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Pious Thinking: God’s Battle Plan (Saxton Review)

gods_battle_plan_cover_courtesy_publisher_1200x1200cropSaxton, David W. God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015. Paperback. 145+vii pages. ISBN 978-1-60178-371-4.

Contemporary rediscovery of the intellectually rich yet rigorously practical work of Puritan thinkers continues. Pastor David W. Saxton’s God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation is a welcome addition to the growing body of works presenting aspects of Puritan thought and practice to today’s Bible-believing public.

It seems obvious—it is obvious—that merely reading the Bible and listening to sermons will have no lasting effect unless one follows-up one’s reading and listening with protracted, reflective, application-oriented thinking about what one has read and heard. Obvious as this is, such extended thinking, biblical meditation, is frequently neglected. (I initially included “biblically-sound Christian music” as among the things one could not benefit from without biblical meditation, but it occurred to me that meditation in fact must precede and direct one’s identification of music as biblically-sound. Of course, sadly, this can also apply to sermons.) In God’s Battle Plan for the Mind, Saxton’s “goal…is to convince God’s people of the absolute necessity of personal meditation” (2), and thus to overcome the neglect.

In Chapter 1, “The Importance of Recovering the Joyful Habit of Biblical Meditation” (1-14), Saxton suggests that the “shallow spirituality” and “weak, meaningless religion” that dominate today’s “anemic Christianity” owe largely to Christians’ failure to bring their thinking (and through it, their emotions or affections and their will) into conformity with God’s (Bible-revealed) thinking through consistent, disciplined practice of biblical meditation (1-2). To practice biblical meditation “means to think personally, practically, seriously, and earnestly on how the truth of God’s Word should look in [one’s] life” (2). Properly pursued, such meditation “imprints and fastens a truth in the mind” and “drives a truth to the heart” (6, quoting Thomas Watson). It’s effectiveness in bringing not only intellect or understanding, but also affections and will, into greater conformity with Scripture owes, in the Puritans’ thinking, to the reality that “Affections always follow the rate of our thoughts, if they are ponderous and serious [as opposed to light or superficial thoughts lacking sustained focus and care, which affections might not follow]” (7, quoting Thomas Manton).

Edmund Calamy, Saxton adds, “wrote that for meditation to be biblical, it must pass through three doors to be any good—the door of understanding, the doors of the heart, and the doors of conversation (lifestyle)” (9). Lifestyle or practice, of course, is a manifestation of will, an expression of decisions or resolutions that alone evidence the state of one’s will. “Heart” here, unfortunately, seems used as a synonym for emotions or affections, potentially misleading usage given the scriptural indication that one’s “heart” or center not only feels but thinks (Proverbs 23:7) and understands (Psalm 49:3; Proverbs 2:2). This raises an issue that causes me mild discomfort. In places, Saxton seems to embrace today’s sharp division between “mind” and “heart” (note headings on 31), treating “mind” as a synonym for intellect or understanding and “heart” as a synonym for our non-intellectual faculties, emotions and will, alone (51-2, for example). I’m not sure if this not-entirely-biblical dichotomizing accurately expresses the Puritans’ thinking or reads today’s sharp dichotomy into Puritan expressions not meant in quite that way. My hope, as one uncomfortable disagreeing with the Puritans (given their greater piety), is that what someone like Calamy had in mind when he distinguished “understanding” and “heart” was the difference between superficial or initial intellectual consideration and deep, in-the-heart intellectual consideration. The idea would be that in one’s heart, in the center of one’s being, intellect/understanding, emotions/affections, and will/volition all interlock and influence one another, with the meditative ideal being to progressively reform all three faculties through the meditative work that begins in the intellect. The undesirable alternative would be intellectual consideration that does not reach beyond the surface of the self (or soul or mind), where intellectual activity may not affect emotions or will (or even deeper intellect) in any lasting way.

No doubt this is a minor point. But, since I agree with Saxton on all major points, I can only offer criticism on such minor ones. I would prefer to avoid using “mind” to mean only intellect, since “mind” is really all that one is that is not physical (hence the use of “mind and body” to designate one’s entire person). I would also be happier if Saxton had selected his quotations and written his exposition in a way that more carefully and consistently avoided suggesting that the common heart-mind or heart-head dichotomy is acceptable or biblically sound. While intellect, emotions, and will clearly are faculties that can be discussed and analyzed separately, the scriptural picture seems to be that one’s “heart” is not a subset of these faculties but the deepest and truest part of all of them. This truth seems the whole justification for believing that focused and sustained intellectual activity, thoughtful meditation on the content of God’s written Word, can be relied upon to influence, not only how one thinks, but how one feels and what one wills and does.

Chapter 2, “Unbiblical Forms of Meditation” (15-23), contrasts biblical meditation with meditative practices growing out of Roman Catholicism (17-19) and Eastern religions (19-21), and with non-biblical thinking more generally (21-23). The fundamental problem with Roman Catholic meditative practices, says Saxton, is that “Whenever any notion or form of spirituality fails to be tied back to the written Word, the end result inevitably tends toward unbiblical mysticism and religious sentimentality” (17-18). In a footnote, he add this: “Mysticism promotes having spiritual experiences with God apart from one’s mind governed by the objective, written truth of Scripture. It is prevalent within Roman Catholicism as well as in the charismatic and Pentecostal movements” (18 n10). A note in a later chapters offers these additional thoughts: “Mysticism teaches that the Holy Spirit bypasses man’s intellect, dealing directly with his emotions without the means of God’s written Word” (43 n43). The latter note seems to make “mysticism” and “religious sentimentality” synonymous in away the former note does not. Does Saxton believe everything one can label “mysticism” is in fact purely a matter of emotions or sentiment? My own understanding is that mystics claim to have had experiences they cannot satisfactorily describe in words and which they believe exceed the intellect’s ability to comprehend (except, perhaps, in some imperfect and partial, perhaps misleading, way). While moderns who think emotions are the deepest and most central part of people, that they are the human “heart,” may consider mystical experience emotional, I don’t know if this characterization accurately captures what all persons claiming mystical experiences have meant to claim.

In any case, it might be asked whether human experience of God really is limited entirely to experience through “the means of God’s written Word,” as the phrasing of the second note suggests. Every Bible believer must join Saxton in insisting that all alleged spiritual experiences be tested, and interpreted, by “one’s mind governed by the objective, written truth of Scripture.” In fact, I would assert further that all human experiences, even the “purely physical” ones from which we (for example) construct scientific and historical theories, must be interpreted under Scripture’s guidance. Even so, none of this seems to rule out the possibility of mystical experiences that really are direct, entirely unmediated experiences of God. It might be that one can make a biblically-sound case that direct experiences of God cannot today occur except through “the means of God’s written Word.” Saxton, however, has not made this case, perhaps assuming that his Reformed readers will take it for granted. This is another minor point of dissatisfaction for me.

Saxton’s primary example of “Far Eastern religious practices” labeled “meditation,” what he considers “pseudomeditation practices” (20), is Transcendental Meditation (TM). (He also mentions yoga.) Whereas biblical meditation “seeks to fill one’s thoughts with Scripture,” TM “includes a practiced passivity of thinking and emptying the mind of itself” (20) that, advocates claim, “allows your mind to settle inward beyond thought to experience the source of thought—pure awareness, also known as transcendental consciousness” (19, quoting the Maharishi Foundation Web site). Such practices, Saxton believes, “open the mind to spiritual predators by creating a kind of mental vacuum” and involvement in them, he adds, “ends in people making their own reasoning [better: intuition?] an absolute truth and their personal god” (20). Many in contemporary America, of course, have accepted the idea that practices such as TM and yoga can be treated as “nonreligious” methodologies for achieving various ends, such as (my examples) better health, more positive emotions, or enhanced mental function. (The latter is most commonly claimed for “Mindfulness” meditation, a practice that involves focusing on present experience in a detached, non-analytical, non-judging, appreciative manner.) The thinking behind this, I suppose, is that these practices grow out of past trial-and-error learning that might, even if its religious motivations were in error, have alighted upon techniques with beneficial effects that can be reliably reproduced by practitioners who question or reject the religious or metaphysical beliefs historically motivating or associated with the practices. In Saxton’s judgment, the effects of these practices are anything but beneficial. More importantly, they are not biblical (true) meditation and Christians must take care not to confuse the latter with the former.

On the subject of non-biblical thinking more generally, Saxton notes how both sinful thoughts (21-2) and trivial or earthly thoughts (22-3) can take the place in our minds of proper biblical meditation. “We must realize,” he emphasizes, “that we are responsible for straying or sinful thoughts” and so strive to keep our minds “focused on those matters that honor the Lord” (22).

Chapter 3, “Defining Biblical Meditation” (25-32), further elaborates on the meaning of biblical meditation, discussing the relevant Hebrew (25-6) and Greek (27-9) terms, quoting a number of Puritan definitions of “meditation” (29-30), and providing some further description of the “ingredients” of biblical meditation as the Puritans understood and practiced it (31-2). This very useful chapter, which makes clear the biblical justification and Puritan understanding of meditation as (for example) “a steadfast bending of the mind to some spiritual matter, discovering of it with our selves, till we bring the same to some profitable issue [practical personal application]” (30, quoting Isaac Ambrose), does seem to dash my earlier-expressed hope that I could maintain my understanding of “heart” and “mind” without disagreeing with the Puritans. Oliver Heywood, for example, seems to treat “working…upon the heart” and “impressing…on the will and affections” as equivalent phrases (quoted on 31-2), which would in turn imply that he did not consider intellect or thought an operation of the heart. Additionally, Henry Scudder speaks of “the mind or reason” (quoted on 32), clearly indicating he restricts the meaning of “mind” to intellect or understanding alone. I’m not persuaded that this is the best usage, and I can’t be sure it obtained in the writings of all Puritans, but is does seem that the dichotomy so prevalent in our day is pretty close to what at least some Puritans had in mind. This has the unfortunate tendency (it seems to me ) to suggest that emotions and volition are more fundamental and central than intellect or thought, so I might wish that Saxton had chosen to modify or correct the Puritan usage somewhat. Whether this minor matter will concern any other reader, I am curious to see.

Chapter 4, “Occasional Meditation” (33-44), discusses a type of biblical meditation meant to allow us to “grow in grace during the many hours when we are unable to study an open Bible” (33). The basic idea is to train oneself to find illustrations of scriptural truths in the objects, occurrences, and activities of one’s daily life. “Occasional meditation…is a way of spiritually viewing normal, everyday experiences” (35), in other words. Of course, one must be sure to ground such spontaneous meditation in actual scriptural truths, not to let one’s imagination run away with one (43-4). Thus, such meditation does not replace, but depends upon and requires, more regular and planned meditation and ongoing study and memorization of Scripture (44).

Chapter 5, “Deliberate Meditation” (45-9), concerns the more regular and planned meditation one most naturally thinks of when reviewing earlier-discussed definitions of biblical meditation. “Deliberate meditation,” Saxton states, “is really the foundation of a godly person’s thinking and Christian practice” (46). Such meditation, he adds, is divided into the categories of direct meditation and reflexive meditation. Direct meditation involves “a mind that focuses complete attention on meditating on something outside of oneself, such as the Word of God or some great truth” which “would, in turn, direct the believer’s path in the right moral choices of life” (47); this sort of meditation is pointed to, Saxton relates, in Joshua 1:8. Reflexive meditation adds to this rigorous reflection on one’s own response, in terms of all one’s faculties and one’s outward actions (previously performed and planned for the future), to the biblical truths one has come to apprehend through direct meditation (47-8). Such reflection is only complete when it leads to tangible results: resolutions and the actions that follow. It is, thus, “a persuasive and commanding act, charging the soul in every faculty, understanding, will, affections, yea, the whole man, to reform and conform themselves to the rule, that is, the will of God” (49, quoting Scudder). “Thus,” Saxton summarizes, “in direct meditation, the believer digs out the treasure of God; but it is in reflexive meditation that he brings this treasure home to his own soul in a practical, personal way” (49).

Chapter 6, “The Practice of Meditation” (51-64); Chapter 7, “Important Occasions for Meditation” (65-73); and Chapter 8, “Choosing Subjects for Meditation” (75-93), discuss the practical aspects of biblical meditation identified by their respective titles. These chapters provide excellent nuts-and-bolts guidance for incorporating the discipline of biblical meditation into one’s life. Edifying reading, these chapters (like others) are replete with interesting and helpful quotations from various Puritan authors. Though in places it may seem like Saxton does little more than string many quotation together, he does so in a manner that communicates the most relevant Puritan insights effectively and efficiently. From seeing what source materials get quoted most frequently here, one can also decide which of those sources one might wish to read in their entirety. In the case of primary Puritan sources, one notes, copious follow-up reading is as close-to-hand as a Web search. (Of such sources, the few I’ve so far looked for can all be found online as freely downloadable PDFs or other e-books. The Internet Archive is an especially helpful starting point for searches.)

Chapter 9, “The Reasons for Meditation” (95-103), presents “some of the reasons why each believer should be regularly meditating upon God, His Word, and His works” (95) under the following headings: “The Christian’s Work and Duty Is to Think upon God with Praise” (95-6), “Meditation Follows the Example of Christ and Other Godly People” (96-7), “Meditation Is God’s Own Command Given for a Believer’s Good” (97), “Meditation Is Necessary for a Believer to Know God’s Word Well” (98), “Meditation Assists Believers in the Duty of Prayer and All Other Means of Grace” (98-100), “Meditation Applies the Scripture to Redeeming the Time with One’s Mind” (100-1), “Without Meditation, One Cannot Become a Godly, Stable Christian” (101-2), and “Christians Meditate Because God’s Word Is a Love Letter to His People” (103). One particularly noteworthy statement in the chapter, under the “…Is Necessary for a Believer to Know God’s Word Well” heading, is the following: “One of the modern believer’s plaguing sins is possessing only a superficial knowledge of the Bible….This brings widespread lack of discernment throughout the modern church. Deliberate meditation upon Scripture builds a habit of thinking through decisions in a biblically thoughtful manner. Christians easily fall for all kinds of errors because they lack this practice” (98). Also noteworthy (and quote worthy), under the “…Become a Godly, Stable Christian” heading, is this: “Meditation should be seen as a positive assault against sins in one’s life—it works with the goal of replacing them with truth and sincerity. Meditation is how lasting change, progressive sanctification, and victory over sin take place. It is the replacement of vain thoughts with the renewal of the spirit of one’s mind (Eph. 4:23)” (102). This chapter provides solid motivation to undertake and/or continue practicing biblical meditation.

Chapter 10, “The Benefits of Meditation” (105-14), further motivates the Bible-believing reader to begin or continue on the path of biblical meditation by describing some of its benefits. Among these are that it (to quote portions of the section headings) “Deepens Repentance” (105-7), “Increases Resolve to Fight Sin” (107-8), “Inflames Heart Affection for the Lord” (108-9), “Increases Growth in Grace” (109-10), “Provides Comfort and Assurance to the Soul” (110-2), “Creates a Life of Joy, Thankfulness, and Contentment” (112-3), “Deepens and Matures a Christian’s Experience” (113-4), and “Improves the Knowledge and Retention of God’s Word” (114). While the to-me-irksome assumption that the human “heart” is all about emotions or affections, while “mind” is just another word for the “merely rational” stuff of intellect (109), continues, Bible believers certainly should desire for their “Heart Affection[s]” to become “Inflame[d]” for our “consuming fire” Lord (Deuteronomy 4:24), just as they should long (and strive) to see their heart thoughts and heart choices conformed to the intellectual content and moral directives and principles of Scripture. One statement in the chapter that struck me as particularly worth marking down is this: “Henry Scudder taught that meditation practically changes and fashions a person ‘so that God’s will in his word and your will become one, choosing and delighting in the same things’” (107).

Chapter 11, “The Enemies of Meditation” (115-27), deals with various excuses (115-23) and hindrances (124-7) that can prevent one starting or interfere with one continuing the practice of biblical meditation. These vary from simple busyness, to a meditation-averse temperament, to unwillingness to endure the feelings of guilt resulting from the sins in one’s life, to the various distractions and entertainments so prevalent, and either demanding or beckoning, in our day. “We live in a day of pervasive mental distractions,” Saxton observes. This day has such “conveniences” as “Cell phones [that] provide instant communication…homes…[with] immediate access to hundreds of television channels[,] Rock music [that] pulsates in every building we walk in….Satellite radio….[and] the Internet. What,” asks Saxton, “is the result of all these so-called conveniences? We now have a society of distracted thinkers who are surrounded by a culture whose practices run counter to a thoughtful life of biblical meditation” (124). An accurate observation, no doubt; tragically, however, it exceeds 140 characters and so cannot hope to be attended to by contemporary readers. I appreciate it, however; hence the quotation.

One additional statement might merit comment. Saxton writes: “Why does a person find time to watch a two-hour movie and yet not find time to read God’s Word and meditate upon it? It is because he simply does not see the value in it and is unwilling to spare the time for it” (118).While non-meditating movie viewers should reflect carefully on their priorities, fairness might incline some to wonder if the “because” offered here is the only possible one. To read and meditate on God’s Word in a focused, attentive manner requires mental energy and alertness that is not necessary for passive viewing of a movie. It seems possible that some view movies because they lack the energy for anything but such a passive activity. Of course, given the content of today’s movies, Christians are ill-advised to view any of them when they are not alert and ready to critically assess the movies’ content in light of Scripture. The answer, perhaps, is for Christians in such a depleted state to replace the movie they planned to watch with a meditation-preparatory nap.

Chapter 12, “Getting Started: Beginning the Habit of Meditation” (129-32), is brief. It advises those getting started in biblical meditation to pray for God’s assistance getting started and continuing the practice of meditation (129-30), and to be prepared for and persevere through difficulties (130-2).

The final chapter, “Conclusion: Thoughts on Meditation and Personal Godliness” (133-8), offers closing thoughts under the following headings: “Meditation is Essential as God’s Means for Progressive Sanctification” (133-4), “Meditation Replaces the Love of Entertainment with Love of Christ” (134-5), “Learning to Enjoy Meditation” (135-6), and “Making Meditation a Priority in Life” (137-8). The chapter gives readers some additional motivation and practical guidelines for practicing biblical meditation. One quotable reads as follows: “The battle against sin starts in the mind—the thoughts or what one dwells upon. This is why meditation is so important. It is God’s ordained plan for biblical thinking, renewing the mind, overcoming sin, and thus growing in[to] greater Christlikeness” (133).

The book also includes a bibliography of primary Puritan sources (139-42) and secondary resources (142-5), which should prove helpful to those wanting to read further material on the subject once they have finished God’s Battle Plan for the Mind.

Overall, this is an excellent, edifying book that I’m happy to recommend.

This review will also appear, less nicely formatted, on Amazon and, in abridged form, on GoodReads.

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The Gospel. Clear But Maybe Too Simple: The Evangelism Study Bible

evangelism_study_bible_cover_courtesy_publisherThe Evangelism Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. Hardcover. 1564+xiii pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-2662-9.

Last time I visited my local Christian bookstore, I admit the one thought that didn’t occur to me was, “You know, what we really need today is a new study Bible.” In addition to believing there might be a few too many study Bibles on the market already, I tend increasingly toward the conviction that commentary and study materials should be printed separately from the Sacred Text itself. But the title of this one, The Evangelism Study Bible (TESB), intrigued me, so I accepted the publisher’s kind offer of a review copy.

There are many things I like about this Bible. It has a respectable-length concordance (1412-1534); the Zondervan maps are nice (1549-1564); emphasis that “It is not a prayer that saves you. It is trusting Jesus Christ that saves you. Prayer is simply how you tell God what you are doing” (1537) is welcome; I also like the choice of Bible version (New King James [NKJV]) and the decision not to impose “the oldest and best manuscripts say otherwise” assertions on readers (at least, no such appear in the notes for John 8:3-11 or 1 John 5:6-8 [1172, 1377] ). As well, various items emphasized in the footnotes and features are sound and greatly welcome, among them the following:

  • Emphasis that baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs at the moment of salvation and is not some later occurrence (1161, note on John 1:33);
  • Identification of special adoration offered to Mary as inappropriate (1117, note on Luke 1:48);
  • Straightforward repudiation of contemporary health-wealth heresies (206, note on Deuteronomy 28:1-68);
  • Pointing out of the reality that one’s only chance to come to Christ and be saved is during this earthly life (1140, note on Luke 13:25);
  • Refusal to shy away from or seek to evade the reality of God’s directives concerning the handling of cities turned to idolatry (193, note on Deuteronomy 13:14-15) or concerning war against the pagan inhabitants of Canaan (224, feature);
  • Some quite sound statements on God’s sovereignty, such as “Salvation from start to finish is of God. Only He can cause us to see our need. Only He can birth us into His family” (1160, note on John 1:13; see also 319, feature, point 4), “God is sovereign and does all things for His glory and the good of His people (see Rom. 9:18). According to His will, He has mercy on some and hardens the hearts of others” (62, note on Exodus 7:3), and “God is sovereign and in complete control….Sooner or later we will see that in everything that happens, God knows what He is doing” (160, note on Numbers 22:9-24:25);
  • Identification of miracles or signs as something God graciously does, not something any unbeliever has a right to expect or demand (64, feature; see also 368, note on 1 Kings 18:36-37);
  • Straightforward statement that “God’s creation was perfect and without sin” (2, note on Genesis 1:31), a reality one cannot fit with various “alternative” readings of the Genesis creation account that place death and disease (and thorns and thistles and so on) in the world before Adam and Eve’s fall into sin;
  • Its call for Christians to influence, not to be influenced by, the non-Christians with whom they interact (19, feature; 260, note on Judges 11:3), and its warning that Christians should take appropriate action to correct the problem if they find themselves “slipping spiritually when…around unbelievers” (1058, feature);
  • Its recognition that “Good intentions are not enough in our worship of God. God expects us to follow his instructions” (317, note on 2 Samuel 6:7);
  • Its emphasis on the need to “Focus on obedience, not outcomes” (366, feature, emphasis removed);
  • Its recognition of the focus on teaching or doctrine in the passage about knowing false prophets by their bad fruits (1055, note on Matthew 7:16-20, cross-referencing Luke 6:43-45);
  • That it notes how “heart” in Scripture typically “does not mean either the physical organ that pumps blood or our emotions alone” but “the inner person, the ‘self’ made up of intellect, emotion, and will that is the center of a person’s mental and spiritual life” (294, feature), a reality the popular “heart vs. head” dichotomy causes some to miss.

I worry, though, that the Bible’s gospel presentation may go too far in its effort to simplify and may in fact end up promoting a variety of easy believism where professing Christians feel secure while all that distinguishes them from unbelievers is assent to certain historical propositions and a desire to be rescued from the consequences of sin.

During my short-lived adolescent conversion to freewill-with-eternal-security Baptist fundamentalism, I conceptualized “the plan of salvation” as “Admit-Repent-Believe-Receive”: (1) admit you are a sinner worthy of hell and incapable of saving yourself; (2) repent of your sinfulness and sins, desiring to turn from them and turn to Christ; (3) believe that Jesus is the Christ, God the Son, as he claimed to be and that he died and rose again to save you; (4) by a conscious act of will, place your trust in (“make a commitment to”) Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Another, (5) rest assured that you are now saved and can be sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven, could have been added. While, from the perspective of human experience (“phenomenologically,” if you wish to sound learned), all these things may happen when persons are truly converted, this conceptualization does seem to make salvation a human work brought about by acts of will and thought.

