The Scope and Purpose of Theology

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series We're All Theologians

We're All TheologiansTheology is a science. Many disagree vociferously and claim that there is a big gap between science and theology. Science, they say, is that which we learn through empirical inquiry and investigation, whereas theology springs from those inflamed by religious emotions. Historically, however, systematic theology has been understood to be a science.

THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE

The word science comes from the Latin word that means “knowledge.” Christians believe that through God’s divine revelation, we have real knowledge of God. Theology could not rightly be called a science if knowledge of God were impossible. The quest for knowledge is the essence of science. The science of biology is a quest to gain a knowledge of living things, the science of physics is an attempt to gain knowledge about physical things, and the science of theology is an attempt to gain a coherent, consistent knowledge of God.

All sciences use paradigms or models that change or shift over time. A paradigm shift is a significant change in the scientific theory of a given discipline. If you were to come across a high school physics textbook from the 1950s, you would see that some of the theories presented then have been demolished. No one takes them seriously because there have been significant shifts in the theories of physics in the years since then. The same thing happened when Newtonian physics replaced earlier theories of physics. Then Albert Einstein came along and created a new revolution, and we had to adjust our understanding of physics again. A paradigm shift occurs when a new theory replaces an old one.

That which usually provokes paradigm shifts in the natural sciences is the presence of anomalies. An anomaly is a detail or a minor point that does not fit into a particular theory; it is something for which the theory cannot account. If one attempts to fit ten thousand details into a coherent picture, much like working with a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, and can make all the pieces fit except for one, most scientists consider that to be a good paradigm. The assembled structure that fits together in 9,999 ways will make sense of and account for almost every bit of data explored. However, if there are too many anomalies – if a significant amount of data cannot be tied into the structure – the theory falls apart.

When anomalies become too numerous or too weighty, the scientist is forced to go back to the drawing board, to challenge the assumptions of previous generations, and to construct a new model that will make sense of the new discoveries or pieces of information. That is one of the reasons why we see constant change and significant progress in the sciences.

When it comes to understanding the Bible, the approach is different. Theological scholars have been working with the same information for two thousand years, which is why a dramatic paradigm shift is unlikely. Of course, we do gain new nuggets of precise understanding, such as the nuance of a Greek or a Hebrew word that earlier generations of scholars did not have at their disposal. Yet most of the shifts in theology today are not driven by new discoveries from archaeology or from the study of ancient languages; they are most often driven by new philosophies that appear in the secular world and by attempts to achieve syntheses or integration between those modern philosophies and the ancient religion revealed in Scripture.

That is why I tend to be a conservative theologian. I doubt I will ever come up with an insight that has not already been worked over in great detail by greater minds than mine. In fact, when it comes to theology, I am not interested in novelty. If I were a physicist, I would try constantly to come up with new theories to satisfy nagging anomalies, but I consciously refrain from doing that when it comes to the science of theology.

Sadly, many are quite willing to pursue novelty. In academia, there is always pressure to come up with something new and creative. I recall a man who sought to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but was instead the mythological creation of members of a fertility cult while they were under the influence of psychoactive mushrooms. His thesis certainly was novel, but it was as absurd as it was new.

Of course, this fascination with novelty is not unique to our era. The Apostle Paul encountered it among the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). We do want progress in our knowledge and growth in our understanding, but we have to be careful not to be lured into the temptation to come up with something new just to be novel.

THE SOURCES OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY

The principal source for the systematic theologian is the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the primary source for all three theological disciplines: biblical theology, historical theology, and systematic theology. The task of biblical theology is to consider the data of Scripture as it unfolds over time, and this work serves as a source for the systematic theologian. A biblical scholar goes through the Scriptures and studies the progressive development of terms, concepts, and themes in both the Old and New Testament to see how they are used and understood over the course of the history of revelation.

A problem in seminaries today is a method of doing biblical theology called “atomism,” in which every “atom” of Scripture stands alone. One scholar might decide to limit himself to studying only Paul’s doctrine of salvation in Galatians, while another focuses exclusively on Paul’s teaching on salvation in Ephesians. The result is that each comes up with a different view of salvation – one from Galatians and another from Ephesians – but there is a failure to examine how the two views harmonize. The presupposition is that Paul was not inspired by God when he wrote Galatians and Ephesians, so there is no overarching unity, no coherence, to the Word of God. In recent years, it has been common to hear theologians claim that we find not only differences in theology between “early” Paul and “late” Paul, but also as many theologies in the Bible as there are authors. There is Peter’s theology, John’s theology, Paul’s theology, and Luke’s theology, and they do not fit together. That is a negative view of the coherence of Scripture, and it is the danger when one focuses only on a narrow piece of the Bible without at the same time considering the whole framework of the biblical revelation.

