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Defining Christian

Defining Christian

Adrian Warnock recently wrote a post on defining what is a Christian. I commented on that post, and largely had no problem with it. I’m looking forward to Adrian’s definition of an evangelical. Now Dave Warnock (no relation that I know of) has written a post critical of Adrian’s effort. Since I usually agree with Dave as opposed to Adrian (I’m a regular reader of both blogs), I paid close attention to Dave’s thoughts.

I may be wrong, but I originally read Adrian’s post from the point of view of making a personal decision. For example, when I say that I’m looking for a Christian church in my neighborhood, what do I mean? Does that include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Oneness Pentecostals? If I’m referring someone to a church for fellowship, what exactly do I mean? That personal definition is, for me, not the same as a theological definition, nor is it equivalent to saying who is saved or not (which I leave entirely to God), nor is it saying which congregation contains the better people. It’s a definition of common ground for the purpose of fellowship as a community of faith. For that, when I look for a church to join, it would be limited to those who can say the Apostles’ Creed without crossing their fingers. I know that sounds rather flip, and my theologian friends won’t like it that much, but it’s a pretty accurate description of what goes on in my mind.

I want to emphasize that I do not regard this as a condemnation of all those churches that might not fit the definition. I’m not going to join them, but that’s my decision based on the nature of my faith. I can handle lots of variation within that broader context.

In dialogue, I use a broader definition, one that also doesn’t precisely match the theological definitions Dave quotes. I simply accept as Christian everyone who claims the name “Christian.” I might not be able to handle the theology of their church community as a member, but I accept that it is not my place to decide what they are. They have to accept or reject the labels. That’s a completely different context from the first. I will (and have) explain those two viewpoints in such a dialogue, as well.

I may have misconstrued Adrian’s intent. I intended to answer the question of just what it meant to me to label myself Christian. That’s the first context. That’s how I answered the question. So having worked it through a couple of paragraphs, I’m sticking with my original response.

The third sense, a definition of Christian used in theology (a necessary effort, for example, when doing theology, is obviously a necessary activity if one is to discuss theology. But that is where I point out that I’m not a theologian in the professional sense of the word.

Not Only a Father

Not Only a Father

Tim Bulkeley is trying to generate some discussion of his book Not Only a Father. I’m a little late to the game, as many other bloggers have already linked, but I’ve been busy trying to shepherd six books through the release process. But though late, here I am.

There are two things that excite me about this book. The first is technical. Tim is presenting the book online with the option to enter comments and create discussion. I plan to do so as I manage to read the book. I encourage you to go and do likewise!

The second thing that excites me is the topic. I have a little history with this topic, ever since a doctor of my acquaintance said in a sermon that God actually had the various human organs. By virtue of that point, she believed that God must actually be male. This is, of course, an extreme view.

Very recently, however, I heard a new associate minister in a church use “father-mother God” in prayer, and there was an audible gasp in the congregation. Similarly I was strongly questioned over using “like a hen gathers her chicks” in a communion liturgy. The fact that the phrase comes from Scripture had no impact.

So I’m looking forward to continuing to read and interact with this book.


Revelation and a System of Doctrine

Revelation and a System of Doctrine

I really enjoy the last few days of work on a pending book release, because I include an opportunity to read the final form of the book at a more reasonable pace and without the constant distraction of working on editorial changes. Well, I should confess that I’m also always going crazy with production issues, but we’ll leave that to one side.

Right now I’m doing my final run through From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully by Edward Vick. It’s an enjoyable process. I’m going to comment on it a bit more later. Today I’m just going to use one quote, regarding revelation.

But the meaning of the Bible is not exhausted by being made the basis of a system of doctrine. There is much that escapes when ‘Bible’ and ‘system of doctrine’ are conflated. In fact, while by no means denying the importance of doctrine (why should a theologian do that?), one must say that if the importance of the Bible is made to consist in its being construed as a source of doctrine, it is being severely reduced, misunderstood, and indeed distorted. Revelation is not reducible to the communication of propositions, and faith is not identical with assent to propositions, in this case propositions repeating biblical statements, or being inferred or worked out from them (emphasis mine).

Note that Dr. Vick is not suggesting, as the context makes even more plain, that there are no propositions involved or that propositions have no value. Rather, revelation is much more than and other than that.

Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

I am not a theologian. On the occasions when I say this I have an important reason for saying so. Not infrequently, I thus make myself the target of a quote from Karl Barth:

Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian.

It is interesting that nobody has ever quoted the next few lines, which it seems to me they would:

How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term (extracted unceremoniously from Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction,” 40-1)!

(In searching for the source of this quote, which I’d forgotten, I found this post, which makes some excellent points based on the Barth quote. I have extracted the two snippets above from that site.)

