Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Franklin Graham and Tolerance: What's the Right Question to Ask Here?

Recently, Frankin Graham wrote an article called “Is Our Nation Intolerant of Christianity?”

The question Graham is asking has been asked many times before by many conservative American evangelicals in a land where they enjoy the freedom to ask this question (and others like it). They also have the freedom to have any opinion on this question or any other one.

I remember reading several books and articles and hearing opinions from my fellow evangelicals growing up that we are often persecuted in this country, whether by a liberal press or secular university professors or President Clinton or President Obama. 

People champion tolerance for everyone but conservative Christians, I was told.

Graham complains, “There is scandal after scandal, and yet our nation’s leaders seem even more belligerent  toward Christians.”

But here’s the problem: As Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has already pointed out, Franklin Graham begins his article with the following line (note especially the very first phrase, highlighted for you in red in case you miss it): 

Recently I was at a White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and had the opportunity to remind him that our main problem in America is that we have taken God out of our society and out of our government.

Dear Mr. Graham: 

If you, a prominent conservative Christian leader, begin your article by saying you were invited to a meeting with the Vice President of the United States, you have already disproved the point you’re trying to make. 

You were invited by the Vice President of the United States. How is it that “our nation’s leaders seem even more belligerent toward Christians” again?

Also, if you read Graham’s article, he says that the “BGEA [Billy Graham Evangelistic Association] was audited last September, and many believe it was because we encouraged voters to take a strong stand on same-sex marriage issues and biblical values.”

Before making claims like this, you had better be able to come up with hard evidence for them. I understand that the IRS has been criticized recently for its recent act of targeting certain conservative groups that have displayed some resistance to some government policies (the Tea Party is known for not being very happy about taxes), but I seriously doubt that the audit is necessarily due to any stand on same-sex marriage (unless someone knows something I don’t). 

This kind of thing begins to sound to many critics of Christianity like a persecution complex, not genuine persecution.

I want to be very careful about identifying something negative we experience (especially if it’s simply not getting our way sometimes) as persecution.

I would also challenge Mr. Graham on his claim that “our main problem in America is that we have taken God out of our society and out of our government.”

In what ways have we “taken God out of our society and out of our government”? That is, I’d like to know what he means by “taken God out of our society and out of our government.” Does he mean that our government used to champion God and does not anymore? Does he mean that our society as a whole used to champion God and does not anymore?

What does Franklin Graham think of the first amendment of the US Constitution? How does he understand that?

I would contend that though it’s possible for people to increasingly forget or ignore God, it’s actually impossible to take God out of anything. God is involved with our lives whether we like it or not. Madalyn Murray O’Hair did not take God out of public schools. Kids can still pray to God if they want—she only went after school-mandated prayers.

Also, America is not in covenant relationship with YHWH the way Israel was. It was not founded that way. Does either the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution resemble any of the books of the Torah in any way whatsoever? Are they suzerainty treaties, as Deuteronomy is (a treaty between a vassal, such as Israel, and its lord, which, in Deuteronomy’s case, is YHWH)?

No. They’re not. The US Constitution and Declaration of Independence are not themselves amendments to the Torah.

It’s time that we stop treating them that way.

I think we need to think more carefully about how we should apply the laws in the Bible to ourselves today—should we implement the laws in Scripture into national law? How should we as Christian citizens in a secular country founded by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers seek to engage in the political process and influence the laws of the land?

So the right question is not, “Is our nation intolerant of Christianity?” It evidently isn’t, especially if Vice President Joe Biden is willing to meet with Franklin Graham, a prominent Christian leader.

The better question is, “How do we live as Christians in our respective contexts, whether it is the US or elsewhere?” 

Mark 10:46-52 and Service

Feeling moved by Mark 10:46-52. Something cool about it is that it is a demonstration of Jesus' point to his disciples earlier, particularly in verse 45.

Jesus' disciples, particularly the sons of Zebedee—Jacob (commonly known as "James") and John—were thinking about their power in relation to Jesus and whether they would be his main guys.

But after explaining to them that it's not about lording over others but about serving others, Jesus pays attention to a blind beggar a lot of people probably passed by daily and heals him.

Today, whom do we think of as those who exist to "serve" us, and how might we repent of that attitude toward our fellow human beings?

Is God calling you to serve anyone near you who needs to be "served" (not "served" as in "you just got served," but "served" as in "cared for") with a loving action? How might you love that person? It doesn't have to be a blind beggar. Perhaps this is someone whom you don't see as one of those who exist to serve you, but maybe this is someone who is often neglected, not seen as valuable or worthy of being served.

Anyway, just wanted to share this. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

John Piper, the Pope, and Justification

Hello, everyone! It has been a while since I have posted anything at all. We were doing posts on Genesis, but I thought that we would take a break from that for a while and talk about some other things during the season of Lent. Given the recent news about the announcement from the pope that he has decided to resign (something that has not happened in several hundred years!), we would talk about justification in Protestant (and specifically Reformed) theology and Roman Catholic theology.

A video of John Piper has been up on YouTube for a while now in which he is asked, “If you could spend two minutes with the pope, what would you say to him?”

John Piper’s response is as follows (pay special attention to the section I’ve highlighted in bold):

I would say, “Could you just in one minute explain your view of justification?” And then on the basis of his one minute, I would give my view of justification.  

I think Rome and Protestantism are not yet ready [for something, which he does not quite spell out—he puts his hands together here, implying perhaps that they’re not yet ready to “come together”].  

I don’t think the Reformation is over. I don’t think that enough changes have happened in Roman understanding of justification and a bunch of other things. I’m just picking justification because it’s so close to the center. You could pick papal authority, or the nature of the mass, or the role of sacraments, or the place of Mary, but those seem to be maybe a little marginal.

Then [I would] go right to the heart of the issue of, “Do you teach...sir...that we should rely entirely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone as the ground of God being 100% for us after which necessary sanctification comes? Do you teach that?”  

And if he said, “No, we don’t,” then I’d say, “I think that right at the core of Roman Catholic theology is a heresy.”

That last sentence is more difficult to parse, as he is not precisely clear as what he means to say here (if you watch the video, you can see why an accurate transcription of this sentence might be difficult), but I’m assuming that he is saying two things: 
  1. Not teaching imputed righteousness as defined by John Piper above is right at the core of Roman Catholic theology.
  2. Not teaching the doctrine of imputed righteousness as defined by John Piper above is a heresy
This brings me to my core issue with the video: What heresy did John Piper truly identify in Roman Catholic theology? Of course, now that the most recent pope has just announced his resignation, Piper can now wonder how the new pope (whoever he is) might answer his question. How Benedict might have answered it is not necessarily the same as how the next pope would formulate an answer to this. 
Let’s go back to the beginning of Piper’s response and analyze it piece by piece (Piper’s comments are in italics): 

I would say, “Could you just in one minute explain your view of justification?” And then on the basis of his one minute, I would give my view of justification. If such a conversation took place, even if it were only two minutes, it would probably be a worthwhile one. Perhaps, though, they’d need a little more than two minutes to have a truly decent conversation on this issue, and it probably wouldn’t necessarily change either theologian’s mind, but given that Piper comes from a different theological trajectory than the pope does, the challenges each one gives to the other might at least give both participants pause for thought and reflection about how they read the biblical text. And perhaps they may find surprising areas of agreement!

I think Rome and Protestantism are not yet ready. Piper doesn’t spell out what he means by “ready,” but as I said in my inserted bracketed comments in the quotation above, I think he means “ready to come together,” that is, “ready to come together as fellow Christians.” He puts his hands together in this video, suggesting that Rome and Protestantism are still too far apart in some way. And perhaps he is right that Roman Catholics and Protestants still have a way to go toward understanding each other, but as Piper goes on to say, he seems to think that it is the Catholics who need to do the theological adjustments, not Protestants:

I don’t think the Reformation is over. I don’t think that enough changes have happened in Roman understanding of justification and a bunch of other things. It is not surprising in some ways that Piper believes that more changes need to happen in “Roman understanding of justification and a bunch of other things,” but he does not say that more changes need to happen in “Protestant understanding of justification and a bunch of other things.” That is, Piper does not challenge the prevailing Protestant “magisterium” (even though it is not “official” in the same way that the Catholic magisterium is), but he is happy to challenge Rome’s magisterium. I don’t find this to be surprising because Piper reads Scripture through the lens of the Reformation. The first questions for Piper are not, “What are the first-century categories for understanding Paul’s explanation of justification?” but “What are the sixteenth-century categories that the Reformers use for understanding Paul’s explanation of justification?” 

I’m just picking justification because it’s so close to the center. You could pick papal authority, or the nature of the mass, or the role of sacraments, or the place of Mary, but those seem to be maybe a little marginal. Notice that Piper says that justification is “so close to the center.” I would ask Brother Piper, “What do you mean that that?” The center of what? Biblical theology? If so, what is the center, and how is it that justification is “so close” to this center? I don’t disagree with Brother Piper’s obvious belief that justification is very important, but I’m not as sure as he is that it’s the center. And perhaps this relates to his contention with N.T. Wright on the issue of what constitutes “the gospel/good news.” Is the good news that we are justified by faith through grace? Surely, that must be part of it, as N.T. Wright says in What Saint Paul Really Said, but the good news is so much bigger than that! It’s the reign of God established on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the wonder of the gospel. You can’t reduce it to “It’s such good news that I’m saved by grace through faith.” The good news goes beyond this, even into the very fabric of the pangs of creation itself. God wants to reconcile all things to himself, which does, thankfully include us too.

Then [I would] go right to the heart of the issue of, “Do you teach...sir...that we should rely entirely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone as the ground of God being 100% for us after which necessary sanctification comes? Do you teach that?” I can’t claim to speak for how any pope—past, present, or theoretically in the future—might respond to this (and I’m not Catholic myself, so I don’t want to speak for how a Catholic in general might answer this), but I do want to dissect this in particular, as it articulates some things I myself am not entirely sure about. For instance, when he says that “we should rely entirely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us,” what does that mean? What is meant by imputed? What does that look like? Is Christ’s act of passing his righteousness to us another way of saying that he declares us righteous (in which case I would agree)? Can Brother Piper back up impute as being an appropriate translation of λογιζομαι (“I reckon,” “I consider”) in Romans 4 and Galatians 3? Also, what does Brother Piper mean by “necessary sanctification”? If we have the “righteousness of Christ,” does “necessary sanctification” mean that we will automatically do right things (at least on a general level)?

I ask all these questions to point out that Brother Piper’s description of how he teaches justification is not as straightforward as he appears to think it is. If the pope were simply to say, “No, we do not teach that,” my guess is that he would probably have more to say than just that, and I’m sure Brother Piper is aware of this.

I suppose my main contention, as I said before, is that Brother Piper seems willing to call something a heresy for what is not said, rather than what is said.

Of course, there are major differences between Catholics and Protestants, and we cannot ignore them. (And going over at least some of those differences may be the subject of a future post, but not this one.) But I do take issue with Brother Piper when he implies that it is Catholics who need to reform their teaching, yet he says nothing about a reformation among Protestants with regard to Protestant teaching. Can we who are Protestants really pretend that we are immune from the need to be reformed ourselves? 

Justification is certainly a massively important doctrine in Christian faith, and because of this, we must avoid the temptation of reducing justification to slogans. Our conversation should always be centered around a humble, careful reading of Scripture, always being willing to listen to what people in the church throughout its history have said about this topic (and not just the Reformers). 

Surely Brother Piper would agree that Protestants are not above the temptation to forget to let themselves be corrected by Scripture. As many wise theologians have said, we should not ever try to be masters over Scripture, but we should let Scripture master us. 

What do you make of Brother Piper’s comments? Do you think he was clear and right on the money, and that perhaps I am simply not understanding him correctly? Or perhaps you disagree with my post? Please feel free to express any disagreements or thoughts in the comments section below. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

When Genesis 1:13 and Culture Collide

We’ve reached day three! Our third closing refrain is in verse 13:

Genesis 1:13: “Day Three”

 וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר יֹ֥ום שְׁלִישִֽׁי׃

So there was evening, and there was morning. Day three.”

So it’s been three days so far in the creation account, but no sun or moon (yet). Interesting. How can there be light without the sun? It’s not until the next blog post (which will have to wait until Monday—I’m going on a retreat this weekend) that we’ll see the creation of these two “lamps” in the dome.

So far, here’s what’s been created:

1.      Day (a.k.a. “light”), separated from night (a.k.a. “darkness”)
2.      The skies (a.k.a. the “dome”)
3.      The earth (a.k.a. the “dry ground”)  
4.      Plants, trees, and various fruits and vegetation (all without the sun!)

Lend Me Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts on days one, two, and three so far?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When Genesis 1:12 and Culture Collide

Here is when Genesis 1:12 and culture really collide in an interesting way:

Genesis 1:12: “So the Land Brought Forth Greenery”

וַתֹּוצֵ֨א הָאָ֜רֶץ דֶּ֠שֶׁא עֵ֣שֶׂב מַזְרִ֤יעַ זֶ֙רַע֙ לְמִינֵ֔הוּ וְעֵ֧ץ עֹֽשֶׂה־פְּרִ֛י אֲשֶׁ֥ר זַרְעֹו־בֹ֖ו לְמִינֵ֑הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֹֽוב׃

“So the land brought forth greenery, a plant bearing seed after its kind and a tree bearing fruit with its seed in it after its kind. Then God saw that it was good.”

Creation obeys the word of God once again, and the land brings forth greenery, complete with seed-bearing plants and trees bearing fruit with their seed in them…

And each one is לְמִינֵהוּ (l’miynehu, “after its kind”). Here the operative word is מִין (min, “kind”). Many creationists who reject evolution will appeal to this term to say something like, “See? ‘After its kind.’ God created each creature ‘after its kind,’ suggesting that evolution from a single-celled organism could never have happened.”

In part 1 of this post, I’ll just present you with two interesting perspectives on this view:

Lend Me Your Thoughts
What are your responses to these articles? 

Monday, July 30, 2012

When Genesis 1:11 and Culture Collide

I took a short walk outside for my break at work, and I took a moment to appreciate the greenery in the outdoors before publishing this post for today during my lunch break.

And this is why:
Genesis 1:11: “Let the Land Sprout Forth Greenery”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים תַּֽדְשֵׁ֤א הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ דֶּ֔שֶׁא עֵ֚שֶׂב מַזְרִ֣יעַ זֶ֔רַע עֵ֣ץ פְּרִ֞י עֹ֤שֶׂה פְּרִי֙ לְמִינֹ֔ו אֲשֶׁ֥ר זַרְעֹו־בֹ֖ו עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃

“And God said, ‘Let the land sprout forth greenery: the plant bearing seed, and the fruit tree bearing fruit after its kind, with its seed in it, on the earth.’ And it was so.”

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest on the west side of the Cascades, and the greenery here is really something to behold. We have the same kind of weather our friends in the UK get to enjoy, so the scenery here is quite lush but in a very temperate climate. I live in what you might call a “temperate rainforest,” as a pastor at one of the churches I’ve attended in this area once said.

God created a beautiful world for us to enjoy. But sometimes I forget that I live in an area where it is easy to rejoice over the scenery God has given us. And when I say “easy,” I mean that the scenery is obviously beautiful, and we only need to take time to appreciate it. Yet in our busy lives, we often forget that it’s there, or we mistreat it by being careless with our waste or by neglecting to recycle. I suppose we can fail to appreciate the magnificent gardens God has placed in this world in a number of ways.

Other people are not so lucky to live in such a naturally gorgeous and green area. For instance, some people live parts of the world with minimal vegetation. Scripture acknowledges that this ugly reality can fall on people (Genesis 47:19). We yearn for lush fields, watery lands filled with beauty. Even the drier places, though, like the Grand Canyon, are certainly beautiful as well. But there is something striking about plant life. It's plant life.

So here's my main observation about this passage. This is the first creation of life in this story. The first creation of any kind of life.

God demonstrates that he is interesting in bringing life in the very first pages of Scripture. In fact, the text sparkles with beautiful description here: Not only does the text say that the land produces דֶּשֶׁא (deshe’, “greenery”)—a general term encompassing various types of green plants—it goes on to spell out what this דֶּשֶׁא comprises: עֵשֶׂב (esev, “lush vegetation,” used in other contexts, such as in Genesis 1:30 and 3:18, to refer to food for people or animals) that bears seeds and the עֵץ (‘etz, “tree”) that bears fruit.

Notably, this mention of the creation of fruit-bearing trees—specifically, the occurrence of two key terms, עֵץ (‘etz, “tree”) and פְּרִי (peri, “fruit”)—also foreshadows something that is yet to take place in Genesis 2 and 3. Stay tuned. We’re a long way off from that yet, but keep it in mind for now.

For now, stay tuned tomorrow, when we’ll analyze a key word appealed to by creationists when they reject evolutionary science on the basis of the Genesis 1 text: לְמִינוֺ (lemiynō, “after its kind”).

To be continued…

Friday, July 27, 2012

When Genesis 1:10 and Culture Collide

Now the “dry ground” gets named:

Genesis 1:10: “Naming the Dry Ground”

וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לַיַּבָּשָׁה֙ אֶ֔רֶץ וּלְמִקְוֵ֥ה הַמַּ֖יִם קָרָ֣א יַמִּ֑ים וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֹֽוב׃

“And God named the dry ground ‘land,’ and the collection of the waters he named ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good.”

An observation linking this post to yesterday’s post: Just as he named the dome שָׁמַיִם (shamayim, “sky” or “heavens”), he named the dry ground אֶרֶץ (eretz, “land” or “earth”). First he names the heavens, and then he names the earth (in the same order as those same Hebrew words appear in Genesis 1:1)!

Cool, huh? Also, the seas were a scary place in the ancient world, but God not only made the seas—he named them and saw them as “good.”

Lend Me Your Thoughts

Have you noticed any other vocabulary that recurs in Genesis 1? Any common refrains?