Why Four Gospels?

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A question that is logically posed by readers of Scripture is, why are there four gospels? The question becomes more interesting when one begins to read the four evangelists; a striking feature is both their similarity and dissimilarity. Are these biographies of Jesus? If the Holy Spirit inspired these records, surely there should be one story, one official biography? These questions can sometimes trouble new believers, and unsettle them when they encounter the differences. They begin to wonder, what Jesus actually say? But it tends to be an unformed view of both Scripture and inspiration that is behind these questions. If we approach the gospel records with the right frame of mind, this transforms our view, and most importantly, they transform us. It has helped me to bear several things in mind when I read the gospels.

The Holy Spirit is an editor.  The four evangelists were not simply stenographers who followed Jesus around Palestine with quill and scroll, recording every utterance. Two of them, Matthew and John, were themselves apostles, and so kept company with Jesus. Mark and Luke were not among the Twelve, and so they relied on other sources. It’s clear when reading the gospels that all of them bear slight differences to one another, even in the synoptics – the first three that share a similar viewpoint. Imagine if four directors, four cinematographers, filmed an event. The resulting films would no doubt differ from one another, in what each director chose to highlight, where to cut and edit. But would these differences cause one to say, “The second director was not there, because his version differs from the first”? That would be a naive conclusion, and it is similar with the gospels. The differences between them do not indicate a failure to corroborate the evidence, but the subtleties of each gospel writer.

There is a theological purpose in each evangelist. Matthew is commonly regarded as the more Jewish gospel, appealing to the seed of Jacob. For example, the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter is found in Mark 7. Jesus answers the entreaties of the woman to heal her child somewhat abruptly “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew’s account is a bit different. He identifies her as a Canaanite, while Mark calls her a Gentile, a Syrophoenician. Matthew also records Jesus as saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Why these differences? Matthew’s gospel consistently has this Jewish perspective, a focus on Israel, while this is far more muted in Mark. The Holy Spirit, through Matthew, is accomplishing a different theological emphasis from Mark, and the other evangelists. When we study the individual incidents themselves (often called periscopes), we again see differences and similarities among the gospels. The question of why some are included, some are omitted, is often called redaction, but it simply means that the evangelists choose the material they include, what they omit, and the ordering of it. This process is not at all inconsistent with a high view of inspiration. The Holy Spirit can choose the methods he uses to move the writers of Scripture.

Jesus’ common language was not Greek. The New Testament was written in koine (common) Greek, due to economic and political conditions that prevailed in the first century. But the Jews of Palestine did not speak Greek among themselves. They spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Syriac. The gospels are therefore already at one level of remove from the words that Jesus spoke. This, too, is not at all problematic if one remembers that the Holy Spirit is behind these records. He inspired the writers of the gospel records to write what they did, and human language is no barrier to him. He inspired what he wanted recorded about Jesus, with all the rich theological significance that the four gospels give us. If this requires you to adjust your view of inspiration, you shouldn’t fear this honest assessment of the material. Recognizing that even in the act of writing the gospels, a translation took place, in no way undermines their authority of accuracy.

Scholarship is not the enemy of truth. There has certainly been a lot of nonsense published in the name of scholarship, (the Jesus Seminar of several years back, for example), but close study of the gospel records, their sources, and textual criticism is nothing that believers should fear. Indeed, the more one does study the gospels closely, the more amazing they prove themselves to be as God-breathed documents on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve found a couple of books very helpful in gospel study. The first is The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg.  Blomberg is a first-rate scholar, and a Christian – something that is not a given in New Testament studies. His book is a careful analysis of why the gospels are trustworthy. The other book is W. Graham Scroggie’s A Guide to the Gospels. Scroggie’s book is a series of studies on various aspects of the evangelist’s records. It Luke’s use of Mark, Features of Matthew’s Gospel, for example. Traversing the material from several different approaches like this yields much benefit. No matter how one approaches them, the gospels deserve the attention of every believer.



TLDR: God’s truth in a post-literate world

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Probably a dozen years ago, I received a review copy of a book called Goodbye Gutenberg that purported to be the future of communicating ideas. The book claimed that the future would not be one of reliance on words and letters so much as a combination of picture and symbols that would replace the “old” system of letters, words, and sentences. I didn’t find the book compelling, and in hindsight, I wonder if it was partly due to being raised on a diet predominantly of print for teaching and learning. We certainly had movies and in grade school, those were the days of film strips and vinyl records. But for the bulk of learning, it was textbooks. And for hundreds of years prior to this, it was print on page that was the substance of pedagogy.

What I think Goodbye Gutenberg got wrong was to assume that the style of book it represented would carry this new way of teaching, yet convey the same ideas as before. But Neil Postman, the prophet of media, foresaw all of this and wrote about it with rueful warning. He opined, “a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competition can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool – the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.” [1] The nature of ideas communicable by pictures differs from those communicable by print. A picture is worth a thousand words only when you’re assembling IKEA furniture or the like. But pictures cannot convey the subtlety and nuance of abstract ideas. Concepts of doctrine such as atonement, redemption, propitiation, justification are difficult if not impossible to fully expand and develop except through words, and in fact, lots of them.

