Monday, September 4, 2017

Yes, I Signed the Nashville Statement

The Nashville Statement, recently published by a group of Biblically-oriented American pastors, scholars and Christian thought-leaders, is the most recent in a centuries-old line of statements, declarations, resolutions and councils. From time to time concerned believers gather to wrestle with thorny contemporary matters—issuing clear and authoritative proclamations to  help guide the church through difficult times.

The city-based identifier for such bulletins was established centuries ago at a meeting of Christian bishops in Nicea, which yielded The Nicene Creed in 325. After  a subsequent confab in Constantinople in 381, and Chalcedon in 451, the precedent was set.

In modernity we saw a response to the rise of National Socialism in Germany—the Barmen Declaration of 1934. Its signatories, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resisted the move by many German churches to affiliate with the Nazi party, speaking with a laser-like prescience: "We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions."

During my own lifetime have come The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), The Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (1987), and the Manhattan Declaration on the Sanctity of Life & Freedom of Conscience (2009, released in the internet age, and which I also signed). In differing forms we have recently seen "councils" like The Moral Majority, Promise Keepers, The Gospel Coalition, Women of Faith, The Coalition of African American Pastors, The Museum of the Bible, and many other issue-answering endeavors to maintain a faithful Christian witness, Biblical literacy, and a "discerning [of] the times, because the days are evil." (Ephesians 5:16)

So it is not unheard of for Biblically-minded American church leaders to wade into controversy. As with all of these documents, The Nashville Statement (officially from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) is addressed to the church, but is aware of a wider audience, as stated in the preamble: " the hope of serving Christ’s church and witnessing publicly to the good purposes of God for human sexuality revealed in Christian Scripture, we offer the following affirmations and denials."

The thirteen articles themselves are mostly uncontroversial, at least for evangelical believers. If you take the Bible seriously, you'll be hard pressed to argue against these affirmations and denials. Christian psychologist and author Mark Yarhouse doesn't dispute the theology, but wonders about the Statement's "language," given that the labels and terms of identity and proclivity are still in flux. Those in the church who have publicly approved of homosexual behavior, transgender treatment, or have actually performed same-sex "marriages," feel themselves singled out by Article X. And well they should. Their high public profiles, and their divergence from Biblical norms may have endeared them to the media and popular culture, but their shifts away from historic Biblical belief and practice have opened a wound in the body of Christ.

That some people's feelings would be hurt by The Nashville Statement was all but inevitable. That breakaway churches and celebrated Christian mavericks would recant was all but impossible. That these evil days call for a choose-you-this-day-whom-you-will-serve ethos is all but certain. I've made my choice.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Christian Name Calling: Don't Use This Word (Pt 2)

Part 1 of my rumination on Christian name-calling focussed on the eponymous "Christian" as an honorable name. We saw that it had been foretold by the prophet Isaiah, that its first use was memorialized by Luke in Acts 11, that its ubiquity was confirmed by a King (Agrippa) to the Apostle Paul in Acts 26, and that its status was elevated by no less than Saint Peter in his first letter to fellow saints scattered across Asia Minor. So not only is calling ourselves and one another "Christian" not a problem, it's actually a divinely appointed name.
In the  Gospels and the first two-thirds of Acts, Christ-followers are mostly called Disciples. Jesus himself used that name, but he also called his posse and individual followers by other names—friends, brothers, sisters, children, man, woman, servants, branches, and many more. One interesting rabbit-hole to go down in this study is to compare the different animals Jesus cited when describing his pals—sheep, doves, sparrows—versus those animals used to describe people who opposed Christ: wolves, vipers, snakes, a fox.

Jesus was pretty binary. He trafficked heavily in either/or formulations—he was waaay more us/them than is currently in vogue. Jesus explicitly told us he came to divide people (Matt 10 & 25), and once called Peter, his first lieutenant, Satan. So let's dispense with the recent political-correctness among academics to alter names used in scripture (ie: gender-based rewrites of Bible translations). Instead we should examine scripture honestly for guidance as to what we call ourselves—since out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Because the way man thinks in his heart defines who he is. Which means the names we choose to describe ourselves are deeply important.

Would it surprise you to learn the scriptures nowhere refer to Christians as sinners? Not once. In the Bible Christians are said to be born again, new creatures, possessing a divine nature, having the mind of Christ, be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, the true circumcision, the bride of Christ, and many other affirming honorifics. But never sinners. Ever.

And yet, chances are in the last year you've heard a preacher call himself—and you, and all believers—sinners. I've certainly heard this. Sometimes it is followed by a qualifier "saved by grace," but not always. More and more lately this name-calling just stands on its own: "Look, we're all sinners here."

Excuse me? Says who? "Well," comes the defense, "scripture says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Sure, and Paul even admitted to having been the "chief" sinner. But that was the "old man," in the past—which is what Paul is talking about in Romans 3: "former sins." The Apostle is clearly saying that was then, but this is now. And anyway the passage is generic—not labeling the Christians in Rome as sinners. Paul is demonstrating the universality of both Jews and Gentiles having been sinners. "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested..." It's a new covenant, and now we Gentiles can become new creatures in Christ: grafted into the vine. Born again.

If you've read much of Paul's writing, you know he often echoes phrases and words from Hebrew scripture. "Sinners" were not unknown in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most famous OT use of the word is in Psalm 51, where David speaks of his own "sin" in verse 4, but then in verse 13 promises to teach "transgressors" God's ways so "sinners will be converted." David confesses that he had sinned, but he does not consider himself "a sinner," because he had repented, and came with a broken and contrite heart before the God of his salvation.

When the Pharisees called somebody a sinner, Jesus didn't dispute their characterization, but said sinners were the ones he came to save—the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. "For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9:13) Once a sinner repents, believes, and is baptized their identity is now in Christ, and they are born from above. That was me, but not anymore: the old is past.

Paul acknowledges that his beloved Corinthians did indeed have a past. "And such were some of you" he said after rattling off a list of the kind of people who will not enter the Kingdom of God. "But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11) Something happened to the Corinthians, and they're not any of those things now.

There may be many different motives behind Christian leaders telling God's elect they are sinners. Some may think they're echoing Paul's exhortation cited above. Some may be flat-out guilt manipulators. And many these days seek to be "relevant," trumpeting a newly-invented Christian virtue of "empathy." This has the effect of lowering everybody to the same level, and is a hallmark of Progressivism. I can't be judgey if I say I'm a sinner just like you.

But I urge preachers, professors, elders, worship leaders, deacons, authors, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders— anybody who is in Christian leadership— to recognize the power of their words to shape the self-concept of those they lead. Because they lead the Bride of Christ—and she ain't no sinner.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Christian Name Calling: Don't Use This One Word

The list of widely used derogatory names for followers of Jesus Christ is actually quite short: Jesus Freaks, True Believers, Holy Rollers, and Bible Thumpers is about it. Those wishing to insult or demean Christ's adherents have pretty much given up the hunt for a concise pejorative. They just cite the most ancient moniker: Christians. Once it is clear who they're talking about, the descriptors flow freely—as in "Christians are . . . hypocrites, judgmental, superstitious, anti-science, bigots, haters." And the list goes on.

But that's not what this post is about. I wanna talk about what followers of Jesus Christ call themselves and one another. Most importantly what we should never call ourselves or each other.
The Stereotypical Christian?

First some demythologizing. The word "Christian" appears in scripture three times. There's approximately zero direct evidence that pagans in Antioch invented the word as an insult, as goes the old chestnut. Please read Acts 11:26 again and remind me about the infinitive aorist tense in New Testament Greek (ie: on-going & passive). Let's go to the NASB: "...the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." Who was doing the "calling?" It doesn't say. Might've been the locals, might've been The Disciples themselves. Was the word meant to impugn? It doesn't say. There's no hint of persecution, hostility, or opposition in Antioch at all—to the contrary, Luke tells us "the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord." The main headline about the church in Antioch is the success of the gospel among Gentiles before the Apostle Paul had ever visited.

Some point to King Agrippa using the word in disgust after hearing Paul's speech (Acts 26). But how, exactly, do we know the King spoke it in disgust? The word was apparently in widespread use by that time. Agrippa had never heard a real, live leader of The Way present the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so he was pleased to have Paul deliver a sermon to the king's court. The result? Agrippa's famed exclamation that he was "almost persuaded" to become a Christian.

Yes, many newer Bible translations cast Agrippa's words as a question, along the lines of "Do you think you can so quickly persuade me to be a Christian?" I'm not convinced he was asking a question, but what if he was? If Aggy was asking a rhetorical question—and even if that question's intent was to assure his courtly audience that he would not convert to Christ—it still doesn't mean the word "Christian" was itself a slur. In fact, Agrippa could've been giving Paul a mock-compliment—sort of a boast for being strong in his own Pagan faith. He acknowledges Paul's masterful presentation, admires the prisoner's moxie, and spins it to his posse as "I just took the strongest punch any preacher could ever give—and it didn't even faze me. I'm still a great Pagan. Probably the best Pagan ever."

Not to mention that you can insult a person using purely "acceptable" words. In fact, the best insults masquerade as compliments (ie: damning with faint praise). No, we can't use Agrippa to seal the deal for "Christian" being a word of derision. And don't skip past the fact that one of the three mentions of this word in scripture comes out of the mouth of a King—in front of witnesses. Including the Apostle Paul.

And a historical note. It's hard to imagine any early disciple of Jesus being offended by the label "Christ." But what about the suffix "-ian?" What does this modifier do to the word? Roman soldiers of the era serving under a particular general would add "-iani" (Latin) or "-ianos" (Greek) to the end of their general's name, denoting their allegiance to him. Caesar's soldiers were called "Caesariani." Therefore this construct quite literally means "Christ-follower."

Others argue that the author of Acts himself (Luke) persisted in calling the new religionists "disciples," and not "Christians." True. Luke continued to use the same word he'd used dozens of times in his Gospel. So riddle me this: after Acts 21 Luke stopped using the word "disciple." Seriously. The word never again appears in the rest of the New Testament. I mean, over 250 uses in the four Gospels and Acts, then—whoosh!—the word vanishes faster than Lazarus from the pages of scripture.

Look, all the arguments that the word "Christian" was an insult rely on inference. People have assumed the pagan populace of Antioch came up with the name. No evidence, Biblical or historical, supports this. On top of which they assume that because Antioch was pagan the word just had to be a hostile nickname. Again, no evidence in or out of scripture for it being derogatory. Then they pile on another assumption that Agrippa was echoing a vernacular slight. Maybe. Possibly. Assuming the first two assumptions were correct. But what saith the scripture?

Take the passage where Peter is intentionally specific and sober in using the word "Christian" (1 Peter 4:16), which is its third-and-final appearance in the Bible. Peter's letter utterly debunks the modern meme that "the believers never called each other Christians." Hello? Here's the Apostle who was given the keys to the kingdom urging his flock to endure suffering "as a Christian."

Every Junior High Sunday School student knows that first-use is a big deal in the Bible. Let's go back to the first-use of "Christian" in Acts 11:26 and the focus on the words "first called." Both of those words are yuge in scripture, and loaded with meaning. Firstborn. First fruits. First day of the week. First to believe. First commandment. First Adam. And don't ignore the connection between "first" and the number one. To wit: "one and only Son," "the Lord our God is one," "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father." So having this news item highlighted in scripture as a "first" tells us to stop and consider.

I consider the word "called" to be the clincher for "Christian" being a very good name indeed. The Greek word used here for "called" isn't the common word found in "they shall be called the children of God," or "the one called Peter," or even "thou shalt call his name Jesus." No, this is a rarely-used mystical word, the Greek word "chrematizo." It appears nine times in scripture, seven of which explicitly indicate that an Angel, the Holy Spirit, or God himself is giving an instruction (Strong's 5537). Acts 11:26 is one of two times where it's not explicit that God is speaking. Still, if the statement "first called Christians" were a mere aside, why use such a highly-freighted word? Answer: it's not an aside.

Luke's brief notation, validated by King Agrippa's words to Paul, and sealed with Peter's charge to all who name the Name of Christ, is not a pagan invention. It is a prophecy fulfilled. How could such an innocuous expression as "the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" actually be a chrematizo—a legitimate oracle? Is there a prophecy foretelling this new name? Yes. Yes there is.

The nations will see your righteousness,
And all kings your glory;
And you will be called by a new name
Which the mouth of the Lord will designate.
— Isaiah 62:2 (NASB)

First called by whom? Well there's your chrematizo: the name was designated in advance and came from the mouth of the Lord. I'm gonna guess the Antioch disciples themselves came up with the name. But if not, this wouldn't be the first time God used pagans or foreign Kings to fulfill his promises to his own people. I am happy to be called a Christian, seeking daily to live up to my master's example.

So, what about the other Biblical names Christians were called? These are names which we may call ourselves and one another. Just a partial list: brethren, the elect, servants, believers, dear children, little flock, sheep, followers, the faithful, the redeemed of the Lord, saints, the righteous, a holy nation, and even bondservants of Christ.

But there's one name from scripture (not in the list above) which I hear repeatedly used by Christians of themselves. It's even sometimes used of other—even all—believers. It is a tag that no Christian should ever place on themselves. That one word will be the subject of Part Two of this post.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Calvinist Friend's Facebook Challenge

Evidently for a limited-time full-length lectures were being streamed for free on R.C. Sproul's Ligonier website. So one of my Calvinist friends posted the link on Facebook, saying he'd like to get the feedback from some non-Calvinists on a series called "What Is Reformed Theology?" 

Yes, I watched all twelve lectures—that's four HOURS of viewing. But R.C. Sproul is easy to watch (and the playback can be sped up). I've long called him my favorite Calvinist (Doug Wilson is a close second). Sproul is respectful of other views, winsome in his advocacy and empathetic in his application. There was hardly a word in his first six sessions that I wouldn't whole-heartedly applaud. In particular I love that he admits the entire project of theology is one of creating "systems." Calvinism and Arminianism are constructs, schools-of-thought attempting to understand God and his agency in creation/humanity.

Right away I was struck by how often Sproul commends the historic "creeds, communions and confessions" in promoting his Systematic Theology. All thru the series, over and over again Sproul seems to be making the case for Reformed Theology being the new Catholicism. He uses the word "catholic (small-c)" repeatedly. He asserts that Reformed Theology is the dominant, accepted Protestant Orthodoxy. This is debatable. But to the extent that he's right, it flows out of entrenched, old-world institutions (ie: Lutheranism, Presbyterianism), then gets grafted into new-world ones (ie: Baptists, Pentecostals). Sproul's brief tour thru the historical development of the Calvin/Arminius controversy made me realize that the 5-point remonstrance of Arminius was itself seeking to "reform" theology, not unlike Luther's own 95 points.

A pause for a word about the euphemism "Reformed Theology." I'm bothered that Calvinism seeks to claim ownership of the entire Protestant Reformation. Not one of Calvinism's 5 Points includes the true northstar of The Reformation, sola fide (Faith Alone). And all Protestants— Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Nazarenes, and many more—are legal heirs of The Reformation, though they do not identify themselves with the theology of John Calvin. So I respectfully refuse to call it "Reformed."

Anyway, it wasn't until session seven ("Total Depravity 1") that I came upon a point of disagreement. Sproul quoted—and then imaginatively interpreted—Psalm 51:5 "I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." He contends that this poetical passage demonstrates "Original Sin," passing it along genetically to the infant and making baby David guilty at birth. Two things: first, the verse can credibly be read as saying his PARENTS sinned, but more importantly, there's too much non-poetical scripture asserting the innocence of babies to refute this notion. A short article lays out a simple case against THIS verse being used to support inherited, metaphysical sin.(

Sproul even articulates what my friend Winkie Pratney has called Doggie Logic: "You're not a dog (sinner) because you bark (sin), you bark (sin) because you're a dog (sinner)." This was not a throw-away line, Sproul made it the capstone of his argument. I'm sorry, but citing a single verse of poetry and backing it up with a cutesy non-Biblical aphorism seeks to imply that there is ample Biblical support for the notion of sin being a created substance within human DNA. And doth not even nature itself (ie: dogs) teach this? Uh, no . . . it doth not.

I appreciate Sproul's highlighting the point that Augustine is the real founder of the "reformed doctrine" of Original Sin. I hadn't known Augustine was the founding sponsor of the seminary Martin Luther graduated from. I can't imagine any Evangelical finding comfort in that association, unless they were raised in a Reformed/Calvinist tradition. Augustine's towering influence on Luther greatly contributes to my wariness about Original Sin in particular, and Calvinism in general.

Alas, once Sproul begins peeling back the TULIP, starting with Total Depravity (which he prefers to call Radical Corruption), things begin to go downhill for me. Having set the table so invitingly, he then sets about answering questions Arminians aren't asking. Like his utterly (pun intended) spurious point that Total Depravity doesn't mean Utter Depravity (ie: even Hitler loved his mother and fed his dog). Come on RC, remember that we Arminians are the ones who believe there's a "little faith" in all of us...enough to repent and receive Jesus' offer of forgiveness. 

Next Sproul proof-texts Total Depravity from John 6:63-65, to wit "no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father." These words of Jesus are instructive, to be sure, but not exhaustive: Jesus DID have more to say on this topic, most pointedly after his resurrection when promising to send the Spirit of Truth. Calvinists may have more passages than this one to defend Moral Inability, but Arminians have vastly more verses—including many spoken by Jesus—persuading us that humans DO have the ability (and responsibility) to repent and believe. And of course the Holy Spirit "woos" us, drawing us in as moths to the flame. That's what Jesus promised would happen when the Spirit arrived.

After watching Session 9 on Unconditional Election, with Sproul anchoring the theory in Romans 9, I recognized his pattern. I'll call it Old Chestnuts, Deep Weeding and Straw Men. Misapplying Romans 9 has become an old Chestnut to me since I first heard it in 1974. That chapter is so plainly not about individuals' salvation: scripture often uses the names of people to refer to groups and nations. Romans 9 is about Christ changing the terms of the covenant between God and people. 

Next, when defending Limited Atonement in Session 10, Sproul assures us the one thing this term doesn't mean is Insufficient Atonement. Huh? That's a Straw Man argument: no Arminian anywhere ever advanced that point. What we've argued is that Jesus died for "all." Then his third tactic is deployed in an attack on the most common passage used to refute Limited Atonement... and here he goes waaay out into the Weeds on Greek tense and translation. Would that he'd been as rigorous in dissecting Romans 9 as he was with 2 Peter 3:8.

Despite watching all twelve lectures, I will not here dissect any more of them. The Facebook Challenge was addressed to non-Clavinists, and Sproul's premise is that there is much misunderstanding about "Reformed" theology. Turns out I really don't have any significant misunderstandings about it. (For any reader not familiar with TULIP, the two remaining points are Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.)

Sproul, when all is said and done, is a partisan here. Helpfully, he admits up front that this whole dispute is about The Doctrine of God. In my years of observation, I've seen Calvinists promote God's greatest defining attribute not as love, but as power. Sproul and his crew love to talk about "sovereignty," a word that often-times can be translated as "shut up." As in "who are you to answer back to God," as if only a Calvinist can have the mind of Christ. These five offensive ideas about God's unilateral, coercive and sometimes cruel/unjust actions (double-predestination) cannot be separated from the time in which they were first cooked up. In the 1500s governments in Europe ran the churches, and they had officials called Inquisitors, whose job it was to arrest, try and execute those who had the wrong view of, say, antelapsarianism. As agents of the state both Luther and Calvin were active participants in some of these trials.

The most frequent concern I hear from Calvinists is that we Remonstrateurs weaken God's power if we argue that His will may sometimes be thwarted. This, to me, is what John Calvin, who wielded great secular authority, was most worried about: power. And when you think about it, upon his (and Luther's) shoulders has been built a significant theological and ecclesiastical edifice. In our time many believers see little or no value in this temporal legacy (ie: denominations).

I had never before spent so much time listening to a presentation of systematic Calvinism. But over the course of my adult life it turns out that it's kinda like long-term exposure to the Mainstream Media. Anybody actively pursuing the faith has come upon The Five Points repeatedly in books, sermons, videos and discussions with other believers. None of these five positions was articulated in my Baptist (NAB) church growing up—not even "Preservation of the Saints." So when I began to encounter them they struck me as strange. Indeed, Sproul himself confesses to having been "repulsed" by them as a young seminarian. 

In the end I find great comfort in America's fresh contributions to the development of Christianity, starting with the second Great Awakening (Charles Finney), thru the Stone-Campbell movement (Churches of Christ), the Azusa Street revival (Pentecostalism) and the Jesus Movement ("charismatic" evangelicalism). Methodism, of course, first unleashed Arminius' views in England, then quickly brought them here where they really took off. But it has been the rise of Baptists, Pentecostals and some other groups on this continent—folks who have evangelized around the world—that has in many ways superseded Calvinism. They are very much a new wine-skin that can absorb/include Calvinists, but not be DEFINED by Calvinism. The newest wave of non-denominationalism further erodes the foundation of so-called "reformed" theology, and is in itself a kind of reforming wave.

And that is the reaction of one non-Calvinist to R.C. Sproul's engaging—but utlimately flawed—presentation.