The Bible Is Not the Qur’an

I’ve been reminded recently that many evangelical Christians in America think of the Bible with the same doctrine that traditional Islam uses to think about the Qur’an.  The traditional Muslim understanding of the Qur’an, if I understand it correctly, is that the Qur’an is the literal, actual words of God, spoken in Arabic from God’s mouth, falling directly from His lips.

So a Christian version of this is that many evangelicals think of the Bible in the same way. They see the words of the Bible as the literal words being spoken from God’s mouth. Thus “taking those words literally” makes sense to them.  In this view, the human writer has virtually nothing to do with the words in the Bible, they are merely flesh-and-blood typewriters used by God. It’s as if the Apostle Paul was sitting there eating a kosher beef sandwich with his left hand when suddenly his right hand starts scribbling away the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians. “Yeah, it does that sometimes,” Paul says, “looks like another chapter is coming.” This concept of the Bible, with virtually no regard to the human element, is an essentially Muslim view of Scripture. It’s very common among American evangelicals.

However we know that this is not what the Bible is. We know the human authors were much more engaged than the way I just described. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1: 16  that he does not remember who all he may have baptized.  I assure you, the Holy Spirit knew exactly how many people Paul had baptized. It’s not God who doesn’t remember. It’s the human author, Paul. Likewise, Paul gets so worked up in Galatians that his grammar gets incorrect and he forgets to finish some sentences. In other places Paul paraphrases Old Testament scripture. Also, Paul’s Greek sounds nothing like John’s. John’s Greek is precisely the kind of Greek learned as a second language, not at his mother’s knee. Luke’s  extremely educated Greek sounds nothing like Mark’s. The input of the human authors is evident across the pages of Scripture.

The Princeton theologians of the last century, trying to beat modernity’s challenge to the Bible by using modernity’s own “scientific” categories, lodged the Bible’s authority within the ability to prove its internal consistency. They felt they had to prove it was inerrant in every way, effectively canceling out a view of the human element and circling around to end up with an essentially Muslim view of Scripture. This basically forces them to say the Bible is a scientific guide in areas of geology, planetary cosmology, meteorology, etc. There is no provision for a human author to be limited by the scientific worldview of his day.

The Wesleyan branch of Christian theology, springing from Anglicanism, does not approach Scripture this way. We see Scripture as the infallible word of God in areas pertaining to our salvation – our relationship with God. We are not claiming it’s a science textbook, nor an objective Near Eastern history text,

So my friends with the more Muslim view of Scripture ask “So do you take the Bible literally or allegorically/figuratively?” The answer depends on which part of the Bible you are talking about, of course.

The Song of Solomon is an erotic love song – lots of symbolic language; I won’t embarrass you with examples. Suffice it to say the king did not think the queen’s body shape was literally the shape of a palm tree. The Psalms are prayer-songs. Lots of symbolic, poetic language there: Psalm 23 does not literally mean God picks me up (“Whoaaa! I can see my house from here!”) and puts me down in a pasture somewhere.  Jesus’ parables are stories with a point. We shouldn’t think the story in Luke 16 of the rich and poor men in the afterlife means you can literally speak back and forth between heaven and hell, toll free. Jotham’s fable in Judges 9 is an allegory about trees talking. It’s a story to explain to Israel what is going on right then in their life as a nation. The Bible is not suggesting trees and bushes get together at night when we aren’t looking and hold democratic elections. The Proverbs are not universal , cosmic laws – but they are wise observations about how life usually works.  Chronicles and Kings are court histories, recording the high points of the reigns of Israel’s kings and prophets. Meant to be taken as historic fact.  But even within those literal histories are non-literal language: when Elijah taunts that Baal has “turned aside of the road” it’s a slang/figurative way to say that he is using the restroom! The Laws in Leviticus are actual legal codes in affect at times in Israel’s history. Letters in the New Testament are actually  that: letters from one writer to a church or individual. The Gospels are short treatments of Jesus’ life, announcing that he is the One God sent to redeem the world, and what that means. Etc etc. So the answer to the question “literal or figurative” depends entirely, of course, on which kind of literature in the Bible we are talking about. The language the authors use is bounded in some way by the world of the writer: for instance the writers say the sun rises and sets, although we know that it is the Earth which is actually what is revolving.