The title of this post is a common Internet acronym meaning, “too long, didn’t read.” There’s certainly a lot of dross online that is not worth reading, but I wonder as well whether the online preference for the visual over the lexical has made people less likely to tolerate the latter. If we become accustomed to the visual presentation of everything, even abstract ideas, we are less likely to read than to watch. I’ve often clicked on a news story only to be shown a video. This is no doubt a response to what content providers think readers (or viewers) want. It is bowing to the post-literate world. It’s not that people can no longer read, it’s that their preference is to not read for long stretches. This is post-literacy. As an example, there has been a notable decline in long-form journalism at major newspapers across the country. Web sites can track a lot of data points on their users such as how long a person stays on a page or whether focus moves to a different tab in the browser. I don’t doubt this shift to more visual content is in response to that data.

Online readers, then, have gotten used to wanting ideas in bite-sized portions. The truths of Scripture are not presented this way. The original manuscripts didn’t contain chapter and verse divisions, so even when we excerpt portions of Scripture, they are just that: excerpts of a larger narrative or presentation of God’s truth. Scripture is grasped by repeated passes through the text, and by reading deliberatively. These texts are often long. Consider the sacrifice of Isaac, introduced in Genesis 22. A ram is substituted for Isaac, and when we come to Leviticus, we see substitutionary atonement in the opening chapters of the book. Both of these of course picture the Lord Jesus Christ in his sacrificial death. In other words, the thread of a truth quite often runs through many books in both testaments. Reading widely and deeply in God’s word is the only way to learn what God has put there.  The practical illiteracy of Christians when it comes to the Bible is sadly common. Is the TLDR mentality in part responsible for this?

If you are struggling with your reading of Scripture, the prescription may be oxymoronic: read more. Marinating in Scripture will cause you to want to understand more, to know more, and your enjoyment of God will deepen. The primary means of our knowledge of who God is, what he has done, and what he will do comes through the written word of God. The online world may manifest a preference for image over words, but Christians can’t go along with that in the service of God’s truth. If any should not answer “Too long, didn’t read” it should be followers of Christ.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, Vintage Books, 1993), p 16.


Luther’s Lessons on Gospel Vigilance

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The just-released documentary Luther is an interesting bit of filmmaking. It is artful and professional, and hits on some key points of why the Reformation took place. (Nor does the film shy away from some of Luther’s sins – his late life anti-Semitism, for example, is dealt with head on.) Among the reasons the film is worth seeing is because Christians need constant vigilance for the gospel, and there are parallels between Luther’s day and ours. Close to the end of the film, presenter Barry Cooper issues a caution about the state of Christianity 500 years after Luther. “There is another kind of Reformation on the way. We who live in the West are experiencing it even now, in fact. The social privilege we once enjoyed has been ripped away. Christians [are] increasingly stereotyped as intolerant bigots, socially regressive, or just plain stupid by those who see themselves as progressive. It’s challenging, and increasingly costly for Christians to do what Luther did and stand firm.” He goes on to note that the news is far from dire elsewhere in the world. The gospel is spreading in Africa, South America, and Asia at far higher rates than in traditionally Christian lands. But the message for those of us who do live in the West is, we should be prepared to respond well. Some things to bear in mind:

The Scriptures tell us we are not citizens here. The temptation is always there for Christians to settle down and settle in, not so much physically, but mentally and spiritually. That is, to consider our rights and privileges and to be ready to stand up and fight for them. If that means the courts and legal battles, so be it. We have that right as citizens of our nation. We do indeed have the same rights as others, but Christians should be cautious about a knee-jerk reaction of going to court when we are aggrieved about our rights. Paul is most concerned not with preservation of rights, but with Christian testimony before the world. His immediate context is Christian going to law against other believers, but his concern is how that looks to those outside the faith. As people who have jobs, families, responsibilities and who live in the world with other people, we interact with the those outside God’s family all the time, but the New Testament reminds us that what is seen is temporal, perishing, and what is unseen is eternal. We too easily forget that. Gospel vigilance means this is but a stop on the way to our final destination.

The Scriptures predict we will suffer. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. We spend a lot of time and effort to make ourselves comfortable. That’s understandable, but spiritual comfort is presented in the New Testament as a thing we experience amidst surrounding discomfort. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” 1 Pet. 3:14. Paul wrote the Philippians that his imprisonment had actually served to advance the gospel, and he rejoiced in his current state. He wrote to Timothy near the end of his life “And because I preach this Good News, I am suffering and have been chained like a criminal. But the word of God cannot be chained.” (2 Tim. 2:9 NLT). We need to continually remind ourselves that our confidence and comfort come not from making everything right in our lives here on earth, but in the fact that we are redeemed, justified, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Persecution and suffering for the gospel – especially for the gospel – should serve to increase our joy and satisfaction in Christ. This is unnatural for us, because our sinful hearts want ease and freedom from suffering. But suffering is also presented as a tool that God uses to prune and refine us. Suffering is the tool of Christian maturity in the believer’s life. Gospel vigilance means we can’t expect we won’t suffer, but our prayer should be that we’ll suffer well.

Church-State separation is a protection for the Church. In Luther’s day, the Church and state were intertwined in such a way that to oppose the Church was to oppose the governing authorities. It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who called on Luther to recant. The Emperor branded Luther an outlaw, and though it was a local political figure, the Elector Frederick who protected Luther, clearly the winds of politics may blow different ways. Luther knew ultimately that God was his protector. In our own day, the political left likes to portray the wall of church-state separation as ensuring that public and political life is free from the influence of faith, but that is of course not possible. Everyone has a belief system they operate from, and it is impossible to divorce that from one’s decisions. Self-proclaimed atheists do this as much as anyone. The separation enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is as much a protection to the church as anything. In the coming years, I believe this will work itself out through increasing pressure from the government upon churches and para-church organizations conform to societal and legal requirements. This isn’t new. In fact, it’s quite old. The post-apostolic church was a church constantly under threat, and being a Christian was a capital offense. The Roman Empire took a long time to get to toleration of Christianity, then to endorsement. But history shows that endorsement of the faith didn’t help the witness of the church. On the contrary, it ushered in centuries of empty ritual and increasing corruption that culminated in the Reformation. We may be returning to more open hostility toward the faith than in previous centuries, but our response shouldn’t be surprise. D.A. Carson’s 2012 book “The Intolerance of Tolerance” tackles many of these themes, and notes “Just as Christians cannot finally serve God and Money, so they cannot owe ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of God and to an earthly democracy. God is not establishing a democratic republic, but an eternal kingdom in a new heaven and a new earth.”[1] The state, fellow believer, is not our friend. We don’t need the endorsement of the government to proclaim the gospel and live a faithful testimony. It may become costlier to maintain that witness, but this shouldn’t surprise us, and it gives us a meaningful link with the earliest of Jesus’ followers.

Who knows if or when any of us will be called upon to face the sort of opposition that Luther faced. But if we are, let us be as clear on the gospel, and all that it entails, as he was.

[1] D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), p.175.

Bible/The Church

Bible Answer Man: Wrong Number

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The recent conversion of Hank Hanegraaf to Orthodoxy has caused a stir in evangelical circles, but only because of Hanegraaf’s prior ministry. As the so-called “Bible Answer Man” one would think he of all people would base his views and teaching on the Scriptures. Perhaps not. The reasons for such conversions still fall into the same sort of categories that Scot McKnight wrote about in From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic.  The fact that it’s Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism in Hanegraaf’s case doesn’t really affect these reasons. In almost all such cases, there is always an insistence that “nothing has changed” in core beliefs. And indeed Hanegraaf made this statement. But clearly, something has changed, because he wasn’t content to stay where he was, but rather take the step of joining the Orthodox Church. Hanegraaf’s comments indicate he felt there was a lack of experience in his faith that left him wanting more. He pitches it as an embrace of life rather than merely truth. He doesn’t claim that joining the church is his conversion to Christ, (nor do I doubt he is a true believer), but if you have Jesus, he is the way the truth and the life, and therefore, you have all you need already.

It’s good to remember a few things with such cases, things that always seem to be factors. These are the common motivations behind conversion to sacramental traditions.

A desire to connect with the historical roots of Christianity. That’s a worthy and good desire, but it can’t be found in Orthodoxy. When we look at the Orthodox Church, we don’t find the church of the apostles but the church of late antiquity. The structure of a hierarchical church, with priests, bishops over priests, and archbishops and metropolitans mirrors the Roman empire, but it isn’t found in the pages of the New Testament. Nor do we find the doctrine of the apostles in the Orthodox church. Veneration of Mary, and icons are clearly extrabiblical traditions that find no place in biblical Christianity. The point was humorously made by the Babylon Bee, noting that Hanegraaf would be rebranding himself as the “Apostolic Tradition Man.” And this is where Hanegraaf and all who make such a move aren’t always forthright in their statements. They may believe they lose nothing, but only gain in such a migration, but they can’t maintain the position of Sola Scriptura and remain in their new home. Believers should most certainly connect with history, but the New Testament writings are the historical documents that comprise Christian authority, not the writings of late antiquity. If you base your faith upon the Scriptures alone, you are certainly connected with history – and with the living word of God.

A move away from the Scriptures as supreme authority. Hanegraaf would no doubt vociferously disagree with that. On his radio show, he quoted the well-known aphorism; “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity.” But, significantly, he didn’t cite any Scripture as to why he made this move. Within Orthodoxy, there is a reliance on tradition, the consensus of the Fathers, as an equal authority alongside Scripture. But as Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out,

“Such an exhortation as ‘let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers’ seemed to assume, by its use of ‘confession’ in the singular and of ‘fathers’ in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic.”[1]

It’s fine to speak of fathers in the plural, but we also have to speak of “confessions” in the plural too, because the fathers don’t always agree. Tradition, in other words, is shifting sand, unreliable as a basis for truth. It’s impossible to hold to both Scripture as supreme authority and tradition as supreme authority. That remains a fundamental difference between the Orthodox view of authority and the evangelical view. The seven ecumenical councils are canonical for the Orthodox. But the councils aren’t Scripture, and as G.L. Prestige wrote, “The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[2] In the Orthodox view, the conclusions are moved into the evidence column.

Elevating Experience over Scripture. It’s exceedingly common to find people expressing dissatisfaction with evangelical worship. And indeed, much of it is vapid. But the appeal of Orthodoxy is sensual, i.e., involving the senses. Smells and bells as it’s been called. At the heart of this type of thinking is the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Or, as the church prays, the church believes. Attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, the formulation states that how the Church worships governs what the Church teaches. In other words, liturgy is the wellspring of doctrine. But that is to invert things. Our experience of worship can never inform our doctrine. Rather, our doctrine dictates how we worship. If our feelings, our experience prescribe what our beliefs are, we open ourselves to all manner of falsehood.

