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.


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.


Parable of the Hats

13 July 2022

Once upon a time, a feller named Jack grew disturbed at the number of people running around without hats. Finding hats both useful and stylish, Jack set about to change the trend, to which end he founded the Hat Society “to promote the wearing of hats.” Jack worked hard at helping see the advantage of hats, and the Society grew to the point that they were running on a half-million dollars or so a year, all to promote hats. Now Jack himself had always worn a fedora, but at Hat Society meetings you could find cowboy hats, homburgs, berets, bowlers, baseball caps, tams, even a few propeller-topped beanies.  

Over time, that began to change. The propeller-topped beanies were the first to go, but they hadn’t done much for the dignity of hat-wearing, and nobody really missed them. The guys in berets and tams kinda disappeared a few at a time. A few years later, baseball caps began to get scarce, and that feller in the fishing hat with all the flies on it was asked to never come back. 

Fast-forward a few more years, and there’s an occasional cowboy hat around, but pretty much everybody at the meetings is wearing a fedora. Jack himself is maintaining that a dark fawn fedora is the perfect epitome of hat-ness, and he never wears anything else. At one point, this led to a confrontation between Jack and the board; Jack asked all the non-fedora-wearing board members to resign, which they did.

Some folks claim that back in the day, Jack used to sometimes wear a grey fedora. Others maintain that it was always dark fawn. Nobody seems able to prove it for sure either way, and most of the people who were around back then have long since left. Oddly, it’s not called the Fedora Society; it’s still the Hat Society, and the mission statement still reads “to promote the wearing of hats.” 

Now Jack may be within his rights to promote the dark fawn fedora, and perhaps even to use Society funds for the purpose. But he can’t really claim to speak for the community of hat-wearers anymore, can he? 


Are All Who Identify As Free Grace Cessationists? NO!

8 July 2022

A few days ago, Bob Wilkin of the Grace Evangelical Society came out with a blog post titled “Are All Who Identify as Free Grace Cessationists?” Now, given the title of the piece, you’d expect it to be about people who are Free Grace and their views on the sign gifts. You’d expect that…but no.

I encourage you to read the piece; it’s an impressive little piece of bait-and-switch journalism. Were anyone at GES inclined to give the question a straightforward answer, the answer, in a word, is NO. Which, it seems, is the one thing they really didn’t want to say. So we get treated to some very clever framing instead.

The article begins by posing the question from the title and defining cessationism. Then, instead of talking about Free Grace people and their positions on cessationism, the article pivots to focus on charismatics and their views on the gospel. R. T. Kendall, Michael Eaton, and Jack Deere all get a favorable mention, and then we get this clever little sentence: “Beyond those three, I do not know of any third wave or charismatic theologians who hold to eternal security, let alone FGT.” He then continues, “My guess is that there are more. But most would not agree with FGT on justification or sanctification.”

The claims of fact are technically true, but the overall effect is lying by omission. The paragraph cultivates a general impression that Free Grace people are basically cessationists except for R. T., Michael, and Jack, the first two of whom don’t seem to have ever publicly identified as Free Grace anyhow, and we don’t know if Jack still holds to it. Hardly any overlap between the camps, it would seem….

But remember the question we started out with? “Are all who identify as Free Grace cessationists?” By dodging that question and focusing on charismatic theologians (who might be Free Grace), Bob has avoided addressing the question he actually started with, which is whether all Free Grace people are cessationist. The answer — and Bob knows this; don’t make me get my screenshots and prove it — is no. That there are a number of us non-cessationist Free Grace folks, not least the man who was for 10 years Bob’s right-hand man (until 5 days before this blog post went up). Ahem.

So why didn’t he just say so? He could have just said, “No, not all Free Grace people are cessationist; we don’t have to agree on that to be Free Grace.” He didn’t. Why not?


Note: Unfortunately, GES seems to have made a habit of this sort of thing. Drew McLeod of the Provisionist Perspective and I discussed another instance a few months ago.


A Supernatural Faith: An Interview

14 June 2022

I had the opportunity to sit with my friend Chris Morrison of Gulfside Ministries and chat for a while. You can find the interview here.


What Can’t Be Faked

15 February 2022

You can fake wisdom, in some settings. It’s relatively easy for a smart young adult to memorize the doctrinal reflections of their elders in the tradition. Memorize the system, and you have an answer for more or less everything. To the uninitiated, this looks pretty good.

A more discerning audience quickly sees through it. Book-smarts without experience has a brittle quality to it that’s easy to recognize once you have a bit of life under your belt. Memorizing a couple fat books worth of content is nothing to sneeze at; it takes a ready mind and is an achievement in its own right…but it’s not wisdom. It took wisdom to write the books in the first place; memorizing them takes a lot less than that. Memorizing other people’s wisdom is not the same thing as having some yourself.

