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not to enter into the debate over “cessationism, the view that the miraculous gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 are no longer active in the church,” holding that “Whether the miraculous gifts are ongoing or not has no bearing on the arguments of our book” (xiv) and believing that “NAR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)

Introduction

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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.

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

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Moynagh’s Being Church, Doing Life: Creative Outreach Made Practical

beingchurchdoinglifecover_courtesy_publisherMoynagh, Michael. Being Church, Doing Life: Creating Gospel Communities where Life Happens. Oxford/Grand Rapids: Monarch, 2014. 352 pages. ISBN 978-0-85721-493-5. Kregel’s featured $1.99 Kindle book through 26 September 2014.

An author who makes a point of quoting both Charles Darwin (116) and Peter Enns (112) obviously moves in different theological circles—and holds different ideas about Scripture’s inerrancy, clarity, and sufficiency—than I do. (I’m a Reformed Baptist and biblical creationist who still finds the late Edward Freer Hills’ arguments persuasive and agrees with most of what the Trinitarian Bible Society has to say.) As well, someone who thinks first of ecological causes, “social justice,” and immigration reform (193, 282) when contemplating what shared interests and goals might form the basis of “doing life” groups—“witnessing communities” founded and led by Christians but seeking to serve, and inviting participation by, “not-yet-Christians” (137)–probably holds rather different political convictions than mine. (While not all my political convictions are settled, I’m sufficiently “conservative” and “religious right” to find this list of causes, characteristic of the “religious left,” off-putting.) Since Being Church, Doing Life is a practical rather than doctrinal or political work, however, I tried while reading to keep an open mind about author Michael Moynagh’s suggestions.

I’m glad I did. Being Church, Doing Life is a treasury of creative outreach ideas, not all of which solid Bible-believers will wish to endorse or try themselves, but even the most suspect of which might prompt fruitful reflection on how believers can more effectively reach out to unbelievers, and support and encourage fellow believers (219-20), in various social, economic, geographic, and vocational settings. Observing how, since the Industrial Revolution, the church “as a community presence” has become “increasingly remote from the office, the café, the bowling alley, and other centres of people’s lives” (62), Moynagh asks, “how can the congregation represent the gospel to people if it is not present in their daily lives?” (35). The implied answer, of course, is that the congregation cannot. Moynagh’s solution, one he observes already being undertaken by many Christians, in sufficient numbers to constitute a movement, is for groups of Christians to go out and found “witnessing communities” where people “do life.”

Moynagh considers such communities, not just forms of weekday outreach by persons committed to standard Sunday-meeting churches, but as themselves each (ideally) an “expression of church,” a “different kind of church” (67). “Churches,” he writes, “are emerging not just in community centres, but in pubs, schools, gyms, workplaces, sports clubs, and other settings” (63). While some Christians may continue attending a standard weekend church, the sort of witnessing communities Moynagh promotes often “become church for those who attend,” even “their sole church” (42). In fact, that such communities “At their best” must “provide a taste of church for people involved,” meaning they must engage to some extent in corporate worship (such as common prayer and observation of the Lord’s Supper), is among the four characteristics he deems essential for such communities. The community must, as he puts it, be ecclesial. Additionally, it must by missional (“work mainly with people who do not attend church”), contextual (“find culturally appropriate ways of reaching people”), and formational (“aim to form disciples”) (41). Moynagh likes to call these “fresh expressions of church” (151). He’s even part of a “national Fresh Expressions movement” in the United Kingdom (promotional email from publisher, 07 July 2014).

At this point, reflection suggests a difficulty. Moynagh recognizes (216 ff.) the need for Christians to alternate between engagement with the broader culture of not-yet-Christians (unbelievers who, of course, may never become Christians) and withdrawal from that culture for corporate Christian worship, including instruction in the Word and other things standard Sunday-meeting churches focus upon (those, at least, I note, that are not so “seeker-sensitive” as to have become perpetual evangelistic outreaches providing little special attention to already-Christians). Throughout the text, Moynagh proposes that not-yet-Christians be welcomed and encouraged to participate in the witnessing community. (Seeker-sensitive churches also emphasize participation by not-yet-Christians, calling it “belonging before believing.”) This would seem to make these communities (like highly seeker-sensitive churches) little suited for Christians’ restorative and preparatory periods of withdrawal. Yet, Moynagh suggests that “New believers can withdraw into the witnessing community for worship and to learn about the faith” (217). Witnessing communities’ function of reaching out to and engaging not-yet-Christians is not obviously compatible with the proposal that they also function as places to which already-Christians may withdraw for worship and instruction.

