The Weight of Truth

22 10 2008

The year was 1939. An gutsy young man rose to power in Nazi Germany and started annexing countries in Europe; claiming them back for the “fatherland”. Austria and Poland fell first. More of Europe followed suit very quickly. Germans from around the world were returning home to join the army in the struggle against those who wished to hamper their expansion. What followed was 6 years of bloodshed and genocide that has yet to be rivaled in history. Although reports differ we know at least six millon Jews lost their lives during this period. In fact we could reword that to say that the Nazi regime systematically set out to exterminate the Jewish race from the planet; stopped only because they lost the war. All over the world, veterans of this war still gather to remember those who lost their lives. We may have studied this war at school or heard stories from our parents or grandparents. But according to Ian Wishart, a large portion of the youth in Britain believe the holocaust never happened.

There may be multiple explanations for this skeptecism, but in my opinion they all stem back to the postmodern ethos and epistemology. History is no longer seen as a record of the facts surrounding events, but too biased to be trusted. After all history is written and then re-written by the winners isn’t it? In this case it is the Allies. Perhaps their intentions were to make Hitler out to be a madman and thus they invented the idea of the holocaust. Plausible but highly unlikely. However at least 30% of Britains youth wouldn’t agree with me. 

Last night my homegroup had its weekly meeting. We’ve started doing a foundational doctrine course, complete with excercise books. This week was “Justification by Faith”. While I won’t go into the details of the discussion or our disagreements, I did notice we were all working from the same set of assumptions, even if we didn’t all know it. For starters we all believed the Bible to be the inspired word of God, written 100% by God and 100% by Man. We also believe that the Bible is inerrant; without error in its original manuscripts. Finally we all agreed that Scripture alone is the final authority in matters of faith. We may have disagreed on interpretation, but never on authority.

Unfortunately much of the Church today does not share our assumptions.  David Wells cites I. Howard Marshall and N.T. Wright in his 2008 book “The Courage to be Protestant”, as high end contributors to this growing movement. In his 2004 book Marshall claims that much of what Jesus says about God in the parables is unacceptable for us today. Images such as God as a “jailer”, or “presiding over hell” or “killing people”. Wright mocks the idea that the Bible contains timeless truths or that it was ever intended to do so. The central thesis in his book “The Last word” is that the authority of God is somehow different or divorced from the authority of Scripture. Missing from Wells’ list was Stanley Grenz who passed away in 2005. Perhaps this shows some prudence on Wells part by not speaking ill of those who cannot defend themselves.  Yet Grenz begs a mention here because of his involvement in the early emerging church movement. Grenz argued for us to embrace post modernity while many, like D.A. Carson, were suggesting caution. Grenz didn’t like the idea of Sola Scriptura either, as he demonstrated in his book “Beyond foundationlism” . Grenz argued that scripture “is authoritative because it is the vehicle through which the Spirit speaks, yet in the Spirit’s appropriation of Scripture, the Spirit’s intention is not simply and totally tied to the author’s intention in the text“. The central idea is that scripture itself is not sufficient. Similar sentiments are popping up all over the place, particularly in the ideas of Church. Mark Strom’s central thesis in his 2000 book “Reframing Paul” was that Church as it currently stands does not work for many people and must change. I have already written elsewhere to critique his view, and sadly this view comes from someone who is head of a theological college.

If this kind of thinking is evident in the academic world it is only a matter of time before it hits the church. The Academy deals with these ideas in highly speculative ways. The Church deals with the reality and outworking of these ideas on a daily basis. This is evident from such writers as Steve Chalke, a good friend of N.T. Wright and active youth worker. In his 2004 book “The lost message of Jesus” Chalke attempts to rid the cross of all its violent implications, and along the way denies penal substitutionary atonement. He argued that the crucifixion of Jesus was not a sacrifice for sin but an affront to “the ideology that violence is the ultimate solution”. Chalke credits Wright for much of his thinking. Others like Rob Bell refute sola scriptura in much the same way that Roman Catholic Apologists do. The canon wasn’t formed until the mid 300’s and thus the Bible cannot be the final authority in matters of faith.

With so many of the central tennets of Christianity seemingly disintergrating into the ever swirling vaccum of relativity and pluralism, is it any wonder why so many have responded with harsh criticisms and sweeping denunciations? Christianity Today ran article in February of 2008 entitled “Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church”. It interviewed some evangelical Christians who were “returning to Rome” to find beliefs and practices that would work for the Church today. The central idea is that scripture is not sufficient for matters of faith and Christian living and we must seek out a spirituality that God has not revealed to us in the Bible. The danger is that this kind of spirituality then devolves into a form of Gnosticism, and as Bob DeWaay rightly posits in his critical issues commentary, it is spirituality for the unconverted. DeWaay believes that it  allows people to “feel” close to God even when they are far from Him. It has opened the floodgates for churches to fill up with the unconverted. They have no means of sanctification (because they do not have the imputed righteousness of Christ) and must look elsewhere to political activism and social justice to appease their consciences. Their salvation becomes a salvation of works not Grace. Social Justice and Political Activisim are not bad things in and of themselves. Christians can and should be involved in political and social action. But these are not replacements for or central tennets of the Christian faith.

I sympathise with this movement. At times I may feel the same. How can we say sola scriptura when scripture doesn’t specifically say anything about cellphones, anorexia, drugs, or co-habitation? The point I think they miss is that sola scriptura helps to provide Christians with a genuine Christian worldview. If we deny that we open ourselves up to a muddled belief that only vaguely resembles Christianity. Many of the key figures are distancing themselves from this movement. Notable pastor of Mars Hill Church, Mark Driscoll writes on his blog “I eventually had to distance myself from the Emergent stream of the network because friends like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt began pushing a theological agenda that greatly troubled me. Examples include referring to God as a chick, questioning God’s sovereignty over and knowledge of the future, denial of the substitutionary atonement at the cross, a low view of Scripture, and denial of hell which is one hell of a mistake“. Certainly some good has come from this movement which at the very least has sought to highlight the pitfalls of modernity. But allowing it to continue down this road is to allow a child to drive a truck off a cliff.

The Emerging church may have felt and wished to throw off the crushing weight of modernity, rationalism and the problem with having to know everything. But its relativistic and pluralistic nature has left many empty and devoid of any real gospel. The truth of the Gospel still remains the same today as it did two millenia ago. Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, he was buried and rose on the dead on the third day according to the scriptures. There is one mediator, one name in heaven by which you can be saved, Jesus Christ. Repent and Believe the Good News.




4 responses

22 10 2008

1 Samuel 15:
“This is what the LORD of hosts has to say: ‘I will punish what Amalek did
to Israel when he barred his way as he was coming up from Egypt. Go, now, and attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep,
camels and asses.”

This is genocide. This is God commanding the Israelites to commit genocide.

The Bible is often portrayed as an antidote to extreme relativism, and, I
think, sometimes, if read carefully, with reason, and in the right spirit, it
can be.

However, if we think that the Bible is, in fact, the Word of God, in some
literal or inerrant sense, or even in some “wholly inspired” sense, then
we run the risk of feeling we must somehow justify genocide. For if the Bible
says God told the Israelites to commit genocide, and if the Bible cannot
deceive us regarding God, then genocide must be OK, at least in certain
circumstances and at certain times (and, presumabley, only when God
“tells” us to commit it).

However, if we do this, we undermine the very foundation of moral reasoning
itself, for if we can justify genocide, we can justify anything at all, can we
not? All standards of right and wrong become meaningless….

For example, how can Christians wave the Bible at pro-choice people, when their own scriptures claim that God, at least occasionally, tells people to kill not only every child and infant in a community, but their parents as well? And how can we condemn Muslim fanatics when they kill in the name of God, when our own scriptures provide plenty of precedent for “Holy War”?

I believe that there is truth, and that it is meaningless “to insist
objectively that there is no such thing as objective truth”. However, I
think we can be equally wrong in the other direction…perhaps we can call it
the “absolutist” direction. Clearly, religious (and secular) history is full of examples of what happens when a group of people believe they have absolute Truth on their side. No?

Perhaps “the Word” of God can be found “in” and “through” (at
times even in spite of…?) the words of sacred scripture. But “as” the
words of sacred scripture….? No, I think not.

The Bible, taken “as” the Word of God, in the literal/inerrant sense, is simply not a reliable or consistent guide as to right and wrong (unless you can, in fact, justify genocide…. And, well, perhaps one can….?). One has to be very selective, and one has to do quite an elaborate interpretative dance, to maintain that the Bible is a reliable and consistent guide to right and wrong.

Strangely enough, if we try to justify the belief that the Bible is the Word
of God and an inerrant moral guide (in the conservative, absolutist sense), then we end up undermining the very foundation of moral reasoning itself.

And in the vacuum created by the destruction of the foundation of moral reasoning, the door swings wide open to intellectual tyranny i.e. I am right (or the church is right, or the Bible is right, or my country is right) because I (or they, or it) say so. Sometimes even in spite of what my own conscience tells me….

The road to destruction beyond that door may be gradual, and wide, and easy, and the journey down it almost imperceptible, and certainly many people walk that way….but that is the direction that kind of thinking truly leads.

Beyond that door, anything becomes possible….the Inquisition, Jihad, Hitler…. Anything at all. History has proven this.

22 10 2008
m slater

Interesting post. I certainly understand your concerns, but I must beg to disagree about some of your assertions (I’m sure this is no longer surprising for you by now right?).
First of all your comment on ‘The Last Word’…

“Wright mocks the idea that the Bible contains timeless truths or that it was ever intended to do so. The central thesis in his book “The Last word” is that the authority of God is somehow different or divorced from the authority of Scripture.”

Having read this book a few times Wright does not mock the idea that the Bible is true, but rather attempts to distinguish that the contextually grounded nature of the Bible, and its narrative format, makes it a misuse of the Scriptures to treat them like a simplitic systematic theology, which is what the timeless truth model does.
The point is not that it is a different time so the Bible is not true, but rather that the point of the Bible was never to just list doctrines, but rather to tell the true story of God’s work in the world. I know arguing with ‘timeless truth’ may sound like a denial of the Scriptures truthfulness, but it is not, it is a critique of a certain way of approaching the Bible which acts like it has the highest view of the Bible possible, but betrays an actual low view of it by acting like God gave us the wrong sort of book and we need to turn it into a repository of theological points.
Also, I think that Well’s, in addition to reading Wright and Marshall quite poorly, also fails to see what Chalke is actually saying.

“Chalke attempts to rid the cross of all its violent implications, and along the way denies penal substitutionary atonement.”

Just for the record, both Chalke and Wright deny that is what he was saying. Chalke is often referenced unfavorably (and intentionally out of context) by reactionary authors such as Carson and Piper, but what he was arguing against was not that Jesus died for our sins or that Jesus took on the judgment we deserved, but the unbiblical parody of that beautiful truth which instead shows the Father as hateful and unloving and Jesus as lovingly stepping in the way to receive the hatred of God toward man.
No doubt he did not always make it as clear as he could have, but over and over again he and Wright have affirmed that Chalke was only arguing about the twisted image of the atonement some have developed. Honestly I’d rather take the authors own word for what they meant as opposed to the angry ramblings of their opponents (the misuse of Chalke by McClaren aside).

Now, I agree fully that some in the emergent church have gone down a potentally dangerous path. However, this is not true for many of those labeled emergent, but rather a subsetof the more outspoken authors like McClaren.
More to the point, Wright and Marshall are solidly Evangelical by any measure, are actually considered conservative by all but the far right of Christian theology, and are not truly ‘emergent’ as it were. Some emergent authors may like them, but that is at best guilt by association, and after all, many emergent authors like the church Fathers as well, should the Fathers be seen as less orthodox as a result?

In regards to your last bolded statement, I think that not only would Wright, Grenz, and Marshall fully affirm that, but also that when one reads their own words it is hard to find authors who this comes through more strongly in.

Hopefully none of this comes across as petty, needlessly argumentative, or like a personal dig, it is just an area I’m very concerned with. Believe me, I very much sympathize with where you are coming from and really respect your thoughts on this and other issues, I just do not agree that these people are saying what you take them to be saying when you really read their works as they intended them.

I’ll end with a question for you. You critique Wright for saying the authority of God is somehow different from the authority of Scripture, but isn’t it?
The Scriptures are a vitally important way God exercises His authority, but are they the authority of God in total?
In the end are not the Scriptures only authoritative because they are an outworking of the authority of God? And if not, does that mean the Bible has its own authority separate from its author?

22 10 2008

Mr Slater !! Good to see you up on the blogging world again, you must be the only one who subscribes to my blog feed LOL ! You’re quite right too, I know you’ll disagree with me at times, but thats ok, I love the discussions that follow.

Those are some good comments and they provide some good food for thought. Steve Chalke and Wright are an interesting discussion on their own, one only needs to read the reviews on amazon and even the publishers officially issued review to see that I’m not the only one who takes it that way. An interesting few points were raised on under Pipers book “The Future of Justification” dealing with just this matter. I think one of the main issues highlighted is that Wright and Chalkes friendship have lead to Wright being overly biased towards Chalke.

I guess what I intended to say is that as Christians we have the revealed word of God readily accessible to us. Its not a magic book of spells or doctrines, but is the way in which God has revealed himself to us. Sure we have nature and the earth etc, but these are not enough for saving Grace. While I applaud authors like Wright and Chalke for reminding us of the role of the narrative and are trying to rid us of proof text theology, I think in some respects they have gone too far. But I do consider them evangelical. You’re quite right, perhaps Wells’ critique of them was a bit pedantic and heavy handed. However we need to excercise caution in both directions. One way leads us to become fundamentalists with a SOLO scriptura mindset. The other leads us to become liberals with no regard for scripture. We can’t deny that this attitude has also become prevalent in most eduation systems in the western world. Too often I see the Church mimicking this culture rather than working to transform it.

My entire critique was aimed more at the seeming abandonment of the Sola Scriptura principle and its emerging relativistic vibe. I don’t think its just a subset of authors like McLaren and I’m glad someone from within the movement like Mark Driscoll had the courage to speak up. He noted specifically that there was a low view of scripture amongst the emerging Church.

Its a tough road doing theology in this transitional time, and I appreciate the discussion. You’ve raised some good points for me to mull over.
Honestly, I’m actually quite a fan of NT Wright. Still waiting on his book “surprised by hope” to arrive in the mail.

22 10 2008

To the first comment – I think you’re heading down a slippery path towards liberal theology. We cannot emphasis the human element over and above the divine element in scripture. I’m not sure on the Genecide story and its significance, but there are certainly enough reasonable interpretations on it to go around if you’re concerned. See Those events also happened in very specific circumstances that we no longer live under.

Absolutists have sometimes gone too far, but removing them from their historical contexts is as bad as saying the Bible teaches Genecide. They are often an overreaction to a previously heretical movement. Luther tended to read Justification by faith into everything in the New Testament. He wasn’t wrong with the fact that Justification is by Faith but rather that certain parts of the Bible weren’t written to teach that purpose. E.g. Birth Narrative or the Parable of the Wicked Tennants….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: