The Death of a Postmodern Theologian


Stanley J. Grenz, 1950-2005

I was shocked to learn this week of Stanley Grenz’s death. He died very suddenly on Saturday, March 12 as a result of a massive aneurism. I cannot improve upon David Dockery’s review of Grenz’s life and career as an ‘evangelical’ theologian. So I recommend that you read Dockery’s very personal appraisal of Grenz: ‘When Piety Is Not Enough.’

I was introduced to Grenz’s theology in 1998 while working on my Master’s in Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. I read Grenz’s Primer on Postmodernism, and my mind began to understand for the first time the philosophical and theological roots of postmodernity. Until his book, I had not properly understood the causes of the epistemological irrationality that seemed to permeate every aspect of the American culture in which I lived. His book made clearer the things I had only begun to be aware of from reading Francis Schaeffer years before. Grenz’s lucid description of postmodernism’s historical underpinnings made clear to me how the rationalism of modernity had vanished once for all as the ruling paradigm of knowledge. I remember reading the book and being so thankful for his clarity and insight into the postmodern ethos. I also remember very clearly how disappointed I was by the final chapter of the book. As an evangelical, I could not understand how he could be so sympathetic to the epistemology (or lack thereof) of postmodernity. In the years since that introduction to his thought, I have come to believe that his theological program is actually antithetical to evangelical orthodoxy. Grenz and his work will not soon be forgotten, but I do hope and pray that his theological paradigm will not carry the day.

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Puritan or Separatist? To Leave or Not To Leave

A person recently asked me what I though about the “downgrade controversy,” which was a doctrinal dispute that C. H. Spurgeon had with liberal members of his denomination. Ultimately, Spurgeon decided that separation from the doctrinal “downgrade” of his denomination was the best course. The question arises for us as to when it is appropriate to separate from a church or a denomination over doctrinal issues. For us as for Spurgeon, I think that the question is all about when it is proper to stop being puritans to become separatists (for the difference between the two, click here). Spurgeon believed that his denomination had become so compromised doctrinally that he had to stop being a puritan to become a separatist. I agree with him that sometimes a church or denomination can become so compromised that you cannot remain in fellowship. The question is when does a church or a denomination cross that line. For my answer to that question, I refer you once again to Dr. Mohler’s article, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” We have to separate with people who deny “first order” doctrines, and we have to regard them as non-Christians. We have to worship in separate churches from those who deny “second order” doctrines, though we may still acknowledge them as brothers. We have to strive for unity in spite of disagreements over “third order” doctrines.

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“Theological Triage”: Recognizing Doctrinal Priorities

For many students of theology, one of the last lessons to be mastered is the ability to discern how and when to engage in theological debate. On the one hand, some simply don’t know how to disagree amicably with those who have different perspectives. Too often, students become so abrasive and caustic that no one wants to listen to them, no matter what they are saying. When I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I remember seeing three students arguing over the so-called “lordship salvation” controversy. One of the “free grace” advocates became so incensed at his opponent that he nearly punched the “lordship” advocate in the face. Though I’m sure he felt “free” to attack his poor brother, I’m glad that he chose not to. Instead, he stormed off in a huff, fists clinched and red-faced. It was clear to me that this guy had not mastered the how of theological discourse.

On the other hand, too many do not discern properly when debate is advisable and what the pitch of such dispute should be. I have known many who become more excited about the order of events on their prophecy chart than they do about the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. They do not seem to understand that error with respect to the former results only in division while error with respect to the later results in condemnation. This inability to discern a taxonomy in doctrinal priorities is one of the hallmarks of theological immaturity.

It is for this reason that Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has recommended a “theological triage” to govern theological dialogue. In his essay, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” Mohler sets forth the necessity of identifying first order, second order, and third order doctrinal issues. He argues that the mature theologian will be able to distinguish each of the three from one another. I highly recommend that you make it your priority to read this short essay for yourself.

