15 August 2013

Eliminating the "Feel-Good" Gospel

    "The typical gospel," wrote Dr. Scott Johnson in 2006, "that most churches set forth in America is [best defined as follows]: 1. popular, 2. does not offend the sinner, 3. would be considered 'politically correct,' 4. will not violate any hate crime legislation, 5. will usually assure job stability for the Pastor and line his pockets nicely as he is a hireling and has no true love for the sheep.  It will usually manifest itself as 'The Jesus Loves You' gospel and/or 'A loving Jesus would never send one of his children to hell' gospel." (Beware of the Feel Good Gospel).

    Seven years have not seen much change.  If anything, the proclamation of such false gospels has only increased.  The sad reality is that this is not a counter- or anti-Christian movement aimed at reforming the religion.  This is a problem coming from within the assembly of God.  This is about trying to make the faith more acceptable and more inclusive by propagating a "God loves you just the way you are" doctrine to a spiritually hungry generation.  This is about wolves in sheep's clothing taking chisels to the narrow gate in an attempt to widen its restrictive parameters - just a little bit at a time.

    We fool ourselves and others when we attempt to make the gospel palatable by softening its defining edges.  Things like the fact that we are helplessly terrible people and that we need a Savior to sacrifice Himself on our behalf, or things like the fact that God enacts salvation and we have nothing to do with it rub people the wrong way.  We dislike everything about the gospel that reveals how weak and needy we truly are.  And so we invent an alternative - one that cleans up all the bloodstains so that everyone wins and no one is ever sad again.

    The real root of the problem is our inflated sense of self-worth.  We think about the gospel in terms of what it gets us, and so that's what we sell to unbelievers: "Accept Jesus so you don't have to go to hell" or "Accept Jesus so you don't have to feel guilty anymore."  Sure, that's all well and good, but is that enough?  When we make the giving of grace all about us, those who receive it, then the answer is yes - that is enough.  Why bother including anything else when the gospel is all about taking our sip from the fountain?  We effectively divorce the gift from the Giver in an attempt to allow ourselves the slack we need to continue living the way we want while still playing it safe.  In this line of thinking, we grossly misunderstand the gospel.

    Let's recall that our salvation wasn't the primary reason Christ came.  Lifting us out of our sinful condition was his goal, absolutely, but the primary reason God chose to extend grace to miserable, sinful human beings is because it pleased Him to do so and brought Him glory.  Redeeming our corrupt race through the death and resurrection of His Son was the ultimate means of magnifying His perfect love and His perfect forgiveness, and we who believe merely benefit from His lovingkindness.  We are absolutely marginal in the story of redemption.

    But the Bible tells us that God came for sinners because He loved us!  Right?

    A good friend of mine was sharing with me recently that we misunderstand the "so" in John 3.16.  We read "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son" and think the "so" means "extravagantly," "deeply," "equivocally."  And while it is absolutely true that the Father's love for us is vast beyond all measure (1 John 4.7, 19; Luke 15), we change the original meaning of John 3.16 when we improperly place such an emphasis on this little adverb.  How it should read is as follows:
    "13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God [in this way; in the same manner] loved the world[:] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
    The "so" in the verse is comparative, not emphatic.  For just as God provided salvation to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, so He offers salvation to the rest of the world by lifting up His Son for all to receive.  We have nothing to do with that.  God's motivation includes us, but it is not about us.  So why do we feel at liberty to make ourselves the focal point of the gospel?  We are merely the recipients of a great gift, and not any way the cause of it.

    When we elevate ourselves to such a place of priority, it is only natural that the next thing we should do is change the requirements the gospel places on us.  If we are the glorified party in salvation, then Christ did all the hard work for my benefit so that I can live a stress-free, white-collar, American Christian life.  But that's not at all what the Bible teaches.  In fact, Scripture points to the hard work that Jesus did accomplish on our behalf and tells us that we should do likewise.  Christ told His disciples that if they truly desired to follow Him, they would need to get behind Him in line with their own crosses on their shoulders (Matt 16.24).  This means that, far from granting us a glorified and comfortable life, the gospel instead grants us the potential privilege of suffering.

    Yes, you read that correctly.

    The gospel enables us to participate in the suffering of Christ because it is our opportunity not only to identify ourselves with our Savior, but also to pare back the worthless things in our lives and truly hone in on righteous living.  If sin is the elevation of our desires above God's, then suffering for righteousness decreases our drive to pursue sinful things.  Peter teaches us that when we live righteously and suffer for it, instead of discouraging us from continuing down that path, the suffering will actually help us cease from sinning (1 Peter 4.12.21).  It's a dose of reality - the reality that we are called to suffer with Christ and that the things we used to chase in this life really aren't worth the time when there is something more rewarding in store.

    But once again, we need to be careful, because even the suffering is not about us.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the Lord's grace is sufficient to sustain us, and His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12.9).  Suffering, therefore becomes all about what God is doing, not what we are capable of withstanding.  We think self-centeredly about our problems, but God has a much bigger plan for our lives, and suffering reveals it.  Therefore, suffering for a Christian is certain.  It should not give us pause to wonder why when terrible things are happening in our lives.   When Jesus sent out his 72 followers, he warned them that He was “sending us as lambs in the midst of wolves,” and His instructions to us contain the same (Luke 10.3).  Our Savior never called us into a "state of uncertainty, but to one of supreme certainty" (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).  When we possess a true understanding of the gospel, we know with supreme certainty that believing in Christ and living for Him will result in a suffering.  But we also know that it is purposeful.  Suffering is both testing and refining, and when we continue patiently through it, we will become more like Christ in the end.

    That's what the gospel is all about.

    The gospel is a life-changing message that has absolutely nothing to do with us.  It was delivered for our benefit, to fully satisfy the impossible debt our wanton living had rung up - but not because our situation demanded that God rectify it.  Rather, it was purely His will to crush the Messiah on our behalf, because it would magnify His fathomless love and mercy (Isa 53.10).  Ultimately, the gospel was given so that we could use that gift of freedom, which we did nothing to deserve, to turn around and give all glory and praise and thanksgiving back to the Redeemer.

    The gospel is all about Jesus.

    14 August 2013

    Biblical Inerrancy (cont.)

    Perhaps the biggest cause for questioning the Bible's authenticity in our modern era is the mystery surrounding the "lost gospels," or those works that have been more recently discovered which are not considered part of the Scriptures.  The secular community points to these "alternate" texts as evidence of the fact that the Bible is either a). incomplete, b). inaccurate, or c). narrow-minded because these texts have been excluded from the canon.

    Let's talk a bit about these so-called "lost" or "Gnostic" gospels.

    Contrary to popular claims, there weren't hundreds of these gospels written about Jesus in the first century.  The early church only had four first century gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Church leaders didn't select these four from hundreds of available resources.  There simply weren't any other gospels.  The actual New Testament gospels were written far earlier than any of the "lost" gospels -- sometime within 30 to 60 years of Jesus' death when witnesses of his life and resurrection were still alive and able to contradict any fallacious claims.  When these alternate texts began to appear, some more than a hundred years following the death of Christ, the reason they were not considered canonical is because the teachings they contained were blatantly inaccurate.  Many of them adhered to docetism which taught that Jesus was God, but not man -- the complete opposite of the Arianistic Jesus-was-just-a-great-teacher philosophy which remains popular today.  To include these texts as supplemental to the existing canon would have been to contradict every fundamental teaching of Jesus concerning Himself, and the doctrine of the church would have been utterly conflicted.

    Not too long ago I wrote a response to an argument from a professing Christian who stated that the Bible isn't inerrant and that's what God intended so that we would exercise faith.  Let me be absolutely clear that my faith and -- therefore -- my life are informed by the understanding that the Bible is God's inspired Word, delivered through man's pen, and is 100% accurate.  The reason I take such an adamant stance on the issue of biblical inerrancy is perfectly surmised by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:
    “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if... total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own.”
    In other words, if we begin to question the totality of God's Word, then we limit its authority over our lives.  We certainly don't change the Word of God, but we can limit its effectiveness.  Therefore, as believers, we have a biblical command to be diligent in learning and understanding the Scriptures so that we are not led astray by any false doctrine (Col 2.8; 2 Pet 3.14).

    In writing this follow-up post, I thought it might be beneficial to take a more particular look into inerrancy from an outside perspective.  As Christians, it is easy for us to accept this principle because we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ and trust that the Bible is His fulfilled Word.  We'll look at three common objections to the notion of an infallible Bible.

    Objection #1: The Bible is man-made, not God-breathed

    A common misconception even in classroom settings is that the early church simply picked the gospel accounts which were in accordance with their particular theological beliefs.  In other words, because it was these early pastor's preference to only include "approved" books into the canon of Scripture, the Bible cannot be considered complete or accurate because other vital writings are missing.

    The reason this claim is difficult to refute is because it's true: the early church did only allow books into the canon which accorded with their beliefs.  However, their beliefs weren't informed merely by personal opinion, and no one individual had any particular say on the issue.  The early church was not arbitrary in their decision making.  It was not simply, "I disagree with that, exclude it."  The testimonies in the alternate books conflicted with the existing canon of Scripture, and this was the real reason for their exclusion: it wasn't simply a matter of the author having a different opinion than the church leaders, but an entirely different gospel (Gal 1.6).

    The word "canon" comes from the Greek "kanwn" and most likely from the Hebrew "qaneh," which literally mean (a) a straight rod or bar; (b) a measuring rule as a ruler used by masons and carpenters; then (c) a rule or standard for testing straightness.  The idea was that there was a standard for inclusion -- a standard God Himself had ordained.  For this reason, there were three specific criteria which the early Church used to discover which books were from God.  I use the word "discover," which perhaps sounds awkward in context, but it is important to note that no canonical books of the Bible were ever "commissioned" by any church council.  Perhaps the most infamous misconception is that the Council of Nicea (325 AD) convened in order to determine which books should be in the New Testament.  However, the Nicean Council did not deal with the issue of canon at all, but with the Arian heresy, which taught that Jesus was a man, but not God.  The bottom line is this: religious authorities at no time had any power to cause books to be inspired, but simply took painstaking steps to carefully recognize the message which God had breathed into written form through the apostles.

    It is also important to note that the church's recognition of a book as canonical doesn't mean that they made it so: such is the case with the Catholic Bible, which includes apocryphal books such as The Tobit, Judith, and the books of the Maccabees.  A book is only canonical because of the intrinsic inspiration of the Spirit.  Man truly has no say over this matter.

    So.  The three specific criteria which the early Church used to establish the books of the scriptural canon.

    The first and most important was apostolicity.  In other words, in order for a book to be considered scripture, it had to be written by an apostle or associate of an apostle of Jesus (i.e. Mark was an associate of Peter and Luke was an associate of Paul).  However, not everything an apostle wrote was inspired.  Even if another letter of Paul's were discovered, it would not be canonical or inspired.  By the way, the an apostle was a). someone who had seen the resurrected Christ and/or b). who had close fellowship with Jesus (1 Cor 9.1).  Since the last apostle who lived was John, who died around 100 AD, if a book was written over a hundred years after Jesus' death it obviously could not have not been written by an apostle.  Therefore, it also could not be included in the canon.

    The second criterion was consistency.  Did the book in question agree with undoubtedly authentic writings?  For example, the book of James was initially questioned because there was some doubt whether it concurred with Paul's writings (faith versus works -- Jas 2 and Rom 3; deeper study reveals that James is not teaching works-based salvation, but that works prove salvation as a result of life-changing faith).  The process of eliminating heretical texts was based on the core list of undisputed New Testament books, such as the four gospels containing the direct words of Jesus and the letters of Paul.  Furthermore, the church was also in possession of the Old Testament writings which had existed in totality for centuries.  The New Testament references the Old, and the Old prophesies the New because they are part of the same Word of God.  The message is unified and unanimous.  Therefore, the painstaking process of study and comparison was undertaken not so that new ideas about Christianity could be stamped out, but so that the original gospel message was preserved, untarnished. 

    The third criterion was Catholicity or universality.  In other words, was the book already circulated amongst various churches?  This would help the church leaders to know where the Gospel or letter originated so they could trace its roots and determine if the book was apostolic.  However, this criterion was secondary, because there were churches who claimed heretical texts as canon and needed to be corrected.  Used in conjunction with the other criteria, however, the need for universality made it difficult for non-canonical texts to remain in circulation without being cast into suspicion.

    Before we move on to the next objection, let's consider the fact that part of the reason for doubting divine authorship is the problem of circular reasoning.  We see this fallacy in the established fossil record: archaeologists date fossils by the geologic layers in which they are found, and then proceed to date the geologic layers by the fossils that they contain.  It's silly, and it's a known problem.  However, to an unbeliever, the same issue apparently exists in terms of biblical infallibility due to the fact that the Bible is self-affirming:
    2 Timothy 3.16: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
    1 Peter 1.16: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
    In an academic setting, you aren't allowed to cite yourself.  You also can't use a word to define itself.  So to someone who has grown up in a generation so steeped in academia, a simple "the Bible says so"  answer just isn't enough of a reason to believe it.  How do we logically rectify this objection without a  generic "join the club, then you'll understand" type of response?

    Ultimately, the issue boils down to the source of authority.  As Christians, it is no stretch of faith for us to say, "God said it, so it's true," because we believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God.  For a skeptic who doubts the existence of God however, that doesn't quite make the grade.  He or she needs more than a book which claims its own perfection.  That's why the priority of convincing someone of the infallibility of the Bible should always take a back-seat to convincing them of the love and purpose Jesus Christ has for them.

    Objection #2: There are numerous contradictions in the Bible

    It is true that there are difficulties within the Word of God.  Despite every precaution taken by the Nicean scribes and other copyists and translators of God's Word throughout the centuries (see below), copyediting problems have arisen over centuries of replicating biblical texts.  It is important to note that these discrepancies are only due to copying and translational errors throughout the centuries and not due to outside influence.  Furthermore, as more historical and archaeological evidence is uncovered, the fewer Bible difficulties there are.

    For the sake of discussion, let's consider a few examples.

    1). Ishmaelites/Midianites discrepancy in Genesis.
    Genesis 37.28: "Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt."
    Genesis 37.36: "Meanwhile, the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard."
    Genesis 39.1: "Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there."
    According to Paul John Achtemeier, the terms "Ishamelite" and "Midianite" were "synonymous and referenced the same general ethnic group known to have descended from Abraham through Ishmael," and "the term 'Midianite' probably identified a confederation of tribes that roamed far beyond their ancestral homeland."  Therefore, the apparent problem is merely in the relative name of the people group, not in determining which people group was responsible for purchasing Joseph's life.

    2). God has never been seen, or He has been seen?

    There are a number of passages which suggest that God has been seen by men:
    Genesis 17.1: "Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am God Almighty ; Walk before Me, and be blameless.'"
    Genesis 18.1: "Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day."
    Exodus 6.2: "God spoke further to Moses and said to him, 'I am the LORD; 3 and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them.'"
    Exodus 24.9: "Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. 11 Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank."
    Numbers 12.6: "He said, "Hear now My words: if there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. 7 Not so, with My servant Moses, he is faithful in all My household; 8 With him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid To speak against My servant, against Moses?'" 
    Acts 7.2: "And he [Stephen] said, 'Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran...'"
    The verses cited above do not say that the individuals involved witnessed a vision (with the exception of the Numbers 12 passage) or a dream.  They say that people saw God and that He appeared as God Almighty, which means it was not simply an appearance of an angel or a hallucination.

    However, the following verses all contain the opposite claim that God has not been seen by men:
    Exodus 33.20: “But He [God] said, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!"

    John 1.18: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” 
    John 5.37: "And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form."
    John 6.46: "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father."
    1 Timothy 6.15: "He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen."
    So we've got an apparent contradiction within the Bible.  It's instances such as these which give critics pause, but there are a couple of reasons why these two apparently oppositional ideas are actually harmonious.

    First of all, none of the individuals who saw God witnessed His full majesty.  In the instance recorded in Exodus 33 of Moses seeing God, God actually hides him in a crack in the mountain and only allows Moses a glimpse - because "no man can see Me and live."  God's holiness is too much for sinful human eyes to look upon without consequence.  Therefore, in each of these instances of men seeing an appearance of God, it was only a veiled glimpse -- not a full look.

    Additionally, Jesus makes note that it is specifically the Father who has never been seen.  So it was someone else in the triune Godhead who has appeared to men in the past.  In all likelihood, each of these instances of the Lord appearing were appearances of the pre-incarnate Word: the Son of God before He came to earth as Jesus.  In other words, they were seeing Jesus (a Christophany)!

    There are many other examples we could look at, but contradictions in the Bible boil down to one of two things: a). difficulty in translation, usually pertaining to names and numbers, or b). difficult theological concepts which can be explained through careful study.

    Objection #3: The Bible is no longer authentic due to centuries of human “maintenance”

    As I mentioned earlier, the canonical gospels were written in close proximity to the death of Jesus -- within 30 to 60 years of His resurrection.  Therefore, these original texts were affirmed by the public -- by both believers and skeptics alike -- on the basis of firsthand experience.  One of the best analogies I've heard is that publishing an inaccurate gospel would be like publishing a book about George Jones and his extra-terrestrial life.  Because people are alive today who knew George Jones, such an erroneous claim would be easily refuted.  So it was with accounts of Jesus' miraculous life, death, and resurrection: they could be neither denied nor enhanced with that number of eye-witnesses.

    It is true that the Old Testament writings were preserved by the Niceans through meticulous copying and care.  It is true that, in preparing to write the name of the Lord, a scribe would break his old quill and get a fresh one -- each of the approximately 7000 times the name YHWH appears in the Hebrew texts.  It is also true that a scribe could make no more than six grammatical or spelling mistakes in a text he was copying.  If he made six mistakes, the entire document was burned.  It didn't matter if the sixth mistake occurred in Exodus or Zechariah: the entire book was destroyed and the scribe would start over again from Genesis.  This is due to the fact that they fully understood the importance of perfectly copying God's word.   More errors in modern texts have occurred through translational errors between Greek and English than from copying errors.

    The reliability of the New Testament is further enforced by the following fact:
    “there are now more than 5300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament... [in addition to] over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9300 other early versions and... more than 24000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. This means that no other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive.  The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century.” (“The Bible: The Holy Canon of Scripture,” J. Hampton Keathley)
    Think about how revered the Iliad is by the educated community.  There are fewer original copies of Homer's epic than original copies of the Bible.  There are fewer original records on Alexander the Great than there are on Jesus Christ.

    All of these factors aside, there is one more to consider.

    Those of us who have committed our lives to Christ have an adoration for the Word of God that is more than simply enjoying a good read.  To us, the preservation of God's Word is not dependent upon a specific number of physical copies or hiring the best proofreaders to fix typographical errors.  The preservation of God's Word is dependent upon proclaiming Him to future generations.  Just as the psalmist has hidden the Lords' words away in his heart, so must we (Psa 119.11).  Preservation of God's Word remains a duty faithfully carried out by those who believe in the authority of the Scriptures.

    A former professor of mine made the astute observation that faith is its own defense.  So while I've written this post in an argumentative format, let me be absolutely clear: the Bible has and will continue to stand the test of time without needing any kind of defense from man.  If, as I believe, it is the inspired word of God, then it was breathed out by the One who created all things.  Therefore, God's Word is perfect and will endure forever (Isa 40.8), no matter how badly we might damage it in the printed format.