What are the essentials to Christianity? Four criteria

“In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” These are the words of obscure reformer Rupertus Meldenius (often wrongly attributed to others). They form somewhat of an Evangelical credo. Evangelicals have traditionally believed that there are certain doctrines that form the core of the Christian faith. They are called “cardinal doctrines.” They are what we might call the sine qua non—the “without which, not”—of the Christian faith. In other words, there are certain doctrines that when denied, by definition, evidence a person does not have the basic core beliefs that must be present to some degree in the truly regenerate.

Included in this credo is the belief that there are certain doctrines that are “non-essential” or “non-cardinal.” These are those that, while important to varying degrees, are not damnable in the proper sense. About these doctrines there can be legitimate disagreement within Christianity. We are to have liberty with regard to such doctrines. This means that we are not to properly or formally divide over them. We are to have grace.

This all sounds really nice. I have heard this touted from the Evangelical mountain-tops for quite some time. The difficulty always comes when we begin to discuss one key question: What are the essentials? Who decides? The Pope? Your local church pastor? The SBC? My private interpretation of the Scripture? Alas, with such a question, the divisions start all over.

In essentials, unity. Sounds nice, but impractical. Right?

I don’t think we have to be so pessimistic about this. I actually think that there are certain criteria that most thoughtful people can agree constitutes the foundation of our faith—the essentials. I have them narrowed to four in no certain order. It is important to note that I am persuaded that all four must be present for a doctrine to be considered essential.

1. Historicity: Does the doctrine have universal historical representation?

This first criteria is one of historical agreement. This is a form of “consensual faith” (consensus fidelium). This criteria of universal consensus follows the canon of Saint Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445): quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus, “that which was believed everywhere, always, by everyone.” In other words, an essential cannot be something new like the doctrine of the Rapture. Neither can it be something that has lacked historic unity by Christians across time like the perpetual virginity of Mary. As well, it cannot have limited geographic representation, like certain Eastern liturgy. The question here is, Have all Christians of all time everywhere believed it?

2. Explicitly Historical: Does the history of the church confess their centrality?

This is like the first but differs in an important way. Here we are saying that if the history of the church has not confessed this as a central issue, then it is not. For example, the history of the church may confess that the Christian worldview includes a firm confession of a belief in the historicity of the Flood narrative, but it has never been a part of the central teachings to the degree that a denial of such is a damnable offense. When combined with the first criteria, the exception cannot define the rule. The point here is that we take seriously God’s work in the history of the Church through the Holy Spirit. If the church has universally believed that a certain doctrine is both true and central to the Christian faith, that doctrine deserves serious consideration as being among the essentials.

3. Biblical Clarity (Perspicuity): Is the doctrine represented clearly in Scripture?

One of the principles that the Reformers sought to communicate is that of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. The Reformers did not believe that all of the Scripture was clear (a misunderstanding of the doctrine of perspicuity), but that all that is essential for salvation is clear. In short, if something in Scripture is obscure, then it is not essential. Augustine even held to such a principle stating that one must not build doctrines on obscure passages (On Christian Doctrine). For example, one should not build essential doctrine on what the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:19) are or what it means to be “baptized for the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29). Unfortunately, both the Catholics and the Mormons have done just that. If a passage is obscure, no essential doctrine can be derived from it.

4. Explicitly Biblical: Does any passage of Scripture explicitly teach that a certain doctrine is essential?

The Scriptures speak about a great many things, but they are often explicit regarding that which is of essential importance. For example, Paul says to the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4; emphasis mine). The “of first importance” tells us that Christ’s death and resurrection “for our sins,” from Paul’s perspective, are essential components of Christianity. Without such, according to Paul, there is no Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff). As well, the Gospel of John speaks about the importance of faith. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).

Again, these four criteria, I propose, must all be present. I think I am committed to this. If one or more is lacking concerning a particular doctrine, I believe that it is not possible for one to legitimately argue for its core necessity. As well, all four feed off each other and are somewhat self-regulating. In other words, if someone doubts whether something is clear in Scripture, all he or she has to do is look to history.  If something is not clear in the Scripture, we will not find that it passes the test of historicity. This is why it is of vital importance that Christians not only be good exegetes, but also good historians.