“A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” – by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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To My Students: A Word of Exhortation

My writing today is dedicated especially to my students at the Criswell College. I am happy to hear that so many have been stopping by to read what I have posted, so I have all of you in mind as I write today. There is a short essay by B. B. Warfield that I read when I first began my trek in theological education many years ago. What Warfield wrote in this essay radically changed the way that I had been thinking about the task that I had before me. He argues with passion and vigor that there should be no bifurcation between the “head” and the “heart” when one applies himself to serious study of the scriptures. Warfield’s words were momentous in my life, and I think they will be in yours too. Princeton Theological Seminary has posted Warfield’s article on their website, and I am encouraging you to click on the link below, print out the article, and read it carefully. Blessings on all of you with much love, Dr. Burk.

The Religious Life of Theological Students – by B. B. Warfield

(About B. B. Warfield)

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The Sloan Resignation: “Vision Minus the Visionary”

Several weeks ago I wrote about the resignation of Robert Sloan from the presidency of Baylor University in a blog titled, “The Demise of Sloan and the Fortunes of ‘Baylor 2012’.” In that essay I concluded with the following: “I fear that the vision of ‘Baylor 2012’ will have a whole different character or be perhaps entirely lost without Sloan at the helm. However, I am reminded by a good friend that the glass may not be half empty, but half full . . . I will be hoping and praying that my friend is right.”

According to an article in the March issue of Christianity Today, the glass may indeed be half full. In “Vision Minus the Visionary,” Robert Benne predicts that, “there is good reason to believe that Baylor 2012 will go firmly forward under a new administration. There is no guarantee that this ambitious plan will be completely successful or that it will now be free of controversy, but its likelihood of success is now greater without Sloan than it was with him.” It remains to be seen whether this analysis will be correct, but I recommend your reading the article anyway (click on the following link).

“Vision Minus the Visionary” – by Robert Benne

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Brothers, let us love with our words

When it comes to sin, Christians often get the most exercised about avoiding the “biggies.” For many in the conservative wing of Christianity, that means a preoccupation with certain behaviors that should be avoided. Those behaviors are summed up in the familiar rhyme:

I don’t smoke, drink, cuss, or chew
And I don’t go around with people who do.

Yet the reductionism of this formula (whose biblicity will have to be discussed at another time), like many other kinds of behavior modification theories, fails to shed any light on some of the darker corners of our hearts that we don’t like for anyone to see. It is these cherished and concealed peccadillos that truly threaten to destroy us as individuals and as a fellowship of believers.

One such sin that often slips in under the radar unnoticed is gossip. To engage in gossiping means to give “a report (often malicious) about the behavior of other people.” The Bible has many terms for this kind of behavior: slander (Ps 15:2; Mk 7:22), gossip (2 Cor 12:20); backbiting tongue (Prov 25:23), to name a few. All of these describe one’s using their words to speak out against another in a way that defames, belittles, or misrepresents them, and it is roundly condemned by God (Lev 19:16; Prov 10:18; Ps 140:11). Indeed, the wise man knows that, “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip” (Prov 20:19).

Yet gossip is one of those besetting sins that ensnare all of us at some time or another. The reason for this indulgence often emerges as willingness to capitulate to the worser angels of our nature. Proverbs 18:8 says, “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts of the body” (cf. Prov 26:22). This text simply means that we like to hear the whisperings of a gossip. We like to “get the goods” on other people, especially when there’s dirty laundry involved. Somehow it makes us feel really good to listen to and to dole out “the dainty morsels” that defame others.

In our relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, this evil proclivity accounts for much of what is wrong with our churches. When we get offended by a brother or are scandalized by the behavior of a sister, we immediately gather others around to tell them about the grievous misdeeds of the wayward so that we can “pray” for them.

