Find Your Place in the Divine Comedy

Christians sometimes say that it is important to “think biblically.” That is, in fact, the title of a book by a well-known American Christian leader. But how does one do that? Does one try to fill one’s thoughts with passages of Scripture? Or does thinking biblically have to do with remembering and referring to biblical teaching on all the various subjects that come up during the week? Or is it really about making decisions that conform to biblical doctrines or commands?

Thinking biblically probably involves all these things, but it also goes beyond them. One can routinely refer to biblical passages and even use Bible verses in the decision-making process and still fail to think biblically. Worse, one can use Bible verses to support decisions that are antithetical to biblical thought.

For example, people used biblical verses to support slavery in Europe and America. People have used biblical passages to support polygamy. When Jesus was teaching in Israel, people felt justified in opposing him because of their convictions about Bible texts.

I have occasionally been asked to view teaching videos and provide a critique. The teacher relies exclusively on the Bible, I have been told. Yes, the teacher referred to Bible verses constantly, but many of those verses were lifted out of their context to support a point of view. Further, the teacher disregarded important passages that did not fit the argument being promulgated. The teaching turned out to be counter-biblical despite the profligate use of Bible verses.

Biblical thinking does not start with using the Bible to support a doctrinal or ethical position. The truth is, if one comes to the Bible looking for support for a previously assumed position, he or she will probably find it. Such an approach, which has been all too familiar in Christian history, has been disastrous. The Holocaust, one must never forget, happened in a “Christian country” where some of the world’s best biblical scholars and theologians lived and worked.

Making decisions that are consistent with biblical teaching is of course important, but that is where biblical thinking leads, not where it begins. People who try to begin there will fail to make biblically-coherent decisions because they have got things in the wrong order. Biblical thinking does not try to force the Bible into our story but rather brings our lives into the Bible’s story, that is, the God’s.

Seeing oneself and one’s world as an ongoing part of the biblical narrative is the first step toward biblical thinking. To do so obliges a person to ask, “Where are we in God’s story?” It requires a person to accept the fact that he or she is not the story’s protagonist but is in a supporting role.

But there are other stories, competing narratives, which make this first step toward biblical thinking difficult. In the West, and particularly in America, there is another narrative that is told, a ubiquitous tale about the autonomy of self-made individuals. It is a story about freedom and self-actualization and the removal of limits. In this narrative a person makes not only his own way but his own self. People do not discover their purpose in life; they create it.

This narrative, which is always playing loudly in the background of our lives, can temporarily drown out the biblical narrative. Worse yet, it – the very short story of contemporary life – can be mistaken for the one true story of the world. Giving credence to its tale of autonomy and self-creation has led moderns and post-moderns to the irrational belief that they can shape the world to suit their fancies. It has undermined the concept of the common good, exacerbated the loneliness of twenty-first century American life, and led to confusion over gender identity and healthy sexual expression – for a start.

The cure for these troubles is not found in marshaling Bible verses but in entering the biblical story and submitting to one’s place in it. It is a great and exciting story, a Divine Comedy, where good triumphs over evil and love outlasts hate. Within this story the Bible makes sense and its truths shine like a lamp to our feet and a light for our path.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/18/2017

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If I Could Change One Thing, It Would Be Me

My wife and I recently traveled to Texas to visit our son and daughter-in-law and to do a little hiking in the Hill Country. For many weeks before our trip, I researched flights, car rentals, lodging and hiking trails. I usually did this at night, when I was already tired, which might explain some of the trouble we had on our travels.

I booked our flight flights on Southwest and kicked in the extra money to be in the first group of borders. (Southwest does not assign seats but does arrange boarding order.) On our way to the airport, we stopped at Ikea to pick up some shelving for our other son and daughter-in-law, who had checked inventory online to make sure we wouldn’t waste our time.

But the inventory list was off, and we were unable to get all the shelves that were needed. By the time we left Ikea, I was getting anxious about the time. The airport wasn’t far, but finding off-site parking and getting a shuttle took time. Getting through security was delayed. For some reason, TSA agents always seem to choose me to search, and it happened again: “I’m just going to slip my hand beneath the waistband of your pants…” (“You’re going to do what?”)

We hadn’t eaten, but I thought we would have time to grab a quick bite at McDonald’s. I was wrong. Our flight had been changed to a different gate, and by the time we got there the early boarding group, of which we were supposed to be part, had already boarded. My hopes for an exit seat and a little extra room for my six-foot-four frame were dashed.

That wasn’t the worst part. I used to get a stabbing pain – like an icepick right through the eye – a few minutes into the descent. Though it only lasted for thirty seconds or so, it would bring tears to my eyes. I hadn’t had that pain since I underwent surgery to straighten my nose five or six years ago – until this trip. This time the icepick went right between my eyes.

When we got to Texas, I discovered I had booked our rental car at the wrong airport. I asked the agent if we could change airports, and he said, “Sure. Just let me calculate the cost.” Instead of $248, the cost would now be $798. So, we grabbed a shuttle back to the airport, hopped aboard a taxi, and $65 dollars and about an hour later were at the right car rental place.

By the time we started the forty-five-minute drive to our hotel it was 11 PM. Unfortunately, our GPS couldn’t find the hotel, and neither could we. Nor could anyone else – I asked three people. Our forty-five-minute drive took an hour-and-a-half.

The next morning, we discovered the liftgate on the rental car didn’t work – the car I rented so we would have room for family to ride. And when it started misting, it became clear the washer fluid reservoir was dry.

So, pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I was tired and frustrated, and already fretting about returning the rental car on our trip home. But the return trip could not have gone better. The rental car company charged less than expected. A taxi was already at the facility, as if waiting for us, and charged just a little more than half the fare of the first cab. When we arrived at the airport, we discovered we had TSA pre-clearance – don’t know why, but we weren’t complaining. Though we were the 29th and 30th people in line, respectively, we somehow got first row seats – the most leg room on the plane. There were no icepicks on the way home, and the plane touched down about a half-hour before our ETA.

If I could change one thing about this experience, it wouldn’t be the rental car or the icepick pain, it would be … me. I would relax. “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” Jesus reminded us, and isn’t it true? Yet he managed to move through the world in a relaxed and confident manner, though the troubles he faced were bigger than rental cars and thirty-second pains. I hope to learn from him to do the same.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/11/17

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Which Bible Translation Should I Use?

Church members often ask pastors the same questions again and again. One of the more frequent ones, with a preamble, goes something like this: “Pastor, I need to get a new Bible. What would you recommend?”

It’s no wonder people ask. There is a dizzying variety of English translations of the Bible on the market. Look up a passage on biblegateway.com and you will have over 50 different English versions to choose from. Adding to the confusions is the fact that many of the versions come in a variety of packages: study bibles, teen Bibles, children’s Bible, men’s Bibles, Women’s Bibles, and more. There are coloring book Bibles, single women’s Bibles, “tween” Bibles, military Bibles, men’s Bible, Catholic Bibles – the list goes on ad absurdum. Christian Book Distributors offers almost 13,000 products under their “Bibles” category.

Most Bible versions fall somewhere on a spectrum between what is known as dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence translations. What that means, simply put, is that some versions try to translate thought for thought (dynamic equivalence) while others try to translate word for word (formal equivalence). In dynamic equivalence translations, the translators seek to provide the English reader with an experience like that which a first century reader would have had.

Perhaps the best of the dynamic equivalence translations is the immensely popular New International Version. The translation committee, comprised of notable scholars, writes in the preface, “The first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers. This has moved the translators to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts.”

Note that it is the Bible writer’s meaning the translators were going for. This is the NIV’s strength, but also its weakness, since the writer’s meaning is not always obvious and, thus, interpretation and not merely translation is required. But since interpretation is sometimes debatable – famously so in some passages – the reader must hope that the scholar’s interpretive skills are as good as his or her translation skills.

