Thursday, April 17, 2014

God Hates Shrimp?

by Scott McClare

A Christian is involved in a conversation about sexuality, which inevitably turns to the topic of homosexuality. She is asked her opinion, and replies (quoting the Bible, of course!) that homosexual behaviour is contrary to the will of God for human sexuality, which is to be expressed solely between a man and woman, within marriage.

Hearing this, a skeptic or progressive-minded person in the group retorts, "OK, so the Bible condemns homosexuality. But if you read Leviticus 11:9, it also condemns eating shellfish. And Lev. 19:19 says not to make your clothing out of two kinds of fabric. Is that a polyester-cotton T-shirt you're wearing? You don't seem too concerned about obeying some of God's laws. Why are you so obsessed with this one?"

The Christian finds herself at a loss for words. She knows what she believes, but she hasn't thought through why she observes some of the Bible's moral commands, and not others.

You might have heard a scenario like this on a talk program, or witnessed it in person. It might even have happened to you.

When a skeptic points out that a Christian who disapproves of homosexual behaviour doesn't generally disapprove of eating shrimp cocktails, it's actually an ad hominem argument (against the person, rather than her point). But that supposed double standard is now an excuse the skeptic can use to reject Christianity entirely.

One of the jobs of an apologist is to take such excuses away from unbelievers (2 Corinthians 10:5). Arguments like this can be a conversation stoppers simply because we often don't know how to navigate the Bible's many moral imperatives. Which ones were meant for a particular time or culture, say, or which were meant for all times and peoples? How can we determine which biblical commands have significance for us today? Here are a few hermeneutical principles that we can apply.[i]

  • What is the text's intended audience? To whom is it addressed: to the nation of Israel, a certain church or person, or the entire human race? Am I a member of that audience? For example, when Paul told Timothy to drink some wine, it was not a blanket endorsement of alcohol use, but helpful advice to Timothy for his stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23). But when Paul wrote in the same letter that elders and deacons must not be addicted to wine (1 Tim. 3:3-8), that standard is applicable to any church leader.
  • What is the command's basis? God's laws are not arbitrary. There is a logic behind them. Is a command grounded in the nature of God or man? Is it a timeless principle or a temporary one? Is it based on the created order, or a custom of a particular culture?
  • What is the progress of revelation on this topic? Is it taught consistently throughout Scripture, or is it later modified? Is it a frequent topic or an occasional one? Do Jesus or his apostles interpret it in a particular way? Divorce, for example, was permitted for nearly any reason in the Law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). However, when Jesus interpreted the Law, he said it was merely tolerated because of the hardness of people's hearts, and the only valid reason for divorce was infidelity (Matthew 19:8-9). Later, Paul also included desertion by an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:15).
  • What is the literary genre of the book or passage containing the imperative? Consider the Proverbs: they are wise generalizations about how the world works, not case law. Jesus' parables are stories intended to make a single point, not necessarily to provide a pattern for living. The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) does not teach that we should pester God with our prayers until we wear him down. Instead, Jesus is saying that unlike the unjust judge, God loves us and wants to give us justice.
  • Narrative is not necessarily normative. Some biblical texts describe events as they happened, without implying that we should go and do likewise. Joseph saved Egypt from starvation by nationalizing all the farmland (Genesis 47:20-26), but we shouldn't base an economic theory of property ownership on this emergency situation.
  • Don't confuse principle with practice. Certain timeless principles may be demonstrated in different ways. When Paul encouraged the Roman church to "[g]reet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16:16), in that culture, love to the family of God was expressed with a kiss. Today we might shake some hands around us before sitting down.
  • A specific command might be limited to the evil to which it is opposed. When Jesus told his listeners to "call no man your father" (Matt. 23:9), he was opposing the pride of scribes and Pharisees who "love the place of honor" (23:6). He almost certainly did not intend merely to forbid us from addressing our elders or clergymen as "father."

With these guidelines in mind, how do same-sex relations and eating shellfish compare?

In the beginning, God made humanity male and female, to reproduce and fill the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Same-sex relations are forbidden because they reject God's good created order and his intent for human sexuality. Homosexuality is consistently portrayed negatively throughout the Bible, beginning in the days of Abraham. When the men of Sodom mobbed Lot's house to have their way with his male visitors, Lot urged them, "do not act so wickedly" (Gen. 19:7). Because of this and other wickedness, God destroyed the city. The Mosaic Law explicitly forbids homosexual activity: it is an offense serious enough to merit death (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). In the New Testament, Paul treats homosexuality as symptomatic of mankind's rebellion against God, overthrowing the natural sexual relations of creation, with the opposite sex, for unnatural relations  with the same sex (Rom. 1:26-27). In his letters to the Corinthian church and to Timothy, he says that those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9); it is "contrary to sound doctrine" (1 Tim. 1:10). Note that the three Pauline letters are written to a primarily Gentile audience, not to a Jewish one.

Clearly, therefore, the biblical injunction against homosexual practices is intended for all peoples, in all times, and at all places.

By contrast, eating fish without scales and fins is also prohibited by the Law (Lev. 11:10-12; Deut. 14:9-10), and the penalty for touching them is ceremonial uncleanness until sundown (Lev. 11:24ff). These are the only places where the prohibition is given. No Gentile nation is ever judged for not observing Israelite dietary restrictions. On the other hand, Mark says that Jesus declared all foods "clean" (Mark 7:19). In a vision, Peter was invited to eat unclean food (Acts 10:9-16). It was an object lesson about welcoming the Gentiles into the blessings of the Gospel (Acts 10:34ff). In effect, God declared the end of a greater taboo by inviting Peter to break a lesser one.

Obviously this law is intended only for the Israelite nation. The logic behind it is to maintain a visible, ceremonial distinction between the Israelite and Gentile nations. (This isn't as unusual as it might sound. Even today, one of the reasons the Amish don't use electricity or cars is to distinguish themselves from the "English.")

Properly understanding the Bible takes work. Navigating through the contemporary relevance of Scripture's moral commands can sometimes be less clear-cut than this example. However, just because there isn't a pat, "sound bite" answer, that doesn't mean there isn't a good answer.

Now, spend some time studying the Bible for yourselves, and use your work to answer your skeptical friends.


[i] These principles are adapted from a course in moral theology that I studied about 10 years ago.

Friday, April 11, 2014

How Not to be Corny or Boring When Discussing Apologetics

by McKenzie Hahn

“You perform the way you practice.”

