am being redundant here, but this book provides an education in not only the content of what is being argued, but in the very essence of how it is being argued.

Although Litfin’s main purpose is not to write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4 per se, I must add that his treatment of these four chapters is as fine a commentary as I have read on Paul’s introduction to this critical letter. If I had my druthers, I would have two copies of the book, and I would put one on my library shelf dedicated to 1 Corinthians, and one in the section I have dedicated to preaching and homiletics. I will probably keep the book in my preaching section, but the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1-4 is an education in its own right.

No book is absolutely perfect, and I do have to share one caveat for a reader who does not know Greek. Litfin’s use of Greek terms is frequent, and in about 95% of the cases he does provide an English translation. However, when he repeats a Greek word he does not always repeat the translation, and there are a number of times in which he assumes that the reader knows how to read Greek (the terms are never transliterated) and even knows the meaning of the words. In terms of editing, I would have liked IVP Academic to have demanded a little “dumbing down” for those who do not have a background in Greek, but this is a relatively small quibble, and if you do not know Greek the overwhelming majority of the book is still valuable. I would suggest that due to the inclusion of the Greek terminology this book is probably written for a 2nd or 3rd year college student, or seminary student, so buyer beware. On the other hand, the language is decidedly written, and the argumentation is so well defended (repeated appropriately, but never to the point of obnoxious redundancy) so that even if you have to “bleep” over the Greek words, the book would still be of inestimable value.

I end with how I started. I so wish I had this material back when I was starting my school work, back when the crust of the earth was first starting to cool. I’m just glad I have read it now, and over the next few weeks and months I am going to re-evaluate all of my preaching and teaching to see if I am being faithful to Paul’s theology of preaching, or if I am falling prey to the less faithful, but much more highly praised, skill of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Honoring Heroes – and Respecting Differences

In my last post I shared some reasons why David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of my heroes of theology. I freely admit that my thinking contains more than one paradox. These two are hardly theological twins. Maybe that is one reason they attract me so much. In no way whatsoever do I want to suggest they shared the same theological conclusions in every possible way. And so, in part to clarify some issues, and in part to continue to honor their influence, I share these rather significant differences between my two favorite theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trained in, and always practiced, the classical form of liberal biblical studies that was current in Germany in the early 20th century. David Lipscomb would NEVER have accepted what Bonhoeffer viewed as something that was self-evident – that theologians could, and should, identify the purely human elements involved in the production of Scripture as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would have viewed Lipscomb’s literalist approach to Scripture as being reactionary. But it is here that I find a remarkable similarity – when Bonhoeffer preached, he preached the Bible as fervently and “literally” as Lipscomb would have. That is to say, when Bonhoeffer was doing academic theology, he leaned heavily on his liberal training. But when he preached, he preached the text as if he were a conservative’s conservative. He thought the “theology” that was being taught at Union Theological Seminary was laughable – he wrote that the only place he could find the gospel being preached in New York City was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I am not the only one who strives to hold two vastly different viewpoints in tension!
  • Bonhoeffer accepted the view that the universal church was comprised of the various “churches” found primarily in Europe. He was mystified by the proliferation of “denominations” in America – I’m not sure he ever really figured out what Americans did with the concept of the church. Lipscomb was a Restorationist – he was firmly convinced there was only one church, and it could not be comprised of a number of different bodies who held significantly different beliefs. Lipscomb rejected both the European view of the church, as well as the uniquely American experiment in denominationalism.
  • Similarly, Bonhoeffer had no issue with promoting the classic creeds of Christianity, and was active in formulating the Confession of Faith that defined the Confessing Church in Germany. Lipscomb believed that creeds were unnecessary, and that Confessions of Faith were divisive, not unitive. Yet, even here, there is a strange intersection of belief between these two men – both men believed that the church they were a part of was the one true church! Bonhoeffer famously wrote (and was excoriated for it) that if one separated himself from the Confessing Church, he separated himself from salvation. For Bonhoeffer there was one church, and the Confessing Church in Germany was that church (or at the very least, was a part of that church). Lipscomb would have said the same thing (and perhaps did), except that the church to which he would have referred would have been a conservative Church of Christ (certainly not a congregation of the Disciples of Christ!) Coming from two radically different approaches, both men ended up basically in the same place.
  • As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Lutheran, it goes without much explanation that he and David Lipscomb would have had significant differences in understanding the Lord’s Supper.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the finest explanations on the topic of baptism that I have ever read – and yet, he concluded that infant baptism was perfectly acceptable. [Note, this is one area where Bonhoeffer just drives me crazy. His justification for the necessity of baptism could have been written by Alexander Campbell or David Lipscomb, but then he concludes that it is this necessity for baptism that mandates, or at the very least, allows for, infant baptism. His logic makes my head spin. The only thing I can suggest is that, like every single one of us, Bonhoeffer was a product of his theology, not just a shaper of that theology. For him to have rejected infant baptism would have meant far more of a radical turn than he was willing to make, and, for the battle in which he was so completely devoted, the specific question of infant vs. believer’s baptism did not occupy a critical position.] Lipscomb rejected the idea of “inherited” or “original” sin, and for him infant baptism was not only unnecessary, it was unbiblical.
  • Related to another point above, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of the 1930’s. His conception of the church universal not only allowed this, it pretty much demanded it. Lipscomb would have rejected this approach of recognizing the church universal, and would have been emphatic that the only way to unify divided Christianity was to return to a simple and straightforward understanding of the New Testament.
  • Bonhoeffer held firmly to the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” One of the distinctive views of Lipscomb is that there is only one kingdom, that of God, and that any attempt of man to govern within that kingdom was a repudiation of God’s kingship. Therefore, for Lipscomb, a Christian should not participate in any form of government, even down to voting! Bonhoeffer believed that government was established and blessed by God, so long as it reserved its authority for strictly “secular” purposes. The role of the church was to teach the government how to govern appropriately, and to correct the government when it overstepped its boundaries.

As I mentioned in my first post – the differences between Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer are vast and deep. One should in no way confuse the beliefs of these two men! However, the intersection of their thoughts, where they do indeed intersect, is profoundly interesting to me, for the very reason that they approach Scripture and the church from such differently positions. I am captivated by both. I favor Lipscomb in many ways because he is family – we share the same ecclesiastical heritage. I find his political views refreshing, and dare I say it, far more biblical than most of my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. I believe Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both drank from the same Spirit. I can see, despite their differences, a strange union. Maybe its because I am so strange. Who knows.

Anyway, thanks for sharing a bit of my conservative, and liberal, heritage!

For the Love of Words

Harvey Porter, long-time preacher and hero of mine, once said that in order to be a good preacher you had to be a lover of words. My father bequeathed to me many quirks, but maybe one that I value the most is a profound love of words. I have seen him reading Ogden Nash and laughing so hard tears came to his eyes. My father loved a beautiful poem and beautiful song lyrics. To him words were not simply objects to be thrown around mindlessly, but tools to be treasured and protected.

Words move us, shape us, comfort us. Conversely, words can cut, inflame, and injure. While other animals have the ability to communicate using sounds, only humans have the ability to create and share the specific meaning of individual sounds called words. There are countless languages on the earth, but none without meaning, and none without the use of specific, individual words.

There is something profound, and even mystical, then, that the gospel writer says that Jesus was the Word of God. The Divine Being that is beyond and transcends all understanding, descended into this world to be known as the Word.

All of which is to point to the death of words, of language, today. Words used to have meaning – words used to be signs that pointed to a fixed and immutable truth that lay behind the vocalization of certain sounds. Take the word truth for example – on one level the word is simply a combination of a sequence of vocalizations that, on their own, have no significance. On another level the word points to something solid, secure; as I mentioned above, immutable and eternal.

But, today, even truth is dying. We are told there is no immutable, eternal truth. Truth is a construct, truth is what we want it to be, truth is transitory, cultural, and ephemeral.

Pardon me for being old-fashioned, out-of-date, and stodgy, but I treasure words. I value words not only for the beauty that they reveal, but for the beauty they contain in-and-of themselves. There is a quality, an aspect, of words that I hold to be precious. Even though the eternal concept of Truth cannot be affected by the degrading of the physical word truth, its value in the economy of language does suffer. The mention of truth used to make gentlemen stand up and remove their hats. Now, all it does is engender snickers and guffaws.

