Thinking Out Loud

April 8, 2018

Two Kingdoms in Conflict

The world says ‘seeing is believing.’

Jesus teaches ‘believing is seeing.’

The world says attain wisdom

The Bible teaches we should be willing to become a fool

The world says ‘be a survivor’

Jesus taught we should be willing to lose our lives

The world says ‘go for the gold,’ achieve greatness

Jesus taught us to be willing to be the last, the least

The world exalts leaders

Jesus said we should make ourselves servants

The world exalts human potential and greatness

Jesus said we should humble ourselves

The world says ‘look out for number one’

The Bible teaches we should look out for the interests of others and count others better than ourselves

The world says ‘get all you can’

Jesus says ‘give all you can’

The world says we should make our good deeds known

Jesus taught we should keep our good deeds secret

The world says love is a feeling, it’s conditional and it will grow old

The Bible teaches the love is a lasting, unconditional commitment; love never fails

The world says we should hate our enemies

Jesus taught us to love our enemies

The world says ‘get even,’ retaliate

Jesus taught forgiveness

The world puts spin on events to cover up mistakes

Proverbs teaches us to confess our mistakes

The world emphasizes the great things human can accomplish

The prophets taught things happen ‘not by might, nor by power,’ but by God’s Spirit

The world says ‘drown your sorrows’

The Bible contrasts that with ‘be filled with the Spirit

The world operates on cynicism and skepticism

Jesus taught that all things are possible to those who believe

The world says you should consult your horoscope

Jesus talked about searching the scriptures

The world says the Bible was written by human agency only

The Bible itself claims that all Scripture is God breathed

The world says the Bible is old-fashioned and out-of-date

Jesus said that heaven and earth will pass away, but not his truths

The world thinks Jesus was a good man

The early church confession was that Jesus is Lord

The world says Jesus is not coming back

Jesus promised ‘I will come and receive you to myself’

The world concludes, ‘I’ll never worship Jesus Christ’

The Bible says that someday every knee will bow and every voice will admit that Jesus Christ is Lord.


~adapted from Straightforward by Larry Tomczak, a classic book from the Jesus movement of the late 1970s.  Italicized sections allude to or quote scripture passages unless otherwise indicated.

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March 12, 2018

Cruising the Denominational Spectrum

Over the years we’ve known people who remained loyal to a single church over the course of their lifetimes. This degree of faithfulness is certainly commendable in some, while with others it seems to represent a measurable amount of stubbornness. In a few cases, it cost their children access to children’s and youth ministry which would have served them well; the absence of it having detrimental effects.

Others have simply packed up and moved on a regular basis. One couple I knew had a three-year rule. It wasn’t written in stone — sometimes it would be four years — but when they felt they were “getting too close” a particular church (their words) it would be time to hop somewhere else.

My thoughts today are about an aspect of this which is particular to the denominational choices implicit in moving from one church to another. In other words, we’re not consider church politics here, or situations where someone was hurt by a church member, or a pastor whose preaching was simply deficient. All of those are significant, but we’re looking at choices made for purely theological reasons.

Generally speaking, many of us will choose a church which is simply like the last one we attended. We may be moving from large church to small church (or the other way around) or moving from traditional music to contemporary music (or the other way around) but we’re not looking to rock our personal boat in terms of core beliefs on both primary and secondary matters of faith.

But there are others who want to shake things up and spend a season of life in a congregation which is quite different — perhaps even the total antithesis — of their current church home. Like these people:

Brett attends a church which is planted smack in the center of Evangelicalism. But he keeps hearing about assemblies which identify as Spirit-filled, move more in terms of gifts like prophecy and healing, have a longer, more dynamic worship time, and are equipped to handle issues in spiritual warfare and deliverance. He decides to check it out.

Amanda attends the same church as Brett. Increasingly she’s finding the services too unstructured. She keeps hearing about churches which follow a more pre-planned order of service including readings from both Old and New Testaments, the gospels and epistles. There are written prayers including classic ones from people long departed. For her this isn’t about superficial worship elements, it is a doctrinal thing. It’s about propriety in worship and she’s found a church that offers that without moving into liberal theology.

Both of these people are moving in different directions along the doctrinal spectrum.

There are also people making greater moves. Imagine someone moving from Brett’s new church to Amanda’s new church. That’s a rather significant change of address. Is this a bad thing?

I would be worried about people whose moves from one extreme to the other are more like pendulum swings. I would also want to watch out for people who are making moves too often; too frequently.

Where I would find value is with people who have spent time at various points on the spectrum; people whose background includes a variety of Christian experience.

The people in my opening paragraph have been, in my opinion, simply stubborn. I say that in their case because it has involved a price to pay — their kids’ lack of good youth ministry exposure in their teens and the results of that — that I would say is too high.

On the other hand, if your church gets high marks in all areas that are relevant to your family, you may find no need to move on. If you’re on board with the church’s programs and priorities, if the teaching and worship are to your liking, and if the community involves people you’ve been doing life with and you continue to be invested in their lives (and they in yours) then there’s no need to move on…

…Most people leave a church because of push factors or pull factors. In other words, there is either something happening where they are that has created in them a need to immediately vacate, or this something attracting them somewhere else that has created a desire to want to not simply check that out (for a visit) but to immerse themselves in such a community for a period of months or years.

The challenge comes when the desire is more of a pull, but the destination is not certain; when the name of the church being sought is an unknown quantity. That may ultimately involve some church-hopping. One does need to try some different flavors to know what one might like. That’s not a bad thing. As long as we’re worshiping God somewhere each week, we don’t have a problem. We are members of a worldwide family of Christ-followers and we should feel welcome anytime we drop into any branch of that family.

Eventually God will show us and circumstances will give us the language to describe what we’re seeking. In a large metropolitan area there will be greater choice. In non-urban situations, it may mean driving a half-hour to get to where we need to be…

…In the pendulum pictured above, there is an apple core. That represents our core beliefs. These are being shaped and formed over the course of our lives. Individual doctrinal spectra might have extremes, but I’ve deliberately chosen to rest the pendulum in the middle. Our core beliefs are formed from a balance on various issues.

Where I stand on issue “X” and “Y” and “Z” might be different from you. Hopefully we all agree on doctrines “A” and “B” and “C” and “D” which form the Statement of Faith of most of our churches. I hope even on “X,” “Y,” and “Z” I’m balanced in my perspective.

If you feel it’s time to move on, leave gracefully.

If you feel it’s time to simply to do some visiting for a season, then don’t burn your bridges. The place you currently call home represents family, and neither they nor God wish to see relationships fractured. You may want to return at some point, and you’ll do so bringing your charismatic or liturgical experiences back with you.

Like Brett and Amanda, be prepared for some new adventures.

Finally a caveat: Avoid chronic church hopping. When you find a landing place, be prepared to stay. Let some roots — even if they aren’t deep roots — sink in.

 

 

December 31, 2017

My Year in Review

Redeem the time - Stewardship of timeThis is certainly the year in review time for many writers. But what about my year or your year? I’m definitely not a KJV guy, but there’s a phrase in it I’ve always particularly liked.

Col 4: 5 KJV Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.

Eph 5:16 KJV Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.

The KJV uses the term “redeeming the time” in these two verses.   The second verse appears in the NASB as,

making the most of your time, because the days are evil.

and in the Voice as

make the most of every moment and every encounter

The other verse appears in the NASB as

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.

Again, The Voice has

Make the most of every living and breathing moment because these are evil times

The question I ask myself is this:  Did I make the most of my time and my opportunities in 2017?   And then:  Will I endeavor to make the most of my time and my opportunities in 2018?

While some writers emphasize the importance of rest — including it among the spiritual disciplines — others talk about the “stewardship of our time.”   Time management is considered enough in scripture that it is not a stretch to say that scripture introduces a “doctrine of time usage.”

But like everything else in scripture, there is a place for balance in doctrine.   Think of a pendulum swinging back and forth.   Only when it stops swinging does it find the place of balance in the middle.

There is a time for action — The one who knows to do something right and doesn’t do it; that’s a sin.   But there’s a time for rest — Be still and know that He is God.

Time management by Biblical standards involves more than a simple “resting” or “action” theory.   It requires skill and wisdom to find the balance.

So more questions:   Did I learn to rest in God in 2017?   Will I learn more about resting in God in 2018?

How is your year in review?

Nobody said this was easy…

…To my Thinking Out Loud online community, I wish you God’s best in the New Year.

August 31, 2017

Could Your Worship Leader(s) Pass a Basic Theology Test?

