Archive for the 'Theology' Category

[Note: I am slowly working my way back into the blog world and this post marks the first in a series of posts I will be doing called "Curiosity". All I hope to accomplish is to provoke conversation about Jesus and the Scripture and discipleship.--jerry]

I am curious about a great many things that are found in the Bible. I find myself more and more curious about them the older and older I get. And the more and more I become detached from American Churchianity and become more and more attached to the Jesus of the Bible, the more I find myself curious about this Jesus I read of in the Bible. He was strange and did things that were very un-Christian-like—well, at least if American Christianity is any sort of guide as to what it means to be Jesus.

It’s an old cliché, but I’m sure if Jesus applied to be the pastor of a local church he wouldn’t even get the courtesy of a rejection letter. The good church folk would take one look at his cover letter, read something like, “Oh, and I think it is the essence of Christianity that the people of God take part in the practice of holiness…and participate in bringing healing to the sick and afflicted.” Or, “Someday you will reign with me and partake of the tree of life—whose leaves are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2, 5). Oh, the wise old elders would have a field day with that—and once the old ladies got a hold of it, well….I choose not to think of Jesus’ resume in the hands of old ladies considering that I know what some of them have done to Jesus himself.

So this is my curiosity for today: Revelation 22 clearly pictures a time when things are not the same as they are now—at least not entirely. It clearly pictures a time when we—or someone—has re-entered the garden of Eden and are living in the presence of God. But something is strange about what is going on in that land of bliss: “And the leaves are for the healing of the nations.” Well, I don’t understand. If Revelation 21 says there is a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem, no more death, no more mourning, no more crying or pain for the old order has passed away (21:1-4), and Revelation 22 says there is no more night, no more curse and that someone (we?) is living in the presence of God (22:1-5), then what does this sentence mean, “And the leaves are for the healing of the nations.”

What nations? What needs healed? I mean, if God is ‘making everything new’ (21:5), then what healing remains that can be, should be, will be cured by the leaves on the tree of life?  I am curious as to what this might mean—and please spare me the ready-made, wrapped with a bow, answers from commentaries or the Left Behind books. I’m serious. After God makes all things new are we to expect that there might still be work to do in this new heavens and new earth? What do you think? Who exactly are these nations that need healing in this place God has created where ‘there is no more death’? And what role will we play?

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Photobucket(Note: I read the Kindle version of the book, so I haven’t tried to reference page numbers here.)

If you have any connections to the world of evangelicalism, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. The reactions of the book have ranged from somewhat gentle critique and interaction (see Ben Witherington III, Roger Olson, or Scot McKnight) to people calling Bell a false teacher (see, Mark Galli, Al Mohler, etc.). In addition to countless blog posts, tweets, and Facebook meltdowns no less the half a dozen (and counting) book have been released or are going to be released in response to Bell.

Now personally, I’ll start be laying my cards on the table. I read Love Wins the day or two after it was released. I liked the book quite a bit. But, honestly, after reading I couldn’t see what all the hoopla was about. Bell explores the concepts of heaven and hell, the Kingdom of God, and salvation in a way that is pretty much consistent with his earlier books and his sermons. Now, I shouldn’t say I was totally surprised by the reactions – after all, hell is sort of the third rail of evangelicalism. People approach the subject at their own risk. But there wasn’t really anything in the book that people like C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, or other writers have been saying for years. Bell’s popularity certainly surpasses theses writers in the general church-going crowd (With the exception of maybe Lewis), but still what is the big deal?

Enter Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle and their book Erasing Hell. I had heard this book was coming out not long after reading Love Wins. Chan is somewhat of a rising star in evangelical circles. He’s about Bell’s age, and he’s written a number of books that have sold well – Crazy Love and Forgotten God. I have not read Chan prior to reading Erasing Hell, and my only experience with him was when he led our “small” group at one of the Passion conferences a few years ago (small being around 600 or 700 people). Given Chan’s ties to Passion and some of the neo-Reformed movement folks, I’m not surprised to see that he has a problem with Love Wins.

As far as the book, Chan (and Sprinkle – it’s not always clear who is actually writing) begins the introduction by stating how important it is that we get the doctrine of hell correct. He says multiple times that it’s something that we can’t get wrong. Getting it wrong puts us at risk of sending others to hell or even puts us at risk. To his credit, he also states that we can’t let tradition or our feelings dictate what is right as far as what Scripture says about hell. Personally, I find fear-based or slippery-slope framed arguments to be inherently weak. Yes, there is an element of pragmatism that guides the formulation of doctrine, but it simply doesn’t seem to me to be a fair statement that a Christian’s walk or zeal to evangelize is ultimately driven by what they think of hell. If it is, then I think there are other bigger issues that need to be flushed out.

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This is only one small excerpt from the book I am thoroughly enjoying–deep though it may be with commentary on the work of dead theologians. It’s worth the trouble if you have the time for a slow read. I love the following quote:

Most especially is this overarching by heaven heard to be the case with respect to the lack of parity in the Gospel message between heaven and hell. While scriptural references to heaven and earth tell of a creation in which earth is under heaven, even more so they tell of a redemption in which hell is rendered powerless before the keys of the coming basileia of heaven (Mt. 16.18-19). Contrary to any idea that heaven and hell are equally optional alternative states of affairs that can be actualized somehow by our decisions, it is precisely when beclouded by the direst forebodings and fear of the powers of heaven being shaken that hearers of the Gospel are told, in the words of Jesus, to lift up their heads because ‘redemption is drawing near’ (Lk. 21.28). (The Difference Heaven Makes 36)

With so much conversation in the blog world about hell, maybe inserting a little conversation around the idea of heaven would be beneficial. Although, to be sure, merely talking about heaven won’t make much difference. Bringing the reality of heaven to broken people, wherever they are, will. Heaven makes a difference when heaven is brought to bear on this world–and I believe that Christians have a vital role to play here in this regard.

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So much conversation in today’s marketplace of ideas. There’s more drama in the church nowadays than there is in the L-B-C. I wrote yesterday that, frankly, I’m bored with the entire conversation. This is mostly because it doesn’t really seem to be making any progress or leading any place in particular. Given some of the conversations that exist in the Church today, I am cautiously skeptical that we are making progress; I am recklessly hopeful that in some way Jesus will redeem them.

Seriously, what progress are we making in world missions with all of the conversation about heaven and hell and who is and who is not saved? Do I really need Seven Reasons not to believe in Hell in order to be a good decent Christian? And if not, do I need to know another person’s reasons? What progress are we making for the Kingdom of God by continually engaging in conversations seemingly only meant to prove one side is right or that the other side is wrong? Are most of the conversations even necessary? Would these conversations even be happening if the blogosphere didn’t exist? For example, does contending for a ‘biblical’ view of gender (a term traditionally applied to nouns) have much to do with contending for the faith? Do conversations about whether or not we (as Christians) should or should not watch Harry Potter films or read the books help feed a starving child in our neighborhood? (I know, it’s an illogical, false comparison.)

How are we supposed to have any idea what we are to believe? How are we supposed to have any idea what to say to others who ask us about our faith (1 Peter)? How are we to contend for the faith that has been delivered (Jude 3) when there are so many ideas floating around? It is some sort of Cornucopia Christianity and everything must change. How can there be one body, one faith, when there are so many clinging tenaciously to things other than Jesus (Ephesians 4:3-6)–like opinions, ideas, politics, and so on and so forth.

(I’m guilty too since I cling tenaciously to the idea that Scripture is not as vague as some think it is. But I do wonder, seriously, about the effects these conversations have on people who are not part of our tribe. That is, many of these internal conversations that end up external seem to me to raise more doubts than they do faith. They do this among the church too. Frankly, there are days when I simply have no idea who is telling the truth, who to believe, or who is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing.)

Maybe when I go out I can tell people about God’s love. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I can mention hell, maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should speak of a creation made by God in six days–as a foundational element of Gospel proclamation, maybe if I do I will be laughed at or ridiculed by other Christians. Maybe I can make my arguments from Scripture, maybe I should not (see in particular comments 14-17 in the comment thread). Maybe I should talk about Jesus, maybe I should talk about other Christians who talk about Jesus. Maybe holiness matters, maybe the journey does, maybe both.

Maybe the problem is that we have set up too many dichotomies in our conversations.

I’m not saying any of these conversations are necessarily wrong. What I am doing is asking a question: Are they helpful? Are they vital to the cause of Christ or are they culturally mandated and distracting and beside the point? Are they producing fruit in keeping with repentance or are they educated (or uneducated, as the case may be), lengthy ways of asking ‘Did God Really Say?’ Are they keeping our eyes off of the greater purpose for our existence which is, it seems to me, to know God and love him? Or are they helping us forward as we slouch closer and closer to Gomorrah?