Many people look to Hanegraaf for answers, and therefore he has a huge responsibility. It was interesting that in the days following his announcement, a caller asked if he could explain the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Hanegraaf gave a few examples of the magisterium vs. the oral and written deposit of truth (evangelicals reject any oral tradition as equal to the Bible), but at the end of his answer, he oddly backpedalled somewhat from his ability to speak on such things. “I don’t consider myself an expert, I’ve only been studying this for two or three years… so having only spent a mere two and half or three years on this subject I am not the expert. There are people that are far more adept at talking about these things than I am. But I am learning and at some point the treasure chest will be part of my heart and soul, and I’ll be able to communicate with a whole lot more instruction.” That’s an odd stance for the Answer Man.

Christians should not look to their fellow believer’s experience as any kind of rule or guide for what we believe. Scripture must test all things. Even how previous generations interpreted Scripture is not an authority. I can learn from them, to be sure. But quite often I learn they were wrong. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ve been reminded of that anew. This, apparently, is something the Bible Answer Man has forgotten.

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[2] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.


Evangelicalism and the Post-Truth World

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Are evangelicals responsible for the “post-truth” world? A recent NY Times opinion piece by Molly Worthen makes this claim, but that conclusion is far from certain. I think history argues against that – even recent history.  If one lays the blame for giving up on facts at the feet of evangelicals, one of the first data points to consider is there no easy answer to the question, “what is an evangelical?” Worthen’s own work asks this question, and she acknowledges the answer to this far from clear. In Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, she notes:

“The term evangelical has produced more debate than agreement. The word is so mired in adjectives and qualifiers, contaminated by politicization and stereotype, that many commentators have suggested that it has outlived its usefulness.”[1]

By her own observation, then, the term is nebulous and fraught with imprecision. Worthen seems to focus on an evangelical subculture, fundamentalism perhaps as responsible for a disdain for science and other facts as informing their view of the world. To be sure, there have been skeptics of science, but it’s a more difficult claim to make that such a subculture has shaped all of contemporary American evangelical Christianity. Many evangelicals, indeed I would say most, do not fixate on the Bible as a scientific text, but are content to answer “undefined” to various questions of natural science. The biblical record is an account God’s dealings with humanity, our sin and failure, and God’s own provision of a savior in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The unfolding of his plan, and the revelation of God’s glory through Christ are the heart of the narrative. As science may touch on these things, the Bible notes that, but almost in passing; “he made the stars also.” As Herbert Lockyer wrote, “The Scriptures were given, not to tell us how the heavens go, but to teach us how to go to heaven.” The broad swath of evangelicalism I’ve been exposed to has never majored on scientific authority, much less fossils or archaeology as any formative part of the Christian faith.

Worthen acknowledges “evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying.” But while evangelicals believe the supernatural is real, the fact that others believe only in the natural doesn’t mean they are any less contemptuous of the other side. There is an entire school of thought (aka worldview) that says the Enlightenment certainty about the scientific method and rational conclusions is flawed. Structuralism and Post-structuralism cast these assumptions aside, and with it, one can credibly argue, any certainty about truth. These are the heirs of Nietzsche, not exactly a friend of evangelicals, who said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” That is just as presuppositional an apologetic as Cornelius Van Til or any other Christian may offer. It’s a worldview that is exclusive and rules out all others.

While focusing on a few evangelicals whose embrace of science caused them to run afoul of their Christian institutions, Worthen does not address the treatment of science as a faith in and of itself. It is an objective source of truth, a canon by which its adherents measure fact. One need only look at the numerous revisions to “settled science” to see that as a tenuous claim. In the 18th Century, it was settled science to bleed a patient suffering from any number of maladies. That, of course, is now considered medical hokum. Or more recently, A 130-Year-Old Fact About Dinosaurs Might Be Wrong. Our knowledge of science doesn’t represent a static body of doctrine, but something that is always changing. “We might be wrong” is something one hears too infrequently from the scientific community. The mandarins of science today have often coalesced with atheism; Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et. al, to posit a worldview that is just as dismissive of any view that doesn’t accord with their its orthodoxy. To paraphrase Worthen, they too have one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Science, [that] does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a spiritually-deluded simpleton. There is plenty of truth denial on the other end of the theological spectrum as well. The new definition of gender fluidity contradicts the science of XX and XY, but this didn’t emerge from evangelicalism.

Worthen also observes that Christian academia can become an uncomfortable place for any who would challenge the received orthodoxy, but that goes both ways. It’s long been the case that Christians or others who disagree with the prevalent academic mindset (i.e., left of center) have experienced that kind of marginalization. The claim of the Bible is that there is such a thing as truth, it matters, and it is knowable. That’s actually the opposite of “post-truth.” The truth is preeminently a person, Jesus Christ.  We shouldn’t confuse poor or sloppy handling of the truth with “post-truth.” Atheists and others who share no beliefs with evangelicals have just as firm a commitment that theirs is only correct version of reality. That’s not the provenance of evangelicalism. Evangelicals have a duty to handle the truth carefully, as a trust that we pass on to the next generation. But it’s simply inaccurate to claim that evangelical faith in the Bible as God’s authority has given us the world of “post-truth.” There’s a whole lot of blame to go around for that.

[1] Worthen, Molly (2013-10-01). Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Kindle Locations 88-95). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.


