Friday, December 6, 2013

The Innocent Dr. Ergun Caner’s Big Flaw

Some who read this have never heard of Dr. Ergun Caner. Those who have are likely checking their blood pressure over him or his accusers. For these people, have a seat and take a deep breath. The purpose of this article isn’t to join either his accusers or his backers. That said, I probably won’t make friends with anyone or cause anyone’s blood to boil over.

For those who haven’t heard of Dr. Caner, I’ll briefly summarize the issue for you:

In the course of his ministry as a Christian speaker and seminary educator, he has been filmed making what have been characterized by his supporters as no more than unintentional misstatements. In the course of a lengthy speaking career, it is understandable that misstatements occur. I won’t go into great detail about these misstatements for they are many, but I’ll list a few.
  • He once said that he was trained for jihad in a madrassa in Beirut.
  • He also said that he was trained in a madrassa in Istanbul.
  • He said that he had to learn English watching television. He has spoken Arabic from the pulpit.
  • He had difficulty in school after his family moved to America from Turkey in 1978 when he was about twelve years old with both learning in English and with practicing Islam.
  • He has claimed to have debated specific Arab Muslim apologists.

His accusers point out that his family actually moved to the United States in 1972 and that photos of his childhood show what look like a normal childhood. They say that there was no evidence that he went to Beirut or Istanbul to learn in a madrassa there. The Arab Muslims he claims to have debated have said that they never debated him and that what sounded like Arabic when he spoke it from the pulpit was not any kind of discernible Arabic.

The revelation of this apparently caused problems for him when he was a dean at Liberty University. The board of directors had him step down as dean, but otherwise exonerated him. He left Liberty, served as the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Arlington Baptist College for a couple of years and recently has been hired as the President of Brewton-Parker College in Georgia. Between recently being hired as President of a Christian College associated with the Georgia Southern Baptist Convention, and a lawsuit this past summer over the unapproved use of video evidence of his misstatements, his accusers have released a firestorm of online discussion attempting to call him to account which has been met with similar vitriol from his supporters. Since Dr. Caner also doesn’t hold a Reformed soteriology (soteriology refers to the doctrine of salvation one believes), many of his supporters point out that many of his accusers hold to Reformed soteriology, also known as Calvinism. So they counter accuse the accusers of being angry Calvinists.

As I stated above, I won’t join either side in this article. In fact, for the purposes of this article I will assume that he is utterly innocent of any kind of intentional deceit. Taking his innocence into consideration, I have one simple observation to make.

Allow me to pretend that I have the credentials to sit on the board of a Christian college whose task it is to find the next president of the college. I have before me a man with a pure heart. Since I am assured of his innocence, I know that he never intended to mislead anyone. I also know that he has the experience of effectively weathering harsh attacks by critics who insist on falsely accusing him. Surely that is a desirable quality in a college president. (As an aside, I wonder what kind of battles the board of the college plans on having even if they had not hired Dr. Caner.) Another benefit Dr. Caner brings is the fact that enrollment at Liberty Seminary nearly tripled under his leadership. Surely he could do the same for Brewton-Parker.

So he brings some good things to the table at Brewton-Parker College. But there is something that would trouble me as a board member. His accusers don’t trouble me. His Muslim heritage doesn’t trouble me since he is a professing Christian. His non-Reformed soteriology doesn’t trouble me although I am Reformed.

What would trouble me as an imaginary board member is that a college president needs to be able to communicate well. That includes being able to engender trust, be tactful yet perspicuous, and convey facts about the college accurately to the board of directors. If he is capable of unintentionally making the caliber of misstatements like the ones I listed above, my concern would be that I might misunderstand his communication to me and that the college might have to continually deal with similar misstatements to the public. I would consider that to be an unacceptable liability, no matter how innocently those kinds of misstatements were made. I would have to consider that that’s the same liability that the board of directors at Liberty took into consideration when they had him step down from his position of leadership there.

So my simple observation is this: If he’s completely innocent, I wouldn’t consider him fit to be a college president because his problem of making unintentional misstatements is at an unacceptable level.

I will consider that I am mistaken in this. After all, I'm not qualified to sit on the board of a college, Christian or otherwise. As a Christian, however, I am interested that truth is accurately espoused and communicated. From anyone so qualified, please feel free to make a case for a high level of unintended factual error.


Now, the discussion over his guilt or innocence has more than polluted the interwebs. It’s not that I get much in the way of comments on my blog. But for this kind of article, I will ask that any commenters who chance to come along would please limit conversation primarily to what level of factual misstatements are acceptable for people in leadership positions, and absolutely do not discuss Dr. Caner's guilt. I will delete any comments that don’t follow this rule.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

One Of the Many Things Doctor Who Doesn’t Teach Us About Time.

Warning: I start with some arcane terms. Hang on, though because I will explain these terms simply enough.

Listening to a podcast by William Lane Craig recently, he made the comment that the B-theory of time didn’t support the Kalam Cosmological argument and that was one reason that he was an A-theorist. (Please feel free to listen to this podcast.) I haven’t spent much time mulling over all of the implications of the theories of time, but that comment was provocative because I at least knew that a full-blown A-theory supports a multi-verse. Interestingly, it also fuels Craig's Molinism.

So I considered the two theories of time against the ideas of time that I have developed from reading scripture and realized that the two theories were not mutually exclusive. On a whim, I posted as much to my Facebook timeline and got some virtual blank stares. So I apologize to my Facebook friends for just being me. The real me isn’t particularly socially acceptable. Therefore, herewith, I will endeavor to explain what I meant. Also, I have written on this some before and produced at that time some diagrams that might be helpful.

The A-theory of time, in simple terms is the idea that things stay the same as they go through time. When I look at a painting that my mom painted, for example, although it has changed hands a couple of times, it is still the same painting that my mom painted. This seems like common sense. It seems true to us because we can understand it intuitively. That’s why this is a prevalent idea of time.

