Saturday, May 29, 2010

"My Father is greater than I" - the road less traveled

"My Father is greater than I." - Jesus. (John 14:28)

The problem

We Christians are generally taught that Jesus is equal to the Father. This verse calls that into question (or some would say, appears to call that into question). There is a ready answer, both traditional and common -- the road more traveled, if you will: That Jesus spoke this according to his human nature alone. Of course humanity is less than deity; problem solved.

This whole piece will assume the reader is familiar with basic Christian theology and, considering where it will be read, that the reader is probably fairly orthodox according to historical Christian views.

The problem with the answer

The answer -- that Jesus spoke according to only his human nature -- has seemed problematic to me. For one, we had to flirt with the outskirts of Nestorian theology to say that; it essentially separates the divine and human in Christ by saying that the divine did not participate at all in that answer. If Christ's humanity and divinity are separate in such a way that he said things according to just the human nature alone, then how do we recognize things where the divine was participating? What else did he teach only according to his human nature? Did he die only according to his human nature? Was he baptized only according to his human nature? Did he weep at Lazarus' tomb only according to his human nature? Did the very nature of God participate with manhood fully, or not?

The answer that Jesus spoke according to only his human nature may also be problematic in light of what Jesus said, "I do nothing of myself; but as my Father has taught me, I speak of these things" (John 8:28). Sure, there are different ways we could understand this depending on how we view Jesus. But it does lend more weight to the idea that, if we take the gospels as reasonably reliable witnesses, we have reason to wonder whether "only according to the human nature" is really consistent with what Jesus' contemporaries wrote about him and what they meant to tell us about him.

Many people are decidedly uncomfortable with Jesus saying "My Father is greater than I" because it shines a spotlight on a problem-area for understanding the Trinity. I have heard theologians wrestle with questions like "Why is the Father the first person of the Trinity, if all are equal?" Or, "Why was the second person of the Trinity the one who was incarnate? Could it have been another?" I suppose, from that point of view, you could just as easily ask how the third person was assigned the job of being the one who came at Pentecost. If our starting point is "There are three equal persons who are one God", then those questions are very difficult to answer at all, much less to answer convincingly. They are not so difficult to answer if our starting point is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- the way the people encounter God, rather than the theories attempting to explain it.

The road less traveled and the nature of the Father

And so I am, for this piece, taking the road less traveled. I'm not talking about the easy solution that many non-Trinitarians have taken, where they likewise assume that Jesus was talking according to his human nature -- and this because they assume the human nature is the only nature he had. It is often assumed that if only we dismiss the Gospel of John, the problem goes away and we get a human Jesus.* Some have pointed out that it's only in the Gospel of John that Jesus claims to be equal with God, only in the Gospel of John that Jesus says that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father, only there that he is called uniquely begotten of God. But it is also only in the Gospel of John that Jesus makes problematic statements such as "the Father is greater than I", or the Father being "the only true God" (John 17:3). So rather than toss out John, I think we might want to consider the possibility that our interpretation isn't a great fit to what John has said.

Here I start by taking a broad application of Jesus' saying, "I do nothing of myself; but as my Father has taught me, I speak of these things." What if we apply that also to "The Father is greater than I"? Taking a close look at the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can notice one thing: only the Father is without origin. The Son is "begotten" of the Father; the Spirit "proceeds". The Father is the origin of the Son and the Spirit. The difference between the Son and the Spirit on the one hand, and creation on the other hand, is that the Son and the Spirit are not creations. They are of the very essence of God. But that very essence has its origins in the Father. The Father is unique within the Trinity in being the only "person" -- if we care to use that language -- absolutely without origin, absolutely self-existing. That is why, when we use Trinitarian language to describe God, that the Father must be the first person of the Trinity.

Some could say -- and fairly enough -- that the persons of the Trinity are numbered as "first, second, and third" after how they are listed in the ancient baptismal formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." True enough; but unless that baptismal formula is arbitrary then the order there may give us knowledge to help us in our understanding of God. And when we study further, we find that not only is the Father listed first in the baptismal order, but that he is also the origin of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The baptismal formula fits well with what we know of the Father from other teachings of Jesus.

The road less traveled and the nature of the Son

Once, when reading Jurgen Moltmann's writings, I came across a passage where I badly wanted to check the translation and see if he really could have said such a thing; he said, in essence, that the second person of the Trinity became the Word of God. I suspect the translation was accurate about the general intent, because several of the things he had said sounded as though his starting point was the idea of three persons in one Godhead, rather than the witness of those who had seen remarkable events involving the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He sounded as though he was denying that the Son is intrinsically the Word of God. And whenever we talk primarily about "persons of the Trinity", we risk losing sight of that. But what if it is better to start with what Jesus' contemporaries said about him, rather than what later theologians and philosophers made of it? Here we do not find "the second person became the Word", but "The Word became flesh."

