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.


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 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 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.

Austrian Economics

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series The Market and the Church

Church and the MarketThe particular school of economic thought to which this series shall have recourse is known as the Austrian School of economics. The distinctive features of the school will unfold over the course of the series so a brief overview will suffice for now. For Austrians, economics is the science of individual choice. The act of choice involves a great many fundamental economic concepts, including valuation, utility, cost, and profit (to be understood not in an exclusively monetary sense). It is upon the implications of choice, and indeed of human action itself, that Austrian economics is built. The standard Austrian treatises present their subject through verbal reasoning and without recourse to the vast mathematical apparatus that has overtaken the rest of the profession. The Austrians offer unique contributions to many aspects of economics, including money, business cycles, so-called public goods and “externalities,” and monopoly theory.

The founder of the school was Carl Menger (1840-1921), a professor of economics at the University of Vienna, whose Principles of Economics (1871) had considerable influence. He contributed mightily to what became known as the “marginal revolution” in economics, and made important contributions to the methodology of economics and the theory of the origin of money. Another important member of the school, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914), is perhaps best remembered for his critique of Marxism as well as for his work on interest rate determination.

Böhm-Bawerk’s great student, in tum, was Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), whose contributions to the discipline were legion, ranging from epistemology to monetary theory, from business cycle theory to the socialist calculation problem. After arriving in New York in 1940, Mises picked up the practice he had developed in Austria of holding a private seminar for interested students. A number of the most important and accomplished developers of the Austrian school would come out of that seminar, including Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995), George Reisman, and Israel Kirzner. The school has enjoyed something of a renaissance since 1974, when Austrian economist F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), a colleague of Mises, won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on business cycle theory.

That Christianity and much of Austrian economics are eminently compatible I shall attempt to demonstrate throughout this series. For now, consider the following testimony regarding the scholastic origins of Austrian economics, drawn from the introduction to a common history of the school:

The story of the Austrian School begins in the fifteenth century, when the followers of St. Thomas Aquinas, writing and teaching at the University of Salamanca in Spain, sought to explain the full range of human action and social organization. These Late Scholastics observed the existence of economic law, inexorable forces of cause and effect that operate very much as other natural laws. Over the course of several generations, they discovered and explained the laws of supply and demand, the cause of inflation, the operation of foreign exchange rates, and the subjective nature of economic value – all reasons Joseph Schumpeter celebrated them as the first real economists.

Same-sex “marriage”: Challenges and responses

America is entangled in the most heated battle of the culture wars to date. Many consider it a Waterloo. State supreme courts and city governments, senators and congressmen, community leaders, celebrities, and even clergy all have mounted a powerful offensive in support of gay “marriage.” What follows is a point-by-point reply to those who are demanding this revision of civilization.

Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Rights

“We’re being denied the same rights as heterosexuals. This is unconstitutional discrimination.”

There are two complaints here. First, homosexuals don’t have the same legal liberties heterosexuals have. Second, homosexual couples don’t have the same legal benefits as married couples.

The first charge is simply false. Any homosexual can marry in any state of the Union and receive every one of the privileges and benefits of state-sanctioned matrimony. He just cannot marry someone of the same sex. These are rights and restrictions all citizens share equally.

I realize that for homosexuals this is a profoundly unsatisfying response, but it is a legitimate one, nonetheless.

Let me illustrate. Smith and Jones both qualify to vote in America where they are citizens. Neither is allowed to vote in France. Jones, however, has no interest in U. S. politics; he’s partial to European concerns. Would Jones have a case if he complained, “Smith gets to vote [in California], but I don’t get to vote [in France]. That’s unequal protection under the law. He has a right I don’t have.” No, both have the same rights and the same restrictions. There is no legal inequality, only an inequality of desire, but that is not the state’s concern.

The marriage licensing law applies to each citizen in the same way; everyone is treated exactly alike. Homosexuals want the right to do something no one, straight or gay, has the right to do: wed someone of the same sex. Denying them that right is not a violation of the equal protection clause.

The second complaint is more substantial. It’s true that homosexual couples do not have the same legal benefits as married heterosexuals regarding taxation, family leave, health care, hospital visitation, inheritance, etc. However, no other non-marital relationships between individuals – non-gay brothers, a pair of spinsters, college roommates, fraternity brothers – share those benefits, either. Why should they?

If homosexual couples face “unequal protection” in this area, so does every other pair of unmarried citizens who have deep, loving commitments to each other. Why should gays get preferential treatment just because they are sexually involved?