This is the idea of time that classical apologists use to prove the existence of God. They often use some variation of what is known as the Cosmological Argument. William Lane Craig uses one called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. It’s very persuasive. Cosmological arguments typically observe that everything has a cause. If you trace the cause of something backward through time you must find a cause that has no cause because you can just keep going back and never find a First Cause. And that’s what they call it: First Cause. Non-theistic scientists hold that the first cause was the Big Bang. The Big Bang happened and everything has progressed since then each causing the next thing to happen until you get to the present day.

The problem is that they have no scientific natural explanation for what caused the Big Bang. Cosmological arguments work because they demonstrate that the First Cause wasn’t natural. There had to have been an uncaused cause. That’s God. From that point on we can point out how the First Cause is necessarily personal and has endeavored to reveal himself to us. But the classical Christian apologist starts with the Cosmological argument.

The problem I find is that the Bible indicates that the B-theory is in some way in play also.

The B-theory is the idea that time is an illusion of sorts wrought by our ability to know the past, experience the present, and not know the future. But it holds that from one moment of time to another things that appear to be the same are really different. My mom’s painting is not the same one that she pained. The one she painted exists only at the time she painted it. It came into my possession because a family member gave it to me. That was a cause for the fact that it’s presently hanging on my wall. It stayed on my wall because I hung it on a nail there. That causes it to remain there from one moment to the next. But a pure B-theory holds that the cause may only be and illusion and that the painting that is there now is not the painting that was there a moment ago. The nail likewise is different. The wall, the house, the yard, and even me – nothing that is there now was there a moment ago and what was there a moment ago cannot be proven to actually have been there although we have some memory of it. If something were there in likeness to what is there now, it isn’t the same thing.

Now, I didn’t produce a diagram of that because I don’t believe in a pure B-theory. But the diagram I did produce marries the A-theory and the B-theory together as such:

The Biblical support I offered in passing in my original article still stands:

“…we know that God not only created “In the beginning” but he sustains his creation (Heb 1:3) and creates constantly (Psalm 139:13) and provides for his creation (Job 38:41).”

So non-Christian B-theorists use the B-theory to dispute Cosmological arguments. My realization was that neither the A-theory and B-theory are exclusively true. Now, I know that they are both in some way true because I have the revelation of scripture. However, it occurred to me that from a logical standpoint, only conclusions that did not necessarily follow from each theory were in conflict. Therefore, the theories are logically compatible.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Electronic social media is becoming well ingrained in our cultural identity. Some people bemoan the many ills of social media and others demonstrate how right they are to be concerned. Yet others use electronic social media to communicate important ideas or sell products. Most of us just use it to stay connected. It’s hard to stay connected with someone who is buried in their electronic device unless you use their electronic device to connect with them.

So I follow some people on Twitter. Some of the people on Twitter write messages like they are talking to someone in particular. I don’t have a clue what they are talking about. It’s like reading one side of a conversation. I can’t understand one side unless I can also read the other side. It kind of gives context. I’ve learned that this has a name. It’s called “subtweeting”.

But even then, there is information that may still be lacking. I’ve listened in on conversations that I had no idea what people were saying. When I hear them laugh and ask what the humor is, I often get the answer, “It’s an inside joke.” I freely admit to being a little socially awkward, and as a result am inclined toward non-interaction. So I have to be very intentional to speak to people and develop relationships or else live in relative obscurity. For example, when I observe someone speak to someone else in a certain way, I may try to speak to that person in the same way even if it doesn’t make sense to me to speak that way. Sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve had to learn that some kinds of conversation require developing a rapport that is integral to the kind of relationship they have already developed. I mention this because it’s important to understanding the Bible.

When we talk about understanding the Bible, we normally talk about context. It’s important to understand something of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the text. This includes such things as who wrote it, who they were writing to, why they were writing it, etc. But perhaps the biggest factor that plays into analyzing differences of understanding, particularly as they relate to addressing different theological schools of thought is the relational subtext. A relationship that informs unique rapport is part of a larger set of communication factors called “subtext”. It’s like reading subtweets or picking up on inside jokes except that the Bible usually gives us clues to understand the relational subtext.

We are usually good at understanding the larger subtext of Paul’s letters. For example, we understand that Paul wrote to the churches he planted or helped to plant. Casual readers of the letters of Paul are often not as quick to pick up the subtext given in other parts of the same letters regarding why he is writing.

I’ll use Paul’s letter to the Romans as an example. We know that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans and that it has some specific information about salvation in it. It also has some other stuff about the Jews, for example, that just seems added in there.

But when you take the subtextual details into consideration, it starts to make sense. At the end of the letter, Paul explained that he hoped to use Rome as a base to launch an evangelistic effort into Spain. While that effort didn’t materialize in Paul’s lifetime, he took pains to address a conflict between Jews and Gentiles in Rome both tactfully and strongly. He needed the Church in Rome to be unified behind his goal to reach more Gentiles.

So he took many words to spell out details of salvation as the common ground between Jewish and Gentile believers. Then he explained how Jews were to be used in the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles and how brotherly love was to exist between Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul didn’t waste words on random thoughts when he had a specific goal in mind that resulted in the longest letter of his destined for the canon of scripture.

And so in this way we should study the subtext of scripture and understand how each part fits nicely into the whole.

Not every piece of scripture has all the information of the subtext evident among its passages, but where the subtext is important, it is given. Be sure to look for it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

If Postmodernism is True...

If postmodernism is true, then I can't know what they believe.

If postmodernism is true, then they can't know what to deconstruct.

If postmodernism is true, then why do they even write books?

If postmodernism is true, then how do they know that I don't understand them?

Since I know what postmodernists believe, they seem to be clear on what they are deconstructing, they write books propagating their absurdity, and they think they know that I don't understand them, then we know a few things:

  • Postmodernism is false.
  • Postmodernists are justifying untruths that they want to be true or denying truths they don't want to be true. (Since postmodern deconstruction seems aimed at ethical considerations, squirming out of moral obligations is almost certainly the purpose of postmodernism.)
  • The opposite of naturalistic, evidential science (which is rationalistic) isn't supernaturalism (which is also rationalistic), it's postmodernism (which intends to deconstruct rationalism).
Watch this panel discussion to see Christian philosophers Sarah Geis, Larry Burtoft, Doug Groothuis, and David Mathewson deconstruct postmodernism.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Glorifying God: Leveling the Cessationist / Continuationist Battlefield

This is an article that was introduced by this article and provides one of two examples for it.

