Friday, May 31, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Washington D.C

The spudmeister's comments about the south reminded me of my favorite description of Washington, D.C.:

Washington D.C. combines Northern hospitality with Southern efficiency.

The beauty of this is that nobody can accuse you of insulting D.C. without being guilty of insulting the entire country (think about it).

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Blogger Pro 1.1 Bug

I generally compose my posts in M.S. Word (none of that StarOffice stuff for me Marc, no sir!-- what's good for MS is good for America!) and paste them into the blogger editor. That was fine until they upgraded to Blogger Pro 1.1. Now certain punctuation is rendered into HTML as a question mark -- for example don't from MS Word ultimately ends up as don?t. Interestingly enough

  • The text looks fine in the blogger edit window.
  • It looks fine in the preview window too, which is really insidious.
  • If you retype it (which is both a pain and silly, e.g., change all instances of don't to don't) it will be fine.
  • Blogger Pro 1.0 (which you can switch back to) does not have that problem.

So I guess my posts looked a little odd recently (in addition to reading a bit odd, which is normal). Since I will often forget to switch to 1.0, the weird characters may return.

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Joining a New Church

Some of you know from email discussions that we recently moved to New Hampshire from Virginia. Big, big change. Virginia is Bible belt; New England by comparison is virtually post-Christian. But God always provides for his people. After searching hither and yon for a clone of our Virginia church (literally driving across the state, tiny as it is) we found a great church just near our new home.

Our Virginia church was Reformed Baptist with a venerable 80-year-old pastor still sharp as a tack. (He still calls it the War of Northern Aggression, much to our delight). Our new church is also Baptist, not officially "Reformed" but solidly Bible believing/teaching with a non-negligible contingent of Calvinistic rabble-rousers, a great pastor, and a zealous youth group that is not afraid to head to the mall, witness (politely) to the shoppers, and summarily get tossed out for soliciting.

On Wednesday night we met with the elders and pastor to give our testimonies in preparation for joining. I let my wife go first—a mistake because her testimony is much better than mine. She was raised in a Buddhist family in Taiwan and had to deal with all kinds of spiritism. She heard the good news from missionaries who used a clever trick: if you signed up for English lessons and then also attended a bible study regularly, then after a certain time they would refund your tuition for the English class. Cute huh? Legal in the US? I don’t know.

I also am from a non-believing family, although I was a "seeker", if you know what I mean. I starting going to church regularly because it was important to my wife (then my girlfriend). Then I began to enjoy it on a purely intellectual level (or so it seemed). After a bit of moving around we landed at a great Presbyterian (PCA) church that took education very seriously: the Sunday schools were like graduate classes. I loved it. Somehow slowly, with God's grace, I also came to believe it. The closest thing I had to an epiphany was the first time I heard the pastor preach about the thief on the cross:

"And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:41-43, NASB)

That was my first experience of crying like a baby in church.

A question to ponder

Yesterday I met with a man from our church who is a new believer. We talked about coming from non-believing families—how we had this in common. We could share the pain of contemplating the fate of lost family members, and the difficulty in sharing the gospel with them. I began to wonder if the witnessing from people who grew up in Christian homes is qualitatively different (not better or worse, just different) from that of "orphan" believers. Don't know—any thoughts?

Thursday, May 30, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Rewards in Heaven

Do Christians receive different rewards in heaven? I think that they do, although you have to examine a number of verses to build the case.

This is not a popular subject. In my experience I have heard more sermons on "fire and brimstone" than on our rewards.

Judgement Seat of Christ

Get ready (if you're a Christian) to be brought before the Judgment Seat of Christ:

But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Rom 14:10, NASB)

For we must all appear the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Cor 5:10, NASB)

Upon in-context examination it is clear that the we in these verses refers to Christians. The final terrible judgment for unbelievers is the White Throne Judgement described in Rev 20:11-15. That is an appointment that you do not want to find in your Palm Pilot.

2 Cor 5:10 makes it clear that (1) we will be judged and (2) we will be paid commensurate with our deeds, both good and bad. There are many other verses that speak of rewards, such as

knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. (Eph 6:8, NASB)

The well know verse:

"But store up for yourselves (1) treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; (Matthew 6:20, NASB)

also teaches that we, through our actions on earth, can store treasure in heaven.

The apostles are promised rewards for dropping everything and following Christ, as are those who suffer persecution and stand firm. A careful search will reveal about 25 passages in the New Testament that talk of rewards. For some, but not all, it could be argued the promised rewards are for this life, not the one to come.

Doctrine of Works

One of the reasons this idea is not popular is the unpleasant notion of haves and have-nots in heaven. But this is tied up with our propensity, in our fallen state, to covet-- a sin which will not be part our glorified nature. I don't think we will envy others, but might we regret our own missed opportunities?

Another objection to commensurate rewards is that it implies our works are meritorious, which goes against the grain of any by-grace-alone red-blooded evangelical. So just to clarify:

  • Works done before you are saved have nothing to do with your salvation.
  • Works done after you are saved will affect your reward (and give you assurance)

This is not a salvation-by-works philosophy.

Interestingly none can complain of a lack of opportunity:

For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph 2:10, NASB)

The Wrong Argument

Many prominent theologians have made supporting statements along the lines of: It is inconceivable that (pick one or more) {Paul, Stephen, Daniel, David, ..} receives the same reward as (pick one or more) {Thief on the cross, Ananias (if he is saved), Sapphira (if she is saved), …}.

While I believe their rewards are different, it is not for this reason. This is basically the If I were God, then… argument which is always dangerous, even if it sounds reasonable. Apart from supporting scripture such an argument, no matter the source and no matter how reasonable, should be treated with suspicion.

Arguments Against

One argument against different rewards is that, yes we get different rewards as a result of judgment but we turn around and give them right back:

And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created." (Rev 4:9-11, NASB)

Possibly, but I donut see this as saying all rewards are in the form of crowns. The rewards Christ talks about to the apostles, for example, sound more like privileged positions in our roles as joint heirs.

Another argument is the parable of the laborers, in Matthew 20.
(This is were the workers who toiled only one hour get the same wages as those that worked all day).

I agree that the most straightforward interpretation of this parable is equal rewards in heaven. However, in light of all the passages suggesting different rewards, well, something has to give. Some interpret this parable to apply only to the gift of salvation: the thief on the cross is "as saved" as the Apostle Paul. Another possibility is that the new comers refer to the Gentiles, while those putting in a longer day are the Jews.

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Secular Non-Evangelical Conservatives

I appear to have struck a nerve, at least in the microclimate of the evangelical blogosphere, with my Abraham Lincoln post. I'll address two responses, first from Kevin Holtsberry. Kevin wrote:

I think claiming that God is using events like 9/11 to judge nations is presumptuous and unhelpful. First of all, it raises a host of issues that are not easily resolvable.

Let me remake the point, almost superfluous now, that neither my recent post nor its ideological parent post argued forcefully that we were punished-- although I allowed that I thought we were. The gist of those posts was a complaint against a certain type of political correctness displayed even by our allies-- identified specifically with what Buckley wrote, shortly post 9/11: "we dismiss as preposterous the notion that, on September 11, God was the hijackers' co-pilot". Buckley's view was echoed by other NRO contributors.

Kevin goes on, nicely restating the arguments heard in the aftermath of the Falwell/Robertson debacle:

Do we really believe that God at some point decided that America was too sinful and that it was time for some innocent people to die a horrible death so that those left behind might repent? This is a rather harsh "Old Testament" type view of God's actions for today.

Well yes, I believe it is possible and provide as evidence: the entire Old Testament. Time and time again the Jews were punished as a nation, and in those punishments those killed or enslaved were innocent (in the sense that I believe Mr. Holtsberry uses the word). It is indeed an "Old Testament" type of view, which Mr. Holtsberry seems to use pejoratively, but most evangelicals would agree that the God of today is the same as the God of time of the patriarchs. He is immutable.

