Christian Theology <![CDATA[ A Festschrift of Sorts for N.T. Wright by Critics Who Are Also Friends]]>
The book, like the conference, examined Wright's theology of Jesus (Part One) and his theology of Paul (Part Two). Following each chapter, Wright offers a short response to the author of the chapter. At the end of each part, Wright outlines the evolution to date of his thinking, using a "whence and whither" formula. The book includes a "Subject Index" and a "Scripture Index," both of which are helpful for academic readers. A select bibliography of Wright's books and articles would have been helpful, but it is not included.

For me, Wright's two "whence and whither" essays were worth the price of the book. Wright is a prolific author. His three-volume series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, contains 2,016 pages of densely argued prose. The "whence and whither" essays helped me understand the gist of Wright's portrait of Jesus, how he reached his conclusions, and how those conclusions apply to the life of the church today.

Of the other essays, two stood out to me in particular: "`Outside of a Small Circle of Friends': Jesus and the Justice of God" by Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh and "Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology." The former offered a provocative (and controversial) reading of Jesus' Parable of the Pounds that got me thinking about economic justice. The latter helped me navigate the debate between Wright and John Piper on the doctrine of justification by faith and suggested "union with Christ" as a point of rapprochement between the traditional Protestant doctrine and Wright's own interpretation of justification.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God makes an excellent companion volume to InterVarsity Press's book, Jesus & the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright's Jesus & the Victory of God (1999). If you are interested in the critical assessment of Wright's work, especially from an evangelical point of view, these two volumes are a good place to start.]]> Fri, 15 Apr 2011 17:49:02 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Hell-Believing Universalist]]>
Question-lovers focus on the ambiguity and uncertainty of belief. Reality is bigger and more complex than our theories about it. Consequently, we must be humble in the face of mystery, knowing how much we do not know.

Answer-lovers focus on the clarity and certainty of belief. Reality may slip the grasp of theory at the margins, but theory has a firm grip on reality at the center. So, we must act courageously in the world on the basis of what we do know.

Rob Bell loves questions. His critics love answers. This difference between them--a difference that is both temperamental and methodological--illuminates the controversy surrounding Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell asks, "Does God get what God wants?"--namely, "all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:4). He further asks, "Do we get what we want?" A "yes" answer to the first question makes you a universalist, that is, a person who believes that God both desires the salvation of all people and realizes that desire. A "yes" answer to the second question makes you a proponent of hell, that is, a person who believes that we can be separated from God for eternity.

A "yes" answer to both questions makes you Rob Bell, a hell-believing universalist.

If that description of Bell strikes you as an oxymoron, you are probably an answer-lover who longs for clarity and certainty. To you, belief in universalism and belief in hell form an incoherent set. Either/or but not both/and.

But Bell is a question-lover comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. God will get what God wants. And we will get what we want. Either way, love wins. "If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins."

Read that quote again. If we want heaven, love wins. If we want wins there too?

In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell. The Christian tradition--Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant--defines hell as the sentence of eternal punishment rendered by God against the unrighteous. One of the source passages for this definition is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. In that passage, Jesus teaches that he himself will separate the righteous and the unrighteous and render judgment. "Then they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Bell thinks the tradition has misinterpreted Jesus' words in verse 46. There, Jesus contrasts two fates: kolasin ai'nion and z''n ai'nion. The standard English translation of these two phrases is "eternal punishment" and "eternal life," respectively, although the words everlasting and forever occasionally appear instead of eternal. According to Bell, the "word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish." And ai'nion describes either "a period of time with a beginning and an end" or "a particular intensity of experience that transcends time" (emphasis in original). According to Bell, then "the phrase [kolasin ai'nion] can mean `a period of pruning' or `a time of trimming,' or an intense experience of correction."

If the tradition defines hell as eternal punishment, then Bell redefines it as temporal or particularly intense pruning. The former is ultimate and retributive. The latter is penultimate and remedial. What Bell says about the interplay of human sin and divine judgment in the Old Testament captures the gist of what he's saying about hell: "Failure, we see again and again, isn't final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction."

There are several problems with reasoning about hell in this way: First, Bell commits "the root fallacy" when he thinks the root-meaning of kolaz'/kolasin determines its meaning. In the New Testament, kolaz' and kolasin are translated as "punish" and "punishment" in the four instances where they are used (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet. 2:9; and Matt. 25:46, 1 John 4:18, respectively). The root-meaning in and of itself cannot determine whether that punishment is remedial (which is what Bell intends by "pruning" or "trimming") or retributive. Second, the word ai'nion must be translated the same way in both of its instances in Matthew 25:46. If hell is temporal, so is heaven. If hell is an intense experience that transcends time, so is heaven. Obviously, Bell desires to limit the duration of hell, but in doing so, he ends up limiting the duration of heaven at the same time. Third, the problem of citing the Old Testament interplay between human sin and divine judgment is that this interplay is corporate and historical. In other words, it applies to the nation (Israel) or city (Jerusalem), not every citizen or resident. And it applies to that corporate body's experience in this age, not necessarily in the age to come.

