Sunday, August 2, 2020

Some Reasons to Think that Jesus Affirmed the Old Testament (and Not Progressive Christianity)


One of the major doctrines of the various ideologies that would go under the umbrella of progressive Christianity is that the Bible is not inerrant, and what Jesus says in the Gospels (which, unlike the rest of the Bible, are assumed to be true and accurate) overrules what is said elsewhere in the Bible.

This principle plays out in many ways. Some in the general progressive camp are much more upfront about this (e.g. author Benjamin Corey of the former Formerly Fundie blog) than others (like Peter Enns). But the general principle employed is that Jesus (i.e. what He says in the Gospels) is the only true revelation of God.

For this reason, none of the rest of the Bible is regarded as the word of God in any meaningful sense. The rest of the Bible is usually believed to be completely human in origin. The Israelites, in attempting to understand God as they imagined Him, wrote the Old Testament over the course of many centuries and attributed words and deeds to Him. It is not actually revelation from God, and therefore, there is no reason to try to harmonize it to the words of Jesus. 

Some may say it is inspired in a sense, but not nearly to the extent that Christianity has traditionally believed, nor to the extent that the words of Jesus in the Gospels are truly God's inspired revelation. The rest of the Bible - especially the Old Testament - is ultimately the word of man and, therefore, any part can be rejected, without much concern, if there is apparent reason to do so.


But What If Jesus Affirmed the Old Testament?

With all of this in mind, you might notice some major differences between a progressive view of the Bible and a more traditional Christian view. Traditionally, the books of the Bible, if not inerrant, are at least believed to be generally infallible in that they are all inspired by God, they are not merely the works of men, they are true and accurate when they teach about God and morality, etc. They contain actual divine revelation. 

Therefore, traditionally, and especially among those who hold to inerrancy or an equivalent ancient view, it is believed that Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels and the Old Testament can be harmonized once everything is properly understood. In fact, under the traditional view, Jesus even affirms the Old Testament.

This last point is especially important because, if it is the case that Jesus affirms the Old Testament, then this entire progressive paradigm falls apart because we could no longer say that the Old Testament is some inferior, non-divine (or practically non-divine) work of men that is flawed and that is overruled by Jesus. 

If Jesus affirms the Old Testament, then that is in line with a more conservative, traditional view of the Bible, where the Old Testament is God’s word, and therefore must be taken into account when deciding what is true and right.

To make a full case that Jesus definitively viewed the Old Testament as being the truly inspired word of God that preceded His first earthly coming would be a task well beyond a blog post. It would take a book or more. But here, I will give some reasons, primarily from Jesus’s own words in the Gospels, why it sure seems like He did, and why any view that denies this has a high hurdle to make its way over.


Why This Matters

In the current social and political environment in the west, many believers from more conservative, evangelical backgrounds tend to start internalizing some of the ideas of progressive Christianity without much pushback. They quote scholars like Peter Enns approvingly, despite holding to more conservative views - at least for the time being. They start showing cognitive dissonance, dismissing some teachings because they are not "loving" and because "Jesus never said" without being willing to actually say that they reject the Old Testament's teaching on the matter (and without an explanation for why the rule might have changed now as part of the new covenant). 

This cognitive dissonance can only last for so long until someone has to decide one way or another. Some become more conservative, while others fall to the other side of the fence and adopt progressive Christianity fully. Aside from the theological issues that come with such a view, this often leads to negative practical consequences. It leads to professing believers supporting anti-Christian causes in the name of being loving like Jesus. It leads to them supporting the killing of the unborn (including many girls) in the name of women's rights. It leads to condemning believers who hold to biblical teachings as being toxic. It leads to encouraging people to engage in sin and self-mutilation in the name of LGBT equality, and it even leads to supporting laws that punish believers who do not agree with such stances and then in any way act on their disagreement.

And then, many who embrace progressive Christianity eventually go the way of Bart Campolo and abandon the faith altogether (for more on this, see Hailes).

People get attracted to progressive theology and its disdain for the holy scriptures for any number of reasons, but for many, it starts out with just some interesting ideas that seem to make sense and resolve some problems that arise from affirming the Old Testament as being God's word. The following is my attempt to wade into the waters a little bit and say “let me stop you right there.” It isn’t the be-all, end-all of the conversation, but I hope to perhaps get some people to rethink their rethinking of the Bible.

 

Jesus Cited And Affirmed Many Specific Commandments of Moses

Jesus Called Two Commands of Moses "The Word of God” in Matthew 15:6

Moses gave many commandments, claiming to have been from God. And many of those commandments are the ones most often appealed to as being false, violent and wicked commands that Jesus supposedly taught were wrong and not from God. And yet, Jesus calls some of the commands that Moses gave “the word of God.”

If Moses really did give many false commands, all the while saying that he was hearing them directly from God, then would we really expect Jesus to assert that some of his other commands were still, in fact, directly from God? Do liars, which Moses must be if progressive Christianity is true, sometimes pass along actual messages from God - not just guessing correctly, but actually preaching what Jesus called "the word of God"?

An aside, the books of the Torah attribute commands of Moses directly to God all the time. This is explicit and not an assumption. This occurs, for example, during the first verses of most chapters of Leviticus (all chapters except 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 26). And Jesus did affirm that Moses was a real individual, as the Torah spoke of (e.g. John 5:46).

It is worth noting that there is a false cliche that sometimes comes up in progressive circles, the cliche that Jesus is the word of God, not the Bible. But as we see here, Jesus Himself referred to at least part of the Bible that way. This is not the only time at all that the Bible, including in the Gospels, calls something “the word of God” that is not Jesus For more on this, see “Jesus is the Word of God, but He Is Not the Only Word of God.”

Not only are two of Moses's commands considered “the word of God” by Jesus Himself, despite being given on multiple occasions in three different books of the Torah, but one of them is a command to carry out the death penalty!

While it may very well be possible that such a command wasn’t meant to be taken literally – that is a whole different can of worms in Old Testament interpretation – at the very least this command cannot be rejected simply because it would seem to violate Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” or something like that. After all, Jesus Himself affirmed the command and rebuked the Pharisees by using it. And if this command about the death penalty is “the word of God” according to Jesus Himself, on what grounds can we reject other such commands simply on the grounds that they violate what Jesus said?

Jesus Was Quoting the Law When he Said "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself"

Many people, including evangelicals, act as though Jesus, on earth, in the Gospels, is the one who first taught “love your neighbor as yourself.” But in that context, Jesus is just quoting the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). In Matthew 22:36, He was asked what the greatest commandment in the Law was. This was not Jesus giving moral teachings in a vacuum. He is being asked to pick from the commands given to Moses in the Torah. And so He does.

After quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and stating that the first and greatest commandment is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (verse 37), Jesus then cites Leviticus 19:18 and tells us that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (verse 39).

This second commandment, often used to say that Jesus overruled some of the more severe commandments (and allowances) in the Old Testament, is itself directly from the Old Testament. 

And for good measure, it is worth pointing out that this Leviticus passage precedes a whole chapter (Leviticus 20) that literally calls for capital punishment for various sins, including homosexuality (verse 13). It seems hard to justify using "love your neighbor as yourself" to nullify passages of the Old Testament when you realize it's place in the story - and yet Jesus approvingly cites it anyway.


Jesus Quotes The Old Testament To Make Various Points

Like the various New Testament epistles, Jesus also cites the Old Testament on a regular basis.

One major example is Matthew 22:32. To prove the resurrection to the Sadducees, Jesus quoted Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” That point, the claim that God really said that to Moses, was essential to Jesus’s point. If that event in Exodus did not actually happen, then Jesus’s whole argument would have fallen apart.

We know also that Jesus affirmed a resurrection (e.g. John 5:28-29). It is not as though Jesus maybe just meant “if you followed the Old Testament, you’d have to believe in a resurrection” as part of a hypothetical statement. Jesus really was arguing for the resurrection, and using the Old Testament as proof.

Other examples include Jesus citing Psalm 8:2 in Matthew 21:16 to justify children in the temple praising Him, citing Isaiah 29:13 about the false, insincere honor given to God being likewise given to Jesus, and citing Hosea 9:6 in Matthew 9:13 about how God ultimately desires mercy not sacrifice.

 

Jesus Appealed To The Old Testament Scriptures Broadly

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and “Moses and the Prophets” 

In this famous parable (I do believe it is a parable, as do probably the majority of believers), Jesus shows a rich man and a beggar in an intermediate state between bodily death and the resurrection. The rich man was in torment, and the beggar, named Lazarus, was with Abraham in a place of joy.

I’m sure most of you are already familiar with this parable, so the one element I want to draw attention to is the end. The rich man wanted Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers to repent and not end up where the rich man was in Hades. Abraham says that his brothers have Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Old Testament). When the rich man says that they need more to lead them to repentance, Abraham delivers the punchline of the parable:

But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'

This point, the takeway of the whole story, is that if Moses and the Prophets were not to lead a Jew to repentance and salvation, nothing would. They wouldn’t even be convinced by someone rising from the dead (and we all know why Jesus would mention that).

If Moses and the Prophets were not actually speaking on behalf of God, if these writings were just the product of men trying to figure God out, and if they often got it wrong and even taught wicked things in the name of God that Jesus would refute with His teachings, then why would Moses and the Prophets lead anyone to repentance and salvation? 

Jesus Appealed To Himself in the Old Testament

If Jesus thought that the Old Testament was at best a nice try by religious but violent men trying to figure out God, why did He speak of Himself being in it? Why would He speak of what it said as things that needed to be fulfilled, if these things weren’t of God? Why would teachings of men have to come to pass?

Perhaps most notable is Matthew 26:54, when Jesus is being arrested:

How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?
Two verses later, Jesus also says:
 But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets (Matthew 26:56a).

Again, why would the scriptures need to be fulfilled if they were the works solely of men and not God? If they were the works of men, then it would make sense that some things would prove to be false. 

The fact that Jesus appealed to Old Testament scripture this way is, at the very least, a challenge to the idea that the scriptures were not divine in origin.

It is also worth remembering that Jesus came to earth before any of the New Testament would have been written. The scriptures He would reference would be the Old Testament.

Jesus also appealed to the scriptures in John 5:37 when preaching to the Pharisees:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.

It isn’t controversial that the “scriptures” that the Pharisees would consult were the books of the Old Testament. While controversies exist over a few books, these controversies pertain to books like 1 Enoch or the Roman Catholic Apocrypha, not the books of Moses or the Prophets. 

In fact, we see similar sentiments, and further explanation, in Luke 24:44, after Jesus is resurrected:

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled."

Other References To the Scriptures

In Matthew 22, not only did Jesus cite Exodus 3:6 to prove the resurrection, he also rebuked the Sadducees with the following:

You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29).

Why would it matter that the Sadducees did not understand “the scriptures” if they were not God’s revelation?

Although this following reference to the scriptures was not spoken by Jesus directly, it is noteworthy that John - who wrote one of the Gospels that are considered to be accurate and true (since otherwise progressive Christians couldn't authoritatively quote Jesus from them) - spoke of the the disciples believing both Jesus's word of His own resurrection and also the scriptures.

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:19-22; emphasis mine).


Conclusion

The traditional idea that the Old Testament is God-breathed scripture is not some outside idea that Christians came up with over the centuries as they increasingly departed from the true teachings of Jesus. 

It is evident from the Gospels that Jesus Himself had a high view of the Old Testament. The idea that the Old Testament commandments were the ideas of men and could simply be rejected because Jesus (at face value) seems to contradict them is not fitting with how Jesus Himself references the Old Testament scriptures.


Works Cited

Hailes, Sam. "Bart Campolo Says Progressive Christians Turn into Atheists. Maybe He's Right." Premiere Christianity.  25 Sept. 2017. https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Bart-Campolo-says-progressive-Christians-turn-into-atheists.-Maybe-he-s-right. Accessed 26 Jul. 2020.

Bible Translations:

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Jesus is The Word of God, but He Is Not the Only Word of God


The Lord Jesus Christ is the Word of God. But He is not the only (lower case) word of God that the Bible speaks of.

Sometimes it is asserted that the Bible is not the “word of God,” but rather, that term is reserved for Jesus alone.

This comes up in conversation with some who are under the broad umbrella of progressive Christianity, those who not only deny the doctrine of inerrancy, but who will even dismiss considerable portions of the Bible because, in their minds, they contradict what Jesus taught. Jesus is the special and unique “word of God,” and rather than seeing if what He says in the Gospels can be harmonized with the rest of scripture, it is believed that Jesus simply takes precedence and anything that seems to disagree with Him does disagree and therefore can be rejected. The rest of scripture is not of the same divine origin as what Jesus says in the Gospels.

Of course, this idea of Jesus alone being “the word of God” is not the only basis for progressive interpretations of the Bible. There is much more to it. But this idea of Jesus uniquely being "the word of God" is sometimes appealed to as something of a first rung on a ladder, an early step for those of conservative theological traditions on a journey to rethink the Bible and its authority.