All of the preceding leads me to the question that motivated this post – what does the word Christian mean anymore? That is to ask, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is one a Christian simply because he or she is not a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist? Is one a Christian simply because he or she says that he or she is a Christian? Is there some definable, measurable quality that would identify a person as a Christian? If so, what is it? How would we identify it?

There is a collection of writings that, for roughly two thousand years, men and women have used as a measure of what it means to be a Christian. We call that collection of writings a Bible, a word that simply means book. The Bible is a book of books, comprised of millions of words. Those words are not just any kind of words, however. For those who have historically used the adjective “Christian,” those words are believed to have come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of the Holy God. They are not, in other words, just inspirational words, such as the words of the great Greek, Roman, or English poets. No. These words are believed, are confessed, to be the words that God himself gave to his chosen penmen (and perhaps, penwomen). To deny that those words are inspired of God, and even to deny the truths that those words communicate, has, for those two thousand years (and even longer, adding the history of the Jewish people), meant that one is outside of the boundaries of the church. In other words, you cannot deny that which creates the identity of a person or group, and then claim the identity of that person or group.

There are people who reject the inspiration of the Scriptures. They therefore reject the foundational truths revealed in those Scriptures. They may selectively borrow certain qualities or virtues promoted in Scripture, but for them those qualities are simply inspirational, and therefore not crucial (note, the root for crucial is the cross – that which is crucial is founded of the truth of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross).

Here is where, for me, the “rubber meets the road” (to use a colorful colloquialism). It is simply impossible to deny the inspiration of the Bible, and deny the historical and moral teachings contained in those Scriptures, and then claim allegiance to the One to whom those Scriptures point. It is not enough to claim a belief in the historical life of Jesus. It is not even enough to claim that this Jesus died to forgive the failures of mankind.

If you deny the claims that Scripture makes about itself (or, that the authors make regarding their writings) then you cannot claim participation in the realm, the kingdom, that the Scriptures identify – the kingdom of God. To me its that simple.

I am enough of a realist to understand that in the ebb and flow of history, the meanings and the usage of words changes. Take, for example, the bastardization of the word gay. Gay used to mean happy, carefree, exuberant. Now it is used to describe a deviant sexual lifestyle.

I question whether the word “Christian” can have any linguistic value today. I know the truth behind the word has not changed, but because we use the word to describe everything from trinkets and baubles to the precise and exacting exercise of theology, the word has “literally” become vapid, insipid, meaningless. I think for the time being the phrase disciple of Christ has more validity. You can measure discipleship, you can challenge it, test it, qualify and quantify it. Not so much with the adjective, Christian.

I love the word Christian, however. In its pristine form it means, little Christ. Those who honorably claim the name seek to become like Jesus in every way. In order to do that we must rely on the words he loved and meditated upon – the Holy Scriptures that we call the Old Testament. We must also rely on the words of those whom He inspired to continue his message – the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament. We must love the Word, and we must love the words.

And, for anyone who does not love the Word, let him or her be anathema. (1 Corinthians 16:22). If anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel preached in the Scripture, let that one be accursed (Galatians 1:8, 9)

Bad Assumptions Lead to Tainted Conclusions!

I came across an article recently, and as I pondered it a number of strikingly bad assumptions became evident. It might be a good idea for you to read the article in its original context before you read this post so that you can make up your own mind regarding the truthfulness or falsity of the author’s conclusions.

Must women really keep silent in the churches?

The first incorrect assumption the author makes is this, “For starters, it would create a hopeless contradiction with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:5, which indicates that women were ‘praying and prophesying’ in the church. Paul doesn’t rebuke their praying and prophesying in church.” Some space later he repeats himself, “Again, Paul is not against women speaking altogether. He acknowledges that they are praying out loud and prophesying out loud in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:5).” The problem with these two statements is that they are simply not true. Nowhere in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is the assembly in view. Paul is not rebuking the women for praying or prophesying in the assembly (true statement) but he is not defending those practices either. He is simply making an argument from general decorum – when men pray or prophesy they are not to have their heads covered, when women pray or prophesy they are supposed to have their heads covered. The when or where is simply not mentioned because it is not a factor in Paul’s argument. (As an aside here, I think Paul does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:29 when he makes reference to those who baptize on behalf of the dead. He does not commend the practice, nor necessarily refute it – he simply mentions it.)