When the Gospel of John tries to describe to us who Jesus is, it starts with the creation of the world, how God spoke the Word and shaped the world. From there, having introduced the Word as the active power of God behind the very existence of this world, the author moves on to say that this Word became flesh; that is the Gospel of John's introduction of Jesus. I don't really think the view that "Jesus only had a human nature" is truly on the table from the Gospel of John's standpoint. The Word of God -- being the living word of the living God -- fittingly came to us as a person rather than a book. But the Word of God is sent from God, derived from God, spoken by God -- shows God, reflects God, reveals God. We can truly and fully affirm that whoever sees Jesus sees the Father. And yet the Father is greater, not by having things that were withheld (as if all the fullness of God did not reside in his Word), nor by staying transcendent while Jesus walks the earth. The Father is greater as the one who sends, the one who is the origin. Jesus did nothing apart from his Father's will; it was not the other way around. The Word of God reflects the Father whose Word he is; the Son of God is in every way a true image. We can affirm that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that no one comes to the Father except through him; and yet, we still see that he is here as the way to the Father who sent him.

The road less traveled and the nature of Holy Spirit?

No, the text I'm discussing -- "The Father is greater than I" -- is not the right place to discuss the Holy Spirit. So here I will limit myself to just a few comments. The Holy Spirit, likewise, is the Spirit of God. Just as Jesus is the Word of God, is fully of God, is uncreated, likewise the Holy Spirit is fully of God and is uncreated. And yet both have their origins in God the Father. (Many would here add, "and the Son"; this writing is not the time or place for that argument.)

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

Christians have called on the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit from ancient times. The baptismal formula has always been one of the important texts informing our understanding of God. I think it is no accident that the place we look to understand God is the place where we first meet him as Christians: at the baptismal font. The texts about baptism speak of our rescue, our being remade in the image of God, our cleansing and rebirth, the renewal of creation, and the forgiveness of sins. At each step of the baptismal formula, God moves closer to us: from "our Father in heaven" to the Son who is God With Us to the Spirit who is God within us, making us God's own temples. We are caught up into the life of God himself, transformed by the renewing of our minds. That is the promise of the power of God at work in this world.

Two roads diverged

"My Father is greater than I." If Jesus spoke this according to the fullness of who he is as Christ, if he spoke as the Word of God, then he has taught us something about God. He has forced us to look more closely not at the abstract "three persons of the Trinity", but at what it means for God to act in this world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how the Word of God and the Spirit of God are related to what it means to be God, and to be the people of God. When we understand God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we understand a God who acts in this world for us and for our salvation. So this saying does challenge our understanding of the Trinity, after its own way.

When we speak of the three persons of the Trinity, do we have as clear a picture of God as when we speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

* If we dismiss the Gospel of John and just limit ourselves to the other writings about Jesus, we still don't get a merely human Jesus. But that's beyond the scope of discussing "My Father is greater than I" and what to make of it for talking about the Trinity.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Controversies: the role of women

The role of women is a controversy that often follows the liberal/conservative divide within Christianity. Within Christianity, it is a given that both men and women are created in God's image and receive gifts of the Holy Spirit. The divisive question relates to whether women should hold positions of authority.


Complementarians believe that men and women have different natural gifts, different roles to which they are called, and different roles which it is fitting for them to hold. Specifically, complementarians believe that women cannot be church leaders above a certain level of responsibility or authority.

Internal diversity: Some complementarians admit women to lower church offices in such roles as serving communion, ushering, acolyting, reading from the Scripture during services, or serving as deaconesses. Others would see these as trespassing across the bounds of leadership offices reserved for men.

Strong points: Many complementarians hold to this view out of a commitment to living God-pleasing lives and out of loyalty to Scripture, where the common understanding of Paul reserves leadership and authority roles to men. People are also drawn to this view by the sense that sexual differences are part of nature and that therefore distinctions between men and women are natural and right. There is a belief that the natural inherent sex differences may affect leadership ability in such a way that there is an inherent rightness to reserving certain positions for men. Some also see the male leadership as representing God, who asks us to refer to him as Father which is an explicitly male term, or as representing Christ who is male in his humanity. Further, for many people -- both men and women -- it is comfortable to live out traditional roles; this is seen as a legitimate point in favor of the "nature" argument by some complementarians.

External criticisms: Whether or not any given complementarian intends to keep women down, the practical outworking of the complementarian view is to deliberately and systematically exclude women from leadership roles. To give different rights to some but not others is seen simply as injustice. To classify people into two classes, one above the other, is by definition to treat the second group as second-class. Additional concerns range from oppression and marginalization of women to a loss of the use of God-given gifts.

Response to criticism: None of the concerns of the egalitarians changes the fact that the common understanding of Scripture reserves leadership and authority roles to men. In Scripture, Paul argues both from the order of creation (that men were made before women) and from the fall (that Eve was deceived but Adam was not deceived) that men should lead (1 Timothy 2:13-14). In Genesis, we see an explicit statement attributed directly to God that the husband would rule over the wife (Genesis 3:16). In the matter of justice, women and men are equal in their humanity but not in their roles. Upholding different sexual roles is seen as healthy and right, while confusing sexual roles is seen as unhealthy. The complementarians are concerned how often the same groups that advocate erasing the lines of sexual roles also advocate the normalization of homosexuality; to a complementarian, this is no mere coincidence but necessarily follows from the removal of effective distinctions between men and women.

The slippery slope: The complementarian view does not apologize for dividing humanity into two classes and assigning one a higher level of authority than the other. Because of this, there have been times and places in Christian complementarian cultures where women could not own property, where many places of higher education were closed to women and many jobs were closed to women. Is there a clear answer as to how it is possible to have two classes of humanity, one above the other, without the lower being oppressed? If not, how is that different from saying the complementarian view has injustice built into it?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Complementarians often assume that, because they hold their views out of respect for Scripture, that egalitarians have no respect for Scripture. The rhetoric can be heated and decidedly unkind. It is not unknown for the complementarians to question the morality of the egalitarians or disparage the authenticity of their faith. Complementarians may suggest that egalitarians promote homosexuality.

Charitable moments: Some complementarians may recognize that the egalitarians' driving desire is to apply "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" in the matter of the battle of the sexes. They may also recognize that egalitarians are skeptical about men arguing in their own self-interest, and that this skepticism has some historical basis.

Fair questions from egalitarians to complementarians:
About practice: A woman cannot lead in a complementarian church, but she can lead in business. A woman cannot vote in some complementarian church meetings, but she can vote in secular elections. When women see the secular world treating their views with more respect than the Christian church, what does that do to their view of the church?

About understanding Scripture: The clear statement that the husband would rule over the wife is from God's judgment after the fall. In the age of Christ, with his redemption, is it appropriate to argue for a permanent church institution based on perpetuating punishment for a past sin? All the clear complementarian statements in the New Testament come from Paul, who brought those views into Christianity with him from the extra-Biblical traditions of Judaism. When we evaluate Paul's writings, what should we make of what Jesus said about the extra-Biblical traditions of Judaism being mere traditions taught by men? We see the early church making decisions based on meeting in council and discussion with the consent of all the church. Did Paul have the authority to make a decision by himself that is binding on all Christians of all time?


Egalitarians believe that men and women are fully equal in their humanity and therefore in their roles, and that both are able to serve in church leadership in a God-pleasing way.

Internal diversity:
Some egalitarians believe that the sexual differences between men and women make a material difference, and want to make sure the different views are heard. Others maintain that sexual differences are wholly immaterial to an individual's abilities or performance as a leader.

Among egalitarians, there is general agreement that women should have access to the same roles and jobs as men, but there are some differences in the respect and authority accorded to the Bible. This leads to some differences in how the egalitarian view is framed. For those who have a generally high view of the Bible's historicity and moral authority, different textual arguments have been advanced about whether Paul is being understood as he intended, and whether certain passages in Paul's writings may be later interpolations that were not part of the original text. Others see Paul's argument from Eve's fall as conveniently selective, as there are endless examples of men in the Bible who were morally imperfect, but that has never been taken to mean that men should not lead. Others view the Bible as teaching a moral ideal that we are still realizing over the course of history, that we are on a trajectory towards living out the reality that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Others note that Paul's arguments rest largely on the Genesis creation account, which they take as non-historical; they see no reason to exclude women from leadership over the account of Eve given their understanding of it as symbolic.

Strong points: There is not even the appearance of injustice, of discrimination against women. The men's arguments cannot be seen as self-serving. Many people welcome the fuller participation of women and value the contributions made by women to the leadership of the churches in which it has been tried.

External criticisms: One common position in egalitarian circles is that the statements of the Bible on men's and women's roles are no longer binding. This is a direct rejection of the idea of a timeless, eternal word of God that guides us steadily throughout all the ages of the world. Other arguments on reaching egalitarian views from the Bible -- that the relevant text says the opposite of how it has usually been understood, and that it is an interpolation -- contradict each other; if both arguments are accepted we would believe that the right understanding of a certain passage is really egalitarian but that it was added at a later date so it is not binding. The two arguments cancel each other, and cannot be advanced in such a way as to take both of them seriously. This makes them appear to be ideologically-driven arguments that put the goal of reaching a pre-determined conclusion (the egalitarian one) above the goal of understanding the original text.

