Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

The Domestication of Scripture

August 7, 2009

I make no secret of the fact that I fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum.  I believe most of the tenets of political conservatism as it exists today arise from a biblical worldview.

But what happens when a political philosophy ascends to a position above Scripture itself and then functions as a grid through which Scripture may be read?  What happens when politics attempts to employ the Word of God to further its own agenda?  You end up with travesties like The Green Bible and The Patriot’s Bible.  The first leans left, and the other leans right, but both elevate a human political agenda above divine revelation, particularly above the central message of the Bible, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  (Go here and click on promotional video #2 to see blasphemy on display).

Both Bibles represent particular communities on the theological left and right that have subordinated Scripture to something else.  Both represent distorted theologies that fail to hear the gospel for what it is: God’s rejection of all human agendas in the exaltation of Christ crucified.  Environmental care and American patriotism are important subjects that must be informed by the truth of divine revelation.  But they are not the controlling frameworks within which Scripture should be read.

The fact that Christians from widely different theological and political perspectives can err in similar ways is indicative of the fact that we are all idolators at heart.  We all prefer our own agendas over God’s holy Word.  And sometimes we even bless and baptize our idolatry by using it to shrink wrap our new Bibles.

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A Fork in the Theological Road

April 7, 2007

I just finished a book entitled Perspectives on Election: Five Views (but don’t worry; this is not another post specifically about the doctrine of election). Thomas B. Talbott contributed a chapter to this book outlining a universalist doctrine of election. His view is that, in the end, all people (and presumably all fallen angels as well, though he did specifically say so) will be reconciled to God. God’s wrath is always temporary and redemptive, and it will finally lead everyone to repentance and faith, either in this life or in the life to come. Although I don’t think he specifically mentioned Hell, I assume that Talbott’s view of Hell actually turns it into Purgatory.

Each author wrote responses to the chapters of the other authors. In one of his responses, Talbott launched into a criticism of the Augustinian view of election (that it is unconditional, individual, and pertains to the eternal destinies of people) by outlining his own theological method. I think what he has to say is very telling. It indicates that there is a fork in the theological road, and all people who do theology will inevitably choose one direction or the other. Here is what he writes:

“My question, however, concerns those Christians who have no such advantage [of education and available scholarly resources]; it concerns, for example, a simple peasant woman who may have lived in the vicinity of Geneva during Calvin’s own lifetime. Having no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew no real understanding of the Bible’s historical background, and no reasonable way to counter Calvin’s superior scholarship, her only grounds for opposing a doctrine of limited election might have been her moral conviction that a worthy object of worship could not possibly be an unloving and unjust tyrant. So how, then, should she respond when told to suppress her own moral conviction and to bow humbly before the Scriptures (as someone else interprets them, of course)?*

“I know of no better answer to this question than the one that George MacDonald gave: ‘Do not try to believe anything that affects you as darkness. Even if you mistake and refuse something true thereby, you will do less wrong to Christ by such a refusal than you would by accepting as His what you can see only as darkness.’ So it matters not, according to MacDonald, what ‘affects you as darkness,’ whether a racist interpretation of the curse of Ham, an appeal to Paul in support of institutional slavery, or an appeal to Romans 9 in an effort to persuade you that the Christian God is something less than all loving and all merciful: If the teaching strikes you as morally repugnant, you should say, ‘either the thing is not what it seems, or God never said or did it.’ For given the complexities of any interpretation of the Bible as a whole . . . the facade of bowing humbly before the Scriptures is no excuse for accepting, in opposition to your own deep-rooted moral convictions, a seemingly blasphemous picture of God” (pp. 322-323).

Talbott has just outlined the liberal paradigm for doing theology. I would not call him a theological liberal in the classical sense of the term, but his methodology is the same. This is the fork in the theological road: will you bow humbly before Scripture or sit in judgment over it, refusing those things that strike you as repugnant and blasphemous? Conservatives bow before Scripture; liberals make Scripture bow before their own moral and logical presuppositions. This is why liberals have rejected all of the following at some time or another:

The Trinity (it is illogical); the Incarnation (also illogical); substitutionary atonement (illogical and morally repungnant); the wrath of God and Hell (morally repugnant); unconditional election (morally repugnant); Scripture’s prohibition of homosexuality (morally repugnant); Scripture’s teaching on the pattern of authority between men and women (morally repugnant), etc.

It all comes down to the question of whether God may tell us what is true and false or we may tell him what we will permit to be true and false, and he must then conform his will to our presuppositions. Talbott’s methodology completely ignores a number of Christian convictions. It ignores the Creator-creature distinction and the noetic effects of sin, assuming that we fallen creatures have the clarity of mind to know what is and is not “darkness,” “morally repugnant,” and “blasphemous” before we ever encounter the Scriptures. But this is to make God in our own image. In his own chapter, Talbott also repeatedly appealed to the idea that God cannot do anything that it would be wrong for a human being to do. Again, this is another liberal mistake. God can and does do lots of things that it would be immoral for human beings to do, precisely because human beings are not God. God kills and makes alive. He
judges all the actions of all people. He demands worship and absolute submission to himself. Of course it would be wrong for any human being to do these things, but that is because human beings are not God. In fact, this idea that God can only do what it would be right for humans to do is the flip side of the Adam and Eve’s sin. Instead of saying, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” as the serpent did, Talbott and others who share his liberal theological methodology are saying, “God is actually like you.”

At some point, every person who thinks theologically must decide if he will approach the Scripture humbly, realizing that his own ideas (shaped by culture, experience, etc.) may or may not be correct and must be judged by the teaching of Scripture. I determined to do this a long time ago. I believe this basic commitment on my part is what led me to embrace, from the teaching of Scripture, the doctrines of unconditional election and the complementarian view of men and women. You can argue that my own interpretation of Scripture has been warped by my own experiences and presuppositions, but I disagree, at least on these two points. I had no prior motivation to come to these conclusions. I was at a moderate Baptist college, where everything I heard from men whom I highly respect went against these views. It would have been convenient for me to reject both views at the time, especially the complementarian view of the sexes, because who wants to be saddled with that in our present theological context? I have found Southern Seminary to be far more hospitable to these views, but keep in mind that I came to these views long before I came to Southern Seminary (and that is one reason I chose to come to Southern). I will not decide a priori what God can and cannot say and do. If God’s Word says he ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites, then I will not sit in judgment over God’s authority to do that. If God’s Word says homosexuality is wrong, then I will not sit in judgment over God’s authority to make that declaration. If God’s Word says God has mercy on whom he has mercy and that he hardens whom he hardens, who am I to question his justice, especially in light of the fact that mercy, by definition, is undeserved? If God’s Word says that the unrepentant will suffer in Hell for eternity, how can I say that my 3 pound brain understands and evaluates this issue better than God does? If God’s Word says that God is in control of all things, and that in some mysterious sense, even suffering comes from his hand, what right do I have to call such a view blasphemous? (I believe Scripture teaches all of these things, and I have made the case for several of them in other places).

Now that classical liberalism has been declining for many years now, theologians find it fashionable to say that they are now seeking to transcend the divide between conservatives and liberals. The late Stan Grenz made this claim, as does Brian McLaren. In some ways, perhaps these “postconservatives” are transcending the divide. But for the most part, I read their agenda differently. I see them taking the same direction in the theological fork in the road that the liberals took before them, only now they are accomodating the faith to postmodernism rather than to modernism. What else explains McLaren’s gymnastics on the issue of homosexuality except the fact that he personally cannot swallow what Scripture so clearly teaches, so he rejects it and creates a fog around the issue? This is the liberal methodology. As the winds of culture change, the theological conclusions will also change, and that is why postconservatives are not full-blown theological liberals, most of whom lived at an earlier time in history. Nevertheless, postconservatives arrive at their somewhat different destination driving the same car that liberals drove for years.

*By mentioning the poor peasant woman with no education or resources to counter Calvin’s superior learning, Talbott has overlooked some very significant circumstances of Calvin’s historical context, and in the process has been very unfair to Calvin. Calvin was concerned for the poor peasent women (and men) who were giving up money that should have been spent on food to buy indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church. He was concerned about the poor masses who had been held in darkness for centuries, being denied access to Bibles in their own languages, hearing masses recited in Latin, a language they did not understand. So Calvin promoted a return to the original languages of Scripture as a way of getting past the theological corruptions of the Latin Vulgate. The study of Greek and Hebrew was to serve as the basis for developing translations of the Bible in the vernacular. Far from reserving the interpretation of Scripture to himself, Calvin promoted reading of the Bible among the common people! And because he so longed for them to know the truth of Scripture in contrast to the Roman approach of keeping the masses in ignorance, he dedicated himself to a rigorous schedule of preaching and teaching expositionally from the Scriptures almost every day of the week in Geneva. This was something that was practiced virtually nowhere before the Reformers came along. So with all due respect, Dr. Talbott, I think you should can the emotional appeal to the poor peasant woman oppressed by the tyrant Calvin. Historically speaking, Calvin is one of the major figures responsible for the end of that kind of ecclesiastical oppression so widely practiced by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The fact that we even know how to read today is likely traceable to at least some influences from Calvin.