Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Slavery Revisited: the lesson of John Newton

The concept of sin and the concept of the life of the believer are quite different in the New Testament. You have to understand that or you will continue be perplexed. The concept of sin in the NT is not don’t do this or that, but rather not to desire anything contrary to God’s character and, in all that you do, do it to the glory of God. The good news is that it is even more impossible to obey than the demands of the OT.

This is made evident in the story of the rich young ruler, Mark 10:17-22, (whom I believe, contrary to what is usually taught, was saved.) The rich young ruler was "saved" [not really, hence the quotes] by the OT, that is he obeyed the law perfectly—or so he said. And Jesus accepted that claim, at least for the sake of making a point, but then told him he had another requirement, that he sell everything and give it to the poor. Now in fact there is no such legalistic requirement, otherwise we all are lost, but Jesus was pointing out that under his law, tougher than Moses’ law, this man stood condemned, not because of specific deeds but because of the desires of his heart. Such is the condition of us all.

The other point about the NT is that it gives all believers a mission: to be witnesses for Christ regardless of their position—indeed in many cases in spite of their position. Rather than being given instructions for creating theocracies based on God’s New and Improved Civil Code, we are given more or less the opposite command: do you live under oppression? Obey and pray for your leaders. Find yourself born a slave? Same thing. Thus the instructions to slaves, found in Eph. 6:5 and elsewhere are understood: you may have the miserable lot of a slave, but even there, or maybe especially there, you can live a life that glorifies God.

Does that mean slaves cannot rebel? That in all circumstances it would be sinful? Not at all, because, again, the NT is not a book of do this, don’t do that. It requires us to use our brain. It requires actions that glorify God. So I would certainly think that the Christians working to free the American slaves were acting to glorify God, and hence their actions were not sinful. It is all muddled because, again, it is a question of the heart more than the deed.

As I have said elsewhere, in my opinion what captures the NT law more accurately than anything is the simple little WWJD bracelet. Except even that is too much OT and not enough NT. The NT version should really be: What would Jesus Want or Think?

That gets us to the some problematic passages, for example Eph. 6:9, that instructs masters, not slaves. I could try to weasel out and say that this is a warning to unbelieving masters, but I don’t think it is—although the lesson is there for unbelieving masters as well—you will be held accountable for how you treat your servants. But actually, as I said, this applies, I believe, to Christian masters.

To understand this, again, requires the mindset of the NT, not the OT. If the OT way of thinking simply continued, then Jesus would have issued a command abolishing slavery. But a master forced to give up slaves is not glorifying to God, while a master who comes to realize that owning slaves is contrary to God’s character is. In the meantime, there is a first-order command here, and the master is reminded that he will be held accountable for the treatment of his slaves.

I believe what transpired is clear. Christianity came, albeit shamefully slowly, to realize that slavery (and, for another example, virulent anti-Semitism) was contrary to God’s law and worked (with others) to abolish it. This bootstrapping of human behavior is what Christ sought with his law, not an instantaneous transformation to another divinely provided legal code a la the OT.

John Newton, the Perfect Example

To put it another way, consider the life of John Newton, composer of Amazing Grace. Probably most people know the basics: he was a slave trader. Then he got saved. Then he wasn’t a slave trader. But what most people do not know and are sometimes astonished (especially Christians) to find out is that he didn’t give up slave trading immediately. There was no epiphany that his occupation was ungodly. That is, he went through three stages:
  1. Slave trader, unbeliever
  2. Slave trader, believer
  3. Former slaver trader, believer
Is trading slaves contrary to God’s Law? Of course it is. Does that mean that Newton was not a Christian in stage 2? No, he was as much a Christian as anyone else who is a Christian. We all do things contrary to God’s law, more or less all the time. (For example, I am writing this with maybe a 1% motivation that it glorifies God and a 99% motivation that readers will find it clever.) Does that mean John Newton won’t be held accountable? No, he will be held accountable for his deeds and thoughts for his whole life, as will we all. Does it mean the God expected Newton to make it, at some point, from stage 2 to 3? It certainly does, and the bible is full of the commands like “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”—that is, you are commanded to improve, continually.