However, although the Bible does not explicitly refer to the whole Bible as “the word of God” the way that more conservative, traditional Christians tend to, the Bible does use that description for a lot of things traditionally believed to be part of scripture, and it definitely does not reserve the term for Jesus alone. This is not hard to demonstrate.

Summary:

For the short of it, Jesus Himself, as well as New Testament authors, use the term “word of God” to describe all sorts of things besides Jesus Himself. This includes commands of Moses, prophetic messages, the teachings of God, and even the gospel message.

Examples of The Word (Logos) of God

The idea that Jesus is called “the word of God” comes from two main passages. The first is John 1:1 (also 1:14), where Jesus is famously referred to as “the word” (logos in Greek). The second is Hebrews 1:2, where we are told “in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son.”

But while Jesus can be called the Word, and is functionally described as such, nevertheless there are some other pretty noteworthy examples of “the word of God” elsewhere in scripture as well ("3056").

Matthew 15:6 (and Mark 7:13)

I would argue that the most significant example of this is Matthew 15:6, where Jesus declares two commands of Moses (each repeated), which the Pharisees were violating, to be “the word of God.”

And He [Jesus] answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matthew 15:3-6).

In context, the Pharisees were telling their followers to give away their disposable income to the temple and not use it to help their aging parents (Exell et. al). God did not command this practice. However, He did command that people honor their fathers and mothers, which this practice prevented. It is in that context that Jesus said that their tradition invalidated the word of God, which were the commandments given by God through Moses (Exodus 20:12, Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 5:16).

While this does not in and of itself necessarily prove that Jesus considered the entire Old Testament to be God-breathed, inerrant scripture, it is telling that Jesus Himself, who is often used as a weapon against the Old Testament by progressive Christians, cites two of its commands as “the word of God.” The fact that one of them is also a command to use the death penalty (at least at face value) is all the more problematic if one wants to argue that Jesus taught against the harsher teachings of the Old Testament.

Other Examples of the Logos of God

We also see Jesus talk about "the word of God" in other places in the Gospels. For example, it comes up in Luke 8:11, usually believed to specifically be the gospel message or perhaps God's teachings in general.

One noteworthy use is in John 10:35. Jesus, alluding to Psalm 82:6, reminds the Pharisees that the ones in view called and "gods" in that passage had themselves received the "word of God." Whatever one makes of that passage (as there is controversy over who is in view), the word of God was a message spread in ages past, not just in the incarnation of Jesus.

Outside of the Gospels, we see “the [logos] word of God” used to describe God’s teachings and the gospel message. This comes up frequently in Acts, where repeatedly the “word of God” is proclaimed (e.g. Acts 4:31, 6:2, 13:46). In some cases it is the gospel (e.g. Acts 8:14), in other cases it refers to additional teachings (e.g. Acts 18:11), and in many cases it could be either or both. Hebrews 13:7 uses it this way as well, regarding those who “spoke the word of God to you.”

Similarly, we see Paul use “the word of God” to refer to prophetic messages given to those with the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:36. He also uses it to describe the gospel message received by the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, among numerous other uses in his letters.


A Note About the Greek Logos

Contrary to popular belief, the Greek word logos is not in and of itself some supernatural, holy title. I have heard the idea that John 1:1 calling Jesus “the word” might have had some relationship to Greek philosophy, but regardless, the word itself is used in all sorts of normal, every day contexts. 

For example, in Matthew 5:37, Jesus says “But let your statement [logos] be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” Similarly, the “empty words” that Paul asserts he did not bring to the Ephesians were logos in Greek (Ephesians 5:6). It even is translated differently in some passages based on context. For example, in Matthew 5:32 we see it translated as “reason” in the context of divorce occurring for the reason of sexual immortality.

As is often the case in the Bible, it is not a specific word that makes something special, but rather, the divine nature of the object or idea. What makes something that is called “the word of God” special is not the meaning of the word “word” but the fact that it is “of God.”

The Word (Rhéma) of God

Now, for good measure, there is also another word that is translated as “word” that comes into play here. The word is the Greek rhéma. There can be some nuanced differences, but in practice it largely has the same general meaning as logos. It can refer to the “words of God” in John 8:47. It can refer to a prophetic message, like when “the word of God” came to John the Baptist in Luke 3:2. It can also refer to ungodly words, like the “blasphemous words” supposedly spoken against Moses by Stephen in Acts 6:11 ("4487.")

Matthew 4:4/Deuteronomy 8:3

One noteworthy instance where Jesus Himself speaks of the words (rhéma) of God is in Matthew 4:4, when He cites Deuteronomy 8:3 as a counter to the devil:

But He [Jesus] answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’"

What makes Jesus’s use of Deuteronomy 8:3 here significant is the fact that, as before with Matthew 15:6, Jesus is citing Old Testament scripture as authority. Jesus did not merely quote the passage but began by stating "it is written," alluding to the fact that what He was saying was from the scriptures.

Jesus, at the very least, considered Deuteronomy 8:3 to be of God and not to be rejected. Otherwise, why would He have used it as a counter to the devil telling Him to turn rocks into bread? If Jesus thought that this declaration of Moses was just the product of ancient goat herders trying to figure out what God was like (and therefore falsely attributing words Him), what use would it have been? And why appeal to it having been written if it was written solely by men and not, as traditionally believed, by the movement of the Holy Spirit?

The fact that Jesus would cite this passage approvingly also gives us reason to believe that He understood that He was not the only “word of God.” After all, Jesus would not come until many centuries after Moses and after the Law was written into the books of the Pentateuch. Anyone who would have originally received Deuteronomy 8:3 would have died before Jesus came, as would their descendants for many generations after. They would not have had words from the mouth of God to live on, if that passage was referring only to the incarnate Jesus Christ.

Now, it is true that Deuteronomy 8:3 itself does not specify “word of God” per se. Rather, it reads “everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” However, if it wasn’t already implied that the things that preceded out of God’s mouth were His words (as opposed to divine spirit saliva or something), Jesus’s slight re-wording of the passage here clarifies what was meant.

So with that said, the Israelites must have had words from God to live on. While this need not have been limited to the scriptures – I'm sure that God spoke to prophets beyond just what was ultimately recorded in the Old Testament – the commands and other prophetic messages attributed to God in the Old Testament at least make sense as being part of “everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” that men live by.

Is this an ironclad case that Jesus was definitely saying that the whole Old Testament is God’s word? No. But is it one more reason to consider that Jesus affirmed the Old Testament (like we do when we call it “the word of God”)? Absolutely.

Conclusion

None of this is to detract from how special Jesus is. Jesus is in His very nature God. And the God who speaks the word is greater than the word itself, just as the one who builds a house is greater than the house (cf. Hebrews 3:3), and just as one who creates is greater than the creation.

There are many ways that God has spoken and does speak to us. But by sending Jesus and, as a result, the Holy Spirit, God has revealed things to us as believers in the gospel that angels had longed to look upon (1 Peter 1:12).

The best way I could put it is this: any number of things – including the Bible – can be called the word of God. But all of these things bow down at the feet of the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Works Cited

“3056. λόγος (logos).” Bible Hub. N.p., n.d. 8 Jul 2020 <https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_4487.htm>

“4487. ῥῆμα (rhéma).” Bible Hub. N.p., n.d. 8 Jul 2020 <https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_3056.htm>

Exell, Joseph S, Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Matthew 15:5,” The Pulpit Commentary. n.p., 1897., studylight.org, Web 8 Jul 2020. <https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/matthew-15.html>

Additional Notes

- Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

- Biblehub.com is especially useful for broad, relatively non-technical word studies like were done in the writing of this article.

Monday, June 8, 2020

J.K. Rowling And The Way Transgenderism Necessarily Allows For No Middle Ground

Over the weekend, Harry Potter author (and notable gay-rights activist) J.K. Rowling got into some hot water for some comments made on Twitter which many have called transphobic. 

These comments pertained to transgender men (i.e. biological women who identify as men) and the matter of whether or not only women can menstruate. Rowling declared her belief that this is the case ("People Who Can Menstruate").

Of course, from a biological standpoint, it is true that only women menstruate. Men do not. The only possible dispute one might make is in the case of those who are intersex, born with some degree of both male and female anatomy. However, even then, menstruation is recognized as a biological female attribute that the person has (part of what defines them as intersex), not a unisex one (like having eyes or a spinal cord).

The reason this is of any controversy at all is because transgender men consider themselves to be men, yet have female bodies that still perform the functions of female bodies (especially early on in the gender transition process). This means that there are people who menstruate (and occasionally even bear children) who identify as men.

This, of course, raises one of the most enormous worldview and societal questions of our time (at least in western society): is gender determined by biological sex or not?

No Middle Ground Because Consistency Leads To Extremes

That grand question is not my focus here today (although I don't shy away from the fact that I hold the traditional view that biological sex determines gender). 

Instead, the point I am arguing here is something that one can affirm regardless of which side they are on when it comes to what gender is (and many on the other side do affirm this point, in practice if not explicitly):

Transgenderism leaves no room for gray areas or middle ground. 

There is no partially affirming transgender identity. You're either all in or you are a transphobe - at least by the standards set by those who believe in transgender ideology.

In certain small, specific situations this may not apply. For example, one can at least argue that you can be fully supportive and affirming of transgender identity and still believe that there should be a minimum age for children or teenagers to begin physically transitioning (in order to make sure they know what they are getting into and are not just trying to be cool).

But for the most part, those who go to what many consider to be extremes are just being consistent. You really can't say anything against them without opposing their belief in the legitimacy of transgender ideology entirely.

In this case, believing that men can menstruate is not even an extreme position to hold once you have accepted the belief that biological sex does not determine gender. It's really pretty moderate. If you affirm the identity of trans people, then you agree that someone can be a man yet have a female body that does what female bodies do.

J.K. Rowling's problem is that on the one hand, she says that she has supports trans people, yet on the other hand, she mocks the idea that a man can menstruate. Those two things are incompatible.

They are incompatible because if a biological woman can truly be a man (i.e. a transgender man), and biological women can menstruate (which no one disputes), then it follows that men can menstruate. If you say that only women menstruate, then you are saying that transgender men are really women (and therefore, not actually men).

Rowling also made comments about the importance of biological sex, including the assertion that "erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives" ("If sex isn’t real").

Rowling doubling down further shows the inconsistency within her beliefs. Her comments regarding biological sex seem to imply that completely cutting off gender from biological sex is a problem. But transgenderism requires that biological sex does not determine your gender. If biological sex did determine your gender, then you could not have people who are unambiguously biological males (or females) yet are truly genuinely women (or men, respectively) in terms of gender. 

This isn't a conservative strawman argument. Those calling Rowling transphobic are just being consistent because, whether she means to or not, she is saying to all transgender men that they are not really men.

Moderation is Based on Inconsistency and Misunderstanding

I think a lot of people who try to be moderate and ride the middle don't fully grasp the fact that transgender people genuinely consider themselves to be the gender that they identify as. 

They aren't just transvestites  They don't think of it as pretend. And they don't "become" another gender, as though a transgender man was a woman until she had surgery and then he became a man. Even before her first shot of testosterone, he was a man with a vagina. They use the term "born in the wrong body" because they actually think they were born in the wrong body (i.e. born as the wrong sex for their gender).

For many who consider themselves trans-affirming but do not go all the way with it, I think there is a real sense in which they want to live and let live. They want people who are transgender to be happy. And so they think that as long as they don't physically assault people who identify as transgender or deny them jobs, they are being inclusive and not transphobic.

But it is not enough to live and let live. To be affirming, to not be considered transphobic, you must actually treat and regard transgender individuals as the gender they identify as. To that person, their gender identity is the God's honest truth. To affirm a transgender man, you must treat that transgender man as a real, genuine man who just happened to have been born with XX sex chromosomes and a female reproductive system that results in menstruation.

How This Plays Out In Practice

In numerous discussions I have had online, I have had the following experience experience: 

First, I point out how it follows that if transgenderism is true, anything that associates human biology with gender becomes transphobic (e.g. baby gender reveals, the formerly progressive play called The Vagina Monologues, limiting women's sports to just biological women). Then, I am then told that I am making up a strawman. Then I cite examples of those on the other side of the debate saying the exact same things as me (e.g. Carlson; Dockray' Winter; Mulhere; Medley & Sherwin). 

The conversation usually ends at that point.

Ultimately, in a society where many practices and institutions are split up by gender, boy and girl, man and female, there really only exist three options:

1. Eliminate gender divisions (no gendered bathrooms, gendered prisons, gendered sports, gendered locker rooms or dorms or universities or anything else).

2. Base gendered institutions on the gender the person identifies as.

3. Deny the gender identity of trans people and base any gender-divided institution on biological sex.

Insofar as you do not practice #1, you must do either #2 or #3. However, for the most part, #2 and #3 are incompatible if you want to do a combination of both.

