The Importance of the New Testament in Modern Ministry

GIVING LOGICAL PRIORITY TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Tom Wells writes: “The large amount of baggage (presuppositions) that any of us bring to the Scriptures depends in a large measure on which part of Scripture we, subconsciously no doubt, read first, or treat as logically prior.”[1]  This explains why in so many debates over various theological or practical issues so many Christians talk past each other—they are not dealing with the underlying presuppositions that cause them to interpret the Bible the way they do.  Many of these have to do with which testament we treat as logically prior.

He gives an illustration which typifies those who hold to “covenant theology”:

“What will happen if we start at Genesis and build our doctrine of the people of God from consecutive reading of the OT?  Among other things, we will have a pretty thorough and extensive idea of who the people of God are, long before we come to the NT.  The people of God is Israel, the physical descendants of Jacob and, before him, Abraham.  Even if our eyes were more open to spiritual realities than were the eyes of the Jews in Jesus’ day, I suspect we would show little more comprehension of the breadth of the phrase ‘children of Abraham’ that the disciples did, not only before Pentecost but even afterward.  We very likely would have shared the astonishment of the disciples, who as late as chapter eleven of Acts say, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’ (11:18).

What would be the consequences of this reading?  Let me mention some.  We might easily assume that since there is one people of God, God would only have one covenant with them and one sign of that covenant, circumcision.  When we arrived at the Major Prophets, if we were particularly perceptive, we might make some small adjustments.  Of course, the NT, when we came to it, would change our convictions on these matters, but we could have a predisposition to find as little change as possible.  After all, we know there is one people, one covenant and one covenant sign.”

He goes on:

“Try to look at it sympathetically for a moment…if you do not do so, the following discussion will seem to be a parody, and I do not intend it that way, at all.  What would you do with the truth you felt you had learned from the OT?  Here is one possible scenario.  First, though the people of God is clearly Israel, you would have to make room for the Gentiles within that people… Second, you would have to wrestle with the one-covenant idea in the face of your previous conviction.  You could take one of two options: you could rename the two covenants so prominent in the NT.  You might these covenants…administrations of the one covenant.  This would tend to keep the changes forced on you by the NT to a minimum. 

Finally, you would have to deal with the covenant sign you learned from the OT.  Clearly circumcision must go.  That is the thing that is explicitly in the NT.  What could you do under these circumstances?  One possibility would be to insist that circumcision and baptism are virtually the same thing.  In these ways you would preserve the understanding you received by reading the OT… Given the premise that the OT must be given logical priority, the steps I have outlined are not in themselves unreasonable.  Perhaps that is the reason the Geneva Study Bible has its major article on baptism at Genesis 17.”[2]

Do you see the drastic theological effects that can result from giving priority to one Testament over the other?  It is not my intention (nor is that of Wells) to say that the above perfectly represents the explicit thinking of covenantal theologians, but it is a very reasonable explanation for some of their views.

It is here that I would like to present another possible problem with giving logical priority to the OT: the practicality of doing modern ministry.

THE PROBLEM WITH ALLOWING THE OLD TESTAMENT TO TAKE PRECEDENCE IN MODERN MINISTRY

Many adherents to covenant theology do not see much discontinuity between the New Testament and the Old (and as Wells has argued may give logical priority to it).  I think this may not only lead to theological conundrums and dead-ends, but that it hinders ministry in the modern world.  In my personal experience, many churches that are steeped in covenant theology end up looking a lot like little mini-OT Israel’s (many, not all).  This is a serious problem in today’s world.  Israel’s religion was designed to set them apart from the world; it was a “come see” religion, not a “go-tell” religion like that of the New Testament.[3]  In the whole of the Old Testament you see but a few non-Israelites who actually come to embrace Jewish religion.  What adult male wants to be part of a religion that requires you to go through an excruciatingly painful and bloody process like circumcision (especially back when there were no means of pain-relief like what we have today)?  But that was just one ritual in a long line of many others that were part of Israel’s religious program.  All of which were to set Israel apart from the nations which God let go their own way (Acts 14:16). 

Although traditional covenant theology claims that the ceremonial aspects of the law have passed away, they still retain other aspects of the law.  And, they bring in certain paradigms from Old Testament religion like the formal sanctifying of the visible covenant community through the application of the covenant sign.  These couple of OT remnants may not seem like much, but they inevitably bring other ideas with them.  The result is a Judaization of the New Testament.[4]  In some ways this is understandable because there are numerous examples of Christians in Scripture who had trouble letting go of the faiths’ Jewish roots (one thinks of Paul’s encounter with Peter in Gal. 2:11-14 and the whole Galatian heresy.  And those in Rome had trouble connecting the dots in Romans 9-11).

