December 24, 2005

Caesar or Christ?

Caesar Augustus (originally Octavian) was the first formally recognized emperor of the Roman Empire. In the history of this remarkable empire, even his story is outstanding. At the time he began to assume power there had been nearly 100 years of chaos and civil war and challenges to the empire's overextended boundaries. Augustus' rise was a glorious ride to ultimate power in an empire that has not been matched in extent even in modern times. Augustus brought unity to the government, stability to the provinces, and further expansion of the borders. He instigated a sound currency system, extended the highway system, developed a postal system, and fostered a free trade system among the provinces. He was loved by the people and eventually came to be worshipped as deity by many. His very name, "Augustus," granted to him by the state, means "the exalted."

It is indeed an irony, which only God could orchestrate on the stage of history, that in the shadow of the greatest glory of humanity its heavenly King should arrive in poverty — Jesus, the son of commoners, from an insignificant town, and born in a stable no less. The contrast could not be more pronounced between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. This is not at all what the Jews had in mind when they pictured the prophesied Messiah. They were thinking more of royal trappings and military power, more along the lines of a "Caesar." But they misunderstood the very scriptures that they were charged to bear.

It is not about the ways of this world: power, wealth, image, and carnal pleasures. These are things which only satisfy in surface ways, and only for a season — things which Satan would sell us as counterfeit to an eternal inheritance from God. Since Jesus' kingdom is not of this world it is only natural that He begin His incarnation here in the absence of those things that are most prized by that world. Jesus' life was lived out without the trappings of those things which would make Him most attractive to foolish men. "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2) All who would come to love Him would do so based on His character, His message, His wisdom, and His work alone. Jesus is like the prince who comes in common disguise to his maiden so that he might lure her by her heart and not by his holdings.

Augustus has passed away as has his kingdom, being broken by barbarian invaders and swallowed up by the advancing Church. As with every great hero and gleaming city built by the hands of men, the flame must eventually die. Greed, selfishness, and pride must eventually tarnish every bright hope that human imagination can invent. But on one lonely night, over the humble town of Bethlehem, God shone forth a light that was to burn only brighter over the course of history. "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Heavenly Father, help us to see past the distractions and cheap glamour of this world. Grant us wisdom to understand that the world's treasures are hollow and gold plated idols, while following Your way has lasting value on earth and lays up for us treasure in heaven. Give us the strength and courage to live a life pleasing to You even when it may put us at odds with those around us. Help us always to remember that as Christians we are citizens of Your Kingdom even while we reside in a foreign land. Thank You for sending the Son to save us from ourselves, and for adopting us into that Kingdom.

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December 18, 2005

To Judge or Not to Judge

The biblical verse, "judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1), seems to be the most quoted verse these days, perhaps mostly by non-Christians (even the secular world has its "memory verses"). Usually it is thrown at Christians in response to the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ in salvation, which implies other paths are wrong, or in relation to moral issues. But does this verse suggest that we should judge nothing at all? I think we may understand on both intuitive grounds and Scriptural grounds that the answer is "no".

No one (but a psychopath) would agree that we shouldn't judge a murderer, and I don't think even the most liberal Christian would be comfortable qualifying an atheist as a "Christian," so there is certainly some level of judgment that is warranted. It wouldn't make sense if this verse were prescribing a global ban on judging.

Since the claim is based on an appeal to Scripture to begin with it is only reasonable that we look deeper at Scripture to sort out the issue. Note these sample passages:
"Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." — Hebrews 5:14

"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction." — 2 Timothy 4:3

"[hold] fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict." — Titus 1:9

"But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." — 1 Thessalonians 5:21

"Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." — Luke 17:3
And I could go on and on, in fact, I think I will: I Co 2:15; 6:2-3, Mat 23, Acts 13:10, Lev 19:15-17, Ez 22:2 & 23:36, Is 58:1. All these verses certainly make it clear that we should be discerning about good and evil and about proper theology, even being so bold as to confront those who are in error. So, this leaves us with a question: What is it that we should NOT judge? Here are some passages that may give us some clues:
"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things." — Romans 2:1

"Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment." — John 7:24

"For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges." — 1 Corinthians 5:12-13
What I see here is that we should not judge hypocritically and ignorantly. Also, there is some sense in which we should avoid judging those outside the church (a point I won't explore here), but it at least first requires us to identify who is indeed "outside" before we can commend them to God, and that is a form of judging.

In any case, the most important thing we can do is to look at Matthew 7:1 in its proper context. Note verses 2 through 5:
"For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."
This seems to be saying that the admonition to "judge not" is in the context of hypocrisy. A sample application of this might be someone judging a homosexual for their sexual sin when all the while being engaged in an adulterous relationship. Note, though, that the final conclusion is that if you are able to clean up your own act, you might then be qualified to clearly "see" another's sin and perhaps help them to deal with it.

