Do you worship the Bible?

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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Five suggestions about plagiarism

Celebrity preacher Mark Driscoll is in the news again. Surprise! Jonathan Merritt of the Religious News Service reports that more instances of plagiarism are alleged against the popular preacher and writer.

Driscoll

The first allegations came to light during an interview conducted by Janet Mefferds. You can read coverage of the initial interview here or you can listen to the interview embedded below.

Here’s a summary of the allegation from Merrit’s account:

Syndicated Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll of plagiarism on her Nov. 21 broadcast. Mefferd claimed that Driscoll quoted extensively from the work of Dr. Peter Jones for at least 14 pages in his book, A Call to Resurgence, without direct or proper citation.

“In this book,” Driscoll responded, “I took [Jones’] big idea and worked it out through the cultural implications but I wasn’t working specifically from his text.”

Tyndale House, Driscoll’s publisher, is standing by him:

Tyndale House takes any accusation of plagiarism seriously and has therefore conducted a thorough in-house review of the original material and sources provided by the author. After this review we feel confident that the content in question has been properly cited in the printed book and conforms to market standards.

This story is likely not over. We’ll see what strange by-ways it takes in the coming weeks.

Plagiarism is a sticky business. Judging by the interactions I have with friends in higher education, the appropriation of someone else’s written work and intentionally passing it off as your own is quite common among college students. It has never been easier to lift text and insert it into you own document. I the quotes above were cut and pasted into wordpress. Simple. Ease, anonymity, and urgency create big incentives to take short cuts in research and to omit any or proper attribution. 

Where this gets interesting is in the case of oral documents like sermons. Good preachers do a lot of research in preparation for delivering a sermon. Giving attribution in a sermon can become cumbersome and turn a lively sermon into an AAR/SBL paper if it has too many phrases like “as Rowan Williams has noted,” or “to quote C. S. Lewis,” “Thomas Aquinas argued.” The same is true for a blog post, which is a more casual piece of writing than a published book.

How then can you avoid plagiarism in your writing, whether that content is received aurally or visually:

  1. Footnote. Footnote. Footnote. If you’re blogging do your best to link to the original source if you’re quoting it. If you can’t find it, say so. If you’re writing a paper or book chapter, make sure you footnote. My rule of thumb here is: if in doubt, footnote. In my academic writing, which I haven’t done much of lately, my rule of thumb was that the number of citations should be roughly twice to three times the number of pages (excluding introduction and conclusion) in the document.
  2. If you’re delivering a sermon and you directly quote someone, you must state that you’re doing so. For this reason, I suggest not having more than one to two direct quotes in a sermon. Use them sparingly because the value of the quote has to far exceed the cost of stating “Charles Williams states….”
  3. Always have down time between reading/research and writing. Some of you won’t struggle with this, but I find that if I read a chapter of a book or an article on a topic I’m researching, and then immediately try to incorporate that into my article I will disproportionately be influenced by that research. When you’re really concentrating on understanding the depths of another’s argument and even interacting with in a mental conversation or sparring match, I find it takes some time before I’m ready to integrate these new insights into my writing with the appropriate degree of differentiation.
  4. Don’t outsource research. Period. My advice is try to avoid outsourcing research, especially if you’re a pastor. If you’re a writer or academic then it’s more justifiable. Remember, if you outsource research then you’re also outsourcing your integrity and your reputation so be sure you trust your assistant and do your due diligence (i.e., double check).
  5. Remember, you only get one chance. Somehow I doubt that Driscoll will do what he’s told others to do and quite his ministry over this. However, his reputation has taken a hit and for a lot of people what he’s alleged to have done will be seen as one more reason to deride the Christian faith.

What do you think?

 

 

Inerrancy: an Augustinian view

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.” 

The loneliness epidemic

Ours is an age of hyper-connectivity. Yet despite the fact that there are more ways for the average person to communicate with others, loneliness is skyrocketing. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled in the past 30 years, says John T. Cacioppo, a psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who studies loneliness including analysis of several large studies. These days, he estimates, some 40% of Americans report being lonely, up from 20% in the 1980s.

Persistent feelings of loneliness, alarmingly, were as accurate a predictor of early death as was alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It seems we are social animals, made for community. Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone that participation in civic organizations has sharply declined with the advent of new technologies. This is a perpetual concern of the modern period. In the 1920s The Middletown Studies expressed concern that the advent of radio was causing a decline in social connection in the community of Muncie, Indiana.

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Loneliness is more than being alone. Parents of young children will attest that being alone at the end of the day can be blissful. Loneliness is an internal sense of isolation:

You don’t have to be alone to be lonely, as anyone who has suffered through a bad relationship or an awkward holiday gathering can attest. “Loneliness is the feeling of social isolation or dissatisfaction with your relationships,” Dr. Cacioppo says. “It’s not just about whether there are others around you. It’s about whether the ones around you are those you can trust.”

Our growing sense of social isolation is a challenge and an opportunity for the Christian community. If the church can remind itself of our call to be a counter-cultural community of disciples then there’s hope that we can peacefully resist the tide of loneliness. It’s difficult to know exactly what this would look like, but it could include a number of innovations.

Leave a comment and tell us how you think the church can address the loneliness epidemic.

 

The virtue of self-acceptance

selfacceptance

It is often said today…that we must love ourselves before we can be set free to love others. This is certainly the release we must seek to give our people. But no realistic human beings find it easy to love or to forgive themselves, and hence their self-acceptance must be grounded in their awareness that God accepts them in Christ. There is a sense in which the strongest self-love that we can have, in the sense of agape, is merely the mirror image of the lively conviction we have that God loves us. There is endless talk about this in the church, but little apparent belief in it among Christians, although they may have a conscious complacency which conceals the subconscious despair which Kierkegaard calls ‘the sickness unto death.’

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal

 

I wonder how effective we are at helping people to experience the deep love God has toward them in Christ?

If Tim Keller is right that flourishing and effective congregational ministry can only happen where people repeatedly encounter and experience the love of God in the gospel, then surely this has to be at the heart of the church’s ministry.

Moreover, this communication of God’s love for us has to be married with the Christian virtue of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance isn’t a virtue in our society. We favor self-improvement–you can make yourself into anything you want to be if you only try hard enough, buy and use the right product, and surround yourself with the right people.

Self-acceptance means coming to the place where you’re able to accept yourself as you are. You can only get there through coming to accept God’s unconditional electing love that chose you just as you are not on the basis of your idealized self or even your future self. No. God saved you because he loves you. And he loves you because he saved you. File that under the category of “mystery.”

The unlived life

Everyone has dreams. Some abandon them. Others embrace them. Some try and fail. Others fail to try. Many find a new success in their failures. It wasn’t the success they thought they’d experience. It was a peculiar success whose genesis lay in the failure of their first dream.

Entrepreneurs know this. They try ten things, eight of them fail. They re-invest in the two that don’t.

Stephen Pressfield’s book The War of Art is a must-read for anyone seriously committed to taking any sort of risk in life, not just for the creatives for whom the book was written. He writes, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance.”

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It’s resistance that makes us put down the book proposal we’ve almost completed. It’s resistance that smacks us in the face when we sit at the computer to write our sermon. It’s resistance that gently whispers that we could never do what we’ve always dreamed of doing and what others say they can see us doing.

Our society is ordered around distraction: “we live in a consumer culture that’s acutely aware of [our] unhappiness and has massed all its profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. By selling us a product, a drug, a distraction” (War of Art, 31). What’s easier: two hundred words or two hours on Facebook? What’s more important?

Spend some time today thinking about what you really want to do with your life. 

Making a life or making a living?

News reports regularly give statistics about the rise or decline in new applications for unemployment benefits. Each of us probably knows at least one person who has been unemployed for more than a year. We likely know many more who have been without work for a shorter period of time. Our society has generally embraced the model of work for wages–we exchange our knowledge and/or manpower for cash. Most of us can’t think of any other way in which to order our lives. The question is, however, does this arrangement really work all that well? Does making a living require us to sacrifice our lives?

make-a-difference

Frederick Buechner has written:

We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.

Given the premium our culture puts on comfort (the ‘good life’), it’s ironic how little we intentionally our lives to see if we are treating them as precious or as simply a means to an end. Are we simply doing more and more meaningless things with ever greater efficiency?