Bell doesn't draw a sharp distinction between this age and the age to come. He argues--correctly, forcefully, and with great insight--that they overlap in the present age. (He also argues--again, correctly, forcefully, and with great insight--that our eschatology should shape our ethics.) Theologians describe the overlap as inaugurated eschatology. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ inaugurates "the age to come" in the midst of "this age." In terms of heaven, this means that we can begin to experience "eternal life" right here and right now. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come," Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: "The old has gone, the new is here!" But inaugurated eschatology also applies in terms of hell. Romans 1:18 says, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people." And 2:5 adds, "because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed." According to these verses, right now, we begin to experience either "eternal life" and "new creation" or "wrath" and "judgment."

The New Testament teaches inaugurated eschatology, but it also teaches consummated eschatology. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates, his second coming consummates. Consider, again, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, which begins this way: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him..." (Matt. 25:31). Or 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed."
Or Revelation 19:11: "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war." In these passages, and in many others, Christ's return marks a definitive turning point in the relationship between God and his creatures. In the words of the Nicene Creed, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

For Bell, there does not seem to be a definitive turning point, a crisis moment where destinies are finalized. Hell, especially, is temporal and remedial. How long one spends there depends on how long one resists God's love. "Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." Bell draws attention to Revelation 21:25, which says of the New Jerusalem: "On no day will its gates ever be shut." Then he writes: "That's a small detail, and its' important we don't get too hung up on details and specific images because it's possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go." Bell sees this as an image of hope. Those who have chosen hell can choose heaven. Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell? Absent the precipitating event of Christ's second coming and the final judgment, it seems to me that life as Rob Bell portrays it will always be an ongoing struggle between heaven and hell, with no guarantee of a final resolution.

And if that's the case, in what sense does love actually win?]]> Mon, 21 Mar 2011 21:31:58 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Springboard for Clarifying Misunderstandings and Misperceptions]]> The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

In short, God is a "moral monster."

Paul Copan begs to differ with Dawkins' evaluation of the Old Testament God, not to mention the similar critiques of other New Atheists--e.g., Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. In Is God a Moral Monster? he uses these critiques as "a springboard to clarify and iron out misunderstandings and misrepresentations." More than that, he essays to defend the justice of God, properly understood and correctly presented.

Copan divides his work into four sections. Part 1 identifies the New Atheists and outlines their critique of God. Part 2 responds to critiques of God's character that revolve around his desire for the praise of his people, his "jealousy" for their fidelity, and his command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Part 3 tackles what Dawkins calls the Bible's "ubiquitous weirdness" and those passages he sees as morally monstrous. This section, the book's longest, deals with kosher laws, criminal punishments, relationships between the sexes, slavery, the killing of the Canaanites particularly, and the so-called "religious roots" of violence generally. Part 4 concludes the book by questioning whether atheism can provide a foundation for morality and by pointing to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

Copan's response to the New Atheists utilizes the following types of arguments:

First, he situates the Old Testament narratives and laws within the "redemptive movement of Scripture." As a Christian, Copan reads the Bible as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is an unsullied creation, and the end is Jesus Christ. The historical and legal elements of the Old Testament take place in the middle, falling short of God's creational ideals and in need of Jesus Christ's redemptive work. Far from being "God's timeless wisdom," Copan argues, much of the Old Testament is "inferior and provisional," offering "incremental steps toward the ideal."

Second, Copan situates the Old Testament within its historical context, pointing out how its legal codes are often a measurable improvement on the contemporaneous legal codes of other ancient near eastern societies. Criminal punishments are less severe, relationships between the sexes are fairer to women, slavery is more strictly regulated, and warfare is less savage.

Third, regarding difficult Old Testament narratives, Copan points out that narration does not imply endorsement. Jacob married two women and used their maidservants as concubines, but this does not imply divine endorsement. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter because of a rash vow, but his action did not merit divine approval. Many New Atheist critiques of Old Testament narratives commit what Copan calls "the `is-ought' fallacy."

Fourth, regarding difficult Old Testament laws, Copan focuses on their context and their limited application. Take Deuteronomy 20:16-18, for example--where God commanded the Israelites to "utterly destroy...the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite." Copan points out several things worth keeping in mind.