I see no blanket prohibition on judging in Matthew 7, nor even does there appear to be a categorical prohibition here. It is simply referring to the conditions and prerequisites for a certain kind of judgment. Christians should not allow others to use this passage to bully them into surrendering their discernment and to consider all beliefs and practices of equal value.

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December 15, 2005

Reflections on the Authority of Scripture

In recent dialog with a pastor involved in the Emergent Church movement, it soon became clear that he had a limited view of scriptural authority. This was revealed in subtle (and not so subtle) ways by making various statements about its "cultural context," its authors and "editors," its containing "some truth," its lack of concern for "factual accuracy," and God giving us "new understanding." But as with most theological liberals, he was not willing to reject it as meaningless, or deny that God was to be found in it in some way.

The most common point of departure from full biblical inerrancy is to say that Scripture is only inerrant in matter of "faith and practice." And this fellow granted that it "contained all things necessary for salvation." Now, I am not going to argue here the larger issue of biblical inerrancy in all matters in which it speaks, though I do not wish to suggest that a hearty defense cannot be made for this position. I only now want to comment on the problems faced by those courting a liberal view of the authority of the Bible.

The first thing to acknowledge is that a minimalist view of the Bible is a license to discard any difficult, divisive, or distasteful passages of Scripture. This is demonstrated by the fact that so many of those who profess the Bible's authority in matters of faith a practice do not, in practice, hold to some of those plain things it does teach in these areas. Doctrines such as hell, the exclusivity of Christ in salvation, and matters of sexual purity are like the molting skin of a snake ready to be sloughed away by any friction with the culture.

Even if there were some sorts of historical, scientific, or cultural flaws in Scripture my question is, "How do you know what to throw out and what to keep?" The answer to this question, in my experience, is usually some combination of reason, human experience, and the leading of the Spirit. But now comes the problem of knowing when you've got your reason and leading right, and when you've done violence to the word of God.

It seems to me that any subjective interpretive method would be just as "fallible" as the Bible that biblical minimalists wish to amend. The only difference is that they seem willing to assume for themselves the responsibility for any potential theological errors rather than leaving it with the authors of Scripture (and, dare I say, the Holy Spirit).

And what does it say about us when we supersede those things we find in Scripture with our own better judgment or new understanding? If it is not the hubris of substituting our own rules for those of the playbook we claim to follow, then what is it? Do we imagine we are helping God along by fixing the pesky errors in Scripture that those fallible authors might have allowed in or that might have been introduced by some possible editor along the way? Are we afraid we might be getting God's truth fouled up because we've taken that corrupted and outdated Book too literally? What do we fear that God will say to us at the pearly gates?
"I am disappointed in you my flawed and faulty servant. You took the words of my Son too far. You had too much confidence in the memory and objectivity of my scribes. You failed to realize that I was just speaking to a primitive people and not your modern and enlightened society. You failed to hear your own inner voice and your clamoring culture in order to amend my revelation."
Is it so unreasonable to think that in the face of possible doubt, God will forgive us for erring on the side of the Scriptures?

Even if some portion of Scripture is merely "Paul's understanding" or "John's interpretation," this is still no warrant for departure; for these men were "witnesses to His majesty" and surely had a greater helping of the Spirit than do we. If I could sit down with the average pastor and St. Paul and ask them about evangelistic outreach to the local community, or coordinating a multi-media Christmas Eve extravaganza, perhaps I would find the pastor of more use to me. But if I had questions on matters of theology, morality, and end-times prophecy, I would take St. Paul every time. Surely even Paul and company's most strained "opinions" are better than our most brilliant guesses.

If God is anything near like He is portrayed in Scripture, then I have great fear and trembling at the thought of shrugging off biblical doctrines. And if He is not very much like the portrait of Scripture, then He/She/It is either an impotent dispenser of revelation or is not even behind the Bible at all. In either case, it renders Scripture of little more value than a repository of interesting ideas and bed-time stories. We may just as well put Aesop's Fables in our pews.

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December 06, 2005

A Reply to Peter Singer's "Sanctity of Life"

Peter Singer, the extreme left Princeton bioethicist, has written a short piece outlining his take on the future demise of the "sanctity of life" view of human persons. Steve Wagner, of Stand To Reason, has made an open call for responses to Singer's article. Below is my submission. I suggest reading Singer's original article first to gain the best appreciation for how I've chosen to frame my response.

During the next 35 years, the popular academic view of degreed personhood will collapse under pressure from public awareness, moral outrage, and scientific developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hardcore, amoral, liberal elitists will defend the view that human life, from conception to death, is forfeit if it fails to measure up to their proscribed standards.

In retrospect, 2005 may be seen as the year in which that position became untenable. American liberals have for several years been in the awkward position of advocating for the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in spite of the fact that the real progress — present, not potential — is in other areas, such as adult stem cells. And private investors well understand this, which is the very reason for the need of federal funding. If they were intellectually honest, these radical liberals must acknowledge that ignoring some forms of medical advances is simply the price to be paid for pressing an atheistic agenda.

