Rediscovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Heiser’s Free Book)

Michael Heiser, The Naked Bible, is offering the first draft of his book FREE (329 pages) Subtitle: Rediscovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. I’ve really enjoyed the preface.

…My life has been spectacularly mundane…It‘s kind of like watching It’s a Wonderful Life…looking back I see the ordinary deeds of steadfast friends and passing acquaintances, frivolous remarks that provided unintended clarity…providence.

I’m a big fan of God acting in the mundane. Heiser continues:

…I came to suspect that the key to understanding [difficult] texts—and really the entire biblical revelation—was to approach them the way the ancients would have on their own terms. People who claim to be serious about the Bible often expend a lot of energy talking about how it needs to be interpreted in context—but then turn around and filter it through their own traditions. The context for correctly understanding the Bible is not…(p. 6)

…After reading the Old Testament and other ancient material from the biblical period closely, I discovered a number of items that didn‘t jive with traditional ways of formulating biblical theology. I had to make a choice. Was I willing to side with the Bible when its own content, illumined by a deep knowledge of the ancient world in which God moved people to produce it, deviated from what I had been taught in my modern evangelical context? Again, a special grace compelled me to think that choosing the Bible wasn‘t going to hurt my faith. God was the same God then as he is now. I wasn‘t going to understand the text by making its writers fit into molds created by theologians who lived centuries after its creation and who worked without access to its ancient cultural context. The Bible would be okay, and so would I.(p. 6).

…. I can say with confidence is that you‘ll never look at your Bible the same way again. And while we‘re on that subject, I need to say a few things about what the Bible is and isn‘t…. (p. 7)

Introduction: “The Bible–How Much Do You Really Believe It?”

…we aren‘t as open to the supernatural as we think we are. Many Christians are supernaturalists who think like skeptics. Ask yourself what would be going through your mind if a Christian friend confided in you one day that they believed they had been helped by a guardian angel, or that they audibly heard a disembodied voice warning them of some unforeseeable danger, or that they had seen an image of Jesus in some moment of crisis…

…our modern, rationalistic evangelical sub-culture has trained us to think that our theology precludes these experiences or this kind of contact. [Yes, Heiser recognizes abuse and excess.] (p. 11).

Whether we want to admit it or not, since we live in a modern scientific age, we are prone to think these kinds of experiences are misinterpretations of some other happenstance, or something that is treatable with the right medication. We would think it absolutely unwarranted to insist on scientific evidence for the virgin birth, insisting that faith is required. Why then do many Christians call on academic SWAT teams to explain away other ―weird passages? Aren‘t those important? Does acceptance of the supernatural extend only to the items referenced in creeds and confessions?

Think of this book as my offer to drive you home to the faith (13)

 Download his FREE book and enjoy. You may find it as fascinating as I did just to click (skim) through the entire document for the big picture.

I. Howard Marshall – A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology (Free E-Book)

Biblical Studies.org is offering a Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology by I. Howard Marshall as a free e-book (also available for your ipad or epub reader).

Check out other resources at Biblical Studies.org while you are there. One of our favorites is the 10 hour Spiritual Formation (mp3 downloads) by Dr. John Coe. (It can be a bit slow going at the very beginning, but the implications of his ultimate point can be lifechanging.) [The link on their homepage appears to be broken right now, hopefully, it will be back up soon.]

For other great links, scroll down my Links of the Day on the left hand side of this blog.

Theological discourse: tiptoeing through minefields or gallivanting across expansive prairies?

It’s hard to be an “in process” person when the stakes can be so high. Raw, unfiltered thoughts risk ostracizing you from the community you know and love or risk compromising credibility—both to potential opponents and present friends who have stricter boundaries. Sometimes, I feel like the more I learn, the less I can say publicly. There’s always the potential for a concerned citizen or a policing “bulldog” to latch on to something I’ve said or posted on a blog in the past and effectively minimize or jeopardizes everything else I am about.

We all have our “heresies.” If you are having trouble recognizing yours, I’m fairly confident that within about 15 minutes, I could help you become aware of some majorly inconsistent core belief you have which is likely rooted in a cultural idea or a church tradition over a neglected Scriptural principle…or where you deny equally prominent church traditions simply because they don’t fit what you want to believe. (And that’s probably okay.)

Every community has their litmus tests—conservative evangelicals and liberals alike—buzzwords that carry deep meanings and ideas that help differentiate “who’s in and who’s out.” In my own life that set of boundaries has shifted in almost every place I’ve lived: from Continue reading

The Western Captivity of African Christianity (Black)

UPDATE: Onesimus Online no longer exists.

Yesterday I introduced Bill Black’s blog, Onesimus Online, but I thought his posts related to The Western Captivity of African Christianity deserved a little more attention (especially for those of you that are skimming titles; I see Eddie beat me to it ;-).