I also want to mention that I won’t address every single issue relating to the larger theological debate, but to demonstrate how glorifying God opens the door for understanding his purpose in the theological tension.

There has been debate among Southern Baptists recently regarding the activity of the Holy Spirit among the people of God. In some ways this is a simpler debate than what I addressed in the previous article, but the tension is still there.

The core of the debate stems from a difference in the way we understand how God speaks to us. Continuationists point out that the Bible never directly says that the charismata (miraculous gifts) were supposed to cease. This is a fair observation. It’s also a similar argument non-Trinitarians make that the Bible never mentions the Trinity. However, since we see that the Bible still teaches the Trinity one aspect at a time, it is viable that the Bible could teach that the charismata have stopped. Nevertheless, it’s a somewhat more tenuous position than the Trinity. It’s only a degree of rationale removed from that used by Harold Camping, for example, to promote his unique (and now rather obviously incorrect) eschatology.

Nevertheless, Cessationists make this case. But their issue has an additional rationale that is related to how we know what is to be included in the canon of scripture. In other words, if God is causing people to speak in tongues that they don’t know or prophesy the future in such a way as to direct people what they are supposed to do, that means that we should have some material today that should be added to scripture. So there’s a presuppositional argument for making the connections in scripture that they do.

There is far more to the debate than this. To be fair, Continuationists don’t think that prophesy today should be included in scripture and Cessationists don’t think that all charismata have utterly ceased.

One big argument that Cessationists make is that Continuationists enable false claims. My first observation here is that it doesn’t falsify the Continuationists to point out their abuses. However, there should be no claim to charismata without serious discernment to ward of false claims.

That is where glorifying God comes in. False claims are exclusively a result of seeking to glorify the bearer of the alleged charismata (and, in the case of some professional charlatans, to line their pockets) rather than glorifying God.

How does this work out?

For Cessationists, legitimate charismata happen. Given that the goal of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Christ by revealing him to us, that is precisely what such charismata will do. Outside of this result, the charismata should be suspect. For Contiuationists, since the charismata will only result in glorifying Christ through leading us to his known revelation to us, much of what passes as charismata are not legitimate.

If our focus is turned upon the glory of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in his work on the cross and his divine sovereignty over us according to the revelation that we have by virtue of the same Holy Spirit who inspired it, then there is no debate. The false bearers of charismata should be duly rebuked by both Continuationists and Cessationists alike while legitimate charismata should be received with gratitude by both for pointing people to the true Christ of the Bible.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Glorifying God: Leveling the Free Will / Election Battlefield

This is an article that was introduced by this article and provides one of two examples for it.

I also want to mention that I won’t address every single issue relating to the larger theological debate, but to demonstrate how glorifying God opens the door for understanding his purpose in the theological tension.

Many people are familiar with this old debate. The debate is an attempt to answer a very specific point of theological tension. That is, there are two truths taught in the Bible that appear to logically contradict one another. One truth is that God sovereignly elects his followers. That is to say that God chooses those who will follow him and acts to enable their faith. The other truth that is taught in scripture is that people are morally culpable for their sins. The contradiction is that if God is the one who chooses who will spend eternity with him, how can he hold the rest responsible for their sin since he didn’t give them the same opportunity? It seems to be a contradiction of fairness. It’s not fair that some people get paradise for all eternity and others have to suffer for all eternity if they have no say in where they are going.

There are a few approaches to answering this apparent contradiction:

Mitigate the doctrine of the sovereignty of God by saying that the Bible really doesn’t mean what it seems to mean when it indicates that God does the electing.
Try to explain the apparent contradiction philosophically. There are some philosophical principles implied in the Bible and some that we import unwittingly from the culture. Inasmuch as the philosophical principles align with the Bible, this isn’t a bad approach. When we import philosophy from outside the Bible, we usually end up with some error.
Acknowledge that each are true, but write off understanding them as an impossible task and miss the direction God intends for us to take.
Acknowledge that each are true and struggle to understand why God has revealed them to us. This is the option I pursue.

Fortunately, the Bible addresses this issue directly, although many in the first option camp earnestly interpret this passage differently. Paul, in his letter to the Romans (9:19ff), asks this very question. His answer, in the same way that God answered Job, is to appeal to the sovereignty of God. In other words, give God his glory.

So how does this work to level the battlefield?

The personal observation that we have is that we make decisions on our own. Whether this is entirely accurate remains to be seen. To keep this consideration simple, however, let’s make our decisions black and white: we have before us to choose to do good or to choose to do bad. If we choose to do good, by definition we choose to do God’s will. If we choose to do bad, then we choose to do our own will. If this is the case, then we have two different types of decisions we make: God’s will or our will.

Even the choosing must be categorized. If we choose to do God’s will, then our choice is according to the will of God. If we choose to do our will instead of God’s will, then the choosing is according to our will.

So if we do any good thing, we must give God the glory by not taking credit for it. If we do any bad thing, we must confess that we are sinners and assume the responsibility for our sin. Yet the confession is according to the will of God, for we are commanded to do this. And so by our confession, instead of bearing the responsibility for the sin, it is imputed to Christ who bore it on the cross.

What happens when we start with the glory of God and analyze the theological tension accordingly is that instead of a tension we find the purpose for the tension. The tension was only there in the first place because our audacious tendency to focus on ourselves. The issue isn’t whether we make one decision or another, but whether God is ultimately glorified. When we understand that this is the purpose for the tension in the first place and focus at last on the glory of God, the tension disappears and we receive the understanding of our Creator.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Glorifying God: Leveling the Theological Battlefield

I haven’t written much lately because I’m planning an extensive series on Christian epistemology. The term “epistemology” refers to how we answer the question “How do we know…?” I don’t intend merely to give a defense of the Bible. Rather, I intend to investigate how we know that the Bible is true, how we know our understanding of the Bible is true, and discover the presuppositions that undergird that investigation. This is an extensive study that links the nature of God and creation with his revelation to us. I also hope to make it accessible to the average reader. The hard part is to linearlize it so that I can make an index that organizes it so the relationships between different areas of thought and study can be understandable.

In many ways, this short series is related to that series. There is a link between the purpose of revelation and our ability to know what it means.

Let me ‘splain:

Theology matters. If you get God wrong, you end up worshipping the wrong God. There are two, even three, categories for analyzing the importance of theological doctrines. Dr. Al Mohler calls this Theological Triage. The difference between the first category and the other two is a matter of salvation. Doctrines that one must hold to be true in order to know one is saved are in the first category. All other doctrines are in the second and third categories.

There are many who would dispute finer points of what should be included in the first category and what should be included in the second and third categories. For example, orthodox Christians hold that the diety of Christ should be in the first category, but there are denominations that claim that Jesus is not God who would dispute that the deity of Christ belongs in the first category. Very liberal theologians might argue that the only thing in the first category is a claim to be a Christian. They would claim that one could even deny that there is a God at all (much less that he sent a Christ for any reason) and still be a Christian. As ridiculous as that all seems, it only goes to show that it’s important to make a case that theology matters.

There are those that tend toward liberal theology for the reason that we all just need to get along. They would say that glorifying God by getting along is better than actually knowing what god we are trying to glorify. Therefore, they intentionally ignore the fundamental differences between the One True God and the plethora of false imitations.

So thoughtful Christians debate the finer points of who God is by virtue of his special revelation to us in the Bible, through a particular denomination’s traditional interpretation, the general revelation of the created order, and our intellectual ability to sort it all out. Most people miss the fact that they have cultural blinders on when they theologize. With all this to muddy the waters, it’s no wonder that we wind up with theological differences as we try to reconcile apparent theological tension.

Some people even dismiss theological tension either by chalking it up as a divine mystery or claiming that there is no way that we can know. They say that we just have to accept it “by faith”. While it’s true that there are things about God that are unfathomable to us now, special revelation was given to us precisely so that we could know and understand what has been revealed.

I’ve largely been dissatisfied with the historic debates, even when I agree wholeheartedly with one side over another. First, they tend to focus on differences rather than similarities. Second, opposing categories of doctrinal thought are in opposition precisely because they hold different fundamentals in primacy over the rest.

It’s that second reason that I'm addressing in this article. So I’ll have two areas of theological debate to use as examples. And I will replace both with the fundamental that all things: revelation, the process of sanctification, the ordinances/sacraments of the Church, the fellowship of the Church, etc: all things exist to glorify God.

As this article is getting long so I’ll break the couple of examples into separate posts.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply

What are your expectations for this article? What do you think you will discover that I have written? It probably is not what you expect. If you expect something, then you have some idea what I have written before you have read it.

Likewise, if you have read the Bible a hundred times, or even just once, you will have some idea of what to expect if you read it again. Nevertheless, you will undoubtedly find something you didn’t notice the first time you read it.

But understanding the Bible more deeply doesn’t involve simply finding information you didn’t remember from reading it before as you read through it again. While that is part of it, there are some additional principles that are helpful for enhancing how you gain a deeper understanding.

First, reading the Bible over and over again is additive. It’s like pouring coffee back in the coffee maker and brewing it over and over again. It will get stronger each time you brew it.

Second, as you read, you will want to investigate information in passages that you didn’t investigate before that helps you understand the passage better.

Third, as you learn about what the Bible says, you must read it as though what it says is true. That means it will influence your philosophy and desires. This colors what you read and frames it the way the Author of the Bible intended instead of what you intended the times you read it previously.

Fourthly, as your mind and heart change, your ability to think in the terms of the Bible will change. I’ve discussed this before as categories. The greater your intelligence, the greater your ability to apprehend these different categories.

Finally, your understanding will increase as you put into action what you learn from the Bible.

I will write in more detail on these in future articles, but I wanted to introduce this series to you beforehand. While I will be writing in more general terms, I do want to make known that what has instigated this is a desire to counter a tendency for people to engage the Bible on a more superficial level. Particular strains of this are as follows:

  • Many people fear all theological debate as somehow unnecessary. Some theological debate is indeed unnecessary. However, there is plenty of deadly theological error that goes unchallenged because people won’t internalize convictions that counter rank heresy. If God truly saves people, some theological battles are important lest people unwittingly engender a lack of faith.
  • There are people who believe that some things cannot be understood because they cannot understand them. There may be some things that we cannot understand, but I assure you that we can understand far more than many of us think. Where even great theologians have chalked some things up to “mystery”, many of these mysteries are understandable because God has revealed them to us and has given us the Holy Spirit to help us understand what the Bible says.
  • People are sinful and simply don’t wish to learn what they are doing wrong so they can repent of it. On one level, they know what the truth is, but they cloak their eyes as though they don’t see it and either convince themselves that it isn’t true or isn’t understandable.
  • People have a cultural sensibility or hold some popular philosophy that is challenged by the scriptures. They determine to understand what the Bible says only up to the point where it disagrees with their deeply-held unbiblical beliefs.

These patterns of misunderstanding the Bible are deadly to the Church because many of these kinds of people are otherwise faithful church members. Many people pray for a revival. The only way it will come about is if these patterns of unbelief are challenged and changed by a movement of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians. That’s why I’m presenting this series.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Acting on the Bible

If you read the Bible as though it were true, you must act on what the Bible says.

Let’s say you purchase a new hair dryer. On the label is a warning not to use the hair dryer in water. I can’t imagine how anyone would use the hair dryer while they were taking a bath, for example. However, something happened to someone to warrant putting a warning label on hair dryers. So you read the label warning you not to use the hair dryer in water. You say, “Aha! It’s dangerous to use the hair dryer in water.” It doesn’t seem reasonable that you would then get in a bathtub full of water and try to dry your hair.

