A little primer. . .


Before you go diving into my blog, I want to share with you a little primer on how my blog works. Not that it’s too difficult or anything, but as with anyone’s blog, you’re going to find some pretty unusual things.

For starters, my posts tend to reside somewhere between layman-accessible and first-year-grad-student-accessible. Every so often I’ll write something much simpler, but that’s pretty rare. This blog has become something of an outlet for my desire to return to academia.

This blog is also a journey. This particular journey started when I left fundamentalism (think Bob Jones Univ., NBBC, and their ilk) and traveled through my fascination with the rock-and-roll church (think Andy Stanley, Craig Groeschel, and their ilk), into and out of “new-calvinism” (think Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and their ilk), through classical Arminianism, and now on to whatever new adventure God might bring me towards.

Thanks for coming along. But strap in. It might be a bumpy ride.

Acknowledging interpretive lenses. . .

One of the foundational elements of theological musing, study, and debate is the acknowledgement of interpretive lenses. I’ve mentioned before in my post on biblicism that one of the problems with so much of Christendom’s application of Scripture is that of interpretive pluralism.

Lately I’ve been engaging in conversations where the trump card of “Scripture says this” has been thrown onto the table. I understand the sentiment, and I applaud its appeal to a higher authority than one’s own, but I would like to caution those of you who use it. Scripture alone in itself cannot be appealed to as support for your argument about the nature of God. I’ve mentioned time and time again that the Bible was not written to us (though it certainly can have been written for us and for our benefit). We cannot assume that the people to whom (and by whom) the Bible was written experienced life circumstances the way that we do. Of course, they were human just as we are human, and there are certainly many aspects of the human experience that ring just as true today as they did several thousand years ago.

However, there have been several major events in humanity’s history that have drastically altered our perspective on life. The point of this post is not to delve into all those events, but I’ll describe just a few.

First, Greek philosophy.

The earliest Christians were slow to develop any kind of philosophy of Christianity. Much of the faith was based on Judaism, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that were it not for the harsh Jewish reaction towards the “Followers of the Way” (as Christians were known back then), our faith might look incredibly different from how it looks today.

However, that’s not what happened, and Christianity developed along a much different course. Due to the spread of Christianity within the Greco-Roman world, many of the more influential converts to this new faith weren’t converting from Jewish society, but were instead coming from Greco-Roman society. This slowly led to Christianity adopting a sort of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The first of this new school of Christian philosophy was Titus Flavius Clemens (aka Clement of Alexandria). The Platonic influence continued from Clement to his student Origen. Almost a century following Clement and Origen, Augustine continued to evolve Neo-Platonic philosophy within Christianity. Following Augustine, philosophers like Boethius and Dionysius brought Neo-Platonic thought deeper into the heart of Christian philosophy. Erigena, Peter Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and others carried on the pseudo-Dionysian theme.

How does Platonic philosophy influence Christianity? There are numerous ways, but one major impact that this Greek-influenced theology had on Christian thought was in the way God is portrayed. To the Platonist, God is an impersonal being, wholly detached from the goings on of human life. Rather than a God that exists in and among human interaction, as Jewish theology often proposes, God exists apart from the world. This led to Christians viewing God’s throne as being “somewhere up there,” and not making his dwelling among us.

Platonic philosophy brought about a dichotomy between the “physical” and the “spiritual” planes of existence, putting God squarely in the “spiritual” plane and humanity in the “physical” plane, with Jesus supernaturally occupying both and bridging the gap between God and Man.

God’s interaction with the physical realm is therefore limited to certain events. Calvinists might say that God resides outside the physical realm but maintains absolute control over it, orchestrating every detail according to his will. Some Arminians might say that God remains in charge of the physical realm and exercises control over it when he has a particular plan that he wants to set in motion (i.e. the redemption of humanity). In both cases, God occupies a different realm from humanity.

Second, the Edict of Milan.

Prior to Constantine’s rise as the Roman Emperor, Christianity had to exist as an underground community due to widespread and pervasive hatred of their religion. There had been several points throughout the Roman Empire’s history where Christians were tolerated, but by and large they were mistreated throughout most of the Empire’s and Christianity’s coinciding existence.

That all changed with the Edict of Milan. Constantine the Great went several steps beyond simply tolerating Christians; he actually made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, ushering in an era in the Western world known as “Christendom,” an era of Christian domination of the West that would last from the 4th century to the first decade of the 21st century.

So how did this particular event shape Christianity? I won’t go into very much detail here as I’ve covered that in a post I wrote several years ago. But basically what it did was drastically alter the praxis of the Church. Christianity became less a lifestyle and more a religion. Practicing Christianity, which had been marked by caring for the homeless, feeding the poor, and developing communal lifestyles, instead became known by attending established gatherings or services, sacramental practices, and paying indulgences to the Church.

Third, the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was an era of discovery and, while not specifically or intentionally an attack on Christianity, became one due to many notable conflicts between Enlightenment ideologies and the Church’s theology. The Enlightenment influenced Christianity in a few ways, and it is incredibly difficult to separate Christianity from its Enlightenment influence.

The Enlightenment challenged Christianity, causing the Church to react poorly to it. Due to new scientific discovery, much of Christianity was being questioned. An example of this would be the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun. The Church held that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth. The Church held the power of excommunication and wielded it against men like Galileo, who challenged the way Christendom approached new scientific discovery. These types of challenges exist even today, though the focus has shifted quite a bit.

On the other hand, however, Christianity adopted the Enlightenment’s approach to discovery. Everything must be verifiable and rooted in fact. In order for the truth to be the truth, it had to adhere to this new definition of “truth” that included fact checking, evidence analysis, and story corroborating. Christians began to define truth in the same way, view Scripture through this lens, and interpret it based on those findings.

These (among other things) have had a profound impact on the evolution of Christianity throughout the centuries.

*   *   *

Now, I’m not saying these are necessary good or bad influences, but I point them out because I want us to be aware that there are all sorts of things that change the way we view Scripture, our faith, and even our history as Christians.

Whenever I hear someone say something to the effect of, “The plain reading of Scripture yields such and such a conclusion,” I immediately stop listening. (I know, that’s a response I need to work on, but it’s so difficult for me to refrain.) Why? Because there is no such thing as a plain reading of Scripture.

Here’s an example.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

Within traditional Evangelical circles there are no fewer than two commonly held interpretations of this passage. Let’s start with the less common (though most controversial and most voiced by popular theologians like James Montgomery Boice, John Piper, and James White). This interpretation holds that God predetermined before the foundation of the world each individual who would be saved. In other words, from “predestination” to “justification to “glorification” and everywhere in between, God determined and performed everything related to our salvation. “All those ‘predestined’ will also be ‘called.’ All those ‘called’ will also be ‘justified.’ All
those ‘justified’ will also be ‘glorified.’ None of those ‘predestined’ will fail to
be ‘glorified’ in the end. Therefore, man’s will and response to God cannot be a
determining factor regarding his salvation” (Tim Warner, PFRS Commentary on Romans 8:28-30).

The more commonly held interpretation is that God determined that the the destiny of those who follow his Son Jesus would be conformation “to the image of his Son.” In other words, predestination means that God determined those people’s destiny ahead of time. Those whose destiny it was to be conformed to King Jesus’s image were called by God; if they meet those qualifications, then God justified them and finally glorified them.

Another interpretation that’s gaining some modicum of popularity (and that is also compatible with the second) goes beyond just this particular passage and analyzes St. Paul’s entire message on the unnecessary dichotomy between Israel and the Gentile believers. In other words, St. Paul is immensely concerned that the Jewish believers accept the Gentile believers and that the Gentile believers understand that they are full citizens in God’s Kingdom of Israel).

So here’s the point I’m trying to make. We have to acknowledge our interpretive lenses. We all look at Scripture through different lenses and that vastly influences how we handle the Bible, and by extension, how we view God.

Calvinists have their interpretive lenses. Classical Arminians have theirs as well. Wesleyan Arminians have their own set of interpretive lenses, as do Open Theists.

Pentecostals view the Bible very differently from Baptists, yet they’re both Evangelical denominations.

Protestants don’t come to the same conclusions as Anabaptists about most of what’s in Scripture, and in much the same way the Roman Catholic Church differs greatly in its handling of the Bible than does the Eastern Orthodox Church.

So when someone says, “Here’s what the Bible says, and if you disagree, then you’re wrong,” I generally conclude two things about that person. First, he/she is unwilling to acknowledge that there are innumerable interpretations of the passage he/she is using. Second, he/she is unable to see that his/her own handling of Scripture is itself one interpretation in a myriad of other acceptable interpretations.

I realize I’m venting a bit in this post, but I write this because I believe that honest, friendly debate can and does happen, but it only occurs when people are willing to acknowledge the fact that they have a lens through which they are reading Scripture. Without that acknowledgement, we’re doomed to angry, vitriolic arguments where strawmen and ad hominem fallacies run rampant throughout.

Let’s all try to be less dismissive. . .

Christianity is my environment. It’s how I was raised, it serves as a lens through which I see the world and as a home I can rest in when the world makes little sense.

But Christianity makes little sense as well and has become as much a complex and difficult puzzle as it has a respite from a complicated world.

I grew up in the branch of Christianity known as Protestantism. Within Protestantism, I was part of a camp that would best be categorized as Evangelical. And beyond that I was part of a subsection of Evangelicalism known as Fundamentalism. (Both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists would likely take issue with my lumping them together, but if you look at the groups sociologically, they are compatible. One could hold to all of Evangelicalism’s “non-negotiables” and be quite at home within Fundamentalism. The differences lie in the additional “non-negotiables” in Fundamentalism and how the groups practice their beliefs.)

Side note: Interestingly, Evangelicalism as we know it today began as a response to Fundamentalism because, as Edward J. Carnell put it, Fundamentalism was “orthodoxy gone cultic.” But for the sake of this blog post, I’ll be treating Evangelicalism as the broader category that encompasses Fundamentalism, a decision I’ve based on the identifiers of the movements, not on which was formed first.

Fundamentalism in particular, along with the broader world of Evangelicalism and even, to some extent, the other branches of Protestantism, tends to assert “rightness” and “wrongness” as unmovable categories and often assumes that any disagreements between them and other branches of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy) are due to those other branches’ “wrongness.”

One of the problems I have with this attitude is that it’s counterproductive. Protestantism, and especially Evangelicalism, is based on a conversion system. These groups attempt to convert people to their way of thinking, often pointing out what they perceive is incorrect about another groups’ beliefs. An example of this is the fire that Evangelicals often hurl at Roman Catholicism. They are quick to point out the faults in the Catholic Church’s theology, never once taking a look at the fact that they’re so concerned with the correctness of their doctrines, they’ve neglected simple commands in the Bible to love our enemies, care for the widow and orphan, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry.

All the branches of Christianity believe that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated by King Jesus, and that we are his ambassadors, charged with heralding the news that the Kingdom of God is here. But instead of working towards that end, we’re busy calling other Christians heretics.

Another problem I have with this attitude is that it’s arrogant and dismissive of other people. And if there’s one thing that doesn’t belong in Christianity, it’s arrogance and a lack of care for others’ thoughts.

In the long history of Christianity (and by long, I mean ~1,950+ years long), the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church occupy around 960 years (or approximately 50% of Christianity’s history). The Anglican Communion occupies 481 years (approximately 25% of Christianity’s history). Protestantism occupies just 367 years (approximately 19% of Christianity’s history). Methodism occupies only 245 years (approximately 13% of Christianity’s history). Organized Fundamentalism occupies a mere 95 years (approximately 5% of Christianity’s history). Modern Evangelicalism occupies just 68 years (approximately 3% of Christianity’s history). For Fundamentalism to call Anglicanism wrong about something is brash and arrogant. They may or may not be correct, but that’s not the point. The older branches of Christianity didn’t come to their theological conclusions lightly; many of their schools of thought spent centuries studying theology and drawing up theses, creeds, and statements of faith.lazyhistory

I’m not advocating that all the various branches of Christianity set aside their differences and work together. That’s an impossible proposition, and the diversity and plurality within Christendom just shows me that God is so much bigger than we are, and no one person or group has him figured out.

What I am suggesting is that we humbly acknowledge that though we believe something, we might not be right in that belief. God is mysterious, and much of what we think we know about him could be completely different in reality. It would be foolish of us to dismiss someone else’s belief about God on the grounds that their belief contradicts ours.

In other words, the “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” ideology needs to go. Let’s try to be a little less arrogant and dismissive, shall we? I’ll work on that too. And when we talk about our disagreements with other Christians, it might be best to avoid calling them a heretic, no matter how different their beliefs might be from our own. (which leads me down a path towards another blog post entirely).

Above all else, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

Beautiful theology. . .

“They’re not going to embrace your theology unless it makes their hearts sing.”
~ John Piper

I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve heard from some credible sources that the deeper someone gets to know their spouse, the more beautiful that spouse becomes. I’ve witnessed it in many couples that I admire and have learned from (and it runs much deeper than the anniversary Facebook or Twitter post).

I think the same can be said for theology. The deeper one goes into studying the intricacies of God’s interaction with us, the more beautiful those interactions become.

Or at least, they should become more beautiful.

I discovered, however, that the deeper I went into theology as a Calvinist, the uglier things got. It wasn’t even the “Bible cherry-picking” running rampant in Calvinism that made theology ugly. It was God himself (viewed through Calvinism’s lens) that grew frightening, unloving, and even—dare I say—evil.

Take this quote from Mark R. Talbot, a leading Calvinist philosopher:

“[God] brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child . . .”

(from Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor [Wheaton: Crossway, 2006])

Now, some might argue (my former Calvinist self included) that the beauty in such a theology is the comfort that comes with knowing God is in control of every aspect of life. Nothing escapes God’s control, and so we can rest in that truth.

But here’s the question that springs to mind: How can anyone trust a God who brings about such atrocities according to his will?

Perhaps one might respond with a reminder of God’s greater purpose in bringing glory to himself. But I shudder to imagine the kind of being that would receive glory from the sexual abuse of a young child.

“But Nate, God’s ways are not our ways, and his will is hidden from us. His ways are higher than our ways, so who are we to question what he does?”

Okay, perhaps you’re right. But if, in fact, God has chosen to reveal himself to us as love (1 John 4), senseless killings, sexual abuse, genocide. . . these things cannot, and should not, be attributed to a God who calls himself Love. If they are his doing, how can we call him Love?

Is this beautiful? Does this “make your heart sing”?

Let me speculate a little bit now.

What if, instead of God being in control, he were in charge? What if all the evil in the world were actually contrary to what God is trying to accomplish?

What if God were just as brokenhearted over such events as the murder of a Japanese journalist or the abuse of a small child as we are?

Do these ideas make God any less powerful? Perhaps. I won’t deny that a God who’s not in control of everything is a God who appears less powerful than a God who is in control of all things. But let me ask this: why does God need to be all-controlling? Does that make him any more glorious than if he weren’t?

I suppose that would depend on where you think God gets his glory. If God gets his glory from his power, then yes, God must be all-controlling in order to be completely glorious. However, if God gets his glory from his love and self sacrifice (Philippians 2), then complete control wouldn’t factor into his glory at all. In fact, it would probably detract from it.

Let’s go back to the spouse analogy we opened with. If your spouse orchestrated painful—even evil—events in your life citing some kind of “hidden will” that would ultimately bring more “glory” to him/herself, how trusting would you be of your spouse? How beautiful would your spouse be in your eyes?

If, on the other hand, those painful and evil events were out of your spouse’s control, but he/she were actively working against those events—protecting and shielding you, comforting and encouraging you (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34)—how trusting would you be of your spouse then? How beautiful would your spouse be?

Does theology necessarily need to be beautiful? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. I won’t pretend to know. But I would like it to be. And I think almost everyone would.

But if theology is going to make your “heart sing,” it had better be beautiful.

What do I believe?. . .

