Re-learning to Speak Biblically: Another Riddle

18 January 2009

I posed a riddle from Psalm 99 a while back.  In the course of my Greek class last fall, I came upon another one in 1 John 2:3-4:

Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.  He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in Him.

The thing Free Grace folk usually talk about here is the definition of knowing God — what does that mean?  Is he talking about eternal destiny, or is he talking about something else?

Let’s skip that very important question and talk about something even more basic, that often gets missed.  Whatever knowing God might be, is it achievable?  Knowing what the commandments are — and John is at some pains to make sure the more demanding aspects of the commandments remain uppermost in our minds — how could anyone ever claim that they know God?  And if they can’t claim it for themselves, how could they claim it for anyone else?  We all violate the commandments every day.

So then here’s the riddle: How can John say, just a few verses later in 2:12-14:

I write to you, little children,
Because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.
I write to you, fathers,
Because you have known Him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
Because you have overcome the wicked one.
I write to you, little children,
Because you have known the Father.
I have written to you, fathers,
Because you have known Him who is from the beginning.
I have written to you, young men,
Because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you,
And you have overcome the wicked one.

He says to those he addresses, three times, that they have known (already!) God.  He says it twice to “fathers” and once to “little children.”  This is significant because he addresses his whole audience as little children in a number of other places in the epistle (see, for example, 2:18, and also the synonymous uses in 2:1, 28, 3:7, 18, 4:4, 5:21).

How can he say to his audience “If you keep God’s commandments, then you can say you know God” and then say to them, only a few sentences later “You have known God”?  Given human sinfulness, how can he do that?

We would not dare, most of us, to speak this way to one another.  And because we would not dare to speak biblically to one another, we will find ourselves compelled to speak in truncated ways that do not match the Scriptures.  The solution is to come to terms with speaking biblically.  And to do that, we must solve this riddle.

If You Can’t Base Doctrine On Experience…

20 December 2008

It is a truism universally acknowledged — at least in my incestuously small circles — that you can’t make doctrine from experience.  We often say it exactly like that: “You can’t make doctrine from experience.”  Or in the disclaimer form: “I realize you can’t make doctrine from experience, but I’ll tell you, I’ve found that…”

Of course this position is perfectly understandable.

I think of a man and a woman, both married to other people, who were committing adultery together.  (By the way, this is a true story.)  They justified their adultery on the grounds that they always knelt by the bed first and prayed together that if them coming together was not God’s will, He would step in and prevent it.  He never did.  On the strength of God’s non-intervention, they concluded He must approve, that their ‘love’ for each other must have somehow sanctified their illicit relationship.

See?  You can’t make doctrine from experience.

Countless abuses, errors and rank sillinesses are being avoided, at this very moment, by people who are having strange experiences, but who, on the strength of this dictum, will not try to make doctrine out of it.  This is a Good Thing.


…is it true?  Is it really as simple as “You can’t make doctrine out of experience”?

I submit the following example for consideration:

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.  How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith….

For those of you who haven’t recognized it, that’s Romans 4:9-13.  Paul is arguing that an uncircumcised person — i.e., a Gentile — can be found righteous on the basis of his faith.  How does he prove his point?  Note the portion in bold. Paul argues on the basis of Abraham’s experience.  We use the word “history” instead, but that just means it’s really old experience.

The comeback, of course, is that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Romans as Scripture; not being similarly inspired, we can’t interpret experience in the same way that he could — and anyway, he’s interpreting Old Testament Scripture, not his own personal experience.  I think there are good responses to both objections, but let’s bypass them for the moment and look at another example:

If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.

That’s Jesus speaking in John 10:37-38.  He challenges his hearers that if they don’t find His words convincing, then they ought to believe His works — i.e., His miracles.  But these are events which they have seen and heard themselves, that is, personal experiences.  From these personal experiences, Jesus’ readers should derive a christological conclusion.  That is once again getting doctrine from experience.

But perhaps someone will say, “That’s all well and good for the people who see supernatural events like the miracles Jesus is talking about there, but you can’t make doctrine out of the events of ordinary life.”  Really?  Let’s look at a third example:

You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.  And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.

