Listening to the Emergent Church

I am just about to finish the book Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, Robert Webber, ed. It’s an interesting read, and a helpful introduction to the theological issues involved. (I expect several upcoming blogs entries on material found in this book.) One of the essays included raises some issues with me: “The Emerging Church and Embodied Theology,” by Doug Pagitt.

Pagitt states on p. 137:

I hold that a reading of history ought to instruct us to create ways of thought that are useful but temporary. Complex understandings meant for all people, in all places, for all times, are simply not possible. Language, situation, specific issues, and people’s own preferences and insecurity all are
involved in any belief system. There is no way to make a statement of substantive belief without these kinds of issues at play. So one must make adjustments, even if they are slight, in order to remain faithful.

Let’s focus on “Complex understandings meant for all people, in all places, for all times, are simply not possible.” The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary defines complex as “involved; complicated; perplexing.” So it seems to me we have a complex statement here. I think he just wrote a complex sentence which says that complex understandings of complex sentences are not possible. It seems that, even if the statement were true, we would not be able to understand it. It’s another instance of someone using words and sentences to explain to me that words and sentences can not be explained. That kind of thing gives this small-town boy a headache (especially so since it is intellectually self-defeating). We move on from there to some other comments which prompt me to reach for an Excedrin bottle.

On page 140, “Einstein’s theory of relativity may show that theology suggesting God as “wholly other” than creation may be based on an antiquated metaphysical notion.” Someone really needs to explain to me how the fact that approaching the speed of light changes the rules of operation of the know universe has any bearing on theology (I honestly would like to know that). Besides, traditional Christian theology has held that God is immanent as well as transcendent. He is involved in this world. He holds it together. “In [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

On page 141, “Observers of the smallest levels of creation began suggesting that an atom’s location and momentum cannot both be determined at the same time, so we cannot know “everything” about it, and therefore future behavior cannot be know.” Also on page 141, “…Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has replaced Newton’s determined clockwork universe.” Modern quantum physics has been encouraging to me recently. I appreciate much of what is said about the demise of modern science’s closed, mechanical, and hence predictable universe.

It seems to me that God’s existence would be necessary in order to have an orderly, predictable universe given what we now know. It also seems that miracles (God intervening in history) are also possible given these facts.

On page 142:
.. at the atomic level, the observation of something affects the specimen. In this sense there is no way to be an “objective observer.” So if we connect truth to objectivity, we are in a bad place in light of our understanding of the world.

This one really bothered me. I was beginning to be convinced that my objective understanding of the world was inherently flawed. Then I began to closely observe the letters in the sentence on the page. As I observed the last sentence, it changed and said, “… we are in a great place in light of our understanding of the world.” You see, my observation of the words changed their makeup and fundamental meaning.

Obviously I am lying in the last few sentences above. I just wanted to point out that Pagitt has assumed that things do not change in communicating to me that things must change as I observe them. He has assumed objective truth to communicate his views. It seems that whatever happens at the atomic level cannot rationally be assumed to happen at the level of propositional truth.

Would you all please stop using meaningful words and sentences to explain to me why words and sentences can have no meaning? Otherwise I am never going to get rid of this headache.

It is refreshing to me that words and sentences cannot be related as non-meaningful. It is refreshing and encouraging because God used words and sentences to communicate His revelation to us (first in verbal communication, then in written communication). Because we have a God who knows all things at the same time, all things are logical and coherent. There is objective truth in this universe that can be communicated, or He would not have tried.


Amazing Grace, 2

At a late show tonight I finally had the chance to see the movie “Amazing Grace” at a theater in Nashville, TN. I had been to busy to see it while it played in my home town. I related my regard for William Wilberforce, the main character of this movie, in an earlier post. He’s one of my heroes, and he has been for a long time.

It is a good movie. The scenes of the Sessions of the English Parliament show a vision of their bold-spirited debates. The determination Wilberforce showed in the face of personal illness, fickle public opinion, and betrayal of friends shines through in this movie portrayal. The acting is strong, but not overdone. The cinematography supports the mood and message of this film.

I have to agree with the review I read a few months back. The best line in the movie comes from the character of John Newton: “There are only two things I can remember: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.” Amen!


Stand in the Gap

Recent events show the great need our society has for Christian leadership. Oh, for Christian statesmen and pastors and laypeople to “stand in the gap” for the United Sates of America. I think of two people almost immediately, my Mom and my Scoutmaster. (Both of them died at the end of last year.)

My Mother was an elementary school teacher for over 25 years. She poured her life into her students, placing the value on them her God had impressed upon her soul. This value is called “self esteem” by some, but the concept Mom would have thought of was dignity. Dignity is the value we place on a person because they are made in God’s image, independent of other factors like social status or race. It is a concept our society much needs to regain because so many of our problems result from its absence. Mom’s calling was to show Christ’s love to the children in her classroom. She joyfully laid hold of these opportunities every school day.

My Scoutmaster was an electrician by trade and a Baptist lay leader in our church. This man had a unique gift for reaching those from difficult family backgrounds. I think of several young men whose tendencies could very well have turned violent who found themselves focused on meeting the needs of others and contributing to society. They turned to honorable professions in military service, law enforcement, and other areas.

He didn’t run a boot camp; he ran a disciplined Scout Troop. He ran it according to the “patrol method,” the standard method for organization of a troop. Each scout was allowed to group with other scouts of his choosing to form a “patrol.” This gave a small group of people who could learn to work well with each other. It gave us a group of friends. The patrols elected a leader, who became a member of the troop council. Other leaders were elected by the troop as a whole. We were allowed to run the troop ourselves within limits.

The Scoutmaster passed the “easy chair test.” The idea is that the scouts run the functions of a weekly meeting to the point that the Scoutmaster could sit in the corner of the room in an easy chair and the meeting would run itself. Of course, he rarely did that, he was often working with a scout or scouts to organize the next camping trip, learn to train others, or just tie knots.

(It’s worth mentioning that the guy had lost most of one hand to a skill saw; he had only his pinky finger, part of a ring finger, and part of a thumb. He always won knot tying competitions with the other Scoutmasters and adult leaders. It was impressive.)

Did we make mistakes? Sure. Some of them were pretty bad mistakes. But we learned so much. If I had to choose between what I learned earning my Master’s Degree and what I learned earning the Eagle Scout Award, I’d give back my Master’s in a split second. I learned so much about working with people, organizing activities and projects, and training others. We all did.

Both of these roles were “secular” vocations, but both of these people could recount a time when they felt God had “called” them into those roles. They were living examples of a Protestant work ethic which called all vocations sacred, although they might have had trouble expressing this in abstract theological terms. Both used the respect they had earned in the community and in their jobs to witness of the love of Christ with actions and words.

What will our role be? How will we “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:4, ESV). So much depends on us.


Or They Will Kill Us

The recent shooting at Virginia Tech. brought to mind a passage from a book I read a few years back. Here it is at length:

Early in the twentieth century, Baptist evangelists preached through rural Mississippi and Alabama with such effectiveness that moonshiners could no longer sell their whiskey: All their customers were getting converted! In desperation, the whiskey sellers hired two men to murder one of the leading
Baptist preachers.

Pistols in their hands, the assassins waited in
the dark outside a country church where their target was preaching. The evangelist spoke with burning intensity about heaven and hell, his voice ringing out into the night. When everyone had gone, he turned out the church
lights and stepped outside. The killers approached him, pistols in hand.

But instead of shooting the evangelist, they handed him their guns. “We came here to kill you, but we couldn’t,” they said. “We heard your preaching and we believed it. We’re now on the same side.”

That story was told to me years ago by a pastor in Alabama. The Baptist evangelist was his grandfather. The story stayed with me. It is compelling drama and a parable of our position in an increasingly dangerous and demoralized world. Either we evangelize our
generation with new power or its members are going to kill us. The bad guys are waiting for us ‘out there,’ and intend to do us in … We need an evangelism with enough strength to get the bad guys before they get us. – C. John Miller (Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1997, p. 1-2.)

The Western church has not faced this grave a situation in centuries. The newspapers scream at us: terrorism, mass murder, abortion, and many other ways that people made in God’s image are dehumanized and devalued. No person on this side of the Roe vs. Wade Decision, the Columbine High School shooting; the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center / Pentagon / another plane full of people; and the Virginia Tech. shooting can deny this with intellectual integrity. We have rapidly become a society which can rightfully face the judgment of God for the values we hold most dear.

Our churches are not effectively reaching the culture outside our doors in our own neighborhoods. Our society and its values are bringing reproach on the gospel of Christ as missionaries try desperately to bring that message to the very part of the world that produces the most dangerous terrorist threats that we face. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can change hearts.

But how are we to do this? Once again I turn to Miller:

…those of us who lead must modify the way we train believers to think of witnessing. I have in view the image of evangelism as fishing for the lost. Too often we have only stressed the single fisherman with his pole. There is certainly a place for him, but there is a danger that the “lone angler” concept will place undue emphasis on witnessing skills, techniques, and special gifts, discouraging Christians who lack these distinctive features. It is clear that for the church in Acts, evangelism was something that involved everyone – and they were often involved together. We need to focus on the biblical metaphor of fishermen pulling together as a team on the same net. Our shared life as the company of Christ’s redeemed is at the very center of our gathering in of the lost. (Miller, p. 71.)

Miller also mentions “hospitality,” where “our material gifts and our gift of the gospel are accepted as we also offer ourselves to [non-Christians].” What stands in our way: “The dispossessed of the earth are often the unwashed, and sometimes they are the destructive.” It seems to be nothing but a dedication to our own happiness and material positions. (Miller, p. 77)

An encouraging fact of recent church life is the return to small group meetings and ministry. These groups, often meeting at non-traditional times that fit peoples’ hectic schedules, are improving the way evangelism is done. Anyone who doubts their effectiveness and the biblical support for them should re-read the book of Acts. This is only one of the encouraging things we can find.

One of the truly great things about the Emergent Church conversation is its unflinching determination to be a witness in word and deed. I think of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, among others. Outside Emergent, I hold up Northpoint Church in Atlanta, Georgia. No church is perfect this side of heaven, and no church or pastor should want to be immune to criticism. (That kind of pride “goes before a fall.”) We may disagree with some of what is done and said in some churches, but we can never forget the point: reaching a lost and dying world. We must find examples to follow. If there are none, we must lead the way. We cannot ignore opportunities to involve those outside the church in a vital community filled with people who can declare the gospel in word and deed.

Will a change in methods be the answer. Not in and of itself. Carl Trueman, in his excellent essay “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” writes:

… to reduce the Western Christianity’s difficulties to the level of bad technique is to miss the point: the real problem is ultimately one of morality, not methodology. Quite simply, the evangelical church has sold its soul to the values of Western society and prostituted itself before the Golden Calf of
materialism …We have bought into the idolatry of the secular values of health,
wealth, and happiness, and until we all, on both the individual and corporate level, realize this, repent of it, and give ourselves in painful, sacrificial service to the Lord who bought us, we will see no improvement.” (The Wages of Spin, Geanies House Fearn, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2004, p. 162)

Our churches battle secularism on a subtle level that we have yet to truly face. Secularization includes materialism. We are in danger of God’s judgment for the very family values both major political parties try to project: Democrats with their freedom of choice on abortion and Republicans with their materialism. I pray for Christian statesmen and pastors and laypeople to “stand in the gap” for the United Sates of America.

We need a fresh wind of the Spirit. We need the power of God in a new way. May God grant us the repentance and faith we most certainly need to forge ahead in the greatest battle ever fought, evangelism, for the greatest prize ever coveted, God’s glory, in the greatest arena ever visited, the entire world. What will our part be? How will God use us to bring about His drama so that, "They shall not hurt or destory in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9, ESV)?


Another Shooting

I have noticed through Google Analytics that I have a few readers in Virginia. I wanted you all to know that there are many prayers going up for you from West Tennessee. I also wanted to recommend a book. It is written by Crystal Woodman Miller. She is a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting who would bring a useful perspective. The book title is Marked for Life.

Our Area Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child mailed me a copy last year when my Mother died. It was helpful to me.

God bless and keep you.


A Good Post

Good link to an excellent post, courtesy of The World From Our Window:

The Logic of Penal Substitution by Al Mohler

I join in Packer's and Mohler’s prayer: “We can only pray that this truth will be once again "a distinguishing mark of the world-wide evangelical fraternity."”


J. K.'s Only Hope

Justification may be defined as that act by which unjust sinners are made right in the sight of a just and holy God. The supreme need of unjust persons is righteousness. It is this lack of righteousness that is supplied by Christ on behalf of the believing sinner. Justification by faith alone means justification by the righteousness or merit of Christ alone, not by our goodness or good deeds. - R. C. Sproul in Essential Truths of the Christian Faith

My life has been a study in contrasts. I have proven time and time again that I can sin with the best of them. I am in the midst of cleaning up “another fine mess I have got myself into” right now.

I often get discouraged as a Christian. I feel that I am not making progress. I know that I often face set backs in some key struggles in my life with sin. I know I sin, and the more I learn about Christ’s requirements, the more aware of each sin I become.

Should I despair of my salvation? Should I doubt that Christ has changed my heart? Sometimes if growing in holiness as I should is running; I’m not running. Sometimes I’m just walking. Sometimes I don’t walk, I just crawl. Sometimes I don’t even do that well.

I have noticed a change from before I came to Christ, if I’m not running, I am walking. If I’m not walking I am crawling. If I’m not crawling, I am at least facing in the right direction. I at least have the earnest desire to improve. This is the daily repentance I live in as a Christian. It’s a change of mind that, over time, results in a change of behavior. But that change in my life is not the reason I continue to try. I continue to try because of doctrines I believe. I’ll summarize them.

We are saved by grace, God’s favor extended to us when we do not deserve it. We are saved, if we are saved at all, by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, based on the promises of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.

By grace alone. This is 2,000-year-old, 200-proof, un-watered-down, 100% pure, uncut, unearned, unlimited, unvarnished, marvelous, amazing, greater-than-all-our-sin, unmerited, unfathomable, Christ-earned, G-R-A-C-E. It is God acting in history on His own initiative to save His people. We are saved by God. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Through faith alone. Not by faith, as if faith is the reason we are saved, but through faith. Faith is the confident trust we have that what Christ did, He did for us. Faith alone. No adding of our works to merit salvation in any way. No adding works in any form, even those good works which come from God’s work in our hearts. (Romans 3:21-31)

On account of Christ alone. We are saved because God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, came to earth, lived a perfect life, died on the cross, and suffered the wrath our sins deserve on our behalf. Christ’s works earn us salvation, not our works, and not the works of the saints who have gone before. We are credited with His perfect life (2 Corinthians 5:21) and our sins are paid for by His underserved suffering (Isaiah 53).

Based on the promises of Scripture alone. The Bible tells us we must live a perfect life to earn favor with God. Not just pretty good, perfect (Matthew 5:48). It tells us what to believe about Christ and what He did and what that earned for us. It talks about Christ’s work on every page. It tells us how to do good works which come from a heart filled with gratitude for what Jesus did on our behalf. It is the basis for our faith because it is the only entirely truthful record of the work of Christ and the interpretation of that work we have.

For the glory of God alone. This is the ultimate pay off for the Christian: to glorify God (Col. 3:23). To cause God’s name to be praised and honored. To share the gospel with others that they would live for God’s glory.

Some of you just recognized the five “solas” of the reformation. (I’ll spare you the Latin. Feel free to google search this later.) This is my understanding of the doctrines that are the basis of my faith. They are the reason I can live with the sometimes heavy load I carry. They are the reason I continue to struggle with sin. They are the reason I have faith in the midst of my shortcomings. They are the reason I do not give up.


A New Old Friend

I’ve spent the last few days reading a book from some in the Emergent Church conversation. I’ll identify and comment on this book over the next few weeks, but I did want to record a strong negative impression I have on my first skim of the book. I am becoming convinced that, no matter how strongly they say otherwise, many who identify themselves with emergent deny that propositional truth can be expressed and communicated with words.

Of course, they are using words and sentences to explain their views while they are saying words and sentences don't work. This makes their assertions questionable upfront. But the implications of this line of thinking are massive.

The gospel is by definition good news. If it’s good news, then it is news. News is made up of facts. Facts are propositions, where we link nouns and verbs with objects to convey information about reality. I hope we are not working ourselves into a mental condition such that we are becoming so mentally allergic to propositional truth that we are becoming immune to the gospel itself. Let's be reminded of the gospel.

1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. - 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 (ESV)

And what is this word?

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more
than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. - 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (ESV)
The Greek word translated “word” in verse two is λόγος [logos /log·os/]. It means, as well as an engineering graduate can determine: “1b what someone has said. 1b1 a word ... 1b6 what is declared, a thought, declaration, aphorism, a weighty saying, a dictum, a maxim.” (Strong, J. (1996). The exhaustive concordance of the Bible (electronic ed.) (G3056). Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship.)

1 Corinthians 15 has long been one of my favorite texts because it notes Christ’s appearance to many different witnesses who were alive at the time of Paul’s writing. It is now one of my favorite texts because it calls us to believe the facts (revealed, propositional truth) of the gospel. This truth is expressed in words. My prayer for us today is that we “hold fast to the word.”


J. K.’s Diary

Another day, another issue in a long line of issues. First I have to struggle through predestination a few years ago. It’s hard for a Southern Baptist to deal with this one. Next it’s an approach to apologetics that I had not heard of before, pre-suppositional. Norman Geisler and R. C. Sproul, my two favorite authors in college, didn’t take that approach. Still quite sure I don’t accept it myself, so I’ll stick with classical. Next it's theonomy. At least that was easy to decide against; Baptist heritage is nice sometimes.

