Archive for the ‘Apologetics’ Category

Suspecting the Past

November 29, 2017

Five years ago I returned from a ten-day tour of some of the major holy sites in Israel.  I was blessed to accompany members of my congregation and other folks in a small group (less than 20 of us!) as we visited Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and of course, Jerusalem.

I think I’m still in a state of overload from that trip, which seems as much dream as reality.  But I know that while I was there, there were times when my cynical and skeptical nature was in full gear.  After all, in a city like Jerusalem, that has traded hands multiple times and been knocked down and rebuilt in major sections, how confident could I be, should I be, that the places presented to us as associated with the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth actually were those places?

I find it frustrating and ironic in myself that as someone who teaches and preaches the imminent reality of the Biblical witness and the Christian faith, and who insists on grounding what we do and say in the literal and physical birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Son of Man, who regularly insists on the uniqueness of the Biblical witness and Christian faith in this regard compared to literally any other religion  – that we are grounded in historical and geographical reality – should waver in trusting 1700+ years of tradition associated with the sites of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In part, it’s because I suspect I suffer from an affliction common in our day and perhaps always – the affliction that presumes that right now, this generation (and those that come after) is the apex of human reliability and accuracy.  Everyone and everything before us is suspect to varying degrees, whether it’s my parents or the ancient Church.  Part of this is bound up in the post-modern suspicion of anything beyond personal experience and knowledge (which, frankly, is pretty much everything).  I hold belief in suspension at times because I can’t personally prove it to myself (as though I really had the inclination and motivation and time to personally validate everything).

So just because the site of the Holy Sepulchre has been venerated for 1700+ years, how can I trust all those people?  All those generations without iPhones or televisions or Wikipedia or National Geographic?  Should I trust that nearly two millenia of people got something right and kept it right when I’m not terribly concerned with remembering what I had for lunch yesterday?

In the end, I made a peace with it.  The events of Jesus’ life happened somewhere.  Any objective historian would say we have more than enough evidence of his life to  validate this claim.  If this isn’t the particular upper room then, what matters of it because there was an upper room?  And if this isn’t actually the site of Jesus’ tomb, it was a real tomb somewhere.

But perhaps I need to take the claims of history more seriously, particularly in regard to a singularly important individual like Jesus.  The guy who came back from the dead made a really big impression on a lot of people.  Should I think that they never brought people to the actual tomb to show them?  To describe what they saw there that morning, or didn’t see?  Should I expect that people who were willing to suffer dismemberment and death rather than reject the assertion that Jesus is divine and alive from the dead would be so careless as to forget where his tomb was and make some effort to mark it for future generations?

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that archaeologists and historians are declaring what people have been saying for 1700 years – there is good evidence that what sits at the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed a tomb structure that dates back at the very least to the early fourth century (when the church is rumored to have first been built, under the direction of Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena).  It doesn’t surprise me that being skeptical is no indication of actual truth, and I’m happy to have my skepticism not only proved wrong by mankind over and over again, but forgiven by the Savior who rose from that tomb to save me from my cynical skepticism.



The Argument for Scriptural Authority

November 1, 2017

Last Friday I sat with a group of women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.  I do this every Friday, offering the group of 10-20 women a chance to ask questions and inquire about whatever aspects of the Bible, the Christian faith, Christian history, theology, or a variety of other topics they would like to.  I don’t always have the answers, but at least they have the opportunity to talk about what is on their minds during this journey towards physical and spiritual health.

One young woman has been here for about four months.  She’s pretty quiet and I’m pretty sure she’s not on board with the whole Christianity thing.  That’s fine – I certainly understand people enter the program with a variety of backgrounds.  I think the conversation Friday was centering around the importance of Scripture as a fundamental bedrock of our faith, as the norm against which we compare whatever ideas or experiences or feelings or spiritual encounters we may have.  She asked whether I thought the Greek & Roman gods & goddesses might have been demons in disguise.  I said yes, that’s certainly a possibility.  Or that the creators of those myths were inspired by demons at some level, prompting them to envision deities that were really just amplified versions of humankind.

What I heard behind her question (rightly or wrongly), however, was why should I trust the Bible rather than some other collection of writings or sacred texts?  It’s a good and important question.  Some agnostics – those who aren’t certain we can know whether a god exists and which god it might be – look at the plethora of sacred writings around the world and conclude that you can’t reach a conclusion.