What does making a life really look like? In a recent post Scott Martin notes:

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

Martin continues quoting Buechner:

Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

It’s ironic that some of the vocations that directly seek to meet the greatest human needs are the least esteemed (and rewarded) in our culture: teacher, care-giver, social worker, priest. Could it be that our value system is inverted?

Ask yourself: am I making a living or making a life? What two things could I most easily change in order to improve the quality of my life (in terms of relationships)? Resolve to start making those changes.

10 Evangelical Distinctives

I recently wrote a post asking whether–and if so, how–the Presbyterian Church (USA) is evangelical. This generated some interesting conversations about what the word evangelical really means. In light of these conversations, I thought it worth exploring the variety of perspectives on the evangelical movement.

One of the most significant leaders of modern evangelicalism was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman, served for many years as Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London.

ImageIn 1971, Lloyd-Jones preached a series of messages at the Conference of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He had, for many years, been involved with the British Inter-Varsity Fellowship, itself associated with IFES. Note: my employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, is the American arm of IFES.

During this time Lloyd-Jones had grown concerned with what he perceived as a watering down of the gospel message. He took the opportunity to address this when spoke.

Years later his messages were published by Banner of Truth as What is an Evangelical? 

Lloyd-Jones argued that there are ten distinctives that provide definition to the notoriously fuzzy word, “evangelical.”

Here they are with my commentary added in italics. Note: Lloyd-Jones represents a conservative, separationist evangelicalism. On the other hand, John R W Stott (whom we’ll look at later) represented a more moderate evangelicalism that was able to survive and thrive in a mixed (broad) church.

  1. Entirely subservient to the Bible. The evangelical attempts to live his life in submission to Scripture as thoroughly as possible. He is, as John Wesley put it, ‘A man of one book.’ 
  2. Evangelical before all else. The evangelical has a great loyalty to the evangelical way of following Christ than to the denomination of which she may be a part. If forced to choose, the evangelical will always follow his convictions.
  3. Watchful. The evangelical is aware that she has to evaluate, discern, and measure all teachings in the church against the rule of faith, the Word of God. 
  4. Distrustful of reason. The evangelical places a higher value on revelation than reason. He sees the work of the philosopher as necessarily limited since it does not have access to the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
  5. Always takes a low view of the sacraments. Evangelicals recognize only two sacraments, not allowing things like marriage or ordination to become sacraments.
  6. Takes a critical view of history and tradition. Lloyd-Jones writes, “The evangelical believes in the principle of discontinuity.” In other words, the church has a tendency to fossilize spirituality and many of the divisions are the result of evangelicals removing themselves from bodies who life and practice was no longer compatible with evangelical belief and practice.
  7. Always ready to act on his beliefs. The evangelical finds it impossible to compromise or to remain in a place that requires him to compromise his beliefs.
  8. Always simplifies everything. Lloyd-Jones contrasts the evangelical with the Catholic. The reformed belief in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture holds that the Bible can be read and understood by the ordinary reader. There’s no requirement to read the Bible through the church’s magisterium or through some other interpretive lens. There is, according to Lloyd-Jones, a “plain meaning” rooted in historical context and authorial intent.
  9. Always concerned with the doctrine of the church. The chief purpose of the evangelical is finding a denominational body that is theologically pure: “His idea of the Church is that it consists of the gathered saints.”
  10. Emphasis on re-birth, personal holiness, and the Christian life. “He is not interested in dead orthodoxy, he is not interested in Protestant scholasticism.” Instead, he cares about being re-born of the Spirit and following Christ as his disciple.

Lloyd-Jones’s list is longer than mine would be. However, I think it is helpful to consider that his position is representative of many evangelicals today. This can be helpful in understanding why some evangelicals find leaving a denomination that appears to them to be corrupt, a no-brainer.

Renewing your mind is about more than porn

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

-Romans 12:1-2, TNIV

These verses show that how we think is intimately connected with who we are and how we act. I don’t wish to suggest that we are simply brains on sticks. Certainly not, we are a complicated interaction of mind, soul, and body. It is important, especially perhaps for evangelicals, to remember that mind is no less a part of our being than soul and body.

Os Guiness has suggested that we have fit bodies and fat minds. He wrote a book by that title, which contains this telling subtitle: Why evangelicals don’t think and what to do about it. We’re naturally concerned that our souls be reconciled to God through Christ. We’re concerned that we take care of our bodies (as evidenced by the proliferation of spiritually-themed exercise and weight loss programs). Google “Christian weight loss programs” and you will get more than 3.6 million responses. There are, however, few intellectual boot camps for Christians. Few resources for training the mind.