This is from Deuteronomy 14:22-26, but particularly note the clause in bold.  It’s an instruction on the conduct of the festival year, and the disposition of the ‘party tithe.’  At the appointed time, they are to gather up 10% of the previous year’s income, go up to the place God designates, and throw a party.  They are to do this every year.  No miracles, no supernatural events — just the ordinary rhythms of life, like a Thanksgiving dinner, the Super Bowl, and watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve.

They are to throw this party, Moses tells them, so that they will learn to fear God always.

This rings strangely to our ears for a number of reasons that I’ll pass over here.  We should notice, however, that the theological conclusion comes in the doing of it, that is, in experience.  Again, it is precisely in experience that they are to learn their doctrine.

Does this mean that we can have a strange experience and use it to justify any theological nonsense we want?  Of course not.  There are controls — interpreting experience by what God has said — but that’s a discussion for another post.  For the time being, note: our modern dictum that “you can’t get doctrine from experience” would ring very strangely in the ears of the men who wrote the Bible.  They plainly did not believe any such thing.

Neither should we.

If You Confess Your Sins, You Should Pick Up Litter, Too

7 December 2008

One of the enjoyable sidelines I’ve tried to develop here at Full Contact Christianity is a ferocious intolerance for theological inconsistencies.  It’s one thing to just be wrong; it’s quite another, much more irresponsible thing to believe (1) A, and (2) Not-A — and loudly declaim on both topics.  Granted, the two proclamations don’t usually take place at the same time.

I’d like to address a doozy this week — the idea that one can be so taken with “spiritual” matters like relationship with God or sharing the gospel with the lost that one simply has no time for “peripheral” concerns like caring for the world we live in.  After all, it’s all going up in flames anyhow, and then God recreates it, so why worry about it?  Where’s the contradiction, you ask?  Just watch.  Much as I would enjoy an opportunity to do some first-hand mocking,  N. T. Wright said it better than ever I could, so with no further ado, here he is:

I’ve spoken about God’s ultimate intention, that through the renewed human beings in Christ, the cosmos itself would be renewed.  This strikes very hard at those of us who grew up within some kind or other of a pietistic tradition which actually had a low social concern because it said that was just oiling the wheels of a machine which was going to go over the cliff:  What’s the point in tinkering with the structures of society?  What’s the point in worrying about global warming, or whatever it is, because we know that the world is going to be jettisoned, and that we the saved will go off to be with God elsewhere.

Romans 8 ought long ago to have given the lie to any such idea.  God loves the world that He’s made and wants to renew it.  He sees it groaning in travail, and the answer to something groaning in travail is that the new is going to be born out of the womb of the old, not that the groaning person or world is going to be left to groan forever until it dies — No!

Where does that then leave us at the moment?  There are many people who will see this picture and then will say “That’s great; we’re going to get that renewal one day when the Messiah comes back.  When God renews everything then it’ll happen, but there’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.”

Now listen, many of you are pastors – probably the majority of you are pastors, that’s why you’re here.  [Suppose] somebody came to you and said, “I’m having a real trouble with holiness, with this sin problem.  I just find I sin all the time, and I see well there is this thing called holiness, but there’s really no point in me trying very hard after it, because after all, one day, God will raise me from the dead and give me a beautiful new life in which I will never sin again.  That’s going to happen, so why should I worry about it now?”

I hope that if somebody came to you like that, you would hit them with a fairly heavy dose of inaugurated eschatology.  You mightn’t express it quite like that, but what you would say is, “God wants you right now in the present, to live as nearly as you can in the power of the spirit to that lovely fully human creature that you’re going to be one day.  Of course you will constantly be saying ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’  But He has given you His Spirit so that you can anticipate in the present what you should be in the future.  “

Now, should we not say the same about our responsibility for creation, for the world which God made and which He loves so much?  Of course we should.  And if we get our soteriology right, we can go to that task without any of those snide remarks that this is a derogation from our gospel duty.  It is part of our gospel duty.”