Then again Sunday night I heard similar, veiled expressions.  Why trust Scripture so absolutely? How can we know for certain it is the Word of God?  It’s a question that we need to have an answer for as Christians.  Oftentimes we may feel at a loss.  The question is so fundamental, and we’re so used to assuming that this is what everyone agrees with, that we aren’t able to articulate an intelligent response.

I believe that we can offer an intelligible reason why someone would take the Bible seriously and not, say, Roman and Greek mythology writings.  Or the Q’uran.  Or the Book of Mormon.  Or the Hindu Vedas or any other sacred text or spiritual writing.

The reason begins with the Gospels – the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible.  These are each in their own way eyewitness testimony about a single person – Jesus of Nazareth.  Matthew and John are written directly as eye-witnesses.  Matthew and John were both part of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve followers.  They each write their testimony about Jesus down separately and probably at very different times.  Mark is not one of the twelve disciples himself, but likely was an early follower of Jesus and is not writing his testimony about Jesus but rather Peter’s, and Peter was one of the twelve.  Finally, Luke is not himself one of the twelve but was likely an early follower and by his own admission his Gospel represents his research and collection of information regarding Jesus.  It is an amalgam of eyewitness testimony that likely includes Jesus’ mother, Mary and other people as well.

Four separate but related testimonies regarding the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  I reject the modern assumptions that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all basically copies of one another with minor tweakings.  I am also skeptical about attempts to perfectly harmonize all of the Gospel accounts so that similar events between them must refer to the same single event.  I treat them as four individual eyewitness accounts all centered on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Add to that the testimony of St. Paul, the author of much of the rest of the New Testament, who had a divine encounter with the resurrected and ascended Jesus of Nazareth which completely changed his life and purpose, and you have quite a collection of witnesses!

What they universally present is the picture of a man who could do and say amazing things, and who credits these abilities to his identity not just as the son of Joseph but also as the Son of God.  He presents himself as divine, speaking and acting with divine authority and purpose.  As proof of this, He prophesies his betrayal, arrest, conviction, execution, burial and, most amazing of all, his resurrection from the dead three days later.

All four of the Gospels indicate that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy completely and perfectly.  He was betrayed.  He was convicted of blasphemy by the Jewish authorities and insurrection by the Roman authorities and sentenced to death.  He died by crucifixion and was buried on Friday evening.  Sunday morning (technically three days later) the tomb was found to be empty.  That same day Jesus began appearing to his followers, physically alive, bearing some of the marks of his ordeal (nail marks and the wound in his side) but not others (the massive beating he underwent as per Roman custom prior to his crucifixion).  He continued to present himself alive to his followers – sometimes numbering in the hundreds (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) over the next few weeks before physically ascending from their midst into the heavens with the promise that He would return.

You have to come to grips first and foremost with what the Bible says about Jesus as pertaining to his person and work.  Based on the accounts provided, there are three reasonable options:

  • He was crazy – delusions of grandeur, but not who He thought He was
  • He was evil – deliberately lying and fooling others knowing it would get him and many others killed
  • He was the Son of God – his work and particularly his resurrection demonstrate He was telling the truth about himself and what He was here to accomplish

If you want to opt for either of the first two explanations, you need to explain the fact that the Gospels present him as able to do amazing things.  Healing the sick.  Driving out evil spirits.  Raising the dead.  Miraculously feeding thousands of people spontaneously.  Controlling the weather.  These are difficult (I would say impossible) feats to fake.

Which means that if you want to select one of the first two explanations you need to have a reason why the eyewitness testimony claims these things about him when they were apparently not true.  You need to either discredit the authors (Matthew, John, Peter/Mark, Luke & his sources) and show why they are deliberately lying or were fooled, or you need to discredit the documents themselves and show how they are internally inconsistent, or have not been transmitted in a way so that we can trust that they say today what they originally said 2000 years ago.

Many have tried to do one or both of these things in order to opt for explanations 1 or 2 about Jesus.  None have credibly succeeded.  We have no reason to distrust the authors of the Gospels, and each of them is reputed to have suffered much – up to and including execution – for professing their faith in Jesus as raised from the dead.  The documentary transmission evidence for Scripture is astounding and provides virtually 100% validation and verification that we can know what the original manuscripts said.  And no credible explanations for how a man could pretend to perform miracles have been offered, and no credible explanation for how he could fake his death and resurrection has been forwarded.  The closest thing to an alternative theory on the resurrection is that the disciples or someone else stole his body from the tomb.  Given the fact that the tomb was sealed, guarded, and the stone blocking the entrance was substantial, this seems unlikely.  Also given the importance to both the Jews and the Romans that Jesus remain dead, it seems unlikely that the missing body of such a high profile person would remain unsolved for very long – unless the body hadn’t actually been stolen.

This leaves us with option 3 – that Jesus of Nazareth was also the divine Son of God. This is a hard option because it pushes aside the naturalistic philosophical assertions of the past 300 years or so – that creation is a closed system with knowable and predictable causes and effects, and therefore that nothing miraculous can happen, meaning the dead cannot live again.  This philosophical assumption has ruled ruthlessly in Western Civilization for centuries without any proof other than itself as a prior evidence.  Miracles cannot happen because miracles are impossible.  Any report of a miracle is therefore by definition faulty and incorrect.  The philosopher David Hume is particularly credited with popularizing this argument.

But it requires multiple assumptions which cannot be proven. We can prove that our experience shows overwhelmingly that most people don’t rise from the dead.  But we cannot extrapolate from that to say that nobody has ever risen from the dead, particularly because we have eyewitness accounts that say some people – most notably Jesus – have.  Incidentally this is why his resurrection is such a big deal!  It’s not like it happens all the time!  The only way to dismiss those claims outright is to rule them faulty philosophically.  To presume that we do know that they cannot be true.  To assert this we would have to claim to have total and complete knowledge of all deaths ever, in order to authoritatively rule out the claims involving Jesus.  But we don’t have this.  Not even close.

If Jesus did rise from the dead and this is evidence of his divinity and He could perform miracles and prophesy the future, it seems reasonable to take his Word on Scriptural authority.  Jesus frequently quotes from and alludes to the Old Testament – the Hebrew canon of Scripture.  He never contradicts it (though He does sometimes clarify interpretations and applications of it).  He never treats it as anything less than fully reliable, as actual Truth.  Why would He, the Son of God, so fully approve of these writings?  Because He knows they are inspired by God, and are therefore accurate and reliable.

So we have Jesus validating the Old Testament canon as trustworthy and fully acceptable.  The case for validating the New Testament is a little trickier, in my opinion.  Some point to Jesus’ promises to his disciples as recorded by John (14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15).  Based on his promises of the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the Apostles, their writings are to be trusted as inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore on the same standing as the Old Testament canon.  Thus it is that the New Testament is composed chiefly of writings that were believed to come from the Apostles and St. Paul, the so-called thirteenth apostle.

That these books were treated as authoritative is evident in that they are all quoted or referred to by Church leaders very early on.  They have been almost universally recognized as canonical, and the occasional challenges to this have been rejected.  Other writings were certainly known and sometimes even referred to, but always treated as something other than these New Testament documents, chiefly on the basis of apostolic authorship (despite the doubts of some today as to whether or not all of the New Testament writings are by the people they are traditionally credited to).

So the trustworthiness of the Bible is unique among sacred texts in that it is linked to a very specific historical and geographical set of events in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.  Eyewitness accounts of this man emerged within mere decades of his death and resurrection, likely much sooner than that in oral form.  The accounts were cross-checked by a large number of people who witnessed and experienced these events firsthand and certainly could have been utilized by enemies of Jesus to disprove the claims in the Gospels if they were untrue.

In other words, Scripture provides a rational reason to trust it as authoritative, something that no other sacred text can do.  This means for the true agnostic, the best place to start in trying to understand what god might exist is to start with Christianity because it has the best evidence behind it.  If it isn’t convincing, continue wherever else you like, you aren’t going to find more compelling, objective evidence.  The writings of Buddha weren’t written down until hundreds of years after his death.  The Q’uran and Book of Mormon insist on absolute faith and trust in the singular experiences of Mohammed and Joseph Smith without any reliable external validation either of other witnesses or of other historical or archaeological data.  The Vedic hymns are still a source of mystery as to their purpose and origins.

So I believe that the Bible can and should be the ultimate authority in my life.  The objective historical and archaeological data is augmented by my subjective experience of myself and the world and by how Scripture describes what those experiences show me.  And because of the objective authority of Scripture, I trust it to govern and interpret my subjective ideas, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  I trust that if there is ever uncertainty between what I feel like doing and what Scripture tells me to do, I should follow Scripture rather than my feelings.

I think this is a logically cohesive approach.  It is not bullet-proof.  It is open to doubt and a certain level of uncertainty.  But I believe it provides far more certainty than any other sacred text or religious or philosophical treatise.  It far better describes the reality I encounter internally and externally every day.  It far better paints a portrait of the divine as a radically Other, rather than an extension of myself.