More from Kevin:

America is not the children of Israel interacting directly with God in its daily decisions. And how does this work exactly, I mean when do we know disasters are God's judgment? Do we just assume if something is bad enough it must be God's judgment? The problem with this view is that at base it is blaming someone else - God and America.

The first sentence is tricky-- it is certainly true (America is not the Children of Israel) but what I inferred was Mr. Holtsberry also saying that God is not involved, day-to-day, with what goes on in America. That I disagree with. As to how do we know if it is God's judgement? We don't-- does that mean we are fools worthy of contempt for suggesting the possibility? And this view never blames God. May it never be! It does suggest that America may be culpable-- while at the same time most evangelicals strongly support the war effort and believe captured terrorists should be given a fair trial followed by a fair hanging. The precedent is again the Old Testament, where those nations used to punish the Jews were themselves judged for their actions. Go figure.

Mr. Holtsberry goes on to criticize Falwell and Robertson. Again, this was Buckley’s device: Attack the credibility of the messenger and, by association, the message. I also criticized the gentlemen for their focusing on certain sins in my original post and in response to a comment to my second post.

Continuing with Kevin's post:

What they [Falwell and Robertson] were saying, in their mock seriousness and their false humility, was that non-Christians were going to hell and God decided to call in the chips early. With this arrogant assumption of God's knowledge they switch responsibility from themselves to others and ultimately to God. Man has enough trouble worrying about his own sins letting alone taking over God's job of judging nations in their entirety and deciding which tragedies are God's punishment for man's sins.

I am not sure if Kevin is criticizing their belief that non-Christians are going to hell or if that is only in conjunction with God "cashing in the chips". Let's be clear on the former: non-Christians are going to hell. As for the rest of the paragraph it is, essentially, the "judge not lest ye be judged" argument so often misused against conservative (evangelical and Catholic) orthodoxy.

Kevin (and later Mark Byron) rally to Mr. Buckley’s defense:

William F. Buckley is a man of faith - not an evangelical for sure - and to cast him aside as a "secular conservative" is a bit strong.

I accept this criticism. From now on I will use non-evangelical conservative if the need arises. I apologize to anyone who took offense with the term secular conservative.

Kevin's political advice was:

Evangelicals need to begin to construct a political strategy that goes beyond "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me." I am not one to see Abe Lincoln as the beginning of a totalitarian USA, but simply quoting the prayers of Lincoln and comparing it to today do not prove America is going to hell with the help of secular conservatives.

Sorry Kevin, but I think "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me" is a perfectly adequate strategy. I don't really know how to respond to the Abe Lincoln/totalitarian sentence. I was merely making two points, viz., Lincoln's proclamation was remarkable by today's standards and anyone applying it to 9/11 would likely be ridiculed across the board, including by many non-evangelical conservatives.

Now on to my good friend Mark Byron, who gave Kevin's post a hearty endorsement and then elaborated. I have already done a mea culpa about the secular conservative term, so I'll skip over that.

Dr. Byron writes:

If Dr. Heddle can point out a few other positions where Buckley disagrees with a standard conservative evangelical political platform, he'd have a better case.

I cannot (off the top of my head) but that was sort of my point, apparently made badly, that we agree with people like Buckley most of the time-- but if our evangelical side intrudes: watch out. Buckley did not couch his view as a respectful difference of opinion with his evangelical friends, he dismissed us derisively.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence is the treatment of Ann Coulter (she was fired from NRO) for her comment, again just post 9/11-- (I am working from memory here) something along the lines of "we should invade their countries [those Islamic nations that support terrorism-- almost redundant if not for Turkey -- my comment not AC's] and convert them to Christianity."

Dr. Byron does not like my use of "useful idiots"

I'm not the least bit comfortable with Dr. Heddle's use of "useful idiots." That was most famously used by Lenin to describe the clueless leftists in the West who supported him, not understanding what he was up to. The analogy of the National Review crew being some sort of Papist Bolsheviks doesn't quite add up, unless he's trying to equate the evangelical community supporting the non-evangelical conservatives as analogous to the Chompskite left cluelessly covering for socialism. That would also assume that our Papist Bolsheviks had an anti-evangelical platform that we are not seeing.

(Coincidentally, NRO's Corner has an unrelated post today that uses the 'Useful Idiot' phrase.)

It is Mr. Buckley’s wont, in his wonderful wordsmithing columns, to note that usage is king. I plead the same here-- the term "useful idiots" is often used to refer to a group whose support you accept (and indeed depend upon) but whose positions, especially when they differ from yours, are of no consequence. You want their vote but you do not want to see them at the inaugural ball. And yes, I do suspect that is what many non-evangelical conservatives think of us.

And, forgive me if I am wrong (I am more comfortable with numbers than words) but Mark seems to be commenting as if I said "we are like useful idiots" -- what I said was "they look at evangelicals as 'useful idiots’.”

Mark goes on to make the point that we need to make a political alliance with a variety of conservative-leaning groups in order to stop the liberals at the gates. I agree, up to a point. But the Republican Party, especially as it reaches out to moderates of a pro-choice bent, is stretching me to my elastic limit.

Culture Wars

Jeffery Collins of Joyful Christian Fame comments on this in as much as it applies to the culture wars. He is saying, if I read him correctly, that forming alliances to win the culture wars is perhaps not the most effective use of our evangelical energies. I agree.

I will also point out a more basic point of contention: that forming alliances to fight the culture wars is not manifestly right. How many evangelicals would be comfortable forming an alliance with Muslims to fight pornography? I don't mean merely working in parallel, but together, with a joint mission statement (most likely to include a prohibition against offensive proselytizing) and board of directors? I would not-- but I don't have a clue as to whether that is a majority or lunatic fringe position.

I know that this was a hot topic in the mid 90's when the Evangelicals and Catholics Together joint proclamation to fight the culture wars was signed by many big shot evangelists. However, in case you think that was universally lauded by (all big shot) Evangelicals, look here.

Whew! I sat at my computer to write a short post on whether Christians have different rewards in heaven – a post that will have to wait until tomorrow – and an hour later I have this monstrosity!

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Why did we 'evolve' to the point that we can understand evolution?

One of the more interesting bullets in the case that one builds against natural selection is the fact that the ability to create such a theory provides no obvious survival advantage.

Sure, intelligence is obviously advantageous-- but you would expect it to be more of the "craftiness" variety. You can imagine ways that abstract reasoning would be useful too-- but why do we have so much capability?

Why did man develop the ability to create an appreciate art and music? To write poetry? To understand the most esoteric theoretical physics? There was a famous Nobel Laureate physicist named Dirac who predicted the discovery of antimatter. It is said that the only justification he offered for his equations (prior to their experimental verification) was that they were so beautiful they had to be right.

How can natural selection explain this? The ability to conceptualize at such a level might benefit the species (especially in the area of medical breakthroughs) but it is not easy to see how it gives that individual an advantage in terms of passing his genes along. And in fact it may take generations before one person’s scientific breakthrough is developed into something practical that can extend our lives.

For natural selection to explain such high level thinking, It is usually incorporated into the idea that it works at the species level as well as the individual. Somehow our genes, in an amazing and random development, “know” that it is good to advance the knowledge base of the species – knowledge that may not serve any practical purpose at the moment (or ever).

The whole business of extrapolating natural selection to the species level is quite speculative. I understand how natural selection is supposed to account for macro evolution, and I believe it does account for some small micro evolutionary adaptation, but there is no plausible mechanism to explain how species-wide natural selection works, and how it (the selfless gene) would have developed in the first place.

In John Polkinghorne’s book Belief in God in an Age of Science He quotes Sherlock Holmes to make this same point. Apparently Holmes once told Dr. Watson he did not care whether the Earth went around the Sun or vice versa, for it had no relevance to the persuits of his daily life! Precisely!

