Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bible Stuck in the VCR

This video, done by Eric Hovind (son of creationist Kent Hovind, who is currently serving time in prison for tax fraud, a violation of both Matthew 22:21 and Romans 13, as well as a host of other related passages) with two other Christians provides one example of how awful we are at communicating and thinking responsibly.

This is the kind of video that makes skeptics laugh at us. And no, they're not laughing because of a hardness of heart. It's because of the sheer ridiculousness of statements like these (my comments about these statements are in brackets):

Eric Hovind: Science can't really give us certainty.

Christian 2: Not science alone.

Eric Hovind: Because it's starting from the bottom and working its way up to the top. [Huh? So you're supposed to start from the top and work your way down to the bottom? That is, you're supposed to believe a statement like, "A UFO landed in Texas," and then you're supposed to try to find evidence that supports your claim?]

Christian 3: Right. It would be like if you were to walk into a crime scene, and you're the investigator trying to put together the clues, the facts—trying to know what happened. You could look at fingerprints and footprints and try to determine what took place, but you could never be absolutely certain, not having seen it yourself. But if someone gave you a videotape [picks up a Bible—Bible = videotape?—big fat analogy fail] of what took place during the crime, you would be able to know exactly what happened. And all the clues that you had gathered would then fit into place.

Eric Hovind: It all makes sense. It would be perfect.

Christian 2: Yeah, because you could see what actually happened and have absolutely… We have the video tape, if you will, of what happened [can't really stick my Bible in my VCR, though]. We have truth—absolute truth. The Bible says, "Thy word is truth" [see John 17:17, which is Jesus saying to the Father that His word is truth], and Jesus, whom we know to be the Word Himself [come on, skeptics, you know you know this too] stated, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" [see John 14:6]. Every foundation of truth we have—the certainty we can have—is found in Scripture, not just science alone.

Eric Hovind: Wow. [He turns to the audience.] Now, some of you aren't convinced that [the Bible] is truth. [Um, if the Bible is essentially a videotape, how could they NOT be convinced that it's truth? Problematic much?] You're not convinced that the Word of God is truth despite the fact that it claims to be truth. [The Quran claims to be truth, but are you convinced of that?] You're kind of like the detective. [He holds up a magnifying glass.] You're great at doing scientific research, you're great at making observations, but you refuse to look at the videotape. [He turns to Christian 3.] I just wanna challenge 'em [referring to the skeptical detectives out there who refuse to stick the Bible into a VCR]. Would you please pick up a copy [of the Bible], read it for yourself and examine it as if it is truth and see what you come away with [in other words, just believe in it, and find evidence for it later]. We've got a couple of great Bibles through our ministry… The Defender's Study Bible—I've had this Bible for many, many years. [It's] a great one by Henry Morris. [It] goes into looking at the Bible through the eyes of the Creator, as if creation really is true. Then another one I love is The Evidence Bible by Ray Comfort. The notes in here really teach you how to evangelize the exact same way Jesus Christ did. You know, there's a passage in Psalms [146:5-6]. It says this: "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help…which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is..." The truth is, we have absolute truth. It's found in God's Word. This is starting from the top and workin' our way down. Hey, thanks for joining us for "Creation in Common Sense." I really hope you'll always use creation science for evangelism. [Why? Is creation science an accurate representation of the Bible? Is it an accurate representation of science?]

Is the Quran a videotape? If not, what makes the Bible a videotape and the Quran NOT a videotape? Why is the Bible true, and the Quran untrue? Does it make sense to simply shout, "Absolute truth is found here!" without really investigating that claim?

There's a huge reason why I react strongly to statements like "don't be an intellectual—start with the Bible." It sounds like this: "Be mindless." Um, God gave us our minds, and I think He expects us to use them responsibly, especially when communicating with others about the Bible.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Pastor Satire

This video by RockTV of Rock Church is too funny not to include here:

The only problematic thing is on Rock Church's website, they say, "Experience God, not religion." See the post below to find out why that's a false dichotomy (even thought the intention behind it is to condemn legalism, which is good--but "religion" doesn't equate to "legalism").

No further commentary needed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Is Christianity a Religion?

Non-Christian: Man, I hate religion. All it does is shut off minds and create hypocrites.

Christian: Oh, you hate religion? As a Christian, I hate religion too!

Non-Christian: Um, what? But isn’t Christianity a religion?

Christian: No, Christianity is a relationship—not a religion!

Non-Christian: I don’t get it.

Christian: Religion is all about what man can do to reach up to God, but Christianity is all about what God did to reach down to man! Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with you because He died for you.

Non-Christian: Still sounds like a religion to me.

Does the above conversation sound familiar to you? The statement “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship” is a popular one among contemporary evangelicals. In this saying, religion is defined as something negative—that is, it’s a legalistic/hypocritical attitude. But notice that the Christian and the non-Christian appear to be speaking two different languages. The Christian is speaking “Christianese,” and the non-Christian is talking like normal people talk.

It’s important to properly understand that Christianese is not limited to just phrases like “turn or burn” or “you need to get saved”—it can also refer to sayings such as “Christianity is not a religion” or “Jesus wants to have a real relationship with you and be a part of your life.” (For an example of a Christian video which thinks it’s critiquing Christianese but is actually being complicit in it, see here.) In other words, when we say things that only make sense to our own insulated evangelical cultural bubble (notice that I didn’t say such sayings reflect the Bible), we fail miserably at communicating what the Bible is actually trying to say.

(Here is another video which tries to set up a contrast between “real” and “religion.” Here’s a question: Is the “real” character in this video truly real?)

The fact is, here are two passages that demonstrate that the Bible itself sets up no such contrast between Christianity and religion:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 ESV).

“But if a widow has no children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Timothy 5:4 NIV). Some versions, such as the NASB, translate the Greek word ευσεβειν (eusebein) as “practice piety,” since the word carries the connotation of performing religious duties toward one’s household.

So this is why I think it's unhelpful to set up a false dichotomy between "Christianity" and "religion." If our language doesn't carefully reflect the Bible, are we really presenting the Bible to our culture?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bad Exegesis in Less Than Five Minutes

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB 1995 updated edition.

This video purports to disprove the existence of Jesus in less than five minutes.

I'm responding to this video for two reasons:

1. If you're a normal, intelligent adult, you may or may not know what context is, even if you've heard the phrase "taking a verse out of context" before. I do not assume that everyone knows this because experience proves that people in general like to quote-mine (that is, grab any quote from a book without paying attention to the point of the entire body of text). So I think this is a good case study in how to accurately handle any kind of text (not just the Bible).

2. The video does raise some interesting points for theological discussion. If Jesus is not imaginary, then why doesn't He just appear to people on a regular basis? Also, if He doesn't appear to people, does that make Him imaginary?

The video, put together by Marshall Brain (who operates websites known as and, appeals to two separate texts of Scripture to prove its case:

1. "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for your sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also" (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

Brain wants us to notice "[t]hree important facts" about this passage, which is taken from Paul's explanation of Jesus' resurrection to the Corinthian Christians, which is the earliest text we have about the resurrection of Jesus: First, "Jesus proved His resurrection by appearing to people." Second, it is "OK [for Jesus] to appear to people." And third, Jesus' act of appearing to people "does not take away free will or harm faith." In fact, just the opposite is true. According to 1 Corinthians 15 (and the Gospel accounts), as Brain is intent on showing us, Jesus' act of appearing to people ignited the faith of the people Paul lists, including himself.

2. "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst" (Matthew 18:19-20).

At this point, Brain's exegesis begins to get a bit sloppy. He says that we learn that "Jesus is already here amongst us" from this passage and that "God will do anything we ask." He is wrong on both counts. Here's why:

Read all of Matthew 18 here (pay special attention to verses 15-20). We know that in this passage, Jesus is talking to His disciples about discipline in the ἐκκλησία (ekklesia, Greek for "assembly" or "church"). Keep in mind that Jesus and His disciples are all Jews.

As a Jew, Jesus appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the "Old Testament") in verses 15-20, reproduced below with some explanatory clarification in brackets (the words I put in bold font indicate the part of the passage that is quoting the Old Testament):

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed [a quote of Deuteronomy 19:15; see the context here, which lists laws God set forth for the people of Israel]. If he refuses to listen to them [the "two or three"], tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector [Jews during this period did not typically associate with Gentiles or tax collectors]. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven [on the meaning of "binding" and "loosing," see here]. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst [notice the "two or three" phrase, which hearkens back to the earlier allusion to Deuteronomy 19:15]."

Deuteronomy 19:15 is one of the laws that Jesus and His contemporaries would have known well, since it was part of their Scriptures: "A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed" (Deuteronomy 19:15). Again, notice the "two or three witnesses."

