According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Friday, May 13, 2011

When Did Evangelicalism Start to Go Wrong (or, Right)?

May 11, 2011

By “go wrong” I mean - "go[ing] too conservative for its own good". I think I have an answer to that and I’ve been telling people this for 25 years. I’ll say it again.

The turning point was the publication and subsequent furor over the book The Battle for the Bible, written by Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell, in 1976. Of course, the book didn’t just pop out of Lindsell’s head like Athena from Zeus. It had a pre-history. Lindsell and a few other evangelicals had been sounding alarms for some years–about alleged evangelical defections from evangelical orthodoxy.

Lindsell had taught at Fuller Theological Seminary and, by some accounts, at least, was angry that Fuller did not offer him its presidency. Whether that’s true or not, and whether if it is true it played any role in Lindsell’s bitter book, we may never know for sure.

Probably, however, Lindsell’s jeremiad was caused by what he perceived to be Fuller’s defection from full faith in biblical inerrancy in the 1960s.

In any case, Lindsell was not content to present a defense of inerrancy; he named names and declared that no one can be authentically evangelical without affirming inerrancy. Few outside separatistic fundamentalist circles had said that before Lindsell. After all, one can point back to James Orr, the eminent Scottish evangelical theologian, who wrote for The Fundamentals and was a close friend of [theologian] B. B. Warfield’s. Orr did not believe in biblical inerrancy.

Again, let me repeat. The turning point in The Battle for the Bible was NOT belief in inerrancy. It was Lindsell’s claim that one cannot be evangelical and deny inerrancy. And it was the vitriolic attacks he launched on evangelical colleges, seminaries and individuals.

There were many ironies in Lindsell’s crusade–both in the book and in other writings. For example, he specifically chose Robert Mounce as one of his targets for Mounce’s very well-reasoned and balanced approach to explaining inerrancy in columns in Eternity magazine in the early 1970s. Mounce’s approach was basically that the Bible is perfect with respect to purpose; he argued that we must not impose a modern, scientific standard of what constitutes “error” on the Bible. He wrote that the biblical writers were not trying to give a “flawless performance in statistics” and thus should not be accused of error if they were not always technically correct in matters of history and cosmology.

Lindsell lambasted Mounce for this. The irony is, of course, that later, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, which Lindsell signed, contained much the same view of inerrancy as Mounce’s! When I saw that I was dismayed. It made me wonder about Lindsell’s integrity because, to the best of my knowledge, he never apologized to Mounce or admitted his inconsistency.

I was in seminary when The Battle for the Bible landed like a bombshell on the playgrounds of the evangelicals. It was a thoroughly mainstream evangelical seminary, but it had never had an affirmation of inerrancy. Some professors professed belief in inerrancy and some did not. It was not a litmus test there or in most evangelical institutions before The Battle for the Bible.

What was especially dismaying to me was some of our faculty members’ responses when the denomination imposed an inerrancy statement and required all faculty to sign it. I saw some faculty members who I KNEW did not believe in inerrancy cave in and sign it to keep their jobs. One did not and left. I respected him for that.

The Battle for the Bible launched an evangelical heresy-hunt that reached epic proportions within just a few years. I followed it closely as I hoped to teach theology among evangelicals after my Ph.D. work. One by one, evangelical and Baptist denominations and institutions imposed inerrancy statements on their employees and faculties. Fuller is one evangelical seminary that did not give in to the pressure, although Fuller faculty members had to publish numerous defenses of their belief in the authority of Scripture to fight off the barbarians at the gates. (I call them that because many of inerrancy’s advocates behaved like barbarians. They were not interested in dialogue or understanding others’ actual views; they used the word “inerrancy” like a cudgel to beat up on people.)

I remember one discussion I had with an officer of a leading evangelical professional society that required affirmation of biblical inerrancy for membership. I told him I did not think the word “inerrancy” fit the phenomena of Scripture, but that I do believe in Scripture’s full authority. After sustained discussion we realized that, given his qualifications to inerrancy, he and I agreed on our view of the Bible! Then I asked if I could join his professional society. He said no; one must not only believe in the Bible’s inerrancy (as he defined it) but must also affirm the word.

Talk about creating a shibboleth!

I gradually concluded that that is pretty much what this whole controversy was about–a word. And the word was being used to give certain people great power. You can frighten uneducated people by saying “So-and-so doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible” when, in fact, if you explained YOUR OWN qualifications to “inerrancy” the same frightened people would reject you!

When I read the qualifications of inerrancy being made by signers of the Chicago Declaration (both in it and in their own writings) I was appalled and shocked. For example, one leading advocate of inerrancy wrote in his systematic theology that “inerrancy” is compatible with “inerrant use of errant sources” by biblical authors. In other words, the Bible is inerrant even if it contains blatant errors so long as the biblical writer who erred didn’t err in his use of sources. How ludicrous! Why not just give up on the word inerrancy once you’ve come to that point?

Now, here’s my point and my revelation. Most people think of Carl F. H. Henry as “the dean of evangelical theologians” and he was. Time magazine baptized him as such. He was the founding editor of CT and taught in several evangelical institutions. What did he think about this whole controversy over inerrancy?

Henry was a strong advocate of inerrancy–with qualifications, of course. But he DID NOT AGREE WITH LINDSELL that one cannot be an evangelical and deny inerrancy. Henry believed one cannot be CONSISTENTLY evangelical and deny inerrancy. And he said these things publicly in response to Lindsell’s book and the controversy surrounding it. (And I had personal correspondence with him confirming this.)

Henry’s final “Footnotes” column in Christianity Today was on September 9, 1977–about one year after the publication of Battle for the Bible. He made clear that he was being fired as a guest writer for the magazine he co-founded. Here’s what he wrote:

“Across the years I have had reason to remember an experience in my pre-Christian teenage days. I once lost a job as a painter’s helper when I tried to straighten a three-story ladder. Perched uneasily aloft, my boss was retouching some windows when the ladder moved disconcertingly to the right. My instinctive effort to rectify the misalignment separated me from my job more quickly than it takes to say good-bye. I thought I had learned that lesson well: don’t straighten tilting ladders, particularly not if they tilt too far right.”

There can be no doubt to what he was referring–evangelicalism leaning too far right. It has continued to do so ever since. The Battle for the Bible was the crucial turning point–when evangelicalism began to return to its fundamentalist roots.

In a forthcoming book about evangelicalism a leading seminary dean declared me not truly evangelical, in part, at least, because I do not affirm inerrancy. (Although I insist that my view of the Bible is the same as what at least SOME conservative evangelicals believe about the Bible and misleadingly call “inerrancy.”) And that seminary dean is out of touch with Carl Henry, one of his heroes.

Ironically, on the same page of CT where the Henry quote appears, there is a large advertisement for a “Super Conference” at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, featuring lead speaker Jerry Falwell–who had until then been known as a separatistic fundamentalist and not an evangelical in the postfundamentalist sense. The times they were a changin’!

Love Is Not Weak

May 11, 2011

"Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

The problem with love is that it can’t be systematized.

It can’t be explained, controlled, regulated, or legislated.

It’s something you know, but can’t exactly teach; something you experience but can’t contain.

Love both inhabits and transcends our religious categories. It’s wild and unpredictable and prone to showing up in places we’d rather it not be.

Love defies expectations.

I think perhaps that’s why I keep bumping into theologians and religious leaders who turn their noses up at the suggestion that love is the most fundamental element of Christianity. “Well what do you mean by love?” they demand. “Because it’s not very loving to let people walk around with bad theology, now is it?”

I encounter such people at conferences and in radio interviews, in local churches and online, and I understand their concerns. They are worried that a new generation of Christians is slipping into a sort of feel-good faith devoid of conviction, reason, and doctrine.

In some cases their fears are justified, but in most I think they’ve just confused the idea of love with the idea of niceness. They seem to think that because love is so elusive and hard to define, it must be weak— the ideological crutch for those who don’t want to offend.

But when I consider the love that Jesus showed and that I am commanded to imitate, the last words to come to my mind are “nice” or “weak.”