… however well-intentioned our motives, we Western missionaries in general, and Western theological educators in particular, are engaged in nothing less than the colonization of the African church on a massive scale.

When the British sent out their surveyors across the savannahs and forests of Africa to map out their newly claimed territories, their apologists sold it in part as a vast humanitarian project to bring the ‘Three Cs’ of Christianity, Civilization and Commerce, as David Livingstone put it, to the poor benighted negroes of Africa. Of course the unquestioned assumption was…The resulting mess has completely warped African reality at every level and in every direction and will likely never be undone.

We missionary types don’t seem to have learned very much from the past two centuries of experience, because we are insisting on doing the very same things in our own spheres of influence. Oh, but we have the best of motives (for the Lord and the advance of his kingdom!). And who could ever accuse us of racism? We are all about partnership, all about taking into consideration the [fill in the blank with Kenyan, Ethiopian, Nigerian, etc] context, all about project sustainability, all about reducing dependency, all about working ourselves out of a job, raising up African leaders, etc, etc. We are up on the latest trends in globalization, we go to all the international conferences on servant leadership (whatever that means)…

…. my job is to teach Africans what the Evangelical [and thus ‘right’] position is for whatever the Bible addresses. But in doing so, I’m forced to make my African students into proper North American Evangelicals [one could just as easily insert ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Reformed Baptist’ or ‘Pentecostal’ or ‘Methodist’].

…Not only are we forcing Western Evangelical categories on African students as the measure of all that’s true in the world, but we have simply assumed that our model of theological education itself is the baseline for all subsequent thinking on the matter…

…We theological educators in Africa are doing a bang-up job of reproducing North American Evangelicals for Africa, replete with our ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity. But in doing so, I’m not at all certain that we are either being true to New Testament Christianity or engaging effectively with the people of this continent as they really are…

Read the whole post: The Western Captivity of African Christianity

And again, (The Erosion of Inerrancy?)

…the fights (theological and hermeneutical) that have set the boundaries assumed sacrosanct by our best North American Evangelicals (or even British, though there is a huge difference even here) seem increasingly irrelevant over here.

…with the explosion of Christianity in Africa, Latin America and Asia, these presuppositions are increasingly exposed for what they are – presuppositions that unnaturally and unnecessarily limit what is understood as appropriate, to what is understood as appropriate if you have grown up in the West and been trained at one of its leading theological institutions. For that reason, systematic theology, for example, is difficult to teach in my present context as anything more than what certain Evangelicals understood at a particular time given their particular intellectual and religious contexts. To attempt to dress up Kenyan Christians in Evangelical clothes is attempt what the British did by insisting that Kenyans must adopt trousers, shirt and tie in order to appear civilized (never mind that…

…Africans can certainly wear western-style clothes, but we got to this point as a result of a certain amount of cultural imperialism that did violence to already existing cultures and perspectives. Anyway, the idea that the traditional Evangelical doctrine is eroding amongst Evangelicals may be true in the West, or at least a more or less valid observation. Our needs and concerns on this side of the world make such word play seem like yet another Western game. Playing ‘your’ game is a luxury ‘we’ can no longer afford. Anyone interested in playing our game?

And yesterday, What is your Game?

…Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely…

…while Western missionary Christianity misses the mark in terms of addressing African realities, the New Testament itself, along with the earliest expressions of Christianity as it spread throughout the Roman world, engages the pre-modern world view with dramatic and life-changing answers.

Eddie Arthur, Wycliffe Bible Translators, has a nice 14 minute video on the topic of missions, culture, contextualization, and African theologies (see also this post for more links).

Eddie Arthur of Wycliffe Bible translators talks about the importance and implications of contextualising the Gospel.

Onesimus Online: a blog to stir your thinking (Bill Black)

UPDATE: Onesimus Online no longer exists.

Ask any of Bill Black’s students here about him, and they will probably say: “he provokes; he really challenges us to think.”   Thankfully, for the rest of us, Bill blogs at Onesimus Online: history, theology, culture, the church, and other dangerous stuff. If you are at all interested in theology, theological education in Africa, global Christianity, missions, evangelicalism, American cultural Christianity, and other related topics, you might enjoy his blog–and having your thinking provoked and deepened. I know Bill appreciates the broader dialog.  Bill and his wife are both pastors, graduates of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, PhDs from Cambridge, and teachers here at NEGST.  Previously, they taught in Ethiopia. Plus, they are a lot of fun to talk to;  I’ve learned a lot from them.

