Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas

Blogging will probably be light over the next week because of the Christmas holiday. Let me wish all of you a merry Christmas. Next to Easter and Good Friday, Christmas is one of the most wonderful celebrations associated with Christianity. Although the day of Christ’s birth is not specified in the Bible, and although there is no mandate for us celebrating it on any particular day, I still love the celebration of Christmas and the entire Christmas season. I think it is really delightful that millions of people in any way celebrate or recognize the Incarnation of God in human form in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. I appreciate that people give each other gifts as a way of celebrating God’s gift to us. I appreciate that everything is decorated and that the Christmas season has a special glory that is associated with its celebration. I appreciate the Christmas carols that even secular people sing. Many of them contain good theology about Christ and the Gospel. While Christmas is at some times commercial, materialistic or overwhelming, I think it is still a wonderful and delightful time and presents an extraordinary opportunity for people to hear the Gospel if they will just listen to the words of some of the better Christmas carols. How often do you get a chance to hear a summary of the Gospel in a department store or mall?

I think it is also good that Christmas is a time that emphasizes family and friends. Christmas is also noteworthy for the traditional emphasis of giving to the poor at Christmastime. While we should give all year round, it’s nice that many people who don’t think much about giving still give at Christmas. I think the messages involved in some Christmas movies and stories like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life while not perhaps theologically pure, are nevertheless worthwhile and happy media events rather than the reverse. While whatever criticisms people may have, I’m glad for Christmas and nearly everything associated with it.

The Incarnation is of course extremely important. The fact that God became man not only allowed Jesus to atone for our sins and live a righteous life that could be judicially ascribed to us by God, but also is a part of the answer to the whole problem of pain and evil. God did not create a universe in which He Himself knew and experienced no pain while His creatures did. Instead, we serve and know a God who became one of us and suffered for us, with us, and as one of us. Christ knew all of the temptations that we are subjected to and yet was without sin. He suffered the pains and travails of human life. He knew what it was like to be tired and cold and hungry, to be disliked and abused, to not be recognized for who you truly are, and be despised and hated for precisely who you truly are, and ultimately to suffer human injustice, torture and death. Christ knew what it was to submit to God’s plan, even though that plan was painful for Him personally. He knew what it is to have to look to the long run and endure pain and suffering in order to achieve a higher goal. In short, to paraphrase the book of Hebrews, we don’t have an intercessor who doesn’t know anything about what our life is like but rather someone who’s experienced the same pain and suffering that we experience. So when people complain about the evil and pain in life, Christ can say, “I know, I’ve experienced it.” When people complain that God allows pain and suffering in life for higher purposes, Jesus can say there that He too has experienced pain, suffering and death for those higher purposes. God is beyond criticism not only because of who He is, but because He Himself has partaken in the difficulties of the world that He created. He experienced these difficulties on our behalf not because He was in any way required to do so or in any way worthy of pain and suffering, but rather He suffered and endured pain for us. This makes Christianity different from every other religion. As Stephen Lawhead has pointed out, none of the other deities of many human religions suffered with and for human beings. None of them know our pain and our troubles the way Jesus does. The Incarnation is also the ultimate elevation of humanity. Not only because Christ has reconciled us to God, but because as a being who is both fully human and fully God it is now truly the case that a human being is sitting on the throne of the universe. Christ’s incarnation also shows that it is in fact possible for God and man to communicate. Many modern skeptics have doubted that human beings can in any way communicate with or understand the divine. But Jesus not only shows that it is possible for God to communicate to man, He is that communication and He embodies God’s communication to human beings in Himself.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Importance of Disestablishment in the United States

As most people probably know, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” Freedoms recognized by the First Amendment are among the most important to our way of life in the United States. The freedom of religion we have in the United States has not only facilitated our material progress, but has also facilitated our spiritual progress. While this freedom does make it possible for false religions to exist and prosper, it also makes it possible for true Christianity to grow and flourish without the taint of state coercion, the contamination of state bureaucracy. The famous Christian writer, Os Guinness, has pointed out that the free market in religious views created by the First Amendment has caused a flourishing and prospering of Christianity in America in much the same way that our relatively unregulated economy has contributed to growth and prosperity materially. Rodney Stark reaches the same conclusion in his book “The Victory of Reason.”

