The high-wire of sound doctrine

high-wireFalse doctrine can have a ring of truth to it. That’s what makes it attractive. But there’s a catch: Wrong teaching results when a single truth is isolated from other balancing truths.

Two examples come to mind. The first is from Psalm 46:10a (NIV): “Be still and know that I am God.” In our frenetic world, many of us need to rediscover the practice of quietness. Catherine Marshall spoke of the “prayer of relinquishment.” We must come to a place of stillness where we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.

Yet for the person who has trouble gearing down and waiting on the Lord, there is a polar opposite. This is the individual who is passive almost to the point of fatalism. Their motto is que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be. Such a person doesn’t need Psalm 46:10; instead, give them a dose of James 2:17. Tell them that faith without works is dead. Remind them to put feet to their prayers.

A second example has to do with how we describe God’s character. I’m reading through A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak. It’s representative of 21st century North American writers who emphasize the love and grace of God, and what amazing attributes of our Triune God these are! For those who have lingered in oppresssive, legalistic settings in the church, a book like Jersak’s is salve for a bruised spirit, just what the doctor  ordered.

But love and grace are not all Scripture has to say about God. Have we so emphasized these two truths that we risk losing sight of counterbalancing truths apparent in the life of Christ and the New Testament as a whole? Jesus was willing to make a whip and drive moneychangers from the Temple, an event so pivotal to the narrative that it is recorded in all four Gospels (John 2:13-17, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-47, Matthew 21:12-13). And the writer to the Hebrews thunders that our God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, NIV). The same Bible that affirms God’s love affirms God’s wrath. If we are unable or – worse yet – unwilling to hold these twin truths together, then we’ll merely repeat the mistake of the Israelites who got bored at the foot of Mt. Sinai, forging our own golden calf, reshaping God into how we imagine the LORD should be instead of bowing before who God actually is. God ends up as the stereotypical doting and permissive grandpa, the substitute teacher who kids at first think is fun but ultimately whose clueless classroom management cannot earn their respect.

Sound doctrine is a balancing act. Scripture is nuanced and we can’t afford to lean too far in one direction or another, or we may tumble off the high wire. Let’s avoid falsehood by continuing to balance truth with truth.

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Image credit: Music Teacher’s Helper

 

 

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Back to Genesis…and the First Testament

Behind our quizzing boxes. I’m the “I refuse to smile at this picture” boy on the right.

It’s hard for me to read Genesis without being transported back in time to the corner room under Lancaster Hall at Trinity church. There as a boy of 8, I came every Wednesday night and joined a dozen other children as my mother (Marilyn) and her friend, Judy, put us to the test. Perched behind our cardboard boxes, we’d listen to the multiple choice questions on Genesis then answer by pulling out one of the cards numbered 1 to 4. As a junior quizzer, I soaked up God’s Word; it still fascinates me.

We Christians underestimate the impact on our faith of Genesis and the Old Testament generally. Dr. Alvin Lawhead for many years taught Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary. My wife and I attended the same congregation as he did in the Kansas City area. Sometimes he would preach and invariably his text came from the Old Testament. As he took his place behind the pulpit, some took out their New Testament and waited for him to announce his text. He’d ask us to turn to a portion in Jeremiah or Isaiah, then good naturedly would lower his glasses on his nose, smile, and query:

You haven’t left 2/3 of your Bible at home, have you?

Dr. Lawhead’s point was well-taken. Truth be told, we don’t practice a Christian ethic as much as we practice a Judeo-Christian ethic. The church decided early on – thanks to the controversy with Marcion – that we accept the 39 ancient books we inherited from the Jewish people as part of our Christian Scriptures. While it is true that we must always determine what a specific Old Testament teaching has to say to us in the light of Christ and the New Testament, it’s surprising how many Old Testament teachings are taken up without change by Christians.

Dr Lawhead (left) poses with an unknown Seminary student
Dr. Lawhead (left) poses with an unknown Seminary student

When I’ve taught biblical interpretion to pastors in Africa, to explain the relationship between the Testaments, I’ve used the illustation of two e-mails announcing a meeting. Imagine that you check your e-mail and find the following message from me:

Please join me next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. in Helstrom 6 for a short prayer meeting.

On Monday, you receive a second e-mail from me:

Our short prayer meeting together next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. will be held in Helstrom 9.

I then ask my students: Where will you me meeting me for prayer next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.? Invariably, they will answer: We’ll be meeting you in Helstrom 9.

Now, a student might go to Helstrom 6 and end up praying alone. What went wrong? She hadn’t read my most recent communication which I’d sent. It would be no defense for her to say that my first e-mail cleary stated that Helstrom 6 was the venue. The later communication augments the former.

