Archive for April, 2006

Together for the Gospel

April 30, 2006

I spent many hours from Wednesday night to Friday afternoon with about 3,000 men at the “Together for the Gospel” conference here in Louisville. The conference was put together by Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, and Albert Mohler, and it included their special guests R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and John MacArthur.

If you are interested in the particulars of what each speaker said, go to Justin Taylor’s post that gives the links to each one of Tim Challies’ blogs (thank you, Justin–even though you don’t read this–for the hard work of linking to each one; you saved me the trouble of having to do it myself).

My favorite messages were given by R.C. Sproul and John Piper. Sproul lectured on the centrality of justification by faith in our preaching, giving a historical overview of the controversy that surrounds that doctrine and setting the Protestant view against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic view. He really grabbed my attention when he argued (persuasively) that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is not, in fact, good news, but the Protestant doctrine is the best news imaginable. Perhaps I will unpack the differences in a later post.

My main focus for this post, however, is John Piper’s message on how expository preaching is particularly glorifying to God. Without a doubt, of all the speakers Piper spoke to us with the most insensity and passion (as is customary for him). The most memorable quote he gave was this: “The mantle of preaching is soaked in the blood of Jesus and singed with the fires of Hell. Are you wearing this mantle?” The point is this: when we preach, eternity is at stake. We should feel the weight of our subject matter and reckon with the truth that our hearers will either have eternal life or eternal torment based on how they respond to the gospel that we proclaim. Preaching is no place for slapstick nonsense, and if we proclaim a text of Scripture without the earnestness that is appropriate to its message, we may speak true words but give false communication. We lie about the weight of what we are saying if we do not speak with the kind of emotion that is appropriate to our message.

I have thought a lot about eternity lately. New trends in theology have brought a renewed focus to the redeeming work of Christ as it pertains to this world. I could cite authors as diverse as Brian McLaren and Russell Moore to that effect. I have no quarrel with the desire to understand how Christ’s lordship impacts life in the here-and-now; that is crucial to the life of the church and the lives of individual Christians. I don’t want to be accused of being a “pie-in-the-sky, sweet by-and-by” Christian who is of no earthly good.

However, we cannot let the pendulum swing too far. I believe one clear sign that it has swung too far is when anyone downplays or denies the absolute, ultimate importance of eternity. What is more important than eternal happiness (not as an abstract good but as the happiness that comes from knowing God and being with him) versus eternal, conscious torment (again, not in the abstract but as a result of being cut off from God’s presence)? Nothing is more important than that. Everything that we have in this life is dust on the scales, a drop in the bucket, a vapor that appears for a split second and then is gone, in comparison with eternity. Annihilationism (the doctrine that unbelievers will cease to exist for all eternity), post-mortem evangelism (the doctrine that unbelievers get a second chance after death), and universalism (the doctrine that all are saved in the end) all threaten to detract from the seriousness of the matter of eternity. They are creative attempts to soften biblical truth.

Hell has become an unacceptable reality for the modern mind. That is understandable, given the unimaginable horror of it. Before we had our baby, I used to lie awake at night trying to fall asleep (but since he has come I have had no trouble sleeping at all!). During those times when I was lying down with my eyes closed but not yet asleep, it was easy to imagine myself being dead; after all, I was lying in the appropriate position. I would begin to reflect on my own death and on matters of eternity. It was during those times especially that I could feel something of the weight of eternity, and I would even, on occasion, begin to tremble at the thought of eternal conscious torment in Hell. I know that is what I deserve, though Christ has redeemed me from it. My mind cannot comprehend such a thing; it overwhelms me that any of God’s creatures could experience unending suffering to that degree.

But this is where my theological method gets tested: do I believe only what I can wrap my mind around and accept with my limited understanding, or do I believe whatever God says, no matter how difficult it is to accept? I have always tried to do the latter, and so I continue to believe in Hell as the church has historically understood it, which is the true biblical doctrine. If Hell is real, then, as Piper said, the mantle of preaching is singed with its fires. How can we possibly preach with anything but earnestness and passion, knowing what is stake? The pulpit is not the place for stand up, for slapstick, or for dazzling displays of human creativity; it is the place to proclaim the Word of God and to lead unworthy sinners to their eternal rest with Christ.


This is Worth Your Time

April 20, 2006

Do not, do not, do not, miss Carl Trueman’s article, “American Idolatry”. It is a penetrating analysis of Western culture using American Idol as an example. Trueman does not pronounce a blanket condemnation of everyone who watches the show (in fact, he confesses that it often airs in his own household), but he does offer an intelligent Christian perspective on what often drives both the contestants and the viewers.

