Sunday, December 25, 2005

Friday, December 16, 2005

To What Shall We Appeal?

Protestantism has a problem with schism. The denominational fractures that dominate American Protestantism stem in large part from a critical issue: who has authority.

Ever since Martin Luther coined the phrase sola scriptura Protestants have jubilantly touted this ideology as if they truly espouse it. One wonders, if all Protestants base their beliefs on the Bible alone, why there is so many differing viewpoints and opinions on matters of theology and biblical interpretation? The reality is that no one truly uses the principle of sola scriptura. Why? In large part it represents an impossibility. Every person who attempts to interpret Scripture does so through a preconceived interpretive lens. Our cultural categories inevitably find their way into our theology (as evidenced with Hodge's insistence on penal substitutionary atonement as well as Anselm's satisfaction model), as well as various other paradigms from which we interpret Scripture. Never is one able to approach the Bible without additional frameworks influencing the manner in which one interprets the Bible.

The question becomes who or what speaks authoritatively on biblical interpretation? Is it the scholar? Your local pastor? Is it James Dobson and his politically polarized contemporaries? Who determines whether five-point Calvinism or Arminianism is correct? Are they mutually exclusive?

Inquiries such as this become even more daunting when one begins to interpret the trajectory of doctrinal development. Why do we trust the doctrine of the Trinity when it is extremely undeveloped in the biblical witnesses? Can we rely upon the creed of Nicea as true Christian orthodoxy? How can we validate the orthodox statements of Chalcedon when such statements find no exposition in the biblical text? What do we do with doctrines crucial to the Christian faith but are unclear in Scripture?

I have my own suggestions, but what do you think? Where does authority rest for you? Please do not flippantly say, "Well the Bible is my authority." That is to side-step the question. Perhaps the question should be phrased: on what authority do you determine what is an accurate interpretation of Scripture? For many Protestants they have become their own little Popes (although the Roman Catholic Pope is often a much better exegete), declaring their personal interpretation to be authoritative and anything that questions their myopic view is infringing upon their equally valid understanding. But is it equally valid? So, again I ask, who or what determines correct biblical interpretation? The way you answer this question defines what you believe and how you communicate the Gospel narrative. Do not treat it lightly.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Man's Name is "Intelligence"

One of my professors somehow finds the time to blog regularly. He daily produces publishable articles yet he is able to complete various other tasks. The man has enough brain power to cover five people. Anyway, considering finals are over and I am being lazy right now, I decided to post a link to his latest blog. I was reading it yesterday and it's really quite good. Check it out.

Indeed, Romans 9-11 are far more about Israel and the Gentiles than about individuals. More than anything else, the question Paul is asking is why the vast majority of Israel has not accepted Christ as the Messiah. His discussion is not an abstract philosophical discourse on the fate of individuals in the sovereign will of God. The question is why the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world have not accepted the good news.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Jewel from First Semester

Finals are over! Here is my final exegesis paper that I handed in yesterday. I'm not nearly as pleased with this as the last, but do read and leave some comments.

John 18:4-9

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Christmas "War"

While I am heartily encouraging the ongoing discussion of my previous post, I would like to direct your attention to a very relevant blog composed by Nathan Hart. Feel free to leave comments here as I would be interested in hearing what conversation this blog may generate.

And my original thoughts will return soon but considering that finals are almost here I am finding it easier to direct your curiosity to some great thinkers.

Oh, I also am putting a link to a Jon Stewart commentary on this whole issue. It's on Nate's site but in case you missed it check it out.
(Click on "Secular Central")

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Very Good Review of "Revolution"

I know this is long, but it's worth it. This was put together by some of my professors.

December 5, 2005

Students and friends,

Often in our classrooms we recommend book-lists which will enable you to grow on your own, apart from us as professors. This time we would like to take a moment and recommend a “NOT-list.” The first book we will bring to you is the newly released, Revolution, by the skilled-pollster (and amateur theologian) George Barna. Overall, this book is a critique (make that a full-body slam) of the church’s inability to impact the American culture in a positive (i.e., redemptive) manner. Thus, in this book he notes that due to the church’s lack of being an impact player, God must be calling His people outside of the church to utilize their gifts and serve the Lord. Barna now calls these Christians who no longer center their lives around Church “Revolutionaries” and believes they (his count of 20 million of them and growing) are the real future of the manifested body of Christ on earth. Barna also joyously admits that he is now one of them as well.