Worship practices in the witnessing communities (like those in seeker-sensitive Sunday churches) are to be tailored to the audience, of a form that feels “authentic” to it, that does not make attendees “feel awkward” (192). The community’s “style of worship” must not be “out of sync with the culture of the people it plans to serve” (160). While tailoring evangelistic outreach to the interests, aesthetics, and schedules of not-yet-Christians (75) may make biblical sense (1 Corinthians 9:19-22), an argument can be made that corporate worship and fellowship for already-Christians should require some effort, and perhaps involve both inconvenience and aesthetic adjustment. Once one has entered God’s kingdom, one must begin a process of adjusting one’s preferences and lifestyle to kingdom norms. Take music, for example. Music in corporate worship and at non-evangelistic Christian gatherings should not (this argument holds) mimic the world’s music, but try (insofar as scriptural guidance and sanctified reflection permit) to praise God in a manner of which God would approve, and through which Christians’ emotions and aesthetics might be slowly molded to a heavenly norm. I don’t propose in this review to determine what forms of “worship music” are truly suitable for corporate worship (positions vary from permitting psalm singing only, to permitting anything “traditional,” to permitting everything one can label “Christian”), only to note that when considering this subject of music, as when considering any other aspects of Christian corporate action, a distinction must be drawn between outreach activities, which it is hoped not-yet-Christians will participate in and find to some degree attractive and agreeable, and corporate worship, where already-Christians are to receive instruction and join in other acts of worship in a God-centered and Scripture-guided fashion neither unbelievers nor backslidden believers should find appealing. (Convicting and discomfiting? Yes. Appealing? Not so much.) Received instruction should be of a sort requiring significant preparation, strongly scriptural preaching/teaching, not just such “simple and brief” talks as Moynagh suggests could suffice in witnessing communities (174).

Moynagh, of course, might not agree that there is ever any problem with Christian worship practices mimicking a surrounding culture’s style. He assures members of various cultures, “Your cuisine, music, clothes, social habits, and general pattern of life are not embarrassments, to be jettisoned as you become more like Christ” (113). Those who see this mimicry as problematic would note, however, that Moynagh’s assurance claims more than Scripture warrants: surely some music, some styles of attire, and some social habits do run contrary to divine preference. As well, they would add, corporate worship of God is not merely an extension of the day-to-day conduct of one’s life, but a special exercise deserving special treatment. After all, though God always intended to bless all nations through Israel (Genesis 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, etc.), he never displayed much tolerance for Israelite mimicry of the broader culture’s worship practices (Exodus 32) nor, in fact, for any worship practice (however sincere or heart-felt) he did not explicitly authorize (Leviticus 10:1-2). Corporate worship must focus on God and his requirements, not on the feelings, preferences, and habits of human worshipers.

Moynagh recognizes that “Some Christians worry that, in trying to connect with the surrounding culture, Christian communities risk selling out to that culture and soft-pedalling the costly demands of the gospel” (112), in particular, I would note, the gospel’s demand that one bring every thought into obedience to the full inerrant counsel of God (2 Corinthians 10:5; 2 Timothy 3:16). (Moynagh’s false dichotomy, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community” [35], might suggest weakness in this area, as it seems to downgrade Scripture’s importance. Since Jesus is God and Scripture is God-breathed, Jesus did in fact write a book, as well as form a community.) The sorts of witnessing communities described and encouraged in Being Church, Doing Life do seem to risk exactly this by failing to make any strong and obvious separation between corporate worship and general outreach. Moynagh’s own counsel sometimes seems to contribute to this risk. For instance, he wants witnessing communities to do all they can to accommodate people in “our low-commitment culture” (145), who “prefer to be on a journey rather than reach a destination” (142), and wants them to avoid “a subtle superiority that puts others off” created when any church (standard or “fresh expression”) “assumes it has a gospel that everyone else needs” (167). In this softest of soft-sell approaches, one doesn’t press for commitment one way or the other (Joshua 24:15), but simply starts discipling—hence the inclusion of both not-yet-Christians and already-Christians in the various activities of the witnessing community. “Even if an individual never comes to explicit faith,” Moynagh states, “he or she may have become more like Jesus” as a result (179). Doesn’t this approach soft-pedal the costly demand to “repent…and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15)?

