Radical Reformission 1

A new book I’ve started on this past week has this quote:

“…the vast majority of ‘Christians’ that I have encountered arbitrarily dismiss this generation as ‘lost’ or, worse, unworthy of their time and attention … From what I see in the Gospels, Jesus preached to society from within the culture of his day, not from above it as the Pharisees did. In my opinion, the majority of churches today are more concerned with converting one cultural image into their own cultural image, with the implication that theirs is ‘Christian’ (where no one drinks alcohol or listens to secular music and everyone dresses in business attire), while those cultures which differ from their view are not ... this is definitely pharisaical. Unfortunately, I find this sums up the majority of the church world all too well.”
– Crash, a Christian who owns tattoo parlors, is immersed in the culture of his community; the quote above is from The Radical Reformission by Mark Driscoll

I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying Mark Driscoll’s book The Radical Reformission. It has, among other things, brought me to repentance over the way I have ignored the culture I am living within.

I have lost my faith in the power of God to change lives. It’s like a creeping form of Arminianism. Arminianism was founded by a Dutch theologian named Jacobus Arminius. Arminianism holds, among other things, that God's election is conditional on faith in Jesus. That God allows His grace to be resisted by those who are unwilling to believe.

(I don’t want to get into the Calvinist / Arminian debate here. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion, just look at the links to the other sites on this page. It’s just that there are many who are much more talented and motivated to defend one side or the other than me.)

It’s as if I have already decided that many in my culture will not ever reach the point where they will repent and believe in Jesus. I have pre-judged them as unwilling, despite God’s gracious leadings, to ever become a Christian. I have decided, in effect, that God will not use my testimony or witness to save certain people because I believe they are unwilling to listen.

This “hyper-arminianism” leads me and many of my brothers and sisters in Christ to ignore the power of the Holy Spirit to bring people to repentance from any life situation. It’s like hyper-calvinism, (which does not allow a witness to those who do not show evidence of regeneration) only it’s much more insidious because it flies under the radar. It seems we can go too far on either side of the theological spectrum, leading to the same result: failure to witness.

Crash goes on to say that we need to “recognize the power of the gospel to change lives.” My God, have mercy on me for embracing this truth in theory without counting on this truth in practice. God grant me repentance and new faith in Your grace.

Living in rural West Tennessee, I am going to have my work cut out for me. I’ll have to come down off my “high horse” of intellectualism. I’ll have to get the calluses back on my hands. I’ll have to become willing to open my home and my life to others and honestly explore the difference Christ can make in our lives.

I’ll also have to act differently when I travel with my job. I travel often to other towns and cities where I run into others who are much different than me. I’ll have to be willing to talk to the tattooed, poorly dressed, sometimes drunk people I come in contact with in airports and restaurants.

I’ll also have to begin work with those whose sins mirror mine. To bring my sin and habits out into the open so they can be dealt with in community.

I’m looking forward to it. This will be a much more interesting and challenging way to live.


J. K.'s Velvet Elvis, Part 3, Final Post

This is my final installment on Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis. This time I wanted to address the approach to truth I see hovering in the background of this book. Bell writes:

When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, its not true. They are telling you what they think it means. They are giving you their opinions about the Bible … / The problem is, it is not true. / I’m actually giving you my opinion, my interpretation of what it says. And the more I insist that I am giving you the objective truth of what it really says, the less objective I am actually being.

It sounds as if Bell has decided that we can no longer find the one true meaning of a passage of Scripture because we all have different perspectives on the passage. We all bring “baggage” and “agendas” with us that cloud our interpretation. This is a massive change in the way we interpret the Bible (hermeneutics). It has debilitating consequences. It is based on a philosophical perspective on the way we know truth (epistemology) that is untenable.

Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, in their book When Skeptics Ask, address the philosophical issue at hand:

Many people will tell you that all truth is really true from a certain way of seeing things or perspective…the statement. ‘All truth is perspectival,’ is either an absolute statement of a perspectival one. If it is absolute, then not all truths are perspectival. If it is perspectival, then there is no reason to think that it is absolutely true – it is only one perspective. It does not succeed either way.

Mark Driscoll, in his book The Radical Reformission, addresses the consequences of the interpretative issue (I am quoting a general statement of Driscoll’s. The application of it to this particular instance is my idea.):

Postmodernity is tough to pin down, though, because it changes the rules of hermeneutics but keeps the Bible. Some postmodern pastors keep the Bible but reduce it to a story lacking authority over us, feeling free to play with the interpretation and meaning of particular texts. They do not believe in a singular truthful interpretation. They believe that the interpreter ultimately has authority over the text and can therefore use it as he or she pleases rather than submit to it.