I believe Christianity’s response to slavery is John Newton’s writ large. Jesus had no interest in abolishing it by divine command. That may have done a lot of good in a near term humane sense, but not in an eternal sense, and not for the mysterious glory of God. Much better is exactly what happened—we came to realize, however slowly, that human bondage was an affront to God. The lack of an explicit command to abolish slavery was a feature, not a bug.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bursting with pride...

As CNU is ranked 7th in up-and-coming liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report.

We now have an acceptance rate of 54% and an average SAT of close to 1200. I remember when we we basically an open university with average SATs in the 900's.

The times, they are a' changin'.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Library for sale

My former pastor Jack Hamilton, who died last month, had an impressive book collection.

I mean, he had a really, really impressive book collection.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

From the "Is this a parody?" department

Dispensational Premillennialism has much more than it's fair share of prophecy and numerology kooks. And the WorldNetDaily more than its fair share of obligingly ridiculous articles.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Purposeless Debate

Mega-church pastor and mega-celebrity Rick Warren is hosting a debate between Obama and McCain. That is the type of ministry that was evident in the New Testament church, which often hosted debates between, say, Caesar Vitellius and Caesar Vespasian. Such instruction is found in the long lost Simon Zealot's Epistle to the Politically Active.

Since everyone in blogsville is using a certain phrase from the movie Dodgeball, I want to show I'm hip too:

I just vomited a little in my mouth.

It just seems apropos.

Response to Zebedee

Zebedee, a commenter on my Genesis Days post below, posted a polite critique.

He makes two points, both of which will be addressed in later lessons. Nevertheless I thought a short post devoted to Zebedee’s two points of contention would be in order.

Zebedee’s first point concerns the Hebrew word yöm which gets translated as day in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament. This word has several possible meanings including the daylight portion of a day, a literal 24 hour day, or an indeterminate period such as “in my great grandfather’s day.” The latter accommodates the translation as age or era. Many old earthers, of course, want to apply this definition, that of age, to the six yöms of the Genesis creation account.

That sets the stage for Zebedee’s first point:
The first [point] is the Hebrew term "yom" and its significance throughout scripture when combined with a numerical preceding it, or concluding it. Dr. Morris, and others, have concluded that when "day" is used in this context, such as "the first day", "one day" (depending on your translation), it always refers to a literal 24 hour period when used in the Bible.
I think this is an invalid criticism for two reasons.

The first, and rather strangely the lesser in importance, is that it is not strictly true. Zebedee is arguing that anytime yöm is used in an ordinal sense, it always refers to a literal day. But In Hosea, we read:
1“Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. (Hosea 6:1-2)
In verse 2, the word yöm (day) is used with an ordinal number—the third day. Yet the common interpretation of this passage is both as a Messianic prophesy and the expectation of a long, indeterminate period of affliction and suffering for Israel (e.g., see the commentaries by John Calvin and Matthew Henry).

The second response to the “ordinal usage” argument is based on opportunity. The argument simply carries no weight given that, in all the Old Testament, the only opportunity to use a phrase such as first era, second era, etc. is in Genesis One. It is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament because the need for it never arises. Yes, it is much, much more common to refer to ordinary days in an ordinal sense than ages, and so naturally that usage dominates. To give this point teeth, YECs must find an instance where age is used in an ordinal sense and then argue: see, when the writer really meant to use age in an ordinal sense, he used a different word than yöm.

Zebedee’s second point is:
While offering a positive, or seemingly acceptable view for a "scientific view", your article appears to offer a far less favorable view of the late Dr. Henry Morris, and Dr. John Morris' assertions (both of whom are highly esteemed amongst their peers).
Fair enough, but I want to emphasize on what basis I am most severely criticizing the Drs. Morris. It is not on the basis that they believe in a young earth. It is because they are too liberal. Not literal, but liberal. That is, they take too many liberties with scripture. In particular, they argue that any death before the fall would render Christ, the Son of God, the Creator of all things, powerless to redeem anyone. In the article I quoted in the previous post, John Morris writes:
The doctrine of salvation likewise falls, for if death preceded sin, then death is not the penalty for sin, and Christ's death on the cross—accomplished nothing.
(The essay from John Morris can be found in its entirety here.)

This amounts to arguing: If an elephant, (oops, my bad) crushed an ant before the fall, Christ in heaven would have had no recourse other than to say: Ruh roh, that whole redemption plan that was laid out among the three of us just went down the tubes. Bummer.