Ignorance of the Old Testament is a threat to New Testament faith

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I’m not a fan of red letter Bibles, because I think they promote a view of inspiration and the canon that is inconsistent and unsustainable. The words recorded by the apostles as well as those of Jesus are equally the product of the Holy Spirit. The idea of some parts of the New Testament as more inspired than others is an impoverished view of the Scriptures. But another view of inspiration has crept into the church, and it is more dangerous than red letter editorial decisions. That is, a demotion of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. In one sense, this is but a return to Marcion, an early heretic who rejected the Old Testament (and much of the New) as Christian Scripture, reducing his revelation to Luke’s gospel, and Paul’s writings. I don’t claim that Christians who ignore the Old Testament are endorsing Marcion. Rather, they are achieving by default what he actively pursued: a reduction in scope and authority of God’s Word. By infrequent visits to the OT, they are making the world of the Hebrew Bible foreign territory to themselves. Brent A. Strawn’s new book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment, is a wake up call to the church to reclaim the theological ground it has abandoned, by a practical disuse of the Old Testament. Strawn relates an anecdote from his own teaching that proved a sobering realization of the extent of the problem. He was teaching a Sunday School class on biblical poetry, working his way through various parts, and came to the cry of dereliction that Jesus utters from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Strawn goes on to say:

“Given what I had just said, I figured the class was following me and that it was relatively clear that this saying from the cross was (a) poetic and (b) a citation from the Old Testament. So I asked the class of hoary heads what Jesus was quoting. Where, I questioned, did his words come from? Total silence. No one knew. Or if they did know, they certainly weren’t telling. But the pause was long enough and the silence deafening enough to make it clear to me that this wasn’t a case of being tight-lipped. It was a case of not knowing. One sweet-faced, white-haired woman finally shook her head, confirming my suspicion. No, they did not know the answer to my question. Not even this elderly group of “saints” knew that Jesus’s cry was a direct quotation of Psalm 22.”

Strawn’s book proceeds in a certain direction, that of likening the OT to a language, a dialect, through which one perceives the world, and by which one constructs a worldview. A big part of what he has to say has to do with the primary languages of the OT; Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancillary languages such as Akkadian. I don’t doubt the value of that approach. But I would submit that for most Christians, learning Hebrew is a hill they are unlikely to climb, and yet they can still immerse themselves in the OT. Indeed, we must immerse ourselves in the OT if we are at all to understand the NT.  The examples of this are many, and I am tempted to say, so obvious as to not need citation, but this is one of Strawn’s points: they do need citation because we have become ignorant of them.

When one opens John’s gospel, at 1:19, we read of “priests and Levites.” This presupposes a knowledge of the OT, and what a Levite is. When Paul tells the Philippians that he is being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of their faith, he assumes they understand his reference back to Numbers 15. The book of Hebrews is unintelligible without reference to the OT, citing quotations over 30 times.  22 of the 27 books of the NT cite the OT, for a total of about 850 citations or allusions. Hear the apostle Paul on the importance of the OT in our faith: “Whatever  was written before was written for our learning, that through patience, and comfort of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4), and “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11).  I would put it thusly:  Ignorance of the Hebrew Bible is a direct threat to Christian belief. It opens Christians to the very thing Paul warned the Ephesians of, being tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and human cunning.  The promise of a redeemer is there in the proto-evangel of Genesis 3. Substitutionary atonement is there in Genesis 4, and throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. The doctrine of justification by faith is there in Genesis 15. The gospel itself rests on these biblical foundations, and if we do not know them, we are apt to cast aside the need for something such as substitutionary atonement.

I also had an experience like Strawn, a few years ago, when I was in a small group Bible study. This was a study on the life of Moses, so although it was in a sense topical, the material of course comes from the Pentateuch. One of the participants admitted, “I’ve always been more of a New Testament kind of guy, so this has been good for me.”  But one cannot be a New Testament type of Christian without the foundation of the Old Testament. The narrative of biblical history, the progressive revelation of salvation history – these things rely on the Hebrew Bible, and ignorance of this portion of Scripture means at best an incomplete understanding, and at worst leads to error.

If you are daunted by the prospect of acquiring a deeper familiarity with the OT, it is not as difficult as you may imagine. I can scarcely think of book with more drama than Genesis, and even those parts which people seem to love rolling their eyes at – Leviticus, for example, are deeply rich troves of pictures of Christ and his work.  And despite the fact that there has never been more helps to understanding of the OT, engaging with the text of Scripture itself is still the best method. The word of God will do its work in our hearts if we but expose ourselves to it. Do not give in to the temptation for a pre-digested version of the OT story. Read for yourself, and re-read. One of the best ways to understand is to read a book of the OT through several times. Each time you go through, you’ll find more than the previous time.

The Christian faith is a faith based on historical events – the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection. But prior to these, there were other events that we cannot be ignorant of.  Since nearly 80% of our Bible is made up of the Old Testament, it is imperative for Christians to cultivate a deep knowledge of this part of God’s Scriptures.



The Church/Reformation

When Reform Brings Schism

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 Hus at the Council of ConstanceIn this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it’s important to revisit certain truths, not only doctrinal, but historical as well. I’ve written previously about the idea of the Reformation being over. That is, in the view of some, the level of agreement between former ecclesiastical foes is now so small that we can put the Reformation behind us and join together. That is a non-starter, in my view, not because I have anything against unity, but because there is still a chasm between the fundamental definition of salvation between Protestants and others. Salvation is doubtless the most important difference,  but there are also other important doctrines such as the definition of the Church, the person and work of Christ, where there remain wide divergences between evangelicals and sacramental traditions.
But there is the historical as well. One sometimes hears that prior to the Reformation, though there were certainly problems in the Church, there wasn’t the kind of division that the Reformation brought. But that is not historically accurate. Long before the Reformation there were deep divisions in the Church, or perhaps it’s better to say, Churches.

   A major fissure was caused by the “filioque” clause. If you’re not familiar with this issue, it came about due to the addition of a clause to the Nicene creed, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the the father and the son (filioque). The decision to add that to the creed, (putatively at the Council of Toledo in 589) was made without consultation with other bishops, specifically those of the East. The Eastern churches greeted this as a heresy and a doctrinal innovation that could not stand. The issue festered for centuries, amid (truly!) Byzantine politics, with bishops and patriarchs trading anathemas back and forth. The added clause was formally accepted by Rome in 1014. Forty years later in 1054, the “Great Schism” officially came about. This pre-Reformation separation of East and West continues to the current day.

   A couple of hundred years after that, the Western Church (aka Roman Catholic) had its own schism. This was due to nothing doctrinal, but all political. There came a time when there were three simultaneous popes. If the Church sets up a system where one man sits atop the org chart, then having three CEOs makes it difficult to know who’s in charge. That schism was officially ended at the Council of Constance in 1414-1418. But, notably, one of the decrees the Council published was this: “All persons of whatever rank or dignity, even a Pope, are bound to obey it in matters relating to faith and the end of the schism and the general reformation of the Church of God in head and members.” In other words, the Council issued a papal takedown, and demanded that pontiffs obey conciliar decrees as the highest law of the Church. The schism was formally healed, (and future popes more or less ignored the outcome) but the ideas of conciliarism never really went away. This, too, had nothing to do with the Reformation. One need only look to very recent history to see that all is not well in the Roman Catholic Church. There is consternation among many about the current pope and where he may be taking the Church.

   These examples from history represent the fact that the roots of division may not be doctrinal at all, and are quite often political. Both underlying causes can (and have) resulted in division. In a sense, the Reformation can be seen as just one more example of the Church dividing itself, but with important differences. The doctrinal matters surrounding the Reformation put divisions based on political differences into their proper perspective. They were most often the result of pride and selfish ambition. The Reformers held the gospel itself in highest esteem, and that is why they spoke out as they did. What the previous divisions had in common was that they assumed that the highest authority was the Church itself. As some have said, they operated on the principle of sola ecclesia. The Reformation of course came about due to different principles; that the Church was subject to Scripture. The Word of God is over the people of God. This was needed reform in a Church that had lost its way. When a division such as the Reformation became inevitably necessary, we should remember that there are some things worth fighting for. Paul makes it fairly clear at the start of the Galatian epistle that the integrity of the gospel message is one of those things.

The next time someone shakes their head in dismay over the divisions the Reformation caused, remember too that it represents a great recovery of truth, and that legacy is still one worth standing up for.

The Church

Why you should banish the word “layman” from your vocabulary.

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Clergymen One sometimes hears the phrase “in layman’s terms…“ followed by a description of some process or situation to explain to the untrained exactly what is going on. There are certainly times where I want a trained professional performing some task. The guy who replaces my water heater, or the one who took out my gall bladder – I don’t want someone with no credentials doing that work. But that sort of thinking can be problematic when brought into the church. It can (and did) lead to a caste system within the body of Christ, a spiritual hierarchy where some are the privileged few, others are deemed lesser in ability, and in extreme cases, even in their standing before God. There are two main areas where caution needs to be exercised:

Thinking that pastoral training equates to privilege or ability. I am not at all denigrating training, but it’s really critical to understand that if you are a leader in a local church, your training doesn’t set you apart from your congregation. This is not a new problem. The development of this can be traced historically and in parallel to the Roman Empire. Earlier Christians such as Cyprian had a background in civil service that they imported into the Church. Stuart Hall notes that “a bureaucracy parallel to that by which the Empire was run, managing dossiers of letters and documents had grown up, and for Cyprian only those recognized in the system belong to it. His own training in public affairs made him take this for granted.”[1] W.H.C. Frend also comments, “the clerical career had become designed to rank pari passu with the grades of the imperial civil service, just as bishoprics were becoming coterminous with civil boundaries.”[2] What this demonstrates is that thinking about leadership in the church was influenced if not dominated by governmental structures, and those structures from a state that opposed the Lordship of Jesus.

When we turn to the New Testament, however, there’s a very different model of leadership presented, and it is absent of officialdom or of hierarchy. The qualifications for those in leadership are related to character, and these emphasize humility, knowledge of Christian doctrine, and conformity to Christ. Evangelical churches don’t model themselves on government (they shouldn’t anyway), but they have certainly looked to the corporate world for how to do things. This can be brought into the church in subtle and seemingly innocuous ways. For example, stressing leadership skills or organizational effectiveness, at the expense of these other issues of life. And if you are a leader, how you exercise those skills can make all the difference. This is what Peter refers to, I think, when he cautions fellow elders not to lord it over the flock. (1. Pet. 5:3). Training may help you and your congregation in many ways, but one thing it should not do is convince you that you are the only one equipped to do a job. And, our sinful hearts being what they are, it is far too easy for someone in leadership to take umbrage at opposition, or to feel their turf is being encroached upon. Insert your story here of a case where a local church was blown up because of leaders becoming heavy-handed. We all have them, and it’s so important for those in ministry to remember that what leadership brings is not added qualification for ministry, but added responsibility.