On the other end of the spectrum, the formal equivalence approach to translation, one finds the New American Standard Bible. Because this translation attempts to translate words rather than thoughts (though in a word order that makes sense to English readers), the NASB is a much more wooden translation.

This is the NASB’s weakness, but also its strength. It is more likely than the NIV to include conjunctions and connecting particles, and to follow the original language in its multiplication of subordinate clauses. Though this makes for clumsy English, the translated sentence is truer to the original writer’s style and linguistic thought pattern.

It should be said that all major translations fit somewhere on a spectrum between dynamic and formal equivalence. The NASB must interpret the writer’s intent at times, just like a dynamic equivalence translation, while the NIV will translate most words and phrases just like a formal equivalence translation.

So, one kind of translation attempts to be truer to the writer’s thought, while the other tries to remains truer to the reader’s understanding. How does one choose?

My recommendation would be that one not choose and instead purchase both a good dynamic equivalence translation like the NIV or the NLT along with a good formal equivalence translation, like the NASB or the ESV, and consult both.

What about the King James or Authorized Version? Does it have a place? I think it does. The King James is without question the greatest work of literature in the English language. The Psalms sing in the King James like in no other translation. But the King James, published in 1611, did not have access to many of the oldest biblical manuscripts that archeologists later uncovered. Though the King James should have an honored place on the bookshelf, it should not, for this reason, be one’s only translation.

As important as translation work is, even the best translations will do no good if they are not read. Even the worst translations will do some good when they are read by people who really want to know God and do his will. The best choice a person can make when it comes to the Bible is to pick it up and read it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/4/2017

P.S. After reading this column, a friend wrote that whenever his former pastor was asked which translation is best, he would answer: “The one you will obey.” That about sums it up.

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The Invasion of Wild Boar: 500 Years Later

The Invasion of Wild Boar: 500 Years Later

Tuesday, October 31, marks the 500th anniversary of the day on which an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Nailing his provocative theses to the door was not meant to be an act of rebellion, but an invitation to academic debate. The Wittenberg door was a little like a Facebook page: it was a public place that invited comment and critique.

The principal subject of the theses was the issuance of papal pardons. Luther did not deny the pope’s right to issue pardons, but he argued that the pope’s authority to pardon and remit penalties was limited to sins committed against the pope and penalties pronounced by the pope, and did not extend to sins committed against God and penalties pronounced by God.

The primary motivation behind Luther’s theses – the irritation that provoked him to act – was the Church’s practice of selling indulgences to fund, at least as Luther understood it, the building of the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, under Pope Julian II. These indulgences were promises of the remittance of the temporal punishment, in Purgatory, for sins.

Luther was disgusted by the way some priests were “hawking” indulgences, preying upon simple believers who had hardly enough money to feed and clothe their families. He considered it an affront not only to the poor, but to the pope, and submitted that the pope would choose rather to see St. Peter’s “go to ashes” than “be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.”

The 95 theses did not come out of the blue, nor was Luther the first person to recognize corruption within the church. There had been reformers prior to Luther, like Wycliffe and Hus, and reformers who followed Luther, like Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin and John Knox. But Luther’s 95 theses set in motion a transformation of European and western society.

But the theses were not Luther’s most radical act, nor the one with the greatest impact. He went on to translate the New Testament into German, making it possible for common people to read the Scriptures. According to the renowned church historian Philip Schaff, Luther “made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house.” This may have done more to animate the Protestant movement than anything else.

The Church of Rome responded to the theses and to their author in a variety of ways. Luther was given the chance to recant his views, which he steadfastly refused to do. Instead of recanting, he buttressed his views with theological supports, claiming the pope and the Church were amenable to the Scriptures, advocating the priesthood of all believers, and challenging various Church doctrines.