However, beginning in 1 Corinthians 11:17 a significant shift occurs – “But in the following instructions . . .” (emphasis mine). Notice the following emphases on the assembly-

  • “When you come together” – 11:17
  • “When you come together as a church” – 11:18
  • “When you come together” – 11:20
  • “When you come together to eat” – 11:33
  • “If, therefore, the whole church comes together” – 14:23
  • “When you come together” – 14:26

There is a clear literary, and therefore contextual, break between 1 Corinthians 11:16 and 11:17 and following. When Paul finishes his generic argument, and when he moves to specific practices that ought to be done or ought not to be done, he repeatedly uses the definitive, “when you come together” or “when the church comes together.” To overlook or to dismiss this clear rhetorical device is to totally confuse Paul’s arguments, and therefore to destroy them.

The second incorrect assumption the author makes is this, “Paul is commanding the women to keep silent in a certain context – during the judgment of prophecies.” The fact is Paul never connects the judging of prophecies specifically to women speaking. The connection simply is not there. To illustrate his conjecture, he creates a hypothetical situation that is utterly foreign to the context he so pointedly refers to. “But this creates a potential problem. What happens if a husband prophesies, and his wife is a prophet as well? Is the husband supposed to be subject to his wife during the judgment of prophecies?” He answers his own hypothetical, “For that reason, he enjoins women in this context to refrain from the judgment of prophecies.” (emphasis Burk’s)

If it is possible for us to overlook the egregious hypothesizing going on here, let us just stop and consider what he is asking us to believe. In this scenario, a married man, a male prophet, utters a prophetic teaching. His wife, also a prophet (I guess that would make her a prophetess), recognizes that what her husband said is wrong, or at least needs some correction. As far as the audience is concerned, the same Holy Spirit speaks through both of them, but because she is a female she is to refrain from correcting her erroneous husband, even though she is led by the Holy Spirit and is correct in her judgment. This simply staggers the imagination! Not to mention raising the issue of whether a prophet can claim prophetic inspiration if his teaching is erroneous. What is the church to do if there is no other male prophet who can “judge” the first speakers prophecy?

The third false assumption the author makes is this, “Today, reading aloud God’s revelation from scripture (sic) is the functional equivalent of prophesying God’s revelation in Paul’s day. Biblically speaking, it would be totally in keeping with Paul’s instructions for women to be reading scripture (sic) and praying during the gathered assembly of God’s people. Both of those things can be done in a way that honors the headship principle (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16).” Again, by referring to the text that has nothing to do with the assembly, the author invalidates his assumption. But, more to the point, since when does simply reading a text equate to the prophetic gift that caused that text to come into existence? The assumed conclusion is specious. It has no merit.

If the author makes these false assumptions, what then of his conclusions. He makes two. First, “. . . we go beyond the example of scripture (sic) if we foreclose what Paul clearly allows – women praying and sharing God’s revelation during worship services.” Paul does not “clearly allow” such practices, and there is no defense of such an argument from the text. Second, “. . . it would be a violation of headship for women to teach or to exercise authority in corporate worship. Teaching is explaining and applying an already-given revelation. The judgment of prophecies would have included evaluations which are the functional equivalent of teaching. And that is why Paul does not wish for women to judge prophecies in the gathered assembly.” Okay, here is where it really gets confusing for me. A woman can read the text, but she cannot explicate it? She can assume a leadership role in leading in public Scripture reading or prayer, but she cannot assume a leadership role in preaching a sermon or teaching a class? Here is where the author attempts to split a hair, and in my personal opinion, fails so miserably.

The author does not believe women should exercise a leadership role in the public worship, a position that I also hold. The author believes that the miraculous manifestation of prophecy has ceased, another position that I personally hold. So why complain so vehemently with the manner in which the author arrives at his conclusions? (Well, actually, he only refers to his defense of cessationism)? The answer I believe is critical to understand.

Simply stated, when we use faulty logic, or even worse, faulty exegesis, to defend a position that we hold we do two things. One, we ultimately make it more difficult for others to correctly defend any given position because those who see through their errors attach those errors to our apologetic. Stated another way, the fruit of the poisoned tree taints all other fruit, simply by association. Second, we provide for those who disagree with us a ready and solid attack against the conclusions we draw. Personally, if I disagreed with this particular author, I could have a field day attacking his position. Shoot – he basically does it for me, telling me that it is perfectly okay for a woman to prophesy (read God’s inspired Scripture publicly), but she cannot tell me what the text means because she would be violating Paul’s “headship” principle by “judging a prophecy.”

I am enough of a “fundamentalist” (if you want to call me that) that I believe arriving at the correct interpretation of a text is absolutely critical. But, I also am convinced to the marrow in my bones that the manner in which we arrive at those conclusions, and the manner in which we publicly proclaim those conclusions, are both equally critical. We simply cannot use faulty logic and faulty exegesis and theological practices to defend what we believe to be true.

Let us be faithful to the message, but let us also be humble servants of the task of exegesis and hermeneutics.

What Is Our Authority?

Some additional thoughts on my study on Christ and culture . . .

It occurred to me that the contemporary church has an authority problem. Not that this is original with us in the 21st century, but the problem is revealing itself in a manner that is becoming more critical by the moment. Let me work through a little bit of “our” history.

Two examples demonstrate how the sciences have been used to correct, or to make amends for incorrect and, in one case, blasphemous, misunderstandings of Scripture. The first example is that of recognizing, and then accepting, that a geocentric universe is incorrect, and that the earth revolves around the sun, rotating on its axis as it does so. The second example is that of recognizing, and then overcoming, the disgraceful way in  which the Bible was used to defend and support slavery. In the first example, students of the Bible had to realize that the biblical authors could use language that was not scientifically correct, but that was correct by man’s experience none-the-less. In the second example, students of the Bible had to recognize that just because a word is used (i.e., “slavery”), that did not mean that God blessed or even approved of the practice, and certainly would not condone a practice as distorted as was the American practice of slavery.

In the first example, the science of astronomy proved to be authoritative, and in the second example, the science of sociology (perhaps along with physiology, and psychology) were employed along with appropriate Bible study to correct bad Bible interpretation.

I am grateful for the scientific knowledge of Copernicus, Galileo, and many others. I am grateful for the men and women who stood up and demanded that the basic dignity of every human being be recognized, first with the abolition of slavery and then one hundred years later, with the civil rights movement.

Simply stated, there have been times in the two millennia since Christ walked on the earth, that either the hard sciences or the soft (humanities) sciences have been employed to correct faulty exegesis and hermeneutics.

However, a new crisis is facing the Church, and I am afraid that, having been proven wrong on those issues, far too many Christians have surrendered the authority of Scripture for the authority of the sciences. Where the sciences can be of value in some areas, there is one area in which the sciences are utterly incapable of providing any guidance. That area is the area of morality – God’s teaching about holy or sinful behavior.

I hear and read that more and more Christians are looking to science to answer questions of basic biblical morality. Thus, particularly in the area of sexuality, the divinely appointed creation of two sexes and of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is being called into question because of recent supposed scientific discovery. It’s almost like Christians are saying, “Look, we were wrong about the earth thing, and we were wrong about the slavery thing, maybe we need to back off of saying anything for certain about the sexuality thing.”

Well, it’s one thing to be mistaken about the biblical use of experiential language. And it certainly is shameful that Christians abused the biblical text to defend slavery for over two hundred years. But when the inspired authors speak unequivocally and consistently about the basic nature of God and how that nature is manifested in the creation of the sexes, it is the height of hubris to reject that uniform, consistent teaching. There are few, if any, teachings in the Bible that show more consistency than the fact that God created male and female to reflect his creative nature, and that it is only through monogamous, heterosexual marriage that he has approved the utilization of our sexual beings. Forced sexual behavior (rape) and polygamous marriages are described, but in the first case rape is always condemned (with capital punishment for the abuser) and in the second case, polygamous marriages are virtually always portrayed in a negative light, if not outright condemned. In that regard, homosexual behavior is always condemned. There are no examples in the Bible of any male to male or female to female sexual relationships being blessed. The authority of Scripture is diametrically opposed to the perceived authority of science, and it is exactly here that the Christian is going to have to make a choice.