However, we too often do that with the Bible. We read what the Bible says, agree with its admonitions, and then promptly go out and do something other than what the Bible says. When that happens, we make it difficult to understand the Bible better because it would be detrimental. Isaiah, when faced with a vision of the living God in Isaiah 6:5 said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…” If too much were to be revealed to us at once, we would be undone. Isaiah came close.

As we act on the admonitions of scripture, we are strengthened to receive greater understanding by virtue of the Holy Spirit who indwells all believers. When we fail to act on the scriptures, our minds are cloaked by God, even those who are unbelievers, so that we don’t understand. Paul wrote this to the Romans in the first chapter of his letter to them:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things...

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done."

Therefore, although you have knowledge of all the God has revealed, disobedience will result in a failure to understand what you know.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Reading with a Changed Heart and Mind

This will take some explanation. As I stated in the previous article, none of us approaches the Bible as a blank slate. One way we do this is that each of us understands things by using systems of categorization. These systems also include rules for assigning things to each of these categorizations. Our systems of categorizations are learned from the things that are normal to us: our families, our friends, the media we give our attention to, the teachers we have, etc. Whenever I talk about “sensibilities”, this is typically what I mean.

Let me give you a simple example of what I mean by categorizations. Let’s say we have a bag of M&Ms. Can you think of some categories by which we can separate these M&Ms? The most obvious is by color. So we can separate them into piles of red, blue, green, orange, brown, etc.

But there may be another way of separating them. Now if the bag we have is just opened from the store, it probably only contains one kind of M&Ms, but if not, then there may be different kids mixed in. What I’m talking about is the difference between plain, the ones with nuts in them, or the ones with pretzels in them. Those are different categories than colors.

Are there any other kind of categories? Imagine the factory where M&Ms are made. They make M&Ms by some kind of lot number, I presume. That’s a category that few people think about. Or I would assume that there are some kind of quality control standards. Hopefully all M&Ms are in the category of those M&Ms that will pass inspection. But realistically, there are probably a few that do not pass inspection. Each quality standard is a different category against which each M&M must be tested. Each will either be in the category “pass” or the category “fail”.

But we don’t usually think about those categories. Nevertheless, it is a very important category for M&Ms. If you want the quality of M&Ms that you are used to, you should hope that each bag that you purchase has only M&Ms that are in the “pass” category of each quality standard.

But it’s the same way with the Bible. We approach the Bible at first with the most obvious sets of categories. As we read the Bible, we might pick up on the fact that there are sets of categories for examining our lives and thinking about God that we have never thought of before.

Too many theological debates are a result of different theologians using different sets of categories for understanding the Bible. All theological debates will be cleared up when God brings each of us to understand the set of categories we should have been using all along. When investigating different views, it is a sign of theological maturity that we are able to identify the sets of categories theologians use. When this happens, we can easily understand why theologians often debate so.

Identifying a theologian’s system of categories is also important for discerning the truth of a matter. Too many theologians are disingenuous. Such discernment allows us to see a theologian’s internal deception.

But also, as we develop Biblical systems of categories, our understanding of the Bible will deepen. So as you read, look for ways of thinking about things according to how they are presented in the Bible in ways that you haven’t previously considered.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Value of a Person

You astute Christians: I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m guessing you think I’m going to talk about how we find our value only in Christ. You are partially correct. But have you thought about how that value is made evident to us?

It’s true that we can discern the truth of it in careful study of the Bible. It’s also true that we can be told about it by faithful teachers of the Bible who have done the study. But have you noticed that people don’t simply obey the Bible just because they have studied it? The teachings powerful for persuasion are given with testimonies by people who have experienced it in some practical way in their lives or who, in the process of discipling someone; lead them to put the teachings into practice themselves.

Among other things that Yancey Arrington wishes he had known about discipleship, one is that “it’s found in a network of relationships.” Discipleship gives the disciple a sense of value in the Church. Truly, God doesn’t need any one of us. He created the universe without our help. In fact, not only does God not need us, we need him. We have negative value as members of a fallen world. All of us deserve not only death, but eternal torture as punishment for our insolent sin. The only man who doesn’t deserve that kind of punishment is God himself who took on flesh and dwelled among us as the man, Jesus Christ. By the death of his body on the cross, he paid the price we deserve to pay. In that way, we were given value worthy of eternal life with God.

But we don’t apprehend that value by claiming ourselves worthy of it. We apprehend that value by understanding that we are not worthy of it. This seems contradictory and is often difficult for young believers, as well as many older ones, to balance.

Dave Miller at SBC Voices illustrates this in his recent article about Busy Pastors. Pastors often find some value in the amount of work they do. So even mature Christians can struggle with the contradistinction between lack of value in our sinfulness and value given by God outside of our actions.

God calls us to serve him. Our value is not in serving him, but in being served by Christ in salvation. Nevertheless, we give honor to people according to what they do in the Kingdom. That gives the illusion that we gain value by doing good things. Rather, we demonstrate God’s value when we do good things. But when we disciple each other in accordance with the Great Commission, we must often temporarily play to people’s need to feel valued.

Kate Mulvey is no Christian. She is a self-centered self-valued woman who has determined that men hate her for being smarter than them. So at age 50, Kate is still single. Kate’s problem is not that she is too smart. Her problem is that she hasn’t found a man that’s valuable to her. She is self-sufficient and there’s nothing a man can do to add positively to her identity. It’s the same reason why Hollywood movie stars jump from spouse to spouse and why many people in this culture anymore have trouble with commitment.

People will go where they are valued.

It’s the same thing in churches. People hop from church to church when they are looking for a sense of being valued. So churches try hard to be nice to new people. But there is a difference between being nice to each other and living in true Christian fellowship. Being nice to each other feels like you are valued for a short period of time. But true Christian fellowship is a lasting relationship between believers that gives each the sense of being valued. That sense might come from the relationship, but it’s lasting because it’s rooted in ongoing discipleship. So the value comes from Christ.