* In issuing this commandment, God uses Israel as an agent of judgment against the Canaanites, whom God is judging for their wickedness.
* In addition to a concern for justice, God's concern is religious: Unless the Canaanites are destroyed, they will corrupt the monotheistic faith and practice of Israel.
* This commandment, and others like it, has limited application to the initial entry of Israel into the Promised Land. It is not used as justification for Israel's wars once they are established in the land.
* The commandment is not racially or ethnically motivated, since other passages of Scripture promise a similar judgment to Israel if she is disobedient to God and since Israel itself was a multi-ethnic host.
* The narratives describing the fulfillment of this commandment use "ancient near eastern exaggeration rhetoric," meaning that the descriptions of total killing are not literally true and would not have been understood to be literally true by Israel or her contemporaries.
* The targeted cities are best understood as military outposts rather than non-combatant urban areas.
* Canaanites could escape divine judgment by joining Israel (as did Rahab and her household).
* Although some verses in Joshua describe the total destruction of the Canaanites after Israel's entry into the Promised Land, other verses describe their continued presence. So, the Bible's narrative portrayal of Israel's "conquest" is itself ambivalent.

I doubt that New Atheists will think of much of this type of argument--focusing on context and limiting application. My guess is that they will still consider the commandment problematic, even contextualized and limited. Fine. But Copan's point is that they should correctly describe what the narrative describes and understood the limitations of the commandments before they simply condemn them. One of the most irritating aspects of New Atheist critiques is their fundamentalist-like citation of Scripture without bothering to understand its contextual meaning. Copan's argument helps expose the hermeneutical weaknesses of such New Atheist critiques.

In general, I found Copan's argument to be persuasive, even probative at points. I think he successfully highlights numerous weaknesses in the New Atheist critique of the Old Testament God. Results may vary for different readers. Nonetheless, I think this is a valuable book for both atheists and Christians alike. It is valuable for atheists because it offers them a nuanced interpretation of difficult Old Testament passages. Rather than constructing straw-man arguments against the Old Testament God based on facile citation of passages plucked out of context, atheists need to argue with the passages as they are interpreted by believers who stand in the mainstream Christian tradition. The book is valuable for Christian readers because it helps them read their Bibles in a Christ-centered way, recognizing the less-than-ideal character of many Old Testament figures and the inferior-and-provisional character of many Old Testament laws.

[...]]]> Wed, 9 Feb 2011 13:31:53 +0000
<![CDATA[ One-Stop Shop for the History, Literary Merit, and Cultural Influence of the KJV on Its 400th Anniversary]]>
"Has anyone really improved on the KJV [King James Version] rendering of these three expressions [i.e., lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life], to which the updated NIV returns? ... The language still communicates, and the poetry and style to which the NIV has returned is magnificent."

I imagine that this statement warms the cockles of Leland Ryken's heart. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Ryken in two classes at Wheaton College--British literature and Milton.) He has been a public critic of the NIV since writing "The Literary Merit of the New International Version" for Christianity Today (October 20, 1978), an article which concluded that the NIV had little of it. He is also a proponent of the "essentially literal" translation philosophy of the English Standard Version, on whose translation committee he served as literary editor. He has defended that translation philosophy in two books: The Word of God in English and Understanding English Bible Translation. According to Ryken, this translation philosophy undergirds the KJV and its modern progeny: the Revised Standard Version (RSV)--though not the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the ESV. These modern translations share the same philosophy as the KJV, but they also are conservative translations in that they seek to retain the vocabulary and cadence of the KJV, consistent with accuracy and readability, of course.

This year (2011) is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the KJV. In honor of that milestone, Ryken has published The Legacy of the King James Version, which outlines the KJV's publication history, literary excellence, and cultural influence for a general audience. Ryken covers a lot of ground quickly and in an easy-to-read style, offering suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter as well as endnotes that point the reader to more detailed sources of information. If you are going to read one book this year in honor of the KJV, I recommend this one for its breadth of topic and ease of reading.

In the Afterword, Ryken proposes that "we should celebrate a victory, lament a loss, and resolve to hold on to what is excellent." The victory is the four hundredth anniversary of the KJV, a translation that continues to sell better than most modern translations, routinely coming in at second or third on the sales rankings. The loss fourfold: (1) "we have lost a common English Bible in both the church and the culture at large"; (2) "the authority of the Bible went into eclipse when we lost a common Bible"; (3) "biblical illiteracy has accompanied the decline of the King James Bible"; and (4) we have lost "the affective and literary power of the King James Bible." In light of this, Ryken argues that we should use those translations that, like the KJV, translate in an "essentially literal" and conservative fashion as well as read the KJV itself on a regular basis.