The government gives special benefits to marriages and not to others for good reason. It’s not because they involve long-term, loving, committed relationships. Many others qualify there. It’s because they involve children. Inheritance rights flow naturally to progeny. Tax relief for families eases the financial burden children make on paychecks. Insurance policies reflect the unique relationship between a wage earner and his or her dependents (if Mom stays home to care for kids, she – and they – are still covered).

These circumstances, inherent to families, simply are not intrinsic to other relationships, as a rule, including homosexual ones. There is no obligation for government to give every human coupling the same entitlements simply to “stabilize” the relationship. The unique benefits of marriage fit its unique purpose. Marriage is not meant to be a shortcut to group insurance rates or tax relief. It’s meant to build families.

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council sums the issue up nicely:

“Gay citizens” already have the same right to marry as anyone else – subject to the same restrictions. No one may marry a close blood relative, a child, a person who is already married, or a person of the same sex. However much those restrictions may disappoint the incestuous, pedophiles, polygamists, and homosexuals, the issue is not discrimination. It is the nature of marriage itself.

“They said the same thing about interracial marriage.”

This challenge has great rhetorical force, but it is a silly objection.

Consider two men, one rich and one poor, seeking to withdraw money from their bank. The rich man is denied because his account is empty. However, on closer inspection, a clerk discovers an error, corrects it, and releases the cash. Next in line, the poor man is denied for the same reason: insufficient funds. “That’s the same thing you said about the last guy,” he snaps. “Yes,” the clerk replies. “We made a mistake with his account, but not with yours. You’re broke.”

In the same way, it simply is not relevant that the same objection has been used to deny both interracial and homosexual marriage. It’s only relevant if the circumstances are the same, regardless of the objection. They are not.

Same-sex marriage and interracial marriage have nothing in common. There is no difference between a black and a white human being because skin color is morally trivial. There is an enormous difference, however, between a man and a woman. Ethnicity has no bearing on marriage. Sex is fundamental to marriage.

This approach won’t work to justify polygamous or incestuous unions (”In the past people wouldn’t allow interracial marriages, either.”). It is equally ineffectual here. The objection may be the same, but the circumstances are entirely different.

“We shouldn’t be denied the freedom to love who we want.”

Columnist Ellen Goodman writes, “The state is on shaky ground when it tries to criminalize sexual relations of the consensual living arrangements of adults.” In San Francisco, a giddy newly “married” lesbian celebrates, “Now we’re not second-class citizens; now we can have a loving relationship like every other married couple we know.” Another opines, “Anybody who is in love and wants to spend the rest of their life together should be able to do it.”

These remarks reflect a common misconception: Same-sex marriage will secure new liberties for homosexuals that have eluded them thus far. This will not happen because no personal liberty is being denied them. Gay couples can already do everything married people do – express love, set up housekeeping, share home ownership, have sex, raise children, commingle property, receive inheritance, and spend the rest of their lives together. It’s not criminal to do any of these things.

Homosexuals can even have a wedding. Yes, it’s done all the time. Entire cottage industries have sprung up from Hollywood to the Big Apple serving the needs – from wedding cakes to honeymoons – of same-sex lovers looking to tie the knot.

Gay marriage grants no new freedom, and denying marriage licenses to homosexuals does not restrict any liberty. Nothing stops anyone – of any age, race, gender, class, or sexual preference – from making lifelong loving commitments to each other, pledging their troth until death do them part. They may lack certain entitlements, but not freedoms.

Denying marriage doesn’t restrict anyone. It merely withholds social approval from a lifestyle and set of behaviors that homosexuals have complete freedom to pursue without it. A marriage license doesn’t give liberty; it gives respect.

And respect is precisely what homosexual activists long for, as one newly licensed lesbian spouse makes clear: “It was a moving experience after a truly lifelong commitment, to have a government entity say, ‘Your relationship is valid and important in the eyes of the law.’” Another admits, “This is about other people recognizing what we have already recognized with each other for a long time.” And another: “I didn’t start out feeling this way, but that piece of paper, it’s just so important I can’t even put it into words. It’s so important to have society support you…It’s about society saying you’re recognized as a couple.”

Ironically, heterosexuals have been living together for years enjoying every liberty of matrimony without the “piece of paper.” Suddenly that meaningless piece of paper means everything to homosexuals. Why? Not because it confers liberty, but because it confers legitimacy. Note this telling passage from Time magazine’s “Will Gay Marriage be Legal?”