Ever witnessed someone doing something they’re passionate about – a hobby, a career, a sport, a pet cause, a caring act of service – and been completely enthralled not just by what they’re doing but by how they’re doing it?
On the other hand, have you ever witnessed someone who had all the passion and gusto for a certain subject but seemed clueless as to how they were coming across to the people around them? (Arrogant, tunnel-visioned, insensitive, boring?)
In high school I played several instruments in marching, jazz, and concert band and our conductor repeated a frequent mantra in our ears: we perform the way we practice, and vice versa. Our band room sat across the hall from the stage, where we squeezed in as much practice as possible to get used to the acoustics, the smells, the temperature, and the environment before “it counted,” before concert season began. Little things like stage lights, uniforms, and risers gradually found their way into our rehearsal routine when it became clear that we could play our pieces backwards and forwards in our sleep and still maintain our sound quality and tempo as a team.
Such is the way of the church, or should be. Gone are the days when it was enough to put on your Sunday best, sing some songs to Jesus, and visit the neighbours with casseroles once a week. In the downtown cores of Canadian cities, as in that dimly-lit auditorium of my youth, all judging eyes are on us, and the world is waiting to hear what we have to say: a truth that changes lives and redeems people, or so we thought, right? Of course, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you’re already convinced that something needs to happen. But how do you talk to someone and fulfill the Great Commission when it seems that opportunities for such conversations have all but dried up?
Here are a few simple ideas to get you started, assuming you’re already reading and studying your Bible, involved in a small group, and praying for your city regularly:
1.)    Practice Hospitality
After seven years of attending and observing various outreach-focused events and programs put on by churches (yes, even the ones waving the “authenticity!” banner), meant to encourage non-Christians to come to faith in Christ, I’ve found that the deepest conversations about God and truth often happen either over a series of several good meals, when both parties have the chance to think without needing to watch the clock. Of course connections can happen at these events, but depending on how traumatic or damaging someone’s story is, it generally feels less contrived when it happens on their own terms.
I realize this comes from someone who invests a lot of time in Christian conferences and courses, however, we as the church still must do the heavy lifting before anyone we know actually comes to them! And mind your manners: learn to ask how people like their coffee or tea, and to pour it without spilling it in their lap. Pick up their plate when they’re finished, or stay later to help with dishes or the garbage. It really is the little things that make people feel cared-for.
2.)    Learn Something New
Some favourite pet topics among my circle of friends are preborn rights, post-abortion ministry, politics, evidence for the resurrection of Christ, moral relativism, philosophy, logic, intelligent design, irreducible complexity, and fiscal conservatism. Staying humble gets difficult the more you know, and requires a push or shove out of your comfort zone to remind you that you, in fact, do not have all the answers (!). For example, I’m currently researching storm water management techniques and sediment control for work, and it helps me realize that although I don’t know everything, neither does anyone else.
We’re all beginners at something, we all have to work at it, and this helps us relate to people who have never heard certain terms or concepts, especially those related to Christianity and the Bible. At my job, engineers have shorthand terms for their scope of expertise (usually acronyms), and frankly, it reminds me of the first time I heard the word “propitiation” thrown around in a church service as a freshly laundered Christian. Where possible, break it down. Life is complicated enough already.
3.)    Be A Reader
It should go without saying, but in order to learn, you must feast on answers outside of your own head. Leave books lying around that you will actually read. Years ago, before I was a Christian, I brought a copy of the Da Vinci Code with me on a plane and a possibly-well-intended-but-unfortunately-misguided woman hissed loudly, for everyone around us to hear, “That book is blasphemy!” I had no idea what that word meant, but it conjured up images of witch hunts. “It’s published under fiction?” I squeaked, not sure how she’d react.
In the time since, my memory of how our conversation ended eludes me, but her reaction remains crystal clear, all because I opened up a book. Imagine if I’d simply asked, “Which part of the book are you referring to? Have you read it?”
4.)    Stay Curious About People
I’m not sure if there’s a formula for curiosity, but we teach every first-year sociology student to “see the unfamiliar in the familiar.” Why do people do what they do? What do they seem to value above all else? What goes unnoticed or neglected about them? What encourages them? What intrigues you about them?
5.)    A Final Word About Respect
Everywhere I go lately, especially for work, someone mentions the buzzword “integrity,” but in an odd sense of the word. I’ve heard it used to mean honesty and hard-working, but it goes much deeper. It also means actively pursuing opportunities to make yourself indispensable to those around you. Find out what they need, and provide it. You won’t believe the conversations that happen when people know they can trust you.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Rob Bell and the Bible

by Justin Wishart

I was recently directed to Rob Bell’s blog. He has written a fairly substantial, multi-part outline of his views of Scripture.[1] I found his reflections both interesting and troubling. While this article will be mostly a negative review, I would like to make it clear that there was some great content to be found. Some of his ideas were compelling and insightful. However, there were many problems I found, so many that I had trouble with choosing which issues to cover. I will attempt to cover what I think are the main issues found within his work.

Bell’s Approach to Scripture         

If there is one thing Bell wants people to know, it’s that the Bible is a human book. “The Bible is first, before anything else, a library of books written by humans.” Bell emphatically repeats this mantra over and again.

