Do you worship the Bible?

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Precisely twice in my life a conversation partner has warned me lest I be guilty of worshipping the Bible. It’s an interesting warning and, depending upon the context, there could plausibly be some merit to it. By and large, however, it’s a red herring. In my case, there is rather more danger to be had from worshipping popular interpretations of the Bible than worshipping the Scriptures themselves.

Ours is an age not given to the discipline of reading. We are functionally literate. We can complete forms. We can read and respond to emails. We can read one to two verses from the Bile or a page from a classic. We can follow printed instructions to assemble a new stand for our flat screen television. Beyond this, however, our literacy is sadly lacking. We haven’t even the most rudimentary knowledge of the classics of Western Civilization, let alone other races and cultures. And the Bible? The Bible demands way too much from us in order to understand it. Better to simply follow the guidance of someone who will confirm your pre-existing bias.

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Source: http://franklinchurchofchrist.com/blog/
  
John Stackhouse makes precisely this point in his recent post at the blog of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The wave of evangelical defections to affirm and endorse GLBT+ as normative is based not a new and closer reading of the Scriptures. There is virtually nothing in any of the documented “conversions” that evince a careful study of the Bible. Rather, most come from a reorganizing of the Scriptural witness to place a higher and broader value on Biblical witnesses the affirm values consistent with those predominant in culture today: unconditional love, acceptance, inclusivity, etc. 

These verses and witnesses become the lens through which other, more specific witnesses are dismissed as somehow inconsistent with Jesus’ message of unconditional affirmation. To borrow the title of a book by J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus have I loved, but Paul…? 
Everyone loves Jesus; some get bent out of shape when the apostle applies Jesus message to the specifics of messy lives in the ancient church.
And once your favorite pastor has endorsed the GLBT+ message then those who follow him–who, incidentally, rely upon him for their knowledge of the Bible–immediately and easily turn the corner to believe as he does and in line with the culture. It’s as easy as stopping swimming against a current. Off you go; it feels so easy, so natural. And yet it is so wrong.

If we consider briefly what the Bible says of itself, we may set aside some of anxiety some have regarding our esteem for it.  The Bible’s purpose is to provide guidance in our belief and practice (2 Timothy 3:16). It is a rod that prompts us to remain faithful as we follow our risen Lord. This guidance isn’t arbitrary or entirely culturally bound. The Bible’s guidance flow from it’s source, which the Bible itself and the earliest church affirm is God himself. 

The Bible is a efensive weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Paul refers to the Scripture as “the sword of the Spirit.” It is the weapon the Spirit uses to do his convicting and sanctifying word. When wielded toward us this sword is and any wound is superficial and short-lived. Wielded against the world, the flesh, and the devil the blade cuts through to the heart of the matter delivering us the counsel of God and the grace to persevere.

The Christian who uses the Bible often and as the source of his beliefs shouldn’t be too concerned about the charge of worshipping it. It is, after all, the word of his master and his lord and should be esteemed as such.
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Sola scriptura…for dummies

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At First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem <www.fpc-bethlehem,org/sermons>, we’ve begun a five-part sermon series on the great “solas” of the Reformation. “Sola” is simply Latin for “alone.” And the solas serve as a simple way to distill the main emphasis of the reformation teaching on the nature and source of Christian faith.

The first of these is “sola scriptura” or “scripture alone.” As we explore this topic, it’s important to really wrap out hearts and minds about what this principle of scripture alone means (and doesn’t mean). So in today’s post we’ll take a non-scholarly look at this pillar of reformed belief.

Sola scriptura means that the Bible alone is a sufficient source and authority for how we understand Christian belief and how we practice the Christian faith.

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Another way of stating this is that should a person have no other source of knowledge about God, the Bible is enough. It contains all that we need to know who God is, what God thinks of us, and how we can be reconciled to God through the Gospel.

Sola scriptura doesn’t mean that the Bible tells us everything there is to know about God. In fact the Bible itself tells us, “Now there were many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the whole world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

The Reformation insistence on “Scripture alone” was a response to the Medieval Catholic Church, which had derived beliefs/doctrines from the Bible and reason that the Reformers (rightly) declared not to be justified on the basis of the text of Scripture. An example is the doctrine of purgatory. There is no clear reference in scripture to an intermediate place of purification that changes the nature of souls so that they are fit for heaven. However, at the same time, it is a reasonable (if unbiblical) answer to the question: how do imperfect people get into heaven? That belief can, however, only gain hold when a source other than the Bible is allowed to augment the witness of scripture.