God has given us a more recent message called the New Testament. In this revelation – especially as seen in the birth, life, death, and resurrecton of Christ  as well as his teachings – something important has been added. Michael Lodahl in The Story of God calls it a “new twist in the story.” And there is no denying that this is an important twist!

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One Book, two approaches

chevalier_tuckerIn the film “Gigi,” Maurice Chevalier and Sophie Tucker sing the unforgettable “I remember it well.” (Click link to watch song). The aged couple reminisce about how they first met so many years ago. What’s strange – and comical – is that they agree on few of the details. On that day, was it raining or was it sunny? Did they meet at 9 a.m. or 8 a.m.? Was he on time to pick her up, or was he late? By the end of the song, there are many of these at-odds-with-each other memories. What is amazing about the song, however, is a simple realization: The details really don’t matter. What matters is that they met and fell in love. That fact no one can deny.

“I remember it well” has something to teach us when we come to Scripture. There are times when the Bible itself “remembers” it in two different ways:

  1. Were humans created on the sixth day or the fifth? Before re-reading Genesis, I would have confidently told you that humans – along with animals – were created on the sixth day. So says Genesis 1:24-26. Yet it’s not quite that simple. The Bible also says that humanity was created “on the day the LORD God made earth and sky” (see Gen. 2:4b and 7, CEB). Exactly when did God make earth and sky? Genesis 1:20-23 is clear: That happened on the fifth day. The details differ.
  2. Were there two angels at the empty tomb or one?  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the crux of the Christian faith. That makes it all the more surprising to see that the Gospels themselves have different memories of one of the details from that morning. Matthew 28:2 recounts a single “angel of the Lord” who comes down from heaven and rolls away the stone. On the other hand, Luke 24:4 speaks of two “men” who were dressed in “gleaming bright clothing” (CEB). So which was it, one messenger from heaven or two? The details differ.
  3. What did Saul’s traveling companions on the road to Damascus experience? There is an intriguing variance in the details of the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. While Saul was encircled with a light from heaven and fell to the ground – even as a voice from heaven spoke to him – his traveling companions “heard the voice but saw no one” (Acts 9:7, CEB). Later defending himself before a crowd in Jerusalem, Saul (now Paul) recounts: “My traveling companions saw the light, but they didn’t hear the voice of the one who spoke to me” (22:9, CEB). Did the companions hear the voice or didn’t they? The two possibilities are mutually exclusive.

saul

What is the takeaway from Genesis 1-2? We do not stake our faith on harmonizing two divergent creation stories in every detail. Rather, we understand the bottom line, that God is the creator, however he happened to create. That’s what matters.

And the resurrection? Whether there were two angels at the tomb or one in the last analysis is unimportant. What all four Gospels attest is that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s what matters.

What shall we say about Saul’s traveling companions? Whatever they saw or heard, one fact is undeniable: On the road to Damascus, Saul met the risen Christ and the man from Tarsus was never the same! We must not lose sight of that crucial takeaway, however the minor details in Paul’s recounting might vary.

Behind these three examples are two different ways of reading holy Scripture, one fundamentalist and one flexible. The first is uptight when seeming discrepancies arise; the second realizes that – while many discrepancies can be resolved – it’s vital not to neglect the main point by getting distracted by incidentals. Don’t overlook the forest for the sake of the trees.

As a child, I sang the words to a simple song:

The B-I-B-L-E

yes that’s the book for me!

I stand alone on the Word of God

The B-I-B-L-E.

If the Bible is the firm foundation on which I stand, then logically any apparent discrepancy must be explained. Much is at stake, after all, my very faith. Yet Wesleyans have taken an approach different than that of fundamentalists. We do not believe that the Bible itself is our foundation. Rather, it is Christ who is the firm place we have planted our feet. Scripture points us to him. While the Bible is imperfect, Christ is perfect. He is the One in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9, NIV). He is our place to stand.

Chevalier’s and Tucker’s charming song has something to teach us. Was it raining or fair weather when they met? Did their outing get a late start or did it begin on time? Was it 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.? When all was said and done, the affectionate old couple didn’t care. What counted was that they had met and that they had fallen in love; there was no denying that. As we come to Scripture, their attitude is worth emulating. There are details that Scripture itself remembers differently, but of one central reality we are sure. Here we solidly plant our feet: Christ died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. Maranatha!

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Image credits

Chevalier and Tucker: YouTube.com

Saul: Markmcmillion.com

5 things I learned by reading the entire Bible in 2014

??????????This is the time for making New Year’s resolutions. Last year, I made two that I’m glad to say – by the grace of God – I accomplished:

1) Read through the Common English Bible in 2014 (see the plan here);

2) Wrote a daily devotional guide, Trente Minutes Avec Dieu, for speakers of French, available here. This was based on what I read in the reading plan outlined in # 1.

