A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

The Seductive Atheism of Modern Christianity

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. IF YOU CANNOT HANDLE READING OPINIONS THAT ARE DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSITE TO TODAY’S PAGAN CULTURE, PLEASE DO NOT CONTINUE.

[Author’s Update: It has occurred to me that I need to confess my own bent and brokenness. I am not claiming to be perfect in any way. I need God’s Holy Spirit to straighten me out on a daily basis. My prayer is that, if somehow I can help someone see the error of their thinking, that maybe God can write straight with me as a twisted pencil.]

I just don’t get it. I’m so lost anymore I question my own sanity. I’ve started this post a dozen times in my mind, and each time I just keep coming back to the same phrase, the same confusion. I just don’t get it anymore.

Once upon a time (and quite literally, for almost 2,000 years), the basic premise of the Christian gospel could be stated like this: I am a broken, sinful person and I need the saving blood of Christ to forgive me and I desperately need the power of God’s Holy Spirit to redirect my life in accordance with God’s will.

Today, the popular Christian mantra is this: I’m perfectly okay, and I don’t need the blood of Christ, but I sure do appreciate his loving acceptance of my broken lifestyle.

Just recently, and within weeks after a pagan priestess who repudiated virtually every major tenant of Biblical sexual morality was raised to the highest level of evangelical sainthood, an article has appeared in what many consider to be the flagship periodical promoting evangelical Christianity. The article effusively praises a “Christian pastor” who is openly homosexual. He proudly proclaims that Jesus did not “make him straight,” but that Jesus did remove his shame and guilt. So, he is openly gay, and unashamedly someone who claims to be a leader of a “Christian” church. One of my social media feeds is overflowing with praise for this person’s courage.

I just don’t get it anymore.

I’ll be honest here and put all my cards on the table. This kind of “Christianity” is nothing more than atheism light. It is not the biblical Christianity at all. The best I can say for it is heresy. The worst is . . . it is purely Satanic. Let me explain to the best of my limited ability.

The (il)logic behind so much of our sexual culture today can be summarized with the following syllogism:

  1. I am sexually attracted to members of my sex (male to male, female to female).
  2. I was given this attraction at my birth – I was created to be homosexual.
  3. God cannot condemn that which he created within me.
  4. Therefore, God accepts and even blesses my homosexual relationships.

An additional proposition is sometimes added by those who reject actual homosexual activity, but never-the-less accept the possibility of homosexual “attraction.”

5. Attractions, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are amoral, and therefore God cannot judge or condemn me for the feelings he created within me.

The only proposition of the above that I can accept is #1, because feelings are just that – feelings. I steadfastly reject propositions #2-5. I believe that if you hold them you must reject the biblical teaching of the nature of God, and therefore, if you accept proportions 2-5 you have become a functional atheist, despite any claim to a “Christian” faith that you might have.

One thing that everyone involved in this debate can agree on is that the Bible, as it stands written, uniformly rejects homosexual behavior. The Mosaic code, the lists of immoral behavior in the New Testament, and even Jesus’s promotion of marriage as between one man and one woman cannot be denied. What is denied is that these prohibitions and denunciations are truly God’s intent. So, let us examine proposition 2 in light of this biblical message.

If, as it is argued, homosexual urges are inborn, if they are a creation of God, then God must be viewed as a moral monster, for he condemns that which he has created. In fact, he labels that which he has created an “abomination,” and “gives men up” to what another biblical author would call “dishonorable passions.” If proposition 2 is correct the moral and ethical teachings of the Bible become absurd, incomprehensible. Not to be too dramatic, but the teachings of the Bible become demonic. How can a God who excoriates certain behaviors that he himself created to be exercised be worthy of any kind of love or devotion?

The only way out of this conundrum is to reject what the Bible says about homosexuality, and to posit that what God really believes about homosexuality is not to be found in the Bible, his revelation, but rather it is to be found in human feelings. “God” then becomes a human construct – a mere invention to support and defend my personal inclinations. This is really the definition of paganism (pagans hold to the concept of a god, or gods, but these gods are merely an extension of a human quality).

Bottom line – if you accept proposition 2 you deny the nature of God. Ergo and therefore, whether pagan or atheist, the result is the same. You have rejected the God that is revealed in the Bible.

