Archive for July, 2008

Things Are Changing…Again

July 28, 2008

For those readers who are interested in what’s going on in our lives, I thought I would give you an update.  We are planning another move.  We are heading back to Louisville.

We have lived in Milton, Kentucky (approximately 50 miles northeast of Louisville), in the parsonage of our church since June of 2006.  Now Joni’s sister has been hired as a nurse at a hospital in Louisville, so she will be moving there (she has lived all over the place recently, but her last permanent residence was in Arkansas).  We decided to split the cost of a rental house with her.  This will help her find an affordable place to live, and it will help us by providing us the opportunity to be back in Louisville.  I want to be back there so that I can be close to the seminary.  For the past two years I have commuted to school, but now that I am beginning to focus on my dissertation, I want to be near the seminary library for research purposes. 

This move will not change our ministry at the church.  I will continue to serve as pastor, and we will commute to the church on Sundays and Wednesdays.  For a part-time position, this is an adequate arrangement, and it is what I did for about the first three years of my ministry here.  I announced our plans to the church tonight, and they seemed to understand.  In fact, this move will actually save the church money because they won’t be paying for our utilities anymore.  Of course, that means we will be paying for them, but we expect that Joni will be able to pick up some work part-time in Louisville, probably in the area of child care.  Likewise, I plan to look into substitute teaching one day a week, or something of that nature to bring in a little extra cash.  We’re excited.  I enjoy the country, but my heart has been in Louisville these past two years.  It is a great place to live.  I have missed it, and I can’t wait to go back.

I have now completed two years of work on my Ph.D.  This fall I have only one class to take, which is a two-hour colloquium (all Ph.D. students have to take a total of five colloquia, and this is my fifth and final one).  Besides that, I am preparing for comprehensive exams in November.  After comps I plan to submit a prospectus for my dissertation.  Then I have one more J-term seminar to take in January before I will officially be at the “all but dissertation” stage.  My tentative plan right now is to work on the dissertation throughout 2009 and then graduate in May of 2010.  That will be a total of four years on this degree, and a grand total of eleven years of post-high school education.  Then I will be done.  I think by then it will be time to retire.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 2: Because of Jesus

July 22, 2008

In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis spelled out the famous trilemma about Jesus: either he was who he claimed to be–the Messiah, Son of God, Lord of all–or he was completely deluded or deceitful to the core.  He was not merely a great moral teacher.  Great moral teachers don’t make the kinds of claims he made about himself unless they are true.  For a man to claim to be God in the flesh when he is not, in fact, God in the flesh, is to commit blasphemy.  So, if Jesus was not God in the flesh, then he either blasphemed from a diabolical motive to deceive or because he was not right in the head.  Take your pick.  But we must put aside the nonsensical idea that he was nothing more than a great teacher.  As Lewis wrote, “He has not left that option open to us.  He did not intend to.” 

One of the main reasons I am a Christian is because I find Jesus to be a person who warrants my trust in what he has claimed about himself.  Almost no one would be willing to call him a crazy man or a blaspheming liar.  I know I certainly won’t.  And if he is not these things, then there is only one option left: he is God Incarnate.  And if he is God Incarnate, then his claim to be the center of the universe, the center of God’s redemptive activity, along with his claim of absolute lordship over the lives of every single human being, comes with a weight of authority that I cannot ignore.

There is one way to get around the trilemma, and that is to claim that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the real, historical Jesus.  One could argue that the Jesus who claims to be God and puts himself in the place of God is an invention of the early church, but the real Jesus was much more like an itinerant rabbi who specialized in moral teachings.  Many scholars argue that the claims of Jesus in the Gospels that indicate a high Christology are sayings placed on his lips by the early church, not his own words.

This argument simply will not do.  First, it is based on faulty presuppositions.  One of the most important rules in determining the authentic sayings of Jesus in critical scholarship today is the so-called “criterion of dissimilarity.”  In other words, anything that is attributed to Jesus that is dissimilar from the prevailing thought world of his Jewish background and that of the early church is judged likely to be authentic.  And while I would certainly agree that such statements are authentic, should we necessarily conclude that sayings that do not measure up are less likely to be authentic?  Jesus was, after all, a first-century rabbi and the founder of Christianity.  Is it really fair to pretend that we can abstract him from his context and then attribute to him such a faulty teaching ability that the real heart of his teaching very quickly became corrupted by the overzealous (and yes, blasphemous!) admiration that his followers had for him?  To insist on dissimilarity is to insist on an ahistorical Jesus, not a historical one. 

Second, this view requires us to believe that the early church continually produced new Jesus-sayings without any regard to whether they were truly his words or not.  But from the evidence we have, it appears that the New Testament authors were very concerned about truth in their reporting of history.  Luke places great emphasis on his research into eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1-4).  When Paul faces a pastoral situation not directly addressed by Jesus, he doesn’t invent a Jesus-saying to address it.  He carefully distinguishes between what the historical Jesus said and what Paul as an inspired Apostle now says in light of a new situation (1 Cor. 7:10, 12).  And if the church was regularly in the habit of placing sayings on the lips of Jesus, then why are so many important issues left without any direct comment from him?  For example, the most important debate that rocked the infant church was on what terms to accept Gentiles: circumcised or uncircumcised?  We have no record that Jesus ever said a thing about this directly (certainly, much of what he said has implications for this debate, but there is no decisive word from him).  If the early church could have invented a Jesus saying to address this problem, then why do we have no Jesus saying that addresses it?  The best explanation is that the church simply did not engage in the practice; Jesus probably never addressed the question directly. 

Third, even if we accept the critical presuppositions about what constitutes an authentic saying of Jesus (which I don’t, but will for the sake of argument), we still cannot get around the fact that he made some wildly extravagant claims about himself.  Take Matthew 24:36, for example: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  This saying cannot be attributed to the early church, for the church would not have invented a saying in which Jesus confesses his own ignorance about something.  So it must be authentic, even by critical standards.  While we normally pay closest attention to the fact that Jesus plainly says he does not know something, we should not miss the extraordinarily high Christology of this verse.  When he lists off those who do not know the day of his coming, he lists the angels of heaven first, and then himself, as though his own ignorance is more significant than theirs.  He stands above even the angels of heaven, subordinate to the Father alone!  How this coheres with an orthodox Christology is not my purpose to explain right now (I believe it does cohere).  The point, rather, is that even in this indisputably authentic statement, Jesus makes a wildly extravagant claim about who he is.  The Jesus of history, if he was not far more than a mere human being, was at the very least an egotistical maniac, prone to placing himself above all created things.  Almost everything he said and did (whether judged authentic or not by critical standards) is stamped with this kind of exalted view of himself. 

I find it extremely hard to believe that the person I encounter in the Gospels was a blaspheming lunatic or a blaspheming liar.  I find it even harder to believe that, if he was one or the other, he managed to hide that fact from those who knew him best and then to inspire them to lay down their lives even as they changed the world with the message that focused directly on him.  Some cult leaders (who are indeed egotistical, blaspheming lunatics) have managed to inspire a short-lived following, but none have had anything close to the far-reaching, enduring impact of this man.  He could not have been a mere moral teacher.  He made too much of himself for that.  I don’t find it possible to view him as a crazy man or a deceiver.  My only option is to bow at his feet and say, “My Lord and my God.”

New Old Posts!

July 18, 2008

I have just imported some of the posts from my old blog “Aaron’s Corner” here.  They are now in the archives dated prior to May 5, 2007 (the beginning of this blog).  I always liked this one.  I tried to take a little shot at everybody with it.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 1: Because of Experience

July 14, 2008

In this series of posts I intend to make a case for the truthfulness of Christianity, framing the subject in terms of various reasons why I myself am a Christian.  The first reason I should list as to why I am a Christian today is because of my life experiences. 

I was raised in a Christian family and had a conversion experience at around the age of nine or ten.  It was a few years later before I really began to see the implications of that experience working themselves out in my life.  I began to taste for myself the goodness and transforming power of Jesus Christ in a way I had never known before.  Several people stand out in my mind as those who played an important role during these formative years: my pastor Joe Srygley, my youth minister Curt Pool, Curt’s sidekick Rodney Bunch, a traveling youth evangelist named Todd Foster who visited the area several times, my friends Blake Edwards, Robert Butler, and others.  In spite of their faults (and mine), I saw something real in the lives of these people, a genuine love for the Lord, for the church, and for others.  

When I got to college it was much the same, only many of the names had changed: Allan Thompson (campus minister), Craig Nash (resident director), Bob Utley (professor), Steve Bowen (pastor), and several others.  And on through seminary the story has been much the same.  The bottom line is that I am a Christian today largely because Christ is someone I know by experience.  I have encountered him through the Scriptures, through prayer, through the ordinances of worship, through the corporate gathering of his people, through service to the poor and outcast.  He has left his fingerprints on every part of my life.

Some people say you can’t argue with experience.  I disagree.  I think you can argue with it.  If Freud were here, he would probably have an alternative explanation for my powerful experience of knowing Christ.  He would have some kind of naturalistic psychological explanation.  And there’s nothing in principle that says that he couldn’t make that argument.  If the shoe were on the other foot, and I were asked to interpret the spiritual experience of a Mormon or a Hindu, I would not likely speak of his experience in the same way that he does.  We always experience things with a pre-existing interpretive framework that enables us to make sense of that experience in the context of an overall worldview.  And I think it is completely legitimate for one person to use his or her interpretive framework to question or critique that of another while not denying that something meaningful has, in fact, been experienced.  So all of that is to say that I recognize that personal experience plays an important role in my Christian faith.  But while it may be a necessary condition for a compelling apologetic for the Christian faith, it is not a sufficient one.  In other words, given the kinds of truth claims that Christianity makes for itself, then we would surely question its credibility if it did not produce any life-changing experiences in the lives of its adherents.  Thus, a lack of evidence across the board in this arena could falsify the Christian faith.  But the presence of evidence for Christian experience does not validate the Christian faith, anymore than does the undeniable reality of Buddhist experience validate Buddhism.  Experience does, however, provide confirming evidence for the Christian faith.  And in the gracious providence of God, I have been blessed to live the life that I have lived, one that has led me into the arms of Christ and kept me there to this day.

What about Israel?

July 2, 2008

What should Christians think about ethnic Israel?  What does the coming of Christ mean for God’s relationship to the natural descendants of Abraham, and where do we as Gentile Christians fit into the picture?  Classic dispensationalists argue that we are two separate people.  According to them, the church age is a parenthesis in God’s plan of redemption, a time when his purpose for Israel has been suspended until the millennial kingdom.  Therefore, we must “rightly divide” the Scripture so as to relate Israel passages to ethnic Israel and church passages to the church.  For some dispensationalists, this division between the two peoples of God will endure through eternity, with the church inheriting the new heaven and redeemed Israel inheriting the new earth.  Covenant theologians have traditionally maintained the opposite view: the church has replaced Israel, and the Old Testament promises made to Israel are now fulfilled spiritually in the salvation that the church receives in Christ.  For many covenant theologians (but not all), there is no longer any significance for ethnic Israel in God’s plan of redemption.

I think both approaches are wrong.  My view is neither that Israel and the church are separate nor that the church has displaced Israel as the people of God.  It is, rather, that believing Gentiles become God’s people by being incorporated into Israel.  Conversely, ethnic Israelites who do not believe in Jesus the Messiah have been cut off from the covenant people.  However, ethnic Israel as such still holds an important place in God’s plan of redemption, for there is a coming day when the partial hardening will be lifted from them and “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).  Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, particularly regarding the image of the tree, the broken branches, and the grafted branches, gives a hermeneutical key to the rest of Scripture on this subject.

Therefore, when I read the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel (e.g., Isa. 11:11-16), I try to understand them first as their original hearers would have understood them.  There can be no doubt that they would have understood “Israel” to refer to ethnic Israel, and thus I see the Old Testament hope relating to a future salvation for ethnic Israel.  And yet, there are also prophetic images of the Gentiles being part of this final redemption (e.g., Isa. 2:1-4).  And what the New Testament makes clear is that the Gentiles would be incorporated into Israel as true Israelites (not bound to the Mosaic Law, however, for the old covenant passed away with the inauguration of the new covenant).  Therefore, I also believe it is legitimate for us to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New, that is, with the understanding that the promised restoration of Israel includes the gathering of the nations, incorporated into a restored Israel, to Israel’s Messiah. 

The fact that Israel as a nation still exists and has preserved its culture, language, and heritage despite being hated and persecuted for centuries, is a testimony to the providential favor of God.  Though they are now, for the most part, covenant breakers, God has not fully and finally rejected his people.