Theology: October 2005 Archives

I just finished reading C. J. Mahaney's new book "Humility: True Greatness", and I have to say, I think I'm becoming a big fan of Mahaney's books. My first exposure to him was reading another of his recent books, "Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God," which is really excellent. And this book is quite good, also. Mahaney has a very conversational writing style that makes these books easy, and pleasurable, reading, and they are very Biblical. Here, in a friendly, conversational way he explains what the Bible has to say about humility and applies it practically.

Gary Gilley's book "This Little Church Went to Market" has a rather ominous sounding title. My wife saw it and remarked, "That doesn't sound good!" But then I read her the subtitle: "Is the modern church reaching out, or selling out?" In this book, Gary Gilley's answer seems to be that, unfortunately, much of the modern church (especially that segment of it which is focused on church growth at all costs and is applying marketing techniques to growing churches) is "selling out", and he does a fairly good job of backing this up with quotes and material from people who are actually part of this movement. (Note: There is an earlier edition of the book with a different subtitle.)

The book is a short and easy read, only 142 pages, but it was quite eye-opening to me. I'm fortunate to be in a strong, Biblical church which has avoided being influenced by unbiblical approaches to church growth, so I haven't encountered many of the things Gilley talks about in here firsthand. The book, then, is eye-opening because it's quite shocking to see the lengths to which some people in this movement will occasionally go. To give you an idea of some of what Gilley is getting at, let me give some quotes from his book:

I've run across statements at least a few times now claiming that evangelical biblical scholar Tremper Longman is "weak on inerrancy" or simply not an inerrantist. I've never seen anyone give any evidence of this. I've read all or most of the Introduction to the Old Testament that he did with Raymond Dillard, and there's nothing in there remotely resembling a denial of inerrancy. In fact, he argues that certain positions often viewed as liberal in some way are consistent with inerrancy, which makes me think he clearly is an inerrantist who doesn't want to give up that view. He defends particularly unpopular views among the mainstream, largely because he does seem to be an inerrantist (e.g. an early date for Daniel with a historical basis for everything in the book, which he defends both in the OT Intro and in a Daniel commentary). The Dillard-Longman chapter on Jonah argues that Jonah probably was intended to be taken as a historical account, but it makes it clear that taking it as a parable is just as consistent with inerrancy as taking Jesus' parables as parables is consistent with inerrancy. In his commentaries, he argues carefully why he thinks an inerrantist can think Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs weren't written by Solomon. So what is it that leads people to question his commitment to inerrancy? Did he change his mind after he wrote all these things, is there something I'm simply not seeing, or are these claims just based on uncareful reading? I'm asking this because I really want to know where people are coming from when they say this about Longman. I really have no idea where this is coming from.

I've been getting some hits from people searching for the biblical statements that have been misinterpreted to be teaching that natural disasters will get worse in the end times, so I wanted to say something to bring out what the biblical perspective on these things is. I'm not going to do my usual extended support for what I'm going to say. I just want to say it. Perhaps those who disagree can challenge me in the comments, and we can continue from there. I don't have the time to say much now, so I'm going to say the few things I want to say.

First, throughout the New Testament the end times began with Jesus' incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. We're still in them. Paul consistently refers to the church age as the end times, and it's not because he thought he'd be raptured at any minute. He spoke as if Jesus might return, judge, and restore all things within his lifetime, and he spoke at other times (even earlier times, as it happens) as if it might be a long time, and people like him would die before it takes place. There's a new element of what goes on in the church age, and that's the presence of God's people as a non-nation but what we would call a countercultural working out of the rule of God (what "kingdom of God" literally means) in the ordinary life that goes on. In these end times, those in Christ, i.e. in the community of faith who have God's Spirit dwelling in them both collectively and individually, can detect the evil in humanity and the groaning of all creation for restoration.

Second, the approaching of the end of the end times, i.e. the end of the church age, will be life as normal. Two characteristics of life as normal are given. One is eating, drinking, and making merry. Just as in Noah's time, people thought it was life as normal and made fun of this guy building a boat, non-Christians will consider Christians crazy and believing an illusion, but judgment will come when life as normal gets interrupted suddenly and without warning by the return of the ultimate judge of all humanity. People will be eating, drinking, and being merry. That's normal life. Alongside the evidence of normal life of human behavior is the normal functioning of the fallen world. It will be life as normal. People will engage in wars, and there will be rumors of wars that may not in fact happen. There will be earthquakes and other natural disasters. This is life as usual in the end times, but it's not necessarily a sign that we're even within thousands of years of the return of Christ. We might be, but a close concentration of natural disasters means life is going on as normal. The fallen world is being a fallen world. Since this is held in parallel with the eating, drinking, and being merry it's probably that it's not speaking of a specially concentrated set of natural disasters as a lead-in to the end of the end. It's just giving another example of what things are like in these last days that we're already about two thousand years into.

Third, there are connections between the judgment of God and natural disasters, but we may not know for sure how God might be working through any given event with our limited knowledge, and there's no reason to think that a particular concentration of natural disasters is anything special even if it were true that there is a greater concentration of natural disasters rather than just an overworked media network that now simply reports on these things far more than it did. We all thought there were more shark attacks for some unexplained reason a year or two ago, but it wasn't anything like that. The media had just found a new thing to fill their 24-hour coverage with, and it all of a sudden seemed drastic, when that was a pretty normal year. Given the cyclic nature of hurricanes, with low cycles and high cycles, we have no reason to conclude anything special is going on at all.

There's much more than can be said, but I wanted to say at least these things, and maybe this will lead to some good discussion in the comments if I've left anything out or need to say more to defend any particular claims.

I've been reading John Frame's The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, which I'm enjoying very much. I had one bit fairly early on I was particularly struck by and wanted to excerpt here. Frame is discussing how God's thoughts are different from ours:

2. God's thoughts ultimately determine, or decree, what comes to pass. God's thoughts cause the truths they contemplate; ours do not. This is the Lordship attribute of control in the realm of knowledge.

3. God's thoughts, therefore, are self-validating; they serve as their own criteria of truth. God's thoughts are true simply because they are his. None of us can claim to have such self-attesting thoughts. Our thoughts are not necessarily true, and when they are true, it is because they agree with the thoughts of someone else, namely God, who furnishes the criteria for our thinking...

8. God possesses knowledge in a different way from us. He is immaterial and therefore does not gain knowledge from organs or perception. Nor does he carry on "processes of reasoning," as understood as temporal sets of actions.

I don't have a lot to add to what he said, but I found point 8 very striking. It's easy to anthropomorphize God and start thinking that he must be reasoning about things, responding to my decisions, etc. While God does act in time, he is eternal and omniscient, and, as Frame points out, doesn't carry out processes of reasoning like I do. When I start thinking of God in anthropomorphic terms, I reduce him in my thoughts to less than he really is.

Romans 14 tells Christians to "stop passing judgment on one another" (v. 13) and speaks of the believer's liberty of conscience in certain matters. In the passage, for example, it mentions those who eat meat, versus those who eat only vegetables, and those who consider every day sacred, while others regard only certain days as sacred. Paul argues, "He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." He points out that each of us will give an account of ourselves to God, and concludes that therefore we are not to pass judgment on one another.

Now, it's clear when we look at the rest of Scripture that this doesn't mean we aren't to judge anyone at all (for example, many other New Testament passages command believers to make judgments about people in certain situations, or command churches to cast out those engaging in certain kinds of immorality, etc.). So this passage is (I think rightly) understood to speak about what I would call disputable matters -- matters where individual Christians may have different convictions which are rightly left up to the conscience, because they are free to act in either way. Paul gives the only restriction by concluding the chapter with this statement: "Everything that does not come from faith is sin." The idea, then, is that in these cases of disputable matters, as long as people are acting in faith in accordance with their conscience, they are free to do as they see fit (and either eat meat, or not eat meat, to use Paul's example).

Gnu at Wildebeest's Wardrobe has an excellent discussion of the problems with presuppositionalism. He doesn't explain all his terms as clearly as I would, because he's cutting this from a discussion that involves people who would know the terms. I think all his points are spot on, though.

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