Response to criticism: Egalitarians note that even the most conservative Christian groups will view some teachings of the Bible as being culturally-specific and outdated, whether the law of Moses to drain meat of all blood, or the New Testament note to "greet each other with a holy kiss". The Bible's laws governing slavery are now largely seen as ways to prevent abuses of slavery, but that Christ's call to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" has been applied so that in most places slavery is illegal. The type of slavery where someone could be involuntarily enslaved for life through no fault of their own is now widely considered barbarous and unChristian. Applying Christ's teachings has been a way to take the world to new levels of justice and equality that Paul hardly imagined. In this way, the proclamation of the good news of Christ, God With Us, has been a humanizing voice for all the oppressed as it spreads through the world. Applying the same teachings to the role of women is proclaiming the forgiveness of Eve's sin too, not just Adam's; it is proclaiming the full redemption and full value of all humanity.

The slippery slope: The complementarians have warned that altering traditional views of manhood and womanhood will lead to the normalization of homosexuality (which is another controversy in itself). In practice, this has often been the case: that groups who normalize female leadership also tend to normalize homosexual practice. Some within the egalitarian camp would not see this is as a problem but rather a further proof of the social justice of the egalitarian camp; others within the egalitarian camp still advocate for traditional expressions of physical sexuality within heterosexual marriage.

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Egalitarians often mockingly stereotype the complementarians' views of masculinity with caricatures of chest-thumping, beer-swilling men. Too often the egalitarians' arguments address the caricature (i.e. strawman fallacy) rather than what the complementarians themselves believe. While this does reinforce the egalitarians' own views, it also tacitly assumes that complementarians' actual views shouldn't be taken seriously. The egalitarians' attitude towards complementarians is often condescending, tainted by smugness.

The battle of the sexes can lead to heated rhetoric. At the extremes, egalitarians have charged complementarians with turning a blind eye towards violence against women such as wife-beating or rape. This effectively paints a picture of male complementarians as Jack-the-Ripper types, if not the actual perpetrators then at least the apologists and enablers of barbaric and brutal crimes against women.

Charitable moments: Some egalitarians may note that the complementarians' driving motivation is to respect God by respecting Scripture, to keep with their sense of what is right, natural, and God-given. Egalitarians may also note that the complementarian reading of Scripture has been historically well-accepted and is not a controversial reading of the texts at this time.

Fair questions from complementarians to egalitarians: On the matter of interpreting the Bible, the egalitarians' call is to understand Paul in context -- which nobody disputes in principle. In practice, the egalitarian context for Paul, as applied, is often taken to mean that he is no longer applicable in our context. At what point does "understanding Paul in context" become equivalent to "placing him within a context which does not affect us here and now"? Once the Bible is moved to the category of "historically interesting but outdated" rather than "timeless guidance", why follow the teachings of the Bible today?

Related controversies: The moral authority of the Bible. Interpreting the Bible.


Martin LaBar has rounded up links of writings from egalitarian groups. He points out that these groups retain heterosexuality as normative:
Thanks for the additional resources on that perspective.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Jabez maneuver

(If I blogged nothing but the controversies series we'll all get tired of it. I'll be pacing the series so that it's not the only thing on the blog.)

Remember The Prayer of Jabez? That book was all the rage awhile back. At the time of its wild popularity my main thought was, "You've got to be kidding." Don't mistake my point; I'm glad if many people enjoyed the book and were more steadfast in prayer -- and in looking to God for blessing -- than before. I don't think any ill of the readers or the author.

The root of my amazement traces back to something that even the review at Amazon notes:
Even well-versed Biblical scholars might be perplexed if asked about Jabez, a little-known man listed in 1 Chronicles, chapter 4 ...
I think many people have an insecurity, a nagging doubt that they are missing something important. When someone comes up with something we have never heard of before, we can come to doubt whether our understanding is adequate. It happens sometimes that someone uses this insecurity against us, that someone deliberately tries to leverage control by flaunting obscure trivia to claim expertise. Because of my initial reaction to the book of Jabez, I have been mentally referring to this move for some time as "the Jabez maneuver." (This is not to assume such poor intentions for the book's author! The point of comparison is the wide recognition given to such a minor figure in the Bible.)

I see "the Jabez maneuver" in fads all the time, whether musical fads, diet fads, scholarly fads, or spiritual fads. The basic setup is simple: find something obscure that has some merit, and fly its flag high as the one thing needful to make everything better. Never heard of it? That's just proof: This is what you've been missing all along.

So it is no surprise that people try to win arguments by exploiting that same type of insecurity. It is a standard (if dishonest) move in arguments to latch onto an obscure point -- preferably obscure enough that this person is the only one familiar with it -- in order to look smarter. If the arguer proves they know something the other side doesn't know, who looks smarter? If the arguer knows even something really trivial -- for example, poor Jabez, rest his soul -- why, they must know even more than the really well-versed Biblical scholars who never heard of him before the book hit the presses. Right?

