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A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

Isaiah 40:22 speaks of God sitting on the circle of the earth and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers.

There is an interesting twist on idolatry that I think happens very frequently, and it makes a problem for people in understanding and accepting the doctrine that we, as humans, cannot do good of ourselves.

Normally we think of idolatry as setting something other than God up for worship. We sometimes don’t think of the way that we can do this to people. Many of the problems of Christianity today stem from Christian leaders who have been placed on a pedestal from which they were certain to fall.

There are also those leaders who expect to be seen on a pedestal. They believe in the doctrine of total depravity, i.e., the total depravity of other people. While they might affirm it of themselves, they really believe they are above the swarming hoard.

In their own eyes they are not, to quote Isaiah, grasshoppers. But from God’s perspective, they are.

God’s view equalizes us and puts us in our place. We are not independently powerful beings. We are not God, or somehow God’s rivals. Yet God loves us. But when this is used as a weapon to put people down, when it is spoken from above, down to lesser mortals, it is a sure sign that the speaker is setting him or herself up as an idol.

When you see that, don’t bow down.

Beware grasshoppers seated pretentiously above the earth!

A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

A Note on Modern Prophecy and Prophets

I was given the title “liberal charismatic” (not as a compliment) because I believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are potentially in operation today and that God speaks to people now as much as he has at any time in history. On occasion, this makes for trouble, as people expect me to accept a variety of professed prophets as somehow authoritative due to the office they claim or that is claimed for them. In other word I believe in prophets and prophecy, but I do not consider any particular prophet authoritative as such.

Going further, I very much doubt that I would have considered any ancient prophet authoritative solely on the basis that the individual made such a claim or that the claim was made about them. I doubt that the prophets themselves would expect such obedience to them apart from discernment. Moses is regarded as the greatest of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, and the record shows him making errors and being aware that he had done so. As a Christian believer in the incarnation, I would have to make a partial exception for Jesus, bearing the divine imprint (Hebrews 1:1-4), yet even here, I would suggest that one with discernment would note the message and the life and then be convinced.

It is important here to distinguish inspiration from authority. Isaiah, for example, was an inspired person. This is my belief and the conclusion of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Further, both of those traditions have declared the book that bears his name authoritative. If we had lived in Isaiah’s time, however, while many of us would consider him inspired, we would find that his authority was much less accepted. I’m guessing, in fact, that Isaiah may have said many uninspired things in the course of his life, and many things that should not have been considered authoritative. He may well have said many things that were of divine origins that never made it into his book. If we found a fragment of a scroll the purported to contain sayings of Isaiah, and if these seemed, by the best scholarship available, to date back to Isaiah and to share literary characteristics with things we consider to come from Isaiah, would this fragment automatically have authority in the church? Absolutely not. We have canonized a book, not the theoretical potential output of a person, however inspired it may be. The homilies of St. John Chrysostom are quite inspiring, and perhaps inspired, yet they do not have the authority of scripture.

Many are uncomfortable with the canonization process because however one interprets the process, it is a process in the church that results in the canon. In other words, church authorities are responsible for the collection of materials we regard as authoritative. I think it is necessary that we consider this a Holy Spirit guided process (or even more that the church is a movement guided by the Spirit, to the extent we’ll follow!) or we do not have a good basis for faith. There are those who believe the books have certain identifiable characteristics, and there are certainly some similarities, yet debates about canonicity have resulted from the fact that it’s not quite that smooth and well-defined. (I recommend chapters II [Canon] and III [Authority: Influence and Acceptance] in Edward Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully [Energion Publications, 2011], pp. 17-72, for a detailed exposition of these ideas.)

In my own book When People Speak for God, I make the statement: “The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you” (p. 4). I mean that very seriously, whether we’re dealing with the interpretation of scripture or hearing a word from one who claims to be a prophet, you need to hear, discern, distinguish, and act. I believe that anyone can hear from God. I consider this very scriptural, perhaps as scriptural as anything can be. It is demonstrated repeatedly in the text. We make the people who heard, such as Abraham, Samson’s mother, or Mary, very holy and so separate them. But when they heard from God, they were ordinary people carrying on rather ordinary lives. Anyone may be inspired. Authority results from discernment.

Let me refer you to a  couple of tests for prophets in Deuteronomy. The one we hear most is from Deuteronomy 18:22, which is that if their word is not fulfilled, they are false. (Jonah would have fallen on this test, but that is for further discussion. See Jonah: When God Changes.) But there is another passage, Deuteronomy 13:1-3, which provides another test. There it says that if someone makes this claim, and even provides a sign which comes through, if they then tell you to worship other gods, they must not be obeyed.

As a final point on theory, there are those who consider that if a modern word contradicts the Bible it must be rejected, while if it is in accord with the Bible it is redundant. I would suggest that this presents a false (and possibly dangerous) dichotomy. Throughout the stories in scripture, God worked with and guided people, without ever giving an indication that this would change. In fact, I think the best reading suggests that God speaks a great deal and the limitation is more in the fact that we decide not to listen. When a spiritual movement is young and lively, people listen and generate ideas. Then comes structure. Structure is designed to limit and control this spirit. So the authorities tend to want to shut it down at the source. God is done speaking and he ended with the last book we want to see as authoritative. There is room for freedom, and there is some need for structure, but death follows allowing either of those needs to become absolute. Let there be authority, but let authority by challenged.

I wrote all of that to form the basis for the following. I listen to and apply discernment to any claim, whether the person claims to be a prophet or not. I have generally found in my experience that those who make no claim to speak for God, but just speak what they have learned in their own communion with God speak with much more authority and wisdom than those who make the claim. I think there is a great deal of indiscipline, lack of wisdom, and general confusion in much of the current prophetic movement in Christianity. I will only make specific charges if a person is part of a community of which I am a member, but for myself I work to discern what God is saying. Part of that process is listening myself.

The one way not to be manipulated is to be a student, a learner, a thinker, and to let the Spirit of Truth work. When that is said, don’t be arrogant. I could be wrong. You could be wrong. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world as long as you keep your mind, your hearing, and your discernment active.


Being Subject to the Authorities

Being Subject to the Authorities

The Forum - from Rome.info
The Forum – from Rome.info

While I haven’t written anything on it myself, I’ve published quite a number of books regarding how Christians should relate to authority. These include Christian Archy and The Jesus Paradigm (David Alan Black), Ultimate Allegiance and Faith in the Public Square (Bob Cornwall), Rendering unto Caesar (Chris Surber), and Preserving Democracy (Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr.). The last one isn’t primarily about the Christian’s relationship to authority, but it does deal with what the author believes are the legitimate functions of government, and ways in which the authorities can definitely be illegitimate.

As I was reading from Luke 12 this morning, and realized that Jesus was speaking to people who were likely facing persecution, sometimes from those very authorities, I started to think a bit about why we tend always to start with the “rendering unto Caesar” passage, and much less from Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, or Acts 5:29. The first of those passages is quite frequently abused by those who believe that one must obey the government no matter what.

I’m not going to write an extremely long post on this today. I just wanted to bring the subject up. The one line I appreciated most in the commentary I read on these passages came from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 2029, commenting on Romans 13:3-5.

Governing authorities derive legitimacy and serve God by punishing bad and approving good—that is, by implementing justice. The just purposes of government evoke submission by the ascent of conscience (v. 5) rather than by fear of punishment. An unjust tyrrany, by implication, would not qualify as an authority instituted by God.…

There are a couple of points in that passage that I believe are overstated, but I think the main point is correct. Paul here speaks of the government carrying out it’s legitimate functions, functions which the Roman government often did quite well. When, at other times, the authorities turned against the good, then one must obey God rather than human authority (Acts 5:29). A Christian would obey the legitimate authority even of an unjust government, where that is possible (often it is not), and would reject only the unjust actions. I think 1 Peter 2:13-17 implies this. Christians were to be model citizens wherever they could thus blunting accusations brought against them. When the state ordered them to do something they could not do in good conscience, then the authorities would be unable to say, “These people just ordinary lawbreakers.” Rather, they would only have the matter of conscience at hand.

Having government ordained by God cuts both ways. First, it gives authority and order a divine imprint, and becoming simply a rebel or an anarchist is precluded short of a complete loss of legitimacy. Second, however, it places human government under the divine authority. Note that I don’t mean by this anything at all like theocracy. I do not think theocracy is desirable, nor is it called for in this passage. Rather, what this means in practice is that one’s conscience controls. It should make me subordinate to all legitimate authority and limit when I can stand against that authority to cases when I would be required to perform an act that was evil or unethical.

The “government no matter what” spin that some have put on this passage tends to make Paul into somewhat of an idiot. Perhaps we need another rule of interpretation: If the way you interpret a passage makes the author look like an idiot, reconsider. Sometimes the God’s wisdom may look like foolishness to us, but so does actual foolishness.

I know I’ve left a huge number of holes in this discussion, but I’ll leave those for later discussion. It’s a blog post, and sometimes I have to write one that is less than 1000 words!

Convoluted Reasoning on Women Writing Commentaries

Convoluted Reasoning on Women Writing Commentaries

John Piper is asked in a podcast whether a man can read a commentary written by a woman, with a follow-up as to whether one could then quote the commentary from the pulpit (HT: Jesus Creed).

I find his reasoning here very convoluted. There is a much better logical basis for reading 1 Timothy 2:12 as applying to a particular time and place. Those who argue that such reasoning weakens the force of Scripture should consider whether Piper’s reasoning could not be used to avoid almost any Scripture.

The fact is that we all pick and choose, and we all should pick and choose. The question is whether we will use good discernment in doing so.

Ken Schenck Reviews Wayne Grudem

Ken Schenck Reviews Wayne Grudem

I’ve been following Ken Schenck’s review of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and starting with the second post (Word of God), he is discussing material that I find fascinating. I am not trained as a theologian. Despite having an MA in Religion, I must note that my concentration was Biblical and Cognate Languages, and practically all my courses involved language study and not theology. But one can’t really discuss the Bible as a Christian and not deal with the theology involved.

I should further note that I am obviously much more likely to agree with Ken Schenck than with Wayne Grudem. I’m somewhere around the Arminian territory in theology, not Calvinist if nothing else.

After describing Grudem’s discussion of the Word of God as “anemic” and “implicitly circular” (and I agree), he continues to discussing the Old Testament Canon and then the New Testament. I’m skipping discussion of the nature of the Word of God, even though it is extremely interesting. Ken Schenck provides some excellent pointers to questions that need to be answered if one is to cure the anemia and escape the circularity. (I outline my views on this in my pamphlet What Is the Word of God?)

There is a basic issue here that has troubled me for some time, and that is the starting point. I grew up with a form of evangelism that started by trying to convince people of the truth of the Bible, at least whenever we weren’t just assuming that people accepted the Bible as true already and just needed either to get busy following it, or needed to have their understanding corrected. There was a certain arrogance in the latter part of this approach; we always had to approach people as though they couldn’t really read and needed us to find the texts for them. (I refer to my early experience as a Seventh-day Adventist.)

But my observation is that many Christians have precisely the same approach, and often have very little success. They can revive the belief of someone who grew up with it, but are very rarely successful at talking to someone who is truly not Christian in either background or belief about the authority of the Bible.

But when the early church starts talking to people, I don’t hear anything about the authority of the Bible. Rather, I see testimony to their encounter with the risen Christ. In the modern church we try to convince people of the reliability of the Bible, and get them to believe in the resurrection based on that. The disciples testified to the resurrection and all else followed from that.

I’m sure someone will object that we cannot possibly testify to the resurrection personally. But we can testify to our own experience of the risen Christ and to our own incorporation into the Body of Christ.

So what does this have to do with the canon? I sponsored a panel discussion a few years back that related to the reliability of the Bible. Two members of the panel discussed the topic based on dealing with the reliability of the texts and their transmission. The third started with the church’s creeds. At first that was hard for me to follow.

But it seems to me that it’s difficult to have a robust theology of canonization without having a robust ecclesiology, and in turn this requires a robust pneumatology. I admit to really disliking systematic theology, but it is obviously critical if you’re going to discuss the Bible as a Christian, because the Christian Bible is defined by the Christian church.

Now I don’t mean that the church gets to choose what is in Scripture. That’s where the work of the Holy Spirit comes in. The church recognizes the things which are to be of authority in the church. Without that connection, there is no canon of Scripture, because the canon defines what has authority.

So I would suggest the order of discussion being one’s personal experience of the risen Christ, then the way in which that personal experience brings one into the community, and from the community to the role of the Bible as the community’s authority.

(I discuss this further in my book When People Speak for God and I recommend the discussion of the same topic in From Inspiration to Understanding, [Edward W. H. Vick] especially chapter 2.)

Inerrancy is to Evangelicalism as Inspiration is to Christianity (or Not)

Inerrancy is to Evangelicalism as Inspiration is to Christianity (or Not)

Michael Patton has written a post arguing that inerrancy is not the linchpin of evangelicalism. This post should make me happy, and indeed I am glad that someone is making this claim. Further, Patton makes some very interesting points, including noting that we don’t throw anything else out completely just because of some error in detail, particularly if we’re dealing with eyewitness testimony.

There is a certain conflict when we argue for both any form of verbal dictation, or even verbal plenary inspiration, and at the same time try to support the historicity of events in the gospel by claiming they contain eyewitness testimony. If the Holy Spirit is dictating the words of the gospels, or even protecting them so they are not merely the Word of God, but are words of God, then the truth of those words would not be dependent on eyewitnesses. We’d have precisely one witness in the gospels, and that would be the Divine witness.

But that isn’t either the most common claim in favor of the historicity of the gospels, nor, indeed, is it the claim of the New Testament documents or of the early church regarding Jesus. The claim is not that the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are correct because they were revealed (or dictated) by the Holy Spirit, but rather they are the words of people who saw what happened and reported what they saw.

Thus minor differences in the accounts are to be expected if the claim is true, since eyewitnesses don’t generally agree absolutely in all details. Whether we admit just differences in perspective or accept outright errors of fact may well depend on what we expect. Patton says that finding such an error would not impact his faith in Christ. He says: “However, if I were to find something that I believed was a legitimate error in the Scripture, I don’t think my faith would be affected too much. Why? Because the central truths of the Christian faith are not affected by inerrancy.”

Patton believes in inerrancy, and I do not, but I would say much the same thing. I have no great desire to locate errors in scripture. In fact, I’d say that while I don’t accept the doctrine of inerrancy as stated in the Chicago Statement, for example, I don’t believe there is anything in Scripture that is there by error. Scripture is precisely what God wanted it to be. Finding errors of fact or contradictions doesn’t impact my faith because my faith didn’t come into existence based on the number of errors present or not present in the Bible.

I must note here that I sometimes frustrate opponents of inerrancy as well, because I don’t really want to make lists of errors in scripture. I think that’s entirely the wrong way to go about it. It’s much more a process of interpretation. The question is always this: What (and where) is the message God is presenting through this passage? So I don’t compare Genesis 1-2 with science as we know it today to find what is correct and what is in error. If Genesis is written with a different cosmology than we have today, I would both admit it is not scientifically accurate and also claim it is not in error. Rather, we have God’s message set in the cosmological knowledge of the time. As we continue to live in God’s world, we can reset that message in the context of the cosmological knowledge we have today. If the world is still here in 200, 2000, or a few million years, I expect our understanding of cosmology will have changed, and we’ll have to see God’s message in another set of ideas about cosmology. Why would we assume that the early 21st century has the final answer on this?

But let me return from that rabbit trail. (I’m just as bad at staying on topic when I’m speaking!) Patton continues by claiming that inspiration isn’t actually necessary for Christianity.

But I would also say Christianity is not dependent on the inspiration of the Bible either. In other words, the Bible does not even have to be inspired for Christianity to be true. We could just think of the eyewitness accounts in what we call the New Testament as twenty-seven ancient historical documents. . . .

Here is where I disagree. Fundamental to the idea of Christianity is this: God acts in history. We may disagree radically on just how subtly or openly God acts. We may disagree about how he communicates and how much he protects that communication. But without God’s acting in history and someone recognizing God’s action, there would be no Christianity. So once these historical acts or events to which Patton refers have happened, there is inspiration. The only real question is how it is going to be handled. If God sends a message, that’s inspiration.

Now it’s true that, in theory, the Bible need not have the kind of authority it has in the church. Inspiration and authority are not equal (Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, pp. 156-163). We could give authority to the historical events rather than to the reports of them, but if God is communicating through them, they would be inspired in some sense. We can disagree about how that works, but without agreeing that it works in some way, I can’t see how Christianity could exist.

Thus while I’m not certain if a particular description of inspiration (inerrancy) is essential to evangelicalism, I’m quite certain that some form of inspiration is necessary to Christianity.