Get to the Meat, Read Theology

Calvin-Latin

One of the great weaknesses in Christianity today, particularly among her pastors and leaders, is the lack of theological foundation. I have seen this weakness in my own life in my ten years of ministry. I went to Bible school and graduated from a conservative, reformed, seminary. Yet despite this I was not prepared theologically for pastoral ministry. I spent too much time in practical books that dealt with contemporary subjects and too little that dealt with the great truths of God’s Word. As I moved through pastoral ministry I became more and more aware that I did not have a solid theological foundation.  I did not know the catechisms, confessions, creeds, nor basic theological categories. I found this often led me astray. A cool, neat, sounding, novel idea would gain my ear. I would later find out it was either poorly worded, unnecessary because there are better answers, or just plain wrong. This could have been prevented by a thorough study of classic works. Here are some suggestions directed primarily at those who are in ministry or are going into ministry. Continue reading

Too Many Christian Misfires

One final set of quotes from David Wells’ book The Courage to Be Protestant before I put it back on the shelf. In this section of the book he is discussing the lack of discipleship in the church. He uses the parable of the seed and sower in Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23 to illustrate his point. Here is Matthew 13:18-23 for reference.

“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

He notes that the different categories of “Christians” are always represented in the church, but in 21st century America

The first two [actually categories 2& 3]-the stone in the heart and the weeds that choke the seed-are so abundant and so disproportionately represented. They are the exemplars of “Christianity Lite” that so many evangelical churches are propagating. What catches our attention-and our breath-are the vast numbers of Christian misfires Almost half of America is claiming to be born again, but fewer than one in ten has even the foggiest notion of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in biblical terms.

Wells goes on to blame two things: the love of affluence and comfort and the business model that pervades evangelical Christianity. Here are two quotes that address both of these.

In the West we have not the slightest inkling that, in reveling in affluence as we do, we are playing with fire. This affluence so easily becomes an alternative Way, Truth, and Life, a counterfeit gospel in which to have is to be saved and to have not is to be damned. Unfortunately, la dolce vita, is not itself satisfying, not in an enduring way. It tends to make us shallow, self-absorbed people who give ourselves to chasing what is superficial by way of styles, fads, and what is pleasurable provided there are no demands for commitments. The styles quickly become obsolete, the fads are forgotten, and the pleasures fad like the morning mist so that this kind of life constantly has to be reinventing itself. Those who fashion their lives around these things die of emptiness. The pains that linger in the soul like  a bad headache stay for a long, long time.

Later:

The church has been like a shortsighted business CEO who goes for quick profit and puts off the long-term considerations of these business decisions.So it is in American evangelicalism today. Far too many leaders and churches are out for the quick kill, the instant success, the enviable limelight, the flattering numbers, the bulging auditoria,  the numbers to be boasted about-“my church went from ten to ten thousand once I arrived!”-the filled parking lots, the success story all dolled up for the pages of Christianity Today or Leadership. All of this is about the short-term interest  of the pastor(s), not the long-term health of the church. In Christianity, cut rate products bring a cut-rate future.

Our failure to disciple, love of numbers, love for affluence, adaptation of the business model of church, and general worldliness have left us impoverished and unable to pass on the faith in any substantial way to those sitting in the pews.

Paging Peter Enns

Perhaps there is no greater sin in our culture than certainty. You can be many things, but you can’t be certain and therefore you cannot judge my choices. I was pondering this idea when I found that Peter Enns, a liberal theologian who has abandoned much of the Christian faith, had written a book called The Sin of Certainty. It is certainly appropriate for our age. I have not read it, but I have read Enns and no doubt his drift towards apostasy continues.  I also recently read David Wells’ The Courage to Be Protestant. Here are some quotes from the chapter title “Truth.”

What we a hear from any of the emergent church leaders who are most aware of the (post)modern ethos, therefore is a studied uncertainty: “We do not know.” We cannot know for sure.” No one can know certainly.” “We should not make judgments.” “Knowing beyond doubt is not what Christianity is all about.” “We need to be more modest.” “We need to be more honest.” “Christianity is about the search, not about the discovery.” They forget that Scripture is divine revelation. It is not a collection of opinions about how different people see things that tells us more about the people than the things. No. It gives us God’s perfect knowledge of himself and of all reality. It is given to us in a form we can understand. The reason God gave it to us is that he wants us to know. Not to guess. Not to have vague impressions. And certainly not to be misled. He wants us to know. It is not immodest, nor arrogant, to claim that we know when what we know is what God has given us to know through his Word.

Later he says this:

The (post)modern mentality mistakenly assumes that “truth” is rather like the set of traffic rules our authorities have constructed. No one really thinks a serious moral breach has occurred when a thirty-five-mile-per-hour limit is exceeded by one mile per hour. The speed limit was, in the first place, just an approximation devised by someone who thought the posted speed would  be safe. It is somewhat arbitrary. There is no inherent reason why it should not have been forty miles per hour, or thirty. So it is with all truth statements, they contend. These statements are only approximations made up by someone else.  They are arbitrary rules that do not correspond to anything that is actually “there.”

Later Wells takes some well-earned shots at conservative Christians.

