Winsome Words 8/31/12

“The Christian faith has never been something that one generation can sort out in such a way as to leave their successors with no work to do.”  NT Wright

NT Wright goes on to add in his forward to Scott McKnight’s book, The King Jesus Gospel, “Some versions of Christianity are constantly trying to build up that sort of accumulated capital, but it can’t be done. The Christian faith is kaleidoscopic, and most of us are color-blind. It is multidimensional, and most of us manage to hold at most two dimensions in our heads at any one time. It is symphonic, and we can just about whistle one of the tunes. So we shouldn’t be surprised if someone comes along and draws our attention to other colors and patterns that we hadn’t noticed.” Theology is never at rest and faithful Christians cannot get by merely reading the classics of Christianity. They must be read. They shape the fabric of this thing we call Christianity. But old books do not answer all questions, and each generation asks questions that the Gospel answers, if it is looked at with intention and not merely assumed.

Does God Always Get His Way-The Difference Between God in Charge and God in Control

Roger Olson posts on this subject in a manner to which I am sympathetic. He writes:

Many Christian theologians believe and teach that whatever happens, without exception, falls into the category “God’s will” in the sense that it conforms to God’s “blueprint” for history and individual lives and, even though evil and innocent suffering may grieve God, God ordains and governs them for a greater good (e.g., his glory). I call this divine determinism because it fits the ordinary definition of “determinism.” Those who teach it often deny that it is deterministic. At the very least it is meticulous providence. Not only Calvinists teach this; it is a view held in a perhaps more nuanced way by many non-Calvinists (e.g., conservative Lutherans). My hunch (I haven’t taken a poll) is that most Christians believe some version of divine determinism often inconsistently.

This is a fallback final word for many Christians when confronted with a circumstance of great pain or trial. It comes in many different forms. One that I hear often is, “God knows what he’s doing.” This is, of course, a truism. God by definition is not only powerful but wise. He is not catching up, guessing around, or playing down suffering. It is part of his plan. We receive it from him.

The only problem is that evil is not part of his plan. God cannot will evil in any decretive sense. He certainly does permit it as the concession made to creating creatures made in his image with free will. And it is part of his plan in the sense that he foresees human choice and wisely works all things together for good as his great miracle.

God is in charge. He will get those who believe perseveringly home. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me…” (Matthew 28:18) But I believe, like Olson does, that when Jesus wept over his rejection by Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37, the clear teaching is that things happen that do not find their origin in the will of God, that is, he does not determine that they come to pass. While it might satisfy for a time our hunger for logic, always the great temptation of determinism, it leaves us with a God who falls short of the moral righteousness and love which we believe him to be and have. Nor does it honor the nature of the true drama in which we are engaged-choice with eternal consequences.

In my pastoral ministry I have seen so many rest in so much evil as an unavoidable part of some larger and mysterious plan that I cannot help but believe that their critical faculties have shut down. All admit that there is mystery beyond the comprehending here – human freedom and God’s total authority. But to resolve this mystery in the direction of validating the presence of evil at the expense of God’s righteous glory is something that should sour the stomach until it is expelled.

Ben Witherington, noted New Testament scholar and Arminian, recently went through the early death of his adult daughter. He made it clear that her death was not something God desired. A decreed death for his daughter was not where Ben went to for comfort. Where he went is that the love and goodness of Christ is greater than death. It is our choices that lead to the brokenness of this world where in our unrighteousness we have subjected ourselves to the power of death and the grave.

I know that some will rise up and accuse me of a weak view of God and virtually stripping him of his throne. But if you need a God who decidely includes evil by a decretive and secret will to accomplish his work, then the God you supposedly leave on the throne is not glorious and will gain only the submission of Islam’s Allah. And this is not worth a theological battle.

Rick Warren Cancels Obama-Romney Civil Forum but it is Warren who is cancelled

The ultimate reason Warren cancelled a rerun of his McCain-Obama forum of 2008 is nobody is buying his way of doing politics. Being nice and just sharing with each other is not the nature of politics. Warren hoped to leave behind the days of Evangelical cage match political wrangling and ended putting on a show no one wanted to come to – not because no one is nice but because nice is no more the nature of political wrangling than it is in football.

The newer Evangelicals have supposedly learned their lesson after the days of hardball political wrangling and stepped away from the Jerry Falwells, James Dobsons, Pat Robertsons, et al. They have wanted to make sure that the church is not co-opted by any political party nor wastes its moral muscle on the politics of the kingdoms of this world.

What has been found out is that this trajectory simply buys into political utility by the political classes. Neither Obama nor McCain went to the Warren’s 2008 forum because they wanted to be nicer. They went because it was politically useful. And now it is not politically useful. So they do not go.

Warren was as duped as supposedly Jerry Falwell was and ended up becoming more irrelevant than Jerry Falwell. There is a Darwinian quality to the politics of governmental power. No one is going to change that dynamic. And the church should not waste its time doing so. In fact, many have accused Warren of simply giving cover to Obama’s image making. There is too much truth there to just ignore.

Our system of government invites the fierce competition of ideas. The reform of manners is not the essential contribution of the church in the political sphere. It must produce an enlightened citizenry able to be engaged in intellectual combat and the proper use of power. The quieter it is on the battlefield the worse off we are for it. I am for more cannon and more noise.

The newer Evangelicals will learn that the choice is between co-option and active engagement. Unfortunately, by the time they learn it a lot of ground will have been lost.

How Small the Evangelical World

Just got notice that Kent Dobson, the son of Ed Dobson, will be the Pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. Small world.

Number one, he lives in the area. Number two, he was formerly on staff there. Number three, his dad is Ed Dobson, former major player with Jerry Falwell during the Moral Majority years. Both Ed Dobson and Kent Dobson are a particular brand of Evangelical, ones who got too close to the fire and pulled away.

Ed Dobson, recently retired from Calvary Church in Grand Rapids as he struggles with ALS, has produced a series of extraordinarily helpful videos of his spiritual journey since resigning and doing the inner world work in preparation for death. Here is a clip from the first video.  They can be ordered at

Of course, Rob Bell was a disaffected Evangelical, too, if disaffected is the right word. My guess is that this is the kind of person who can lead this kind of church. There must be Evangelical credentials but also a refusal to buy in to the full package. There are an increasing number of these in pulpits today.

Ed Dobson, if I read the videos right, now communes at an Orthodox church. This is also a trend. Evangelicalism does not have much room for mystery and quietism, some of the very spheres into which we enter when suffering knocks on our door and apologetics has no soul-satisfying answers. Being right no longer quenches the thirst. This is not a rejection of truth but an acknowledgement that truth cannot be reduced to a Sunday School program or a weekly Bible study. It is a rejection of Evangelical insistence on activism and statistics as self-validating. It is a rejection of public moral campaigns. It is a rejection of reductionist doctrinal statements that nit pick over jots and tittles.  It is a rejection of the rash Evangelicals get from liturgy and the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

I am sympathetic. Evangelicalism is now “bridging” to something it is going to become. Some churches are set down smack dab in the middle of this process. Other churches ignore it or think they have already found the next new thing. Evangelicalism is working to keep its roots in an infallible and inspired Bible and the larger traditions of the believing church at the same time it is trying to shuck off the shallow revivalism that treats people as noses and nickels, subsuming the authentic character of each parishioners spiritual life into larger organizational goals and campaigns, whatever the flavor of the day may be.

My personal journey has settled accounts with my Baptist heritage as guarding some very precious and not to be negotiated away truths. But my eyes are not shut toward our easy believism, shunning of church tradition, careless intellectual life and knee jerk rejection of the value of liturgy.  I am thankful to be associated with churches that are on a learning curve and have not retreated into an early 20th century version of American Protestantism. But the journey is in process and Evangelicalism is seeking a new plateau where it can rest for a while before it once again moves on.

A Problem You Don’t Have to Have

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Valedictorian who was denied her diploma because she used the word “hell” in her speech. See here. The school board demands an apology; she won’t give one.

She is no hero for standing up for free speech. The school board is no hero for making a point too late.

People don’t do what you want them to do and sometimes you decide to let them get away with it because your life is too big and you have places to go and no time to get bogged down in the fight to be right.

If the girl won’t issue the apology and move on, she has other issues. Keep watching. This is going to pop up again for her. If the school board is trying to draw a line that is out of all proportion to the crime and whose actions won’t matter, well, that’s public education for you – bureaucrats who enforce rules for a living in ways that are counterproductive.

People who decide to live significantly overlook lots of things because the fights that come from them aren’t worth it. They make a calculation and walk away. People who are small on the inside and have to be right no matter the cost end up losing big time – fights they don’t need to have, irritations they don’t need feel, relationships broke they don’t have to lose, etc. Pretty soon they become the boy who cried wolf too many times. They are just irritated people who become irritating.

Today walk away from stuff you can’t afford to get bogged down with – the insult you can afford to ignore, the argument you can afford to lose, the extra workload you can afford to do in order to avoid a bigger fight later on that will take a whole lot more time, the right of way at the four stop sign corner that you don’t have to claim, the slight you can ignore. For a moment you will be bothered, feel like a doormat. But then it will float away and you are free – free not to waste your life, time or reputation on what does not matter.