First, from a biblical standpoint, this text would fail any and all of our exegesis classes. He claims to have studied the scriptures on the subject but there is a glaring lack of any serious reference to what the biblical pattern for the church really involves. It is a wholly invalid process to critique what the church is NOT until he establishes a biblical baseline for what the church IS! This effort, to be of value, must begin with a clear and precise ecclesiology; stating what the Church is, not what Mr. Barna wants it to accomplish.

His practice is to silence the opinions of others with out-of-context proof-texts. Barna (mis)uses God’s Words to Peter, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” This reference specifically calls Peter to welcome Gentiles into the Church. In no way does it justify one to jettison the church in a wholesale manner or even to re-invent “Church” according to a new paradigm. Moreover, Barna simplifies (trivializes?) the church to be a series of quotes from the Book of Acts. Interestingly, Barna describes his understanding of the church from passages in Acts 2, 4, and 5. But it is worth noting that at that point the Gospel has not even been proclaimed to the Samaritans, God-fearers, or the gentiles. The true nature of servant-hood, forgiveness, and grace has yet to be encountered. Finally, loosely based upon these scriptures, Barna describes the attributes he finds in the early church (what he calls “seven core passions”, pp. 22-25). These are so resoundingly modern in their orientation that they would be unrecognizable to the apostles. Further, Barna writes, “This mission demands single-minded commitment and a disregard for the criticisms of those who lack the same dedication to the cause of Christ. [Can you hear the spiritual arrogance?] You answer to only one Commander-in-Chief, and only you will give an explanation for your choices.” (p. 27). Friends, there is no place in scripture which permits a Christian to function as a lone-ranger apart from the Body. We are called into fellowship not out of it. As I see it, Revolution is essentially autobiographical, not biblical. Barna’s approach is purely phenomenological; the fact that something is happening becomes its own validation. My suggestion to Mr. Barna; this book should have been co-written with a team of scholars who would join together with to utilize Barna’s sociological strength of reporting trends of culture and opinions of society; not interpreting scriptures and evaluating the church’s ability to meet his self-selected criterion for success. But that is the nature of what Barna is calling the future church to look like, not a unified Body but individuals working disconnected from one another and from the “head.”

Second, from a theological perspective, the ecclesiology espoused by Barna is plagued with problems. While Barna declares himself a “revolutionary,” espousing an innovative way of discipleship beyond the local church, he deludes himself. His ecclesiology, with a myopic preoccupation upon individual discipleship and a personal relationship with Christ, simply follows to its logical conclusion a shallow Americanized model of the Church, dominant in contemporary evangelicalism. Ironically, Barna’s stated doctrine of the Church is a product of the evangelical churches he critiques, both of which misunderstand the fundamental nature of the Church, distort the doctrine of grace and the means of grace, and ultimately succumb to Pelegian pragmaticism. As such, his book not only exposes his own inadequate ecclesiology, but highlights the deficiencies of many contemporary evangelical models of the Church.

Fundamentally, Barna sees the Church, the Body of Christ, exclusively as a mystical, spiritual community of “revolutionaries” without any direct relationship to the local church. The Church is a community that Christians spiritually join when they decide to follow Jesus, rather than one into which they are incorporated concretely through baptism and local church discipline. However, membership in the Church, the Body of Christ, is problematic without relationship to the local church. Why? Because as the Reformed, Lutheran, and Wesleyan forms of Protestantism have consistently recognized, along with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the Church is the primary means of God’s saving grace and the Church is expressed concretely in local churches. Local churches are the means by which God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus given to the Church is made available to humanity. Through the preaching of the Word, the due administration of the sacraments, and the community rightly ordered (the marks of the Church), saving, confirming and sanctifying grace is communicated to people. For people to isolate themselves from hearing the scriptures read and the Word of God proclaimed in community, from participation in the sacraments of the Church, and from submitting themselves to the discipline, order and life of the local church is to cut themselves off from the primary means of God’s grace. As such, while a generation of “revolutionaries” may be able to sustain themselves for a period of time, grace capable of sustaining and nourishing Barna’s “revolutionaries” for the long haul, much less succeeding generations, will prove difficult, if not impossible.

In the end, Barna surrenders the biblically and theologically prudent understanding of the Church for an expedient model that ultimately cannot birth, nourish and sustain believers. Dangerously, Barna’s ecclesiology has more in common with the Donatist movement in the third century and Pelegianism in the fifth century than it does in orthodox Christian theology. While these movements flourished in the moment, having great spiritual zeal and fervor, they could not be sustained, and their followers in subsequent generations were left without access to the means of God’s saving and sustaining grace found in the Church.