Christians have occasionally given the impression that we would be happy to create a formal establishment of religion. This is not really true. It is easy to see though that people often have this perspective. On Thursday, December 13, I heard a portion of an interview with presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on Good Morning America. Huckabee was asked if he would “put his faith ahead of the Constitution.” Of course Huckabee said that the Constitution would come first. But what I suppose he really should have said is that this a ridiculous question. There isn’t anything in the Constitution that conflicts with orthodox evangelical Christianity. There are, of course, religions that do have ideals that conflict with the Constitution. And while we cannot have any religious test for office holders, there probably are some religious views that would not be conducive to the continuation of our freedoms. Orthodox, evangelical, Protestant Christianity, however, is not one of those views. It is not only compatible with our freedom, but it was the philosophical soil from which this religious freedom grew.

Today there are some people who want to reinterpret the First Amendment to mean something it was never intended to mean—that ideas that are in any way associated with, or parallel to, or in common with ideas originating in the Bible are forbidden sources of government policy making. This simply cannot be the case since all laws have their root in some view of morality and human nature and since views of human nature and morality are fundamentally tied to religious worldviews. So advocating, for example, that human beings should be treated equally before the law because all are of intrinsic value is not in any way an unconstitutional or improper argument even though it flows from the Christian idea that all human beings were created by God in His image. The idea that human beings are morally accountable for violations of just human laws is likewise an idea that flows from the worldview of Christianity. If materialism was really correct and people were merely bundles of reacting chemicals, there would be no real moral accountability for violations of the law, nor would there be legitimate or illegitimate human laws. Everything would simply be about power and conformity. Most of us do not consider it as such in our community. The United States was founded with the notion that there is moral accountability behind human laws and that human laws can be legitimate or illegitimate depending upon their correspondence or indifference to the higher law. So if by their understanding of the First Amendment people mean that we cannot maintain the ideas upon which our republic is founded—ideas that are inherently tied to a Christian worldview but are acceptable to most monotheistic worldviews—then they are badly mistaken because the order which makes the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence normative cannot require a view that would essentially require their dissolution. If the principles of the Judeo-Christian worldview cannot affect government, then there is no reason why people are obligated to keep their promises, no reason why covenants are binding, and no reason why constitutions should be respected. The Constitution itself depends upon the Christian worldview or at least its legacy being taken seriously.

But this does not mean that Christians favor an establishment of religion or want to establish a system in which church officials are the true leaders of government. Far be it from us to ever give the impression we advocate such a thing. Because church leaders are ideally experts in morality, they may occasionally have something to say about what they think government policy should be. But unless they are elected to public office, they are not the makers of public policy. And there should be no mechanical or constitutional linkage between the hierarchy of any church and the law making, interpreting, and executing bodies of the government of the United States or any state. To make it so would demean the church as well as endangering the free market of ideas that the United States has so successfully modeled.

The reasons for this are many. First, there is the pragmatic reason that has already been alluded to. It is not good for the church and the government to be physically and bureaucratically entangled in each other’s affairs. It demeans the faith and threatens it in a variety of ways. If a group of people who have erroneous religious beliefs come to dominate and control the government, then their power would endanger whatever groups remain and have true religious beliefs.

A second reason why we do not seek a true establishment of religion is that the Bible clearly teaches that Christianity is not a matter of being coerced into an acknowledgement of God, saying a magic slogan, or being brought into membership in some particular group. While Americans are sometimes justly accused of neglecting the community aspects and manifestations of Christianity, Christianity is fundamentally connected to the individual’s individual relationship with God through the saving work of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, not through anything that can be coerced or forced by human beings. Having a personal relationship with God and coming to faith in Christ is linked to the preaching of the Gospel and to the use thereby of persuasion. This is persuasion through ideas, not persuasion through physical force. Protestant evangelical Christianity has always argued for its truthfulness based upon the Scriptures and their nature and content, and based on reasons—not based upon coercion. Despite occasional lapses in which the Christian church through the centuries has foolishly mistreated those who had allegedly fallen into heresy, including various people who were actually probably more correct than the authorities attacking them (Huss, Wycliffe, and Luther for example), the church has always taught that belief in Christianity is based on faith, and is as a result not coercible. Thomas Aquinas gave this as a basis for why human law should not enact the whole of special revelation into law. Aquinas noted that no one could be coerced into accepting the Gospel. It is incompatible with God’s laws and nature to try to force people to be Christians through human laws. So the greatest expressed fear of atheists, agnostics and other non-Christians—that Christians will seek to force them to believe or punish them for not believing—should be ill founded. We should not give them cause to dread such a fate. Christians should be the very first to demand that we maintain a free market in ideas so that there will always be an opportunity for people to hear the truth even though they will also have the opportunity to hear lies.