And it provides a unique and unparalleled hope.

Whereas every other religion and philosophy ultimately places responsibility for my past present and future on my shoulders, Christianity and the Bible are the only things which tell me these things are beyond my control in any substantive measure.  Buddhism and Hinduism prompt me towards enlightenment and self-release from a cycle of birth and suffering and death and rebirth.  The Q’uran insists that I am capable of and adequate level of obedience to the requirements of God and simply need to do it.  Mormonism echoes this to a large extent.  Secular humanism places our hope in genetics and education and other control mechanisms but still equates to a we-will-fix-ourselves approach.

Only the Bible tells me that I can’t fix myself.  Only the Bible describes the secret horror I find within me each day – oftentimes I don’t even want to fix myself.  Only the Bible insists that as I cannot fix myself I certainly can’t fix others.  Only the Bible adequately deals with my greatest issue in life – my mortality.  Only the Bible can give me true hope – that my salvation, my repair, my perfection are not within my control, but must be trusted to the God who created me in the first place.   That isn’t always easy, but it’s hugely comforting.  It can be abused and misapplied, but it remains valid and true and beautiful in spite of those who would misuse it.

So I trust the Word of God as the sole reliable authority in my life.  Here I stand, I can do no other.







What Is Your Authority?

October 30, 2017

Sunday night at Happy Hour we had our first full-blown, nearly fully-inclusive theological discussion.  What began as questions from one young man about our denominational practice regarding ordaining women (we don’t) erupted into a much larger discussion with a great deal of heated emotions.  I was struck by numerous things in this encounter.

Firstly, I was amazed at the unanimity of rejection of or concern about our denomination’s stance in this regard, and my personal support of it.  I know that many of the folks at Happy Hour come from different denominational backgrounds but I don’t know the details.  There was really only one person joining my defense of this practice, and he’s relatively new to the faith in some regards.  All the others, most of whom I suspect would classify themselves as strong Christians, and nearly all of whom are recently graduated from a prestigious private Christian university, were uniformly opposed to the non-ordination of women despite it being the near-universal norm of Christian practice up until the late 20th century.  It’s interesting that they could so easily dismiss a nearly universal practice that has endured for almost two millenia, that they were so completely certain that the viewpoints that have evolved in the last 60 years in some quarters of Christianity and more particularly in secular culture must be correct!

I attempted to distinguish between equality as culture and feminism have defined it (functionally, based on what women and men do) and how Scripture defines it (as a matter of who we are in the fact that we are created by God – an existential equality separate and prior to whatever it is we happen to do).  But this argument was mostly rejected – functional equality was definitely the preferred or assumed correct way of defining equality.

Secondly, I was surprised at the vocalization of personal experience as the ultimate arbitrator of theological belief and practice.  The discussion was far less about what the Bible says on the topic and far more related to the emotional assertions of people that regardless of what the Bible says, personal experience somehow demands the ordination of women as part and parcel with women’s equality.  Another young man talked about his reading of Scripture as important, but inasmuch as it was validated by his personal experiences and which, he intimated, could be actually superseded by those experiences.

I articulated that Scripture is my personal, final authority and arbitrator of reality.  Scripture is what should norm and condition and interpret my personal experience, not the other way around.  This led to some inquiry later on as to how I could be certain of Scripture’s authority.  Why would I trust this book so completely?  On what basis could I be certain of divine inspiration?  Others seemed to find it difficult to believe that I could believe that the Bible should function so completely and authoritatively.  Obviously, I’m sinful and don’t perfectly conform to what Scripture says.  But to the best of my ability, I trust what Scripture says and trust that when there is a conflict between what I want and what Scripture tells me, Scripture is right even if I disobey it.

Others wanted to know how I would personally apply this theology to my family and my daughter.  Would I tell her that she couldn’t be ordained because she was a girl, while I could encourage my boys to be ordained if they so desired?  There seemed to be the assumption that whatever I held to be true personally would change if it impacted my daughter.  My response was that if she expressed such a desire to me I would want to sit down with her to find out why, and then to talk about what the Bible has to say on this matter.  I would want to engage not just the views of my denomination and historic Christianity as a whole, but also the more recent views and exegesis of the pertinent passages (1 Timothy 2:10-15).  I’m aware that there are some compelling arguments to treat Paul’s words here as we treat his admonishments about women wearing hats to church in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.  We’d talk through this together.