To love as Jesus loved requires more strength and conviction than a human being without the Spirit can muster. It requires giving without expecting anything in return, forgiving enemies, witholding judgment, assuming the position of a servant, looking after the forgotten, and caring for neighbors. It requires living counter-culturally by resisting the temptations of indulgent wealth and self-serving power. The kind of love that Jesus taught and exemplified crystallizes on the cross, where looking down on those who had put him there Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

That. [Kind. Of. Love.] Is. Not. Weak.

Love is good theology because God is love. According to both John and Paul, a life devoid of love is a life devoid of good theology. Without love, we are clanging cymbals, useless noise. Without love, all our carefully-crafted apologetic arguments mean nothing.

That said, I hope that those of us who keep talking about love avoid sabotaging our efforts by failing to embody it, both among the “least of these” and among our brothers and sisters who raise thoughtful concerns about how all this talk of love will affect our doctrine.

...I think sometimes we just forget that we’re actually talking about the same thing.

Being Human 2

May 12, 2011

On Tuesday I began a series on Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Over the course of the next few months, once or twice a week, I will work through the questions raised by Green on the nature of humanity in the context of scripture, theology, and modern neuroscience.

The view that humans are composed of a physical material body and a separate immaterial soul is the default position for most Christians. This dualist view is increasingly difficult to reconcile with improved understanding of biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience. I’ve posted on some of this before. The posts can be found through the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar – scroll down to the heading Science, Faith, and Being Human. Dr. Green gives definitions for some of the important concepts and terms at play in the discussion of the nature of humanity. The two extreme positions are:
Reductive Materialism has it that the human person is a physical (or material) organism, whose emotional, moral, and religious experiences will ultimately and decisively be explained by the natural sciences. People are nothing but the product of organic chemistry. (p. 30)
and
Radical Dualism advocates the view that the soul (or mind) is separable from the body, having no necessary relation to the body, with the human person identified with the soul. … in this view the soul acts apart from bodily processes and the body is nothing more than a temporary and disposable holding tank (or shell) for the soul. (p. 31)
I’ll give some intermediate options after the jump.

Where would you put your position on the continuum between these two poles? Closer to reductive materialism or radical dualism?

There are a number of positions between the extremes of reductive materialism and radical dualism.
Wholistic dualism … a form of substance dualism, but posits that the human person, though composed of discrete elements, is nonetheless to be identified with the whole which, then, constitutes a functional unity. (p. 31)
Various forms of monism are also defended from a Christian perspective.
…the monists with whom I am concerned argue that the phenomenological experiences that we label “soul” are neither reducible to brain activity nor evidence of a substantial, ontological entity such as a “soul,” but rather represent essential aspects or capacities of the self. (p. 31)
These four terms form a basis for the discussion that will come in future posts. There is another important aspect of human existence that we should consider before moving on though.

Individual vs Community. The witness of the bible in both the Old and New Testaments is to an embodied existence of humans, humans always considered as in relationship to God, and humans who are always considered in the context of human community. The cultural blinders like those that impact interpretation of body and soul in scripture also impact interpretation of the communal nature of personhood.
Given the strength of Cartesian categories and the experience of many since the Enlightenment, it is perhaps not surprising to see the degree to which humanity has come to be understood “one person at a time,” so to speak. This is not biblical faith however. Although biblical faith would naturally resist any suggestion that our humanity can be reduced to our physicality, it also challenges those, past and present, who insist that the human person can ever be understood on individual terms.
Thus a consideration of the nature of humanity in the bible in the context of modern neuroscience must deal with both the embodied nature of humans and the relational nature of humans. This impacts the understanding of eschatology, salvation, and mission. As a people we are much more than a collection of individuals.

Dr. Green considers poses several questions that highlight the relational nature of humanity and this impact this may have on our understanding of the biblical view of humanity. These questions can help shape the discussion today.

How should we understand salvation? Does salvation entail a focus on the inner state of individual human souls?

To what extent should the mission of the church focus on the soulish needs of persons, on society-at-large, or on the cosmos?

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