Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Drama of Doctrine

So what have I been doing with the time I haven't blogged? I've been wearing my pencil lead out underlining and making notes in a volume that Scot McKnight has already declared "the best book on Scripture for the new century" - Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Vanhoozer makes a compelling case that theatrical drama provides a helpful model for conceiving of the nature of Scripture, theology, doctrine, and Christian life. Following N. T. Wright's division of redemptive history into a drama of five "acts," Vanhoozer says that the canonical texts compose an authoritative script that not only recounts the "theo-dramatic" action of the past but also serves as a means by which God is still acting, calling people to participate in the theo-drama and directing the performance of the church which lives between Acts IV and V. He writes in the book's preface:

This book sets forth new metaphors for theology (dramaturgy), Scripture (the script), theological understanding (performance), the church (the company), and the pastor (director). It argues that doctrine, far from being unrelated to life, serves the church by directing its members in the project of wise living, to the glory of God. It sets out to convince ministers and laypeople alike not to dismiss doctrine as irrelevant, and to encourage theologians not to neglect the needs of the church. It aims to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion. Its goal is to refute, once and for all, the all-too-common dichotomy between doctrine and real life. Christian doctrine directs us in the way of truth and life and is therefore no less than a prescription for reality (xii).
The rift between so-called "academic" and "practical" theology has long been a burr under my saddle so to say that I'm enthusiastic about this kind of thinking is a gross understatement. In the paragraph preceding the one I just quoted, Vanhoozer states that doctrine is vital to the church's well-being and witness. "The problem," he writes, "is not with doctrine per se but with a picture of doctrine, or perhaps several pictures, that have held us captive." What he has in mind is the picture of the Bible as a deposit of revealed truths or assertions about states of affairs. According to this view, theology's primary goal is to abstract and arrange these propositions in a logically consistent system. But this is flawed for a number of reasons. First, this approach is reductionistic in that it recognizes only one of the many things that authors and speakers do with words. Referring or informing is only one of language's many uses. God does more in and through the Bible than impart information. He promises, commands, warns, comforts, etc. Scripture is revelatory, but is more than revelation. Privileging assertions over other linguistic practices entices us to focus on the intellect at the expense of our other faculties and on theorizing at the expense of practice.

Propositionalism also runs roughshod over the variety of canonical literary forms:

The main defect of propositionalism is that it reduces the variety of speech actions in the canon to one type: the assertion. This results in a monologic conception of theology, and of truth. To think of theology as a monologue, even a truthful monologue, is to reduce theo-drama -- in which the dialogical action is carried by a number of voices -- to mere theory. Neither the theo-drama nor the canonical script can be reduced to propositions and theories without significant loss. Doing justice to the biblical text ultimately requires a different kind of exegetical scientia, one that goes beyond propositionalism without, however, leaving propositions behind (266).
Vanhoozer, then, is not denying the propositional content of Scripture. He's simply calling us to recognize that there is more than meets the eye (and the heart) than assertions. He proposes a postpropositionalist hermeneutic where the prefix post- means "beyond," not "against." Faithful interpretation, according to Vanhoozer's proposal model, is not merely a matter of sound exegesis and conceptualizing. Conceiving of the Bible as script means that our understanding of it is ultimately demonstrated by our following its direction in contemporary situations:

"Faith seeking understanding" involves both coming to appreciate the meaning of the script and knowing how to perform it in new contexts. Hence theology is both an exegetical scientia [disciplined knowledge] that is faithful to the canonical text and a practical sapientia [practical wisdom] that is fitting to the present cultural context. The ultimate goal of theology is to foster creative understanding -- the ability to improvise what to say and do as disciples of Jesus Christ in ways that are at once faithful yet fitting to their subject matter and setting. The church continues to perform the same text in different contexts, despite the difference of centuries, cultures, and conceptual schemes, by "improvising" with a canonical script (32).
Reading The Drama of Doctrine reminds me of another passage I marked in another sizable tome -- Calvin's Institutes:
Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart....To doctrine in which our religion is contained, we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful (III. VI. 4.).
Don't let the cost or mass of this book stand in the way of your reading it. It's worth the price and physical exercise is good for you.

Lord willing, tomorrow I'll be attending a discussion Dr. Vanhoozer will be leading for pastors and church planters, sponsored by the Great Lakes District Church Planting Office of the Evangelical Free Church. I'm looking forward to hearing more about how he envisions his model of theology playing out in pastoral ministry. If you're in the area of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the event will be held in A. T. Olson Chapel between 3 and 5 p.m.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Move Over, Seventeen. Here Comes the New Testament!

Imagine that you have a room in your home with a spectacular view. You so want all your guests to take in this marvelous sight that you come up with the ingenious idea of replacing the picture window you now have with a mosaic stained glass window (with a few clear pieces scattered throughout). The stained glass window will catch people's attention, you reason to yourself, luring them to it, at which time they'll peer through one of the transparent pieces and take in the breathtaking scenery. The problem with such a scheme, no matter how well-intended it might be, is obvious. That which you really want people to see is obscured by your attempt to highlight it.