Driscoll also touches on the philosophical issue when he writes, “… they reject any claim to truth, other than their claim that there is no such thing as a valid truth claim.”

Granted, it is difficult to determine the meaning of certain passages. Granted, we all must be careful that our personal perspective might cloud our judgment. But that does not mean that there is no discernable meaning in the passage.

The gospel message in the Bible is easy to understand. I understood it well enough at seven years of age to accept it, and I was not precocious. The old-timers called this the perspicuity of Scripture. The plain message that Christ lived a perfect life to earn our righteousness, suffered a violet death He in no way deserved to pay for our sins, and rose from the grave to demonstrate His power our sin and death must not be obscured by interpretive games.

I promised in an earlier post to come back to positive things I found in Bell’s book. The best thing this book does is to give people permission to ask questions. It is a conversation starter. That is worth much. He is willing to question even the basic tenants of our faith. These things can stand our questions. They have stood the test of time.

Another positive thing is the instance that all truth is God’s truth and the way that plays out in our culture. It reminds me of Luther’s insistence that all vocations are sacred. Bell my be onto something as well when he says that young people leave our churches never to return when they are confronted with truth in sciences and philosophy and sociology that they are not prepared to own in their Christian worldview. We should affirm truth wherever we find it.

My favorite quote in the whole book is: “The thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick.” I’m with you there, Mr. Bell, but it’s a whole other post.


Logic and God

I recently found a quote from R. C. Sproul that I would like to share and comment on today.

I hope some of you know the reputation I have, a bad reputation with some, of being an unreconstructed, Aristotelian logician. I get that criticism all the time. I am told, “Sproul reduces the faith to logic.” Actually, I hope people keep saying that about me. I hope it gets worse. I think we are living in the most anti-intellectual period in the history of the church, and I think the most important thing that has to happen on Sunday mornings is a spiritual awakening of the mind.
As downloaded from http://theresurgence.com/r_c_sproul_1993-01_the_recovery_of_worship on 3/21/07.

It is no secret to many who know me that I like R. C. I own and have read every book that he has published, including a couple that are out of print. I own much of my interest in theology to him. He was the first theologian that I ever read who did not shy away from philosophy.

In medieval times, teachers in the church said that God wrote two books: the Bible and nature. Theology studied the Bible, and science studied nature. They believed that science and theology would always agree because God, who cannot lie or contradict Himself, wrote both books. The more I study and think, the more I agree with medievalism.

I am constantly reading books on religion. Living in a small West Tennessee town, I buy many of the popular Christian books on the shelves of our local Wal Mart. The popular Christian books are almost always disappointing. I find myself having to special-order the really good (read unpopular) Christian books I read from our local Christian book store. (This helps keep them in business with Wal Mart in town.)

I find book after book that does not reflect clear thinking. I find that many of the books don’t even ask the questions, much less find the answers. It’s not that I disagree with most of them; it’s that I don’t think they have touched on the subject matter of theology: God Himself. When they do touch on Him, they don’t apply sound reason and logical thinking to the subject.

I hope we will see a resurgence in the near future of a through-going attempt to set out in a systematic, logical fashion who God is. I hope to find that the conversations encouraged by the up and coming generation serves as a platform for this Systematic Theology. I seem to be finding this as I teach High-school age students in a Sunday School class. They are not afraid to ask good questions, and they are interested in frank discussion.

This imperfect generation (and all the generations in history have been imperfect) may well be the best thing that has even happened to our churches. I do not find that they are given over to philosophical relativism. I find them more willing that I was at that age to apply clear logic and reason to the great questions. We must learn to present theology in a winsome, tightly-reasoned way, and it is my prayer that we will.

May God bless R. C.’s ministry and the ministries of others who follow the same path.


J. K.’s Black Velvet Elvis, Part 2

I’m still reading Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. I wanted to address another comment this week, quoted below.

For the next several hundred years, there was a lot of discussion in the Christian community about which books were considered Scripture and which books weren’t. But it wasn’t until the 300s that what we know as the sixty-six books of the Bible were actually agreed upon as the Bible.

This is part of the problem with continually insisting that one of the absolutes of the Christian faith must be a belief that “Scripture alone” is our guide. It sounds nice, but it is not true. In reaction to abuses by the church, a group of believers during a time called the Reformation claimed that we only need the authority of the Bible. But the problem is that we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is. So when I affirm the Bible as God’s Word, in the same breath I have to affirm that when those people voted, God was somehow present, guiding them to do what they did. When people say all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true.
The basic thrust of Rob Bell’s argument seems to be that the Bible can not be the only authority because the Bible does not contain a list of which books belong in the Bible. He uses this (and some other issues I will discuss in Part 3) to jump to the conclusion that the church has the authority to “bind and loose,” the authority to “make new interpretations of the Bible” based on what essentially amounts to group consensus. (Keep in mind that Bell is often given to hyperbole and other forms of rhetoric in his statements. I often struggle to separate the meaning from the rhetoric.) My comments in the last post apply here as well, but a new wrinkle has been introduced.