When we listen to the church today, at least in the West, we are often left with the impression that Christianity actually has very little to do with the truth. Christianity is only about feeling better about ourselves, about leaping over difficulties, about being more satisfied, about having better relationships, about getting on with our mothers-in-law, about understanding teenage rebellion, about coping with our unreasonable bosses, about finding greater sexual satisfaction, about getting rich, about receiving our own private miracles, and much else besides. It is about everything except truth. And yet this truth, personally embodied in Christ, gives us a place to stand in order to deal with the complexities of life, such as broken relationships, teenage rebellion, and job insecurities.

All in all the Western church has lost her way because she has rejected doctrine and in many quarters she has rejected truth/certainty all together. We strive for meaning divorced from any authority outside of ourselves and we strive for better lives, communities, and churches divorced from who Christ is, what the Scriptures teach, and all the theology that flows from Scripture.

The Bloodless Speculation of Liberal Scholars

Dale Ralph Davis’ commentaries are some of the best expository commentaries out there. They are not technical commentaries, but pastoral, designed to help the Christian grow in his understanding of Scripture and how to apply Scripture. But that does not mean he is unaware of the technical arguments that dominate most commentaries. He often takes on the liberal scholars. It might come as a surprise to my readers but some scholars think Moses did not write the five books of the Bible, but rather they were compiled over many centuries by various authors who contradict each other. It may be equally surprising that liberal scholars believe many of the historical books, such Joshua and Judges, were written late or at least severely edited late (600-400 B.C.) or that Isaiah was written by several different authors at different times with many of his prophecies being written late. In short, liberal scholars have rejected the traditional authorship of many books of the Bible, have removed many elements of prophecy by dating them late, believe the Bible contradicts itself at places, and that many books were edited by later men to change the meaning.  Here is a a wonderful answer to this nonsense from a footnote in Davis’ commentary on Joshua. Right before this footnote, he says that Joshua was written specifically to remind the Judges generation to be faithful to the Lord.

A number of biblical critics would smile at such a naive proposal. To take the book of Joshua as unified entity at such an early date stretches credulity to say nothing of credibility. For them the hypothesis is too simple and too early. But evidence is not lacking for an early date…Simplicity is, in my book, a plus; the more complicated an explanatory critical theory becomes, the less probability it holds of being correct, since every additional element inserts new (frequently uncheckable) variables into the problem. Multiplying the variables in a theory multiplies the uncertainty of their describing the true course of events. Whether for a book or a chapter, the customary critical proposals inspire less confidence than the naive one. For chapter 22 [of Joshua], someone will hold we have Gilgal tradition and a Shiloh tradition-these may have been in conflict originally. Of course, a Deuteronomic editor contributes his material, and a Priestly hand adds his touches-nor must we forget another post-exilic redactor. Someone else will speculate differently. There are no controls; it is sheer guesswork. What’s more, it seldom makes any difference (except to place question marks after the reliability of Scripture).

The real problem with such bloodless speculation is that, after having done it, its practitioners strangely enough do not bother to tell us what their literary monstrosity has to say to the flock of God. The problem with most commentaries of such genres is that they can in no way nourish the church in godliness. Do they provide technical help-linguistic, archaeological? Yes. But to them the Scripture is not warm. It is an artifact from the past, not an oracle from God. Nor should they wonder if the church finds all their furrow-browed, pin-the-tail-on-the-tradition-center activity next to useless.

To sum up: the liberal theories on Scripture are wrong, far-fetched, impractical, and lack that affection that comes when a scholar believes they are dealing with God’s Word and not an “artifact” to be studied.

David Wells on Marketing the Church

forsale

David Wells has written five books addressing some of major issues in American evangelicalism over the last couple of decades. Naturally, I began with his last book, The Courage to be Protestant.  So far it has been helpful in addressing why we are where we are. Even where it is dated, Wells is still giving us a road map of the past several decades. Here is quote where he describes what happens when the church abandons the truth as the center of her life and mission and instead focuses on reaching customers.

A methodology for success that circumvents issues of truth is one that will rapidly emancipate itself from biblical Christianity or, to put it differently, will rapidly eviscerate biblical faith.

That, indeed, is what is happening because the marketing model it followed, empties the truth out of the gospel. First, the needs consumers have are the needs they identify for themselves. The needs sinners have are needs God identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them. We suppress the truth about God, holding it down in “unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). We are not subject to his moral law and in our fallenness are incapable of being obedient to it (Rom. 8:7), so how likely is it, outside of the intervention of God through the Holy Spirit, that we will identify our needs as those arising from rebellion against God? No, the product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel. It will be therapy of some kind, a technique for life, perhaps a way of connecting  more deeply with our own spiritual selves on our own terms, terms that require no repentance and no redemption. It will not be the gospel. The gospel cannot be a product that the church sells because there are no consumers for it. When we find customers, we will find that what they are interested in buying, on their own terms, is not the gospel.

