A Minimum Standard

27 September 2022

The purpose of this post is to recommend that you go read three other posts, with this one as a kind of introduction, so I’ll keep this brief. I’d like to commend the three posts below as examples of a kind of minimum acceptable standard for a Christian understanding of the nature of God’s creation. We are Christians; we have been taught by Scripture that the world is not at all what the materialists think it is. They are not right as far as it goes; they are wrong all the way down, and certain (to a modern mind) startling conclusions follow from that fact — conclusions which most faithful evangelicals have not really thought through. So I want to commend the discussion below, in which someone (and a committed cessationist, at that!) thinks it through:

Regarding the first installment, I should tell you that grasping the point he’s making does not require clicking through to the other articles he references, although if you’re curious, knock yourself out (the link to Toby Sumpter’s post is broken, but you can find it here). There’s a second and third follow-up post to that one. All of them are pretty brief.

I should add, as a kind of postscript to that third post, that Wilson does not grasp the important distinction between prophecy and inscripturation — the two certainly are not the same thing — but that’s a conversation for another day.


Here We Are, Debating It

20 September 2022

We looked last week at the practical contribution academic theology frequently doesn’t make to the church. This week, we’ll take a look at a thing that all too often happens instead.

Here’s a game people run. It’s not a game academics run, so much as a game that other movers and shakers run using academics. But a healthy level of skepticism for academics is necessary if you’re going to stay immune to this one.

It goes like this: select the sin of your choice and induce some academics to ‘re-examine’ the tradition on the point, to ‘establish dialog’ around ‘these sensitive subjects,’ and so on. You might be able to do this on the cheap if you pick the right people, but spreading some money around really helps: fund some conferences and a few postgraduate fellowships, and you’ll find no shortage of academics excited to dive in. That research and academic writing produces a smattering of of journal articles and a few books arguing that, you know, perhaps we’ve been a bit hasty in condemning <whatever sin you’d like to justify>. Let’s call those articles and books Round 1.

Now of course there will be pushback, and that’s fine. You use that pushback around Round 1 to describe the issue as ‘controversial’ and ‘hotly debated.’ At this point, you are already winning. Your sin of choice used to be universally condemned, obviously beyond the pale, and now it’s “controversial,” perhaps even “debatable.” After all, here we are, debating it. See how that works?

But it gets better. Let the controversy rage for a little, then fund Round 2 of books and articles. You will call your Round 2 publications “the latest scholarship on this issue,” which you contrast to the obviously older (and therefore dangerously retrograde) positions of your detractors. The Round 1 works are now referred to as “Dr. Arnold’s groundbreaking article” or “the classic re-examination by Dr. Quisling.”

And then when people challenge you, and dare to point out the obvious big-E-on-the-eye-chart point (“It’s wrong!”), you sigh, and say — with great longsuffering, and a little sadness — that they’re plainly mired in old bigotries, and definitely not keeping up with the current best thinking on this issue. Then patiently explain that (while we realize an unfortunate few are lagging behind), we’re going to follow the scholarly consensus nonetheless, and trust that they will catch up in due time. Your bought-and-paid-for scholars and the cavalcade of transgressive idiots that are following in their train will definitely not yet constitute a consensus, but that doesn’t matter. You just claim consensus anyway, and move forward.

You can run this same playbook to justify everything from Marxism to race hatred to pedophilia — which is the next frontier — and it works the same way every time. With enough grant money, you can buy yourself a gaggle of academic whores willing to go all the way with the position of your choice. In this way you manufacture for your view something that the world is pleased to call ‘respectability.’ Execute the play well enough, and your scholarly opponents will not be able to treat your project with the contempt it deserves without getting drummed out of the scholarly guild themselves: after all, are there not peer-reviewed papers, conferences, respected scholars on your side? The mores of the scholarly community require that we take such things seriously.

Jesus never took such literally damned nonsense seriously, and neither should we.


What Academic Theology Doesn’t Do

13 September 2022

Academic theologians are often greatly rewarded for engaging questions that are unimportant in real life, and the things most vital in real life are often given perfunctory lip-service in the academy–if they’re addressed at all. The brutal truth is that the academy is a long way from real life, and deliberately so.

At its best, that distance gives academics the “time and space and air and light” to dig into ideas, histories, and lines of inquiry that aren’t immediately practical. The world God made being what it is, such inquiries “just to see what’s there” often lead to unexpected insight. Conducted properly, it can be a rich and rewarding pursuit. Unfortunately, too often that decoupling from the practical world can also lead to downright idiocy that never comes back down to earth.

