Ethics or Theological Subscription as the Ground of Functional Christian Fellowship?

A couple of weeks ago Union University made news by practicing secondary separation (or at least what fundamentalists have been pummeled over the last 70 years for practicing under that label): they broke fellowship with an organization of professing believers—the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities [CCCU]—because the Council had failed to censure two member institutions—institutions that had capitulated to the prevailing Zeitgeist on the matter of homosexual marriage. Union president Dub Oliver explained: “Our faithfulness to the authority of Scripture takes precedence,” adding, “Our advocacy for Christ-centered higher education means that we must stand with institutions that share our commitments.” He concluded, “The reason we are passionate about this is because what we are talking about is not a secondary or tertiary theological issue—marriage is at the heart of the Gospel. To deny the Bible’s concept of marriage is to deny the authority of Scripture.” But here’s the thing: the CCCU has for years had as member institutions schools of various branches of the Churches of Christ, a Seventh Day Adventist School, at least one (very) Roman Catholic school, and a few other nominally “Christian” institutions that have given little thought to the details of the Christian Gospel and the authority of the Word of God for decades. These theological errors are not separation-worthy, but homosexuality is? Hmmm.

Example 2: Last week I stopped by a church blog that I frequent. Again, I applauded the author’s powerful argument regarding the use of Hillsong music in his church: due to Hillsong’s “normalization of immorality” (again, homosexuality), the author reckoned, “our music ministry will no longer use any material written by Hillsong.” But then came the curious caveat. The author admitted that Hillsong had long ago abandoned sound doctrine, but argued that “we were never concerned that using this song would lead our people into prosperity theology or wild charismaticism.” So his church had continued to use Hillsong music. But homosexuality? That went too far. Now it has become time, the author concluded, to “watch out for those who cause confusion regarding sound doctrine, and turn away from them.”

On the one hand I’m happy about these decisions—I rejoice in them as refreshing matters of biblical obedience. And maybe I should do nothing but offer a hearty “Amen” and applause to both. I agree with the willingness to part ways with disobedient brothers and appreciate their courageous stands in the face of stiff opposition. Overlooking or endorsing homosexuality IS a big deal. A really big deal. And I’m glad that these two men and the organizations they represent are refusing to shrug their shoulders and look the other way.

But I struggle with the implied suggestion that the error of homosexual marriage is a bigger deal and a greater affront to the Gospel than the denial of justification sola fide, or that advocating for homosexuality is a bigger threat to God’s people than advocating for a prosperity “gospel” that boasts no more of the Gospel than my pet rabbit. It seems that homosexuality has temporarily become more of a gospel issue than, well, the Gospel. Why is this the case?

Two responses to this trend have come to us from the confessional community (Carl Trueman and Scot McKnight). These argue convincingly that the bare evangelical model, despite all its talk of the Gospel, offers an insufficient basis for determining what constitutes a “big,” “important,” and therefore “gospel” issue, instead leaving the church to posture rather arbitrarily according to the prevailing winds of the day. At one time we pounded on smoking and drinking and rock music, but that’s much too 1970—the 21st century whipping boys are homosexuality and egalitarianism on the left and “legalism” in the right. That’s where the conservative evangelical will take a stand and practice “secondary separation.”

Now, admittedly, the 21st century evangelical watersheds do seem a bit more serious than those from 1970, so I must be charitable. Scripture itself tells us that homosexuality, especially, is a “bigger” or at least a more advanced sin problem than others (so Rom 1:24ff). Still, I think Trueman and McKnight are on to something: the bare evangelical model may be able to see that homosexuality is a big issue, but it has trouble offering a unified explanation as to why it is a big issue. To do that, one needs more than the Gospel and a few Bible verses. We need instead a holistic network of collocated theses that connect the doctrines of God, Scripture, creation, law (natural and biblical), the imago dei, the relationship of Church and culture, the state of man (both old and new), sin, atonement, sanctification, perseverance, pneumatology, apologetics, ecclesiology, the ordinances, and even eschatology. In short we need to take our stands within comprehensive traditions. Without them, we may experience the meager satisfaction and applause that comes from picking at the scabs of homosexuality and egalitarianism, but we risk ignoring the melanoma spreading beneath.

We cannot save the Christian faith merely by erecting a fortress around a few gospel loci and supplementing that defense with occasional sorties against ethical brigands. Instead, we must take our stand in the ontological and epistemological foundations from which the Gospel and its ethic flow.

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Why the Arguments in Support of Planned Parenthood Fail

Choosing Hats (an apologetics site) has a lengthy article pointing out the fallacies of four common arguments given in support of Planned Parenthood and some suggestions for how you can push back against these arguments. I thought I’d provide a brief summary of the responses given there (with a few additional thoughts sprinkled in) to give you a sense of what is being said, but would encourage you to take some time to familiarize yourself with the arguments and responses more fully as well.

It’s a Hoax

Calling it a “hoax” or “bogus” or “fraudulent” implies that the videos are forgeries. But not even Planned Parenthood has treated the videos as if they were not real people saying those things—as if it were the result of CGI. Rather, they have challenged the videos on the accusation that they were obtained illegally—which would be absurd if they were not real. They are not a “hoax.” But calling it a “hoax” is meant to intentionally mislead people into thinking the videos are not real, even when they know they are.

The Video Was Edited

The emphasis on “edited” videos is intended to make people think these videos are trying to hide the full truth and deceive those watching. But there are three problems with this argument. The full videos of the conversation have been released within minutes of the “edited” videos. Why would someone release the full videos in connection with the edited versions if they were trying to hide something? Further, almost every video used in documentaries, television, etc. is edited. So it’s not as though these videos are somehow different from every other video you watch in the news. But perhaps most importantly, the moral disgust and outrage is not a result of the editing. Jonathan Merritt notes in his article concerning the NYT editorial that the unedited versions are as bad if not worse than the edited versions:

The Times also claimed the video was unreliable because it was “edited.” They are correct that the full video was nearly three hours long while the edited version was only nine minutes. So what? These comments in the longer version do not invalidate those in the shorter version. While editorial board hopes to convince readers that The Center for Medical Progress was deliberately only telling part of the story, but they fail to mention that the full video was also posted online and available. So who is withholding information here? And, by the way, the full video is just as repulsive as the shorter version. In fact, it’s about two hours and 50 minutes more repulsive.


The Means Were Dishonest

This is an attempt to make Planned Parenthood the victim. Someone did something wrong to them, because those people lied to gain access to their staff and clinics. But are PP defenders really concerned about the morality of means? On one hand, they argue that taking organs from babies is acceptable because it furthers scientific research (i.e., the end justifies the means), while on the other hand they argue that the videos should be dismissed because someone lied in order to make them (i.e., the means matters more than the end).

But if they are really concerned about the morality of means, they must be appealing to some basis of objective morality by which we could determine whether or not particular actions are good and right. Where does that basis come from? And what does that basis of objective morality say about taking innocent life?

For a biblical and thoughtful defense of the means used to obtain the videos, see Douglas Wilson’s helpful post.

Planned Parenthood Does Good, And Only Bad People Would Try to Stop That Good

What good does Planned Parenthood actually do? Some state that they offer mammograms, but as the Washington Post pointed out years ago: “The problem here is that Planned Parenthood does not perform mammograms or even possess the necessary equipment to do so.” What they do provide (cancer screenings, birth control, pap smears) are all offered by other health care organizations that do not do abortions.

Even Slate noted a couple years ago that to claim that abortions only constitute 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services is “downright silly.” The reality is that at least 1/3 of their revenue comes from abortions, which means abortions are central to Planned Parenthood.

Even if Planned Parenthood did other good things and abortions only constituted 3% of their services, that should be enough to have a problem with them. As Rich Lowry at the National Review argues:

The 3 percent figure is an artifice and a dodge, but even taking it on its own terms, it’s not much of a defense. Only Planned Parenthood would think saying that they only kill babies 3 percent of the time is something to brag about. How much credit would we give someone for saying he only drives drunk 3 percent of the time, or only cheats on business trips 3 percent of the time, or only hits his wife during 3 percent of domestic disputes?

The choosing hats article concludes with the following takeaway:

Planned Parenthood, and their supporters, have precisely nothing in their defense right now.  Nothing whatsoever.  They have a whole lot of experience at making things look the way they want them to look – but the mask was ripped off. Keep them running, keep them on the defensive, and show their pack of lies to be precisely what it is.  This is something we all have to keep at, have to keep momentum going on.  The Big Lie only works if there is nobody to oppose it vigorously and comprehensively.  We must understand that we are dealing with an entire nation of self-deceived people.  An entire nation of people illiterate about the most basic fundamentals of the human condition. We must teach as much as we refute.  We must strongly condemn this atrocity, while speaking that truth of condemnation in love.  His grace is sufficient for us.  He will give us the words to say, when the time comes.  In the meantime, get ready, and always be ready to give a defense for the faith – and a defense for the defenseless.

You can see the full choosing hats article here.

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Professing Themselves to Be Wise: The Foolishness of Baphomet and the Satanic Temple

The Satanic Temple of Detroit made the news recently with their unveiling of a Baphomet statue, a goat-headed idol the Knights of the Templar were accused of worshiping. Though they refer to themselves as a Satanic Temple, the members of the temple do not believe in an actual, supernatural Satan. Rather, as their website states, they believe “Satan is symbolic of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority, forever defending personal sovereignty even in the face of insurmountable odds.”

Their promotional materials advertised the unveiling as “a night of chaos, noise, and debauchery…, a hedonistic celebration introducing the controversial Baphomet monument accompanied by provocative performances and installations.” The unveiling is part of a larger effort to have the statue displayed at the state capitol in either Arkansas or Oklahoma alongside a monument of the Ten Commandments.

Why do they want to display this statue? As they note, the statue is controversial, and that is the reason they want to unveil it. They know that it is offensive to traditional religious believers, especially Christians. Their desire is to offend Christians and encourage them to keep their religious beliefs out of the public square. If Christians refuse, then the Satanic Temple will work to get their own offensive material on the same level as Christian beliefs, as evidenced by their distribution of Satanic children’s coloring books in the public schools in Florida last year.

So what is it that the Satanic Temple wants to promote? They want to “participate in public affairs where the issues might benefit from rational, Satanic insights…and encourage critical thinking.” In other words, unlike those dumb people in traditional (i.e., supernatural) religions, the members of the Satanic Temple are intelligent, critical, and rational. As I’ve noted before, atheists like those in the Satanic Temple love to trumpet their supposedly superior intellects. Yet with their incredible critical thinking skills they fail to see the irony of their actions.

They want to display the statue in order to promote chaos—which is the opposite of promoting rational thinking. They also want to display the statue in order to offend other people. It’s the equivalent of a ten year old boy repeatedly poking his sister for the sole purpose of annoying her and getting a rise out of her. And we all know that ten year old boys who poke their sisters are renowned for their “rational…insights” and “critical thinking.”

In reality, the Satanic Temple provides the perfect picture of those who deny God: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Rom 1:22-23). These supposedly enlightened individuals believe it is better to celebrate a grotesque figure and work to anger other people than it is to serve a loving, benevolent, all-wise Creator and lay down their lives for the good of others. Why? Not because it matches with rational thinking but because it matches with their sinful desires. They do do not want to recognize the true Sovereign because the are defending “personal sovereignty.” Serving the true God would require repentance. It would mean no longer living for themselves but living for God and others. And they would rather act like fools than release their claim to be their own gods. Repentance is their real issue with Christianity—not reason.

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Abortion: Is This Really a New Problem?

tiny feetRecently released videos by The Center for Medical Progress have brought to light some of the more egregious atrocities committed by Planned Parenthood in the name of women’s health and medical research. Anyone with a functioning conscience who has watched these videos has been sickened by the depth to which our culture has sunk in allowing this kind of activity to take place unchecked. Apparently there are more videos to come, but in time the news cycle will run its course and both journalists and politicians will move on to other issues. Hopefully, in response to public outcry Planned Parenthood will be called to account for its actions and meaningful steps will be taken to reduce the number of abortions performed in America, but at this point that remains to be seen. I’m not holding my breath.

Reading the news, one could get the impression that abortion is a fairly recent issue, perhaps something that has only been common since 1973 or so. But unfortunately, such is not the case. Abortion has been around for thousands of years.

One of the earliest references to abortion is found in an Egyptian papyrus that was written well over a thousand years before the time of Christ. Dated about 1550 b.c., the Ebers Papyrus is a medical document that describes ancient remedies for a wide variety of ailments. It contains advice on how to cure everything from asthma to tape worms. Among such remedies, the document includes several herbal recipes for causing the abortion of an unwanted child. Writing a bit closer to the time of Christ, both Plato and Aristotle recommended abortion under certain circumstances for the “good” of society (Republic 5 [460], Politics 7.16 [1335b]). And in the first century, Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23–79) listed various substances which were commonly used in his day as abortifacients (Natural History, passim).

So abortion is not a new issue. It wasn’t even particularly novel in the first century. Various methods of causing an abortion had been in use for a long time before Christ walked the earth. But what did the earliest Christians think of such practices? Were they ambivalent or did they express definite opinions about the morality of abortion?

A number of early Christian documents specifically mention the practice of abortion. Two of the earliest such documents are usually classed among the Apostolic Fathers. Dated fairly close to a.d. 100 and sometimes referred to as The Teaching of the Twelve, the Didache claims to preserve both oral and written teachings of the twelve apostles. The Didache begins with the following statement: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways” (1.1). The text then goes on to give instructions about how to live in the “way of life”. After exhorting readers with the dual command to love both God and neighbor, the document gives some specific instructions about the implications of loving one’s neighbor. Among these instructions, we find the following command:

“You shall not murder…you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2.2).

In this context, the Didache places abortion alongside infanticide and seemingly views these actions as belonging to the same category. More importantly, it commands God’s people not to engage in such activities. Just a few paragraphs later, the text describes the way of death as being followed by those who are “murderers of children” (5.2). The Didache speaks rather clearly to the moral status of abortion.

The Epistle of Barnabas was almost certainly not written by Paul’s companion. Nevertheless, internal evidence suggests that it was produced around the beginning of the second century. Like the Didache, it provides another example of early Christian teaching about the Two Ways. In his description of the way of light, Barnabas speaks about the practice of abortion. He writes,

“You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide” (19.5).

Again, abortion is place alongside infanticide and is described as something that is wicked. In place of such behavior the author exhorts his readers to fulfill their responsibilities to care for their children and to bring them up in the way of the Lord (19.5; cf. Didache 4.9).

In addition to these statements from early Christians, numerous biblical passages give principles that lead modern-day Christians to view abortion as the sinful taking of an innocent human life (e.g., Job 31:15; Psalm 22:9–10; Psalm 139:13–16; Luke 1:15). As seen above, the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas reveal a very early Christian conviction that abortion is morally wrong and is essentially equivalent to infanticide. Such documents demonstrate that Christians strongly opposed the practice of abortion many centuries before the development of modern political parties or the advent of YouTube videos.

Abortion is not a partisan football to be tossed around for the sake of political points. It is first and foremost a moral issue. But because abortion is an important moral issue about which God has spoken clearly, it should impact the way Christians exercise their civil responsibilities and their legal opportunities to speak up against evil. To see such wickedness and say nothing is itself evil.

Relevant Resources:
O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity 
Michael Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World 
Michael Holmes, trans. and ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English 
John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance 
John Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West 

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Why Christianity Is Necessary for Tolerance

I’ve recently noted our society’s increasing loss of true tolerance, as well as the dangers of the current orthodoxy working to suppress other ideas. But what I have not yet considered is whether tolerance is even a good thing. To simplify things, let’s simply focus on tolerance of different religious beliefs.

Most people in the West simply assume that tolerance is good, but in many parts of the world and at many times in history religious tolerance was viewed negatively. So why should people be tolerant? In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Murray and Michael Rea (New York: Cambridge, 2008), the authors offer two common arguments for religious tolerance.

The first is a pragmatic argument: the state and religions have different interests, so it is best to allow them to pursue their different interests independently of each other (unless the state has a compelling interest). Further, if the state were to not allow religious tolerance, it would require some means of coercive force to either compel people to adopt a particular religion or keep them from adopting any religion (which would seem counter to the idea that religious beliefs should be genuine and from the heart).

The second kind of argument put forward is epistemological: we have greater certainty that it is good to allow religious tolerance than we do that a particular religion should be forced on people, and we can never have the level of certainty for any particular religion that would be necessary to override religious tolerance.

The above arguments may seem more or less compelling to you, but they are certainly not compelling to many in the world who do not already believe in religious tolerance. If you tried to use these arguments on the leaders of ISIS you would probably not get very far: they believe the interest of the state is dictated by their religion, which should be imposed on people. And they have the certainty of supposed commands from God and the example of their prophet. Thus, Murray and Rea conclude: “The available arguments for toleration all seem to rest on principles that defenders of intolerance are unlikely to accept.” (257)

So, why does the idea of tolerance (if not the actual practice) seem so obviously good to people in the West? As with many parts of western culture, our appreciation of tolerance flows from the Christian beliefs that helped shape our societies. We think tolerance is good because we agree with at least some Christian teaching. Our appreciation of tolerance is borrowed from Christianity. Christianity provides several truths that serve as the soil out of which tolerance grows.

Existence of Truth

For many in our day, tolerance is valued because they believe there is no truth. But if there is no truth, there is no reason for tolerance. The phrase “tolerance is good” would have the same value as “Mawiki is kiddle” or even “intolerance is good.” But the Bible is clear that truth exists and it can be known. That then allows us to even consider the value of tolerance.

Separation of Church and State

In this period of God’s dealings with man, there is a distinction between the church and the state. Christ made this truth clear in His statement: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Thus, some things belong to God directly—including our worship—while other things are given to the state (under God’s general rule)—like taxes. The church is not to exercise corporal punishment, while the state has that duty (Rom 13:1-7). However, it is wrong for the state to punish people for holding wrong beliefs. While the church does have a duty to oppose false religious belief, her options are limited to personal/corporate verbal confrontation and excommunication. The Christian teaching on the separation of church and state paved the way for religious liberty.

Discovering Truth by Means of Persuasion

Ultimately, the best means of discovering truth is through special revelation. But some things in the Bible are not as clear as others. Further, God has also revealed truth through general revelation. When dealing with truths that are not as clear in special revelation or truths from general revelation, the best way to move forward is humble, thoughtful consideration of various views. God has given minds to people and encouraged them to use them to arrive at truth (Is 1:18; Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4). The only way to be able to thoughtfully consider different viewpoints is to allow them to be presented. Thus, in order to best work toward truth at least some false ideas have to be tolerated.

Inherent Value of People Made in God’s Image

One of the main reasons to tolerate people is because it is wrong to oppress, harm, and murder people. Tolerance flows from a belief in human rights, and human rights are practically impossible to defend apart from a recognition that people are made in God’s image. If humans have no value, why not stamp out everyone who stands in the way of getting what you want? But if the person standing in front of you is made in God’s image, then it would be wrong to harm him for holding a view that you do not support.

Reality of Forgiveness

One reason people struggle to tolerate others is their own pride. They view themselves as better the person they do not want to tolerate—this person with such backward ideas and values. But Christianity emphasizes the universality of sin and the importance of forgiveness. When we recognize how sinful we are, and that we live only by God’s grace, we are much more willing to offer forgiveness to others. We allow love to cover a multitude of sins rather than keeping a record of wrongs (1 Pet 4:8; 1 Cor 13:5).

Reality of Judgment

At first the reality of judgment might seem to discourage tolerance. If Christianity teaches that God is going to punish all wrong, wouldn’t that make us more oppressive? Only if we fail to understand what the Bible actually teaches. One reason we can tolerate wrongs now is because we know that one day God will make them right. That’s why we can even return good for evil. (Rom 12:14-21). We don’t have to right all wrongs now, because we can trust that God will! We tolerate evil now, because we know that eventually God will tolerate no evil. Without that belief, calls for tolerance will not be able to be sustained.

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Richard Baxter on Pastoral Love and Confronting Sin

reformed-pastor-richard-baxter-hardcover-cover-artIn re-reading The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter recently, I was again encouraged to pray for and love those I help shepherd. It is far too easy to have the ministry become more professional than personal. Having a truly biblical, tender love for those in our care will especially help us in our ministry to them in times of difficulty and sin.  Baxter has words of encouragement for us here in the following passages:

The whole of our ministry must be carried on in tender love to our people. We must let them see that nothing pleaseth us but what profiteth them; and that what doeth them good doth us good; and that nothing troubleth us more than their hurt. . . They should see that we care for no outward thing, neither wealth, nor liberty, nor honour, nor life, in comparison of their salvation . . . When the people see that you unfeignedly love them, they will hear any thing and bear any thing from you.

This tender love, in Baxter’s estimation, is not one that overlooks sin, however, but deals with it, because we know how damaging it is to the souls of those we love.  He goes on to talk about how to interact with those who are in sin and disobeying God:

Pretend not to love them, if you favour their sins, and seek not their salvation. By favouring their sins, you will show your enmity to God; and then how can you love your brother?  If you be their best friends, help them against their worst enemies. And think not all sharpness inconsistent with love.  Augustine saith, “Better it is to love even with the accompaniment of severity, than to mislead by (excess of ) lenity.”  (Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth, p. 117-118).


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Homosexuality: What Believers May Rightly Hope from Their Government

I cannot compete with the vast onslaught of blog heavyweights who have all, it seems, trained their guns on last week’s SCOTUS decision. But I’d like to chip away at one question that seems to be less than fully addressed, viz., the precise nature of government’s role in this question and what our expectation of government should be as we pick up the pieces and move forward.

Most Christians recognize that the government is at times too heavy-handed and at times too laissez-faire in fulfilling their God-given role. But we don’t always draw our lines at the same place, because we don’t agree on a standard by which those judgments are made. Let’s look at the following scenario, involving two situations on which there is fairly broad agreement among believers:

The Offense Violation of the first and greatest command to love God exclusively Violation of the sixth command to not murder
The Theocratically Mandated Response Purge the offender from the land with up to and including capital authority (Exod 22:20; 34:10–16; Deut 6:14–15; 7:1–6; 13:6–11) Purge the offender from the land with up to and including capital authority (Exod 21:12, etc.)
The Church’s Anticipated Response Remove the offender from the Church but tolerate him in civil society (Matt 18:15–18), praying that the State will fulfill its mandate to… Remove the offender from the Church but tolerate him in civil society to the degree required by the State, praying that the State will fulfill its mandate to…
Government’s Anticipated Response Establish a society where those who embrace this command and those who reject this command can live together with mutual respect and toleration (1 Tim 2:2) Punish the offender with up to and including capital authority (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:4)


In the Mosaic economy, the first and sixth commands are treated more-or-less the same: the Jewish collective were to remove violators of both commands alike from society with expulsive or capital force. But with the dissolution of that economy and arrival of the New Testament arrangement and its separation of powers (Caesar and Church—Matt 22:21), surprising changes occur, especially when we get to the role of human government. The government is to take a rather ambivalent approach to violations of the “first and greatest commandment,” assuming at best the role of civil peacekeeper, but is to move swiftly and savagely to address violations of the sixth and not-the-greatest commandment. How do we explain this?

More than one answer emerges, but in the end, most Christians agree that the church deals with spiritual matters and the State with civil matters. Specifically, the church is to address ALL sins within its own membership/community, but has no jurisdiction beyond the removal of offenders from the spiritual community. The State, on the other hand, has no jurisdiction within the spiritual community, but has the power to crush all crime deleterious to the civic or common good, ensuring, in Calvin’s terms, that “humanity be maintained among men.” Their ethical fount is not so much the whole Christian paradosis (the error of theonomy) but the canon of natural law.

Following the preceding, it seems that the State can err in two primary ways: (1) it can fall short of its appointed role by disregarding natural law and thereby failing to maintain a stable and civil society marked by mutual toleration (the libertine error) and (2) it can exceed its appointed role by imposing some parochial ethic (whether Muslim, Christian, radical atheist, etc.) upon broad society and thereby expressing intolerance toward any who conscientiously object to that parochial ethic (the totalitarian error).

So what do we do with the hot question of homosexual marriage? Are we dealing here with a “first-and-greatest commandment” issue or with a “sixth commandment” issue? Is this a spiritual question to be addressed strictly within the ecclesiastical community or is it also a natural-law question that must be taken up by the civil community? What should our government be doing coram deo? And what should Christians do with these answers?

First, I believe that Scripture and nature itself identify the homosexual marriage question as a civil question. Homosexual marriage is not just a question of parochial codes and personal preferences/orientations, but also a question with civil import: the widespread promotion and even acceptance of this practice is unnatural, and will inevitably destabilize civil society (Rom 1:26–27). As such, it is inappropriate for the state to take a laissez-faire approach to homosexual marriage. To do so is to commit the first error detailed above. Marriage is a question of civil import and for the government to advocate for a libertine approach is for the government to be irresponsible and to act in a way contrary to the nation’s own best interests. As a response, all devotees of natural law, believers and unbelievers alike, and irrespective of ecclesiastical commitments, should work together as citizens and humans (1) for the reversal of this terrible error (however unlikely that may be) and, failing that, (2) for the stabilization of civil society generally.

Second, irrespective of our opinions on the previous question, we should all agree that the primary Christian hope for human government is “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). We want a stable society in which opportunities for the Gospel abound. To this end, Christian churches should begin to pray earnestly for the triumph of religious tolerance. This is precisely what Paul tells us to do. We should pray for and petition our rulers to both tolerate us and command society to tolerate us. What Christians should not do is to demand that our government privilege our views on the ground that they are Christian views (error #2 above). Such an approach is not only demonstrably wrong, but, pragmatically speaking, will also hasten and intensify the persecution that is creeping toward us. This is my greatest fear at present in the political posturing that is ongoing.

Third, we should take the legal and practical steps appropriate and necessary to avoid civil conflict beyond what is unavoidable. However disparate our views may be on the co- part of “co-belligerence,” we all need to agree that belligerence is the wrong attitude for the church to adopt—both biblically and practically. Instead we need to adopt a gentle and deferential spirit in our appeals for tolerance and liberty. This has long been the way of God’s people and we need to return to it. This is not to say that we need to be approving of societal sin, but it will never do to be intolerant of people from whom we are begging tolerance for the sake of the Gospel.

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Not All Love is Love, But This Love Is

“Love is love.” That slogan has popped up countless times in our nation’s dialogue in recent days. It’s part of an effort to shape the hearts and minds of Americans on social issues. It’s simple, succinct, and catchy. It has some appeal, especially to people who value “love” as a supreme good, a sentiment that trumps all other considerations. The problem is it’s just not true.

Our society is confused about love, and this slogan does nothing to minimize this confusion. What exactly does it mean to say “love is love”? On its face it is a statement of identity, equating two things, e.g., a car is an automobile. So it might mean that all loves are the same. I love my wife. I also love pizza. If “love is love” then I would be saying that my relationship to my wife is identical to my relationship to pizza. I may not be the most romantic person in the world, but even I could guess that my wife would not be pleased if I told her, “You know that I love you because I act, think, and feel toward you in the same way that I do toward pizza.” (I haven’t seen that sentiment portrayed in a Hallmark card either!) My love for my wife may have a few similarities with my love for pizza, but they are nowhere close to identical. One love is not like the other.

Most of us recognize that the slogan is not trying to communicate that all loves are identical—even if it is what it says. It’s at least narrowed down to people. Love for different people is ultimately the same. But even here there are distinctions in loves. I love my friends, but I do not love them exactly like I love my sons. And my love for my sons is different from my love for my wife.

Most people seem to be using the phrase to refer to a kind of love that is sexual in nature. The phrase is stating that no kind of sexual love is any different from another. People are wrong to view some sexual love as inappropriate, for who are we to say one kind is better than another? “Love is love.”

But almost all the people trumpeting this slogan do not really believe it. Some people love their siblings sexually. Is that love identical to other loves? Suppose a man sexually loves his wife and he sexually loves his mistress. Should his wife say “who am I to condemn him, because ‘love is love’”? Some 40 year old men sexually love 12 year old boys. Is that love the same as every other? Love is love?

You may be upset that I would mention some of the above examples. “Those are not the same thing, and it’s wrong to compare them.” But if they are not the same thing, and it is not legitimate to compare them, then not all love is love. “But those examples are not examples of love.” In making that objection, you have done exactly what our slogan “love is love” is telling us we cannot do. You have made a judgment about a sexual love that says it does not belong in the same category as others. You have said “this love is not love.” The moment you begin to limit love in some way—by saying it needs to be non-incestuous, or between only two people, or only between consenting adults—you have set up a definition by which we are now forced to determine that some loves are love and others are not.

So who gets to decide what loves are in bounds and what loves are not? I certainly would not claim to be a proper judge for these matters. Who could have the wisdom, compassion, knowledge, and insight to distinguish legitimate loves from illegitimate ones? Only God can do that.

What is love? The Bible consistently points to God’s love for humans as the supreme example of love (e.g., 1 Jn 4:10). One particularly relevant passage is in Ephesians 5:25-27.

 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Here, Paul holds up Christ’s love for the church as the greatest example of the kind of love husbands are to have for their wives. I’d like to highlight one aspect of that love: true love is a holy love. Christ died for the church to make her holy.

Any love that wants to make a valid claim to be love must be holy. If a love does not move the other person toward holiness it is not love. So a young man who pressures a young lady to sleep with him before they are married does not really love her. He may say that he does, and both of them may think that he does, but he is ultimately more concerned for his own gratification than he is for her well-being. The man who loves his wife and mistress may think he really loves them both, but he actually loves neither. True love will never violate God’s standards. No matter how much someone thinks they love a person, if they are helping them down a path contrary to what is holy they do not really love them.

Why does all of this matter? What business is it of anyone’s to care about anyone else’s love? First, as I already noted, almost everyone cares to some degree, or we would be working to abolish laws against pedophilia. But it also matters because true love is far better than any false loves.

Suppose you had a friend who told you he found some great steak that he wants to enjoy. He takes you behind some restaurant and pulls some rancid, rotting hunk of meat out of the dumpster. You tell him, “Don’t eat that! Let’s go inside the restaurant and get some real steak.” He replies sharply, “Who are you to tell me what steak to eat. Steak is steak!” Would you say, “Well, it’s not hurting me for him to eat that meat, so I shouldn’t say anything”? Wouldn’t you want to see your friend give up the supposed steak that very well could poison him and instead experience the satisfaction and nourishment of a nice, well-cooked steak?

In reality, we have all gone after the rotten piece of steak. We have acted as if bad things were good things and good things were ultimate things. Our loves are twisted, and we have run down a path that leads to our own destruction. God has graciously warned us, but we have all rejected His warnings. Because we have pursued our own wrong desires, we are incurably sick, spiritually dead, and hopelessly lost.

But God really loves us. He came to us when we were completely unlovable and gave of Himself to save us. He sucked the poison into Himself and offered us real nourishment in its place. He died for what we did so that we might live for Him. He calls us to turn from our path of destruction and trust in Him for life.

God loves us enough that He wants what is really best for us. He knows which loves are real and which are counterfeit. He does not want us to settle for something that seems like love when it is really not. His love moves us to holiness, where we find eternal pleasure in Him. There is no greater joy and satisfaction than knowing and experiencing His love, and loving others in the way He has called us to love. How do we know which love is love? God’s love is love!

Posted in Current Issues, Practical Theology | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 5)

Having laid out in the previous several posts what I believe may be commended as “received laws of language,” I would like to close this series with a practical look at a pair of difficult passages that stretch the limits of the discussion: Matthew’s use of fulfillment language in 2:15 and 16–18 in citing Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15, respectively. Note the following:

Hosea 11:1—When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (cf. Exod 4:22–23). Matthew 2:15—[Joseph stayed in Egypt] until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Jeremiah 31:15—This is what the LORD says [of the exiled Israelite community]: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” Matthew 2:16–18—Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under…. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”


The tension in both instances is that Matthew appeals to descriptive, historical texts (which ordinarily cannot be “fulfilled”) and appears to assign them a predictive function that does not manifest clearly in the original rendering. Below are four approaches that exegetes have used in their analysis of Matthew’s Gospel. Note that I am not offering a comprehensive list of all possible solutions to the tension here raised, but rather four approaches to the tension:

  • The first approach is to read both texts literally and conclude that Matthew is a careless researcher guilty of making egregious citation errors. This is what I’ll call the modernist approach.
  • A second approach reads both texts charitably but concludes that the two OT texts in view are not to be seen as literal genres. That is, they are not instances of historie but geschichte, and for this reason are legitimate subjects of etiological manipulation/resignification as the ecclesiastical community develops over time. This is what I will call, for simplicity’s sake, the postmodern approach (though it technically predates postmodernism as a system).
  • A third approach avoids the specter of biblical errancy in the preceding options by proposing a new hermeneutical approach: it reads the OT text according to a unique model that is not and cannot be used with any other piece of literature. Specifically, while adherents admit that the two OT passages are instances of accurate, normal, rearward-looking history, they propose that God is using Matthew to progressively divulge a metanarrative imbedded into the OT, known originally and completely only to the divine author, that connects two OT events (exodus and exile) organically with the Bible’s grand Christological or redemptive plot. In this way the reader is now able to fully appreciate these OT texts, thus “fulfilling” or exhausting their divinely-intended meaning. Later revelation is always the definitive court of appeal for interpreting earlier texts, and “literal” OT readings held prior to the arrival of the NT are sometimes flat, incomplete, or even wrong, and can therefore “fall away.” This is my attempt to faithfully represent the typological approach.

Disclaimer: The range of typological approaches circulating today makes it impossible for me to offer a description that satisfies all who self-identify with the model, but I make the attempt anyway, with entirely charitable intent. I apologize to all who take umbrage with my description and welcome correctives.

  • A fourth approach attempts to salvage inerrancy not by proposing a new hermeneutical approach, but by suggesting one or more exegetical solutions. For instance, I would argue (with Dyer, Toussaint, and others) that the Greek term πληρόω (to fulfill) has a semantic range broader than that carried by the modern English term “fulfill,” and can reference not only completed prophecy, but also something as mundane as an analogy made after the fact. While this approach denies us the tingle of intrigue and inscrutability that the previous approach offers, its strength is the tacit priority it places on the ordinary laws of language. It assumes that OT meaning is plain-in-itself and (as is the case with every “normal” use of language) that its own local context is the definitive court of appeal for interpretation. It does not deny that a grand biblical metanarrative exists, but affirms instead that this unifying center is to be discovered by ordinary rather than mysterious means. This is what I would call the “literal” approach.

Obviously much more could be said (and has been said) about these texts, but it is hoped that the previous is adequate to identify the basic approaches to the problem that are in circulation today. I also hope that it commends the last approach (often associated with dispensationalism) as a more hermeneutically credible one (i.e., more faithful to the received laws of language) than the typological approach that in the ascendancy today.

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Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments

A little over fifty years ago, Carl Bangs lamented that Jacob Arminius (1559/60–1609) had been consistently misunderstood and misrepresented by both friend and foe alike (Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” Church History 30 [1961]: 155–56). Some thirty years later, Richard Muller identified Arminius as “one of the most neglected of the major Protestant theologians” (Muller, God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, ix). And as recently as 1999, Roger Olson described Arminius as “one of the most unfairly neglected and grossly misunderstood theologians in the story of Christian theology” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 455). Apparently, Arminius has received a bad rap of some four centuries’ duration.

Gunter, Arminius's DeclarationIn the past ten years or so, however, the study of Arminius has been making a bit of a comeback. A number of substantial works on his life and thought have been published by people who have been largely in sympathy with his theology. One of the most helpful works in this regard has been W. Stephen Gunter’s book Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments (Baylor Univ. Press, 2012). Gunter’s work is particularly significant in that it provides the first English translation of Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments made directly from the Dutch text. Arminius’s Declaration was originally produced in response to accusations that had been lodged against him and was delivered orally by Arminius before the States of Holland at The Hague on October 30, 1608. In this document, Arminius mentions a number of important theological topics, but the bulk of the work is spent discussing his understanding of predestination which was especially under attack at that time. Here’s one of his most significant statements about predestination in the Declaration:

This decree [to save or condemn certain persons] has its foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe, and through his subsequent sustaining grace would persevere in the faith. Likewise, in divine foreknowledge, God knew those who would not believe and persevere (Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments, 135).

If one wants to correctly understand Arminius and avoid the charges made by Bangs, Olson, and others, reading Arminius himself is essential,* and Gunter’s work is a good place to begin. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the main contours of Arminius’s theological distinctives, he was a significant theologian whose heirs have been many, and for that reason, he is worth understanding.

*I say this not out of sympathy with Arminius’s major theological contributions (with which I largely disagree) but simply because it is true.

Posted in Church History, Historical Theology | 4 Comments

Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 4d)

Having discussed two seminal axioms of language that seem to qualify as “received laws of language” (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent) and offering a qualification concerning the dual authorship of Scripture often raised by non-dispensationalists, I turn to a third and final principle, again borrowed from my mentor, Rolland McCune: A Textually Based Locus of Meaning.

This is the capstone of ordinary linguistics. The whole meaning of a text is exhausted in its own words. Any meaning assigned to a text after the fact that cannot be derived from the author’s own words simply isn’t there. To allow any text an afterlife is to remove meaning from the text and grant it to something alien to the text, sending meaning into an inevitably downward spiral of ambiguity and relativism.

Naturally, we must concede that implications of an ancient text can unfold over time and details emerge in the course of progressive revelation. But new meanings can never be assigned or discovered after the fact and apart from the author’s express permission. Specifically, the meaning of a text cannot be moved from the text to:

  • Holy Spirit “Leading.” Yes, the Holy Spirit is active in causing the believer to welcome a text’s meaning and in helping the believer to discern the implications of a text’s meaning for his own situation (1 Cor 2:14), but the Spirit does not disclose a text’s meaning to the believer. Were this the case, (1) meaning would be wrested from the words and the words rendered, to that degree, unnecessary, (2) the divine purpose for language would be thwarted, and (3) the idea of a sufficient canon would be irrevocably lost.
  • An Existential Encounter “Above the Text.” Closely related to the previous (and perhaps identical to it) is the Barthian idea that language is an inadequate vehicle for revealing truth, and at best serves as a hinweis or pointer to truth. To apprehend God, one must look not in the text but above it to an experimental “Christ encounter”—a personal disclosure that communicates ineffably what cannot be expressed in words. The same criticisms leveled above are appropriate to this understanding.
  • Later Revelation. More acceptable in non-dispensational evangelical academia is the idea that there is “additional, deeper meaning, intended by God, but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text when they are studied in the light of further revelation” (Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture, 92), such that “the text’s intention becomes deeper and clearer as the parameters of the canon are expanded” (Waltke, Tradition & Testament, 7). This option provides an advance on the previous two options, but either (1) requires a suspiciously equivocating hermeneutic that applies a grammatical-historical approach to the latter portions of Scripture but not to the earlier ones or else, more ominously, (2) suggests that the promises of God are “never an announcement of what God has irrevocably determined to do, but only of what he will do in certain circumstances,” with he result that “if this makes prophecy seem very uncertain, I am very sorry, but I cannot help it, for it is the way that it is” (Pieters, The Seed of Abraham, 142).

Pardon me, but that’s not the way it is. There is a better way to protect the meaning of Scripture and that is to insist that the locus of meaning is in the text itself. It is to insist upon literal interpretation.

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Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 4c)

Having established two axiomatic principles of language that govern the intelligible use of words (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent), we need to pause, I think, to make an important qualification—not so much a third axiom of language, but an answer to a common observation that is often raised at this point, viz., that the Scriptures have two authors, divine and human. As such, some non-dispensationalists maintain, God is able to use linguistic structures with a broad semantic/syntactical range to secretly but accurately communicate meanings additional to what the human author intended. This being the case, they reason, it is possible to affirm the two principles above but still find a loophole, unique to the Christian Scriptures, that allows two disparate streams of intentionality in a single text: the divine author intended more than or other than what the human author intended, and that’s OK in view of the inscrutable mystery of inspiration.

Of course it is true that God always knows comprehensively the details and implications of any of his statements, and thus knew quantitatively more and qualitatively better than the human authors did when they wrote (so, e.g., Dan 12:6–9; 1 Pet 1:10–12). But this is not the same as saying that God meant more than the human authors did when they wrote. To put things succinctly, acceptance of the analogical view of truth in one’s epistemology does not legitimate the possibility of equivocation in one’s view of language. Note the following:

  • The gift of language and miracle of inspiration seem precisely intended to ascertain that the thoughts of God were perfectly communicated in human words (1 Cor 2:13) and to prevent the possibility of alien meanings exclusive to the human authors (2 Pet 1:19­­–21). They are God’s words breathed out (1 Tim 3:16) through human vehicles, not bypassing their respective styles and vocabulary, but ensuring that His Word and their words enjoyed a perfect confluence.
  • The idea that God used human authors to write something grammatically/technically accurate while at the same time intending something other than what they intended is very difficult to harmonize with the doctrine of inerrancy. At best, it would seem, God is perpetuating deception.
  • Finally, if God is able, at any time, to mean more than or other than the human author, it would seem to me that whole of Scripture is placed in serious jeopardy and its meaning potentially lost to all that might seek it. The miracle of inspiration is emasculated and the Scriptures themselves are rendered superfluous.

Scripture is, in one sense, a unique book. Unlike all other books, it boasts an inerrant unity that partakes of inspiration. But it does not follow that this uniqueness is such that the Bible must be read with a correspondingly unique hermeneutic. The univocal nature of language and the jurisdiction of (unitary) authorial intent cannot be set aside in view of the “dual authorship” of Scripture. Two transmitters are used in the communication of Scripture, to be sure, but they share perfect denotative confluence.

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