Do you want people to stick around? See their value in Christ and treat them accordingly. Don’t just be nice. Give your fellowship in good times and bad. Let people know how you need them, not just in general but in specific ways. This is how the gospel works through the Great Commission in the discipleship in the Church to hold churches together.

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Reading As Though It Were True

None of us approaches the Bible as a blank slate. On one end of the spectrum, some of us have a set of beliefs that we are intent on holding as true no matter what evidence is given to us to the contrary. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are willing to ditch their beliefs for any new thought that comes their way.

There is a balance between these that we can term “cautiously open” to changing our thinking. The question is on what basis we are cautiously open:

We might be cautiously open because we want to believe anything that will make us the most comfortable. Some atheistic naturalists like to accuse theists of merely fulfilling some evolutionary need to believe in a higher power. The fact is that we all have some need to feel good about ourselves and our lives.

We might be cautiously open because we want to justify some lack of moral culpability. We just want to sin and we don’t like anything or anyone telling us that our particular sin is immoral. If anything tells us we can commit that sin, we are willing to believe it. If anything tells us that we cannot commit a particular sin we are willing to deny it.

We might be cautiously open because we want power over other people. Like or not, these kinds of people exist in this world. They are willing to propagate beliefs among others that will enslave them ideologically and are willing to stifle beliefs that will free them ideologically. Most people are not very good at this. Some people are exceptionally good at this.

Parenthetically, we proclaim a gospel that sets people free from sin without denying that things clearly are sinful. It’s no wonder that some oppose this message with both the contention that something is not a sin and the good news that we can be free from it.

But the way we are to be cautiously open to changing our beliefs is if we desire truth and are willing to accept that we might not currently know the truth as fully as we can. This begs the question that the Bible is an accurate source of truth. The key to knowing is if we are honest about our sinful motives. If we are, then even a cursory reading of the Bible is sufficient for demonstrating that it is more honest about our own motives than we are. Peter testifies as much when he answers Jesus in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The Samaritan woman that Jesus met at the well testified in John 4:29, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.” This is the same reaction that we find in ourselves when we read the Bible and are honest about our own sinful motives.

Therefore, we cannot understand the Bible accurately if we do not read it as though it were true.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Twelve years ago people climbed into real planes and crashed into real buildings. People lost their lives.

The purpose for this action was to provoke a response and illustrate the power of the God of Islam over the world. The belief of the perpetrators is that we flout unrighteous freedom. Their contention is that we are all subject to the commands of Allah.

That message doesn’t sound too far from the Christian message. Sin against God is indeed the unrighteous flouting of freedom from the commands of God. Many atheists have noted this similarity and have concluded that Christianity is as dangerous as Islam. Many point to the Crusades as evidence of the similarity in the danger of the message. That’s only evidence of a lack of sophisticated thought enough distinguish between historic political European Christendom and the true Body of Christ as it bears the gospel of peace.

But let us not make the same error. The American experiment was an attempt to build a nation free of the errors of Christendom by marrying a Christian worldview with a novel iteration of the Greco-Roman republic. Our success has been marginal, but the system is failing. It quickly morphed into just another kind of Christendom. Instead of self-sacrificing for each other, we sacrifice each other for our own benefit, and we wonder why we aren’t acting like a Christian nation anymore.

Our false towers of institutionalized morality have fallen. People are losing their lives spiritually because we have relied on government for a good country instead of relying on the proclamation of the gospel for changed lives.

Our towers were attacked precisely because we haven’t relied on the proclamation of the gospel. Those who are dead in their sins are angry with those of us who have trusted Christ for our lives and are dead to our sins. They have attacked our false political towers to demonstrate the power of their god of self-worth and self-determination over and against those of us who trust Christ.

Let us not forget the towers that fell twelve years ago. Let it serve as a reminder that we have a fallen world to serve, not to help them uphold the sins that separate them from Christ, but to shine the light into the darkness of their sin to highlight the need they have for Christ so that they might believe. It is the gospel that makes us free and not political victory.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Investigation

As I pointed out in the last article, the Bible wasn’t written in our cultural context. It was written by and to a people long ago with a different culture. They had different practices and routines, different political situations, and different popular philosophies. No doubt as we read the Bible we will encounter many references to things that are unfamiliar to us.

Also, as I pointed out in the previous article, reading the Bible over and over will result in noticing things we didn’t notice before. In early readings of the Bible, we will have a tendency to skip over things that we don’t recognize when they appear in the midst of things we do recognize. As we read through the Bible, it is likely that new things will strike us as something we need to investigate in order to understand the passage better.

Fortunately, we are blessed in these days to have rich resources for investigating these kinds of things. There are Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries, commentaries, etc. I recommend checking more than one. Different aspects of information might be available in the work of different scholars.

Don’t be alarmed if you find that they don’t agree. You will be able to get a fuller view of uncertainty in scholarship that way. If the observation is related to a theological point of view, you will be able to see why something either supports or undermines your own point of view and you will be able to refine your thinking.

So you grow more deeply in your understanding as you gain more information on what you are reading. You also grow more deeply in your understanding as your own previous beliefs are challenged.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hiding Place: Deliverance from Sin or a Prison

Years ago I was friends with an elderly lady who sang baritone with me in the choir at one of the base chapels at Camp Lejune, NC. Her name was Linda. She died over a decade ago.

Linda’s parents were German musicians who were killed in a train accident just before WWII. Linda spent the next few years in a Catholic school in Berlin during the war. She would take bread to the French prisoners of war.

She invited me to a thanksgiving dinner one year where she had some Austrian friends from the old country coming to visit. The dinner was lovely and I enjoyed the cultural experience. After her friends left, Linda sat down with me and told me of the old days. She told me how she saw the propaganda of the Third Reich and how deeply it influenced her thinking. She also told me how wrong it all was, but how hard she struggled against her indoctrination. She told me how she knew it was wrong to hate Jews, but that she wrestled with her training as a young child to hate them.