Unfortunately, this move is often used by people who only know a few obscure facts to gain the upper hand in arguments, and otherwise may not have grasped the basics of the area in which they claim expertise. The risk is that, armed with just a few trivial pieces of knowledge, they may convince the unsuspecting that they are experts when in reality they have almost no knowledge of the field.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Controversies: the list

Updated with links: 02/09/2011

This post is my working draft of the controversies I'd hope to consider. I have some notes but I'd bore everybody if I put those above the list -- so they're below it.

1. The liberal/conservative group of controversies:
a. Creation/evolution
b. Role of women
c. Is heterosexuality normative?
d. Reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible
e. Moral authority of the Bible
f. Models and methods for interpreting the Bible

2. Controversies over the identity of God
a. Can we know God?
b. Who is Jesus?
c. How can Jesus Christ be both God and man?
d. Who or what is the Holy Spirit?
e. Is the doctrine of the Trinity warranted?
f. What is God like?

3. The Catholic/Protestant group of controversies:
a. Scripture, Tradition, and the basis of doctrine
b. Apostolic succession
c. The Bishop of Rome
d. What gives unity to the church?
e. Saints and heroes of previous ages
f. The controversies over Mary
g. Doctrinal development and the faith once given
h. Celibacy and holiness
i. Monasticism and holiness

4. The salvation controversies
a. How are we saved?
b. How do we grow in holiness?
c. How do we deal with sin in our Christian communities?
d. Is there a heaven?
e. Is there a hell?
f. Who is saved?

5. The sacrament/ordinance controversies
a. What is baptism?
b. What is the Lord's Supper?
c. The right place of Other sacraments, rites, or ordinances

6. The liturgical/free-church controversies
a. The lectionary
b. The liturgy and the movement of the Holy Spirit
c. Clerical garb
d. Special offices and the priesthood of all believers
e. The creeds
f. How should we worship?

7. Christianity in the world
a. Is Christianity unique?
b. How should we witness?
c. How should we live out our faith?
d. What is the gospel?

And here are the introductory notes that would have put any unsuspecting readers to sleep before they reached the list:

  • This list is likely to be fluid. I use this blog like an on-line notebook at times, and I expect that this post will change as I add or rearrange the material, or add links.
  • Looking at my current list, I suppose I'd rather have started with what is now section 2 on controversies over the identity of God. When I set out, starting with Genesis seemed natural, but for most things it's not practical to take them in the order in which they appear in the Bible, since the controversies range all over the place. So I'll finish up the conservative/liberal group of controversies first, then move on.
  • I'm aware that my list is weighted towards controversies where I'm more involved. This is not out of any plans to exclude anyone's favorite controversies; it's more a matter of starting with what I know. I can hardly start somewhere besides where I am. I'd be glad for comments on other things to discuss.
  • Some controversies could easily fit under more than one heading. I usually grouped them where I thought it would be most helpful to discuss them.

Edward Babinski has a survey of the diversity of Christianity.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Contoversies: What's the scope?

For anyone wondering about the intended scope of this series, I would like to say from the outset that this series is beyond me, not only in wisdom and understanding but also in sheer size. What I hope to do -- and I hope you all will help me -- is map out the fault lines within Christianity. The primary goal is that we at least understand where the other person is coming from, whether we agree or not. Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will already know that I'm not consistently good at that.

When I start mapping out the fault lines within Christianity, in my mind I start in the early days, tracing back to the New Testament and just afterward. Do I count the Gnostics within the scope of this series? No; while the Gnostics are interesting in their own right, my thoughts about the Gnostics are mainly addressed in posts about whether the New Testament contains the best available material on the life and teachings of Jesus. So the controversies in this series will be the controversies among those who adhere to some form of apostolic Christianity -- acknowledging that the people who knew Jesus or knew the apostles are the best sources of information about them.

That much said, the early Christological controversies are still fair game. There are, to this day, non-Chalcedonian groups that have survived from the ancient times. (I'm hoping to make this year's entry into the Trinity Blogging Summit on one of these views.)

At the more recent end of the time scale, what about Mormons? Again, the question is interesting in its own right. For purposes of this series, since Mormons have additional canonical Scriptures that they consider to be on the same level as the New Testament writings, they aren't part of this particular series. That is not to ignore the Mormons; in fact I have a series on the Mormons (already written, but being saved for this summer when I know I'll be too busy at work to write much new material).

I haven't quite decided about the JW's yet, whether they're within the scope.

But the intent of this series is to look at all the groups that are Christian, and all the groups each one considers to be incorrect in their beliefs, and see what exactly is diving us.