Is a transgender woman a real woman or not? If she is, then you have to treat her as such in all cases (and therefore only do #2). Otherwise, you are discriminating against transgender women because you claim that you believe they are real women, but you treat them differently (and more restrictively) than cisgender women. 

And if he is not a real woman, then why would you treat him as such in any cases? Why would you not do #3 for all remaining gendered institutions and practices?

Some might counter that some gender divisions were instituted on the premise that biological sex and gender are the same thing, so doing #2 but occasionally dividing by biological sex is appropriate. For example, you might say we don't want biological boys to shower with biological girls at your middle school or high school, regardless of how they identify. After all, hormones do what they do. Discrimination, in this case, would be justified. 

The problem with that logic is that just about every gendered institution or practice was based on that premise. The concern was never about people of the same biological sex showering and living together if some of them identify as something else. Gender divisions were always put in place to segregate members of the opposite sex. These things long precede any level of mainstream acceptance of transgenderism, often by centuries or even millenia.

Transgender Girls In Girls Sports

The sports question is especially important, as many who consider themselves moderate but still trans-affirming think that letting biological males compete in sports against biological women is a bridge too far. They will point out that biological men have natural advantages over women in terms of strength, speed, bone and muscle mass, etc. Therefore, transgender women have a natural advantage and it would not be fair to place them against cisgender women.

But those who take this attitude are not being consistent. Some cisgender girls, born as a females, are born with genes and a body type much more conducive to the given sport. Girls who grow to 6'5" in high school didn't work hard to get that tall; they just have the genes that put them in a better position than their 5'2" classmates for sports like basketball and volleyball.

And yet, you don't penalize them for having been born with genetics that make their bodies bigger, stronger, faster, etc. than their competitors. That would not be fair.

Therefore, to single out trans women is a textbook case of unjustified discrimination. You already said that both cisgender and transgender women are both actually, genuinely women. Therefore, by your logic and worldview, you are holding transgender women to a different standard than cisgender women. Cisgender women don't get disqualified for having been born in a body that, when properly conditioned, gets stronger and more athletically capable than the average woman. So why should transgender women, if they are really women, be disqualified for the body they were born in through no choice of their own?


Principles Apply To Both Transgender Men and Trangender Women

Granted, J.K. Rowling was talking about transgender men, not transgender women. But the same principles apply across the board. Either your body determines your gender, or it doesn't. And if you say that it does, then you have just invalidated the identity of every transgender person on earth because most transgender people, like most people in general, are not intersex. There is no ambiguity as to their sex. There is no ambiguity to whether they have XX or XY chromosomes. The doctors had no trouble identifying what belonged on their birth certificate. But to a transgender person, none of that really matters. It can't matter. If it did matter, then how could that biological girl say she really is a man?

Conclusion

If you are going to say you affirm transgender identity and are not transphobic, you need to make sure that every belief you have does not have the implication that gender is tied to biological sex, since doing so means that transgender women are not truly women and transgender men are not really men. 

You can no longer say that having babies is something unique and special to being women. You cannot say that those young women can't compete in track against your daughter just because they were born as boys (especially if they have transitioned and proven they were serious). Don't even think about attending a gender reveal party.

LGBT+ and progressive voices are not being hysterical when they say those sorts of things. They are being consistent with their beliefs. We all need to start being consistent with our beliefs on this matter, whatever they are.

There is no way to play the middle here. You can wave rainbows, support employment laws, and complement trans womens' dresses and trans mens' beards until the cows come home. But how can you say you really affirm someone's identity if you don't actually believe their identity to be objectively true?

Works Cited

- @jk_rowling. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” Twitter, 6 Jun 2020, 3:02 p.m., https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/1269389298664701952.

- @jk_rowling. “People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.” Twitter, 6 Jun. 2020, 2:35 p.m., https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/1269382518362509313.

- Carlson, Daniel. “What ‘Gender Reveals’ Really Reveal.” Psychology Today, 12 Jun. 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-chore-chart/201806/what-gender-reveals-really-reveal. Accessed 8 Jun. 2020.

- Dockray, Heather. “Gender Reveals are Awful. (Trans)gender Reveals Are a different story.” Mashable, 6 Apr. 2019, https://mashable.com/article/transgender-reveal-party/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2020.

- Mulhere, Kaitlin. “A Student Group at A Women's College Has Retired Its Annual Production of the Vagina Monologues in Favor Of A Production That Will Be More Inclusive Of Transgender Students.” Inside Higher Ed, 21 Jul. 2015, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/21/womens-college-cancels-play-saying-it-excludes-transgender-experiences. Accessed 8 June 2010.

- Winter, Jessica. “Are You a Boy or a Girl?” Slate. 5 May 2016, https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/05/gender-reveal-celebrations-for-babies-help-explain-transphobia.html. Accessed 8 Jun. 2020.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Book Review and Commentary: Robert Gundry - Peter: False Disciple and Apostate According to Saint Matthew


Did Matthew intend to show the apostle Peter as an apostate?

I don’t do a lot of book reviews on my blog. I usually reserve them to Goodreads.com (a site specifically for book reviews) and occasionally Amazon.

But every once in a while, a theology book has greater significance than just its own contents and arguments.

This would book would seem to be the opposite. It really doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the public consciousness anymore. On Goodreads, three other people rated it, and one other person besides me wrote a review (and it was only one sentence long). Other than some reviews by religious scholars at the time the book came out, it just hasn’t been a big thing.

So why would a niche book that most people even among theology nerds probably haven’t read be worth additional attention?

The reason I felt compelled to address this now-5-year-old book with some depth – and push through it despite it not being all that enjoyable of a read – is because this book wasn’t written by some nobody. It also wasn’t written by some theological liberal at Union Theological seminary or a secular university. It was written by Robert Gundry.

Robert Gundry is scholar-in-residence at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Westmont is a really conservative Christian college that affirms biblical inerrancy in its statement of faith. I heard about this book because it was featured in Christianity Today. Gundry was defended (prior to this book) for his views on inerrancy by apologists Nick Peters and JP Holding in the book Defining Inerrancy. And, being an annihilationist, it was noteworthy to me that in 2013, I attended an in-person debate on the doctrine of hell between Dr. Gundry and Dr. Webb Mealy. Gundry defended the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment, and did so mostly on biblical grounds.

The fact that a book that ostensibly seemed on its face to contradict the teaching of the Bible would come from a relatively big name in New Testament studies with an ostensibly conservative background seemed like kind of a big deal.

It took a few years for me to actually get around to buying and reading this book, but I gotta say, I was taken about at how theologically liberal it was. The final chapter, as noted in the review, basically takes a page from non-Christian Bible skeptic websites. Of course as believers who have a high view of scripture we must have answers for the supposed contradictions in the Bible, both of outside issues (e.g. science, history), and core theological issues (Gundry says Matthew says Peter was damned while other writers say he was saved and also really important as an apostle).

I don’t read a lot of unabashed theologically liberal books by non-Christians or those who profess faith but in practice hold to a pretty different worldview than those who form any form of orthodox, conservative Christianity (whether Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, etc.). If this book was written by Bart Ehrman, that would be par for the course. But this came from someone who ostensibly wears out Jersey.

The following is my review on Goodreads.com. It is a bit long, but I can assure you, it could have been far longer lol  But in all seriousness, there was a lot in this relatively short volume, and I really only looked at a handful of examples and specific issues that can give a feel for the work as a whole. I believe that I have covered broadly what needed to be covered.

Was this review as much a visceral need to tackle the content of this book because of its nature (thoroughly liberal with an evangelical veneer) as it was a reasoned determination that me doing so it would be of great service to Chrisendom? Probably. If I did cold, calculated cost-benefit analysis, I may have chosen to stop reading early on and instead save hours of time to use for other purposes.

But at the same time, progressive Christianity and its older sister theological liberalism, both in their overt forms and in their influence on evangelicalism, are something we as believers with a high view of scripture and even just basic traditional beliefs have to be able to reckon with. While Gundry comes across here as more of an old-school theological liberal than a modern progressive Christian, we need to be aware that these sorts of things have been influencing the church and show no sign of stopping. We need to be able to deal with it, both for ourselves and for others in the flock.

Goodreads Review:

In some aspects, a book like this is tricky to give a simple evaluation of because of what it tries to put forth.

The thesis of the book, as the title indicates, is that the Gospel of Matthew portrays the apostle Peter as a false disciple and ultimate apostate.

Of course, it is clear from the Bible (e.g. John 21:15-19) and everything known about church history that Peter repented after denying Jesus, was restored to his apostleship by Jesus, and was clearly not a false disciple. So the whole premise of this book is that in Matthew’s narrative, Matthew taught something that is clearly untrue.

For anyone who holds to not only biblical inerrancy, but even less stringent views on the Bible’s accuracy that hold the Bible to at least be generally true and not contradict itself on major theological teachings, this whole premise is to be dismissed outright. I’ll just refer to such a view of the Bible’s reliability as infallibility (although I daresay what is called “infallibility” is still stricter than what one must hold to reject the premise of this book from the start).

Now, if it were the case that Matthew explicitly and clearly taught that Peter was a damned apostate, and in doing so contradicted other books of the Bible, then those of us who hold to any form of biblical infallibility would have a real problem that needs to be addressed. But Gundry doesn’t even attempt to argue that Matthew is explicit about it. Gundry instead attempts to piece things together like a detective, without outside influence from other books of the Bible (except when he occasionally does).

The 9th and final makes clear where Gundry is coming from. Gundry mentions and takes for granted numerous supposed Bible contradictions, including the contradictory teachings about the final fate of Peter. The conclusion is that the Bible’s frequent contradictory teachings likely had pastoral purposes. In the case of Matthew, the message is to be careful not to stray from the way of God because if even Peter could lose his way and be damned, you must be diligent.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Gundry hails from a secular university or a liberal seminary, not a college as theologically conservative as Westmont, given his utter dismissal of any semblance of accuracy in the Bible’s teachings about even major theological topics.

With that whole framework in mind, this book doesn’t offer much to most believers because the case this book makes assumes an entirely different paradigm of what purpose the Bible serves and how we understand it.

Without Taking The Rest of the Bible Into Account

Now, with that all said, what about Gundry’s argument that, in a vacuum, Matthew should be understood to teach that Peter is an apostate? If we pretend that the rest of the Bible shouldn’t shed light on what Peter does later, if we aren’t concerned with harmonizing Matthew with the rest of scripture, if we ignore the doctrine of infallibility and just let the text speak for itself alone, does Gundry make a convincing case that Matthew saw Peter as an apostate?

Not really.

I mean, Gundry makes some good points, and its not as though there is no basis for his claim (given the above assumptions). However, there is nothing clear or obvious in Matthew that indicates that Peter is an apostate. There are a lot of individual, disconnected verses that have to be pulled together to assemble themes that Gundry argues would have been noticed by Matthew’s original readers.

Overall, much of Gundry’s case is more along the lines of one who has the conclusion in mind and attempts to show that there is enough evidence to justify the claim, rather than approaching the text in a straightforward manner and seeing such a teaching.

One major theme, for example, is that Jesus talks about false believers at various points in Matthew. Gundry puts forth that Matthew’s readers would have been expected to see similarities between Peter and false believers and understand that Matthew was implying that Peter was one of them (even though Matthew never says anything explicit to that effect).

Gundry also makes a big point about Matthew 10:33, how if you deny the Son of Man, He will Deny you. He argues that nowhere in Matthew does Matthew say there is a way to be forgiven, so it is implied within Matthew (in a vacuum), Matthew is saying there is no way to be forgiven.

But we know from Matthew 12:31-32 that “all sins and slanders” can be forgiven except blaspheming the Holy Spirit. When Gundry addresses this verse, he ignored the reference to sins and only pays attention to the part about words “spoken against” God (page 54-55). But if all sins can be forgiven – if the person repents – then there is no reason to think that Matthew is saying that there is no way to be redeemed in Matthew 10:33.

Even just taken from a logical standpoint, to say that denying Jesus is absolutely unforgivable poses a logical problem in Matthew 10:33. Gundry argues that since Jesus says He will deny those who deny Him, and makes no qualifications, therefore if you do it once you are damned no matter what. But following that logic, wouldn’t it mean that if you confessed Christ before men once you are therefore irrevocably saved? But what if you have done both? On what basis do you say which one is absolute, as they seem to contradict each other?

We all know that this is not how it works. We generally accept that what matters is what you do at the end. It isn’t a one-time thing, just as those in Matthew 25:31-46 don’t go to hell because they refused to help Jesus’s brothers one time or go to heaven because they helped someone one time (since whatever the exact context of Matthew 25:31-46, most people do not only help or only refuse to help 100% of the time).