Paul’s words to the Roman church suggest that an essential part of faithful living in a fallen world is renewed patterns of thought. Growing up, I would have primarily applied this concept to personal, moral thoughts (i.e., renewing your mind means no longer having impure thoughts about attractive women, no longer thinking that it is acceptable to cheat on a high school quiz, etc.). Granted, the renewing of our minds would certainly entail the transformation of thoughts like this. However, these things are only the tip of the iceburg.

God is interested in our delving into deeper patterns of thought, patterns of thought that extend beyond our own inward and internal thoughts (i.e., what we think). God is also interested in what we think about and how we think (our process or method).

Followers of Christ need places to talk about what we think about important matters and how we go about arriving at the conclusions that inform our being and doing. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us these things are already being shaped and acted up by forces external to us. Paul refers to, “the pattern of this world” (v. 2). John R W Stott points out in his classic book, The Christian Counter Culture (IVP) that Jesus challenges his followers to chart a course that in informed by the values of the kingdom of God. Jesus outlines these in the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is a manifesto, a starting place, for the renewing of the mind which is rooted in believing what God has said and done in Jesus Christ. That renewal is extended through the apostolic witness to Christ contained in the rest of the New Testament.

This is our foundation, our starting place. And the work of the Christian is to be so saturated by Scripture that the ways we think and act become profoundly informed by the same values that are expressed in Scripture. We go beyond Scripture such that we form arguments based on revelation to teach us how to act on matters not expressly addressed by Scripture following the lead of those great souls who have gone before us.

And we do this in the context of a community that is perpetually coming to God in prayer, Word, and Sacrament: humbling ourselves before God for the purpose of turning our lives over to him.

This is as much discipleship as receiving Holy Communion, reading Holy Scripture, or praying the Divine Hours. This is the discipleship of the mind that Paul calls us to in chapter twelve of Romans.

Are there really two marriages? (Part Two)

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage.

Yesterday I rehearsed Jones’s historical and theological objections to the connivance of state and in marriage. I will argue today that Jones fails to recognize that marriage is, for the Christian, necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world:

tony-jones

….Marriage matters because we are embodied and what we do with our body matters.

The church has affirmed over the centuries—almost with no exception—that marriage exists not only for the mutual aid and comfort of husband and wife, but also for the procreation of children.

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”[1]

We’d likely all agree that a marriage may be legitimate without children being born to the couple—having children does not a marriage make. However, it is a relatively recent innovation to believe that childbearing and marriage are totally unrelated.

Jones seeks to trace the changing nature of matrimony as grounds for a continued development of marriage to include same-sex couples. For example, in the ancient world marriage was simply the exchange of property with the consequent production of progeny.

Today marriage has become simply, “formalizing and cementing a romantic attraction.” It is emphatically not about having children. If it were, we would not allow “celibate, infertile, post-menopausal, non-producing” people to be legally married.

The reference is to restrictions on marriage, principally state laws that forbid consanguinity but that fail to forbid marriage between people unable to conceive. To derive a mandate for the church simply by the absence of state law on the matter is not a terribly good way to do affirmative theology.

As a pastor, were a couple to ask me to marry them and state up front that they would not be sexually intimate with one another nor would they even consider attempting to conceive, I would likely not marry them. Marriage is intrinsically linked with both sexual intimacy and with procreation. That some are unable to conceive doesn’t invalidate the rule, rather it’s the exception that proves it.

In all, Jones fails to build a compelling case for changing the nature and definition of marriage either in the state or in the church. He assumes that since people will always be gay—which is true—we should incentivize gay monogamy in the context of marriage. On the surface this may appear sound. However, Jones’s contention fails to consider that in the Christian view it is not simply that homosexual polyamory is wrong, but that all homosexual practice is not only inconsistent with Christian holiness, and is detrimental to human wholeness. To change marriage means more than “live and let live,” it necessarily encourages destructive behavior and, moreover, will inevitably lead to restrictions on religious groups that fail to recognize the appropriateness of same sex marriage.

[1] Book of Common Prayer