That illustration came to mind after reading a thoughtful (not to mention cleverly-titled) article by Samantha at Intellectuelle called "The Church's One 'Foundation'?". It's about a New Testament version called Revolve, whose target audience is teenage girls. The book, published by Thomas Nelson, is designed to look like a glossy girls' magazine inside and out. According to a article which Samantha quotes:
Looking nothing like the Good Book, Revolve was designed to spare teen girls Bible embarrassment should they want to bring scripture with them to school, to the mall or to their next basketball game. Aside from the words "The Complete New Testament" slicing across the cover, one might never suspect that the glossy magazine, teeming with photos of preternaturally happy, attractive gals, was anything more than a new entry into the already crowded teen 'zine market.
And that's what Revolve's creators want. "Teens were saying that they found the Bible to be too freaky, too big, too intimidating," says Laurie Whaley, Brand Manager for the New Century Version at Thomas Nelson, one of America's major Bible publishers and part of the Revolve team. "Revolve shows girls that reading the New Testament is just as easy as reading an issue of Seventeen or Vogue."
The desire to get teenagers to read the Bible is, without question, a good thing. But adopting a "whatever it takes" methodology is to set aside the very thing we're seeking to promote -- the Word of God. Samantha's is a necessary reminder that we must give serious thought not only to the content of the message we're trying to communicate, but also to the vehicles we use to convey it. She writes:

...filling the scriptures with sidebars full of "Beautiful People" and references to popular culture is a distraction from the Word of God, and could easily cause girls who are not attractive, or who have had sad or difficult lives, to equate beauty and happiness with godliness. The Bible speaks harshly against vanity, and this time of life is one in which the desire to preen and beautify oneself can become an obsession. I'm sure the publishers of this thing would insist that they are speaking *against* such outward focus, but by presenting the Scriptures in this way they are in fact promoting these glamour values. It has been said that the medium is the message, and in this case that seems to be true.
Read the whole thing and let her know what you think.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

How About a "Personal Discipleship With Jesus?"

Rick Phillips at Reformation 21 offers this helpful contribution to the dialogue about how the Bible should inform our thinking about what it means to have a "personal relationship with God." To put it into context, however, make sure you read these posts and comments on the subject at the Jollyblogger and Common Grounds Online first.

Also of note is this comment in response to my previous post
from my friend Jerry:

I have wondered, too, about why a "personal relationship with God through Christ" has become the predominant way to express the Gospel. "Relationship with God" doesn't appear in the Bible, but neither does "Trinity." Both are shorthand for a larger body of words that are in the Bible. One difference between them is that "trinity" is a shorthand commonly used within the Christian community, while "relationship with God" is commonly used toward nonchristians.
I almost forgot. John Schroeder has some interesting thoughts on the topic at Blogotional, too.

It's important to give serious thought to what we mean by what we're so quick to say.

Thus Bloggeth the Lord!

In case you've been wondering WWGB? (What Would God Blog?), wonder no longer. This morning's mail included a catalog from a local Christian bookstore store announcing the release of God's Blogs: Insights from His Site. The description reads:
"Blogging" is sweeping the Internet...but what would it be like if God had a blog? This humorous, yet thought-provoking, fictional, yet insightful book contains a series of online journaling entries from God! Illuminates biblical truth in a whole new way!
Back cover blurbs come from none other than Jeff Foxworthy ("Divinely inspired. This is an awesome book!"), Dolly Parton ("This book went through me like liquid fire. It is so inspiring, uplifting, and refreshing."), Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio, and John Maxwell.

Divinely inspired, huh? Does this mean we're going to have to revise the canon?
It was just a matter of time.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Coming to a Sanctuary Near You!

First, there was Left Behind. Then there was Tribulation Force. On October 21, 2005 the third episode, Left Behind: World at War, will open on at least as many screens as the biggest Hollywood films. The only difference: it will open in churches not theaters. According to the full-page ad in Christianity Today, it's "the next chapter in the greatest Christian film series ever!" (That makes me wonder. Exactly how many Christian film series have there been?)

If you can't find a church cinema in your neck of the woods, don't worry. The DVD will be released on October 25. For the rest of you, be sure to get to the chapel on time. Who knows? There may be previews (Return of the Gospel Blimp, maybe?). And remember, as a courtesy to other moviegoers, please silence your cell phones.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Forcing My Religion?

STR's Steve Wagner recently pointed readers to a compelling response to the frequently-raised accusation that those who contend for a particular moral position in the public square are seeking to impose their morality on others. Follow the link and check it out. I concur with Steve that it's a thing of beauty.

A related charge is that Christians, in trying to persuade others of the gospel, are guilty of forcing our religious beliefs on our hearers. In addition to having answers to such criticisms, it's equally important to be prepared to ask the right questions of those who level that charge. Questions are wonderful teaching tools whose power, I fear, we don't appreciate nearly enough. Just look at how deftly Jesus used interrogatives to instruct as well as to expose the false assumptions and impure motives that laid behind his detractors' arguments.

The following is a transcript of an online exchange in which I posed some questions to someone claiming that it is wrong for religionists to "force" their beliefs on others.

KP: So you believe that people shouldn't force their views on others?

Chaotic: Yes, I BELIEVE that, though I still don't consider it a BELIEF

KP: Then what do you consider it?

Chaotic: I also believe you shouldn't talk with your mouth full, but its not a belief, sorry, I don't have a word handy for what I would call it.....courtesy perhaps

KP: Both cases are prescriptions as to how people should conduct themselves, no?

Chaotic: In my opinion, yes.