Yet this is clearly not the ethic that Jesus commended for us. One of the ways that we love each other is to follow strictly the mandates of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17:

“15 And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”

Jesus sets forth very plainly a three-step process for what we are to do when we are offended or scandalized by the behavior of a brother or sister. The first step in that process consists in going and confronting the offender in private. Notice that Jesus does not say, “Go gather a bunch of other believers together and tell them your beef with your brother so they can pray for you.” No, the directive is to keep the matter private for as long as possible so that you can “win” your brother. The sad thing is that we often ignore Jesus in our relationships. We like to go public first by gossiping, and then to put off as long as possible the confrontation with the offending brother. This is the opposite of what Jesus commands, and it is the opposite of love.

So my exhortation is that we love one another with our words. Often, love calls us to hold back our words, to keep back those would-be “dainty morsels.” Sometimes the best thing to do is to just keep quiet. “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov 10:19). At other times, it will be necessary to say the words in love to the brother who has offended, even if the words bring confrontation. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov 27:6). In any case, the question that governs our behavior is not, “What do I want to do?,” but “What would love have me do?”

So brothers, let us love with our words.

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The Purpose-Driven Resurrection

I am reading The Purpose-Driven Life along with other members of my church in a 40-day study of Rick Warren’s blockbuster book. The book contains both positives and negatives. On the positive side, no serious Christian could argue with the main points of the book, which are but a summary of what every Christian should be about: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism. Rick Warren is right on target with these as they are clear imperatives that appear in different ways throughout scripture.

There are, however, certain drawbacks to this best-seller that one would do well to pay attention to. Warren’s frequent proof-texting sometimes runs roughshod over the context of the verse in question with the result that one is sometimes left with a less-than-accurate understanding of the biblical writer’s real intention.[1] The use of paraphrased versions of the Bible (New Living Translation, The Message) also leaves much to be desired.[2]

In this essay, I would like to focus on one particular area of concern. Warren appears to embrace a kind of dualism that is frequently heard in popular evangelical preaching today. In chapter 4, Warren explains that people are “made to last forever,” and he embarks upon an explanation of the nature of the eternal state. He writes: “One day your heart will stop beating. That will be the end of your body and your time on earth, but it will not be the end of you. Your earthly body is just a temporary residence for your spirit” (p. 37). This passage seems to suggest that our non-physical self (the soul) is eternal while our physical self (the body) is only temporary. A mind/body dualism emerges here that is foreign to the Bible. Warren quotes 2 Corinthians 5:6 to explain the different mode of existence which believers have in “heaven”: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” From Warren’s explanation of this text, one is left with the impression that our future mode of existence in heaven is non-physical, being characterized by not having a physical body.

Yet this is not at all what Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. In fact, Paul is teaching quite the opposite. Paul is arguing that our ultimate hope is that God will resurrect the bodies of believers after they die. The eternal state is very much a physical state. In the eternal state, Christians will not be “unclothed” (2 Cor 5:4), but will have put on the clothing of a new resurrected, glorified body.

This hope of resurrection is actually the center of New Testament hope. Christians are supposed to look forward not only to heaven, but to resurrection. That is why Paul urged the Thessalonians who were burying their loved ones who had died: “13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess 4:13-16 NIV). Paul encouraged the Thessalonians who were grieving the death of their loved ones by telling them that God would resurrect their bodies just like He resurrected Jesus’ body.

One of God’s purposes for Jesus’ resurrection is that believers should look to Christ’s resurrection as an example of what He will do for them in the future. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:16-22: “16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Paul’s argument is that if Christ has not been resurrected then believers won’t be resurrected either. He simply assumes that resurrection is what all Christians should be looking forward to after death.

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Paul uses the doctrine of resurrection to refute those who say that the physical body is morally irrelevant to God. Paul argues that the believer’s body is not for immorality but for the Lord because the Lord will one day raise up the believer’s body just as Jesus’ body was raised. Indeed, the physical body is called “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” No dualism here. In fact, Paul is arguing against the very kind of mind/body dualism that has become so prevalent in the modern day.