So when Jesus says that when "two or three have gathered in My name," He's talking about something very specific: two or three witnesses against a brother accused of a particular sin is to have Jesus there to judge the situation. So the "anything that they [the two or three] may ask" in this case refers to whatever may be done to resolve the issue of the brother caught in sin. Churches today follow this procedure in regard to cases when a particular Christian is accused of committing a sin.

(Note: There are other "anything" passages that AREN'T found in a church discipline context, so be careful. Brain brings them up on his website, but we'll save those for another day. Suffice it to say that understanding what Jesus means by anything in those passages is incredibly important. It is NOT, as Brain accuses Christian interpreters elsewhere, to say that "anything" doesn't really mean "anything." No, Jesus said what He meant, and He meant what He said. But as with any statement, misunderstanding of what is meant by a particular word can indeed crop up if we aren't responsible with our exegesis. Clarification on the term exegesis: Also, in case you're wondering what this strange word exegesis means, keep the following in mind: exegesis [pronounced "EX-eh-jee-siss"] is the act of carefully drawing the meaning out of a text, while eisegesis [pronounced "EYE-seh-jee-siss"] is the act of irresponsibly reading a meaning into the text, which is exactly what Brain is doing. That is, he's engaged in eisegesis, not exegesis.)

Finally, Brain proposes that we pray for Jesus to spontaneously appear to us (based on his sloppy exegesis), and he asks, "What do you think will happen?" The answer, according to Brain, is nothing. He says that we know from the Bible that "Jesus is already here," it would "be trivial for him to appear," "it is OK for him to appear," and supposedly Matthew 18:19-20 shows that Jesus "has promised that he will appear [to us at any moment based on our whims]."

Brain concludes that because "nothing will happen" after such a prayer for Jesus to spontaneously appear to us, Jesus is imaginary. I leave these questions to you:

1. Do you think Brain is right? Whether you do or not, please post a comment saying why or why not.

2. If Jesus ISN'T imaginary, then why do you think He doesn't always choose to appear to us individually, but He did appear to people like Peter, James, and Paul to confirm His resurrection? I don't have an answer to this question, but I'm posing it because I do think it's worth thinking about.

May your day abound with grace.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Academic Christian’s Concern: Don’t Be a Snob

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB 1995 updated edition.

Caveat: As someone who either thinks she is an academic or actually is one, I’m writing this piece mostly to challenge and convict myself. I strongly believe there’s nothing wrong with being an academic, and I spend a lot of time defending academics, but I would be wrong not to point out how many academics can become arrogant and infatuated with the mind, ignoring the importance of the other gifts which God has given people. Making the mind a god, like making anything a god, is idolatrous, and therefore, it is very dangerous.

It’s really easy for academic Christians to be snobs and look askance at lay Christian organizations, people, and churches. We sometimes pretend we know so much, when in fact, we know very little, and God is singularly unimpressed with our ridiculously inflated egos. We also are tempted to ignore the many wonderful people God has used and is using just as effectively as He is using Christians in “higher education.”

On the first day of class, my Greek professor warned us not to misuse our eventual knowledge of Greek by trying to impress people with it. If you think about it, attempting to impress people is a colossal waste of time. What am I accomplishing by doing that? Certainly not anything good, and definitely something that has a lot more to do with my own pride and puffery than with spreading the gospel. (There’s a huge difference, for example, between spreading “oh-look-at-me-write-in-Hebrew-letters” and using such knowledge to spread the message of the gospel. Don’t be snobbish, like this caterpillar.)

So instead of creating more and more people in the church who despise intellectuals or who equate the word intellectual with pompous snob (and I do think that intellectual arrogance helps to spread anti-intellectualism rather than hinder it), maybe we should remember to keep things in perspective. If we think that an academic ministry is any more important than a janitorial ministry, for example, then we have an over-developed sense of self-importance. To allude to a comment made by Jon Arbuckle to Garfield the cat, we have a “self-esteem problem—too much of it.” (I think the term self-esteem is inherently problematic from a Christian perspective anyway. Isn’t holding ourselves in high esteem a bad thing, as in “arrogant”?)

Here’s something that every Christian, academically oriented or not, should keep in mind:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:4-31).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Romans 11:29: ἀμεταμέλητα γαρ τά χαρίσματα καί ἡ κλῆσις τοῦ θεοῦ

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB (1995 edition).