KP: Then they have to do with ethics in some sense, don't they? They are beliefs as to how people should act. They are components of your ethical system.

Chaotic: I suppose they are. Let me rephrase myself: Since it is my belief that attempting to force your belief on others is wrong, attempting to force your beliefs on me is an infringement of my ethical system.

KP: Are you saying I shouldn't infringe on your ethical system?

Chaotic: I can't control your actions

KP: Can I control yours?

Chaotic: No.

KP: Then how can I force my beliefs on you?

Chaotic: It is your RIGHT to force your belief on me but that doesn't mean I have to listen.

KP: So you're saying both that I shouldn't force my beliefs on you AND I have the right to do so?

Chaotic: Yes. A bit of paradox, eh?

KP: So, in other words, I shouldn't exercise my rights?

Chaotic: I have the right to do a lot of things I shouldn't (at least, shouldn't in my opinion).

KP: So really, you're trying to limit my freedom. Who are you to force your beliefs on me?

Chaotic: Nice try. Actually that's not what I said at all. I'm merely saying if you wish to force your beliefs on me, I am obliged to ignore you because I don't believe you should. But you can talk to yourself all day if you like.

KP: You're telling me that I have the right to do something but that I shouldn't exercise it. How is that not a limitation of my freedom? And why shouldn't I use it? What is the basis of that "shouldn't"?

Chaotic: I am telling you, according to my beliefs, you shouldn't. But that doesn't mean you can't.

KP: But how can I force my beliefs on you when you've already said that I can't control what you do? What exactly does it mean to "force my beliefs on you"?

Chaotic: You can ATTEMPT to force them on me.

KP: But I never can, right?

Chaotic: No, I suppose not.

KP: So really, what you were saying is that people shouldn't do what they can't do.

Chaotic: Semantically speaking, yes. Since we are being so technical, I should say that I meant "attempt to force beliefs" from the start.

KP: But if I think people should try to force their beliefs on others (whatever that means) then it's OK for me to do so, right? After all, there's no standard outside ourselves to which we must conform and by which we can judge each others' actions, right?

Chaotic: Right. It's ok for you to do that, though I disagree with it.

KP: So really, within the framework of your system, "People shouldn't...." translates into "I don't like it when people.....," right?

Chaotic: Crudely.

KP: Didn't mean to be crude. Just wanted to get down to the brass tacks.

Chaotic: Well, we're all brassed out

KP: So, why do you use the language of moral imperative to express your personal likes and dislikes?

Chaotic: I made an error in semantics earlier. That is the bare bones of it. I wasn't expecting to have it surgically analyzed. I was just trying to say " I don't like it when people try to force their beliefs on me." But it came out, "People shouldn't force their beliefs on me."

KP: I think it came out that way because that's what you truly believe although it's inconsistent with your professed relativism. No one lives consistently with relativism nor can they. Our actions, and at times our speech, betray us. I think you're more of an absolutist than you think.

Chaotic: Thanks for the character evaluation

KP: Am I wrong?

Chaotic: Couldn't tell you exactly. You say I'm more of an absolutist than I might think. I obviously can't give you an objective analysis of what I am compared to what I think I am.

KP: That's a good point. Do you think you're a consistent relativist, then?

Chaotic: I don't think I am a consistent anything. Tell me why you think I am or am not a relativist.

KP: Well, I think you espouse relativism based on your presentation of your ethical beliefs. I know that you're not a consistent one, however, because you are created in the image of God and He has revealed Himself in part through the workings of your conscience as well as by the standards by which you judge others. No matter how you try, you can't be other than what you are as an image-bearer of God living in His world.

Chaotic: Of course, that is simply your belief. I consider myself Humanist, though I know I do not live up to that every day.

KP: When you make statements about what people should or should not do, as though appealing to some objective standard of ethics, you're leaving your worldview and borrowing from another. There is no basis for such assertions on your presuppositions. At most, your philosophy allows you to say what you don't like people to do. You can't say anything about anything but your own inner world.

Chaotic: Agreed. Alas, I am not perfect, I needed you to point that out too.

KP: I just wanted to show you that your worldview reduces to relativism and subjectivism. Ultimately it ends in skepticism.

Chaotic: Probably.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Christianity American Style: Overemphasizing a Personal Relationship with Jesus?

Reflecting on Mark Noll's Wall Street Journal article about the best-selling novella, Dinner with a Complete Stranger, Christianity Today's Ted Olsen asks if we're overemphasizing a "personal relationship" with Jesus.

Noll asks:

So why does a popular book like "Dinner"--as well as so much popular American Christianity--feature a personal relationship with God so prominently? The answer probably lies in the adaptive character of the Christian faith. Students of world-wide Christianity have noted that in every region where Christianity takes root it has adjusted to the values of local culture.
Olsen notes:
Noll's article is indicative of what seems to be a growing concern among evangelicals (at least evangelical academics and theologians) that the movement has not spent enough energy and effort understanding and describing a theology of the church (ecclesiology).
Talk of having a personal relationship with Jesus is so deeply entrenched in evangelical discourse that calling it into question may strike us as sacrosanct. But hopefully we're willing to ask, along with Noll, whether this emphasis is due more to an attempt to be biblically faithful or to the imbibing of American cultural values (e.g., individualism).

