Archive | Theology/Bible

Southern Baptists and Calvinism

The conversation concerning Calvinism continues among Southern Baptists. At least that is a part of Steve Lemke’s aim in an April 2005 paper titled “The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals” (pp. 12-17). Among other things, Lemke makes the controversial suggestion that the Calvinism outlined in the popular acrostic TULIP amounts to hyper-Calvinism (p. 14). He writes, “While we all know five point Calvinists who are effective evangelists and missionaries, it is a common intuition that those with a theology of hard Calvinism are not apt to be as evangelistic as others” (p. 16). Lemke is the Provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Joe Thorn responds to Lemke’s essay on his blog in a post titled “Hyper Calvinism Criticism.” He basically argues that the Calvinism of the TULIP acrostic “is not what has been historically understood as hyper-Calvinism.” His is a good summary of the concerns contained in Iain Murray’s Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching. Also, Tom Ascol has posted part one of his response to Lemke’s paper. Ascol has a substantive piece, but it has a decidedly acerbic tone.

Jim Hamilton has posted some pointers to help Baptists debate this issue more peacefully. His thesis builds upon R. Albert Mohler’s notion of theological triage, a theme I have addressed in this blog on more than one occasion (here and here). Hamilton contends that the difference between Calvinists and Arminians is not one that should divide Baptist from Baptist. The title of his essay reads as follows: “Calvinism and Arminianism: A Debate over First or Third Order Issues?” Hamilton is an assistant professor of biblical studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Understanding the Blogs

In his daily blog on OpinionJournal.com, James Taranto brings our attention to a useful little essay by Steven Den Beste. In the essay, Den Beste says that all blogs fall into one of two basic categories. He writes:

“Blogs are as different as the people who write them, but you’ll find two fundamental themes, with each blog being somewhere on the axis of how much of each appears. For lack of better terms, I suppose you could refer to them as ‘editors’ and ‘writers’.

“One form of blog is the ‘informal portal’. The general idea is to find cool stuff, link to it, and perhaps add a few words describing it. The link is the point; the words are there to encapsulate and sell the link. These people are organizers, searchers, they’re the web’s editors. They become popular to the extent that their readers like their judgment.

“The other theme is writing. The idea is to actually create something new and add it to the collective data stream. There may be a link involved or may not be, but it’s the writing which is the point. The subject matter may be critical or trivial; it may be driven by current events or by private experience or by the whim of the blogger. Sometimes a link is relevant; sometimes it inspires the writing. Sometimes no link is needed at all” (source).

One of my favorite ‘editor’ blogs of late is Justin Taylor’s Between Two Worlds. I guess I like his so much because we seem to have all the same interests: the Bible, Theology, and Politics. He is very well read, and I’m finding myself giving him hat tips more and more (I even learned the technical term “hat tip” from him!). Other notable editors that I like include the Drudge Report (of course) and Best of the Web.

Probably my favorite ‘writer’ blogger is Russell Moore, Academic Dean of Southern Seminary. He contributes almost daily at Touchstone Magazine’s “Mere Comments” blog and at The Henry Institute website. Another writer that I enjoy is R. Albert Mohler.

We might also mention Op-Ed “writers” whose printed work appears on the web. My favorite is Peggy Noonan on OpinionJournal.com. A good daily round-up of online Op-Eds appears on the Real Clear Politics website.

There are two staples that I have found very helpful in my daily news reading: “Today’s Headlines” in the New York Times and the “print edition” page of the Washington Post. You can pretty well predict the top stories on the morning news programs by reading these daily editions (especially the New York Times).

Well, this is a little bit of my daily diet. I hope it’s helpful to you.

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Church Discipline and Purging the Church Roles

Hat tip to Justin Taylor for bringing our attention to Tim Challies’ summary of Jim Ellif’s article: Southern Baptists: An Unregenerate Denomination. Challies’ summary and Ellif’s article deal with the widely known fact that the membership roles of Southern Baptist churches are woefully inflated. Many Southern Baptists have simply grown accustomed to the fact that only about 37% of the names listed on their church’s role actually shows up regularly for worship.