Ultimately, of course, the battle for gay marriage has always been about more than winning the second-driver discount at the Avis counter. In fact, the individual who has done most to push same-sex marriage – a brilliant 43-year-old lawyer-activist named Evan Wolfson – doesn’t even have a boyfriend. He and the others who brought the marriage lawsuits of the past decade want nothing less than full social equality, total validation – not just the right to inherit a mother-in-law’s Cadillac. As Andrew Sullivan, the (also persistently single) intellectual force behind gay marriage, has written, “Including homosexuals within marriage would be a means of conferring the highest form of social approval imaginable.”

Same-sex marriage is not about civil rights. It’s about validation and social respect. It is a radical attempt at civil engineering using government muscle to strong-arm the people into accommodating a lifestyle many find deeply offensive, contrary to nature, socially destructive, and morally repugnant. Columnist Jeff Jacoby summed it up this way in The Boston Globe:

The marriage radicals…have not been deprived of the right to marry – only of the right to insist that a single-sex union is a “marriage.” They cloak their demands in the language of civil rights because it sounds so much better than the truth: They don’t want to accept or reject marriage on the same terms that it is available to everyone else. They want it on entirely new terms. They want it to be given a meaning it has never before had, and they prefer that it be done undemocratically – by judicial fiat, for example, or by mayors flouting the law. Whatever else that may be, it isn’t civil rights.

The Meaning of Marriage

The controversy about same-sex marriage churns principally around the definition of marriage. Activists deny the traditional view, that marriage is about children. Instead, marriage is an ever changing, socially-constructed institution constantly being redefined by society. There is no essential connection with children. Rather, at the core of the enterprise are two people in love.

“Marriage is about love.”

Understandably, love is a predominant theme in discussions about marriage. “As long as people love each other,” one person asserted, “it shouldn’t matter whether they are the same sex. What’s important in marriage is love.”

Initially, this seems hard to deny. In our culture, love is often the immediate motivation for marriage. On reflection, though, it’s clear that love and marriage don’t always go together. In fact, they seldom do.

If marriage were about love, then billions of people in the history of the world who thought they were married were not. Most marriages have been arranged. Love may percolate later, but only as a result of marriage, not the reason for it.

Further, if love were the sine qua non of marriage, no “for better or for worse” promises would be needed at the altar. Vows aren’t meant to sustain love; they are meant to sustain the union when love wanes. A pledge keeps a family intact not for love, but for the sake of children.

The state doesn’t care if the bride and groom love each other. There are no questions about a couple’s affections when granting a license. No proof of passion is required. Why? Because marriage isn’t about love.

Yes, love may be the reason some people get married, but it isn’t the reason for marriage. It may be a constituent of marriage, but it isn’t the purpose of marriage. Something else is.

“Marriage is constantly being redefined.”

The definition of marriage has not been in flux in the way people suggest. In fact, marriage itself has not been redefined at all. Because there have been variations on the theme does not mean there has been no theme. From the dawn of civilization marriage has always been between men and women.

There have been changes. Historically some have been denied marriage (e. g. , the young, the genetically aberrant, and interracial couples). Others were allowed to marry more than once, either consecutively (divorce and remarriage), or concurrently (polygamy). Spousal rights have altered and traditions have evolved. But marriage has still been marriage. And spouses have always been male and female.

To say something has changed is to say some core thing has remained the same. When an old curtain is changed into a work smock, or an irresponsible bachelor becomes a conscientious dad, something stays the same, the cloth and the man, in these two cases.

In the midst of these obvious changes in marriage, what feature remains the same? What is the essential core that makes marriage distinct from any other relationship? In spite of the variations, spouses have always been male and female. Why? What is unique about this human pairing?

“Not all marriages have children.”

Initially it is easy to resist any suggestion that “marriage” and “family” are essentially connected with “offspring.” Clearly, not all families have children. Some marriages are barren, by choice or by design.

This proves nothing, though. Books are written by authors to be read, even if large ones are used as doorstops or discarded ones help ignite campfires. The fact that many lie unread and covered with dust, or piled atop coffee tables for decorative effect doesn’t mean they were not destined for higher purpose.

In the same way, the natural tie of marriage to procreation is not nullified because in some individual cases children are not intended or even possible. Marriage still is what it is even if its essential purpose is never actualized. The exceptions prove the rule, they don’t nullify it. Marriage is intrinsically about and for children.

Ironically, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike confirmed this while lining up to wed at city halls on Valentines day. “After seven years and the birth of a baby,” the L.A. Times reported, “Robert Manzo and Anna Parker decided to make their union official for 9-month-old Kyle, who they believe should have the legal protection that a marriage gives to a family.”