In one sense, the idea of needing to come to Christ in order to have a personal relationship with God is misleading. Every person stands in a relationship with God. Coming to Christ changes the nature of that relationship from one of condemned criminals before a just judge to that of pardoned and accepted sinners graciously adopted into a nurturing family. So, the critical question as far as the gospel is concerned, is not so much whether one has a personal relationship with God but rather what kind of relationship one has.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Book Review: Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians

Here's a brief review I wrote a few years ago of one of the books I recommended for further study about guidance and the will of God.

Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians (P & R, 1999) is written by James C. Petty, a counselor at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation in Glenside, Pennsylvania. It's based on the thesis he wrote for his D.Min. at Westminster Theological Seminary.

The book is divided into four parts: (1) The Promise of Guidance, (2) Understanding Guidance, (3) Experiencing Guidance, and (4) Seeking Guidance: The Seven Elements of Biblical Decision Making. The author's premise is that guidance is rooted in our knowledge of God. "The more one knows of God's character and desires, the better one can live to be conformed to the image of Christ and make the many daily decisions that must be made" (20). Petty rightly points out that there is a myriad of conflicting teachings about the issue of guidance, most of which rely more on anecdotes and illustrations than serious biblical and theological reflection. Petty's stated goal is to approach the issue from a systematically biblical perspective.

In Part One, Petty identifies what he believes to be the three most prevalent views on guidance in evangelical circles. According to the "traditional view," which Petty says only became popular in the twentieth century, God has a detailed plan for each Christian. Guidance entails discovering or discerning that plan by means of interpreting circumstances, inner impressions, and the counsel of others in concert with the Word of God. While Petty agrees that God does have a sovereign plan for each life, he believes that proponents of the traditional view err in insisting that God wants us to know it before it unfolds.

The second position described is the "traditional charismatic view." Like the traditional view, it affirms the existence of a divine, meticulous plan for the individual. However, knowledge of this plan is communicated directly and verbally through prophetic gifts and audible and inaudible voices. "The charismatic view of guidance involves the confidence that God normally and naturally communicates with us in clear human language" (33).

Later in the book, Petty identifies four problems with the traditional view of an individualized will that must be discerned and obeyed. First, making the individual (non-moral) will of God the focus, could lead to the oversight of sinful motives or the application of scriptural principles. Another difficulty is that it emphasizes finding a plan rather than applying Scripture in the wisdom of the Spirit in making decisions. Third, Petty finds no scriptural support for such a practice. Finally, Petty says, it is unworkable. If there is one prescribed plan for us to follow, then most of us have missed it and it is impossible to backtrack and get on the right road once we have strayed.

The third approach to guidance Petty considers (and the one he endorses) is the "wisdom view." It too acknowledges a detailed individual plan but holds that God does not normally reveal it to us except in the unfolding of history. Guidance, from this perspective, does not have to do with deciphering circumstances to discern this plan. Rather, God guides His people by giving us "insight into issues and choices so that we make the decisions with divinely inspired wisdom" (33). God's guidance is, therefore, mediate as opposed to immediate. Petty defines wisdom as "the moral skill to understand and apply the commandments of God to situations and people." "It particularizes and personalizes the will, priorities, and preferences of God" (144).

Part One concludes with a survey of the different ways God guided believers in different periods of redemptive history and in different litergenreseres (the patriarchs, under the Mosaic law, the psalms and prophets, the gospels, and post-Pentecost).

In Part Two, Petty provides a clear, biblically reasoned study of the "will of God," noting that the phrase is used both of God's plan as well as His commandments. Failure to make such a distinction is what results in so much confusion about the nature of guidance. In this section, he also treats the doctrine of providence as it relates to the plan of God. Not surprisingly, he defends a Reformed position, arguing that God sovereignly ordains whatsoever comes to pass including the free acts of humans although he does not "tempt or directly coerce our will" (66). The relationship of providence to salvation and judgment is also discussed in depth. Petty demonstrates that the efficacy of grace requires a "no risk" view of providence though he does not use that terminology. "There is no Plan B, C, or D. There is only what God ordained by his plan and our responsible actions. In his mysterious (to us) sovereignty, both of those become one" (70).

One of the greatest strengths of the book is Petty's reminder that biblical doctrines are to be used in biblical ways. The doctrine of providence, for example, is not simply a philosophical concept, but a doctrine with a pastoral purpose. As such, it is not to be used as a rationalization for irresponsibility in those areas God has commanded our activity. Instead, it should motivate us to action. Furthermore, it serves as a "guardrail to our decision making" (77) freeing us from the anxiety that so frequently accompanies our presentation with choices. The knowledge that God is working all things for our good delivers us from the misconception that our welfare is ultimately up to our ability to make flawless choices.

Petty uses three concentric circles to illustrate three aspects of God's moral will. The innermost circle represents those things explicitly prohibited by Scripture or what Petty calls "the put offs." These are moral absolutes that are to be refrained from all the time. Guidance in this domain is acquired through God's law. The middle circle consists of all of the positive commands of Scripture summarized in the greatest and second greatest commandments. This is where most questions of guidance arise. Issues such as the use of our time, money, and giftedness fall in this category. Citing John Frame, Petty points out that we must make priorities between the positive commands of Scripture:

Frame rightly recognizes that for the positive commands of Scripture, God calls us to "prioritize among absolutes." We cannot do them all at once. We must choose when a particular positive act is a priority and when it is not. Each of us must therefore develop a sense of priorities reflecting our gifts, our situation, and our callings, and our goals to glorify God. These are the issues that constitute the real background of guidance. This is where we seek to know and do the will of God (92).
Since such prioritization is necessary, wisdom and discernment are required to know how to apply love for God and neighbor in specific situations. Thus, we are in need of illumination of our minds and hearts by the Spirit and the Word.
The similarity between Petty's position and Garry Friesen's is obvious. Petty says that while Friesen has made a significant contribution in exposing the unbiblical concept of the "individual will of God" as traditionally understood, his appeal to the criterion of "spiritual expediency" in decision making is insufficient. "There is more than spiritual expediency at stake here: the very heart of moral integrity is involved" (105). This is a valuable observation.

The outermost circle in Petty's illustration represents areas of Christian liberty where there is a choice between equally good alternatives. "If a decision falls into this third circle of Christian liberty, God has no preference (will) in the situation. He holds us responsible to make our own decisions. This is the area where God has given us great freedom to order our lives according to our own preferences" (122). Guidance in this area ("guidance with a small g") is given in the form of providence. "God in his providence can put thoughts into our heads, but that is not true guidance" (126). Petty is reluctant to use the word guidance with respect to God's providence because there is a danger "in trying to deduce God's moral (preceptive) will (what we should do) from his sovereign will (what actually happens)" (170). Thus,
.....premonitions, predictions, and hunches are under this category of God's providence. They do not constitute guidance in the true sense of the word. They should be treated in the same way as any information that God may bring across your path such as a news report, a friend, or a book. You cannot tell whether it is correct, valid, or helpful apart from testing it, just as you would any other information (128).
We know that a decision falls into this area if it does not fit in either of the other two. It is uncertain, however, whether too clear a distinction can be made between this and the second circle since Petty correctly notes that even in our exercise of liberty, our decision making is to be governed by love for neighbor and the motive to glorify God.
The section on experiencing guidance contains very good material on the nature of biblical wisdom and a chapter on how to become wise. From the book of Proverbs, Petty identifies necessary ingredients. First, we must repent of our foolishness and trust Christ, the wisdom of God, for salvation. Second, we must commit ourselves to progressive consecration to God:
The path of wisdom is a lifestyle of repentance from serving functional gods like security, safety, control of situation, pleasure, power, ease, avoidance of pain, and approval. God will systematically expose any such rivals in our hearts that divert us from loving and worshiping him (179).
The third requirement for becoming wise is to pursue it through prayer and meditation on the Word. Fourth, we must associate with those who are wise and seek their counsel. One of the things that I greatly appreciated about Petty's work is his corporate, as opposed to individualistic, emphasis: "God's guidance is individual, but not individualistic. His guidance takes full account of the relationship we sustain with the whole body of Christ, the church" (47).
The fourth section of the book covers seven essential elements of biblical decision making: consecration, information, supplication, consultation, meditation, decision, and expectation. Each of these is illustrated in the life of Don, a fictitious Christian man dissatisfied with his current job and considering a major change.

This is, in my opinion, a very good work that should prove helpful to those willing to think along with the author. The focus on wisdom as the means by which God guides his people is well supported with biblical data. Readers should come away with a heightened appreciation of wisdom as a supernatural gift of immeasurable value, made possible by the person and work of Christ. The connection between sanctification and decision making that is often sorely lacking in popular treatments of guidance is prominent, taking our focus off of finding God's plan and on becoming the kind of people he desires us to become.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Fighting Paralysis & Presumption: More on Finding the Will of God

I want to point you to the input of others who responded to my previous post on finding the will of God. I intended to get this out a lot sooner but life got hectic and more pressing demands took over. I would have had it posted last night but when I was almost done and tried to save the draft, Blogger went batty and I lost everything I worked on yesterday.

Thanks to Brian for directing me to this article by Garry Friesen that appeared in Discipleship Journal a few years back. I didn't want it to get lost in the comments section. It's currently under construction but I look forward to reading what Brian has to say at his blog, Reasons Why.

David Wayne, the Jolly Blogger, has some thoughts about what is to account for the obsession with finding God's will. He chalks it up to evangelical narcissism and, in agreement with Bruce Waltke, one of the authors I recommended in my last entry, claims that the way many believers think about discerning God's will has more in common with pagan occultism than the Bible. He includes an excerpt from Waltke's book, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? as well as a link to Rusty Lopez's thoughts on the topic at New Covenant .

On Adrian Warnock's UK Blog as well as on his own, Cadmus inquired about the relationship between living God's will and the fruit of the Spirit as he studies Galatians 5:16-26. I particularly like the way he put this:
In our culture we are told to do something with our lives, that we have to be successful and that's why so many struggle with doing God's Will. So many want God to hold a career fair and tell them what they should do, when he tells us so often throughout the Bible: "Live this way so others can see Me and want to know Me personally and become disciples."
So very true. One of the young men I spoke with in Wisconsin related how he was thinking about looking for a new job but thought he had to stay where he was until he got a "clear sign" from God. He was so relieved to learn that what's required of him is to make a wise, biblically-informed decision, trusting that the Lord will providentially order his steps.

