Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Competing Values?

Sometimes, what conclusion a person reaches on a particular issue is less important than how the conclusion is reached. Here's an example of what I mean:

I'm curious to hear which values on display in this video strike you as most prominent in the arguments of the three participants.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Sword of the Lord: "Theological Pornography" (And Much More)

That's just one tidbit from a few minutes Al Mohler spends on Fundamentalism, Neo-Evangelicalism, and Southern Baptists in the first third of his fall 2010 convocation address, "Which Way to the Future? Southern Baptists, Southern Seminary, and the Future of the Evangelical Movement in America."

An oft-forgotten fact: "The Southern Baptist Convention was largely out of the picture of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early decades of the 20th century" and was "largely marginal to the development of the evangelical movement in America."

And some little-known facts: Many of the most significant "fighting fundamentalists" of the North were graduates of Southern Seminary. J. Frank Norris claimed to be a SBTS grad, and even the valedictorian, though the honor has never existed at SBTS.

The rest of the address is partially an explanation of how SBTS students will be obligated to defend the faith in years to come. In the midst of the ongoing devolution of evangelicalism, the candid liberalism of the early 20th century now masquerades as evangelical. And it's partially a historical survey of how the fundamentalist-modernist controversy washed up on SBC shores, jsut a half century late. Of course the difference is, the fundamentalist side won, but it won with the help of evangelical scholarship drawn into the conflict from outside the previously insulated SBC world. Ironically, Mohler argues, it now falls largely to Southern Baptists "to put forth a stalwart witness to what remains of American evangelicalism."

Fascinating stuff, well worth a listen at the very least for the historical perspective.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If I Were a Dispensationalist Professor . . .

Far too often, students of Scripture are more dogmatic about their own beliefs than they are capable of articulating the positions they reject. That's an unfortunate and unproductive combination. Of course that's true of Dispensationalists, Covenant Theologians, and everything in between, as well as the whole range of convictions in other matters of doctrine.

If I were a Dispensationalist prof, I think I'd insist that my students read, interact with, and know how to counter the arguments in this book. If I were a CT prof, I'd be looking for a similar book from the other side. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sanctification Is Inseparable from the Gospel

I don't know if anyone's still arguing that the gospel is not the epicenter of sanctification. Until I know that notion is dead, I'm going to keep making the case that it ought to be. Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane's How People Change develops a thoroughly biblical argument for the centrality of the whole message of the gospel—from conversion to glorification–to the believer's growing holiness. Tripp and Lane haven't unearthed some new truth. In addition to a plethora of biblical texts, they cite a variety of past saints, including these comments from J.C. Ryle's classic, Holiness:
It is a strong but true saying of Traill's, "Wisdom out of Christ is damning folly—righteousness out of Christ is guilt and condemnation—sanctification our of Christ is filth and sin—redemption out of Christ is bondage and slavery." [Traill was a 17th century English Puritan.]

Do you want to attain holiness? Do you feel this day a real hearty desire to be holy? Would you be a partaker of the Divine nature? Then go to Christ. Wait for nothing. Wait for nobody. Linger not. Think not to make yourself ready. Go and say to Him, in the words of that beautiful hymn—"Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling; Naked, flee to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace." There is not a brick nor a stone laid in the work of our sanctification till we go to Christ [p. 49 in the Redwood Burn Ltd. edition]
. . .
Would you continue holy? Then abide in Christ. He says Himself, "Abide in Me and I in you,—he that abideth in Me and I in him, the same beareth much fruit" (John 15:4-5). It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell—a full supply for all a believer's wants. He is the Physician to whom you must daily go, if you would keep well. He is the Manna which you must daily eat, and the Rock of which you must daily drink. His arm is the arm on which you must daily lean, as you come up out of the wilderness of this world. You must not only be rooted, you must also be built up in Him. [50]
Much more can and should be said to flesh out what it means to "go to Christ" for our sanctification. Tripp and Lane do precisely that. I find myself recommending CCEF publications all the time, primarily because they are saturated with both the truth and the application of the gospel.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"If the message is really from God . . ."

Those of you who've had ironic encounters with cessationists who attempt to magnify the credibility of their assertions with phrases like "God told/led/showed/spoke to me" may find wisdom in Wayne Grudem's caution:
If someone really does think God is bringing something to mind which should be reported in the congregation, there is nothing wrong with saying, "I think the Lord is putting on my mind that . . ." or "It seems to me that the Lord is showing us . . ." or some similar expression. Of course that does not sound as "forceful" as "Thus says the Lord," but if the message is really from God, the Holy Spirit will cause it to speak with great power to the hearts of those who need to hear. [emphasis original, Systematic Theology, p. 1056]
Of course, Grudem is actually arguing for the ongoing manifestation of NT prophecy as a form of non-biblical revelation, but what he actually says is closer to cessationism than what many cessationists practice.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Religious Convictions Do Not Always Harmonize with Democracy"

Damon Linker's piece in the Washington Post on the need for political candidates to face a certain sort of "religious test" is provocative. Linker is right that "religious convictions do not always harmonize with the practice of democratic government." In an increasingly pluralistic society, I'm not sure Linker's proposal can be avoided, even though I don't expect the story will end well. What he says here is true:
It matters quite a lot if, in the end, a politician's faith is merely an ecumenical expression of American civil religion -- or if, when taking the religious test, he forthrightly declares (as Kennedy did) that in the event of a clash between his spiritual and political allegiances, the Constitution would always come first. Those are the easy cases. In others -- when a politician denies the need to choose or explain, insisting simply that it's possible to marry his or her religious beliefs with democratic rule in a pluralistic society -- we need to dig deeper, to determine as best we can how the candidate is likely to think and act when the divergent demands of those two realms collide, as they inevitably will.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Beck Plucked from the Fire: The Gospel According to Evangelical Journalism

Andrée Seu's assertion that Glenn Beck's Mormonism is amounts to biblical saving faith has been the hot topic in today's blogosphere. Justin Taylor countered it well. As I read Seu's essay, this observation stood out:
I can say without hesitation that I have not heard the essentials of the gospel more clearly and boldly in any church than on his program.
Two observations of my own:

First, and sadly, given the condition of so many American churches this may well be true.

Second, and ironically, Seu alludes to Zechariah 3 in her defense of Beck. Of course, that's the OT passage that so clearly and beautifully articulates—perhaps more than any other—the very imputed righteousness that Mormonism denies.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dispensationalism, and the Two Meanings of "Literal"

A "literal interpretation" of biblical texts is widely recognized as one of the essential marks of dispensational theology. But what does it mean to "take a text literally"? In the conversations between dispensationalists and various other groups, two definitions tend to emerge. When both definitions are in play simultaneously, confusion is inevitable. Let's take a quick look at the two:

1. "Literal" = the opposite of "figurative." I think everyone agrees that genres like poetry and apocalyptic literature often use imagery. Many people understand that imagery to be figurative, or "non-literal."

2. "Literal" = what the author intended to communicate. In other words, to take a text "literally" is to interpret it in the way that the author intended for it to be understood. As an example, no one (ok well let's hope no one . . .) thinks that when Jesus said "I am the door," he meant he was a piece of wood that swings on hinges to control access to an entry to an enclosure. But there is a point of analogical correspondence between a physical door and who Jesus is/what he does.

Both of these uses of the term "literal" are valid. It's a natural property of human language for words to carry different usages in different contexts. That's called a "semantic range [of meaning]." The problem is that some people use one meaning of "literal" as a stick to beat people who use the other meaning. Worse yet, some people who wield that stick also use the meaning that they beat others for using.

Let me put it a different way. Everybody agrees that the Bible contains figurative language—imagery. Some people think that "figurative" language should be interpreted "literally"—in the way the author intended that language to be understood. They're using the second definition appropriately. Other people argue that "figurative" language is inherently "non-literal." They're using the first definition appropriately.

But both groups recognize that the Bible contains imagery—words and combinations of words that describe things that are only metaphorically related to the normal usage of those words. Those words and combinations of words paint pictures or show points of comparison that make the author's point in the way that he (under inspiration) concluded was most effective.

A particular group of people (many dispensationalists) maintain that they are the only true "literal interpreters." They decide what portions of the Bible are figurative, and then stipulate that the definition of a "literalist" is someone who agrees with their conclusions. Someone who sees more biblical imagery than they do "isn't taking the Bible literally." They often interchange definitions of "literal" on the fly in an argument to support their conclusions.

The argument over who takes the Bible literally and who doesn't is NOT a question of whether the Bible contains figurative language. Everyone agrees that it does. The argument is also NOT over whether we should interpret the text in the way that the *author intended. Most everyone, at least among biblical inerrantists, would agree on this point as well. Rather, the argument is essentially a debate over which parts of the Bible consist of imagery and which parts do not. This is a valid and reasonable argument, but too often it has been distorted into deceitful propaganda designed to portray certain positions as compromising with theological liberalism.

*There is a relevant and worthwhile discussion over whether the meaning intended by the human author is always precisely equivalent to the meaning intended by the Divine Author, but for purposes of this discussion I'm assuming that the Divine Author is the primary and ultimate author.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Without a Hint of Irony

J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future, Timothy George's compilation of the talks at a 2006 conference, isn't particularly absorbing. A few chapters are intriguing, Carl Trueman's in particular. It's actually unclear to me why Dever's criticisms provoke more defensiveness in Packer's concluding chapter (Dever = "Sheriff of Nottingham"), when Trueman probes more bluntly. Maybe you had to be there. But that's another matter.

What made me chuckle was Chuck Colson's assessment of the rising threat of postmodernism. Colson, many will recall, was one of the driving forces behind Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). ECT created quite a stir back in the 90s, and that stir still reverberates from time to time. Summary: Groups of evangelicals and Roman Catholics signed a document that both could affirm, and a portion of that document was a statement on justification. Numerous critiques, supported by corroborating evidence, argued that the two groups didn't really reach agreement on justification. Rather, they forged careful wording that both groups could infuse with their own divergent definitions.

With that story as a backdrop, it's extraordinary to read Colson's warnings against postmodern epistemology, written without a hint of irony. Though he describes in the passage below those who deny the possibility of knowing truth, his words apply equally to those who craft ambiguity:
[W]e are living in this great age of relativism where my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth, and we can have it any way we fashion it. (132-133)
And later:
If we do not take truth seriously, we will not take God seriously. The crisis we face in this country, unless we find a way to winsomely engage the postmodern culture, is that people will not take our God seriously. They may like having our God as an experience. They may want something from it. But they are not going to take it seriously. The problem, however, is not just in our culture today. The problem is also in our church, where we have stopped taking truth seriously. (134)
That's breathtakingly ironic, but incontrovertibly true.

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Really Dull Post on Statements of Faith for the Other Polity Nerds

I think Baptists are losing sight of the purpose of a statement of faith (SoF).

You can do lots of things with a SoF. You can not have one. Some no-creed-but-the-Bible Baptists think this is the way to go. You can also have one and ignore it—or at least ignore any semblance of historic continuity in the meaning of words. That'd make you a theological liberal, or maybe a contemporary, a-theological quasi-evangelical, cultural Baptist. And I suspect there may be lots of highly conservative Baptist churches in those two categories that are careless or simply don't think much about ecclesiology.

Those categories don't particularly interest me. Not today, anyway. Two other categories do:

1. Some Baptists use SoFs as a standard for leadership and public teaching but not membership. This approach is also common among elder-rule Bible churches and MacArthur-circle churches.

2. Some Baptists use SoFs as a summary of the minimum all members must affirm in order for them to function together as a church. I say "some." I'm tempted to say "most" SoF-users, if we were to count Baptists throughout church history, but I'll leave that to the bona fide historians.

My argument is that the latter option best represents biblical congregationalism. Why? Because the NT teaches that the congregation is responsible for the discipline and doctrine of the church. Not everyone agrees:
A doctrinal statement is not a requirement for church membership or ministry. A person may join a church being untaught, and not knowing enough to agree or disagree. A person may join a church agreeing to disagree. In such cases, the church can rightly expect that the member will not attempt to divide the congregation over the issues.
Just one problem with that. Well, at least one problem. Who can join a church? Any professing believer? But a believer in what? The gospel? What's the gospel? Doesn't the gospel consist of things we believe—matters of faith? Can a convictional Presbyterian join a Baptist church? An open theist? An anti-inerrantist? Someone who believes Jesus was an ordinary man adopted by God and infused with the divine nature? Frankly, I suspect that all of these churches really do have a functional minimum common affirmation for membership, though they may not realize it. They just haven't faced a sticky situation yet.

Now, this approach might work in a baptistic, but minimally congregational elder-rule church, in which the congregation exercises no meaningful oversight in matters of doctrine. At least it might work for a while. But it's not at all difficult to see why an authentically Baptist, congregational church would be ill-suited to sustain its doctrine, regardless of what the present leadership is committed to teach. Church history is littered with examples of confessional churches and institutions that tragically abandoned their confessions. Are we to assume that a non-confessional church will be more stable?

A SoF in a Baptist church ought to be a minimum summary of what its members must commonly believe in order to function as a church. There's a worthwhile discussion over what needs to appear in that minimum summary. We should neither demand too much nor too little. But to diminish the significance of that SoF, whatever it does or does not include, is to undermine the very principles the SoF affirms.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Black Robed Lemmings

CT reports on the Washington, DC Beck-scapades and his evangelical courtesans. Beck says:
"We can disagree on politics," Beck said. "These men and women here don't agree on fundamentals. They don't agree on everything that every church teaches. What they do agree on is God is the answer."
Um, yeah, but what if false gods offer the wrong answers? It's just astonishingly ironic to me that people who claim to be horrified at our cultural moral relativism so naïvely embrace religious pluralism under the guise of changing culture.