When people charge in with great insistence that this is God’s word all the while neglecting the very real humanity of these books, they can inadvertently rob these writings of their sacred power. All because of starting in the wrong place. You start with the human. You ask those questions, you enter there, you direct your energies to understanding why these people wrote these books.

This is a hard break from the Evangelical[2] position on Scripture, so I feel that it is fair to say that Bell is not an Evangelical. All the Evangelical creeds which I have read on Scripture start with God’s being the author first, and then the human agency is second. This has also been the historical church’s position, and I am unaware of any historical creed[3] which approaches Scripture as Bell proposes.

This puts Bell up against almost 2000 years of church history and belief. Do we put weight on Bell’s view (and others who hold his approach), or do we rely on the Church Fathers: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc., who hold that the Bible is primarily a book from God? While an appeal to authority doesn’t make Bell automatically wrong, it should cause one to stop and think. It seems that one must provide powerful reasons as to why we should break away from this tradition.

Bell does not even attempt to do this.

Bell’s Evolutionary View of Religion

One surprising feature of Bell’s views is how he thinks humanity became religious.

Early humans came to the realization that their survival as a species was dependent on things like food and water. And for food to grow it needs sun and water in proper proportion. Too much water and things wash away, not enough and plants die. Too much sun and plants wilt, not enough and they die as well. These basic observations brought people to the conclusion that they were dependent on unseen forces they could not control for their survival ... The belief ... arose that these forces are either on your side or they aren’t. And how do you keep these forces on your side? The next time you have a harvest, you take a portion of that harvest and you offer it on an altar as a sign of your gratitude.

So, the base root of our religion was our need to survive.[4] This goes against the Bible’s clear teaching that religion came to us through revelation, that true religion came directly from God right at the beginning in the Garden. Unfortunately, this seems to be a very important point for Bell, because he uses this progressive evolutionary template in his biblical hermeneutic.

“What you read in the Bible was mostly told and written by people at a tribal stage of consciousness.” Since the Bible is primarily human, then it will have the errors directly related to their primitive religious thinking. Bell rhetorically asks, “Does it surprise you when after winning they wiped out the women and children and then said their God told them to do it?” So, when the Bible says that God commanded the killing of everyone in a city, Bell says that isn’t so. The only reason why we find this in the Bible is because “[t]hat’s what people did at that time.”

What we see in this particular library is a story, a story that unfolds over time, a story about growing human awareness of the divine. It’s a vision of the world that evolves in its understanding of who we are, where we’re headed, and what it means to be human... And people were (and are)[5] at various stages of consciousness... What you read in the Bible was mostly told and written by people at a tribal stage of consciousness.

A puzzle that comes to my mind with this evolutionary view is that I think it would be pretty arrogant if Bell thought that what he was writing was the highest possible expression of religious thought. Presumably, our religious thought will continue to evolve, which means that many of Bell’s views here are likely to become outdated, just as he views Moses’ perspective. If his evolutionary view is true, then Bell (and I) are most likely wrong on things we say about religion. Why should anyone listen to him, or anyone else, since our understanding will evolve indefinitely? In this scheme, how can we ever know when we have the truth of the matter?

His hermeneutical principle undermines his own opinions.

Are the Miracles and Stories in the Bible Historical?

It is important to point out here that Bell does not deny the general historicity of the stories and miracles in the Bible.[6] It’s more that he doesn’t think them important. For example, Bell has a long discussion on Jonah and the Whale. So, when he asks himself if this event actually happened, he responds:

I don’t think it matters what you believe about a man being swallowed by a fish. If you don’t believe it literally happened, that’s fine. Lots of people of faith over the years have read this story as a parable about national forgiveness. .

For Bell, historicity has very little value but the underlying message of Jonah’s story is the important bit.

This is where Bell has some great insights, about what the underlying messages of various biblical stories are. However, Bell is missing out on something important. Every sacred text has these mythical truths[7], and he effectively reduces the Bible to being on par with these other religious texts. If the historicity of the Bible is ignored, how is it any different than any other book?