I don't know whether I agree with Ryken's recommendations, although I am using the ESV this year in my reading, writing, and preaching. But I can't help and wonder whether another wholesale translation of the Bible into English or thoroughgoing revision of an existing one really benefits the readers. I know it's good business, but is it good for anything else?]]> Mon, 7 Feb 2011 13:29:47 +0000
<![CDATA[ Do Your Intentions to Serve Match Their Perceptions of You?]]>
In cross-cultural exchanges, we intend to serve others, but our efforts may be perceived as exercises of arrogant power. The remedy is Christlike humility. "Humility is mandated," Elmer writes, "but"--and this exception is crucial--"its expression is culturally defined" (p. 33). We must both intend to be humble, in other words, and act in ways that people from other cultures perceive as humble.

How do we do this? Cross-Cultural Servanthood examines "the process of becoming a cross-cultural servant" (p. 19). Elmer outlines this process with six steps:

1. Openness: "the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe" (p. 39, emphasis in original).

2. Acceptance: "the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person" (p. 58)

3. Trust: "the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest" (p. 77).

4. Learning: "the ability to glean relevant information about, from and with other people" (p. 93).

5. Understanding: "the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people" (p. 125).

6. Serving: "the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives" (p. 146).

Elmer is G. W. Aldeen Professor of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His book is clear and simply written, mixing theological and sociological analysis in balanced measure, and using illustrations from his life and career, as well as from the lives and careers of others.

I highly recommend this book to Christian missionaries, pastors, and laypeople who work in cross-cultural or multi-cultural settings. It will help them understand how to better communicate the gospel in word and deed. It will also help them examine their own motives to make sure they are serving rather than patronizing others.]]> Mon, 29 Nov 2010 14:55:25 +0000
<![CDATA[ Excellent, insightful Bible commentary]]>
Each letter (James, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter) had it's own self-contained section in the book. The author started each by explaining who wrote the letter, when it was written, and who it was written to. He briefly described the writer's life up to the point the letter was written so we could see what influenced his writing. He included a time-line chart showing critical events in the author's life and historical events that influenced the writing. There was also a map showing where the people written to were located.

Each letter was studied overall and verse-by-verse in sections defined by the major themes in the letter. At the end of each thematic section, he discussed how we can apply the writer's message to our own lives. He also included occasional "journal" pages were he talked about how the verses just discussed had been applied or worked out in his life.

While you'll get the most insight into confusing passages by reading the book/letter's whole commentary, you can also look up just a single verse.

Despite the "digging deeper" nature of the commentary, the author explained things in a way that was easy to follow and understand. It's packed with information; there's very little "fluff." Overall, I'd highly recommend this book to anyone confused by passages in James, 1 Peter, or 2 Peter or to those who simply want to increase their understanding of these letter/books.

I received this book as a review copy from the publisher. ]]> Wed, 24 Nov 2010 18:09:59 +0000
<![CDATA[ Theology and Apologetics in the Tradition of C. S. Lewis]]>
Alister McGrath disagrees. Instead, in The Passionate Intellect, he argues for "the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith and its ability to bring about a new and deeply satisfying vision of reality." Furthermore, he argues that a "theologically informed discipleship of the mind sustains, nourishes and protects the Christian vision of reality, thus enabling the church to retain its saltiness and capacity to illuminate." Compared to this vision, the "simplistic metanarrative [of the new atheism] can only be sustained by doing violence to the facts of history, the norms of evidence-based argument and the realities of contemporary experience."

McGrath holds dual doctorates from Oxford in molecular biophysics and historical theology. He is chair of theology, ministry, and education at King's College, London, as well as head of its Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture. He has written A Scientific Theology, a three-volume systematic theology in conversation with the natural sciences; The Twilight of Atheism; two books in critique of Dawkins: Dawkins's God and The Dawkins Delusion; and his prestigious Gifford Lectures, A Fine-Tuned Universe.

Knowing McGrath's background, readers might not crack open The Passionate Intellect, intimidated because they think it an academic tome. Those who do so will discover, instead, a work of popular theology and apologetics self-consciously in the tradition of C. S. Lewis. McGrath writes clearly and gracefully. Those interested in pursuing the subject matter further can peruse the twenty-two pages of footnotes at the end of the book.]]> Tue, 23 Nov 2010 21:16:44 +0000
<![CDATA[ Christians Should Work Toward the Restoration of All Things]]>
In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons sets out to answer this question. He depicts two broad types of Christians interacting with culture: separatist Christians and cultural Christians. Then he proposes a better type: restorers. "I call them restorers," he writes, "because they envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision."