Here are a few “sound bytes” from some of Bill’s posts to whet your appetite:

The passing of evangelicalism

…We Western Evangelicals thought we were the center of the Christian universe, only to discover that the glory seems to have departed and moved south to Africa, Latin America and Asia. Those tongues-speaking, hallelujah-shouting, other-side-of-the-tracks-dwelling so-called Pentecostals, even more derisively labeled as ‘holy rollers’ by the upstanding Christians in my home church who, of course, knew better, have become the most explosive force in the global expansion of Christianity ever. There is not a single individual person in my systematic theology class who would not identify themselves as either Pentecostal or Charismatic. On the ‘mission field’ at least, the old paradigms of missionary Christianity are in the process of being leap-frogged entirely. ..
…Anyway, the point of all of this is that things have changed. Radically. Decisively. The old verities and polarities don’t work anymore (if they ever did). The systems and structures which we created to manage the world as we knew it are being pressed into service beyond their capacity to cope. This is not a call to somehow change Evangelicalism. It’s actually too late for that. Its day has passed and cannot be recovered. Instead, …

A Plea for Civility, Sanity and Integrity in Theological/Political Debate (3 personal examples)

Theology is not safe:

…there is another reason why I am undertaking this blog. Theology is a dangerous thing. Theology that attempts to reduce God to what I can understand about God is an attempt to tame God. But the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures is untamable. Our Western theological traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are attempts to mount God onto a specimen board, attempts to dissect and label God’s constituent parts, attempts to deduce divine physiology from divine structure. But efforts to catalogue the parts fails to apprehend the whole. Our orthodoxies miss the point…

…This blog then is becoming increasingly like my own incident at the fords of the Jabbok, my own wrestling with the one who refuses to be named and categorized…

The Western Captivity of African Christianity

…Not only are we forcing Western Evangelical categories on African students as the measure of all that’s true in the world, but we have simply assumed that our model of theological education itself is the baseline for all subsequent thinking on the matter…

…We theological educators in Africa are doing a bang-up job of reproducing North American Evangelicals for Africa, replete with our ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity. But in doing so, I’m not at all certain that we are either being true to New Testament Christianity or engaging effectively with the people of this continent as they really are…

Brain tumors, theological education and the church

The human brain is an unimaginably complex piece of work…Though my extended parable may be like the tumor it describes – a malignant profusion of words that obliterates the intended purpose – the purpose itself remains. The concern of this post is with theological education as it is actually practiced, especially at the higher levels, and its relationship with the church it’s intended to serve. My concerns come from my own experience as one who has benefitted from theological education and who has gone on to serve several churches in a professional ministerial capacity, and from my observations of theological education in actual practice…

…I think there are likely a number of reasons contributing to this fundamental dysfunction in our churches. First,…

….The breathtaking irony of all this is, having created such an institutionalized system for training our leaders (the theological education industry), a system that has succeeded in taking us further and further afield from that which Christ is calling us to be, we heedlessly presume our institutional model to be the most effective way to train Nigerians or Indians or Chinese or Ethiopians for the ministry…

Africa, Spiral Logic, Systematic Theology, and the Perils of Theological Education

The Indefensible Evangelical Habit of Shooting Our Wounded

Last week there was a gun battle outside our gate. Four gangsters had hijacked cars and shot drivers and the authorities finally caught up with them just over the fence from my house. In the ensuing firefight, two of the carjackers were killed outright, one escaped over the fence (and through my garden!), and the fourth lay wounded on the road…

Believers Baptism vs. Infant Baptism, Must it Matter?

Evangelicalism Inc.

…Not only are the Western Prosperity gods raking it in, but developing-world prosperity-god-wannabees are trying desperately to get in on the cash…Dare I even mention the Evangelical publishing industry, which seems to have taken on the role of God in conservative academic and popular religion circles, raising up this one and ignoring that one, and on the grounds of whether or not it is ‘marketable’. I can’t imagine Jeremiah being able to secure a publishing contract from this crowd…

…Then there are the incredibly large and wealthy Christian aid organizations poised globally to respond immediately to the latest front page disaster and who must raise gazillions of dollars not only to feed the starving, but to buy the planes and Toyota land cruisers and computers and iPhones and Blackberries and pay the travel fees for all the conferences and meetings and consultations that must happen in the background for the hungry to be fed…

Does this bother anybody else?

…I do not deny the good intentions of most (I hope) of my fellow Christians involved in these so-called ‘ministries’. But I can’t help but thinking that we Evangelicals have become like addicts hooked on methamphetamine. We’ve got to have more, more, more. We’ve got to be successful, or at least appear successful, because if we are or appear so, more people will be drawn to our ‘ministry’ which will make us all the more successful. But like the meth addict, this stuff is destroying us…We dare not take a genuinely prophetic stance on anything, because if we do, someone will be offended and we will lose support. We’ve become like Ahab’s court prophets, cunningly discerning which way the wind is blowing before committing ourselves on any issue, and viciously smacking down anyone who does not toe the party line.