We would all do well to keep in mind a purpose-driven resurrection. God’s ultimate purpose for the believer is that they should glorify Him forever in resurrected physical bodies. He wants us to believe His promise that we will be raised just as Jesus was. We won’t be like Casper the friendly ghost, disembodied “spirits” roaming to and fro upon the clouds. We will be ourselves again, as God always intended for us to be: whole, physical, sinless, perfected, glorifying him. Until we fix our eyes on that hope, we are hoping in something less than what God purposes for us.
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[1]In chapter 4, Warren completely misinterprets 1 Corinthians 2:9, which he quotes from the Living Bible: “No mere man has ever seen, heard or even imagined what wonderful things God has ready for those who love the Lord.” Warren uses this verse to make the point that the human mind cannot comprehend what heaven will be like (p. 38). Yet when considered in context, 1 Corinthians 2:9 is clearly not talking about heaven, but about the cross of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:24). Indeed it is the wisdom that is “hidden” from the rulers of this age (1 Cor 2:7). Yet this wisdom has been revealed to believers “through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:10). Paul’s point is not that something has been hidden from Christians but that something has been revealed to them that is not revealed to others. Christians can see and enjoy the wisdom of God in the cross. So Warren has completely misunderstood this text. Christians do in fact understand “what wonderful things God has ready for those who love the Lord.” As a matter of fact, this is what distinguishes believers from unbelievers. Believers “get it,” and unbelievers don’t.
[2]There are many examples throughout the book. Consider Warren’s argument in chapter 12 on “Developing Your Friendship with God.” In this section, Warren claims that a healthy friendship with God includes “accusing” God when one is not pleased with what God does. Warren uses Moses’ words in Exodus 33:12-17 from The Message to bolster his point: “‘Look, you tell me to lead this people but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. . . . If I’m so special to you, let me in on your plans. . . . Don’t forget, this is YOUR people, your responsibility. . . . If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now! How else will I know that you’re with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? . . .’ God said to Moses, ‘All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me.’” (quoted on pages 93-94). Does The Message really capture the content and tone of the conversation between God and Moses in this text? Compare that translation to the one found in the NASB, the translation widely regarded by scholars to be the most literal English translation: “12 Then Moses said to the Lord, ‘See, Thou dost say to me, “Bring up this people!” But Thou Thyself hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me. Moreover, Thou hast said, “I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.” 13 Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find favor in Thy sight. Consider too, that this nation is Thy people.’ 14 And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’ 15 Then he said to Him, ‘If Thy presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. 16 For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us, so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?’ 17 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.’” The Message makes it sound like Moses disrespects God, a notion that does not appear in the NASB.

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Mohler Blasts McLaren and the Emergent Church Movement

I don’t know if you saw TIME magazine’s recent issue on the 25 most influential American evangelicals, but a pastor named Brian McLaren made the list. I saw McLaren interviewed on Larry King after the issue came out. The more McLaren talked, the more peeved I became. He was absolutely ridiculous in his inability to articulate any conviction on any important issue—except to say that other evangelicals are too hung up on dividing people with their beliefs.

R. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, just reviewed McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy, and gave it the raking-over-the-coals that it deserves. He also comments on the so-called “Emergent” church movement and its insistence on a rejection of propositional truth. Therefore, I commend Dr. Mohler’s essay to you for your enjoyment and edification (see link below).

“A Generous Orthodoxy”—Is it Orthodox? – by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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Review of “Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates”

Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, eds. Justification—What’s at Stake in the Current Debates (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004). ISBN: 0830827811. $23.00.

The ten papers appearing in this volume are selections from the conference on Justification held at Wheaton College Graduate school in April of 2003: “The Gospel, Freedom and Righteousness: The Doctrine of Justification.” One would think that a book such as this one, published at the time that this one was, would be all about the current debate over the so-called “new perspective” on Paul. This collection of essays, however, demonstrates that there is much more to the Justification debate than the quarrel about the character of first century rabbinic Judaism and its influence on the apostle to the Gentiles. These papers take up the question whether imputed righteousness is “fictive, forensic or transformative” (p. 7). The book divides into four parts: (1) Justification and Biblical theology, (2) Justification and the Crisis of Protestantism, (2) Justification in Protestant Traditions, and (4) Justification and Ecumenical Endeavor. Continue Reading →

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Review of “Making Sense of the New Testament”

Craig L. Blomberg, Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2004). ISBN: 0801027470. $14.99.

Craig Blomberg’s Making Sense of the New Testament is published as a companion volume to Tremper Longman’s 1998 book, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions. In the current volume, Blomberg sets out to identify “three crucial questions” that must be answered by anyone who wishes to consider the truth-claims of the New Testament. In chapter 1, he sets out to answer the question of whether the New Testament presents a reliable historical portrait of Jesus. Here he takes up the old question of whether the Christ of history resembles the Christ of the scriptures. Blomberg concludes that the historicity of the Gospels and Acts is confirmed by sound evidence and that accepting their historical claims does not require a leap of faith. Blomberg does a good job of taking the reader step-by-step through the evidence, and in the end produces a very convincing apologetic for the veracity of the Gospels and Acts.

In chapter 2, Blomberg takes up the controversial question whether Paul was the true founder of Christianity. He queries whether the teaching of Jesus can be reconciled with the teaching of the great apostle to the Gentiles: “Was Paul, in fact, the second founder, or perhaps even the true founder of Christianity as it has developed down the centuries?” (p. 15). In this section, Blomberg responds to the skeptical charge that Paul’s letters reveal a radical revision of the teachings of the historical Jesus. Blomberg does well to point out that Paul is aware of the Jesus traditions that were current in his day and that some of these traditions appear in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, for instance, Paul makes use of a tradition that was handed down to him by word of mouth. This tradition looks remarkably similar to Luke’s version of the Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19-20). Paul and Luke’s use of a common oral tradition shows the antiquity of Paul’s theology of atonement and that he was concerned with the historical Jesus. Blomberg wrestles with other texts in Paul that allude directly or indirectly to Jesus’ teachings. Blomberg says that, “Theological distinctives between the two men remain, and the differing purposes of the Gospels and the Epistles must be taken into account” (p. 106). Thus, there is more evidence of continuity between Jesus and Paul than is commonly acknowledged by New Testament scholars, and the points of discontinuity can be explained by the different purposes of Paul the letter writer and the evangelists who wrote the Gospels.

In chapter 3, Blomberg considers how the New Testament applies to the modern day. He explores the various principles that govern the interpretation of the New Testament’s diverse literary forms. These include (1) determining the original application intended by the author of the passage, (2) evaluating the level of specificity of those applications to see if they should be or can be transferred across time and space to other audiences, (3) if they cannot be transferred, identifying broader cross-cultural principles that the specific elements of the text reflect, and (4) finding appropriate contemporary applications that embody those principles (p. 108). He then works out these principles in relation to the different sections of the New Testament canon: the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews and General Epistles, and the Revelation. The principles that Blomberg elucidates can provide a good starting-point for developing legitimate implications out of the author’s original meaning. One notices, however, that it is still unclear how one is to know when it is appropriate to move beyond the intention of the biblical author in applying the scripture. For example, on page 140 Blomberg says that the interpreter needs to “recognize that Paul lays down principles which could not be fully implemented in his world but which challenge later Christians to move even further in the directions he was already heading” (emphasis mine). This “further” idea sounds remarkably similar to William Webb’s “redemptive movement hermeneutic,” to which Blomberg refers in an extended footnote on pages 172-173. Webb’s hermeneutic appears to the present reviewer to be highly unstable and, in Webb’s application of it, favorable to an egalitarian reading of Paul.

In sum, Blomberg has produced a handy little primer on some of the basic questions that face the reader of the New Testament. There is not much new here for specialists in the field, but this book will be useful for beginning students of the New Testament at both the college and graduate levels. It is also useful as an apologetic tool for anyone who might be interested in evidence concerning the historical claims of the New Testament.

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