This statistic reveals how far Baptists have drifted from their tradition as Baptists. Historically, Baptists have been a people who adhere to a regenerate church membership. That is, we believe that the only people who are allowed to be members of the church are those who profess and practice faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Eliff’s statistic shows that about 63% of Southern Baptist church members do not in fact practice their faith by attending regular worship services.

Earlier this week, I listened to an interview with Paige Patterson in which he talked about how a pastor can get a church to practice church discipline when that church has never done so before. This can be an extremely difficult move for a pastor, but Patterson suggested that, after preaching about the meaning of membership, a pastor could begin by pursuing non-attending members. If the non-attending members either cannot be found or do not want to return to the fold, then they should be removed from the church membership roles. This is Patterson’s advice, and I agree that it is a good place to start.

There is much more to be said on this, and I refer the interested reader to the 9Marks website for resources on and teaching about church discipline within a Baptist context.

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Joel Osteen Apologizes for Larry King Interview

I am so very thankful to learn that Joel Osteen has apologized for the remarks that he made in his recent interview with Larry King. I wrote about the interview last week and was very disappointed with Osteen’s failure to present a clear and unambiguous declaration of the Gospel.

But he has retracted his statements in the interview and has apologized for giving the impression that there is any other way to be saved other than through Jesus Christ. You can read his apology on his website (click here to read it). Osteen writes, “I hope that you accept my deepest apology and see it in your heart to extend to me grace and forgiveness.”

I will offer Al Mohler’s response to this apology as my own: “the only proper response is to extend the very forgiveness for which he asks—and with equal humility. Other concerns can wait for another day.”

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Disappointed with Osteen

One of Larry King’s recent interviews has been very disappointing. In this case, the interviewer is not the one disappointing me, but the interviewee, Rev. Joel Osteen. I think it is unfortunate that Osteen, having voiced his agreement with the prosperity-gospel, is still put forward as a spokesman for evangelicalism. Moreover, Osteen makes remarks that I don’t know how to interpret except as a flat out rejection of the exclusivity of the Gospel message.

The following is from Larry King’s interview with Joel Osteen. I hope that Osteen just misspoke and will retract some of this. The end is especially troubling.

OSTEEN: My message, I wanted to reach the mainstream. We’ve reached the church audience. So I just try to, what I do is just try to teach practical principles. I may not bring the scripture in until the end of my sermon and i might feel bad about that. Here’s the thought. I talked yesterday about living to give. That’s what a life should be about. I brought in at the end about some of the scriptures that talk about
that. But same principal in the book.
KING: Is it hard to lead a Christian life?
OSTEEN: I don’t think it’s that hard. To me it’s fun. We have joy and happiness. Our family — I don’t feel like that at all. I’m not trying to follow a set of rules and stuff. I’m just living my life.
KING: But you have rules, don’t you?
OSTEEN: We do have rules. But the main rule to me is to honor God with your life. To life a life of integrity. Not be selfish. You know, help others. But that’s really the essence of the Christian faith.
KING: That we live in deeds?
OSTEEN: I don’t know. What do you mean by that?
KING: Because we’ve had ministers on who said, your record don’t count. You either believe in Christ or you don’t. If you believe in Christ, you are, you are going to heaven. And if you don’t no matter what you’ve done in your life, you ain’t.
OSTEEN: Yeah, I don’t know. There’s probably a balance between. I believe you have to know Christ. But I think that if you know Christ, if you’re a believer in God, you’re going to have some good works. I think it’s a cop-out to say I’m a Christian but I don’t ever do anything…
KING: What if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you don’t accept Christ at all?
OSTEEN: You know, I’m very careful about saying who would and wouldn’t go to heaven. I don’t know…
KING: If you believe you have to believe in Christ? They’re wrong, aren’t hey?
OSTEEN: Well, I don’t know if I believe they’re wrong. I believe here’s what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God with judge a person’s heart. I spent a lot of time in India with my father. I don’t know all about their religion. But I know they love God. And I don’t know. I’ve seen their sincerity. So I don’t know. I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus.