The Pope responded by calling Luther a “wild boar that had invaded the Lord’s vineyard,” declared many of his theses heretical, and excommunicated him. But there was no stopping the movement Luther had begun. As the Reformation spread across Europe, the Council of Trent was convoked to condemn the principles promulgated by Luther and his fellow reformers. But the council also acted to halt the abuses and corruption which had rallied the reformers in the first place.

After 500 years, there are still significant doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants. The gap between them is arguably wider now than it was on the day the Augustinian monk nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door. Resolution of those differences is unlikely and is not, perhaps, the best place for Catholics and Protestants to spend their time.

Rather than seeking doctrinal resolution, the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, should seek continuing reformation. Her watchword must be, as Karl Barth stated it: “Reformed, and always reforming.” The need for reformation didn’t end in the 16th century.

But reformation must be more than a historical memory; it must be an ongoing lifestyle. Catholics and Protestants alike must confess their sins – not least, those committed against each other – and ask God to search them, restore them and reform them. If they do, they have a chance at something even more important that doctrinal agreement. They have a chance for brotherly love.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/28/2017

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What Teleportation Teaches Us About Our Entanglement With Christ

When news broke this summer that Chinese scientists had engineered the successful “teleportation” of a photon over a distance greater than 300 miles, Star Trek fans around the globe rejoiced. It was, however, a belated celebration: teleportation has been around as a serious theory for twenty-five years and has been a reality in the lab for twenty.

On the other hand, one might argue the celebration was premature. If one defines teleportation as the transfer of an object from one place to another without crossing intervening space (what Scotty does when Jim Kirk is in trouble), then what the Chinese performed was not teleportation. The object, a photon, was not transferred, but information about the object—its quantum footprint, so to speak—was.

While Star Trek fans might be disappointed, scientists, technology companies and the intelligence community are thrilled. Because “teleportation,” or “telephresis” as some scientists prefer to call it, happens instantaneously and without crossing intervening space, it may have the potential of providing hacker-proof communications security and next-generation cryptography.

This kind of teleportation is possible because of the strange interaction of subatomic particles, which physicists refer to as “entanglement.” According to Randy Isaac, a solid-state physicist and executive director emeritus of the American Scientific Affiliation, a particle can be entangled with another particle in such a way that their quantum properties, such as position, speed and spin, are linked. An action performed on the first particle instantaneously affects its partner particle, regardless of the distance between them in space or, as Einstein taught us to say, spacetime.

Entanglement is weird and, though scientists have come to accept and exploit it, they do not pretend to understand it. Einstein himself refused to believe it, deriding it as “spooky action at a distance,” but it has turned out to be true. There is a connectedness in the universe that defies explanation. A change in a subatomic particle on this side of the galaxy will instantaneously make a difference in an entangled particle on the other side. This is not science fiction. It is science fact.

Subatomic particles are not the only things that are entangled in our universe. So are we. We are entangled with one another and even with creation—something we are only now discovering, but which Paul asserted to be true in Romans 8. God designed humanity this way from the beginning. It is part of what makes us great. We are entangled with people we do not know, from places we have never been, at times we have not existed, in the deep past and in the unknown future.

The entire human race can be conceived as one large, interconnected thing, stretching across space and time. If we could see what God sees when he looks at humanity, we would not only see a hundred billion or so disconnected individuals but a human race that is more like a massive body with a hundred billion parts.

Human entanglement, and the “spooky action at a distance” it makes possible, is responsible both for the damaged state in which humanity now finds itself and the glorious future which awaits it. It made the consequences of the first Adam’s sin impossible for us to avoid, but it also makes the consequences of the second Adam’s obedience possible for us to share.

Theologians are just as hard pressed to explain the mystery of humanity’s entangled relationship with Adam as physicists are to explain quanta’s entangled relationships with each other. While physicists talk about quantum field theory and supersymmetry and employ equations like Schrodinger’s Wave Function, theologians talk about federal headship theory and natural headship theory and employ concepts like covenant and imputation.