Lyons roots the work of restoration in the biblical narrative. "God's story is made up of four key parts: creation, fall, redemption, restoration (and ultimately consummation)." Historically, in the 18th and 19th centuries, evangelicals kept these four parts together, emphasizing both social reform (creation, restoration) and evangelism (fall, redemption). In the 20th Century, however, their fundamentalist heirs separated evangelism and social reform, emphasizing only the former. This led to an imbalanced spirituality. "The truncated Gospel that is often recounted is faithful to the fall and redemption pieces of the story, but largely ignores the creation and restoration components." The next Christians rejoin evangelism and social reform. "These missing elements [i.e., creation and restoration] are at the heart of what a new generation of Christians are relearning, and subsequently, retelling."

The heart of The Next Christians outlines six characteristics of the way restorers interact with culture. They are:

* provoked, not offended
* creators, not critics
* called, not employed
* grounded, not distracted
* in community, not alone
* countercultural, not "relevant"

Lyons fleshes out these characteristics with biographical sketches of contemporary Christians working toward the restoration of all things. The vast majority of them work in secular professions, including non-profit charities. They work toward "the common good," defined as "the most good for all people." They seek to make a culture that "celebrates beauty," "affirms goodness," and "tells the truth." Their work includes but is not limited to what traditionally falls under the rubric of evangelism and discipleship. Indeed, Lyons de-emphasizes the vocations of the clergy in order to focus attention on the vocations of the laity.

Evangelism and discipleship, traditionally conceived, do not disappear among the next Christians. Rather, they take place organically. Lyons writes, "The fact is, where Christians restore, people get saved." In simple terms, good works create an environment in which people come to faith. And people who come to faith go on to good works. The gospel may begin with the salvation of the individual, but it doesn't end there. It encompasses the whole of his or her life, not just the spiritual component.

Without citing it, The Next Christians recapitulates the typology of H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture for evangelical readers. In place of "Christ against culture," we have "separatist Christians." In place of "Christ of culture," we have "cultural Christians." In place of "Christ transforming culture," we have "restorers." What is missing, of course, are "Christ above culture" and "Christ and culture in paradox." I largely agree with the transformation/restoration position, but it is always helpful to keep in mind that even our best cultural achievements are ephemeral and tinged with sin. The restoration toward which Christians work in this age finds perfection only in the age to come.

Still, the inability to achieve perfection doesn't mean we can't make progress. The 18th- and 19th-Century evangelicals--such as Wesley, Wilberforce, and Finney--who led both religious revivals and social reform movements knew this. So did Jesus and the disciples, who left a better world--spiritually and materially--in their wake. Their 21st-Century descendents would do well to relearn this lesson, and Gabe Lyons's book is a good place to start.]]> Wed, 17 Nov 2010 21:14:27 +0000
<![CDATA[ Logic for the Sake of Love]]>
For some, there is no relation. "Love Is a Fallacy" by Max Shulman tells the story of a smart college freshman who pines for Polly Espy, the girlfriend of his big-man-on-campus roommate, Petey Bellows. Petey, however, pines for a raccoon coat, which is all the rage among BMOCs. In exchange for a chance to date Polly, the freshman gives Petey his father's raccoon coat.

Unfortunately, Polly's intelligence does not match her beauty, so the freshman sets out to school her, beginning with logical fallacies. Patiently he teaches her the fallacies of hasty generalization, post hoc, ad misericordiam, and poisoning the well, among others. After five dates, satisfied that she has risen to a level of intelligence acceptable to him, the freshman declares his love for her.

She then proceeds to point out the logical fallacies inherent in each of his arguments in favor of the match and instead declares her love for...Petey Bellows. "Can you give me one logical reason why you should go steady with Petey Bellows?" he screams. "I certainly can," she replies. "He's got a raccoon coat."

To quote Blaise Pascal: "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."

In Think, John Piper begs to differ with people who see no relationship between logic and love. There is a relationship between the two, a mutually enriching one at that. "The fires of love for God need fuel. And the fires of love for God drive the engines of thought and deed. There is a circle. Thinking feeds the fire, and the fire fuels more thinking and doing. I love God because I know him. And I want to know him more because I love him" (89). This mutually enriching relationship encompasses our love for people as well. Indeed, "All scholarship is for the love of God and man" (167).

For me, the most insightful sections of the book were "Coming to Faith through Thinking" (58-82), "Facing the Challenge of Relativism" (94-118), and "Facing the Challenge of Anti-intellectualism" (118-156).

"Coming to Faith through Thinking" shows that reasoning plays a role in conversion and clarifies how. The two chapters in this section effectively rebut the popular evangelical sentiment that you cannot argue a person into the kingdom of God. True, conversion encompasses more than thinking, but never less.