This difficulty aside, if a movement at once (1) makes the positive influence of Christian community more pervasive in the lives of believers by situating Christian communities in places of work and leisure beyond traditional church services, and (2) ensures gospel witness’ presence in various niches of life through the same communities, then that movement can’t be all bad. While scripturally questionable practices, shallow or erroneous teachings, and other products of undisciplined experimentation might arise at times, perhaps even frequently, they do not negate the fundamentally positive nature of the movement. Neither does the difficulty I’ve noted negate the positive value of Moynagh’s how-to book for would-be participants in the witnessing communities movement. Christians looking for creative ways to live out and share their faith in their everyday lives should find much of value in this interesting text.

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

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Consent: Only Repeated Yeses Will Do, Say State Lawmakers

California State CapitolImage: California State Capitol, courtesy Wikipedia user Coolcaesar (Creative Commons license).

The local paper today informed me of my state’s passage of an interesting bill to formally define, in the context of sexual assault investigations on college campuses, what does and does not qualify as “consent” to sexual activity (Fenit Nipappil [Associated Press], “State Ban on Plastic Bags OK’d; Bill Moves to Senate,” U-T San Diego, A1-A2; among “In other action, lawmakers…” mentions on A2). While far short of the Christian requirement of a signed (marriage) contract, this secular effort to replace lost moral awareness with formal legal definition intrigues me.

“In order to receive state funds for student financial assistance,” states the bill, “the governing board of each community college district, the Trustees of the California State University, the Regents of the University of California, and the government boards of independent postsecondary institutions shall adopt a policy concerning sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking” that, among other things, adopts “An affirmative consent standard” (“SB-967 Student safety: sexual assault,” accessed 29 August 2014), what supporters of the bill are calling a “‘yes’ means ‘yes,’” but what would more accurately be called an “only repeated ‘yeses’ mean ‘yes,’” standard. More precisely, the policy must “include all of the following” (Ibid.; emphasis added):

  1. An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. “Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.

  2. A policy that, in the evaluation of complaints in any disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse to alleged lack of affirmative consent that the accused believed that the complainant consented to the sexual activity under either of the following circumstances:

    1. The accused’s belief in affirmative consent arose from the intoxication or recklessness of the accused.

    2. The accused did not take reasonable steps, in the circumstances known to the accused at the time, to ascertain whether the complainant affirmatively consented.

  3. A policy that the standard used in determining whether the elements of the complaint against the accused have been demonstrated is the preponderance of the evidence.

  4. A policy that, in the evaluation of complaints in the disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse that the accused believed that the complainant affirmatively consented to the sexual activity if the accused knew or reasonably should have known that the complainant was unable to consent to the sexual activity under any of the following circumstances:

    1. The complainant was asleep or unconscious.

    2. The complainant was incapacitated [as a legal term, meaning “deprive[d] of the legal power to act in a specified way or ways”] due to the influence of drugs, alcohol, or medication, so that [now, here are the sorts of incapacitation in view:] the complainant could not understand the fact, nature, or extent of the sexual activity.

    3. The complainant was unable to communicate due to a mental or physical condition.

Most of this, of course, simply expresses what is obvious to any reflective individual whose God-given innate moral consciousness has not yet been seared away by the pervasive anti-moral influences of our post-Christian culture (influences strongly promoted in the halls of state-funded academia, as it happens). Other aspects of it I’m not so sure about.

For instance, “consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity,” but “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence.” If I read this correctly, one participant in a sexual activity could, in theory, cease to consent after the activity is underway but offer no indication whatsoever that such is the case. Since silence, lack of protest, and absence of resistance do not indicate consent, and since consent must be ongoing, what seems required here to avoid later charge of sexual assault of one party against the other is that both parties repeatedly request their partner’s (“Shall I continue?”), and repeatedly state their own (“You may proceed.”), consent throughout. This sounds a bit impractical to me. But, then, I’m celibate, so perhaps I underestimate how formal and cautious one can be in these situations.

Two other requirements of the bill also have interesting implications taken together. Surely, “I was drunk and didn’t know any better” strikes few if any of us as an acceptable excuse for sexual assault: If someone voluntarily gets drunk, we reason, they voluntarily assume responsibility for whatever they do while in that voluntarily-entered state. 2A in the above may, therefore, seem reasonable to us. However, it does combine in an interesting way with 4B. While “I was drunk and didn’t know any better” does not free the person accused of sexual assault from responsibility for sexual activity, an alleged victim’s claim that “I was drunk and didn’t know any better” does free that person from responsibility. This doesn’t seem to apply evenly the idea that if one becomes intoxicated voluntarily one is responsible for what one does while intoxicated. As currently worded, the implication seems to be that (1) persons at risk of engaging in sexual activity initiated by others may freely imbibe all the intoxicants they like and bear no responsibility for any act they engage in while intoxicated, but (2) persons at risk of initiating sexual activity with others will be held accountable for everything they do while intoxicated. Regardless of how intoxicated persons initiating sexual activity might be (and regardless of how intoxicated their partners also happen to be), initiators retain the same responsibility as fully sober persons to avoid sex with anyone whose own intoxication makes any consent they seem to offer illusory. At least, this is the case if “the preponderance of the evidence” (not the evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”) indicates the activity-initiator “reasonably should have known” that their partner’s “consent” was just the intoxication speaking.

The question that arises, of course, is just what an intoxicated initiator of sexual activity “reasonably should have known” about seeming consent by an intoxicated partner. Were 4B the only part of the bill involved, what reasonably should have been known by the initiator could be determined case-by-case based on the initiator’s own level of intoxication, the circumstances in which both the initiator and his or her partner became intoxicated, and so on. However, 2A makes intoxication of the initiator irrelevant to determination of his or her responsibility, so that what the initiator “reasonably should have known” would seem to always be whatever should reasonably have been known by a perfectly sober initiator. Students who think they might initiate sexual activity while intoxicated would, I think, be well advised to avoid all use of intoxicants! (Personally, I would advise everyone generally to avoid intoxicants, but my opinion here is far from mainstream, even among Christians.) I don’t know if it is a valid or flawed analogy, but the following question keeps occurring to me: If two drunk drivers crash into one another, can one claim to have been victimized by the other? In at least some cases, apparently, one can (at least if one is a lawmaker).

The lower-than-criminal-court evidentiary requirement (“preponderance of the evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt”) should also prove interesting in practice, since it requires disciplinary action against accused students whom courts cannot convict. Were I running a private college and wanted to minimize sexual assaults, I might support a policy setting the evidentiary requirement this way. Still, “innocent till proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” might be the most appropriate standard for publicly funded institutions. Should someone who could not be convicted by the state of any crime in its courts be punished by (or expelled from) its schools?

In any case, when formal legal regulation of an irreligious people replaces moral self-regulation of a religious people, such are the issues that arise. (Yes, Christianity is a religion, not just a relationship. It is a religion grounded in a relationship.) It isn’t easy to make people behave while encouraging them to freely indulge assorted lusts and to generally defy God’s moral directives.

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Victory through the Lamb: Read-worthy, though No Epiphanies

victory_through_the_lamb_cover_courtesy_publisherWilson, Mark. Victory through the Lamb: A Guide to Revelation in Plain Language. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. 223 pages. ISBN 978-1-941337-01-1.

Victory through the Lamb, a nontechnical overview of the book of Revelation, is quite readable and contains enough interesting background and historical information to maintain the interest of most readers, particularly those who have not previously dedicated themselves to detailed study of Revelation’s background and content. Persons who have not already committed themselves to a particular approach to Revelation should at least find Wilson’s reading plausible. How many will find it sufficiently more plausible than alternative readings to adopt it as their own, time will tell. Since the book, though informative and interesting, did not prompt for me any epiphanies, I still await the day when an “a-ha!” moment tells me my understanding has finally reached conformity with the Spirit’s witness to Revelation’s meaning, the meaning God’s illumination makes clear (eventually) to all true believers who apply themselves diligently to understand and apply what any book of Scripture says.

Persons already committed to other interpretations of Revelation than Wilson’s will, I suspect, remain committed to their existing views. This seems particularly likely among informed believers in a pre-Tribulation rapture, whose complex dispensational system concerns a much broader set of scriptural data than addressed by Wilson’s text. (The only pre-Tribbers I know about are Dispensationalists.) Though Wilson mentions opposed readings (not always portraying the implication of those readings fairly, as we’ll see), he does not make much effort to refute them with detailed arguments. Victory through the Lamb just isn’t that sort of book: it’s clear purpose is, not to contribute to longstanding debates (consider 190, for example), but to recapture Revelation’s original function as encouragement to Christians suffering tribulation—whether the tribulation is suppression and martyrdom, as in John’s time and place and in many places ever since; less severe ostracism and reduced opportunity for this-worldly “success,” as in “free” but dominantly secular modern states; or the need to daily “crucify” one’s own sinful inclinations, as in all times and places.

What exactly is Wilson’s interpretation of Revelation? Before summarizing it, one should note that it is guided by certain expectations. Wilson writes: “From the perspective of Revelation a mystery is not something to be hidden from God’s people. While perhaps concealed in the past, it is now revealed in Christ. This,” Wilson laments, “is one of the ironies about Revelation and its arcane use by Christians today. Its visions have become notoriously mysterious, and its contents seemingly impenetrable. But that was not Jesus’ (or John’s) original intention. It was meant to be understood by the audience in the Seven Churches” (88). While it could be debated just how much “arcane” use today is the product of Christian interpreters, and how much is the product of popular culture’s mining of prophetic imagery for entertainment purposes, one certainly cannot doubt that God intends his word to be understood by his people. For Wilson, the nature of Revelation’s understandability, and the interpretive approach recommend by it, depends most importantly upon its genre. Early on, Wilson states that “a type of literature called ‘apocalyptic,’” of which Revelation is an example, is something “that ancient readers would have readily understood. Jewish readers of Revelation,” he adds, “would especially have understood [Revelation’s apocalyptic] imagery because it is found in Old Testament books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah” (12-13). If this is the case, then any interpreter of Revelation, if his understanding of the book is correct, should be able to show why the interpretation he proposes would “readily” be accepted by the original readers.

Guided by such expectations, Wilson interprets Revelation as follows. “Tribulation” or “great tribulation” is the situation of believers from Christ’s ascension to his second coming. During Jesus’ incarnation, Satan is cast out of heaven (104; citing Luke 10:18 with Revelation 12; contrasting earlier Job 1:6-12, 2:1-7, and Zechariah 3:1-2), and this “fall of Satan described in Revelation 12 inaugurates the tribulation of the church,” so that “since the ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, believers have been engaged in a spiritual battle with…Satan,” which ongoing battle (various aspects of which are portrayed “close up,” and symbolically, in Revelation) is “the tribulation” (107). There is no special seven-year “Tribulation” before which the church will be raptured. The “rapture” occurs, instead, at Christ’s second coming, at which point the saints’ tribulation ends (188-9; referencing 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; Revelation 19; and John 16:33, 17:15). (The literal duration of this tribulation will only be known to us when it is over; “seven years” is symbolic only.) Wilson identifies himself as “premillennial,” noting that, though he rejects the idea that Christ and the saints will rule on the present earth for a literal thousand years with a new temple and renewed (memorial) temple sacrifices, he does believe that “the return of Jesus inaugurates a series of events, which John symbolically calls the thousand years, whose culmination is the rule and reign of saints from every nation, people, tribe, and language in New Jerusalem on a new heaven and new earth for eternity” (Ibid.). At the end of “the thousand years,” the actual (literal) duration of which (apparently) cannot be known, Satan will be loosed, resuming his premillennial work of deceiving humans and being defeated in a final great battle (“battle of Harmagedon” or “God and Magog”). Then will follow final judgment, new heaven and new earth, and the eternal order (194-5).

If this general understanding of Revelation is one you agree with or are willing to consider, you should find Victory through the Lamb enjoyable and educational reading. If, on the other hand, you are strongly committed to the pre-Tribulation reading and its more literal understanding of many passages, you may judge Wilson’s portrayal of your perspective and its implications unfair and inaccurate. Late in the text, for instance, Wilson portrays belief in a pre-Tribulation rapture as “The teaching that has arisen in the church in the last two hundred years—that the church would be miraculously airlifted out of the world through a rapture that would exempt believers from trials and tribulations” (189). This portrayal, which informed pre-Tribbers/Dispensationalists will necessarily deem a caricature, Wilson maintains throughout the text (for early examples to add to the preceding late one, see 10-11, 14).

Wilson’s caricature may capture attitudes and assumptions found in some American Christian pop culture, but it doesn’t fairly describe Dispensationalists’ understanding, which never suggests that Christians should not expect tribulations throughout the Church age. The Christian Church is to avoid, not tribulations (even very severe ones) generally speaking, but only “the Tribulation,” a special time meant most importantly, according to this perspective (one understanding of it, anyway), to bring about the conversion of the Jews, Abraham’s descendants after the flesh. God, having brought to salvation all or most of his Gentile elect (but only a small portion of elect Jews), will then return attention to the Jews, his first covenant people. Rapturing away all true Christians means removal from the world of the salt and light that has (however partially and imperfectly) restrained Satan’s influence, setting the stage for some extreme unpleasantness that will open the eyes of the bulk of God’s Jewish elect, bring about the conversion of such few Gentile elect as remain, and serve as a definitive demonstration to those who reject Christ of just what order of things they are embracing by this rejection. Dispensationalists reject efforts to “spiritualize” or make conditional Old Testament covenant promises of earthly blessings; they also reject claims that the Church “replaces” after-the-flesh Israel. Thus, Old Testament prophecies that seem straightforwardly concerned with the Jewish people are taken to really be about the Jewish people, not symbolically about “spiritual Israel” (Christian believers, the Church), and Revelation is interpreted so as to conform with this understanding of Old Testament prophecies. One might or might not find this perspective cogent, but it is at least superior to the “Christians will have it easy then get raptured and avoid all tribulation” caricature Wilson makes it out to be.

Wilson’s unfair portrayal of alternative readings to his own extends beyond this caricature of belief in a pre-Tribulation rapture. In his discussion of Revelation 14, Wilson writes of “the 144,000” described there (earlier mentioned in 7:4-8): “Several positive characteristics are now given to describe [them]. The first is a bit unusual: they did not defile themselves with women, but remained virgins. To interpret this literally,” says Wilson, “elicits some strange interpretations” (132). Specifically, he asserts, it teaches something contrary to the Bible’s “uniformly…positive perspective on marriage…[that] views sex as a special gift for husbands and wives within the marital covenant” and that never sees “sexual relations…as defiling except when they are acts of fornication or adultery” (133). Contra Wilson, however, this “even sex within marriage is defiling” inference seems in no way required by even the most literal reading, where the 144,000 are seen as unmarried Jewish males who will serve a special function in God’s service during a special time in the future. Nothing about the literally-understood passage suggests that sex within marriage is defiling. Identification of the 144,000 as “virgins” tells us how it is that these particular men qualify as “not defiled by women.” Nothing about this implies that the following statement could not at the same time be true of other men: “they had not been defiled by women, being faithfully married to the only women they’d ever known sexually.” All that is implied is that the 144,000 are to be unmarried, hence only capable of being “not defiled” if “virgins,” which the passage (taken literally) affirms they will be.

It also seems unfair of Wilson to assert that the literal understanding “suggests [not only] that the 144,000 are only males [but also] that females are somehow tainted because of their inherent sexuality” (133). Nothing in the passage read literally suggests that the reason males are selected for this 144,000 is that females are somehow “tainted.” One must impose this idea on the passage. Wilson’s “straw man” misrepresentation of the literal reading’s implications does nothing to make his own interpretation more persuasive. One wishes he had left it out. Nevertheless, Wilson’s non-literal, symbolic understanding of the 144,000, which sees this group as “the complete harvest” of faithful believers “not defiled” by certain symbolic women (Revelation 2’s Jezebel, Revelation 17’s Whore of Babylon; 133), does have cogency. Many, upon hearing it, will judge it a more natural understanding in context than the literal reading.

Wilson’s dismissal of the possibility of identifying some post-first-century figure as fulfilling the “666” name value requirement (Revelation 13) as “not possible” (“any claim to identify a modern person as 666 is not possible,” 123) also seems overstated. Wilson proposes identifying Nero as the referent by noting how the numerical value of his name and title in Hebrew, “Neron Kaiser,” equals 666 (Ibid.). Thus, recipients of a text written in Greek were to calculate a value in Hebrew. Well, if the first readers were to calculate the value using a different language from the text they were reading, surely no later believers can be denied the privilege solely because their own language does not assign numerical values to letters. Efforts to identify later figures by this number may generally be weird, misguided, and unjustified by Scripture, but that some later figure (fulfilling literally what Nero typified) might (in God’s providence) have a name (or name and title) whose Hebrew equivalent totals 666, cannot be labeled “not possible.” Such an expectation does not seem demanded by the text, even if one thinks Nero typical rather than sole referent, any more than John the Baptist needed to be named “Elijah” (Malachi 4:5; Matthew 11:13-14), but the phrase “not possible” should only be used where real impossibility is involved.

As suggested in the previous paragraph, those who see much in Revelation as taking place literally in a still-future time would not have to reject the association of Nero with the “number of the beast”; rather, they could see Nero as a type of some still-future personage more literally and truly fulfilling what Nero was only portrayed as fulfilling by pagan legends. Concerning Revelation 13:3, which describes “the beast” (“a beast…out of the sea,” Rev. 13:1) as having “one of his heads…wounded to death,” which “deadly wound was healed” so that “all the world wondered after the beast,” Wilson identifies legends that arose after Nero’s suicide in AD 68, which held that Nero either had not really died and would return or that he had died but had since risen from the dead (Nero redux and Nero redivivus legends, respectively), as “underl[ying] the description that John gives…in [Revelation] chapter 13” (117). Reflection reveals why some might prefer to see a future figure whom Nero typified as fulfilling John’s description. If Nero himself is the sole referent, then (it seems) John’s inspired description of God-given visions lends credence to pagan legends. One might hold that Revelation here merely portrays what pagans happened to believe, but the visions of Revelation are supposed to be telling John, in the early chapters, “things which must shortly come to pass” (Revelation 1:1) and, in such later chapters as 13, “things which must be hereafter” (Revelation 4:1), not “things which superstitious pagans believe have or will come to pass but really haven’t and won’t.” (Similar discomfort might arise from Wilson’s discussion of Revelation 16, which says that 16:12 “reflects traditions related to a fear of Parthian invasion that residents of the empire still had at that time” [153]. Traditional fears that, apparently, are never to be literally fulfilled might strike some as an odd basis for a vision of “things which must be hereafter.”)

One thing that motivates many who turn to maximally literal interpretation, even in the case of apocalyptic literature like Revelation (where literalism can seem unnatural and even strained), is the way persons engaged in non-literal interpretation often seem dismissive of much that texts say. For example, concerning the measurements of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21, Wilson writes: “The exact measurements, though gigantic, are unimportant because the numbers themselves are symbolic” (209). This non sequitur exemplifies a fundamental but not uncommon error: the assumption that if one can discern symbolic value in biblical descriptions of what God does or has sovereignly ordained should occur, one may disregard (deem unimportant) what is literally said. Where God is concerned, however, one cannot legitimately assume that something must be either literal or symbolic. If something, such as this description in Revelation 21, is likely or obviously symbolic, it does not follow that it is not also literal: it might or might not be; this must be determined separately. No one doubts the symbolic importance of Christ’s selection of twelve persons as his inner circle of disciples, yet everyone (who believes the Bible) accepts that he literally did select that number of persons. No matter how strongly symbolic one recognizes the number seven to be, the week (portrayed by Scripture as divine bestowal, not human invention) doesn’t stop being literally seven days long.

Additional areas of discomfort or dissatisfaction might be discussed. One might question, for example, why John’s visionary measuring of the temple should be taken as evidence that he wrote Revelation before the second temple was destroyed in AD 70 (89; Revelation 11:1) when Ezekiel made visionary measurements of a not-yet-built temple after the first temple was destroyed (Ezekiel 42:15). (In earlier visions, of course, Ezekiel had visited, and seen measured by an angel, the first temple before it was destroyed [Ezekiel 8:3, 9:3-6], as Wilson notes [Ibid.]. Taken together, all these data seem to indicate is that visionary measurement of temples is no evidence that temples either exist or do not exist at the time they’re measured.) If one believes miraculous sign gifts were specific to the founding era of the church, not something permanent, one might also balk at the combined implication of these two statements: (1) “they [the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3-12] also [in addition to being Peter and Paul, martyred under Nero] serve as a figure for the witnessing church during its time on earth” (91) and (2) “note that ‘witness’ in Revelation is more than speaking; it also includes the working of miraculous signs and wonders” (93). Wilson’s past affiliation with Oral Roberts University (ORU), and his description of an experience he had there where he “felt [he] was being lifted up in the Spirit to leave the physicality of earth behind” and when “Time seemed to stand still,” which he sees as “in a small way” like John’s own experience of being “in the Spirit” (52), might also make some readers uncomfortable. (Other readers might wish Wilson had discussed how this experience at ORU differed, or failed to differ, from any experiences he had at Native American church peyote meetings [203].) However, what has already been said should be sufficient to give potential buyers a sense of Wilson’s perspective and aspects of his book that might not satisfy all readers. Multiplication of minor objections would serve no useful purpose.

In sum, then, Victory through the Lamb, though not without weaknesses, and though not prompting any epiphanies for the reviewer, is pleasant to read and contains much interesting and useful background information. Many readers should find it worth buying.

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

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Just updated the Pious Eye usage notes.

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Pride, Parting in Sodom Diego

Main Remarks

God_destroys_Sodom_Diego_modified_from_public_domain_Durer_Illustration_by_Pious_Eye_David_M_Hodges_1200x1200

Well, I’ve been able to disprove the theory that my prior, somewhat-related letter only failed to make it into print because of U-T San Diego’s word limit (see also the follow-up letter I opted not to send). I disproved the theory by writing a very short letter that U-T staff could easily have used for filler, which I forwarded to them by email back in July. Here it is:

From: David M. Hodges [email address deleted]
Date: Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 10:40 AM
Subject: 2 Columns in U-T San Diego 07/20/14
To: [letters at utsandiego dot com]

Interesting that a single issue of your paper reports on both the passing of Dr. Ronald Youngblood, important contributor to today’s best-selling version of the source book of Christian morals (“‘Great Scholar’ Worked on NIV [New International Version] Bible Translation,” 07/20/14, A38), and on San Diegans’ (even leading Republicans’ [*]) official rejection of those morals where homosexual activity is concerned (“Reflecting on 40 years of Pride,” A3). [* The Republican candidate for Governor and San Diego’s Republican Mayor both appeared in this year’s celebration of homosexuality, more commonly called the “Gay Pride Parade.”] Were we now in the original Sodom, doubtless description of Lot’s escape into Zoar (Genesis 19:23) would stand where now stands the story of Dr. Youngblood’s escape into glory.

Thank you for your time,

David M. Hodges
[contact information deleted]

It is true, of course, that I have never been a fan of the NIV, since it is impossible for me to be a “fan” of any Bible not based upon those texts God preserved in the usage of his people (Old and New Testament Received texts).1 (English Bibles, of course, seldom diverge from the Old Testament Received text; it is from the Received New Testament text that they diverge frequently.) Though some remarks he made in an email to me (back when I was a student at the seminary where he, as professor emeritus, sometimes taught) suggest to me I might not be a fan of every aspect of his reading of Genesis (he did not believe the parallel between Exodus 20:8-11 and Genesis 2:3 requires one to understand the days of creation as days of ordinary length2), I do cheer his statement that “the Bible categorically rules out the possibility of evolution on the grand scale overwhelmingly claimed for it by its supporters. Plants and animals alike were to reproduce only in categories called ‘kinds’”3 As well, in my limited interaction with him (in and after a course he taught on the Dead Sea Scrolls), I always found him friendly and helpful and could never have doubted his true Christian faith. My observations here, in addition to their modest contribution to the Culture War, serve as my personal memorial tribute to the man.

Supplementary Remarks (and Notes)

1 Most advocates of the received or traditional texts (most I know about, anyway; all I know about, in fact) also strongly oppose any translation that is less “literal” than absolutely necessary. This makes them dislike the NIV more than, say, the English Standard Version (ESV), since the NIV attempts a middle path between formally equivalent (“literal”) and dynamically equivalent (“interpretive”) translation. While I confess to a certain discomfort when translators who are not pastor-teachers engage in any more interpretation than necessary, the reality of translation is that it is inescapably interpretive. Given this, I wouldn’t necessarily object to having a range of translation methodologies applied to creation of Received Texts-based English Bibles. NIV—Received Texts EditionTM, where are you?

2 I remain nonplussed by the widespread refusal of contemporary Christians (both scholars and laity) to grant this implication. Sufficiently creative and intelligent people are, of course, never forced to interpret any document in a given way. (I myself can imagine alternative readings that “feel” quite plausible and that, given time and effort, I’m sure I could persuade myself to believe.) Those who would humble themselves before God and his infallible book, however, must rein in their clever, imaginative minds in this case, it seems to me. If the original recipients of Exodus would naturally have seen and accepted this implication, as contemporary Christians rejecting it have (in conversations with me) granted would have been the case (could any honest person claim otherwise?), and if God could not have been intentionally deceiving the original recipients (Numbers 23:19, Deuteronomy 32:4, Hebrews 6:18), are we today not obligated to accept the same implication? Christians who fear embarrassment or ridicule, or who are so weak in faith as to fear Scripture will be disproved by “science,” will doubtless continue rejecting what no amount of complex and convoluted argumentation and speculation will make less obvious. I hope, however, that at least some Bible-believers will instead trust God and his clear, incapable-of-error written Word.

3 Ronald F. Youngblood, The Book of Genesis: An Introductory Commentary, 2 ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991], 28-9). As I’ve noted previously, careful creationist thinkers have begun abandoning reference to such changes as really do occur in nature as any sort of “evolution.” The older, and still prevalent, usage, which Youngblood’s remarks might have in mind, spoke of permissible change-within-kind as “microevolution” and of impermissible change-beyond-kind as “macroevolution.” Of course, as I noted some while back, proof that change across kinds (“macroevolution” in the old usage; “evolution” in the new) could occur today wouldn’t change what Scripture says concerning the pre-Fall order. Even if available evidence did not suggest that cross-kind variation remains impossible (as Scripture itself implies), Youngblood’s observation (perhaps suitably revised to reflect the new usage) would remain applicable to the original created order, thus ruling out simultaneous belief in evolution (“macroevolution“) and Genesis.

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All Pious Eye™: Seeing by the True Light™ content © 2005— by David M. Hodges, unless otherwise noted. Unauthorized Reproduction Prohibited. Sharing Encouraged.

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