In both cases, the theories are useful without being complete. This is one reason an analogy like this—and it is only an analogy, not a source of evidence—is helpful. It reminds us that theories can be useful, even when we know them to be incomplete. The theories help us explore and explain other data both in the physical sciences (like wave/particle duality) and theology (like the necessity of the incarnation).

Because of the God-designed capacity for human entanglement, the choices of two men—the two men, the two Adams—has affected all humanity. The first Adam tripped and we fell. The second Adam died and we live. The first Adam’s trespass brought condemnation. The second Adam’s obedience brought justification.

The chief complaint against theological explanations of entanglement has always been its unfairness: Adam sins, and I’m condemned? He trips, and I fall? How is that fair? Clearly, it is not. Fairness is: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). That is fair but it’s hardly better, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thankfully, God is more than fair, as the Apostle Paul points out in Romans 5:15: “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

This analogy, like all analogies, has its limits. Quantum entanglement is, according to Isaac, fleeting and hard to sustain. In contrast, Adam entanglement is stable and, as we inevitably discover, hard to break. But entanglement with Christ is eternal and provides a stronger bond than the forces of nature can establish.

The capacity for entanglement was not a design flaw, even though it left us tangled up in Adam’s fall. Through it the creator planned to reverse the fall by uniting himself to Adam’s race in the incarnation, and by uniting Adam’s race to himself in what theologians call glorification. Whatever wonders quantum entanglement brings will not compare to the eternal weight of that glory.

First appeared on 10/17/2017 on the Christianity Today website

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What to Do With a Can of Worms

What should you do when you’ve opened a can of worms? The obvious answer is: go fishing. Of course, a can of worms doesn’t guarantee a fish dinner, but it offers possibilities.

What should you do when the can of worms is a biblical one? And certainly, there are some: Jesus, talking about hating father and mother; God, ordering the destruction of the indigenous people of Canaan; or Paul’s order that women be silent in the church are examples. When coming to these “can of worms” passages, one ought to go fishing – try the waters, and see what possibilities the passage offers. Valuable insights often emerge from the most difficult texts.

There are some things to keep in mind when handling one of these difficult and controversial passages. First, stay humble. These kinds of passages are the ones about which people tend to be most dogmatic, but they ought to be the ones about which people are least dogmatic. If you’re going to be unbending, be unbending about the resurrection of Jesus, not about women being silent in the church. The one is abundantly clear; the other is not.

Next, when people take a position contrary to your own, don’t impute an evil motive to them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Yes, their interpretation may be wrong, but your attitude is certainly wrong, when you impugn their character. God will not judge you for an honest mistake in interpretation; a malicious attitude in a relationship is another matter altogether.

Next, go with your best understanding of the passage. Don’t condemn others over disputed passages, but don’t condemn yourself either by violating your conscience. I had a friend who divorced her repeatedly unfaithful husband when her kids were still young. I once told her, based on Matthew 5 and 19 and Mark 10, that I believed she was eligible to remarry. She disagreed. I still think I was right, but had I talked her into violating her conscience by remarrying, she, her kids, and her husband would have all paid the price.

Coming to your best understanding of a passage requires demanding work and careful thought. For example, the passage where the Apostle Paul tells women to be silent in the church follows a passage where he argues that women should cover their heads when praying or prophesying. So how can a woman pray and prophesy if she is remaining silent in the church?

Untangling a knotty issue like this is no small matter. It takes hard work to come to one’s best understanding of such passages. This work includes examining the passage in its biblical and historical context and comparing it to other passages that deal with the same subject. In this particular example, the apostle clearly knew women were speaking in church, praying and prophesying, and gave them directions for doing so. It therefore seems to me highly unlikely that he intended the prohibition he gave three chapters later to be absolute. And if the prohibition is not absolute, it must pertain to a particular issue or set of circumstances.

The scholar Ken Bailey suggested that set of circumstances might have to do with the fact that the early Christian’s meetings were segregated. Women sat in one area, men in another. In ancient cultures, as in multi-lingual Third World countries today, men were more likely to understand the trade language than were women. Some of the women spoke only the indigenous language or a kind of patois. Because they could not understand much of what was being said, they understandably lost interest in the meeting and began conversing. When that happened, the leader would ask them to be silent. When, after a while, the same thing happened, the leader would silence them again. Or a wife might call across the room to ask her husbands to explain what was being said, and the leader would interrupt, “Ask him when you get home.”

This brief survey obviously does not untangle the difficult passage on women in the church, but it does illustrate an approach that takes the text seriously, while thinking carefully, listening to others and remaining humble. If the reader does these things, then regardless of the conclusions he or she draws, the difficult text will have already had a positive impact.

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The Ala Carte Menu for Theological Consumption

Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr,. senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary, once wrote: “As the Father rescues his people from the powers of darkness and resettles them inside the kingdom of his Son, they revel in his grace and sing about it in church. They take satisfaction in believing right doctrine and teach it in seminary. There they plan on going to heaven by and by and talk about it on tv. And, in the process, they experience some high-quality religious feelings.”

Plantinga’s tongue-in-cheek description of the Christian life is devastatingly accurate, at least in the postmodern West. The clash of kingdoms, the fate of worlds, the struggle of good and evil is largely missing from western thought. And on those occasions when the language is employed, it is mistakenly used as political rhetoric rather than viewed as historical reality.

The historic Christian gospel has shrunk from a message of universal relevance to one of individual opinion. This has happened in an atmosphere where faith has been increasingly privatized. The rugged individualism once associated with Protestantism (and now seen in Catholicism), has, as Greg Ogden writes, “torn the heart out of Christian community.” It has also placed the great doctrines of the faith on an ala carte menu for theological consumption.

How did we get here? Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney have written: “Large numbers of well-educated, middle-class youth defected from the churches in the late sixties and early seventies… Some joined new religious movements, others sought personal enlightenment … but most simply “dropped out.”

One consequence of this major social shift was, Professors Roof and McKinney argue, a “tendency toward highly individualized religious psychology … In this climate of expressive individualism, religion tends to become ‘privatized’ and more anchored in personal realms.” As a result, personal fulfillment has largely replaced faithful obedience as the aspiration of millions of religious people. And whatever gets in the way of personal fulfillment – whether biblical ethics regarding sex or biblical doctrines regarding the nature of Christ – is simply jettisoned.

Thus the increasing number of Christians who believe that premarital and extramarital sex are a legitimate expression of love between consenting adults. Thus, also, the ala carte approach to adopting a “credo” – “I’ll take the doctrine of the atonement, but I don’t want the exclusivity of Jesus. I’d love a double helping of grace, but I’ll pass on the doctrine of judgment; it’s a little too sharp for my taste.”

Salvation shrinks in an environment like this. It becomes not merely provincial, but private. As a result, salvation loses the social force it once possessed (“save yourself from this corrupt generation”) and becomes a matter of personal religious feelings and private hope for continued existence after death.

So the great revelation of God and the redemption he accomplished in Christ is placed on the theological dollar menu for consumption by a fast food religious culture. People choose from that menu as if it were an entirely private decision or, as is often said, “a personal matter.” As one might expect, one of the most popular items on the menu remains, as Plantinga deadpans, “some high-quality religious feelings,” and everyone’s favorite dessert is still life after death. Of course, in this case, no one wants their dessert first.

Interestingly, Jesus never offered “high-quality religious feelings,” nor did he urge people to pursue personal fulfillment or purchase a pass to life after death. Rather, he invited people to enter the kingdom of God, to deny themselves and follow him. He called people to a transforming faith in God that would fill them with a life so dynamic that mere physical death could never quench it.

This is what one nineteenth century writer called the “larger Christian life.” It is a life to which the twenty-first century desperately needs to be reintroduced.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/8/2017

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