There are many problems in this exchange, and most of the readers of this blog will spot them without my commenting upon them point by point. Yet there is one item that is particularly troubling. When Larry King asks about the destiny of sincere Muslims, Osteen will not come out and say that Jesus is the only way of Salvation. I do not understand why Osteen couldn’t just quote the Bible (maybe John 14:6 or Acts 4:12)? If he can’t bring himself to say it in his own words, why can’t he just quote the Bible and leave it at that?

My fear is that unbelievers hearing this interview probably did not glean the truth that every person who has ever lived faces judgment because of their sin and that faith alone in the crucified and risen Christ is man’s only hope of salvation. This is the heart of the Gospel, and it was not at all clear in Osteen’s interview. I don’t think that this man believes that there is more than one way of salvation, but the interview seems to imply that people of other faiths might be okay after all.

So I am disappointed and hoping for a retraction or perhaps some clarification. I hope one or both comes soon.

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Evangelicals from Mars?


Members of the Korean American Presbyterian Church of Queens. Koreans are among those swelling the ranks of evangelical Christians. – James Estrin/The New York Times

An interesting story in today’s New York Times talks about the population of evangelicals living in New York City. So how do New Yorkers, by and large, feel about evangelicals in there midst?

“Still, the prevailing culture of this city is still unsure of what to make of evangelical Christians, most churchgoers interviewed agreed. They can be treated with contempt and other times curiosity. Mickey H. Sanchez, 26, who works for a city councilman and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church, said he finds that people are often confused when they discover that he’s an evangelical. ‘That you’re in New York as an evangelical, it has to be processed by them,’ he said” (source).

I guess meeting a Martian would be the only thing stranger than meeting an evangelical in New York. Still, the article discusses the burgeoning evangelical population in the city. This population is presumably going to populate the upcoming Billy Graham crusade. This is unfortunate. I think it would be better if the evangelistic crusade could actually reach some non-evangelicals. Hopefully, we haven’t come to the point where seeing a Martian at the crusade would be the only thing stranger than seeing a non-evangelical there.

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Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air?


Howard Hendricks, his wife Jeanne, my wife Susan, and me at a DTS post-graduation party, May 7, 2005.

“Have you ever left a bible study feeling like you have your feet firmly planted in mid-air?” That is the question that Dr. Howard Hendricks used to ask when I was one of his Hermeneutics[1] students during my first semester at Dallas Theological Seminary. He knew, as most of the rest of us knew, how so many small-group bible studies are racked with superficiality and are “bible studies” in name only.

How many times had I myself sat in a bible-study circle of earnest young believers where the leader reads a text then asks the question: “What does this verse mean to you?” The inevitable response from the members in the circle is a cascade of ill-conceived interpretations that contradict one another, ramble into therapeutic incoherence, and ultimately miss the point of the Scripture. Then, after all had offered their version of “what this verse means to me,” the leader says “amen” and closes with prayer with everyone feeling satisfied that they had shared their feelings with one another. What I learned from Dr. Hendricks is that those kinds of “bible studies” are less a study of the Bible than they are a haphazard pooling of everyone’s ignorance.

As I finish my third semester of teaching hermeneutics to undergraduate and graduate students, I am contemplating Dr. Hendricks’ question again. It is clear to me that as long as there have been readers of the Bible, there have been disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture. This situation is due to no deficiency in the Scripture, but to the fallenness of its readers. How do we get our feet planted on the ground in our interpretation of the Bible?

The one question that must be answered as we interpret the Scriptures is what is the criterion by which we evaluate whether a particular interpretation is valid or invalid. Think about the young people sitting in the bible-study circle offering their contradicting interpretations. When interpretations contradict, it is possible for all of them to be wrong or for one of them to be correct, but it is logically impossible for all of them to be correct! So what is the criterion by which we distinguish a good interpretation from a bad interpretation?