Did Christianity borrow Easter from the Pagans?

Anyone encountering anti-Christian polemics will quickly come up against the accusation that a major festival practiced by Christians across the globe—namely, Easter—was actually borrowed or rather usurped from a pagan celebration. I often encounter this idea among Muslims who claim that later Christians compromised with paganism to dilute the original faith of Jesus.

The argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English and German names for the celebration (Easter in English and Ostern in German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek word Pascha, which comes from pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. Easter is the Christian Passover festival.

Of course, even if Christians did engage in contextualizationexpressing their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people—that in no way implies doctrinal compromise. Christians around the world have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of practices antithetical to biblical norms. After all, Christians speak of “Good Friday,” but they are in no way honoring the worship of the Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.

But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that neither the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection nor its name are derived from paganism.

A celebration with ancient roots

The usual argument for the pagan origins of Easter is based on a comment made by the Venerable Bede (673-735), an English monk who wrote the first history of Christianity in England, and who is one of our main sources of knowledge about early Anglo-Saxon culture. In De temporum ratione (On the Reckoning of Time, c. 730), Bede wrote this:

In olden times the English people—for it did not seem fitting that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s—calculated their months according to the course of the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath … Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

The first question, therefore, is whether the actual Christian celebration of Easter is derived from a pagan festival. This is easily answered. The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7. The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if “Easter” (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of “Eostre” can have no significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival.

What’s in a name?

The second question is whether the name of the holiday “Easter” comes from the blurring of the Christian celebration with the worship of a purported pagan fertility goddess named “Eostre” in English and Germanic cultures. There are several problems with the passage in Bede. In his book, The Stations of the Sun, Professor Ronald Hutton (a well-known historian of British paganism and occultism) critiques Bede’s sketchy knowledge of other pagan festivals, and argues that the same is true for the statement about Eostre: “It falls into a category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact.”

This leads us to the next problem: there is no evidence outside of Bede for the existence of this Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe. Hutton suggests, therefore, that “the Anglo-Saxon Estor-monath simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings,’” and concludes that there is no evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles in March or April.

There is another objection to the claim that Eosturmonath has anything to do with a pagan goddess. Whereas Anglo-Saxon days were usually named after gods, such as Wednesday (“Woden’s day”), the names of their months were either calendrical, such as Giuli, meaning “wheel,” referring to the turn of the year; metereological-environmental, such as Solmónath (roughly February), meaning “Mud-Month”; or referred to actions taken in that period, such as Blótmónath (roughly November), meaning “Blood Month,” when animals were slaughtered. No other month was dedicated to a deity, with the exception (according to Bede) of Hrethmonath (roughly March), which he claims was named after the goddess Hrethe. But like Eostre, there is no other evidence for Hrethe, nor any equivalent in Germanic/Norse mythology.

Another problem with Bede’s explanation concerns the Saxons in continental Europe. Einhard (c. 775-840), the courtier and biographer of Charlemagne, tells us that among Charlemagne’s reforms was the renaming of the months. April was renamed Ostarmanoth. Charlemagne spoke a Germanic dialect, as did the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although their vernacular was distinct. But why would Charlemagne change the old Roman title for the spring month to Ostarmanoth? Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that Charlemagne would namea month after a Germanic goddess.

Spring holiday

So why, then, do English-speaking Christians call their holiday “Easter”?

One theory for the origin of the name is that the Latin phrase in albis (“in white”), which Christians used in reference to Easter week, found its way into Old High German aseostarum, or “dawn.” There is some evidence of early Germanic borrowing of Latin despite that fact that the Germanic peoples lived outside the Roman Empire—though the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were far very removed from it. This theory presumes that the word only became current after the introduction of either Roman influence or the Christian faith, which is uncertain. But if accurate, it would demonstrate that the festival is not named after a pagan goddess.

Alternatively, as Hutton suggests, Eosturmonath simply meant “the month of opening,” which is comparable to the meaning of “April” in Latin. The names of both the Saxon and Latin months (which are calendrically similar) were related to spring, the season when the buds open.

So Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their Passover holiday what they did—doubtless colloquially at first—simply because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth. A contemporary analogy can be found in the way Americans sometimes refer to the December period as “the holidays” in connection with Christmas and Hanukkah, or the way people sometimes speak about something happening “around Christmas,” usually referring to the time at the turn of the year. The Christian title “Easter,” then, essentially reflects its general date in the calendar, rather than the Paschal festival having been re-named in honor of a supposed pagan deity.

Of course, the Christian commemoration of the Paschal festival rests not on the title of the celebration but on its content—namely, the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is Christ’s conquest of sin, death, and Satan that gives us the right to wish everyone “Happy Easter!”

Seven sure-fire ways to blow up a church

Chuck Lawless:

  1. Begin my ministry as a teacher and refuse to be a learner.
  2. Assume that the “honeymoon period” as a church leader is the time to make as many changes as possible.
  3. Expect to fix everything overnight.
  4. Teach a theological system more than the Bible.
  5. Study always and seldom “hang out” with people.
  6. Blame undiscipled members for acting like believers who have never been discipled.
  7. Pray reactively rather than proactively.

Read the whole thing for an explanation of each.

The incoherency of the Christian faith or “Why Calvinism is Confusing, Yet True”

(HT Parchment and Pen)

I had a gentleman come by the Credo House the other day. I think he just came to argue. He was one of “them.” You know what I am talking about. You would think that we would get more of these types, but this was actually the first one in the eight-month existence of the Credo House. Here was his basic argument: “If it does not make rational sense, we should not believe it.” In his view, we are obligated to understand something before we commit our belief to it. Therefore, this guy rejected some important doctrines of classical Christianity.

Christianity is often confusing. Reality is often confusing. There are certain things that we believe that simply must be, but they don’t “add up.” A good theologian needs to have worked through this. While we should be extremely diligent and committed to a task of understanding truth, a lack of understanding does not necessarily mean that it cannot be true. In other words, coherence is not the final and infallible test of truth.

It is interesting to me to see the charges of “incoherency” that we can often bring against those who oppose our perspective. Calvinist do so with Arminians and Arminians do so with Calvinists. Egalitarians to so with Complementarians and Complementarians do so with Egalitarians. “You view simply does not account for __________ and my view does. Therefore, my view is right.” Or, “If what you say is true, here is the crazy situation you find yourself in . . .” Formally, these type of arguments are called reductio ad absurdum and they are more often than not very effective in giving logical and emotional credit to your case.

Don’t get me wrong, much of the time this can be a legitimate charge that should give pause to the proponent. So I am not saying that incoherency is a position of value by any means.

However, I think that Christians must realize that there are some things in our world view that are going to be beyond our coherence tolerance.

Let me talk about this word “incoherency” for a moment. Here are some synonyms for what I am talking about: unintelligibility; inconsistency; incomprehensibility; discontinuity.

What I am talking about are those things that we believe which lack some degree of viability due to their confused nature. This confusion may be emotional or intellectual. It may be based on how we feel things should be or how we think things should be. In some sense, these things lack a degree of credibility due to our inability to coherently understand them and relate them to other things we know.

Here are some examples:

1. Calvinistic understanding of predestination: A belief that while God loves everyone, he only chose a few.

2. Arminian belief in libertarian freedom: A belief that an act of our will can be birthed from neutrality.

3. Christian belief in creation ex-nihilo: A belief that God created all that there is from that which does not exist.

4. Christian doctrine of the Trinity: God is one in substance, three in person.

5. Christian belief in the hypostatic union: Christ is fully God and fully man; one person, two complete natures which are neither confused or divided.

6. Christian belief in human freedom and divine foreknowledge: God exhaustively knows the future, yet the future is a result of free choices, including God’s.

7. Christian belief that God is transcendent and imminent: God, in his essence, transcends time and does not experience a succession of moments yet he truly interacts in time.

8. Jesus Christ’s incarnation and fellowship in the Trinity: The Second member of the Trinity, while in eternal transcendent immutable unity in the Godhead, becomes forever incarnate in a time-bound universe in Christ.

9. The atheistic view that there is no ultimate beginning (some atheists): An infinite number of moments cannot be traversed, yet we have somehow traversed an infinite number of moments to get here.

10. Christian belief in God’s universal foreknowledge and love and in the doctrine of hell: Although God is good and loving, he chose to create people who he knew were going to reject him and go to an eternal hell.