Now it’s a new hermeneutic, a new way of interpreting the Bible. Now I'm supposed to think that any interpretation of the Scripture is just my own interpretation. I’m supposed to buy that anytime I think that I have determined what the Bible actually says, I am as far from what the text says as possible. I’m supposed to get an interpretation of any given passage from what amounts to group consensus on the issue.

It sounds like truth by perspective. That’s easy enough for me to deal with. (Did I mention I read R. C. and Norm?) If truth is just perspective, is the truth that ‘truth is just perspective’ a perspective or an absolute, prepositional truth? Seems it’s self-referentially absurd. So I’ve pretty much dealt with it for myself.

But what about that new Bible study at church, the one where someone reads a passage of Scripture and the rest of us comment on what it means? It drives me crazy to sit still while some of the people comment on propitiation. The consensus seems to be that the word is too difficult for the group to understand. Difficult? It just means that Christ turns away the wrath of God by suffering that wrath when he didn’t deserve it. I didn’t know that it only took one sentence to explain something that was “difficult.”

I lean forward in my chair when it is my turn. I use the “record book of sin” illustration that I learned in Evangelism Explosion training to explain penal, substitutionary atonement. Seems easy enough for the group to understand. They actually even like the explanation! Now I'm a big “expert” on these matters. That’s scary. Very scary.

So what’s the next step? We are to identify the “felt need” that Christ met for us, the one that lead us to place our faith in Christ back when we became Christians. Here we go again. One person identifies freedom from guilt, not real guilt mind you, just guilt feelings. Another talks about a reason to be, a purpose. Two others, a husband and wife, visibly struggle with the issue. (Keep in mind that when an engineering graduate like me identifies your body language it is very obvious.) Their turn is after mine, so I plunge in.

“I guess the reason that I became a Christian is that I didn’t want to go to hell.” I proceed to explain that someone told me that if I didn’t place my faith in Christ and trust that He paid the penalty for my sins that I would have to pay that penalty myself. They had further explained that since I am a finite human being, and the God I had offended was infinite in worth and righteousness, I would have to endure His wrath for an eternity to pay for my sins myself. I further stated, in my usual way, albeit unoriginal and bombastic, that I was a Christian because at one point in my life someone “scared the hell out of me.” You could have heard a pin drop.

But the couple that had been squirming in their seats visibly relaxed (reference my earlier comment about my basic inability to identify body language). The husband said, “I’m really glad you said that. I thought I was all alone on this.” More positive comments followed. Yet again I am generally agreed with and regarded as the “expert.” That is still scary.

The video-based study ends. I feel great, but at first I can not fully explain why. I think about this for a while. It takes time for me to process feelings. They sometimes are so basically foreign to my fact-based approach to life. I have deep feelings, but for the most part they are none of your business.

I find the answer to my question the next morning, during my time of prayer. I am praying through the Psalms again. I read until I find a passage that makes my heart stir, and then form a prayer that expresses my thoughts in my own terms about a situation I am aware of or experiencing. I started this after reading A Simple Way to Pray by Martin Luther.

My verse for the day is Psalm 51:13 (ESV), “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” I realize my joy came from the fact that I had explained the gospel in an appropriate way to a small group of people who had not really grasped some of its basic content. My freedom from guilt (actual guilt, not just guilt feelings) had motivated me to share with others how they could be forgiven. I had made a difference in the lives of a few people. My message had been well-received. They liked theology. They received benefit from revealed, propositional truth.

This is encouraging to me as I begin to prepare for the Seventh and Eight Grade Boys Sunday School Class I teach. I have always found that they are interested in theology. I read paragraphs from books to them on everything from hermeneutics to Christology to eschatology, all by educated theologians. I even define the words for them as I explain the concepts. They seem to take a genuine interest in what I have to say. They hang on my every word when I explain concepts that the modern church seems to find difficult to understand.

I am hopeful. The gospel has not changed. Human nature has not changed. God uses His truth to change the hearts of men when we express that truth. God gives us opportunity to proclaim his truth to Christians so they can be encouraged. I’ll stick with my old-fashioned, grammatico-historical hermeneutic. I’ll keep on turning to the educated theologians for explanations. I’ll not desert the approach that seems to work in spite of the weaknesses of the engineering-graduate turned amateur theological professor.

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