Making a distinction between clergy and laity.

The word “lay” comes from the Greek λαός (laos) for “people.” But any kind of distinction between the “called” (κλῆρος=clergy) and the laity is completely unfounded in the New Testament. Paul refers to all believers by this title, when he says to the Romans, “among whom are you also the called of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:6). The effects of a sharp distinction between pastor and people have been harmful to the body of Christ. Every single Christian is a priest to God, and on an equal standing before him. Training or vocation does not influence this at all. “There is no clergy-laity distinction. All are called of God. The ‘secret call’ of the preacher or pastor does not make him or her more called than the carpenter.”[3] When we use terms like clergy and laity, we are drawing a distinction foreign to the New Testament, one which encourages the kind of caste system which finds no place in the body of Christ. We are in fact undermining the kind of Church God is building. I am thankful that when our pastor greets newcomers from the front, he states his name and says, “I am one of the pastors here.” The implications of that are profound. He is not putting himself forth as lead pastor or senior pastor, but one of the shepherds. And that is an encouragement to the rest of us that the body is to build itself up in love. That a pastor supports his family and earns a living through giving himself wholly to the work of the Lord is not in conflict with this in any way. We should honor and respect those who do so, but it is the responsibility of the whole church to seek the welfare of the whole church.

That some are appointed to leadership in a local congregation is absolutely right, but that leadership is decidedly non-clerical. Alexander Strauch well summarizes the ethos of this. “It is a simple but profound fact that no clergy-laity dichotomy appears in the New Testament. Paul, the great church planter, taught that there is a wide divergence of gifts and services among the brethren, but no sacred clergy. In his many greetings to fellow workers and helpers, Paul never greets anyone as a clergyman or a layman. The more one comprehends Paul’s teaching on the gospel and body of Christ, the more one realizes the falsehood of the clergy-laity division. In fact, the very concept of a small, professional, ministerial body that is vested with superior rights and privileges over the sacraments and the Word, and is alone qualified to ‘minister’ would be unthinkable to the inspired writers of Scripture. Such a concept is foreign to the New Testament writers, who taught that the whole body of Christ is ministerial, saintly, and priestly.”[4]

If you a Christian but are not serving in full-time ministry, remember that you are every bit as much a priest as anyone. You are sealed with the Spirit of God, and you are a worshipper. You too, have the responsibility to study to show yourself approved, rightly handling God’s word. You, too, have the responsibility to build up the body of Christ, to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:15-16).


[1] Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church,(Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991), p. 90.

[2] W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1965), p. 238.

[3] R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Dowers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1985), p. 29.

[4] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, Co., Lewis & Roth, 1988), p. 257.


Caveat Credor: The Hazards of Confessionalism

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According to Wikipedia, Confessionalism is “a belief in the importance of full and unambiguous assent to the whole of a religious teaching. Confessionalists believe that differing interpretations or understandings, especially those in direct opposition to a held teaching, cannot be accommodated within a church communion.” It is not an unalloyed blessing. Confessionalism arises in times of theological pluralism, as an attempt to define the borders, and to mark the boundaries of orthodoxy. In this sense, the Bible itself promotes confessionalism. The apostolic gospel summary that Paul provides in 1 Cor. 15 is a least common denominator, apart from which one cannot be a follower of Jesus. And at the start of the Galatian epistle, Paul excoriates those who preach a different gospel from the one he previously announced to them. You cannot hold this “other gospel” of justification by works of law and be considered a follow of Jesus. That sort of boundary-marking is Scripturally endorsed, and not problematic. In a day of pluralism, the appeal to mark off what is and is not orthodox is great. But confessionalism can also create an artificial confidence. If you look at the early examples of the regula fidei or rule of faith, you see not detailed explanations of various doctrinal points, but broad outlines of what on must believe to be considered within the Christian faith. When confessionalism moves beyond that, to fine-grained delineations of a faith community, then we encounter the problems of it.

Confessionalism can diminish the mysteries of the faith.

When I use the word mysteries, I am not equating that with mystagogy. It is not hocus pocus (hoc est corpus meum – this is my body – morphed into hocus pocus by those who viewed transubstantiation as some magical transformation of Christ’s body.) Nor do I mean the biblical definition of a truth that was keep hidden in the counsels of God, but later revealed to us. (“which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”) I mean those theological paradoxes, or putative paradoxes that we, by our nature want to solve, but which remain unexplained in Scripture. How can God have planned from eternity past that Jesus would be put to death on the cross, and yet hold mankind responsible for this? “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) Or the perennial example of how God is sovereign over all his creation and creatures, and yet he has given them choice and will to act. Attempts to solve these paradoxes have resulted in confessionalism, which while defining the borders, nonetheless can reduce the counsels of God to what we understand. We are uncomfortable with a prolonged – perhaps lifelong – tension between these things. Paul writes at the end of Rom. 11, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Confessionalism in some way says, “we have searched his judgments and at last found out his ways.” In some areas, I still feel the need to say “I don’t know.” Be careful that confessionalism isn’t back door hubris about the things of God, a different way of saying “there are no ambiguities.”

Confessionalism can be a pretext for division.