The second discipline, another source for systematic theology, is historical theology. Historical theologians look at how doctrine has developed in the life of the church historically, primarily at crisis points – when heresies emerged and the church responded. Theologians today become frustrated when so-called brand-new controversies arise in churches and seminaries, because the church has experienced each of these seemingly fresh theological disputes time and time again in the past. The church historically has met in councils to settle dis-putes, such as at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). Studying those events is the function of historical theologians.

The third discipline is systematic theology. The systematician’s job is to look at the source of biblical data; the sources of the historical developments that come through controversies and church councils and their subsequent creeds and confessions; and the insights of the great minds with which the church has been blessed over the centuries. The New Testament tells us that God in his grace has given teachers to the church (Eph. 4:11-12). Not all teachers are as astute as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Jonathan Edwards. Such men do not have Apostolic authority, but the sheer magnitude of their research and the depth of their understanding profit the church in every age. Thomas Aquinas was called “the doctor angelicus,” or “the angelic doctor,” by the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics do not believe that Aquinas was infallible, but no Roman Catholic historian or theologian ignores his contributions.

The systematician studies not only the Bible and the creeds and the confessions of the church, but also the insights of the master teachers that God has given throughout history. The systematician looks at all the data – biblical, historical, and systematic – and brings it together.

THE VALUE OF THEOLOGY

The real question concerns the value of all such study. Many people believe that theological study holds little value. They say, “I don’t need theology; I just need to know Jesus.” Yet theology is unavoidable for every Christian. It is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us – something every Christian does. So it is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound. It is important to study and learn because God has taken great pains to reveal himself to his people. He gave us a book, one that is not meant to sit on a shelf pressing dried flowers, but to be read, searched, digested, studied, and chiefly to be understood.

An important text in the writings of the Apostle Paul is found in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). That text should put an end to claims that we do not need doctrine or that doctrine has no value. There is profit from a careful study of the Bible. Because the Bible is inspired by almighty God, it gives us a valuable and profitable asset, and that asset is doctrine.

The Bible is profitable also for reproof. The academic world devotes much energy to biblical criticism, sometimes called higher criticism, which is an analytical critique of Scripture. However the biblical criticism in which we ought to engage renders us the object rather than the subject of the criticism. In other words, the Bible criticizes us. When we come to the Word of God, the Word of God exposes our sin. The biblical doctrine of man includes us, as does the biblical doctrine of sin, and we are reproved for our sinfulness when we come to the text of Scripture. We may not listen to the criticism of our peers, but we are wise to heed the criticism of God as it comes to us in sacred Scripture.

Scripture is also profitable for correction from both false living and false belief. Not long ago, at the request of a friend, I read a New York Times best seller about how to become a medium and communicate with the dead. I got about halfway through the book and had to stop reading. There was so much spiritual filth in that book, so much falsehood, that those with even a simple understanding of the law of God in the Old Testament would have been able to detect the lies. Such is the profit of correction from false teaching and false living that we can gain from Scripture.

Finally, Scripture is profitable “for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to him. That is why we engage in theology.

Weekly Devotion 3/31/2013: A Shoot from Jesse’s Stump

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This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Weekly Devotions

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of theLORD” (vv. 1–2).

- Isaiah 11:1–11

Continuing his look at the restoration of God’s people that would come after the destruction Assyria would visit upon Israel and Judah (as well as after the Babylonian exile), Isaiah in today’s passage records another well-known prophecy. This is the famous text that foresees a shoot coming forth from “the stump of Jesse,” a shoot whose reign would destroy all evil and bring peace to the earth (Isa. 11:1–11).

Let us not miss the significance of all the prophet is saying. First, Isaiah speaks of “the stump of Jesse” (v. 1). The image here is of a tree that has been so devastated that only a stump remains. Jesse, of course, was the father of King David (1 Sam. 16:1–13), so Isaiah is speaking of the Davidic line of kings. The prophet saw that things were going to get very bad for the people of God. David’s line would decline to such a degree that it would be essentially left for dead. History tells us this is exactly what happened, with David’s royal dynasty all but dying out as a result of God’s judgment of His people through Assyria and Babylon. Nevertheless, Isaiah also saw that while the Davidic line would seem to be dead, life would remain within the stump. A shoot—life barely detectable at first—would emerge. But once this shoot went forth, it would become a mighty tree. A king of humble origins would be a signal for the nations after the exile (Isa. 11:2–10).