At the end of the day if my daughter was still convinced that the Holy Spirit was calling her to the pastoral ministry, and if she had a defensible way of dealing with the Scripture passages that have traditionally been interpreted as forbidding this, my response would not be to try and change my denomination’s stance on the issue!  Rather, I would encourage her to consider ordination through an alternate polity where women are permitted to be pastors.  It seemed genuinely surprising to some of the folks last night that I would not change my view on the matter or attempt to try and change my polity’s view on the matter just because it was my daughter who was personally involved.

One of the participants talked about the Church’s duties to improve and correct and right the wrongs with the world in anticipation of our Lord’s return.  She had great difficulty with the concept that Christ would return and everything would instantly change, and seemed far more comfortable with the idea of gradual improvement and sanctification so that when Christ returned, at least some of the change would already be accomplished.  She was insistent that it was the Church’s duty to lead the charge towards this.  Slavery was brought up as an example.  And she threatened that there were more than a few people who would be insulted and affronted by Paul’s words in Colossians or Philemon and elsewhere because he doesn’t outright condemn slavery and call for Christians to abolish it.

I know that there are Christians who have been and are offended by that.  Which was the point, I argued.  What God is after is not the transformation of our social units, but of our hearts.  I asked her to show me the passages where the Church is called to be the agent of social change.  This brought up an objection from someone else as to whether or not this was a fair use of Scripture.  Should Scripture be cited as the ultimate authority or not?  And even if it should, can it even be done because some people are prone to proof-texting and taking things out of context to support their positions?

She was aghast and at a loss at my request, as were others.  What did I mean, show them the Biblical passages?  I quickly offered that I might not be thinking clearly at the moment and would be happy to be proved wrong, but that the passages I could think of regarding moral behavior and sanctification are all aimed at the individual Christian or the Church – not at society or culture as a whole.  We are called to be transformed individually, which will obviously have an effect on the Church as a whole and then on culture and society around us.  But the idea that the Church should collude with culture or society on certain agendas on the basis that the Bible calls us to personal sanctification is a very large and dangerous leap.  We move from what the Bible says to ideas and assertions that are inspired by Scripture.  And whenever we move from what Scripture actually says to our ideas about what that ought to mean, we’re on very dangerous footing.

She left the conversation and our house shortly after this exchange.

I hope and pray she comes back next Sunday or before then with a list of Scripture verses.  I pray that she grapples with what I asked and said, and either comes back to correct me (which I will graciously and humbly accept), or begins to question some of the teachings she’s received.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t struggle for what is right.  But first and foremost – Biblically speaking – this is an matter of personal internal and external struggle.  I am called to change how I act and think and speak.  I am not called to change how others act or think or speak unless I can do so in love and unless they are professed followers of Christ as well that I am in relationship with (members of my congregation, for instance).

Yes, there are various exegetical dealings with Scripture, in which case a fair level of humility is required in these discussions.  To assume that you must be correct and that any question of your interpretation or application is erroneous is a dangerous state of mind, but it was a very common state of mind last night.

This is what I hoped would develop.  I just wasn’t expecting it at the end of a long day, and I wasn’t expecting it to be so emotionally charged.  But I want our gatherings to be a place where we can grapple with hard issues, where we can be challenged in our thinking and in our beliefs so that we are together better and stronger and more grounded in the faith.

But it isn’t necessarily a smooth process, I guess.

In the meantime, it shows me the glaring need for continued dialogue and teaching in the Church.  One gentlemen last night suggested at one point that we were too much the heirs of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in that we too heavily favor reason over emotion and experience.  But as I pointed out, that wasn’t the case in the discussion.  The discussion heavily and almost completely favored experience and emotion over an actual intellectual, philosophical, theological discourse!  This is what has happened since the mid-20th century, the moving away from rational discourse more and more towards emotion and experience as the authorities in our lives.

What this results in then is the increasing difficulty of talking with people and understanding people who disagree with us.  I expressed my disappointment with their school that after four years of very expensive and undoubtedly very high-quality education, a basic discussion could result in such anger and such emotion.  Not that there isn’t a time and a place for emotions, but that the discussion should move so quickly to that personal, experiential level without an adequate effort at understanding the rational and intellectual positions that each side was coming from.