And, as a brief aside, it is exactly here that those who are pushing the authority of the sciences have met their Achilles heel. On the one hand the mantra from the extreme social left is that one is born homosexual and cannot change that orientation. For anyone to suggest that homosexual behavior is therefore a sin is to themselves be guilty of a the sin of intolerance and hatred (homophobia). On the other hand, those same individuals on the extreme social left want to argue that the biological determination of sex as recognized at birth is simply a fluid and inexact marker, and that a person can choose to change that sexual orientation at some later point in his/her life as he/she so recognizes that he/she “feels” like he or she has been born in the wrong body.

Has anyone else caught this hypocritical view of science? On the one hand out DNA is sacrosanct, that we are born one way or the other and cannot even begin to think about changing it; and on the other hand our very DNA that makes us male or female is simply an accident that can be accepted or rejected (and therefore changed) with a simple surgical procedure and a name change, all based on a fleeting human emotion. Like anything else, follow a course as far as it can be reasonably projected and you will see either its folly or its perfection. The social left is caught in an unsustainable contradiction here, and those who are only too willing to sacrifice Scripture for science need to be aware of this inconsistency.

God’s word is utterly consistent: God created mankind – male and female – in his image, and heterosexual monogamous marriage is holy. All sexual behavior outside of that relationship (forcing another against their will, sex acts with one’s same birth sex, sex acts with animals, sex acts outside of the holy bond of marriage) is sinful.

We have reached a point, at least in the United States, where Christians are going to have to take a stand and proclaim whether our authority is God’s inspired word, or whether we are going to turn our spiritual lives over to the authority of the sciences. As for me – I will let the sciences speak where they are qualified to speak – in answering the questions of how things work in our universe and in our world. Where the sciences can inform my understanding of Scripture I will gladly listen to that conversation. I will gladly learn from the “soft” sciences about how the human mind works and how humans work (or don’t work) in societal units.

But, I cannot, and will not, allow either the hard sciences or the soft sciences to dictate my understanding of morality. When it comes to deciding what God has said about the basic nature of human beings, and how that nature reflects His nature, then I must confidently and adamantly say with Peter, John, and the apostles:

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. . . We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29)

We stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. God speaks, we must either listen and obey, or reject and disobey. We cannot climb higher by rejecting God’s most fundamental truths. We ascend higher by climbing lower.

The Addition of One Word Alone

It’s funny how you can read a passage of Scripture a dozen times, two dozen times, a hundred times, and never see something in that text until you read it with a specific question in mind. I have been working on a series of lessons on Christ, culture, and faith, and as a part of that study have been looking at Romans 1-5 (in particular) and, almost by necessity, incorporating the teaching of James. Although I have read James countless times, for once one little word jumped out at me as if it was stoked on performance enhancing drugs. More on that in a moment.

If you read virtually anything written by a card-carrying, approved member of the evangelical intelligentsia you will read, again and again, that we Christians are saved by “grace alone through faith alone.” It is a mantra repeated ad nauseam. It’s most quoted champion is the reformer Luther. However, you do not have to be a Lutheran to promote that line of thought. We humans cannot do anything to save ourselves, to think so would be to preach “works salvation,” so therefore we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.

The only problem, and it is a whopper, is that no one, not one single New Testament writer, wrote or said such a thing.

Now, there is no question that the apostle Paul said we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), a point that was tragically overlooked for decades by many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But – and I make this point emphatically – the word alone never appears in Paul’s writings in relation to saving faith. Once again, no reader of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, or any other of Paul’s books for that matter, can come to any other conclusion other than the fact we are saved by God’s grace through faith.

Which brings me to the book of James.

Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of the teachings of Paul to James for centuries. The problem boils down to one fairly small section of James’s letter – James 2:14-26. In those brief paragraphs James excoriates the idea that mere acceptance of a doctrine or set of doctrines can constitute “faith.” And, tucked right in the middle of that section of his letter James writes this:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

In one amazing little sentence James totally contradicts the Lutheran/Protestant mantra. We are not saved by faith alone. Not. Read it again – not! If you are waiting for me to untangle the relationship between Paul and James you are going to have to wait a while, and probably attend about 13 weeks of classes. The point I want to make here is that James did write something that contradicts what so many think that Paul wrote – and Paul never wrote what they believe he must have. (If that sentence is confusing to you, you should see how confusing it is to me.)

The statement is so stark that Luther – and I should say a great many modern evangelicals – simply cannot justify (pardon the pun) James with Paul, and since Paul is regarded as being clearly superior – and spiritual – they simply reject James. As in, cut James out of the canon. As in, James is not inspired, so we have to listen to Paul and not James. As in, we are just so much smarter than 1,600 or 1,700 or even 1,800 years of Christian theology, so we can pick and choose which texts we are going to follow and which we are going to excise from the Bible.

This, to me, is simply staggering. Paul never says something and what he does not say becomes a part of “Christian” doctrine so rabidly promoted that to question it amounts to heresy, and James does say something so clear and unambiguous, and it is for all intents and purposes, simply cut out of the New Testament.

I can only think of three reasons why scholars, pastors, and Christian authors promote Luther to the utter and total exclusion of James 2:24. One, they do not know Greek, and so do not have access to verifying whether Paul did or did not use the word alone. Two, they do know Greek, but have simply swallowed the Lutheran doctrine to the point that they have no reason (in their mind) to verify whether Paul used the word alone or not. Those two reasons are sad, and are in reality without excuse (as a good English translation and concordance would reveal the same truth), but it is the third reason that I think is so tragic, and indefensible. The third reason is that they are aware that Paul never uses the word alone in relation to saving faith, but they are so beholden to defend the dogma of Lutheran/Protestant thinking that they willingly repeat the falsehood. In their mind Luther is so correct that Paul must have meant alone, even though he did not use the word, that they say “. . . through faith alone” again and again and again.

All of this just goes to illustrate why we need to be so careful – painstakingly so – in our writing. Speech is one thing; we can be forgiven for a little hyperbole here and a little sermonizing there (so long as what we say or sermonize is not certifiably false!). But when we write, when we put words on paper (or pixels on a blog) we must be so minutely careful that what we say is correct. Or, in the absence of that, that we go back and correct any false statements that we make.

I have no doubt that Luther’s intentions were utterly innocent. He was writing (and preaching) to confront ecclesiastical dogma that held people in complete terror. Hell awaited the slightest sin, and works of penance were beyond the ability of the average Christian; therefore the payment of indulgences became a source of comfort for the ignorant and a formidable source of income for the church. Luther was absolutely correct to bring “salvation by grace through faith” back into the Christian teaching. Where he erred was in adding one little word – alone.

May we be so careful, so diligent, to preach the New Testament fearlessly and honestly. But, let us be so careful, so diligent that we never add anything to the teaching of the inspired authors!

 

The Sin of Teaching Too Much (When You Expose Your Ignorance)

Big sigh. It happened again yesterday. I was skimming through one of my social media sites and just briefly read the introductory section of an interesting looking article. I can’t remember if it was in the first or second paragraph, but it was right up there close to the top, when the author wrote (in regard to John 3), “. . . ‘born again’ literally means ‘born from above.'”

Grrr and grrr.

First, let’s lay aside the fact that the author equated two English phrases that have no “literal” equivalence. However, what we cannot lay aside is the inference, nay, I would suggest, the very strong implication, that the Greek word behind the two phrases has a “metaphorical” or connotative meaning and a “literal” or denotative meaning. It doesn’t. That is just wrong. The author is trying to make a profound spiritual point, and all he did was expose his ignorance.