 

Sola scriptura is simply a boundary fence that helps us to know with some degree of certainty what the church ought to focus on in its proclamation. N.T. Wright defines the contours of the doctrine like this:

 [Sola scriptura] provided, on the one hand, a statute of limitations: nothing beyond Scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved. One the other hand, it gave a basic signpost on the way: the great truths taught in scripture are indeed the way of salvation, and those instructed with the teaching office in the church have no right to use that office to teach anything else.

(Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 72-3).

It’s also a boundary line for the individual Christian in order for us to settle for ourselves the answer to the questions: Who is God? What must I believe to be saved? Is there meaning to my life? It’s a way of placing the Bible where it ought to be: front and center in the belief and practice of the Christian community:

 

When expounded faithfully, with proper attention given to the central New Testament emphasis on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the turning point of all history…God’s word [will] once again do a fresh work in the hearts and lives of ordinary people. (Wright, 73).

If we do this, are we susceptible to the charge that we are worshipping the Bible? We ought to bare this in mind. It is possible to allow the Bible to become an idol. As Christians we follow God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not worship the Scriptures. We appropriately value and esteem the Scriptures as communication or revelation from God. They are, if you will, an extension or God’s authority into our midst. They are given to us so that God may speak to us through them and that using them we may respond to God in worship. To borrow a familiar word, they are “the message” to us from God and so the authority of the Scriptures is one derived from their origin in the mind of God mysteriously expressed through the minds and pens of human authors.

The ultimate purpose of sola scriptura in my life and yours is to assure us that there is not some other authority that we must discover to find other secrets to the Christian life. There is not other source for discerning God’s will. We know all that we need to know about God and how we can be restored to him through the Bible. In this sense then, sola scriptura is one of the most practice doctrines imaginable.

A Christian response to same sex attraction

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If you haven’t read about the student protest at Wheaton College in response to Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s appearance on campus, do. It’s available here. Butterfield is author of “My Train Wreck Conversion,” the second most popular Christianity Today article of 2013. The article describes how “a leftist lesbian professor” who “despised Christians” eventually became one.

Butterfield’s appearance, the protest, and subsequent reporting on it all demonstrate an increasingly nuanced understanding of human sexuality in the evangelical world. Like most intellectual developments the changing understanding of sexual identity is sort of jerking forward like a teenager trying to drive a manual transmission car. It is possible that out of our collective confusion–by a sort of cultural dialectic–a better understanding of sexuality is emerging. I’m not convinced that this new understanding will remove all distinctions between Christian ethics and those of the broader culture, far from it. What I hope will emerge is both a Christian ethics and pastoral theology that better serves those who experience same sex attraction.

Rosaria-Champagne-Butterfield
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

On either side of our conversations about sexuality are two poles, both equally erroneous.

The first is the “lifestyle” understanding of human sexuality. This belief posits that everyone who identifies as gay has simply chosen to be so–like choosing to drink Coke rather than Pepsi. With appropriate “taste tests” this preference can be altered.

The second is the belief that sexual identity is always and everywhere simply fixed: once gay, always gay. In this view, the individual is simply a victim of a predisposition that is unalterable and, as a result, ought to be able to give full expression to this identity.

The Wheaton student protest leaders feared that Butterfield would come to campus espousing the former belief (“pray away the gay,” if you will). I worry that they affirm the latter:

We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen…

A more nuanced understanding of sexual identity means that it’s possible to navigate a way between these two poles. And it’s possible to affirm things that the evangelical community has been remiss in doing. As Butterfield herself put it,

Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview.

A Christian response to same-sex attraction should avoid either simply explaining away attraction as a choice. It should also avoid taking our appetites and attractions–as essential as they may seem–as inevitable.

Butterfield continues,

Homosexuality, then, is not the unpardonable sin, I noticed. It is not the worst of all sins, not for God. It’s listed here in the middle of the passage, as one of many parts of this journey that departs from recognizing God as our author. Homosexuality isn’t causal, it’s consequential. From God’s point of view, homosexuality is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of a worldview transgression inherited by all through original sin. It’s so original to the identity of she who bears it that it feels like it precedes you; and as a vestige of original sin, it does. We are born this way. But the bottom line hit me between the eyes: homosexuality, whether it feels natural or not, is a sin.

Here we have to ask an important question: what is meant by “homosexuality”? Is this term equivalent to “having same sex attraction? Does it mean homosexual practice? Or is it some combination of both?