The Greek in the title says it all: "For the gifts [τά χαρίσματα] and calling [κλῆσις] of God are irrevocable [ἀμεταμέλητα]" (Romans 11:29).

In context, what is this verse talking about? Is it talking about the spiritual gifts of the church? Why not? It has χαρίσματα (charismata, meaning "gifts"), so it must be talking about that, right? Surely, it must.

Nope, it isn't. This verse is not talking about the church (by church I mean Christians). Romans 9–11 is talking about Israel---specifically, the majority of Israel, which at Paul's time and in our own day today did not and still does not believe Jesus to be the Messiah who came to save the world and rescue us from our sin. So what does that mean for Romans 11:29, quoted in the title? It means that God's gifts to Israel and His calling of Israel (described in Romans 9:1-5) are ἀμεταμέλητα (ametameleta, meaning "irrevocable"). They can't be undone.

Interestingly, the book of Romans is often reduced in evangelical circles to a book of doctrine, and if any part of Romans 9–11 is mentioned at all, it's usually Romans 10:9-10 (the "Roman road" to salvation). Somehow, the fact that this is a letter written by a first-century Jew to a Jewish and Gentile church escapes us. We sometimes acknowledge this, but in practice we often forget it, treating the text as if Paul just sat down one day and decided, "I'm going to write a theological essay today that will be considered Scripture, and it will include all my thoughts on God, Jesus, and salvation." Romans becomes a string of prooftexts about how we're saved, and although Romans certainly does talk about salvation from God's wrath through Jesus (see Romans 3–5, for example), any exegete of the book knows that this does not exhaust what Paul wanted to say to this church in Rome.

For Paul, this was a letter---one inspired by God, to be sure, but I doubt Paul was thinking, "This letter I'm writing is going to be part of Scripture." A major theme of this letter, which is not just discussed in Romans 9–11, is the story of Israel and the inclusion of Gentiles in God's family. Notice, for instance, the famous passage of Romans 3:28: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." Most people isolate this passage and present it as one of their many prooftexts. But they forget the next verse: "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also" (Romans 3:29). What is the point Paul was trying to get across here? It appears that verses 28 and 29 are linked and NOT separate thoughts altogether.

Sidebar: If you're familiar with the current justification debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright, you know that seeing this letter in its first-century Jewish context is a major part of this discussion (did first-century Judaism tend to be legalistic, or did it teach grace?). If you have no idea what I'm talking about, the Christianity Today articles here and here do a good job of summarizing what all this is about. Also, if you're interested in this important discussion, here are two books I'd recommend:

1. John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007). Piper's passion for God's grace in this book is compelling. I disagree with his views on first-century Judaism and Paul (see pages 133-158), but I couldn't agree more with his enthusiastic commitment to preaching God's grace as revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

2. N.T. Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). N.T. Wright brought the split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29 to my attention, and his comments on how the history of the Western church might have been different if they had read Paul in light of his Jewish soteriology are also insightful: "[There would have been no] split between Romans 3:28 and Romans 3:29. No marginalization of Romans 9–11. No scrunching of the subtle and important arguments about Jew-plus-Gentile unity in Galatians 3 onto the Procrustean bed of an abstract antithesis between faith and works." Of course, N.T. Wright hasn't convinced me of his overall thesis (I'm still thinking it through), but I appreciate his sensitivity to (A) Scriptural authority in spite of all tradition and (B) the first-century Jewish context of Paul's letters.

Of course, Romans is not the only book reduced to a systematic theology textbook, with the Jew-and-Gentile-now-one-in-Christ theme shoved to the corner. Ephesians is often mined strictly for its "saved by grace through faith" passage in Ephesians 2:8-9, with not much regard for verse 10, and perhaps less regard for verses 11-22, which stress that the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile is now torn down in Messiah Jesus.

Paul did teach that we're saved by grace, and that is incredibly important. But he also taught about Jews and Gentiles coming together as one in Messiah Jesus, which is also incredibly important. That means that everyone can be "in Messiah" (or "in Christ"), not just the Jews.

Also important to emphasize is that Paul was deeply concerned for his fellow Jews who still did not believe in Jesus. That's where Romans 11:29 comes back into the discussion. God's gifts and calling of the Jewish people are irrevocable. Let me end with Paul speaking for himself in Romans 11:28-32 concerning his fellow Jews who did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah (see all of Romans 9–11 here):

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you [Gentiles] once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.