"Facing the Challenge of Relativism" lays bare the immorality and incoherence of relativism using a dialogue about religious authority between Jesus and the Pharisees (Matthew 21:23-27). The Pharisees asked Jesus, "By what authority are you doing these things?" In response, Jesus asked, "John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?" The Pharisees realized that either answer would get them into trouble, so they demurred. Piper comments: "People don't embrace relativism because it is philosophically satisfying. They embrace it because it is physically and emotionally gratifying. It provides the cover they need at key moments in their lives to do what they want without intrusion from absolutes." It is immoral, in other words. It is incoherent because "no one is a relativist" at the bank" (102).

"Facing the Challenge of Anti-intellectualism" examines six spiritual reasons people give for anti-intellectualism. Two of these reasons arise from misinterpretations of biblical passages, namely, Luke 10:17-24 and 1 Corinthians 1:20-24. The former states, "You [God] have hidden these things from the wise and understanding." The latter, "In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom." Piper carefully exegetes these passages and concludes: "the warnings that Jesus and Paul have sounded...are not warnings about careful, faithful, rigorous, coherent thinking in the pursuit of God. In fact, the way Jesus and Paul spoke these very warnings compels us to engage in serious thinking even to understand them. And what we find is that pride is no respecter of persons--the serious thinkers may be humble. And the careless mystic may be arrogant" (154).

Historian Mark Noll once wrote, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Unfortunately, this is all too often true. The strength of Think by John Piper is his patient exposition of the Bible, which critiques evangelical mindlessness and points to the twin imperatives of the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:38-39).]]> Tue, 19 Oct 2010 20:05:51 +0000
<![CDATA[ An Excellent Intro to How Science Interacts with Religion in Debates over Homosexuality]]>
Social scientists have researched these questions for decades. Increasingly, individual Christians and Christian denominations draw on the findings of that research as they debate whether homosexual behavior is permissible, whether same-sex marriage is desirable, and whether non-celibate homosexuals can be ordained to ministry. Unfortunately, many Christians and churches that draw on this research do so without conceding that its findings are complicated. Moreover, they all-too-often reach conclusions that do not follow logically from the premises.

In Homosexuality, Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse survey "the use of scientific research in the church's moral debate" about homosexuality, as the subtitle states the purpose of the book. Jones and Yarhouse are members of the American Psychological Association, professors of psychology, and published researchers. They are also evangelical Christians who defend the traditional Christian prohibition of homosexual behavior.

Chapter 1--"Research, Reason, and Religion"--sketches a portrait of the relationship between science and religion. Jones and Yarhouse reject (1) perspectivalism, "the view that science and religion are two complementary ways of knowing (epistemologies) that deal with alternative and distinct vantage points or perspectives on reality"; (2) imperialism, "the view that science and religion are competing descriptions of the same reality, with one trying to utterly dominate and replace the other"; and (3) postmodern relativism, in which "science's authority [and Scripture's, I might add] has been replaced by the authority of narrative...stories that can be true for one person and not for another." Instead, they advocate (4) critical realism; "we believe that there is a real world out there where it is possible to know and know truly (hence, `realism'), but we also believe that our theories and hypotheses about that world, and our religious presuppositions and beliefs about reality, color and shape our capacity to know the world (hence, `critical realism'" (pp. 14-15, passim).

With this perspective in mind, the authors survey research regarding the four questions asked at the outset of this review. Chapter 2 examines the prevalence of homosexuality, chapter 3 its etiology or cause, chapter 4 its status as a mental disorder, and chapter 5 the efficacy of change methods (p. 29). Each chapter begins with examples of how individual Christians and churches use--more typically, misuse--scientific research on a given topic; continues with a fair and appropriately nuanced survey of what the research actually shows, or doesn't show; then draws out the "formal relevance of research to the moral debate" (p. 45), focusing on the logical relationship between scientific premises and moral conclusions.

Regarding the prevalence of homosexuality, Jones and Yarhouse conclude that "homosexuality [understood as a `stable life orientation'] almost certainly characterizes less than 3% of the population, and the correct percentage combining men and women might be lower than even 2%" (p. 44). However, they go on to argue, "We can think of no compelling rationale for why the prevalence of a particular behavior should be directly related to whether that behavior is moral" (p. 45). The fact that some vices are common and some virtues rare does not make them less vicious or virtuous, after all.