As I look back on the experience of reading through the Bible, at least five observations come to mind:

1. This Book contains some practical things!

It’s a tribute to a collection of 66 ancient writings that even in the year 2014 it contains what I would call  “Golden Passages” that speak to my own journey. So many could be cited, but here are just two:

“In your struggle against sin, you haven’t resisted yet to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4).

How deadly must sin be if the writer to the Hebrews says we should resist it to the point of shedding our blood? We take sin far too lightly.

“I sought the LORD and he answered me. He delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4).

I’m reminded due to stormy weather of a very turbulent landing in Johannesburg in late November, following a trip to Mozambique. It’s good to know verses like Psalm 34:4 in times like that!

2. This Book is filled with anger and blood.

There’s no avoiding the issue: the Bible is a violent book, especially large swaths of the Old Testament. The fictional character, President Jeb Barlett, admits in one episode of The West Wing: “I’m a New Testament man, myself.” Wycliffe Bible translators start by translating the New Testament for a good reason. Though there are passages in the Old Testament that present a softer, more loving God, they can be obscured by the horror of other sections. Don’t tell my Old Testament profs, but there’s a reason many preachers prefer the last 27 books to the first 39.

3. This Book is amazingly simple.

Vacation Bible School teaches young children verses like John 3:16 and 1 John 1:9. As they memorize those Scripture portions, their young minds comprehend some basic truths: God is my Creator, God loves me, God wants to forgive me, and God  wants to be part of my life. That’s the simple genius of the Bible.

4. This Book is amazingly complex.

On the other hand, men and women study for years to receive doctoral degrees in biblical literature. There is a constant stream of new commentaries being released to take into account recent findings about a myriad of questions related to the Bible and its background. (Check out the New Beacon Bible Commentary which is an excellent resource, available through the Nazarene Publishing House).

5. This Book will make you hungry for God.

Just when you’re ready to give up because of the complexity and tedious character of some parts of the Bible, all of the sudden there’s a passage that makes you want God more than anything:

“I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).

And then you realize: This Book really needs to be read through a Jesus lens. He is what makes it all come together.

If you want to read the Bible through in 2015, I’d encourage you to do so. Was it an easy year? No. Was it a worthwhile thing to do? Absolutely. Go for it!

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Image credit: Bibledrills.com

Edward Fudge on the resurrection

Dear readers:

The month of March 2014 is easily the busiest I have known in a long time, with meetings and conferences booked solid. So, I’ve decided – with his blessing – to pass on to you some of my favorite graceEmails from a friend mine, Mr Edward Fudge, author of The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. 3rd ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011). Edward is a retired lawyer and a fine biblical theologian, from the Church of Christ. Enjoy!

efudge
Edward Fudge

The Age of Reason was dawning, and an anti-Christian intellectual named Lepeau was desperate for advice. He had created a rational new religion, Lepeau told French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, but, despite its superiority to Christianity, it had failed to catch on. Might Talleyrand have any suggestions? “M. Lepeau,” the diplomat dryly replied, “to ensure success for your new religion, you need only two things. Arrange to have yourself crucified, and three days later rise from the dead.”

New religions recoil with horror at the suggestion and respond with derision when anyone says it aloud, but Jesus’ resurrection is the linch-pin of Christianity, without which it crumbles and disintegrates before our watching eyes. It identifies Jesus as the conqueror over death (Rev. 1:18), the world’s Savior, and the Jews’ Messiah (Acts 3:17-26). By raising him from the dead, God declared powerfully and publicly that Jesus is his Son (Rom. 1:4). By the resurrection, God ordained Jesus as the great shepherd of God’s sheep (Heb. 13:20-21), and consecrated him as the high priest who intercedes for us in the heavenly sanctuary (Rom. 8:31-39). Because Jesus is risen, we know that he will be our judge when he appears again in power to make all things new (Acts 17:30-31).

Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all preaching is empty, faith is worthless, the apostles become liars, sins remain unforgiven, Christians are pitiful fools, and dead believers have simply perished (1 Cor. 15:13-19). It is no wonder that Paul calls the resurrection of Jesus Christ a matter “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Indeed, if Jesus was not resurrected, nothing flows from Calvary but the memory of a travesty.

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Photo credit: Edwardfudge.com

What is your “Canon within the Canon” ?

The Waltons featured a scene where Olivia Walton (the mother) punished Mary Ellen by sending her up to her room, requiring her to memorize a certain number of Bible verses. Imagine the mother’s horror when a few hours later Mary Ellen came down and began reciting verses that were offbeat and downright gory! Maybe making Bible memorization a punishment is not the lesson we want our children to learn.

But that funny scene between mother and daughter underscores a reality for 21st century Christians:

There are parts of the Bible that we hardly ever read.

The “Canon” is the list of writings that Christians accept as inspired by God. Because of our benign neglect, do we end up with a “Canon within the Canon,” a de facto sizing down of the 66 books to a far slimmer volume what we call the Holy Bible?

What do we do with…

Genocide apparently ordered by Yahweh (Book of Joshua)?

God coming in the night to kill Moses even as Moses is en route to Egypt, in obedience to God’s command? (Exodus 4)?

The LORD’s instructions for applying the blood of the sacrifice to Aaron’s and his sons’ right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe (Exodus 29:24)?

The gang rape of a concubine by in Gibeah by some men in the town, and her husband who later dismembered her and sent her twelve body parts to the twelve tribes of Israel (Judges 19)?

These are merely four examples of passages (primarily in the Old Testament) that we avoid while reading or preaching. But let’s face it: There are neglected New Testament passages as well. Pastors, when was the last time that you preached out of the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38, or Revelation 6-18 with its mysterious symbols?

In our more honest moments, we realize that we all have our “Canon within the Canon,” our “life verse,” our “go to” portions of Scripture that bring us comfort in time of need. We may not like Marcion the ancient heretic be so bold as to declare the Old Testament off-limits, or to say that the God of the Jews is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, in the “actions speak louder than words” category, I wonder if we don’t end up in the same place through what we emphasize and what we ignore.

So how to we get out of this rut? Or, to use another metaphor, how do we change the mowing pattern so that we’re not always cutting the grass the exact same way?

1. Read the Bible through in a year.  This morning, the reading plan lead me to Mark 3:20-35, but also Numbers 3-4. Because I’ve been writing a French devotional each day, and alternating between the OT and NT passages as the basis for composing a short meditation, today I was “stuck” with instructions on what the duties of the various clans were when it came time for the children of Israel to move camp. So what of value does one say about that? Thankfully, John Bright’s book, The Authority of the Old Testament, gave me some help. He encouraged the reader to ask: What does this passage tell me about God? (He used more fancy words than that, but that was his point). So, I took Numbers 3-4 from the perspective of God wanting each of us to have a task in God’s work. It became a leadership lesson in how to deploy people in the Church. I don’t know that Bright’s method works every time, but it’s the best tool I’ve found to help us with those more difficult (or seemingly boring) passages. But back to the reading plan: If we weren’t forced to read some of the more obscure parts of Scripture because it’s on the schedule for the day, would we even read them at all?

2. Use the Lectionary when preparing sermons. By advising this, I admit that I’m telling others to do something that I’ve yet to do myself. My excuse is that my current ministerial role doesn’t take me into the pulpit every week. Still, I’ve read positive testimonies from those currently pastoring that using a tool like the Revised Common Lectionary is a good way to ensure that our people are getting a balanced spiritual diet as they listen to our preaching. As I monitor debates on the Internet, I wonder sometimes whether the New Testament only has four books, i.e. the Gospels. Arguments over morality seem to begin and end with Jesus. It makes me wonder: What about the rest of the New Testament? Does Paul have nothing to add? Peter? James? And of course the Old Testament still has something of enduring value to say, as long as we understand first what it meant to the original listeners before bringing it to the New Testament for what John Bright called a “verdict.” Well has it been said that only a study of the whole Bible makes for whole Christians. If this is true, then must not preaching as well be wide-ranging?

Mrs Walton didn’t want to hear Mary Ellen’s recitation of certain Bible verses. Likewise, our tendency is to unwittingly identify a “Canon within the Canon” by our reading and preaching habits. It won’t be easy, but we can do better. Let’s consider the full counsel of God and not just an abbreviated version.

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Photo credit: Biologos.org

An amazing guide through the End Times maze

roseIt’s not often that I recommend a resource without reservation. This is one of those times.

The slick pamphlet, “Four Views of the End Times” by Rose Publishing, lays out the details of historic premillenialism, amillenialism, dispensational premillenialism, and post-millenialism in a simple and helpful way. Usually I’m not a big “charts” fan, but the diagrams they provide help the student grasp the convergences and divergences between these four schools of thought regarding the proper interpretation of the disputed “millenium” concept from Revelation 20.

Tomorrow, I’ll use the pamphlet for an adult Bible study. I’m grateful for the good work others have done, so I don’t have to chop through the eschatological forest by myself, but can follow a path hewn out by others.

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Photo credit: Barnes and Noble