True, there was a clearly-reasoned process by which the books of the New Testament were chosen, but there is another conclusion which can be reached. Dr. R. C. Sproul addresses this issue directly while discussing the selection process:

… Some people take the position that the church is a higher authority than the Bible because the only reason the Bible has any authority is that the church declared what books the Bible would contain. Most Protestants, however, take a different view of the matter and point out that when the decision was made as to what books were canonical, they used the Latin term recipemus, which means “we receive.” What the church said is that we receive these particular books as being canonical, as being apostolic in authority and in origin, and therefore we
submit to their authority. It’s one thing to make something authoritative, and it’s another thing to recognize something that already is authoritative. Those human decisions did not make something that was not authoritative suddenly authoritative, but rather the church was bowing … to that which they recognized to be sacred Scripture. http://www.ligonier.org/questions_answered.php?question_id=15
There is a place for the secondary authority of the church. The Bible is the only infallible authority, but only when interpreted properly. Even Satan quotes the Bible when it suits him (Matt. 4:1-11). The members of the church throughout history and in the present who have specialized gifts should be consulted on these matters. We would be foolish to proceed without them. If this is all Bell means, we are okay; but I do not take his comments that way.

The only perfectly true and accurate authority for faith and practice is the Bible. The basic rule is to find the plain meaning of Scripture according to the original intent of the author who God inspired. This process is carried out taking into account language, history, grammar, construction, genera, context, and other common-sense items. Much knowledge has been added by technical experts in these areas, and their works should be studied diligently. (I recommend Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul for more details.)

The church has the authority to make new applications of Scripture. This is a given. Some things that are around now were simply not around at the time of the apostles (e. g. genetic engineering and abortion pills). The basic idea is given in the 1689 London Baptist Confession:

To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right
exerting, and executing of that power. ( Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )

But never forget the ultimate authority is the Bible, Here’s the way the 1689 Confession puts it (quoting from the Westminster Confession to show unity in essentials, I might add):

The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved. ( Matthew 22:29, 31, 32; Ephesians 2:20; Acts 28:23)

If that doesn’t help, try on of the best systematic theologians in church history:

It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and the like, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is what he means when he says 'we know his witness is true.'
Galatians 1:9, "If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!" The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21)

To think that because the church has the power to “bind and loose” it has the power to come up with new interpretations which are at odds with the carefully reasoned positions of the saints throughout history is dangerous. Again, “If it’s new, it’s not true; if it’s true, it’s not new.”

What are our rights as we meet to discuss the Bible in our small groups or other forums? Dr. R. C. Sproul is quoted again below.

…though the individual believer has the right to the private interpretation of Scripture, it is clearly acknowledged that the individual is capable of misinterpreting the Bible. He has the ability to misinterpret Scripture, but never the right to do it. That is, with the right of private interpretation the responsibility of correct interpretation is also given. We never have the right
to distort the teaching of Scripture … Church tradition and church creeds can err. Individual interpreters can err. It is the Scriptures alone that are without error.

This is the idea behind the title to my blog: Fear and Trembling. I approach the topics discussed with fear because I might be wrong and with trembling because I know the God whom I will offend if I am wrong. I’d never write about any of this stuff if I did not have a firm grasp on salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. Writing would be way to risky!


On Scripture and Authority, or J. K. goes off the deep end again

Partly out of a new found interest in the Emergent Church Conversation, I have spent much time of late studying, thinking and praying about the relationship of The Bible and church tradition. I find many of the perspectives in the Emergent Conversation to be troubling.

The novel ideas and teachings tend toward, or even cross the line into, false teaching. This is done in two primary ways. Tradition is sometimes seen as authoritative above or beyond the Bible. Or, traditional interpretations of the Bible are ignored in favor of new insights developed by a group of believers during a discussion.

I select The Bible as the sole authority for faith and life because I believe it contains the teachings of the Apostles. It expresses them in truth, with no mixture of error.

It is logical. Christ, the Son of God, promised the Holy Spirit to the Apostle’s to bring His teaching to remembrance (John 14:26). The apostles’ teaching was written down, either by them or by those close to them (Luke 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16). These accurate historical renderings of events and teachings were regarded by the apostles as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). They were held as true (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21). This becomes the authoritative teaching that the church relies on.