I think I’ve come to a fairly stable landing on my theological journey. That’s not to say I won’t change, evolve, or grow at some point soon, but what this means is that I’ve come to a point where I feel comfortable making a statement about my beliefs on certain major theological topics. So for those of you who are curious about what I currently believe, here’s a list.

  • Concerning Soteriological Constructs: I haven’t completely landed yet. A few years ago I held to monergism and the five points of TULIP as accepted by most Calvinists. Currently I hold to some form of synergism, but whether classical Arminian or Open Theist, I’m not sure yet. I’m traveling somewhere in between, but I think I’m heading towards Open Theism.

    Thomas Oden, Roger Olson and Greg Boyd are my current influences here.

  • Concerning Presentism: Maybe? I’ll probably land wherever my aforementioned journey lands.
  • Concerning Denomination Affiliation: I grew up in an “Independent Baptist” Fundamentalist church and attended a fundamentalist university. After a brief exploration in Buddhism, I joined the non-denominational bandwagon for a while. During those years, I went from working for an “Andy Stanley” style non-denominational church for one year to working for a “Mark Driscoll” Acts-29-affiliated church for four years (to give you an idea of where I might’ve identified in those years). My years working for that A29-affiliated church drove me into—and eventually out of—my adherence to Calvinism. I currently exist within Hillsong NYC, so I probably affiliate with a very “progressive” Pentecostalism. If I were ever to plant my own church, I might lean towards building a progressive Anglican church.
  • Concerning Scripture: I believe the Bible is authoritative simply because God asserts his authority through it. It possesses no authority itself apart from God.

    N. T. Wright’s books Surprised by Scripture and Scripture and the Authority of God are my primary influences. I also turn to Peter Enns on this topic.

  • Concerning Origins: I hold to a form of Evolutionary Creationism.

    Francis Collins, Deb and Loren Haarsma, and N. T. Wright are my influences here.

  • Concerning Hell: I’m still not sure where I land on this. I used to hold to eternal conscious torment, particularly in the aftermath of the “Love Wins” controversy (and upon reading Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell), but I feel very uncomfortable with that belief now. I probably lean towards a “conditional purgatorial” theory of some kind.

    C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, and Rob Bell are currently informing me on this topic.

  • Concerning Dispensational vs. Covenant Theology: Neither. I probably hold to a sort of “Christian fulfillment” theory. The resource I’m currently turning to is N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. 
  • Concerning Eschatology: I hold to a sort of “reconciliation” philosophy. God is reconciling this world to himself; he’s not planning on “rapturing” the Church away and then throwing the world into the trash bin. N. T. Wright is my primary influence here. Though Tim LaHaye definitely played a part. ;-)
  • Concerning Atonement Theory: I don’t hold to any singular one, though at one point I held exclusively to Penal Substitution Theory. I’ve heard it said that “Denying Penal Substitutionary Atonement is akin to denying the Gospel.” Clearly I think that statement is categorically false.My current theory takes most of its cues from the Christus Victor Theory, but there are other theories I like to cherry pick themes and ideas from. I believe that no singular theory is completely true, but no singular theory is completely false either. They all contribute something to understanding the atonement.

    Greg Boyd and my blogging friend Ryan Miller have heavily influenced me in this category.

  • Concerning Other Hot-Button Topics (aka “Gospel Issues” for John Piper): I’m egalitarian. I’ve seen too many gifted women in my life to limit their leadership to just teaching kids and teaching women. Some of the most powerful sermons I’ve heard in my lifetime were from women. Regarding homosexuality, I’ll simply say this: why does that topic receive more fire from Christians than greed, oppression, murder, slander, and violence?

So there you have it. That’s what I currently believe. As it has over the past several years, it will likely undergo some change over time. But like I said at the start of this post, I’m quite comfortable with posting this as a sort of “Statement of Faith” for my blog. Those of you who are non-Calvinist theology nerds will likely see that I’ve gone very far from my supralapsarian days. Those of you who are Calvinist theology nerds will likely call me a heretic. ;-)

Austin Fischer posted today on the importance of beauty in theology. I think discussing that topic might be a worthy follow-up post to this one, so I might write about that in an upcoming post. But until then, stay savvy, friends!

How should I read the Bible? . . .

I realize that, given the way I described Scripture in my last post, I’ve probably created more questions than answers. One of those questions is likely something along the lines of, “If I shouldn’t read the Bible in the ways described by Christian Smith in his book, The Bible Made Impossible, how then should I read the Bible? How can Scripture help to cultivate a robust faith if I can’t get some simple spiritual truths out of each passage I read?”

Rather than offer a step-by-step process or a particular hermeneutic, let me start with sharing what the Bible self-evidently is over and against what it clearly is not.

The Bible is a collection of books written by myriad authors over a long period of time. It’s not a singular book, so we can’t expect the Bible to be perfectly cohesive and inerrant. A common response to this assertion would go something like this: “But wouldn’t the fact that God was the one behind it provide perfect coherence and inerrancy?” The problem with this line of thought is that it assumes that God was trying to communicate with us as opposed to communicating with the pre- and post-exilic nation of Israel. As Peter Enns asserts in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, we, as twenty-first-century, post-enlightenment westerners have extremely different notions of truth, and we value completely different things in our documentation of historic and current events. We can’t assume that, just because we think things should match up nicely, the ancient Israelites wanted that too. They likely didn’t, as evidenced by the lack of coherence found in the accounts of Israel’s history in the books of Samuel-Kings and the books of the Chronicles.

The Bible is Israel’s story, not ours. While there’s certainly plenty of evidence that Israel’s story is universal, it’s still Israel’s story, and the Bible must be viewed in light of Jewish tradition and through Jewish interpretive lenses. King Jesus, while often wrongly viewed and interpreted outside his context, was completely a part of first-century Jewish culture. We often think of Jesus as someone who overturned the Jewish law (and, by extension, mistakenly believe that Judaism was/is a religion of legalism and that Jesus came to introduce a system of grace over and against the previous system of Jewish law), but by his own admission, King Jesus did not “come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”

This is evidenced by his handling of Jewish customs. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark tell a story of King Jesus healing a leper (St. Luke records a similar story that differs in several notable ways, but the detail I’m referring to here remains the same). In both accounts King Jesus tells the leper to present himself to the priest and offer a gift “as Moses commanded.” He remains faithful to Jewish tradition and law.

In other cases, King Jesus blatantly challenges the law with statements like, “the Son of Man is lord over the Sabbath.” And in yet more instances, King Jesus takes the law and makes it even more strict: “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”

The sorts of interpretive methods that King Jesus employed were not uncommon for Jewish teachers of his day. Yet they’re completely out of place in today’s world. Simply put, King Jesus was very much a first-century Jew. A noteworthy and rascally one, no doubt, but a first-century Jew nonetheless.

After the stories of Israel’s national heritage as described by the pre- and post-exilic Israelites and climax of that story as told to us by the four Evangelists (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John), we have yet another section of the Bible to contend with: the letters. I like to think of these as analyses of Israel’s story in light its culmination in King Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. St. Paul spent much of his time giving his thoughts on the matter. Bear in mind that his primary concern was how the story of King Jesus changed the trajectory of Israel’s story from insular to cosmic. Essentially, in the eyes of St. Paul, what King Jesus did was invite the other nations into Israel’s national story. When read through this lens, St. Paul’s writings take on a whole new meaning. Instead of a discourse on personal salvation (which is how most Evangelicals tend to read St. Paul) which would give off an air of exclusivity (some are saved, others are not), St. Paul’s letters become a treatise on national identity which then becomes invitational (you’re a part of this kingdom, now let’s do kingdom stuff).

So, how then should I read the Bible? Before I go there, let me quickly address one way to not to read the Bible. Don’t read the Bible as a manual for a good Christian life. You’ll probably fall into one of two categories. The first: extremely confused and frustrated about all the various contradictions. (Check out this post for an incredible, nearly exhaustive, tool for finding the various contradictions in Scripture. It’s mind-blowing!) The second: ignorant (whether willfully or otherwise) of these contractions and adherent to some things in the Bible at the direct expense of others.

Okay, finally, to answer the question: how should I read the Bible?

Think of the Bible as a collection of books that tells a story. Each book (or section of books) has a theme within that story that it’s trying to address. The Christian Old Testament tells the story of Israel’s national origins. The Pentateuch (Jewish Torah) shows us what Israel is supposed to look like. The books of Samuel-Kings tell the story of Israel’s incorporation from the perspective of a nation in exile asking the questions, “What happened to us? I thought God promised to be with us no matter what, and now we’ve been dragged out of our homeland and are stuck in Babylon! What gives? What did we do to deserve this?” The books of the Chronicles tell the same story, but from a different perspective. The Chronicles were written around 200 years after Samuel-Kings and are meant to address the questions, “Where is God? After all these years, are we still his people? Will God ever fix this mess we’ve gotten into?”

Let’s skip ahead a bit to the next major plot point. The four accounts of the Gospel.

Here we have the culmination of Israel’s story. The big finish, if you will. Everything reaches its completion in the story of King Jesus (which is probably why there are four books to tell the tale). I won’t go into why these four books have such glaring discrepancies between them, but suffice it to say that there are four unique intentions, audiences, and goals that the Evangelists each have in crafting their stories of Israel’s Messiah.

Finally, we have the letters. Mostly written by St. Paul, the letters look back on Israel’s story and analyze it given the massive event that had just taken place: the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. This analysis led St. Paul to believe that Israel’s story was a universal one, and he spent much of his time inviting non-Israelites (called Gentiles in the Bible) into Israel’s story and then writing to them about how and why they were now a part of said story.

So what does this mean for my devotions? It means that as you read the Bible, keep these things in mind. Ask yourself some of these questions. What part of the story am I reading? Is it inviting me into the story? Is it describing to me what a messy life of faith might look like?

One final thought: The Bible never shows us the ideal life of faith (probably because there isn’t one). It doesn’t tell us how to live a good “biblical” lifestyle. Instead, I believe it describes to us just how broken and inconsistent a life of faith can be. It shows us how Noah got drunk and fell into depression. It shows us how Abraham lied his way through tough spots. It shows us how David gave into his baser desires and lost control of his family.

And it shows us that despite all of this, God still loved them, and they (however brokenly or imperfectly) returned that love in some way, shape, or form.

That’s how I would read the Bible.

The problem with biblicism. . .

Lately a thought has been repeatedly entering the front of my mind, and I want to put it to words to see how it feels outside my head (that phrase seems weird, but it’s an accurate description of how I approach new or different ideas).