So, what about propositions 3 and 5? Does God hold us accountable for our thoughts, our “attractions”?

According to the tenth commandment, he most certainly can, and does. Covetousness is not a physical action. One does not commit covetousness with one’s hands or feet or tongue. One commits covetousness by being attracted to the possessions of another, and then allowing those attractions to grow into other feelings – those of jealousy and greed. What is the solution? To argue that since God created the feeling of attraction for someone else’s wife or donkey or bigger barn that somehow that attraction is legitimate and blessed? NO! The solution is to repent and to be thankful and grateful to God for what he has blessed you with.

Jesus himself provided the clearest refutation of propositions 3 and 5 in the Sermon on the Mount when he condemned the emotions (feelings, “attractions”) of anger and lust. Yes, Virginia, Jesus does condemn that which occurs between our ears if God has already condemned the actions that those attractions ultimately lead. If, as we have already noted, God has condemned homosexual behavior, then it is impossible to argue that God somehow blithely overlooks homosexual attractions.

A fatal fallacy is promoted when homosexual attractions are compared to, and equated with, heterosexual attractions. God NEVER condemned heterosexual activity. He did LIMIT heterosexual activity, and condemned improper and abusive heterosexual activity in the strongest terms (rape was punished by death!). Jesus’s condemnation of lust leading to adultery is a case in point. Males are by nature attracted to females, and females to males. That attraction is not sinful, because the sexual union of male and female is itself not sinful. What IS sinful is the illicit attraction of a married man to a female that is not his wife (and, by extension, a woman to a man who is not her husband). There is no possible way a homosexual attraction can be appropriate, because the resulting behavior is uniformly condemned throughout Scripture.

So, if propositions 2, 3, and 5 are all demonstrably false, what can we say of the conclusion in proposition 4? If you are going to hold to any level of the unity and eternalness of God’s holy nature, you must accept that proposition 4 is just as false. It is a lie. It is one of Satan’s greatest deceptions.

This is where I lose my sanity – this is where I just don’t get it. Almost every day, obviously in liberal publications but increasingly in articles promoted by conservative Christians, the pagan concept that “the human is as the human feels,” is becoming the standard by which Christianity is measured. If I feel I am a Christian, then by God I am a Christian and Scriptural truth be damned. To walk down that path one must, it is necessary, to reject the very nature of God as recorded in the text of the Bible, and, forgive me if I am wrong here, but if you reject the nature of God you have become a functional atheist, a pagan, regardless of your claim to orthodoxy.

It occurred to me as I have been questioning this issue, that it is truly ironic that the Christian faith, which struggled so mightily during the first three centuries of its existence to try to understand the nature of Christ, how he could both be fully human and fully God, could now some 1,700 years later founder on the simple question of what it means to be a male or a female. We have sunk from trying to understand the greatest mystery of the nature of God, to debating what it means to have a penis or a vagina.

You call that progress?

I just don’t get it.

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)

The Impossibility of Heresy

Thomas Merton on heresy –

In the climate of the Second Vatican Council, of ecumenism, of openness, the word ‘heretic’ has become not only unpopular but unspeakable . . . But has the concept of heresy become completely irrelevant? . . . Or is error something we no longer consider dangerous?

The Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have meaning.

So then: what is a heretic?

A heretic is first of all a believer. Today the ideas of ‘heretic’ and ‘unbeliever’ are generally confused. . . It [heresy] is, however a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with their [the unbeliever] unbelief in order to ‘win them for Christ.’

Where the real danger of heresy exists for the Catholic today is precisely in that ‘believing’ zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man. Heresy is precisely a ‘choice’ which, for human motives (rationalized perhaps as ‘grace’), selects and prefers an opinion contrary to revealed truth as held and understood by the church. It then proceeds to teach this opinion contumaciously even against the sincere protest of the faithful (not merely the carping of a few bigots). [Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 338-339]

Why in the world am I quoting the words of a Roman Catholic Trappist monk, with whom I would have far more to disagree with than to agree? Because, oddly enough, I have much more respect for someone who is willing to defend their beliefs, than for anyone who is willing to sacrifice what they think they believe, or used to believe, in order to salvage any measure of popular admiration.

Once upon a time, it was actually possible to “commit”  heresy, to be a heretic, simply because the church zealously defended a robust, specific, and exclusive concept of truth. Now, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and we have to be “tolerant,” “affirming,” and “inclusive” of every opinion no matter how bizarre or ridiculous, heresy is impossible.

But, follow me here. If the rhetorical concept of evil was totally and completely erased, everything would be “good.” Murder would be good. Rape would be good. Lying, cheating, stealing, all would be “good,” because there would be no concept of “evil” with which to label these activities. In that sense, the meaning of “good” would likewise be erased. There can be no concept of the ethical or the “good” without the opposing concepts of the unethical or “evil.”

If the rhetorical concept of “heresy” is erased, then, likewise so is the rhetorical concept of truth. “Truth” then becomes whatever one wants it to be. In the profound words of Merton above, truth then simply becomes a choice and an opinion with no reference to any external authority.

Today we have erased the concept of heresy at the horrifying expense of erasing the concept of truth.

If you doubt me, just follow any kind of religious publication and see what happens when someone utters or writes the “H” word. “You better be careful” say all the nervous nellies. “You can’t call someone a heretic just because they disagree with you.” Well, no. No one is saying that. But, you can identify someone as a heretic if they deny or reject a specific teaching of Scripture that the church universal has accepted and proclaimed for virtually all of its 2,000 year existence.

A few months ago, a young evangelical hero publicly proclaimed that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God of the New Testament. A long, long time ago a fellow by the name of Marcion said the same thing, and was purged from the church as being a heretic. A few people had the courage (and the insight) to recognize that what the young hero was saying was virtually identical to what Marcion taught, and called the hero a heretic. You would have thought they called him the antichrist. “You cannot label him a heretic just because he has a different interpretation than you.” Well, no. Once again, no one ever said that. But to specifically deny that the God of the New Testament is the same God as the Old Testament is a heretical teaching. Ergo and therefore, the young hero is a heretic.

Just recently a young female author passed away and she has been duly canonized and beatified into evangelical sainthood. Commentators have been tripping over themselves trying to be the most effuse in their praise of her opinions. I may be the only one to say this, but if the Thomas Merton’s definition of heresy above has any merit at all, this woman was a heretic. She may have been a believer (I cannot affirm or deny that judgment), but she clearly made choices that deviated from Scriptural norms, she actively promoted those choices and opinions and denigrated those who defended truths that have been sustained by the church since its inception.

Read the paragraph from Merton above again that begins with the words, “Where the real danger of heresy exists. . . ” Substitute the word “Christian”  for “Catholic” (or, if you are Catholic, leave it there, or if you are comfortable with understanding Merton’s ecumenism, leave it there as well) and think about it for a while. Both the evangelical hero who denies the eternal nature and unity of God and the one-time evangelical author (she actually left “evangelicalism” and moved to the Anglican church) who denied the inspiration of Scripture and the divine nature of God as revealed in human sexuality, sought to promote their heresies in order to “win people to Christ.” They both thought that the more traditional, read “biblical,” view was too confining, too exclusive, too demeaning. So, let’s just create a new and different God for the New Testament, a God of love, of kindness, of acceptance, a God who would never stoop to such behaviors as executing disobedient people (well, Acts chapter 5 excluded). Let’s just create a Christianity where there are no distinctions between male and female, let’s just do away with that repressive concept of “one man, one woman united in marriage for life.” Let’s just do away with that silly myth that the Holy Spirit could inspire an author (or authors) to teach and proclaim such clearly inhumane doctrines. Let us be able to pick and choose which teachings in the Bible we find acceptable, and let us be free to reject those we find unacceptable; and above all, let us be free to excoriate those who hold those traditional teachings we find so repugnant.

I find it somewhat embarrassing to have to go to a Roman Catholic, Trappist monk to find a cogent discussion of the possibility, even the necessity, of labeling certain teachings and teachers as heresy and heretical. I wonder what he would say of the Roman Catholic church of 2019.

I don’t think I have to wonder what he would think about someone who denied the doctrine of the unity of God throughout the Bible, or of someone who denied that all the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.

I know this is politically incorrect (as this entire post has probably been) but I think the “H” word needs to made possible again.