The young’un in question is usually not trying to fake anything; there’s no intent to deceive. It’s just that he (or she) really, honestly believes that the book-smarts are more useful than they really are. How do I know? I was that kid.

When you managed to make it a decent way into your education as the smartest person in the room, you want to believe that being smart will carry you the rest of the way. But it isn’t true. Outside the artificial world of the classroom, nobody cares how smart you are; they care what you can do. If the smarts don’t translate into service, they don’t matter. In ministry, that means that your mastery of a system of doctrine only matters to the extent that you can cash it out in practice, and that takes, well, practice.

These are the things you can’t fake, the things where reading fat books won’t help you much. You either actually show up and love actual humans over the long term or you don’t. You move the dead washing machine, rock the screaming baby so mom can get a shower, bring food and medicine when they’re sick, take the 2 am call when they’re 7 days sober and maybe not gonna make it. Sometimes they don’t, and you show up for the funeral. Sometimes they make it, and you celebrate. Sometimes they make it, but their brother, or sister, or kid doesn’t, and you hold them while they sob til they puke. You show up because Jesus called you to. You show up because Jesus is already there, and He wants you to be His hands and feet and voice.

In those moments, your ability to win a classroom debate is nothing. You either bring Jesus or you bring nothing at all.


Can We Understand the World?

5 October 2021

Contemporary skepticism looks like this: God made a movie, and a theater to watch it in, and then an audience of people to watch the movie. And now the audience is starting to wonder: Can we really understand the movie?

See, we have been analyzing the movie, and we’ve discovered that the whole thing is a fraud! The pictures don’t even actually move — there’s just 24 still pictures every second, in rapid succession. I mean, seriously — the whole thing’s just a trick! How could it mean anything?

But all this is folly, of course. God made the world for us, and us for it. He is revealing Himself in the world, and He is good at what He does. Of course we can receive revelation.

Modern man has just forgotten how.

Primitive man knew how to see the meaning in the world. Everything was alive, everything was meaningful. For the ancient Hebrews, the heavens declared God’s glory. When Messiah delivers His people, the very trees will clap their hands.

Even in its corrupted, nature-worshipping form, the ancient worldview didn’t lose the meaning in the world. We talk about it as “animism,” the belief that every thing in the world also has an anima, a spirit. But primitive man doesn’t see the tree and the tree spirit as two separate things. He sees a single, metaphysically thick entity — a physical and spiritual tree.

Primitive man could see the meaning in the world, could follow the thread of the story. But primitive man could only see a single thread.

With Descartes and Galileo, Western man began to realize that the thread was 2-ply, a twine of matter and consciousness. They unwound the composite thread in order to better study matter alone. Thus astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry, and so on. This was all to the good, and we got a whole lot of good from it — the whole technological world we live in.

Nobody wants to turn back the clock. We’re all very happy to have vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and Prime 2-day delivery, thank you very much.

The problem is not that we need to undo the work that was done over the past few centuries. The problem is the work we didn’t do. We unwound the two-ply thread of matter and consciousness, and examined one of the threads exhaustively…and then pretended that the other thread doesn’t matter. We have not carried out the parallel examination of consciousness.

We have come to a point where our study of matter is forcing us back to consciousness. Matter, it turns out, is not just a series of ever-smaller Lego bricks. The quantum world does not behave like Legos at all. We have tiny particles that behave differently depending on whether we’re looking at them.

Consciousness matters. Consciousness influences the activities of matter. And so we cannot proceed until we understand more about the consciousness of the people that are looking.


On Being Misunderstood

24 November 2020

Paul required that elders be of good reputation among those outside the faith (1 Tim. 3:7)–and this in a culture that sometimes accused Christians of atheism and cannibalism, that crucified us, threw us to the lions, burned us alive. Paul himself had quite the criminal history as a Christian, as did that escaped jailbird Peter and many others, all following the condemned and executed Jesus. Plainly Paul did not mean that you can’t serve in church leadership if anybody has bad things to say about you. He cannot mean that you’re only qualified if your godly conduct has never been misunderstood by the world. 

Yet we are surrounded by Christians who think that’s exactly what having a good Christian testimony means. These credulous folks have been lulled by four centuries of unprecedented prosperity and freedom, during which the culture took it for granted that being a Christian was a good thing. (Perhaps a little too wholesome and not much fun, but a good thing nonetheless.) But it has not always been that way, and–have a look around–it is not really that way now. 

We are going to be misunderstood. Sometimes it will be an honest misunderstanding brought about by simple confusion. The devil excels at manufacturing that sort of thing. Sometimes it will be a tactical misunderstanding, and the wounded party will be flopping about like a French soccer player, even though nobody was within 3 yards of him. There’s a great deal of the latter, actually, and our National Evangelical Leadership (all rise!) has been steered by the flopping soccer players of the secular world for some time now. Steered straight into severe compromise, and all in the name of empathy for the player with the allegedly injured leg.