Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The History of Israel as a Parallel to Salvation

Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea
We believe we are justified by grace apart from works. But after that? Is sanctification the work of God or of our own effort? Yes. We find a great picture of this in the history of Israel.

When God freed the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, he did it by his power alone. He brought the plagues. He split the sea. He destroyed Pharaoh’s army. All they had to do was go when he told them to go.

When God freed us from our bondage to sin, he did it all. He broke the hold the rulers of this world have over us, triumphing over them by the cross. All we have to do is come when he says come.

After they passed through the waters, though, they had to strap on a sword. At the Red Sea they were told, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex 14:14). After that, they were told, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites” (Ex 17:9).

But they did not fight in their own power. When God was with them, they could take on the enemy with only 300 men (eg, Jdg 7). When God was not with them, no force was large enough for victory (eg, Josh 7).

We, too, can only fight sin by the power of God. Under our own power, defeat is certain. Under his power, victory is inevitable because “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).

Why should we fight this fight? First, God said so. But he said so as a result of what he had done for his people. God’s instructions to Israel were prefaced with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex 20:2). To us the word is, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1). God only wants us to respond to what he has already done for us.

Second, what God wants is that we reach out and take what is good. To Israel, he said, “You will possess their land ... a land flowing with milk and honey” (Lev 20:24). The Promised Land was going to be worth the trouble to take. The Christian’s promised land is to be conformed to the image of Christ so that we can experience the life he made us for and reign with him (Rom 8).

In the conquest of the Promised Land, their mission was to destroy the evil remaining in the land and give it all over to God’s rule. In sanctification, our mission is to destroy the evil remaining in our lives and give it all over to God’s rule. It’s hard work, but it will be worthwhile. And like the conquest of Canaan, God will not do it without us, and we cannot do it without him.

Image: Aivazovsky's Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea 1891

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Eyewitness Testimony

There is so much evidence to support the Christian faith it can be overwhelming. How do you keep it all straight? I want to suggest a way to help you demonstrate that the gospels are based on eyewitness testimony.

We’re going to take one passage of scripture and use it as an outline to present the evidence.

I’m not good at memorizing things, but I have committed this passage to memory, and so can you. However, if you carry a pocket Bible or New Testament, you only need to put a ribbon there. If you have a smartphone, you can get tons of free Bible apps; you can usually bookmark or “favorite” a passage.

The passage is Luke 1:1-4

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (NIV84)

Highlight the words I highlighted. If the app won’t highlight words, mark the whole verse. Either commit to memory or make a note of why these words are important. I know space is limited in a pocket testament’s margin, so I’ll give you a succinct note to jog your memory.

Luke claims these things were handed down by eyewitnesses to the events of the gospels. The simplest evidence is the names and places found in the gospels.1

Names: Jewish names in Palestine were different from Jewish names in other parts of the Roman Empire (eg, Egypt). And we know which names were common enough to need to distinguish people with the same name (aka disambiguation).

The Gospels use the correct Palestinian names in the correct numbers and always disambiguate the correct names. For instance, Simon was the most common male name in Palestine. In the gospels, Simon is the most common name, and it is always disambiguated (eg, Simon Peter, Simon the Leper, Simon the Zealot). Jesus was also a very common name, and so the Lord is always referred to (in public) as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Thomas was not as common and so did not require disambiguation. If these stories were made up by people outside of Palestine, they could not have known what names to use and which were common.

Places: It can also be shown that the gospels show great familiarity with the geography of Palestine. They cite many towns, even small obscure ones, and know directions, locations of bodies of water, and where one would expect to find gentiles or tax collectors 
 all things that were hard to discover pre-internet. For example, the gospels show Nazareth was a tiny, insignificant place (John 1:46) as archeology bears out.

So, in short, the gospels are made up of material that clearly originated in and around Judea and Galilee. That’s point one.

Your note: “Jesus of Nazareth” to remind you about common names, disambiguation, and geography. If you have more space (such as in an app), perhaps add “Simon Peter, Simon the Leper, Simon the Zealot”.

Carefully investigated
Luke says he “carefully investigated” all of this. Some translations will say something like “I have followed all things carefully from the beginning”. That means carefully investigated. Highlight what you have.