One has to make a huge leap from Darwin’s theory to explain how Darwin had the type of brain that was able to come up with the theory in the first place.

This is not by any means a slam-dunk argument against natural selection. It is just one of the more interesting nails in the coffin.

Monday, May 27, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Memorial Day

Everyday, from here and throughout eternity, is a memorial to Christ’s amazing sacrificial death for the sake of hell deserving sinners.

On this day, however, it is also good and proper to pause and remember others who died for us. Unlike Christ they did not live perfect lives. Unlike Christ, their motives were no doubt influenced by human corruption.

That, however, is an unfair standard. Died for us they did—not so that we could enjoy eternal life, but that we could enjoy liberty in this temporary earthly existence. Among those freedoms they protected is the freedom to worship without fear of persecution, a freedom that most of us took advantage of yesterday without giving it much thought.

By any human measure, they were extraordinary heroes.

Let us also remember those that even now are fighting in our newest war. Keep them in your prayers.

Abraham Lincoln Proclamation – Can You Imagine This was Once Possible?

Yesterday our pastor read this proclamation by Lincoln:

March 30, 1863
Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation:

And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord:

And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!

It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th. day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Can you imagine any modern president making such a statement? And doing so at the request of the senate? Unthinkable!

Useful Idiots

It also reminds me of something I wrote about in an earlier post. Secular conservatives (and the Republican Party) enjoy our support for their causes, yet they not only denied Lincoln’s arguments, when applied to 9/11, they treated such views with contempt. Since 9/11 I now read Buckley, Goldberg and their minions with a great deal of suspicion. I personally believe that they look at evangelicals as “useful idiots.”

Friday, May 24, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Common Grace

Is man as bad as he can be? It seems to me the answer is a crystal clear: yes and no.

Yes we are totally depraved-- as described in the book of Romans:


Left on our own we cannot do anything good; anything that is pleasing to God. We Calvinists take this to its logical (at least for us) conclusion: we cannot turn to God on our own, even just to accept his offer, for surely such an acceptance would be good. You don’t have to go this far to acknowledge that, apart from God, man is morally bankrupt.

On the other hand, man is not as bad as he could be. Even the worst monsters: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, hard as it may seem, could have murdered more. As the humanists like to point out, most people appear, in terms of their outwardly day-to-day behavior, to be good. Indeed, the world around us abounds in Good Samaritans. In terms of “doing nice things”, it is hard to see a huge quantitative difference between believers and the world. (Unlike many who comment on this, I don’t find it shameful. What is shameful is the flip side: that the statistics for some “bad” behavior, especially divorce, are not substantively different.)

The answer to this is what is described in the concept of Common Grace. God gives to all men a measure of restraint. I don’t know all the reasons, but presumably one of them is to prevent us from self-destructing as a species. Here is where we disagree with the humanists: man is not intrinsically good, forced into evil by genetics or the environment. Man is intrinsically bad with wholesale degradation avoided only by God's grace.

God’s removal of this restraint, either gradually or dramatically, is the frightening process of having one’s heart hardened, the most famous biblical example being that of Pharaoh. However, anyone holding onto a particular sin, refusing to repent and seek divine assistance in combating it, also runs the terrible risk of having his heart hardened:

Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. (Rom 1:14, NASB)

God is not the author of sin. For his divine purposes he does at times withdraw his restraining influence in a person, revealing more of man’s truly fallen state. The dire consequences are entirely man’s fault, not God’s.

Thursday, May 23, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Another Mail Call

I have been corresponding with a new friend – recently we were discussing the charismatic question. Not which side is right, but whether or not the debate is even edifying. In response to my telling him I intended to study this more, he wrote:


Should You be convinced by more study and talk with others? What would that mean in the grand scheme of the universe? Why does this subject mean so much to You? Why not let the charismatic's and non-charismatic's debate until the-end-of-time, Jesus will take care of things like this when He is ready to let everyone know which side was right in the eyes of God. It may very well be that neither side is right. Where would that fit into Your search for Righteousness?

This is a fair and troubling question. I am not sure I have a good answer. But I’ll try.

First of all, we are commanded to speak the truth in too many verses to reproduce here. Just a few:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my with me in the Holy Spirit,
that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.
(Rom 9:1, NASB)

For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth. (2 Cor 13:8, NASB)

And the fearsome:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Gal 1:8, NASB)

On the other hand, we have the warning:

But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. (Titus 3:0, NASB)

So we are commanded to preach the truth, and yet avoid foolish controversies.

This means, conversely, that we are not to avoid serious, substantive controversies.

So my answer to my reader’s question is: We should not debate the issue if is a foolish controversy, otherwise we must debate it.

On what basis?

Of course the difficult question is then, when is the debate a foolish one? I take the Gal 1:8 verse as my guide—to me this says: If someone is demonstrably teaching a different gospel then surely they should be confronted.

The proof of the error must come from scripture, and scripture alone.

So, for example, I will not have a serious debate with anyone about eschatology. (Well, perhaps for amusement purposes, but never with any sense of earnestness.) I just don’t see it as important—I fully expect to see pre, post, and amillennial believers in glory. Obviously many, if not all of us, will have been wrong.

On the other hand, I would always be willing to confront someone who teaches a different gospel, such as salvation by works. I am also willing to confront easy-believism, which is rampant in my own denomination.

As for the debate between charismatics and non-charismatics—I just don’t know whether it is an edifying or foolish debate (which is why I want to study it more). If I am convicted that it is a foolish controversy, then I should not stir up the pot. However if I am convicted that is a serious error, I must (in love) confront charismatic believers. I would expect them to do the same for me.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Circular Logic

My new pal Marc Velazquez has become the de facto moderator in a discussion about whether one should use the Bible’s claim of inerrancy as proof of – its inerrancy. Some threads of this argument lead back to a post of mine, so I thought I'd offer a little clarification of my view, for what it’s worth.

I do not think that you should use the Bible’s claim as direct “proof”, as this is indeed circular and will get you flunked out of Rhetoric 101 (which is, of course, not taught anymore – having be replaced with courses like How Maya D’Angelou’s poetry foresaw the Glorious Palestinian Uprising.)

My argument was this:

  • As believers, we have to decide how much credence to place in the Bible.

  • If the Bible is just a “little bit” wrong, maybe we can toss out those things we don’t like, such as those nasty requirements that elders should be men.

  • The fact that the Bible claims its own inerrancy (2 Tim 3:16) means, to me, it has raised the standard—it is hard for something which claims to be totally and absolutely correct to be just a little wrong.

In other words, the Bible’s self referential claim leaves us, it seems to me, a choice between a Bible that is in grievous error, or one that is inerrant. I choose the latter.

Does that avoid the circularity? I'm not sure. I never studied Rhetoric.

Posts are in reverse chronological order.


Surely the most sublime of God’s attributes is Holiness. I believe it is the least understood aspect of His character, and also that it is the ultimate explanation for what are, in my mind, the great mysteries and spiritual questions.

I don’t understand holiness because I don’t believe I have ever met a person of whom I thought of as holy. In all other of God’s attributes: He is loving, patient, merciful, etc., you can see small, imperfect doses of these same traits in man – and then at least try to extrapolate to the infinite and perfect to get a mental picture of God. But not holiness—it is not found in fallen man.

But, you protest, we are called to be holy:

but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior;
because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY." If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth;
(1 Peter 1:15-17, NASB)

Not being a bible scholar, and not able to read Greek or Hebrew (Peter is quoting from the Old Testament) I do not know if holy, as used here, is what I am talking about—or if it (holy) is used here (as I have been told) as a synonym for sanctified—at least when applied to man.