We Evangelicals are seriously compromised. And seriously compromised people are like salt that’s lost its savor…

And much, much MORE.

My Book

African American Theology Reconsidered; a reformed critique (Bacote B&C)

In light of some of my reflections on theologies from different cultural perspectives, my eye caught this review from Vincent Bacote in the latest issue of Books and Culture: African American Theology Reconsidered: A Reformed Critique

Recently a friend told me about an experience he and his wife had as students at a flagship evangelical seminary in the early 1980s. "The black church," one of their professors explained, "is not really a church because it does not have its own theology. Rather it’s a social organization." Presumably he was basing his judgment on the absence of systematic theology articles and books produced by historically African American denominations. My friend didn’t say whether the professor, in a moment of notable self-reflection, went on to add " … and every day when I look in the mirror I ask myself how the tradition of which I am a part effectively guaranteed that this would be the case, especially in evangelicalism," or "of course, since our theological task is to winsomely deliver the faith once delivered across all contexts, I suppose having their ‘own’ theology is not the goal for a genuinely catholic church." I doubt that is how the conversation continued at that moment or in many other places where the same assumption has reigned as "a simple matter of historical fact."

While a search for tomes of Christian dogmatics written by African American theologians may yield little, Thabiti M. Anyabwile discovered that there is a much richer theology in the history of the African American church than one might expect. In The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, Anyabwile introduces us to figures such as Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, and Olaudah Equiano and makes us more aware of the theology of the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the theology which was woven throughout slave narratives. Turning the spotlight on these figures presents the opportunity to write African American theology into the story of Christian theology in the United States. This is important, as it is unlikely that most students of theology at evangelical colleges and seminaries will learn that Hammon and Haynes were contemporaries of figures such as George Whitefield and John Wesley. The theology we discover is neither novel nor distinctively African American—that is not the point…

After a serious critique of the book, Bacote adds,

…Anyabwile argues that we must be careful about how we think of the relationship between Christianity and cultural influences. He charges that the trends he deplores have been "shaped more by historical and cultural practice than by Scripture," yet he seems unaware that he must in turn ask himself if he is accepting certain Western (Reformed) cultural norms as biblical.

Finally, when it comes to the reason for the decline itself, I am curious as to why Anyabwile leaves out the biggest culprit of all: America. In a country that has privileged innovation and elevates the individual and weaves the American dream into every possible situation, is it a surprise that not only the African American church but the U.S. church in general is better acquainted with consumerism than with Scripture?

The afterword briefly offers suggestions for reversing the decline. Recentering the Bible, re-exalting God, recovering the gospel, and revitalizing the church are emphases most would champion. Here, however, one finds indications that Anyabwile desires the African American church to become a kind of "truly Reformed" church if it is to find its way. As a neo-Calvinist myself, I am warm to the legacy of Calvin, but I find it dubious to suggest the use of the "regulative principle of worship." Every tradition has had its debates about how the Bible instructs us to worship God, and I am unconvinced that introducing the regulative principle (a subject of ongoing debate within the Reformed tradition) will be much help, especially to those who are self-consciously in other streams of the faith.

My concerns aside, I am thankful to Anyabwile for helping to initiate a much-needed conversation. This book puts African Americans back into the story of Christian theology, and we must continue bringing to light the contributions of those so long disregarded.

Vincent Bacote, African American Theology Reconsidered: A Reformed Critique, Books and Culture (Sept 2009)

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Systemic challenges facing African theologians

Following are some of my own observations about some of the systemic challenges my colleagues face in trying to do genuine African theology—dialogue between African cultures and the world of the Bible. (My experience has been largely with evangelical institutions, but many of the principles might apply more broadly.) Please feel free to add some of your own observations.

[no particular order; numbered to facilitate comments]

  1. Almost all formal theological training is done in the West or by Western-trained African theologians who have been indoctrinated to Western priorities and methodologies. (All of us are shaped by our mentors, and our mentors are shaped by their environments.)
  2. Many theological schools in Africa tend to depend on resources being doled out by Western institutions with Western interests.
  3. African thinkers are forced to write for Western audiences in order to gain academic credibility and get published.
  4. Whereas Western theologians have the luxury of being able to be essentially mono-cultural, successful African theologians (who wish to be published) have to have a sophisticated mastery both Western and African thought patterns and ways of communicating.
  5. Many of the best and brightest African academic pioneers have been snatched up by western institutions where they are forced to spend most of their time catering to white American audiences and explaining Africa to them (e.g. Sanneh, Tienou, Katongole).
  6. In any theological institution there are already strong, established feelings about “how theology should be done.”
  7. Evangelicals, especially, are very nervous about any new ways of doing theology.
  8. Specific denominational dogmas are so sacrosanct that all we can do is regurgitate acceptable “truth” (from the teaching vessel to the recipient student and hope it doesn’t experience any corruption in the process.)
  9. Seminary and Bible school programs and curriculums in Africa are almost exactly the same as their Western counterparts. (Accreditation is a factor, but not the only factor.)
  10. Africa is often perceived by and portrayed to outsiders as a dark, poverty-stricken, crisis-ridden continent. (What could it possibly have to offer?)
  11. The fear of syncretism—Christo-paganism. (While this might be a genuine concern in a few, rare cases, the fear of this extreme should not prevail.)
  12. Many of the most successful African academics are not in touch with their own traditional cultural heritage; they may not even speak their own mother tongues, which could help shape their theological thinking.
  13. Creative African theology is not given very much institutional priority in terms of grants and infrastructure support that frees African thinkers with the resources, freedom, and focused time to pursue research and writing African theology.
  14. The sheer number and diversity of different African cultures can be overwhelming.
  15. Genuine African theology requires cross-disciplinary expertise. In addition to the biblical studies expertise needed to understand the Bible in its original cultural context, ethnographic research along with anthropological and sociological analysis are needed to help immerse the theologian in different African cultural worldviews. (Doubles and triples the fields of academic expertise required.)
  16. We don’t have access to that many models of how African theology can be done. In some ways we keep going back to the same few pioneers who laid the groundwork; new creative efforts need to be encouraged.
  17. The younger, brilliant African theologians I know here are too busy addressing pressing community needs—pastoring churches, running NGOs, doing administration, working to change political leadership, etc. The ones that do teach in academic institutions tend to be teaching course overloads and are buried in administration—in addition to all the normal community pressures.

I recognize that this portrait risks severe caricature, but perhaps it will stir some of your ideas. Catholics seem to have done a far better job of supporting African scholarship (most of the books on my shelf related to African theology—written by both Protestants and Catholics—are published by Catholic presses), but in practice, they seem to have institutional and hierarchical challenges that many Protestant churches wouldn’t.

Cf. bibliography for African Christianity or (by date) or the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (e.g. Musa Dube, Nyambura Njoroge, Mercy Ouyoye, Isabel Phiri, etc.) for more African theologizing.

African theology’s window of opportunity

Like the theology of the early church fathers, genuine African (Christian) theological reflection arises out of the dialog between cultural ways of thinking and the Biblical story. African theologians today have a unique opportunity to enrich Christian theology in many of the same ways that the early church fathers did by authentically engaging and translating the gospel into new cultural frameworks (Kwame Bediako—Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Regnum, 1992). During the era of independence, there seemed to be an explosion of energy for African theologies, but current efforts seem not to be getting the attention they could be.

Unfortunately, this unique window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

The very old African Christians who understand and appreciate their traditional cultures are dying off. Many of of the youngsters today either don’t know or don’t appreciate their traditional cultures. In some parts of Africa, it is already almost too late. Where we find third and fourth generation Christians, believers tend to be more conservative and Western in their Christianity—they grew up in schools of older missionary thought that condemned almost every component of the traditional cultures. The younger generation, which could be more open to incorporating African cultural values into their theology, has become so thoroughly secularized or westernized that most of them never learned their own traditions—some don’t even speak the mother tongues of their parents. There are still some older Africans who are in touch with their traditional roots and we should take advantage of their presence while we can. Some of these elders have thought deeply about how the Gospel speaks—or could have spoken—in ways that resonated better with the African worldview. (Some of their analysis has been generated by watching Westerners do inculturation of the Gospel badly.)

The sobering conclusion is that we may have a narrow window of opportunity within which to take advantage of some of the rich African cultural heritages to enrich global theology before the chance slips away forever (in some places 20-30 years before this older generation dies with their rich cultural knowledge). African theologians will continue to gain prominence, and the legacy of older traditions will always endure is many respects, but maybe not with the richness with which they are lived, understood, and remembered today.

The realization that certain theological insights from African cultures were slipping away hit me two years ago when I was interviewing a seventy-year-old Christian couple on the shores of Lake Victoria about eschatology. This couple clearly loved Jesus, loved the church, and had some incredibly rich reflections on how the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and power over death could have meaningfully transformed Luo burial rituals (while maintaining some of the core elements). The church of Western modernity had tried to scrap every aspect of the cultural practices wholesale. As this elderly couple talked, their fifty-year-old son entered the room. He was already a generation too late, and wasn’t aware of half of the things they were telling me; these things simply weren’t a part of his world of experience. That day, I left with an fuller understanding of the hope of the resurrection. I also left with a sense of urgency—that our generation might be missing out on an incredibly wonderful ideas.