I may be the only engineering student in the history of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to almost flunk out of school because he spent too much time in the library reading theology books. I spend hours sitting at a table in the back poring over them. It just seemed to be the thing to do at the time.

The book-shelves contained the Yale Edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, Luther’s Works, Calvin’s Institutes, and another set of books that I learned about in a peculiar way: Lightfoot’s edition of the Early Church Fathers’ writings. The works of the early church fathers are books written in the first few hundred years after Christ’s death by church leaders. They are often quoted as an authority by those from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths, especially with regard to their view of church authority vs. the authority of Scripture.

What was the unusual way I learned of them? I learned about them from reading John Calvin’s books. That’s right, one of the key leaders of the Protestant Reformation quoted extensively from the Early Church Fathers (Luther did too).

The early leaders of the Christian Church did not find a contradiction between the traditions they received and the Bible. Further, they based their traditions on Scripture. As Dr. W. Robert Godfrey expresses it, “Usually, in the ancient fathers of the church, the word “tradition” refers to the standard interpretation of the Bible among them. And we Protestants value such traditions.”

Only God knows what Calvin would say if he were alive today, but I have a hunch he would respond to the Emergent Conversation by quoting the Fathers. Here’s what some of them said:

But there is no evidence of this, because Scripture says nothing ... The Scripture says nothing of this, although it is not in other instances silent ...I do not admit what you advance of your own apart from Scripture. (Tertullian, in about 200 A. D., The Flesh of Christ)

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. (Irenaeus, writing in
about 150 A. D., Against Heresies)

But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves. (Clement of Alexandria, wiring in about 180 A. D., Scripture the
Criterion by Which Truth and Heresy are Distinguished)
For holy Scripture setteth a rule to our teaching, that we dare not "be wise more than it behoveth to be wise;" but be wise, as himself saith, "unto soberness, according as unto each God hath allotted the measure of faith." (Augustine, writing in about 425 A. D., On the Good of Widowhood)

Our conversations must not elevate our own ideas above the traditional interpretations of the Bible. Our conversation must include the writings of the Christians who have gone before us in history.

Beyond that, we must keep going back to the Scriptures to establish true teaching. The testimony of the church as to the Bible’s meaning and content is very important, but not without the possibility of error. The saying goes like this: “If it’s true, it’s not new; and if it’s new, it’s not true.”

We should greatly respect the early church fathers. We should greatly respect the Apostle’s Creed and other expressions of the faith. We should value the interpretations of our brothers and sisters in Christ, from our own church and even those from other faith traditions. (I have benefited extensively from talking to Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians and others.)

But only the Bible provides a completely accurate version of the Apostles’ teaching to inform our faith. We must base our theology on the Bible, not on our own traditions or our own insights and intuitions.Many have attempted to address these issues in a scholarly way, well beyond what an engineer like me is capable of doing. I would highly recommend The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith A. Mathison.


J. K.'s Black Velvet Elvis, Part 1

I am reading a new book this week: Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. I find it an interesting read, with many perspectives I share (more on that later). There are a few aspects of the thoughts expressed that bother me, however. I address the first one in this post. It has to do with what the Bible is about.

Rob says:
…this is why the Bible loses its power for so many communities. They fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible is just about things that happened a long time ago. / But the Bible is about today. / These stories are our stories. They are alive and active and teaching us about our lives in our world, today.
These words express a very dangerous perspective on salvation, our right standing before God. Let me clarify.

The Bible is clear on its intent (Luke 1:4, John 21:24, Luke 24:25-26). The intent is for us to know certain facts about things that happened in the past and their bearing on us today. There is a reason for this. Our salvation; our right standing before God, eternal life, fellowship with God, and everything else that goes with it; was earned for us in the past.

Martin Luther ws right when he said that our salvation was extra nos, outside of us. Earned by Christ. Accomplished 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem. We add nothing to this work. We through our faith are credited with what Christ did, and He is credited with our sin to suffer for (2 Cor. 5:21, Romans 3:21-4:8). If the Bible is not primarily about what happened in the past, then it is not about what Christ did for us in the past. If the Bible is about our here and now, it is not about those things which earn our salvation.

Is this Bell’s intent? Is this a conclusion I am forcing on him or one that he expresses himself? He writes later,
… There is Jesus’ death on our behalf once and for all, but there is the ongoing work of the cross in our hearts and minds and souls and lives … If we only have a legal transaction understanding of salvation in which we are forgiven of our sins so we can go to heaven, then salvation essentially becomes a ticket to somewhere else.
This is footnoted as a “holistic understanding” of the cross.