She told me other things as well about how brutal some of the Allies were, particularly the Russians. She told me how she came to America and took speech lessons to remove the German accent, How she married and remarried. How evil her second husband was and how he was spending time in Leavenworth prison. Even colonels with spotless records can commit crimes. She told me of her hidden son who lived, yet as little more than a spectre, after a serious automobile accident cause by his use of drugs.

In all of this, she left the Roman Catholic Church and found solace in the gospel of grace. A military wife, she stayed close to the base and the transient families she knew there.

Her story is an echo of many. I’ve been fascinated with how such deceit as what was propagated by the Nazis can affect entire populations of people. Last night I watched a documentary following the children and grandchildren of Hitler’s top men as they fought against the dark legacy of their infamous fathers. It reminds me of the warnings in Exodus where the iniquity of the fathers will be visited on their children and grandchildren. Although their descendents did not commit the crimes of their fathers, they bear the weight of guilt among those who survived their father’s sins.

I’ve also watched Lore recently. It’s a German movie about children of Nazi parents who fled across country to their grandmother’s house when their parents were taken prisoner in the Allies’ invasion of Germany. Many of the reviewers noted that the kids acted like brats. Frankly, they aren’t any worse than the kids Hollywood portrays. It’s odd that we are quick to judge Nazi kids while giving the kids on, say, Home Alone, a pass.

(Note: Being a foreign film, Lore isn’t rated. It should be rated R. There are adult themes and images. Beware if you plan to watch this.)

But I compare this also to the 2009 portrayal of the Diary of Anne Frank. My favorite portrayal was the 1980 version. After watching this one, I see how filtered the 1980 version was. The 2009 version showed a bit more the bratty side of Anne Frank. Are victims less sinful than their murderers?

On the one hand, we would note that a murderer committed a crime. It is no crime to be victimized. However, the nature that rises up to fuel a murderer is shared by all people. We are all products of a fallen world and subject to the dubious information that colors it darkly. It is perhaps more apparent to those with murderous parents, such as the offspring of Himmler, Goering and Goeth. They are more able to recognize the evil in their own hearts because of the astonishing sins of their fathers because of the difficulty in coming to terms with sins they did not commit. For that matter, think of the Jews born in captivity during the exile in Babylon and Persia. They didn’t commit the sins that sent their parents into exile, yet they must bear the burden of those sins.

For others, who have lived in relative peace by parents who are relatively decent people, sin seems to be more of an abstract thing. In this case, fairness becomes the arbiter of sin. It is easy to believe that which is fair is good and that which is unfair is evil. It is easy to arrive at the conclusion that being fair makes one a sinless person.

So it is hard for such people to understand that God is not fair. Jesus, the only truly innocent man, paid the price for the sins of evil people. That’s not fair. It can only be fully understood by people who truly see the depths of their own sin, whether that sin has resulted in action or harbored only in the mist of dark thoughts and desires.

Linda knew the sin she was capable of and fought against it while all around her swarmed the stench and decay of death in the sins of others. Let us not treat slavery to righteousness as a prison when we are hidden from our destruction as Anne Frank and her family was for a time. Let us regard our hideaway in Christ soberly and not despise it. Let us not be brats in the Body of Christ.

5. I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
6. Therefore let everyone who is godly
offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
they shall not reach him.
7. You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah (Psalm 32:5-7, ESV)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Understanding the Bible More Deeply: Additive Reading

One key area where education practitioners test students to indicate development in verbal skills is reading comprehension and retention. If everyone were the same, they wouldn’t need to test students to see what their current abilities are. The fact is that none of us have perfect comprehension and retention. When we read something for the first time, we don’t fully apprehend its meaning. I have email replies from people asking questions that I answered in my original email. I know for a fact that they didn’t get it.

The Bible is no small tome. Its material is typically referentially anachronistic from our point of view. That is to say that it wasn’t written by or to people with our cultural sensibilities. It can be difficult reading and it can be easily misunderstood if care is not taken to understand what is written in the various contexts.

It is common for pastors who have been well trained and have already read the Bible through many times to read a passage over and over before they develop a sermon on it. If pastors have a need to do this, how much more do the rest of us need to read passages multiple times in order to understand the full import of the meaning?

The reason is because there is a principle where reading some over again allows us to notice things that we missed or don’t remember the first time. Unless we re-read the Bible many times we cannot claim to have much of an understanding of it. Some people may require fewer readings to understand it deeply. Others may need to read the Bible more in order to understand it more deeply. Regardless whether your comprehension and retention is better or worse than others, we all need to read the Bible over and over again to understand it more deeply.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

“Not Everyone Agrees” – A Bad Argument

There’s an argument that I hear or read more often than not. It’s used typically by people who have a theological view that differs from the predominant view. A discussion will arise about some point regarding the predominant view and someone will step in with a view that disagrees with the predominant view. After a couple of arguments or explanations are bandied back and forth, if the person lobbying the opposing view senses that the argument is going badly for them, then they make this argument to give some sense of legitimacy to their position.

Now they don’t typically state the argument as a dry proposition.  Usually it will be worded something like this:

“All I’m trying to say is that there are people who disagree that this biblical passage means what you say that it means.”


“My point is that not everyone agrees on this theological issue.”

The argument that is insinuated is that the case for the legitimacy of a position is made by trading on the fact that people don’t agree. This argument assumes that the disagreement doesn’t include heresy. It also fails to make the observation that only one mutually exclusive truth is possible. Therefore, only one view can actually be true.

Now there are areas of theological disagreement that are legitimately subject to uncertainty based on different hermeneutical presuppositional structures. That’s a mouthful for most of you so I’ll break it down. Hermeneutics is the area of theological discovery that applies principles for understanding written text. This is where you investigate the writer and the audience, the sentence structures, the cultural context, figures of speech and idiomatic expressions, etc. When using these kinds of principles you often find a variety of possible meanings depending on how you apply the principles. Some passages are simply clearer than others. In order to understand more difficult passages, it helps to use facts learned in clearer passages to shed light on which meaning is most possible. As the Bible is studied and various facts understood, it helps to arrange these facts in logical associations to see the larger truth. Some facts depend on other facts and ultimately a small set of related facts will form that foundational truth for how you understand the rest of the Bible. This is your presuppositional structure.