What just happened? I was trying to make the connection between two elements of a single spoken section between two worship songs, but I figured I had just missed something. Someone came to me after the service and asked what I thought. I said I didn’t think it made any sense. They said they thought it was heretical.

Last night my wife and I continued the discussion.

A pastor was once expected to spend an hour in study for every minute in the pulpit. 30 hours preparing the sermon. I don’t know what the expectation was if they also had to do a different sermon in the evening service (back when churches had them) but I’ve known pastors who if they don’t hit 30 hours come respectably close. One I know these days always has books and commentaries spread out on his desk throughout the week; and the payoff is evident with each new message.

So if a worship leader is going to have five minutes worth of patter between songs, should they not spend five hours preparing that? I know worship leaders that have spent a long time, in addition to selecting the songs, in preparation for what they’re going to say at the beginning and little comments interspersed throughout the worship set.

So…

Could your worship team leader(s) pass an elementary test of basic theology?

Could your worship team leader(s) provide helpful counsel to someone who seeks them out after the service?

Could your worship team leader(s) deliver a homily; a message; a sermon if asked to speak in a format longer than the short song introductions they give at weekend services?

I wonder how much thought is given to this when interviewing prospects for paid positions in the modern Evangelical church?

Have you ever experienced really bad theology during a worship set?

Does your church let the worship leader say much or is their mandate to simply play music?

If the modern Evangelical expectation is that pastors have a Masters level education, should there be a lesser but similar educational requirement for worship team leaders?

August 4, 2017

WWGD?

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:35 am

A bunch of things to think about. Well, maybe two. Or one.

First of all, why “What Would God Do?” instead of “What Would Jesus Do?” (Grammar people: Do I repeat the question mark at the end, as in “Do?”?”) (Oh wait, that’s also a question. So the last parenthetic part should be “Do?”?”?”)

And we haven’t even started to consider theology.

The reason I went with WWGD? instead of WWJD? is because I think the subject we want to look at today is more of a God question than a Jesus question.

It all started with a comment by longtime reader (as in from the very first days of this blog) Kathy B. Replying to our subject yesterday, she wrote;

which got me thinking, ‘Do I own a copy of Knowledge of the Holy or was I reading a borrowed copy?’

More seriously, it got me thinking about the many issues and subjects which use up vast amounts of energy on the internet related to peoples’ overarching theology as well as particular doctrines.

The A. W. Tozer line, “I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God;” resonated with me because I’ve always felt at the end of the day, so many of our discussions and debates are reduced to “The Bible says…” when I’ve always felt the issue was more our picture of, “What God is like.”

Now at that point, some people are going to think I’m holding to a low view of scripture. Not at all. The problem is that when you say, “The Bible says…” and someone else with a contradictory view says, “The Bible says…” both are interpreting the texts in a way they believe to be correct and honorable, but coming to totally opposite conclusions. It’s not always peripheral issues, either. I just wish we could take each point of disagreement and find a way to subject it to some broader WWGD-type of filtering.

Women in ministry? What is God like? What general God-picture do we have in relation to gender roles, ministry leadership, etc.?

Divine election? What is God like? What general God-picture do we have in relation to human free will, eternal punishment, etc.?

Pre-Tribulation rapture? What is God like? What general God-picture do we have in relation to God’s master plan, escaping-versus-enduring hard times, etc.?

At this point some will say, “Well, the only way we can get that God-picture is from the scriptures.” Absolutely. I agree. But it’s going to come from a study of the entire Bible, an understanding of the whole counsel of God; knowing the ways of God.

Do that, and then test to see if one particular view you hold is an outlier when it comes to the bigger God-picture.

 

August 3, 2017

Mistaken Views of God

When listing what might be called ‘modern classics’ the book Your God Is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike by J. B. Phillips is often mentioned This 124-page pocket book is usually remembered for its first 59 pages which focus on a number of “wrong pictures” we have of God, and while I know that Thinking Out Loud readers would never fall into one of these errant views, I believe that we often partially fall into looking at God in one of these stereotyped forms. Here’s a quick paraphrase of the types Phillips lists:

Do you ever find yourself falling into any of these mistaken views of God?