During a PhD seminar here, a recognized scholar of the Pentateuch was talking about Leviticus and casually asked for some experiences with sacrifice from the various African cultures represented in the room. As the stories started flowing, he had to ask for pen and paper so he could take notes. It was clear to him that these students had a lot more first-hand information about ritual and sacrifice generally than he had been able to uncover in his extensive library research.

When we finally grasp the potential contributions of African cultures to theological reflection, will it be too little too late?

Coming up:  Institutional barriers to doing genuine African theology and quotes from African theologians.

Note: I had been saving this topic for a time when I could give it some extra attention, but some of my friends have urged me to post it “as is” in hopes that others (from my very limited sphere of influence) might help encourage the conversation.

The fundamental problem with conservative Reformed theology is . . .

. . .  is that it’s structure of the universe is law-based.  I generally consider my outlook “Reformed” in in terms of seeing redemptive history as good creation by God, corruption by evil, and redemption by God, which ultimately will make the world the way it is supposed to be (see part 4 below). However, I strongly distance myself from just about anything having to do with the various conservative sub-cultures of Reformed theology (especially those who call themselves the Truly Reformed TR). While I know lots of good people in these environments, but systemically it seems to lack the relational presentation of the God of the Bible, and as the president of my school puts it, “Bad systems always swallow good people.” I’ve always wondered why the truly reformed sub-culture systemically tends towards the end of the spectrum away from love and the fruits of the Spirit. Daniel Kirk (Sibboleth) may have provided somewhat of an answer with his great series of posts on the fundamental problem with conservative Reformed theology (BTW: Kirk and I went to the the same seminary; he was  a year ahead of me; I wish I was half as smart as he is). UPDATE: Unfortunately, Kirk took his blog off-line, so all the links are broken. (You can proabably google the blog for the time being and click on the “cached” link).

1.) The Universe (law and the deeper magic); 2.) Ethics; 3.) Atonement; 4.)  What did Jesus Do?: Why the conservative Reformed first loved, then came to despise NT Wright.; 5). Cur Homo (Jesus as man); 6) Why Israel?; 7.) Revealed

In case you aren’t fully convinced that the whole series is worth a sustained read, I’ll try to post enough quotes to really whet your appetite (but they just aren’t as beautiful out of context):

Part 1: The Universe (law and the deeper magic)

. . . The Westminster Standards make this correlation: moral law = covenant of works = Decalogue. . . Westminster Confessional theology is based on the conviction that the Law of God gives ultimate [yes, ultimate] structure to the cosmos.

. . . If you read through Presbyterian books of order, the entire church structure was created with the conviction that the church consists in “courts”. . .. . . When the ultimate structure of the universe is the law, the purpose of the church is then to enforce that law. In other words, the litigious disposition of Presbyterian and Reformed theology is inherent to that community’s understanding of how God’s universe works. . .

. . . Why do folks determine themselves to be in the right if they can crush those who stand in theological opposition?

. . . I don’t believe that Presbyterians can truly overcome their self-devouring dysfunction until they abandon the idea that law is the ultimate force in the universe and the church exists as a court to enact that law on the earth. . .

Part 2: Ethics

“Should the death and resurrection of Jesus transform how we see ourselves acting as faithful followers of God?” The answer I see in the NT is yes, but the legal framework of the conservative Reformed Tradition requires it to say no.

. . . this biblical theology only works by stripping the biblical narratives of the historical particularity which gives them substance—and in so doing leaves Reformed theology without any mechanism for having its ethics influenced by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

On the decontextualization of the texts . . .

[In contrast to this Reformed theology, the NT teaches:] Yes, love your neighbor as yourself. But…We now have a fuller picture of love: Jesus gives us the old command, “love one another,” and yet it is simultaneously a new command: “As I have loved you; greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…”

. . . Christian ethics are cruciform, because the commands of love are tied to a narrative in which God’s great act of love is shown to us in Jesus’ going to death on the cross. . .

. . . the ultimate “is” of the cosmos is not the moral law, but the love of God put on display in the cross of Christ. Thus the ultimate “do” is not “keep the moral law” but rather “embody the cruciform love by which God embraced you to himself.”

. . . We need, a narrative of salvation, and of the cosmos, that writes us into itself by making us truly “Christians”—little Christs, not as District Attorneys and defense attorneys and judges running about declaring the system to which all must conform, but as self-giving lovers of the creation and creatures that God created for our own and God’s own glory.

Part 3: Atonement

One thing that has been a source of continual puzzlement to me over the years is why Reformed Theology has come to put so much weight on theological ideas that are nowhere found in scripture. Two examples:

  1. “imputation the active righteousness of Christ” . . . Jesus keeps the Law, and his record of Law-keeping is reckoned as the believers–and that’s why believers get to be justified. . . Jesus’ merit becomes our merit. . . So what’s the big deal? . . . no NT writer ever says such a thing, nor is it entailed as the deduction of anything else they say. This is a position required by a theological system, but not evidently the system the NT writers were working with (if they had such a thing).
  2. Limited Atonement—infamous “L” in the T-U-L-I-P of five-point Calvinism.

. . . this leaves the Gospels almost completely out of the equation. They are scoured for the 5 or 6 references to “faith” connected with “salvation” that we can use to substantiate justification by faith, and then we turn the rest into proofs that Jesus really is God.

[But in the Gospels,] Jesus heals sick people: he’s not only on mission to remit sin, but the death and decay that according to the biblical narrative were unleashed when humanity ceded its vocation to rule the world on God’s behalf. . .

[Christmas hymn:] “No more let sins and sorrows grow or thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.” That cosmic picture of restoration is what Jesus brings–not only atoning for guilt, but setting humans at one with God, each other, the powers, and creation. . .

Part 4: Why the conservative Reformed first loved, then came to despise NT Wright: (What did Jesus Do?).

. . . two crucial differences:

(1) Wright sees in the OT’s assessment of the “problem” not only sin but also injustice, persecution, groaning creation, etc. In other words, the restoration of the cosmos is going to have to deal with the powers that war against God’s good purposes–powers that are greater than the sum of the rebellion lodged in persons’ hearts.

(2) For Wright the covenants made by YHWH to deal with the problem are covenants established with people in time. This points to the most significant underlying difference in perspective: For scripture and for Wright what matter are

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Westminster Theological Seminary formalizes its litmus test for faculty

Westminster Theological Seminary has just posted a 10 page document of ‘affirmations and denials’ (pdf). [For background go to postures and trajectories of the Westminster debate]

According to the website:

The Board directs that the Affirmations and Denials . . . be utilized by the Seminary as important clarifications of doctrine and practice for all who take the Westminster Faculty and Board vows, such that it is understood that they present the Board’s understanding of critical aspects of the Bible’s doctrine of Scripture (the superior standard and only infallible rule of faith and practice) as well as the Westminster Standards’ (the inferior secondary standards to the Scriptures) doctrine of Scripture, as well as  critical clarifications of the hermeneutical method that the Scriptures and the Subordinate Standards teach.

And thus while they are neither amendments to the Standards, nor confessional documents in and of themselves, the Board finds them to serve as defining statements and clarifications of the Seminary’s core beliefs in the following ways:

a. They clarify theological and hermeneutical misunderstandings that have occurred in the recent theological controversies that have impacted the Seminary.
b. They refine core commitments of the Seminary by clarifying foundational theological boundaries established by Scripture and the Standards for the teaching of our faculty and potential faculty hires in these controverted matters.

Westminster’s Affirmations and Denials – OUTLINE:

Introduction (the full pledges of the Faculty and the Board)

I. Confessional Subscription
A. Basic character of subscription
B. Progress in understanding Scripture
C. Specific obligations implied by the pledge
D. Judgments about subscription

II. Confession and Mission
A. Universality of truth
B. The legitimacy of pedagogical adaptation

III. Scripture
A. The inspiration of Scripture
B. The interpretation of Scripture
C. The pertinence of ancient contexts: Ancient Near-Eastern and First Century Mediterranean World
D. The truthfulness of Scripture
E. The role of the Holy Spirit

IV. Special Areas of Interest
A. Special Area: Harmony of Scripture
B. Special Area: Implications of Details in Scripture, Including NT Use of the OT
C. Special Area: Old Testament Teaching
D. Special Area: Old Testament History

Westminster Seminary Distinctives

Some quotes that got my attention:

We deny that there are truths found in Scripture but not in the Standards that overthrow or undermine any element in the system of doctrine expounded in the Standards. (2)

We affirm that a person who voluntarily pledges subscription to the Standards is bound to keep his pledge. (WCF 22; 31.3.)(3)

We deny that Board and faculty judgments about compatibility with the Standards constitute an illegitimate interference with an individual’s conscience or an illegitimate abridgment of academic freedom. (3)

We affirm that, in the context of subscription Continue reading

Two things that mess up "good" theology . . .

Two things throw a monkey wrench in “good theology”

1. Reading the whole Bible carefully in light its original historical, social, and cultural contexts.

2. Trying to translate and to apply the Good News of Jesus in a totally different language and cultural way of thinking.

The first helps us come to grips with the fact that God has always revealed himself in ways that speak relevantly to a specific language and cultural way of thinking; God is contextual. The second helps us come to grips with how culturally bound our own ways of thinking about God are – even when we think we are being faithful to the Scriptures.

My guess is that anyone who has spent a significant portion of his life doing one or both of these things is going to have theology that is “messed-up” in one way or another. These two things make it hard to force everything into our neat, theological boxes. So who is likely to have the most “messed-up” or controversial theologies? biblical scholars and cross-cultural missionaries; contrast these folks with church historians and systematic theologians and you frequently get sparks. (Does the name Paul ring any bells? Think of the flack he took for cross-culturally reinterpretation of the Scriptures.)

So for those of you on the home front, if your missionary dares to open up to you about some of her theological struggles (risking her livelihood), cut her some slack. She’s just encountered the God of the Bible in a different language and cultural expression.  “The Gospel will never be fully understood, until it has been expressed in every language and culture.” (William Dyrness quoting somebody.)

Ben Witheringon III has some important thoughts about the limitations of “good” theology:

. . . And all too often, the apparent intellectual coherency of a theological system is taken as absolute and compelling proof that this view of God, salvation,the world must be true and all others be heresy, to one degree or another. But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae. . .

. . . While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God . . . Indeed, the Bible is pretty clear that God quite deliberately did not ‘tell all’ either in general revelation in creation or in the Scriptures(read Job), not least because God wants us to trust him and to build a trust relationship with him. What God has done is that God has revealed enough so that we may be redeemed but not so much that we do not have to trust God about the future.

I must confess that as a NT scholar I am inherently suspicious about theological systems . . . rather than give a pat answer I am more apt to repeat the words of John Muir who said words to the following effect– “We look at life from the back side of the tapestry. And most of the time what we see is loose threads, tangled knots and the like. But occasionally God’s light shines through the tapestry and we get a glimpse of the larger design with God weaving together the darks and lights of existence.” . . .

Please understand that I am not suggesting that we should not think logically and coherently about our faith, and do our best to connect the dots. Nevertheless, we should be placing our faith in God, not in a particular theological system. There is a difference. In the former case the faith is largely placed in whom we know and whom we have encountered. In the latter case the faith can be too often placed in what we believe we know about God and theological truth.

. . . Humility is fostered more by a recognition of and an owning up to what you don’t know about God, than what you do. This is not because we do not know a good number of things about God both from the Word and the through the Spirit. We do. We know enough to trust God for what we do not know and understand. And in the end our posture should be that of Anselm– ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ faith seeking understanding, not ‘intellectus quaerens fidium’ ‘Understanding seeking and defining and limiting faith’.

Read Witherington’s [now re-contextualized] post: John Piper explains why Calvinists are so negative. Listen to John Piper respond to why so many Calvinists and Reformed seem mean or abrasive.

Who is an evangelical? Barna’s definition

I’m always curious how people define “evangelical.” According to the most recent Barna report: How People of Faith Voted in the 2008 Election.

Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. (Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.)

Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include:

  1. saying their faith is very important in their life today;

  2. believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians;

  3. believing that Satan exists;

  4. believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works;

  5. believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth;

  6. asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and

  7. describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.

Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended [What you say, not what you do. ;-)]. (Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”)

What do you think? Does this fit your definition of evangelical? What would you add? What would you take away? How would you define it differently?

I’m interested in the perspectives of both self-reported “insiders” and “outsiders” – of all stripes.

Inquiring minds want to know.

Doing doctrine (Thiselton via McKnight)

thiselton-hermeneutics-of-doctrine-2007.jpgScot McKnight has a short review of Thiselton’s Hermeneutics of Doctrine. (Click here for McKnight’s full review).

Here are some gems from that.

properly understood, doctrine involves the disposition of belief, which always includes formation and leads on to transformation . . . any piece of theology that does not lead to worship, absorption of God’s work on the cross of Christ, and sanctity in life in community, is not genuine theology.

What does it mean to “believe” a doctrine as true? Belief. . . is “inextricably embodied in patterns of habit, commitment, and action, which constitute endorsement, ‘backing,’ or ‘surroundings’ for the utterance.” To “believe” is to take a stand in the face of opposition. . . act as if it were true.” To believe is “performatory” in character. . . belief in a doctrine involves “communal commitment and communal formation.”

Here’s how I [McKnight] would put it: our beliefs emerge from our community, they reflect our time and our day, and they lead us to live differently.

. . . Formation and the ensuing transformation, then, are not elements of “practical” theology to be explored once we’ve learned the “systematic” (read: impractical) theology.

. . . Theology itself is praxis. . . to confess is to open oneself to be wounded. . .

. . . Genuine community, as Thiselton relentlessly proves in each chapter, involves commitment to listening to the whole Bible and to the voices of the Church throughout church history. Community-shaped theology is not just “my” community, but the community God formed with Abraham and that continues throughout the world to this day.