Furthermore, when we buy a product, we buy it for our own use. When we accept Christ, he is not there for our use but we are there for his service. We commit ourselves to him in a way we do not commit ourselves to any product. There is a world of difference between the Lord of Glory, the incarnate second person of the Godhead, and a Lexus, a vacation home, or a trip to the Bahamas. The marketing analogy blurs all of this, reducing Christ simply to a product we buy to satisfy our needs. What is destroyed along the way are the biblical doctrines of sin, of the incarnation, and of the redemption. The marketing analogy is the wrong analogy. It is deeply harmful to the Christian faith.

What I find fascinating about this quote is that what was once the strategy of mega-churches and their CEO pastors has now become the strategy of virtually every church. We have drunk so deeply and for so long at the well of the market that most of our churches, denominations, para-church organizations, and coalitions function this way without even thinking about it.  Our gut instinct is to market our product. We are not preaching the truth. We are trying to gain new customers. These days most of us are selling Jesus, our church, our books, and our conferences.  It is not easy to disentangle ourselves from this method. We need websites and books. We want people to know about our churches and what they offer. Even conferences, despite their misuse and abuse today, can be helpful. But  marketing Jesus and the gospel is not a minor issue. It is antithetical to the faith which we proclaim, it leaves the sheep hungry, and does not evangelize the lost.  We must proclaim the gospel, write books and blog posts, record podcasts,  and be the church without selling the gospel like just another product.

No Crying He Makes?

newborn baby crying

Christmas songs are wonderful and they are also fraught with danger. Christmas has become a sentimental time for many people including Christians where they toss aside what is true for what makes them feel good. One good example of this is the well know Christmas hymn, “Away in a Manger.”

In that carol there is this line in verse 2: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Why would baby Jesus not cry? There are two possible reasons I could think of. First,  he was not fully human or was at the very least a different kind of human. Second, that crying is a sin.

Both of these are refuted by Scripture. Let’s take the second one first.  Is crying a sin? The Scriptures are clear that Christ did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). The Bible is also clear that Jesus wept (Luke 19:41, John 11:35). The logic here is airtight. Jesus cried. Jesus never sinned. Crying is not automatically a sin. Why would a baby cry? He needs food. He is dependent on his mother like all humans are. Until a child talk crying is the way a child says, “I am  hungry.”  Christ was fully human and therefore as a baby completely dependent upon those around him to feed him. If he need to eat or if something caused him pain he would have cried and in crying he would not have sinned.

The other option is that Jesus was some sort of super human that did not feel the same things we feel or did not experience the same things we do. Again this is refuted over and over again in Scripture. Hebrews 2:17-18 says,

Therefore, in all things He had to be made like his brethern that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest…

Hebrews 4:15 says,

We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathizee with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Philippians 2:1-11 teaches the same thing.

The Heidelberg Catechism says in question 35 that Christ “took upon him the very nature of man.” The Westminster Confession in Chapter VIII.II says that Christ took “upon him man’s nature with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin.” The Belgic Confession in Article 18 says,

The Son took the “form of a servant” and was made in the “likeness of man,” truly assuming a real human nature, with all its weaknesses, except for sin; being conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, without male participation.  And he not only assumed human nature as far as the body is concerned but also a real human soul, in order that he might be a real human being.

The Definition of Chalcedon says,

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin.

The point is rooted in Scripture and explained by the church through the ages. Jesus was fully human. In other words, there is no reason to assume that Christ as a baby did not cry.

The goal of the carol is to present a peaceful scene like we see in all the paintings of Christ’s birth. But in doing so the carol takes away one of the more important aspects of Christ’s birth; its reality. Of course, we all believe it happened. But we think it happened differently than normal births. Christ’s birth becomes something mystic and other worldly. We imagine that the manger in Bethlehem was filled with glowing lights, halos, peace, and warm fuzzy feelings. The reality would have been quite different. There would have been blood, pain, and anguish. Mary sat under the curse of Eve like all women do (Genesis 3:16). While Christ’s conception was of the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to assume the birth was anything out of the ordinary. Did Mary scream? Certainly it is possible, even probable. She was giving birth to a child. Did baby Jesus cry? Well of course he did. He was a baby, a fully human baby just like we were.

A Covenant Freely Given

Pierre Marcel on the glory of the covenant of grace. All italics are his.

It is a covenant of grace, that is to say, freely given. It does not depend upon any human condition, it is not a gift in exchange for some service, it does not answer to any fulfillment of law on the part of man. God Himself, in the person of His Son, provides the surety of the covenant, whereby all our obligations are met at the same time as the demands of the divine justice.

Again, it is a covenant of grace, a free covenant, because God by His grace, rendered efficacious by the working of the Holy Spirit, makes man capable of living in conformity with the requirements prescribed by the terms of the covenant. The covenant of grace has its origin in the grace of God, it is put into execution by the grace of God, and it is experienced in the life of sinners through the grace of God. From beginning to end it is pure grace for the sinner. It is God who descends to man and raises him to Himself. It is God who disannuls the covenant of sinful man with Satan and with death (Is. xxviii. 18), who places enmity between man and Satan, who destroys death, and who, taking man for His possession, promises him victory over every adverse power. It is the work of God, only His Work, and all His work. Man cannot lay claim to any personal glory: all the glory emanates from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.