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When One Issue Drowns Out Others

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

After interviewing Allan R. Bevere a few days ago I discovered another video. First, here’s my interview with Allan. We were talking about the United Methodist Church General Conference in 2019 looking for a way forward as a denomination with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.

The new video is from the Adventist News Network (HT Spectrum Magazine), which is an official project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long time readers of this blog will know I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, but am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. Here it is:

The issues in the two denominations are different. While United Methodists discuss homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Seventh-day Adventists are discussing ordination of women. In many discussions, I have heard the arguments against women’s ordination expressed in terms of the danger of a slippery slope toward accepting homosexuality. The claim is that the same arguments might be, and have been, used for both.

In the process of discussing these issues, however, we see a number of things:

  • Money becomes a key. In the United Methodist Church it becomes a question of how much power our brethren in the global south should have over the church seeing as they are financially supported by the American church. In the SDA Church the issue of tithe has now been raised, as the North American Division wants to reduce the percentage of its tithe sent to other divisions.
  • People are accused based simply on their viewpoint. I understand how this happens. Sincerity does not mean one is right. One can be passionately and sincerely wrong, even when rightly motivated. (I should know! I’ve been there and might be now!) But one can be firm on one’s convictions and still be respectful.
  • Each side accuses the other of bringing disunity. This is a choice that comes to all. When a “Martin Luther” moment comes is it an act of disunity or an act of conscience?
  • One’s opponents may be seen as guilty of putting a stop to the gospel message, such as the implication in the Adventist News Network video that those who support women’s ordination are holding back the work of the gospel and preparation for the coming of Jesus.
  • Conformity is seen as unity.
  • Everyone starts looking at the legal ownership of church property (see the first point)!

I have made my opinion on women in ministry clear, so I can’t stand back and play facilitator to a discussion. I believe that those God has gifted in any way should serve in that way, and I do believe women can be and are gifted for ministry. I believe God equips those he calls and the equipping is quite enough evidence. On homosexuality I’ve tried to stand back. A very good friend who passed away recently said to me once: “Henry, it’s very hard to be both a prophet and a facilitator.” He was very right. So I’ve refrained from any pulpit pounding type statements on homosexuality. It doesn’t mean I have no opinions; just that I’m going to let others do the discussion, and there’s no lack of those ready and waiting to engage.

But let me turn to two other issues on which I’ll make something of a statement. I’m a firm believer on the one hand that we should have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and especially charity in all things. (Note the interesting and difficult history of the saying I paraphrase.) On the other hand I believe in keeping your essentials to a minimum, as reflected in the doctrinal statement I use for my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’ve discussed this before, and will link to my post Not All Doctrines Are Equal, which links to several others.)

For my first issue I’m opposed to just about any form of prosperity theology, or even letting finance drive the train. Financial management is necessary, but it’s generally the first thing to get in the way of good moral decision making. We simply don’t take the time to find a way to do things that is financially responsible and yet morally right.

In the case of the controversies I’m mentioning, this comes up in wanting to diminish the influence of some people over finance. Money is the presenting issue, but behind it is the fact that someone does not like the viewpoint of the other person. Whether I agree with someone or not, I believe as a Christian that I must respect that person. The believer in Africa, South America, or Asia is not diminished before God because I don’t like the way he or she will vote in a conference. Financial status should not change the nature of our relationships in the family of God. In this case, I think it would be better to lose a vote than to in any diminish another person.

Of course, this must include not diminishing the person who is on the other side, or who is being argued about. Whether we are talking about the level of a person’s financial contributions, their sexuality, or simply their gender, it can be (usually is) paternalistic and diminishing when the person with the power discusses whether to share that power with the person who does not. In the kingdoms of the world it may be necessary. I think Jesus calls us to better behavior. (Not that I know how to always do it right.)

Money comes up in terms of church property as well. Allan Bevere noted that the one thing that may connect us soon is our pensions (speaking as a pastor). One of the things that will likely cause controversy is those congregations who, no matter what happens, may want to withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Then we face the specter of people claiming the name of Jesus fighting it out in secular court due to church property. Quoth Paul, “Why would it not be better to be wronged? Why would it not be better to be defrauded?”

Second, however, is the issue of hierarchy. All of these issues become issues of power. Who gets to tell who else what they should and shouldn’t do, and who gets to enforce the result. Again, after noting how the rulers of the nations behaved, Jesus told his disciples it was not to be that way with them. The greatest should be a servant. (Mark 10:41-45) I wonder how the debate would change if we saw it as a question of serving rather than having power over. (In fact, I have a problem with the whole idea of a separated class of ordained clergy, but that is a different debate.)

I hope and pray that both my former and my present denominations will find a Christ-like way through their divisions. I don’t actually feel very hopeful. Perhaps it’s “Oh me of little faith!” Still it doesn’t look that good, no matter which direction the wind blows on the various doctrines. There is likely a right and wrong answer.  I tend to believe in moral absolutes while doubting our ability to come very close to them. But we must not violate much clearer moral values, such as the way we treat one another, in the pursuit of those truths.

When we pursue absolutes at the expense of other absolutes, the resulting mess is absolute.

Jacob’s Ladder as an Example of Grace

Jacob’s Ladder as an Example of Grace

I believe that God’s grace is taught as much in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) as in the new.

The key element here is that Israel was never called to obey in order to earn God’s acceptance, but rather were offered God’s acceptance and then called upon to obey. One of the problems with modern views of grace is the notion that consequences in the real world are canceled by it. But that is a subject for considerable words at some other time.

In Genesis 28 we have the story of Jacob’s flight after Rebecca warns him of Esau’s anger. It’s a simple situation. We often picture God’s action following our request to God. There’s no record of Jacob asking anything. He just sets up a place to sleep and sleeps. God sends a message of comfort, hope, and promise to Jacob without any action on Jacob’s part.

Now there are certainly many cases of someone asking and getting an answer. I’m not arguing against prayer, though I think prayer is mostly for the good it does us. God already has a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

(Image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Slippery Slopes

Slippery Slopes

There are a few terms that are quite true and yet misleading in many actual uses. I like to cite “Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven.” Precisely true, but in common use very likely an excuse for ordinary bad behavior. Whatever the intent, it ends up sounding like, “I’m a Christian, so I can do whatever I want to. If you question my actions, nobody’s perfect.” They’re not perfect; you’re not perfect. In this case, however, the true statement is being used as a bad excuse.

Or there’s the great “I’m an adult, so I’m not offended by your political views.” Just so! An adult will not be offended by the political views of others. Disagree, yes. Be offended, not so much. Though I’ll confess that some political (and religious, for that matter) views are quite offensive. But in practice this line is most frequently used by people who want to behave in an offensive manner. When someone objects, they have the passive-aggressive response. “Adults wouldn’t get offended.” So of course you’re not an adult because you get offended when they behave like toddlers. It’s true you shouldn’t get offended. What good does it do? But they’re really using it as an excuse, and as a way to manipulate you.

And then there are slipperly slopes. Slippery slopes are real. That’s because one idea leads to another. In fact, unless you start learning, you live your life on slippery slopes.

My particular brand of moderate, or passionate moderate as I like to call myself, celebrates being all across the slopes of various ideas. I like to identify the extremes on any particular idea or topic and then find all the ground between. Where is the best place to be? If the correct place to be is poised on the slippery slope, that’s where I want to be.

But “slippery slope” is more commonly used as a scare tactic against certain ideas. It is quite true, for example, some some people have gone from conservative Christianity, through moderate or mainline Christianity, then progressive Christianity, and then to atheism. It’s a slippery slope. Once you start thinking, it’s hard to be certain where you’ll go. It’s also true that many people have reacted badly to their conservative or fundamentalist upbringing and have then jumped straight to atheism.