Finally, from a practical effect (especially among younger people) is to encourage them to drop out of church attendance and practice a do-it-yourself religion. Among ministerial students it encourages them to seek other more exciting venues for their ministry instead of the old fashioned local church. To the laity it legitimizes dropping out of church and going golfing—just so long as they go on a mission’s trip with a Para church organization occasionally and have a neighbor Bible study with a few friends on Tuesday evenings so they can skip church and go golfing on Sunday mornings. The practical effect of the book is to elevate lone ranger religion to which the local church (and obviously districts and denominations) are totally irrelevant.
In pondering this book, it seems to only have come from the pen (laptop?) of a frustrated “boomer.” Moreover, his focus is so modern, western, and individualistic in orientation that it has lost all connections with the biblical times or text. Moreover, it s not global in focus, making it an American Christianity issue, not Kingdom. This is a call to selfish, self-centered Christians who want what they want, want it now, and are not willing to submit to one another. It’s a call to men (predominantly, Eldredge “Wild at Heart” types) who need adventure and an instant-spiritual-gratification spirituality. Faith, forgiveness, perseverance, and body-submission are no where to be seen. Life is measured by pure performance rather than biblical faithfulness.

This is a dangerous book scripturally, theologically and practically—which is why it may be a popular book. Encouraging our people to buy it would be like promoting a book that celebrated pre-marital sex and extra-marital affairs as the wave of the future. People do not need encouragement toward such behaviors. What this book promotes if far more serious than pre-marital or extra-marital sex: it is a dangerous book.

Jointly composed and sincerely Church-men,
Chris Bounds
Keith Drury
David Smith

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What do you think?

Anyone interested in discussing this recent post with those of the community may do so here. Thanks to Nate Hart for fostering further discussion.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Pastors are People Too

Kevin Wright posted a provocative article on his blog. It discusses the issue of Wesleyan pastors who find no help from the larger Wesleyan polity in the matter of health insurance. This is a serious issue and I would encourage you to lend support and ideas as to how it may be resolved. As it pertains to my prior post, Kevin is the type of theologian who seeks a greater depth of understanding and he uses it in practical ways like this.

Communication is Key

Despite the fact that this is the most hectic time of the semester, I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading that does not necessarily pertain to my classwork. As a result, I have come to the conclusion that American Christianity is largely ineffective due to its inability to communicate the biblical narrative. The reason that we find ourselves unable to communicate the message is because we really don't understand it.

There are many in our local churches who have a vast array of knowledge of biblical topics and biblical passages that "address" certain situations or theological matters. However, even among those who have "good bible knowledge" there is clear sense that they do not understand what it is they know. Any basic Christian can state, "We are saved by faith, through the grace of God, by the work of Jesus Christ." Yet very few (including the clergy) would be able to explain what is meant by this theologically loaded statement.

How many could explain the vast scope of salvation and all that redemption entails? How many could explain what is meant by "faith" and what exactly this "faith" is? How do ascertain "faith" and how does "faith" operate? How many could explain what grace is, and how it is communicated? How many could explain how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes the act of redemption and how we are to understand the atonement?

My fear is that not many, whether it be laity or clergy, would be able to explain these vastly important realities. I am not supposing that we require an absolute understanding of all that the Christian narrative purports, but if we do not possess a greater understanding of the meaning behind the truths we proclaim we will continue to be unintelligible to the persons around us.

Salvation has become to us, "Convert the hordes and get as many into heaven as possible!" Many have become disillusioned and confused because after they have been "saved" the reality that they do not understand what they believe becomes a tiresome burden. I have found that our misunderstanding has conceived in us an understanding of the biblical text that is at many times nothing less than a grand distortion. Academics twist my paradigms because the American church has not offered much beyond, "Jesus loves you. Get saved!" We are a community of confusion, confessing the right things but having virtually no understanding of what we actually mean.

The solution is that we respond to the demand of Jesus found often in John's Gospel. In John's Gospel (see previous post) we find Jesus repeatedly calling his people to a deeper understanding about both his identity and his mission. Faith built upon an erroneous foundation is presented as unacceptable in John's Gospel. For us, perhaps it means that we put aside Max Lucado for a volume of systematic theology by Thomas Oden. Or perhaps we need to close the pages of an Erwin McManus book and read the Apologies of Justin Martyr. Perhaps we should lay down Joel Osteen and John Elderidge and pick up the rich writings of Athanasius. For if we do not seek to understand what we believe those who are not part of the Christian community will never seek to become part.