I answer that question to my hermeneutics students by pointing out that any written communication involves three components: (1) author, (2) text, and (3) reader. Hermeneutical theories differ from one another in where they locate meaning. Some say the author controls meaning, some say the text controls meaning, and others say the reader controls meaning.

For instance, the New Criticism is an example of the second approach. This mode of interpretation was popular among literary critics from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s, and it focused its attention on the text as the determiner of meaning. Meaning was thought to be a property of the text itself, quite apart from anything external to it (including the author and the reader!). If you are familiar with the work of T. S. Eliot or Robert Penn Warren, then you know a little bit about the text-focused work of the New Critics.

I recently blogged on Stanley Fish, a prominent contemporary literary theorist, who falls in the third category. He would argue that it is not the author who gives meaning to a text, but the reader.[2] Fish, who is not the originator of this point of view, is but one of many literary critics that belong to the reader-response school of interpretation—“a group of approaches to understanding literature that have in common an emphasis on the reader’s role in the creation of the meaning of a literary work.” This approach is all the rage today in universities across America.

As with the New Criticism, the reader-response school of interpretation has not only affected the interpretation of biblical texts, but also the interpretation secular texts as well. Recent controversy over the role of federal judges in the intepretion of the U. S. Constitution is fundamentally a debate about who controls the meaning of texts: the author (i.e., the framers) or the readers (i.e., the judges).[3]

The hermeneutical approach that I advocate to my students is that the author is the controller of meaning. In other words, meaning is defined as the message that the author consciously wills to convey through the words that he uses.[4] That means that all attempts to distinguish valid interpretations from invalid interpretations must be grounded in what the author willed to communicate.

This is essentially the common sense approach to interpretation. When you read the words that I have written in this blog, you are trying to understand what I mean by what I say. If you were to have a conversation with me, you would try to interpret what I mean by what I say. If you try to read your own meaning into what I’m saying or writing, then there will be no way for us to communicate. You would never hear me, but only yourself. Common sense says that you should try to understand me (the author) and my intention in writing (the text) as you read (the reader).

An author-centered approach is also the one that best accords with what the Bible teaches. I could point to many texts, but let me select one: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1 Peter 1:20-21). According to this text, the authors of the Bible were given a Divine competence that enabled them to express adequately the revelation that God had given them. If you want to know what God means in the Bible, then you have to get to the bottom of what the Spirit-moved human author meant when he wrote.[5]

I say all of this so that I can encourage all of you Bible readers to plant your feet firmly on the ground of the Bible, God’s holy and infallible word. But you cannot have your feet planted firmly on the word if you are seeking to find meaning in any place other than the author’s intention. So when we are sitting in the Bible-study circle, and the leader asks, “What does this verse mean to you?”, in love and with great patience, let’s endeavor to point our brothers and sisters to find out what it meant to the author. This may throw a wrench in the stream-of-consciousness approach to Bible study that is so popular today, but it will be the only way to avoid having our feet planted firmly in mid-air.
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[1]“Herman who?” is the question that many people ask when they first hear the word hermeneutics. Hermeneutics comes from the Greek word hermeneuō which simply means to interpret or to explain. Textual hermeneutics is the study of the principles that govern the interpretation of texts. Because preaching the biblical text is the central work of the Christian minister, a hermeneutics course is typically included in the core curriculum of seminaries and bible colleges.
[2]Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (London and Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980.
[3]On this topic, I commend to you John Piper’s sermon: “Discerning the Will of God Concerning Homosexuality and Marriage,” preached August 7, 2004 at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
[4]This definition and indeed my whole hermeneutics course rely almost entirely on the work of Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). Dr. Stein was a great mentor to me when I worked as his graduate assistant at Southern Seminary. Other significant influences include: E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1979); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Zondervan, 1998).
[5]There is much to be said here about the issue of Sensus Plenoir, but I shall refrain for the sake of space.

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