For Luke to have “carefully investigated” means he had to talk to the people involved. And if they were around for Luke to talk to, they were at least available to the writers of the earlier gospels (Mark and Matthew), too. And the first readers could talk to them, as well.

Besides the apostles, there were other witnesses. We find these people named in the gospels. Only a few people Christ healed are named, probably because they are known to the audience. People like Bartimaeus, Malchus, Joanna, and Susanna could attest that they were healed. Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross, was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”, two men apparently known to Mark’s audience. Luke mentions Cleopas, who talked with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus 
 someone familiar to his audience. All four gospels name people who could have shared their stories to those first readers.

That’s point two, that witnesses were still around and known to the Church.

Your note: Luke 24:18 Cleopas 
 you might want to go to that verse, highlight the name, and write “witness” in the margin. If you have more space, perhaps add Mark 15:21 (the line about Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus) or Mark 10:46 (Bartimaeus).

The fact the gospels were based on eye-witness material that came from the witnesses was important to the early church. They wanted people to know that these things weren’t fairy tales but the truth.

Luke wanted his audience to know this didn’t happen once upon a time but “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...” (Lk 3:1).

Peter said, “We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2Pet 1:16). John said, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1John 1:1). Paul said, if the gospel story isn’t true, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1Cor 15:19).

That’s point three: It mattered to them that this was a true story.

Your note: Luke 3:1, 2Pet 1:16

It mattered to them that this was a true story. It matters to us. This isn’t a myth about the fall of a city or where rain comes from. It’s the history of how God came to rescue us and adopt us as his children. If the story of the Gospel is true history, then it really should change how we live our lives.

1 For more on this, see Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Truth About the Color of Compromise

The Color of Compromise
One of the books mentioned in many racial reconciliation reading lists is Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. The Amazon listing calls it a “timely narrative of how people of faith have historically — up to the present day — worked against racial justice. And a call for urgent action by all Christians today in response. ... Equal parts painful and inspirational, it details how the American church has helped create and maintain racist ideas and practices. You will be guided in thinking through concrete solutions for improved race relations and a racially inclusive church.” That sounds like a good counter-weight to Voddie Baucham, so I decided to give it a go.

After an introduction, Tisby begins with a historical survey of the many awful things white Americans — and particularly white Christians — have done to black people. He begins in the colonial era and continues through 2019. Some of it you’ve heard before, but some of it will be new. Much of it is terrible. There’s a whole lot of human depravity on display. Then he offers things he thinks will help white Christians make amends to and peace with black Christians.

So how’d it go?

Tisby says, “The goal of this book is not guilt.” Yes it is. His whole enterprise depends on white people feeling guilty. The question is whether they ought to feel guilty. Set aside for the moment the question of our responsibility for the sins of our forebears. What have today’s white Christians actually done to black people?

The Modern Christians' Sin
He gets into this in Chapter 9, “Organizing the Religious Right at the End of the Twentieth Century.” A repeated refrain in this book is “racism never goes away; it adapts.” What form has racism taken in the post-Civil Rights era? Talk about “law and order”, “state’s rights” (aka federalism), and “limited government” is racist. So is opposing racial set-asides, abuse of the welfare system, and communism. Claiming that capitalism will lift poor black people out of poverty? Racist. Stiffer punishment for drug offenses involving crack cocaine? Racist, even though it was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus.1

In short, white evangelicals are still racist today as demonstrated by their tendency to vote for conservative Republicans. Because conservative Republicans are racists as demonstrated by their tendency to support policies Tisby doesn’t agree with.

And, of course, they voted for Trump in large numbers (Chapter 10). He trots out the usual “proof” of Trump’s racism: a housing lawsuit from 1975. An ad calling for a return of the death penalty in NY in 1989. Questioning Obama’s citizenship. The wall. The “ban on Muslim immigration” that wasn’t. A tendency to quote the wrong news sources. He is a racist, so people who voted for him are racist.

He eventually admits, “Evangelical support for Donald Trump can be attributed to a combination of policy issues they thought he would champion as well as an intense dislike of Hillary Clinton.” And “White evangelicals looked to Trump to support their pro-life stance. They wanted him to oppose gay marriage and, of vital importance, to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who would protect and promote their policy interests.”

But that doesn’t matter because Trump is a racist, and “Black people recognized the pattern of prejudice from Trump, and they showed their distaste at the polls. Eighty-eight percent of black voters ... supported the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. By contrast, 58 percent of white people voted for Trump.” Of course, Bill Clinton garnered 83% of the black vote in 1992,2 Gore 90% in 2000, and Kerry 88% in 2004, so maybe black people are just reliably Democratic voters and their rejection of Trump is nothing special. It seems like he’s trying to spin a narrative here. (Frankly, he wants white evangelicals to vote Democrat. We’ll come back to this.)

Ultimately “Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter. It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. ... It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions.” In other words, if you didn’t want to support the BLM organization, voted for Trump, and/or don't think the nation is still structurally racist, you're a racist.

Generational Guilt
So that covers our racism today. Are white Christians responsible for the racism of the past? His case that we are is limited to a section of the last chapter where he talks about reparations. Other authors have gone into much more detail making the case for reparations, so maybe he didn’t feel the need or didn’t want to dedicate the space to a more thorough case. He should have. A couple of pages that take a few Bible passages out of context are not convincing.

He thinks the church today (ie, of the last 40 years or so) is not only responsible for our forebears’ sins but is just as guilty of racism as those who defended slavery. That claim bears a burden of proof he does not meet. So where does that leave us?

If the diagnosis is wrong, the proffered cure is questionable. But I do want to look at some of what he prescribes.

He wants us to be more aware of racism by watching documentaries about racism and following “racial and ethnic minorities and those with different political outlooks than yours” (emphasis added) on social media, listening to their podcasts, and reading their blogs. I doubt he means Voddie Baucham, George Yancey, and Thomas Sowell. He wants you to find black liberals to listen to.

He wants us to make friends with ethnic and racial minorities. That’s great. Everybody needs more friends. That’s easier said than done, or we’d all have more friends.3

And he tells us to develop a lifelong commitment to racial justice by doing things like joining an organization that advocates for racial and social justice (these organizations are, of course, completely apolitical on issues outside “racial and social justice”), donating money to these organizations, and by voting. But Republicans are racists, so ...

And he wants us to create “Freedom Schools” to teach everyday [white] Christians about “systemic injustices such as mass incarceration, police brutality, underfunded schools, and healthcare inequality.” By now I think it’s fair to assume he means the Democratic take on all these issues.

Then he offers some better ideas. As part of reparations, he wants white churches to “pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families.” I could get behind that ... if we didn’t limit it to blacks. He suggests funding black-led church plans and religious organizations. “Black Christians have an abundance of innovative ideas ... What they often lack is funding.” Well, what most churches lack is funding. There are far more poor white churches than there are rich ones. But the idea isn’t terrible if we see it as rich churches sharing with poor churches (something my church has a history of). He also recommends funding currently bivocational pastors so they can just pastor. Much of what he says I could get behind if we’re not approaching it as something someone “owes” someone else but as the way the rich in the Church could share their wealth with the poor.

How does this book relate to Critical Race Theory? It doesn’t use the name at all, but it does share some of the ideas Voddie Baucham warned about. For example, “racism is a system of oppression based on race” or “racism as prejudice plus power.” So while anyone can be prejudiced, only white people can be “racists.” He never straight up says, but he strongly implies that all white people are racist, and they’re definitely all complicit in this system of oppression. He also never says but obviously assumes that unequal outcomes are proof of racism.

I am surprised by the reports that so many pastors have been so profoundly affected by this book. It did not have that effect on me. One reason might be that for some reason I read Chapters 9-11 first then went back to the beginning. I saw how terribly he handled the period I lived through and know something about. Perhaps if you started at the beginning, revisiting how horrible human beings can be to each other, you might be less critical when you read Chapters 9 through 11. However, it seems obvious to me his “proof” of our racism today is our failure to vote Democratic, and his solution for it is largely to vote Democratic. Your feelings about the Democratic Party one way or the other shouldn’t keep you from seeing that this is more about politics than race. He wants your guilt over racism to convince you to vote Democrat as penance.

Chapters 1-8 will take you through the terrible, terrible, terrible history of white people being inhumane to black people in this country. Not only did people who claimed to follow Christ fail to stand up for what was right, they very often sided with the wrong. We can talk about “cultural blindspots” all we want, but there have been Christian abolitionists since at least Gregory of Nyssa (d. 378). There were certainly abolitionists in the colonies and in the fledgling United States. That people chose to go along with their culture instead of listening to the scriptural opposition to the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But you have to do more than take a few scriptures out of context to prove that we are responsible for their sin today.

We have to acknowledge the gross sins of the people who came before us, just as we have to acknowledge ours. And we have to keep it in perspective — we’re all sinners. If God can use Peter and Paul, God can use anyone. We shouldn’t give Jonathan Edwards a pass on slavery, but it doesn’t disqualify everything he ever wrote, just as Martin Luther King’s adultery doesn’t disqualify everything he did.

The book is probably worth reading if you want the history lesson in the first 8 chapters, but Chapters 9 and 10 are not a good use of your time. Chapter 11, has some good ideas mixed in with some bad ideas. I would love to see the Church being the Church, the rich sharing with the poor, showing the world what the love of Christ should look like. I just don’t want us doing it out of a misplaced sense of guilt.

1 If Tough Anti-Drug Laws Are 'Racist,' Blame Black Leaders
3 Especially men, since “according to a recent survey, the percentage of men with at least six close friends has fallen by half since 1990, and men today are 5X more likely to say they don’t even have a single close friend than they were thirty years ago.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

So. Many. Churches.

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).

Why are there so many denominations? Does the existence of all of those denominations, the fact that Christians can’t agree on anything, prove Christianity isn’t true?

The existence of denominations causes many Christians a lot of angst. Jesus wants his people to be united. Denominations are proof we aren’t, right? I’m not sure that’s true.

Unity and uniformity are not the same thing. To borrow from an earlier metaphor, the body needs eyes, ears, muscles, and bowels. That lack of uniformity doesn’t stop the parts of the body from being unified. Christians disagree on a lot of the finer points of our theology. The greatest divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants is over whether good works play a role in salvation. That is a great divide, and that’s the reason for the Protestant Reformation 
 we have a fundamental disagreement over a very basic part of Christian theology.

Protestants, then, disagree over things like what exactly happens during the Lord’s Supper, when and how to baptize, and how to govern churches. These are important, but they’re not fundamental issues. Many of the things we disagree over make it difficult to do church together. For example, if you are convinced baptism is for believers only, it’s hard to be in the same local church body as those who teach and practice baptism for the infant children of believers. It’s not that you cannot get along; it’s that running a church like that would be difficult, chaotic even. It’s easier on everyone to separate into different local bodies over that issue.

You can be separate churches and even separate denominations and still act like a family who loves each other. Believers from different denominations can and do work together to preach the gospel and to show the love of Christ to people in need. That, I believe, still demonstrates the unity Christ was praying for.

The problem is when we don’t act like that. Some people divide over a host of tertiary issues (or worse)  eg, a particular view of the end times, worship styles, or which Bible translation to use. It’s not unheard of to find a church that teaches that the salvation of anyone who disagrees with them on these things is suspect. That is not keeping the unity of the faith. As one old theologian put it, in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.1

Many skeptics today will say that the vast number of denominations, the fact that we seem to disagree about every conceivable point of doctrine, proves Christianity isn’t true. Does it?

What is untrue is the allegation that we disagree about every conceivable point of doctrine. Yes, Christians today disagree over many things. What we agree about is more important:
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried.
He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. Amen.
All Christians everywhere can recite the Apostles’ Creed. The Eastern Orthodox churches disagree with one phrase of the Nicene Creed, but otherwise we can all attest to that. The majority of what I’ve written here in this project would be agreeable to traditional Christians across the branches and denominations. For all there are supposedly thousands of Protestant denominations, we agree on more than we disagree.

So we don’t disagree about everything, but we do get lost in the weeds of the details sometimes. It’s understandable that people want to dig deeper into their theology and ask “what does this mean” and “how does this work”, but sometimes we take our tentative answers too seriously. That’s on us. We can do that without losing the unity Christ demands and desires. We just need to obey the words of the apostle:

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).

1 It may not have been original to him, but it’s widely attributed to Rupertus Meldenius (1582-1651).

Part of Christianity 101