(This is from Session 6 of the 2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, available for $1.99 here, at about the 57:30 mark.)

An additional note for those of you who are interested in (or furious about) Wright’s position vis-a-vis the New Perspective on Paul.  In this particular conference, Wright is addressing an audience entirely conservative, and mainly composed, from what I gather, of Presbyterian pastors.  If you’ve read some of the caterwauling about how Wright is striking at the vitals of the Christian religion, this is a good place to see what he has to say for himself to a group of people who will share your concerns.  He delivers five lectures (Richard Gaffin does the other five) and participates in three Q&A/discussion sessions, so there’s quite a bit of material, and some good interaction as well.

Psalm 99: A Riddle

30 November 2008

Psalm 99 poses a very difficult problem for modern readers.  See if you can spot it:

The LORD reigns;
Let the peoples tremble!
He dwells between the cherubim;
Let the earth be moved!
The LORD is great in Zion,
And He is high above all the peoples.
Let them praise Your great and awesome name
He is holy.

The King’s strength also loves justice;
You have established equity;
You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the LORD our God,
And worship at His footstool
He is holy.

Moses and Aaron were among His priests,
And Samuel was among those who called upon His name;
They called upon the LORD, and He answered them.
He spoke to them in the cloudy pillar;
They kept His testimonies and the ordinance He gave them.
You answered them, O LORD our God;
You were to them God-Who-Forgives,
Though You took vengeance on their deeds.

Exalt the LORD our God,
And worship at His holy hill;
For the LORD our God is holy.

The problem for us comes in the portion in green.  If we know our history, we’re on the alert immediately.  We want to say, “Wait a minute, God!  Moses did not keep Your testimonies and ordinance; he struck the rock.  Aaron didn’t either; he made the golden calf.  Samuel raised evil sons.  How can You say such a thing about them?”

If we’re not familiar with the history, we still have trouble with the passage, because in the same breath, the Psalmist says that God forgave them, although He took vengeance on their evil deeds.  So if there were offenses to forgive, if they were in fact guilty of evil deeds, then they clearly did not keep God’s testimonies and ordinance — right?

Wrong.  Obviously wrong, because the Psalmist and the Holy Spirit say otherwise.  But we cannot find it in our hearts to speak of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel in the way that the psalm speaks of them.  We believe, right down to our bones, that it is an inaccurate, self-contradictory description.

In other words, we do not have the mind of Christ on this subject; we don’t see it as God does, and can’t speak of it as He does.

And yet, this is a psalm.  We are supposed to sing it, just like the other psalms.  Here, then, is the riddle: How can we sing it in good conscience, with understanding? How can the Psalmist and the Holy Spirit say, in the same breath, that Moses, Aaron, and Samuel kept God’s testimonies and His ordinance, and that He forgave them and avenged their evil deeds?  How is that possible?

When we can answer that, we will know a little more about God’s forgiveness than we presently do.

And maybe we’ll become better at forgiving each other, too.

The Sociology of Vigorous Music

16 November 2008

The Western church has tried, and failed, to reform its worship before, or at least failed to make the reforms stick.  The reforms lasted long enough to give us some wonderful music, but we are now trying to recover it, because in the intervening centuries, we lost it.  The historical trend is from the rich and complex to the simplistic and predictable, from vigorous, robust singing to plaintive, introspective howling.


One answer is that we are sinners, and we always resist God.  He requires music to match the songbook He gave us, and we simply don’t deliver.  His songs are profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction and instruction in righteousness, which is to say, they are often comforting, but always uncomfortable.  We prefer to be comfortable, so we don’t sing God’s songs.  Not singing His Word, we are free to write our own, comfortable words, and compose for our comfortable words a lazy musical score that does not challenge us.

That’s one answer, and I think it’s a good one.  I’d like to add to it, though, because I think it’s missed something important.  I do this provisionally, in the spirit of a trial balloon, and if this intrigues or outrages you, I would love to hear from you.

When we backslide, there are always two reasons why: first, because we wanted to go backward, and second, because we didn’t move forward.  The answer above addresses only why we wanted to go backward.  I’d like to address the second reason, and begin to discuss how to move forward.