Another reason why Christians believe in a free market of ideas is because we recognize our own fallibility. All human beings are sinful and imperfect. All of us, from time to time, think we are being reasonable when we really aren’t being reasonable at all. This is true even of Christians. Perhaps sometimes it is even especially true of Christians. As a result, we cannot trust ourselves, or anybody else, to always be right about everything. All human beings are affected by their sinfulness. None, whether by reason of wisdom, by knowledge or by office, are infallible and incapable of erroneous teaching or supposition. As a result, we all need each other. We need to be able to freely discuss ideas and talk about the ways in which each of us may be wrong or right so that we at least have a chance at straightening each other out when one of us is wrong. The problem with established religions is that they carve in stone ideas, that while many of them may be right, are likely to also contain some errors. I can easily come up with errors of many Christian groups (though I suppose some people still will not admit that they were errors). If any of them are or were established, it makes it all the harder to correct those problems. One can see such errors in the established churches. I believe Anglicanism was wrong in its advocacy of Erastianism: the belief that the king is essentially the final authority on religious truths. The Lutheran church was probably wrong in its advocacy of a positivist view of human law even though it recognized the natural law view of the application of human law. Tridentine Roman Catholicism has itself been the source of governmental problems because its model of unquestionable centralized hierarchical authority leant itself to the maintenance of absolutist political regimes that were bad for everyone in nearly every way. We need freedom so that we can discover, discuss and correct each other’s errors instead of enshrining those errors with the power of law and tradition. Of course I recognize that this is in essence the Protestant view, though it is shared by many Catholics today and was shared by nearly the entire church prior to the Renaissance. The group within western Christianity that believed in papal infallibility and unquestionable centralized hierarchy eventually grew from a small but powerful movement responsible for the papal revolution, to a movement so dominant in the church hierarchy that they were able to force out of the church all of the people who would become the Protestants. The pro-centralized authority group’s views were not unanimously held throughout Christianity.

Another threat is that if we eliminate freedom of religion, we are just as likely to be the victims of a state church as the victors. As certain groups within the United States grow, a group with which we may strongly disagree could easily come to dominate a state run church. No one on the religious right would be happy with the state forcing them to yield to Islam or to new age teachings in their church-run schools. We should not do to others what we would not want others to do to us even though we believe our positions to be true and theirs to be false. The problem, of course, is that while Christianity is supportive of religious freedom, the views of the orthodox versions of many other religions and even a few minor sects of Christianity are not.

I should say in all of this that I’m not suggesting that Christians should be banished from the public square in the way many people would prefer. I don’t think that manger scenes, Christmas carols sung by public school choirs, the Ten Commandments on walls or crosses on monuments are in any way establishments of religion or improper. We need to exercise a de minimis rule and an acceptance of art and culture when we look at public expenditures, public practices, and their interface with faith. The real difficulty is going to be sorting out how we are going to deal with Islam. Christians are obviously going to be uncomfortable with government involvement in Muslim holidays. But how can we have government involvement in Christian holidays and not in any way acknowledge Muslim holidays in areas where there are large numbers of Muslims? Perhaps at a national level we can still justify paying little attention to it because the Muslim population of the United States is still so small. But in local communities where there are many Muslims this argument won’t work. In addition, in the United States just as in Europe, this balance is rapidly changing. Cultural relics will also change. This is one reason why it is so important for us to continue the work of evangelization in areas that have already been evangelized like the United States and Europe. Christianity is not something you inherit. It is personal and can be lost if it is not taught to the next generation in a loving, kind, and persuasive way. Europe failed in communicating Christianity to its progeny. The United States appears to currently be in a similar crisis. While we are communicating a kind of Christianity to our children, it is largely a kind that does not recognize the importance of reason, objective truth, or objective reality. Once Christianity is merely associated with private feeling, it will be lost in the United States just as it has been in most of Europe. Christianity in its orthodox form is inseparable from reason, logic, persuasion, and an objective approach to the evaluation of truth. It is not an irrational religion based on warm fuzzies or purely mystical justifications. Mysticism plays a role in the Christian faith, but it is not an exclusive role. As a friend of mine recently pointed out to me, Richard Hooker said that tradition plays a role in the Christian faith, but is subservient to reason and to the Scriptures. So we Christians need to be sure that we are clearly espousing our position. We believe that ideas that flow from reality must be behind government policy and that some of those ideas are going to be associated in some way with Christianity. But we don’t believe that religious hierarchies should in any way be officially connected to the government or official sources of government policy. We do believe that all citizens of our republic can and should be involved in the great discussion and debate about public policy. We also believe that that debate should be free, uncoerced and open. We should never create the impression that we believe otherwise. It is also clear that we will have to persuade others or it is quite likely that we will see additional changes that we don’t like in culture and probably in the end even in the law. If we’re going to preserve our freedoms, we have to preserve the ideals that led to those freedoms and explain the connection to people. While we can and should use the force of arms overseas against those who make war against the United States, we cannot use coercion at home to further belief in the Christian worldview. We can only persuade people and pray for people and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. If we are not able to persuade people, our entire republic and our way of life and our freedoms face extinction at the hands of philosophies that are happy to advocate freedom when they are in the minority but who will advocate absolutism when they become the majority. We hope and pray and work to prevent that from ever occurring.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Faith in Cooling or Warming "Science"

There are some policy issues about which the Bible tells us little or nothing, and where science really is of great importance. Global warming ought to be one of these issues. But here, another kind of "faith" gets in the way of science. Here is an interesting article by what the majority of the media would consider an iconoclastic scientist:

Biblical Truth has Implications for Our Time

The Kingpin has a good article about Biblical integrity and one of the difficult issues at

The church today really seems to struggle with the ideas of objective moral truth and how that fits with love. We especially struggle in the are of sexuality.

Another interesting article is the badly named article "Instant Sex" in the Weekly Standard at The article is a lament about how the culture of "hooking up" is destroying the glorious experience of romantic love. Maybe God has good reasons for telling us to keep sex in marriage and for other commands? Of course God does. He tells us how to live for our good, not because he is opposed to fun. We loose so much Joy and happiness because we try to take the easy way out and act as our own "gods" instead of listening to the real God.

I am thankful for the forgiveness for sins we have in Christ. We need to reach out to our fellow sinners with the good news about Jesus in love and with a willingness to accept all who come to Jesus. But there is no good reason to add to the list of our sins just because our desires make us think we want things God has forbidden. Nor is there a good reason to encourage others to do so. To encourage others to continue in sinful lifestyle choices is not love, but cruelty.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Standing By Sola Scriptura

I recently heard something that deeply disturbed me. A prominent Christian radio talk show host here in Southern California broadcast a show in which he described how an equally prominent philosopher had given a speech at the Evangelical Theological Society which, if the discussion by the talk show host is correct, appears to have said that Christians rely too much on the Bible. If this is indeed what was said, and if it is not saved by context, it is deeply disturbing. Christians do not rely too much on the Bible. If anything, all of the heresies, problems, and shortcomings of both the corporate and individual lives of Christians, and of the church, have come about because we have not immersed ourselves deeply enough in the Scriptures or understood precisely what God is really saying to us through them. Many human churches are still mired in the erroneous belief of sacramentalism—that God is saving us and sanctifying us through taking communion and our participation in other sacraments. This belief is nowhere supported in the Bible. It is a human tradition that seeks a magical solution to the problem of sin and relationship with God rather than accepting the solution clearly described in the Scriptures. This is not to say that we should not participate in the Eucharist. It is important for us to obey God through baptism and through remembering Him in Holy Communion and indeed to sanctify to God all areas of life and thought. While the sacraments have a role in our Christian life, they are not the origin of that life nor its primary means. The way we obtain salvation is by faith in Christ which is a gift of God through His grace. The way we obtain sanctification is by being touched and changed by Christ through the Bible itself as well as secondarily through all the ways in which He deals with us through general revelation.

The church is currently troubled at its very roots, not because it is overly embracing Scripture or because it is placing Scripture in an improper place, but rather because it is not paying attention to what the Scriptures actually say and imply about subjects like epistemology, reason, the nature of truth, universals, the nature of certainty, personal conduct, sexuality, civility, the balance between the individualism and community, human government and human law. Instead, the church is far too willing to succumb to its current cultural context and the fads, trends, and blindnesses of our own age. We have fallen prey to believing that there is an inevitability to our succumbing to the spirit of the age and to seeing all things through the lens of our own culture. For a Christian of our time to say that we are failing because we are paying too much attention to the Bible and making biblical teachings too central to our lives is like the citizens of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time, who on the eve of the Babylonian destruction of that city, insisted that they were worse off because they had recently stopped offering incense to the queen of Heaven.

How foolish we are! We mistake the errors we see in the church. The church is not listening to the full counsel of God in the Scripture. When the church takes verses out of context and overemphasizes them to justify an erroneous practice, this is not an over reliance on Scripture, but rather an under reliance on the whole of Scripture. When a church rejects the use of God’s revelation in general revelation, this is not an over reliance on Scripture but a failure to heed what the Scripture clearly teaches and implies. When we mistake the contents of general revelation and insist that it support ideas that are contrary to the clear teachings of Scripture, this too is not a wise avoiding of bibliolatry, but rather a forsaking of truth for error.

How good God’s Word really is! Inspiring dozens of writers over thousands of years, God has nevertheless communicated to us a systematic, coherent and compelling message. None of the other claims of revelation or philosophies or religious books of the rest of the world in any way approaches the Bible for meeting the needs of life, dealing with the data of life, explaining the system coherently and in a way that is both appealing and challenging cross culturally. The Bible speaks to the needs of those who philosophize as well as those who live by the rhythm and heartbeat of poetry. The Bible teaches us directly and in parables. It reveals history and metaphor. It reveals and it conceals. It uplifts and it convicts. Nothing else in human experience is like it.

It is also, clearly, the teaching of Scripture that the way all other claims of truth and revelation are to be tested is by what we already know God to have said and revealed through Scripture. Even in the garden, Adam and Eve would have avoided falling prey to the serpent if they had paid attention to what God really said instead of how the serpent reinterpreted and twisted God’s words. In the Pentateuch, the children of Israel were clearly instructed that when prophets brought them new ideas even if backed by miracles and successful predictions, they were not to be believed unless they were consistent with what God had already revealed to them. Prophets time and time again called Israel back to what had clearly been revealed to them in the Pentateuch and also prophesied of the suffering servant Messiah who was to come. Throughout the Gospels, the truth of Jesus’ ministry was explained not only through miraculous signs but by reference to the Old Testament and to the fulfillment of prophesies evidenced by Jesus. In the epistles, the full theological significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are clearly explained and laid forth with numerous references to the Old Testament Scriptures as verifying and supporting the testimony of the apostles. Peter describes to us how the writings of Paul are Scripture just as he recognizes that all Scripture is God-breathed coming to us by the moving of God’s Spirit. Then even in Revelation, an eschatological cartoon difficult for westerners to wrap their minds around in a sensible way, it is made clear that no one should add to or take away from the content of Christ’s revelation. Jesus is the Word of God, His final revelation as He incarnated Himself among us and met our need for an intercessor, a redeemer, and mediator. Yet mysteriously the primary way that God has revealed His Word to us is through the words of the Bible. Yet in our wrestling with archeologists and skeptics and philosophers, we too often succumb to judging the straightness of the plumb line by the line of the wall. It is of no use to evaluate truth by opinion. It is of no use to doubt the truth because it is complex or because it is simple. It must be explored and grasped rather than superseded. It would be tragic if after the Bible has become so accessible to us, so available and so explored by loving scholars, that we would now reject or at least minimize the document that should be the central guide to our beliefs and worldview. The opinions and systems of church magisteriums and university professors and theologians have been shown to be lacking again and again throughout church history. Only the Bible has continuously brought us back to God Himself and to His clear teachings.

I hope and pray that the church will react against this new attempt to substitute the traditions, teachings, and systems of men for God’s revelation in the Bible. We must stand with the Reformers for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and for the primacy of the teaching of the Word of God as the most important of all true sacraments.