The problem is that the new covenant, in order to function as God intends, must shed the shell of the old covenant.  The old covenant is in many ways like a cocoon.  The butterfly will die (or be crippled) if it is not allowed to mature and fly free.[5]  The old covenant was not designed to do the kind of transformative work the new covenant is.  Why else did God command Israel to go in and slaughter the Canaanites instead of go in and reform them?  Is this the kind of command you would find in the New Testament?  Of course not.  The New Testament is a religion of heart reform and inward transformation (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).  The New Testament opens the door to all kinds of ministry that would have been totally illegitimate in the Old Testament.  Peter Kreeft writes “Saints always go into the ghettos, especially the moral ghettos.  They make waves… The waves make the garbage come to the surface, and the waves of garbage often drown the saints and make them martyrs.”[6]  You will be hard-pressed to find this kind of thinking under the old covenant.  New Testament (modern) ministry says, let’s go jump in the garbage for God.  Old Testament ministry says, let’s stay out of the garbage for God.

Take the most famous “go” commands of the Old and New Testaments for example.  In the Old Testament one immediately thinks of God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 12 to leave his home land and go to the country which God was going to show him.  God tells Abraham that he is going to make him a great nation (12:2).  In the New Testament, the famous “go” command is in Matthew 28: the Great Commission—“Go, therefore and make disciples.”  The contrast is striking.  Go, settle, and make a nation, verses go out into the whole world and make disciples.  The respective covenants were molded around these “go” commands and tailored to them.

This is absolutely crucial to realize in today’s modern America that is quickly abandoning its Christian heritage like a person fleeing a burning wrecked car.  Paul said: “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).  Becoming all things was not the paradigm of the OT which called proselytes to become like Israelites.  Israelite religion could not be practiced wherever and however.  Just ask Aaron’s sons or the queen of Sheba.  Now there is no national people for Gentiles to become like except their own; for people worship in spirit and in truth, no longer on some mountain in Israel (Jn. 4:21-24).

Things are different now.  Very different.  The world is not impressed by all of our clinging to old rituals, garb, and formalities.  Let us worship God in Sprit and in truth and watch God give people the desire to serve him in their unique expressions (Romans 14).

_________________

[1] Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 13.

[2] Wells and Zaspel, New Covenant Theology, 9-10.

[3] John Piper said this in a sermon once… I can’t recall where or when.

[4]Paul K. Jewett points this out in his book Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace: “With the advent of Messiah–the promised seed par excellence–and the Pentecostal effusion of the Spirit, the salvation contained in the promise to Israel was brought nigh. No longer was it a hope on the distant horizon but rather an accomplished fact in history. Then–and for our discussion, this THEN is of capital significance–the temporal, earthly, typical elements of the old dispensation were dropped from the great house of salvation as scaffolding from the finished edifice. It is our contention that the Paedobaptists, in framing their argument from circumcision, have failed to keep this significant historical development in clear focus. Proceeding from the basically correct postulate that baptism stands in the place of circumcision, they have urged this analogy to a distortion. They have so far pressed the unity of the covenant as to suppress the diversity of its administration. They have, to be specific, Christianized the Old Testament and Judaized the New” (Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, [Philipsburg: Eerdmans, 1980], 91.).[5] This analogy is used by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel in New Covenant Theology (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002).

[6] Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society In Crisis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 54.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Christopher Hitchens Has Died

(Originally posted on 12/16/2011)

Last night, at the age of 62, journalist Christopher Hitchens died.  In a long bout with oesophageal cancer, he finally died in a hospital bed in Texas from pneumonia.

Plenty has already been said about the man.  Wikipedia has a lengthy biographical piece on him.  I have posted a few other links to articles on Christopher Hitchens below.

A collegue of mine pointed me to one of Hitchens’ longtime good friends who has written a lengthy postscript.  For a much more brief word with a Christian perspective (with additional relevant links), Denny Burk has a helpful little blog article.  Doug Wilson has also written a piece in Christianity Today.  And here’s a good one entitled “34 Christopher Hitchens quotes that won’t offend you (probably)” by Abraham Piper.  The Baptist Press has a short article on some of his beliefs.

News of his death can be found in various articles here, here, here, and here.  His brother, Peter, has written on his death as well, and on their relationship.

Christopher wrote about his illness too.  You can read some of it here.

NPR did an article/interview about Hitchens in October of 2010 shortly after he had found out that it had metastasized.  Read it here. 

Hitchens was undoubtedly a sharp enemy of the Christian faith (at least in academic settings) and probably the most outspoken of all the “new atheists.”  It is likely, that in America, his outspoken atheism will be his legacy.  However, many Christians would call him a good friend, despite their sharp disagreements (Here’s an article from one of them).  Christians across the spectrum, in fact, found the man, in his own way, quite delightful and different from the other “New Atheists.”  Undoubtedly, there is much that believers can learn from him.  Al Mohler suggests five things in particular.

One article I read, entitled, “The Believer’s Atheist,” captures one reason why many thoughtful Christians did not find his inflammatory rhetoric, inflammatory…  Many might even say it was endearing :

“At the very least, Hitchens’s antireligious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism’s less talented apostles — a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find.”

Whatever the reasons behind his attacks on God, interviews done with him not long ago seem to suggest that he was firm in his resolve not to be persuaded away from his staunch atheistic convictions…

He was a frequent debater who often took on well studied and reknown Christian apologists like William Lane Craig.  One of their debates is posted on YouTube in full.  It’s well worth the watch if you have a couple hours and will give you a good feel for Hitchen’s style and thought.

Christians everywhere should mourn.  It will be my prayer that the death of this man will not glorify the idea of dying an atheist or give others who think like Hitchens some kind of martyrdom complex.  Rather, and much more happily, would we all embrace a more positive outcome–one that might have many turning to God.

Hopefully, maybe, in the providence of a good God, it will turn out to be a cause for many to look upon the One who put death to death; to embrace the truth that though we all must die, we don’t merely have to submit to it.

In the face of death, how will you respond?

__________

Other related articles I found:

Reformation 21: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.

Posted in Public Figures | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

One Reason for Suffering…

TWO O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING

My wife and I were reflecting last night at two o’clock in the morning (over the cries of our youngest daughter Amma, who still has trouble sleeping), why God allows challenges to persist despite much prayer and laboring to the contrary…  Neither of us have had a solid, good night of sleep in nearly two years (since the birth of Ahavah).  At times it is hard to grasp the point.

God’s actions sometimes seem to militate against other purposes God has. For example, if I don’t have sleep then I’m not as sharp for my seminary classes.  If Megan doesn’t get sleep it is considerably harder to exercise patience with the children throughout the day and model Christ-like behavior.  Both of these seem to undermine God’s desire for us at home and at school.  To us, it seems like it would be in everyone’s best interest, including God’s, to just fix the problem.  We would be able to better serve him and fulfill the calling he has placed on our lives… or so we think anyway.

So why does God not just take away whatever it is that keeps Amma from sleeping?  Why doesn’t he just fix it?

THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

Some would explain the problem by saying that God has nothing to do with it.  These folk say that evil is not in God’s control; He has nothing to do with the brokenness of this life.  Plagues, tornadoes, disease, death, etc., are the result of man’s poor choices and decidedly not the result of anything God has done.  How could it be if God is good?

The answer is inadequate on a number of levels, but most obviously, it is biblically unsuportable.

After losing virtually everything he owned, from property to children, and having his body covered in sores, Job asked his indignant wife: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10).  The key phrase here is “from God.”  This is a good literal rendering of the Hebrew.  The  Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) has the preposition ek, which means “out of.”  Even though it was Satan who did the destroying of Job’s family and flesh (1:12; 2:7), it was God who gave him permission (1:12; 2:1-6).  Clearly, this good and evil has come from (“out of”) God.  He has the power to restrain it or allow it.  This is the way righteous Job understood it.

And there are countless other texts that would indicate as much and show God to be the direct actor in bringing about what appears to be evil to us.  For example, Lamentations 3:37-38 says:

                Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,

                Unless the Lord has commanded it?

                Is it not from the mouth of the Most High

                That both good and ill go forth?

“Ill” here can be literally rendered “evil things.”  All Christians believe this in one way or another.  I would go as far as to say that to reject such a notion is to deny the core of the Christian message.  Is not the heart of the gospel that truth that God the Father put God the Son to death on the cross as payment for our sins?  Was this an evil accident, or was it ordained and orchestrated by God Himself?  If it was an accident think about the implications.  Here’s an admittedly imperfect, but helpful illustration:

Let’s say that I’m coming home one day from work in our car and a guy pulls out in front of me, creams my car in the side and totals it.  We get out and begin the talk.  The man is cordial and apologetic.  During the conversation I find out that he is extremely wealthy.  He says, “I’m so sorry sir, I don’t know what I was thinking…  Would it make it up to you if I took you by the Honda dealership and just bought you a new ride? What do you say?  It will be like this thing never happened.”

To make a long story short, after doing all the necessary paper work with the police and wrecker, the gentleman drives me over to the dealership and buys me a new Honda.  I drive home and surprise my wife.  She is thrilled to see the new car.  Tears are running down her face.  I then take her by the hand and tell her: “I got this for you because I love you so much.”

It is wrong for me to say that I bought the car for my wife because I loved her…  I didn’t even purchase it!  And what’s worse, it was all just a big accident!  If the man hadn’t hit me, I would have come home just like always in our old car.

Sadly, this is what we do to the cross of Jesus Christ when we say that God didn’t do it.  If he didn’t do it, how can he say “For God so loved the world…”? (Jn. 3:16).  How can Paul say “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  The only way we can receive Christ’s death as love is if it was planned, intentional, purposed, and brought about by God himself.  Otherwise it just becomes a gross accident that turned out in our favor.  But Scripture says it was so much more: “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief… As a result of the anguish of His soul…My servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:10, 11).  The Lord delighted to send the Son to die, and the Son delighted to lay his life down for us (see Heb. 12:2), because God loved us so deeply.

This is the core of the Christian faith and it all rests upon the glorious sovereignty of a good and gracious God.

ONE REASON WHY

So why does God still allow sleepless nights and a thousand other forms of suffering?  Contrary to the unbiblical notion (in my reading anyway) mentioned above, there is a more satisfying, God-honoring, and biblically warranted answer.

Among many other thoughts and answers that might be given, I stumbled across this one this morning.  While admittedly there is an element of mystery to it all, God has not left us without some answers:

Christians also suffer so that they would prize the cost of their salvation.  When the Puritan Richard Sibbes was asked why Christians are afflicted, he said, ‘I answer, we must suffer, first, that we may know that Christ suffered for us by our own experience, without which we should but lightly esteem our redemption, not knowing how to value Christ’s sufferings sufficiently, which is a horrible sin, Heb. Ii.3’ (Works of Richard Sibbes VI, 162).  The Apostle Paul commented, ‘I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered… that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death’ (Phil. 3:8, 10).  If we did not suffer, in other words, we would in no way recognize or appreciate the price that Jesus paid for our redemption.  (We can never completely fathom the cost of our salvation.  Not only are we hindered by our sin, but we will never suffer to the degree or extent that Christ did.  Our sufferings, therefore, provide us with only a hint or notion of the cost involved.)[1]

This is a profound answer.  If this logic is right (which I believe it is), then it is better for me to suffer and thus have a greater measure of fellowship with God in it than to not suffer at all.  Knowing God is thus elevated above our ideas of comfort, peace and pleasure.

Last night in my Systematics class Dr. Kelly said something to the effect of: “The greatest prosperity gospel, and the only one worth believing, is that of being conformed to Christ’s image.  We are prosperous not when we have a bunch of stuff but when we are like Christ.”

So sometimes God takes away our apparent prosperity to give us real prosperity.

So maybe what that means for my family right now is not what we initially think or feel… Maybe God is not so much “taking our rest” as he is giving us a deeper and more satistying kind of rest…


[1] John Currid, Why Do I Suffer? Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2004), 97-98.

Posted in God | Tagged , | Leave a comment

American Sports Idolatry

(Originally posted in Nov. of 2011).

Perhaps you recently heard about the big sex scandal at Penn State.  I just found out about it.  After watching a handful of videos on YouTube and other places I was flabbergasted to see that thousands of Penn State University students rioted because the legendary Joe Paterno was fired.  That night, after hearing about his dismissal, many fans of PS football showed up at his house in support of Paterno…

It seems that a winning record in college football suddenly matters more than being involved in the sexual abuse of nearly twenty young males (that was the last number I heard).  Click here for more.

Have we become that desensitized?  Is a legendary football coach immune to public rebuke?  Are our sports icons above the law?  It is mind boggling to me that there is so much resistance to Paterno’s firing.  Paterno himself was “shocked” by the unanimous vote to have him ousted…  Why?  The only reason I can think of is because he thinks himself immune.  When sports become God, it is idolatrous to elevate something else above them, even decency.  God forbid anything get in the way of our precious sports franchises, even a sexual deviant like Paterno’s former assistant coach.

At least Paterno formally decided to retire at the end of the year, acknowledging his error (before being fired this week).  But some are saying that he knew about the events nearly nine years ago…

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s our place to crucify the guy, by any stretch.  We all deserve to be crucified, not just those involved in the scandal at PSU.  My disgust is over the fact that so many people are protesting his dismissal.  It is as if we are endorsing the fact that he did little to nothing to stand up for these young boys whose lives were being destroyed by a man he worked with…

This is just another example of how upside down our picture of the world is.  Cheering for men willfully destroying one another’s bodies in a sports arena is one thing, but when it spills over into the locker room in the form of sexual abuse, shall we still cheer?  Whose cheering for these young boys who will likely never fully recover from these events?

We want the guilty Barabbas and Paterno to go free, let’s crucify innocent Jesus instead (see Matt 27:11-26).

Paterno was not the one directly involved in the acts, but many are reporting that he knew well about them.  Al Mohler, commenting on the scandal, wrote a great piece on what this means for all of us in (or pursuing) church leadership.

I think Lecrae, the rapper, sums it all up well in a recent Tweet, “So there’s a riot because a coach is fired and not over a 10 yr old being molested?  God save us all.”

Posted in Public Figures | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What is Dispensationalism?

 This entry is by no means intended to be a treatise on Dispensationalism.  That would take a large volume.  It is simply my way of processing some things I read recently.

Dispensationalism has stirred up a great deal of controversy since it’s systemization in the 1800’s by one of the Plymouth Brethren named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).  Since it’s systemization it has been rapidly evolving, some of its claims even being abandoned altogether.[1]

Dispensationalism is a system of doctrine and a method of biblical interpretation.  It claims to help in supplying the need for biblical distinctions, offer a satisfying philosophy of history, and employ a “consistently normal principle of interpretation.”[2]  Its adherents often pit the system against the various forms of covenant theology.

The label dispensationalist comes from their characteristic division of the course of history into various distinct epochs.  During each of these epochs, Poythress says, God is said to work out a particular phase of his overall plan.  Each particular phase represents a “dispensation” in which God exercises his government over the world and tests human obedience.[3]  However, it is not their belief in these dispensations that is distinctive, but what they have to say about them (particularly the church age and the Millennium) that sets them apart from other theologians.[4]

Despite the many variations of Dispensationalism out there, Charles Ryrie says that three things make up the sine qua non (the absolutely indispensable part) of Dispensationalism.  They are as follows: (1) Israel and the church are distinct.  That is, God formed two peoples with two express purposes which remain intact throughout all eternity.  (2) A normal or plain method of interpretation. This method is sometimes called literal interpretation.  This method does not allegorize or spiritualize as non-dispensational interpretation often does.  And lastly, the dispensationalist believes that (3) the underlying purpose of God in the world is the glory of God.  The redemption of fallen man is secondary in this view—it serves the greater purpose of God to glorify himself.[5]

I can’t say that I personally ascribe to Dispensationalism.  However, I can say that I appreciate their honest recognition of the discontinuity that is manifest in the differences between the Old and New Covenants.  The New Covenant is a major collection of events that inaugurates various significant changes in God’s program and that give the world additional clarity about the nature of God and his purpose in the world.  In other words, it creates a category we call “Christianity” and a category we call “Judaism.”  Without the New Covenant we would still be in the era of the Old Covenant, which is, essentially Judaism.

Clearly something very different exists between Judaism and Christianity.  The differences between the two religions are vast.  However, many theologians minimize these differences. For example, Covenant theologians emphasize the unity of the covenants and any distinction they make is generally related to the underlying covenant of grace which ties them all together; each covenant becomes one piece in a program of progressive revelation, each building upon the previous.  Ryrie says Dispensationalists do not see it that way: “His dispensations are not stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace but are God’s distinctive and different administrations in directing the affairs of the world.”[6] Whether or not God’s program can or should be described this way, I appreciate their honesty in recognizing that if Christianity were so much like Judaism as some claim, there would have been little reason for Jesus and the early church to be persecuted to the point of death by the Jews.

 


[1] See Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, and Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 43-44.  Here Wells mentions that at one time many dispensationalists held to the conviction that there were two New Covenants.  He goes on to say that this view has been abandoned by the vast majority of them.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 24.

[3] Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists. 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994), 9.

[4] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 11.

[5] See Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 45-48.

[6] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 20.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Strict Adherance to Creeds May Foster (not Prevent) Doctrinal Impurity

PRESSSURE TO CONFORM DESTROYS THE PURITY OF THE CHURCH

Over the last couple of years I have come to see how denomination’s rigid adherence to peripheral doctrines in their selection of leadership has proven detrimental to the church’s overall doctrinal purity.  The divisions between Christian groups are openly manifest in the plethora of creeds and confessions that exist.  One purpose of creeds is to exclude.[1]

When church’s select their leadership, many of them require their leaders only sign off on the various creeds and confessions that particular Christian body ascribes to.  The documents are often littered with many secondary and peripheral doctrines.  One easy and common example is baptism.

The problem with this practice is that it forces leaders and teachers to feel extra pressure to conform and continue to hang on to certain theological presuppositions, whether true or false, once they are hired.  In my mind this is impractical and even dangerous for several reasons.

WHY DOCTRINAL HOMOGENAITY IS IMPRACTIAL AND DANGEROUS

(1) A minister has usually chosen his or her path long before they are fully developed doctrinally.  Very few men or women are able to seriously and thoroughly review all the major and minor doctrines of the faith and take a confident stance on them before being ordained into ministry.  Colin Brown, in his book Miracles and the Critical Mind honestly points out the unlikeliness of anyone having all their major convictions settled early: “[People who speak as though all their ideas are settled early on] are apt to give the impression that people go through a phase in life during which they work out their world views.  Once this has been achieved, all that remains is to clear up details.  No doubt people do go through such phases.  But only those who thoughts remain petrified do not modify and amplify their world views as they grow in experience and insight.”  Yet, most men and women going into ministry will have to sign off on these doctrines when they take a job.  Many of their beliefs going into ministry will likely be unformed and unsettled (if they are honest).[2]  This means they have two options: First, they can go into a denomination that is more “open” to doctrinal diversity or second, they can go into a more theologically precise denomination and go along with the status quo hoping to come to see things like their colleagues (or, worst case, blindly agreeing with their colleagues).

(2) Practically, what this means for those who choose the second option (above) is that they, in some cases, don’t feel the freedom to be doctrinally honest.  This is quite ironic and sad because it is in the name of doctrinal purity that many churches do not feel that they can hire ministers of a different persuasion on various doctrines.  This plays out on the level of our systematic theologies as well.  Wells points out that up until the present century, most of the systematic theologies were written by theologians who were members or theologians of a confessional church.  There would be no way for him to keep his credentials as a minister or his post as a theological professor if he varied noticeably from the confession of the church.[3]  The irony is that in the end this phenomenon undermines other aspects of truth sharing that are necessary components of pure and effective gospel ministry—most obviously, accountability.  Without the freedom to question creeds, confessions, and the teachings of those in power in any particular denomination or church, what keeps men accountable to serious error?

(3) Such practices imply that what makes us mature in Christ is more than Jesus.  “In Paul’s view, no one needed more than knowledge of the Lord Jesus to be saved, and no one needed more than the Lord Jesus to arrive at maturity in the Christian life.”[4]  There is a subtle implication in all of this doctrinal pettiness that what makes a Christian mature is more than Jesus.[5]  Is it not love for Christ that makes us mature as summed up in the greatest commandment? (Lk. 10:27).  Is it not love that fulfills the law? (Gal. 6:2; Jas 2:8).  The demons know a lot about Jesus but do not know him (Jas. 2:18-19).  It could be argued that much of this mentality comes from a lack of attention to personal holiness and over-attention to politics, controversy, and party spirit.[6]  Many of us seem to be more preoccupied with doctrines and principles more than knowing Christ himself.  As Ryle says: “They are all matters pertaining to the King.  But it is far better to be familiar with the King Himself; to see the King’s own face, and to behold his beauty.”[7]

AN EXAMPLE

Maybe an example will help to illustrate my point.  Let’s say a guy grows up in a Baptist family and attends a Baptist church most of his life.  He eventually discerns a call to ministry and decides to go to the local Baptist seminary and is later ordained as a Southern Baptist preacher.  Because of classes, family, work, job searching, etc. he has little time to do a lot of rigorous study into the credobaptistic view of baptism, but just goes along with it (subconsciously) because that’s what he grew up believing and because that’s what everyone else around him believes.  In time he gets a job as an associate pastor a few states over and settles in.  His family is finally experiencing stability and financial health for the first time in years.  He begins, however, in some of his leisure time to look over some books that he never got to during his seminary years and begins to have doubts about the Baptist view of baptism.  He realizes, however, that if he goes to his boss and says so he will most likely be out of a job.  Now he is faced with a serious dilemma… Every event that has happened in the last 6 or 7 years has been oriented around his being a Baptist pastor.  He went to a Baptist seminary, was ordained as a Baptist, moved 1,500 miles to be a pastor at this particular Baptist church.  Moreover, the financial responsibilities he has incurred.  He has bought a house and his family is not living paycheck to paycheck for the first time since he and his wife were married…

Now, he has to risk all of that over a doctrine that is less than central.

SHOULD CHURCH BE LIKE THIS?

Is this really the way church should be?  I don’t think the Bible places this kind of priority on such doctrines.  I don’t know that I have the answers to these problems, but I do believe these kinds of scenarios are a result of our sinful way of doing church.  It seems to me that many churches behave as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day pointing out every little “mistake” they noticed in the way Christ and his disciples lived—even when what he was doing was clearly good!

Paul believed a measure of theological and practical diversity to be healthy for the church (see Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 12, 14; 2 Cor. 8).  There is no assumption in Paul that churches should divide on theological or practical grounds.  Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:17).  I take this to mean that for Paul, the preaching of the gospel is of higher importance than the practice of baptism.  Moreover, he implies that baptism is not a part of the gospel.  The two are distinct.  One can have a solid grasp on the gospel and be totally amiss on baptism.

He says as much in other epistles too, constantly urging the churches to be of “the same mind” (Rom. 12:16; 15:5; 1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:2).  Philippians 2:2 says: “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (NAS).