If personal experience and emotion are the ultimate authority in our lives it truly becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue based on different perspectives.  Christianity has insisted from very early on that the Bible is to be the authority in our lives.  The Holy Spirit may well directly speak to us from time to time, but the only way we can know and trust His voice is by comparing what we hear to what God says in his Word.  At one point a young man sort of joked that this was an idolization of Scripture.  I suppose one might see it that way, but to me it’s a simple matter of what is my authority?  I can say God is, but if what I mean by that is only my personal emotions and experiences of this God, I’m in a very tenuous and unstable position at best.  How can I trust that God is directing me rather than a demon or my subconscious or chemical imbalances?  How can I ever hope to arbitrate between differing ideas about theology or practice if there isn’t an objective external authority to appeal to?  What do we make of 2 Timothy 3:16 and the assertion by St. Paul that all of Scripture is indeed useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness?  Ironic that on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Sola Scriptura appears to be just as opposed by some Christians as it was by then, even Christians who are themselves theological heirs of the Reformation.

Fortunately there was the opportunity to affirm mutual love and respect with almost everyone by the end of the evening.  I think others were a little shocked as well at the level of what had just occurred, but the general consensus is that it was a good thing.

It will be interesting to see what happens this coming Sunday, and who is there for it.





October 30, 2017

I am.

The last of our guests left five minutes ago.  As my wife prepares for bed I have to take a second to try and process, but there’s too much.  A wonderful mixture of familiar faces and one new one tonight.  And then a multi-hour discussion that spanned the authority of Scripture, the roles of men and women here and now in a fallen world in Christ, and the pain of feeling marginalized as a woman in a male dominated world.

We covered immense theological and emotional terrain.  Tempers flared.  Tears flowed.  Many stood and listened without actively engaging.  By and large people hung into the discussion, but not everyone could or would.  My prayer at the end of the night, as I articulated to one of our recent regulars, is that Satan not be allowed to drive wedges and discord through theological wrestling.  That the relationships that have been built and the community that has formed over the last year and a half would not simply endure, but strengthen and deepen and thrive.  If we can’t struggle with the Word of God as it applies to our lives here and now, what hope is there for any reality of Christian community?  And if this can’t be a place where people can bare their hearts and know that even when they don’t hear what they want to hear they are still loved, then it doesn’t really have a purpose at all.

I think things will be OK.  For most of us at the very least.  For all of us I pray.  And in the meantime, sleep.


September 19, 2017

Part of the challenge and risk and reward of having a public presence online is that you never know who is going to stumble across your stuff or how they’re going to react to it.  So it was only a mild surprise when someone posted to a Facebook page I have for campus ministry.  The actual flow of events seems to be that this person found the page, liked the page, and then came across one of my posts there and freaked out.  The post was an open invitation to our Sunday evening happy hour.  I don’t think that anyone locally is likely to find the page and the invitation and request info, but I posted it more in terms of letting whomever know the kinds of things we were doing.

I have no idea who this person is beyond the little Facebook tells about her.  She isn’t apparently local, but has taken it upon herself to call me to repentance for offering a weekly happy hour.  Based on the destructive role of alcohol in the life of her family, she clearly sees it as a sin that should never be encouraged.

She could just be a bored troll hoping to start angst.  But I presume she’s sincere and so I take the time to respond to her and engage her concerns.  It’s not the kind of interaction I created the page for, but it is interaction, a chance to share the Gospel or apply the Gospel to our daily lives.  And I don’t know who else might see the interaction so I want to do so in love along with a good application of Scripture.  Her concerns are valid, based on her experiences.  The difficulty is balancing that something might be harmful and therefore sinful to one person, but not be harmful or sinful to someone else.

Maybe others will be drawn into the conversation.  What I hope this woman realizes is that her concerns are real, but not necessarily the best basis for condemning something as sinful in someone else’s life.  Especially someone she’s never met.


Book Reviews

September 13, 2017

A quick review of two books I recently finished up.

The Humor of Christ – by Elton Trueblood

This short book  encourages readers to consider that Jesus exhibits humor in some of his teachings.  Trueblood is uncertain whether the Gospel writers recognized the humor as such, but thinks that they are still able to convey at least echoes of it in conveying the words of Jesus faithfully.  He spends time discussing various forms of humor (irony, exaggeration, etc.) and also defending the use of humor as a time-honored and well-respected way of teaching thoroughly in keeping with Jesus’ identity and work.  The book finishes with an examination of several particularly difficult passages in the Gospels that Trueblood thinks could be explained adequately only through seeing in Jesus’ words a humor.

I don’t have a problem with his premise, but the book was not an enjoyable read.  It’s not very long (124 pages) and concludes with a list of all the various passages where Trueblood thinks humor might be at play.  This is a good thing for Christians to keep in mind – that Jesus was not necessarily a dry and humorless man, and that indeed his popularity with the common people might have been based in part on his willingness and ability to use wit and humor both in his teachings as well as in his exchanges with hostile authorities.

Reasons: Skeptics Should Consider Christianity by Josh McDowell & Don Stewart

I’m not sure how I came by this book, but it’s a handy little apologetics text.  However, the fact that it’s now 30+ years old means that its handiness is tempered by age, particularly as it addresses scientific matters.  Not being a scientist, I’m not sure how well the argumentation presented in this text holds up, and I assume that there are better, more up to date resources for answering challenges to the Biblical account of creation centered around geological data and natural selection.  However the philosophical and theological portions of the book remain very solid and helpful.  Not a bad book, but all in all you should probably find a more recent book and keep this on the shelf as a back-up resource.

Contradictions – Jesus in the Wilderness or at a Wedding?

July 14, 2017

The final contradiction I’ve been asked to deal with is this one – Mark’s Gospel (1:12-13) says that Jesus was sent into the wilderness immediately following his baptism to be tempted by Satan, and that He remained in the wilderness 40 days.  This is allegedly contradicted by John’s Gospel (2:1), which allegedly says that Jesus was in Cana three days after his baptism to attend a wedding.  Matthew (4:1-2) and Luke (4:1-2), although not as imperative as Mark’s account, clearly indicate that Jesus goes to the wilderness pretty quickly after his baptism.   Which means that John appears to be the odd man out on this one, and we should focus on his account.

First off, we need to note that John does not describe Jesus’ baptism in a narrative sense, but rather only by John’s recollection of the event (1:29-34).  And as John recounts his experience at Jesus’ baptism, he is speaking about it in the past tense – something that has already happened prior to John pointing Jesus out in v.29.  John’s account therefore mentions three days, but not the three days immediately following Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus is baptized on Day X, which could easily have been 40-some days earlier.  But John’s Gospel begins numbering days based on when he is interrogated about his own identity.  He is interrogated on day 1 (1:19-28).  The day after his interrogation he points out Jesus (1:29) and testifies about Jesus’ identity.  Thus the third day mentioned in 2:1 is the third day after John’s interrogation, not after Jesus’ actual baptism.

Once again, an alleged contradiction is based on a superficial reading of the texts, without any interest or effort in attempting to make sense of them.  If there is a reasonable explanation for the apparent contradiction, it is unfair to insist it is a contradiction.


Contradictions – Saul’s Conversion

July 13, 2017

A contradiction is alleged because there are slightly variant reports of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  Acts 9:7 indicates that Paul’s associates – likely soldiers and perhaps religious officials accompanying to Damascus to arrest Christians – saw the light which blinded Paul and heard a voice but did not see the person speaking.  Yet Paul claims in 22:9 that his companions saw the light but did not hear a voice.  Additionally, in Acts 26 Paul claims (or at least implies) that his companions saw the light but he does not state whether or not they heard the voice or not.

We should first define our context.  Luke writes the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is in fact the second of two writings of Luke that were originally one text and later separated into his Gospel account of Jesus’ life and the book of Acts which details early Church history and apostolic activity.  Luke states at the beginning of his Gospel that he is drawing on multiple sources for his material.

If so, then Luke may be relying on a different account for his account in Chapter 9, an account that doesn’t come directly from Saul/Paul – or at least solely from him.  In Chapters 22 and 26 Luke is quoting Paul as he describes his own experience.  Could it be that Luke in his collection of accounts spoke with one of the other travelers with Paul, who indicates that they could hear the voice?  Is it possible that Paul was not aware of this fact, since the person may not have mentioned it to him initially out of fear – prior to Paul’s conversion – that he might be prosecuted as a Christian sympathizer?  Perhaps.

And perhaps Paul, becoming aware at a later point that his compatriots could indeed hear the voice, omits this from his description of the events in chapter 26.  IF this is the case, Paul became aware of this new information in a relatively short window of time – a matter of a few weeks at most between his testimony in Chapter 22 and his recounting in Chapter 26.

Grammatically the same Greek verb is used both in Chapters 9 and 22.  From what I can tell, this verb has both the connotation of to hear, but also the possible connotation of to understand.   Is it possible that Paul knows that the men heard a voice but couldn’t understand what it was saying, and that Luke highlights the first aspect of the verb in Chapter 9, while Paul more explicitly intends the secondary connotation in Chapter 22?  This seems a bit more likely to me than the idea that Paul is operating with insufficient knowledge but then suddenly is enlightened (although this certainly could be possible).