This year, that view became even more uncomfortable as study after study arrived to demonstrate the viability of non-embryonic technologies, public support began to wane for embryonics as the fog of disinformation lifted, and other even more liberal countries continued to move toward comprehensive cloning bans.

This year is also significant for ratcheting up the debate about the larger issue of human personhood. The legal battle over the removal of Terri Shiavo's feeding tube brought the issues of life, non-life, and a "life not worth living" to public attention. Terri's case taught us that "alive" is just a label that can be withdrawn on consensus; that tortuous execution qualifies as compassionate care if you are not capable of voicing an objection; that the one with the least reason to care about your fate can wind up in control of it; and if you don't want to fall victim to similar atrocities, you'd better get a living will.

Worldview philosophy drives this debate. This is fundamentally about the difference between viewing human life as something intrinsically worthy of our care and protection, and viewing human life as something distinct from a "person," which is the only thing that qualifies for legal protections. Personhood advocates propose arbitrary and divisive criteria for class membership that threatens to allow dogs and dolphins to pass muster while disqualifying newborns and retirement home residents. Pro-lifers reject human/person distinctions and believe that life is valuable regardless of its properties or potential, no matter how it is conceived or for what purpose, and even if it loses some capacity and may never again regain it.

As we approach 2040, countries like the Netherlands and Belgium will have had decades of experience with legalized euthanasia. This experience will affirm the understanding that state defined personhood and life-not-worth-living perspectives are philosophically identical to justifications used by Nazi war criminals. Indeed, the Netherlands has already begun experiencing doctor prescribed, involuntary termination of children and the elderly, and if we dare to include the abortion count in America, we have already outpaced the Nazi "barbarians" by orders of magnitude.

When the majority of the population (which are not, by the way, atheists) wakes up to the fact that personhood theory is antithetical to their unique view of humanity, and when they realize that this philosophy can logically lead to real life reductio ad absurdums like farming fetuses for organs and mandatory termination of the unproductive, high-maintenance elderly, and when they realize that just because something is feasible does not mean it is prudent or moral, then they will reject this view of personhood in the interest of preserving their own persons and for the sake of retaining our humanity. But, perhaps, not before they exercise their prerogative to define "persons" one last time to exclude radical, liberal bioethicists like Peter Singer.

For a more detailed treatment of this topic see my earlier article:
Personhood: The Measure of Life

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December 02, 2005

The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant: Does it Work?

Whenever I dialog with religious pluralists, like Wiccans and liberal Christians, the parable of the blind men and the elephant is almost sure to come up. Its intent is to illustrate that each religion (or denomination) may actually contain truth, but perhaps it is merely an incomplete and vague understanding of the whole. It is a clever and even compelling analogy, but it ultimately fails on several counts.

First, if we are all stuck with only our piece of the truth due to our "blindness," then who is it that has managed to see the whole elephant to know that we each only have a piece? The author of this parable seems to think he has seen the big picture, but that everyone else is bound to their provincial views. But if one can escape their own "blindness," then so can we all. And if no one can, then neither can he, and he is merely speculating that the true and complete thing is an elephant. Those who offer up this parable are usually reacting to the supposed arrogance of persons who claim to have a "monopoly on the truth." Unfortunately, they themselves are exhibiting arrogance in the implication of this parable, which is that they know the elephant to be something more than what those narrow, dogmatic religionists believe it to be.

Second, the parable works only within its own context, but not as a true analogy of what is actually going on in the world of religious claims. It is true that each blind man had a piece of the truth, and that piece was true in isolation, e.g., the tail really was like a rope. However, in the case of religious claims, the various parties are making diverse observations about the same part of the elephant. Some are saying the tail is like a rope and others that it is like a cantaloupe, and therein lies the problem. For example, some are saying that when you die there is no judgment, others that when you die there is a judgment, and yet others that when you die you are reincarnated. Any one may be wrong, but it's not simply a matter of each seeing a different part of the whole. The analogy of the elephant parable could only hope to succeed if each religion were making unique, non-overlapping claims about spiritual matters, but that is not the case.

Third, Christians believe that the "elephant" has actually spoken and thus has allowed us to get past the shortcomings that our "blindness" might impose. If God has indeed spoken, then this settles the matter and we can consequently reject any alternative impressions or speculations to the contrary. Of course, it is true that several religions have their own speaking "elephant," but this doesn't help to salvage the parable. It only means that the real point is to determine which of the contradictory revelations, if any, is more consistent with the beast we find ourselves groping at (this would consist of the natural world, history, philosophy, and human nature). I propose that the Christian Scriptures succeed in doing so and stand head-and-shoulders above all other contenders.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN