Archive for May, 2015

This afternoon I’m reading about the years 1933-34 in the life of Germany and, in particular, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were years of incredibly complicated struggles between Christians and Nazis. In the background I am listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Just as I’m growing frustrated with the challenge of keeping a clear view of Hitler’s devious machinations as he sought to break the back of those whom he knew to be his greatest enemies — the Christians — the choir begins singing an old Shaker hymn:

     ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Bonhoeffer and the others who recognized Hitler as evil were struggling to find their simple center. They had to give up on “being German” as being anything of central importance to their identity and their work. In the end, of course, Hitler won and the church in Germany was in fact broken.

But there was a small core of believers, with Bonhoeffer among their leaders, who came to see that Hitler was allowing them only two options: They had to choose between serving Hitler and serving Jesus Christ. We do not remember those multitudes who chose Hitler because, having lost their grounding in faith, they were simply swept into oblivion by the Fuhrer’s evil.

But we do remember Bonhoeffer and the others. They stood for something. They lived and died for Truth and Faith and Love.

We recognize that, in the midst of the difficult struggle to take their stand on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, they received the gift, the gift of being simple and centered and grounded.

It is not as if they became such pillars of strength that they stood like bronze statues, unaffected by the storms surrounding them. No, they always struggled, always flexed, always adapted. As the hymn says,

     When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

They were bowed and bent, pushed and pulled, jailed and wounded and killed. But somehow they kept coming ’round right. And that is a gift of God.

As I watch the messes in our society, I pray for myself and for a great many others that we by the grace of God may be simple, centered and grounded. I have less respect than ever for the secularists who insist that humans have within themselves the potential for peace and justice. And I have less respect than ever for the religious folk who think they can contribute to society by the power of jargon and doctrine and condemnation against those with whom they differ.

Neither atheism nor secularism nor religion can accomplish anything but add to the confusion of our day. Only the grace of God, gifting us with simple, clear, strong faith, can offer us hope. Only the love we receive from God and share with one another can unite us.


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Comments on Ethics, DBWE 6:299ff

This section begins with a reprisal of much of the material in Bonhoeffer’s early lectures on Genesis, published as Creation and Fall. In large part because of his reading of Genesis, Bonhoeffer was able to avoid the common temptation of conservative Christians in America, who have tended to view ethics exactly as did the Pharisees: Righteousness comes through adherence to rules. This misunderstanding has its roots in our misreading of the story of the sin of Adam and Eve.
The temptation for which they fell was not what we normally think it to have been. They were not tempted to choose evil over good but to choose the power to make that choice. The sin is not in choosing evil but in choosing for ourselves. Adam and Eve chose that power for themselves rather than affirming harmony with God as the highest value. This distinction is of utmost importance. We were not created to choose for ourselves between good and evil. Our only choice was to be for God or against God, to live with God or without God. When we make our own choices about good and evil we are supplanting the place of our Creator as Lord of our lives. “You shall be like God, knowing good and evil,” says the tempter.
It is telling that, having tasted the forbidden fruit, the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened and they saw. . . themselves! God was no longer the center of their vision but was shoved to the periphery.
The meaning of our identity lies not in our will, our decisions, but in our relationship with God and, through God, with one another. We still make decisions, of course, but always in the context of asking not what is right or wrong but “What is the will of God?”
The essential question for us, then, is, “How do I know the will of God?” We often say, perhaps without much thought, that love is the will of God. So long as we love, we assure ourselves, God is pleased. This was the view of the so-called “situational ethics” of the 1960s.
Bonhoeffer writes,

        . . .we must exclude any definitions that seek to understand the essence of love as human behavior, as disposition, dedication, sacrifice, will for community, as feeling, passion, service, or deed. All this without exception can exist without ‘love,’ . . .  Everything we usually call love, everything that dwells in the farthest depths of the soul and in visible deeds, indeed, even brotherly or sisterly service to the neighbor that springs from the pious heart – all this can lack ‘love.’ This is not because any human behavior always still contains a ‘remnant’ of selfishness that completely obscures love. Instead, it is because love is something completely different from what these definitions imply.

What then is love? That, in fact, is the wrong question because it forces us to speak wrongly about love. The proper question is, Who is love? And the properly suitable answer then can be, God is love.
Bonhoeffer continues,

What love is can be known only by one who knows God; the reverse is not true, that one would first know what love is – that is, from nature – and therefore also know what God is. But nobody knows God except one to whom God reveals himself. Thus nobody knows what love is except through God’s self-revelation. Love is therefore God revelation. God’s revelation, however is Jesus Christ.

In the context of the affirmation that “we love because God first loved us,” we can speak of human love. Real love is never natural to the human heart but is indeed the very presence of God in the center of our very being. “This means that our love for God rests exclusively on our being loved by God, that our loving, in other words, can be nothing more than willingly receiving God’s love in Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps it is not putting words into Dietrich’s mouth unfairly to say that to love one another is to see and value and deal with one another as God does, from God’s perspective, with God’s own love.
Always we must bear in mind what John said: Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. This parallels Jesus’ comment that if we do not forgive, we are not forgiven. What we receive we must give away or lose. That’s the way of the Kingdom.

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A recent post of mine asked, ” Have your [scientific] tools led you to a deeper understanding of love, joy, peace? Or of evil? Which scientific tools explain Hitler and Stalin? Or music and art?”

While there have been a number of comments about that post, no one has reflected on my questions. I’m disappointed. It is my conviction that science, strictly defined, has little to say about the things that matter most to us: love and joy, good and evil, meaning or emptiness.

Doesn’t that mean there is a strict limit on the abilities and the value of science? If it can only delve into certain aspects of reality (which it does astonishingly well), then science is inadequate to the creation of a meaningful life. That’s an observation, not a criticism.

Science cannot tell us whether or whom to marry. Science cannot tell us whether or when to volunteer at an ebola clinic in Africa. Science cannot tell us whether to offer one of our kidneys to save the life of another person. Science. . .cannot do a very great many things that are in fact of very great importance to us. That simply means scientists and the popularizers of science need a good dose of humility so they can stop making such grandiose proclamations as “there is no God.”

Religious people need just as much humility so that we can stop telling everyone else that they must believe exactly what we believe because we’re right and they’re wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with a little humility, is there?

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[This posting is a continuation of the last two. Please start with them.]

So, what did you think of Hagner’s list of guidelines for biblical scholarship? Did you spot the awful heresies? Neither did I. That’s where the article by Farnell and Geisler come into play: They spot all sorts of terrible things in Hagner’s list. Let’s look at their insights.

Hagner says that in our approach to Scripture we must “See what is there (avoiding maximal conservatism, anachronistic approaches, harmonizing and homogenizing, partial appeals to the historical evidence).”

Farnell/Geisler, believing Hagner is sounding just like “left wing” scholars, have four responses. [My comments are in brackets.]
1. “Historical criticism is really the anachronistic approach. . .” [I am not able to see how “See what is there” equals “historical criticism.” Hagner simply means, doesn’t he?, that we should read the text as it is. Isn’t that quite conservative?]
2. “Historical criticism does not accept ‘what is there” but wants only to see what they a priori have chosen NOT to be there. . .” [So it seems F/G should be pleased with Hagner’s remark. Aren’t they arguing for the same thing?]
3. “No matter how much Hagner would attempt to modify historical criticism, would true historical critics (i.e. non-evangelicals) accept that modification?” [They accuse Hagner of advocating historical criticism, though they believe historical critics would disapprove of Hagner. Hmm, doesn’t that mean Hagner is in fact not sounding like a liberal critic?]
4. “Plenary, very inspiration allows for harmonization, while historical criticism divides God’s word into what is acceptable and what is NOT acceptable to the individual historical critic.” [What possible connection does this have with Hagner’s “See what is there”?]

In general, it is clear that F/G are not responding to Hagner’s first point at all. They are fighting “historical criticism” without showing any connection whatsoever between Hagner’s first point and historical criticism. What conservative Christian could possibly argue against “See what is there” as the first rule of biblical interpretation?

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Before I begin my examination of the paper on inerrancy by Farnell and Geisler, I want to make sure you remember the two points I made yesterday about the nature of the Bible.

First, whatever we say about the Bible must be learned from the Bible. We cannot let a philosopher (e.g. Aristotle) tell us what truth must be and then develop a doctrine about the Bible which suits the philosopher. We must not impose on Scripture an interpretive grid learned from extra-biblical sources. Our doctrine of Scripture must be learned from Scripture or it simply is not biblical. I am always quite amazed that some of the people who most loudly defend their doctrine of Scripture have not respected the Bible enough to let it teach us about itself.

Or, to put the matter most simply, our view of Scripture must be learned inductively from our study of Scripture.

Second, it is clearly the case that the Bible is not intended to be a text book exposition of doctrine. It is God’s personal self-revelation and therefore must be read not as a text book giving information but as an opening of the heart of our Lord. Again, it is always surprising to me that many of those who are most vocal about their supposedly high regard for Scripture want to treat the Bible as if the Lord had done a very poor job in having it written, so much so that we have to translate it into a list of doctrines. If God had wanted to write a book of theological propositions, why did he write a story book? Their “high regard” for the Bible looks to me very much like a gross insult to the Bible and to the Lord. To be a biblical people, to be a people who think biblically, we must reflect not only the ideas implicit in Scripture but the very way Scripture is written. To turn to Bible into a statement of doctrines is profoundly unbiblical.

Now, on to the article which has elicited this response from me. It is called “A Critical Review of Donald Hagner’s ‘Ten Guidelines for Evangelical Scholarship’” and is written by F. David Farnell and Norman L. Geisler. It appears both on Norman Geisler’s website and another called “Defending Inerrancy.”

As I read it, having known something of Geisler’s work over the years but never having heard of Farnell, my thought was that this must be a paper written by one of Geisler’s students. It is remarkably immature and awkwardly written but, for a beginning seminarian, not bad work. I simply thought Geisler was being gracious in allowing his name to be associated with the work in order to give it greater credibility.

Having finished the article, I looked up Farnell and found out he is not young (born in 1958) and is not a seminary student but a seminary professor at The Master’s Seminary. That is the school founded and led by pastor John MacArthur at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. What at first seemed a pretty good paper for a student now seemed to me to be an embarrassment for a professor.

I was on the debate team in high school and remember well my discomfort when I learned that the purpose of the debater is not to be more right than the opponent but to appear to be more right. That is very different. This paper by Farnell/Geisler reveals the authors to be trying very hard to appear right even when the content of this paragraph or that is just fluff. I’ll point out a few examples as we go through the paper.

The paper is a response first to Donald Hagner, retired professor from Fuller Seminary. (Full disclosure: I have two degrees from Fuller and was a classmate of Don’s way back before anyone had walked on the moon.) Hagner had written a blog which included his suggestions for “Ten Guidelines for Evangelical Scholars.” I’ll give you this list, then close for the day.

Hagner says we must:

1. See what is there (avoiding maximal conservatism, anachronistic approaches, harmonizing and homogenizing, partial appeals to the historical evidence).
2. Affirm the full humanity of the scriptures (the word of God in the words of men).
3. Define the nature of inspiration inductively (not deductively), i.e., in light of the phenomena of scripture (doing justice to it as it is).
4. Acknowledge that no presuppositionless position is possible and that the best we can do is attempt to step outside our presuppositions and imagine “what if.” (Only a relative degree of objectivity is attainable.)
5. Modify the classical historical-critical method so far as its presuppositions are concerned, i.e., so as to allow openness to the transcendent, the action of God in the historical process, the possibility of miracles, etc. Develop a method not alien but rather appropriate to what is being studied.
6. Maintain a unified worldview, avoiding a schizophrenic attitude toward truth and criteria for the validation of truth. That is, all truth is God’s truth, including that arrived at through our rationality.
7. Acknowledge that in the realm of historical knowledge, we are not dealing with matters that can be proven (or disproven, for that matter!), but with probability. Historical knowledge remains dependent on inferences from the evidence. Good historical criticism is what makes best sense, i.e., the most coherent explanation of the evidence.
8. Avoid the extremes of a pure fideism and a pure rationality-based apologetics. Blind faith is as inappropriate as rationalism. Faith and reason, however, both have their proper place. What is needed is a creative synthesis.
9. Develop humility, in contrast to the strange (and unwarranted!) confidence and arrogance of critical orthodoxy (concerning constructs that depend on presuppositions alien to the documents themselves).
10. Approach criticism by developing a creative tension between intellectual honestly and faithfulness to the tradition (each side needs constant reexamination), with the trust that criticism rightly engaged will ultimately vindicate rather than destroy Christian truth.
Note: The Holy Spirit cannot be appealed to in order to solve historical-critical issues or in the issue of truth-claims. Nevertheless, it is true that for the believer the inner witness of the Spirit confirms the truth of the faith existentially or in the heart.
Concede: Our knowledge is fragmentary and partial, and all our wisdom is but stammering. Full understanding can only come after our perfection, and then it will no longer be understanding alone but also worship.”

What do you think of Hagner’s ideas?

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I’m straying a bit from Bonhoeffer today to take a brief look at a debate which I’ve not followed for many years: The ongoing discussions about the nature of the Bible and especially of its inerrancy. The debate has generated a great deal of heat but surprisingly little light, so I’ve tended to ignore it. I inadvertently bumped into an article by F. David Farnell and Norman L. Geisler which reminded me that the fight has continued all these years. Reading the article on Geisler’s website and then finding it on another website called “Defending Inerrancy,” one of the first things I noticed is that Geisler’s very conservative view has lost a great many followers over the years. The second website includes quotes from a large number of very minor scholars (and non-scholars) from very minor institutions.

In 1976 Harold Lindsell published a book — Battle for the Bible — which roundly condemned those Evangelicals and Evangelical institutions which were straying from his beliefs about the nature of the Bible. It’s effect on me was similar to my thoughts a few years earlier when I read the much older Halley’s Bible Handbook. My thought in each case was, If the Bible is anything like what these men envision, then God must be a very poor writer. And in each case I found myself choosing the Bible itself over the views of these writers.

And that’s the key to my own approach to Scripture: I’ve always wanted to learn my view of the Bible from the Bible itself (i.e. inductively). I do not like any system of thought, any interpretive grid, which people try to impose on Scripture. Clearly the Bible contains innumerable affirmations that here we can listen to the word of God. Geisler and I would agree on that point but then we would come up with different ideas about the implications of that. Geisler believes he knows how God must speak and therefore what the Bible as the word of God must be like. I do not want to tell God how he must write Scripture, so I just want to read it and respond to it with openness and honesty.

In general terms, Geisler views “truth” in Aristotelian terms as propositional. I feel captivated by Jesus statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Yes, that is a proposition and, yes, I believe it. But it’s content is personal, so — if we believe both that Jesus said it and that he spoke truly when he said it — then we must not stop our reading of it at the propositional level. If Jesus is the truth, then we cannot believe that propositions are themselves the truth.

Geisler and other Calvinists frequently refer to logic, which is telling. Logic is important when we are dealing with propositions but actually not all that helpful when we are relating to persons. We listen for the truth when another person shares himself or herself with us and do not insist that the person be perfectly logical in that self-revelation. We want to know persons as they are, not as they logically ought to be. And in Scripture we are dealing with God’s personal self-revelation.

Obviously there are countless propositions in the Bible so the use of logic in Bible study is unavoidable. We must be aware, though, that the heart of Scripture is not propositional but personal and therefore will not be known by logic. The deepest truth about another person — including and especially the Lord — is known by a responsive, personal openness and faithfulness. The appropriate response to the trust shown in self-revelation is trustworthiness. The loving response to faith is faithfulness.

How much of yourself would you reveal to a person whose primary response would be logical analysis of what you say?

More later. . .

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