Many of these older, more complex, vigorous tunes are dances.  In fact, this is precisely the reason Queen Elizabeth dismissed the Genevan Psalter as “Genevan jigs.”

So where are the dancers?

If everyone sits in pews, or even stands in place, and sings the original ‘Genevan jigs,’ the incongruence between their music and their actions will get to them sooner or later.  Eventually, they will slow down the music to match what they’re doing with their bodies.  If even a few people are dancing, though, the sight and tempo of the movement will reinforce the vigor of the music.  We’re going to have to recover worship dance along with worship music, if we’re going to succeed in reviving vigorous psalm-singing.   It’s a package deal — the physical movement demands a certain sort of music, and the kind of music many of the Psalms require naturally demands that the body get up and move.   It’s unnatural to sing a jig without somebody dancing a jig.

I don’t know that there’s biblical precedent for making dance a part of the ordinary liturgy, but there is definitely precedent for worship dance on an ad hoc basis — Miriam (Exodus 15) and David (2 Samuel 6) come immediately to mind.  In order for that to be an option, a vigorous tradition of folk dance has to be part of the ongoing culture of the church, otherwise we won’t have the skills when we need them.

Music and dance go together.  There’s one other ingredient, though.  Vigorous dance has a strong, even martial quality to it.   This is no accident: in premodern cultures, there’s no separation between dance and martial preparation.  The martial arts of premodern cultures are all related to the cultures’ dances, and although not all dance is martial preparation in these cultures, martial preparation almost invariably involves dance.

Why?  I’m not sure of all the reasons, but I can speak to at least one of them from my own experience.  Dance is sustainable (physically, but more important, psychologically) in a way that harsh preparation for combat is not.  Dancing with a partner or a group reinforces general athleticism, distancing, timing, coordination, and so on, but it does these things in a relaxed and joyful way.

Contrast the dance to, say, hard sparring.  Sparring — even friendly sparring — takes a certain amount of focused bad intentions, it hurts, and it’s really rough on the body if you’re older than 25 or so.  You can only do so much of it.  Dance doesn’t have those problems, and so one of its functions is to involve the whole community in sustainable martial preparation.

It works the other way too.  As long as there’s no artificial barrier between martial preparation and dance, the culture’s dance tradition never fully loses contact with its martial traditions, and is in no danger of becoming decadent and effete.

So here’s the problem as I see it: cultures the world over demonstrate that a martial backdrop, vigorous dance, and vigorous music all go together.  Lose part of the package, and it seems that you’re in some danger of losing the whole thing.  If we’re going to have vigorous music — and keep it this time, instead of losing it after a century or so — I suspect we’ve got to figure out a way to have the whole package.

All of that said, the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, and the church is unique among the cultures of the world in that regard.  So how does this work itself out for us?

A Primer on Worship and Reformation

9 November 2008

If you’re one of those true believers that honestly thinks mainstream Evangelical worship is in the midst of a new rebirth of wonder, you’re going to spend the first chapter of A Primer on Worship and Reformation: Recovering the High Church Puritan wondering what in the world is eating Doug Wilson.

Composed more as a corrective than an indictment, Primer assumes from the beginning that the reader has at least begun to suspect that North American Evangelical worship is largely hollow and bankrupt.  If you’re not there yet, the first chapters probably won’t convince you, but keep reading.  The latter chapters provide a basis for comparison, and against that vision, the status quo may never look the same again.

I’ve spent a couple of really delightful evenings with this book, so let me give you a more detailed picture of its contents.  As so many Canon offerings do, the book begins with a broadside. It doesn’t even wait until the first page of text.  By the time I’d read the table of contents, I had already caught the heady scent of sacred cow on the barbecue — the first chapter is titled “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Schlock.”

…modern evangelicals have a…deep and covetous hunger to be cool–and so we have bestselling authors, Grammy award winners, trademark lawyers, Designer Bibles with Study Notes for just about everybody, rock bands with guys filled with middle class white guy angst, earrings, and tattoos to match, rock bands with Christian women as sexy as it gets, for that special born-again T & A market niche, and onward into the fog.  The biblical name for all this is worldliness.  And to paraphrase the late P. T. Barnum, there is a sucker born again every minute. (p. 12)

All this is not just so much baptized misanthropy.  First of all, it’s true.  Second, worldliness is the correct label, and that’s an important point in itself.  Third, Wilson is headed somewhere even more central:

Now what does all this have to do with worship, or the reformation of worship?  All cultures have a cultus at the center.  The center of every culture is its worship.  There is no such thing as a religion-less culture, and the same is true of all sub-cultures. (p. 12)

Therefore, he says, the wreckage that is mainstream evangelical culture is the result of a decay in evangelical worship.  Wilson has written elsewhere that in order to engage in, let alone win, the culture wars, it will be necessary for Christians to have a culture.  Here, he takes it one step further: in order to have a reformation and renewal of Christian culture, we must first have a reformation of Christian worship.  Wilson further supports his contention with a historical review of how we got into the desperate straits in which we presently find ourselves, followed by a chapter devoted to defining and defending the stance he’s dubbed “high church Puritan.”  To my eye, these two chapters are largely summaries of ideas found in Reformed is not Enough, so if the ideas intrigue you, there’s more where it came from.

Where Primer really shines is in the chapters that follow.  Here, Wilson describes the reformation of worship that he advocates, and it’s nothing short of glorious.  He offers a brief chapter each on evangelism, liturgy, Scripture, the Lord’s Table, the Psalms, Feasting and the Sabbath, and rearing children as part of the church.  In each chapter, the pietism, revivalism and individualism of modern Western Christianity come in for a good whipping, and the unity of Christ’s body and the corporate nature of worship are the threads that hold these seemingly disparate subjects together.

I find myself agreeing that we should reject what Wilson is rejecting, but sometimes hesitant to accept what he offers in its place, although I would happily attend a church that worships in the way he describes.  Which is to say that in general, I believe he’s on the right track and making productive suggestions.  I’m not going to go through them all — for that, you can buy the book — but let’s consider a three sample points: evangelism, the Sabbath, and the Scriptures.

The chapter on evangelism offers an end to guilt-driven, weird evangelistic encounters where Christians with no talent for it trap a random stranger in the park and try to tell him about Jesus before his dog finishes peeing on the swingset and he walks away.   Wilson states that the Bible gives to the church the responsibility to preach Christ, and to individual believers it gives the responsibility to be ready to give an answer when asked (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Although we should reject the gawky and ham-handed approaches that Wilson is trying to avoid, a more nuanced handling of the Great Commission is called for here.  In it, Jesus commands His disciples to make disciples who will, in turn, obey all His commands including the Great Commission.  While the church is certainly to do this corporately, every individual has a part to play.  When confronted with a believer, the job is to stir him up to love and good deeds, so that he becomes a better disciple.  Likewise, when confronted with an unbeliever, sharing the gospel with him is required of us, in the best way we can.  There are no exception clauses for people who don’t have the gift of evangelism.  But it may be in a given instance that the best way we can share the gospel with an unbeliever is to simply do honest business with the guy.  The situation calls for a more realistic view of human interaction than what usually obtains in church seminars on evangelism.  Most people don’t go to the park to meet random strangers, and don’t care to be accosted by someone taking a survey on the ten commandments, or whatever the favored pick-up line might happen to be this week.  There are people who can get away with it anyway, and people who can’t.  The only way to find out which you are is to give it a shot.  But if you’re not one of these people, find a better way of sharing your faith, and don’t let someone guilt-trip you into bad stewardship of your time and energy.  If the whole body is not an eye, neither is it all a big mouth.

I would also take this a step further and say that a believer living the sort of life described in 1 Peter 3:8-17 is going to get asked why he lives that way — so if nobody’s asking, you’re doing it wrong.  I suspect, though, that such a person will also be oozing Jesus out every pore, and he’ll initiate telling people about Jesus in ways that turn out to be surprisingly appropriate, because that’s who he is.  But that’s the real thing of which the youth group trip to the park is a fun-house mirror’s demented reflection.  You just can’t fake it if you don’t yet have the character for it.

An astute reader will notice that although we may construct the case differently, for the most part Wilson and I arrive at the same practical result on the subject of evangelism.  I find myself in similar accord in a number of other places in the book.

I am not in accord, however, with the sabbatarian strain that runs through both “Covenant Renewal” and “Feasting and the Sabbath.” To separate the observance of one day (either the first or the seventh) as necessary obedience to the Fourth Commandment stands in blatant disregard of several direct statements in the New Testament, not least Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-17.  Both passages clearly make mandatory observance of the Fourth Commandment a thing of the past.  To further buttress the position by appeal to the sabbath rest of Hebrews 4 (p. 36) misses a very large point in the immediate context.  Theologians have long argued about how to understand the sabbath rest denied the exodus generation (vv. 3, 5-6), and which yet remains for God’s people (v. 9).  Some — myself among them — argue that it’s millennial rest; others argue for some sort of spiritual succor here and now.  What is blindingly obvious, though, is that it cannot possibly be the weekly Sabbath observance, because the Exodus generation actually did that, even after God turned them away from the land (Numbers 15:32-36).

I am sure that Wilson has thought about these things, and I would like to know what he says about them.  I don’t know, because in Primer; Wilson more assumes his position than argues it.  He seems to be raising passages that he regards as persuasive, without taking the time and space to explain why they should be persuasive, or to anticipate and answer common objections.  But this is entirely fair; detailed defense for the position is clearly beyond the scope of this book.  Primer‘s purpose is to paint a picture of what Sabbath observance could look like, and it does this job very, very well.

The resulting portrait is undeniably attractive.  I love what Wilson has to say about feasting in general, and the concept of resting one day in seven is both wise and completely in accord with the way God designed the world — and man — to work.  I observe a day of rest myself (on Saturday — pastors work on Sundays), and he paints a wonderful picture of a day brimming with both rest (Feasting and the Sabbath) and worship (Covenant Renewal).  It’s glorious, and I have no doubt that a Sabbath spent at Chateau Wilson is a day well spent indeed.

With regard to the worship service itself, “Covenant Renewal” offers a badly needed prescription for coherent worship.  Wilson advocates a pattern that, to my eye, has been observed more often than not in the historical Christian church, although I’m not sure it has been so clearly articulated as it is here (for further details, see The Lord’s Service by Jeffrey J. Myers).  The modern church desperately needs to return to its roots in this area, and the practical, pastoral aspects of making the change would be worth a book-length treatment (hint, hint).  In the meantime, Primer offers any reader a glimpse of what it could be like.

“Thundering the Word” addresses the preaching and interpretation of Scripture, and it’s a treat.  The precision-worshiping hermeneutical “science” of the Enlightenment church comes in for a bad beating as Wilson champions the so-old-it’s-new idea that the Scriptures themselves teach us how to interpret the Scriptures. Having recently taught a ten-week course designed around that insight myself, I obviously don’t disagree.  Some of the places Wilson goes with that insight, however, make me nervous.

When I first read his exposition of the Church as the last Eve (pp. 48-53), I wasn’t ready to agree, even if the Bible does say that Christ is the last Adam, and that He’s a bridegroom, and that the Church is His bride.  Having considered it for a while, though, I find the evidence undeniable, and the pastoral applications quite edifying.  I would now put down my initial reluctance to a lack of time in grade: I only made the switch to biblical hermeneutics a few years ago.

Other places I still don’t see a good reason to go.  Wilson invokes Luke 24:25-27 in support of christological/typological interpretation.  While there’s a sane way to do that, both the passage and the overall principle have been mightily abused.  At the level of generality in Primer, it’s difficult to tell whether Wilson is advocating sanity or not.  I am also reluctant to agree that “the New Testament set[s] the meaning of every Old Testament passage it addresses.”  I’d prefer to say that the Old Testament is the foundation of the New, and therefore it limits what the New Testament can mean (Romans 1:16-17//Habbakuk 2:4), and the New Testament offers a variety of uses of the Old Testament: enlightening commentary on what the Old Testament does mean (Matthew 5-7), allusive analogies and parallels (1 Corinthians 10), additional insight not available from the Old Testament account (Hebrews 11:10), and brilliant narratival syntheses exposing themes and messages only latent in the Old Testament text (Romans 4).  Here again, I suspect that we agree more than not, but at times it’s difficult to tell in a work of this length.

These three general areas by no means exhaust what I want to say about this book.  It’s that kind of book: a discussion-starter, the sort of book that fits in your pocket, but keeps you in good conversation with like-minded believers for months.  So buy it, and let’s talk.

Crawdad Theology

2 November 2008

Go to the crawdad, thou theologian; consider her ways and be warned.

Ever caught a crawdad before? I don’t mean with a trap or something; I mean the fun way, picking your way up the streambed with your jeans rolled up, catching them one at a time with your bare hands.

If not, you can meander over to YouTube for a quick tutorial. Pay particular attention to the ten seconds of explanation starting at 0:25. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Yeah, it’s important.  Go on, seriously.  It’ll only take a minute.

And the preacher spake a parable unto them, saying,

“Hear then the Parable of the Crawdad:

Among the slow creatures of God’s earth is the lowly crawdad, but when danger threateneth, lo! it doth propel itself backward — only backward, mark ye well — with great speed.    Behold now the genius of the lowly crawdad: that when the hungry bass doth menace it, the crawdad doth reach forth its claws and menace in turn its persecutor.  If its persecutor be unafraid, and doth make to molest it further, the crawdad speweth forth a mighty surge of water, and thereby doth shoot itself right speedily backward from peril.

But this, the crawdad’s great strength, doth surely become a most grievous weakness when its hunter be a man, nay, even a stripling child.  For the child doth cleverly place his hand behind the crawdad, and then doth menace it in front with aught he may desire, be it a stick, his hand, his foot, or aught else, and lo! the crawdad doth fly at once backward into the child’s waiting hand.

And though that crawdad may then punish the child severely with its claws, yet the determined child may work all his desire upon the crawdad.”

And the multitudes were astonished at his teaching, for though he counted himself among the theologians, he yet reckoned them as witless crawdads.

What does this have to do with theology?

History repeatedly demonstrates that theology often proceeds in the same way as the crawdad.  Person A does something.  Person B perceives it as a threat to orthodoxy, pepperoni pizza, and all things sacred and holy.  Person B faces the threat and waves his claws menacingly, and if that doesn’t work, he shoots away backwards, putting as much ground between him and the threat as possible…paying no attention at all to where he’s going.

Take, for example, the fundamentalist/modernist controversies that plagued the American church in the early 20th century.  The fundamentalists were right, yes?  The Red Sea really did part, Elijah really was caught up into heaven in a fiery chariot, Jesus really was born to a virgin, really did die on the cross as a substitutionary atonement for our sins, really rose from the grave, and will return bodily to earth…all that.

When the modernists forsook the historic Christian faith, they had nothing left but Christian charity, and they proceeded to practice it with a vengeance.  Salvation no longer came from the cross, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus; now it came only from Christian action in the world.  So they focused on what came to be known–at least pejoratively–as “social gospel” concerns.

The fundamentalists, recognizing that the liberals had hijacked Christian charity, swarmed into society in an outpouring of Christian influence not seen since the conversion of Constantine.  They outdid the liberals in every good work, the better to adorn the gospel they so zealously defended.

Well, actually, no they didn’t.  Mainly, they withdrew from the discussion, and gathered together in desolate places for the Prayer of Elijah and corporate sulking.  In fact, in many quarters, feeding the poor became identified with liberalism, and woe betide the young fundamentalist pastor who tried to engage his congregation in the “social gospel” work of applying James 2:14-17.  Although we have begun to recover, there are still significant portions of the church where James’ “pure and undefiled religion” has fallen on hard times, where doing good works for unbelievers outside the church walls brings down accusations of “social gospel” and “human good,” and a deep suspicion of doctrinal compromise.

What happened here is simple.  The fundamentalists were afraid to touch anything tainted with liberalism.  In their zeal to avoid error, they shot backwards crawdad-fashion, right into a whole new set of errors.  Why did it happen? Because the fundamentalists were idol-worshippers. They were more devoted to not being liberal than they were devoted to humbly serving God.  Even as they defended the inspiration of the Bible, they abandoned its clear teaching at key points.  The resulting schisms, social impotence, and neglect of the poor became their bitter sacraments.  To return to the Parable of the Crawdad, the mighty claws of doctrinal orthodusty were completely inadequate to rescue the church from its surrender to idolatry.

There are plenty more examples where this one came from.  Martin Luther, so taken with the freeness of justification, abhorred James, as if the Bible would somehow steer him wrong. The ascetics, terrified of the corruption in the world around them, rejected God’s good gifts in favor of a life of self-torture.  A number of modern Christian movements, desperate to avoid any hint of legalism, have embraced licentiousness, drunkenness and debauchery with a zeal that would make a Corinthian blush.  In every case, this is the outworking of crawdad theology, the idolatrous worship of anything but that — whatever that might be in the particular case.

What should we do?  Simple.  Obey the Bible. All of it.  All the time.  Believe what it says, and do what it commands.

Sound easy?  It’s not.  Because we have a very hard time with this, there’s another key point.  Humility. Lots of it.  Occasionally our adversaries are entirely wrong about everything.  But not very often; usually they reject our position because they see something that offends them — and far too often, there is legitimate cause for offense. But we don’t listen, because they’re wrong about something else, something more important to us.  It takes humility for a fundamentalist to sit down at the table with a modernist and just listen to the man tell him, “You’re so concerned about people’s souls that you’ll let anyone do anything to their bodies.  You think it doesn’t matter, as long as you can tell them about Jesus.”  It takes more humility to overlook the obvious exaggeration and seek the grain of truth in the accusation.  It takes still more to admit — even to ourselves — that it’s there.  And the brutal truth is that it usually is.

It’s hard, messy work, and it requires eating generous helpings of crow, but that’s what God has called us to. Anyone who says different is the sort of person that Jude, 2 Peter and 3 John warn us about.

Apologetics Online Seminar Update

20 October 2008

Because of various scheduling considerations, we’re modifying our time slightly.  The Devotional Apologetics online seminar will meet for four consecutive Mondays starting next week, October 27th, from 4:30-6:30 pm Pacific time (6:30-8:30 Central, etc).

If you’d like to join the group, drop me a note through my contact form.

If that day/time doesn’t work for you, a second section is a possibility — again, drop me a note through my contact form.

News: Devotional Apologetics Online Seminar

12 October 2008

Apologetics is devotional, worshipful, and radically sanctifying…

…if it’s done properly.

Most Christians find that statement surprising.  Christians tend to respond to challenges to their faith by succumbing to one of two temptations.  On the one hand, the gung-ho debaters among us seize on the opportunity to score a few points on the forces of unbelief, and there are some serious temptations that go with that.  These folks, however, are only a tiny minority — and even they wouldn’t normally describe their experience as devotional and worshipful.

Then there’s everyone else — those who dread a serious challenge to their faith.  These are the people who get past the local freethinkers’ society table at the county fair by walking fast and not making eye contact, who respond to Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door by pretending that nobody’s home, who retreat from serious discussion with a skeptical friend by saying “I don’t know how I know it’s true — I Read the rest of this entry »

Believing Contradictions about Science and the Body

5 October 2008

Contradictions abound in almost anyone’s thinking.  We regularly tolerate all kinds of nonsense, not because we’re stupid, but because we just don’t notice.  Unless something happens that forces the two contradictory ideas together, we’ll continue to believe them both in their hermetically sealed separate spheres, live a long life, and die none the wiser.

Most evangelical brains shelter just such a contradiction when it comes to science.  When we start discussing creation with an average secularist, we quickly bring up the issue of the limits of science.  Direct Read the rest of this entry »