But that’s not my real beef with academic theology. I have two reservations, one about its positive contribution and another about its negative contribution (about the latter, more next week). Positively, I have wrestled long and hard with the standard academic systematic theology categories, and I find them effectively worthless in the work of making disciples.  The contents of those categories are often vital, but the organizational scheme is actively harmful.

The academic approach divorces essential truths from the contexts in which their beauty and utility is readily visible, and embeds them in a classroom context where they appear abstruse and impractical. A counseling major in seminary remembers with a shudder the lectures on christology in his required theology classes, trying to keep homoousios straight from homoiousios, never learning that the precious truth the fathers preserved for him is the very heart of his life’s work. 

So because the Christian Faith is deeply precious, I have deliberately and consciously chucked the academic way of organizing and talking about it. There is another way of approaching the same material — still ordered, but it’s the order of a nursery, not a library bookshelf. It’s the order exhibited by the biblical literature itself, from the Torah to the church epistles — which are neither composed nor arranged like systematic theology texts. They’re history, liturgy, and theological reflection on both. If we simply study The Story of Our People, we will cover all the bad ideas, but we will encounter them in their historical context, as temptations rather than just bad ideas.


A Stupid Question

6 September 2022

Can a woman be a pastor? Back in the day when we were formulating a response to second-wave (and early third-wave) feminism, that question was the practical dividing line within the evangelical world.

It was a heady time: suburban megachurches were growing, and even though the far majority of churches were not remotely that big, most churches and pastors looked to the megachurches for leadership. We were paying a lot of attention to leadership, org charts, and such things in those days, so it was only natural to formulate the questions around the church org chart. Which genders can hold which positions? You define the duties for a particular box on the chart, define the skills and attributes that go with those duties, and then put out a call for resumes.  

So in that setting, the question everyone wanted an answer to was, “Can a woman serve as a pastor?” One group said no: men and women have complementary responsibilities in the church, and serving as the pastor is a man’s job. Another group said yes: men and women have equal responsibilities in the church. This is where our two terms (complementarianism and egalitarianism) came from – two different answers to a question about a church org chart. 

But it’s a stupid question. The office of pastor as generally practiced in the American church has no New Testament precedent whatsoever. It doesn’t exist. The right question is not “Can a woman have that job?” The right question is “Should anyone should have that job?


The Longest Sentence

30 August 2022

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek — the longest sentence in the Greek New Testament. In it, Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in a surprising way — to refer to Jewish believers and Gentile believers, respectively. That fact comes as a bit of a surprise to a modern reader, and you’re not alone — it was a surprise to the original readers too! But if you accept that “we” and “you” are exclusive of one another in vv. 12-13 – which you have to – then you’re stuck with it throughout. There’s no natural breaking point within the sentence. But the original readers aren’t going to know that ‘we’ just refers to Jewish believers until they hear vv. 12-13, so there’s a penny-drop moment there where they have to re-evaluate what they’ve heard, thus:

Paul blesses God for blessing Jewish believers with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as He chose them in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him by predestining them to sonship adoption through Christ, in keeping with God’s purposes, so that His glorious grace might be praised. In keeping with His grace, He fully accepted the Jewish believers by accepting Christ, in whom the Jewish believers have redemption (forgiveness of sins), in keeping with God’s abundant grace which He wisely abounded toward them by revealing the mystery (His household-management plan to bring all things together in Christ).

In Christ the Jewish believers have obtained the inheritance to which God predestined them (in keeping with the public presentation [Gk. prothesis] of His plans [throughout the OT]) in order that they – the first to hope in Christ – would bring praise to His glory. The Gentiles also believed, once they heard the gospel, and were sealed by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the Jewish believers’ inheritance.

It’s not a surprise that Jewish believers would end up as Paul describes — God publicly announced His plan to do exactly that in the new covenant prophecies centuries before Christ. But Gentiles?

As Paul develops his argument in Ephesians, it turns out that the mystery to which he alludes in v. 9 is that the Gentile believers would be made one body with the Jewish believers – all who are united to Christ are united to each other in one new man, the Church. There are no longer two groups, but one, and the blessings apply equally to the whole group. That unity of the Body — with one another and pre-eminently with Christ — is the main point of the book, and it’s powerful. Paul spends the latter three chapters unpacking the practical implications.

Why does Paul begin this way? Because he is making his case to a mixed Jew-Gentile church that they need to become one in practice to reflect the oneness God has already given them in spiritual reality. He wants his Gentile readers to be grateful for the Jews who faithfully spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles. And likewise, he wants his Jewish readers to see that although the Gentiles came later, they have been fully integrated into all the blessings of Christ — nothing has been held back.

Here’s a challenge for you: knowing this is how Paul is using “we” and “you” early in Ephesians, read 2:1-10, and see what he’s doing there. Have fun!


If You Lied About The Product, Can I Get My Money Back?

26 August 2022

This is a hot take on the ethics of the student loan forgiveness situation. As with all hot takes, I may later have to repent, and if that turns out to be the case, I’ll link it here. <- If that’s not a clickable link, then I haven’t changed my mind.

If you borrow money, then you should pay it back. I think we all agree on that; it’s basic ethics.

If someone sells you a product, and it turns out they lied outrageously about the product, you should be able to get your money back. I think we all agree that, too, is basic ethics.

It’s easy if the product is a physical item. If I buy a brand-new carbon fiber tennis racket from your eBay store, and what you actually send me is a cracked wooden racket you found in your grandma’s attic, the situation should be easy to remedy: I give you back your granny’s broken racket, and you give me back my money.

It’s harder if the product is an experience or a service. As a massage therapist, if I don’t deliver on what I promised my client in the session, do I give his money back? He can’t give me my hour back, so it’s not quite like returning a product. But still, YES, I give his money back. Now it may be that what I promised was entirely unlikely, bordering on impossible, and any reasonably-informed consumer ought to have known better than to believe me. I don’t get to keep the money because my client was a sucker who should have known better. If I walk away with his money telling myself, “Well, I guess he learned a valuable life lesson,” I’m not an honest businessman, I’m a con artist.

Suppose he didn’t pay up front; I agreed to finance the cost over time, so my customer can better afford my services. If I delivered what I promised, then he ought to follow the payment schedule he agreed on. If I did not deliver what I promised, then I ought not to expect payment. “You agreed to pay” is nothing to the purpose if I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.

We lied outrageously to an entire generation about college. And grad school.

This situation is much messier than the above scenarios, and I’m not trying to pretend it’s as simple as all that. I am seeking to introduce some balance into the discussion. “You should pay back what you borrowed” is a relevant ethical principle, but so is “You should refund when you lied about the product.”

To be fair to the education-debt-mongers, the life script they were selling (higher education as a ticket to a better salary and standard of living) did actually work, once upon at time. I’m prepared to concede that even as late as the early 90s (my era) a conscientious high school guidance counselor could sell that life script in good conscience. Now, for a great many of us, that script was going to collapse, but they didn’t know. They were doing the best they could with the information they had. Nobody owes us a refund for that.

But in 2005? 2010? Come now. That’s at least culpable negligence, if not outright lying. By that point, we had every reason to know that a $50,000 degree in medieval French literature, or gender studies, or English, was wildly unlikely to put the graduate in a position to pay back the student loans. What did we do? We kept stuffing kids into the debt machine. What did we think was gonna happen?

But someone will say, “Nobody put a gun to their heads! They signed the loan agreements of their own free will!”

Imagine a doctor is treating a patient. He prescribes a particular medicine, encourages the patient to take the medicine, and has the patient sign a bunch of “informed consent” documents to the effect that medicine is not an exact science, this is just a recommendation, etc. It later comes out that multiple studies published years earlier had found the drug ineffective, and the doctor had every reason to know about it. Perhaps we can’t be sure that he did know about it, but we can be sure that he should have known about it — it was his job to know. In that scenario, refunding the money the patient paid for the medicine is the very least we expect.

In fact, we are likely to regard the refund as far too small a response. The doctor needs to be censured; the drug should no longer be prescribed for that condition, and so on. We would want to see systemic change.

Just so. The unsuspecting 18-year-old signing a student loan document has a very limited knowledge of the world. He’s legally an adult, but he’s not a real adult, and we all know it — we won’t even let him buy a beer! He’s heavily reliant on the older and putatively wiser people around him. Those people failed him, extravagantly and negligently. There’s no reason the kid should carry the whole cost while the negligent adults skate. Nothing is sillier than the Boomers whose generation unquestionably created the bubble bitching because Millennials and Gen Z don’t want to shoulder the whole cost of the collapse. Why should they?

Conservatives will complain that they were never in favor of the student loan bubble to start with. There’s some truth in that, and it’s worth a good, solid “I told you so!” from them that did. But this is just the way the world works. All Germans were not universally in favor of Kaiser Bill’s foreign adventures, but they all labored along under the devastating effects of the Treaty of Versailles anyway, dissidents and true believers alike. Conservatives are supposed to know better than to kick at how the world actually works; we use our energy in more productive ways.

So this is how the world actually works: an influx of too-easily-available money created what easy money always creates — massive decadence and waste — and the result is likely to be very costly for everyone. No sense in complaining about that. Forgiving at least some of the student loan debt that was foisted on unsuspecting 18-year-olds is too little, too late, but we are where we are, and it’s not the worst possible starting point.

What we should be doing now is what Microsoft used to do with public standards: embrace and extend. “Joe Biden has heroically taken the first small step toward a long-overdue overhaul of a very broken system,” we should say. “We’re grateful for him beginning the process; let’s all work together to finish it.” And let’s do exactly that.


Crypto-Buddhist Christians

23 August 2022

I think of myself as having grown up on the slightly fundamentalist side of normie Evangelicalism, which is true as far as it goes, but I also grew up in a strongly renunciate household. My parents regularly told stories of praying fervently for some particular result, and continuing in prayer for weeks until they reached a point of surrender at which they said “Fine, Lord, I leave it in Your hands entirely. Whatever You choose to do is fine with me” — at which point, the prayers would finally be answered.

Now, those stories were true. This is a thing that God actually did. It was a running theme in both my parents’ lives, and there’s a good lesson to be had here. But the lesson I learned from those stories was seriously unbalanced.

The point — so I thought — was to extinguish my own desires as fast as possible, so that God could work in whatever way He chose. And you know what? Sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. It is entirely possible for me to want my own way so hard that I can’t (or won’t) see what God is really doing. But there’s more to it than that.

I was raised to see God as the boss, and His will as more important than my own — and that’s true, as far as it goes. I was missing the goodness of God, and the goodness of His creation. When I ask God to heal someone, I am asking for a good thing. I’m supposed to want that. When I ask God for the funds to pay a bill, or the wisdom to navigate a sticky relationship, or to save someone’s marriage, these are all good things. There may be a mismatch between God’s timing and mine, or what God wants to do may look different from the picture in my head, but that doesn’t change the goodness of the thing I’m asking for.

There’s a kind of crypto-Buddhist strain of thought that a really good Christian eradicates all desire. We’re typically very selective about where we apply this line of thinking, but in recent years it often rears its ugly head in the guise of accusations about “idolatry of marriage” and “idolatry of family.” These accusations generally come from barren couples, or single folk who object to the way the church centers and normalizes fruitful marriage and family as over against their (sometimes involuntary, but all too often chosen) lifestyle.

We wanted children and weren’t able, so I’m going to speak concretely in those terms. Anybody can turn anything into an idol, and that can be a real concern, but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. What we’re seeing here is a revolt against the way God made the world. Children are a good gift from a good God, and barrenness is an affliction. That is objectively true. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not a suggestion; it is a command, and even a cursory grasp of biology demonstrates that producing children is a major purpose — if not the purpose — of sex.

“But what if we don’t want children?” Doesn’t matter. If you cut off your own foot (rather than, say, losing your foot in an accident), you are just as lame, and lameness is still an affliction. Likewise, if the barrenness is self-inflicted, it is still an affliction. Legs are meant to have feet on them, and a penis and a vagina are meant to meet up and make babies, and designed to do so in a way that’s a lot of fun. These are objective realities that God made; they can’t be wished away by reframing them in the context of our own fallible desires.

So barrenness is like vertigo — if you have it, you ought to seek to rid yourself of it as quickly as possible, and by all lawful means. If it turns out that you can’t, you will have to find a way to live fruitfully despite the debility, but nobody needs to pretend that it’s somehow a good thing. You must submit yourself to God’s Providence, but eradicating your desires is a poor substitute for submission to your Father.

It is not only lawful, it is normal and healthy, to want the good things that God made. We aren’t supposed to be in the business of extinguishing our desires for good things. Buddhism is just wrong about this; desire is not the root of all suffering. Sin is the root of all suffering. The world is broken, and we sometimes have to make our peace with the way, in God’s Providence, that brokenness hurts us.

And so we trust God. We ask Him to end the affliction, and we keep asking, unless, as with Paul, God tells us to stop. And we don’t criticize the people who have — and love — the things that we lack. It is not idolatry to love God’s good gifts. It is idolatry to elevate our own perspective above the objective realities God made.


Some Pastoral Prayers

16 August 2022

These are in no particular order; just prayers I’ve found myself praying for people who (as we all do) needed Jesus. I hope they will be a blessing and a help to you.

Lord God, my friend _____ is afraid as the Exodus generation was afraid of you in the desert. Please teach him to be like Joshua and Caleb and trust himself to Your kindness and mercy. Please show him Your mercy in tangible, hard-to-miss ways, so that he can see it and learn to trust you. And as for the disordered loves in his heart that cause him to be attracted to the dark path that shrinks away from You, please excise them. We ask for this in the strong name of Jesus, who lives and reigns at Your right hand, and through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Amen.

Lord God, who revealed Yourself to us as our just and loving Father through Jesus Christ your Son, grant to this son of yours, __________, an unmistakable and unshakeable knowledge of who You are to him because Jesus Christ’s blood washes away his sin, through the Holy Spirit who seals him forever into the family of the Triune God. Amen.

Father God, you made your daughter ________ to be free, and we know that you mean to set her free from every lie and false obligation, from every bad habit and weakness. We confess that sometimes it’s hard for her to tell the difference between those things: when there’s a weakness that needs to be purged, versus when there’s an impossible false obligation that needs to be repented of. So we’re asking you to give her bucket-loads of discernment, to know the true from the false, the good from the evil, to see the difference between sin and finitude. Pour out your Spirit on her, give her Your eyes to see. We ask in the name of Jesus, who died for her, that she might be free. Amen.


Exploring the World

9 August 2022

The Scriptures are our authority, but they are not our only source of truth. Nobody learns to drive a stick shift from a Bible study. Or bake a cake. Or clean a wound. Or ask a girl out. Or…

It’s true that there are things we cannot know unless they’re revealed to us. God reveals in Christ, in Scripture, and in the world. The heavens declare the glory of God—it’s right there in the skies; nobody has any excuse for missing it.

Many do miss it, because they want to. And when the pagans tell us what they have discovered about the world, we have to listen with care, because what they give us is always bent toward their agenda—which is justifying not saying “thank you” to Yahweh.

When we embark on our own investigations, thought, we are not hampered in that way. We do want to say thank you. We shall. And we are free to investigate any avenue which may lead us to a grateful understanding of the creation God has given us. So let’s be about it. God has given us a whole world to explore! What little corner of creation will you notice today?


Not Automatic

2 August 2022

In conversation with a young female friend about how the church handles conversations on modesty, we stumbled on something interesting.

Men need female attention; women need male attention. “Need” is actually the right word here — God made us for relationship, and we actually do need each other. When a young woman’s father has not been doing his job well, and she then she hits puberty, that’s a recipe for disaster. Suddenly, she’s getting male attention she never got before. It feels like water in the desert, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out how to dress to get more of that sort of attention.

Now, normally in the church, we want to say something to her like “You don’t need to do that.” Here’s the thing: for a lot of these girls, that’s just not true.

If she’s been neglected by her father and the other men in her life, if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents and abilities, then her legitimate needs have gone unmet. She’s spent her whole life hungry for male attention. The only reason she’s getting it now is her body, and she knows it. Of course, in the abstract it’s certainly true that a young woman could get a better class of attention through musical talent, intellectual prowess, writing well, athletic achievement, and countless other ways. But the thing is, none of those things come automatically, and if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents, then not only does she lack those skills, she doesn’t know how to develop them. Meanwhile — pardon me putting it crudely — she got her hips and her boobs for free, and that’s getting her the attention she never got before.

In her experience, she does need to flaunt her body. As far as she knows, that’s all she’s got.

If we know better — and we do! — then the path forward is not to shame her for using what she’s got. Scolding that girl about her necklines is not going to get her where she needs to go. We know that she’s handcrafted in the image of God, shaped with God’s purposes in mind. Even if nobody knows what her talents are, we know they’re in there. What if we just decline to notice her neckline, look her in the eye, and focus our attention on her talents, her achievements, her growth as a human being? Maybe, if we can give her a better class of attention focused in the right direction, she’ll find she likes that attention better. We aren’t likely to succeed at getting her to give up the wrong kind of attention if we offer nothing in return.