God’s holiness is something so profound that we, lacking understanding, cannot really understand His ways. Of course we know that if man is accorded even a glimpse of God the results are fearsome – as it was for Isaiah:

Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." (Is 6:5, NASB)

Holiness results in sin being, not just repulsive, but intolerable. Holiness and sin cannot exist in close proximity. That is why I stand by my statement that I have never met a holy man.

Mysteries Explained!

Actually, not really. With this view of holiness, ironically the very idea that holiness is utterly non-human and thus unknowable, I can start to get handle on some profound mysteries. It is not that I truly understand them -- it is more that I can at least perceive a vague thread of an explanation, which will probably have to suffice this side of eternity. A few examples:

  • Why do we need a savior? God is all powerful and no doubt could open wide the gates of heaven and institue an open enrollment policy. Yes, we have a committed a crime. Yes he is a God of justice. No, we cannot pay the penalty. Yes Christ’s death pays the penalty for us (in full). But that begs the question: Why is it seemingly impossible for God to merely waive the penalty? I believe simply saying He is a God of justice merely recasts the mystery as an attribute-- a tautology if you will. His need for justice is a result of His holiness, which requires justice while allowing for mercy.
  • Heavenly Absences. How is it that in heaven we won’t be utterly devastated by the absence of unsaved loved ones? Somehow witnessing God’s holiness firsthand will overwhelm any feelings of loss. How can man understand this? No matter how many times I am told I won't grieve for lost family members... well I believe it but I don't really believe it, if you know what I mean. I can only imagine that God's holiness is the answer.
  • Heavenly Activity. There is not much in the bible about what we do in heaven, but it seems (mostly from the book of Revelation) that we will be praising God 24/7.

    And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created." (Rev 4:9-11, NASB)

    Something about God’s holiness will mean that, as we praise Him and worship him forever, we will be in a state of great joy rather than (admit, you worry about this too) bored. Without even a glimpse of his holiness our fantasy of heaven usually involves thinking we can wake up any giving morning, stretch and exclaim: “I think I’ll spend the next few thousand years mastering the oboe.”

Often I try to think about what holiness actually means. I always conclude: I don't know.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

More “Sufficiency” Stream-of-Consciousness

I have been thinking more about the questions on the sufficiency that arose last week. Inevitably this turned into a discussion on Charismatic Christianity. (I wanted to say it resulted in a feeding-frenzy of posts, counter-posts, and emails to make it sound like I had AndrewSullivan-like readership, but I decided that would combine lying with covetousness, probably not a good way to start the day).

Mark Velazquez over on Spudlets wrote: “Christians who don't actively embrace the Holy Spirit are missing out on the power of God.”

That perfectly captures the nature of the debate for me:

  • Non-charismatics question whether anything supernatural is actually happening. Furthermore, if something supernatural is happening, they doubt it is of God.
  • Charismatics assert that the rest of us are, in effect, second class believers – missing out on a supreme spiritual gift. Furthermore, it is often said that non-charismatics (Is there a word for that?) have no right to take a critical look at something they never experienced.

Both sides point to scripture for support. The strongest proponents on each side go as far as to call into doubt the salvation of those with the opposing view, in spite of the fact that in all other substantive theological points the two sides will agree as much with the other camp as they do amongst themselves. It is a very, very heartbreaking debate, in my opinion.

I try to hide from this debate, and that is probably wrong. For my gut tells me this is an important debate, not a minor technical theological difference. One of these two groups is in serious error.

Monday, May 20, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

The Genetic Excuse

I find myself in the minority of conservative Christians in the debate over whether homosexuals were “born that way” or “learned/chose” to be gay. Usually Christians say homosexuals are not born gay (and site scientific studies involving twins to prove their point.) Others will say homosexuals are born gay (and site scientific studies involving twins to prove their point.)

Aside: I find it annoying that some of the same Christians who demonize scientists (when it suits them) will refer to science (when it suits them). Exit soapbox.

Personally, I find it entirely plausible that some homosexuals are born that way. The important point: it doesn’t matter. And a Christian arguing forcefully that nobody is born a homosexual implies that it does matter; that the only reason homosexuality is a sin is that people freely choose to engage in it.

I believe this is an unsound argument. It invokes the secular view of free-will to explain sin-- when it is generally accepted (especially by we Calvinists) that this view of the free-will (that I can choose whatever I want, whenever I want, for no particular reason) is incompatible with God’s sovereignty. (And this view of free-will is also a logical impossibility -- but let's not go there.)

My position on this is that I believe some people are born with a proclivity towards homosexuality, just as some are born with a propensity to lie, gossip, steal, etc. It does not seem to bother Christians that we all are born with a natural tendency to sin; it only seems to be a problem for that one lightening-rod issue. I say it doesn’t matter if you were born that way, I was also born with a sin nature. You have to fight it just as I have to fight my particular weaknesses. And we are held accountable regardless. Of course we do know that, while the battle is life-long, victory through grace is possible:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. (1 Cor 10:13, NASB)


And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Cor 12:9, NASB)

Canine and Feline Theology

My son told me this one:

Dog: Wow! These people feed me, take care of me, and love me! They must be god!

Cat: Wow! These people feed me, take care of me, and love me! I must be god!

Of course, we dog-lovers have long understood that cats are minions of the antichrist.

Friday, May 17, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

1 Chronicles 11:23 -- which is the better translation?

From my favorite translation, the NASB:

He killed an Egyptian, a man of great stature five cubits tall. Now in the Egyptian's hand was a spear like a weaver's beam, but he went down to him with a club and snatched the spear from the Egyptian's hand and killed him with his own spear.

And from the New American (Catholic) Bible:

He likewise slew the Egyptian, a huge man five cubits tall. The Egyptian carried a spear that was like a weaver's heddle-bar, but he came against him with a staff, wrested the spear from the Egyptian's hand, and killed him with his own spear.

What's up with that? My brother once owned a Heddle Bar-- sold mostly Iron City Beer as I recall.

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Idolizing Theologians

Have you ever fallen into the trap of spending too much time reading a favorite theologian, at the expense reading the Bible? I did. It took someone else making the same error to snap me out of it. My weakness is R. C. Sproul. I love both the substance of his teachings and the style with which he delivers them: scholarly with a dash of (often self-deprecating) humor. (Plus we shared a Pittsburgh heritage and were both Pittsburgh Steelers' fans). On one of his tapes he talks about debating with a physics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, probably at the time I was a physics student there. I didn’t attend, which is fortuitous: at that time I would have been cheering for the wrong side.

At some point during my walk I began reading all the R. C. Sproul books I could find. And watching his tapes. And listening to his radio broadcasts.

At some point a fairly large group at my (previous, in another state) church became enamored (to say the least) with Douglas Wilson of Credenda Agenda fame who, for my tastes, is very unSproulian. I find him to be condescending (and, forgive me, arrogant) where Sproul is nurturing, humble, and yet just as uncompromising.

As I said, he became a bit hit at our church. (I don’t know if it were so with the pastor, himself a great teacher – he often warned us not to look for too much in Christian theology literature– I should have listened to him sooner!) The church even launched a school using Wilson’s model (Which I think is flawed, but that, as they say, is for another day.) I began hearing more-and-more of “Wilson says…” or “Did you read in Credenda Agenda were it said…” It reached critical mass at a morning Bible study on eschatology when I heard: “Wilson says he doesn’t see how anyone can be Reformed if they aren’t post-millennial.”

I went home from that feeling incensed. But then I started thinking about how many times I began sentences with “R.C. Sproul says….” And if someone else started a sentence that way, I probably smiled rather than cringed. I realized that I was spending too much of my devotion time on books by Christians rather than The Book For Christians.

I still love to read Sproul, I just read him in “controlled doses”. Slap me on the wrist if I refer to him too often.

Poor R.C.

There is one thing about R. C. Sproul that makes me feel a little bit sorry for him: that the spelling of his name is so close to that of Spong (as in “Bishop” John Shelby Spong). It seems an especially onerous lexicographical thorn to have in one’s side. In the mega-bookstores I will cautiously wend my way past the Wiccans in the New Age section (lest I spill my cappuccino and be turned into a newt) to see the offerings on the Christian shelves. As my eyes wander to the “S” section I am dismayed to find Spong but not Sproul. I would not recommend even browsing one of Spong’s books—especially if you just had lunch. (Sample: Among other hideous, bilious notions, Spong regurgitates the supposition that Paul and Timothy were gay.)

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Mail Call

I thought I would share an email (having obtained permission from the sender).


I am fairly new Christian (although an experienced student of philosophy), and I have come to Christianity because I have spent 25 years studying the world and the evidence of Christianity seems to me overwhelming. I am [now] reading thru the entire Bible, to give me the correct baseline (I have completed the New Testiment, and am currently in Numbers in the Old Testiment). I read your description of what a Christian is, and agree with all the points I understand, but I do not entirely understand the first: "The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God."

I don't quite know what you mean. I recognize the Bible as an important resource for understanding God's will, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the community of Christian believers, but since I group it with these other things I am having trouble with "sufficient", especially since my (no doubt limited) understanding that it is *only* with the support of the Holy Spirit that we can really get what God wants us to out of the Bible.

And I don't understand "inerrant", either. Again, with the Holy Spirit at our elbows I have faith we will make no mistakes, as long as we listen. But the book itself has passed thru the hands of men, and they will introduce errors if *they* don't listen, and some are bound to have failed in that regard since we are all sinners. After all, there are many translations of the Bible, and approached literally they do not all agree. So what does "inerrant" mean?

My Response

Dear Reader,

Your letter points out a serious flaw with the Christian blog format: the possibility of overwhelming a new believer with small, terminology-laden snippets. If you were what we normally think of as a "new believer" or someone just searching, then I would advise you to ignore all this terminology for now and to let me call you on the phone to tell you that we all are sinners in need of a savior, that Christ is that Savior and he died for us -- paying the full price of our sins, and best of all he offers salvation as a free gift.

From your letter I surmise that you already have heard this good news, and are now undertaking a serious study to improve your understanding. I will be talking as a fellow believer but definitely a layman -- I have no formal theological training. Your email said you have been reading the bible (GREAT!) but it did not say whether you attended a church. If you don't, then your first order of business is to start attending a bible believing church. You can also ask your pastor and elders these questions. Ultimately, discernment will be your responsibility – but thankfully you won't be alone – pray for guidance by the Holy Spirit.

On Bible Inerrancy

I believe the original writings were inspired and hence inerrant. If not, we are basically the most miserable of creatures for we are worshiping an invented god. Inerrancy and inspiration do not require that God literally dictated the words. It means that each author was so powerfully guided as to preclude even the possibility of error -- and yet violence was not done to his individual style or personality.

Now, what about the influence of men? There are two possibilities here. One is that men messed up the canon -- i.e., which books made it into the Bible. The other is that translators have corrupted what was originally perfect.

There are good histories of the Bible that will address this in excruciating detail. Let me try to summarize as I see it.

The men who selected the canon and who organized translations were scholarly, meticulous believers. For a mini history lesson, look here. To me, it is manifest that they were also guided by the Holy Spirit. Scholarly review has documented how accurate the accepted translations have been. There really aren’t substantive differences among, say, the NKJV, NASB and NIV, just to take an example. This is especially impressive when you contrast it with translations of literature. Different translations of The Iliad or Dante’s Inferno differ much, much, more than Bible translations.

Nevertheless (assuming you aren’t going to learn Greek and Hebrew) a good (albeit expensive) strategy is to obtain study Bibles for a couple of widely accepted translations. While the notes are not inspired, they will often give insight as to what was in the Greek or Hebrew text. Commentaries are also helpful.

On Bible Sufficiency

You were the first to call me on this! In an earlier post What is A Christian I wrote:

The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God.

Aside: A reader has graciously (and correctly) pointed out that I biased my definition such that I was really talking about the more narrow definition of what is a Reformed Christian (i.e., Calvinist). See the comments for that post.

I italicized and sufficient without comment. Primarily because I believe it to be so:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Rev 22:18-19, NASB)


Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. (Jude 1:3, NASB)

To me (but not to everyone) these verses say: revelation ended with the apostolic age; the Word is both necessary and sufficient.

This is a contentious issue. It can be very devisive between Christians who are Charismatic and those who are not. I don’t know how to deal with this division; it is very painful because it is among believers who have so much in common. I didn’t want to go there, especially with new believers -- so I italicized "and sufficient" as a way to signal my non-charismatic position.

Sufficient in no way implies we don’t need the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, without His help the words would be foolishness to our ears. And it does not mean that you can squirrel yourself away in some corner with the Bible with no need of anything else. You will need instruction from Godly teachers and regular fellowship with a body of believers. It means (in my mind) that no additional revelation or true prophet will be forthcoming until Christ returns.

A Final Comment

Your letter stated:

Again, with the Holy Spirit at our elbows I have faith we will make no mistakes, as long as we listen.

At first I was going to disagree, but maybe this is true. The problem is that we are imperfect listeners. The Holy Spirit is working with damaged goods. If it were not so, I suppose we would all be in agreement over these thorny theological issues we so dearly love to debate.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

A Personal Favorite

In my opinion, he following passage in scripture is one of the Bible's most amusing -- if one may use that adjective (and I think one may).

God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out. But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, "I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches." Seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. And the evil spirit answered and said to them, "I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:11-16, NASB)

Woe to the unbeliever who dares to invoke the name of Jesus! The very evil spirit you are attempting to combat may beat you and rob you of your dignity.

Keep in mind the blogs are posted in reverse chronological order.

The Anthropic Principle and General Revelation

With fear and trembling here is my first post related to science.

General Revelation is the concept that nobody has an excuse for not believing in God – all they have to do is look around at the wonders of nature (with a small ‘n’). A slightly stronger version is that, due to the miracle of God’s creation, everybody, at some level, believes albeit, for the most part, without a saving faith. The verse that speaks most directly to this:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Rom 1:20, NASB)

You can see how this might work with most people – they look at the Grand Canyon with awe. A scientist, however, might look at the same thing and say: “A river did that.” He admires Nature with a big ‘N’.

Anthropic Principle

Well, it turns out that science has its own more esoteric form of General Revelation, the so called Anthropic Principle. There are weak and strong versions of this – an unimportant distinction. For our purposes I will define it as follows:

Anthropic Principle: The principle that the universe seems to be tailor made to support life on earth; the idea that necessary and highly restrictive relations among unrelated scientific parameters suggests an intelligent design.

As an example, take the radius of the earth’s orbit. A few percent change in either direction and there is no stable water cycle and consequently no possibility of human life.

Think the planet Jupiter serves no practical purpose? Wrong – without the large outer planets serving as shields and asteroid catchers the earth would be under frequent, catastrophic bombardment.

No big deal that ice floats? Well for most substances the solid form has higher density than the liquid. If water were not a rare exception, ice would sink. In the winter, ice would form on the surface of (for example) a lake. It would sink to the bottom. More ice would form and sink – lakes, rivers and seas would freeze solid from the bottom up, killing everything within. Instead, a relatively thin layer forms on the surface, insulating and protecting marine life.

The list of “happy coincidences” goes on and on. This topic is too big to discuss here. A Google search will produce many hits – a good place to start is on Hugh Ross’s site

To be sure, some (but not all) of the more amazing (in terms of how “tight” the constraints are) examples are for old earth proponents only. Element production inside stars requires an unbelievable balance of parameters and energy levels for the production of the ingredients needed to sustain life (e.g., Carbon) – an infinitesimal tweak here or there with any of a number of physical constants renders the universe uninhabitable. Furthermore, a balancing act among the fundamental forces is required to sufficiently spread the elements after a star explodes. Of course If you believe the universe was created six thousand years ago with all the elements in situ, and that stars have not (yet) exploded, then there is no need to appreciate a finely tuned stellar cycle.

Scientific Response

I would like to report that scientists everywhere are bowing down to worship the True Creator, but alas it is not so. Sometimes that is the response (praise God) – but more often it is one of these:
  1. Deism. The scientist acknowledges that there is intelligent design, but concludes after God set up the “initial conditions” he left the universe to its own devices. Deists want God’s “intrusion” to be minimal.
  2. Quantum Religion: Parallel Universes. There are an infinite number of parallel (and conveniently, mutually inaccessible) universes most of which are uninhabitable. The fact that we are here talking about this means, ipso facto, we are one of the lucky ones. No big deal.
  3. Cosmic Measurement Theory Another idea is – in a nutshell – that our present observations of the universe influence its creation -- so that it can be in a state that will support life – so that we can be here to observe it …

The fact that believing these ideas requires a faith that is indistinguishable from a religious faith is apparently lost. At any rate, God’s creation is evident, and so they have no excuse for not believing. General Revelation is inescapable.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Keep in mind the blogs are posted in reverse chronological order.

COMMENTS now accepted!

Keep in mind the blogs are posted in reverse chronological order.


The controversy in the Catholic Church has gotten a lot of people to think about celibacy and in particular the idea of requiring the pastorate to be celibate. For my own edification, I decided to review what scripture has to say about this. First of all we have the words of Jesus:

"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.
"For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.
" (Mat 19:9-12, NASB)

Paul also wrote about celibacy:

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor 7:8-9, NASB)


But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. . (1 Cor 7:32-34, NASB)

As I understand it, some also use:

Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, (1 Tim 3:2, NASB)

as support for celibacy, where the "one wife" is taken to be the church. To assert that “wife” is used here, in any other than the normal sense of the word requires, in my view, far too much violence to be done to the text.

Conclusion: no surprise here. There is no scriptural support for the requirement that a pastor (priest) be celibate.

On the other hand

We Protestants are usually taught that “Paul says that while celibacy is Okay for him it is not for everyone.” This is true. Yet when I read the scripture it appears to me to be somewhat stronger than that – more like celibacy would be better (but not required) -- but most men couldn’t handle it.

I wonder what I would do if I were on the search committee for a pastor and was presented with a candidate who was strong in every aspect. Now suppose he was single, so we asked him about his plans for marriage. How would I react if he answered : “I am not a homosexual so don’t be concerned about that, but I have decided that I can serve the Lord better if I stayed single and celibate.” Would alarms start sounding? Probably. Should they? Probably not.

Membership: declined

I was denied membership on a predominantly Catholic blog ring. The rejection letter from the owner was very gracious and polite. He pointed out that in one of my posts I accuse the Catholic church of apostasy. That I did, and will discuss it more in the future. However I did want to point out that the Council of Trent in the 16th century concluded:

Canon 9. If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.

As I understand it, this states clearly that those of us who proclaim "Justification by Faith Alone" are in fact accursed by the Catholic Church, and this charge of apostasy has never been repealed. Correction is welcome.

Monday, May 13, 2002

Keep in mind the blogs are posted in reverse chronological order.

Did Jesus spend time in hell?

Yesterday, during Sunday school, we were looking into the book of Ephesians. At some point we read:

(Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? (Eph 4:9, NASB).

This got me thinking again about the question of whether or not Jesus, perhaps as part of the price of our redemption, spent time in hell. I know that Christians disagree on this, and I am not going to give a defense of my opinion (I think that He did). Instead I want to talk about the fact that is one of many difficult if not insoluble problems -- questions that I like to think of as Christian imponderables.

The only other passage that I know of relevant to this question is from 1 Peter:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. (1 Pet 3:18-20).

Apparently this was enough, (along, perhaps, with the notion (not stated in scripture) that it was necessitated by the enormous price Christ had to pay for our redemption), for the belief to find its way into in the Apostles' creed, which includes the statement: He descended into hell.

You might like to read Calvin’s take: link.

Apart from the question itself, what I find interesting about this is that fact that, in my experience, it does not stimulate passionate debate. Some say he did, some say he didn’t, some say they don’t know, and know one seems to want to draw battle lines, which in a way is kind of nice. Contrast this to, for example, the young/old earth debate.

I Don’t Know

It can be so refreshing when a teacher says, “I don’t know. Not too often, otherwise they forfeit the title. Yet when there truly seems to be no way to resolve a question it sometimes is nice to hear that response rather than an opinionated discourse.

A pastor once told me “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that keep me up at night, it’s those things I do understand”.

Now this was a rhetorical device: the things he did understand did not really keep him awake (at least from worry) -- for all those things are good news. The real point: study in earnest those mysterious biblical questions -- but in the final analysis concentrate and celebrate the essential elements of the gospel, which have the additional beauty of being beyond dispute.

In R. C. Sproul’s book Chosen by God he asks the question (given that God has the power) why doesn’t He save everyone? (As opposed to just the elect.) Sproul's answer: “I don’t know”. This is fairly remarkable for a book whose aim is to present the Calvinistic view of predestination. Sproul could have said “for His own good pleasure” or “for His own glory” either of which would be acceptable but neither of which provides any additional insight. The answer “I don’t know” sends the right message. This is a question the answer of which God has chosen to keep hidden -- a Christian imponderable.

Peaceful Islam and the Academic Left Are A Match Made -- Somewhere

He are a few examples:

One of the great political imponderables, as far as I am concerned, is how the democratic party continues to get the majority of the Jewish vote.

Friday, May 10, 2002

Keep in mind the blogs are posted in reverse chronological order.

Were we punished on 9/11?

Evangelical Christians and political conservatives have been linked for quite some time. However, the events of 9/11 made it clear to me the alliance is one of convenience only. There are deep (and growing) differences between evangelicals and political conservatives, especially as the latter take steps to achieve the dreaded goal of “broadening their base”. This usually means pro-abortion Republicans are placated, because (alas, with a certain amount of truth) evangelicals have no place else to go.

Most evangelicals I have talked to about 9/11 believe that we were indeed punished. After all, God is sovereign, so if not ordaining them outright he could surely have prevented the attacks. By divine edict he could have struck all the terrorists dead the night before the attacks. So the attacks proceeded, at the very least, with His permission. He wasn’t sleeping, and there is no uncontrollable evil running amok in the universe and outside of His province.

That, in and of itself, does not prove God’s intent was to punish. All sorts of terrible things happen in people’s lives that are not (necessarily) punishment. All that we can be sure of is, like in the case of Joseph, what ever happens is ultimately for good:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. (Gen 50:20, NASB)

The terrorists attacks on New York and the Pentagon, however, were so huge – so national in scope – that to many of us it “smelled” like national punishment. The thinking was:

  • This is a reprobate nation
  • God, although longsuffering, has had enough
  • He used his “servants”, the terrorists, to send a message.

That in no way diminished our support for the war on terrorism. God may use the wicked for His purposes but he still holds them accountable (which must really annoy them).

There is a semi-infinite amount of precedence for this in the Old Testament, including referring to the wicked as God’s servants. Consider the Babylonian exile:

behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,' declares the LORD, 'and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. (Jer 25:9, NASB).

Secular political conservatives would have none of this. They joined liberals in their absolute derision of the notion that God may have been acting in righteous anger against this nation. A week after the attack, William F. Buckley wrote in the National Review that “Christian teaching is not irrelevant, simply because we dismiss as preposterous the notion that, on September 11, God was the hijackers' co-pilot” (emphasis added). Here is the link.

It is manifest that secular political conservatives would agree with liberals that God was not the “co-pilot”. What is surprising, and telling, is that they (conservatives) also heaped scorn upon anyone who dared show support for the notion of divine retribution

Falwell and Robertson

Buckley’s article was, I have been told, in response to statements made by Christian celebrities (Falwell and Robertson) on The 700 Club. I did not hear what they said, but apparently they placed a great deal of the blame on rampant homosexuality in this country. They dared to tread upon the third rail of modern American diversity sensitivities.

I think they made a big mistake, if indeed they singled out homosexuals.

The degradations in America are so pervasive that if one wants to point fingers at particular sins, one should be more inclusive – which will have the added benefit of reducing the impression that you are picking on gays. They could have said (maybe they did) that God was punishing a nation that murders children by the thousands (abortion) preaches and celebrates adultery (divorce) is grossly sexually immoral (pornography, premarital sex and homosexuality) ignores its responsibilities to children (divorce again, and latch key kids) etc. To finish it off they could have added that ours is a nation mired in the forgotten sin of covetousness.

In short, they could have done a much better job in making a valid point.

God Bless America

Another difference between evangelicals and political conservatives developed over the incessant use of God Bless America, both the song and the salutation. To many of us it was an irreverent use of the word “God” by people who would just as soon take His name in vain. We prefer to pray for the country, its leaders, and its military, rather than command God to bless an undeserving people.

Keep in mind the blogs are posted in reverse chronological order.

Assurance of Salvation

Do you ever, in private moments of despair, worry about your salvation? I do, although less often as I get older. Evangelicals (apart from those who pervert Calvinism) view good works as an effect of salvation, not a cause. Good works are viewed as evidence of a saving faith:

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:17, NASB)

I won’t get into what constitutes “good works”. But what it boils down to is a desire not only to talk-the-talk but also walk-the-walk. Anyone can go to church, but anyone, preachers included, can be guilty of merely going through the motions.

That is what used to (and still does occasionally) work on my heart: Am I sincere, or is my faith merely pro forma.

There is a lot of scripture and a lot of books devoted to obtaining an assurance. A verse that gives me great comfort, even though is not often used for this purpose, is:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:1, NAS)

When I doubt myself, I think of this verse. No matter how bad things are, I never think of the word of the cross as foolishness, which in turn prevents me from worrying about perishing. Great comfort is found here.

Protestant Work Ethic

When I was in public school (60s and 70s) it was taught that Calvinistic zeal to obtain assurance of their salvation caused Protestants to be extremely hardworking and good citizens, and so the Protestant Work Ethic was born. The success of the industrial revolution was attributed, in large measure, to this development. This strikes me as wonderfully politically incorrect. My guess is that the Protestant Work Ethic is no longer mentioned in public schools, and Christians are more likely to be blamed for the industrial revolution rather than credited.

If Islam were any more “peaceful” I couldn’t stand it.

In Indonesia, at least 12 Christians were slaughtered by Muslims.

And in that nation of our great "friends", Saudi Arabia, Ethiopian Christians were tortured.

This is just a miniscule tip of the iceberg. Christians living in the Muslim world face unspeakable persectution. Pray for them daily.

In yesterday’s post, I talked about why many Evangelicals support Israel. Clearly I forgot to mention another important reason: unlike Muslims, Jews do not massacre Christians.

Proselytizing to the Jews

Jews often do get upset (but not anywhere near to the point of slitting our throats) when we witness to them. We do this because we are told to:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, " All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Mt 28: 18-20, NAS)

That is our “Great Commission”. Don’t get upset – understand why we do it – Jesus commanded us. Let’s have a cup of coffee and talk about it.

When done properly, it is also done out of love. Nobody exemplifies this more than the great Apostle Paul:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Rom 9:1-5, NAS)

He was willing to trade his salvation for that of his brethren (the Jews). That is a bit farther than I'm prepared to go.

Thursday, May 09, 2002

Rational Religious Bigotry: Don’t be Offended

Keep in mind the blogs are posted in reverse chronological order: This post was promised in an earlier blog below.

Religious leaders, particularly those of the Christian religious right, make inflammatory statements with annoying regularity. The inevitable outcome is outrage in the media and uniform condemnation (including from other like-minded but perhaps more circumspect Christian leaders) followed by a unsavory public mea culpa.

Here are a few you probably heard over the years:

  • God does not hear the prayers of Jews (or Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Masons, etc.)
  • The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult
  • The Roman Catholic Church is apostate
  • Women should not be pastors, or even elders or deacons. Furthermore they should be subject to their husbands.

There are more. These pop up regularly. Read now the teaser for this blog: I think all of these statements are true and defensible.

The point of what you are about to read, for those who are still with me, is that I hope to convince you that one can hold such positions without being anti-Semitic, bigoted against Roman Catholics, or indeed bigoted against anybody. To the charge of being intolerant, then the plea is guilty by necessity.

Furthermore, I will even propose what your response should be to such statements if you are a Jew, Mormon, etc. Hint: it is not the knee jerk response that one usually hears.

It is all quite simple. Evangelical Christians, almost by definition, have as their premise the inerrancy of the Bible. More liberal minded Christians are not regulated by such a belief. So when a conservative reads the requirements for being an elder, he finds that one such requirement is to be a man (1 Tim 3:1-12). He is stuck at that point. He may in fact believe that women would make fine pastors, but the text binds him to a contrary view. No wiggle room.

Conservatives say God is exactly as described in Bible. Liberals, just like their political counterparts do with the constitution, say that the Bible is an evolving document. Extreme liberals relegate the Bible to mere allegory. I take great comfort in the conservative position. If God is not as described in the Bible, then I don’t see why everyone assumes he is “nicer”. Maybe he is mean and capricious, or simply dead.

I am not trying to convince you of my position. The crux of the argument is that if you accept this premise: The axiom of Biblical inerrancy is acceptable in the sense that someone (maybe not you, but someone) may hold to it without forfeiting his rights to be a full member of society, if you merely accept that a reasonable person is entitled (and indeed might) hold such a position, then it follows logically that such a person, without malice aforethought, might rationally arrive at the bulleted conclusions.

Does God hear the prayers of Jews?

Due to time and space limitations, I will only discuss this particular bullet. There are verses in the New Testament that say access to the Father occurs only through the Son:

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. (John 14:6, NASB)


Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 John, 2:23, NASB)

Ergo, some conservative Christians, conclude that God does not hear (or perhaps He doesn't listen to) the prayers of Jews or indeed any non-Christian. Given the verses above, How could we conclude otherwise? It doesn’t mean we don’t wish God was more “tolerant”, and perhaps we believe we would be much more inclusive, if we were God, but we aren’t-- and we don’t have the luxury of modifying God’s attributes or His holy word.

Now surely, and sadly, a flaming anti-Semite might make the same statement about Jewish prayer. Nevertheless, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that the statement implies an anti-Semitic viewpoint.

The most perplexing criticism to the conservative position is that we think “we are right” and “everybody else is wrong”. Of course we do. Otherwise we wouldn’t hold such a position. Religion is supposed to encapsulate absolute truth. Anything else is, at best, situational ethics, not religion. Surely Jews, Muslims, and all other proponents of all other religions also think that they are right.

Don’t be offended

if I say that God does not hear the prayers of Jews. The correct response: “I know why you say that, because of your belief in the New Testament, but I think you are wrong. Let’s have some coffee and talk about it.” That’s all. Recognize that to me it is not my private unsupportable opinion but rather, from my perspective, an inescapable conclusion from scripture.

Only Christians get in trouble for this. Nobody gives a hoot when the shoe is on the other foot. Because I think Mohammed was a false prophet any good Muslim would identify me as an infidel with less than desirable prospects for the hereafter. My response to said Muslim: “ I am not offended by your intolerance – I understand why you think that. Let’s have some coffee and talk about it (so I can tell you the good news about Jesus).”

I might be wrong

For my part, I am charged to study the Bible and do my best to interpret it properly (using other scripture as much as possible) and believe what is says without modifications or additions that support my own agenda. Given that, I must be prepared to be proven wrong and even welcome correction. However, I cannot disregard the passages that I don’t like.

Christians and Jews

A few weeks back, Rod Dreher of National Review posted a great article on Evangelicals and Christians Together. He discussed how there is great support among evangelicals for Israel because many believe in a special role for Israel prior to the second coming. According to this argument, Israel must survive in order to play her special part in this end-times drama, thus evangelicals strongly support Israel over her Arab enemies.

This is true, but overly simplistic.

Many evangelicals, like myself, have a different (non-dispensational) view of the end times that does not assume a massive Jewish conversion (although we would love to see it) nor any special role for Israel. Rather than welcoming the rebuilding of the temple and a resumption of animal sacrifices, we would view such a development as an abomination. Nevertheless, many of us without a eschatological basis to support Israel still do so for the obvious political reasons: she is a proven friend, the only democracy in the region, and her enemies despise us.

Many Jews recognize (I have heard them say it) that the scarcity of anti-Semitism in the United States (relative to Europe or anywhere else) is because of our Christian heritage, not in spite of it. As the U.S. becomes more secularized, I fear we will start to see an increase in ugly European style bigotry. Pray for our country.

What is a Christian?

Well, there is not universal agreement on that. Nevertheless, I want to state what I believe makes a person a Christian, so that you’ll know where I am coming from. My definition of a Christian is someone who affirms the following:

Absolutes of Christianity

  1. The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God.
  2. There is a trinity: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
  3. God the Son came to earth, was born of a virgin, and lived as the man Jesus Christ.
  4. Though tempted, Jesus lived a sinless life.
  5. Christ suffered and died on the cross. His work is finished. He paid the full price, once-and-for-all, for my sins.
  6. Christ was resurrected from the dead with a real (glorified) body.
  7. Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.
  8. I contribute nothing to my salvation – it is a free and undeserved gift of God’s grace. Salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone.
  9. Good works are an inevitable result of my salvation, not a contributing factor.

Please email me if you think I left anything out! Some of them (all but the first, but that’s jumping ahead) are redundant, but I still find it helpful to restate certain points in a different way.

This list excludes many from claiming the honorific: Christian. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are way, way out. Many Roman Catholics might agree with the list, but official Catholic teaching is contrary to items 1, 5, 8, and 9.

If you are offended by this wait for an upcoming blog about why you should not be offended before sending me hate mail.

Axiomatic Christianity

As an undergraduate physics major, I took a junior level course on Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Normally relativity courses spend the first few classes analyzing a seminal but tedious experiment demonstrating the constancy of the speed of light regardless of the motion of the observer. This result lays the groundwork for Einstein’s theory.

I had read about this experiment several times and had prepared myself for a set of boring lectures before getting to the “juicy” stuff. However, the professor took an unexpected approach. He bypassed the experiment altogether and instead began his class with the axiom:

Vacuum is vacuum.

He then proceeded, and you will have to take my word on this, to derive, credibly, Einstein’s theory. It was a marvelous approach. It should be noted, however, that the reason it worked is that the students were, at that point, well along in their education and were sophisticated enough to handle and appreciate such a pedagogy.

I believe Christianity lends itself to an axiomatic approach, and the proper axiom is the first item in the list above, restated here:

AXIOM: The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God.

The other items in the list are “derivable” from this one in the following sense: virtually all well meaning persons, upon accepting the axiom, would, after sufficient study, agree that the other items follow logically.

What (may not be) derivable?

Even among those accepting the axiom, there will points of departure. These are areas where even the most learned evangelical theologians will disagree. Denominations have split and congregations have self destructed over some of these:

  • Child vs. adult baptism
  • Baptism by sprinkling vs. baptism by immersion
  • Eschatology (how the end-times and second coming will happen)
  • (Details of) predestination (Calvinism vs. Arminianism)
  • Acceptable worship, viz., head coverings, casual dress, contemporary music, drama, clapping, etc.
  • Frequency of the Lord’s supper
  • Acceptability of para-church organizations (e.g. Promise Keepers)
  • Whether certain activities fall under the umbrella of Christian liberty, viz. (moderate) use of alcohol, public schools, eating at a restaurant on the Sabbath, etc.
  • The earth: is it old or is it young?

Now I have definite opinions on all of these, some of which I will discuss in due time. But I can have Christian fellowship with anyone holding contrary views, as long as they affirm the nine “absolutes” listed above. Of course some, who are more fundamental than I, would elevate their opinions in the above matters into the list of absolutes.

Actually, I’ll mention one of these here, since it pertains to my blog’s description which says Devoted to Reformed Christian Thought. Purists will not agree, but for purposes of simplicity I will equate “Reformed” with “Calvinistic”. I am a died-in-the-wool Calvinist. Actually, I like a phrase that I just learned (via my wife) from a great friend:

I am a Calvinistic sans-culotte

(Thanks Donna). As for Calvinism, I take that to mean the classic Presbyterian view of election: I was utterly dead, not even strong enough to voluntarily swallow the elixir of life that God placed on my lips. I had to be resurrected. Nothing I did merited such treatment. And I was chosen to receive this incredible gift before the foundations of time.

Can the Bible be “almost” right?

There may be some minor variances due to translation, but the bottom line is that inspired means inspired: it is absolute truth. Note that the Bible is self referential:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB).

This bold, self referential claim leaves little wiggle room. Consider someone you know for whom you have a great respect of their knowledge. If you tell that person “you are always right!” he will undoubtedly reply “Thank you, but hardly!” If that person makes an occasional mistake, your esteem will not diminish appreciably. Suppose, however, that the person had answered “Yes indeed, I am always right.” Then the standard will be very high: the first error will result in a substantive degradation of your respect. The Bible takes such a bold position by declaring itself to be inspired. In some sense, it cannot be just “a little” wrong. It is either the Truth, or a big lie. In essence we have the following possibilities:

  1. The Bible is inerrant, and I worship the true God it reveals
  2. The Bible is inerrant, and I worship an invented, false god
  3. The bible contains errors, I worship the god it reveals, which as presented (since the bible has errors) is a false god
  4. The bible contains errors, and I worship an invented, false god

Of course I believe (1) to be correct. I consider (3) and (4) to be impossible since they start with the false premise that the Bible contains errors. (2) is the mistake made by liberal churches. They choose to ignore the revealed God and invent one that is “nicer”.

Agreeing on what the Bible says is not always easy

Well intended Bible readers can sometimes come to vastly different conclusions. Here is my favorite example.

And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate. (Dan 9-27, NASB).

Now if your view of eschatology is amillennial (historically the dominant eschatology, which does not expect a literal 1000 year earthly kingdom), then you interpret the “he” in this verse as referring to the Messiah. If you are premillennial (think of those “Left Behind” books), which today has many proponents, then the “he” is the antichrist! Can’t disagree any more than that!

Is it odd to be a physicist and a Christian?

Maybe, but not compared with some other disciplines. The public university where I taught for about 11 years had a faculty of around 140. Of those, I was aware of perhaps six Christians. All of these were in the hard sciences. Furthermore, there was little outright animosity toward or scorn of Christianity in the hard sciences (although more so in biology than in physics). For truly antagonistic attitudes toward Christianity, one had to look at the social sciences, especially to the philosophy and religious studies faculty. For example, one campus “philosopher” had this utterly fatuous “demonstration” he would perform every year in an introductory class: he would kick a Bible across the floor. (As far as I know, he never kicked a Koran – unwittingly the only thing he actually demonstrated was a good but probably subconscious grasp of Christian “intolerance” and the “peaceful” nature of Islam.)