I don’t know.  These are some thoughts that are still in process.  Continuing to chew on it all.  Hope you are with me…

 


[1]Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, and Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 259. For all the good and bad that creeds foster, Willem VanGemeren and Joel Green have pointed out that whatever the motivation may be, our efforts to systematize is an “extrabiblical pursuit.” Joel B. Green, How to Read Prophecy (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1984), 23-32, as quoted in Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word: An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 71.

[2] One example: I spoke to a fellow student at RTS going into his third year hoping to graduate in the spring. We began speaking about the Sabbath day. I shared with him that I am becoming more persuaded that it is “fulfilled” and need not be observed by Christians. He acted as though he had never even heard such a position. This is a great example of how so many seminarians preparing for ministry do not honestly examine their beliefs but simply accept confessional statements. So many are immersed in books and classes and conversations that only mirror their own views that they are not aware of differing opinions. That is not to say that we should try and study up on every nuance, idea, and view out there. But it is to say that many, many, seminarians and Bible students put their stamp of approval on a host of various doctrines in their church confessions that they have not honestly studied in any detail.

[3] Wells and Zaspel, New Covenant Theology, 265.

[4] Wells and Zaspel, New Covenant Theology, 240.

[5]I received a comment from a friend about this point here. I thought I might clarify some of my meaning here. Without going into a million nuances and details, here’s a rough sketch of what I mean: Bible-based theology always leads us to Christ. Biblical ethics always leads us back to Jesus. There are really no categories or subjects in the Bible that one can deal with which will not inevitably lead back to Christ in one way or another. All things in the Bible somehow point to (Rom. 11:33-36), are fulfilled in (Matt. 5:17) or are summed in Christ (Eph 1:10). Paul summarized his teaching as “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). All morality and good works only find meaning in Christ for Paul (Phil. 3:7-11). In that sense, there is really nothing to add to Christ. As my friend pointed out, all of the various things we encounter in Scripture (like baptism) are God’s self-communication. So in that way it is ALL of Christ in a sense and therefore all important. I pointed out that order and priority are also a part of God’s self-communication and we do well to emphasize the things that God does in Scripture… It was a very helpful discussion. When we begin to emphasize or insist on certain things that the Bible does not we distort God and miss the core—Jesus. On the surface, this was the problem with the church in Galatia. They started with just Jesus but began to believe that they needed more. Paul says this belief put everything in jeopardy. I am definitely not saying that there is no more data than Jesus involved in Christian maturity. There obviously is, all I am saying is that there is no other principle which is so fundamental to all others ideas, propositions, developments, etc in the Bible than Jesus. When we begin to talk about Jesus plus anything we have stepped into the realm of certain kinds of knowledge which puff up. I think this is probably a part of the reason why Paul says this explicitly when talking about Christian liberty in 1 Cor. 8.

[6] In 1879 Ryle wrote of this sad trend already taking place: “I have had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or party spirit, or worldliness, have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us.” See J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Carlisle: EP Books, 2010), xvii.

[7] Ryle, Holiness, 191.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Avril Lavigne and the Erosion of Biblical Values in America

Avril Lavigne put out a song not long ago entitled “What the Hell?” Its title quickly steals your attention.  Here’s the chorus:

All my life I’ve been good, but now,

Oh, I’m thinkin’ what the hell?

All I want is to mess around

I don’t really care about

If you love me, if you hate me,

You can take me baby baby

All my life I’ve been good, but now,

Oh, I’m thinkin’ what the hell?

The video on YouTube has been viewed almost 90 million times (at the time of this post)!  My experience tells me this is becoming the American moral mantra—the sheer volume of hits on YouTube say something.  “Being good” is not delivering, so who cares?

Many Christians would probably say that even listening to music like this is sinful (or watching their music videos).[1]  That’s not the point I’m hoping to address in this blog.  Avril’s thoughts may not even be addressed to Christians, I don’t know.  But, nonetheless, her music has struck a chord with many.

Her song seems to reflect the growing feeling in our country that the greatest evil in the world is to deny yourself whatever it is that you desire.  Desire is king, and when it calls anything that gets in the way is evil; even if that thing is “being good.”  When good is defined as having what you want, evil takes on the convenient definition of whatever gets in the way of that good.

The fact that people desire what is evil has been noted for millennia.  The apostle Paul groaned about his own struggle with this reality in Romans 7.  And the Bible tells us that everyone knows the truth but chooses to smother it with their own blanket of choice (Rom. 1:18-23).  Even in daily experience, most people would acknowledge that not everything they want accords with what is good.

YOUR GOOD OR MY GOOD?

Much more disturbing today, however, is that “good” has become subjective and totally personal.  What is good to Ms. Lavigne most likely differs greatly from what her parents would define as good, or even Lady Gaga.  And because it is totally person-relative the various “goods” out there contradict and conflict enormously.  What happens when two people have a good that overlaps and conflicts?  If Billy thinks that it would be “good” for him to have Mike’s wife, do you think Mike would agree?  I doubt Mike would see that as “good.”