Now this is a large and varied list. Many of these I agree with and some I don’t. Some of these represent outright contradictions and analytical absurdities, and some are legitimate mysteries that have no formal absurdity, but are incoherent from the standpoint of a limited observer. Some are a standard part of Christian orthodoxy and some are positions about which there is legitimate disagreement and alternatives. Obviously, not all are in agreement about which fits into what category. Christians would all agree that #9 presents a logical absurdity. I will leave it to you to decide on the rest for now!

Some people distinguish between a contradiction and a paradox. A paradox is something that may be true but beyond our understanding while a contradiction cannot be true by definition.

Let me focus on #10 for a moment. All branches of historic orthodox Christianity believe that 10 is correct. Whether you Roman Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian, Baptist or Presbyterian, all believe that God created people knowing that they would end up in hell. All orthodox Christians believe that it is biblical to teach these four things:

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Of course, there are solutions, but all of them require changing what seems to be a clear teaching of Scripture as well as sacrificing one’s standing in orthodox Christianity for the sake of coherence, emotional or logical.

Here is what the options look like:

Open Theism

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Universalism

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Pantheism (though I don’t know of any “Christian” pantheism)

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Hyper-Calvinism

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

In the end, I think it is best that we leave all four in place and recognize the paradoxical difficulty with this issue.

If absolute coherence, emotional or logical, is your goal, then you will never find a system that is completely satisfying. Never. Even in science, room must be left for anomalies (things that don’t make sense under the current paradigm of data). More importantly, I think it is vital to recognize that while coherence is indeed something we should diligently strive for, it is not the highest priority in the Christian faith. The highest priority for the Christian is to let rightly interpreted Scripture be our ultimate source for truth. Emotion and reason are not unimportant, it is just that they must be submitted to Scripture. Anyone can twist and manipulate Scripture to make it fit their idea of coherency. I see this done every day. Anyone can come up with a more palatable solution and force the puzzle to create a new picture, but palatability is not the final test of truth. Scripture is.

However, I don’t want it to sound as if incoherency is the highest ideal. I have also seen this “I-believe-because-it-is-absurd” mentality. We should never adopt such an irresponsible stance. While a modernistic ideal of perfect harmony in understanding is not our guide, harmony is more often than not a characteristic of truth. Disharmony and true incoherency are, more often than not, a hallmark of error.

As well, it is important to realize that just because something does not seem to have coherence, this does not make it truly incoherent. Often we are too limited to find coherence, even though it is actually present. In other words, just because something may seem incoherent to us, this does not mean that it is incoherent to God. While the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to God. Some things in Christianity do not seem to have coherence, but this does not mean that they are truly incoherent. (And yes, this does make the title of this article misleading.)

In this, we must realize that there are some things that God has withheld information about for his own reasons. Could God have made everything perfectly understandable and emotionally satisfying? Most certainly. The fact that he has not does not make his truth any less true, it just mean that he, for some reason, from time to time, wants us to believe something even though he does not want us to understand it.

A very particular Scripture comes to mind here:

Deut. 29:29
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

The “secret things” are those things that God has, for whatever reason, intentionally withheld. But, thankfully, the emphasis in this passage is on “the things revealed,” and they belong to us forever.

God may never clear everything up. And he might make it all clear someday. I don’t know. As a Calvinist, one of the seemingly incoherent things that I believe is that God could have elected everyone, but he did not. Why? I will ask him one day. Will he tell me? I don’t know. Either way, I know that he is righteous and he is good. These missing pieces of the puzzle gives me no right to doubt him when he has already proven himself in so many ways. I know that if I dare to judge him by manipulating the truth to make it more palatable, he will prevail (Rom. 3:7).

While there are so many things we can understand, we must recognize that there is true mystery to which we must submit. When we get the temptation to judge God by manipulating the truth, let’s pause and learn to find stability even when things are not as palatable or coherent as we would like them to be.

Unbelievable unbelief

The skeptic says, “If Jesus would only show Himself to me—if God would just work one dramatic miracle—then I’d believe in Him.” This kind of person overestimates himself. Even miracles can be denied or dismissed.

During Jesus’ passion week in Jerusalem, he was called to nearby Bethany because his friend Lazarus was dying. By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus was gone. In a dramatic scene, Jesus called him forth from the tomb alive, still wrapped in burial cloths.

This was a spectacular miracle performed in public for all to see. What was the response of the Jewish leaders? They plotted Jesus’ death. “This man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)

But Jesus wasn’t the only one they wanted to eliminate. They also had to get rid of another piece of evidence: “But the chief priests took counsel that they might put to death Lazarus also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:10-11)

Incredible! Instead of falling to their knees in response to this obvious display of Messianic power, they conspire to kill the very man whose public resurrection was proof positive of their error.

This is unbelievable unbelief.

You think if God just did a miracle it would change your rebellious heart? Don’t count on it. Jesus said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

As one wag put it, a skeptic with such an experience would not seek God, he’d seek a psychiatrist.

Oh so true. The sun melts butter…but it hardens clay.

A fake Christian infiltrates Thomas Road Baptist Church

Gina Welch is Jewish and an atheist. In her new book, In the Land of Believers, she chronicles her two-year sojourn among the members of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“I wanted to know what my evangelical neighbors were like as people, unfiltered and off the record, not as the subjects of interviews conducted by the ‘liberal media.’ I wanted to try to take them on their own terms. Who, exactly, did they think they were? Why were they so determined to convert non-Christian America? And how were they going about it?”

So begins her great subterfuge. She argues that the only way to get an authentic look at evangelicals was to make them believe that she was one of them. So she fakes a religious conversion and joins them. She writes, “They needed to know the microphone was off. I’d do whatever it took to get the story.”

I find her deception and manipulation of the people of Thomas Road to be unconscionable, and reviewers have already taken her to task on that point. Nevertheless, there’s still some compelling stuff in this book. She goes into this project believing that evangelicals are retrograde, unthinking throw-backs to a bygone age of religious superstition—people who barely deserve to be recognized as serious in an enlightened, secular society. In short, she views evangelicals like any coastal elitist would. But by the end of it, she actually comes to believe that evangelicals are people too.

I daresay that if you start this book, you won’t be able to put it down. If you do decide to read it, pray for the author. The Lord’s arm is not too short to save (Isaiah 59:1).

Between the boy and the bridge

By all accounts Tyler Clementi was an 18-year-old young man who was excited to be a freshman in college, gifted as a violinist, and looking forward to the future. All that changed last week when he walked out onto the massive George Washington Bridge that connects New York with New Jersey and jumped 200 feet to his death.

The last few days of Tyler Clementi’s life were a cauldron of confusions. Over the course of three days, he learned that his roommate at Rutgers University, also age 18, had surreptitiously turned a webcam toward his bed, filming him in aromantic encounter with another male student. The roommate employed social media to inform friends of the event, turning what Tyler Clementi assumed was private moment into a devastating public disclosure.

It is now clear that Tyler was crushed, confused, and angry. He posted thoughts about how he might respond on the Web and finally wrote this on his Facebook page: “Jumping off gw bridge sorry.”

In September, no less than three additional teenagers committed suicide, and these are believed also to be connected to disclosures or struggles with homosexuality. As Geoff Mulvihill and Samantha Henry of the Associated Press report:

Clementi’s death was part of a string of suicides last month involving youngsters who were believed to have been victims of anti-gay bullying. Fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas hanged himself in a barn in Greensburg, Ind. Asher Brown, 13, shot himself in the head in Houston. And 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, Calif. hanged himself from a tree in his back yard.

That is four teenagers in just one month. And look at those ages. Two were only 13, one was 15, and Tyler Clementi was 18. That is four dead boys in the space of one horrible month, and all were struggling with sexual identity.

The gay rights movement was fast to claim that Tyler Clementi was a victim of gay bullying. While the motive of his roommate and accomplices is not known, the undeniable result was that Tyler was exposed before the world through the power of social media — in this case a very dangerous power indeed.

He was humiliated, angry, and horribly confused. His confusion is evident in his Internet musings, in which he swings in mood from outright indignation to the reflection that, other than this incident, his roommate was basically decent.

Somewhere in the midst of his heartbreak and confusion, Tyler decided to end his life. He posted his announcement on his Facebook page and headed for the George Washington Bridge. There, he ended his short life with a long plunge into the Hudson River.

Reading the news accounts of Tyler’s final days and final act is truly horrifying. He was betrayed by classmates and exposed to the world. At the age of 18, it was simply too much for him to bear. A young man who probably never considered suicide in the past, and who might never have considered it again in the future, felt himself pushed on that day beyond his emotional limits, so he pushed himself off the bridge.

Tyler joined Billy, Seth, and Asher as tragic evidence of the dangerous intersection of sexual confusion, hateful classmates, and the wide-open world of social media. These boys simply ran out of the emotional ability to face life, crushed by the burden of secrets and the bullying of their peers.

The homosexual community will argue that these boys were oppressed by the fact that so many believe that homosexuality is sinful. They respond with calls for the acceptance and normalization of homosexuality. Their logic is easy to understand. If the stigma attached to homosexuality were to disappear, persons who are convinced that they are homosexual in sexual orientation, along with those who are confused, would be free from bullying, the threat of exposure, and injury to their parents and loved ones.

Of course, Christians committed to biblical truth will recognize this as a demand to lie to sinners about their sin. The church cannot change its understanding of the sinfulness of homosexual acts unless it willfully disobeys the Scripture and rejects the authority of the Bible to reveal the truth about sin and sinfulness.

In other words, the believing church cannot surrender to the demand that we disobey and reject biblical truth. That much is clear. We cannot lie to persons about the sinfulness of their sin, nor comfort them with falsehood about their moral accountability before God. The rush of the liberal churches and denominations to normalize homosexuality is now a hallmark of their disobedience to the Bible.

But this is not the end of the matter, and we know it. When gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are wrong. Our concern about the sinfulness of homosexuality is not rooted in fear, but in faithfulness to the Bible — and faithfulness means telling the truth.

Yet, when gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are also right. Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear. We speak of homosexuals as a particular class of especially depraved sinners and we lie about how homosexuals experience their own struggle. Far too many evangelical pastors talk about sexual orientation with a crude dismissal or with glib assurances that gay persons simply choose to be gay. While most evangelicals know that the Bible condemns homosexuality, far too many find comfort in their own moralism, consigning homosexuals to a theological or moral category all their own.

What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church? Would he have heard biblical truth presented in a context of humble truth-telling and gospel urgency, or would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation? What about Asher and Billy and Seth?

The teenage years are hard enough to navigate. Most boys do not struggle with homosexuality, but there is not ateenage boy alive who does not struggle with sexual confusion. There is no deacon, preacher, or pew-sitter who went through male adolescence unscathed and without sin. There is not a human being who reaches school age who would not be humiliated by a well-placed webcam. And yet these boys — along with girls facing similar struggles — imagine themselves to be alone in their confusion and helpless in their anguish.

Was there no one to step between Tyler Clementi and that bridge? Was there no friend, classmate, or trusted adult who had the courage and compassion to reach into his life and offer hope? Was there no one who could tell him that the anguish of his moment would not last for his lifetime? Was there no one to put into perspective the fact that people who did not love him had taken advantage of him, but that the many who did love him would love him no less?

We can only look at this news account and grieve. As Christians, we just have to wonder. Was there no believer to befriend Tyler and, without loving his homosexuality, love him? The homosexual community insists that to love someone is to love their sexual orientation. We know this to be a lie. But no one who loves me should love nor rationalize my sin. The church must be the people who speak honestly about sin because we have first learned by God’s grace to speak honestly of our own.

Something has gone horribly wrong when four young boys take their lives in the space of one month, and a society just goes on with its business. There are grieving parents and loved ones who will never get over that month, and there were four young men who did not survive it.

There are Tylers and Ashers and Billys and Seths all around us. They are in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our churches . . . and in our homes. They, like us, desperately need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to know the grace of God toward sinners. They, like us, need to know the mercy of God extended to sinners through Christ Jesus. They, like us, need to repent of their sins and learn by grace how to grow into faithfulness. They, like us, need to know that they are loved if they are going to trust Christians to tell them about Jesus.

Even long before they may hear or respond to the gospel, they need to know that they are loved and cherished for who they are. They need to know that we stand between them and those who would harm them. They need to know that we know how to love sinners because we have been loved despite our own sin.

I am haunted by the one question that seems so obvious and clear in the account of Tyler Clementi’s tragic death. In those days of crushing anguish, humiliation, and confusion, was there no one who could have stood between that boy and that bridge?

Christianity Today on Albert Mohler

The October 2010 Christianity Today cover story looks at Al Mohler. As far as I can see, it’s the lengthiest profile they have done (at least in recent memory) and certainly the most condescending.

I recommend reading it on two levels:

(1) for basic information, especially if you are unfamiliar with Mohler’s background and how Southern Seminary was turned into an institution that takes Scripture seriously and adheres to their historic Abstract of Principles;

(2) as a test-case for how much an author subtly—and often times explicitly—inserts his or her own views into piece by means of framing and  side-comments.

After you’re done reading it, you can ask and answer questions  like:

  • What does the author think about Mohler as a person and Southern as an institution?
  • What does the author think about Mohler as a theologian and as an intellectual?
  • What does she think about SBC moderates?
  • What does she think motivated the conservative resurgence?
  • What does she think about Reformed theology, inerrancy, and complementarianism?
  • What  are the purposes of Mohler’s library?
  • What is the general impression the author wants the reader to have after completing this piece?

It’s a fascinating exercise, in part to show how much an author’s own presuppositions influence the direction of the narrative.

(HT Justin Taylor)

DISCLAIMER: I must confess that I believe Mohler to be one of the brightest minds in all of Christendom today and for the past several decades. Anyone who has read his works or spent time with him in person (both I was privileged enough to do) would have to agree. Like his theology or not, he has had a lasting impact on evangelicalism.

Codex Sinaiticus: The facts vs. hype

“Oldest known Bible goes online” the headline says.  The article raises some familiar questions about the reliability of the Bible, particularly the New Testament text, as we know it.

Discovered in a monastery in the Sinai desert in Egypt more than 160 years ago, the handwritten Codex Sinaiticus includes two books that are not part of the official New Testament and at least seven books that are not in the Old Testament.

The New Testament books are in a different order, and include numerous handwritten corrections — some made as much as 800 years after the texts were written, according to scholars who worked on the project of putting the Bible online. The changes range from the alteration of a single letter to the insertion of whole sentences.

And some familiar — very important — passages are missing, including verses dealing with the resurrection of Jesus, they said.

Juan Garces, the British Library project curator, said it should be no surprise that the ancient text is not quite the same as the modern one, since the Bible has developed and changed over the years.

“The Bible as an inspirational text has a history,” he told CNN.

The Codex Sinaiticus dates to the middle of the fourth century. It was discovered in a monastery at Mt. Sinai (thus the name) in the 19th century and other portions were discovered more recently.  It’s not in one piece and portions are kept in four libraries around the world.  The largest portion is at the British Library, which is the text being put online.

There are a couple of things in this article that are somewhat misleading.  First, this is a codex, not a Bible.  And the terms are not synonyms.  A codex is a collection or book of writings.  Codex Sinaiticus includes Old and NewTestament books, and other writings that weren’t considered “Bible” at the time of its compilation.  So Codex Sinaiticus is not a Bible – it’s a collection that includes Biblical writings along with other writings.

Second, Codex Sinaiticus has all 27 books of the New Testament that we have today and only two other writings that were understood at the time of the compilation to be disputed.  The inclusion of the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas doesn’t mean this was a different version of the Bible used at the time. F.F. Bruce points out in his book on the Biblical canon that writings other than those that were considered authoritative were used for additional readings by church bodies for the insight and benefit they offered, devotional-type readings.  Collections of what was read were made sometimes for convenience.  So simply because this volume includes Biblical books doesn’t necessarily mean that the people who compiled the codex or collection considered everything in it “Bible” or on par with the authoritative writings it does include.

Third, there was much more agreement than disagreement about the books of the Bible that were to be considered “canon.”  Juan Garces says in this article that “the Bible has developed and changed over the years.”  There is some truth to this, but that statement is easily misleading because there really hasn’t been that much change or development, and the little there was was resolved quite early on.  Though there was some debate in the first couple of centuries, there was primarily agreement on the books that were authoritative.  These were the writings that could be traced to an Apostle of Jesus, the people who had learned directly from Jesus (this includes Paul), or could be traced to eyewitnesses (Luke).  There was some minor disagreement about other books, but the New Testament books included today were agreed upon by the middle of the 4th century.

Emperor Constantine asked Eusebius in AD 330 to prepare 50 copies of the New Testament, and the volumes he compiled were the 27 books of the New Testament we have today and the five catholic epistles, which he noted were still disputed.  By the time Codex Sinaiticus was compiled around the same time, the New Testament was upon with little more disagreement.  So the Bible didn’t develop much after the first couple of centuries and was fairly well settled by the time of Codex Sinaiticus.

Fourth, Codex Sinaiticus has some passages that are different or missing.  This isn’t surprising or problematic for the reliability of the text we have today.  Scribes copied these collections by hand and were known to make mistakes.  In fact, the text of this codex has markings of later corrections.  But the good news is that we don’t have to rely on one copy of the New Testament to determine what the text was or check the accuracy of the text.  If we did, then were would be left to wonder about scribal mistakes.  Codex Sinaitucs is only the earliest known complete collection of the New Testament, it’s by no means the earliest manuscript evidence we have for the New Testament text.  We have literally thousands of pieces of manuscripts of the New Testament and even more quotations of the the New Testament in the writings of the church fathers to compare and arrive at a very reliable text.  (Greg describes the process here:  Is the New Testament Text Reliable?)

So Codex Sinaiticus is a significant text, but it doesn’t at all call into question the authority and reliability of the Bible.  It’s not one copy that tells the story of the Bible, it’s the multitude of copies and pieces that can be examined.  The canon of Scripture was agreed upon very early, prior to Codex Sinaiticus.  And the manuscript evidence we have gives us great confidence in the accuracy of the text.

(HT Greg Koukl)

You may also want to read Greg’s article No “Lost” Books of the Bible.

Extraordinary claim, extraordinary evidence?

Do extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence?

Hume offered this challenge in “Of Miracles” in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

This requirement is offered in response to the miracle claims of Christianity as though it’s an obvious, well-established principle.  But it’s actually not clear what the criteria of “extraordinary evidence” is, and here are three lines of response.  These are rebuttals, calling into question the principle in the requirement, rather than refutations because the challenge itself has to be supported by an argument and clarified for the nature of what is being required.

First, there needs to be a clarification.  The nature of the “extraordinary evidence” required can be understood in two ways: extraordinary with respect to quality or extraordinary with respect to quantity.

If the former (quality), then the evidence produced is itself extraordinary, and it will also need to meet the requirement of having extraordinary evidence, and a vicious regress ensues.  If the quality of evidence for an extraordinary claim must also be extraordinary in quality, then it will also have to have extraordinary evidence.  But then the condition can never be met, and suffers from the fallacy of “begging the question” against extraordinary events in an unfair manner.  The game is rigged by the request.

And perhaps that is the point of the requirement because it presupposes naturalism, precluding the possibility of offering evidence that will justify a supernatural claim.

If the requirement is for an extraordinary quantity of evidence, then the next question is, how much ordinary evidence is necessary for the total quantity to be considered extraordinary?  This is perhaps a “problem of heaps” – how much is enough?  There is no determinate solution (at least epistemically, if not metaphysically determinate).  So once again, it’s begging the question to ask for extraordinary evidence.

An alternative for answering the question of sufficient quantity of evidence would be to allow that there is some amount of evidence sufficient for establishing the probability of an ordinary event.  But then, the fact that we find certain multiple of the ordinary amount of evidence sufficiently extraordinary is either a case of evidential over-determination or is itself an extraordinary event, and once again leads to an infinite regress.

A third response to the demand recognizes that very extraordinary events happen all the time if the co-occurrence of several features in a state of affairs is evaluated probabilistically.  (That an American high school kid from Seattle would be at a Halloween party in Tel Aviv and there meet an American high school girl from Pensacola and later marry her is highly improbable; in fact, the people I know who this is true of might be the only two people in all of history who fulfill that concurrence of events.)

So no matter how extraordinary the event, no explanation is needed because extraordinary events happen all the time.

(Thanks to Dr. Garry Deweese, Biola University, for this line of response.)

(HT Greg Koukl)