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Slave owners, sex addicts, and anti-semites: how do you talk about flawed heroes?

Jonathan Edwards? Yeah, I know him. He’s the guy who owned slaves, right?

Flawed Heroes (Will Smith from "Hancock")

I can’t tell you how many times I received a comment like this while I was teaching my Edwards seminar this summer. They came in through the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and email. Despite the fact that Edwards was one of America’s greatest theological minds, apparently the one fact that many Americans have retained about him is the fact that he owned slaves.

Oh yeah, and he talked about hell a lot.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and I realized that Edwards’ isn’t alone. Many people remember some of the great figures in church history primarily by a few of their less attractive qualities.

For example, here’s how many people remember…

  • Jonathan Edwards: slave owner who preached scary sermons about hell
  • John Calvin: intolerant control freak who burned Servetus at the stake
  • Martin Luther: anti-semite who drank too much and insulted people
  • Augustine: woman hater and/or sex-addict who was obsessed with sin

I could probably go on if I got creative. (If you have suggestions for people from church history known primarily by some negative attribute(s), let me know in the comments.) It seems that if you’re a key figure in church history you’re doomed to one of two fates: either most people won’t even know who you are or a lot of people will remember you but think you were a jerk.

I think what bothers me the most is that these comments usually come from Christians. I could understand it if a non-Christian wanted to paint a particularly negative portrait of some Christian leader. But, why are we Christians so obsessed with doing it? Can’t we recognize that our heroes were flawed without focusing exclusively on the negative and caricaturing our own people?

Our theological heroes were flawed and broken human beings just like the rest of us. But, let’s cut them some slack. I wouldn’t want to be known by my least attractive attributes. (Please don’t point out my least attractive attributes in the comments. I’m feeling fragile today, and that would be bad for my self-esteem.) And, I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

So, let’s try this. Extend the same grace to believers from the past that you would extend to the believer sitting next to you in church. The people next to you are flawed too, but you probably don’t point that out every time you talk about them. At least, I hope you don’t.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/31)

HT Kevin DeYoung

Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I’d rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don’t think we know which 22-year-olds are going to make the best academics.

  • A WSJ article with the provocative title “Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter” discusses a recent study looking into the impact of socio-economic status on a child’s mental development.

These results capture the stunning developmental inequalities that set in almost immediately, so that even the mental ability of 2-year-olds can be profoundly affected by the socio-economic status of their parents. As a result, their genetic potential is held back.

Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most significant religious writers of the twentieth century and a lasting influence on untold numbers of Christians (and non-Christians) from every tradition and culture. For those of us in the Bluegrass state, he also holds the distinction of being perhaps the most significant religious figure to reside in Kentucky, being a monk at Our Lady of Gesthemeni monastery near Bardstown for twenty-seven years. He is buried there today.

When it comes to a crucifixion no one would argue for beauty in an aesthetic sense. The form of a broken, bled-out human being certainly isn’t pleasing to the eye. And this lack of beauty is most true particularly in a crucifixion where the death sentence is piggy-backed onto a miscarriage of justice. But here, in the gospel account, is kingdom subversion. In one of the most brutal acts of physical horror and treachery on a cosmic scale, God weaves together the elements of beauty.

The movement got started with basic, biblical teaching about the gospel and holistic mission. It picked up speed with a network of projects and organizations committed to orphan care. And to this theological observer, it looks like it may have the momentum to reinvigorate evangelical systematic theology.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/28)

People ask me all the time, “Who do you read?” In most cases they’re looking for book recommendations. (Some people, particularly Calvinistas, are trying to determine if I’m safe–are my ideas and my theology grounded in what they see as credible sources.) But my answer usually surprises them: “I read dead people.”

One of the problem in the origins of christology is the question, “When did Jesus become the Messiah?” Scholarship has often assumed that Jesus’ life was non-messianic, not only that, but Jesus in fact repudiated the messianic role.

I refuse. I absolutely refuse to go back to a god who is only interested in what I do, not who I am. I have no interest in a god who keeps score, who I have to appease by doing good things and avoiding bad things. A god who is more interested in institutes and forms and structures than he is in relationships.

To sum, I appreciate his provocative introduction of the subject but find his primary notion that “suffering has no inherent value in biblical faith” seriously wanting

The Story Continues (When He Comes 1)

Mark Twain has a fabulous short story about a young woman raised as a boy since birth. Her name is Conrad and her father is a wealthy duke, who decided to keep her true gender a secret so that she could inherit his duchy when he died. The one thing she must never do is sit on the duke’s throne, which is forbidden to any woman. Otherwise, she will be killed. (Can you see where this is going?)

I won’t go into the details, but of course Conrad ends up sitting on the ducal throne and gets caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Her only options are to reveal that she’s a woman and be executed for sitting on the ducal throne, or keep that secret, admit instead that she fathered an illegitimate child, and be executed as an adulterer. So, she gets to pick: execution or execution. Touch choice.

And, that’s where the story ends.

As Mark Twain himself explains,

The remainder of this thrilling and eventful story will NOT be found in this or any other publication, either now or at any future time.

The truth is, I have got my hero (or heroine) into such a particular close place, that I do not see how I am ever going to get him (or her) out of it again—and therefore I will wash my hands of the whole business and leave that person to get out the best way that offers-or else stay there. I thought it was going to be easy enough to straighten out that little difficulty, but it looks different now.

So, the author has gotten stuck. And, thus the story ends.

I always feel the same way when I reach this part of the Gospel story. Surely it has to end here. God’s people have rebelled and rejected him, pursuing idolatry and immorality. They are dead. Despite God’s continued faithfulness to them through it all, they are still lost. Kings, prophets, priests, judges— nothing seems to help. Finally, God himself leaves. His glory departs from the temple, from the land, from his people.

If I’m the one writing this story, now I’m stuck. How in the world do you find a satisfying conclusion to all of this? Like Twain, I’d wash my hands of the whole business.

But, the story continues.

That statement all by itself is an expression of grace. The sheer fact that the story does not end here, but continues on into the future of God’s perfect plan, demonstrates the incomprehensible mercy, patience, and faithfulness of a God who will not allow us to mess up his amazing purposes for his people and his creation.

This Author knows exactly how his story is going to end. It’s rather hard to see at this point, but he still assures us that he’s in control and that he has not given up.

So, against all logic and all expectation, the story continues…because God promised that it would.

Should you make people pay for a book about the Gospel?

I have some great news for you about the free gift of God’s amazing grace. And, I’ll tell you about it for only $19.95.

Is it just me, or does something seem very wrong about the idea of making people pay to learn about the Gospel?

I’m wrestling with that as I try to decide what to do with my Gospel book. I would guess that it’s now about 60% complete and I need to start making some decisions about what to do with it. I started this project primarily for my own benefit and for my church. So, I don’t have a lot invested in actually publishing it. But, I would like to make it available to people when it’s done.

A very large part of me just wants to put it up on the internet for free and let anyone download and use it as they will. It’s the Gospel! Use it well; spread it widely. I’ve also considered self-publishing so I could charge a low price for a hard copy and still make it available for free on the internet. But I’ve heard some stories about how much work self-publishing actually entails. And, I also understand the benefits of having a publisher who will work with me to ensure that the book is done well and who can make sure that people actually hear about the book. Free (or cheap) isn’t very helpful if people don’t know it’s there.

Thus, my quandary. What do you think? I don’t do a lot of polls on this site (actually, none). But, I thought I’d give it a shot on this one. So, please cast your vote below. And, feel free to offer some comments below if you’d like to engage this question a bit more.

Also, please  spread the word about this poll. I’d like to get as much feedback on this as I can.

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Luther’s great discovery – the sweetness of God’s justice

Today is Martin Luther’s 527th birthday (Nov 10, 1483). I don’t keep that many candles in my office, so I thought I’d recognize his birthday by posting his description of how he came to discover the true meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans. As he tells the story toward the end of his life, this was the pivotal turning point in his understanding of the Gospel and the grace of God.

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.

From the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545).

Flotsam and jetsam (10/26)

Is Buddha really any worse than Aristotle? Why shouldn’t a theologian from Korea or Taiwan seek to use Buddha or Confucius where the language is suitable and doesn’t contradict the gospel?  In this case Moore’s criticism may be spot on. I don’t know. But I do know that we need to realize our own hybridity is as much a concern as someone else’s.

And, much if not most of the New Testament, develops its theology of Jesus within a framework of low Christology. Low versus high Christology is one of the points of genuine theological diversity in the New Testament, with the Synoptic Gospels in particular (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) telling stories of Jesus as a specially empowered man whom they do not simultaneously depict as God incarnate.

The monsters of the undead embody our fears of death. In agrarian eras we confronted death more directly. Nowadays we have to wait for the dead to come to our door once a year at Halloween. Or we can go to zombie movies. Either way, we feel a need to use monsters to confront our bodies, their gooshy vulnerabilities, and their ultimate demise. Monsters are existential.

  • On a similar note, John Byron points out an important new scholarly work for understanding the Matthean tradition – a webcomic called Zombie Jesus. How is it that no one has written on this vital subject before?

The comic will tell the story of the 48 hours following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in which a horde of zombies attack Jerusalem in search of the messiah’s body.

Predestination, as normally taught by all the venerable reformed divines, both past and present, is unstable and unhelpful. In the past, I and everybody else that I have read got around this by employing the very useful term ‘mystery’ to cover the internal contradictions that rip the doctrine apart.

The church, or I should say, church people, must quit adding the word “but” to the end of our sentences about grace. Grace plus is no longer grace. Grace minus is no longer grace. We are afraid people will abuse grace if presented in its purest form. We need not fear that, we should assume that. Religious people crucified grace personified. Of course grace will be abused. But grace is a powerful dynamic. Grace wins out in the end. It is not our responsibility to qualify it. It is our responsibility to proclaim it and model it.

Romans 9:18 – Reflections on God’s mercy, His hardening, and the so-called doctrine of double predestination

By Ben Brumund

The strict parallelism between mercy and hardening suggests that mercy and hardening function the same way – that just as God shows mercy to whom He wishes, He hardens whom He wishes.  Some deny this, arguing that God’s hardening functions like the ‘handing over’ of sinners to their sin which they themselves had already chosen (see Romans 1).  Yet, this is a problematic approach, as it takes the ultimate initiative away from God and places it with man.  Against this, first, Exodus 4-14 does not clearly indicate that Pharaoh’s hardening of himself was God’s basis for hardening him.  In fact, a good case can be made for the opposite.  God predicts twice (4:21 and 7:3) that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, and there are five passive references (with God being the implied subject) to Pharaoh’s heart having been hardened (7:13, 14, 22; 8:11, 15).  Second, Paul clearly states that God hardens ‘whom He desires.’  There is no qualification of this.  God does as He pleases.  Third, the most natural response in the world to the question of Romans 9:19, ‘why does God still blame us?’ would have been to say, ‘because you deserved it due to your actions.’  Yet, Paul does not use this line of argument.  It is not the point Paul is making.  God is just in bestowing mercy and hardening as He will because He is free to do so and His will requires no justification by any standards of human logic or morality.  Hardening which leads to damnation then (9:22-24, 11:7) is a sovereign act of God not caused by anything in those individuals who are hardened.

This text, then, appears to provide support for the doctrine of ‘double predestination’:  God decides, on the basis of nothing but His own sovereign pleasure, to bestow His grace and so save some individuals, and to pass over and so damn others.  As it is so contrary to our common perceptions of human freedom and divine justice, it is inevitable that this doctrine is destined to be the object of more negative reaction and consternation than any other.  Yet, we must recognize that God’s hardening is an act directed against human beings who are already in rebellion against God’s righteous rule.  God’s hardening, then, does not cause spiritual insensitivity to the things of God; it maintains people in the state of sin that already characterizes them.  This does not mean that God’s decision about whom to harden is based on a particular degree of sinfulness with certain human beings; He hardens whomever He desires.  But, it is still simultaneously true that God hardens whomever He desires and human beings, through sin, are still responsible for their own condemnation. Mercy and hardening are different in this respect:  hardening is always deserved; mercy is always undeserved.

There’s a hole in your book

I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading and thinking lately on the Gospel. That is partly because we have had an intense faculty discussion this year on what it means to be a seminary focused on Gospel-Centered Transformation. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect deeply on what I think the Gospel is and where I’m dissatisfied with many of the Gospel presentations that I hear. Along the way, I’ve also had the opportunity to read a number of books on the Gospel. So, I thought that now might be a good time to begin a series of reviews on books that are specifically about the Gospel.

I’m going to begin today with a review of Richard Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel: What does God expect of us? The answer that changed my life and might just change the world (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Since the book comes with no less that twenty-seven endorsements from people as diverse as Madeleine Albright, Bono, and Eugene Peterson, apparently lots of people liked it. That must mean that I’m in the minority.

If you’re looking for a book that will lay out the full scope of the various humanitarian crises facing the world, as well as the inadequacy of the western church’s response, this book is well worth reading. As president of World Vision, U.S., Stearns is very aware of a wide range of global issues, and he presents these issues in vibrant color with lots of stories. So, on this level, the book is fascinating, engaging, and compelling.

But, the book is fundamentally lacking in at least three ways. The first comes from the book’s prominent claim to be about the Gospel. The central assertion of the book is that there is a hole in our Gospel—i.e. the Gospel as we usually hear it is incomplete. That in itself is not an unusual claim. Lots of people are saying that these days. But, Stearns completely fails to explain what he thinks the Gospel actually is. Lacking more than a cursory statement about the Gospel, we are left without any basis for evaluating his claim that our Gospel is missing something.

Second, when Stearns actually gets around to saying something about the Gospel, it’s often problematic. Take this statement for instance. Trying to explain “The Bible for Dummies,” Stearns claims that the basic message of the Bible is “Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it” (p. 66). Really? If that’s the essence of the Gospel, we’re all in trouble. Because, of course, we can’t. That’s the whole point. Now, I’m sure Stearns fully recognizes that the Gospel probably should say something about Jesus, but he rarely doe so. Indeed, he says remarkably little in the book about Jesus beyond the example that he set for us in his kingdom preaching. To be fair, he is probably assuming that we know that part of the story and will simply make the connection ourselves. But, if you’re going to claim that this is a book about what’s lacking in other people’s Gospel messages, don’t make the problem worse by leaving a gaping hole in the middle of your own. Without a clear statement on the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as providing the only adequate basis and framework for Christian life, the book flirts with becoming a moralistic treatise on the need for Christians to do more.

And, third, what could have been the best part of the book—an emphasis on the Kingdom as essential for understanding the Gospel—falls far short. Stearns sounds almost postmillennial in places:

“his was not intended to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ was a call for a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people—now” (p. 16).

While I would strongly affirm that the Gospel is transformative and that this transformation involves the creation of a new Kingdom community (the Church) that stands as a witness to Kingdom realities and the coming realization of all God’s purposes, that is a far cry from saying that our task is to produce the Kingdom now through our own efforts.

Stearns is at his best when he’s arguing that a Gospel transformed life should be evidenced now. And he makes it very clear that there are crying needs in the world that need to be addressed by anyone claiming to live a Gospel-transformed life. Indeed, he seems to suggest that the “hole” he has in mind is a tendency to so other-worldly focused that we forget to live out the power of the Gospel in this world (p. 17). That’s fine and important. But, too often his argument becomes a mere call for action without a solid grounding in the Gospel realities that would make that action a meaningful response to the grace of the Gospel.

In short, there is a Gospel-shaped hole in the The Hole in Our Gospel.

Taking the offering or offering worship?

In a class this morning, we were discussing the challenge of giving in the evangelical church. You are probably aware that the average giving of an evangelical in America is around 2.5%. You may not be aware that there are significant generational differences within that number. Older evangelicals give a decidedly higher percentage of their income than do younger ones. So, we got into an interesting discussion of why this was and what we can and should do about it.

Now at least some of this may have to do with the soccial demographics of affluence in this country. It’s entirely possible that older Christians are simply better off financially than younger ones. I don’t know that this is the case, but it’s possible. And, I’m sure that this is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors. But I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I think are at work here.

First, the younger generations, as we all know, are significantly less driven by duty and institution. Indeed, institutional loyalty is, for many, virtually non-existent. Unlike previous generations, the younger generations won’t give just because they’re supposed to. But, that doesn’t mean that they won’t give. Actually, when these younger Christians find something that they resonate with, they can be exceedingly generous. So, the question is, how do we help them resonate with the church?

That leads me to my second point. The younger generations want to give to mission, not institution. They want to know that their offerings (nad their lives) are making a difference. If we want them to step up to the plate financially, we need to convince them that the church (your church) really has a mission worth investing in. If we find that these younger Christians are not resonating with the church, and consequently are not giving, it may be because we have not succeeded in convincing them that our churches really are missional.

Finally, in many of the evangelical churches I’ve attended, we’re doing a terrible job celebrating giving as worship. Instead of seeing giving as inherently connected to a lifestyle of praise, it feels more like and intermission or addendum to the real task of worship. I find it interesting that many churches sound almost apologetic when it comes time to take the offering. We make it very clear that we don’t want this to be a burden, we don’t want visitors to feel obligated, etc. What we often don’t make clear is that this is an expression of worship. This should be a time of joyous celebration, glorifying in the bountiful goodness of God’s grace. Even for those who lack financial resources, it can be a time of gratitude for the gifts we have received and a renewed awareness of how much we do have to offer back in gratitude. Instead, the “offering” sometimes feel s more like paying a bill than worshiping the King. We need to teach this generation to worship.

I’m sure there’s more. But those were the issues that immediately jumped to my mind.