But here we have run into conflicting ideas about what is good and bad.  Who’s right?  How do we determine what’s right?  Well, in today’s world you can’t.  Desire is king, so somehow, both are right.  Some deal with the conflict of interests by eliminating the rules.  This is most likely why “open marriages” have become popular in some places.  The logic goes something like this: “Well, if Billy wants to have sex with my wife, and my wife wants the same, who am I to deny them that right?  If it will make my wife happier and meet Billy’s needs, then I’m okay with it and won’t hold it against them.”

In this view marriage is mostly a legal matter.  In practice, all that separates Mike’s relationship to his wife, from that of Billy’s is a bunch of paperwork.  The spiritual undertones that give marriage its true meaning have been discarded like yesterday’s dinner scraps.

GRACE, GRACE, GRACE

But this is what happens when the definition of what is good and bad become subjective.  All you are left with are your own reasons.  If your bodily passions command greater power than your reasoning, in the end the two will merge and your mind will only function to serve emotion.  In other words, your emotions and passions will dominate your thoughts and bend them.  In the end all your mind will do is justify your completely selfish actions.  You will have become (at least existentially) autonomous, having no rule or authority but yourself.

In the Biblical view, humans were not meant to live without authority.  Pure autonomy leads to anarchy.  This is why we have laws.  When external laws are trumped by those autonomously chosen by individuals, anarchy is inevitably the result.  Unfortunately, this is a point that many of our churches miss today.  Grace in many churches has translated into lawlessness (antinomianism) and the belief that a loving God would not punish sins or require us to do anything a certain way.  We can ordain whoever we want, preach whatever we want, make ministry about whatever we want, have sex with whomever we want, marry anybody we want, divorce whenever we want, and discard any children we don’t want.  But it’s okay because Jesus loves you.  Grace, grace, grace.

MATERIALISM AND NATURALISM

“Europe,” writes one member of the European Parliament “doesn’t do God.”[2]  I have heard some say that Europe is a couple of decades ahead of America in cultural values and ideology.  One can already clearly see the foggy, Godless, air drifting over from the spiritual wasteland that is Europe.

For many in the West, naturalism has replaced God.  Naturalism could be summed up in the famous quote of Carl Sagan, “The Cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be.”  This materialistic, naturalistic mindset that is rampant in the Western world today inevitably leads to anarchy and nihilism.  No doubt the over-emphasis on grace that we see in many places is the result of the profound influence of a materialistic worldview.  When one argues that human beings are the result of random mutations that occurred in some primordial sludge millions or billions of years ago, what morality can come out of it?  This is one major flaw of the naturalistic worldview: it relies on scientific observation which is purely descriptive, not prescriptive; in other words, it may only tell us what “is” not what “ought” to be.

Of course, given that religion is a major force in the world, naturalists feel the need to explain it.  Many that hold this view of things will argue that even religion is a byproduct of natural causes; indeed, all things that make up the human experience may be explained by genes, chemicals, natural selection, and the environment.[3]  Dean Hamer persuades many with such arguments in his book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes.

One thing that is often overlooked by these folks is that if all things are purely physical, including our thoughts and beliefs, then their views must also be a result of natural causes.  And, if they are purely the result of natural causes, then they can’t be said to be the result of rational inquiry.  In other words, their views are no more rational than anyone else’s.  If they are to be consistent the knife must be applied to their selves as well.  It is arbitrary to say that only religious beliefs are accounted for by pure physical events, while all other beliefs are somehow arrived at by way of logic and rational analysis (which in their view must also be the result of natural causes).

THEREFORE, WHO CARES?

The upshot of all of this talk is that songs like the one by Ms. Lavigne in this blog are so popular because they express what so many feel today in America.  America in many places still has an atmosphere where moral values are somewhat objective, especially here in the Bible-belt.  Increasingly, however, most everywhere in the country, the reasons for those values are eroding.  Hence, “What the hell?” why not sleep around or do whatever I want, says Avril.  Apparently, she couldn’t find a solid answer, and most likely, nobody has offered her one.

God is quickly evaporating here in America, and with him so are our reasons to value anything other than self.

 _____________________

[1] I will say that it is hard to see much good in watching some of these videos.  The sexual content is overwhelming and pervasive.  One must use discernment in approaching these matters and be mindful of their own level of tolerance, weakness, etc.

[2] Sighting from a headline in the periodical Evangelicals Now: Around the world in 32 pages.  The article title is “Europe Doesn’t Do God?” Vol 24. , No. 11 (Nov 2011).

[3] R. Albert Mohler Jr., Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2008), 74.

Posted in Public Figures | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment