I’m going to make a statement that will make some of you cry heretic and others will cry with joy. I think you should stop trying to get everything right.
I’m sure that I’m not the only one who is tired of the conservative and liberal labels. As I have written previously, sometimes we have to use secret passwords to tip off other Christians that we’re in. Words like blessed, Christ follower, and such. Can anyone else relate?
While there is incredible importance to rooting ourselves in the Christian faith and not some poseur one, simply being theologically conservative is not enough. There are plenty of pastors who might affirm all the big points of Christianity and still preach on how you can become a better you or that you need to just try a little harder by giving x amount of money to them. Answering all the questions right is not the big point to the Christian life.
Quit with the Nostalgia
Living in the perpetual mindset of dwelling in the golden times of Christian America or some other nostalgic time is not enough. While some progressives will close their eyes to the past, some false conservatives will find peace solely in the past. Nevertheless, it is very important to have tradition without turning into blind followers of traditionalism. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan once noted along these lines,
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that is is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all this needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.
Quit forgetting the past
Dwelling in the past will not make things better. However, forgetting or jettisoning the past all together will only make things worse. We need those who have gone before us, we need to listen to their collective wisdom. Rejecting them simply because they’re old and dead is not wise and the height of arrogance. After all, thinking yourself better than those who’ve gone before you makes you guilty of “chronological snobbery,” as C.S. Lewis would say.
Venturing forth into the future years is all we can do, rooted in the wisdom of those who have gone before us. But don’t stop there, think about becoming reformed. But more on that next time.
How do you use the past?
Much ink has been spilled over what makes a man within Christian circles. I really don’t want to dive into the debate on Biblical Manhood or Womanhood, I’ll leave that to Mark Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans, and many others to robustly argue it out. Instead,I wanted to take a different approach by using Eric Metaxas excellent book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. In his book, Metaxas highlights (wait for it) seven men to help convey character and encourage the reader to cultivate positive traits that marked these seven. Out of those seven, I wanted to highlight three figures that stood out prominently to me. The next three weeks will center on the lives of William Wilberforce, Jackie Robinson, and Pope John Paul II.
Just to clarify, I am writing as a man (just in case you were wondering) and my appreciation of these highlighted men will come from that perspective. I also want to mention that these brief biographies will not be marked by hero-worship or overly critical treatment of these men. I believe we are in critical need of heroes, as imperfect as they might be, to help point us to being rooted in positive character. There is neither naivety nor cynicism in these posts, instead I wanted to draw some helpful good from these heroes of the faith for both men and women.
Manhood and Fatherhood
These posts came about through my own adventure into fatherhood and it made me want to read more about solid men from our past. In his introduction to the book, Metaxas pointed out that fatherhood is marked by a strong and loving heart demonstrated by sacrificing for those he loves. It’s choosing to be more than just a boy who can shave, it’s found in a love that is costly. That’s real manliness.
Strong men ought to protect the weak, whether it’s a child, other men who need help, or disadvantaged people in need. Through these principle, he can exhibit the same mind of Jesus, while having all power, courageously chose to serve others, not being a macho “tough guy.” Interestingly enough, to have courage (rooted in the Latin cor) means to have heart. It means that the man is strong and does the right thing even when all else points towards not doing it. Courage is sometimes quite costly! Having heart is like the boyfriend who shielded his girlfriend from an evil man’s gun at a movie theater in Colorado. Having heart is the father who choose to be present with his family, instead of constantly placing himself in his work at all hours of every weekend.
With these men, they were courageous by “surrendering themselves to a higher purpose, of giving something away that they might have kept.” In short, they had heart.
Wilberforce gave up the comfortable life to stop slavery within the British Empire and the world. Robinson chose to give up fighting back in order to lead the way for minorities to become integrated in American society. John Paul II chose to give up his former life to vulnerably lead the Roman Catholic Church for decades. These and the other four had heart.
As will be seen this month, these men took their Christian faith seriously and changed the world because of it.
I wanted to use this last post in the Wisdom Wednesday series on the Holy Spirit as a further clarification, just in case you missed this point in my series. The Holy Spirit is God, and this brief post will begin to unpack that with the help of the Early Church Fathers (so enjoy the history lesson without the tuition!).
Next to the Beginning
What you need to know for this post is that the second and third century leaders helped shape the trajectory of Christianity. Before you skip over to the Da Vinci Code though, understand that Dan Brown is wrong when he suggested that these leaders somehow created a Jesus that was divine. Quite frankly, that’s a pile of garbage.
The earliest writer in the New Testament is Paul, and his letters seemed to convey the message that Jesus was more than a nice philosopher, as a previous post on Liberalism and Fundamentalism would unpack. The Early Church encountered something new in Jesus (scholar NT Wright is excellent on this point).
It is true that a lot of these early leaders were figuring out the place of the Spirit and there was a lot of debate on his place within this God revealed in Scripture. I try to cut the leaders slack because they did not have the luxury of 1900 years of scholarship on this topic. Early on though, Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great Cappadocian fathers of the Early Church, argued vociferously that the Spirit belonged in the Trinity. Gregory wrote,
The OT preached the Father openly and the Son more obscurely, while the New revealed the Son and hinted at the deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit dwells in us and reveals himself more clearly to us.
Baptism and The Spirit
For Athanasius, a pivotal figure in the Council of Nicaea, the trinitarian baptismal formula was a huge point in demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). After all, if the Spirit is not consubstantial (of the same essence) with the Father and the Son, the Spirit then cannot make us conform to the Son and therefore cannot save us. The Spirit is our helper, and he was sent after the ascension of Jesus on Pentecost (see Acts 2 and a previous post). Also another strong argument for the Trinity is in Acts, where two individuals were caught lying to the Spirit, which is interpreted as lying to God himself.
A Lived Reality
More can be said on this subject, in fact a lot has been said on it (a great introduction to this in NT Wright’s Simply Christian), but my purposes here is to point that the God who made the world is the same God who wants to begin the work of making the future Kingdom of God real in the present.
While the working out of whether or not there is a Triune God can be seen in the writings of the Early Church (which are heavily footnoted with Scripture), this concept is not meant to just be in a book– it is meant to be lived out.
We were meant to live this stuff out, because it’s not some theological game. As theologian NT Wright would state, “for Christians it’s always a love game: God’s love for the world calling out an answering love from us, enabling us to discover that God not only happens to love us (as though this was simply one aspect of his character) but that he is love itself.”
We are invited into a story of love, one that was there even before the universe began. We are invited into new life and a new story than random present. For life in the Spirit is a life of love and hope.
All fundamentalists are typically evangelical but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.
Did you catch that? Not everyone who call themselves Evangelical or Born Again are angry fundies.
It is true that in American Church History there was often an unholy alliance between church and power. Those who might have rose to defend orthodox Christianity (those who affirm the Nicene Creed) became compromised in a lot of respects through the political process. Through implementing fear tactics, support of morally questionable actions in American foreign policy misadventures, and high profile leadership failings, the modern Evangelical believer is in a tight spot. Evangelical Christians in political life can be justly or unjustly framed as someone implementing theocracy. Even those who might claim to be theologically conservative are lumped together with the abusive powerholders of years past. Sadly, in many minds, to be Evangelical means to be a hateful, nationalistic hypocrite.
But there has to be a different way to follow Jesus. One that does not discount his claim of equality with God, and one that does not find itself in the camp of charlatans and snakes. There has to be something more, a prophetic witness that is not a Fundamentalist nuthouse.
Fortunately, self help books of Joel Osteen and sentimental “Christian crap” (it’s in the Greek) are not the only things available to Christ followers. While another time might have offered prolific authors and thinkers to help the discouraged, there are still a few strong public theologians that can help. Turning away from the self-help/do-it-yourself spirituality books, people like Tim Keller and NT Wright can help those who be struggling in the sea of doubt. But sadly, those are few and far between.
To wrap the series up, I want to share with you why I am not a fundamentalist (just in case you were concerned or wondering). Even in my pessimism, I know that God is still on the throne. He will preserve his people, even when bad teaching creeps into the Church. One day Christ will return in glory and things will be put to rights, and the garbage will be removed. I simply cannot wait for that day.
I am not a fundie because I believe God is gracious and loving. I am not a fundie because I am open to doubts and for a faith that seeks understanding, even when things get shaky. I am not a fundie because not everyone needs to be hit over the head with a Bible-hammer in Jesus’ name. I am not a fundie because I want to be joyful in my faith and welcome others into a new story, one that is culminating in the world being put to rights.
I hope you too would share in being Evangelical without becoming a cranky Fundamentalist.
Lord, come quickly.
Sometimes life is not too clear. Sometimes we can’t see what is before us, and we don’t know how we’ll make it through the day, week, month, or year. In those times, I am reminded of the only thing I can do. All I can do is look to the hills, for God alone provides. As I wrote over at More Than A Beard last week, “sometimes we need to hold on to a confidence in God’s provision. This same God who brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt and the same God who raised Christ from the dead, this same God abides. He’s done it before, he’ll do it again.”
Dear reader, know that God provides even in the desert. And when things look the gloomiest, look to the hills. For it it the LORD who will light your lamp, he will lighten your darkness.
Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your light penetrate
the darkness of my understanding.
Take from me the double darkness
in which I have been born,
an obscurity of sin and ignorance.
Give me a keen understanding,
a retentive memory, and
the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent of being exact
in my explanations and the ability to express myself
with thoroughness and charm.
Point out the beginning,
direct the progress,
and help in the completion.
I ask this through Christ our Lord.
– Thomas Aquinas
The early 20th Century had a lot of controversy. The Evolutionary Theory seemed to knock people off guard and the reliability of Scripture was called into question. Controversies, however, are nothing new.
Christianity has always had to confront challenges. Whether it was from the early days of the Church, where Roman scholars vociferously argued against Christianity, or in the era of the Scope Monkey Trial, Biblical scholarship has had to answer big questions. In the case of this current post, emergence of conflicting gospel accounts seem to make the Four Gospels merely four opinions selected out of dozens of other narratives of Jesus. Isn’t it possible that Dan Brown is right and that Christianity squelched the truth of the gospels of Thomas or Judas?
In short, no.
The other gospels like Thomas and Judas were written much later than the Four Gospels found in the New Testament (and many of the key texts used to showcase the positive aspect of Judas were hastily made with bad translations). According to the earliest dated documents written concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul seemed to have a very high view of Jesus. The Four Gospels found in the New Testament were more than likely written in the First Century and captured the early Church’s perspective on Jesus.
Quite frankly, those who might hold up contradictory new gospels like Thomas or Judas do so because they don’t like what the New Testament figure has to say about a variety of things. A Jesus of nice moral platitudes that our Founding American Fathers liked so much is easier to follow than a messianic figure who equated himself with God. As the earliest NT writer would say two decades after the crucifixion, the gospel is for our justification and promises restoration of the world one day. Having a fortune cookie version of Jesus is much safer than the Jesus found in the New Testament.
There will be a time where a follower of Christ will be confronted with questions about the Bible. Defending the reliability of Scripture can be important in certain contexts. However, sometimes defending the faith can be used in an abusive manner (see The Good, Bad, And The Ugly Of Apologetics), which is not good (just in case you didn’t know). Apologetics should never be used as a hammer. But for those occasions when an individual has a legitimate question, we truly do need to be able to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. We need to be able to answer legitimate questions.
Where fundamentalism gets it wrong is that they defend the faith at all times without smiling. Have you ever noticed that? Those people on the street corners holding those big signs, the ones that stand there shouting at you entering into a baseball game or walking down the pier. I agree that this is serious stuff, but to stand there angry is not good. Defending the Bible as God’s Word is a good thing, but using it as a hammer at all times is not always the best thing. Sometimes it needs to be a precise scalpel, a warm cloth, or a piercing sword.
This month, Wisdom Wednesdays will veer into the rise of Fundamentalism. There will be some historical exploration in addition to a closing “so what” moment at the end tying things together. Stay with the series though for the epic conclusion: Why I’m Not A Fundamentalist.
The early parts of the Twentieth Century was very chaotic for religion in America. There was a rise in the hope of a scientific modern world, where the spiritual aspects of the Western world could be swept away in favor of a more logical, cerebral world. Reason was about to replace religion.
These deistic understandings brought about an enlightened world, and this enlightened world came into conflict with a traditional understanding of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus, atonement for sins, miracles, and a high view of Scripture were either dismissed outright or softened as feel good tales. Religion was sterilized in many lives and congregations. Good moral lessons were kept while the need for a crucified and risen Christ was discarded.
However, this sterile view of the world was soon shattered by two world wars, concentration camps, gulags, and communist horrors. Modernist ideas caused the death and suffering of hundred of millions. Such carnage was never seen prior to the Twentieth Century, large statist governments caused the deaths of hundreds of millions in the name of progress.
While America was thankfully spared a lot of the horrors of the modern age and the past century, America was a place of cultural conflict. A battle of ideas proved to be enormous for our culture. While there was scientific and historic criticism leveled at the Bible, a large bloc of the church in America defensively fortified themselves with a “radical literalism,” as Ross Douthat pointed out in his book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics. This is where many Christians adopted the “six 24-hour days” in Genesis 1 as scientific explanation. This uncertain world also produced a new trend within Protestant Christianity, where the best defense of the faith was fueled with either withdrawal or reaction. It is also in this era that many took up the banners of “dispensationalism,” a new trend in Christianity. These End Times schemes were popularized in the 1910s through the use of the Scofield Reference Bible and can still be seen in the Left Behind series. As you can see, there was a lot going on in this era!
These overcorrections are fascinating to me because they are pretty new. Certainly, there were views on premillennialism (not of the dispensationalist stripe, though), but this was not a litmus test for being a faithful follower of Christ. While some might have been in favor of a “6 Day creation” view, even on of the main sources of Protestant thought would caution against basing all astronomical and scientific thought on the book that was meant to reveal God, not the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (John Calvin wrote on Genesis 1 that “he who would learn astronomy, let him go elsewhere.”). Nevertheless, a defensive fundamentalism took hold in American consciousness and this group either went to the margins of mainline Protestant churches or jumped out of these denominations to form their own (see Bad Religion, p34).
Don’t despair, chaos will soon lead to some good. To be continued!
Have you ever noticed that it seems like sometimes Christians might have the tendency to be overly defensive? How do you respond to attacks, real or imagined?
Many people who have heard the name Francis of Assisi associates the man with the phrase, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” I heard this phrase many times in my undergrad education and decided to adopt it for a period of time. I thought it was brilliant and that it captured the essence of Jesus’ message.
But you know what? I soon found out a secret. That line was more than likely never uttered by Francis.
And then I came to the conclusion that that line is actually very dangerous. Let me unpack that.
If that above phrase is only used to mean “preach the gospel and back up your words with your actions,” then that is a very helpful phrase. But if we mean that the good news of the Kingdom of God coming through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will be preached through our actions alone and never communicated through words, then I think we venture into dangerous territory.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about this good news, saying:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Yes, giving a cup of water to a thirsty migrant is very important and powerful, but this summary Paul gave cannot be communicated through that act. Helping people is very huge, but the good news of Jesus comes through a verbal (or written, in this instance) witness.
Let me be clear, our words need to have actions that back it up. If we say we ought to be loving because Christ loved us, then we ought to demonstrate love as well. But if I say we need to live peacefully with my neighbor, but drive in a constant state of road rage, then there is an obvious disconnect (I can neither confirm nor deny that I drive in a state of perpetual road rage. All I’m going to admit is that I listen to the classical radio station for a reason).
If you don’t read anything else though, read this: You are not the gospel. Your actions, as pure as they might be, are not the gospel. The gospel comes to those through the Holy Spirit’s application of the words into the life of the individual. The Spirit applies the message we proclaim, as the good works we do help verify the hope that lives within us. As Pope Francis once said, “if we don’t proclaim Jesus, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO & not a Church which is the bride of Christ.”
Let’s do good, and talk about the Good One.
With the recent installation of a new Roman Catholic pope named Francis, a lot of people have been digging into the roots of the namesake saint, Francis of Assisi. So in this month, in honor of the new pope, this Protestant writer will bring out some elements from the lives of both Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis.
You might ask me, a Protestant Christian, why I would focus four Wisdom Wednesdays on a Roman Catholic pope. After all, since I disagree with my Catholic brothers and sisters on more than a couple of issues, why would I praise this man and his namesake saint? Why would I do such a thing? Simply, because he is a great spokesman for what Christianity.
Whether evangelicals like it or not, when the average non-churchgoer thinks about a leader within Christianity, their mind typically goes to a few people. Billy Graham might be in the mix, perhaps Desmond Tutu or Rick Warren. Most, I would guess, would think about the man in St. Peter’s. This man has the largest platform to speak on behalf of the Church. Pope Francis has the ability to speak on many issues that might be of interest to evangelicals as well, like the sanctity of life and the defense of the weak against an unjust strong. Francis is an articulate speaker who matches words with his lifestyle.
According to a lot of accounts, this Jesuit pope is theologically conservative in a lot of respects and is also a strong advocate for helping the poor. However, his advocacy for the poor is not some platitude or passing fad. No, he chose to live humbly, took public transportation when he didn’t have to, and frequently met with many people in weak social positions. He performed sensible things when he could have lived so much more comfortably.
I understand the tension between Roman Catholic and Protestants, believe me, as a student of Church History and Theology, I get that. But think about the things we have in common, not just the Nicene Creed. Pope Francis, at this stage in his papacy and life, should be a great leader for our faith, even if we might disagree on a myriad of issues.
What are your feelings on Pope Francis?
As you may or may not know, my wife and I have recently found ourselves journeying towards the Anglican tradition. Originally, I was invited by a seminary classmate to visit their Anglican church for a service. It only took a few visits until we were both hooked on the liturgical service and the constant immersion of the people of God into the story of the Kingdom.
One of the things I appreciated from this tradition is the emphasis on God’s Word as a part of one’s church life. We read four chunks of Scripture in the service from four different parts of Scripture, and we are encouraged to read four chunks of Scripture at home through the guidance of the Book of Common Prayer. With so many opportunities to be formed by the Word, one will find themselves soon caught up in the redemptive narrative of the Bible.
I have found that the above prayer of St. Patrick reflects this immersion in the narrative of God’s story. It is rooted deeply in the Psalms and it is founded in the goodness of God’s creation.
For the early Celtic Christians, God was near. The Trinitarian God that is revealed in the Bible could also be seen in creation. The Celtic cross that is so prevalent draws on this frame of reference. Scripture and creation are inextricably tied in this one form, as the roundness of the sun and the shape of the cross are etched together. The revelation of God that is described by Paul in Romans are tied in this symbol, since God is revealed in both nature and the Bible.
The psalmists are so confident in their God, even when things look dark, even when things look utterly hopeless. There was room still for God’s salvation, for he saved his people through the Exodus. He saved his people through invasions, famines, and slavery. And if God did it once, he can surely do it again. That’s why Patrick could arise each day and rely on the strength of God.
Please keep in mind though that Patrick was not more spiritually talented than you or I. No, he had to learn to trust in God. And through his experience, he was able to boldly proclaim the prayer above. He was able to arise each day because he knew the God who formed the foundations of the universe also formed him and cared for him.
I pray that we would rely on this sure foundation.