I think Christians—Protestants and Evangelicals in particular, but mainliners and Catholics as well—have been putting God in a box called the Bible. What do I mean by that? I’ll allow someone much smarter than I am to provide you an explanation. The following is an excerpt from Addison Hodges Hart’s excellent book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World:

The Bible is not the Koran, and Christians (and Jews) are not Muslims. We do not read the Bible as “a book,” for example, but as a collection of books. The Bible is better described as a library. Nor do Christians receive the Bible as the Word of God. That may come as a surprise to some, especially since we are often referred to—wrongly—as “people of the book.” But, we are not; and the Word of God is not a book. For us, the Word of God is God himself. We call him, in theological language, “the Son of God” and “the Second Person of the Trinity.” We say of him that he “became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, for Christians, the Word of God is Jesus. He alone “defines” for us fully the character of God; he is the divine writ small, in fleshly, human terms we can see, “read,” understand, and follow in our lives. We could not know the divine in its uncreated being, but we could know it in Christ.

While Hart’s language is certainly provocative (probably intentionally so), I believe his point is valid.

I heard an analogy recently that stood out to me (I don’t remember where I heard it, otherwise I’d reference it here; if you happen to know or be the origin of the analogy, let me know so I can reference him/her/you). God is like an ocean, and the Bible is like a collection of poems, pictures, and recordings of the ocean. Nothing anyone can write or capture about the ocean can accurately describe what it is to actually see it, explore it, or be engulfed in it.

To be sure, the analogy is lacking; however, the point that it makes shouldn’t be missed. While the Bible is inspired by God, it is still a collection of poems, letters, and stories written by people in particular times and settings. It doesn’t even come close to fully or accurately describing the whole personality of God.

This is why biblicism is such a dangerous thing. Although it is considered an “orthodox” practice, I believe Christians should abstain from it.

Biblicism, as defined by Christian Smith, a leading sociologist and professor at the University of Notre Dame, is an approach to Scripture that emphasizes “the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

You might read that and say, “That’s absolutely the truth!” But please consider the passage I quoted earlier from Strangers and Pilgrims Once More. The Bible is not our holy book. The Bible is a collection of books that tell the story of God’s interaction with mankind.

Smith provides in his book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, ten assumptions that proponents of biblicism often make. You don’t have to be guilty of all of these assumptions to be a biblicist either. Each of these assumptions individually are symptomatic of biblicism.

  1. Divine Writing: The details of the Bible’s words are identical with God’s very own words.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents all of God’s communication to humanity and is the exclusive means of divine communication.
  3. Complete Coverage: The Bible contains the divine will for every issue relevant to Christian life and belief.
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Every “reasonably intelligent person” can read the Bible and properly understand “the plain meaning of the text.”
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: Biblical texts are to be read in their most obvious sense, as the author intended them, and this may or may not involve a consideration of their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
  6. Solo (not Sola) Scriptura: The significance of any biblical text can be understood on its own, apart from any creed, confession, or larger theological hermeneutical framework. In other words, theological formulations are built directly and entirely out of the Bible alone.
  7. Internal Harmony: All relevant biblical passages on any given subject fit together into a single, internally consistent account of correct and incorrect beliefs and practices.
  8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical writers taught at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians unless revoked by subsequent biblical teaching.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through careful study of the Bible.
  10. Handbook Model: “The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook … for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance”

(Summary of Smith’s ten assumptions taken from the blog Earliest Christianity.)

Smith points out that biblicism isn’t a doctrine as we would understand it. Rather, it is a “constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs [that] informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.”

Why do I contend that it’s dangerous?

First, it helps fuel major debates within Christianity due to something I may have alluded to in an earlier post: the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism.

Interpretive pluralism is both the reason for and the result of debates such as the Calvinism vs. Free-Grace Theism debate and the Young-Earth Creationism vs. Evolutionary Creationism debate, to name a couple. It informs these debates in that each side interprets its backup passages differently. It flows out of these debates because each side approaches those passages through their own interpretive lens, thus leading to multiple interpretations.

This is one of the reasons that, when someone asks me for biblical support for my positions, I hesitate to give any. Not because I don’t know the Bible passages—after all, I was a fundamentalist for nearly 20 years, culminating in a bachelor’s degree from the “Fortress of Faith,” but because any “biblical support” I might offer could be interpreted seventeen different ways.

Second, biblicism creates confusion for Christians. It arbitrarily chooses which commands in Scripture to obey, and which to ignore, citing a form of “cultural relativism,” but never truly adhering to any criteria for applying it.

For example, in many biblicist circles, women aren’t permitted to be pastors, elders, or even to preach. Yet in the vast majority of those same circles, they ignore commands telling women that they aren’t allowed to wear jewelry or that they must wear head coverings.

This logical incoherence has led many to leave Christianity. The faith doesn’t make sense if the Bible is God’s complete and final revelation to humanity. God appears dualistic in Scripture: a loving and benevolent father on the one hand, and a genocidal, vindictive tyrant on the other. Why would God reveal himself this way?

Third, biblicism elevates the Bible to the level of deity. There’s a mantra I’m about to paraphrase that sheds light on this idolatry of the Bible: without the Bible, we cannot know God. But that statement borders on heresy. The Bible, as I’ve asserted before, is not God’s message to us. No, God’s message to us is King Jesus. The Bible is a library of people’s thoughts, experiences, and legends that all reveal what they saw when they encountered God.

So then how should a Christian approach Scripture? I believe there are a few ways; none of them are perfect, but none of them lead to the sorts of issues found in biblicism. I hope to look into some of them in an upcoming post. Until then, I would encourage you to take a look at any of the following books:

The other side. . .

A lot has been on my mind lately.

Two recent events are weighing heavily on my heart, so I figured I’d share my thoughts on them.

The first hits close to home because, well, it’s geographically quite close to home.

I was born and raised in the shadow of New York City, and I still live within an hour of Manhattan Island. The city has come under the spotlight due to the Eric Garner incident on Staten Island and the ensuing city-wide protests. I won’t bother going into any of the details regarding the protests because, quite frankly, if you don’t already know, you’re probably not interested in what’s happening in the world these days.

The second hits close to home because it concerns my alma mater.

I went to school at a “Bible college” called Bob Jones University. (I’ve written a bit about my experience at that school here.) Since this particular event isn’t sweeping national news, I’ll go ahead and describe a little bit about what’s taking place there.

A few years ago, several churches came under fire following a 20/20 report exposing a child-abuse cover-up at an Independent Fundamental Baptist (or Independent Baptist Fundamentalist, the identifiers are interchangeable) church (Henceforth, IFB). You can watch that story here.

The pastor who orchestrated the cover-up, Chuck Phelps, was on the Board of Trustees at Bob Jones University at the time. A number of students and alumni, organized by then-current student Christopher Peterman, were bothered by the fact that the university maintained Phelps as a board member. Peterman put together the first ever silent protest on the campus of Bob Jones University, an unprecedented act at the time, especially considering the fact that all who participated in the protest were risking expulsion from the university.

This was the beginning of a series of events that uncovered a highly unusual sex abuse scandal spanning several decades with Bob Jones University at the center of it all. The university hired GRACE, a watchdog group that investigates instances of sexual abuse in Christian organizations, to look into reports of sexual abuse related to the school. GRACE published their investigation report last week. I won’t go into any more detail on this because the details aren’t relevant to what I’m trying to get at. If you’re interested in the story, you can read this article by the New York Times, this incredible piece by Al Jazeera, and this insightful and helpful (though understandably emotional and cynical) blog series from a former Bob Jones University student and school victim abuse survivor.

Here’s my point. These events have become what they are because of people’s unwillingness to see through the eyes of the oppressed. Why is there such a divide between whites and blacks in our country? Because few are willing to look at life from the perspective of those who are oppressed.

Put yourself in their shoes. What are their struggles? What makes them angry? Why do you think it makes them angry? Would that make you angry if you were on the receiving end?

Now, why has the sex abuse scandal at Bob Jones University become such an issue? Because no one was willing to look at the abuse from the perspective of the abused.

What are their struggles? What makes them scared? Why do you think they’re scared? Would that make you scared if you were in their position?

It’s Christmastime. The incredible story that we celebrate this time of year is about someone who left his place of privilege and comfort and put on the skin of the oppressed. It’s not just that he left heaven and became human. He left a cosmic throne and entered a blue-collar family.

Then he suffered incredible abuse and humiliation. And then he forgave his abusers. He didn’t ask them for forgiveness as one preacher advised an abuse victim to do. Why? Because victims don’t have to ask forgiveness of their offenders. There’s nothing to forgive. “Please forgive me for your terrible act that severely damaged me.” It just doesn’t make sense.

I have to admit, I can’t conclude this post the way I wanted to. I’ll leave it here because the more I think about my alma mater, the angrier I get, and my emotion is obscuring where I think this post should go.

But I’m not going to leave this unpublished either because I think there’s something here we can all take to heart. I wonder what would happen if we all looked at life from someone else’s perspective.

More on atonement. . .

I’ve recently found it a tad unusual that we Christians place the crucifixion of King Jesus at the center of our faith. Any cursory reading of the four Evangelists’ renditions of the gospel coupled with St. Paul’s writings on the matter should yield the conclusion that it’s the resurrection of King Jesus, not his death that should be central to our faith.

Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of centering my faith in Jesus on his death for almost my entire Christian life.

Recently, however, it’s become somewhat clear to me that God’s work in the world is reconciliatory, and that it manifests relationally rather than transactionally.

Here’s what I mean by that.

The foundation of a penal substitution theory of atonement is the idea that our offense to God creates a debt that we owe him. That debt demands payment, and thanks to King Jesus, we don’t have to pay that debt; rather, he pays it on our behalf. In other words, the debt we owe to God can be removed from our account and placed on King Jesus’ account. For example, let’s say I ran my car into someone else’s car. I don’t have the money to pay for the repairs, but a friend steps in to pay off my debt. In case you missed it, my benevolent friend plays the role of Jesus in this analogy.

Here’s the problem with that. Reconciliation has not actually taken place. The debt has been paid, yes, but God is not in the business of debt relief. He’s in the reconciliation business.

Let’s draw up another analogy. If I were to cheat on my wife (I’m unmarried, so this example falls a bit flat in reality, but I believe it works in theory), no one can come in and “pay my debt” to my wife. There’s no transaction that can repair and reconcile the broken relationship. There are only two things that can reconcile this relationship: my hypothetical wife’s forgiveness and my repentance. (Again, if you missed it, my hypothetical wife plays the role of God in this analogy.)

Throughout the Old Testament, God uses marriage metaphors to describe the broken relationship he has with Israel. He’s summoning his wife. He’s telling her that he forgives her and that their relationship can be restored if she would only repent.

But here’s where penal substitution theory does the most damage to a full understanding of the gospel. It minimizes King Jesus’ life and resurrection to little more than abstractions that exist in the story to support his death. His miracles and teachings are simply there to prove that he is the Son of God and thus someone worthy to pay our debt. His resurrection is simply there to show us how powerful he is.

