Why Is the World Such a Screwed Up Place? Here’s How Ancient Christians Tried to Answer that Question

October 1, 2012 Leave a comment

MorpheusSomething’s wrong with the world.

We can feel it. We know that this is not how things are supposed to be, but we can’t explain what the problem is.

Morpheus in The Matrix put it this way:

You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave… Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.

Of course this is real life, not a movie. The matrix is not our problem. The ancient Christians said the problem goes much deeper than that.

Why should we care what ancient Christians said?

The views of the ancient church are recorded in the Bible. I have close friends who don’t accept the Bible. They believe they have good reasons for rejecting the Bible. Why, they ask, should we take the time to listen to what the Bible has to say?

I would give two answers.

For one thing, even if it was merely written by men, it is a classic of Western literature. Until a couple hundred years ago, it served as the foundation for the fundamental ideas of the leaders of our society. That alone should count for something.

Beyond that, there’s the fact that countless Christians, both modern and ancient, have had their lives completely transformed by it. It’s worth looking at.

The Problem

The Bible consists of 66 very diverse books written by multiple authors and complied into the book we have today. The statement of the problem is surprisingly consistent. Consider the following sampling of verses from nearly every strand of biblical material:

  • Genesis 8.21: “[T]he Lord said to Himself, ‘…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth…’”
  • 2 Chronicles 6.36: “…for there is no man who does not sin…”
  • Isaiah 53.6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…”
  • Rom 5.12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
  • 1 Cor 2.14: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
  • 1 John 1.10: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”

The ancient Christian believers taught that the main problem is that humans are dead in sin. The conventional name for this doctrine is Total Depravity.

Loraine Boettner, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, describes the doctrine of Total Depravity in his book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (X.2). Though he is from a stream of the Christian tradition that I would disagree with on many points, I agree with him on this point:

…since the Fall, man [sic] rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation.

How bad is it?

It is somewhat unfortunate that we have inherited this particular term in the Christian theological tradition because the word “total” would seem to imply that humanity could not be any more depraved, and that we are as wicked as we can possibly be.

Boettner says that the doctrine, “does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that any one is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil… His corruption is extensive but not necessarily intensive.”

Total Depravity means that every aspect of our character has been infected by sin, and on our own we can make no decision apart from its influence.

Anthony Hoekema suggests that the alternate term, “Pervasive Depravity” would be more appropriate. But that would spell complete and utter disaster for the five points of Calvinism, which would become PULIP instead of TULIP. For the sake of continuity, and so as not to tick off the AAAAA (American Association Against Acronym Abuse), it is perhaps best to retain the traditional term.


The doctrine of Total Depravity sums up several key themes. Humans, in their natural state, are dead in sin, unable to obey God, unable to please God, unable to free themselves, and unable to understand the things of God.

The doctrine of Total Depravity is another way of stating the need of every single person to be transformed. It is the doctrine that is necessarily entailed whenever someone says you should be “born-again.” The ancient Christians believed that this could only happen through the power of Jesus.

Before you write it off, ask yourself: Are you disagreeing because you have evidence that it’s not true, or are you disagreeing because you don’t want it to be true?

Image by ebenri

Categories: Theology Tags: , ,

Isaac and Ishmael: Paul’s Use of Allegory in Galatians 4

September 29, 2012 2 comments

I have been puzzled by Paul's allegorical use of the Isaac and Ishmael storyThere are a lot of passages in scripture that have puzzled me.

Perhaps the most puzzling is Paul’s allegorical use of the story of Isaac and Ishmael in Galatians 4.

Paul’s goal in the letter is to convince the Gentiles that gentile converts did not need to be circumcised. His opponents have been arguing strongly that they do.

Here is the argument that Paul uses in Galatians 4.21-31:

21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.

24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; For more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.” (Isaiah 54.1)

28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” (Gen 21.10-12) 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

Would that convince you? Paul pulls out a random story from the Penteteuch, reads a foreign and arbitrary meaning into it, and then expects that his critics will buy it? I don’t think so.

“You who want to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” Oh sure, all they need to do is re-read the passage about Isaac and Ishmael and they will suddenly understand that gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. No, I don’t think so.

If you have read this passage in the past and it has never bothered you, I want to suggest that perhaps you are not taking your Bible seriously enough.

Inadequate explanations

Has Paul distorted scripture and gotten away with it? Is he asserting some apostolic right to read into the scriptures any interpretation he feels the Holy Spirit has shown him? Some interpreters have given up and accepted that he did.

Other commentators speculate that perhaps Paul’s opponents were using the Sarah-Hagar story in their own rhetoric, and Paul is attempting to turn their own logic back at them. If so, he did a lousy job. Using an allegory to try to convince someone who disagrees is a stupid argument.

I have come to think there is a better explanation.

Context, context, context

We must start by recounting Paul’s argument so far, beginning back in 3.6. He has been arguing that those who have faith are Abraham’s true descendants according to the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12. They are therefore no longer slaves, but are now Abraham’s heirs.

Here are the relevant verses leading up to our passage:

3.7 – Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
3.9 – So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
3.14 – …in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
3.29 – And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
4.7 – Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

So what’s going on in this passage?

The first thing to notice is that the use of Isaac and Ishmael is not a “random story,” as I suggested above. Paul has been talking about being Abraham’s true descendants. This story is about Abraham’s first descendants. Isaac and Ishmael literally embodied the point Paul was making. Isaac was born in accordance with the promise of Genesis 12; Ishmael wasn’t. What happened to Isaac is paradigmatic for what it means to be Abraham’s descendant by faith through the promise.

The second thing to notice is that, in typical Pauline style, he states his conclusion at the beginning of the passage, and then jumps back to show the logic that leads to the conclusion. In this case, his summary statement (v.21) is, “Do you not listen to the law?” The only quotation from the law (the Penteteuch) will not come until the end of the passage (v.30): “Cast out the bondwoman and her son. For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”

The argument is that Abraham’s children are not all Abraham’s heirs – only the sons of the promise are heirs. Paul uses this verse to confirm the argument he has been making thus far. It is theologically relevant to his overall argument.  Believers are brothers with Isaac in some true sense that is not merely metaphorical (v.28). Just as Paul applies Abraham’s blessing to believers (3.9), so he also applies Isaac’s promise to believers.

But there is still the question of the gap between v.21 and v.28. Why didn’t he go straight to this verse? Why digress into a discussion of Sarah and Hagar? And why complicate it by saying they are allegorical?

Changing perspective

The answer, I believe, is best found by starting at the end of the passage and tracing Paul’s logic backwards.

The first clue is to notice that Paul has altered the Genesis quotation in v.30 by replacing the phrase “my son Isaac,” with “the son of the free woman.” Of course this does not change the sense of the passage, since both phrases refer to the same person, Isaac. But Paul uses the new vocabulary to draw out the implicit dichotomy between bondslave and free. The language of “bondslave” in reference to Hagar was already explicit in the Genesis text.

The dichotomy between slave and free is exactly the theme he has been discussing until this point in the letter. But Genesis 21.10 introduces a new element into Paul’s discussion – two mothers. So before he can give the quotation, he must first set up the significance of the mothers for Abraham’s heirs. After all, believers may be Isaac’s brothers, but they are not Sarah’s sons. This part of the verse would be meaningless in the Galatian’s context – unless Paul can find a valid scriptural interpretation of the mother that applies theologically to believers.

What does Isaiah have to say about it?

Paul finds just such an interpretation in Isaiah 54.1 (v.27), where Jerusalem is depicted as a barren woman who suddenly has numerous children. This provides Paul with theological grounds for associating “the free woman” with “Jerusalem” in reference to believers.

But everybody knows that gentile believers are not accepted by the Jews in Jerusalem. So before he can introduce the Isaiah passage, he must make one more move. Paul looks to Jewish theology that says that the earthly temple is a copy of the heavenly temple (cf. Ex 25.12, Is 6), and thus the earthly Jerusalem is a copy of the heavenly Jerusalem. He calls them the “Now-Jerusalem,” (Νυν Ἰερουσαλήμ) and the “Above-Jerusalem,” (Ἄνω Ἰερουσαλήμ). So he explicitly links the bondwoman with the earthly Jerusalem and the free woman with the heavenly Jerusalem (v.25-6).