I tread carefully in this area because it’s exceedingly important to note that the truth does divide. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.  For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52) But the division Jesus speaks of is between those who accept him, and those who reject him. This is a division between the children of God and the children of the devil. Distinction and division of this kind is important. That is not what I refer to.  Elsewhere the Twelve come to Jesus saying “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40). The one casting out demons was doing so in Jesus name, and Jesus says do not prevent him. The objection was, “he does not follow us.” He is a follower of Jesus, but not in our group. I don’t think it’s difficult to see a warning of when confessionalism could become sectarianism. I should add that I think it’s proper for a church to require consistency among leaders. (But we easily come into issues of membership, constitution, by-laws, and other things about which Scripture does not speak). If a leader holds strongly to a premillennial position, but the church as a whole does not, it may well be right that this leader not teach his view from the pulpit, in classes or home groups. And before coming into leadership, those discussions should take place. What I’m speaking of is more general, perhaps restricted to one’s attitude. Confessionalism may arise when one joins a local church, but even if one signs on the line in such an instance, (and I don’t say this is wrong) it need not mean that you are taking your input only from denominational or confessional sources alone. Indeed, it should not mean this.

Confessionalism can stunt theological understanding and engagement.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if confessionalism is shaping your view of Scripture in potentially unhelpful ways. Do you read books, or listen to sermons and podcasts only from your confessional camp? It’s important to engage with opposing viewpoints on big theological issues. Confessionalism can lead to an echo chamber, which leaves you with an impoverished understanding. Creeds are general and non-specific, but confessional documents get to more detail and if those documents are elevated to authoritative status, it is a warning sign. The same holds true for our theological heroes. Do you disagree with your theological champions on anything? The collected writings of (fill in the blank) are never the final word on anything. If you find yourself agreeing with everything a person wrote, that, too is a warning flag.

Confessionalism appears to offer certainty in a time of confusion. When those around us are abandoning fundamental doctrines of the faith, then the attraction of planting our flag with a particular community is real. Evangelicalism is in a state of flux if not crisis, and many are casting about for something definitive. But one should be careful when your sole input is from one confessional viewpoint. One can learn a lot from confessional documents, but if you are tuned to one channel only, turn the knob once in a while.


The Value of Reading Scripture in Print

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Nothing will show you a generation gap like the media one uses to read the Bible. Roughly stated, the older crowd reads in print, younger Christians in electronic format. The benefits of a Bible app are many; portability, and having the Bible always at the ready, for example. Plus, the possibility of having several versions, and perhaps study tools along with that are also advantages. On the other hand, the advantages of print Bibles are considerable. Nicholas Carr’s 2010 The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is a jeremiad against the diminished attention spans that come with online reading. His book is backed up with formidable research, but even anecdotally; ask yourself, when you read online, are you generally reading long articles or shorter snippets of things? And if you’re like most people, you are far more likely to jump around from page to page – to hyperlink. That convenience is a tremendous benefit of online reading. So, while I’m not suggesting you give up your app entirely, I am suggesting that I think what Carr observed has merit, and especially with the most important of books, print should hold sway over our reading.  Now at the risk of being labeled a Luddite, let me add that I use a Bible app with some frequency. I also have an app for the Greek New Testament, which is incredibly convenient. But, for my daily Bible reading, I use a hard copy Bible. The benefits of this, in my view, far outweigh the convenience of app reading. The value shows itself in a few ways:

Distraction-free reading. A print Bible doesn’t give you notifications, it doesn’t ding when another commentary has a message. Since apps live in the smart-phone ecosystem, there are all kinds of things working against concentration. In short, where Bible apps live is the land of distraction and multitasking, and as many have discovered, multitasking is a ruse. Concentrating on the words of Scripture is a single-threaded activity that should have all of our brain. Apps – even Bible apps -conspire against that. I have found that just plain staring at the page is a real aid to soaking in what the inspired writers have recorded. Plus, I find it annoying at times that I have to look at the words through what is really a small view port. You’re reading in the New Testament and you want to look at something in the Psalms. It takes several taps, going to the table of contents, finding the book, finding the chapter. It’s quite inefficient. It’s still far easier to just flip over the physical page, keeping a finger in the NT so you can go back to where you were. Staring at a page, poring over it, is a way to counteract and overcome the effects that Carr discusses in The Shallows. Is there anyone who can’t do with more focus on God’s word?

The following two benefits apply more specifically to writing in your Bible, but I think they are worth considering.

Organizing your thoughts. For years, I didn’t write in my Bible. My wife has always done so, and a few years back, I started using a wide margin journaling Bible, and it has been a tremendous aid in my study and reading. When you encounter an idea, a theme that recurs throughout Scripture, writing this in the margin at each occurrence is a great help in remembering and in being able to bring this to mind. Take, for example, a big-picture idea such as the Abrahamic covenant. Can’t you get that from a study Bible? You can, but someone else has done the work for you. You value the gems you mine. I’m not suggesting that you discount the scholarship behind study Bibles. I use study aids extensively. But it’s good to check your conclusions in these resources after you’ve come to them, and adjust if necessary.

Creating your own cross-references. Research has shown that when we write in longhand, it has an effect on comprehension. Briefly stated, if you are typing something, it just doesn’t stick in the same way it does when written in longhand. That’s why putting a note in your app isn’t the same as writing it on the page of a Bible. There’s nothing like doing the leg work yourself to come up with passages that are linked to one another. You simply remember more.

If you haven’t read the Bible in hard copy in a while, take and read (and write!)