But to the observer of King Jesus’ life, it was clear that he was doing something more than simply paying humanity’s debt. And that “more” isn’t just supplemental material. The point of King Jesus’ arrival on earth must not be missed or misplaced. It was to announce and usher in a new kingdom—a reversal, if you will, of the imperialism that had dominated Israel’s thinking for generations and was now dominating Israel herself through Roman rule.

Jesus was showing us that the kingdom of God was coming—rather, had already arrived—by way of his teachings and his miracles. At every turn, Jesus was upending the common power structure, both at a small scale in the way he treated children and at a larger scale in the way he treated law enforcement (the Pharisees).

His crucifixion, as crucial as it is to our faith, is not the bloody masterpiece that God had ordained would be the vehicle for our salvation (as proponents of penal substitution theory would have you believe). Rather, it was the necessary means to his ultimate inauguration as King. Trial by fire, perhaps. More fittingly, I believe, it was the stage for his final and most glorious act.

You see, to a Jewish mind, the resurrection is the culmination of Israel’s story. At the end of time, Jews—and indeed the whole world—would be raised to life again after death. No other belief system outside Judaism held to any idea that resembled resurrection. To be certain, some Greeks and Romans (and others, I would assume) held to some sort of afterlife, but resurrection was an ideology limited to Judaism, and then even a limited subset of Jews until the late-biblical to early-postbiblical periods. (Daniel, the latest of the biblical writers, was the first to exhibit a belief in resurrection. Earlier writings, such as the Psalms, denied such a doctrine.)

The resurrection of Jesus is a distinctly Jewish act. While it certainly had reverberations outside Judaism and into the Roman world, it had its greatest impact in Jewish theology. If the resurrection meant the end of all things, what then did it mean for only one man to be resurrected?

The answer lies within the existence of something called the Church. Resurrection is the beginning of our story—the Church’s story. Resurrection is the inauguration of the kingdom of God, a kingdom to which the Church bears witness. The King has taken his throne, and we, his ambassadors, have received our charge: reconcile this world to its King.

Resurrection serves as a message that God is no longer going to tolerate the savage, oppressive imperialism that our world thirsts for. Whereas penal substitutionary atonement theory places a violent act of retribution at the heart of the gospel, a resurrection-centered gospel, which St. Paul appears to adhere to, declares an end to violence and injustice and ushers in a kingdom where a loving, good, and just King sits on the throne.

As Scott J. Higgins, Director of Community Engagement at Baptist World Aid, puts it:

What if at the centre of the universe lay not an act of retribution but God’s declaration that he will break the cycle of violence and retribution by absorbing whatever evil we throw at him, forgiving and creating new life and a renewed world? Would it not change the way we frame faith, the way we speak of ourselves, the way we relate to God and engage with the world?

When ‘Penal Substitution’ rears its ugly head. . .

If you find yourself in a room full of theologians and/or pastors, you can probably gather a lot about their personalities and beliefs by asking one simple question: What Atonement Theory do you subscribe to?

Take this little gem for example:

For those of you who don’t know, John Piper is the controversial preacher, author, and founder of Desiring God Ministries. He’s known for making bold and scary claims about God and his wrath, and this tweet is no exception.

Piper subscribes to what is known as the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.

I should probably back up a bit because I bet half of you are wondering what an atonement theory even is.

For starters, let’s define atonement. Atonement is the sacrificial death of King Jesus on our behalf. When King Jesus died, he atoned for (made amends for) the sins of the world.

Now, atonement theory is essentially a stream of thought that attempts to answer a few questions simultaneously. First, why was the atonement necessary (beyond simply that mankind needed salvation from sin)? Second, what took place “behind the scenes,” as it were, when King Jesus died? Third, what is the nature of the transaction that took place at the time of King Jesus’ death? Fourth, how does his death reconcile humanity to God?

There is a wide range of atonement theories, and I don’t think any single one of them hits the mark completely, nor does any single theory miss the mark completely. I have very few misgivings about most theories, with the exception of one: Penal Substitution.

Piper subscribes to the Penal Substitution theory, and that subscription can be seen in statements like the above tweet.

Penal Substitution (or perhaps, more accurately, the popularized version of Penal Substitution accepted by the modern evangelical church, particularly the branches dominated by the “new calvinists”) presents the picture of a God who is angry with humanity, and in order satiate his anger, he must punish humanity. Instead of punishing humanity however, his Son steps in and takes on that punishment.

Is God so juvenile that he needs to be satiated? This theory gives off the image of God as an angry, drunken child abuser who’s so pissed off at his children that he has to beat them senseless.

And then the Piper quote.

God isn’t a child abuser. He’s a wife beater.

But this doesn’t line up with the God that I read about in the Bible. Humanity is not God’s enemy. Humanity is the very thing God is trying to rescue. He’s not angry with us; he’s angry with sin.

Sin is the universal invader, destroying the home that God built, tearing his children apart, and breaking apart his goodness.

God doesn’t have wrath against his wife. (If you didn’t catch the metaphor, his “wife” is the Church—the universal collection of believers.) He didn’t pour out any wrath on his Son Jesus either. Jesus came to pay the debt that we owe to our slaver. Sin owned us, and Jesus came to buy us back. But we owed sin our lives, and so Jesus came to pay with his life instead of ours.