What other understanding of salvation (really justification) is there than the legal one (forensic justification)? What else is there to be added to the mix? Our changed lives? Our works? The work of God in us? We are threading a fine line here, and it is a trip wire for a very large explosive device.

If we begin to see God’s work in us as a part of justification, we can become dependant on the merit of this work to earn our salvation. This is the real issue. If our righteousness, which is “as filthy rags” is to earn us something, we feel a noose tighten about our necks (Is. 54:6). When we know that “nothing good lives in [us], that is in [our] flesh,” and believe that our lives earn us something, we feel the noose tighten all the more (Ro. 7). If the gospel is really good news after all, it must be about something earned for us by someone who really deserved it who made it possible for us to get credit for what he earned.

If pressed all the way to a resolution of these matters, Bell might turn out to be alright. He may just be emphasizing the action of God to change our lives that goes with justification, called sanctification (2 Cor. 5:18). This always goes along with the package. But the way he expresses his ideas does nothing to add any clarity to the current confusion in the modern church on these vital issues.

A future post will address Bell’s idea of the Bible’s authority…


Flags of Our Fathers

I am reading a good book called Flags of our Fathers. Clint Eastwood and company made a movie out of it. I had the chance to see that movie last week while on the road. I first heard of this book when John Piper quoted from it extensively in Don't Waste Your Life. It's the personal biographies of the five men whose photo was taken while raising an American Flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II. Interwoven are the stories of many of the U. S. Marines who invaded this island, the first piece of native Japanese soil to fall to the advancing Americans in the pacific. Very inspiring, but might not be popular world-wide.

It is a real story of real human beings who did something heroic. Like President Reagan said, "Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don't have that problem." Piper draws the book into a Christian worldview. In the above mentioned book, he says:

The greatest cause in the world is joyfully rescuing people from hell, meeting their earthly needs, making them glad in God, and doing it with a kind, serious pleasure that makes Christ look like the Treasure he is. No war on earth was ever fought for a greater cause or a greater king … But oh, what bold risks and daring sacrifices these lesser causes have inspired! … Oh, that young and old would turn off the television, take a long walk, and dream about feats of courage for a cause ten thousand times more important than American democracy—as precious as that is. If we would dream and if we would pray, would not God answer?

Let us, as Martin Luther would say, “speak the amen firmly,” having faith that God will surely hear and say yes to our prayers.

Amazing Grace

I am looking forward to seeing "Amazing Grace" at our local theatre when it plays. It is part of the story of William Wilberforce, one of my favorite historical figures and my favorite politician of all time to date (Ronald Reagan is a very close second).

Wilberforce was a key figure in the abolition of the slave trade in the British colonies. He was also instrumental in the changes to the charter of The British East India Company in 1813 which allowed missionaries to enter India (e. g. William Carey). It also shows John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and some of his critical interactions with Wilberforce. Newton was one of the first Anglican priests to allow blacks, even slaves, into his parish as communicant members.

I'll go back to Wilberforce. His book Practical Christianity is a must read for all of those in our time who would promote "deeds not creeds." One of the most prominent leaders of the Evangelical church today has said, "I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs. This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what does the church believe, but about what is the church doing. "

Church history shows that deeds (orthopraxy) are a necessary result of proper creeds (orthodoxy). The emphasis on proper belief, particularly the Atonement of Christ, in Practical Christianity should be well noted. (Just be wary of certain modern English versions of this book as some of the abridgements leave out some of the doctrinal materials. It is well worth wading through the old English.)

If you take "deeds over creeds" to its logical conclusion, we will see the end of Christianity as a true religion within one generation. (Keep in mind that I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet.) The gospel will be eclipsed as it was in the dark ages.

Christianity is a religion of faith, confident trust in God and His Written Word to us. It cannot survive without a strong belief system, and I can’t believe anyone who has surveyed the current state of the Evangelical church in the U. S. would not want a reformation of its beliefs.

For my part, I can’t even find evidence of a through-going system of beliefs based on God’s Word in most of the modern books I read. That’s why I read and recommend very old books.

It should be noted that the leader quoted above would probably not carry the reformation of deeds over creeds to its logical conclusion. I think he would want the beliefs to be joined by the works, not to be supplanted by them. His ministry to date shows that in many ways. But keep in mind that many consequences of historical speeches that inspire movements are unintended misunderstandings.

The leader quoted above is not associated with the Emergent Church Movement. I do find several authors identified with the Emergent Church Conversation who would most certainly take the reasoning above all the way to the bitter end.

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