  • Policeman — an image usually formed out of a ‘guilt-based’ response to God
  • Parental hangover — the Father image of God evokes images of an earthly father which is often more negative than positive
  • Grand Old Man — the head of the seniors group perhaps, or president of the country club; but the danger is the ‘old’ part if it implies irrelevance
  • Meek and Mild — an example, Phillips would argue, of a Sunday School chorus influencing theology which we might want to keep in mind when choosing modern worship pieces for weekend services
  • Absolute Perfection — which leads to us trying to be absolutely perfect even though we don’t often grasp what it means; or thinking God isn’t interested in us when we’re not perfect
  • Heavenly Bosom — a variation perhaps on burying our head in the sand; we bury ourselves in God as a kind of escapism
  • God in a Box — what I think Phillips is using describe people whose image of God has been shaped by subjective experience in local churches or denominations; or conversely, is defined by the beliefs of his or her denomination
  • Managing Director — with an emphasis on God as “controller,” this image evokes another metaphor: puppet string God
  • Second-Hand God — a longer section; it might be summarized as variations on the God-picture we would get from having seen a single movie or read a single book about God and built everything else up from there; somebody else’s vision
  • Perennial Grievance — whatever the God-view the person holds, this one is ever mindful of the time that God let them down them; disappointed them; etc.
  • Pale Galilean — an image Phillips uses to describe people whose faith is lacking vitality and courage; or whose loyalty is fragile
  • Projected Image — which we would describe today as “creating God in our image.”

While the terminology might not be readily used today; the book is fairly thorough about describing the full range of false views about God that can exist. I felt led to share this here, but then needed to come up with some resolve to this. Phillips views the first half of his book as deconstructive and follows it with a constructive second half. What I want to do here instead, is end with a quotation I’ve used before, but which I believe everyone should commit to memory:

When we say we begin with God, we begin with our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God. Instead, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Christ.

~E. Stanley Jones

Further reading: If you find reading older material less engaging, see if you can get your hands on this out-of-print book, Jarrett Stevens’ The Deity Formerly Known as God (Zondervan, 2009) which is an updated version of Phillips’ classic. It still exists as an eBook and audio download; another example of where promised print-on-demand books simply failed to materialize. If not, the original by Phillips isn’t all that difficult.

April 24, 2017

Reunion: The Relationship God Wants Us to Have

Book Review: (re)Union: The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints, and Sinners by Bruxy Cavey

You’ve got a friend who you’d like to see cross the line of faith. You want to sit down and be able to answer all their questions in a casual, non-threatening manner. Problem is, there’s aspects of your Christian pilgrimage that have left you less than articulate on various core doctrines. If only you had another friend who could join you at the coffee shop to make Christianity make sense. 

Enter Bruxy Cavey [KAY-vee] teaching pastor at The Meeting House, an alternative, multi-site congregation in the greater Toronto area described as both “church for people who aren’t into church,” and also as “Canada’s fastest growing church network.” It’s been a decade since his 2007 title with NavPress, The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus.  Since then he’s become more strongly alligned with his tribe, the Brethren in Christ and more identified with pacifist denominations which clearly are a minority in the United States.

Ten years later, that irreligious message of Jesus turns up in Bruxy’s “The Gospel in 30 Words” which forms the core of the book. 

Thinking of the parable of the landowner he writes

…But notice why people are thrown off.  It’s not because God is a miser or a tyrant, and not because he is too demanding or judgemental.  People get upset because he is too kind!  Jesus seems to be saying that God is so loving, so gracious, so generous that if you put him into a human context, he would appear crazy with kindness.

If you are a very religious person who has worked long and hard to achieve some sort of spiritual reward, you could be scandalized by this irrational grace.  If you are a religious leader stewarding a system that teaches people to work for their heavenly reward, this teaching might seem threatening, because it undermines your current system of salvation.  This is exactly what happened with Jesus: the religious leaders of his day became so threatened by his message of grace that they eventually plotted to have him executed. (pp 175-176) 

What happens when your friend in the coffee shop hears this irreligious message? I think it’s disarming; it breaks down their defenses. Ideally, it leads to a turning to Christ. 

Since we don’t have that other friend to articulate all this for us, there’s this book. But reading it and studying the language used can make the rest of us better able to share not only our testimony, but an understanding of the doctrinal puzzle pieces which fit together to form the larger theological picture; by which I mean, the pieces which matter; this is a book which refuses to be distracted. 

If you prefer more established methodology, the book includes a summary of The Four Spiritual Laws, The Bridge to Life, Steps to Peace with God and The Roman Road, but Bruxy would argue that “each of these outlines shares a common flaw: they are woefully fragmentary, reductionist and incomplete.” Most “focus primarily on salvation from sin as the central message of the gospel. This is certainly an important aspect… But if you’re going to be a student of the good news, then you need to know and will want to share the whole message.”

The book is equal parts basic Christian doctrine and apologetics, the latter in the sense of being able to explain the plan and purpose of God to the secularist. There’s something like a “sinner’s prayer” at the end, but there’s also a “seeker’s prayer” for those close, but not ready to cross the line of faith. The book releases in a few days fittingly from Herald Press, a Mennonite publishing company. 

 

 

 

 

March 3, 2017

3/3 and the Trinity

trinity 1

Someone pointed out the coincidence (if indeed it is a coincidence) that a major motion picture about the Trinity is releasing on 3/3. That got me thinking that perhaps we could look back at this topic as it has been discussed here and at C201.

In November of 2014 at Christianity 201 we began with a quote from Tozer:

Our sincerest effort to grasp the incomprehensible mystery of the Trinity must remain forever futile, and only by deepest reverence can it be saved from actual presumption.
~A.W. Tozer, The Idea of the Holy, chapter 4

and then continued to look at “who does what.”

In the Holy Scriptures the work of creation is attributed to the Father

Gen. 1:1 In the beginning, God created everything: the heavens above and the earth below

to the Son

Col 1:16 It was by Him that everything was created: the heavens, the earth, all things within and upon them, all things seen and unseen, thrones and dominions, spiritual powers and authorities. Every detail was crafted through His design, by His own hands, and for His purposes.

and to the Holy Spirit

Job 26:13 By His breath, the heavens are made beautifully clear;
by His hand that ancient serpent—even as it attempted escape—is pierced through.

Psalm 104:30 When You send out Your breath, life is created,
and the face of the earth is made beautiful and is renewed.

The article continues as a scripture medley… continue reading here.

In July, 2013 we looked at the idea of “One What and Three Whos” with this item by C. Michael Patton:

I believe in one God (ousia), who exists eternally in three persons (hypostasis) — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit — all of whom are fully God, all of whom are equal.

Spirit of GodSince there is only one God, one member of the Trinity, in his essence, cannot have more power, authority, or dignity than another. They all share in the exact same nature (ousia, ontos, “stuff”). I did not understand this until later in my Christian life. For many years I existed as a functional polytheist (a tritheist, to be technically precise). I believed the three members of the Trinity shared in a similar nature, not the exact same nature. In other words, just like you and I share in the nature of being homo sapiens, so the members of the Trinity are all from the “God species” . . . or something like that. But this is a bad analogy since, though you and I may be the same species, we are different in essence. You are you and I am me. I have my body and you have yours. But in the Trinity, all three persons share in the exact same essence. One in nature; three in person. One what; three whos…

For more on the idea of a hierarchy within the Trinity… continue reading here.

In February of 2011, we offered “The Trinity Collection,” to go-to verses in which all three members of the Godhead are referenced:

Matthew 3: 16, 17 NIV

16As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 28: 19 NLT

19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

John 15: 26 ESV

[Jesus speaking] 26“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.

Acts 2: 33 NIRV

33 Jesus has been given a place of honor at the right hand of God. He has received the Holy Spirit from the Father. This is what God had promised. It is Jesus who has poured out what you now see and hear.

II Cor. 13: 14 The Message

14The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.

Ephesians 2: 17 – 18 TNIV

17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

I Thess. 1: 2-5a CEV

2We thank God for you and always mention you in our prayers. Each time we pray, 3we tell God our Father about your faith and loving work and about your firm hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4My dear friends, God loves you, and we know he has chosen you to be his people. 5When we told you the good news, it was with the power and assurance that come from the Holy Spirit, and not simply with words…

I Peter 1: 1 – 2 NIV (UK)

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world … 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
Also included in this list is the longer passage at I Cor. 12: 4-13.

That’s pretty much the entire piece… read at source here.

Also in February, 2011, we had a discussion here about whether or not non-Trinitarians should be included among those called “Christians.” (Thorny topic, I know.)  At that time we noted that

…four of the seven statements in the National Association of Evangelicals Statement of Faith which specifically refer to God, Jesus and Holy Spirit, of which the first is primary for this discussion:

  • We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
  • We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
  • We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

(For Canadian readers, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Statement of Faith is identical.) 

For that article… continue reading here.

Finally, in January of this year, at C201 we quoted Fred Sanders on Trinitarian Praise:

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the
Holy Ghost! As it was in the beginning, is now,

and ever shall be, world without end.

The glory of God is from everlasting to everlasting, but while the praise of the Trinity will have no end, it had a beginning. There was never a time when God was not glorious as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit. But there was a time when that singular glory (singular because, to gloss the Athanasian Creed, there are not three glorious, but one) had not yet disclosed itself so as to invite creatures to its praise. To join in the ancient Christian prayer called the Gloria Patri, directing praise to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is to come into alignment here in the world “as it is now” with triune glory “as it was in the beginning.” All theology ought to be doxology, but Trinitarian theology in particular is essentially a matter of praising God. This doxological response is the praise of a glory (ἔπαινον δόξης, Eph 1:6, 12, 14) that always was, and whose epiphany in time entails its antecedent depth in eternity. Those whom God has blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ are summoned to join that praise: “Blessed be God the Father, who has blessed us in the Beloved and sealed us with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph 1:3–14, condensed). 

For that article… continue reading here.

December 29, 2016

The Opposite of Infant Baptism: Why Evangelicals Opt Out

This article was a link list item two weeks ago, but I found myself thinking about it somewhat continuously since, and last night it came up again at the supper table. The writer blogs at Patheos under the banner Troubler of Israel but I’m otherwise unfamiliar with his work.

I’ve quoted this in full, though you are strongly encouraged to read it at source and join the over 300 comments; just click the link in the title below. The only difference here is that I’ve placed one paragraph in bold face type which I believe deserves special attention.

The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies
by G. Shane Morris

Friends (especially those expecting children) ask me with surprising frequency why I believe in infant baptism. For a couple of years, I replied by giving what I think the best biblical reasons are. But I usually don’t take that route anymore, because I’ve realized that’s not what convinced me.

For most evangelicals, what stands in the way of baptizing infants isn’t a lack of biblical evidence, but an interpretive lens they wear when reading Scripture. That lens–shaped by revivals, rugged individualism, and a sacramental theology untethered from the church’s means of grace–makes conversion the chief article of the faith. We should expect this, since American evangelical theology was forged on the frontier, in camp meetings, to the sound of fire-and-brimstone preaching.

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term 'baptism.'

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term ‘baptism.’

The core assumption here is that you must have a conversion experience to be saved. You must turn away from a past life toward a new one, usually with tears and laments attesting your sincerity. And this view of Christianity works well in an evangelistic setting, where many have lived as open unbelievers. The problem is it’s an awkward fit when it comes to multi-generational faith.

Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from “unbelief” to “belief.” We were never “converted.” It was simply inculcated from infancy, and for as long as we can remember, we have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, whether we were baptized as a baby or not.

But because of the baptistic emphasis on conversion, many (if not most) raised in those churches found ourselves “converting” over and over, reciting the “sinner’s prayer” at countless altar calls during our childhood and teenage years, certain that each time, we were truly sincere, but always finding ourselves back at the altar. Some of us even asked to be re-baptized upon our fresh conversions. And everyone raised in evangelical churches will know what I mean when I say “testimony envy,”–that real and perverse jealousy you feel when someone who lived a nastier pre-conversion life than you shares their story.

This is where I think the chief difficulty with infant baptism lies, at least for American evangelicals. I don’t believe baptistic evangelicals really view their children as unregenerate pagans before their “credible profession of faith.” If they did, they wouldn’t teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer or to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I think what’s really going on is a kind of alternative sacramentalism, where a dramatic conversion experience, rather than baptism, is the rite of Christian initiation.

Thus, children raised in this setting feel the need to manufacture tearful conversions over and over to prove their sincerity. And rather than their present trust in Christ, they’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) to look back to a time, a place, and a prayer, and stake their salvation on that.

Infant baptism runs counter to this entire system. It declares visibly that God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their “conversions.” It illustrates that the branches God grafts in to His Son aren’t sterile. They bud and blossom, producing new branches that have never drunk another tree’s sap. And most importantly, it matches the lived experiences of believers’ children, rather than continually imposing a system on them that was designed for first-generation converts.

Almost always, I see the lights come on after explaining this point to an evangelical friend. And in most cases, their acceptance of infant baptism isn’t far behind.

 

November 17, 2016

When Certainty is Sinful

One of the university courses I took was a bit of a tossed salad consisting of music history, the philosophy of music aesthetics, and music appreciation. I learned that in both art and music  every period is somewhat of a reaction to the period that it immediately followed.

The post-war Evangelical era (in North America at least) was marked by the dogmatic fervor of its practitioners; a dogma which is still seen in many fundamentalist quarters. In that world, all is black and white. There is no gray. As my keyboarding teacher made us type, “We must know and know that we know.” Any deviation from the script smacked of liberalism, and the dominant teaching was that liberals were all going to hell.

But then the Evangelical world changed, and moved toward a progressive Evangelicalism for which many were not prepared. Blame was placed on the missional churches (which has Christian, incarnational values as traditional as you can imagine) or the emergent churches (which were simply adopting a mix of traditional and modern forms) when in fact the revolution was more theological. Suddenly it was okay to say we’re not sure about things, and needless to say, this attitude can be upsetting in a world of dogma.

So a few years ago, we had Greg Boyd releasing Benefit of the Doubt which wasn’t surprising (for it to be him that authored it) given that Boyd is a proponent of Open Theology which suggests even God isn’t 100% sure if you’re going to propose to the girl or end the relationship with tonight’s dinner date at Denny’s (but he has every possible sequence in his mind no matter what you do). We had authors suggesting you can still hold on to your faith and believe in evolution. We encountered writers on line who possessed a deep Christian faith in terms of both doctrine and service, but were comfortable identifying as gay or lesbian.

The Christian world was now full of gray.

sin-of-certainty-peter-ennsIt’s into that environment that Peter Enns steps with the release of The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than our Correct Beliefs (HarperOne). With great irony, the book released a few months ago just as Andy Stanley upset some critics with his The Bible Tells Me So sermon, which is also the title of one of Enns’ other books. While others have defended Stanley online (and I for one feel that if anyone has been paying attention Stanley needs no defence) he pointed out clearly that the skeptic or new believer doesn’t need to sign on to everything in order to believe something; and that by starting with trust in the resurrection of Jesus we can then allow for exposure to a variety of doctrinal positions (or scientific revelations) without the whole of Christianity needing to collapse like a house of cards.

So a book like The Sin of Certainty is very timely. Peter Enns basically catalogs some of the various less-certain elements one might find in the sphere of Christianity, and rather than resolve all of these necessarily, creates a climate where the reader can say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s me! At last someone who gets it.’ Some of the book draws from his personal experiences of dealing with the doubt/certainty continuum, either internally or in his family or academic life.

All this to say the book will resonate with many readers. There were sections I found myself going back and re-reading just to absorb the manner in which the various subjects were presented.

Organizationally however, the book presented four distinct challenges. First, there was the fact that each subsection of each chapter was given a fresh page, which confused me at first as to where the chapters themselves began and ended. I was three chapters in (of nine chapters) before I caught on to the book’s layout and design and gratuitous use of partially blank pages.

Second, the constant references to his 2014 title The Bible Tells Me So made me wish I was reading that book instead, or at least first. The Sin of Certainty is obviously intended as a sequel; the former’s subtitle being, Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

Third, as I discovered too late, there was a wealth of ideas to consider in the end-notes. An explanation is provided as to why (to keep the flow of the book) these were not page footnotes, but as someone perfectly capable of rabbit-trail distraction, I would like to have considered some of those thoughts in context, rather than catching up later.

Finally, some readers will want to find the page and paragraph where Enns explains why certainty is a sin (or how to obtain forgiveness.) In some ways, this is to miss to whole point of faith-based trust; the book’s title must be seen as hyperbole in some measure. The certainty of the dogmatists must bring them some comfort, but it’s not reality for the average Christian.

That is echoed in the title of Peter Enns’ blog, The Bible for Normal People. As a longtime reader of his online writing, this was the first time I’d enjoyed him in print and I am richer for having read this.


Hardcover; 230 pages. Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing (Canada) for an opportunity to read the book. More information at HarperOne, also home to writers such has Henri Nouwen, Shane Claiborne, Dallas Willard, Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, and other authors the dogmatists are not particularly fond of. Publisher webpage for this book.

 

 

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