All of this is brought out in Isaiah’s reference to the shoot “from Jesse,” not “from David” (v. 1). John Calvin comments that Isaiah “does not call him David, but Jesse; because the rank of that family had sunk so low, that it appeared to be not a royal family, but that of a mean peasant, such as the family of Jesse was, when David was unexpectedly called to the government of the kingdom.” However, that is not the only significance in Isaiah’s reference to the coming Messiah being the shoot of Jesse. Commentators point out that the only king in the Old Testament who was called the son of Jesse was David. All of the rest of the kings were called sons “of David.” In applying the parentage of Jesse specifically to the coming Messiah, Isaiah is doing more than revealing the family from whom the Messiah will come. He is revealing that the Messiah will be at least as important in the history of redemption as David was. In fact, as later revelation tells us, the Messiah is even greater than David, being David’s Lord as well as David’s son (Ps. 110:1; Mark 12:35–37).

Coram Deo

One of the things that makes Jesus the Messiah greater than even David himself is His righteousness in judging the poor and deciding with equity for “the meek of the earth” (Isa. 11:4). Christ is the incomparably noble and righteous King, the only one who can flawlessly ensure that the least of all people will receive perfect justice. This is a great comfort for us in an increasingly anti-Christian society that seeks to marginalize and silence us.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 16:18–20
Psalm 96
John 5:22–23
1 Peter 1:17

Courtesy of Ligonier Ministries

Embrace tradition and orthopraxy

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“It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

—Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1.

“Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.”

—J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” JETS 25 (1982): 414

“The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.”

—Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?

“There is rugged terrain ahead for those who are constitutionally incapable of referring to the paths marked out by wise and spirit-filled cartographers over the centuries.”

—Larry Woiwode, Acts (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

What I said at my father’s memorial service

My father’s death was unexpected and in every sense of the word, tragic. The following is the speech that I gave this past Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at my father’s memorial service at Mount Vernon Baptist Church. The words are mine but the strength to deliver them came from God alone.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Rom. 8:18

Joseph Richard “Ric” Spratlin
April 25, 1957 – January 21, 2011

I’ve had a father for twenty-five years. I’ve only not had a father for five days. So I ask for your patience and understanding as I find it difficult to work through my emotions and thoughts. But still I will try.

Indeed, this trying — this effort to accomplish the seemingly impossible — is a gift I’ve received from my father.

Os Guinness once wrote, “If asked what is the deepest relationship imaginable, many people would say it is between lovers, or between husbands and wives. The case can be made, however, that from a Christian perspective, no relationship is more mysterious and more wonderful, yet sometimes more troubling, than that of fathers and sons.”

For these last few days, everything has been so strange and disorienting. It’s as though the fabric of reality has been torn or twisted. I keep wondering if I’ve been transported to a parallel universe. One of those strange fictional worlds where animals can talk, or where dad is alive.

I’ve had a hard time sleeping these last few nights. I keep waking up in the middle of the night, trying to believe the new reality. But despite all the grief, the pain, the infinite night amazingly, inexplicably, the sun keeps coming up.

I was shocked when I first saw it rise on Saturday morning. The audacity of such a thing was insulting. My family’s universe lying in pieces, and yet the sun did not stop; not for me, nor anyone else. And when the same thing happened on Sunday morning — the rays of light coming in my bedroom window — I finally realized that this was not some fictional universe. It was the same universe I’ve always been in. The sadness was real. The heartbreak was real. The sun was real. But also, the love was real.

As I thought about what I was going to say up here I tried to remember all the happy times we all had with him. I know my mother and sister have their own memories and stories to share. Me? I couldn’t stop thinking about how he would always pinch his nose when he sneezed. The three of us would tell him that he shouldn’t do that. That he would hurt his ears. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he would tuck his undershirts into his underwear. We’d make fun of him relentlessly for this but that didn’t stop him. These are the things I remember. The small quirks in his personality that only those close to him would know. Traits that were once his are now memories belonging to my family and me forever.

Many I talked to said that standing up here would be too hard for them. I never thought that. I could talk about my dad forever.

Looking out I see many family and friends. It is such a healing gift to be surrounded by your love for my father. Thank you for coming and showing my family and me that my father holds a special place in your heart. Your friendship allows us to know that my father will be nearby because of the memories stored within you. Please share them with us. Never hold back, not now or in the years to come.

I’ve always felt cheated that my own grandfather passed away before I got to meet him. And now history has horribly repeated itself. But when my children ask, “What was grandpa like?” I know what I’m going to say.

I’ll say: look at all these people around you — all these family and friends, all the people who knew dad and the incredible bonds between them.

We’re like a giant jigsaw puzzle that fits together so tightly that when you remove one piece, you can still see its outline in the empty space. All of the love dad left behind — the relationships he nurtured —they define his shape. You can still see him and feel him.

And still, every morning, amazingly, inexplicably, the sun keeps coming up.

 

Hermeneutical gymnastics and revisionist history of the KJVO crowd – Acts 12:4

Well it’s not Easter so this isn’t the most timely post, but it stems from my research into claims frequently made by non-Christians and some Christians, specifically the King James Onlyists. I was speaking to a group of them (KJVOs, that is) on PalTalk about the KJV rendering of Acts 12:4

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. (emphasis mine)

The word “Easter” jumps out at anyone reading this passage who has a cursory knowledge of Church history or, well, history in general. Why? Well, because the earliest extant primary source referencing Easter is a mid-2nd century Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis, which characterizes the celebration as a well-established one.

When was Acts written? Some scholars date Acts c. A.D. 70. This assumes that Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke (Acts 1:1) and that Luke used the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources (Luke 1:1–2). (Early tradition has Mark’s Gospel written after Peter’s death, which most likely occurred in the mid-60s.) Others date Acts in the 70s or 80s. They hold that the primary purpose of Acts was to give an account of how and where the gospel spread, rather than to be a defense of Paul’s ministry (thus accounting for the omission of the events at the end of his life). Thus the gospel spread to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:9)—that is, to Rome, which represented the end of the earth as the center of world power. But a number of scholars date Acts as early as A.D. 62, basing their view primarily on the abrupt ending of the book. Since Acts ends with Paul in Rome under house arrest, awaiting his trial before Caesar (Acts 28:30–31), it would seem strange if Luke knew about Paul’s release (a proof of his innocence), possibly about his defense before Caesar (fulfilling Acts 27:24), and about his preaching the gospel as far as Spain, but then did not mention these events at the end of Acts. It seems most likely, then, that the abrupt ending is an indication that Luke wrote Acts c. A.D. 62, before these events occurred.

So here you have the KJV referencing a holiday that didn’t come to be known by the name “Easter” for almost 200 years AFTER the book of Acts was penned. How is this possible? Well, it’s not possible. This is just one of many places in the KJV where a word is mistranslated and plainly wrong. Does that mean the KJV isn’t the inspired word of God? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. It just means that the KJV translators were wrong in this instance and on other instances. Does this mistranslation affect doctrine? No, it does not. It does, however, cast doubt (when combined with other evidence) on the KJVO crowd and their devotion to the KJV as the ONLY perfect word of God.

If you are a KJVO you may object saying, “Hey! This passage isn’t mistranslated. Luke is referencing the pagan holiday associated with the goddess Ishtar not the Jewish passover.” Well, not only would you be wrong on that account but even if you were right that still wouldn’t explain why the KJV translates it using a term that was non-existent at the time of the writing.

Why is your interpretation wrong? Allow me to explain, please. The word that is in question here is pascha (πασχα) and appears 29 times in the NT. The KJV translates the other 28 instances of this word correctly as “the passover” because, well, that’s what the word means. For example, take a look at the KJV rendering of John 19:14

And it was the preparation of the passover (του πασχα), and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! (emphasis and Greek mine)

So, as you can see the KJV translates pascha (πασχα) here correctly as “passover” but the same word is translated as “Easter” in Acts 12:4. Why? It is true that words have different meanings in different contexts so maybe the word really is a reference to the pagan holiday in the context of Acts 12. Is that possible? Let’s look. The context reads (Acts 12:3-4 ESV):

[3] and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. [4] And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people.

I don’t see why one would think that Luke is referring to the pagan holiday if the verse directly preceding the use of pascha (πασχα) says that “this was during the days of Unleavened Bread.” The days of Unleavened Bread, the seven days following the Passover meal, were considered holy and not to be desecrated by an execution. Luke is clearly referring to the entire spring festival that unites Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, not to a pagan holiday that, again, wasn’t known by the term “Easter” for almost 200 years later.

Some KJVOs will attempt to argue that Passover and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread are completely separate holidays and since v. 3 tells us that this is happening during the “days of Unleavened Bread” that Luke can’t possibly mean the day of Passover because that would have already passed. It must then mean the pagan holiday. Dr. James White, in his absolutely wonderful book The King James Only Controversy explains why this isn’t a convincing argument:

The argument is that the days of unleavened bread extended from the fifteenth to the twenty-first of the month, while Passover itself was the fourteenth. Hence, according to this line of reasoning, the Passover was already past, and Herod, a pagan, was referring to “Easter” in its pagan celebration, not the Passover. The problem, of course, is that (1) the term Easter would still be a misleading translation, since the celebration the English reader thinks of is far removed from pagan worship of Astarte; (2) Herod Agrippa, according to the Jewish historian Josephus,1 was a conspicuous observer of the Jewish customs and rituals, and since he was attempting to please the Jews (Acts 12:3), it is obvious that Luke is referring to the Jewish Passover, not a pagan celebration; (3) the argument depends upon making the days of unleavened bread a completely separate period of time from the Passover. For the KJV Only position, unfortunately, the Passover is used of the entire celebration, including the days of unleavened bread after the actual Passover sacrifice at other places in Scripture (note the wrapping up of the entire celebration within the“feast of the Jews” in John 2:13; 2:23; 6:4; 11:55). This attempt at saving the KJV from a simple mistake fails under examination. (emphasis original)2

FOOTNOTES
  1. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews (XIX.7.3) in The Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1980), 410-11. []
  2. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy: Can We Trust the Modern Versions? 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, Minn: Bethany House, 1995), 291-2. []

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 a 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)

A practical 9-step guide to studying any theological issue

1. Pray for an open mind and heart

While people can intellectually understand truth without the Holy Spirit moving in their heart, no one can accept the truth without its influence (1 Cor. 2:14-15).The same goes for us as Christians. We may study and have all the information in the world—even the right information—but this does not mean that we are going to be capable of accepting the truth. In other words, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding is meaningless without the power of God to trade your will for his. Pray that God will open your eyes to see and accept the truth.

2. Recognize your bias

From a human standpoint, you are already biased and you need to realize this. Your history, experience, culture, and personality are already present. These have bent you in one way or another. You are always going to fight to keep your bent as it is the place where you feel the most comfort. As my seminary professor John Hannah used to say (tongue-in-cheek), “I am going to teach you many wonderful things about theology and history. However, that does not matter since you are just going to believe what mommy and daddy taught you anyway.” As well, you have “preunderstandings” that effect your views. Previous commitments will cause you to interpret the data through an already constructed lens. The goal is not to get rid of all bias (as this is impossible), but to evaluate information with an understanding that these things exist and are affecting your judgment. It will temper you and allow you to approach things with more integrity.

3. Get a broad overview of the topic

Don’t get into the particulars of the issue yet. You must first get a broad overview of the topic at hand. This is looking at the forest before the trees and is absolutely essential to thoroughly cover before you get into the particulars. Read books and articles that give summaries and overviews, not ones that argue for the particular position. These types of overviews should give you an unbiased look at the spectrum of belief, without arguing for any particular position. Theoretically, theological dictionaries and encyclopedias should be able to do this.  Cover this well. You cannot spend too much time getting a basic familiarity with the topic.

Resources:

Logos Bible Software has many resources for this

Evangelical Dictionary of Theology

New Dictionary of Theology

(Note: This is not “biblical” theologies such as A Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)

4. Study the history of the issue

This is a crucial step that focuses a bit, but not too far yet. Here you will look at the issue through the lens of history. The goal here is to broaden your perspective and draw upon the historic body of Christ. This will prevent you from “reinventing the wheel” in your studies. We stand on the shoulders of giants. This step encourages you to step down off their shoulders and look at the ladder they have built. This is an issue of submission, respect, and humility. To bypass this step is to fail to draw upon the Spirit’s work in the church for the last two-thousand years and is arrogant.

Resources:

The History of Christian Doctrines (best concise overview)

A Concise History of Doctrine

Our Legacy

The Christian Tradition Vol 1-5 (the most extensive history of doctrine available)

Mosaic of Christian Belief

5. Study the issue “across the spectrum”

Now it is time to begin to get into the various arguments for representative positions.  It is best to see a concise overview of the arguments rather than reading full-length books devoted to one position or another. This type of study will list the pros and cons for each. It is good to keep a set of notes that highlights the arguments. Here you will begin to strategically articulate your own questions about the issue. Take note of the arguments you feel are strong and those that you feel are weak.

Resources:

Across the Spectrum (very concise and a must have)

The Theology Program

Any “across the spectrum” type series such as Zondervan’s “Counterpoints” and B&H’s “Perspectives” series

6. Engage in an interactive theological community

This is one of the great advantages of studying in a world with the internet. You can instantly connect to millions of people who are not part of your immediate community. During your studies so far, you are engaging in the issue in a rather static way. This step causes you to engage real people on every side of every issue. Here, you will devote yourself to asking questions, listening to answers, and integrating your systematic theology in a dynamic way which helps you to shape your understanding as iron sharpens iron. Whether it be an online community forum or emailing a professor, pastor, or theologian about the issue, here you are intent on refinement of your understanding. It is best to engage many people who are different in their beliefs, as well as different from the ones that you are leaning toward. You need to hear answers “from the horse’s mouth.” For example, when preparing The Theology Program over a five-year period, I needed to engage Catholic belief quite a bit. Besides reading books on Roman Catholicism, I was on the Catholic Answers forum for two years, asking questions and making sure I understood things accurately. This community was able to answer questions and give me what they believed to be the best resources for their positions, which was immensely valuable for the next step.

Resources:

Theologica Online Theological Community

Various blogs and communities devoted to particular traditions and position

7. Focus your studies

Now you are prepared to read and study, engaging in the “best-of” for each theological position. Here you will read books and find study materials that are focused on understanding and defending individual positions. For example, if you were studying the issue of predestination, you will be prepared, because of step six, to find and study with those who influence the particular position the most, both historic and contemporary. This, again, is a time to refine and systematize your own thoughts on the subject.

(Sadly, this is the place that most people start. However, they already have their minds made up and only seek to confirm their prejudice by reading onlythose who agree with them. Don’t do this. It lacks integrity and does not honor the Lord. Who is to say where you started was right?)

Resources:

Any book and/or scholars whom you have come to discover is relevant and respected in the area of study.

8. Develop your studies in community

Again, this is the great advantage of doing theology in the twenty-first century. You have a world-wide community and a broad spectrum of engagement available at any time. The best thing to do here is to start a community blog. Begin to articulate your position and open yourself up to the critique of others. Write a blog outlining your position and then ask others to give you feedback. This is not setting yourself up to debate your position, but it is a time to refine your position through articulation. Listen to the feedback of others in order to temper and ratify your thoughts. Lay out all of the reasons for your beliefs on the issue, positive, negative, or neutral. By assuming the possibility of a  ”neutral” position, I am assuming that some issues you will not have a definite stance on. This indecisiveness is often the best position you can take and is taken precisely because you have studied the issue (informed agnosticism). But you still need to articulate the reasons for your neutrality.

Remember, as Francis Bacon said, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Write your thoughts.

Resources:

WordPress, Blogspot, and other blog platforms (the only disadvantage here is that your blog can immediately get lost in the millions of blogs that are out there. While you will refine your beliefs through articulation—which is absolutely necessary—you will most likely fail to gain a readership too quickly unless very, very intentional.)

Theologica Community (here, there is a place to start your own blog that will be immediately viewed by many people)

9. Start all over

All the time: It is assumed that you will be engaging in biblical studies (and other primary resource materials) during this entire process. You are not only to be reading the Scriptures continually, but cross-referencing everything you study with relevant passages using a proper model of historical-grammatical interpretation (another post!)

(HT Parchment and Pen)

Why I am not Charismatic (Part 2)

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Why I am Not Charismatic

In the last post I briefly described what it means to be Charismatic in the theological sense of the word. In essence, it does not necessarily have to do with a belief in God’s intervention in history or his willingness or power to perform modern day miracles, but, properly speaking, it has to do with a particular belief often called “continuationism.” As apposed to “cessationism,” the “continuationist” believes that the so-called supernatural sign gifts such as tongues, prophecy, and healing (among others) are still active gifts of the Spirit given to people today. The Church, according to continuationists should seek, expect, and promote the use of such gifts. All Charismatics are continuationists and all continuationists, properly speaking, are charismatics (even if you must use a small “c”).

Now I want to give a short defense of the Charismatic/continuationist position. Please understand these represent what I personally believe to be the strongest arguments, biblically, theologically, and practically, for the position, but this does not represent an exhaustive list of the arguments.

1. Acts chapter 2 seems to suggest that the gifts of the Spirit (particularly prophecy) would be normative for the church.

Notice especially 14-21 where Peter is explaining to the many Jews gathered to see why these people were speaking in tongues.

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20 the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. 21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Peter is obviously arguing that the events that they are witnessing are evidence of the “last days” prophesied by Joel. Peter believes that the powers being displayed are evidence that the “last days” had begun. Including in these last days events are great miracles. But most importantly, Peter believes that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit during these days results in specific events: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” These last days events do not indicate a certain duration or cessation. In fact, it would seem that they will last until the “day of the Lord.” Therefore, it would seem that Peter believes that the giving of such gifts is a perpetual norm of the last days.

2. The entire book of Acts seems to show that the supernatural gifts are common within the Church.

While I don’t believe that this is as strong as the last (for it is very difficult to build too much theology from narrative), it would seem that the entire book of Acts—a book devoted to the birth and growth of the Church—illustrates that these type of gifts are normative for the life of the church.

3. All of Scripture supports the idea that it is God’s nature to work in supernatural ways.

If one were to examine all of Scripture, it would seem that, generally speaking, with exceptions here and there, God speaks to his people in supernatural ways. Therefore, the supernatural gifts of the Spirit are evidence of a continuation of God’s presence within the Church serving as a means of comfort, power, and extension (foreshadowing?) of the Kingdom.

As Jack Deere says,

“If you were to lock a brand-new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what Scripture has to say about healings and miracles, he would never come out of the room a cessationist” (Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit [Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1997], 54).

4.  The New Testament never explicitly states that the supernatural sign gifts would cease.

While this is an argument from silence, it is important to note that the New Testament does not explicitly say that any of the gifts would ever come to an end. In fact, it would seem that the assumption of many New Testament leaders, including Paul, that the “sign gifts” would continue until Christ comes. We have already noted Peter’s testimony above, but also notice what Paul has to say in 1 Cor. 13:

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Ironically, many cessationists (including myself at one time), have used this passage to defend a belief in the cessation of the gifts. But, in reality, it speaks better for the continuationist’s position.

Yes it does say that “tongues will cease” and that prophecy would “pass away,” but notice when Paul believes in the cessation of such will commence: “When the perfect comes.” The question becomes What is “the perfect?” Some cessationists have argued that the “perfect” is the completion of the Scriptures—the perfect revelation. The idea is that once the Scriptures have been completed, there is no longer a need for gifts such as prophecy, tongues, or any other prophetic gift. Hence, there is no longer a need for confirmatory gifts such as healings and miracles since their purpose was to authenticate the message of the speaker.

But contextually it is highly unlikely that “the perfect” is the completion of the Scripture. The context suggests that “the perfect” is the second coming of Christ—the day of the Lord. If this is the case, this passage advocates at least some form of continuationism. Notice the parallelism:

“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

I have highlighted here using formatted text to illustrate how the text seems to function.  Notice that the passing away of tongues and prophecy parallels seeing “face to face” and being “fully known.” It would seem that the best understanding of being “fully known” and seeing “face to face” is not the completion of the New Testament, but the second coming of Christ, for when else will we see “face to face” in Paul’s theology? Paul is looking to the eschaton, believing that all gifts are temporary, but their cessation does not come until Christ comes.

5. Personal Experience

Finally, probably the most powerful testimony to the continuation of the so-called supernatural sign gifts is that of personal experience. If someone has seen or experienced such gifts in their lives, it is very difficult to argue against them. While experience should not be determinative, it would seem that with the lack of conclusive biblical evidence that such gifts have ceased, the believer has a legitimate argument that if they have experienced the gifts they, de facto, have not ceased.

What arguments to you find to be the most persuasive?

Charismatics/continuationists: do you have anything to add?

I know that this post series is titled “Why I am Not Charismatic.” I will soon get to this, but I want to do the best I can to give you a balanced understanding of the issue so that we can all work through this important (and often divisive) issue with great integrity.

Why I am not Charismatic

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Why I am Not Charismatic

I used to walk through Christian bookstores and choose my books based on whether or not the author was a charismatic. I would pick up a commentary and turn immediately to 1 Corinthians 12 (the section on spiritual gifts). If the author believed that the spiritual gifts were for today, I would put it back on the shelf in disbelief that the store would carry such misleading material. If they did not believe that the gifts were for today—if the author was a “cessationist”—I would consider purchasing the book.

Such was the time when I believed that all charismatics were practicing a different Christianity, at best, or demon possessed, at worst.

I am not a charismatic, and I have my reasons, but I do not feel the same way today as I used to. Let me first define the terms and set up the field of play.

The word “charismatic” can be used in many ways. It is taken from the word “charisma.” Websters Dictionary defines it as “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (as a political leader).” Charisma is taken from the Greek charisma (χάρισμα) which means “gift.” Its root, charis (χάρις), means “grace.”

In Christianity, “charismatic” refers to those who believe that certain “spiritual gifts” such as tongues, prophecy, and gifts of healing, are normative for the church. In the Scriptures, we are told that God gives certain gifts to everyone in the body of Christ. Representative gift lists are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, 1 Peter 4, and Ephesians 4. Some of these gifts seem to be natural extensions of the recipient’s personality (leadership, teaching, encouragement) while others distinguish themselves by their extra-ordinary nature. A charismatic is one who believes that God still gifts people in the church with the extra-ordinary or supernatural gifts and that these gifts are normative in the body of Christ for the extension of God’s message, glory, and grace.

Charismatic is not a denomination, but a trans-denominational theological stance or tradition which can find representation in any denomination or tradition, including Evangelicalism. In fact, I think that the charismatic position (or some variation thereof) is the fastest growing tradition within Evangelicalism.

A cessationist (taken from the word “cease”), on the other hand, is one who believes that the extra-ordinary gifts ceased in the first century, either at the completion of the New Testament or at the death of the last Apostle. Cessationists believe that the supernatural gifts such as tongues, prophecy, and healing were “sign gifts” that were given for the establishment of the church and then passed away due to a fulfillment of their purpose. They served as a supernatural “sign” from God that the Gospel message being proclaimed was unique and authoritative. Since the Gospel message has been proclaimed and established in the New Testament, cessationists believe that these types of gifts ceased due to an exhaustion of purpose. Therefore, with regards to the “gifts of the Spirit,” there are “permanent gifts” and there are “temporary gifts.”

Certain “sign gifts” are revelatory while others are confirmatory. The revelatory gifts are those that reveal God’s message in some way. They are prophetic in nature. Not everyone would agree which gifts belong in this category. Some would not place “word of wisdom” or “word of knowledge” here and one’s placement of tongues will depend on how it is defined (prayer language? prophetic revelation in another language? Gospel proclamation in another language?). Either way, the category describes those gifts which involve a supernatural revelation from God. The “confirmatory gifts” are those which confirm or provide evidence for the revelatory gifts. In other words, someone cannot just claim to be speaking prophetically on behalf of God. Their message must be confirmed by some undeniable act of extraordinary power. Otherwise, anyone could claim to speak on behalf of God.

Of course the gift of healing has a benevolent purpose as the benefits of such gifts effect people in a wonderful way, but, according to most cessationists (and even some charismatics), the result that a person is healed is the secondary purpose. The primary purpose is the legitimize the message of the healer.

A very important point needs to be made. (If you don’t get this, don’t even bother engaging in this conversation.) Whether one is a charismatic or a cessationist, all Christians believe in God’s supernatural intervention. Only a deist would claim that God has a “hands-off” approach to history and our lives. It is not that the cessationist does not believe in healings or miracles, it is that they don’t believe in the gifts of healing, miracles, etc. being given to a certain people. Both charismatics and cessationists (should) pray for God’s supernatural intervention, can believe in stories of healings, and can expect God to direct their lives through some sort of divine guidance. In other words, just because someone prayed for healing and believes it happened, this does not make one a charismatic (properly speaking).

However, there does seem to be a higher level of expectation for divine intervention among charismatics than from cessationists. I am not saying whether this is good or bad. Expectation of the power of God can both motivate a Christian’s life or be a cause for great disillusionment. More on that later.

I will continue by giving some arguments for the Charismatic position and then we will see where this series goes.

Congressman Louis Gohmert’s tax holiday lost in chaos

A great economic stimulus proposal by Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas has gotten lost in the midst of bailout mania, spending madness, political scandals and the media’s pom-pom parade for President-elect Barack Obama.

It’s called a tax holiday.

Rep. Gohmert has introduced legislation (H.R. 7309) that would suspend all federal income tax on wages earned and FICA withholding for two straight months. According to American Solutions, headed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, it would cost less than the remaining $350 billion in already authorized bailout funds.

More importantly, the tax holiday would be a direct stimulus to the economy by allowing workers and families to decide how to spend or save their money, instead of another round of pork barrel derby in Congress.

President-elect Obama has stated that he is open to all ideas. Well, here is a great idea that the mainstream media and the Democrats in Congress are trying to ignore. This is consistent with what they do with most good ideas. They ignore them and hope they go away.

Opponents of the tax holiday idea will claim that it will not help the lowest income workers. Wrong! A two-month tax holiday in this economic downturn might save a small business on the edge of going under so Paul and Pamela Pitiful won’t lose their jobs.

Opponents will also argue that it would reduce federal tax revenues that the government can’t afford to give up. Wrong again! First of all, it is not the government’s money, it is our money, and every tax cut in history has produced greater tax revenues into the federal Treasury.

The most recent example is the effect of the tax cuts passed in 2001. The overwhelming positive results were overshadowed by constant Bush bashing about the war, a prolonged presidential election and a congressional spending spree that is simply out of control.

Last week the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal deficit for FY2009 will be $1.2 trillion. This will be the largest annual deficit in our history. The Treasury only collects about $1.2 trillion from income and FICA taxes each year.

That’s right! The projected annual deficit will equal income and payroll tax revenues. To make matters worse, the Treasury pays about $450 billion a year in just interest on all of our outstanding national debt.

That’s insane! Four hundred and fifty billion dollars is about $1,500 per man, woman and child living in the USA legally. That’s $6,000 a year for a family of four in just interest.

The impact of the tax holiday would be $334 billion directly into the economy through our hands instead of Congress’s big sticky paws. That money would go a whole lot further than another toothless stimulus package, because dollars earned by the people, saved or spent by the people is a direct stimulus for the people and the economy.

The biggest reason Congress is trying to ignore the tax holiday proposal is the fear of workers seeing all of their earnings for two months. People might like it and start demanding better results out of our elected officials.

Now that’s another great idea! But the pom-pom parade goes on.