More recently, Adrian Warnock posted his sermon notes on Proverbs 3: 5 - 6. Certainly, no discussion of God's will would be complete without reference to these familiar verses. They're frequently portrayed as a promise of specific personal guidance in critical decisions, especially because the King James Version renders the latter part of verse 6: "....and he shall direct your paths" instead of the more accurate translation of the verb which means "to make straight" or "to make smooth." Garry Friesen, in Decision Making and the Will of God quotes Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke recounting a fellow scholar's difficulty coming to terms with this:
All of us have had the shock of discovering that a favorite verse in the King James Version was inaccurate.... I recall the astonishment of one of the committee members assigned to translate the Book of Proverbs for the New International Version when he discovered that Proverbs 3:5-6 had nothing to say about guidance.... [W]hen confronted with the linguistic data he had to admit reluctantly that the verse more properly read 'and He will make your path smooth.'
One of the reasons I risk recommending Garry Friesen's 400+ page book to people is its fourth chapter, "Does Scripture Teach the Dot?," in which the author examines the biblical passages most frequently offered as prooftexts for the teaching that God has a prescribed path which we must discern beforehand through various means in order to be "in the center of God's will." This chapter is, in my opinion, worth the cost of the book because in each instance Friesen models sound interpretive methods, paying careful attention to the literary and thematic contexts of the verses that are frequently ripped from their surroundings to support the idea of an individualized will that must be discovered in order to make God-pleasing choices.

Concerning the significance of the imagery of a "path" in verse 6, Friesen writes:
The noun "path" is frequently employed in the Psalms and Proverbs. But it does not have the idea of an individual will of God. Hebrew writers use it to describe the general course of fortunes of life (see Proverbs 4:18-19; 15:19). When the verb "make straight, make smooth" is connected withi "paths," the meaning of the statement is, "He shall make the course of your life successful." This meaning is clearly indicated in Proverbs 11:5:
The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way,
But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness.
This verse contrasts the righteous man who experiences true success in life with the wicked man who brings trouble upon himself by his devious behavior. This is a common theme in Proverbs (4:18-19; 11:5; 15:19; 22:17-21).
Friesen notes that the first ten verses of Proverbs 3 consist of a series of two-verse couplets. Each couplet contains a command to obey the Lord followed by a description of the blessing that generally accompanies godliness. "The true intent of Proverbs 3:5-6," he concludes, "is to set forth a pattern the believer should follow to experience true success in life - a pattern in which he demonstrates his trust and obedience of God by following the directions of God's moral will." Given this understanding, the imperative to not lean on our own understanding is not a call to abandon the processes of fact-finding and deliberation as though they were somehow antagonistic to following the Lord. God is not prohibiting the use of our minds to evaluate the various options before us and settle on a course of action. What is prohibited is an evaluative process that operates independently of the fear of the Lord. Instead of relying on my own understanding, I am to trust the understanding that comes through God's interpretation of and instruction about life (see Proverbs 2:6 and 9:6).

The popularity of what Friesen calls "the dot theory" of God's will (the idea that God's individualized will is like a bullseye that we must hit) is due to a number of factors. Among them is our tendency to approach the Bible atomistically. We tend to focus on individual verses with a zoom lens when we need to set our minds on telephoto so as to best understand them in terms of their relationship to each other. Of course, we practically train people from childhood to approach the Bible in this piecemeal manner. But that's fodder for a future post, perhaps.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Will of God in Wisconsin

A handful of you will be familiar with the name Alan Dunham. He's a young man who, with his wife, Emily, was actively involved in our church a few years back. Emily was also our ministry assistant for a while and her unique combination of professionalism and a great sense of humor made working with her a real joy. When their growing family migrated north of the border to the Land of Cheddar, I, with many others, was sad to bid them farewell.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Alan a few weeks ago, asking if I'd join him in leading a men's ministry activity I think is worthy of imitation. Alan proposed that a group of guys from his church gather for dinner at a local restaurant and discuss a theological subject afterwards. Since he decided to call these gatherings "Meaty Topics," it's fitting that last night's kickoff meeting was held at The Brat Stop.

One of the reasons I'm so hyped about this kind of thing (besides liking to eat) is because there's a dire need for men to become more established in the Scriptures. Anything churches do to encourage biblical/theological reflection and application beyond the shallow depth of much of what is produced for men, is laudable. Furthermore, having discussions like this in a setting other than the church building, or even a home, can help fight against the ever present temptation to privatize our faith.

Last night's meaty topic was guidance and the will of God. As I told the group, this is one subject I'll talk about any chance I get because I know from my own experience as well as from multiple conversations with other Christians, how much confusion, anxiety, and pain can be caused by the fear of somehow "missing" God's will when faced with important decisions.
One of the people who motivates me to speak out on this subject is a young woman I met a few years ago. She was in her 20's and hadn't completed college. She was stuck in a job she hated and earnestly desired to return to school to pursue a degree in sports medicine. Her problem was that she wasn't sure if this was "just what I want to do or what God wants me to do." When she expressed her confusion to her roommates, both of whom had been Christians longer than she, they told her that when they were faced with such decisions, they prayerfully asked God what choice to make and he showed them. As this young woman related this account to me, her eyes filled with tears and she eventually asked, "What's wrong with my relationship with Jesus that I'm not hearing from him?" Things had gotten so bad that she was even doubting her salvation because she wasn't getting the personal direction others were claiming.

I witnessed her countenance change from one of despair to one of joyous relief when I shared with her what I shared with the guys last night - that when the Bible refers to God's will it does so in two senses. First, in some cases the phrase refers to God's sovereign purpose, his comprehensive and predetermined plan which cannot be frustrated. In other instances, God's will refers to his moral precepts, his commands, that which we are responsible to conform our lives to with respect to attitude, motive, and behavior. When the Bible calls us to know the will of the Lord, it is this sense that is in mind. Never are we responsible for finding out beforehand God's sovereign will so we can "obey" it. As James exhorts us, we are to seek wisdom from God, but that's not the same thing as asking him to make our decisions for us. Concerning what is promised in James 1:5, Garry Friesen writes:
James is not promising, for instance, that God will give instant omniscience to the supplicant. Nor is he suggesting that wisdom is divinely injected "intravenously" apart from a regular diet of God's revealed wisdom, the Bible...James 1:5 is not a promise of instant solutions to every problem. Such interpretations are simply not permitted by the rest of Scripture.

James's promise was given in answer to an implied question. In the opening sentences of his epistle, he challenged believers to accept their trials with joy because of the character development that would result. Such a response, however, is not the most natural one. And so the reader might be expected to ask: How can I develop a proper perspective toward my trials? How can I know how to respond in a way that will respond in a way that will produce positive effects in my life? To which James replied: Ask God for wisdom.

In that context, the needed wisdom would probably be multifaceted: it could include the ability to see the situation from God's perspective and recognize its potential values; it could include a recognition of ways to bring relief and/or avoid unnecessary pain where possible (cf. Paul's wisdom in 1 Corinthians 7:28ff.); it could include the recollection or discovery of relevant Bible passages that would reveal divine viewpoint; it could include the ability to apply specific biblical principles to the immediate situation; and it could include the perspective needed to wait on the Lord.
For those interested in pursuing the subject in greater depth, I gave a few recommendations of resources I've found helpful over the years. Here they are in no particular order:

Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen
Decision Making and the Will of God (audio lecture and study notes) by Greg Koukl
Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? by Bruce Waltke
The Will of God as a Way of Life by Jerry Sittser
Found: God's Will by John MacArthur
Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians by James Petty (read Chapter One here).
Decision Making God's Way: A New Model for Knowing God's Will by Gary Meadors

It was invigorating spending time with about 35 brothers in Christ who evidenced a hunger not only for a well-cooked meal but for God and his Word. If by chance, you're one of those men, thank you for your warm welcome. I hope the men of Kenosha Bible Church will continue to hash out (no pun intended) Meaty Topics and that other churches will follow suit.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Using Technology Humanely

Thanks to James Kushiner at Mere Comments for making me aware of this article on "Technology and the Spirit of Human Ownership" by Paul J. Cella III in which the author offers the following caution about blogging and other forms of Internet discourse:
Technology can also obscure the humanity of the human beings we interact with. For example, the Internet is wonderfully efficient at distributing information and at democratizing the Fourth Estate, but it can also isolate and dehumanize. Anyone familiar with Internet debate understands this reality all too well. There is a sort of raucous and wooly community among the multitude of bloggers. It is always fascinating, frequently rewarding, and at times magnificent: a genuine innovation in free speech and republican discourse. But it is also conducive to meanness and slander. The ordinary inhibitions of human interaction, the natural respect and civility that should be extended between even those who disagree, is attenuated and at times almost nonexistent. The result is often a kind of disembodied aggression, a drab uncharity. People troll the Internet hunting for targets of animus on whom to unleash their polemical weapons. It is very easy on the Web to forget that you are actually in a distant way engaging real people. And in forgetting that, ferocity ensues. Blogging is spirited, but it often lends itself to rancor. At its best, it brings distant people with shared interests together in ways once unimaginable. At its worst, it reflects the radical isolation of technologically-inebriated creatures. In its glories and entangled perils it illustrates the truth that we must be mindful of all that is human behind our contrivances, lest they devour us.

God Won't Give You More Than You Can Handle

How frequently we hear these words offered in pressing times, usually preceded by the words, "Like the Bible says..." It's interesting that what many people mean by their paraphrase is something along the order of "God will keep you from being overwhelmed." But is that what is actually promised? I don't think so. 

The verse that people have in mind when they say this actually has to do with temptation. Paul is warning the Corinthians against idolatry and immorality like that engaged in by the Israelites in the desert (1 Cor.10:6-11). The actual promise, found in 1 Cor 10:13 is that God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability but will provide a way of escape so that we can withstand the temptation without giving into sin. The emphasis of the verse is moral but this is often lost in the way we loosely paraphrase the text. (Might this be an indicator that we value a culturally-derived notion of psychological well-being more than holiness?) The believer is never justified in saying that he or she just had to sin because the temptation was too great. I like the way Ed Welch puts it in his book Depression: A Stubborn Darkness: "He will never put you in a situation where a sinful response is the only way out." 

If Paul really intended to make a general statement about God never giving Christians more than they could handle, then we'd have a hard time explaining his own testimony in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9: "For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself...But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead."

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

CT's New "Life Matters" Blog

Christianity Today has launched a new life ethics weblog called Life Matters, featuring Dr. Nigel Cameron. They describe it as, "a weekly roundup of news and commentary on issues of life: creating it, ending it, enhancing it, and treating it properly."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

To the Tune of "Yes, Jesus Loves Me"

Yes, God ac-cepts me,
Yes, God ac-cepts me,
Yes, God ac-cepts me,
My e-go tells me so.

That's the ditty the majority of Americans are singing to themselves, according to a new national survey conducted by the Barna Group.
Currently, nine out of ten adults (88%) feel “accepted by God.” Barna listed a pair of interesting correlations related to that self-image. First, about one-third of the individuals who feel accepted by God do not consider themselves to be deeply spiritual. Second, people are twice as likely to feel accepted by God as they are to be born again – a condition that, many Protestant leaders argue, is a key reflection of God’s forgiveness and ultimate acceptance.
Some other interesting findings:

  • Four out of every five adults (82%) say they are “clear about the meaning and purpose” of their life
  • The younger a person is, the less likely they are to trust the Bible as their source of moral guidance or to believe that absolute moral truth exists.
  • The younger a respondent was the less likely he or she was to claim to be deeply spiritual.
  • African-American adults, who generally emerge as the ethnic segment most deeply committed to the Christian faith, were substantially less likely than either whites or Hispanics to have a biblical worldview. In total, just 1% of black adults met the criteria, compared to 6% among whites and 8% among Hispanics. (Less than one-tenth of one percent of Asians possesses a biblical worldview.)
George Barna had the following to say about popularity as it relates to Christian publishing and pastoral ministry (I wonder what title he had in mind):
Most of the bestsellers have focused on meaning, purpose, security and the end times.....While there have been theological views expressed in those books, very few popular books have helped people to think clearly and comprehensively about their core theology. Consequently, most born again Christians hold a confusing and inherently contradictory set of religious beliefs that go unchecked by the leaders and teachers of their faith community.
Our studies consistently show that churches base their sense of success on indicators such as attendance, congregant satisfaction, dollars raised and built-out square footage. None of those factors relates to the kind of radical shift in thinking and behavior that Jesus Christ died on the cross to facilitate. As long as we measure success on the basis of popularity and efficiency, we will continue to see a nation filled with people who can recite Bible stories but fail to live according to Bible principles.
I agree with Barna on both points and they're obviously related. The tendency to measure success in terms of numbers leads many pastors to promote whatever Christian book is "hot" (or "blessed of God," to sound more spiritual) in their congregations and thus the cycle continues. Christian publishing is like television. Countless voices decry its deleterious effects but the producers (and publishers) are only giving the public what it craves.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Glorying in Violence

As odd as it may sound, self-professed, Bible-believing Christians are gathering in large crowds to witness horrendous acts of violence. Thousands at a time have assembled for such meetings while others have viewed them on television. Apparently there is no shame in beholding these egregious acts. On the contrary, these believers revel in it, cheering the perpetrators and demonstrating little, if any, concern for the object of the injurious acts. Retailers report record sales of Christian books containing numerous examples of the graphic violence.

I must confess that in a moment of weakness I succumbed to my morbid curiosity and took in some of this violence. Last weekend I viewed a rebroadcast of Lakewood Church's first service in the Compaq Center, former home of the Houston Rockets. Pastor Joel Osteen was on stage recounting the events that over the last 5 years led up to this momentous occasion. He told how when he first had the vision to acquire the 16,000 seat arena, many "naysayers" sought to discourage him. Then the violence. Osteen quoted Romans 3:3 which in the NIV reads, "What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?" "One translation," Osteen said, "renders this verse 'So what if some did not believe?'" He then set off on a positive-thinking message about not being dissuaded from following your dreams when those around you tell you they're too big.

Contextually, the verse Osteen wrenched from its context has to do with Jewish unbelief despite the fact that Israel was chosen by God to be his covenant people. It has nothing to do with personal dreams or visions. It has to do with God's fidelity to the outworking of his redemptive plan. Nevertheless, as Osteen contorted the Scriptures to the point that one could almost hear them scream, thousands clapped, "hallelujah'ed," and raised their hands in response to the abuse.

A commenter on a previous post said, "What Osteen does is teach people how to apply principles from God's Word to their every day lives." I think it's more accurate to say that what Osteen does is teach people, by way of example, how to do violence to the Scriptures, which Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:16 is self-destructive.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Frist's Folly: How Does He Do It?

This morning in a reply to a friend who expressed her appreciation for the title of last Friday's post about Senator Bill Frist, I mentioned that I still can't get over how contorted his reasoning is. I also commented that I don't know how the man can sleep with all that cognitive dissonance ricocheting around. 

Christianity Today's Stan Guthrie shares his own wonderment at the senator's "marvelous burst of logical and moral incoherence." Commenting on the Mr. Frist's affirmation that he is pro-life and that the human embryo "deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect," Guthrie asks, "In other words, treating human embryos with 'the utmost dignity and respect' includes killing them for research—as long as that killing is done 'within ethical bounds.' That's pro-life?"

Guthrie concludes his appropriately titled article, "Frist's Folly", with this important reminder:
Finally, Frist's flip-flop reminds Christians that we cannot rely on any political party—even one officially "pro-life"—to always make moral (or even logical) decisions. While we may make temporary alliances with this politician or that, ultimately we do not belong to any party. We belong to Jesus Christ.