You win!!!

Winsome Words 8/21/12

What should I think of my child, if I found that he limited his faith in me and hope from me to the few promises he had heard me utter! The faith that limits itself to the promises of God seems to me to partake of the paltry character of such a faith in my child — good enough for a Pagan, but for a Christian a miserable and wretched faith. Those who rest in such a faith would feel yet more comfortable if they had God’s bond instead of His word, which they regard not as the outcome of His character but as a pledge of His honour. They try to believe in the truth of His word, but the truth of His Being they understand not. In His oath they persuade themselves that they put confidence: in himself they do not believe, for they know Him not.
George MacDonald

Surrendering Outcomes

Steve Horswill-Johnson writes of spending two days with Rob Bell.

Of all the topics covered in the two-day event, the one that perhaps garnered the most attention was Mr. Bell’s idea of “surrendering outcomes.”
“Pastors and lay leaders have little or no power over the reaction to their work,” Mr. Bell pointed out. “We cannot control how people accept or reject us. Instead, our job is to extend a vision of the church’s ministry to the whole congregation that is provocative and based on the life of Jesus. And then we give it over.
“In the end, we must surrender outcomes,” Mr. Bell continued. “By giving up outcomes you are free, and you free your congregation. This freedom allows you not to be tied to an outcome but instead tied to the congregation.”

Surrendering outcomes – I like the sound of that phrase, and its meaning. Pastors and churches are often about outcomes. “Here is what you do, here is what we do and in the end the church will be thus and so.” And, of course, somewhere along the road to who knows where the formula gets mucked up and someone has to pay. Maybe the church has to pay and the Pastor walks away in a huff to some congregation that will be more faithful to the vision. Or maybe the Pastor has to pay and the church sends the signals that its time for a change to some one else who is a bit more charismatic, more administrative, more available, more likable, more whatever.

But no matter what happens to the Pastor, it is the congregation that loses in this deal. Outcomes have become the bottom line and relationships have become expendable for their sake. Once that happens in a church, no one is safe. And no one is ever really happy. It is now all about nickels and noses – how much money in the place and how many bodies in the pews. Statistics. Data. Empirical proof that we are valuable, that we matter, that we are successful.

The church does have a mission and it does have to do with numbers. God wants his house to be full. The harvest is white and it is gathering time. As Rick Warren says, there are only two questions: What’s your business? How’s business? Churches will do their best to avoid that bottom line. So will Pastors. I ought to know.

But there is a point where the church and the Pastor have crossed a line and the ministry is no longer about obedience, faithfulness, and gladness in the work. It’s about how many and how much – now. A dark and rather burdensome pall drapes the congregation as the speed on the treadmill ratchets up. A lot of people get used, a lot of people are very tired and numbers don’t fill the gap.

We must surrender outcomes to keep fresh before God. Doing and loving the will of God for its own sake. Joy working in the vineyard for its own sake. People mattering because they are people. God mattering because he is God. No one gets used. No one is expendable. No group is in and no group is out. How it all ends up and where it all leads finally becomes something bigger than we can manage anyway.

The Bible can take it – a serious and critical stance toward the Bible will lead you toward it and not away from it.

Ben Witherington is generally recognized as a top New Testament scholar. See his book listing here at Amazon.

Ben was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill when I was the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff there. It was clear then that he was an independent thinker, attentive, cautious and not given to rashness, seriously engaged with the life of the mind. In the video below he recalls his college days and the process by which he drew close to the Bible and gained confidence that it will not lead away from the light but toward the light. This video is a part of a larger response to Bart Ehrman who teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill and who as a former Evangelical Christian became convinced that the Bible is not an inspired and infallible book authored by God. See his book listing at Amazon here. He is a biblical text critic who has concluded that not only is the Bible a mere human book but it in significant measure is edited in such a way as to deceive and mislead. Ehrman is  no longer not only not a Christian but one who believes there is no God at all.

Both Witherington and Ehrman are text critics at a high level. Here is Witherington’s story of how serious text criticism led him to the orthodox understanding of the nature of the Bible.

What’s Wrong with Calvinism – Three Part series by Jerry Walls

Roger Olson has posted recommending the three-video series by Jerry Walls. I could only find two of them on youtube to view and also commend them to you. Dr. Walls earned his PhD in philosophy from Notre Dame.

Most of my theological life has been immersed in the world of Calvinism and the Westminster Standards. I think I know it pretty well. Eventually the dissonance that it required me to live in became too much. Perhaps more than any other occasion, it has been the preaching of John Piper which made the fork in the road for me. I love Piper’s preaching and his loyal adherence to orthodoxy in both belief and practice. His book Desiring God is one of my top five all-time favorites. His clarity on the necessity of the new birth rings true. His courage to shine a light of exposure in the cellar of church doctrine is commendable. No one gets a free pass in Dr. Piper’s world to compromise the authority of God’s Word. I listen to most of all his sermon and have read most of his books.

He, being the loyal man he is, will go where the logic of Calvinism goes. And as he does so it has pushed me to reconsider how far I can go with him. Not as far as he would like!! His nominalism leads to an irrationalism to which I cannot hold. By nominalism I refer to the belief that something is right and good simply because God does it. The right and the good have no independent existence. They are just names (hence the word “nominalism). This leads to a feidism that defies in an ultimate way any defense of God, a theodicy, if you will. So, if God passes over those whom he could save through election but for his own glory chooses not to, who are we to declare this evil? Here appeal is made to Romans 11.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.  (Rom 11:33-36)

What this entails for me is that theoretically God can do what virtually all people would call evil, not saving those you have the power to save, and yet it be called good. If this can be called good, because God is the one who does it, then the true distinction between good and evil is erased. Or, what is worst, what we call evil becomes necessary to God’s glorification, since he non-elects in order to glorify himself, bringing to himself a greater glory than would be his if he simply elected all. This kind of trajectory comes too close to pantheism to be, perhaps even panentheism.

Ultimately in Calvinism, evil becomes necessary to the glory of God. I vigorously reject this. This is an erasure of all moral categories and makes ethical discussion absurd. What is more, it erases any kind of hope for a natural theology, per Aquinas.  If you can look a man in the eye and say to him that he may have been passed over by God’s love and chosen for damnation and then not flinch, there is perhaps nothing you can’t say to another human being, or do. Moral categories have flown away and evaporated into the atmosphere.

Here are the two videos by Jerry Walls that I was able to find.


Winsome Words 8/19/12

My idea of God is not a divine idea.  It has to be shattered time after time.  He shatters it Himself.  He is the great iconoclast.  Could we not say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?  All reality is iconoclastic.”
CS Lewis

From time to time, many times, in fact, I have woken up, as it were, to find that I was worshiping a God I had imagined existing rather than the God who does exist. I made him up. These “Gods” have some points of contact with the real God, enough points that unless I look closely enough I can easily assume the counterfeit as the real.

This experience is so frequent that when someone tells me they believe in God, I am inclined to ask “which one”? The same for the atheist who says he does not believe in God at all. I ask which God is it in which they do not believe. Often I find that the God they do not believe in is a God I do not believe in either.

How do I find if my God is a counterfeit God? Invariably the God I construct never commands me to forsake my sin NOW.  This God I construct ends up always taking my side in controversies. He also is amazingly tolerant of lack of time to pay attention to him. He hangs around, hears some prayers, gives some gifts, understands my weaknesses, strokes my ego and is generally compliant to the way things are.

He doesn’t start off being all these things at once, but over time the shape takes the form. And every time I get shocked back into reality by recognizing my idolatry and knock this totem off the pole, he resurrects. Not in three days. But like the gathering of a sandbar from tidal waves, it all comes back together again, unawares and without intention.

How shall I worship the true God? First, I must immerse myself in his story. Not the one I make up as if my experience of God is the last word about the God who is. The reliable story is the Bible story. It is full of episodes when the true God stands up amongst the false gods, like on Mt Carmel or in Egypt confronting Pharaoh. Second, I must fiercely attack every sin that rises up within me. Make no truces. I must be about, to use an old King James word, mortifying the flesh. The false god promises me that he will do this for me. The true God tells me that I myself must raise the knife. If the god I am serving has become rather comfortable with my sin, the warning light has come on my spiritual dashboard and the bell is chiming. Third, if I no longer am moved by the condition of others, there’s a good chance I have changed gods. God is a sending God. Whoever meets him ends up moving somewhere on a mission, like an Abraham who was called to be a blessing to the nations of the earth. Like Jesus, who clothed himself in flesh and moved into the neighborhood and became a next door friend. If my world has become the 21st century trinity–me, mine, my–then the true Trinity might be missing. Fourth, if I am no longer tugged toward a great sacrifice, a great striving, then my god is probably not the true God. The real God tells me that the harvest is ripe and to pray for harvest hands to reap. If the God I know is subsumed under the category of me and mine, then I need to take another look.

There is a fine line between knowing God better and seeing more clearly and actually worshiping a stealth god who has under cover set himself up in temple but is an abomination no matter how many obeisances I give to him. I must be Gideon-like and destroy the family god with whom we have all become most familiar.