I fully realize that what I am writing here will not be enjoyed by all because it will seem I am missing the point of the conversations, stereotyping others, that I am hopelessly naive, or that I am playing a significant role in helping perpetuate the very dichotomies I am so opposed to. I’m OK with that as long as someone in the world helps me get to the bottom of this problem. Accuse away! But please, help me understand what point we are trying to make and if we are saying things that, in whatever ‘end’ we may conceive, God will say, “Well said good and faithful blogger. Enter into the joy of Technorati Authority ratings.”

Maybe it is seriously time for Christians to stop fruitless conversation (1 Timothy 1:5-6) an ask the following questions: Is this conversation helpful? Am I helping the cause of Christ? Is my work advancing the Kingdom of God in a thoughtful, forward direction?

Or am I just trying to be right and out-shout the other person for whom Jesus died?

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So, in a discussion the other day (on differing views of Creation), I was pressed for my view of Creation.  While I don’t think it’s anything long-time readers aren’t familiar with, I got the feeling that it was controversial.

What do you think?

Chris’ Credo

One) I am vehemently agnostic* as it pertains to Creation.

Two) As such, I believe that the only item of primary importance in the Creation story is in Gen 1:1 – “God created”.

Three) I believe that Young Earth Creationism (YEC), Old Earth Creationism (OEC), Intelligent Design (ID), Theistic Evolutionism (TE) and multiple permutations thereof are all possible views of Creation – and that no matter which you choose, it is of secondary importance.**

Four) I believe that elevating ones view of Creation – apart from Gen 1:1 – to primary importance is legalism. At opposite ends of the scale, YEC’s do this when they claim that other parts of the Bible (or all of Scripture) are untrustworthy if their view is not correct, and TE’s do this when they claim YEC/OEC/etc’s are backward, unserious, stupid, anti-science, etc.

Five) I believe that basing systematic theologies on the Creation account is arrogant and counterproductive, and is really a subset of #4.

Six) I believe that holding someone’s view of theistic Creation as a test of faith (or seriousness of faith) is arrogant and counterproductive.

Seven) If someone at the “conservative” end of the scale starts building truth claims based on their view of creation, I will argue that the opposite end of the scale is just as reasonable as theirs. If someone at the “liberal” end of the scale starts degrading the opposite end of the scale as anti-science and unserious, I will argue that science and religion are not mutually exclusive and that we cannot prove w/ science how the world was (or was not) created. (i.e. I use a religious argument to counter a religious argument and a scientific argument to counter a scientific argument.)

I could be wrong, but I think my position is probably the safest one, particularly since it does not seem to be made an item of first importance to the early Christian church.

* – somebody denying something is knowable: somebody who doubts that a question has one correct answer or that something can be completely understood

** – if forced to choose at gunpoint, I would say that the earth (as a planet) and the universe is probably billions of years old, but mankind is only 6K-10K years old, that Adam was the first man “made in the image of God” (whatever that actually means, though, is up for debate), and that I have no clue as to whether God completed the “days” of Creation in literal 24-hour days or figurative ones. And even so, I am very possibly wrong on all counts.

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“There’s a common misconception that the choice between Christ and false gods is the choice between desiring to go to hell and desiring to go to heaven. I’ve heard preachers say the narrow way is the way of Christianity that people choose when they want to go to heaven, and the broad way is the way people choose who are content to go to hell. But they are misinformed or confused. It is not a contrast between godliness and Christianity on the one hand and irreligious, lewd, lascivious pagan masses headed merrily for hell on the other. It is a contrast between two kinds of religions, both roads marked ‘This way to Heaven.’ Satan doesn’t put up a sign that says, ‘Hell–Exit Here.’ That’s not his style. People on the broad road think that road goes to heaven.”–John MacArthur, Hard to Believe, 78

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I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history. Men know the gospel, the teaching of the Church, and God’s creation better than at any other time. They have a profound consciousness of His existence. Their atheism is not a real disbelief. It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.

We hate God, that is why we ignore Him, overlooking Him as if we did not see Him, and pretending to be atheists. In reality we consider Him our enemy par excellence. Our negation is our vengeance, our atheism is our revenge.

But why do men hate God? They hate Him not only because their deeds are dark while God is light, but also because they consider Him as a menace, as an imminent and eternal danger, as an adversary in court, as an opponent at law, as a public prosecutor and an eternal persecutor. To them, God is no more the almighty physician who came to save them from illness and death, but rather a cruel judge and a vengeful inquisitor.

You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose.

Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator.

Do you perceive the devil’s slander of our all loving, all kind, and absolutely good God? That is why in Greek the devil was given the name DIABOLOS, “the slanderer”.

Alexander Kalomiros, from The River of Fire

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“It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from whence all sins proceed.”–Spurgeon, from Scala Santa (I just like the hint of doubt.)

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Been thinking a lot about this, and it’s time to shoot off my mouth.  I’m calling “shenanigans” right now on anyone who says that this is just a thinly-disguised defense of Rob Bell, as this is applicable to several incidents in the last few years.

GROUND RULES

I’m going to concede a lot of ground to the critics.  In some cases, I agree with some of these points anyway, but I can make my argument even if I disagree with some of these points.

  • Let us assume that the criticized person is 100% in error theologically.
  • Let us assume that the critics are 100% accurate theologically.
  • Let us assume that everyone who does not disagree completely with the criticized person are sheeple who are totally lacking in discernment, will consume and espouse everything that the criticized person says, and desperately need the critics to straighten out this problem.
  • Let us assume that the error being disseminated by the criticized person is so grave that the critics have carte blanche to use any methodology they choose to confront it, without even the remotest possibility that they will err in their methodology or that their methods will turn off any of the aforementioned sheeple.
  • Let us assume that the method that Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15ff is totally inapplicable.

SIDEBAR

I find it interesting that the Matthew 18 passage gets batted down so quickly.  While I understand that Jesus was particularly referring to more “private”, one-on-one sins, I have searched several translations and have yet to find one with a verse where Jesus says “unless it’s a public sin, then all bets are off”.  The ludicrous speed* with which the applicability of the passage is dismissed speaks not so much of someone who wants to move on as it does of someone who is so loathe to try one-on-one confrontation, that any loophole is seized desperately as a lifeline.

WE NOW RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY-SCHEDULED POST

But let’s play nice.  As I said, let’s assume that Jesus’ command is inapplicable in this situation.  Does inapplicability automatically mean that we are commanded not to use this method sometimes?

Let me put it another way — the way that (sadly) seems to be the de rigueur method for how this is played out.

SCENARIO #1

  1. The criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates error. In his efforts, he manages to reach and convince 1000 sheeple. **
  2. The critics recognize the error and scramble to publicly disseminate the truth in response. ***  In their efforts, they manage to rescue 995 of those sheeple from the error. ( Highly improbable that the critics will turn around that high of a percentage, but hey, let’s be generous. )
  3. Two years later, the criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates more error. Because of some past success, in his efforts, he manages to reach and convince 2000 sheeple.
  4. The critics recognize the error and scramble to publicly disseminate the truth in response. Their astronomical success rate remains steady so that, in their efforts, they manage to rescue 1990 of those sheeple from the error.
  5. Two years later, the criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates more error. Because of some past success, in his efforts, he manages to reach and convince 3000 sheeple.
  6. The critics recognize the error and scramble to publicly disseminate the truth in response. Their astronomical success rate remains steady so that, in their efforts, they manage to rescue 2985 of those sheeple from the error.
  7. Two years later, the criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates more error. Because of some past success, in his efforts, he manages to reach and convince 4000 sheeple.
  8. The critics recognize the error and scramble to publicly disseminate the truth in response. Their astronomical success rate remains steady so that, in their efforts, they manage to rescue 3980 of those sheeple from the error.
  9. Ad infinitum (or would that be ad nauseum ?)

So, at the end of six years (all but that last bullet), you now have 50 people who have bought into the errors disseminated by the criticized person.

This scenario is particularly self-damning for the critic who chooses to do a series of blog posts detailing the errors of the criticized person over the years. ****

But what happens if we change it up a bit?

SCENARIO #2

  1. The criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates error. In his efforts, he manages to reach and convince 1000 sheeple.
  2. The critics recognize the error. One critic approaches the criticized person and convinces him of his error.  The criticized person then disseminates a mea culpa, and manages to rescue the same 995 people that the critics rescued in the first scenario.
  3. Two years later, the criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates truth in some manner.
  4. The critics only needed response is to praise God and send the criticized person notes of encouragement.
  5. Two years later, the criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates truth in some manner.
  6. The critics only needed response is to praise God and send the criticized person notes of encouragement.
  7. Two years later, the criticized person espouses and publicly disseminates truth in some manner.
  8. The critics only needed response is to praise God and send the criticized person notes of encouragement.

Some other things that might happen if this second scenario occurred:

  • Because of the dissemination of truth by the criticized person (in steps #2, 3, 5, and 7), God is glorified and people are brought closer to the truth.  Hard to believe otherwise.
  • The criticized person and the critic (who originally approached the former) cultivate a strong friendship from which both benefit spiritually.  Hard to believe otherwise.
  • Let’s dream really big and assume that in six years, the critics and the criticized person are able to convince the original 5 (who they didn’t rescue originally) of the truth.

BOTTOM LINE

So, when a critic chooses to go with Scenario #1, he’s treating the symptom while the disease goes on unabated.  So what is he really trying to accomplish?  Is he really rescuing the sheeple *****, or is he just showing off his mad Bible skillz?  Is he really trying to “gain his brother”, or is he merely auditioning for some spiritual MMA league?

No, really.

* yes, that was a Spaceballs reference

** I recognize that these numbers are probably too small.

*** How they do this is irrelevant.  We’ve already established carte blanche in the ground rules.

**** OK, that one was, admittedly, about the Rob Bell situation.  But I’m not giving any Google juice to the critic, so if you don’t know specifically what I’m talking about, c’est la vie.

***** which, it is to be noted, quickly becomes Sisyphean

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Introduction

Contemporary Christians often feel Hebrews to be a strange and difficult book. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, it seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christians discussion tops. It begins with a complex discussion of angels; continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.—NT Wright, Following Jesus, 4

I think he’s probably correct in his assessment. There is a lot going on in the book of Hebrews—and most of the stuff going on is terribly complicated to understand. The arguments are complicated, the exegesis is tricky, and the logic is sometimes a maze of confusion. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I have it figured out entirely. Not at all. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I am completely wordless or thoughtless about this magnificent book.

Exegesis, Patterns, and the Big Idea

What I like to look for when I am reading is patterns: patterns of thought, recurring phrases, foreshadows, double-backs—you know, all those things we were taught to pay attention to when we were learning to interpret writing back in junior high. Reading through the book of Hebrews has given me an opportunity to notice a pattern repeated without fail over and over again in the book at least 14 times in the book. It’s a simple pattern and really helps us understand what the book is about or, at minimum, what small sections of the book are covering.

I add one small caveat: the book does, I believe, have an overarching point. I again agree with Wright who is very careful to write that

The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us. (Following Jesus, 10)

Jesus is the Big Idea in Hebrews, without doubt. What I would like to demonstrate is a pattern for how we understand what the smaller arguments in the book of Hebrews and thus how they all tie together to help us understand the bigger argument of Hebrews, viz., that Jesus is enough.

I think if we break up Hebrews into small chunks and see how the author ends each argument then we will begin to understand the greater point he is making within each argument. That is, each argument he makes leads naturally to breaks and conclusions which are set off by key words or phrases. Then all of these smaller arguments, when clumped together, give us a grand picture of Jesus. Throughout the book, leading up to this grand climax, the author has taught us how to live—not leaving theology without a point because all good theology has, ultimately, the point of teaching us how to live because of Jesus. So we learn how to live because of Jesus or what Jesus has said or what Jesus has done and when the book is done, we can say, “Yes, I will join him outside the camp.”

Conformity to Jesus

Barth noted that “Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.” Unless ‘speech’ is a metaphor for an entire life, then I would expand upon his thought and say that Christian life must also be tested by its conformity to Christ. We have concocted all sorts of ways to judge one another (how often do we go to church, how much money do we give, how much do we serve, etc.), none of them without some merit and some with more demerit, but it seems to me that the best way to examine ourselves, the Bible way, is to judge ourselves and see if we, I, in fact conform to Christ. I’m fairly certain the apostle Paul wrote something to this effect at some point in Romans or Ephesians or both. And this only makes sense given that Paul did definitely write that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, renewed in the image of our Creator who is Christ Jesus.

So all throughout Hebrews, the author will give frequent pauses, after short or lengthy expositions of Old Testament Scripture, and say something like, “OK, here’s a conclusion. I just said this and that, therefore, here’s how to check yourselves against what I just wrote.” Or, “OK, I just said this and this about Jesus, now, therefore, here’s the way you ought to be conducting yourselves.” He does this over and over again; I count at least 14 times where this pattern is used. The key, if you are reading in English, is to find the word ‘therefore’. In our English translations, this word will signify the need for the reader to pause and consider what has just been read. It’s a good exercise in exegesis that when you see the word ‘therefore’ to ask what it is there for.

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