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What Creationists Could Learn from Herold Weiss

What Creationists Could Learn from Herold Weiss

creation-5We’re starting a new series of posts on the Energion Discussion Network and the current author is my friend and Energion author Dr. Herold Weiss. He’s the author of the book Creation in Scripture, the first in a series discussing creation from the point of view of those who accept the theory of evolution. That note should tell you that Dr. Weiss’s work can be controversial, as are all discussions of this topic.

I don’t happen to like the terms generally used, but it is generally somewhere between frustrating and futile to try to change language. “Creationist” has become the label of those who believe in a recent (read 6 to 10 thousand years) creation in a literal week, while “theistic evolutionist” labels those who believe God is creator but that the process of evolution is how he has chosen to diversify life here on this planet.

Dr. Weiss does something in his first post in this series that tends to annoy creationists (using the definition above). He calls their view unscriptural. The typical view of a creationist is that their view is scriptural while the theistic evolutionist has chosen to ignore the Bible in favor of evolutionary theory. No matter how strong the evidence for evolution (and they will, with few exceptions, maintain that it is weak), they would not see how it could override the Word of God. So the argument, at least as they generally present it to me, should be couched in terms of their strong convictions about scripture and the weak convictions of the theistic evolutionists, which are to be defended.

But neither I nor Dr. Weiss thinks our position is biblically weak. In fact, I did not change my view from a young earth creationist, which I was until some time during my third year in college, because I had studied evolutionary science. My science requirement was fulfilled in a chemistry class, taught, by the way, by a young earth creationist. It was in doing research for a paper that I found that I could not reconcile the biblical texts on the basis required for young earth creationism. The starting point was chronology, and it wasn’t even comparisons with archeology. It was simply looking at what must have happened between two points in the biblical story, and determining that it was beyond extremely improbable; it was impossible. And further, there was no report of some sort of miracle to connect the dots.

From there the question changed for me. Why is God presenting the story in this manner? (I’m ignoring here all the things I have come to believe about biblical inspiration over the years and discussing my thinking at age 20.) From there I started to ask just what it means to me that God is the creator and how that doctrine reverberates through scripture.

And this is what I think creationists can learn from Dr. Weiss. No, I’m not suggesting they will all read his book and decide to become theistic evolutionists. He isn’t even trying to make that case in the book, and I know my own views would be unlikely to change in reading one book. What he does that is important is look at how creation, and its implications, is presented in various parts of the Bible. Creationists seem to me to be hung up in Genesis 1-3, important chapters to be sure, but not the only thing in scripture on the topic. And yes, I do think these chapters are important, even foundational, even though I read them differently. And no, I’m not claiming that creationists are ignorant of all other passages. What I’m suggesting is that they are not brought into the discussion enough.

Too much of the debate about creation and evolution is concentrated on when and how and too little is focused on so what now?.

I think it would be great if we spent more time on the third question. Yes, we’d still disagree on when and how, and we’d still argue that both of those questions impact the answer to the third, but we might have a chance to shed a bit more light. I think Dr. Weiss has facilitated that.

Essentials of the Faith – or Not

Essentials of the Faith – or Not

C. Michael Patton has written a post on doctrinal essentials which is quite interesting. James McGrath responds.

I find this a very useful discussion even when I disagree on what is essential. For example, while Patton states that he is writing about doctrine, and that another post could be written on essential practice, I would suggest that whether or not the primary essential of salvation is belief in doctrines or certain practices, a combination of the same, or indeed none of the above, is itself a rather important doctrinal question. And since the question is on just what, doctrine and/or practice, is essential for salvation, it is doubtless an essential question, at least.

I use a different method of dividing these issues in my post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion. There I am not trying to state what beliefs are necessary for salvation. In fact, I find the idea that someone must successfully believe certain propositions to be a form of salvation by works. But in creating a community, one must define what it means to be in the community and not in the community, even if one does not assume that “in the community” is equivalent to salvation.

Progressive Orthodoxy

Progressive Orthodoxy

C. Michael Patton has an interesting post today taken from his introduction to theology students.

I would particularly like any number of the folks in the various Sunday School classes I teach to absorb some of the material. This is not because I generally agree. I perceive myself to be both to the left and well to the Arminian side of his theology. Yet there are a number of point there that especially many of my Methodist brethren do not understand about either Reformed theology or in general of evangelical theology.

The first of those items is the definition of sola scriptura. Use that phase in most Methodist churches, in my experience, and people think of a complete rejection of tradition even in terms of the method in which we approach and understand scripture. Thus most of these same Methodists reject sola scriptura.

Patton describes it thus:

2. Scriptural Orthodoxy. This is the belief that Scripture alone sets the bounds of orthodoxy without any (or minimal) aid from the historic body of Christ. This should not be mistaken for sola Scriptura—the belief that the Scripture is our final and only infallible authority in matters of faith and practice—but as a radical rejection of any other sources of authority such as the church, tradition, natural revelation, etc. It is often referred to as solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. Here, there would not be minimal (if any) authority derived from the body of Christ, historic or contemporary, as an interpretive community that either fallibly or infallibly has the ability to define orthodoxy. Adherents would often be found saying, “No creed but the Bible.”

The second would be the idea of progressive understanding, or “illumination” as illustrated in the various graphics. He describes that as follows:

6. Progressive Orthodoxy. This is the belief that the ultimate authority for the Christian faith is found only in the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and that orthodoxy is a progressive development of the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. …

Patton is an advocate of progressive orthodoxy.

I believe I fall a bit to the left of that position, because I fail to see the clear line between “revelation” and “illumination” that comes at the end of the canon. I accept that we can, and indeed have, developed doctrine past the revelation of the canon, but I don’t see the hard and fast line. In a sense, the “nuda scriptura” folks (to borrow from Patton’s definition) have a point in that if the canon is complete, why would it not define such doctrines as the trinity if, in fact, the trinity is an essential. It’s interesting to me that many who claim the Bible alone in this narrower sense do accept the doctrine of the trinity, even though it seems to me that it requires some Christian tradition to get to what I would call the orthodox doctrine at least.

I appreciate also the essentials/non-essentials distinction, which many folks have a hard time making. It’s too easy to make the essentials be totally coterminous with their personal belief system. I wrote about this in a post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion, in which I argue that you must have some core of common belief, but you can also have way to much required common belief.

I continued this theme in several posts, notably Excessively Large Tent = Crash, and Christian Essentials – Incarnation at the Center, in which I discuss where I start in defining essential doctrines. Each of those posts provides links to my own further discussion.

Responding to the Evangelical Manifesto

Responding to the Evangelical Manifesto

I never refer to myself as an evangelical, but occasionally others do for reasons that are largely unfathomable to me (except a few from across the pond that make some sense), so I usually take a look at documents that come out relating to evangelicalism. I’m always interested in the potential for finding one of these documents that I could go along with 100%. Of course, I realize that if that happened, there would also be a number of evangelicals who would say that the document, statement, or in this case manifesto was inadequate.

I have read the entire manifesto (HT: evangelical outpost) and not just the summary, and I find very little in there to which I would want to respond. First, very few evangelicals of my acquaintance would accept that manifesto as adequately expressing their own confession of faith. The few who would are in the United Methodist Church and go a bit light on some of the elements, such as penal substitution. (Note that I am using “evangelical” as a reference to those who would self-identify as such.) I would expect that the expression on the inspiration of scripture would be considered a bit weak by many. One can read inerrancy there if one tries, but it’s not terribly clear. If I wanted to interpret with great latitude, I could fit my own view of scripture in there. I imagine there will be some who will do so.

Second, I think the idea of rescuing terms is a very hazardous business. The statement from page 4 illustrates this point. “There are grave dangers in identity politics, but we insist that we ourselves, and not scholars, the press, or public opinion, have the right to say who we understand ourselves to be.” The problem here is that I have to first decide who is a “real” evangelical before I know who to ask for a definition. You may think this is nitpicking, but I know evangelicals (by their self-identification) who believe that most evangelicals aren’t really evangelicals any more. Personally I take as a starting place those who are in the majority of a group, and thus break out of the circle, but it does create a problem. I’m left to wonder if evangelicalism as stated in this manifesto is similar to an older evangelicalism. Are they defining a new position, returning to an old one, or something between?

Such expressions as “Yet we hold to Evangelical beliefs that are distinct from the other traditions in important ways — distinctions that we affirm because we see them as biblical truths that were recovered by the Protestant Reformation, sustained in many subsequent movements of revival and renewal, and vital for a sure and saving knowledge of God — in short, beliefs that are true to the Good News of Jesus” (pages 4-5), equivocate between recovering something old and latching on to something new at some point.

I would have to say that if I read the affirmations on scripture and salvation as I believe the authors meant them, I could not adopt this statement as my own. I could be wrong on the way they meant those statements. They could even be trying to provide latitude to someone like me. That’s just not how I read it.

I would add simply that I find the description of liberalism (pages 8-9) to be largely a strawman, though I’m afraid I would not be very likely to persuade evangelicals of that. I often think conservatives are just going along with the culture, while liberals are arguing against the tide, but part of each position seems to be a different perception of the tide.

In any case, this is an interesting manifesto, as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Whether it will accomplish any of the goals its authors set out to accomplish is another matter. I’m doubtful that it will.

Here’s some reaction links from Moderate Christian bloggers. Most of it is more positive than mine.

* = updates after initial post

Any other members of the Moderate Christian Blogroll can leave comments if I missed your post, and I’ll promote the links to the body of the post. My observation thus far is that the bulk of the moderate bloggers are responding more positively to this than I am.

Believing in Words and Symbols

Believing in Words and Symbols

In a previous post I discussed “true belief” and some of the comments have gotten quite interesting. I’ve considered promoting part of the exchange with commenter Lifewish to a post of its own.

One commenter mentioned the issue of essentially believing the Nicene Creed as opposed to a more simple statement of belief in God, the divine, the supernatural, or another similar concept. I want to make even clearer that my own leap of faith was not to the Nicene Creed, but rather to a simple belief in a “ground of all being” underlying and beyond existence. Now the same theologian who coined the phrase “ground of all being”, Paul Tillich, also noted that all language referring to God was by nature symbolic, which is one of a number of substantial contributions he has made to theological discourse. I could wish that I had been less concentrated on pure Biblical studies, and a little more open to theological reflection, as a seminary student. Had I read Tillich in seminary I might have saved myself much needless confusion.

I believe that our theological language tends to begin in spiritual experience. That is not to say that all theologians are somehow mystics and relate their own experiences, but rather that theology starts with people who hear voices, see visions, or dream dreams that they regard as meaningful. I have a certain amount of the mystic in me, as I have related recently, and thus I can state the first of two points from personal experience: When you put a spiritual experience into words it immediately loses something. When I feel the presence of God I cannot completely relate that story in words. Words are limited. Words are, by nature, intended to describe things. We even find them a bit inadequate dealing with emotions.

Thus the validity of what I say about spiritual experience is automatically subject to question. When I take a step further, and start generalizing doctrines, such as the doctrine of the trinity, I have taken several steps beyond that, as I use symbolic language to describe generalized, common spiritual experience. There is a big difference in my mind between saying, “I believe in God,” and saying “I believe in the trinity.” If nothing else, the first is part of the “leap of faith” I described previously, while the second is something derived from that, and form the experience and teaching of others.

Some of my orthodox brethren may get pretty uncomfortable with this, but while I regard myself as a trinitarian Christian, because I find the language of the trinity most useful in talking about God, I have serious doubts about how accurately that doctrine, or any other doctrine of God, actually describes God. I find that the language of trinitarian theology combines quite well the mystery and the experience of God as I encounter it. The language of the trinity works perfectly well for me. But I have no basis for jumping on people who cannot accept it. While I have said that I no longer can imagine not believing in God–I’ve tried to disbelieve and failed–I could easily imagine a set of circumstances that might cause me to quit believing in the trinity. Just provide me with a better set of symbols to use in talking about the divine, tie them into the tradition (long-term experience) of my community, and I’ll take a look.

One argument that will not convince me that the trinity is false (or not useful), however, is the argument that it doesn’t make sense. It does, and it doesn’t. In my view it describes our experience of God quite well, and it points me toward God effectively. At the same time it has the truly endearing quality of refusing to let me feel that I have fully grasped it. In a similar way, I think that if I think I have grasped God fully, that is the best indication that I’m off the track. I think it’s going to be hard to invent a doctrine that works better (for me) as a symbol for God than the trinity, but I leave open the door to such trials.

In conclusion I just want to say that I find tinkering with theological concepts great fun. It is unfortunate that there has been so much judgment applied to the process, and that people have been put to death over mysterious doctrines such as the trinity. Considering our infinite ignorance of God (at least I regard myself as infinitely ignorant of an infinite being), it seems awesomely arrogant to burn other people at the stake over disagreements between our various forms of ignorance–or to condemn or ostracize them.

Experiencing the (Baptism of the) Holy Spirit

Experiencing the (Baptism of the) Holy Spirit

This is a topic where I tend to make just about everyone uncomfortable. Long time readers may recall a previous discussion of speaking in tongues, and my own experience of it. Those who expect me to be intellectually oriented and rational are uncomfortable with mystical experiences, and many who are comfortable with the mystical experiences are deeply troubled by my tendency to analyze.

But the fact is that I am one person, i.e. the same person who examines data about the historical Jesus and expresses skepticism of some of the details recorded in the gospels also claims to experience the risen Jesus in a personal way. So when Adrian Warnock started talking about the experience of Holy Spirit baptism, I decided to say a word or two.

I’m not going to defend my particular theology in this post, but let me simply state that I believe that Holy Spirit baptism can, and ideally should occur at the time of one’s baptism in to the Christian faith. Nonetheless in the book of Acts we have numerous instances where the two experiences are separated. I believe nobody comes to Christ in the first place without the work of the Holy Spirit, but the idea of the baptism of the Spirit involves one personally experiencing and being transformed by it.

At the same time I want to guard against the notion that this experience is singular, that one checks off the boxes of conversion, then baptism in the Holy Spirit, and then one has attained. I don’t like the idea of Christians who have “attained.” I think they tend to fall quickly into pride. I know I would, so if I ever get to the point where I believe I have attained, it will be the surest sign that I haven’t. I know I’d fall straight into spiritual pride without passing Go or collecting my $200.

I do remember a specific experience at the time of my own baptism at age nine. I was in Mexico with my missionary parents and had to convince them and a Spanish speaking pastor that I knew what I was doing. It was the strong conviction that had come on me that made me able to do so. They were very skeptical.

But I want to discuss a later experience, that came when I was working in the church. This happened several years ago. I was trying to get material written for the early stages of Pacesetters Bible School, and I would be interrupted frequently. But one week almost the whole church staff including the pastor was going to be out of town on a mission trip, and I was looking forward to a week of writing with few interruptions. It was not to be.

One of the things about “mystical” or “spiritual” experiences that I have noticed is that they do not occur for my convenience. My Monday of that week happened as I had hoped. I got a great deal done. On Tuesday I was praying through my prayer list. I had an extensive prayer list, and was quite systematic about praying for the people on it. Having checked off my list, I felt that I had done my part in praying for the congregation.

Included on my list were all the college students and all the church leaders. As I began praying through the list that day I was interrupted by a voice. Now all the more intellectual folks and those who are not Christians are permitted here to doubt my sanity. I generally just assume it’s loosely attached. But I did hear a voice. It said, “Stop.”

So I stopped a moment and then started to pray for that person again. Again, I heard “Stop!” Then the voice began to question me about these persons. What were their gifts? Regarding the students it asked me what they were studying, when they would be finished, and what their ambitions were. For the church leaders it asked me what their specific roles were.

Now the fact is that I didn’t know most of this stuff. They were on the staff or on committees, or they were students, so their names were on my list. I didn’t have a clue as to who they were personally. Then the voice asked me, “How do you expect to function as a teacher in the church if you don’t even know what these people are supposed to be doing?”

Good question! But I’m a stubborn person. I argued with that voice for the remainder of the week, from during the morning Tuesday through around noon Friday. By noon Friday I was pretty much done. I think I had a mild idea of how Elijah must have felt when God said, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:9)

What happened at noon on Friday? Finally I admitted that I needed to change the way I did business. I was all in the books. I planned curriculum according to what I thought people (in general) needed to know. I didn’t really want to know the people themselves. That was messy and took up too much time.

It was a transforming moment in ministry for me. I may be insane to argue with a voice for several days. Each day I returned to the office intending to work, and it didn’t happen. When I shut down and went home, things went back to normal. But that insanity was transforming. People noticed the difference. They would ask me, “Who are you and what have you done with Henry Neufeld?” The main obvious difference was that I started taking a personal interest in people’s lives, their call, and their work in the church. I started to try to meet those needs.

Now this seems fairly obvious in hindsight. Isn’t that simply good people skills? But at the time I didn’t exercise that variety of people skills, and due to my knowledge in other areas, and basic teaching skill, people put up with me anyhow. It took this spiritual encounter–in my view an experience of baptism–completely being overpowered–by the Holy Spirit to get me on track.

Why I Don’t Like Left Behind

Why I Don’t Like Left Behind

Hat tip to Gentle Wisdom for this quiz on eschatology:


What’s your eschatology?
created with QuizFarm.com
You scored as Amillenialist

Amillenialism believes that the 1000 year reign is not literal but figurative, and that Christ began to reign at his ascension. People take some prophetic scripture far too literally in your view.

Preterist

100%

Amillenialist

100%

Moltmannian Eschatology

60%

Postmillenialist

35%

Dispensationalist

25%

Premillenialist

25%

Left Behind

0%


Now I know why I don’t like the left behind books! It was also mildly funny to discover that I don’t have an “eschatology” category. I think I’ll leave it that way and just use the tag.

Heresy Hunting with Closed Ears

Heresy Hunting with Closed Ears

Since I write frequently on minimizing the number of essential doctrines, and maximizing lines of communication, I just had to call attention to this blog, Herescope. It’s “About” tells the story:

This non-interactive blog contains information revealing heresies and false teachings affecting the Church today. . . . [emphasis mine]

Need I say more?

Morning Reading – 11/6/2007

Morning Reading – 11/6/2007

I read a large number of blog entries each day, and I never have time to comment on everything I’d like to. Considering how many posts I do write, this may be a good thing. One way to comment without having to write is by linking to extremely good posts, and this morning provided me with some excellent material.

Responding to Torture

First, I have been trying to get a handle on writing a post on torture, with the Mukasey hearings, but I haven’t gotten beyond “torture is evil.” After that it feels odd to be explaining that torture is bad. It’s so much a part of me, that I have a hard time taking it seriously as a debate, but there it is, being debated by presumably serious people.

But Joe Carter has saved me on this point, by writing a 100% on target, excellent post, Our Tortured Silence: The Shameful Response of Christians to Waterboarding.

All I would add is that our fear sometimes makes us waffle on our moral convictions. We must fight terrorism, but we must be sure to maintain our integrity while we do it, or the terrorists win even if we physically defeat them. Let’s be sure we like who we are when we’re done.

Dividing the Denominations

Through an unrelated comment, I found a post on the division of the church, Happy Reformation Day/Hallowe’en. This relates to my own previous post, Setting Doctrinal Priorities. I’m not concerned about their being denominations, or at least accountability organizations that bring congregations together, but we very often do not see the unifying factors, and thus splinter further and further.

What is the Gospel?

Again, relating to two earlier posts, Adrian Warnock has posted on justification again, and after quoting a description of forensic justification, and details of imputed righteousness, he says:

That, my dear reader, is the Gospel. What better explanation of it have you ever read?

Now I don’t have a problem with Adrian seeing the gospel there, but that is simply one way of expressing it; it is not the only one. When we divide along such detailed lines, I see many problems ahead for Christian unity.

Setting Doctrinal Priorities

Setting Doctrinal Priorities

A recent jury verdict against a group of hatemongers has brought up lots of questions. One that I heard was simply this: “The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. How can you, as a Christian, claim that this group that protests at military funerals is not a good representation of Christianity?”

There are a huge number of reasons why I would say that these people do not represent Christianity, starting with the fact that it is always inappropriate to read a single text and then say, “This is what the Bible teaches.” Why? Because the Bible teaches many things, and often these will be in direct conflict with one another when one reads them in that fashion. Let’s take as an example this command:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” — Deuteronomy 23:1, (NRSV).

Now compare it to this:

?4? For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
?5? I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. — Isaiah 56:4-5 (NRSV)

Now my point here is not to make these two commands conflict, but rather to point out that we cannot build a complete doctrine of what God thinks of eunuchs based on just the text in Deuteronomy 23:1. There are other factors to consider if we continue to read.

One of the characteristics of fundamentalist groups is an inability to prioritize their doctrines. All truth is truth, and one cannot lay aside any aspect of truth. I discuss this kind of an approach to doctrinal unity and diversity in a post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion, where I recommend having a defined core that gives a group community, but allowing a broad range on which disagreement is permitted.

I think the common characterization of fundamentalists can be unfair at times, however, as there are many who adhere to a traditional understanding of doctrinal fundamentals and are quite able to see differing priorities within those. I recall that my dad who adhered to every doctrine in the dictionary definition of Christian fundamentalism (per Webster’s 3rd International) being confronted with a situation in which a patient would die unless he could get a particular medication. Now unlike some missionaries I know, my father refused to violate the laws of the host country, even when he could have gotten by with it. In this case, however, when the government refused an import permit, he arranged to have the medication smuggled in and saved the patient’s life. Lying and breaking the civil law became less of a concern than saving a life.

So in this case I’m speaking of those fundamentalists who fit the stereotype and have a hard time prioritizing. One could borrow Tillich’s definition of idolatry, which I quote from distant memory (so be merciful!), making your ultimate concern something that isn’t ultimate. The doctrinal version of this is centering your faith on something that isn’t central.

Fred Phelps and his small gang do, in fact, prioritize doctrines, but they do a very bad job of it. Only a very small portion of the scriptures directly address homosexuality, yet for them being against homosexuality is the central doctrine of their faith, as shown by their actions. It trumps all versions of redemption, God’s love, atonement, grace, and an incredible number of sins that are spoken of more frequently in scripture.

This inappropriate center then leads to behavior that is so far off that we can call it a “wacko fringe.” In a post from Saturday I quoted another blogger who had tied the term “wacko fringe” heavily to the charismatic movement. Well, here’s a truly wacko fringe group. So what’s their key problem? I think it’s an inability to prioritize doctrines and beliefs.

Most Christians will react with horror at their behavior, and justifiably so. Some will also be puzzled when opponents of Christianity respond by pointing out the Biblical texts against homosexual acts that are in scripture. But why should one be puzzled? We know that Christian groups have been taking small selections of texts for some time and creating groups that qualify for the “wacko fringe.” It is one of the hazards of not having the inquisition around. People can come up with their own doctrines.

Of course, depending on your perspective, it could be that the inquisition is the wacko fringe, though they were ostensibly in the service of orthodoxy and of the mainstream of their time. The point is that freedom to study for oneself and create doctrine also leaves open the door to bizarre doctrinal ideas and fringe groups.

Now I’m going to discuss a number of positions and views and suggest some potential for getting off center. I don’t intend to suggest that any of these positions are anywhere near equivalent to the Phelps group. In fact I’m going to include a couple of positions that I personally have held and had to modify as examples. I want to point out the potential danger, and suggest some antidotes.

Let me start with myself and a very simple example. I got married for the first time in my early 40s and acquired a complete family in one step, a wife, three step-children, and one other young person living with us at the time. Now I really like to think I’m non-judgmental, but with a military background and a rather punctual personality, I had a strong tendency to look down on people showing up late for church. If they had children they should just get up earlier and prepare more efficiently, and get those children to church on time!

It took the weekend after we returned from our honeymoon to make me repent of my judgmental attitude and realize just how unsympathetic I was. You know, even when they are older, having multiple people in the household makes it much harder to get everything done on time. That first Sunday we straggled into church over a 20 minute period, all of us late, including me. Now we got better at it later, but I learned a lesson with the first Sunday–it’s much easier said (and judged) than done!

It’s good to get to church on time, but it’s also good to exercise Christian charity to those who have more difficult circumstances. My single male viewpoint and uptight personality on the issue of punctuality made me put being on time to church way too close to the center of good spirituality. There’s a good scriptural point here to help correct this too. Punctuality may be a value, but not being a judge is also a value. Which one is expressed more precisely and repeatedly in scripture? Well, Jesus at least expressed it pretty clearly in Matthew 7:1, and as far as I can see he clean forgot to say, “Be on time for church!” So where should my priorities be?

Let’s stick with my own weaknesses for another paragraph or two. I used to be a very positive preacher and teacher, and I don’t mean by this that I was always upbeat. What I mean is that I preached a message for the successful and victorious. I was balanced enough to remind them that there would be hardships, but I tended to brush past these to the wonderful new heights each Christian would attain every day as he or she walked with Jesus. Now is there a place for teaching about overcoming and to talk about hope and victory? Of course there is! There is plenty of that in scripture.

But then I lived through a five year battle with cancer for our youngest son, which ended with his death. There was no quick solution, no sunlight just around the corner, no moving from victory to victory on a daily or weekly basis. There were lots of times when we had to struggle through and keep plowing forward even when it was hard to see the hope.

Before, I would push very quickly with folks I talked to and try to get them to feel hope right now, and push forward for the victory quickly. Then I learned something new about struggling and hardship. It wasn’t that I knew nothing of that before or that I never taught it. It was simply that I put my emphasis on living the mountaintop to mountaintop life. Now I think I have gained new balance.

A last story on myself comes from just last weekend. I was talking about dealing with very rigid views of scripture with my teacher, Dr. Alden Thompson. He knew me when I as an undergraduate Biblical languages student, approaching the edges of Biblical scholarship very carefully, lest I get burned. I made a snippy remark about someone, and he said, “Remember what you were like when you first came into my Hebrew class.” And he’s absolutely right. I have a tendency to be impatient with people who are slow to come to the same conclusions I do (incredibly obvious and wise ones, of course!).

In this case the lack of balance is that I sometimes do what I accuse theological conservatives of doing: I put doctrines above people. In John 9, we see Jesus and his disciples encountering a man born blind. The disciples are interested in a theological question–whose sin made him blind? Jesus was interested in healing the blind man. I need to watch my priorities and put people ahead of doctrines. (Of course, that dictum is itself a doctrine, but I think it’s a fairly valid one–validated by the actions of Jesus.)

I see a similar issue with the question of who can be saved. Do they have to understand a particular set of doctrines, a particular view of substitutionary atonement, or do they just put their trust in Jesus, according to their best understanding. Hanging on the cross, Jesus used a different priority than we often do today, offering hope on the simple request to remember the thief when he came to his kingdom (Luke 23:42-43).

A very little bit of imbalance can move us toward the fringe, and when one issue becomes our defining issue, unless it’s Jesus himself, it becomes very easy to head out for the “wacko fringe.”

Another illustration may help. Respecting the Bible is good. In this area there are many King James Version Only advocates. They respect the Bible, but only in one form, and so they disrespect it in all other forms. A book now has priority over all other doctrines and over people. One student of mine, a new Christian, was informed by one of these folks that he was not saved. Why? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, and the word of God comes only in the King James Version. The fault with his salvation? He had heard the gospel preached from the New King James Version. Skewed priorities led to the distant fringes.

So how do we avoid it? Well, I think Jesus provided us with a guideline when he said that all the law and the prophets hang on the two laws–love for God and love for our fellow human beings (Matthew 22:40). Now it’s not impossible to get off track even with that. For one thing, our definition of love can be skewed. But let me suggest looking up and down the line. As we get more detailed in our doctrinal pronouncements, ask ourselves if them fit the two laws. Can we hang them there? When we’re looking at love, does our definition fit the life of Jesus? Can we see our definition of love in the way God has acted in history? It’s a two-way test. (For my application to Bible study see Hanging Biblical Interpretation in which I express my hanging rule.)

In all of this we do need to express our beliefs. If those who seek balance do not speak, Christianity will be defined by whoever does speak. We are to be witnesses. We think of knocking on doors and bringing in conversions. But what about simply representing in our own small sphere who Jesus can be in our own lives? One of the blogs I read regularly is Allan Bevere. He wrote a post on preaching, starting a series, and his first principle of preaching was to preach to the audience that is there.

That relates closely to a principle I teach in Bible study–look first in the Bible for the things that apply to you, rather than to other people. Let God’s word correct you first in all cases. That should happen before you preach, teach, or share. Let it hit you and convict you! Then go talk to other people.

As a church, we could apply that very appropriately as well. Look for the things that correct your own action. How about heterosexuals spending more time looking at the sins they themselves are tempted to? Would that not provide a bit of balance, no matter what one’s conclusions were about homosexuality?

I’m simply suggesting that we try to put first things first, and that we each look for the first things that we ourselves need to hear. Other people’s sins will quite often take care of themselves much more effectively when we’re spending most of our time on the most important things!