Regarding the etiology of homosexual orientation, the authors survey "psychological/environmental theories" (pp. 54-60) and "biological theories" (pp. 60-83). They conclude that neither nurture nor nature fully explain homosexual orientation. Instead, they argue that the research supports a "weighted interactionist hypothesis." In other words, "an individual person's experience of same-sex attraction will be related to a host of interrelated factors," including "biological influences," "psychological (early childhood) influences," "other environmental influences," and "adult experiences." These influences are "weighted differently for each individual," "cumulative," and a "push" rather than a "cause" of sexual orientation (pp. 85-86). How is this interpretation of the evidence relevant to the church's moral debate? In two ways: (1) "there appear to be a variety of factors that provide a push in the direction of homosexuality for some persons, but there is no evidence that this `push' renders human choice utterly irrelevant" (p. 88). (2) "Science has not eliminated responsibility for sexual behavior" (p. 89). In other words, a person may not choose his or her orientation--although this can't be completely ruled out in some cases either--but he or she can choose how to act upon that orientation. The authors conclude, "The church's moral concern is not fundamentally with homosexual orientation, no matter how it develops," for "it may be understood as one among the many ways in which we humans, sinful and fallen as we are, are inclined to lean toward choices and patterns that do not bring honor to God." Instead, the "church's moral concern is with what an individual does with his or her experiences of same-sex attraction" (p. 90).

Regarding the status of homosexuality as a moral disorder, Jones and Yarhouse survey four criteria "commonly used to define behavior patterns as abnormal": "statistical infrequence"; "personal distress"; "maladaptiveness"--i.e., "behavior or characteristics that sabotage rather than abet a person's moving in a positive, healthy direction"; and "deviation from social norms" (pp. 98, 107). Based on these criteria, they conclude that the evidence offers a "mixed scorecard." Homosexuality is "infrequent." There is "a correlation of homosexuality with personal distress, though not all homosexuals are distressed." "[A]rguments regarding maladaptiveness are also inconclusive," mainly because "it may be hard to establish a clear definition of maladaptiveness that would be widely accepted in the secular community." And "it is clear that homosexuality violates societal norms, though consensus on these societal norms in America is decaying" (pp. 112-113). Jones and Yarhouse wrote that sentence in 2000. Given the ongoing debate regarding California's Prop 8, that sentence is still true a decade later. How do these conclusions relate to the church's moral debate? "Christians must recognize that neither societal consensus itself, nor societal judgment of a pattern as unhealthy, disturbed or abnormal bears any necessary relation to moral judgment in the Christian tradition." Why not? "Morality is not usually conceived as determined by democratic vote in the Christian tradition" (p. 113). Additionally, "ethical abnormality and psychological abnormality are not the same thing, nor are they related by necessity" (pp. 113-114). Sins are not necessarily pathologies, nor pathologies necessarily sins.

Regarding the efficacy of change methods, Jones and Yarhouse's conclusion offers support to neither those who think homosexual orientation is "immutable" nor those who think "reparative therapy" is a cure-all. Based on the research evidence, they conclude: "Change of homosexual orientation may well be impossible for some by any natural means. Yet the position that homosexuality is unchangeable seems questionable in light of reports of successful change" (p. 148). How is this conclusion--also a "mixed scorecard"--relevant to the church's moral debate? "The core issue is that the church's stance on homosexual behavior requires only that individuals be able to refrain from homosexual action and find a life of fulfillment in God's own provision in meeting their personal needs and not that they necessarily be able to become heterosexuals. Certainly behavior change is within the realm of that which can be changed, as evidenced by our understanding of autonomy and free will, as well as scientific findings that clearly support change of behavior methods" (p. 150).

Chapter 6, "Toward a Christian Sexual Ethic," concludes the book and restates "the core of the Christian sexual ethic" in four propositions: (1) "our a precious gift from God"; (2) "full sexual intimacy is properly experienced only between a man and a woman who are married"; (3) "those who are not married should refrain from full sexual intimacy with others"; and (4) "all persons, married and unmarried, should be characterized by certain virtues that will guide and mold their living out of their sexual natures before God and their fellow men and women" (p. 157).

Jones and Yarhouse's book will unsettle both revisionists and traditionalists, i.e., the two basic positions in the church's moral debate about homosexuality. On the one hand, Jones and Yarhouse demonstrate, persuasively in my opinion, that revisionists often mischaracterize the scientific research on homosexuality and draw illogical moral inferences from it, whether they have misinterpreted it or not. On the other hand, traditionalists may not like the complicated picture that scientific research on homosexuality draws. Indeed, some traditionalists may simply dispense with the scientific research altogether, in an act of what Jones and Yarhouse might characterize as "imperialism from the religious side, "i.e., a "push for the elimination of scientific research that impinges on any religious question, or [denial of] the validity of any scientific research that conflicts with their understanding of how reality should be" (p. 14).

Personally, I finished reading the book and pondered anew "the mystery of iniquity," to borrow a phrase from Paul, perhaps out of context (2 Thes. 2:7 [KJV]). It is easy to judge the sins of others, especially the ones I am not tempted to commit. But when I consider the orientation toward sin I find within myself, I say with Paul: "I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:23-25 [NIV]).]]> Wed, 15 Sep 2010 20:30:50 +0000
<![CDATA[ Promoting the Gospel with Our All]]> Fri, 27 Aug 2010 19:13:50 +0000 <![CDATA[ The Bauer Thesis Demolished]]>
In The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Köstenberger and Kruger argue that the Bauer thesis is demonstrably false, on both historical and exegetical grounds (Part 1). Despite these manifest failures, however, the Bauer thesis continues to influence our understanding of the historical development of early Christianity.

Part 2 examines this influence in the debate over the extent of the New Testament canon. If earliest Christianity was irreducibly diverse, as Bauer claimed and as scholars such as Bart Ehrman continue to claim, then the 27 books of the New Testament reflect the literary choices of the winning side. Köstenberger and Kruger challenge this interpretation of history in Part 2. They argue that the canon begins to arise, in the New Testament period, as a result of the authority inherent in the apostolic office, whose teachings were committed to writing for future generations. From a very early period in the late first century, the writings associated with the apostles--especially the fourfold Gospel and the collection of Paul's thirteen letters--were known, cited, collected, and distributed among churches. Other writings, such as the Gnostic gospels, which often claimed apostolic provenance, were not even written until the second century, when the apostles had passed from the scene, and espoused ideas that had no rootage in first-century Palestinian soil, the milieu in which Jesus was formed and to which he ministered. Moreover, despite exaggerated claims that the proto-orthodox (Ehrman's preferred name for orthodox Christians in the first three centuries) arbitrarily excluded Gnostic gospels and other second century writings from the biblical canon, the historical record reveals that they were never considered in the first place, precisely because of their late date and non-apostolic provenance. What evidence we do have indicates that 22 of the 27 canonical New Testament books were early on and almost universally agreed to be authoritative, forming the core of the canon.

In essence, Part 1 argues that there is such a thing as normative Christianity. Part 2 argues that the New Testament canon evolved naturally out of this early orthodoxy. Part 3 considers whether modern readers can know that the New Testament documents we have accurately reflect these early apostolic documents. Through writings both academic (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) and popular (Jesus, Interrupted), Ehrman has argued that the answer to this question must be no. Textual criticism has revealed the massive number of textual variants in our extant manuscripts of the New Testament. Further, close study of these variants has revealed--in many cases--a tendency by orthodox scribes to make the text explicitly theologically orthodox. Consequently, one simply cannot know what the apostles themselves taught, for the winning side in the debate of the second and third centuries has corrupted the Scriptures beyond all possibility of repair. The problem with Ehrman's argument is both logical and factual. Logically, we cannot know that the orthodox corrupted the text unless we have a pretty good idea of what the text originally said. Factually, text critics are confident that we have a pretty good idea of what the text originally said because, when it comes to the number of New Testament manuscripts, especially contrasted to the number of manuscripts for other ancient documents, we suffer from what Eldon Jay Epps called "an embarrassment of riches." The overall quality of these manuscripts indicates that Christian scribes took their copyist duties seriously and performed them professionally. Moreover, the vast majority of the textual variants that have been documented are entirely trivial, while those that are major do not affect any doctrine, since they are not the only biblical texts that speak in favor of a doctrine. Luke 7:53-8:11 is a well-known textual variant, which textual critics are certain (or as close to certain as textual critics can be) was not part of the original Gospel of Luke. It is not in the earliest and best manuscripts, it was not known to early second century commentators on Luke, and it is sometimes found appended to late copies of the Gospel of John. Remove that wonderful story of Jesus' interaction with the woman caught in adultery and what happens theologically? Nothing. No doctrine hangs on any textual variant, even the major and still disputed textual variants.

In sum, contrary to Bauer and Ehrman, orthodoxy preceded heresy. It was original and normative, while heresy was late and counterfeit. The question that rises as the result of Köstenberger and Kruger's demonstration is why the Bauer thesis still has legs. If it has been refuted in the particulars, why does it live on in general? "The reason it does so, we suspect"--write Köstenberger and Kruger--"is not that its handling of the data is so superior or its reasoning is so compelling. The reason is rather that Bauer's thesis...resonates profoundly with the intellectual and cultural climate in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century." That climate, "contemporary culture's fascination with diversity," is a thoroughgoing relativistic pluralism. I suspect that the authors are onto something important with this observation. The major failing of The Heresy of Orthodoxy, in my opinion, is that they didn't argue this thesis with as lengthy and well-documented a case as they offered in demolition of the Bauer thesis.]]> Fri, 27 Aug 2010 19:12:13 +0000