Examples of broad families of beliefs:

Oriental Orthodox
Eastern Orthodox
Roman Catholic
Church of England / Episcopal

I don't mean to snub any group by not listing it separately. Take, for example, the Church of Christ or the 7th Day Adventists. They aren't listed above mainly because of their size; I'm not really going to list all 30,000+ groups in a blog post, and the sample groups listed above made the "examples" list because of either their commonness or their historical importance. But before the series is done I hope to have discussed some of the controversies that matter to them, too.

What I don't want to do is get into "Group A's laundry list of complaints against Group B". I want to keep it on the level of the controversies themselves, and steer as clear of partisanship and resentments as is possible considering the topics. Within those broad families of beliefs listed, there are internal controversies; many of those internal controversies are fairly repetitive, such as the creation / evolution controversy which has played itself out within each group in different ways. We've even seen modern groups of Christians form alliances and fellowship based on common ground on the liberal/conservative divide, without regard to the differences about understanding God.

Next post in the series will be on the controversies I have in mind to cover. I will need some help with the perspective on controversies where I don't understand how someone could hold one or more of the perspectives. For controversies where I don't get it, the posts will probably have a "Can somebody explain this to me?" approach.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Like a woman in childbirth: a quick note on End Times

(No, I'm not stopping my series. But it's not all I think about either.)
I've kept an eye on some of the current news about troubles around the world, and I was thinking, "Here we go again." The Bible compares the end times to a woman in labor. I think there's more to that comparison than how nobody knows the day or the hour. I think there's more to it than it hurting a lot.

I have two children. I remember labor very vividly. And the pains weren't steady; they were contractions. It would be unbearable. Then it would be gone, absolutely fine for a few minutes. Then it would be unbearable again. Then it would be fine again.

We see the same cycles in the catastrophes in the world. Like a woman in labor.

I guess one question for end-time watchers is this: can you tell if the contractions are getting closer together?

I sometimes wonder, when the Bible mentions that the world to come does not have a sun or even need one, does that mean that we shouldn't expect the final end until after the sun has gone out?

Just musing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Controversies in the church: why in the world take that approach?

Now that I've posted the first piece in the "controversies" series, I wanted to put just a quick note explaining why I've taken that approach. Here are the basic points I've tried to address, and what I hope to accomplish with them.

The common ground: you can only have a controversy when there's a common ground to start with. There aren't controversies over whether the Houston Texans are better than the Utah Jazz. They'll never meet in regulation play.

The group's beliefs on the controversy: Can we define the group in such a way that both groups recognize it as a fair representation?

Internal diversity: Because many beliefs fall along a spectrum and are more complicated than simply being opposites.

Strong points: For every belief, there's an honest reason why people believe it.

External criticisms: For every opposing camp, there are things they just don't get about the belief in question.

Response to criticism: Most groups actually have thought about what the other camp has to say. It's not necessarily that they're closed-minded; they may honestly find the opposing arguments unpersuasive.

The slippery slope: If a controversy makes for a spectrum of beliefs, and if beliefs out among real people lie along a bell curve, then what is the outward edge of a set of beliefs? Can you articulate how to keep from going to the extreme, for your own side? Can you recognize that not everybody is at that extreme, for your opponents' side?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: What is it about this group's reaction to the other group that tends to fuel the fire?

Charitable moments: What outlook would permit conversation again?

Fair questions: What are the honest questions about the actual beliefs of the other camp?

Related controversies: Because very few controversies stand alone.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Controversies in the church: Creation

The controversy: Creation

Many denominations have a rift caused largely by the question, "How do you interpret the creation account in Genesis?" Though that's not quite fair; some might phrase it, "How do you interpret the creation accounts in Genesis?" (on the view that the "7 days" account and the "Adam and Eve" account are two separate accounts). Denomination after denomination has split in two, forming separate groups for the evolutionists and the creationists -- though that split usually goes with several other differences among the same groups. Among those who believe in God and to some extent form their faith from the Bible, there is only a slight common ground on this issue: the two main groups both believe that God could not possibly be wrong about how the earth was made. From there, they diverge almost instantly.


From the starting point that God could not possibly be wrong about how the earth was made, the traditional creationists work on the assumption that the Bible is God's word, infallible in all that it teaches, and that therefore the Genesis creation account can be taken as historically true.

Internal diversity: Creationists can be either young-earth or old-earth creationists. Advocates of Intelligent Design also have a place in the spectrum of beliefs.

Strong points: Viewing the creation account as historical was, for many centuries, the most common interpretation of the text; it was held by well-respected scholars. Prominent historians of previous ages took the accounts in Genesis as historical, incorporating them into their chronologies of world history. Though there were occasional exceptions, the historical view was the mainstream view for the majority of church history to this point.

External criticisms: Evolutionists see creationism as defending a fort that has already fallen. Evolutionists view creationism as a scientifically illiterate view. Critics also see it as putting the creationists' faith at risk of harm by making the adherents' Christian identity depend on something that is, in the scientific consensus, not true.