Just to set the record straight, I looked up in my Greek lexicon the Greek word under consideration (anothen, for those who are curious). The lexicon gives three primary definitions for the word, with a number of sub-definitions. Those definitions are: 1. locally, from above; 2. temporally, from the beginning or for a long time; and 3. again, anew. There you have it. Three meanings, three definitions. No “metaphorical” or “literal” about it. Some words have different meanings, and the context of the passage is controlling when we attempt to discern which possible meaning is appropriate for that passage. (The lexicon goes on to note that in John 3 the meaning is deliberately obscure, so as to generate discussion as to the meaning Jesus intended).

This discussion just goes to prove a mantra my first year Greek professor drilled into us Greek newbies – one year of Greek (or less) only serves to make you dangerous. It takes a minimum of two years, and far preferably more, before you can claim an adequate understanding of a foreign language. Another preacher friend said it this way – the purpose of learning Greek or Hebrew is not to discover of new world of hitherto unknown spiritual truths, it is to keep you from making some really profound, and stupid, mistakes.

This sort of problem is compounded nowadays with the proliferation of computer programs which parse and decline Greek words with the simple move of a cursor. This is not a problem for the wise user who understands his or her limitations and simply uses the program as an aid or tutor. Where it becomes a serious problem is when someone mouses over a word, gets a thumbnail description of the tense or declination of a word, and then goes off to wax eloquently about things he or she knows little or nothing about.

[Pet peeve and aside here – more and more theological schools and seminaries are reducing or eliminating the emphasis on biblical languages in their degree programs. This is a huge, and in my opinion, tragic, move. It is justified because once a graduate leaves the school, he or she never really makes use of the hours and hours spent memorizing arcane rules and words that only occur 10 or 15 times in the text. In my opinion, that is a response to a crisis by letting the inmates run the prison. Just because graduates do something stupid – and yes! I have done and still do the same stupid thing – is no reason to abandon a critical part of theological education. Rant over.]

The example I used above regarding John 3 is not really a huge issue – I think the author borrows on expertise he clearly does not have, but his topic is not of any huge exegetical or theological import. There are, however, other examples where the profession of knowledge one does not have does become critical.

Quite some time ago I was reading an article written by a fellow minister of the Churches of Christ. The topic of his article was a Greek preposition, one of those little words (in this case eis, pronounced by some as ice, but I prefer the pronunciation ace), that are notoriously difficult to translate in a number of instances. The targets of his ire were those who want Acts 2:38 to mean that the first hearers of Peter’s sermon were baptized because of the forgiveness of their sins, rather than for the purpose of having those sins removed. The entire point of his article is that this little word can never, in no way, absolutely not, never, ever, ever, be translated as “because of.”

Except it can, and in at least one case, it has to.

In Matthew  12:41 Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” You guessed it, the little word I highlighted is that same little word eis. In this context the only way you can make sense of the statement is to understand that the people of Nineveh repented as a result of, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Jonah preached, they repented. If that is not a causative  meaning, I will eat my lexicon.

The meaning of eis in Acts 2:38 cannot mean “because of,” because the context will not allow it to mean “because of.” The sins of those in the audience had not been forgiven – they had just asked Peter what to do in order to have those sins forgiven!! Peter told them what to do in order for their sins to be forgiven – repent and be baptized. But – and this is critical – to base one’s theology on the vagaries of a little Greek preposition is just wrong. Talk about putting a hermeneutical cart in front of an exegetical horse! While I agree with my preacher brother that the use of eis in Acts 2:38 is “for the purpose of,” I lost a lot of respect for his exegetical skill (and maybe some of his integrity) because he based his argument on a false conclusion.

I will defend my understanding of truth until my face turns blue, but I refuse to use bad, or in this case, utterly incorrect arguments to do it.

The point is, if you only have a rudimentary knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, then recognize your weakness and don’t go around spouting information the truth or falsity of which you are absolutely clueless. If one year of university level Greek only serves to make a student dangerous, what is the result of training that is less than that?! By all means use those computer programs that help you understand more of the text – I am not arguing against their use as a helper, but they can only give you a thumbnail picture of what is going on. In order to fully understand and comprehend what is going on in the Greek or Hebrew, one must learn not only the grammar of the language (verb tenses and such), but the syntax (what it means for certain noun declensions and verb tenses to be used as they are) as well.

As the old adage goes, it is far better to remain silent and have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.