And that is an argument that has no basis in scripture. And yet Morris and others use it to cast aspersions and question the orthodoxy of those who do not accept a young earth view. That is legalism, the most insidious form of liberalism, and it is very unappetizing.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  4. The Genesis Days

Notes from a Sunday School that began on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

4. The Genesis Days

The greatest challenge facing those who would like to see greater acceptance of science and faith compatibility comes in the question of the age of the earth. This in turn is tied closely to the interpretation of the word day in Genesis One as an ordinary 24-hour day. Others (myself included) believe that the same word should be interpreted as an indeterminate period of time. Some thoughts to keep in mind:
  1. The insistence on an ordinary day interpretation as a “line in the sand” issue (and as we’ll see, it is indeed in some churches) is relatively modern. It was the advent of the theory of evolution that started this trend. Evolution needs a great deal of time. If you believe the theory of evolution is contrary to the faith and wish to dismiss it trivially, then the easiest way is to insist on a young earth. The evidence for this is found in the creeds and confessions of the church. The Apostle’s and Nicene creeds state that “God created the heavens and the earth.” Neither says when, or how long it took. The Athanasian Creed makes no statement on creation, other than to say each member of the Trinity was not created. The Heidelberg catechism makes no mention of creation days. Similarly for the Belgic Confession. The one exception might be the Westminster Confession, but in fact what it does is quote scripture, which no view finds objectionable.

  2. While the 24-hour view is often called the “literal” interpretation, which tends to give it the high road, in fact it is not the only possible literal interpretation. For it to be the unique literal translation it would have to be the case that the words translated as day always means an ordinary 24-hour day, at least in the context if its usage in Genesis One.

  3. The second point highlights the importance of vocabulary. The leads to a third interesting factoid: Biblical Hebrew had a vocabulary of about 4000 words (not including proper nouns.) Modern English is around 600, 000. That means that a given ancient Hebrew word is likely to map onto multiple English words. And keep in mind that the men who chose the particular mapping were influenced by their culture and their level of scientific knowledge. And they were not infallible.
Had I been one of the translators for the KJV, with no reason to suspect an old earth in 1604, I too would have chosen to use the word day and would have inferred that it meant an ordinary 24-hour period.

Another thing we want to ask ourselves when we approach this topic: what are the priorities as presented in scripture? Consider the following table: 33

The point of the table is that scripture says a great deal about creation, but it says much more about who and what than it has to say about when.

The goal of this section is not to convince anyone that a 24-hour view is incorrect. The goal is to demonstrate that a 24-hour view (and along with it a young earth view) is not required. The issue of the early times is not unlike the end times:

  • Both are subject to radically different interpretations by well-meaning Christians who affirm biblical inerrancy and inspiration.

  • Neither was deemed a line-in-the-sand issue by the early church fathers, creeds, or confessions. Those said nothing more than God created the universe and in the end, Christ will return and all will be judged.
As to testify to the fact that some do in-fact elevate the young-earth view to cardinal importance we take the example of John Morris. Morris is the President of the Institute for Creation Research (www.icr.org), an organization dedicated to teaching “Creation Science” that was founded by his father, Henry Morris. Concerning. Recently I stumbled upon this "Ask Dr. Morris" essay, reproduced here, and entitled Should a Church Take a Stand On Creation? 34
Recently my family and I joined a small church plant pastored by a former student of mine at Christian Heritage College—a man of real wisdom and integrity.

A church constitution was being written, which, of course, included a Statement of Faith. A solid creation and young-earth plank appeared in the first draft.

Although there was no disagreement among the members (many of whom were young Christians) as to the doctrine of special, recent creation, there was concern in making this a requirement for membership. I was asked to comment.

Given the fact that most of America's Bible colleges and seminaries would not even agree with the content of the plank, I acknowledged my own hesitancy about being so exclusive, but I proceeded to demonstrate how beliefs in creation and a young earth are integral parts of Christianity.

The doctrine of God is at stake. for example, is the God of the Bible a gracious, purposeful God of wisdom, or does He resort to trial and error in His deeds, testing His creation by survival of the fittest and delighting in the extinction of the weaker? Is God long ago and far away—only occasionally involved, or is He near and intimately concerned with the affairs of life?

The doctrine of Scripture comes into play. There are few Biblical teachings as clear as that of creation in six days and the companion doctrine of the global flood. Yet these two teachings are denied and ridiculed in many Christian churches today. Can the Scriptures be trusted? Can God say what He means? If a Christian can distort Scripture to teach such beliefs as evolution, progressive creation, an old earth, or a local flood, can that Christian be trusted with other doctrines?

The doctrine of man becomes skewed. Can man, with a brain and reasoning powers distorted by the curse, evaluating only a portion of the evidence, accurately reconstruct the history of the universe? Should his historical reconstructions be put on a higher plane than Scripture? Or is man and his mind locked in the effects of the curse—a poor reflection of the once glorious "image of God"—now blinded by sin and the god of this world, seeing things through a glass darkly?"

The doctrine of sin becomes questionable. If death and bloodshed preceded Adam's rebellion against God, then what are "the ways of sin?" How did the entrance of sin change things?

The doctrine of salvation likewise falls, for if death preceded sin, then death is not the penalty for sin, and Christ's death on the cross—accomplished nothing. Any form of evolution and old-earth thinking is incompatible with the work of Christ.

I still am uncertain about young-earth creationism being a requirement for church membership; perhaps it would be proper to give new members time to grow and mature under good teaching.

But I do know one thing: Creationism should be a requirement for Christian leadership! No church should sanction a pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, elder, or Bible-study leader who knowledgeably and purposefully errs on this crucial doctrine." (emphasis added)
Morris is not sure whether, were they to seek membership, he would find suitable for Christian fellowship men like: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, Gleason Archer, Francis Schaeffer, etc. Well, maybe they could join the church on a probationary basis, but extensive remedial education would be needed to wean them from spiritual Similac and onto solid food.

That aside, his essay is an exercise in logical fallacies. It is not evolution or Morris’s brand of young-earth creationism. Some forms of old earth creationism still invoke special creation. And even theistic evolutionists (who are different from old earth creationists) do not claim that error or chance was involved—they state that God was at all times in control of the genetic adaptations. And his conclusion that any death prior to the fall, say an elephant trampling and ant, an Christ’s work was meaningless, has no basis whatsoever in scripture and can only be said to impugn the deity of Christ and the omnipotence and sovereignty of God.

So, it is worth saying again, it is not the young earth view I seek to challenge, but the legalism of men such as John Morris.

Biblical Timelines

The King James translation was completed 1611. In 1642, John Lightfoot of Cambridge University analyzed genealogies to come with September 17, 3928 BC for the date the universe was created. Not to be outdone by an Englishman, eight years later James Ussher, Anglican archbishop of Ireland, corrected Lightfoot's work. He arrived at a date that would live in infamy: October 3, 4004 BC. (In a final iteration, Lightfoot corrected Ussher's correction, settling on October 18-24, 4004 BC as creation week, with Adam created at 9:00 AM on October 23.)

This date was so-ingrained in the Christians of that era that any child would recite 4004 BC as the year of creation. Ussher's timelines made it into both the marginal notes and the chapter headings of the King James Bible.

Their work ignored Hebrew scholarship. It was based, as mentioned, on biblical genealogies-even though it is well established that biblical genealogies are not chronologies. X begat (or "was the father of") Y does not always imply a one-generation relationship between the two. This both solves and creates problems. And while it is virtually meaningless in terms of the old/young earth debate, it does mean that accountings of the time since Adam roamed the earth are bound to contain errors.

On example we see is in Christ's genealogy in Matthew, where we read:
Asa was the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram
the father of Uzziah. (Matt. 1:8)
which one can compare with
11 Joram his son, Ahaziah his son, Joash his son, 12 Amaziah [Uzziah] his son, Azariah his son, Jotham his son, (1 Chron 3:11-12)
In this genealogy (Amaziah is the same person as Uzziah) we see that there are three generations missing from Matthew's account, which makes Uzziah appear to be Joram’s son rather than his great-grandson. That is all fine and dandy considering Matthew's purpose was to explain Christ's Davidic (legal) bloodline. Nevertheless it calls into question the precision of Matthew’s concluding:
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the
deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. (Matt. 1:17)
I don't know a resolution to this issue, although I don't dwell on it very much. For a more striking example, we read:
Shebuel the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, was officer over the treasures. (1 Chr 26:24)
Shebuel is of the time of David, and yet Gershom is a true next-generation son of Moses (Ex. 2:22) . Thus there are 400+ years between Gershom and his "son" Shebuel.

It is also well known that if genealogies are also chronologies then there are a whole host of additional problems, such as Noah not dying until Abraham was in his fifties. No, it is clear that the bible uses genealogies as historic flows rather than precise family trees. We all are sons of Father Abraham.

These simple examples show that we cannot place too much emphasis on derived, genealogy-based timelines. It is possible that there was much more than two thousand years between Adam and Abraham. I personally believe, based on scientific and archeological evidence, that it was on the order of 100,000 years.

Secular research indicates that by the time Abraham is on the scene, civilizations have risen and fallen. The Stone Age gave way to the Neolithic era (ca. BC 10,000 the era for which remains from the original walled city of Jericho are dated) which gave way to the Bronze Age somewhere around BC 6000. The Bronze Age is subdivided into early, middle and late. Abraham appears somewhere in the "late-middle."

By the time Israel emerged as a nation in the late thirteen century BC, civilization was already ancient. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian and Old and Middle Babylonian Cultures had already risen and fallen. Egyptian civilization, after an extended period of preeminence due to the predictability of Nile flooding, was waning. By Israel’s time, recorded Chinese history is well under way.

The picture from non-biblical history is: a great deal happened between Adam and Abraham. Or Noah and Abraham. Mankind spread about the world, civilizations rose and fell, and God waited patiently. Finally, however, God was ready for the next step in His redemptive plan: a covenant with Abraham. Why Abraham and not, say, some Indian or Chinese nomad? Who knows?--it wasn't because of Abraham's "goodness", it was because Abraham was chosen by God for God's good purpose.

33Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days, NavPress, 2004.
34See Should a Church Take a Stand On Creation? at http://www.icr.org/index.php?module=articles&action=view&ID=1108.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I ain't dead yet

I have lots of Sunday School lessons to put on line--I am actually finished with the science & faith course--but way behind in posting the notes.

Classes start the week after next. I am, for the first time ever, teaching Astronomy! That is going to be a lot of fun, I reckon.

A few weeks ago some of you enjoyed, or found interesting, Bob Estes's post on atheism as a bad habit, like smoking.

He has a follow-up.

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Public Service Announcement

Well alrighty then! You can add to this to the list of things you were probably worried about but now, thanks to the fact that you had the good sense to read this blog, you don’t have to!

Here it is:
Barack Obama is not, I repeat not the antichrist!
I mean, that was certainly keeping me awake at night.

How can we rest assured that there is no 666 birthmark hidden on Obama’s scalp? Well, because so says über-dispensationalist, prophecy guru, and all-around fun guy Tim LaHaye, co-author of the famous Left Behind cash cow series. In an important press release put out by the Christian News Wire, LaHaye tells us:
I can see by the language he uses why people think he [Obama] could be the antichrist, but from my reading of scripture, he doesn't meet the criteria. There is no indication in the Bible that the antichrist will be an American.
I am thankful for men like LaHaye, men who tirelessly perform all the heavy lifting--all that tedious bible reading stuff--so that if he says that Revelation does not teach something like: "and the beast will come from a land called the U.S. of A, and he will support the Designated Hitter rule and Toyota in NASCAR" that we can be pretty darn condfident.

So who is the antichrist? My money is on Chinese actress Zhāng Zǐyí. She was born on 2/9/1979, and 666=(1979+2×9+1)/3. Plus if you add up the numerical value of her name in biblical Hebrew, you get -1, which is awfully suspicious.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Reason Number 3245...

concerning why I do not like James Dobson's Focus on the Family, which should, perhaps, more properly be called "Focus on American Politics (from the friendly confines of an expensive, techno-production-studio campus in Colorado Springs that would make any university proud--if only they could afford it) instead of Focusing on the Gospel."

Here FOTF's Stuart Shepard asks: is it OK to pray for God to send a downpour to disrupt Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the convention?

The answer, in my opinion, is no. The question, in my opinion, shouldn't even be asked.