Response to criticism: Scientific consensus changes over time. New methods, new discoveries, and new theories continue to change how scientists view the natural world. It is possible that in the future evolutionary theory may become outdated or significantly revised. Whether or not this happens, one of the key claims of evolution -- namely, that the changes in life forms are the product of chance alone -- is not properly a scientific claim as it is not open to testing or verification. That particular claim of evolutionary theory is more of a philosophical stance based on a framework intended to exclude religion from consideration. It is not anti-scientific to call out particular claims that are not open to testing or verification.

The slippery slope: The historicist view requires rejecting today's scientific consensus. There is an internal risk of mistrusting the scientific consensus. Those who have gone to the extreme of the slippery slope may view evolutionary science as something like an anti-religious conspiracy. This concern is strengthened by the most outspoken evolutionists who have basically volunteered for the role of the anti-religious conspiracy, having gone to the opposite pole of the argument and openly trying to use science to overthrow religion. The general stance of mistrusting evolutionary science can, in some cases, lead to a broader mistrust of science. In the most extreme cases, it leads to a distrust of scholarship in general which is inherently unhealthy.

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: The creationists do not always attribute the best of motives to the evolutionists. Charges of selling out and unfaithfulness are not uncommon. Sometimes there are charges of doubting God, disbelieving God, or rejecting the Bible. There is frequently an all-or-nothing view of the Bible that equates hesitations or caveats over a part of the Bible with an outright rejection of the whole.

Charitable moments: Some creationists may recognize that the evolutionists, in accommodating their reading of Genesis to the scientific consensus, are actually trying to save and rescue things of value in the narrative in light of today's scientific understandings rather than trying to reject it. Creationists may recognize that many Christian evolutionists are not setting themselves up as enemies of the faith but as pioneers in building a new understanding.

Fair questions from evolutionists to creationists: At what point of certainty do you accept a scientific finding? Is there a double-standard used for accepting/rejecting evolutionary theory that would not be employed with other scientific findings that have no direct bearing on a traditional understanding of the Bible?


From the starting point that God could not possibly be wrong about how the earth was made, the evolutionists work on the assumption that since evolution has been proven true to their satisfaction, the Bible's story of creation is perhaps true in a symbolic sense but not in the historical sense. (See "related controversies".)

Internal diversity: Evolutionists who believe in God may believe that God guided evolution. Others believe that God had no direct role, simply setting up the initial conditions so that things would take their natural course.

Strong points: Engages with modern science and can respond to those who want to use science to overthrow religion in such a way that they may respect or understand the answer. Speaks to those who have been brought up taking evolution for granted and wonder whether science and religion are compatible. It is comfortable in the modern world and does not see evolutionary science as a threat.

External criticisms: Creationists see evolutionists as watering down or undercutting the authority of the Bible. Critics also see a risk to evolutionists' faith by becoming too cozy with modern culture and too dependent on external approval of their beliefs.

Response to criticism: Any authority that the Bible has comes from God's truth. If something is not true, we have to interpret in light of what we know. The untrue understanding cannot be accepted as the right understanding of God's word. It is a misuse of authority to compel people to believe (or claim to believe) something that has been demonstrated to be false to the satisfaction of the majority of scientists in the field. Holding to outdated views does not increase the authority of the Bible, but diminishes the authority of the Bible by saying it teaches things shown to be false in the eyes of most scientists in the field.

The slippery slope: The evolutionist view requires rejecting the historical consensus of Christianity and putting significant conditions on the acceptance of the Bible. Those who have gone to the extreme of the slippery slope may view the entirety of the Bible as little more than myth and legend. This concern is strengthened by some prominent scholars of this camp who still designate themselves as Christians but who do in fact teach that the whole of the Bible, including the narratives about Jesus, are to be thrown out nearly wholesale. This is nearly the mirror-image of the "all or nothing" view of the Bible on the opposite side of the belief spectrum, but now choosing "nothing" rather than "all."

Fair questions from creationists to evolutionists: Once you begin second-guessing the narrative, how do you know when to stop? Is there anything in the Bible that you take as certain; if so, why that and not the rest? Is there any belief you are sure will not be overthrown someday; if so, what is it and how are you sure about that?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: The evolutionists are deeply embarrassed by creationists, which has led to some strikingly unbrotherly attitudes and behavior towards them. Those evolutionists with an uncharitable bent are seen to publicly malign the intelligence, education, reasoning ability, and even the reading skills of people who interpret the Bible according according to a plainer reading of what it says rather than accommodating the scientific consensus. The sometimes savage way in which Christian evolutionists treat creationists may be intended merely to distance the evolutionists' Christian identity from the creationists and communicate that the creationists' view is thoroughly rejected; in practice, it often amounts to caring more about the acceptance of outsiders than about kindness towards brothers and sisters in Christ, and identifying more strongly with secularists than with other believers. At its worst, it puts respectability above brotherly love.

Charitable moment: Some evolutionists may recognize the huge cultural shock caused when the consensus changed from a historical view of the creation account in Genesis to a symbolic view of creation account in Genesis, and may respond with patience and understanding as it takes awhile for views to adjust. Others may recognize that the creationists behave as they do out of allegiance to God and an independence of spirit.

Related controversies: The authority of the Bible. Models and methods for interpreting the Bible.

The conversation continues:

Martin LaBar writes on Young Earth Creation vs Intelligent Design. I also thought the flow chart of beliefs on origins was helpful.

Howard Nowlan looks over the conflicts between naturalism and supernaturalism in The Present Danger?

Craig points us to Gerald Schroeder's scheme for mapping the Genesis days onto contemporary scientific chronology, an example of one approach to compatibility between the "7 days" narrative and current scientific views.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Controversies in the church: series introduction

Every once in awhile I start a series that I know I'm not quite capable of doing justice, but that hardly lets me off the hook of trying. I wish a book, booklet, or field guide existed that did a good job of explaining various controversies in the church, while doing justice to both sides -- or all sides, as the case may be. I've seen a few things that were in the neighborhood -- catalogs of differences or lists of which groups stand where on various things. But they either made no real effort to explain, or made an effort to explain only the side of the group running the publishing house.

For some controversies that divide the church, I can see both sides. For other controversies, I have no earthly idea what is behind certain views. So as I go along in this series, I'd like to invite other people to comment with either more perspective on their point of view or mentioning that they've responded on their own blog. Anyone who tells me of a response on their own blog -- and the post constructively explains without being condescending or polemic -- will get a link.

My hope is that, at the end of this series, we'll have an on-line resource for anyone who wants to hear both sides of the story, to better understand their brothers and sisters in Christ. I should be plain that I'm not expecting to resolve any controversies at this point; if we can simply understand them, it will be a step in the right direction.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Confirmation day and my niece's bat mitzvah

Today was confirmation day at our church. We had a good sized confirmation class this year. They seemed bright. They could articulate their faith.

But it's only been a few months since my niece's bat mitzvah. And again, much like the year of my nephew's bar mitzvah, I couldn't help but notice a few differences in the way the two congregations approach a youth's coming of age. For my niece and nephew, it was the day they first wore the tallit, the prayer shawl -- and all that comes with that. But just a quick note on the shawl before the more important part about what comes with it.

Every time I look at a Jewish prayer shawl, I can see an inheritance of our Christian faith from its Jewish roots -- because I see a prayer shawl every week in Christian worship. Most Christians would also think a prayer shawl looked familiar -- any Christian who has ever been to worship in a church that is rooted in the ancient traditions: the priest or pastor or minister still wears one. Though we call it by a different name, the pastor's stole is still recognizably based on the Jewish tallit. It even still has the trailing tassels inherited from Judaism: "Throughout the generations to come, you are to make tassels on the corners of one's garments ..." (Numbers 15:38) Apparently it passed into Christian practice back in the days of the apostles when the leaders of all the earliest Christian churches were Jewish.

But more important than the prayer shawl was what came with it. In the synagogue, it wasn't just the rabbi who wore the prayer shawl. Being a conservative synagogue, everyone both male and female past the age of bar mitzah/bat mitzvah wore the shawl. You may think, "Well, it's just not a sign of leadership, then." Actually, it is. On the day my niece took up her shawl for the first time, she led the services. She led the prayers. She read the readings. She led the songs. She gave the sermon. Now don't get me wrong -- Billy Graham's reputation as an articulate speaker was not in any danger from her, or from my nephew before her. But when she came of age, it came with leadership responsibility. Every adult member of that congregation not only can lead services if needed, but in fact has already done so at least once. (Well, twice if you count the Friday evening and Saturday morning services separately.) It's part of being an adult member of the congregation. That level of leadership, at a minimum, is expected of everyone. So it's not that you look out on a congregation full of shawls and think, "Well, it means nothing; everybody is wearing them." Instead, it means, "Every last one of them is capable of leading, in a pinch." That's something to be proud of.

People generally rise to our expectations of them. In our churches, we do the youth no favors by setting low expectations.

As for our confirmands of 2010: Other than the confirmation itself when they were received as adult members, their participation in the service was limited. They did not lead the services. They did not lead the prayers. They did not lead the songs. They did not read any of the Scripture readings. They did not give a sermon. And they joined a congregation in which leadership is not expected of its people.

There are many things we have known and claimed of our Jewish heritage. I believe that here is another inheritance for us to claim: training all of our members to lead.