Now I don’t disagree with Karl Barth’s comments on this issue, but I do disagree with the way in which the quote is often used.

Let me give an example from my own field–languages, specifically biblical languages. There are people who have an interest in languages. There are those who have an interest in linguistics, and who actually discuss the forms of their language or dig into details of semantics. Then there are those who make a professional study of such things.

I could make an excellent case, I think, for the claim that everybody is a linguist. We all have to communicate. We all have to deal with meaning. Thus, we all deal with semantics, whether we use that label or not. But quite frequently I will hear someone say, “That’s just semantics!” Well, if we’re dealing with an utterance intended to convey meaning, any discussion of what was meant is a discussion of semantics.

So I think it’s silly to say that a particular issue of meaning is “just semantics.” Similarly, you will, as Barth notes, hear Christians, including preachers, putting down the idea of theology, as though one can be a follower of Christ without thinking about God, or as though in thinking about God one can afford to be careless.

Yet just because someone does a bit of thinking about semantics, or grammatical forms, or phonology, doesn’t mean I’ll call that person a linguist. I studied biblical languages both for my undergraduate degree and then for my MA. I took either a year, or at least a concentrated quarter that was advertised as equivalent to a year, in 11 languages. In several languages I took much more than that. But I don’t call myself a linguist except in a very narrow sense.

Why? Because there is a difference in learning a number of languages, and in learning and thinking about the nature and structure of language. I’ve taken a number of graduate courses in linguistics, and I can tell you that while the two types of study interrelate, they are not the same thing.

Similarly, my own training is in biblical languages, not theology. I do not mean that I have never encountered theology, or that I don’t think about theology. Nor do I mean that there is no theology involved when I teach. In fact, I am generally very concerned to check my theological statements more carefully, for the very good reason that I am not a theologian.

I took an undergraduate minor in religion, but almost all of my courses there were in biblical studies. In graduate school, while my concentration for the MA in Religion was Biblical and Cognate Languages, I was required to take a certain number of hours in departments other than those in my concentration. So I took church history, in the form of a class in patristic Latin. Not to mention the exegesis course in Galatians in which I used the Greek text while everyone else used English. I’ve probably read more theology each year since I left graduate school than I did in my entire course of study.

I think that we can easily be very guilty of an equivocation in this case. What I mean by saying I’m not a theologian is that theology was not and is not my area of professional study. There is a difference between biblical languages, biblical studies, and theology, not to mention differences between different branches of theology. I consider this an important distinction to make, especially when I’m asked to comment on a matter of theology, and the questioner believes my opinion should have special weight because I know Greek and Hebrew. In theology I speak as a layman. It is, of course, worthwhile to note that I have studied more theology than the average person in a church pew, but the distinction still remains valid.

Every Christian is a theologian, I believe, in the same sense as every human being must be a linguist. It is somewhat silly to use language to disparage the meaning of language, and it is somewhat silly as well to claim that theology is unimportant as we follow Christ.

But theologian != theologian, necessarily!


Claims and Actions about the Bible

Claims and Actions about the Bible

The surest sign that somebody doesn’t read the Bible that much is that they claim to do everything it says. Now there are lots of ways to nuance that statement, but I’ve found that in general those who make the claim are unaware of many commands of the Bible, and don’t have an explanation for why they don’t follow those commands. (There are plenty of commands given in the Bible that don’t apply to you.)

Unfortunately many people regard claiming to follow the Bible or do all the things it says is a sign of piety, so whether or not they know what the Bible says they make the claim.

Via Twitter I found this post at Coram Deo, in which some such ignorance is documented. I think Matt makes many good suggestions for dealing with this Biblical ignorance.

I would add two things:

  1. Address controversial issues in the church, rather than sticking with questions that permit “Sunday School answers”
  2. Remember those commands in the Bible that deal with honesty and integrity, and don’t claim to value the Bible if you don’t actually read and study it.

Check out Matt’s entire post.

Changing Polls

Changing Polls

No, President Obama’s approval rating; the poll that I have in the right hand sidebar.  It has been there for more than 18 months, and surprisingly enough is still generating interest.  The last comment is dated December 19, 2009 and there have been quite a number.  You can see the results here.

 Who does God hate?  
Selection   Votes 
Everyone, because we are all sinners  3% 13 
Only unrepentant sinners  9% 40 
All non-Christians  2%
Those who have never said the sinner’s prayer  0%
Nobody, God loves everybody  77% 330 
Other (please comment)  9% 39 
431 votes total free polls

In case anyone wants to keep this poll alive even further past its sell-by date, I’m including the form as well:

Who does God hate?
Everyone, because we are all sinners
Only unrepentant sinners
All non-Christians
Those who have never said the sinner’s prayer
Nobody, God loves everybody
Other (please comment) free polls
Embracing the Mysteriousness of God

Embracing the Mysteriousness of God

First, let me put away another mystery, though I doubt anyone was wondering that much. I’ve been working on a couple of new book releases and the resulting schedule kept me from blogging most of the week. No mystery there!

The word “mystery” is rather popular today, but only in the sense of something to be solved through the application of proper efforts and skilled detective work. We like mysteries because we like to solve them.

That’s why I used the word “mysteriousness.” God is essentially mysterious, not in a sense of something that will be solved, but rather in the sense of something–or Someone–who will ever elude our best efforts to understand.

This is a piece of baggage that comes with the notion of a God who is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, or anything similar. We cannot totally comprehend infinity. We cannot really embrace all knowledge. As soon as we attribute such characteristics to God, we are doomed to a certain amount of mystery, in fact a very substantial amount of mystery.

I encounter this most frequently in discussing Biblical inspiration. Why could God not have made the Bible more straightforward, or speak to us in ways that leave no doubt? Why can’t he answer all our questions? Why doesn’t he make his presence more clearly manifest?

Those are good questions, and ones I’m not about to answer! That’s not my topic here.

There’s a certain conversation that takes place between Christian believers and others that goes something like this: Question about Christianity, Answer, Question about Christianity, Answer, … Excessively difficult question about Christianity, “God is a mystery.”

Now many people have a problem with this resort to mystery. It seems like a dodge or perhaps sidestep. I have a problem with it as well, but only in its positioning. It shouldn’t be the last resort; it should be embraced at the first.

I believe in the doctrine of infinite ignorance. God is infinite, suggesting there is an infinity to know about God. I am finite, so any amount of knowledge I hold is finite. Subtract any finite amount from infinity, and you still have infinity. Therefore I am infinitely ignorant of God.

I would like to note I am not saying that I know nothing at all of God. Invert that statement, and one must note that the fact that any finite amount subtracted from infinity leave infinity does not mean that the finite portion is non-existent or even negligible from the proper point of view.

What I am suggesting is that, as Christians, we embrace first God’s mystery. Celebrate how much beyond us he is. Give the “that’s a mystery” response first rather than as a last resort.

We’re stuck with God as mystery, because if we make him fully comprehensible he will no longer be God, at least not in the sense meant by Bible writers and by Christians through the ages.

This may not satisfy questioners, but it is, at least, honest and open from the start. No I don’t know all there is to know about God. I only know a very, very small amount. I’m willing to share with you my attempts at understanding, but I’m always aware of the size of my subject.

Who Speaks for Religion?

Who Speaks for Religion?

If I went around my neighborhood asking friends and neighbors just what evolutionary biology was all about, then went and found an evolutionary biologist and asked him to defend the comments of all the “evolutionists” in my neighborhood, I think he would be justly annoyed. He would probably tell me that these people didn’t understand the details of the field and in fact that most of them didn’t understand the broad outlines. He would certainly define terms differently than they did.

Suppose, in turn, that I chastise him for using eccentric terminology and not understanding the real issues involved in the field because, after all, this is the way that regular people, folks who haven’t been to university and studied such stuff, understand the terms. How dare he refuse to defend their viewpoint? After all, one must defend this activity as it is actually understood out there among the masses.

Pretty stupid of me, no? Well, that’s a slightly exaggerated version of how I felt upon reading the post Saving Religion from the Religion Scholars. What is a “religion scholar” anyhow? Can I start referring to evolutionary biologists as “science scholars”? Probably not. I’d get accused of failing to comprehend the many and various disciplines involved, the terminology used, and the interests and perspectives.

I’m not here to defend the particular “religion scholar” referred to in the post (nor to attack him, for that matter). That’s not the major issue. I would point out that I could always find one biologist who says really dumb things (I think Answers in Genesis and Reasons to Believe could provide me with a couple), and declare as a result that we should rescue science from scientists in general.

The simple fact is that religion is not a single entity, the study of religion is not a single field, and the arguments against one sort of religion are not effective as arguments against another sort. You may want to make it so for convenience, but it really doesn’t work. I don’t get worried when an atheist chooses to argue against someone else’s beliefs and then demand that I defend them. I simply shrug and move on to more productive pursuits.

Now most atheists with whom I have interacted have taken the time to hear what I’m saying, just as I try to take the time to hear what they’re saying. It should shock nobody to discover that not every atheist has the same set of beliefs, and not every person who has some religious beliefs shares the same set.

It should similarly come as no surprise that those who spend their time studying one scholarly discipline that is part of the broad field we call religion will have specific vocabulary and ways of talking about the subject that those who are not specialists don’t share.

To use myself as an example, I am often called a “theologian” by laypeople. I’m not a theologian. I don’t claim this, as some think, because I don’t like theology, but because I am not trained as a theologian, and haven’t researched or taught in that broad set of disciplines grouped under “theology.” My actual training is in Biblical and cognate languages, a field which requires no religious commitment, just a scholarly one. My actual work, to the extent I’m involved in religion, is popularizing, but that still doesn’t make me a theologian.

Within Biblical studies and theology there are again many subfields. Just as I am annoyed when a “scientist”–a physicist, for example (with reference to nobody in particular)–claims to speak authoritatively regarding biology, I am annoyed if someone whose training is in pastoral ministry claims to speak authoritatively on issues of Hebrew grammar. Each person will have some knowledge of other fields, but we must each be careful.

Thus nobody speaks for religion, and it’s even less likely that anyone could than it is for science in general. If we are to have dialog on these issues, then we will have to take the time to find out the specific nuances of our opponents’ views. If those hardliners on either side of the issue don’t want to do so, that is their loss.

(Note: James McGrath has also blogged on this issue.)

Which Theologian Am I?

Which Theologian Am I?

Always presuming, of course, that I’m not myself. I can’t resist these quizzes. This one is Peter Kirk’s fault.

Which theologian are you?
created with
You scored as Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich sought to express Christian truth in an existentialist way. Our primary problem is alienation from the ground of our being, so that our life is meaningless. Great for psychotherapy, but no longer very influential.

Paul Tillich


Charles Finney


Friedrich Schleiermacher


Jürgen Moltmann


John Calvin


Martin Luther




Karl Barth




Jonathan Edwards


I’m not surprised by either Tillich or Finney. I’m surprised that I’m that high even for Augustine, Calvin, and Luther.

Keeping up with the Justification Debate

Keeping up with the Justification Debate

I am doing some reading before I respond to a couple of posts, but I did want to link to some interesting stuff.

Both Mark Olson (Pseudo-polymath) and Anne (Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength) have written posts discussing justification from a perspective other than the judicial/penal substitution approach. Their posts simply confirm to me that there are many, many valid ways to talk about the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf, and that penal substitution is just one of those. Unlike some, I do not wish to discard it, but I also will not make it the one and only metaphor.

Adrian Warnock has posted twice, first Legalism, Racism, and the First Century Jew, to which I will respond later at some length. I find much to object to in that short post, but I’m also working through Piper’s comments in their context before I blow off steam.

The second one is 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 5 – Two Critical Passages on Justification in which he links an article that I had linked earlier, and says:

If you are interested in seeing an example of this, there is an article by Wright on 2 Corinthians 5:21 [PDF-HN] that I must say I found wholly unconvincing.

I see a great deal of “finding unconvincing” but I see remarkably little actual exegetical argument. The primary form of argument appears to be theological. If the question is whether the new perspectives on Paul differ from prior theological statements, then we can cheerfully answer yes, and go on. But for me the question is whether the new perspective gets us closer to correctly understanding Paul and what he has to say.

One of the keys here is to understand the paradigm shift that several interpreters have taken. If you do not accept that paradigm shift, you are likely not to accept Wright’s specific exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21. That is not surprising, since he is dealing with that verse in the context of that new paradigm. (I am not overly fond of “paradigm shift,” as a term, or at least I don’t think I am, but it seems to me that the new perspectives on Paul do justify that term.)

Peter Kirk blogged on this same topic, and brings up a number of points. I have to say that anyone who implies that Augustine was a theological pygmy is likely to get my favorable attention! But more importantly, Peter points to one side issue, and that is the way in which (some?) reformed theology can make God look like he is a bit veracity-challenged, and can’t truly tell whether people are righteous or not.

Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. Instead of this, the picture I have, based on various biblical passages such as Ephesians 4:22-24, is that the Christian consists of two separate persons or personalities: the “old self” (in some versions “old man”, but to be understood of course in a gender generic sense) born by natural birth who is a sinner, guilty, condemned to death and destined to die; and the “new self” born of the Spirit and into Christ, who is righteous, holy, free from condemnation, will not die, and indeed is already living eternal life in God’s kingdom. . . .

Just so. Like Peter, I continue to be in flux on some of these issues. There are boundary lines that I’m fairly certain of, but others I’m studying a great deal, but Peter’s paragraph is one of those that strikes me as promising. When I read it, I feel that he is “with” Paul in a significant way. Perhaps he’ll have to adjust some, as he says, but he’s going the right direction.

I will be blogging a bit more on 2 Corinthians 5 from an exegetical point of view, hopefully in the next few days.