More than 300 miles away, Kathy Palmer-Lohan stood in line in San Francisco with her partner, Laura, who was seven months pregnant. “We’re having kids,” Palmer-Lohan said, “and [marriage] gives some formality to the relationship and the family structure.

“Marriage is a social construction we can redefine as we please.”

What is marriage? There are only two possible kinds of answers to this question: Either marriage and family have a fixed, natural purpose (a natural “teleology”) or they do not. If not, marriage is some kind of social construction, an invention of culture like knickers or bow ties, fashions that change with the times. Marriages defined by convention can be anything culture defines them to be. No particular detail is essential.

It is not possible, however, that marriage is a social construction. Here’s why:

Columnist Dennis Prager has observed, “Every higher civilization has defined marriage as an institution joining members of the opposite sex.” I agree with Prager’s position on marriage, though I take exception with one of his words.

I don’t think marriage has been defined by cultures. Rather, I think it has been described by them. The difference in terms is significant. If marriage is defined by culture, then it is merely a construction that culture is free to change when it desires. The definition may have been stable for millennia, yet it is still a convention and therefore subject to alteration. This is, in fact, the argument of those in favor of gay marriage.

The truth is, it is not culture that constructs marriages or the families that marriages begin. Rather, it is the other way around: Marriage and family construct culture. As the building blocks of civilization, families are logically prior to society as the parts are prior to the whole. Bricks aren’t the result of the building because the building is made up of bricks. You must have the first before you can get the second.

Societies are large groups of families. Since families are constituent of culture, cultures cannot define them. They merely observe their parts, as it were, and acknowledge what they have discovered. Society then enacts laws not to create marriage and families according to arbitrary convention, but to protect that which already exists, being essential to the whole.

Why has civilization always characterized families as a union of men and women? Because men and women are the natural source of the children that allow civilized culture to persist. This is the only understanding that makes sense of the definition, structure, legitimacy, identity, and government entitlements of marriage. This alone answers our question, “What is marriage?”

Marriage begins a family. Families are the building blocks of cultures. Families – and therefore marriages – are logically prior to culture.

If the definition of marriage is established by nature, then we have no liberty to redefine it. In fact, marriage itself wouldn’t change at all even if we did. Philosopher Francis Beckwith has wryly observed, “Just because you can eat an ashtray doesn’t make it food.” Linguistic tricks can’t change what nature has already determined something to be. Neither ashtrays nor same-sex marriage provide the nourishment intended by food or families, respectively.

The fact that same-sex couples can legally adopt changes nothing. This, too, subverts the purpose of marriage by robbing families (and children) of a vital ingredient: mothers and fathers. By licensing same-sex marriage, society declares by law that two men or two women are equally suited to raise a child, that mothers and fathers contribute nothing unique to healthy child-rearing. This is self-evidently false. Moms and dads are not interchangeable.

Marriage begins a family. The purpose of family is to produce the next generation. Therefore, family is designed by nature for children. This description alone is consistent with our deepest intuitions, which is why every culture since the birth of time has recognized this. No other characterization fits what societies have been doing for millennia.

Families may fail to produce children, either by choice or by accident, but they are about children, nonetheless. That’s why marriages have always been between men and women; they are the only ones, in the natural state, who have kids.

Government has no interest in affirming any other kind of relationship. It privileges and sustains marriage in order to protect the future of civilization.

Same-sex marriage is radically revisionist. It severs family from its roots, eviscerates marriage of any normative content, and robs children of a mother and a father. This must not happen.

Homosexuality is broadly tolerated in this country. Gays are allowed to pursue their “lifestyles” without reprisal, even to the point of forming committed, monogamous unions. They may not be universally respected or admired, but they have the liberty to live as they choose. This is all they have the right to demand.

Q&A: Can’t anyone be a preacher?

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Questions & Answers

One common American evangelical idea is (quite American): if a person wants to preach, shouldn’t he/she be able to do so? This is one of those areas in which the civil/cultural ideas of the day have trickled into the church, affecting her right down to the core. In other words, we all have the right to _____, so of course we all have the right to be a preacher in a church. However, the Christian way here is at odds with the American way. Darrin Patrick says it well.

“Many people wonder why it is necessary to have qualifications for a pastor. They might think, ‘If someone wants to be a pastor, should he not have that right, regardless of whether he meets a list of criteria? And who decides what the criteria are anyway?’”

“The truth…is that all of us see the need for criteria in other professions. No one would board a plane if they knew that the ‘pilot’ loved planes but didn’t have a pilot’s license. No one would want to be operated on by a ‘surgeon’ whose primary credential was that his father was a doctor. A young couple would not entrust the design of their dream home to an ‘architect’ whose portfolio was the back of a Lincoln Logs box. Qualifications are important in every job, and the more important the job, the more important the need for stringent qualifications.”

“The New Testament places a very strong emphasis on the importance of appointing qualified elders in the church. As Alexander Strauch notes, ‘The New Testament offers more instruction regarding elders than on other important church subjects such as the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Day, baptism, or spiritual gifts.’ Moreover, there is more teaching in the New Testament about the qualifications for eldership than about any other aspect of biblical leadership.”

“The reason for this strong emphasis is that elders are charged with the sacred task of caring for the eternal souls for whom Christ died. Since a pastor has the extremely important job of teaching and caring for eternal souls, it is important to make sure the wrong men are not appointed to this office. When an unqualified doctor performs surgery, or an unqualified pilot flies planes, or an unqualified architect builds a house, people get hurt and things fall apart. It is no different in the church: people usually end up getting hurt when they are under unqualified leaders, and everything from marriages to the church itself is likely to fall apart.”

Taken from pages 43-44 of Darrin Patrick, Church Planter (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

Weekly Devotion 5/26/2013: The Meaning of Holiness

Weekly Devotion logo
This entry is part 8 of 6 in the series Weekly Devotions

“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’” (v. 9).

- Matthew 6:9-13

For the past few days, we have seen just how important God’s attribute of holiness is and what happens when sinners stand before Him in all His purity and glory (Lev. 10:1–3; 2 Sam. 6:5–7; Isa. 6:1–7). However, we still need to consider exactly what Scripture means by the terms holy andholiness. Given that it is such an important concept, we must understand exactly what it is to be holy.

Typically, most Christians think of righteousness and ethical purity when they hear the term holy. After all, God’s Word in many passages associates holiness with righteous living and being cleansed from sin (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Peter 1:14–16). Nevertheless, holiness in Scripture, while associated with moral uprightness, is not chiefly about doing the right things; rather, to be holy is, first and foremost, to be set apart from what is common. It is to be different or unique in comparison to this world. Consequently, holiness is not a quality that people alone can possess, but time and objects can also be holy. For example, Aaron was “set apart,” separated from the other Israelites, to offer sacrifices in behalf of God’s people and mediate between them and their Lord (1 Chron. 23:13). When our Creator met Moses in the burning bush, the ground on which the encounter took place became holy ground (Ex. 3:1–6). The room in which the ark of the covenant was located in the tabernacle was the “Holy Place” (Lev. 16:1–2), and old covenant feasts and festivals made time itself holy to the Lord (chap. 23).

Something or someone is made holy when the Almighty, who is Himself set apart from all creation, sets it apart for a special use or purpose. God is holy because He is more “set apart” from His creation than anything or anyone else. Basically, God’s holiness is a function of His transcendence. Because He is high and exalted, nothing in creation can match the Lord in His glory, power, and purity (Ex. 15:11; Isa. 33:5).

The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer communicate God’s holiness in their treatment of His name. Fallen creatures instinctively forbid murder, but it takes special revelation to tell us that profaning God’s holy, set-apart name is illegal (Ex. 20:7). Jesus tells us that the very first thing we should ask for in prayer is for God’s name to be regarded as holy in this world (Matt. 6:9). The distinction between the Lord and His creation is so great that even His name must be respected as holy.

Coram Deo

In Christ we become friends of God (John 15:12–15; James 2:23), but this is no casual friendship like we have with other human beings. The Lord is to be treated reverently by His friends, and if we do not regard His dignity and majesty, then we are not truly His friends. God is our friend, but He is not our pal, and we must take care in how we approach Him. He is worthy of all honor and glory, so may we never forget that.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 24:16
Deuteronomy 5:11
Luke 12:8–10
1 Timothy 1:1–11

Courtesy of Ligonier Ministries

Seven common fallacies of biblical interpretation

1. Preunderstanding fallacy: Believing you can interpret with complete objectivity, not recognizing that you have preunderstandings that influence your interpretation.

There is no such thing as a “white-coat” interpreter. In other words, there is no one who comes to the text as a scientist who objectively interprets the data. We all are influenced by many things including our upbringing, culture, personality, and others preunderstandings. Once we recognize this, we are better equipped to interpret the text honesty. Otherwise, our preunderstanding will always rule over our interpretation.

2. Incidental fallacy: Reading incidental historical texts as prescriptive rather than descriptive.

While the Bible teaches us truths, not every incidental detail is meant to teach these truths. Much of the Bible is made up of information that is important to the overall story, but is not important in isolation to the rest. We must understand the difference between ”prescriptive” and “descriptive” material.  Prescriptive: information that provides the reader with principles that they are to apply to their lives. Descriptive: incidental material that describes the way something was done but is not necessarily meant to encourage the reader in the same action. A good example of this is the Apostles casting lots to elect a new Apostle to replace Judas in Acts 1. This is not meant to teach us how to elect church leaders, it is just the way it was done at that time.

3. Obscurity fallacy: Building theology from obscure material.

Much of the Bible is very clear and understandable. Some of it is very difficult to understand. Do not build theology and doctrine from passages of Scripture that are not clear. For example, it is very difficult to understand what Christ was talking about in John 3:5 where He mentions being “born of water.” “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” Because of its obscurity, one should not build a theology that places too much weight on what being “born of water” means. The Bible speaks clearly on many issues concerning salvation in other places. It is best to take the obscure passages and interpret them in light of the clear passages. In doing so, the interpreter can create an interpretive framework upon what these obscure passages cannot mean, even if discovery cannot be made with certainty about what they, in fact, do mean.

Obscure passages can be the most dangerous teachings in Scripture. Sadly, it is often the case that many people and traditions take obscure passages and pack their theology into them since there is no definitive way to say that they are wrong in their interpretation. This is a common fallacy committed among “Christian” cults. In other words, there simply is no more fertile ground for cults and false teaching than obscure passages of the Bible.

4. Etymological root fallacy: Looking to the root etymology of a word to discover its meaning.

The problem with this is that etymology can often be deceiving, such as in the English word “butterfly” taken from “butter” and “fly.” An etymological study of this word only confuses the current usage. The same can be said of the word “good-bye,” which is taken from the Anglo-Saxon, “God be with you.” When someone says “good-bye,” it does not necessarily (if ever) mean that they are calling a blessing of God’s presence to be with you.

From D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies:

“One of the most enduring fallacies, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is by the roots of a word.  How many times have we been told that because the verbal cognate of apostolos (apostle) is apostello (I send), the root meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent.”?  In the preface of the New King James Bible, we are told that the literal meaning of monogenes is “only begotten.”  Is that true?  How often do preachers refer to the verb agapao(to love), contrast it with phileo (to love) and deduce that the text is saying something about a special kind of loving, for no other reason than that agapao is used?

All of this is linguistic nonsense.  We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words. Anthony C. Thistleton offers by way of example our word ‘nice’, which comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant.”  Our “good-by” is a contraction for Anglo-Saxon “God be with you.” It is certainly easy to imagine how “God be with you” came to be “good-by.”  But I know of no one today who in saying that such and such a person is “nice”  believes that he or she has in some measure labeled that person ignorant because the “root meaning” or “hidden meaning” or “literal meaning” of “nice” is ‘ignorant’.”

5. Illegitimate totality transfer: Bringing the full meaning of a word with all its nuances to the present usage.

Take the Greek verb phileo. The UBS dictionary of the Greek New Testament lists these possible meanings: have deep feeling for; love; like (to do or be something); kiss. Some interpreters would commit an ITT by using all of the nuances that the word phileo has when, in fact, it usually only carries one meaning that is determined by the context.

6. Selective use of meaning: Selecting the meaning you like best.

This is like the illegitimate totality transfer in reverse. Instead of the word carrying all the possible nuances, the interpreter will select which nuance he or she likes best. We must remember that the context determines the nuance, not the interpreter.

7. Maverick fallacy: Believing that you don’t need anyone but the Holy Spirit to interpret the text.

This is a common fallacy among Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who believe that the Holy Spirit works in isolation from the community of God, both living and dead. Here, people believe that the Holy Spirit reveals the meaning of text to the individual as he or she attempts to discern the voice of God coming through the Scriptures, regardless of what the historic body of Christ has said. The basic problem with this fallacy is that God has always worked in community as the Body of Christ functions together. God most certainly expects the interpreter to draw from other people’s giftedness since we don’t possess all the gifts ourselves. Ultimately, this is a fallacy of arrogance. Use outside resources and you will be discovering the power of the Holy Spirit in the community of God. Work alone and you are probably working in your own power.

(HT Parchment and Pen)

Federal judge strikes down Prop 8

Federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker wrote in his decision on the California proposition defining marriage as one man and one woman:

Plaintiffs challenge Proposition 8 under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the judge wrote. “Each challenge is independently meritorious, as Proposition 8 both unconstitutionally burdens the exercise of the fundamental right to marry and creates an irrational classification on the basis of sexual orientation.

Regarding the second challenge, it’s important to note that Prop 8 makes no classification on the basis of sexual orientation. The definition is one man and one woman. No homosexual person is banned from marrying within this definition of marriage shared by everybody, and there is no test for sexual orientation.

Instead, Prop 8 makes a very rational classification on the basis of a relevant characteristic—that is, the gender of the participants. Men and women are different, and there’s no getting around this. This fact has biological, emotional, psychological, and more ramifications when it comes to families and the creation and rearing of children. The fact is that both male and female are essential to marriage.

Second, I find the first challenge to be disingenuous. Defining marriage as one man and one woman does not “unconstitutionally burden the fundamental right to marry” any more than defining it as only two people “burdens” it, or defining out close relations burdens it, or an age requirement burdens it, or any of our other laws limiting who can marry whom burden it.

In other words, even after the judge’s decision, we still have a limiting definition of marriage. Therefore, it’s disingenuous to strike Prop 8 down based on the idea that it’s burdening the right to marry if the judge is going to retain the other limitations.

The only consistent options for the judge would be to either strike down all of the qualifications for marriage or let the people debate the issue and establish the definition, as they did with Prop 8, and apply the definition equally to everyone. The question is not one of equal rights (since the judge did not rule every definition unconstitutional), but of whether or not the particular defining characteristic we’re talking about is relevant to the institution of marriage (race is not relevant to marriage since skin color has nothing to do with any aspect of what marriage entails, but gender is relevant). Because defining marriage is not an issue of equal rights, it’s not the place of the judge to decide by fiat, but for the people to debate.

Instead, the judge merely arbitrarily drew the lines of definition for the people without offering any justification for why he drew the lines there and not somewhere else. The reason he offered (that it’s unconstitutional to limit marriage) is simply false. And he must know this, or he would have struck down every part of our current, limiting definition.

(HT Stand to Reason)

(See Greg’s “Same-Sex Marriage Challenges and Responses” for more on this subject.)

A Calvinist’s understanding of “free will”

There are many words and concepts in theology that suffer from misunderstanding, mis-characterization, and misinformation. “Predestination,” “Calvinism,” “Total Depravity,” “Inerrancy,” and “Complementarianism”, just to name a few that I personally have to deal with. Proponents are more often than not on the defensive, having to explain again and again why it is they don’t mean what people think they mean.

The concept of “free will” suffers no less with regard to this misunderstanding. Does a person have free will? Well, what do you mean by “free will”? This must always be asked.

Do you mean:

  • That a person is not forced from the outside to make a choice?
  • That a person is responsible for his or her choices?
  • That a person is the active agent in a choice made?
  • That a person is free to do whatever they desire?
  • That a person has the ability to choose contrary to their nature (who they are)?

Calvinists, such as myself, do believe in free will and we don’t believe in free will. It just depends on what you mean.

When it comes to the first three options, most Calvinist would agree that a person is not forced to make a choice, is responsible for their choices, and is the active agent behind those choices. They would reject the fourth believing that a person is not free to do whatever they desire (for example, no matter how much one desires, he or she cannot read the thoughts of another person, fly without wings, or transport from one location to another just by thinking about the desired location).

It is important to note at this point, there is no conflict. No matter what theological persuasion you adhere to, most of historic Christianity has agreed that the first three are true, while the fourth is false.

It is with the fifth option there is disagreement.

Does a person have the ability to choose against their nature?

This question gets to the heart of the issue. Here we introduce a new and more defined term (hang with me here): “Libertarian Free-will” or “Libertarian Freedom.” Libertarian freedom can be defined briefly thus:

Libertarian Freedom: “The power of contrary choice.”

If you ask whether a person can choose against their nature (i.e. libertarian freedom) the answer, I believe, must be “no.” A person’s nature makes up who they are. Who they are determines their choice. If their choice is determined, then the freedom is self-limited. Therefore, there is no “power” of contrary choice for we cannot identify what or who this “power” might be. I know, I know . . . slow down. Let me explain.

First, it is important to get this out of the way. To associate this denial of libertarian freedom exclusively with Calvinism would be misleading. St. Augustine was the first to deal with this issue in a comprehensive manner. Until the fourth century, it was simply assumed that people were free and responsible, but they had yet to flesh out what this meant. Augustine further elaborated on the Christian understanding of freedom. He argued that people choose according to who they are. If they are good, they make good choices. If they are bad, they make bad choices. These choices are free, they just lack liberty. In other words, a person does not become a sinner because they sin, they sin because they are a sinner. It is an issue of nature first. If people are identified with the fallen nature of Adam, then they will make choices similar to that of Adam because it is who they are. Yes, they are making a free choice, but this choice does not include the liberty or freedom of contrary choice.

What you have to ask is this: If “free will” means that we can choose against our nature (i.e. the power of contrary choice), if “free will” means that we can choose against who we are, what does this mean? What does this look like? How does a free person make a choice that is contrary to who they are? Who is actually making the choice? What is “free will” in this paradigm?

If one can choose according to who they are not, then they are not making the choice and this is not really freedom at all, no? Therefore, there is, at the very least, a self-determinism at work here. This is a limit on free will and, therefore, a necessary denial of true libertarian freedom.

Think about all that goes into making “who you are.” We are born in the fallen line of Adam. Spiritually speaking we have an inbred inclination toward sin. All of our being is infected with sin. This is called “total depravity.” Every aspect of our being is infected with sin, even if we don’t act it out to a maximal degree.

But even if this were not the case,—even if total depravity were a false doctrine—libertarian freedom would still be untenable. Not only are you who you are because of your identification with a fallen human race, but notice all these factors that you did not choose that go into the set up for any given “free will” decision made:

  • You did not choose when you were to be born.
  • You did not choose where you were to be born.
  • You did not choose your parents.
  • You did not choose your influences early in your life.
  • You did not choose whether you were to be male or female.
  • You did not choose your genetics.
  • You did not choose your temperament.
  • You did not choose your looks.
  • You did not choose your body type.
  • You did not choose your physical abilities.

All of these factors play an influencing role in who you are at the time of any given decision. Yes, your choice is free, but it has you behind them. Therefore, you are free to choose according to you from whom you are not able to free yourself!

Now, I must reveal something here once again that might surprise many of you. This view is held by both Calvinists and Arminians alike. Neither position believes that a person can choose against their nature. Arminians, however, differ from Calvinists in that they believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which essentially neutralizes the will so that the inclination toward sin—the antagonism toward God—is relieved so that the person can make a true “free will” decision.

However, we still have some massive difficulties. Here are a couple:

A neutralized will amounts to your absence from the choice itself.

Changing the nature of a person so that their predispositions are neutral does not really help. We are back to the question What does a neutralized will look like? Does it erase all of the you behind the choice? If you are neutralized and liberated from you, then who is making the choice? How can you be held responsible for a choice that you did not really make, whether good or bad?

A neutralized will amounts to perpetual indecision. Think about this, if a person had true libertarian freedom, where there were no coercive forces, personal or divine, that influenced the decision, would a choice ever be made? If you have no reason to choose A or B, then neither would ever be chosen. Ronald Nash illustrates this by presenting a dog who has true libertarian freedom trying to decide between two bowls of dog food. He says that the dog would end up dying of starvation. Why? Because he would never have any reason to choose one over the other. It is like a balanced scale, it will never tilt to the right or the left unless the weights (influences) on one side is greater than the other. Then, no matter how little weight (influence) is added to a balanced scale, it will always choose accordingly.

It must also be noted that there is no such thing as a “neutral” will towards God. Our wills are either good (i.e., in line with God's will) or bad (i.e., not in line with God's will). There is no middle ground.

A neutralized will amounts to arbitrary decisions, which one cannot be held responsible for.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that libertarian choice could be made. Let’s say that the dog did choose one food bowl over the other. In a truly libertarian sense, this decision cannot have influences of any kind. Any decision without influences is arbitrary. It would be like flipping a coin. I chose A rather than B, not because of who I am, but for no reason at all. It just turned out that way. But this option is clearly outside a biblical worldview of responsibility and judgment. Therefore, in my opinion, the outcome for the fight for true libertarian free-will comes at the expense of true responsibility!

In conclusion: while I believe in free will, I don’t believe in libertarian free will. We make the choices we make because of who we are. We are responsible for these choices. God will judge each person accordingly with a righteous judgment.

Is there tension? Absolutely. We hold in tension our belief in God’s sovereignty, determining who we are, when we live, where we will live, who our parents will be, our DNA, etc. and human responsibility. While this might seem uncomfortable, I believe that it is not only the best biblical option, but the only philosophical option outside of fatalism, and we don’t want to go there.

Thoughts? Do you believe in free will?

(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.