Bell also places a needless dichotomy between the historical Bible and the meanings undergirding it.[8] He seems to think that if you have any focus on the Bible as being a historical document, you will miss the point. Bell says that thinking about Scripture in terms of its historicity is “dangerous, because in arguing one way or the other [about the Bible’s Historicity] you may miss the point of the story.”[9] He is right to place the emphasis on the meaning of the story, but there is no need to then undermine the historicity of the story. God, as the master story-teller, intervenes in actual history so that He can teach us these lessons. It’s not an either/or situation, but they are both infallibly true.

In fact, the historicity of the Bible is the very means by which we can know that the underlying message God wanted to share with us corresponds to reality. Otherwise, we have no way of affirming biblical teachings while denying contradictory teachings found within other texts.

Bell’s Most Basic Flaw

Gordon Clark issued a challenge, which I call The Clarkian Challenge, to the liberal theologians of his day, and it bears repeating here:

If now anyone insists that a chance statement by Jeremiah or the doctrine of sanctification in Paul may accidentally be true and can be accepted even after rejecting infallibility, we would like to know on what bases and by what method these other doctrines are retained. It is not enough to claim that this verse or that doctrine can be salvaged from an erroneous Bible. The claim must be substantiated.[10]

The most basic question I had after reading Bell’s work was his method of figuring out what is true and what is false in the Bible. Unfortunately, he does not take much time to explain this fundamentally critical issue. He does offer some clues, however:

When I read this book, something happens in me. I’m inspired, I’m convicted, I’m confronted, I’m comforted-I read these stories and they speak to me about the story God is telling. They’re books, but they’re more than books. That’s been my experience. They ring true to me. 

Certain Bible portions are true, it seems, because they “ring true” to Bell. What about people for whom the Bible “rings false”? And, isn’t this whole idea of ringing true not subjected to his particular “state of consciousness”? Would Bell still think this book rings true if he were born 300 years in the future where the state of consciousness will undoubtedly be different?

Bell here seems to place himself as the arbiter of truth based on nothing more than his personal feelings. This view destroys any epistemic warrant for his, or anyone else’s, views on Scripture and as such, Clark’s challenge is left unanswered.

Conclusion

This series by Bell is not yet completed, so some of my questions and considerations may be addressed, and I hope they are. His views on the Bible place him within the Liberal theology camp, and as such break away from historical Christianity.[11] I would have liked more space to go through his work more thoroughly, but I have expressed what I think are the main issues with Bell’s views. Rob Bell exerts major influence on believers around the world, and we need to be wise in knowing what his influence actually is.


[1] The first instalment can be found here, all quotes will be from this series: http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/66107373947/what-is-the-bible (viewed 2014-03-26).
[2] For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/ (viewed 2014-03-26).
[3] Read John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches, John Knox Press.
[4] One could just imagine Darwin and Freud nodding their heads in agreement here.
[5] Notice the “and are” here.
[6] He does not fall into the absurdity of Tom Harpur in his book The Pagan Christ, who contends that there are no historical narratives in the Bible.
[7] By “mythical truths” I mean a story in which the details are not historical but the underlying message, or the moral of the story, is true.
[8] This dichotomy can be seen in this section: http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/67088740020/what-is-the-bible-part-9 (viewed 2014-03-29).
[9] While he wisely softens his stance by the word “may,” he spends a large majority of his work setting up this false dichotomy.
[10] Gordon H. Clark, God’s Hammer: The Bible and Its Critics, The Trinity Foundation, Fourth Edition 2011, Pg. 85.
[11] He is downright hostile towards the historical Evangelical understanding of Scripture. He says of people who hold to the historicity of Scripture, “You either bought the party line, which meant you had to check your intellect at the door or you checked out?” When referring to people who hold to inerrancy, he remarks, “It’s important to grow up, to evolve, and to mature. And central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like. Inerrancy is a failure to grow up in thinking about the Bible.” So, according to Bell, Evangelicals are childish in their thinking and we don’t use our minds.