In any event, it clearly doesn’t have to be a contradiction, but could be a matter of interpretative definition.  Indeed, some translations (such as the ESV) render the verb in Chapter 9 in terms of hearing, and in Chapter 22 in terms of understanding.  To call this an example of Biblical contradiction or error seems far heavier-handed than the details warrant.

Contradictions – Marriage

July 12, 2017

I’m nearly through the list of alleged Biblical contradictions that was gifted me some time ago.  It’s been a fascinating process, and one that has strengthened my appreciation of God’s Word rather than weakened it.

The next contradiction alleges that the Bible is contradictory because sometimes it states an affirmation of something and then in another place denounces it.  In this case, the issue is marriage, with Solomon set up as the proponent for marriage in Proverbs 18:22, while St. Paul is arguing against marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.  Is this a contradiction?  Is God giving contradictory advice to his people?

Hardly.  Is marriage a good thing?  Is it a blessing to have a good spouse?  Of course!  And clearly, from Genesis onwards, marriage is intended as a blessing for God’s creation through intimate relationship and the creation of family.  I think we can say pretty authoritatively that the Bible as a whole is pro-marriage (with the Biblical definition of one husband and one wife for life).

So what do we make of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7?  First, we need to understand context.  Paul is responding to something to questions or concerns about something he previously wrote to the Corinthian church (but which we don’t have a copy of – at least yet!) – that it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.  No, this is not a tacit endorsement of homosexuality – Paul understands the Biblical idea that the only appropriate sexual conduct is between a husband and a wife, so he is being asked to clarify his position on marriage.

As he is writing this, Paul likely presumes that Jesus is due back at any time.  It seems from the apostolic writings that this was their assumption – Jesus’ promised return in glory would happen soon.  Within their lifetimes.  While Jesus never gave a timeframe, and in fact asserted that they wouldn’t know when it would happen, this idea of an imminent return permeates Paul’s responses to issues like should I get married or not.  From Paul’s perspective, for a couple to be worried about getting married was pretty irrelevant in light of the imminent return of Jesus and the need to be about the work of the Church.  With those assumptions, Paul could advise not to get married unless you just can’t remain chaste.  If that impulse is so strong, then by all means get married!  Not just reluctantly but enthusiastically.

Later in the chapter he revisits the basic question of how the imminent return of Jesus should affect marriage decisions.  Are you married?  Stay married!  Are you single?  Stay single (again, unless you can’t do so without sinning sexually).  Marriage refocuses our attention (and rightly so) on our spouse, and this might be an unnecessary distraction if Jesus is returning any day.  He clarifies this in verses 29ff.  Time is short.  We should view not just marriage in this light, but our approach to all of life.  Our sorrows are not as deep and our joys less giddy and our economics less all consuming in light of the unparalleled joy that we anticipate when our Lord returns.  Paul is not against marriage per se, but marriage in light of the imminent return of Jesus.

So the Bible is not contradictory about marriage.  Paul’s advice does not contradict God’s created order.  For those who don’t feel compelled to get married, his advice remains sound.  And for those who can’t conceive of not getting married, his advice remains sound.

Book Review – When Skeptics Ask

July 11, 2017

When Skeptics Ask by Norman L. Geisler & Ronald M. Brooks

I have the original edition of this book, which was published in 1990.

This is a great book – a handy compendium of philosophical, literary, historical, moral and scientific arguments helpful when engaging someone under the impression that any or all of these fields have somehow disproved the existence or necessity of a divine being.  The purpose of these arguments and any apologetic exercise is to help clear away misunderstanding or bad logic in order that the Gospel might be proclaimed and heard.

The book is wide ranging, and for that reason it lacks depth and a fuller treatment of complex topics.  At times the argumentation is too brief and will require multiple read-throughs for clarity.  Because I read the older edition I can’t vouch for how some of the scientific sections stand up against current scholarship.  The reader will hopefully be inspired to do further research in areas of particular concern or helpfulness.  A suggested reading list is provided at the back of the book, along with a topical index for quick reference.

This is a great resource for the intelligent Christian interested in how to respond to the objections or doubts of those around them.  Hopefully, these arguments will be utilized with love and prayer not for personal pride or the sake of argument, but so that the Gospel of Jesus can truly be heard and considered fully.