Today, with both my adolescent “dry ground” conversion and early adult profession of non-belief behind me, my understanding of the plan of salvation would run more like this: (1) sometime during the period of preparation that is your entire life as an elect soul God loved prior to true conversion (“foreknew” from eternity), be made spiritually alive by God’s sovereign grace in a manner one can never exactly pinpoint in time and knows occurred only by its effects (as one knows the reality of the wind by its effects); (2) seeing the truth of the gospel, of Christ’s claims and promises, of your sinfulness and dire need, desiring to turn from your sins but knowing Christ alone can make this possible (at the point of conversion and at all points thereafter), trust in Jesus Christ alone to save and progressively sanctify you ; (3) realize that the true conversion that happened in 2 was the result of 1 and is something for which you can take no personal credit, and that the same is true of your ongoing transformation in sanctification (knowing that sanctification, like initial conversion, is by grace through faith, and that all true faith, whether initially saving or progressively sanctifying, is entirely a gift of God); (4) find assurance in the promises of Scripture and in the tangible evidences of God’s ongoing work of sanctification in your life.

Neither my adolescent nor my present understanding quite matches “The Gospel. Clear and Simple” (back cover) set forth by TESB. My adolescent understanding was closest, and similarly focused on the human side of things (human understanding and faith commitment), but still fell short of TESB’s minimalism. In TESB’s formulation, those to whom you as a Christian speak, if they would be truly saved through faith in Jesus Christ, need only be made to understand three things: “First, your listeners must know they are sinners. Otherwise, they will never see their need for Christ. Second, they must know that Jesus died for their sins as their substitute and rose from the dead. Finally, they must understand that God is asking them to trust in Christ alone to save them” (1064, feature). A desire to be rescued from the consequences of one’s sins, once one has been made aware that one is a sinner and that there are consequences, joined to a willingness to have Christ serve as the means of rescue, once one has been made aware that Christ is available so to serve, is all that is needed for that faith through which God saves: “because Christ was perfect and took our punishment, we can go to heaven when we die if we trust in Him alone” (280, feature).

What of repentance? What of actually wanting to turn from your sins and so on? In a feature entitled, “Is Repentance Essential to Salvation?” (concerning Luke 24:47), TESB offers this response:

The meaning behind the Greek word for repent in the New Testament is “to change one’s mind.” It is not an additional requirement for salvation over and above faith alone in Christ alone. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. In order to trust in Christ, people must realize their sinful condition that separates them from God and recognize their need for a Savior. They must “change their mind” about whatever is keeping them from trusting Christ, or what they are currently trusting in, and trust in Christ alone to save them. When they trust Christ, both repentance and faith have taken place. (1157)

This “understanding of repentance” is thought to best comport with the seemingly synonymous use of “believe” and “repent” in various contexts dealing with salvation (comparison of Acts 11:18 and 16:31 is offered as an example). Constraint of “repentance” to a “change of mind” about whom or what one trusts to save one, not about one’s rebellion against God and the sins expressing it (including, but not limited to, trust in false saviors), is repeatedly emphasized by TESB’s notes and features. For instance, concerning Jesus’s call to “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), the notes state: “The term repent means ‘to change one’s mind.’ Believe means ‘trust’ (see Acts 16:30-31). Jesus asked His hearers to change their minds, turn from whatever they were trusting in (good works, religious background, etc.), and place their trust in Him” (1091).

Now, that whatever constitutes saving faith in Christ includes within it true repentance, or that whatever true repentance is necessarily incorporates saving faith—that one who truly repents truly believes savingly, that one who truly believes savingly truly repents—doesn’t seem too controversial. The idea that repentance means a “change of mind” doesn’t seem all that controversial either, though contemporary connotations of “mind” as having to do solely with intellect or cognition, with “head knowledge,” might make it less than ideal. The idea that, in order to manifest true repentance, all one must change one’s mind about is what one trusts for salvation, from one’s own works or religious practices (or whatever) to Jesus Christ alone, does seem controversial. If one does not change one’s mind about one’s sin, seeing it as the defiance of God’s rightful Lordship that it is, if one does not repent of sin’s rebellious defiance of God’s Lordly authority, thereby granting that Christ (as God) is one’s rightful Lord to whom one, in true repentance that alone shows genuine trust, now bows in total submission—if one’s “repentance” means a “change of mind” less radical than this, if it means only trusting Christ to save one from the penalty of wrongdoing without acceptance of the reality that Christ only saves those he owns and that those he owns have given themselves over totally to his authority (so that discipleship is not optional and possible but mandatory and inevitable for the truly saved)—can one’s “change of mind” be considered biblical repentance?

In line with its constrained understanding of repentance, TESB is careful to emphasize the distinction between salvation, or entering the faith, and discipleship, or living the faith. Reformed believers, of course, emphasize the distinction between justification (God’s declaring to be just those for whom Christ died) and sanctification (God’s making progressively more like Christ those already justified), and this justification-sanctification distinction does seem related to TESB’s salvation-discipleship distinction. God’s ongoing work of sanctification is what Christians experience as discipleship, and the closest Christians get to directly experiencing their justification, their movement from the state of spiritual death and condemnation to spiritual life and justification, is their coming to faith in true conversion (their “getting saved”). In Reformed understanding, however, sanctification never fails to follow justification; anyone who truly “gets saved” also, inevitably, undergoes discipleship. TESB disagrees: “A disciple is ‘a learner’—someone who, having trusted in Christ, follows after Him. All Christian should be disciples, although all Christians are not [more clearly: not all Christians are] disciples” (182, feature). And, of course, “we can never lose our salvation (see John 5:24)” once we have it (212, note on Deuteronomy 32:15). That truly saved persons might be found living in ways indistinguishable from unsaved persons is often emphasized.

For instance, in a feature on “How to Reach Children Who Are Rebellious,” TESB advises: “Do not confuse entering the Christian life with living the Christian life. Seek to determine if the problem is that they have not trusted Christ or simply that they are not walking with Christ. To do so, ask two questions: (1) What are you trusting to get you to heaven? and (2) Are you growing as a Christian?….There is a possibility that they have missed the simplicity of the gospel. There is also a real possibility that they have trusted Christ but strayed from Him” (334, emphasis removed). In response to this, one might ask: “If all that one must trust Christ for is to get one into heaven, in what sense is living in continued sin and making no effort to become more like Christ in this life a straying from him, so long as one continues to trust him alone to get one to heaven (as one goes on living in the same sinful way one always has)?” If the repentance included in true faith (trust) in Christ does not necessarily include repentance for, and genuine (God-given) desire to turn from, that rebellion to obedience, if all one must repent of is trusting in other means of salvation, then nothing one does while continuing to believe that Christ alone will save one from the eternal consequences of one’s sins can be called a “straying,” can it? So long as one maintains faith (as TESB defines it) in Christ alone for salvation from damnation, one can’t be said to have “strayed,” though one might be said to “miss out” on the “privilege” and “rewards” of discipleship. One could only be said to have “strayed” if one lost one’s faith, though even this would not change the reality that one once had truly trusted in Christ and been eternally saved. Perhaps, then, we may all look forward to fellowshipping with Bart Ehrman in the age to come, even if he remains an apostate until death.

“We must allow for those who have genuinely trusted Christ but gotten so far out of fellowship with the Lord that they appear to be non-Christians,” TESB adds in a “How to Respond to Someone Who Is Saved and Still Sinning” feature (340). Further: “When people trust Christ, they should develop a consistent prayer life, learn to love others, and locate a Bible-teaching church. But none of those actions are a basis for assurance of salvation. God offers us a gift—eternal life. When we receive it by trusting Christ, we are saved. The issue of eternal destiny is settled” (1166). This last feature, “How to Give a New Believer Biblical Assurance of Salvation,” suggests walking new believers through John 5:24 and eliciting affirmations from them, such as in response to the query, “Did you believe what God said and trust Christ as your Savior?” (Ibid.) Joined to TESB’s constrained understanding of the repentance that true faith in Christ implies, where trusting Christ as Savior does not imply submitting to him as Lord, has the interesting implication (it seems) of declaring truly saved every person who ever sincerely wishes to be saved by Christ from damnation, even if no sanctification at all, no lasting change of any sort, ever follows that initial profession. How this fits with verses like Philippians 1:6 is unclear, but if one’s goal is to have as many people as possible comfortably sure they will end up in heaven, TESB’s presentation achieves the goal admirably, albeit not so effectively as universalism.

(While granting that “The fruit of repentance is a changed life” or “Good works” [1050, note on Matthew 3:7], TESB seems unwilling to treat this fruit as an inevitable result of true repentance and so a valid test of the genuineness of alleged repentance—and so, further, a valid source of assurance that one has indeed sincerely repented and been saved. While often emphasizing, as preceding examples show, that truly saved persons might be found living in ways indistinguishable from unsaved persons, TESB does not seem to set a time limit on how long truly saved persons might live this way. It does, however, sometimes note the “danger of…divine discipline” [212, note on Deuteronomy 32:15] that attends such bad behavior. That saved persons should be subject to divine discipline for not progressing in discipleship or sanctification seems in itself proof that faith that is saving includes awareness and acceptance of (submission to) Christ’s Lordship and his absolute right to one’s complete obedience in all things. Persons called upon merely to trust Christ to save them from hell and guarantee them heaven with “no strings attached” are not given proper opportunity to “count the cost,” to rightly understand the radical commitment that true repentance, true faith, genuine trust in Christ requires of them. So it seems to me, at any rate.)

C. G. Kromminga’s article on “Repentance” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) offers some useful thoughts on the words for “repent” and “repentance” in the Greek New Testament. Having noted that the verb (metanoeō; repent) occurs 34 times and the noun (metanoia; repentance) 23 times, and after some discussion of specific uses and related terms, Kromminga writes:

Metanoia…is used [in certain verses] to signify the whole process of change. God has granted the Gentiles “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), and godly sorrow works “repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10). Generally, however, metanoia can be said to denote that inward change of mind, affections, convictions, and commitment rooted in the fear of God and sorrow for offenses committed against him, which, when accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ, results in an outward turning from sin to God and his service in all of life….Metanoeō points to the inward conscious change while [a different term] epistrephō [return, turn, be converted] directs attention particularly to the changed determinative center or all of life (Acts 15:19; 1 Thess. 1:9).

This standard reference, at least, thinks the “change of mind” involved in biblical repentance concerns more than whom or what one is trusting to save one from the just consequences of one’s misdeeds. When simplification and clarification turn into misrepresentation, one has gone too far. TESB seems to have gone too far.

TESB’s unwillingness to see discipleship as an inevitable result of genuine trust in Christ, and so dependable evidence that one is truly saved, makes for some awkwardness in the distinction drawn between salvation and discipleship. For instance, concerning Matthew 16:24-27 (cross-referencing Mark 8:34-37 and Luke 9:23-25), TESB notes: “Jesus describes the requirements for discipleship, not salvation” (1069). These verses include the following statements: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (verses 23-24). Now, if discipleship is an inevitable result of salvation, then it makes sense that one who fails to follow Christ in discipleship should be spoken of as losing his “life” and his “soul.” But making this fit with the idea that discipleship is possible but not inevitable for the truly saved forces one to read the passage in some awkward and unnatural manner (such as, “well, the ‘life’ and ‘soul’ of the Christian who does not become a disciple are ‘lost’ in the sense that they lack the value and vibrancy they could have had”). The only way to have all the relevant verses about initial salvation and the discipleship that follows, or about justification and sanctification, hang together without strained readings of one set of verses or another, is to hold that the one (true faith or trust, including repentance; initial salvation; justification), if genuinely present, never fails to be followed by the other (true conversion followed by growing obedience; discipleship; sanctification).

While TESB’s simplified gospel presentation does eliminate submission of one’s will to Christ’s Lordship from saving faith and the true repentance that goes with it, making the obedience of progressive sanctification or discipleship merely possible for true believers rather than inevitable, TESB, in fairness, does not at all intend to encourage disobedience. That Christians “should” obey God is emphasized throughout the notes and features. Two examples among many are these: “Christians should respond to God’s righteousness and live in obedience to God’s revelation through the Scriptures” (186, note on Deuteronomy 6:25); and “God’s standard is that we obey whole-heartedly” (226, feature). I’m pleased that TESB emphasizes this, but the difficulty created by allowing true salvation and complete lack of discipleship to coexist does not go away simply because one tells professing Christians they “should” be obedient, “should” seek to do God’s will out of gratitude, or “should” pursue discipleship because it offers eternal rewards not otherwise obtainable (true and noteworthy as these all are).

Its constrained view of what saving faith with true repentance includes is the main aspect of TESB that doesn’t work for me. It is not the sole aspect I have difficulty with, however. One additional area of difficulty worth noting is that TESB stands very firmly on the side of universal or general atonement (Christ died as an atoning substitute for all human individuals without exception, not solely for those who will actually be saved), as well as on the side of saying that God desires to save every human individual, including those who will ultimately end up damned. Select indications of these are the following: “1 Timothy 2:4 assures us He [God] ‘desires all men to be saved’” (62, note on Exodus 7:3); “He [Jesus] died for every person in every community” (125, feature); “It took His [God’s] all-righteous Son to atone for an all-sinful humanity” (204, feature); “God’s love is for ‘whoever’—anyone, anytime, and everyone, everywhere” (274, note on Ruth 1:22); there is “no one on earth whom He [God] is not interested in saving” (354, note on 1 Kings 8:41-43, 60); to ensure you have correct motives when sharing the gospel with unbelievers, TESB advises, one thing you should ask yourself is, “do you genuinely want to see them reconciled to God forever because Christ has already paid for their sins?” (381, feature); “What Jesus did on the cross, He did for everyone” (1249, feature).

Those of us who believe that Christ died as an atoning substitute only for those who would actually trust in him and be saved (particular atonement) are very uncomfortable making the target of Christ’s atoning work “humanity” or “every person in every community” or “everyone.” One might theorize that Christ died even for non-elect persons (persons who will never accept him and will end up eternally separated from God) in the sense that his death justifies even God’s non-saving graces (“common grace”)—life and enjoyment rather than immediate hell, rain and sunshine, limited expression of fallen tendencies, retention of some ability to express created giftedness in a positive way, and so on. Even if one finds this theory plausible, finding justification in Jesus’s sacrifice for God’s this-worldly benevolence toward the non-elect does not come near to saying that Jesus paid the full penalty for the sins of those who will end up paying for their own sins in eternal separation from God. For one thing, God’s perfectly just nature would not permit such a double payment. If Christ died savingly on behalf of all, then all will be saved. If not all will be saved, Christ could not have died savingly on behalf of all.

Likewise, those of us who believe that God’s sovereign counsel always comes to pass, that what God wants or is pleased to have happen invariably does happen (Isaiah 46:10; see also Ephesians 1:11), cannot be at ease saying that that God “is interested in” or “desires” to save even persons whom he ultimately will not save. To TESB’s identification of 1 Timothy 2:4 as assuring us that God desires for all human individuals to end up saved (a desire that will ultimately be thwarted), a Reformed study Bible answers: “This does not mean that God sovereignly wills every human being to be saved (i.e., that God saves everyone). It may refer to God’s general benevolence in taking no delight in the death of the wicked, or to God’s desire that all types of people (v. 1 note) be saved (i.e., God does not choose His elect from any single group)” (New Geneva Study Bible [Nashville: Nelson, 1995], 1909, note on 1 Timothy 2:4). The referenced “v. 1 note” reads as follows: “As can be seen from the next expression (‘for kings and all who are in authority’), this [“all men” in v. 1] does not mean ‘every human being,’ but rather ‘all types of people,’ whatever their station in life” (Ibid., note on 1 Timothy 2:1).

As it happens, the cited TESB reference to 1 Timothy 2:4 follows a statement straightforwardly recognizing that God “According to his will…has mercy on some and hardens the hearts of others” (62, note on Exodus 7:3). “At the same time,” it immediately adds, God desires for “all men to be saved.” Seeking no resolution for the apparent contradiction, TESB finally states that “God desires that we obey Him, not that we must understand all of His ways” (Ibid.). Certainly, there is a place for humbly accepting that God has not always provided enough information for us to resolve apparent tensions between scriptural assertions. Given that references in Scripture to “all men” or “everyone” so often refer to “all” persons making up some group under discussion or to select representatives of “all” groups from whom representatives might be drawn, it isn’t obvious that 1 Timothy 2:4 is an instance where such humble acceptance of tension is required. Even if one rejects such harmonizations as the New Geneva Study Bible’s, belief that in some mysterious way God “desires” for all persons to be saved (even though he has not ordained that they will be) doesn’t make sense of the idea that Christ in fact died as an atoning substitute on behalf of all persons, since not all persons will be saved (Matthew 7:13-4, John 21:8).

A final aspect of TESB with which I’m uncomfortable is its use of the weary religion-relationship dichotomy that has become so popular in certain circles (1061, feature; 1112, feature). In this way of speaking, “religion” becomes a shorthand for trusting in rules and regulations to make you acceptable to God, for relying on adherence to certain rules of conduct or ritual practices or such to save you. Reference to “the Christian religion,” “the religion of Christ,” or even “true [rather than false] religion” goes out the window as one comes to view “religion” as pure evil. People who get into this way of speaking squirm at any mention of “religion” is association with their Christian beliefs and practices. True Christian faith, this way of thinking holds, must be exclusively about personal relationship between the believer and Christ; rules of conduct, mandatory or recommended practices, ceremonies to teach one’s intellect and to train one’s will and emotions, and all other things rightly labeled “religion” must be avoided like the Ebola virus turned airborne. Religion, bad; relationship, good. The worst thing about this terminological revolution is that it makes nonsense of much fine Christian literature of days past that uses “religion” as a positive term. I am saddened to see this dichotomy find its way into another published work. To those who say, “Come on, David, that’s way too minor an issue to include in your review,” I can only respond that they might be right. Still, contemporary animus toward the word “religion” strikes me as misguided and unhelpful.

Overall, then, my feelings about this study Bible are mixed. While it has many positive qualities, it goes astray on its topic of central focus, the gospel, by representing saving faith and true repentance as less than they are (as less than I have come to understand them to be, at least). While it isn’t a book I would purchase or recommend others purchase, it also isn’t a book I would caution strongly against purchasing.The choice is yours.

This review also appears, less nicely formatted, on Amazon, and will appear, in abridged form, on Goodreads.

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Permission to Avoid Permission to Doubt

permission2doubt_cover_courtesy_publisher_excerptSullivan, Ann C. Permission to Doubt: One Woman’s Journey into a Thinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. Paperback. 173 pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-4366-4.

Ann Sullivan’s Permission to Doubt might best be described as a personal memoir, reflection, and self-help book that dabbles in apologetics and hermeneutics. Fairly effective on the personal sharing and reflection side, the book offers standard fare on the self-help side, is fairly superficial and cursory on the apologetics side, and is often troubling on the hermeneutical side. The book’s ostensible purpose is to get readers to accept and explore their doubts, discern their doubts’ types (spiritual, intellectual, emotional), and effectively deal with them (working through or seeking treatment for them, as appropriate). These might be laudable ends, particularly if one could speak of “owning” or “admitting” one’s doubts rather than of “accepting” them or of “giving oneself permission” to doubt. Sullivan’s method of pursing these ends, however, does not seem particularly praiseworthy or deserving of imitation. On balance, the book does not strike me as something Bible-believers need or would benefit from and, in spite of having been provided a free copy for review purposes, I cannot recommend it. (In fact, the book has made me tentatively decide to decline all future offers of review copies from Kregel. Time seems better spent reading solid Bible-believing works of the past, such as those reprinted and offered free of charge by Chapel Library.)

While I cannot recommend the text, I can think of a few groups that might find Permission to Doubt worth reading: (1) personal acquaintances of Sullivan who want to show their support; (2) noncommittal professing Christians who prefer a minimum of required doctrinal beliefs, who like to be free to “interpret” Scripture in the broadest possible variety of ways, and who want these preferences affirmed; and (3) persons who happen to have personal experiences similar to Sullivan’s (past experience with an anxiety disorder, being raised Christian but spending much of adult life doubting and finally committing to a minimal set of “essential” beliefs, and so on) and who like reading the stories of persons with backgrounds resembling their own. I suppose an additional group, (4) women with a bias in favor of anything taught by other women, could be included, but I remain hopeful that such a group is more legendary than real.

Beyond these groups, there might be isolated individuals who would find portions of the book worthwhile. If you believe your doubts may be due to a disorder in your brain chemistry, you might welcome encouragement by the book’s self-help side to take antidepressants (assuming you haven’t read Kirsch’s The Emperor’s New Drugs or find it unpersuasive, and assuming you don’t fear such medications might make you feel at ease with beliefs and behaviors the Holy Spirit wants you to find uncomfortable). If you think that dismissing as unimportant doctrines you’re unsure about is one good way to deal with doubts, you might find the book’s hermeneutical side appealing (this might, in fact, make you part of group 2 in the preceding paragraph). If you feel God’s own words in Scripture have less persuasive force than theistic proofs, historical research, and your own reasoning, but you’ve yet to read anything at all about apologetics, you might find the book’s apologetics side agreeable, though too cursory to actually persuade you of anything. If hearing others’ personal stories of doubt tends to allay your own doubts (or at least make you more comfortable with them, if you think your doubts are something it’s good to become comfortable with), then you might like Sullivan’s personal sharing and reflection.

Were the book only a story of personal difficulties and doubts and eventual recovery, Sullivan’s story might well merit recommendation. A woman who suffers thirteen years from panic attacks brought on by an undiagnosed heart condition (18) who, after a long “dark night of the soul” her own physiology pushed her into, ends up a successful speaker at women’s conferences and leader of a large women’s ministry at her church: this is Hallmark movie material. Sullivan, however, has taken it upon herself to teach, and that makes the substance of her teaching, and the presuppositions and attitudes guiding her approach, the necessary central focus of any assessment of the book’s value.

Before exploring the “troubling” aspects of the text that prevent me from recommending it (or, rather, one troubling aspect that well illustrates what I find most unsatisfactory in Sullivan’s approach), I should at least note what the division between spiritual, intellectual, and emotional types of doubt is all about, since the book is structured around this division.

What Sullivan labels “spiritual doubt” is, in the terms Reformed Bible-believers would use, the doubt that results from innate human depravity. Sullivan opts for the following description: “the discomfort that surfaces because of the inability for good and evil to comfortably coexist” (34). One’s sinful choices interfere with one’s ability to believe the truth that runs contrary to them, resulting in doubt. As suits the Thomistic and evidentialist slant of her apologetic preferences, Sullivan does not question the sincerity of intellectual doubts. Intellectual doubt, in Sullivan’s way of thinking, asks honest questions that must be resolved by factual information and rational argument. The final sort of doubt, emotional, is a feeling of uncertainty produced by the negative emotional state accompanying suffering and difficulty, disease, or whatever. Each type of doubt, Sullivan believes, requires a different sort of handling. The book’s self-help side has most to say about dealing with (or treating, or perhaps just waiting out) emotional doubt; Sullivan’s sharing and reflection also have relevance. The book’s apologetics side addresses (in cursory fashion) intellectual doubt. (Her apologetics discussion also makes reference to Pascal’s Wager. I would note, since Sullivan’s presentation does not, that, properly understood, Pascal’s Wager is more relevant to spiritual or emotional than to intellectual doubt. As a “proof” or “evidence” of God’s existence, Pascal’s Wager is, of course, fallacious. That a belief has pragmatic benefits does not make it any more likely than not to be true. As a way to probe human motivations and to prompt commitment to what one already knows or believes or suspects is true, however, Pascal’s Wager has great value.) Sullivan deals with spiritual doubts mainly through the self-reflection and sharing and the hermeneutical sides of the text; while her beliefs in prayer, the need to seek greater closeness to God, and the need to find guidance in Scripture are (broadly speaking) on target, her handling of Scripture is often troubling, carrying with it attitudes and assumptions that reduce Scripture’s ability to provide sure guidance by portraying full submission to all that it says on every topic that it covers as unnecessary or even objectionable.

Reformed Bible-believers, as it happens, would see spiritual doubt as lying behind most or all apparently intellectual and emotional doubts, and would see study and submission to Scripture, prayer, and similar “means of grace” (as some like to put it) as the key curatives for every “kind” of doubt. The different “types” of doubt are, to this way of thinking, just different ways that fundamental depravity, human rebellion against God (and so against his authoritative Word), expresses itself. This view would emphasize that the fact that God continues to reach out to his elect who doubt, that he does not punish them for being “of little faith,” does not make doubt laudable or something to be encouraged. One author’s words on God, belief, doubt, and Scripture capture the sort of commitment of oneself to God and his Word that this view calls for:

If I truly believe in God, then God is more real to me than anything else I know, more real even than my faith in Him. For if anything else is more real to me than God Himself, then I am not believing, but doubting. I am real, my experiences are real, my faith is real, but God is more real. Otherwise I am not believing but doubting. Yet even in my doubting I do not doubt as unbelievers do. My doubts are real, my sins are real, my fears are real, my discouragements are real, my anxieties are real. But God is more real even than all of these dark shadows. I cast myself therefore on that which is most real, namely, God Himself. I take God and Jesus Christ His Son as the starting point of all my thinking. For this is faith. To ignore God and take my own experience as my starting point would be doubting. (Edward F. Hills, Believing Bible Study 3 ed. [Des Moines: The Christian Research Press, 1991], 56.)

As John Calvin observed, the Scriptures are the spiritual eyeglasses which enable our sin-blinded minds to see aright the revelation which God makes of Himself in nature. Also, the Scriptures are the key which unlocks the mysteries of history and reveals to us God’s plan. And finally, the Scriptures are that pure well of divine truth to which the preachers of the Gospel must continually repair and fill their silver pitchers. The Scriptures, therefore, are the foundation of faith. In them alone God’s revelation of Himself is found unobscured by human error. (Ibid., 4.)

Early in the text, while offering support for her idea that asking doubt-born questions about one’s faith, “challenging a belief system” one may never have seriously examined (17), is something laudable that she believes can result in a “strengthened” faith (18), Sullivan points to 1 Thessalonians 5:21, Acts 17:11, and Colossians 2:8, asserting that in these verses Paul “encouraged people to think outside their comfort zone and ask questions” (21). Interestingly, the theme uniting all these verses is that one’s investigations and question-asking, one’s every thought, must be directed by the truth that is Christ, the truth that comes to believers through the God-breathed words of Scripture (see also 2 Corinthians 10:5). This doesn’t look like encouragement to seek answers to doubt-prompted questions from sources outside Scripture (rational reflection on “religiously neutral” premises, scientific or historical investigation, reflection on one’s life experiences and exploration of one’s feelings, and so on). Instead, it look like something more in line with Hills’s perspective (just quoted): a call to bring one’s thoughts and feelings into conformity with Scripture by investigating what Scripture says in answer to one’s questions and committing oneself to treat what one finds, and the God who lies behind it, as “more real” than anything else, bringing one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions as much into conformity with Scripture as one can.

As I’ve noted, the (for want of a better identifier) hermeneutical side of Permission to Doubt “is often troubling.” Sullivan adopts what is a pretty standard strategy in our day (perhaps a good reason to focus most of one’s reading on books not written in our day). First, she suggests that the only beliefs about what Scripture teaches that are essential, that matter enough to merit resolute commitment, are those directly related to salvation, those that are “salvific” (93). She then maintains that such essentials are “few,” that nonessentials (or “gray areas”) are many, and that we should all just get along and “celebrate” our doctrinal “diversity” (92-4). If one wishes to make one’s living speaking to groups of Christians with varying viewpoints, or writing books to be read by the same, this Christian version of the “coexist” bumper sticker (you know, the one where each letter of the word “coexist” is the symbol for a different religion) is no doubt good success strategy. But are we really to believe that the God who inspired and preserved for our use this large collection-of-books book, this Bible that many Christians think it is a big deal to read through once in a year, only considers essential such content as he could have fit into some gospel tracts or a volume of Cliffs Notes? When humans take it upon themselves to create this sort of “canon [of essentials] within the canon [of mostly nonessentials],” humble submission to God’s words does not appear to be what’s going on. Softening one’s stance on the clarity and sufficiency of God’s words in order to more easily and agreeably accept and even celebrate the diverse opinions of fallen human beings does not strike me as quite so laudable or humble as some think. But, then, this is only my opinion.

Naturally enough (I almost said, “Naturalistically enough”), Sullivan sees interpretation of the Genesis creation account as one of the nonessentials, bringing up the popular assertion that “in the Genesis account, the word yom, which is Hebrew for the word day, can refer to an age of time or a literal twenty-four-hour period. Both uses of the word are legitimate” (94). Really? While both yom and the English “day,” as Sullivan and others recognize, have a range of meanings in various contexts, this reality does not permit one (as Sullivan assumes) to choose whatever meaning in the range one wishes in any particular context. Is imposing the “age” (“long time period” or “indefinite time period”) reading of yom (“day”) permissible in the context of the Genesis creation account? Biblical Creationists say no, and I remain persuaded that all persons not set on trying to make the Bible fit with secular scientific theories should agree. You may disagree, but don’t ask or expect persons convinced that Scripture speaks clearly on the topic to “celebrate” your contrary viewpoint because in this case, so you say, what God says through Scripture is “nonessential.”

I won’t rehearse arguments about the use of yom with ordinal (creation days 2 through 6) versus ordinal (creation day 1) numbers (if you’d care to review them, see Jonathan Sarfati’s Refuting Compromise [Green Forest: Master Books, 2004], 76-8). I also won’t dwell on the question of how a God-breathed Exodus 20:8-11 fits with a “days as long ages” reading of the Genesis creation account (or with other alternative, non-historical readings of that account). Instead, I’d like to take readers through a thought experiment. Open your Bible to the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1:1-31). (I prefer the King James or New King James, but I’m not familiar with any translation that alters the implications of this exercise.) Read through the account, changing the label of each “day” there from “day” to the following vague locution that captures as much as possible of the semantic range of the word as it is used in various contexts: “time period.” For example, read verse 5 of the King James account as follows: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first [time period].” After you’ve read through the passage as modified, proceed to the next paragraph of this review.

Now, setting aside any knowledge you might have of currently-dominant scientific theories about the origin of earth and the creatures that inhabit it (and related efforts to assign ages to rocks and fossils using decay rates of various isotopes or the like), forgetting what views your peer group or family or favorite Christian leaders happen to promote, and going to the text only with such awareness of the world as you know the original recipients of this inspired account must have had, ask yourself: What “time period” is referred to in this context? Note the “evenings” and “mornings” with each numbered day, for example. Are “long age” days plausible here? I can see no legitimate, honest way to take “time period” here to mean anything but a time period of “ordinary day” length. The “well, yom here could mean long periods of time” argument is impossible to take seriously if one wishes to honor the text as God wrote it.

The “diversity” of opinion on this issue, therefore, does not look to me like something Bible-believers should “celebrate.” Nor does this subject seem “clearly gray” (92). By the way, when Sullivan identifies issues such as this, issues that she believes are nonessential and uncertain, as “clearly gray,” she claims the very sort of “black and white” certitude that she condemns others for claiming (Ibid.). Were Sullivan to speak consistently, she could only speak of “seemingly gray” or “potentially gray” areas. “Personally, I’m still not sure about this subject” would be still more exact, but such a statement would not allow Sullivan to condemn as closed-minded (167) those who see as “black and white” (requiring resolute commitment) issues she considers “gray” (permitting freedom to adopt or not adopt a variety of equally good or equally bad viewpoints). This seems to go beyond permission to doubt by making doubt a requirement: If you don’t doubt the Genesis creation account as written (or doubt the host of other doctrines Sullivan thinks you should be uncertain about), or if you see something amiss when others doubt it (or them), you merit condemnation.

Some, of course, evade the creation account’s literal meaning in other ways, such as by making the account an instructive “literary framework” or even a “myth” meant to communicate something “true but not historically literal.” These evasions allow yom to be understood as context requires while the passage as a whole is treated as a story Christians needn’t consider in their assessment of secular scientific theories. I’ve yet to see a good argument that those who received and believed Exodus 20:8-11, and sought to obey it through literal observance of a weekly sabbath, could have understood the Genesis creation account as something other than literal history (prefacing more literal history running seamlessly through the rest of Genesis and into Exodus), but at least these alternative readings do not require unnatural insertion of weird meanings into the “time periods” of Genesis 1. (Though Sullivan brings up the yom argument when discussing the Genesis creation account, she does show a willingness to treat stories that Genesis appears to present as straightforward history, in the middle of an ongoing this-really-happened narrative, as something other than what they appear, suggesting, for instance, that she doesn’t care “Whether one takes…literally or not” the Tower of Babel narrative [61].) Obsessing on the idea that “the Bible was never intended to be a science book” (162) misses the point. If the Bible is intended as an understandable communication, and if truths it communicates have relevance to scientific questions, then Bible-believers are obligated to let those truths guide their approach to the various claims made by scientists and stories told in the name of “science.”

But, you point out, there are fine scholars and brilliant thinkers who endorse each of the alternative interpretations of the Genesis creation account. Doesn’t that mean we should keep our minds open and willing to accept these interpretations, as Sullivan advises? Well, you must make your own judgment, of course. If you think that the opinion of a fine scholar and brilliant thinker, who happens to be a sinful created being just like yourself, makes the words of God less clear (Genesis 3:1), by all means “keep an open mind.” To my eye, though, the passage says what it says, and I can see no good, God-honoring reason to force upon it an interpretation no original recipient would have taken seriously. What professed authority, Scripture or the “fine scholar and brilliant thinker,” will you treat as ultimate?

This way of thinking, of course, is anathema to “celebrate diversity” sorts like Sullivan. (Am I extreme to suggest that Bible-believers should respond in kind, treating Sullivan’s “celebrate diversity” attitude as anathema?) She writes: “More than one Christian has earned the label [close-minded], generally because they are white-knuckle-clinging to an opinion about some interpretation of the Bible. Whether it’s a problem with hairstyles, dress codes, marriage and divorce, or even evolution, some believers have completely forgotten about grace and the fact that they may not have a corner on all absolute truth. God is, after all, a bit outside our human understanding” (167). The conclusion of this statement shows a fundamental confusion. The question is not whether God is beyond human understanding, but whether God’s inspired Word is. If it is, it has failed as the God-to-his-people communication it was intended to be. If Scripture is not beyond human understanding, then persons who stand faithfully by what they understand the Bible to clearly teach—even while “broad-minded” sorts like Sullivan object and accuse them of close-mindedness, arrogance, or “white-knuckle-clinging”—appear to me more true to the biblical model of faith than Sullivan’s doctrinal minimalism and “celebrate diversity” dismissiveness. (How persons who trust what Scripture says are supposed to have “forgotten about” a “grace” that Sullivan thinks she remembers is unclear. It is also interesting that, in spite of Scripture’s fairly prominent coverage of marriage and divorce—in directives, principles, and instructive true stories—Sullivan apparently thinks marriage-and-divorce guidance in Scripture is no more clear than guidance concerning hairstyles and dress codes. Her desire to limit Scripture’s applicability to a very narrow set of what she personally deems “essential” is…stunning.)

Sullivan also remains noncommittal on other issues, such as whether those who reject Christ can expect eternal punishment or annihilation (79). Apparently, it is her belief that if professing Christians disagree about something, then it must be the case that the issue in question is “not fully clear,” which implies one should not “come down hard” for a given position, since such lacks “intellectual integrity” (Ibid.). If disagreement among fallen humans is indeed proof that God’s words on a subject are unclear, then this might be a sensible way to think. Alas, the “if” in this “if…then” seems quite unlikely given all that Scripture has to say about fallen humans.

Sullivan’s attitude toward Scripture, and toward Christians who believe it clearer and more broadly authoritative than she does, makes Permission to Doubt a book every Bible-believer should grant themselves permission to avoid. Better resources are plentiful. I commend them to you.

This review also appears, less nicely formatted, on Amazon, and will appear, in abridged form, on Goodreads.

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Christian Bioethics: A Useful Survey

christian_bioethics_cover_courtesy_publisherMitchell, C. Ben, and D. Joy Riley. Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families. B&H Studies in Biblical Ethics. Daniel R. Heimbach, Series Editor. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014. 207+xiv pages. ISBN 978-1-4336-7114-2.

Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families, by C. Ben Mitchell (Ph.D. and professor of Moral Philosophy) and D. Joy Riley (M.D. with Bioethics M.A.), is described by its publisher (B&H Academic) as a “needed guide for pastors, clinicians, students, and laypeople” (back cover) that hopes “to help readers discover how biblical theology, Christian ethics, and contemporary science and medicine intersect in the real world where people are making life-changing decisions” (2). Unlike some collaborations, this one maintains a distinction between each author’s contributions by adopting a dialog format said to “let readers eavesdrop on their conversation” (back cover), though some readers may find the format contrived in places (if my reading experience is any indicator). For instance, at one point, Riley concludes her survey of “a part of the medical landscape” with a series of questions for Mitchell, one of which is “What does the Bible say about the nature of human life?” (54) Now, Mitchell is a Professor of Moral Philosophy whose University of Tennessee Ph.D. study included “a concentration in medical ethics” (back cover); he does not (so far as the text indicates) teach Theology or Biblical Studies. Neither readers nor Riley seem to have a reason to assume Mitchell knows more about what the Bible teaches on this subject than Riley does. Yet this transition in the text has Riley deferring to Mitchell as though his greater biblical expertise can be assumed. This makes the dialog format feel contrived.

(Please note that my only point here is to highlight the occasional unnaturalness of the dialog format. I don’t mean to call into question either author’s right to argue from Scripture. The Bible is God’s communication to all believers, which we can assume he wrote and preserved in such a way as to ensure and maintain its ability to communicate, not a text meant to be understood only by specialists, assumptions of contemporary scholarism and expertism notwithstanding.)

Christian Bioethics is part of the B&H Studies in Biblical Ethics series, edited by Daniel R. Heimbach. This series, Heimbach relates, aims to help meet today’s “critical need for scholarship, instruction, and application of Christian ethics in ways that equip Christian men and women to engage the surrounding culture in prophetic moral witness,” a need created by an environment of “widespread moral confusion and denial of moral authority,” where “claims to objective moral authority and understanding are openly contested…more than any other aspects of Christian faith and witness” (xi). While I do not always find the dialog format effective, and though I am not perfectly satisfied with Mitchell and Riley’s arguments at every point, I can recommend the text as a solid, helpful survey of (and introduction to) bioethics.

The text begins with introductory and foundational material, comprising the Introduction (1-5) and first two chapters (9-42; Part I of the text, entitled “Christian Bioethics”). The Introduction notes Mitchell and Riley’s starting assumptions (Christian worldview, historic orthodoxy, necessary coherence between Scripture and science because “all truth is God’s truth”) and explains the book’s organization (inspired by Theologian Nigel Cameron), which divides treatment of issues in bioethics into “Taking Life” (Part II; chapters 3-4), “Making Life” (Part III, chapters 5-7), and “Remaking/Faking Life” (Part IV, chapter 8). (A Conclusion follows these main sections.) Sufficiently strict Biblical Creationists, those inclined to challenge proposals of “gaps” in the Genesis genealogies, may be uncomfortable with the statement that “surgical interventions date back to around 9000 BC” (1), which takes secular dating methods for granted. Such persons might even be mildly uneasy with the failure of Mitchell and Riley to note Scripture’s primacy (the ultimateness of Scripture’s authority) when they describe “science and faith, medicine and theology” as “realms of knowledge” or “sources of truth” (5).

Some remarks on each chapter follow, under headings for each of the text’s larger divisions (parts).

Part I: Christian Bioethics ^

Chapter 1, “Which Doctors? Whose Medicine” (9-23), like remaining chapters in the book, begins with a case study, followed by “Questions for Reflection” (9-11). Here, the case study concerns a doctor who gives a patient a dose of morphine that the doctor knows will have “the inevitable…effect” of killing that patient in a situation where the patient’s desire for or consent to such an “assisted suicide” is ambiguous. Discussion of this case leads to reflection on the Hippocratic Oath, which is little used today, and the history of the Oath and of medicine in the Christian West (how the Oath was Christianized by the tenth century, how Christian faith motivated care for the ill and the founding of hospitals, and so on) and of related ethical debate and the development of a separate field of bioethics. Mitchell and Riley, finding common metaphors for physicians (parent figures, warriors against illness, technicians engaged in curative problem solving) unsatisfactory, propose seeing physicians as primarily persons necessarily of good character (who have learned and manifest the virtues of compassion, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, integrity, and self-effacement) in trust-based relational covenants with their patients. They advocate a return to “the higher moral ground” once exemplified by the Hippocratic Oath; only through such a return, they maintain, can we “achieve the proper ends of medicine” (22).

Chapter 2, “From Ancient Book to the Twenty-First Century” (25-42), discusses how to apply the teachings of Scripture to ethical questions arising out of contemporary life science developments that Scripture’s original recipients could scarcely have imagined. After rejecting possible approaches to Scripture that would be too one-dimensional and simplistic (treating it as solely a collection of rules, “eternal laws,” to follow; treating it as a repository of universal moral principles only; and viewing it exclusively as “a grand narrative, a sacred story” that calls for “situating oneself in the story and living accordingly”), Mitchell and Riley propose a composite view that combines the insights of all the one-dimensional approaches, recognizing that “God’s moral instruction comes to us in the form of commands and principles and is also revealed [through the biblical narrative] in Christian virtues and examples.” They label this approach “The Bible as Canonical Revelation of Divine Commands and Christian Virtues” (31). One particularly noteworthy statement in the chapter is Mitchell’s description of the meaning of 2 Peter 1:3: “In other words,” he writes, “God has not left his people without guidance in every area of life. Although the Bible is not a science textbook, its message speaks to the deep underlying values that can guide decisions about scientific matters Although the Bible is not a manual of medicine, its truths may be applied to medical decision making” (28).

The chapter includes basic discussion of hermeneutics, bringing to readers’ attention such common principles as “whenever possible Scripture should be read in its historical and cultural context” (33; hermeneutical discussion in this chapter relies heavily on Kyle D. Fedler’s Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality [Louisville: WJK, 2006]). Readers worried by the Introduction’s failure to emphasize the primacy of Scripture will welcome the statement here that “Scripture is primary, normative, and authoritative,” even if they are unexcited by reiteration that the Bible “is not our only source of guidance and wisdom” (33). The chapter’s conclusion, however, may revive such readers’ discomfort. The authors write: “Christians must read and interpret two books of revelation: the book of God and the book of nature….God has made himself known in Scripture and in nature….Thus, in order to understand God’s revelation most fully, we study both the Bible and nature, written revelation and created revelation” (40-1). Further: “At the end of the day, we affirm the coherence of truth; all truth is God’s truth. Christians have nothing to fear from truthful science, and science has nothing to fear from faithful biblical interpretation” (41). While there is certainly nothing objectionable about seeing Scripture and nature as in some ways analogous, the identification of both Scripture and nature as “books” does risk implying that Scripture (which is verbal) and nature (which is not verbal) are equally clear and that information humans derive from Scripture has no greater authority than information they (believe they) derive from nature. Such “two [equally clear] books” thinking has led some individuals, on the basis of their “reading” of the “book” of nature, to impose upon portions of Scripture interpretive schemes that would never have occurred to its original recipients (and that often seem strained and bizarre). I discern no evidence of such error in Mitchell and Riley’s discussion, but I would welcome more careful emphasis on how the clarity and authority of God-breathed Scripture surpasses the nonverbal ambiguity and “mixed signals” of fallen nature.

Part II: Taking Life ^

Chapter 3, “The Sanctity of Human Life and Abortion” (45-65), describes the various types of abortion, explains the meaning and implications of belief in the sanctity of human life, and shows how that belief is justified and informed by the scriptural teaching that humans are made in the image of God. The bottom line: “the witness of Scripture and the testimony of the early church are that every human being, from conception through natural death, is to be respected as an imager of God whose life has special dignity” (59). In addition to the church history alluded to in this quotation, the chapter looks at some pre-Christian Hebrew thought and summarizes the history of abortion legalization that reached it permissive peak with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton rulings.

Overall, this is a solid and helpful chapter. Mitchell’s description of the metaphorical use of reins or kidneys (“inward parts”) in Hebrew poetry particularly catches my attention: “In Hebrew poetry,” he writes, “the inward parts were typically understood to be the seat of the affections, the hidden part of a person where grief may be experienced (Job 16:13), where the conscience exists (Ps 51:7), and where deep spiritual distress is sometimes felt (Ps 73:21)” (57). At first blush, the implication seems to be that “inward parts” parallels popular English usage of “heart” (in contrast to Hebrew usage, where “heart” includes what English usage calls “head” or “mind,” at least if Proverbs 23:7, which places thinking in the “heart,” is any indicator). However, though Mitchell does cite Psalm 51:7, he does not discuss Psalm 51:6, which indicates that the “inward parts” may also house “truth” and “wisdom,” which would seem to require some “head” or “mind” cognitive capacity in the “inward parts.” None of this is central to the point of the chapter, but this disconnect between the Bible’s picture and our modern way of thinking, with its distinction between (metaphorical) “heart” and “head,” merits reflection.

In one of his other contributions to the chapter, Mitchell makes an interesting reference to “the person of the trinitarian God.” This reference to the Trinity as a single “person” appears on the same page as reference to “the person of Jesus” (54). If the reference to the Trinity is not a typographical error where “persons” or “personhood” or “personal nature” is meant, we have here the suggestion that the triune God is one person who is at the same time three persons, an idea much less obviously coherent than the more standard “three persons, one God” (as a shorthand for “three distinct personal subsistences, one divine essence” or the equivalent; see W.E. Ward, “Hypostasis,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2 ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001], 583).

Chapter 4, “Human Dignity and Dying” (67-104), addresses end-of-life issues, most notably “euthanasia.” Though once called “passive euthanasia,” the “removal of life-sustaining treatments like breathing machines and technologically or ‘artificially’ administered nutrition and hydration” is now “a separate category in ethics discussion” since “most people recognize that a time can come for removing technology, with proper consent, so that the dying process can proceed” (91-2). Forms of euthanasia still generally called such are “voluntary active” (physician assists at patient’s request), “nonvoluntary” (physician effects without patient input), and “involuntary” (physician kills patients against patient’s wishes) (Ibid.). While noting that “early theologians were consistent in their insistence that suicide was sub-Christian at best because hope and love sustain patience” in the midst of suffering (102), the chapter fails to directly address what seems to me the most fundamental issue in debates over suicide, euthanasia, and other end-of-life issues: Who owns humans’ bodies and lives? The biblical answer would seem to be that God, their creator, does. The dangers that what begins as voluntary may become involuntary (97), and that healers who also function as killers could hardly be trusted (98), do not provide nearly so certain a foundation for opposing euthanasia and suicide as does uncompromising affirmation that humans do not own their lives and bodies (or the lives and bodies of others), but are only stewards of them for the God who made them and who places strict limits on how they may be used. The former dangers call for safeguards (a “euthanasia provider” career separate from healing medical practice, laws to ensure consent); the latter affirmation forbids willful life-termination, with or without consent, unless authorized by God himself (as in Genesis 9:6, for example).

Because advocates of euthanasia generally justify it as a way to relieve suffering, a fair portion of the chapter is committed to clarifying what is meant by “pain” and “suffering” and to developing a theological and philosophical understanding of “the problem of suffering” or “the problem of pain.” Two aspects of this discussion leave me less than entirely satisfied. First, while laying out a “Taxonomy of Suffering” (based upon work by Daniel P. Sulmasy), Mitchell (presumably following Sulmasy) seems to confuse finitude and fallenness. For instance, “pangs of conscience, remorse, and guilt” are described as an “experience of personal moral finitude” (79). (Note that it would be better to speak of “awareness of guilt” as the thing causing “pangs.” Guilt is a judicial state: one has done wrong and merits punishment. Whether one has any “pangs” about it or not, one’s state of guilt remains unchanged.) Scripture does not teach that being finite, being created beings rather than God, is in itself sinful. Moral failure owes to fallenness (a corrupt will, corrupt inclinations, leading to corrupt actions), not to finitude. No doubt there are times when humans feel “pangs” about such things as “limited individual capacity for good” (80), but moral understanding (understanding of what thoughts, feelings, and actions are right and moral or wrong and sinful) is not enhanced by labeling non-sinful results of finitude “moral failure.”

The other unsatisfying aspect of the discussion is the attempt at theodicy (justifying God’s ways to humans). The chapter offers the standard “free will” defense of God’s justice: “The consequences of the fall into sin being what they are, any day without suffering is a day of grace and mercy….If one begins with the assumption that suffering is endemic to the human condition, then there can be no such thing as ‘pointless’ suffering. [How it is that something being “endemic to the human condition” means it cannot be “pointless” is unclear.] This is not to argue that suffering is to be sought but that suffering is deserved. God is just in allowing suffering. In other words, the important question is not, Why do bad things happen to good people? But, Why do good things happen to bad people?” (82) Or, in the words of Philosopher Peter Kreeft, suffering (and sin and death) “are from us, not from God; from our misuse of our free will, from our disobedience” (81, quoting from Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense of Suffering [Cincinnati: Servant Books, 1986]). This approach to suffering has long been very popular. I confess, however, that it hasn’t worked for me for some time. If one is comfortable making human free will ultimately determinative of whatever comes to pass, if one doesn’t mind treating God’s sovereignty as something that works with or works around free creaturely decisions over which God has no control, and if one is comfortable embracing a justification of God’s ways to humans that Scripture itself never teaches and in fact (in the book of Job) seems to suggest goes beyond the prerogative of creatures, one might find the “it’s all about human free will” explanation satisfactory. If, on the other hand, one believes that God is truly and completely in control, that his sovereign eternal decree includes free creaturely decisions (that creaturely freedom is secondary and derivative, not ultimate; that “freedom” as commonly conceived does not exist for created beings), one will not be so satisfied.

Even if one doesn’t find the argument objectionable because of how it seems to limit God’s sovereignty, the book of Job still looms. While it is no doubt true that humans in general are sinful and that sinfulness merits suffering, it is evident to the God-given (though fallen and so not always reliable) moral sense of almost everyone, and it seems clearly taught in the book of Job, that some people suffer more (and some less) than justice would dictate. Of course, any sin against our infinite and perfectly holy God seems to merit infinite suffering, so that it would be impossible for any human to suffer more than, or even as much as, deserved. Still, Job suggests this line of thinking may be inadequate: Rather than inspire a theodicy justifying his ways to humans, God chose to inspire a book that essentially says, “Where do you created beings get off asking for a theodicy?” (See also Romans 9:19-24)

Part III: Making Life ^

Chapter 5, “Infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technologies” (107-27), discusses such things as in vitro fertilization (IVF), use of donor sperm and eggs, and surrogacy. It grapples with the ethical issues resulting from these developments in terms of the already-developed understanding of the sanctity of every human life and the awareness “that pregnancy occurs at fertilization rather than at implantation [of the new life in the uterine wall]” (113). This is an informative and useful chapter. Since the reality that sacred human life begins prior to implantation is emphasized, in order to show the wrongness of “reproductive technologies” that end up never implanting and finally destroying “excess embryos,” the chapter might have taken a few sentences to note how “the abortion pill” is not the only medication that can end a pregnancy already in progress, since this is also how some standard “contraceptives” can end up working. (Never mind that this contradicts the “contraceptive” label, presumably used because the drugs do prevent conception or fertilization some of the time.)

Chapter 6, “Organ Donation and Transplantation” (129-48), discusses ethical issues related to organ donation. Because most organ donation (donation of non-paired organs) requires a dead donor (at least for now), this is the chapter where questions about when and how to label someone “dead” are addressed. Whereas prior to ability to measure brain activity the standard for determining death was cessation of heart and lung activity (nicely comporting, one notes, with the biblical idea that “the life of the flesh is in the [circulating] blood” [Leviticus 17:11]), cessation of brain activity (either of the whole brain or only of areas deemed essential to human consciousness) has more recently been considered an acceptable standard. One particularly interesting revelation of the chapter is that it is not unheard of for persons declared “brain dead” by multiple doctors to recover (135-6).

Chapter 7, “Clones and Human-Animal Hybrids” (149-65), discusses cloning, including that involving placing nuclei of one species into the enucleated (nucleus removed) eggs of another species to create “hybrids.” (Whether experimentation retaining nuclear material from two species has also been attempted is not clear from the chapter.) This chapter especially well illustrates the morally confused thinking dominant in contemporary secular culture, since the legal environment sees no problem with creating human embryos (or human-animal hybrid embryos) through cloning for experimental purposes or medical use (“therapeutic cloning”) but (so far) tends to strongly condemn and forbid implanting cloned human embryos in human wombs to live and mature (“reproductive cloning”). One especially interesting item discussed in the chapter is the creation of embryos from gametes of three persons (what the chapter calls “Embryos with three parents”) as a way “to avoid mitochondrial diseases” (160). Since mitochondria are passed from mothers to children separate from the nuclear DNA to which both parents contribute, one could prevent inheritance of mitochondrial defects from a mother with a mitochondrial disease by transferring the nucleus of the mother into the egg of a donor (whether this would be done before or after fertilization is not stated). “The resulting child,” Riley summarizes, “would have the chromosomes (nuclear DNA) of his/her mother and father and the mitochondrial DNA of the egg donor [“second mother” if one accepts the “three parents” description]” (160-1). Mitchell and Riley see this as ethically problematic and fear a “slippery slope” to “designer children” (161), but I confess it sounds to me closely analogous to organ transplantation. The blueprint of what makes a person a person, and makes a given individual the “child” of two other individuals, would seem to be the nuclear DNA; “transplant” of the rest of the cell from an unfertilized egg with healthy mitochondria doesn’t (at present) strike me as ethically problematic or as creating a child with “three parents.” In any case, Mitchell and Riley believe that “all human cloning should be forthrightly banned,” as should creation of “human-animal hybrid embryos” (165), and their case against most aspects of these practices seems sound.

Part IV: Remaking/Faking Life ^

Chapter 8, “Aging and Life-Extension Technologies” (169-83), discusses efforts to extend the human lifespan or, more audaciously, to achieve immortality and to surpass other human limitations (mental, physical), through various means (health maintenance through nanotechnology, slowing or arresting the process of “growing old,” transfer of human consciousnesses into robots or virtual environments, technological enhancement of human mental and physical capabilities beyond natural limits, etc.). In the chapter, Mitchell sets forth the position that “Aging is not a disease to be cured but a reality of the human condition to be celebrated,” offering Proverbs 16:31 as support for this view (179). I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by this line of reasoning. In our fallen context, where the only alternative is to die young (perhaps because one does not follow the longevity-friendly “way of righteousness”), living to a gray- or white-haired old age (perhaps as a result of following “the way of righteousness”) is indeed something to be celebrated. But this fact doesn’t quite identify any of the “negative” aspects of aging as preferable to (were it possible) retention of the optimal capacities of one’s “prime” for a longer time. Whereas some transhumanist aspirations doubtless violate Christian morals (and will be proven incompatible with humans’ created nature), the quest to extend lifespan, to slow or stop (or reverse or repair) the negative effects of aging, does not strike me as fundamentally different from the broader efforts of medical and related sciences to reduce the effects of the fall on human life and health.

One reason I think the discussion goes astray is that “aging” is used so freely today as a shorthand for the negative (degenerative) effects of aging. Thus, the chapter can conclude by lamenting how our culture “has come to loath every facet of aging” (183). Is this true, though? One facet of aging is the acquisition of experience and, ideally, of wisdom. Does our culture, does anyone, really “loath” this? Even those who most pine away for lost youth dream of reliving it “knowing what they know now.” The other facet of aging is the deterioration that results as bodily self-repair falls progressively behind degenerative processes. Those who dream of “curing aging” probably shouldn’t use the term “aging,” since they have no desire to eliminate growth in experience and wisdom. For instance, the late Roy Walford (died 2004) thought degeneration and death unfortunate because acquiring the experience and wisdom to live well takes so much time: “It’s a shame to die so young, because it takes so long to learn how to live” (Foreword to Brian Delaney and Lisa Walford’s The Longevity Diet [New York: Marlow & Company, 2005], xiv). Trying to figure out why bodily self-repair inevitably falls behind degeneration, and to determine if there are ways to keep self-repair ahead of degeneration for a longer time or indefinitely (by “fixing” whatever aspect of the human organism prevents self-repair from keeping up or by supplementing self-repair with technology, as in speculations about what could be accomplished by “nanobots”), may indeed be a quest destined to fail (177), but it does not strike me as dehumanizing or necessarily unbiblical. Degeneration and death are results of the fall, not essential qualities of being human. Scripture does suggest, of course, that physical death, and so the degenerative processes that bring it about, is a mercy: living forever in our fallen state, it appears, would not be a good thing (Genesis 3:22-24). Still, there is nothing in this to suggest that much longer lives would be a problem (the long lives in Genesis are never identified as problematic simply because long), and many Christians might rather wait to be translated at the Second Coming than endure degeneration and death.

Conclusion ^

The Conclusion, “Preserving Our Humanity in a Biotech Century” (185-97), offers some final thoughts, such as endorsement of pregnancy care centers as a way to oppose abortion by making it easier to “choose life” (191). In their plea for “Humanity over Efficiency,” Mitchell and Riley set forth the strange claim that “When we rob ourselves of all opportunities to find social meaning in social eating, we rob ourselves of our humanity” (193). Apparently, there is a whole book dedicated to this argument (Leon R. Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature [Chicago University Press, 1999]; cited on 193). I can’t help thinking there must be better examples of ways to affirm our “embodied” God-given human nature than social eating, but that’s the example Mitchell and Riley chose to emphasize. Whatever.

The book, as a whole, makes persuasive arguments on most points and provides adequate coverage of the range of issues in contemporary bioethics. It is worthwhile reading, particularly for those who have not previously studied the issues. Its use as an introductory text is enhanced by a listing of “Additional Resources” at the end of each chapter. Finally, those seeking information about specific topics will appreciate the name and subject indexes (199-207).

This review also appears, less nicely formatted, on Amazon, and will appear, in abridged form, on Goodreads.

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Non-Apostolic Deformation Debunked: A New Apostolic Reformation? Reviewed

nar_cover_courtesy_publisherGeivett, R. Douglas, and Holly Pivec. A New Apostolic Reformation? A Biblical Response to a Worldwide Movement. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. 254 + xvii pages. ISBN 978-1-941337-03-5.

In my reviews, I generally try to avoid hyperbolic statements like, “every Christian should read this book.” In the case of R. Douglas Geivett and Holly Pivec’s A New Apostolic Reformation? A Biblical Response to a Worldwide Movement, that statement could be merited. Some dangerous and heretical claims are gaining traction in the Christian community, particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic (hereafter, P-C) circles, and A New Apostolic Reformation? provides detailed description of the movement promoting these claims (what it teaches, who leads it, what organizations promote it) and offers sound biblical responses to them, maintaining throughout a charitable and moderate tone.

The general approach of the text is straightforward. After relating key historical and biographical information about the movement (showing its significant size and influence), Geivett and Pivec set forth its most problematic teachings and the justifications NAR’s leaders offer for those teachings, contrast NAR teachings with the views of more traditional or mainstream P-C believers (using the Assemblies of God denomination as their example), and offer Bible-based criticisms of the NAR teachings. They are careful not to enter into the debate over “cessationism, the view that the miraculous gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 are no longer active in the church,” holding that “Whether the miraculous gifts are ongoing or not has no bearing on the arguments of our book” (xiv) and believing that “NAR deviates from classical Pentecostal and charismatic teachings” (xiv). This strategy of carefully distinguishing between NAR and non-NAR (“classical”) segments of the P-C community makes A New Apostolic Reformation? suitable reading for both persons within that community, which has so far been most susceptible to NAR’s influence and so is most in need of the book’s warnings, and those without, whether full cessationists-in-principle, who find P-C claims both incredible and unbiblical, or mere cessationists-in-practice, who’ve just never yet seen any P-C claim they thought sufficiently justified to merit their assent. (In case you’re curious, I’d identify myself as a cessationist-in-practice with strong leanings toward cessationism-in-principle.)

The main text may be divided into four sections. The first section, comprising chapters one through three (“What Is the New Apostolic Reformation?” [1-8]; “Massive Size and Growing Political Influence” [9-18]; and “Mainstreaming the New Apostolic Reformation” [19-29]), provides a general overview of NAR and an introduction to its history, leading figures, and so on. The second section, spanning chapters four through nine (“NAR Apostles: The Generals” [30-44]; “NAR Apostles: A Closer Look” [45-55]; “Apostles in the Bible: The Twelve and Paul” [56-66]; “Apostles in the Bible: The Other Apostles and False Apostles” [67-76]; “NAR Apostles Compared to the Bible’s Apostles” [77-84]; and “Testing NAR Apostles” [85-95]), examines and refutes NAR’s teaching that an authoritative office of apostle, falling short of the authority of the Twelve and Paul only in its ostensible lack of freedom to add to the canon of Scripture, has been restored to the church in our day. The third section, including chapters ten through fourteen (“NAR Prophets: The Secret Intelligence Agents” [96-104]; “NAR Prophets: A Closer Look” [105-118]; “Prophets in the Bible” (119-127); “NAR Prophets Compared to the Bible’s Prophets” [128-137]; and “Testing NAR Prophets” [138-149]), discusses (and shows in error) NAR’s teaching that the contemporary church is also seeing the restoration of an office of prophet with the same authority to speak new revelation to all believers (and to nations, etc.) as that held by the most august Old Testament prophets. The fourth and final section, made up of chapters fifteen through nineteen (“Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare” [150-165]; “A Biblical Analysis of Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare” [166-172]; “Unifying the Forces through Apostolic Unity” [173-180]; “A Miracle-Working Army: NAR Teaching on Miracles” [181-193]; and “A Biblical Analysis of a NAR Miracle-Working Army” [194-202]), looks at and shows biblically unsound various NAR practices and related beliefs (practices and beliefs NAR’s “prophets” and “apostles” have “revealed” in their authoritative fashion), such as “spiritual mapping” (as construed by NAR) and the casting out of “territorial spirits.” Additional materials include a preface by coauthor Pivec on behalf of both writers (xiii-xvi) and a brief conclusion (203-4); three appendices concerning, respectively, “The Great Chain of Prophets” (205-8), “Todd Bentley’s Commissioning and Apostolic Decrees” (209-11), and “Prominent NAR Networks” (212-17); as well as a lengthy bibliography (219-236) and indexes by persons’ names (237-40), by subject (241-9), and by scriptures cited (250-4).

The first section (1-29), as noted, provides an overview of the NAR movement’s history, names some of its prominent leaders and affiliated organizations, and relates some of its history. This sections answers the question, “What is NAR and why should I care?” or, alternatively, “Why should I bother reading this book?” NAR, “also sometimes called the apostolic-prophetic movement” (1), claims, in common with various earlier groups (such as “the Irvingites of the 1830s…the Apostolic Church of the early 1900s….the African Independent Churches movement, which began around 1900….[and] the post-World War II Latter Rain movement” [3-4; paragraph break removed]) to “restore the offices of apostle and prophet” (3). (Throughout the text, Douglas and Pivec emphasize that NAR holds to the present-day restoration of “offices,” meaning authoritative and “formal” governing offices, of apostle and prophet. They contrast this with P-C belief in the ongoing existence of apostolic and prophetic “ministry functions” not tied to formal offices. Persons who reject P-C claims altogether, of course, typically see even the “ministry functions” as no longer extant in their original form.) Today’s NAR began, this section relates, with a resurgence of Latter-Rain-movement-like belief in present-day prophets and apostles in the 1980s, a resurgence in which the so-called “Kansas City Prophets” (Bob Jones, Paul Cain, and John Paul Jackson) played a leading role, helped along by then-pastor of the Kansas City Fellowship, Mike Bickle, who would later found the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and who has become quite influential. Some noteworthy NAR leaders the section identifies include Bickle (as noted), C. Peter Wagner (whose status as a “church growth expert” probably makes him the NAR leader best known by those of us outside NAR), Bill Johnson, Lou Engle, Bill Hamon, Rick Joyner, Cindy Jacobs, Ché Ahn, and Jack Deere. Some noteworthy NAR organization include (as noted) IHOP, The Call, Bethel Church (in Redding, California; pastored by Bill Johnson), Harvest International Ministry, Generals International, and Destiny Image Publishers. An additional publisher, though not officially NAR, that has helped promote NAR is Charisma House, one learns in this section. One also learns that, in addition to gaining credibility by association with various non-NAR leaders and organization dedicated to “socially conservative” action in the realms of politics, society, and culture (persons and organization of the “Christian Right”), NAR has gained credibility by having its books endorsed by leaders considered “mainstream,” such as Jack Hayford (who has also spoken an NAR conferences), and published by mainstream publishers, such as Thomas Nelson and Bethany House. Readers of this section will be left with no doubt that NAR, unlike any “fringe” movements that preceded it, is large and influential and, if it be in error (as Geivett and Pivec show that it is), very dangerous to Christ’s church. (The final appendix, “Prominent NAR Networks” [212-17], adds to the persons and organizations identified in this section.)

Geivett and Pivec’s demonstration of NAR’s dangerous divergence from orthodox Christian doctrine begins in earnest in the second section (30-95), which deals with NAR’s teachings concerning restoration of the office of apostle. Central to this section is detailed discussion of just what the Bible teaches about “apostles” and how this teaching contradicts NAR’s claims; logical critique of the internal coherence of NAR’s claims also plays a role. The New Testament, Geivett and Pivec show, uses “apostle” in more than one sense. Holders of the authoritative office of apostle, which is what most of us think of when we hear the word “apostle,” are what Scripture calls “apostles of Christ.” These are apostles “of the formal kind—including the Twelve, Paul, probably James, and all the other apostles to whom Christ appeared following his resurrection” (77). Apostles of this sort served a foundational role in the church and do not exist today, this section demonstrates, contrary to NAR’s claims. A second sort of “apostles,” persons whom Scripture calls “apostles of the churches,” do not hold formal governing offices or authority; rather, they are apostles “of the functional kind” (78). That is, they are persons gifted to serve certain ministry functions, such as those of church planters and missionaries. In the P-C context, “apostles” of this type may be expected to perform “signs and wonders” (work miracles as part of their outreach to previously unreached populations); outside the P-C context, no “signs and wonders” are expected (except such as might result from from the faithful prayer of any true believer seeking to do God’s will). Such “apostles of the churches,” who carry none of the special authority NAR grants to those it labels “apostles,” are the only sorts of apostles whose ongoing existence can be supported from Scripture, Geivett and Pivec show. (The section notes how some scholars provide more detailed breakdowns of types of “apostles,” but the basic two-type division is the most evident and important. Essentially a title for “persons sent,” the characteristic distinguishing types of apostles is by whom they are sent, either by Christ through direct in-person appointment, or by Christ’s human representatives in the churches.) The section also includes correction of NAR’s erroneous use of Ephesians 4:11, Ephesians 2:20, and 1 Corinthians 12:28 to support belief in present-day “apostles of Christ.”

An important part of this section concerns the danger NAR’s belief in a present-day apostolic office poses to Scripture’s authority. (The same dangers arise from NAR’s belief in a present-day prophetic office, the subject of the book’s next section.) It is here that NAR’s professed views fail to cohere with the real implications of those views. The official NAR position is that “present-day apostles cannot add new revelation to the canon of Scripture”; however, they “can receive new revelation that supplements Scripture so long as it doesn’t contradict it” (49). (I note that one only need supplement what is not itself sufficient. Any claim to present-day revelation, even if it does not assert the far-reaching authority of NAR revelation, implicitly denies that Scripture is sufficient in itself, that the believer who studies Scripture is thereby “throughly furnished unto all good works” [2 Timothy 3:17]. Since Geivett and Pivec adopt a moderate stance that allows for at least some present-day revelation, they do not make this argument.) One way NAR leaders have attempted to show their apostles’ revelations do not usurp Scripture is to identify their authority as limited to a certain sphere (a church or network of churches, say). Such leaders as C. Peter Wagner, however, fail to stick to this idea, claiming that there are at least some present-day apostles whose revelations apply to the whole church. “The existence of such [what Wagner calls] broadband apostles undermines Wagner’s claim that apostles cannot write new Scripture…,” Geivett and Pivec write. “In claiming to give new revelation that is binding on all Christians, are they not claiming, in effect, that their revelation should be treated on a par with Scripture, even if their words aren’t physically appended to a Bible?” (84)

The second appendix, “Todd Bentley’s Commissioning and Apostolic Decrees” (209-211), adds to this section’s refutation by showing NAR’s belief in the ability of present-day apostles to make “decrees” with God’s own authority, (in the words of C. Peter Wagner) “not asking God to do something” but “declaring with the authority of God, that such-and-such a thing that we know to be the will of God will happen” (209). This appendix shows Wagner making such a decree, then having events thereafter transpire quite opposite to the decree he supposedly uttered with God’s own authority. In more traditional parlance, I note, Wagner’s false decree while claiming God’s authority would be called “tak[ing] the name of the LORD thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11).

In the next section (96-149), Geivett and Pivec analyze and refute NAR’s teaching about present-day “prophets.” This section opposes NAR’s claim that there exists a present-day church office of “prophet of God” while leaving open the possibility that more standard P-C belief in non-office-holding “prophetically gifted individuals” might be valid (128). The authors are careful to avoid the cessationist-continuationist debate, writing, “Can people today have the gift of prophecy? Cessationists say no, if the gift includes continued provision of revelation, either for the church or individuals….But continuationist say yes, that people today can be prophetically gifted in the sense of receiving new revelation from God. And they don’t believe that the exercise of their gift threatens the authority of Scripture” (Ibid.). While they grant this question is “fascinating,” Geivett and Pivec note, “we will not attempt to answer it in this book because it is beyond the immediate scope of our topic” (Ibid.). Though they indeed do “not attempt to answer” the question, they do (perhaps inadvertently) reveal some bias in favor of the continuationist view, stating that “While there is a scriptural basis for an ongoing gift of prophecy, there is no basis for a present-day office of prophet that governs the church or prophets who prophesy to nations or give new truths” (137; 138 has similar wording), rather than using more neutral wording like, “While those who believe in an ongoing gift of prophecy can plausibly claim scriptural support, those who believe in a present-day office of prophet…cannot.” (One can guess from my prior parenthetical on the sufficiency of Scripture that I fall into the cessationist camp here. Even if the “new revelation” one claims to receive only provides practical guidance to some individual in a specific life situation, it still seems to me that by providing such “revelation” one is saying that Scripture by itself is not sufficient to “throughly furnish” that individual for “all good works.” I would allow reference to current-day pronouncement as “prophetic” whenever they accurately set forth the meaning of already-written Scripture or rightly apply Scripture to contemporary circumstances, but the “gift of prophecy” here would obviously be quite different from any “new revelation” variety.)

Complete avoidance of the cessationist-continuationist debate is an interesting strategy. While it may disappoint resolute cessationists, I’m inclined to judge it a wise approach given that P-C believers are currently most at risk of “conversion” to NAR, so that it is most important that A New Apostolic Reformation?’s warnings make it onto their reading lists. In addition to a Scripture-rich refutation of NAR’s erroneous viewpoint, this section also notes numerous inconsistencies in the NAR perspective. For instance, though NAR prophets are granted authority to give “thus saith the Lord” prophetic directives “to individuals regarding their personal lives,” NAR leaders invariably grant “that NAR prophets can err” (136). This inconsistency continues in NAR leaders’ appeal to Wayne Grudem’s P-C position on New Testament as opposed to Old Testament prophets. Grudem, the text notes, “agrees [with NAR leaders] that New Testament prophets are not expected to be one hundred percent accurate in their prophecies.” Unlike NAR leaders, however, who “teach that New Testament prophets have the same level of authority as Old Testament prophets and that they hold a formal governing office,” Grudem “maintains that New Testament prophets need not be one hundred percent accurate since they do not have the same level of authority as the Old Testament prophets and do not hold a formal governing office in the church” (139). NAR leaders, then, grant their “prophets” Old Testament prophetic authority without Old Testament prophetic accuracy. Making a persuasive case that NAR can’t have it both ways, Geivett and Pivec proceed to show how NAR “prophets” fail biblical tests for true prophets (138-47) and show why some alternative tests suggested by NAR leaders should not be used (148-9).

One alternative test, proposed by Bill Hamon, particularly caught my attention because it so well comports with the approach to the faith I’ve found exemplified in (some) P-C acquaintances. This “inner witness test” is, in Geivett and Pivec’s opinion, “frankly subjective and oddly spiritualistic,” at least as Hamon applies it (he makes it much easier for the “inner witness” to confirm prophecies true than to reject them as false) (149). While there doesn’t seem to me anything innately problematic in believing that the Holy Spirit witnesses to what are truly God’s words (and withholds or witnesses against what are not God’s words), so that (for example) true believers over time came to accept the canonical books of the Bible (and divinely-sanctioned readings therein) and to reject other books (and unsanctioned variant readings), human fallenness and fallibility mandates that such witness be subject to confirmation by the wider believing community (true Holy Spirit witness will persuade large numbers of believers over long periods) and (where possible) by external and public evidences. (I realize scholars prefer to emphasize the objective “tests of canonicity” as the basis for accepting certain books and rejecting others, but I think these tests served to confirm acceptance already achieved through the Spirit-guided consensus of common believers, not to bring about that acceptance in the first place. I also think that textual criticism went astray when it followed the lead of critical scholars and began rejecting readings long accepted by the Bible-believing consensus. While “Scripture never says to test prophecies by an inner witness” [148], I don’t think Hamon is entirely wrong to see the fact that the Holy Spirit “beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” [Romans 8:16] as favoring the idea that the same Spirit “beareth witness” about other things, in particular affirming God’s words so that their divine origin is immediately evident to faithful hearers. Even if it is true that God’s Spirit witnesses to God’s words, however, this doesn’t necessarily support Hamon’s ideas about how the Spirit’s witness may be identified.) Hamon’s idea is a little different than the one that “doesn’t seem to me…innately problematic,” however. What Hamon supports is a test that is individual, subjective, and emotional to the point of being anti-intellectual. Hamon proposes an “inner witness” made up of subjectively interpreted “sensations.” Whereas false prophecies might prompt (in Hamon’s words) a “nervous, jumpy, or uneasy feeling, a deep, almost unintelligible sensation that something is not right,” true prophecies might prompt (also in Hamon’s words) “a deep, unexplainable peace and joy, a warm, loving feeling” or even “physical sensations that occur in the [to quote Hamon] ‘upper stomach or lower chest area’” (148).

Some might wish to grant that if the Holy Spirit were witnessing to one’s inner self in some way one might well expect this witness to manifest in the form of subtle inklings or positive or negative emotions, which might in turn cause physical symptoms like one’s “heart” (or perhaps “lower chest area”) being “strangely warmed” (to borrow often-quoted wording from one historical figure’s experience “witnessing” to his true conversion). That “Mormon[s] claim that God confirms the truth of the Mormon faith by giving people a burning sensation in their bosoms” (148) would make one doubt that such sensations should be trusted absent external confirmation, but one might still wish to allow that some such experiences could really originate with God’s Spirit. Hamon, however, proposes elevating emotion and sensation above rational thought. He wants to ensure that we who would test prophecies by the “inner witness” are (in Hamon’s own words) “more in tune with out spirit [which Hamon associates with emotions] than with our thoughts [which Hamon attributes to a “soul” separate from the “spirit”]” (148) because “Our head may [wrongly] say, ‘No’ while our heart [rightly] says ‘Go’” (149). (As an aside, I note that in Scripture “heart” includes “head”; the common heart-head distinction Hamon deploys, which treats “heart” as emotional and not intellectual, is unbiblical.) “By encouraging people to turn off their thoughts and to ignore their opinions,” Geivett and Pivec remark, “Hamon is repudiating their God-given ability to evaluate prophecies critically” (149). (I would prefer that Geivett and Pivec add “in light of Scripture” here, since some who reject the inspired content of Scripture do so on the basis of critical evaluation. It may, however, that the authors hold to the view that Scripture need only be accepted insofar as it passes humans’ critical tests; this view is not so uncommon among Christian scholars as simple Bible-believers might expect.) While the skeptical (scientistic secular) attitude, which holds that such experiences as perception of the Spirit’s “inner witness” must be interpreted naturalistically (or, if no plausible naturalistic interpretation presents itself, “passed over in silence” until advancing science makes sense of them), is unacceptably biased, the wild credulity found in some circles, such as NAR, must be eschewed. If humans have spiritual “senses,” they are no less worthy of presumptive trust than any other of our faculties; but all our faculties, including (and especially) our rational or intellectual faculty, must be used in concert, each correcting the deficiencies of the others, to learn truth. Geivett and Pivec rightly criticize NAR’s failure to correct errors of feeling and imagination with the intellect.

The first, and in my judgment best, appendix, “The Great Chain of Prophets” (205-208) adds to the case against NAR’s view of prophets. I like this appendix so much that I recommend reading it first. This appendix sets forth clearly the scriptural pattern, which invariably has the end of one period of “universally authoritative revelation” (207) preceded by a foretelling of the next period of such revelation. Thus, Malachi (4:5), last prophet of the Hebrew Bible, points to John the Baptist’s Elijah-like preparation for Jesus’s arrival as inaugurating the next such period, and between Malachi and John the Baptist no such such revelation comes. In like manner, the New Testament’s final book points to “two witnesses” presaging Jesus’s return (Rev. 11:506, 9-10) as inaugurating the next such period, meaning that with the completion of Scripture’s final book began a time like that between Malachi and John the Baptist, where “universally authoritative revelation has ceased.” So, “As we await the next great event on God’s revelatory calendar—the return of Christ—we do well if we give ourselves to the careful study of Scripture, and look not to so-called new truths from present-day prophets” (208).

The final section (150-202) shows that NAR strategies and practices, such as “confronting territorial spirits directly” (167) , and related teachings, such as that “the end-time church will perform miracles unprecedented in terms of their grandeur and frequency” (194), have “no biblical basis” (167). One noteworthy statement in the section points out, specifically in the context of Bickle’s interpretation of Luke 18:7-8 as mandating “24/7 prayer rooms,” how “NAR hermeneutics” typically “neglects context and ignores alternative, more plausible meanings” (199). What was evident in Hamon’s subjective test of prophetic utterance (the “inner witness” test) proves broadly typical of NAR’s approach to belief and practice: subjective individual judgment is given free reign; testing by reason in light of carefully studied Scripture (faith-based critical analysis) and testing against the Spirit-guided judgment of fellow believers over the course of time (respect for historical orthodoxy) are rejected in favor of trust in individual judgment treated as divinely authoritative (since it is the judgment of an individual who claims to be an “apostle” or “prophet”). This persuasive section merits close study, particularly by anyone who finds NAR appealing.

One especially remarkable aspect of NAR discussed in this section is NAR’s emphasis on a “unity” that deemphasizes doctrinal correctness in favor of broad permissiveness, provided one “submits” to so-called apostles and prophets in service of strategic objectives meant to forward “God’s” kingdom. As with other aspects of NAR, this one does not stand up to Geivett and Pivec’s critical analysis in light of Scripture. This particular aspect of NAR also raises in my mind at least one question that Geivett and Pivec do not discuss, but which (for me) would alone be sufficient to make me reject NAR. That question is: If God were indeed going to appoint apostles and prophets with the same authority to rule and speak on his behalf as the Old Testament prophets of God and New Testament apostles of Christ, wouldn’t the God who inspired Scripture use that opportunity to correct doctrinal errors among his children and bring all true believers into agreement on the correct interpretation of the entirety of his Book, to unity in knowledge and faith? Setting aside what one deems “secondary” or “non-essential” doctrines in order to pursue common “primary” or “essential” objectives is a pragmatic strategy made necessary by human fallenness and fallibility; it is certainly not the mark of persons speaking for the perfect and unerring God who must value very highly everything he chose to set down in Scripture. Persons appointed and directed by, and receiving fresh revelation from, God surely would not adopt the pragmatic permissiveness of profit-driven businessmen and power-driven politicians as NAR’s leaders have done. Clearly, it is this-wordly drive, not divine direction, that motivates NAR’s leadership. Geivett and Pivec do not go so far as to say this, of course, preferring to work from the assumption “that leading NAR figures are believers and genuine disciples of Jesus, and that their intention is to do the will of God in their lives and in the world” (xiv). Bible-believing readers will, I predict, find this assumption very difficult to credit once they’ve seen the sorts of claims “leading NAR figures” are making. One will search Scripture in vain for any example of false prophets or false apostles being identified as sincere or “genuine disciples,” after all.

Overall, then, A New Apostolic Reformation? is excellent and worthwhile, even essential, reading. I can’t claim to agree with or endorse everything in the book, however. For instance, since I believe that Scripture teaches particular atonement (Christ died for the sins of specific individuals who will be saved, not for all individuals regardless of whether they will ultimately be saved or not), I cannot endorse the authors’ reference to Christ’s “death for the sins of all humanity” (57-8). (Granted, one might speak of Christ dieing for “all humanity” in the sense that he died for elect individuals in “every tribe and nation,” for “all” in the sense of “all types”; still, this isn’t how “all humanity” will be understood by most readers.) Nor am I (yet) persuaded that the involvement of New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) leaders in the “Christian Right” activity in which many of us Bible-believers are also involved (and which we think NAR leaders did not originate but are trying to hijack) makes locutions like “reclaiming the culture for Christ” and “fighting the culture war” dangerous “triumphalism” that “comes perilously close to spreading” NAR’s heretical doctrines (171). I’m not even sure I wish to grant advocates of NAR exclusive use of the term “dominionism” (150), since belief that the dominion mandate (Genesis 1:26, 28) calls those who would obey God to “take dominion” in a comprehensive way that entails much more than “evangelism and world missions” (150) is not limited (nor do I believe it originates with) advocates of NAR.

I’m also not entirely comfortable with Geivett and Pivec’s constrained description of Scripture’s perspicuity or clarity. While refuting professed “prophet-apostle” Bill Hamon’s (44) suggestion that Martin Luther’s reading of Ephesians 2:8-9 as teaching justification by faith alone owed to “prophetic illumination” of “a new, hitherto disguised sense” of the text, they write the following: “Protestants have emphasized the perspicuity of Scripture, the doctrine that, in matters concerning salvation, the teaching of Scripture is clear, plain for all to see, if they can but read the Bible for themselves” (134). Note the “in matters concerning salvation” proviso. Whether or not Protestants have typically emphasized that Scripture’s clarity is limited to “matters concerning salvation,” this understanding seems to me too restrictive. The entirety of Scripture, not just verses about salvation, is a communication (set of communications) from a perfectly truthful God who would neither lie nor intentionally mislead (the latter being a variety of lying) and who omnisciently foresees and sovereignly “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11) in the entire sweep of history, including the rise, ongoing development, and degeneration of the various societies and cultures into which he breathed this communication and through which he preserved and preserves it. Though this fact is seldom emphasized, God knew when he inspired Scripture into those cultures he prepared for the purpose (among other purposes he had for those cultures) what later cultures he planned for his Book to communicate into. This situation, it seems to me, calls for an understanding of Scripture’s perspicuity more comprehensive than one limited to the subject of salvation alone. How much more comprehensive may be open to debate, as may be what we mean by perspicuity or clarity (in many scriptures, including some about salvation, we probably don’t mean “easy” or “obvious”), but “salvation alone” seems too constrained.

These points are peripheral rather than central to A New Apostolic Reformation?’s refutation of NAR, however. Besides, my idiosyncrasies are such that were I to insist on perfect agreement with my beliefs before recommending a text, I would never be able to recommend any book unless I had written it myself (and had done so recently enough to have not changed my mind about anything). My disagreement with these few peripherals aside, A New Apostolic Reformation? is an outstanding book; it is well researched and cogently argued, with an orderly, easy-to-follow presentation (with summaries at the end of each chapter, concise recapitulation of key points at appropriate intervals, and so on). I commend it to you.

This review also appears, in abridged form, on Goodreads and, less nicely formatted, Amazon.

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Bitesize Rutherford Bio: Something to Chew On

bitesize_rutherford_cover_courtesy_publishe_1200x1200Hannula, Richard M. Samuel Rutherford: Lover of Christ. Bitesize Biographies. Darlington, England: EP Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-78397-018-6.

Richard Hannula’s Samuel Rutherford Bitesize Biography is an excellent brief introduction to Rutherford’s life, thought, and place in history. Suitable either as an easy point of entry into fuller study of Rutherford or as a quick standalone overview for the merely curious, the brief, easy-reading Samuel Rutherford provides more edification and instruction than its brevity and simplicity might lead one to expect.

Its structure is straightforwardly chronological, beginning with a brief Introduction (9-11) and Timeline (covering from the approximate year of Rutherford’s birth, 1600, through his death in 1661 and first publication of his letters in 1664), then proceeding through nine chapter spanning his life (17-132) and noting some key parts of his legacy (133-38). It closes with a listing of items “For further reading” (139-40), a listing that does not include Rutherford’s theological writings, which “are dense and daunting for all but the most intrepid of modern reader” (139), as one might expect given that “Condensing thoughts and brevity were not among Rutherford strengths as a writer” (102).

In addition to being a time when works of considerable “length and complexity,” such as Rutherford’s Lex, Rex, could find a wide readership (102), Rutherford’s era was one where someone who “was short, slight and preached in a high pitched voice…[that] some described…as ‘shrill’” could nevertheless become “known for his preaching” because (as Hannula explains it) he “vividly set Christ before his congregation, helping them to see Jesus Christ preaching, healing, bearing the cross, reigning in heaven and interceding for them” (32). This was definitely a time when substance trumped style, and reading Samuel Rutherford while aware of today’s culture might easily, were it not for the hardships and conflicts of the time, make one nostalgic for Rutherford’s day.

Many Christians today are comfortable simultaneously asserting that (1) salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and that (2) individuals must, by an act of will, receive or accept that gift in order to be saved. In contrast, Hannula’s wording when describing how a busy Rutherford at one point “managed to write a scholarly book against the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius” makes it clear that if salvation were in some way “dependent of man’s free will” then it would not be “wholly a gift of God’s free grace” (53). By implication, both Arminius’s teachings and today’s popular notion that “you must choose to receive the gift to be saved” contradict belief in salvation by grace alone. This implication will likely incline non-Reformed readers to judge Hannula’s wording biased, though to me both that wording and its implication appear sound.

Rutherford was clearly a believer in God’s sovereignty in salvation: “He taught that repentance unto life was completely a supernatural gift from God….Rutherford preached, ‘….No man can love Christ till He love him first, because our love of Christ is nothing else but an effect of His love to us….’” (36). In fact, “the irresistible grace of God in the salvation of sinners” was, in Hannula’s judgment, Rutherford’s “favourite theme” (117). He was also “well pleased with” the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism), believing “that all three documents presented an accurate summary of the central truths of the Bible (102-3). Doubtless, then, Rutherford also believed in particular atonement (Christ atones only for those whom God has ordained will be saved, the elect). Even so, Rutherford’s own words make clear that atonement that is particular (atonement “limited” in application to the elect) is in no way of limited value: “‘Millions of hells of sinners cannot come near to exhaust infinite grace,’ Rutherford taught” (35). Since some segments of contemporary Christianity insist on misrepresenting what Reformed people believe on this count, that Hannula’s text makes this clear is another reason it is worth reading (or giving as a gift).

While chapter-by-chapter summary of a brief chronological text would hardly be worthwhile, review of select topics on which a reading of Samuel Rutherford can provide edification and instruction might prove useful to potential readers.

One such topic is how Christians should handle trials or hardships. Rutherford’s own life was full of trials, “punctuated with tragedy, suffering and loss”: he was persecuted by authorities for his faith (called twice to trial, forced thrice from his pastoral duties), struck by debilitating and finally a fatal illness (the latter sparing him execution), having only one of eight children survive childhood, and having his first wife die early in her twenties (10-11, 46). His consistently sound and biblical teaching on the subject prepared both him and those he shepherded to handle trials rightly and for greatest benefit.

He preached that “the ill roads, the deep waters, the sharp showers and the bitter violent winds that are in our face, are of God’s disposing. We will not get a better road than our Lord allows us. He has called us to suffering, and not a stone is in our way by chance” (40, quoting Rutherford). (Similarly, Rutherford was sure that “all our [Christians’] troubles come through Christ’s fingers” [64].) Confident that all trials believers face “are orchestrated by God for their good” (66), that “God use[s] difficulties for the good of his children to teach valuable lessons,” Rutherford “strove to find God’s gifts hidden in his trials” (47) and helped those he counseled do the same.

James’s teaching that the believer facing trials should “count it all joy” (James 1:2) Rutherford internalized in a way Christians generally would do well to imitate. “‘O what owe I to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus!’ Rutherford proclaimed. ‘Grace tried is better than grace, an it is more than grace. It is glory in its infancy. Who knows the truth of grace without a trial? And how soon would faith freeze without a cross!’” (67) This forging through trial was no doubt seen by Rutherford as central and indispensable to sanctification, which he deemed a greater demonstration of Christ’s love for his people than even their justification (38). This is just the attitude we today should strive to obtain; perhaps reading this text will assist us somewhat in doing so.

Also instructive is Rutherford’s handling of emotions.

My own experience and temperament has made me suspicious of, even biased against, more obviously emotional Christians. I also get uncomfortable when sermons get too emotional. (Guess I’ll have to pass on the tent revival meeting). The tendency in our day to substitute feeling for thought, demonstrated in everything from how politicians get elected and legislation gets passed to what content dominates popular entertainment, makes believers in primacy of the intellect leery of highly emotional types. In our day, I’m not sure anything is more rare than persons who have brought their emotions into agreement with (Scripture-informed) intellect, who manifest consistently rational and rigorously critical (Bible-directed) thinking while retaining intense (but rightly directed, Scripture-compliant) emotions.

If Rutherford is any indication, persons who largely (though, of course, never perfectly) approached this state were not nearly so rare in Rutherford’s day. Though he could be “highly emotional” in his preaching (33, 35) and prayer life (82), and though he “knew that every Christian’s relationship with the Lord should have a strong emotional element, he warned believers not to put too much stock in the ups and downs of their feelings. ‘Believe Christ’s love more than your own feelings,’ he advised a parishioner. Your Rock does not ebb and flow, though your sea does.’ To another he wrote: ‘Your heart is not the compass that Christ sails by’” (64, paragraph break removed).

A final topic, or interrelated pair of topics, that proves instructive concerns the Christian’s handling of government, civil and ecclesiastical. Here the instructive value owes to the book’s ability to prompt useful reflection, not to promotion of a viewpoint Christians today should necessarily wish to adopt.

Neither Rutherford nor those who shared his views were persons inclined to encourage rebellion or disorder or to defy laws that their faith commitments permitted them to obey. While unjustly exiled from the Anwoth parish where he was pastor, for instance, Rutherford called only for “honest and lawful means” to be used in returning him to his pastorate, asking “friends to undertake a letter-writing campaign to convince Presbyterian nobles throughout Scotland to petition the High Commission for his release [from exile in Aberdeen] and return to Anwoth” (60). This orderly response to unjust exile is a far cry from the prevailing attitude of our day, where a minister justly banned from the pulpit as discipline for immoral behavior might well resume that pulpit in disorderly defiance of his denomination.

Similarly, though the imposition of episcopal ritual practices upon the Church of Scotland (in 1635) had been effected through a “book of canons…formed and adopted” in a manner that “violated the constitutional principles of the Church of Scotland” (by King Charles I’s royal authority through obliging bishops like Archbishop Laud and “English prelates”) which saw the General Assembly, not bishops or kings, as “the highest church authority” (70), even those (Rutherford among them) who rejected calls to compromise did not suggest (so far as Hannula indicates) that the illegitimate manner in which the canons were imposed was itself sufficient reason to defy them (69-71). Rather, their focus was upon the need to defy the canons because they required practices contrary to (not authorized by) Scripture. From his exile in Aberdeen, Rutherford warned his congregation in Anwoth to reject “any unbiblical practices,” informing them, “You owe no allegiance to the bastard canons; they are unlawful, blasphemies and superstitions. The ceremonies that lie in Anti-Christ’s foul womb, the wares of the great mother of fornications, the Kirk [Church] of Rome, are to be refused” (71, quoting Rutherford). While many Protestants today, even conservative Reformed ones, would not join Rutherford in identifying the Roman Catholic Church as “Anti-Christ” or “mother of [spiritual] fornications,” preferring simply to identify its doctrines and practices as unscriptural and so in error and to be rejected, we can certainly agree with Rutherford that a government that imposes unscriptural doctrines or practices upon believers must be defied.

In modern America, where free exercise of religion is taken for granted, we may find it difficult to fathom why King Charles should in this situation have “declared that anyone who refused to submit to his mandate regarding worship would be branded rebels” (73). (After all, we wonder, did not religious permissiveness, provided social order was maintained, contribute greatly to Rome’s longevity?) Yet, “At that time, the leaders of both church and state on all sides of the controversy thought that the unity, peace and blessing of the nation depended on religious uniformity,” so that one action of the General Assembly that met in December 1638 was to ask “the Scottish Privy council to pass a law requiring every adult in the country to sign the National Covenant” (77), which “Covenant [dating to a day in February 1638, when it was signed by hundreds of ministers and laypeople] included the primary beliefs of the Church of Scotland and the errors that they stood against” while promising “to honor and defend the king, but resist anything imposed on the church” (73). (Signers of this National Covenants were called “Covenanters.”) Thus, the Scottish Presbyterians, in their response to the king’s effort to impose his and the bishops’ version of Christianity on all through government force proposed to themselves use government power to impose a contrary version within Scotland.

The preference for uniformity (and openness to coercion) extended to questions of church polity. Present in an advisory (non-voting but actively participating [90]) capacity at the later (1643-47) meeting of the Westminster Assembly, called for by the English Parliament to “reform the Church of England” (89), “Rutherford and his Scottish partners championed Presbyterianism….insist[ing] that unity in church government on a Presbyterian system was needed throughout Britain” (92). “Presbyterian” here means, not just rule by elders in the local church (which can often be found in otherwise independent or autonomous churches), but church government with “a hierarchy of church courts which included ministers and [other] elders” above the elder-led local churches (93). Rutherford, like other advocates of Presbyterianism, considered this order “biblical and the most likely to preserve peace and purity” in the churches (93). “To Rutherford and the other Scottish delegates,” Hannula relates, “Independency posed the greatest risk to Christ’s Church. They feared that if each congregation was independent and unaccountable to a larger body, then anarchy would reign” (93). Fear of a certain sort of disorder, of course, was the reason Stuart kings like Charles “abhorred Presbyterianism”—thinking it “contrary to monarchy” (92), in part “because of its association with the Republicanism of Geneva” (92)—and preferred a monarchy-like episcopal (rule by bishops) order in the church (“no bishop, no king,” as some said at the time).

In response to both Presbyterians and Episcopalians, today’s Independents might wonder: Can God, through Scripture and his Spirit, be trusted to guide independent churches to remain obedient to the truth? If not, is there any evidence that higher church courts, hierarchies of bishops, or even Popes have tended more often to oppose and prevent doctrinal and moral drift than to encourage and accelerate them? The ongoing exodus of Bible-believing Presbyterians from an increasingly apostate Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not favor a “yes” answer to this question.

Rutherford stayed true to his conviction that Independency was dangerous and that uniformity must be achieved, even if that required coercion. In fact, he wrote an entire book in opposition to Independency. “In his book, A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience,” Hannula writes, Rutherford “argued against the Independents’ call for liberty of conscience, claiming it would lead to the disintegration of civil society. Rutherford urged Parliament to impose the true Christian faith in a unified national church, using coercion if necessary” (99). “This,” Hannula adds, “was the widely-held principle at the time in Britain and the Continent” (Ibid.), though the Independency-minded Baptist (and contemporary American) in me can’t help but wonder how someone who had his own exercise of religion so interfered with by government force as Rutherford had could persist in believing government, even such constitutionally-constrained government as Rutherford advocated in Lex, Rex (99-102), could safely be granted any authority in this area. But, then, persecution of Rutherford and other Covenanters was at the hands of royal authority, not representative government. Still, representative government is rarely more good and trustworthy than those whom it represents, and trusting that those represented by Parliament should remain reliable supporters of the true faith in perpetuity might show a lack of foresight.

This, of course, is a pragmatic rather than principled objection to religious establishment. Even if one believes government might legitimately (in principle) coerce external conformity to some religious viewpoint or set of practices, does one really want to risk (in practice) granting government (at whatever level) power to engage in such coercion, given that the perspective it favors today may be quite other than the one it favors tomorrow? Though reflection might lead one to reject rather than embrace Rutherford’s approach, reading about that approach does prove instructive by bringing to consciousness an issue that many Christians in the “secular West” may never have thought merited reflection in the first place. Its ability to prompt reflection on this topic is another reason, then, to read and share Hannula’s Samuel Rutherford.

This is review is also posted on Goodreads and, less nicely formatted, Amazon.

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Handling Hardship: Sunukjian’s Invitation to James

invitation_to_james_cover_courtesy_publisher_1200x1200Sunukjian, Donald R. Invitation to James: Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-941337-25-7.

Invitation to James is part of a series on “Biblical Preaching for the Contemporary Church,” with current or forthcoming titles on James (the present volume), Philippians, the life of Jacob, Galatians, Mark, and Joshua. As such, its official purpose “is to offer models of the principles presented in the textbook” by the same author, Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance (xi, back cover). Like other books in the series, Invitation to James is a collection of “slightly edited” sermons that Sunukjian has previously preached (xi), aimed primarily at current preachers or preachers-in-training who might benefit from model sermons, particularly those who are using or have used Sunukjian’s textbook. Books in the series may even include “stage directions” at times (Ibid., emphasis removed), a phenomenon I noticed only once in Invitation to James (58).

Since I have not read Sunukjian’s textbook and do not preach, I cannot review Invitation to James in terms of its utility to students of Sunukjian’s textbook or to preachers. (Since this is the only book I have so far read by Sunukjian, I also cannot compare its usefulness to other books in the series.) Books created from expository (“verse by verse”) sermons do generally strike me as good reading for preachers, particularly for preachers who preach predominantly or exclusively topical (“pick and choose”) sermons, but I say this as a consumer rather than creator of sermons. I will therefore focus my review on the value of the text to Bible-believing readers more generally.

Overall, Invitation to James makes excellent devotional reading. Christians seeking clear and practical guidance in the application of God’s counsel to their thinking and actions will certainly find the book worthwhile. Whereas some treat James as “simply a loose collection of exhortations without…any overall unity” (1), Sunukjian presents James as essentially a handbook for responding properly and faithfully to, and so benefiting from, hardships. His overall stance is nicely summarized and persuasively supported in his brief introduction (1-4), though in truth the stronger support for accepting that James really is about “Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown” is how this understanding illuminates James throughout the text.

The sort of difficulties James has in view, Sunukjian emphasizes, are “not…the results of your foolishness [or sin] or the normal challenges of life”; rather, “the kind of trials he’s talking about are those where you didn’t do anything to deserve such difficulty, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop it” (10): persecution at the hands of unbelievers, financial difficulties due to “economic forces outside your control,” physical difficulties due to disease or age, and the like. When believers find themselves in the midst of such hardships, they can be sure God is putting them through them for a good purpose, to make them more like Christ. Invitation to James works through the entire book of James in light of this theme, helping readers to discern what specific issues the Lord might be working on in their particular hardships, how they must respond if they are to derive the intended benefit, and so on. Some of these insights are things slow learners like myself have taken a very long time to figure out on our own, thus (perhaps) prolonging our hardships unnecessarily; Sunukjian’s text may help shorten the duration of some hardships by allowing believers to “get with the program” more quickly. (This isn’t to say that all or even most trials can be shortened by a proper response, only that some might be, since hardships only need continue until their purpose is accomplished.)

One thing I especially like about Sunukjian’s approach to James is the way it shows so much of the book to be an outworking or application of Jesus’s teachings in the gospels. While Sunukjian does not make these connections explicit, anyone familiar with the gospels is sure to notice them. (And surely one would expect such connections in a work by the Lord’s own brother [1].) For instance, Sunukjian’s discussion of James 3:1-12 (Chapter 7, “Tongue in Check,” 56-66) reads very much as an application of Jesus’s teaching on how one should not attempt to judge and correct one’s brethren until one has gotten one’s own life in order (Matthew 7:1-5).

I’m not perfectly happy with everything in the book, however. Though nothing in it troubles me greatly or would incline me to withhold my recommendation, a couple things in it trouble me a little and seem worth noting.

The first things that troubles me is a certain inconsistent bias first seen in Sunukjian’s treatment of James 2:1-13 (Chapter 5, “Impartial Love,” 40-49). Initially, Sunukjian offers the following description of James’s position on proper Christian impartiality: “If you are really committed to following Christ…and you find yourself in this situation—when the influential and insignificant, the attractive and unattractive, the rich and poor are both in your church—you must treat them absolutely the same. You must treat them equally, without thought of gain, without regard for any benefit you might receive. You must love them impartially….you must not show favoritism” (43-4). Again: “Do not treat people differently based on what you might get from them. Be absolutely impartial. Love them equally” (44). (It should perhaps be noted that “love” here, as throughout Scripture, points to committed benevolent action, to behavior, not to an emotional state. This definition of “love” is evident, though not explicitly stated, in this chapter. It is even more obvious in the next [Chapter 6, “Living, Loving, Lasting Faith,” 50-55].)

This is all very sound and biblical. Unfortunately, the rest of the chapter doesn’t quite live up to its own call for an impartiality that shows no favoritism and treats rich and poor “absolutely the same.” Instead, it shows a certain bias against the rich in favor of the poor. In order to correct a bias in favor of the rich that seems to have been prevalent among those to whom he is writing, James notes how certain “rich men” with whom they’ve dealt have in fact oppressed them, taken them to court, and blasphemed the Lord (James 2:6b-7; I’ve quoted the King James Version [KJV] wording; Sunukjian quotes the New International Version [NIV], which speaks of “the rich” instead of “rich men”). While I would see James’s point here as being that believers should abandon any thought that wealth is evidence of divine favor, as well as any deluded idea that just because someone is rich means he is going to help you in some way, Sunukjian sees James’s point as more broad. “James’s point here,” he writes, “is that more often the rich are the ones who have no use for God in their lives” (47). No doubt it is true that great wealth makes sinful (God-ignoring) self-reliance easier and makes more and bigger sins possible, so that the wonder of God’s grace is especially evident when the rich are saved (Matthew 19:23-6), but presupposing that rich persons, because they are rich, will “more often” prove ungodly, or that the poor will more often “have the richest and deepest walk with God” (46), is not impartial. God, indeed, has chosen persons who are poor to be “rich in faith” (James 2:5 KJV), but impartiality does not permit one to assume God “more often” chooses poor than rich or to assume that a given poor person is more likely a sincere believer than a given rich person.

Related to this, Exodus 23 contains an interesting pair of verses I don’t frequently see quoted together. The second of the pair warns one not to show bias in judgment against a poor person (v. 6). The first, however, and perhaps less popularly, warns one not to show bias in judgment for a poor person (v. 3). The New King James, as it happens, words the first verse in a way directly relevant to the issue of “impartial love”: “You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute” (v. 3). (The KJV warns one not to “countenance a poor man in his cause,” which perhaps makes the sort of bias in view even clearer.) Impartial love for persons irrespective of wealth does not mean preference for the poor over the rich. Impartiality in one’s judgment and treatment of rich and poor does not mean a biased starting assumption that the rich are innately more likely to sin than are the poor, or that the poor are innately more deserving of your time and attention than the rich. James’s remarks to correct a favoritism being shown toward the rich, and to refute any latent assumption that material wealth is evidence of divine approval, should not be taken as a warrant to routinely assume the worst about the rich. Yet, after a listing of stereotypical misdeeds of the rich and sinful (46-7), Sunukjian only grant that “not all rich people are this way” (47). Normally, when one says of a whole group that “not all” members of that group are a certain way, one means to imply that most persons in that group are that way. This is bias, not impartiality.

When Sunukjian takes up discussion of James’s imprecations against sinful “rich men” (James 5:1 KJV; NIV “rich people”), his lack of impartiality between poor and rich, his bias for the poor against the rich, still seems evident (Chapter 12, “Money Talks,” 95-104). The chapter, however, mainly provides guidance on how Christians can ensure that any wealth they acquire is earned honorably and used righteously, and what Sunukjian has to say on these topics is mostly sound and biblical. One example he offers of unrighteous (inappropriately self-centered) behavior someone with wealth might engage in does merit criticism, though. “In our day,” Sunukjian writes, “violence and injustice at the hands of the rich may be a bit more sophisticated [than that seen in 1 Kings 21 and Isaiah 5:7-8, discussed in Sunukjian’s prior paragraph], but it still occurs….[various examples, then:] Through turning apartments into condos, they evict elderly tenants and sell units for large sums, thumbing their noses at rent controls designed to protect the vulnerable” (103).

An endorsement of “rent controls,” combined with condemnation of property owners for opting to sell properties rather than continue to rent them out and maintain them after such controls have been imposed, is something I was a bit surprised to see showing up in a sermon. Now, if someone (or a group of someones, such as profit-seeking investors) purchases an apartment complex, his (or their) reason for doing so is typically the same as that motivating the rest of us to seek employment or sell products or services: to make money. What he plans to do with this money once he has it, whether or not he believes the Bible and will give the “between five percent and fifteen percent” Sunukjian says would show he is not an ungodly hoarder (99-100), cannot be determined from the mere fact that he owns an apartment complex. If government imposes a cap on the rent he may charge, he loses the ability to take advantage of changes in the rental marketplace to offset losses due to changes in the maintenance marketplace and in other marketplaces where he must spend his income. At some point, he may, even if he is a charitable man loath to harm his tenants, decide that shrinking profits have made the ongoing effort and expense too much to endure.

A Christian property owner financially capable of doing so might well wish, might in fact feel a moral obligation, to reduce profit or take a loss on a given rental property as an act of charity toward a fellow believer or even an unbeliever in dire financial circumstances. A preacher might even be right to urge such a choice on financially-capable Christian owners of rental properties. Prophetic witness to moral obligation is quite a different thing from endorsement of government short-circuiting of free market processes in service of (what are popularly called) “social justice” objectives, however. As well, endorsement of rent control seems morally suspect. As one writer observes, rent control is “legislated plunder of providers of rental housing” (Robert Batemarco, “Three Fallacies of Rent Control: We Can’t Always Have Everything We Want,” The Freeman, 01 June 1997, accessed on the Foundation for Economic Education [FEE]’s Web site 14 November 2014). In other words, it is theft from persons who have (unless some fraud can be shown) honestly acquired property at their own risk and expense. No matter how much they want to help vulnerable low-income renters, Bible-believers must oppose theft (Exodus 20:15, Deuteronomy 5:19). Any owner of rental property forced by government to charge less to renters than the market rate, or condemned by a preacher for refusing to retain ownership when denied freedom to charge market rates, might ask, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (Matthew 20:15b KJV).

As it happens, evidence does not support the belief that rent control helps the vulnerable anyway. The Mises Wiki offers the following brief summary of one study’s findings on the topic: “Rent control produces the opposite of promised results; it is an initially well-intentioned but ultimately destructive housing policy that actually reduces supply, hurts the poor and displaces the needy” (“Rent Control” entry on the Mises Wiki, accessed 14 November 2014, citing Rolf Goetze’s 1994 study, “Rent Control: Affordable Housing For the Privileged, Not The Poor,” to which a link is provided in the Wiki article). An Urban Institute writer draws the same conclusion from his survey of available data: “Given the current research,” he writes, “there seems to be little one can say in favor of rent control.” Still willing to help those in need, he asks, “What, then, should be done to help renters obtain affordable, decent housing? A better approach may be adopting policies that encourage the production of more diverse types of housing…, implementing strong regulations and practices to ensure housing quality and to protect tenants from abuses; and providing targeted, direct subsidies to people who need help paying their rents” (Peter A. Tatian, “Beware the Comeback of Rent Control: There’s very little evidence that rent stabilization protects poor or vulnerable renters,” CityLab Web site, accessed on the 14 November 2014). Not only is endorsement of rent control unbiblical favoritism, it is favoritism that fails to achieve its goal.

A second thing that troubles me is Sunukjian’s seeming willingness to treat statements by a “voice” in one’s head as a source of justified true belief, as something sufficient to let one say one “knows” something (121-2). Though a voice in my own head indicates that persons who in our day hear voices in their heads answering on behalf of God are just hearing their own thoughts, I will not assume this voice in my head has any special authority to overrule the voices in others’ heads. Instead, I will only assert that a subjectively-interpreted voice in one’s own head cannot be considered sufficient basis to justify any belief. Even if something the voice “predicts” actually happens, this doesn’t prove much about the voice unless (perhaps) the thing predicted is something extremely unlikely to happen by chance even given all empirical indicators one has observed consciously or might have perceived unconsciously prior to hearing (or imagining) the voice. (The “voice” that Sunukjian heard as a young pastor predicted passing of a kidney stone in a situation where I suspect a good percentage of stones, of both believers and unbelievers, end up passing. I leave it to statisticians to confirm or refute my suspicion.) I realize credulity when it comes to subjective experiences and impressions is common among Christians today, even among generally sound thinkers with extensive education, so that my objection to this minor point in one of Sunukjian’s messages may be judged bad form, but when I suggest to the voice in my head that I should just leave it out to make for a more agreeable review, the voice insists that would be unacceptable.

As I’ve said, however, these things that trouble me do not trouble me much. They are minor flaws, brief annoyances, in a quite edifying text I enjoyed reading and do not hesitate to recommend.

This review also appears, less nicely formatting, on Amazon and Goodreads.

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A Month that Will Live in Infamy: October 2014 (Reflection on News in My Local Paper)



Having decided to waste no more effort sending letters to my local paper, the U-T San Diego, I’ve no longer needed to formulate quick responses to “the latest.” This has freed me to indulge my preference for prolonged reflection (also known as brooding) about news items. Two sets of articles have especially caught my attention this past month: articles related to homosexual “marriage” and miscellaneous other “gay” (or more broadly sinful and perverse) issues, and articles concerning the desire of Pope Francis and certain bishops to “welcome” homosexuals into the Roman Catholic Church. I will discuss these sets of articles in date order under each of the two categories. Here is the organizational scheme, which also functions as a set of shortcuts (links) to each discussion.

Homosexual “Marriage” and Miscellany

Roman Catholic Leaders “Welcoming” Homosexuals

Or, skip to End of Reflection.

Homosexual “Marriage” and Miscellany ^

“LGBT roles increase,” U-T San Diego, 02 October 2014, A2. ^

This news item relates how, though pleased “gay, lesbian, and bisexual [the G, L, and B in LGBT] characters” are being portrayed more frequently, in an understanding and positive way, on television, particularly cable and streaming media, GLAAD’s president and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis, remains unsatisfied. (GLAAD originally stood for “Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation,” not, as one might have guessed from the group’s agenda, “God’s Law Annoys And Destroys.” However, the organization jettisoned the acronymic sense in 2013, since it supports bisexuals and transgenders, and probably any other sexually-abnormal sorts there might be, in addition to homosexuals.) Networks, she holds, still must “strive to include significant transgender [the T in LGBT] content.” Online serials “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent” do provide LGBT-satisfying portrayals of transgenders, the first even co-starring an “openly transgender actress” (Laverne Cox), but two shows isn’t enough as far as GLAAD is concerned.

The natural question that arises is: What in the world is a “transgender”? An average American is likely to assume “transgender” is just a synonym for “transsexual,” meaning someone who has undergone so-called “sexual reassignment surgery” (actually just mutilation plus hormones; often called a “sex-change operation” in popular discourse). However, as is often the case with terms for human conceptual inventions that defy the God-created nature of things, “transgender” tends not to be be precisely and perspicuously defined. All who in some way identify with the gender opposite the sex they were born with qualify as “transgender,” whether or not they ever go to the extreme of paying a licensed medical professional to remove the real sexual organs they were born with and replace them with a combination of physician-constructed faux organs of their new sex and prescribed “replacement” of hormones real members of that sex produce naturally. (The strange and rare case of persons born with both sets of sexual organs is of a different sort. Persons in this class do not “change” their sex; rather, they select it. Surgery to eliminate one set of organs is appropriate in these cases, since this phenomenon, like disease and death, owes to the fall, to the corruption of creation consequent to Adam’s sin, and not to God’s original “very good” design.) Transvestites might or might not qualify as “transgender,” depending on whether they dress like the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5) because they identify with that sex or for some other reason. Since body may be thought of as clothing worn by the soul (2 Corinthians 5:4), from a biblical perspective transsexuals would seem to be a subclass of transvestites, albeit ones who have engaged in a radical and irreversible form of cross-dressing. (I suppose one could have surgery to “go back,” but this would not restore one to full original function, original organs having been destroyed. Or might they be frozen and later returned to the original doctor’s victim?) In any case, discussion of how to define “transsexual” actually gets much more convoluted than this. Suffice it to say that permutations of perversion are innumerable: Once God’s boundaries are abandoned in favor of human convention, anything goes.

David Garrick, “Coronado’s ‘Do-Over’ Wedding Touches Couple: City rallies after heckler marred their nuptials at park,” U-T San Diego, 03 October 2014, A1, A5. ^

This is a lengthy, approving article on how “Coronado residents and merchants have banded together in an extraordinary effort to save a [homosexual] wedding” by arranging an 11 October “do-over” to make up for the male couple’s earlier (August) “marriage,” which was “marred by a heckler shouting slurs.” This “outpouring of support” by Coronado’s leaders (such as Mayor Casey Tanaka, scheduled to officiate at the “wedding”), in the opinion of leading regional homosexuals, “strengthens the county’s reputation as a welcoming place for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.” Meanwhile, police are “investigating [the heckling] as a possible hate crime,” and GLAAD president Ellis, it is rumored, condemns homosexual leaders for failing to mention transgenders in their praise of the county’s “welcoming” reputation.

Planning for this show of support for homosexual “marriage” has been “spearheaded” by four Coronado women, attorney Alisa Kerr (who calls the heckler “some jerk” and considers her supportive actions an expression of the “kindness…for everyone” she believes characterizes Coronado), Rita Alipour, Kate Blumenthal, and Cerissa McPartin Kieffer. Businesses contributing to the effort include Coronado’s Blue Bridge Hospitality restaurant chain (food), Coronado Cupcakery (cake), Lowes Coronado Bay Resort (venue), and “Many other local restaurants and merchants.”

This astoundingly one-sided, pro-homosexual article, which the U-T San Diego thought important enough to start on the front page (albeit below the fold), includes a photo (credited to Kristina Lee Photography) perfectly illustrating what the homosexual lobby envisions for future America: aboard a boat with water, shoreline, and trees in the background, the homosexual “spouses,” Gary Jackson and Oscar de Las Salas, stand proudly side by side with an American flag waving behind them.

This story raises many issues, but I’ll leave most of those for my discussion of the follow-up article (below). Here I will only address Alisa Kerr’s identification of her planning of this homosexual marriage redo as “kindness.” If indulgence of homosexual inclinations is morally good or morally neutral and carries no consequences, trying to prevent those involved in such indulgence from feeling bad, thus acting as an enabler of their behavior, probably does qualify as kind. If, on the other hand, homosexual indulgence is morally wrong, and if there are negative consequences for it (in this world or in the world to come), then there’s nothing kind about what Kerr and her compatriots have done. Telling those enslaved to sin that their enslavement is natural, and that the sinful actions expressing it are acceptable, is cruel, hateful, and evil, not kind.

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). Even Christians who believe, as I do, that God does not want us today to attempt judicial enforcement of this directive for Old Testament Israel, are obligated to accept the moral judgment God himself offers here, since God’s morality does not change (Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17).

“Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind….shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9b, 10b).

“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet….Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, [etc.]…: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them” (Romans 1:26-29a, 32).

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)

“But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand” (Ezekiel 33:6).

Jennifer Auger, “Society needs to widen its acceptance” (letter to the editor), U-T San Diego, 06 October 2014, B5. ^

This letter author hopes, in agreement with remarks in an earlier column (which she cites as “Depression rates high among LGBT community,” Sept. 30), “that the rates of depression will decrease as discrimination [against] the LGBT community decreases.” She calls for “rejection [to] be transformed into acceptance,” saying “we all need to do a better job of expanding our views of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation” because, she asserts, “the depression the LGBT community faces is caused by disapproving eyes of other human beings.”

Auger makes many assumptions here. Three stand out: (1) depression is always bad; (2) everyone who “rejects” homosexual, bisexual, or transgender persons does so, not because of what they do (behavior) but because of what they (it is claimed) are (“orientation”); (3) it is solely human rejection, not any other cause (such as God-given awareness of one’s own wrongdoing, one’s sin), that leads to LGBT depression.

The Bible-believer, of course, rejects the first and third assumptions. There is a “godly sorrow” that “worketh repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). When persons unrepentant in their sin feel depressed, we may still hope that God’s grace will bring them to repentance; their sorrow, their “depression,” might turn out to be the Spirit-caused sort that brings about repentance. It is not the sorrowful sinner, but the sinner who no longer sorrows, that should worry us. Like Alisa Kerr, Jennifer Auger displays a “kindness” that is actually cruelty, calling for us to sooth feelings at the expense of souls.

Bible-believers also reject the second assumption. Insofar as they act in accordance with Scripture, Christians do not reject anyone because of “orientation” (desire, inclination). We know our own desires and inclinations too well, both as they existed in us before God gave us new life (and began transforming all our “orientations” through his Spirit) and as they are now (still unperfected and intolerably sinful, requiring daily repentance). In fact, biblical Christians only reject persons when, by persistent refusal to repent and open hostility to the gospel, they make it impossible to reject their behavior (actions indulging sinful inclinations) without also rejecting them. Since we must “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11), we can only reject and oppose persons who bind themselves to their sinful works too tightly. Christians’ desire to avoid rejecting persons without compromising God’s word, to continue associating with non-Christians and encouraging them to repent and believe the gospel, often gets expressed in the familiar locution, “love the sinner but hate the sin.” “Sinners” are fallen humans enslaved by their “orientations” to sin; “sins” are behaviors, actions indulging sinful orientations. We always reject the sin; we only reject sinners when their persistent refusal to repent turns into hostile opposition to God, God’s word, and God’s gospel. (The rules for rejection from Christian fellowship are less longsuffering: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject” [Titus 3:10]. Thus, “gay Christians” determined to persist in homosexual activity and justify their actions, by imposing bizarre interpretations on Scripture or by other means, must be rejected from fellowship.)

“Same-Sex Marriage Expands: Supreme Court effectively clears way for gay couples to marry in more states,” U-T San Diego (citing Associated Press & The Washington Post), 07 October 2013, A1, A3. ^

This article relates how the U. S. Supreme Court, by refusing to hear “appeals from five states [Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin] seeking to preserve…bans” on homosexual “marriage” overturned by lower courts, “may have signaled that it’s only a matter of time before same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states.”

By letting lower court rulings stand, America’s reigning oligarchs signal that impossible “marriage” between persons of the same sex will be treated as a “right” protected by the Constitution and beyond the authority of states or localities to forbid, refuse to recognize, or even refuse to call “marriage.” Not only do circles have a right to call themselves triangles, but states are obligated to legally sanction the identification.

Jeff McDonald, “‘I do’ do-over: Grooms cheered at ceremony: Couple heckled at first wedding get blemish-free day,” U-T San Diego, 12 October 2014, A6. ^

Herein continues the saga begun in David Garrick’s 03 October story (above) of heckler-crossed homosexual lovers Jackson and de La Salas, gushingly describing just how wonderful and inspiring was their community-supported, attendant-cheered do-over “marriage” ceremony. Approvingly, McDonald summarizes: “The mayor said a few words, the couple locked eyes and kissed, and a wrong that reverberated across the country was properly righted.”

The article, no less one-sided than its prequel, adds that the couple are from Phoenix, notes that “Coronado’s finest came out [no pun intended] by the hundreds to celebrate the union” of the two men, and laments how “No one confronted” the “heckler yelling homophobic slurs from a nearby balcony” the first go-round in August. Talk about approving and enjoying the sins of others (Romans 1:32)! (Who, or what, caught the boquet could not be ascertained.)

GLAAD’s purchase of the U-T San Diego has not yet been publicly announced, but articles like these leave little doubt the U-T has chosen the goats’ side of the eternal divide (Matthew 25).

Now, I’m not going to defend private-event heckling as a legitimate form of “prophetic witness” against the sin of homosexual behavior. While the pro-homosexual bias of these U-T San Diego articles would certainly identify even sound, Scripture-based proclamation of God’s perspective as “homophobia” and “hate speech,” trespassing at others’ private ceremonies is against the law (if the events are held on private property, at any rate), and Bible-believers are to obey the laws of their nation, state, and locality whenever they can do so without violating God’s own law (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1). (Of course, it might be countered, Ezekiel warns that if we fail to let others know what they are doing is wrong and will bring God’s judgment upon them, we share responsibility with them for their fate [Ezekiel 33:6]. And, after all, it was when Jewish officials, who were duly recognized by the Roman rulers as having authority in their locality, attempted to forbid the preaching of God’s word and gospel that the Apostles refused to obey [Acts 5:28-9].) As well, I have no idea what specifically the heckler said. If it had no sound biblical content, then of course it would be unjustified from the Christian perspective even if no trespassing had been involved. Most likely, just playing the percentages given human nature, the heckler was someone motivated by the same sinful impulses as motivate schoolyard bullies, an ability to derive pleasure or amusement (or a sense of power) from causing others discomfort or pain. This definitely isn’t the goal, though it may (in the case of the unrepentant) be a side effect, of Christian proclamation.

Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss (Associated Press), “Couples Race to Wed as Gay Marriage Ban Dropped,” U-T San Diego, 12 October 2014, A28. ^

This news item tells how Max O. Cogburn Jr., a U.S. District Court Judge, “shortly after 5 p.m.,” probably on Friday 10 October (the article, published on a Sunday, only identifies the time of day, not the day of the week, though one would guess U.S. District Courts are not typically in session on Saturdays), made North Carolina’s “laws prohibiting same-sex marriage” null and void. The state’s Attorney General, Democrat Roy Cooper, “had previously decided not to continue defending the ban after concluding that all possible legal defenses had been exhausted,” the article notes.

Presumably, this “ban” was, as in the case of other alleged “bans,” in fact an effort to codify in law a sensible, nature-compatible definition of “marriage.” Definitions central to the cohesion and function of society must, yet another judge has determined, be allowed to vary according the whims of individuals.

Mark Thiessen (Associated Press), “Federal Judge Nixes Alaska’s Gay Marriage Ban: State amendment was first in nation; appeal is expected,” U-T San Diego, 13 October 2014, A2. ^

This article tells of how “A federal judge on Sunday [12 October] struck down Alaska’s first-in-the-nation ban on gay marriages” in response to an appeal by five homosexual couples, among them male couple Matthew Hamby and Christopher Shelden (a photo of the pair accompanies the article), and female couple Susan Tow and “wife” Chris Laborde. The article closes with the detail that, rather than passing a “ban on gay marriages” (as one would assume from the headline and from everything in the article except this detail at the end), “Alaska voters in 1998 approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.”

It must be emphasized that banning something possible and clarifying by definition that something is impossible are quite different things. The idea that you can have functional laws without fixed definitions of the words used in those laws is quite innovative. The innovating judges who rule our nation have determined that individuals have a protected “right” (1) to define key terms like “marriage” however they like and (2) have their states legally endorse that definition, in this case by issuing a license to same-sex couples identifying their union as a “marriage.” Was it Humpty Dumpty who claimed that words always and exclusively meant precisely what he wanted them to mean? Whoever claimed it, he would have made an excellent American judge.

Kimberlee Kruesi and Keith Ridler (Associated Press), “Gay Marriage Arrives in Idaho: Conservative state won’t appeal ruling,” U-T San Diego, 16 October 2014, A9. ^

Kruesi and Ridler report that Idaho’s Governor, Butch Otter, and Attorney General, Lawrence Warden, have given up fighting to restore their state’s “2006 constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.” The amendment, which Otter noted he still supports, was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. State voters, declares the court, no matter how strong their majority, may not make a clear, correct, and sensible (as well as Bible-affirmed [Matthew 19:4,5]) definition of marriage part of state law. Any adult persons who want to may now define a union between them as “marriage” and the state of Idaho must accept that definition and issue a license endorsing it.

For now, of course, this “right” to define marriage how one likes is limited to sets of two persons. It will be interesting to see what excuses liberal legal “authorities” dream up for rejecting expansion of this to include polygamous (one husband, multiple wives) and polyandrous (one wife, multiple husbands) unions, especially given the cross-cultural historical reality that such unions, unlike unions between members of the same sex, have a long history of acceptance in a range of cultures. If you ask me, a nation that says homosexual marriage is a “right” owes a big apology to fundamentalist Mormon sects for denying both their right to define “marriage” how they like and their right to freely exercise their religion.

David M. Hodges, “Further Reflection on October’s Homosexual ‘Marriage’ News,” the Pious Eye site, 31 October 2014. ^

Of late, as we’ve seen, appeals courts have uniformly determined that states have no authority to properly define marriage as a legal and sacred bond between males and females only, as our Lord made clear while refuting Pharisees’ permissive attitudes about divorce (Matthew 19:3-6). While, for now, marriages between multiple women and a single man, or between multiple men and a single woman (arrangements with far better historical and natural claim to legitimacy than homosexual unions) remain illegal, more states by the day are forbidden to forbid “marriage” between persons of the same sex. Requiring states to call “marriages” unions that, for all the “love” that might be involved, have no basis in nature and run radically contrary to God’s express will in Scripture (where homosexual activity, not to be confused with the “orientation” moderns emphasize, is consistently condemned, even considered especially heinous compared to other sins and so labeled “abomination”), certainly demonstrates our courts’ commitment to thorough secularization of American law.

On the positive side, this isn’t Roe v. Wade II. Saying that, in the name of “privacy,” mothers may legally contract with “medical” professionals to murder their own preborn children, is far worse than requiring, in the name of individual liberty, that authorities grant licenses to “marry” to same-sex couples. Yes, same-sex “marriage” is nonsense, and forcing state and local officials to label unnatural and God-defying unions “marriages” is an affront to God, to nature, and to reason. Still, it doesn’t kill anybody, so Christians who prioritize will want to give more time to overturning Roe v. Wade than to overturning “gay marriage.”

Still, persons who speak of opposition to “gay marriage” as “defense of marriage” correctly represent matters. Forcing legal authorities to call homosexual unions “marriages” does degrade true marriages. In the new order, “marriage” is just a phrase humans apply by convention to certain contracts in order to indicate that strong emotions, “love” and personal commitment, are involved. No longer is marriage, so far as the state is concerned, a God-ordained bond rooted in humans’ created nature. It is simply a social convention; human choice alone determines what will and will not count as “marriage,” what unions will and will not be granted the approving “marriage” label by government.

No doubt, Christian activists are already debating what sorts of changes in strategy or tactics might allow them to turn things around on this front of the Culture War. Short of widespread conversion of the populace to genuine, Bible-believing, God-obeying Christian faith, I see little hope that strategic or tactical changes will turn this latest string of defeats into final victory. A culture dedicated to free indulgence of individuals lusts (for sex, however perverse; for excess food consumption, however over-sugared and nutritionally deficient; for entertainment, however vulgar, violent, and unedifying) cannot be won over by better arguments or better marketing. Nevertheless, I’ll comment on some aspects of defense-of-marriage strategy or method I haven’t found satisfactory.

Attempts to defend traditional or natural marriage on non-scriptural grounds, with appeals to tradition or nature, have not fared well. For instance, some have tried to argue against “gay marriage” on the grounds that the purpose of marriage is not to officially and legally recognize “love” but to provide legal protection to children, since (of course) it is only heterosexual unions that can produce natural offspring. I heard Tony Perkins of the American Family Association offer this argument on Fox News one night during this Month of Infamy. This argument has had little traction with the general public, however, since, of course, no one would deny a man and woman the right to marry even if it were known in advance that one or both of them were sterile. As well, no prominent individual has so far supported making polygamous and polyandrous marriages legal, yet such unions very definitely have potential to produce children. A legal environment that permits homosexual “couples” to adopt confuses matters further.

And, of course, arguments about what is “traditional” and what is “natural” carry little force in themselves. Christians embrace traditional marriage, not because it is traditional, but because the tradition underlying it is affirmed by authoritative Scripture. Were the tradition at variance with Scripture, Christians would oppose it, much as they came over time to more and more strongly oppose the traditional practice of lifelong slavery. While disease and death and many other undesirable things have been the “natural” order things since Adam’s sin, Christians do not typically endorse letting diseases run their course untreated or letting persons die whose lives can be saved. Traditions can be right or wrong, scriptural or unscriptural, and being “natural” does not necessarily make something right or moral or desirable. Christians unwilling to make explicit appeal to Scripture, deeming such appeals a violation of our secular society’s rules of public discourse, have not proven able to persuade either the elites rendering judgment in our courts or younger adults (large percentages of those under thirty consider “gay marriage” a right and see nothing morally wrong with homosexual behavior, polls so far indicate).

So, get out your Bibles, defenders of true marriage. This battle will not be won with “religiously neutral” or secular arguments. It will only be won if large number are converted to the Faith, and “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

Roman Catholic Leaders “Welcoming” Homosexuals ^

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Bishops Shift Tone on Gays and Birth Control: Report addresses host of hot-button family issues,” U-T San Diego, 14 October 2014, A1, A7. ^

This piece describes how a draft report, released by Roman Catholic bishops halfway through a meeting called by Pope Francis to discuss “family life” issues, displays (among other things) “a radical shift in tone about accepting gays into the church” by stating that homosexuals have “gifts to offer” the church and that even “their partnerships, while morally problematic, provide homosexual couples with ‘precious’ support.” The article also notes that the draft calls upon the church to “welcome” divorced persons, acknowledge “‘positive’ aspects of civil marriages and even Catholics who cohabit [live together and have sex without getting married], as well as the children of these less traditional families.” The article takes care to emphasize that the draft does not propose a change in church doctrine (meaning, though the article does not make this explicit, that homosexual activity, divorce, cohabitation, and the like remain sins), only a change in tone, to what the article calls one of “almost-revolutionary acceptance and understanding rather than condemnation.” Presumably, it is the persons who engage in these sins whom the new tone seeks to accept and understand rather than condemn, since doctrine still rejects and condemns the sins themselves—unless the claim that the draft only changes tone and not doctrine is incorrect.

The tone seems to owe largely to Pope Francis’s having “add[ed] six progressives from four continents to the synod [bishops’ meeting] leadership to help prepare the final document after several conservatives were elected to leadership positions.” Francis made this move, in which he avoided appointing any African bishops (“who are traditionally among the most conservative on family issues”) on Friday 10 October; the “accepting” draft was released Monday 13 October. Of course, liberal or “progressive” bishops could certainly have released the draft report even if they were in a small minority. So far as I know, the document was not signed by endorsing bishops.

Roman Catholic doctrine maintains, in agreement with Scripture and with Bible-believers far from embracing Roman Catholicism, “gay sex is ‘intrinsically disordered,’” because (I note) it runs contrary to God’s design for human sexuality, making it “against nature” (Romans 1:26) and a failure of “proper function” of sexuality as God designed it. (Alvin Plantinga has spilled much ink on the subject of “proper function,” none of which I will quote or reference here. My awareness of the concept does owe to my having read some of his work, however. His main concern is what constitutes proper function in human cognition and how this should affect our theory of knowledge. A generic illustration of the importance of proper function, which depends upon the purpose for which something was designed, might be provided by the trusty Phillips screwdriver. Proper function is achieved when the tool is used correctly to drive a matching screw into, or draw such a screw out of, some suitable object. When one instead uses the Phillips in place a Q-tip* to clean out one’s ear, proper function fails since the purpose for which the tool was designed, and to which alone it is suited, has been ignored. To function properly, then, tools must be used as they were designed to be used by their maker, whether that maker is a manufacturer of hardware or the Maker of human minds and bodies. *Disclaimer: Q-tip Corporation denies all liability for damage caused by use of Q-tips in one’s ears. “You should never put anything in your ear except your elbow,” they advise.)

Bishops behind the draft appear to believe that an orientation which church doctrine states is always sinful to express through sex might still be appreciated, asking “rhetorically if the church [is] ready to provide [homosexuals] a welcoming place, ‘accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine.’” Why one would “accept” or “value” any inclination to sin is unclear. If sexual expression of a “sexual orientation” is always sinful, why would any Christian “accept” or “value” that orientation? I hope that the bishops just misspoke (miswrote?) and in fact only believe that persons who lack a heterosexual orientation can still be appreciated, and that non-sexual and non-sinful aspects of their personal proclivities can be “accepted” and “valued” in spite of the missing heterosexuality. If an act is a sin, the inclination toward and desire to commit that act is also sinful, as Jesus made clear in the case of adulterous heterosexual lust (Matthew 5:28). Would these bishops dare suggest we find ways to “accept” and “value” adulterous lust? Were I a Roman Catholic rather than a Protestant, I would be very tempted to see the bishops’ rhetorical query as a corruption of doctrine, as heresy, not just a change in tone. As a Protestant, I can only empathize with conservative Roman Catholics disturbed by the bishops’ draft and urge them to see this draft as one more reason to “come out from among them” (2 Corinthians 6:17) and embrace the authority surer than human bishops, Scripture alone.

On the subject of positive aspects of homosexual unions, the draft says that “it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” In fairness to the bishops, one must note that the draft does not suggest that provision of sex is a form of “mutual aid” or in any way “precious.”

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Sharp Divisions In the Church: Conservative bishops call welcoming of divorced Catholics, gays ‘unacceptable’ deviation,” U-T San Diego, 15 October 2014, A4. ^

Mostly a restatement of materials in the longer article that preceded it (directly above), this piece makes further note of conservative Roman Catholics’ dissent, including the dissent of conservative bishops participating in the meeting. These conservatives, Winfield relates, have vowed to prevent a similarly deviant “tone” and language from being included in any final document released by the synod.

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Vatican Mystery: Where Did Document Originate?: Report welcoming to gay parishioners,” U-T San Diego, 16 October 2014, A8. ^

This article asks, “Just where did the authors of a draft report come up with such ground-breaking language that gays had gifts to offer the church [homosexual sex not being one of those gifts, one should note] and that even homosexual unions [though, one should also note, not the sex occurring in those unions] had merit?” (Bracketed clarifications added by me to prevent reading more heresy into the draft than it contains, in fairness to the bishops.)

The reason for calling this a “mystery” is that conservative bishops involved in the synod say the draft document in no way reflects their views. “Hmm,” you say, “that doesn’t seem like much of a mystery. If the conservatives weren’t involved, then obviously it was the liberals who wrote it. Aren’t I right?” I see your point. I suppose the “mystery” Winfield has in mind is the following: Did liberal (“progressive”) bishops in the synod, or did Pope Francis himself, first come up with the wording? (At one point prior to calling this meeting, Pope Francis, one might recall, offered a much-publicized “Who am I to judge?” response to a question about homosexuals, which response Winfield recalls for readers in her 14 October article. One can charitably read such a response as a humble refusal to pass simplistic judgment on a whole class of people whose individual reasons for self-identifying as “gay” and whose ways of living out the self-identification vary widely. I’m not sure how this fits with the authority Roman Catholicism claims for the Pope, however. Is a Pope who refuses to make moral judgments really even a Pope?) Winfield might suspect that the “welcoming” wording of the draft originated with Pope Francis himself, since she ends her article by noting, “the controversy over the document has crystallized the deepening divisions in the church over Francis’ revolutionary agenda to make it a more welcoming place which, while [maintains evidently pro-Francis Winfield] keeping true to Catholic doctrine, doesn’t emphasize rules [not even moral ones, apparently] or exclude people based on them.”

The article identifies as “most contentious” the section of the document, previously discussed, that speaks of “welcoming homosexuals,” notes that they “have gifts and qualities to offer” the church, suggests that even their “orientation” might be accepted and valued, and says that homosexual unions do provide “precious support” in (I would again clarify in fairness to the bishops) the non-sexual interpersonal aspect of “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.” An important point of contention newly noted in this article is that in the draft “There is no reference to Catholic doctrine that gay sex is ‘intrinsically disordered,’ sinful or that homosexual orientation [is] ‘objectively disordered.’” One wonders how a document containing so much easy-to-misconstrue language as this draft does can be said to be “keeping true to Catholic doctrine” if it leaves such references out. Leaving essential information out of a document in order to make it easier to interpret in a variety of ways, and thus get more people to endorse the document (as they “understand” it), is dishonest and so against biblical Christian principles. Nevertheless, it is quite common. Might the bishops behind this draft have such a strategy in mind?

Nicole Winfield (Associated Press), “Vatican Alters Draft Report About Gays: English-version document watered down after criticism from conservative bishops,” U-T San Diego, 17 October 2014, A4. ^

This article reports how the Vatican, on Thursday 16 October, released a revised English translation of the controversial draft described in early articles. In place of a section-title originally rendered “Welcoming homosexuals,” for instance, the new translation speaks of “Providing for homosexual persons.” As Winfield sees it, “the tone of the text” as a whole is also “significantly colder” in the new version.

In Winfield’s opinion, “The initial English version…accurately reflected the Italian version in both letter and spirit,” whereas, one must take Winfield to mean, the new translation does not. Rather than an attempt to clarify what English readers had misunderstood, the new translation is (one would have to infer) an attempt to deceive English readers so they won’t be as upset and so conservatives among them might find less reason to object. This hardly attributes honorable motives to the Vatican and its translators.

If the bishops in fact (as I hope they do) intend only to support a more welcoming approach toward persons with the sinful inclination of same-sex attraction, changes the article relates mostly seem compatible with this intent. In addition to replacing “homosexuals” with “homosexual persons”—perhaps in order to emphasize that persons, not their homosexuality per se, are in view—the new version replaces the previously-quoted “precious support in the life of partners” in homosexual unions with “valuable support in the life of these persons” (which strikes me as more carefully and clearly worded but not different in meaning), replaces a reference to “fraternal spaces in our communities” with “a place of fellowship in our communities” (which has the same meaning but is, I think, easier for average readers to understand), and makes “changes…in other sections of the text, but without significantly altering the meaning or tone.”

Honestly, except for (possibly) the change from “welcoming” to “providing for,” it isn’t clear to me how the new translation could be deemed at all less “accurate” than the first. I assume Winfield, who seems to want to show in her article that the new translation misrepresents the Italian draft, chose the most incriminating examples she could find. If she did, then I’m not convinced the new translation is less accurate, even if it does strike some as “colder” (as more careful and precise language usually does).

Peter Rowe, “Gay and Divorced Catholics Glad Issue on Vatican Table,” U-T San Diego, 19 October 2014, A1, A19. ^

Rowe reports how the bishops’ meeting from which issued the above-discussed controversial draft ended its two-week session on Saturday 19 October with a “brief final message” that, instead of mentioning homosexuals or their unions, only “pledged ongoing dialog about ‘the complex situations which face families today.’” Talk about an anticlimax! After such a let-down, is there any hope that 2014 will nevertheless be declared “Year of the Queer”? There’s still the voice of America’s courts, unified in their defense of individuals’ “[Unknown-source originating] rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit [of sex and marriage partners of one’s own sex],” of course, so “Year of the Queer” still seems an apt description of 2014, but a rainbow flag over the Vatican would have clinched it. (I know some homosexuals consider “queer” a “slur” and “homophobic,” but I needed the rhyme. As any reader of this blog knows, I would never intentionally offend or insult my homosexual fellow-citizens.)

A majority of the participating bishops, Rowe informs us, voted not to carry over “welcoming” language of the lengthy draft (over 50 pages, a prior article related) into the brief final statement (3 pages). If the liberals on the synod hoped to influence things in their direction by releasing their draft (completed, as we saw, without conservative involvement) halfway through the meeting, it appears their strategy failed.

Rowe also notes, among other things (such as what the final statement says concerning divorced persons, another controversial aspect of the draft), that public debate over the draft seems to have resulted in a Vatican decision (announced Friday 17 October) to remove American Cardinal Raymond Burke from “his position as head of the Vatican’s highest court.” As a participant in the public debate, Burke “has opposed any changes in the churches approach to gays.” This meeting, apparently, was preparatory, or a rehearsal, for “The church’s main meeting on family life,” which is scheduled for October 2015 (too late to effect “Year of the Queer” balloting). I can hardly wait.

The primary conservative voice cited in the article is Thomas McKenna, founder and president of Catholic Action for Faith and Family, based in San Diego. Rowe writes: “Emphasizing acceptance, McKenna fears, would weaken church teachings [which, in this case, are also the Bible’s teachings]: that marriage can only be between one man and one woman; that marriage is for life; and that sexual activity is only allowed within marriage.” McKenna objects to liberal bishops’ approach: “their solution,” Rowe quotes McKenna, “is let’s make it easier, don’t be so hard on them. But you are just feeding the problem—that’s not a solution.” Bible-believers must agree: refusing to tell those who sin that they are sinning and must repent is cruelty, not kindness (as has previously been noted).

“Acceptance,” of course, can be variously understood. If one is permitted to “accept” persons but “reject” their sinful behaviors, and inform them of that rejection, “Emphasizing acceptance” might not be all bad. However, the temperament of our culture is such that most people understand “acceptance” to mean “endorsement of behavior,” so that a “[reject] the sin, but [accept] the sinner” attitude is considered a variety of rejection, intolerance that cannot be tolerated. If you’re not willing to cheer the male homosexuals at their do-over “wedding” (or march in their parades), your willingness to invite them to your gospel outreach event, meet with them for coffee to discuss your religious convictions, or just your willingness to live and work peaceably with them as American citizens all count for nothing. These are not “acceptance” and how dare you claim they are? So long as you condemn homosexual activity and refuse to call homosexual unions marriages, you are a rejecting bigot.

Claudio A. Stemberger and James D. Lemon, “Views on changes in the Catholic Church” (opposed letters to the editor), U-T San Diego, 26 October 2014, SD5. ^

Finally, reflection on a pair of letters to the editor, published under the shared heading “Views on changes in the Catholic Church” (26 October 2014, SD5), concludes our discussion of Month of Infamy news items.

The first letter (Claudio A. Stemberger) takes recent Roman Catholic controversy as indication that “Pope Francis is our first wise, caring and potentially secular pope” and that, perhaps, “the Catholic Church [is] on a path of caring and respecting the diversity of all God’s creation” rather than “enforcing old doctrines” in rejection of the (Stemberger assumes) God-approved diversity in sexual orientations. Stemberger then asserts that “There is clear evidence…that secular countries are far more civic-minded than theistic ones” and then asks rhetorically (clearly assuming a “yes” answer) whether “the universal value of ‘love thy neighbor’ [might] be more readily embraced by all if void of any association with religious doctrine”—apparently forgetting the counter-examples of Revolutionary France, Stalin’s Russian, Communist China, and other grand experiments in irreligious civic-mindedness.

The second letter (James D. Lemon), noting that “all persons of faith believe” that “God is unchanging” (not technically correct; see, for example, Open Theism and Process Theology; it should be correct, however), asks, “Why would anyone of faith declare that homosexuality is a proper lifestyle for a believer? Should we love them with…Christian love? Of course. But to encourage them and to say that they fall within God’s parameters is heresy” (paragraph breaks removed). Finally, he adds, “As God forgives all sinners when they confess their sins, he will forgive all homosexuals when they acknowledge their sin.” This is soundly Christian and unobjectionable. (Well, it isn’t entirely unobjectionable. Mere confession or acknowledgement of sin is insufficient; one must repent. Many in our culture not only freely acknowledge, but proudly proclaim, their sinfulness, but do so without any willingness or desire to change how they behave.) But do these remarks really address “changes in the Catholic Church”? (Lemon, one should note, nowhere identifies this as the issue he means to address. U-T San Diego’s editors have inferred this.) Did either Francis or the “progressive” bishops who released the controversial draft say that the homosexual lifestyle (that is, homosexual activity, as distinguished from supposed homosexual “orientation”) should be accepted or encouraged? I’m not sure they did.

As I’ve already suggested in a few places above, where I spoke “in fairness to the bishops,” the ultimately-rejected draft needn’t be construed in the way some have construed it. Does it declare homosexuality “a proper lifestyle for a [Christian] believer”? What is “proper” is not “morally problematic,” so one would have so say “no”: the draft admits that homosexual unions are “morally problematic”—presumably because they include indulgence in sexual sin that the Bible labels “abomination” and “against nature.” (Just a wild guess.)

Setting aside the draft’s suggestion that homosexual “orientation” might be something Christians could “value” as misspoken or confused, and dealing only with those portions of the draft quoted or summarized in the news items under review, how might one most charitably read the draft? While the synod that produced it (through a subset of its membership) ultimately voted it down, it still expresses views that at least some high-placed Roman Catholic authorities, perhaps even Pope Francis himself, endorse, so it still seems worth reflecting upon. So, here goes….The term “homosexual” (along with homosexuals’ self-chosen identifier “gay”) today invariably speaks, not solely (or even primarily) about behavior, but about “orientation.” A ubiquitous, if largely unacknowledged, assumption in our culture is that if one has an innate preference or desire for something, an innate “orientation,” one should be free to indulge that inclination, provided one’s doing so does not directly and obviously harm someone else. Heterosexual persons, generally speaking, are so “oriented” as to want to engage in sex before marriage (and, so various evolution-focused documentaries tell us, to engage in sex with persons other than their spouses during marriage), so, it is taken for granted, legal penalties for fornication (and adultery) are unacceptable. We might wish to provide civil recourse in some cases, should spouses be able to show tangible harm caused them by partners’ adultery (for instance), but surely punishing heterosexuals for indulging their innate “orientation” would be out of bounds.

So our culture assumes. Many Christian, being part of our culture, may share this assumption, though it isn’t clear to me that they should. While for me Jesus’s handling of the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8:3-11) is sufficient evidence that God’s imposition of the death penalty for sexual sins like adultery and homosexuality is not something he requires civil authorities today to implement, the approach to textual criticism embraced by most Christian leaders these days rejects the passage, making necessary more convoluted (and perhaps less persuasive) arguments. To a great extent, of course, Christians today simply take for granted that God’s moral will, though perhaps accurately portrayed in the Ten Commandments (except for the Sabbath ordinance, generally seen as non-moral and abrogated, or else simply ignored), does not find expression through the more specific case laws and various penalties imposed by God in the laws of Moses. When some suggest that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), like the Two Commandments (Matthew 22:35-40), are just a summary unpacked and explained by the case laws and penalties, they are likely to be treated as crazies not meriting a hearing. Most contemporary Christians, it seems, are content to simply follow their moral sentiments (which may be shaped more by our culture’s influence than by God-given moral awareness or by anything Scripture says), letting those sentiments direct their interpretation of Scripture, rather than (as the God-breathed nature of the Bible would seem to require) striving to bring their moral sentiments into conformity with Scripture. Scholars who promote interpretations of Scripture that comport with “enlightened” or “progressive” contemporary moral sentiments, often by proposing “tensions” in completed Scripture that can only be resolved by going beyond what Scripture says, fuel this contentment. Many may find sentiment and scholarship preferable to a magisterium, but does the latter rely any less on human authority than the former? Even were our letter writers correct in their understanding of where the Roman Catholic magisterium may be headed (toward acceptance of homosexual indulgence), this wouldn’t mean much: human religious authorities, like human scholarly authorities, and like one’s own moral sentiments, have no authority when they contradict God’s word.

So, then, it is generally understood that heterosexuals, persons whom Christians and their Bible deem sexually normal, in accord with nature as God created it, are “oriented” toward behaviors that are still (by Christian standards) unacceptable, fornication and adultery. Should the church nevertheless seek ways to welcome, to recognize the unique gifts of, persons of such heterosexual orientation? No one would claim otherwise. Would this acceptance of people with an orientation to sin constitute an endorsement of sinful behavior? Hardly. True, heterosexuals, if they can find a suitable spouse, are permitted to express much of their orientation sexually without sin (since that orientation is natural), whereas homosexuals (whose orientation is “against [God-created] nature”) must either choose celibacy (as must unwed heterosexuals, by the way) or seek (if they believe this possible) to acquire a new orientation (Christian sanctification is all about progressive change in orientations, sexual and otherwise, leading to changes in behavior), but no one who reflects even briefly should have trouble granting that humans often have orientations they cannot be allowed to indulge without penalty. Where are those willing to defend the orientation-expressing behavior of persons with psychopathic orientation? With pedophilic orientation? Granted, some want to identify homosexual orientation as innate in a way that (they believe) psychopathy and pedophilia are not. But since when did the moral quality of a behavior change based on how one became inclined to indulge in it? Note that we are not speaking of behaviors individuals “cannot help” but engage in. Even if one does not “choose to be” homosexual or psychopathic or pedophilic in orientation, it does not follow from this that one does not (or cannot) choose whether or not to indulge or express one’s unchosen orientation. Even heterosexual males in their highest-hormone young adulthood do not lose the power to freely choose between abstention and indulgence. That one has a desire, or has had that desire for so long that one sees it as an innate “orientation,” does not make expression or indulgence of it morally right or socially acceptable. Simply put, one’s orientation does not affect one’s moral duty.

Upon analysis, then, a Roman Catholic call to welcome and appreciate persons with homosexual orientation needn’t be seen as any more radical or controversial than a call to welcome and appreciate persons of heterosexual orientation. Bishops’ suggestion that homosexual relationships have positive aspects that might merit recognition and appreciation seems more difficult to deal with. Still, a charitable reading is possible. The only thing that makes homosexual relationships sinful is the lust and sexual indulgence involved, as well as suggestion that lust and indulgence is legitimate and can even be labeled “marriage.” When these sinful aspects are removed, one has only close friendship—non-sinful, non-sexual intimacy. What I suspect (hope) the bishops were trying to get at in their unwisely released draft is that relationships between persons of the same sex who both share the homosexual orientation are not entirely and exclusively sexual and sinful. Like human interpersonal relationships generally, they include non-sinful and positive aspects, such as support and encouragement. Providing financial and moral support to a hospitalized friend does not cease being laudable if the friend happens to share orientation toward a particular sin, much as an expression of “honor among thieves” (keeping rather than breaking a promise) would still be “honorable” as far as it went. Such complex parsing of the sinful and non-sinful aspects of interpersonal relationships may be a bit more than our keep-it-simple Twitter culture can process, but I think it might be what the bishops had in mind. Of course, I could be wrong. Neither Roman Catholicism nor Protestantism is immune to doctrinal and moral drift.

End of Reflection ^

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Fesko’s Songs of a Suffering King: Excellent, Edifying

book_reviews_1200x1200_01_Domesday Book_Andrews_Historic_Byways_and_Highways_of_Old_England_1900_public_domainJ. V. Fesko. Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books. 123+x pages. ISBN 978-1-60178-310-3.

This is an excellent and edifying book. A Christ-centered exposition of the first eight chapters of the book of Psalms, suitable for private devotional reading or small group study, Songs of a Suffering King doubles as a plea for Christians to use psalms more fully and frequently in their worship, by both praying and singing them. Each psalm’s chapter-long exposition concludes with “Questions for Further Study” and a metrical version of the psalm (for singing). Fesko also directs readers to online resources (where mp3s of suitable tunes can be found, for example) to assist those wanting to sing the psalms. The end-of-chapter questions, I admit, do not impress me, being more of the “let’s see if you were paying attention to what you just read” than the “let’s more deeply reflect upon and find ways to apply what you’ve learned” variety. But, then, persons leading group studies should not find it difficult to think up suitable questions of their own best suited to their contexts.

As noted, Songs of a Suffering King’s exposition of Psalms 1-8 is Christ-centered. This is true in the fullest possible sense. Fesko explains, “We often make the mistake of identifying only some of the psalms as messianic, such as 2, 22, and 110. Instead, we must identify all of the psalms as messianic—they all point us to Christ” (18). In support of this, Fesko notes how, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus pointed out to his disciples how things concerning him “were written in…the Psalms” (18, quoting the New King James version). This citation, of course, does not prove that every psalm is about Christ, only that information about Christ may be found “in” the Psalms, a fact perfectly in accord with the common assumption that only certain psalms are Messianic. However, since Scripture does identify King David (in his positive aspects) as a type of Christ (as no Christians I know would doubt and as Fesko makes clear), taking all his psalms as typical of, and only perfectly fulfilled in, Christ does not strain credulity. In fact, upon reflection, it seems more natural and less strained than not doing so. Additionally, if Fesko’s assumption that not only the psalms as individually written but also their editorial arrangement is inspired (4-5), then the excellent fit between Psalms 1-8 in sequence and Christ’s life, a fit on display throughout Songs of a Suffering King, makes his belief that every psalm speaks of Christ all the more plausible. Fesko, one should note, does not suggest that some anonymous editor after David arranged and modified the book of Psalms. Rather, he seems, in agreement with “ancient rabbinic tradition,” to believe David responsible, not just for writing most of the psalms, but for “the deliberate editorial arrangement of the Psalter” in its entirety, much as Moses was responsible for the final form of the Pentateuch (Ibid.). That David should have edited and arranged all the Psalms adds credence to the idea that even those psalms not originally written by David speak of Christ, since David’s (inspired) Messianic intent then lies aback the entire collection.

Acceptance of this Christ-centered approach has certain benefits. For instance, psalms often judged harsh and vengeful, such as Psalm 3, become much less troubling seen in this light (45-6, 71-2). While we (like David) are ourselves sinful and so not qualified to call down God’s judgment upon others, and are ourselves (also like David) mere creatures who cannot know with certainty whether any individual now in rebellion against God might someday repent and believe the gospel, Christ suffers neither of these shortcomings: being sinless, he is qualified to judge sinners; being divine, he knows who will and will not repent. What from ordinary human lips would be sinfully harsh and vengeful is from Christ’s lips an expression of God’s “absolute righteous wrath” (46). And, as Fesko emphasizes, “we must worship our triune Lord for all of His attributes—His mercy, love, benevolence, and kindness, and also His wrath, vengeance, justice, and judgment” (46). Therefore, “we can and most definitely should pray against the unbelieving world in general and against those whose lives reveal a blatant blasphemy and opposition against God and His kingdom,” as well as “pray that God would judge the unrepentant, those known only to Him” (46). (Arguably, even praying for condemnation of “those whose lives reveal blatant blasphemy and opposition against God and His kingdom” is more than we sinful and fallible creatures can justify. Even these, we seem obligated to grant, are not, so long as they live, beyond the reach of God’s sovereign grace. When the classic film Cromwell (1970, directed by Ken Hughes) suggests that its title character, played by Richard Harris, called upon God to damn the king, it suggests Cromwell acted inappropriately.)

As well, when expressions of anger in the Psalms are seen as Christ’s divine and perfectly holy anger, not the anger of sinful and finite humans like David and ourselves (which surely would not merit inclusion in the Bible), we are better able to draw rightly the distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger. “When we move the fulcrum of our anger from Christ to ourselves,” as we might easily do if we forsook the Christ-centered reading and so found in some psalms justification for being vengefully angry toward others, such as false accusers (94, discussing Psalm 7), “we cross the line of righteous anger to sinful self-righteous anger” (57), Fesko writes. “It is one thing,” he adds, “to be angered over the world’s blasphemy against God. It is entirely another thing, however, to be filled with anger and indignation because we have been offended” (56). So vanishes any justification for personal vengeance, or the self-centered anger underlying it, by Christians (in case verses like Romans 12:19 weren’t clear enough). So also vanishes any alleged tension or conflict between New Testament teaching and the harsher psalms.

Songs of a Suffering King also includes some interesting disagreements with manners of expression prevalent among today’s Christians. Whereas today’s Christians often assert the need to “love the sinner but hate the sin,” apparently assuming that this is what God does, Fesko emphasizes how Scripture attributes sinful actions to sinful hearts (69), so that “the sin and the sinner are irrefragably [undeniably, indisputably] joined” and God, in “manifestation of His perfect justice and holiness,” “not only hates the sin but…also hates the sinner!” (70). Thus, “God’s holy hatred, his just wrath and condemnation, hangs over the sinner’s head” (Ibid.), unless and until the sinner repents.

Another locution common among today’s Christians is that which defines grace as “God’s unmerited favor.” Fesko finds this inadequate. “God’s grace is…His demerited favor,” he writes. In the case of David, “In other words, David did not merit God’s favor, but neither is His favor [solely] unmerited—that is, undeserved. Rather, it is demerited, in that David has received God’s favor in spite of his demerits, his sins” (81). (Since anything demerited must also be unmerited, demerited things being a subset of the larger set of things unmerited, I’ve added “solely” in brackets. I don’t believe Fesko would find this clarification objectionable.) Prior to reading Fesko’s remarks, it had never occurred to me that there could be anything inadequate in describing God grace as his “unmerited favor.” Now, however, I can see that it really does fall short. There is a difference between saying God saves persons who have done nothing to deserve to be saved (their salvation is “unmerited”) and saying God saves persons who have done everything to deserve not to be saved (their salvation is “demerited”). Both statement are correct, but the second makes more clear just how amazing God’s “amazing grace” really is.

Songs of a Suffering King is not wholly without weaknesses, at least not without points of possible concern or discomfort. Though I encountered no difficulties serious enough to make me deduct a star from my book rating, I do think some merit mention. One of these is Fesko’s reference to Eden as a “garden-temple” (21) or “temple-garden” (111). I see this as a difficulty only because Fesko nowhere in the book explains why he considers Eden a “temple,” nowhere relates his biblical basis for this identification. Additionally, he nowhere says why Eden’s being a “temple” is relevant or important to his discussion of Psalms 1-8. Since God did manifest himself personally in Eden, and since one can understand a sacrifice to have been offered there (Genesis 3:21), I don’t reject the possibility that calling Eden a “temple” is appropriate. If it is to be called so, however, one would like to know in detail why, and why it matters in our reading of Psalms 1-8.

Another area of difficulty also concerns the Genesis account. After showing how the New Testament applies Psalm 8 to Christ’s reign (citing Hebrews 2, Ephesians 1, and 1 Corinthians 15), Fesko adds the following: “If Psalm 8 is a prophecy of Christ, then we must realize that the opening chapter of the Bible serves the same purpose” (116). He adds: “Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, therefore, are not primarily about man…but rather prophetic promises of Jesus’ reign, one that has been inaugurated in His resurrection and ascension…” (Ibid.). Since humans only enter the picture at verse 26 of Genesis 1, I assume Fesko mainly has just verses 26 and following in view. Seeing the historical events described in Genesis 1:26 and following as have typological significance isn’t necessarily problematic. The “If..then” Fesko asserts is not obviously true, however. Does David’s use of the story of humanity’s creation to typify Christ imply that Moses must have had similar typology in mind when he wrote Genesis? No doubt David could have intended, and his recipients could have understood, the Messianic meaning. Does the same apply to Moses and his original recipients? Whether or not Fesko has made the case for this elsewhere (this is not his only book, though it is the only one I’ve read), he does not make the case in Songs of a Suffering King.

Additionally, given how unwilling many Christians are to take what the early chapters of Genesis say at face value (that is, as meant in the same straightforwardly historical fashion most take the later chapters to be meant), claims about how one should interpret Genesis 1 should always include explanation of what one does and does not mean to imply. For instance, when he suggests that Genesis 1 is “primarily” prophetic of Jesus’ reign, does Fesko mean only to add the prophetic or typological understanding on top of the historical understanding, or might he consider dismissing the ostensible historical meaning? His exposition of Psalms 1-8, where he always grants the link between each psalm’s content and David’s life situation when writing it, suggests that he only means to point out the prophetic or typological significance of the historical events, not to cast doubt on the literal truthfulness of the (ostensible) history. Given how eager many are to dismiss the literal content of Genesis 1 (and other early chapters of Genesis), however, I’d be more comfortable if Fesko had made his stance clear and explicit. (While he may do so elsewhere, he has not done so in this book.)

Fesko also fails to support an assertion he makes about the consequences of Adam’s sin. Whereas in Genesis God promises only death (normally understood by Christians to mean both mortality, and so eventual and inevitable physical death, and spiritual death, separation from God) as the consequence of disobedience (Genesis 2:17), Fesko asserts that through his sin Adam “forfeited his dominion over the creation” (111). Maybe he did, but Fesko present no argument demonstrating such. So far as I can determine from Genesis or from Songs of a Suffering King, humanity’s God-granted dominion over the creation, with all its privileges and responsibilities, remains intact in spite of the Fall.

A final point of possible concern to some, such as to those dedicated to an especially literal interpretation of “end times” prophecy, might be the suggestions here and there in Songs of a Suffering King of Fesko’s own eschatology. Concerning Revelation 19:15, for instance, where Christ is portrayed judging the nations with a sword issuing from his mouth, Fesko writes: “If we realize that Christ’s Word, the gospel, is a double-edged sword, then it is through the proclamation of the gospel that Christ brings the nations under judgment, even at this moment” (30). Those who understand this passage as referring to a future judgment, not to something currently in progress, do not miss the association between this sword and Christ’s Word. Rather, they see the image of Revelation 19:15 as emphasizing that Christ’s judgment of the wicked “in the last day” will be based upon his Word (John 12:47). Those who understand Revelation 19:15 in this way may find Fesko’s “even at this moment” mildly uncomfortable.

More uncomfortable for some might be Fesko’s present-tense reference to the new heaven and new earth (see Revelation 21). In saving us, Fesko relates, Jesus “permanently and irreversible brings us into the new creation, the new heaven and earth, where He…rules” (114). Rather than a literally remade creation still in the future, the new heaven and new earth, in Fesko’s eschatology, are (it seems) just a picture of the spiritually new order of things that is Christ’s kingdom, the domain of his rulership over his elect. While not uncommon either today or historically, this view is sure to prove objectionable to partisans of the contrary (“literal”) understanding.

In my judgment, none of these difficulties or areas of discomfort reduces the book’s ability to edify Bible-believing readers. Even readers averse to Fesko’s eschatology (it’s not an eschatology I’m prepared to endorse) should find that the wealth of positive materials makes his rare eschatological remarks worth enduring. If you’re shopping for some devotional reading or something to study in your small group, you could do worse than Fesko’s Songs of a Suffering King.

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