Ideally, a presuppositional structure is formed by hermeneutical principles consistently applied to the scriptures. Unfortunately, most people will have a set of ideas already in place as their initial presuppositional structure and they will apply hermeneutical principles in such a way as to reinforce it rather than to change their presuppositional structure as consistently applied hermeneutical principles contradict their presuppositional structure. So where one presuppositional structure is suggested by the Bible, many people end up with different presuppositional structures.

Let me pick one of the less-controversial conflicts to use as an example. The Bible doesn’t say that the pets we have here in this world will be resurrected in the next. In fact, as far as the Bible is concerned only humans will be resurrected. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be animals of some sort in the hereafter. The Bible simply doesn’t focus on this. It’s not important. This is a consistent way of approaching the Bible. I’m looking at what the Bible views as important. I have pets that I enjoy as companions but I don’t expect to have them with me for all time and it’s not important to me because it’s not important in the Bible.

However, it is important to some people. They are particularly attached to their pets. Instead of letting the Bible guide their thinking on this, they import ideas that are foundational to understanding the Bible so that the Bible ends up meaning what the Bible never teaches. These ideas are things like, “God just wants me to be happy,” “Fluffy and Fido make me happy,” and “God gave me Fluffy and Fido to make me happy.” Therefore, they conclude, “God will give me Fluffy and Fido in heaven to make me happy.” So they read the Bible with this logic in mind as to how they should apply hermeneutical principles to understand the Bible. Since they don’t see a passage that specifically says that pets won’t be in heaven, they dismiss the passages that when taken together logically won’t allow that conclusion.

So let’s say there’s a discussion about animals in heaven. These passages are brought up. But the person who holds the pet-friendly hermeneutic is upset because people are saying that pets we have today like Fluffy and Fido won’t join us in the resurrection and be our companions for all time. They jump in with a contention against this. When the consistent hermeneutic is explained, they retreat to the argument I spelled out in the beginning of this article.

Believing that Fluffy and Fido will be resurrected isn’t specifically a heretical idea. It’s a bad one and an erroneous one, but we know that we have some church members who insist on these kinds of errors for their own reasons.

But there are people who espouse heresy who resort to that same argument. That’s why it’s important to point out that it’s a bad argument. Just because people disagree within the realm of orthodox Christianity doesn’t mean that both are true. Only one is true. The other is in error although not in a bad way. Dr. Al Mohler has developed his theological triage and wrote about it 8 years ago. It’s an extremely helpful tool for analyzing theological error.

Just because people can disagree on one level that carries some legitimate uncertainty doesn’t mean that people can disagree on another level with the same legitimate uncertainty. If the Bible is clear about a matter, it’s not open for debate within orthodox circles. It’s clear heresy. Today orthodox Christians have the sensibility that no one is going to be killed for being a heretic. That unfortunate historical approach in itself should be considered heretical. However, it is academically and pastorally necessary to point out mistaken beliefs among people who profess to be Christians. That includes pointing out the error in this kind of an argument.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Is Love Powerful?

In watching a video of Ken Meyers delivering a keynote address at Hope College, he quotes literary and social critic, Marion Montgomery, as saying, “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is power.” (HT: Justin Taylor)

Quotes like this in their brevity require a bit of interpretation. On the surface, this idea seems curious. What did Marion Montgomery mean by this? I’m not very familiar with Marion Montgomery. Is he a Christian? A quick glance at Wikipedia indicates that he was perhaps Roman Catholic. How faithful he was to that is anyone’s guess. I suspect that most people who would read this don’t have a clue.

So we first contemplate the most reasonable possible meaning of this statement by asking the question: In what ways is power antithetical to love? Perhaps Montgomery was thinking about the tendency of people to seek power over other people in the ordering of lives for the sake of enhancing the quality of their own life at the expense of the quality of another’s life. Given the Montgomery was a social critic, this makes sense. Perhaps one could draw some distinction between this kind of power-seeking and hatred, although the two overlap in some ways.

Does this make sense theologically? Jesus told the disciples in Mark 10:42ff that rulers of the Gentiles lord it over people, but that it should not be so among them. The idea of power-hunger is in some significant way not the way leadership should be carried out among Christians. This seems reasonable.

Now there are Christians who think this way fundamentally. If we love God, we should submit to him. That is, our love for God is to give up power over ourselves. But they apply the same thinking to God. Since god loves us, he’s a “gentleman”. That is, he doesn’t try to control us. If the opposite of love is power, then God cannot be both loving and all-powerful.

The problem is that this is not what the Bible teaches. Not only is God loving and all-powerful, he is love and power.

Now the observation that people who are hungry for power are sinfully hateful in doing so does not negate that power used righteously is loving. Think of a person who lacks the ability to care for himself. It is loving for someone who is able to exert power over that person in order to seek the best interest of the one who is incapable.

This concept plays into the debate over Reformed theology. Those who oppose it say that man is capable of choosing Christ on his own. Therefore, it is not loving for God to exhibit power over men. Those who are Reformed in their thinking say that man in incapable of choosing Christ on his own. Therefore, it is loving for God to use his power to give him the ability to make that choice.

There are more refined nuances that I won’t go into regarding different strains of Reformed thinking. However, I will note that if Montgomery were steeped in Catholic thinking, this would comport with the idea that power is the opposite of love.

We all have some power over other people. Just by saying hello or ignoring someone on the street has some effect on the people we encounter. Actions that are truly loving in nature are powerful. My fellow Christians, let us conduct ourselves in such a way as to convey the love of Christ that people will be warmed to his message. That we can give the gift of the Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead and can resurrect the souls of those we meet.

That’s the power of love.