At this point some biblical principles related to sin are helpful. Jesus tells us that infidelity can occur outside of a physical encounter: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). So while we can say for certain that homosexual practice is sinful in that it violates God’s moral law, we can also say that dwelled-upon, nurtured attraction may turn into desire which in turn may itself eventually become sinful.

The church has generally been lax in guiding its members to experience Christ in the Scriptures. As a result our ways of thinking have been formed by our culture and, in many ways, simply (and perhaps exclusively) adopt the intellectual categories constructed by scholars of society, sexuality, etc., or some reaction against them. As a church we should be moving deeper into a Jesus-centered, Bible-shaped Christian experience that is values the difficulties of following Christ sufficiently to provide spiritual leadership and pastoral care that intends to lead to greater holiness, as long and as hard as that road might be.

A Hindu monk and a Baptist preacher got married

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About one in four Americans (27%) is intentionally sharing their married life with someone whose religious belief system is different from their own.[1] If difference within traditions like Protestantism is included, the number jumps to 37%.[2] This emerging trend is consistent with the generally agreed-upon trajectory of our culture. We are moving into a period of intense plurality. Difference—in all its forms—is pushing its way into the lives, churches, schools, and neighborhoods of Americans.

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As people face these new experiences they often look for resources to help them navigate their new reality. This has produced what the Huffington Post calls a “mini-boom of guides to interfaith marriage and family.” A case in point is J. Dana Trent’s recently released book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk.

Trent’s book describes how she—a Baptist minister—met and fell in love with Fred Eaker, a practicing Hindu. The rapid increase in interfaith marriage poses a significant pastoral challenge for the Christian church. It’s important to remember that this is not the first time in which the Christian church has had to engage in pastoral and theological reflection on the nature of marriage and of marriage to those who are outside the household of faith.

The early church developed in the context of a pluralistic culture where, much like today, the cardinal virtue was theistic inclusivity. Greco-Roman culture was willing to welcome new gods as long as they could be incorporated into the already recognized deities. We see from St. Paul’s interaction with the people of Athens that the Greeks were eager to learn of this “foreign deity” and this “new teaching” (Acts 17: 18, 19). Early Christianity was quite comfortable in communicating the message of Christ to those who had yet to experience it.

As Paul addressed problems that arose in the churches under his apostolic care, he found it necessary to give the following counsel to the church at Corinth, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity?” (2 Co. 6:14ff.).

This verse is often used to warn against the dangers of marrying someone of another faith. And the warning is likely well heeded. Yet, it’s also likely that Paul here is speaking more broadly than simply of matrimony.

Read the rest here.


[1] U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 34. Available online at: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Ibid.

 

Inerrancy: an Augustinian view

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One of the interesting things about my life is that I have the pleasure of inhabiting a number of intellectual worlds that, by and large, don’t often come together. As an employee of a moderately evangelical campus ministry, a teaching elder in a mainline presbyterian denomination, a chaplain at a university, and someone who lives in the South I regularly interact with people right across the theological spectrum. It’s invigorating and, sometimes, frustrating.

Take the issue of the inerrancy of the Bible, for example. In its simplest form the doctrine holds: “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1994). This assertion, simple though it might appear, is actually quite a difficult proposition to establish. It has at least three constituent elements: (1) establishing the original manuscripts, (2) establishing the affirmation, and (3) establishing fact. These three elements bring in textual criticism, hermeneutics, and historiography. What seems, on its face, a simple affirmation has turned into a complex interdisciplinary exercise largely beyond the scope of the average Christian. Of course, this complexity certainly doesn’t negate the importance or the validity of the doctrine. It does, or at least it ought, to give us pause before using the term.

In my denomination and on the university campus the term “inerrancy” is closely associated with fundamentalism of the Jerry Falwell variety. In my campus ministry the term is rarely mentioned. Among evangelical in the south the term is widely used and often closely associated with fidelity to the gospel.

The recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society featured a panel discussion featuring several theologians and biblical scholars. Of the several who participated, the presenter whose views fall closest to my own at are those of Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’ve enjoyed his writing for a while now and had the privilege to have his daughter Emma, herself a scholar and also a poet, as a student in Graduate Christian Fellowship.

His views are presented in this video. His proposal is a form of inerrancy that he refers to as Augustinian. At the end of the day it is difficult to establish whether or not the Bible is demonstrably inerrant. Perhaps the wiser choice is to follow the lead of Gerald Bray. In his systematic theology God is Love (Crossway, 2012) he argues that the Bible ought to be treated as “functionally inerrant.”