At the same time, he ties all of this back to his argument in chapter 2, that Abraham and Moses represent two covenants (v.24). Notice that this is not a contrast between a new and an old covenant, since Abraham’s covenant of faith is older than the Mosaic covenant.


The important thing to recognize is that every logical move makes is theologically justified, either by (a) the argument he has already made in the earlier part of the letter, or (b) interpretations made by the prophets, specifically Isaiah. But while it is theologically justified, it is not textually justified by the Genesis text alone. Paul is aware that his argument is not exegetically sound apart from the theological argument. Thus he introduces this section of Galatians (v.24) by declaring that he has allegorized (ἀλληγορούμενα) the account.

So Galatians 4.21-31 is allegory but it is not fanciful allegory. It is an interpretation that is theologically warranted by an intertextual reading of scripture. Paul was merely drawing out implications which were inherent in the Old Testament itself. It is not the stupid argument I once thought it to be.

Paul’s Use of Allegory and the Mystery of the Panda

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Now that I’m back to blogging, I’m trying to post every Monday and Thursday night. But I’m still working out the schedule. I have a really fun post I’m working on about Paul’s allegorical use of Isaac and Ishmael in Gal 4. I think you’ll dig it. But it’s not done yet, and I’m not going to stay up to finish it. I haven’t promised to post today, but I’ll feel like a dog if I go to bed without posting something at least.

In the meantime, here is my favorite video of the week, from the old MTV show:

Categories: Humor

The Pious Hoax About Idolatry

September 24, 2012 9 comments

“Idolatry” literally means the worship of images.

It does not mean “putting things before God.”

People say, “If you are putting a relationship, or a job, or success, or music, or anything else in place of God, then you are an idolator.”

Sometimes they will go on to say, “So we are really all idolators.” It makes for good preaching if you are trying to produce a big altar call with lots of tears. But here’s the thing. It’s not biblical. It’s a pious hoax.

It might be sin, but it’s not idolatry

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for being challenged to search my heart to see if God is really first. But it’s not a matter of idolatry.

Idolatry means there’s an image. And you’re worshiping it.

It can be the image of a false god.

Or it can be a false image of the true god. And any image of the true god is a false image.

The exception

The only exception is Colossians 3.5, where greed is called idolatry. Wait, greed? And nothing else anywhere in the Bible? Why? Why that sin?

I suspect it comes from Matthew 22.17-21. Jesus is asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar, and in so doing he would be implicitly siding with the Romans. Jesus asks for a coin. Apparently he wasn’t carrying any money with him. I know that feeling.

“Show me the money used to pay taxes,” he says. They show him a Benjamin. Technically it was called a Denarius, and it was worth about a day’s wages for a field worker. So a Benjamin is probably a good equivalent by today’s standards.

“Whose image and whose inscription is on it?” he asks.

“Benjamin,” they say. Okay, my attempt to make it contemporary has completely broken down and failed at this point. Actually it’s “Caesar” they say. But it meant to them what a Benjamin means to us.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.”

But notice the question Jesus asked them. “Whose image?”

When you pursue money, you are metaphorically putting an image before God. Of course we all know it’s not literal worship. Except that it kind of is. And that’s the play that Paul is making in Col 3.

Greed is idolatry because you can’t serve both God and Benjamin.

Photo credit: Arian Zwegers

Categories: Biblical Theology

The Drama of Scripture – Book Review

September 21, 2012 2 comments

The Drama of Scripture - Book ReviewThe Drama of Scripture is the result of the partnership of biblical scholar Craig Bartholomew and missiologist Michael Goheen. Their intent was to draw together the grand narrative that is inherent in the Bible so that modern believers can live it out accordingly. Thus the subtitle of the book indicates its purpose: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. This echoes a theme which has become common among theologians in the 21st century, that the Bible is not merely a book of propositions to be believed, but a narrative to be acted out. It is more like a map than it is a textbook.

Structure and Organization

Bartholomew and Goheen describe the program for the book in the introduction, which in keeping with the drama metaphor, they call the Prologue. They describe the importance of story in our lives. For instance, it is impossible to understand the meaning of an event or its significance apart from telling a story. Similarly, you cannot get to know someone without finding out about their personal story. What we do and how we live our lives depends in a large measure on what story we perceive ourselves to be living within. “We can have no more than one fundamental story as the basis for what we think and how we act.” (20, emphasis original)

As Christians, then, it is crucially important that we understand the story of our faith, which is the story of the Bible. The biblical story is not merely one story among many, but it claims to be the fundamental story through which we perceive everything else. The authors quote N.T. Wright, who says that the Bible is “the true story of the whole world.” (21) They then pick up Wright’s metaphor to describe how the Bible is authoritative: it is like a Shakespearean play in five acts, where the last part of act five is missing. The actors who wish to enact the play must play their roles exactly, but they cannot simply leave the drama hanging at the end. Instead, the most appropriate thing for them to do would be to improvise the remainder of the play in light of all that has gone before. Wright says that it also contains “hints… of how the play is supposed to end,” (The New Testament and the People of God, 141-42) which Bartholomew and Goheen then expand into a sixth act. The breakdown of the acts are 1-creation; 2-fall; 3-Israel; 4-Jesus; 5-church; 6-final restoration. The book has no chapters per se. Instead each act is given its own section and explored in depth before moving on to the next act.

Act 1 covers the two creation accounts given in Genesis 1 and 2. In this act we are introduced to the main character, God, who creates as a masterful artist. The pinnacle of God’s creation is humankind and the world is God’s kingdom.

In act 2, humanity rebels against God, choosing autonomy from God rather than continuing in loving relationship with him. The consequence is a breakdown in humanity’s relationship with God and with one another.

Act 3 is the longest act, telling the story from Genesis 4 through to the end of the Old Testament. It breaks into two scenes. The first is “A People for the King,” covering God’s calling of the nation of Israel in the Penteteuch. The second scene, “A Land for His People,” describes Israel’s story through the rest of the Old Testament. Israel conquers the land (Joshua), fails in its mission (Judges), gets a king, (Samuel), continues to rebel, and is exiled from the land (Kings, Chronicles). Finally, at the end of the Old Testament, Israel returns to its land.

Between acts 3 and 4 there is an Interlude where the authors discuss the historical events which took place in Israel between the Old and New Testaments, as well as some of this period’s literature, books which are not included in the Protestant biblical canon but are included in the Apocrypha.

Act 4 tells the story of Jesus as found in the gospels. He preaches and enacts the Kingdom throughout his life. Ultimately he is crucified and resurrected.

Act 5, the story of the church, is divided into two scenes. The first scene covers the events recorded in the book of Acts. The second scene is the continuing mission of the church, the part which we must enact today.

Finally, in Act 6 we see the restoration of creation, centered on the book of Revelation.


There is much to appreciate in this book. I resonate with the authors on a personal level because I also have been heavily influenced by the work of N.T. Wright. His book, The New Testament and the People of God, was one of the first works I read in biblical scholarship, and it was the book that first got me to consider coming to seminary. It is among my top five favorite books of all time. Wright’s scholarship comes through Bartholomew and Goheen’s work at so many places that the book could almost serve as a basic introduction to Wright. Unfortunately the authors lack Wright’s own metaphor-laden prose and conflict-filled scholastic rants that make his writings so delightful to read.

Bartholomew and Goheen are right in their understanding of the place of story to define the perspectives of individuals and communities. There are many stories which compete for our allegiance. Over the past several years the Barna group has studied the ethical behaviors of people with different beliefs. They found no major difference between “born-again” Christians and the rest of society in terms of moral behavior (e.g. the divorce rate). However, when they compared people with what they call a “biblical worldview” with the rest of society, moral behaviors were dramatically different. This is the power that is involved in selecting which story has our primary allegiance.

The authors state that they believe the two keys to understanding the drama of Scripture are the twin concepts of covenant and kingdom. They have succeeded in their goal of tracing these two throughout scripture. A strength of the book is how the authors consistently show how covenant and kingdom are found in places we might not expect, like creation. They also show how each of these concepts is also tied to mission at every crucial juncture in scripture; it is not as if there was no mission until the Great Commission (Matt 28).

Bartholomew and Goheen contend that “when we read the Bible in… a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story.” (12) The Bible must be understood as a comprehensive whole. In their discussion of the church (176), they write,

Though the Spirit-filled community of Acts 2 is in one sense new to history, it also stands in historical continuity with the Old Testament nation that had its origins in Abraham. God formed Israel to be a light to the nations, but the Israelites failed to live up to their calling, so God sent them into exile. Nevertheless, he promised to gather his people again one day, pouring out his Spirit on them so they might at last fulfill their calling.

The weakness, however, is that the authors have limited these explicit discussions to places where the biblical text has already made these relationships explicit. Paragraphs like the one above would have been extremely helpful throughout their discussions of acts 1, 2, and 3. Instead, what we have is essentially a retelling of the biblical stories.  The book is really not much more than a survey. This is very disappointing given the high expectations that they created at the start of the book for finding unity in the scriptures.

Another weakness is the strained use of the drama metaphor. N.T. Wright’s original stated purpose for his drama metaphor was to provide a theological model that illustrates how the Bible can be authoritative without simply becoming a series of propositions and proof texts. In Wright’s original (limited) context, the metaphor is an effective way to demonstrate what kind of authority the scriptures exhibit. But there are three fundamental flaws with turning the metaphor into an entire framework for understanding scripture.

First, the Bible is not like a drama. It is not presented to us as a single story arc, but rather as a library of 66 books. To be sure, the books are interrelated, but they do not form a single narrative. Examining the Bible by using an arbitrary six-act grid may help to clarify some relationships between parts, but it is certainly not part of the structure of the Bible itself. This is not merely quibbling over a minor detail. Part of what makes it hard to find the continuity within the Bible is that all the main characters keep changing. I can think of no other drama that spans generations and even centuries as the Bible does.

Second, one problem with a purely narrative approach to the Bible is its failure to take account of the many other types of literature found in scripture. What is the place of the five OT poetic books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs)? What is the place of the non-Pauline epistles? What about ancillary stories, like Ruth and Esther? The Bible contains a lot more than just metanarrative.

Third, and most importantly, this particular structure distorts the content of scripture itself. Acts 1 and 2 draw from only three out of 1189 chapters in the Protestant canon. In contrast, the rest of the Old Testament, which comprises 75% of the Bible, is covered in just a single act. In fact, much of Evangelical theology has tended to brush over or completely ignore act 3 altogether. It would be much more faithful to the scriptures if we instead treated creation and “fall” as Prologue, and treated the two scenes of Act 3 as the first two acts. This would put the emphasis in our theology in the same places that scripture does: Moses; kingdom and exile; Christ.

Faith vs. Reason: Are You Fighting On the Wrong Side?

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

War. What is it good for?There is a war going in the Christian Church at the moment.

In one camp are the warriors of Faith. They take the Bible seriously. They hold tent revivals and give altar calls. They’re about making sure that the Christian faith stays Christian.

They’re so concerned with resisting compromise that they shut their minds off to anything that might challenge them. They talk about a “leap of faith,” even to the point of saying that evidence detracts from one’s faith.

In the other camp are the warriors of Reason. They are the courageous soldiers who follow truth wherever it may lead. They are not afraid of rejecting a doctrine that does not conform to the standards of logic. When the evidence conflicts with their own desires, they ruthlessly follow the evidence.

Their commitment to rationality sometimes causes them to cut out large chunks of the faith. In reworking Christianity to defend it against its cultured despisers, they create something which some say has stopped being Christian altogether.

A simple Christian pilgrim can easily get caught in the crossfire.

War is hell

For the most part these two groups never talk to each other. Except to launch theological grenades at one another before running back to the safety of their own familiar camp.

Occasionally someone will defect. A person from the Faith camp will get fed up that the difficult questions are all swept under the rug and go join the camp of Reason. Then someone from the Reason camp will get frustrated with the moral decline around them and move over to the Faith camp.

When this happens, the convert is held up by the new camp to show everyone why their side is really the right side and the other side has got it all wrong.

Can you make it out alive?

I was personally wounded in this battle. It nearly killed my faith. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me work through my own doubts.

I took a few years and become a theological draft-dodger. Slowly I have been making my way back. Now I believe there is a better way.

How to survive

The problem is that the warriors of Reason have actually embraced two different ideas and rolled them into one. On one hand, they are firmly committed to embracing logic and weighing all the evidence. On the other hand, often what passes for “evidence” in the Reason camp is just one’s own thinly-veiled cultural biases.

So miracles are rejected, not on the grounds that they are logically impossible, but on the grounds that they are incredible to modern sensibilities. Sexual ethics are rejected not on the grounds that they are logically contradictory, but on the grounds that we don’t like them.

We need to separate the principles of the Reason camp into its two components: reason and culture. From the Faith camp, the important principle is their high view of scripture. Therefore, if we’re going to sort out this mess, we need to figure out how reason, culture, and scripture relate.

I contend that the best way to relate these three principles is like this:

Scripture trumps culture.
Reason trumps scripture.

This way of cutting things up allows for a more robust doctrine without compromising the character of our Christian faith.

What does it all mean?

1. If the Bible really is the Word of God, we would expect the scriptures to conflict with our culture at various points. Most of the critiques of scripture from the reason camp have turned out on closer examination to be an arbitrary elevation of culture over scripture. In contrast, when we say “scripture trumps culture,” we allow ourselves to be critiqued by the scriptures.

2. “Reason trumps scripture,” means that we do not shut our eyes to the evidence. We resist attempts by either the defenders of scripture (or the defenders of culture) to “cook up the evidence.”

3. The principle that “reason trumps scripture” applies equally to other religions. I would hope that a Mormon, a Muslim, or anyone else would subject their holy book to the bar of reason. I can only expect that we would do the same.

4. “Reason trumps scripture,” means that there are conditions upon which I would reject scripture. If I found that the Bible commanded me to commit genocide or to slay my neighbor, I will not blindly follow it.

5. Some will object that saying, “reason trumps scripture,” means that we are elevating ourselves above God. They would argue that scripture alone should trump everything else. But if I ask why, they will inevitably give me reasons, which implicitly acknowledges that scripture ought to accepted on the basis of reason. In practice, we use reason to evaluate everything we come into contact with. All I am advocating is that we remain consistent in our use or reason to also evaluate our faith.

6. Some will object that reason is itself culturally-bound. Even my examples above are culturally influenced. I can only agree. However it is still the most objective standard we have. Some things will be obviously more culture-specific than other things, and we can use reason to decide between them. What I mean by submitting to reason is that we follow the rules of logic and we do our best to admit all the relevant evidence.

7. Some will object that I have left no place for the Holy Spirit. I would say that the guidance of the Holy Spirit would fall under my commitment to scripture. After all, I believe in the Holy Spirit because I believe in Scripture. And because our encounters with the Holy Spirit are always mediated by experience, these experiences are subject to all sorts of interpretations. Our personal experiences of God must especially be subject to reason.

8. In saying, “reason trumps scripture,” we are actually strengthening the conditions upon which we can accept scripture. If we find that reason is not in conflict with scripture, we have stronger grounds to accept it. Rather than fearing what reason might do to our belief in scripture, we can embrace it.

9. Contrary to popular belief, reason does not detract from faith. The faith that the Bible advocates is not believing that God exists (James 2.19), but rather trusting that God will do what he has promised. Trust is built on the basis of evidence, not in spite of it.

10. In saying, “reason trumps scripture,” we acknowledge that some things in the Bible sit in tension with our best reasoning. I don’t understand Joshua’s conquest of Canaan or Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac. I would say they count as evidence against the Bible. I think the evidence in favor of the Bible is a lot stronger, but I refuse to let my belief blind me to the fact that these are difficult stories – stories that make me mad when I read them.

So there you have it. Could there be an end to the war between the camps of Faith and Reason? I doubt it, at least in my lifetime. But maybe we can save some of our friends who are being caught in the cross-fire.

What do you think? Are you comfortable with my formulation that “scripture trumps culture and reason trumps scripture”?

photo by jeffeaton

Categories: Theology Tags: , , ,

Why “Evangelical” is a Stupid Name

September 13, 2012 8 comments

I am an EvangelicalI am an Evangelical. With a capital E. We Evangelicals are the group that the media refers to as “the Evangelical voting bloc.”

If you’re part of my group, you know what “Evangelical” means. It means that you are like me. I am like you. We are like each other. We “get” each other.

Together, we Evangelicals understand the most important things that matter about being a Christian:

  • We attempt to submit to Jesus as Lord in everything.
  • We believe that being a Christian requires a personal decision.
  • We allow the Bible to critique us rather than us critiquing the Bible.
  • We participate in God’s mission to revive our world that has been deadened by sin.
  • We look to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the only source of power for true change.

The problem is that when I say, “I am an Evangelical,” the only people who know what that means are other Evangelicals. Recent surveys have demonstrated that most people have no clue what an Evangelical is. When pressed to guess, people say things like:

“I literally have no idea.”
“They are any Christians who proselytize.”
“They are Christians who are really committed.”
“They cram their beliefs down other people’s throats.”
“They are closed-minded and think they have all the answers.”

The time has come to abandon the name altogether.

What is the alternative? I am considering self-identifying as a Fundamentalist. *Gasp*

“Oh no!” all the Evangelicals cry in horror, “You mustn’t!”

Why not?

The reason is because there are still churches that identify as Fundamentalist, and we Evangelicals relate to them sort of like a weird creepy aunt – you know you can’t disown her because she’s family, but you don’t really want to hang around her at the family reunion.

Fundamentalists teach that rock music is from the devil. They read from the King James only. The women wear only skirts or dresses. They have all completely withdrawn from society into their own little ghetto. Evangelicals HATE to be associated with these people.

“We are not like them!” we scream.

Oh shut up and get over it.

To the wider culture, a Fundamentalist is someone who lets their beliefs be dictated by their particular holy book. Guess what. We Evangelicals do let our beliefs be dictated by our particular holy book. It’s time we recognized that everything that the rest of society believes about Fundamentalists is also true of us. And all the little nuances we have of why we are not Fundamentalists are insignificant to the rest of society.

On the other hand, compare this to society’s view of an Evangelical. Either people have no idea what you believe, or they think “evangelism” in their minds – which they think must come from the Greek word that means, “being an intolerant jerk.”

Every time I have identified myself as an Evangelical to someone who is “outside” of my Evangelical circle, I have regretted it. I assumed that people knew what I meant and that their attitude towards my faith would be neutral-to-positive.

Instead I found that my description only obscured what I actually believed, and their attitude was actually neutral-to-negative.

Now imagine instead if I just came right out and said, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” It’s sort of like saying, “I’m an intolerant jerk,” since that’s pretty much how we all think about Fundamentalists (myself included). But I will have actually given my hearer a pretty accurate indication of what I actually believe – not the part about intolerance, but the part about my submission to the Bible. Plus I won’t be oblivious to the neutral-to-negative attitude I am likely to receive.

In fact, I strongly suspect that I might just end up with the neutral-to-positive attitude I had originally hoped for. Here’s the reason:

If I asked someone what kind of Christian they were, and they answered with a friendly smile, “I’m an intolerant jerk,” I would be stunned by their candor and impressed by their conviction despite the negative implications. And part of me loves the counter-cultural aspect of cutting against the norm. So even if that is what “Fundamentalist” means to the culture around us, I think it can still work in our favor.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s a dumb idea. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. What do you think?