If humans are more involved in writing Scripture than just flesh-and-blood typewriters (remember, Paul can’t remember who all he baptized…), in what way are the Scriptures the Word of God? For Wesleyans, the answer is not that the human writers had no influence on the way the Scriptures are written, but that, somehow,  through these human writers, God has spoken to us about His intentions for our relationships with Him, one another  and the world around us. What the Scriptures tell us about God’s intentions “inerrantly reveals the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.” They give us wonderful insight into the relationship and conversation God has had with our spiritual ancestors over a period of 2000+ years. And somehow, activated by the Presence of the Spirit of God, those ancient written words on the page become the living, transformative Word in our hearts and lives. The Protestant Reformers understood this:  insisting that the words are dead to us until illumined by the Spirit. Thus it is not the ability to prove it’s internal consistency upon which the Bible’s authority rests, it is the Presence of God at work through those words supernaturally in our lives.

Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

For those of you still trying to sort out the “Emergent Church” or “Postmodern Christians,” here’s a piece I wrote a couple years ago:

        A nearly universal commonality “Emergent/postmodern” congregations share is that the Gospel is more lived by the life than believed in the head. Emergents believe that living the way of Jesus is better than having all kinds of accurate doctrines about him stuffed in your brain. They value the accurate living of a Jesus-formed life a greater good than accurate parsing of sectarian doctrine. Postmodern Christians feel that an over-emphasis on doctrine (and proving my church is right – not yours) took up too much of the modern’s church’s time in the twentieth century – at the cost of teaching people to actually live out the way of Jesus.

 “…believing that healthy theology cannot be separated from healthy spirituality” is a characteristic thought from EmergentVillage’s website.

Perhaps Dean Blevins sums this up well:

“Modern churches embrace a set of propositional statements (e.g., articles of faith, a confession, or a creed) that serves as the main gateway into the church. One must “believe” before “becoming” and “behaving” as a Christian.  Emerging churches seem more interested in Christian community and daily living as the beginning point. These churches do not oppose theological or biblical guidance. Often these churches openly discuss core Christian convictions… and engage in open theological reflection. However, established doctrines do not define them as much as Christian living does. ….Emerging church practice seems to model the message, ‘Religion is not what you say you are, but how you live your life.’  “ (Dean Blevins, Postmodern and Wesleyan,103).

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren contends that orthopraxy is the POINT of orthodoxy. (Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 31)

This might be a good place to draw attention to a distinct emphasis in postmodern, emerging Christianity: an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus rather than doctrines about Jesus. Modern Christianity, born in the fires and debates of the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution, focused a lot of energy in getting the right answers nailed down, science style, to every doctrinal issue they thought might pertain to individual salvation. In the modern framework, since everything is built in a logical framework like a scientific experiment, you have to get all the doctrines correct or the whole contraption starts leaning over, eventually falling down.

Postmoderns, leery of claiming to perfectly understand overly much, replace Correct Understanding with Correct Relationship as the key issue. This is blisteringly upsetting to some evangelicals, who demand a list of correct doctrines before they will admit you are among the saved.

Nevertheless, postmoderns do not believe a mistaken point of theology is going to keep people out of salvation. That is because they believe that it’s not the accurate answers on a theology exam that saves, it’s Jesus. Therefore you will find a strong emphasis on the living of the Christian faith, rather than whether you have all the right doctrinal points nailed down.

I’ve already stated that trying to argue your denomination’s historical theological distinctives to postmoderns  is most likely going to fall on deaf ears. They’d rather serve in a soup kitchen or talk with their heroine-addicted neighbor than sit and argue with another Christian. They wonder: If you believe all the ‘right things’ (according to your church, of course) but aren’t doing anyone any good, aren’t you missing the point?

Postmodern/emerging/Emergent Christians also wonder: can a community so focus on maintaining its orthodoxy that it stops reflecting the character of God? Can love, justice, mercy and humility get left behind somewhere in the iron-grip of maintaining a theological grip on something? This seems to be just what the Pharisees did.

 

 

Christianity and the other religions

As Christians, we believe Jesus is the One through whom all things were made and who holds all things together (Colossians  1:17). We believe He is the Savior of all humanity and even the cosmos (1 Timothy  4: 10 and Colossians  1: 15,20). We believe that people come to understand who God truly is through Jesus (Hebrews 1:3).

So that brings the question of the other religions of the world. Does God use them in any way? Are they evil? Are they somewhat good? Do they have some truth in them, and what does that mean for their value?

That’s a large can of worms to open, and way too much for a short treatment in a blog post. But we can say a few things to get started on the subject.

1)      C.S. Lewis once remarked that to say the Christian religion is right does not mean we must say everything in the other world religions is wrong. That is, there are things that other religions say that we agree with. It is not a bad thing, nor betrayal to Jesus, to say “We believe that too. Here’s why….”

2)      God can act in a prevenient way through other religions, as seen in the Apostle Paul’s remark in Athens (Acts chapter 17).  Paul affirms some truths about God that the Athenians have grasped, and then shares with them a fuller understanding that Christ brings. In many cases the world religions have led to better outcomes for people than what they replaced. We can appreciate   values like justice, compassion and respect that are present in other religions. Even as we disagree with some significant aspects of another religion, we can recognize the presence of things that are important to God which are present in other religions. Wesleyans call this prevenient grace – ways God is acting  in our lives even before we know Jesus. In the Old Testament God has also indicated His involvement in other peoples’ lives who do not yet know Him. One example would be Amos 9:7.

3)      Obviously, we can point to times in history when the world religions have done some really terrible things – or really terrible things have been done in their name. This is true of all the religions, including Christianity. Perhaps we should exercise a bit of humility when talking about this issue, because down through the centuries Christians have perpetrated some pretty horrible human rights abuses in the name of Jesus, and of all people, Christians should have known better.

4)      Most Christian theology does not consider the other religions to be “salvific.” By this we mean we would not consider the other religions “a road to heaven.” However, much Christian theology does keep the door open to the idea that God will nevertheless act salvificly in the lives of people who never heard of Christ. This would not mean their religion saved them, but that God applied the atonement of Jesus, and judged them “according to the light they had.”

5)      We can also recognize that other religions have great diversity within them, and a great range of health and un-health  in the ways they are practiced. For example, there are Muslims who practice Islam in ways that prioritize goodness, compassion, kindness to humanity, and a close relationship with God. There are other Muslims who practice a version of Islam that prioritizes violence, revenge, domination and conquest. Since I doubt that a billion Muslims will convert to Christianity next week, I prefer a world where a healthy Islam is practiced, rather than a violent one. Christianity also experiences this range, right? Many people practice a kind of Christianity that you or I might say “That’s not even Christian. It’s astray of the very tenets of our faith.”

6)      Many missiologists believe that the most effective, Christlike approach to the other religions is to build bridges of commonality and friendship as we attempt to share what we know of Jesus with them.  Pauls’ approach in Athens is often pointed to in this regard. Missionary Don Richardson has compiled an entire book featuring indigenous religions throughout the world that had beliefs – even prophecies about the Creator’s Son! – that prepared them for the Christian message. The book is called Eternity in Their Hearts. Sadly, we are also aware that this is not always an option, in places of great aggression, persecution or violence.

If you are interested in this, two other posts I’ve written related to this are:   “Then Why Send Missionaries?”  (in the section “Theology, Scripture, Theologians” ), and “John Wesley re: the Muslims” (in the section “Other Religions”).

So Why Send Missionaries?

As some Christians contemplate a broad view of the Atonement of  Jesus – meaning that it is redemptive for more than just the relatively few people in history who will ever hear about it – other Christians understandably ask “Then why send missionaries? If there is some gracious way in which God will judge people according to the light they had, and apply the benefits of  Jesus’ death and resurrection to them, why bother to send missionaries?”

This is a good and logical question to ask.  There are three connected things we can say about this.

First, we would still send missionaries because life with Christ is not just about what happens to me when I die, it is about life right now. Salvation and redemption is not just a question of if I get to heaven, they are issues about life here and now. The transformation of my life as I repent of sin, place my faith in Jesus, come into personal, daily relationship with the God who made me, experience the joy-filled changing of my character and my “heart” by the Holy Spirit, the ripple effects in my relationships and daily life – these are things worth experiencing right now! Christian mission to the un-evangelized peoples of the world is not simply a question of souls in heaven – it is a question of human lives here and now – right now, today.

Second, the love of God inside of us compels us to want this transformation and joy and newness of life to come to people who do not know Jesus. We have found that nothing else in life compares to what happens in our life when we come to know Jesus intimately and personally, and we want other people to experience that too.  Also, the description of his ministry to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the hungry that Jesus described in Luke 4 and Matthew 25 are also descriptions of the ministry he has called us to join him in. When we are aware of people who are suffering, in a very real way, “Christ’s love compels us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

Third, we believe that the way the social and structural ills of the world are healed, are also through Jesus and his way.  And so, as more and more people are transformed by, and begin living out the teachings of Jesus, the world itself comes more and more in line with God’s desire for it. It becomes better. We believe this is what Jesus wanted and still wants. The leaven in the dough.

And so, even as we contemplate what the scope of Christ’s atonement is for those who have never heard, and are encouraged in the Scriptures about God’s fairness, love and graciousness, we are still compelled to bring the good news of Jesus to everyone, everywhere. As the old gospel song says “Everybody ought to know…”.

Acts 10:38  God gave Jesus of Nazareth the Holy Spirit and power.   Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Perspective on a Bad day

This is country music artist Brad Paisley’s song One Of Those Lives. He’s right.

 

Rush hour traffic,
Always puts me in a bad mood.
I got chewed out by the boss today,
And now I’m stuck on highway 92.

Then you call me on my cell phone,

While I’m cussin’ out a Cadillac.
You say remember Tom and Jenny’s little boy?
Well, the doctors say the cancer’s back.

Man it’s been one of those days,
When I been thinking poor me.
I got no right to complain I guess,
Cause right now all I can see
Is a little angel in a Yankees cap.
It makes me realize.
It’s just been one those days for me,
But for him it’s been one of those lives.

Everybody under my roof,
Is healthy- knock on wood.
Oh but I sure do sweat the small stuff,
and I don’t thank God as much as I should.

Tonight I’m thinking about Tommy and Jenny,
And how they spent the last four years.
All those extended stays in Memphis,
All the sleepless nights, the prayers, the tears.

It’s just been one of those days,
Where I was thinking poor me.
I got no right to complain I guess,
Cause right now all I can see.
Is that family moving back to Target House.
It makes me realize
It’s just been one those days for me,
But for them it’s been one of those lives.

And so it’s been one of those days,
I let things get to me.
I got no right to complain,
Cause when I look around I see.

Folks that are fightin’ for every breath,
And it makes me realize.
It’s just been one for those days for me,
But for them it’s been one of those lives.

Evolution and Our Kids

I was driving down the road the other day with a couple teenage boys. So I asked them “What do you think? Did God make humans in a day or use evolution?” They talked about Genesis 1 being a poem, not a modern scientific essay on biological origins; they talked about its meaning (God is the Creator of everything) rather than taking it literally; they talked about various fossil records and the presence of new species; they talked about DNA, but they didn’t pick a side. “So what do you think – we’re from apes (I know, I know, ramapithecines) or not?” “It doesn’t matter,” they said, “Either way, God did it.” “Really?” I pushed, “Don’t you lean either way? Our skeletons sure look like chimps. And we can tell bears and dogs both came from amphicylines…”

“And raccoons. But, nope,” they said. “I don’t lean either way – it doesn’t matter. Either way, God did it.”

How about that? Those boys are two of my sons. They are passionate, committed Christians who care about the things Jesus cares about. The older one is a ministry leader. The younger one is coming on strong. Neither of them feels a sense of angst facing scientific discovery or theory. “Either way, God did it.”

I’ve often thought that the “crisis of faith” so many American evangelical kids experience in college, when they run up against the theory of evolution, is a crisis created at home and church, and not by the university. By planting our feet and getting set for a fight, forcing an either/or decision regarding evolution or a literal reading of Genesis 1 & 2, I think we forced our kids to have to choose between which position seemed to have the most evidence to support it. To the sorrow of many families, their kids not only landed on the side of evolution, they landed somewhere outside of church. Permanently.

But I wonder if we had positioned them more like my sons, would they have fared better, and perhaps been able to hang on to their Christian faith? If we had taught them that however God did it, He did it and we don’t have to be afraid of scientific discovery – whatever we learn is part of God’s amazing creativity (the Nazarene Manual says that). If we had ever mentioned that forms of literature 3,000 years ago were not written as  scientific textbooks… (Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley called Genesis 1 a hymn), maybe we could have cast a vision for a Christian faith big enough for science.

In 1616 the Roman Catholic Church announced that you were not allowed to be a Christian if you thought the earth revolved around the sun. They felt that that idea struck at the root of Christian faith and undermined the whole thing. They had Scripture to back them up: “the sun rises and sets”. We now look back and think that’s silly: obviously we can be Christian and realize the earth revolves around the sun.

But today there are Christian voices telling us that if you believe in evolution you are not allowed to be a Christian. They say you can’t love Jesus, can’t ask him to forgive your sins, can’t live His ways, can’t go to heaven when you die, etc etc. I’m not sure where they ever go the idea that they had the authority to tell me if I am allowed to love Jesus or not.

I haven’t kept up enough with physical anthropology since grad school to make hard and fast conclusions as to what I think about the viability of the evolutionary hypothesis in regards to human origins. But I do believe we need to stop fighting useless battles with science. It just undermines Christian faith and makes us look like you have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian. And it forces our kids to decide between science and Christianity when they go to university – and that’s sadly destructive. Christian faith has always been, and still is, robust enough to include what we learn from science.

Incidentally, I pastor quite a few people who are exemplary Christians, love God deeply, are working in the world in the name of Jesus, loving people and inviting them into relationship with Christ – and they figure the theory of evolution is true.  When they were first being drawn into faith in Christ, the issue of evolution was a huge hurdle for them. They had only met Christians who said you couldn’t be Christian and believe in that scientific theory – and it made them feel like they had to pretend to live in the Middle Ages if they were going to be Christian – and they weren’t ready to be that intellectually dishonest  with themselves. When I told them it was fine – go ahead and love Jesus and put their hope and faith in him – it was within the scope of Christian faith to think God perhaps used evolution in the created order, the relief on their faces was visible.

This isn’t going away. Humans are going to continue to try and understand God’s creation. Thank God, because polio and other dread things are gone because of this curiosity. As we continue to try to understand the world God placed us in, and utilize it in ways that bless and promote human thriving, scientific  theories are going to come and go. Perhaps a less antagonistic stance toward some scientific theories will help us promote a Christian faith that doesn’t needlessly repel people. Or, what I’m trying to say is that perhaps some of the fights we’ve picked with science have hurt the cause of the Kingdom rather than helped it. Some of those fights may have been very unnecessary and counter-productive. It’s something to consider.

Tom Oord has written a nice little article about why Christians should care about science. Here’s the link: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/whole-life/features/27064-10-reasons-christians-should-care-about-science

 

 

More Than One Way to Think About Hell?

Back just before Rob Bell’s Love Wins came out, people were freaking out. I don’t know why, because the book hadn’t even hit the shelves yet. But somehow enough had leaked out that the firestorm was in full swing. I was suspicious that what had everybody going was that Rob was going to talk about other views of  ‘the fate of the wicked’ than simply “they burn forever and ever”. Since views of hell that were over instantaneously, or only temporary and remedial in nature were much more numerous in historic Christianity than most North Americans realized, I wrote the following summary of the short-terms hells for our church’s website. This post will get us around to a post I will write soon “Then Why Send Missionaries?”

Various Christian universalisms have been around since the beginning, although they haven’t historically been the majority view. Christian ideas of universal salvation are not generic universalism. “Generic universalism” is the idea that all religions essentially teach the same thing and are pointed at the same goal, so any religion can get you to heaven. (By the way, all religions do not teach the same thing, all religions do not aim at the same goal, and no religion gets anyone to heaven, including Christianity).

The various versions of ‘Universal Salvation’  (also called ‘Universal Reconciliation’ or ‘Universal Restoration’) in Christianity are not the idea that any religion will get you to the same place. No, Universalism in Christianity was the idea that the atonement of Jesus is so profoundly powerful that, in the purposes of God, when all is said and done, every human who has ever lived will eventually and finally turn to God. (This may be what Bell’s title refers to: Love Wins.) Here’s another way it has been summed up: “All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” “the saints” and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed.” (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/universal_restoration.html)

Most Christian versions of this doctrine include hell of some sort, usually as a limited-duration remedial punishment (get their attention so they want God more than rebellion). While it hasn’t come down to us as the majority view, there were times when it was common (as late as the 5th century Jerome said ‘most people’ and Augustine said ‘many people’ believed it).  The idea  has been believed, or at least considered quite possibly true,  by many sincere followers of Jesus down through the ages, including some pretty heavy hitters: St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Peter Boehler, William Law,  Sundhar Singh, G.K. Chesteron, Karl Barth and John Neuhaus. (I had a larger list and at present can’t find it). Needless to say, the list of heavy-hitters who did NOT believe in this doctrine is far, far, longer.  The fact that the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Rev. Billy Graham, has expressed hope in the doctrine of Universal Salvation ought to indicate that it doesn’t undercut evangelism, as some of its critics claim.

Christians who believe in Universal Salvation basically build their arguments around the following ideas:

  • the God who told us to forgive our enemies wouldn’t turn around and set His on fire for trillions of years (this idea has also given birth to the doctrine called ‘Annihilationism’: the idea that Hell is brief and then “the wicked vanish like smoke” and cease to exist (Psalm 37:20).
    •  modern English tends to obscure the nuances of Greek words regarding hell, and we tend to assume the words hell, gehennaSheol, punishment, judgment, justice and wrath all mean the same thing, which they don’t
    • the Greek words for punishment associated with hell in the New Testament are words with ‘remedial’ meanings, indicating the punishment is so people will do better next time
    • Jesus said some will be ‘beaten with few blows’ or ‘punished lightly’ (Luke 13:48). How could this possibly be describing trillions of years of torment?
  • 1 Peter 3: 19-20 and 4: 3,5 describe Jesus preaching to those who had died without knowledge of God’s ways during the time of Noah. Universalists figure something will apply to others who fit the same description.
  • It is against the nature of God, who is “kind and loving toward all He has made” to set people He created on fire for trillions of years. Endless torment  is disproportionate punishment for a crime committed in a limited scope on earth.
  • Paul calls Jesus “the Savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10)  and “reconciling all things on heaven and on earth” (Col 1:20 .)   Jesus said “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me” John 12:32. David declares “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27) These are by no means all the verses Christian Universalists use, but they are representative.
  • ‘Universal Salvation’ was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council during the formative Patristic Age (first 5 centuries), even though some tried to have it condemned. St. Augustine considered those believing in Universal Salvation, (though he did not), still to be genuine Christians.

C S Lewis, in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia approaches this subject by describing a man who had grown up worshipping an idol/false god, finally meeting Aslan (who represents Christ). When Aslan says ‘come here my son,’ the man falls down on his knees expecting to be killed. When Aslan doesn’t kill him, he can’t understand: “I served Tash – a false-god – all my life, and now I see that YOU are the Truth….” Aslan replies “You acted in ignorance. Whatever vows you kept to Tash I credit as vows kept to me. Whatever vows you made to Tash and broke, I count as vows broken to me.” (I summed it up: for more detail, see The Last Battle, chapter 15).

–          – – – – – –

–          Some Christians ask “If someone can eventually get right with God after death, why send missionaries?” I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.