[HT: Denny Burk]

The Bible as Revelation, Part 2

April 13, 2006

Please read Part 1 first if you missed it.

Is the Bible a record of God’s revelation (as the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message affirms), or is it God’s revelation of himself to humanity (as the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message affirms)? The correct answer to this question is “yes.” I will develop the thesis below that the Bible is both a record of revelation and is revelation itself. However, it is also my contention that to affirm that the Bible is revelation is to include that it is also a record of revelation. Therefore, the 2000 BFM hits the mark, whereas the 1963 BFM is true only insofar as it goes, which is not far enough.

The key to this discussion is to recognize that the concept of “revelation” is a broad one. Christian theology has long distinguished between “general” and “special” revelation. Even within these categories, we could further identify different means of divine revelation. When God parted the Red Sea before the Israelites, he revealed something of himself to them (and we would categorize this as a form of special revelation). When Solomon observed various aspects of the way life works in God’s world and reasoned out his proverbial conclusions, writing them down as instruction for the training of young men, God revealed something of himself (and again, we would identify this as special revelation, even though it overlaps with aspects of general revelation). The parting of the Red Sea and the writing of the book of Proverbs represent two very different events/processes, and yet the same God spoke (and speaks!) through both. We must avoid the error that confines the category of revelation to one particular method or means. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets…” (Heb 1:1). Of course, by “prophets” I believe the author means to include the totality of the Old Testament canon, through which God spoke (and speaks!) in various ways.

And then the author continues, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb 1:2). Jesus Christ is the fullest, definitive revelation of God. He is, indeed, God with us (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). The framers of both the 1963 BFM and the 2000 BFM would, I believe, stand in agreement on this point. I do not dispute for a moment that the Incarnation/Cross/Resurrection is the supreme event of God’s revelation of himself to humanity, and I applaud the motive of those who seek to jealously guard us from making theological statements that would confuse the record of that event with the event itself.

However, I see no theological reason that we can’t affirm that both the event and its authoritative, divine interpretation recorded in Scripture fall under the category of divine revelation. Nothing compels me to affirm that the Incarnation exhausts the category of revelation, and much compels me to deny that premise. We have already established that God has historically revealed himself in many different ways. If that is the case, then why can’t we affirm that Scripture constitutes revelation without threatening the supreme revelatory event of the Incarnation? When God parted the Red Sea, he revealed himself, and yet the parting of the Red Sea is not the Incarnation (though it does, ultimately, point us to the Incarnation). When Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear a son, God revealed himself, even though the announcement of the Incarnation is not the Incarnation, though it does point to it.

In fact, I would further argue that there is an organic connection between the Christ event and the divine testimony to it, which we know as Scripture. Had I been in the crowd that day when Jesus was crucified, I doubt that I would have looked at this dying man on the cross and concluded that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The naked event would not communicate much of anything to me. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, I would ask, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30). Events must be interpreted. Scripture is (in part) the divine interpretation of the revelatory events of history. The Christ event means nothing, indeed reveals nothing until God interprets it to me by his Word and Spirit. This is why I believe the Bible both records revelation (by keeping a record of God’s mighty saving acts) and is revelation (by interpreting those acts for us to understand). The unity of the Son and the Spirit in the economy of redemption points to the necessity of a twofold revelation: the event (accomplished by the Son) and its interpretation (applied by the Spirit through both the inspiration of Scripture and through the illumination of those who read/hear the message of Scripture).

Basically, it boils down to this: I haven’t come into contact with the Incarnate Christ recently, and you haven’t either. If we restrict revelation to the event of the Incarnation, then we restrict the extent of revelation to those who witnessed that event. We leave ourselves with nothing but a fallible record of someone else’s religious experience. This is supposed to ground our faith? Why, then, do we have a canon in the first place? What makes these fallible human books any better than the countless others that were written around the same time and in the subsequent centuries? Holy Scripture exists in a category by itself because it is the inspired Word of God, God’s authoritative interpretation of his great saving events. As such, it constitutes divine revelation. We must, nevertheless, take care that we do not collapse all special revelation into the category of Scripture, for revelation is broader than just Scripture. For all practical purposes, however, the church’s only source of normative special revelation after the time of Christ and the Apostles is Scripture. God has spoken, and his ongoing speech today consists of his Spirit bearing witness to what he has already revealed and applying his revelation in Scripture to new situations.

In part 3, I intend to conclude this series by interacting more specifically with the Neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture in an attempt to demonstrate its inadequacies.

Thoughts on Global Warming

April 13, 2006

Thoughtful articles like this have kept me from jumping on the “stop global warming” bandwagon, in spite of the fact that a number of recent evangelical leaders have come out in support of this cause. When approaching the issue of global warming (which does not necessarily indicate one’s stance toward other environmental issues), several factors that are usually overlooked need to be taken into account:

1. Can it be scientifically proven that human activity is the cause of global warming? I doubt it.

2. Can it be scientifically proven that human activity has the potential to slow down or bring the process to a halt? Again, I doubt it; climate change is a fact of life and always has been.

3. If global warming continues, will it necessarily lead to the catastrophic consequences claimed by so many alarmist scientists? The article to which I linked argues that severe weather will be less likely, not more likely, as a result of global warming; I remember reading articles about how global warming is necessary to prevent us from plunging into another ice age. There is too much debate on this issue for me to throw in my lot with the alarmists, and I am theologically inclined to believe that God will providentially care for his creation no matter what the climate ultimately does. The earth and its diverse inhabitants are remarkably adaptive.

4. If we seek the well-being of humanity, shouldn’t we consider all factors that contribute to human well-being, including economic factors? In other words, we need to take into account the human suffering that would result from the economic consequences of any plan that is put in place to deal with global warming. In light of the fact that (a) we do not know for sure that human activity has caused global warming, (b) we do not know that human activity could actually have any effect on slowing it down, and (c) we cannot predict the consequences of global warming, I am not willing to support any action that would have negative economic results. I do not take this position because I am materialistic (I am not); I take it because I recognize that economic well-being is a major part of human well-being. Therefore, those who advocate plans like the Kyoto Protocol must meet a high burden of proof in order to convince me to commit to such a costly endeavor. At this point, that burden of proof has not been met. In addition, market forces are already pushing us toward technologies that do not depend on fossil fuels, for a variety of reasons. Let the market take care of this problem, if it is indeed a problem in the first place.

Finally, I think we should all listen to the wisdom of Dennis Miller, who once said on The Tonight Show (I am paraphrasing from memory):

“So the temperature rises 1 degree every 100 years. So what? It’s one degree. I’m always a little chilly anyway.”

[HT: Justin Taylor]

More on the Gospel of Judas

April 13, 2006

Michael Spencer has an interesting post about the Gospel of Judas and related stories. His thoughts obviously resonate with my own on this subject. I think the illustration he uses successfully communicates the unjustified hysteria that news agencies have given to this recent discovery, so much so that I will quote it in full. Imagine seeing this report on television:

Dateline: Arlington Virginia.
Scientists and historians announced today the discovery of a Biography of George Washington, purportedly written by Washington’s mistress, Mrs. Wallace Vanderweaver. The text was discovered in the Library of Washington and Lee University, where researchers were going through recent scholarly articles about Washington.
The text, written in 1970, almost two hundred years from the time of Washington, tells us the story of Washington from the notes of a long-time mistress, Lavenia Vanderweaver, known to be a local widow and friend of the Washingtons. Washington died in 1799, and the Vanderweaver Biography claims to be based on notes made during Washington’s lifetime and passed down through Mrs. Vanderweaver’s relatives.
Scholars anticipate this discovery will completely turn Washington studies upside down, as the text supposedly shows Washington to be a collaborator with the British, and in the employ of agents in the British government. The idea that Washington deceived his wife and his country for his entire life is a controversial one, but scholars who accept the Vanderweaver document believe the unusual nature of this text suggests it has been suppressed and is likely quite authentic.

This paragraph also provides an apt commentary that summarizes his (and my) thoughts on the whole subject:

We’ve reached a point with DaVinci madness where nothing is too comic for the mainstream media to report with a straight face. Ideas about New Testament studies that wouldn’t appear on a freshman pop quiz are now tossed about the main stream media as if they are established facts. The palpable need for a “breakthrough” discovery that rattles our image of Jesus, destroys the Roman Catholic Church and upends the Bible is getting obnoxious.

The Bible as Revelation, Part 1

April 11, 2006

Recent debates in the Southern Baptist Convention and within some Baptist state conventions provide a clear example of a dividing line that exists on the doctrine of Scripture. The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message identifies the Bible as “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” This statement is not contained in the original 1925 version of the confession. I don’t know what motivated the addition of this statement in the 1960’s (a possible neo-orthodox influence?), but it is not my purpose to discuss Baptist history in this post. Baptist history illustrates a crucial theological point in this case, for in the 2000 edition of The Baptist Faith and Message, the Bible is identified as “God’s revelation of Himself to man.” The debate that has swirled around this issue has divided moderates, who argue that the Bible is a record of divine revelation, from conservatives, who argue that the Bible itself is revelation. It is my contention that biblically and theologically speaking, we should not hesitate to affirm that the Bible is indeed divine revelation, so long as we understand that it does not exhaust the category of divine revelation.

My theological conversation partner on this issue has been, for a few years now, Karl Barth. Barth belongs on the short list of my favorite theologians. One of the best things I did in the last three years was to sign up for a course on his theology, the content of which sowed the seeds of several further theological developments in my thinking, one of which may become a future dissertation. On the issue of Scripture as revelation, his thoughts have been quite stimulating, and while I respect the motives and the reasoning for his position, I have concluded that he was ultimately wrong. Although in his case, being wrong about the nature of Scripture did not do great damage to his overall theology, I believe generations that have followed have used his doctrine of Scripture (or something akin to it) to draw theological conclusions that are dangerous to the church, conclusions that he himself never would have sanctioned.

In continuity with his Reformed heritage, Barth understood the Word of God in a threefold way: Christ is the Word of God, Scripture is the Word of God, and church proclamation is the Word of God. Of course, the word “is” means different things in the previous sentence. In the case of Jesus Christ, he is to be identified as the Word of God in and of himself, at all times. He is the primary event of God’s revelation. However, Scripture and preaching belong to a different category. Scripture is a witness to the mighty, revelatory events of history. Therefore, Scripture cannot be strictly identified as the Word of God. It becomes the Word of God when God so chooses to use it that way; therefore, it is best to define it more as a vehicle for divine revelation than as revelation itself. Preaching, like Scripture, is the same thing–a vehicle for divine revelation. For Barth, revelation is always personal. It involves the self-disclosure of a Person to another person in an event that cannot be adequately described with human language. Therefore, to identify a book as revelation is to objectify and seek to contain a dynamic, mysterious concept that cannot be reduced to a static object. For Barth, conservatives had sought to tame God by claiming to have captured his Word in a book. One paragraph from his Church Dogmatics (Volume 1.2, p. 237) that captures the essence of this argument reads as follows:

We speak of real revelation only when we speak of the revelation which is real for us. It is the revelation which is attested to ourselves. It is the revelation which we ourselves adopt when it is attested. It is the revelation which reaches us. An objective revelation as such, a revelation which consists statically only in its sign-giving, in the objectivity of Scripture, preaching, and sacrament, a revelation which does not penetrate to man: a revelation of this kind is an idol like all the rest, and perhaps the worst of all idols.

I respect Barth’s motive here. Some have argued that Barth’s doctrine of Scripture stems from his inability to completely let go of the liberalism of his background. Maybe there is something to that theory, but we must also recognize that his doctrine of Scripture flows naturally from his doctrine of God, which is certainly light years away from that of Protestant Liberalism. Barth’s view of divine transcendence so exalts God over man that he was unable to conceive of an objective deposit of divine revelation that any man could hold in his possession. Fearing that an inerrant Bible would threaten the freedom of God to speak sovereignly and unpredictably in the event of revelation, Barth refused to identify the Bible as the Word of God, as equal to divine revelation, as inerrant and infallible, because to do so would be to limit God.

That, in essence, is Barth’s view of the relationship between Scripture and revelation. Something akin to it is represented in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, which identifies the Bible as “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” In part 2, I intend to show why I believe this model of revelation is theologically inadequate and why, therefore, we should affirm that the Bible is indeed revelation, though it does not exhaust the category of revelation.

First Bath

April 7, 2006

Benjamin’s umbilical cord fell off a few days ago, so we were able to give him his first “real” bath: I thought about posting pictures of him in the tub, but hey, would you want pictures of you in the tub posted on the internet? So, you get to see “first bath aftermath”.

Here are a couple of pictures we had done professionally:

And here is a picture of Benjamin’s best friend:


An Open Letter to All News Agencies that Will Run or Have Already Run Stories on Jesus This Easter Season

April 7, 2006

Dear all news agencies that will run or have already run stories on Jesus this Easter season,

It looks like you have quite a feast this year. With the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and the upcoming movie version of the book, enthusiasm for tales of ecclesiastical conspiracy seem to be as high as ever. In the span of the last week I have heard two new versions of what may have “really happened” 2,000 years ago, only to be subsequently suppressed by the truth-hating, agenda-pushing church. According to one new “scholarly” theory, Jesus did not actually die on the cross. Instead, he had a secret agreement with Pontius Pilate to fake his own death. On the cross he was given an anesthetic that knocked him out, making him appear dead. He was quickly taken down from the cross and rushed to the tomb, where he received immediate medical care and ultimately survived the whole ordeal. This is how he was able to convince the world that he was raised from the dead. And now the so-called “Gospel of Judas” is also in the news, telling the story of a Jesus who commanded Judas to betray him. According to proponents of both theories, the church knew the real truth but has engaged in a 2,000 year conspiracy to hide it from the world.

When are you going to realize that this template for covering stories about Jesus is getting old? While there are dozens of theories about what “really happened” in the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection (presupposing that the accounts given to us in the New Testament are historically dubious), these theories are mutually contradictory, and more often than not based on pseudo-scholarship. You always approach this topic as though it is an impenetrable mystery that no one will ever solve, thereby casting the shadows of doubt on the historical accuracy of the Bible. Why must we presuppose that as long as there are different opinions on something that it must therefore be considered a mystery? As far as I’m concerned (and millions join me in this opinion, including a number of reputable scholars), “what really happened” 2,000 years ago is fairly clear and is substantially reported in the four Gospels of the New Testament. When you report on every conspiracy theory as though it has the potential to shake the church to its foundations and overturn the orthodox consensus of two millennia, you do not engage in fair reporting; instead, you only expose your own bias. Don’t get me wrong: I often enjoy watching the reports. I find them informative, even in spite of the fact that they are hopelessly skewed and usually involve commentary from reporters who are not competently educated in the field of New Testament studies. To the average American watching on television, this bias and incompetence may be interpreted as scholarly consensus, which is a distortion of the truth, not a fair reporting of it.

And then there is the attempt to appear objective. It usually emerges at the end of the report, where you always conclude that we will never know what really happened, but it doesn’t matter for the faith of believers anyway because faith does not rest on historical fact. Again, this only exposes your bias. You are children of the Enlightenment, divorcing faith from real life, passing on the classic doctrine of liberal Christianity, but greatly offending orthodox believers of all ages. Tell my brothers in China who worship in secret that they have given up their lives for a man who was not really raised from the dead, and see if the kind of liberal “faith” that you are so fond of describing will be enough to sustain them. Liberal Christianity, which has the (inexplicable) luxury of holding on to a faith that is based on fiction, never flourishes in places where Christians die for what they believe. “What really happened” certainly does matter, and it always has. If you could ever learn to step out of Kant’s shadow, you might be able to see that. Instead, every year at Christmas and Easter you continue to perpetuate his faith-reality dichotomy as though it is the only sensible way a human being could think.

I invite you to use your investigative curiosity for a new purpose: investigate yourselves. Take a step back and notice how your biases seep through every single time you report on this issue. No matter the network or the reporter, the template is always the same, and the reports are quite predictable by now. I don’t ask that you subsitute my biases for your own. I am only asking that you recognize your biases and stop passing them off as though they are the settled consensus of the collective wisdom of humanity. There is a world out there that you view from afar, a world of committed, faithful, orthodox Christians (“orthodox” with a little “o”), who have always believed that questions about the historicity of the Gospels really do matter for the Christian faith. Your continued attraction to the latest far-fetched conspiracy theories, combined with your persistent distorted and incompetent reporting on them, is constantly making you more and more irrelevant to people like me. Learn how to report more fairly, and then we’ll talk.

Aaron O’Kelley

In case you care about stuff like this…

April 1, 2006

Even though I listed my church and my family as the primary reasons for choosing to stay at Southern, I don’t want to give the impression that academics was not part of the equation at all. I think both schools have excellent programs. However, Trinity’s reputation as a powerhouse in evangelical scholarship exceeds ours and has been in place longer than ours has, and I do consider it a loss that I will not be able to enjoy the benefits of a new perspective at a more diverse school. Nevertheless, I believe that both Southern and Trinity belong to a small group of evangelical schools that should be considered the finest in America, and Southern is continually building a stronger reputation in the scholarly world.

My program, which begins this fall, will consist of 66 hours: 40 hours of seminars, 10 hours of colloquia, and 16 hours for the dissertation and defense (research languages and comprehensive exams have no credit hours attached to them). From what I understand, Systematic Theology students normally take 6 seminars in theology and 2 in a minor area (philosophy, New Testament, etc.). The Systematic Theology program is supposed to be very rigorous.

One of the distinctives of Southern’s program is the 10 hours of colloquia. This is designed to broaden the educational experience so that it includes the full range of theological loci. I think it is theoretically possible to graduate with a Ph.D. in theology from some excellent institutions and still be largely unacquainted with some major topics in the field. I don’t think that is the case at Southern. The seminars and especially the dissertation will provide depth while the colloquia will provide breadth. Both are important for the ministry of teaching.

The more I learn about the program, the more excited I am to be a part of it.