Others have turned to Christian faith and then gotten narrower and narrower and harsher and harsher and ended up as dangerous cultists.

Yet others have turned to Jesus and slid right down the slippery slope to living a life of sacrifice and commitment to Jesus. Some of these have ended up doing mission work on the street.

I have named none of these, but there numbers are quite substantial.

You live in a world filled with slippery slopes. It’s not only likely you’ll make mistakes and find yourself sliding somewhere you don’t want to go. It’s likely someone else has taken a step similar to one you’ve just taken and then continued on to somewhere you don’t want to go.

My suggestion would be to always remember where you have been, and to always consider the foundations of what you believe. That will help you measure your movement and decide whether you really want the changes taking place or not.

Or, alternatively, you can anchor yourself where you are, and live in fear of the slippery slopes all around. It’s not all that likely you’ll be right or safe.

You might even avoid slipping into some beautiful new truths!

Beware of the fear of slippery slopes.

What’s Old about the Old Testament?

What’s Old about the Old Testament?

Many years ago, more years than I will admit to, I went into a Jewish book and supply store and requested a copy of the “Hebrew Old Testament.” I recall vividly the look on the store clerk’s face, and I apologized, but it’s not an error that you can recover from easily. To a Jew, of course, it’s the Bible, not the first part of it that must be finished with another text in another language.

Many Christians are unaware, or only vaguely aware of how their faith relates to the Hebrew scriptures, and thus it is very easy to be offensive in one’s language without intending to. Unfortunately, there are those who will be intentionally offensive.

Over the years I changed my terminology. I didn’t actually abandon the term “old testament,” but I took up a somewhat complicated usage, one I have to explain regularly. That doesn’t bother me, as I believe that in explaining it, I invite my Christian audiences to think about things they may not have considered before.

My Terminology

That’s what I’m going to do here. First, the terms.

  • Old Testament – I use this when, and only when, I’m referring to these books as part of Christian scripture. For reasons I will expand on below, I believe that a sacred text differs according to the way it is used, and only fully functions as part of a faith community.
  • Jewish Bible – I use this term less frequently, and largely when I’m going to quote actual Jewish scholars expressing their views. I have found that studying the Jewish Bible using commentaries and other tools produced by Jewish scholars of various branches of Judaism is powerful and very helpful to me, but I prefer not to have people think I am expressing the Jewish point of view in other than a limited sense.
  • Hebrew Scriptures – Though I didn’t know it, this was what I set out to study when I chose to major in biblical languages. By Hebrew scriptures I refer to these same books as Ancient Near Eastern literature and look to read them as such literature, looking for their historical setting and meaning. Some assume that one can simply read ancient texts and move directly to their applicability to a modern setting, but that is precisely what requires a community of faith and a hermeneutic process. A hermeneutic process cannot be validated, in my view, apart from a community of faith. I use this term when I do not intend application to the present but rather to discuss how the text was used and understood at a time in history.

Some would suggest either that Jewish or Christian interpreters have the right process of interpretation and application, while the other fails. Now it’s likely that various of us are wrong about some things and right about things, and I believe in objective truth, but it is difficult to call things right or wrong without also considering the community of faith that’s involved. We would have to talk about whether a whole community was right or wrong, and that’s even more difficult!

Some Christians may be wondering at this point whether I believe in evangelism and disciple making. I do. I just don’t believe that those things are about intellectual persuasion. Rather, conversion is an act of God, not an act of persuasion. Saul on the road to Damascus did not encounter an intellectual argument. He had a powerful encounter with the one he would call Lord and Savior. Other experiences may take more time and be more subtle, but I think no less an act of God.

A key note here: Christian witness must come from Christian community. This is a major problem for the church today. In fact, the community of faith is central to interpretation, application, and therefore to witness.

Reading as Ancient Near Eastern Literature

When I started my studies in biblical languages and literature, it was my expectation that I would learn the history, determine the historical context of any verse or story, and the intended lesson, which would allow me to correctly and objectively apply that lesson to my time and situation. The reality? Not so much!

As an example, I often use two texts from Leviticus in teaching about hermeneutics to lay audiences. The are:

  • “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
  • “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV)

The results are often interesting with current American audiences. I’ve been using these two verses for years and I have seen no real change, other than differences based on the demographics of the audience I use it on. There will be people who are willing to accept both, but there are only a few of those. There are many who want Leviticus 18:22 to be applicable but not Leviticus 19:33-34, and those who want 19:33-34 to be applicable but not 18:22. Those who have thought through that application and provided a hermeneutic that can be consistently applied to texts are few and far between.

Doubtless among my readers there are those who have thought these verses through and can explain their use of one, both, or neither in determining modern theology. If you have done so, you are engaging in hermeneutics, and you most certainly have been influenced by your faith community.

For example, many Christians will claim that Jesus or other New Testament authors have reaffirmed one text or the other. Others may feel that one fits with Christian values better. Others may try to discuss cultural applicability.

Yet others will say, “The Bible says it, and I believe it.” That, of course, is problematic in Leviticus, especially for Christians. We don’t do most of what Leviticus tells us to do. If you doubt me on that, read Leviticus 11 & 13. There are many more examples, but that one will do. In this case, though different filters are used, Jews don’t expect gentiles to keep all of those rules. They have a very limited set that come from outside this portion of the Torah that would apply to us. Christians have a different filter. The key here is that we both have a filter.

Thus my goal was not realistic. The process of study was, however, quite useful. There is a value in historical study. It just doesn’t convert without difficulty into application.

Reading as the Jewish Bible

So working in reverse, I look at the term Jewish Bible.

The key element here is Judaism as a community of faith. I don’t mean that we try to tell just what is correct Judaism. I have found great value in works from quite different branches of Judaism. I continue now, many years after I did the study, to consider studying Leviticus with Jacob Milgrom’s commentary in the Anchor Bible Series as the most profound spiritual experience of my life. But I have benefited from discussions with Reform and Orthodox scholars and from reading their books. Nahum Sarna’s works, and particularly the JPS Torah commentary series which he edited is another extremely valuable source. (You can find many of these titles and others in the Energion retail store page on Torah.)

We need to read the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish book because …

  • It is a book given to Israel and preserved by them. Paul makes the Christian affirmation of this in Romans 3:1-2 and elsewhere.
  • We might learn to understand the text better. Because the books of Hebrew scripture have been borrowed and reused we have the benefit of seeing it from different perspectives. This is an advantage no matter what one is trying to do. One of the great features of Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus is that he looks at the history of interpretation including Christian and secular looks at the text.
  • If we are to affirm the Jews as God’s chosen people, then at a minimum we should have some idea who they are and what they believe.
  • It’s a great joy to do it!

Reading as Christian Scripture

There are a couple of fundamental points we need to keep in mind in studying the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament of Christian scripture. First, we need the other views. It is impossible to understand where people were in the first century as Christianity came into being without looking at how those people would have seen it. Second, because our scripture is so seriously rooted in Hebrew scripture—even the term “New Testament” comes from the Old—we need to understand these roots.

Regarding the first point, I am often annoyed by Christians who make remarks such as, “Jesus is so clearly taught in the Old Testament! How can the Jews not see this?” And yes, the Apostle Paul can get on my nerves. He should remember that he had to be pretty much struck by lightning to change his mind. He shows the zeal of a convert on this point. But those of us who have not been struck by lightning should be aware of the interpretive problems, and also of what Jewish interpretations are. Besides the Jewish commentaries I use, I keep a copy of the Jewish Study Bible from Oxford University Press at hand for quick reference.

Those who use Paul’s writings in an antisemitic sense should both be aware of his own attitude at the time and also of the difference between our time and his. That is also hermeneutics. “Paul did it, so I can,” is not a safe statement in a world that has changed. Paul spoke to a group that had not truly separated from Judaism at the time. We speak to a world in which persecution of the Jews has been rampant and vicious. What might he say regarding his “brothers and sisters, his fellow countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3)? Or how might Jesus address descendants of the Pharisees in the light of what his self-proclaimed followers have done in the meantime?

At the same time, I read the whole Christian Bible, including both testaments as Christian scripture and as the core of my faith. As one of my Energion authors, Edward Vick noted, (see Creation: The Christian Doctrine), the key to something being a Christian doctrine is that it centers in Christ. He makes that statement even clearer in his book Seventh-day Adventists and the Bible when he said:

God’s decisive revelation is in the events the Bible records and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All Christian revelation has Jesus Christ as its point of reference, since God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is the event from which Christians interpret all history and all experience. The problem for the Seventh-day Adventist church is to make Jesus Christ central and primary in this way in its doctrine. The problem for the theologian and for the framers of church doctrine is to interpret the Bible, life, practice, doctrine, so that the centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ comes decisively and clearly to view…. (p. 5)

He is addressing his own denomination, but the point applies to any Christian group, I believe.

Thus I read the Bible unabashedly Christocentrically as a Christian. My doctrine forms around the person, mission, and teachings of Jesus. At the same time, I have no need to deride other approaches, nor should I be unable to discuss those other elements from a compatible point of view. Someone who does not accept Christ, as I do, is unlikely to be interested in the “centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ.” Yet we can discuss the text.

Failure to recognize differences in our approach to hermeneutics is at the root of many of our most fierce and least constructive discussions.

A Note about Certainty

At this point, I need to make a note regarding thinking people are wrong. Any time one thinks one is right, one necessarily thinks those who disagree are wrong. We get into problems because we then look down on those who disagree with us, holding positions contrary to our obvious truth. I think this sort of behavior is both unnecessary and does not indicate confidence, but uncertainty.

In all areas of life, I think there are two goals: 1) We must seek truth in some sense, and 2) We must be able to maintain community (faith, local, national, and world) while still disagreeing. I think it is unfortunate when we feel we have to smooth over our differences in order to get along. We should instead celebrate our differences and dialogue about them so that we can improve.

I consider efforts to force change to be counterproductive. The best way of constructively changing anyone’s view on anything is respectful dialogue. Being respectful doesn’t mean abandoning your principles. It means listening attentively and courteously and clearly explaining your viewpoint. Contrary to popular option, it is not the noisiest who are firmest in their convictions. Only one who is confident in what he or she believes, including sufficient confidence to recognize and admit the unknown, can get the most out of dialogue.

So How Old Is It?

The problem with the word “old” is that we tend to see it in negative terms such as out of date, obsolete, and requiring replacement. That is whenever we’re not fantasizing about a golden age that never actually existed. In the case of the Old Testament, Christian theology works against making it a golden age. Why would we have a new testament if the old one was a golden age?

I’ve discussed this extensively with reference to the book of Hebrews, which has the statement, rather unfortunate when taken out of context (as it usually is), that “what is becoming old is soon to disappear” (8:13) is sometimes used to suggest that the Old Testament is no longer applicable and in some cases hardly worth studying. If it’s obsolete, why red it?

I’m not going to go into a study of Hebrews, but let me simply say that if the author of Hebrews thinks the Old Testament (as a collections of books) is obsolete, he has cut the limb off behind him, as he bases all his arguments on texts from that same Old Testament. He has other concerns.

And that is my first problem with the term “Old Testament.” The books of the Hebrew scriptures do not constitute a covenant or testament. They contain more than one such covenant. So if Hebrews, or any other passage of the New Testament refers to the passing of the “old covenant,” they aren’t referring to all the books of Hebrew scripture.

The division of the Christian Bible into Old and New Testaments tends to create some errors. I should note that it also presents an important division. What did we borrow from someone else and what did we add? That’s a good distinction. It might be more accurately presented in other ways.

It would help if Christians recognized the Jewish divisions, Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The covenant with Israel is stated in the Torah, and a great deal of the rest is dedicated to discussing how to keep that covenant, or proposing God’s new covenant (yes, I mean new). “New covenant” (or testament) is not a New Testament idea. Jeremiah 31:31-34. This proposed new covenant differs from the old one largely in the enabling grace given to people to keep it. The main problem with the old one, a problem that might be seen to make it obsolete, is the failure of Israel to keep it.

Which leads to another Christian problem. We often look at the experience of Israel with disdain. How could they be so unfaithful? Why didn’t they just keep the covenant God had given them? Why turn to other gods? We do all of this while we turn away from God and ignore what God has commanded ourselves. We would be well advised to heed Paul’s command in Romans 11:20, “put away your pride and be on your guard,” which he gives precisely in reference to this attitude of superiority.

My next problem is simply with the view of “old” that we often hold, as though God’s later acts are better than his former acts. People and circumstances change, but I believe that God’s aims stay pretty much the same. The covenant with Israel expresses accurately God’s desire for his chosen people, Israel. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, but we should remember who it was addressed to. I would suggest that one of the key elements of that covenant was to establish an identity for Israel, an identity that was necessary to allow them to carry out their mission. I would suggest that goal was carried out with great success. More than 3000 years later we hear the echo of this in Tevye’s remark in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” The Jews have a very strong identity.

While we may not be subject to the same regulations, we still need an identity as God’s people. There is a history here that we need to learn. The covenant is, in a sense, as old as the hills and as new as tomorrow, because God is still looking for ways to get his message out to the world.

So the Old Testament needs to be seen not as a single entity that has become obsolete or been replaced, but as the witness to God’s activity which has been continued in other ways. If we pay attention to this, we may be able to better understand some of the goals of the New Testament.

But even further, the New Testament itself doesn’t come in a single package. It is also a collection of books that looks at the witness of Jesus, the witness to Jesus, and the vision of the future of God’s world. Without understanding this background, we are unlikely to understand what New Testament writers were up to, because we don’t know where they are coming from.

Conclusion

Despite my wordiness, I have left much untouched.

How old is the Old Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.

How old is the New Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.

Both are rooted in and lead to eternity.

We ought not to discard either.

 

Why Christians Should Embrace Science

Why Christians Should Embrace Science


First, of course, we should ask why anyone should embrace science*.

It’s not because:

  1. Science is perfect
  2. Scientists are without biases and always produce objective truth
  3. The results of science are never in error
  4. Science can decide everything for us

I’m reminded of the quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Frequently people object to science on the basis that it isn’t perfect. A history of discovery of new things can also be portrayed as a history of error. Obviously, if you discover something a new, better theory, it means that something you believed before was wrong. The interesting thing, the critical thing, is that it is science that corrects the errors of previous science.

So the reason I suggest for embracing science is this: It works.

You are reading this on an electronic device that is the result of applying scientific theories. Those scientific theories replaced other, less robust theories, and thereby enabled the invention of new technology. Life expectancy is increasing because, however often medical science may be in error, it’s much better today than it has ever been before.

I was interviewing my 98-year-old mother two years ago regarding her experiences as a nurse. She graduated from nursing school early in World War II. When we discussed vaccinations she got very emotional. “How could anyone want to go back to the time before these vaccinations were invented/discovered?” she asked. I tell this because we have people who think that science has made errors in the formation of vaccinations that have caused very negative side effects. I actually believe these ideas are wrong, and that vaccinations are safe, but even if there were problems, we would still be far ahead because of those vaccinations. People simply have no concept of what things were like before.

But this also illustrates a simple issue with science. If a scientific theory is wrong, it is more scientific study that will demonstrate the problems and potentially point the way to better solutions. That’s how progress has been made over the years. Unfortunately when people perceive problems with the scientific consensus, even imaginary problems, they often decide that since science isn’t perfect, as far as they can tell, they might as well go for something else—anything else—that might promise a solution.

These solutions are invariably more dangerous than the status quo. Unless, of course, they are generated and tested by valid scientific study. Science is not perfect, but it is the best means of finding better solutions than it has already found.

If you don’t believe that, simply ask yourself if, arriving at an airport, you were given the opportunity to fly on an aircraft designed according to the consensus of the best aircraft design, or one designed by someone who rejected aeronautical science, and which had not been tested by methods standard in the industry.

Even a test pilot would definitely want an explanation of why he should expect the second aircraft to fly.

Yet we choose the second option in many cases regarding our health and also regarding public policy.

Now I’m not proposing that we stick with consensus science despite the evidence. There’s a good way to challenge a scientific theory, and that is to gather good data and challenge it. Yes, scientists are people like the rest of us and may resist change to a cherished or simply comfortable position, but unlike theologians (sort of like me), they do have a history of moving en masse to a new position based on the evidence.

As an aside, there is the great illustration of a philosopher (or metaphysician, etc, see this) who is like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. The punch line? Under the same circumstances, the theologian will locate the cat. Science demands the actual cat, as it should.

And that’s why we should embrace it. Science is good at studying actual black cats and determining when they aren’t there.

But what does this have to do specifically with Christians embracing science? Well, I could again say, “It works!” That’s a good reason. If you want to live a long time, you should pay attention to science and its results.

Speaking from the perspective of theology, though my field is biblical studies, we have the simple and repeated statements of scripture, such as Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8: 3-4, Psalm 19:1-6, and Psalm 33:6-9. These form a foundation of much of scripture. The idea that God is the creator underlies pretty much all theology. How creation was accomplished is much more a subject of debate, though I actually think it is not something for theologians to debate based on the Bible (or other sacred texts) and religious tradition. Rather, how creation occurs is a scientific question and should be investigated as such.

Why do I say this? One of the principles I try to teach regarding studying the Bible (or any text, for that matter) is that if you ask it questions it is not trying to address you will likely get skewed answers, if not totally false ones. How far your question is separated from the intention of the text is going to determine how far you are from understanding what the text conveys.

Let’s take the Samuel-Kings books (2 of each), for example. There’s a rather simple historiography behind these books. If you obey God you will be blessed while if you rebel, you will fail. So the story of these kings, while it contains a variety of additional data, is focused generally on displaying this theme. Occasionally the history gets in the way of the theme, such as in 2 Kings 14:23-29, where Jeroboam II is described as one who did evil, yet the author must explain the upswing in Israel’s fortunes during his reign.

Modern historians are very interested in precise chronology, but other than general lengths of reigns, the author lacks this perspective. Many efforts have been made to work out the chronology based on the numbers provided, but efforts have somewhat questionable results. The reason is simple. It’s not that the writer is careless in general; it’s that this isn’t his main concern.

To get a bit further off track, let’s consider 1 Kings 7:23, in which the “bronze sea” is described as having a diameter of 10 cubits but a circumference of 30 cubits. This would result in a value for Π (pi) of 3.0. Now we all know it’s 3.1416. Well, not so much. I just punched it into Google and I got 3.14159. So far as I know, nobody has calculated an exact value for pi. You just round it somewhere that works. Lots of arguments have resulted from 1 Kings 7:23. How could God make such a mistake? Well, God didn’t. The author of Kings, collecting his data from various sources, used a very loose round figure. He had no intention of passing on the value of pi.

For a Bible student, this is only a problem if you’re expecting the text to tell you things that the authors didn’t know and didn’t particularly intend to convey. There’s another lesson, however. The Bible isn’t a mathematics text. If you want to know the value of pi, you go where the knowledge is, and that’s the physical universe. I recall being instructed in math class to measure some circles with a flexible measuring tape and calculate the relationships. I didn’t get it right, but I got it close enough for the purpose. The value of pi is not a revelation needed in scripture; it’s there in the physical world.

Theologians refer to this as “general revelation” as opposed to “special revelation,” such as what we get in scripture. Christians often tend to think of special revelation, the Bible, as somehow more reliable. But the fact is that we have many interpretive steps between the text and the resulting doctrine, and this difference has resulted in many different denominations and even different faiths. Yet I hear Christians complain about medical science not getting its act together and agreeing on the details of healthful living in all cases (though they’re very good, we want to demand perfect), while at the same time being totally comfortable with the massive variety of Christian doctrine, all claiming to be based in the same scripture.

But special revelation, scripture, suggests that God breathed both it and also the physical world. The scientist studies God’s word as truly (or even more so) as does the theologian or biblical scholar. If we don’t believe that, we don’t really believe the scriptures. The real issue is not which is better but what each variety of revelation actually is intended to do.

So, if you want the value of pi, please measure some circles, or just go to a math text. If you want to meditate on God’s activities in human lives, read scripture. And/or take the time to encounter some of God’s creations we call people.



* I use “science” throughout as a general term for the study of the natural world with an intention to produce repeatable and objective results.

Reading, Studying, Discussing, Teaching, and Proclaiming but not Practicing

Reading, Studying, Discussing, Teaching, and Proclaiming but not Practicing

I was struck by Dave Black’s note on Hebrews 4:14-16 from Wednesday on his blog. I extracted it to jesusparadigm.com, as Dave’s blog is a journal that doesn’t offer links to individual posts. (I have his permission.)

I highly recommend his post. It struck me because Hebrews is such a central part of my reading and study. There are those who claim I can’t get through an hour of study, no matter what the subject, without referring to the book of Hebrews. Within Hebrews, 4:14-16 has to be one of my most quoted passages in the book.

Dave talks about not going to our great High Priest first. That really struck me, because I think I don’t either. The other day I woke up in a cold sweat because I had dreamed about something critical going wrong. Now I’m working through quite a number of things that can justify worry, in a normal sense. I was telling Jody about my “awakening” and she just said, “Next time you wake up in a cold sweat, just remind yourself that Jesus has it all under control.” Jesus says, “Can anxious thought add a single day to your life?” (Matthew 6:27 REB).

I don’t intend to do less. But I’d also like to worry less. None of the problems I’m facing have been alleviated by my worry. Not one.

Thinking about a Crucified God

Thinking about a Crucified God

My company, Energion Publications, recently released a book What’s God Really Like?. It’s endorsed by Brian Zahnd;

In What’s God Really Like?, S. J. Hill invites us to become fascinated by God and, in that fascination, to move beyond the fear-based themes that have so often distorted our image of God. With a focus on Jesus and Scripture, Hill paints a portrait of a God who is “holy wild” and overflowing with generous love and contagious joy. This book is a welcome and timely remedy to the unworthy portraits of God that have too often haunted our imaginations.

Brian Zahnd
Lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO
and author of

Another Energion author, Allan R. Bevere, posted the following video, a sermon by Brian Zahnd. I think all of these go well together!


 

Can We Have a Commitment to Biblical Truth?

Can We Have a Commitment to Biblical Truth?

We now come to the third mark of a New Testament church, and that is its commitment to biblical truth. One of the weakest aspects of Western Christianity is our failure to give proper teaching to new converts. As a result, biblical illiteracy plagues the church in America. This is a weakness in some mainline churches, and often in evangelical churches too. (Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, p. 17)

I discussed this to some extent when I worked through this book, but now I want to place the question before my readers for some discussion. With the wide variety of beliefs that we claim are biblical, one wonders just what biblical truth is and how we discern it. Are all those who disagree not listening to the Holy Spirit? Are they ignorant?

Read my previous post, which also quotes from Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel and Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations.


 

Video Interview for Quit Christianity

Video Interview for Quit Christianity

Their title may not tell you precisely what they’re up to, but I’ll let you figure that out by visiting.

I was asked to answer a few questions for a video, with a key text of Romans 4:3. Here’s the video. It’s nice when someone truly skilled puts the final result together!

There’s lots of interesting stuff on their channel, which you can find by clicking through on the video link.