Connections made are at times a bit of a stretch. For example, Gundry connects the fact that people weep and gnash their teeth outside of places in parables about damnation with Peter weeping outside when he realized that he denied Jesus like Jesus had predicted. Gundry expects the reader of Matthew to see Peter weeping and associate this with damnation. However, this is a stretch because: 1. People weep in all sorts of circumstances, 2. nowhere does Matthew (or any Gospel writer) say that Peter gnashed his teeth, which is obviously part of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and 3. This is not the last time we see Peter. It’s not like the last time we see him he is weeping and (not) gnashing his teeth, and so it might imply his ultimate end. This is just a man who cries because he feels bad about something he did in the later-middle (not end) of a (true) story that he is part of.

At one point, Gundry emphasizes the fact that in Matthew 28:7, the angel tells Mary to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, not “the disciples and Peter” like in Mark 16:7. The reasoning is that Mark came first, Matthew copied Mark, so Matthew leaving out “and Peter” must mean Peter was not considered part of the group anymore.

Or, maybe, “the disciples” was sufficient in Matthew because Peter was, ya know, one of the disciples…Gundry opposes such a response, but largely on the assumption that Matthew copied Mark and must have removed “and Peter” for some grand, theological reason. Such an assumption is just that: an assumption.

Also, if we’re looking at Matthew alone, and expecting the original readers of Matthew to do likewise and not consider anything else they would have known from church teachings or other scriptures, why are we looking at Mark now to make an inference about what Matthew must have meant?

A similar line of reasoning occurs when comparing Mark 5:37 with Matthew 9:23-25. In Mark, when Jesus heals Jairus’s daughter, it notes that only John, James, and Peter got to stay with Jesus when he performed the miracle. This, of course, honors them in a way. Gundry points out that “the parallel in Matt 9:23-25 makes no mention of the exceptions, and therefore of the privilege that Peter enjoys with James and John [in Mark]” (page 67). The implication is that this is one more example of Matthew withholding from Peter the honor given to him by Mark in order to convey (covertly) to the audience that Peter is a false disciple.

Of course, the fact that Matthew also didn’t mention James or John is overlooked. Matthew didn’t omit that Peter shared the privileges held by John and James. Matthew omitted any mention of any of them having a privileged position in this passage. Was Matthew arguing that James and John were false disciples as well?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The least problematic chapter is probably chapter 7 about false discipleship. While I do not agree with all of Gundry’s points, it’s not crazy to say that false discipleship is at least a theme in Matthew.

However, like in a lot of the book, it is presumed that since this theme is established, Matthew must have been hinting that Peter was a false disciple. The fact that Judas is treated as a real disciple until the end is part of Gundry’s argumentation throughout the book and here as well. Gundry then highlights ways in which the two are similar.

However, if anything, this could be argued as evidence against Gundry’s thesis. When Matthew wanted to show a false disciple, he did. His name was Judas. Matthew was not covert about it. Matthew showed how all the disciples were treated as real disciples, and then one of them overtly betrayed Jesus, was condemned by Jesus’s own words, and then committed suicide and was not part of the team any longer. His ending is very different than Peter’s. Peter is still alive and still reckoned as a disciple despite Jesus and everyone knowing what He did (it wasn’t a secret) (Matthew 28:16). And unlike with Peter, Matthew doesn’t require the reader to read between the lines to know that Judas was an apostate.

Regarding the last time we do see Peter, albeit as part of a group (Matthew 28:16), Gundry does acknowledge that Peter’s implied inclusion among the 11 is seen by some to show that Peter was restored by Jesus and not damned. After all, Jesus sends the 11 out to make disciples of all nations, which sure sounds like they are all real apostles.

Gundry rebuts this claim on the grounds that, because Jesus speaks of false disciples, we should expect that Peter would be there with the rest even if He was an apostate.

But Peter’s inclusion at the end of Matthew raises a lot of questions and lends weight against this view. Peter had already abandoned Jesus. It is not as though he simply was part of the group and had yet to show his true colors, like foul fish among good fish (page 66, cf. Matthew 13:38). He already had. So wouldn’t the fact that Jesus would include Him among the disciples whom He sent out to convert the whole world imply that at the very least, they probably had a conversation about what happened or something? Even in a vacuum, it is implied that something happened because, again, what Peter did in denying Jesus was not a secret. Matthew, when writing 28:7, wasn’t ignorant of what he wrote two chapters earlier. 

Weaknesses in Gundry’s Overall Method

Of course, this goes question of Peter being among the 11 segues into the whole reason why you have to take into account more than just the one book when you have a whole Bible. Treating the Gospel of Matthew as a completely standalone entity is just an intellectual exercise we do to grant premises of Gundry’s thesis in order to evaluate his arguments. It makes no sense in the context of actual history.

Matthew’s original readers might not have had access to every book of the Bible – especially since some probably hadn’t been written yet – but either before reading Matthew or soon after (if they unbelievers who converted to Christianity after reading it), they would know who the apostles were and what they did and were probably still doing at the time. They would know Peter was in at least a leadership role (if not the leadership role) and was clearly not an apostate.

Furthermore, the rest of the Bible fills in things that are unsaid. For example, we know that Judas is replaced by Matthias in Acts 1:21-26, meaning there still would be 12 apostles on 12 thrones despite Judas falling away (cf. Matthew 19:28). We also know that Jesus did have a conversation where He restored Peter in John 21. And we know from various points of the book of Acts that Peter was a Spirit-filled apostle who accepted persecution and spoke the word of Christ boldly. This gives the admittedly negative light that Matthew (and the other Gospels to a lesser extent) put on Peter an entirely different significance than what Gundry says Matthew asserts. Peter is not the damned apostle, but the poster child of redemption.

That may not mean as much if you take the position that Gundry does, that the Bible is full of contradictory teachings and we should focus on the pastoral intent of the writer and not the actual content (since at least a considerable amount of it is not factually accurate). But you don’t have to be a fundamentalist to stop and think that maybe, one book of the Bible may have information that is relevant to another. We would treat any collection of related documents that way.

Concluding Remarks

I have to reiterate again that there’s no clear teaching anywhere in Matthew that indicates that Peter was damned. That is why Gundry has to appeal to allusions and to little uses of specific words that readers supposedly were supposed to catch. It isn’t as though Matthew, at face value, says that Peter is an apostate and I am only giving a few small points to reconsider that. Gundry is having to build a case from scratch, and so the weaknesses in his case are very significant.

There are tons of additional points that Gundry attempts to make – no one can say that the book is shallow. But it should be evident at this point that thesis has weaknesses even when you go through the intellectual exercise of ignoring the rest of the Bible.

With all that in mind, this book comes across more as something written to be written than something that actually contributes to the study of scripture.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

This Year I Want to Be More Like Jesus - Updated Version



Lately on social media, I have seen a list of ways to be more like Jesus this coming year. From what I can tell, it was written (or at least popularized) by Craig Greenfield, author of the book Subversive Jesus. In fact, the original Facebook post added the caption "Be like Jesus...Subversive."

This list-meme has gained some popularity, and more than that, it encompasses some fairly popular ideas about Jesus that themselves deserve some analysis.

In light of this, I have decided to endorse the core content of this list. However, I figured I would add a bit to it to clarify each point (my additional comments in parentheses). Why? Because a lot of people can mean a lot of different things when they endorse a list like this. 

Besides, I too can be subversive.

This Year I Want To Be More Like Jesus

- Hang out with sinners (...and lead them to repentance and, therefore, abandoning their former sin: e.g. Luke 15, 19:1-10, cf. Matthew 21:31).

- Upset religious people (...including progressive Christians who like to talk about what “Jesus said/never said” but would brand Him a hateful fundamentalist if they took into account all of His words in the New Testament and His endorsement of the Old Testament).

- Tell stories that make people think (...which includes stories where the protagonist who represents God kills everyone, or where God sends His angels to throw people into hellfire, or where Jesus Himself is the judge who finally condemns the wicked – those are all on the table: Matthew 13:20-30, 36-43, 24:42-51, 25:31-46, Luke 20:9-18).

- Choose unpopular friends (...like young-earth creationists, people who still believe that biological sex determines gender or that God designed marriage to be between a man and a woman, and people who hold to biblical inerrancy).

- Be kind, loving, and merciful (...which sometimes includes telling people things that they don’t like in the hopes that it ultimately leads to their betterment: e.g. Luke 13:3, Revelation 3:17-19).

- Take naps on boats (...I can’t argue with that one lol).

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

When Some Doctrines Are Absurd on Their Face - Guaranteed Healing


In this entry on the last day of 2019, I am largely shooting from the hip in reaction to some interactions I have had on Facebook over the last year. But it seemed appropriate, because despite believing in an invisible God who is triune and grants prayers and everything else, I still do have some sense of healthy skepticism.

For that reason, there are times when, just by thinking about it, I can see holes in an idea that claims to be Christian and claims to be biblical. And while a convincing exegetical case for such a doctrine would require an exegetical response, usually that isn’t part of the discussion in these matter. At most, a few passages here and there are presented, clearly out of context or clearly not saying as much as the person presenting them seems to think. And so pointing out the problems even just on the surface of the view can get you a long way.

In this case, I am discussing a belief that is part of the so-called Word of Faith movement and spread about here and there that if you have faith in Jesus, you are guaranteed to be healed if you get sick.

The belief is not just that God may heal you; if you don’t think God acts miraculously then you really aren’t going to like any semblance of biblical Christianity. The belief here is that God will heal you miraculously as long as you have faith that He will.

Underlying this is a general belief that God is good, God heals (as He does many times in the Bible), and so all that keeps you from being cured of cancer or multiple sclerosis or whatever else is your lack of faith.

Now, I should note that this has come up with Bethel Church and a couple there who prayed that God would raise their two-year-old daughter from the dead after she died suddenly. I don’t know much about that case or Bethel Church. My issue is not with the parents of that baby, and I only bring it up because a lot of people reading this will probably be thinking of that. My only commentary there is that God is real, He does do miracles including raising the dead before the resurrection (albeit quite rarely), and I shame no one who asks Him to intervene miraculously – so long as they accept His decision not to grant that request and still worship Him if that is how things pan out.

That said, that story did bring to mind this belief that God always heals (if you have faith) and that it is contrary to who He is to not do so in this life (obviously as a Christian I believe everyone in Christ will be fully healed and live forever with god in the world to come).

Now, it is not just that the Bible gives no guarantees about healing in this life. That is only the beginning of why I reject this doctrine of guarenteed healing.

The real glaring problem with this is the fact that death and suffering apart from natural illness are still things. And all of God’s children, even the most holy and faithful, seem to die before hitting a certain advanced age. Even if they have lived to be 100, there are none who are 1,000 years old. How can it be that there has never every been anyone in history who was faithful and therefore has avoided death?

Does this promise about God always curing the sick if they are faithful only apply to illness, and so therefore every single person who has been holy and faithful has instead died only of accidents and murder? After all, God’s will is that you never get sick...

That must be the case. Either that, or no person has ever been faithful enough to avoid sickness forever. Not even the apostles.

It is believed that at the very least, the apostle John lived to die of old age. But since old age is just another way of describing illness that isn’t specifically diagnosed (no one actually dies of “old age”), did he not have enough faith to be healed and live indefinitely?

But even if we grant that just simply everyone who had enough faith to be healed died of murder or accident, why would the God who wants to bring heaven to earth and heal everyone now still allow them to die (sometimes quite painfully)? If anything, at certain times in history, His most faithful followers have been the most likely to be tortured and murdered. Why would we think that God can, in His sovereignty and wisdom, allow such temporary suffering and death when the temporary suffering of serious illness is out of the question?

What promise of God’s is consistent with death still being part of the world now, so long as it is not from illness? What aspect of God’s love or character is consistent with death being around now but not forever (for those who put their faith in Christ) but requires that illness be gone already?

When I have pressed individuals on this point, they have no answer. They don’t even really attempt one. They just simply accept that they don’t have an answer and just believe what they believe, that God is good so therefore He surely cures all illness if you have faith, and ignore the rest. To them, God guaranteeing healing just makes sense, and nothing else matters.

Unless there is a super-compelling biblical case for this doctrine of healing that I am missing, those who hold this view have to come up with some coherent explanation for why we must assume that God guarantees freedom from illness in this life when death and suffering from other sources is still the norm for everyone, even believers. I am not confident that we will get such an explanation.

Fortunately, as Christians, we do know that any suffering in this life is temporary, as is death for us. The basis for this absurd doctrine of guaranteed healing is the love and the promises of God that will bring us all eternal life. And it is not as though God does not give us a foretaste of the world through miracles even now. We just have to be willing to trust in our heavenly Father and our Savior Jesus Christ in whatever happens in the meantime. God will complete in us the task that He has begun.

So on that note, happy new year :)


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Morality is Hierarchical, Not Absolute (Which Isn’t As Liberal As It Sounds)

One of the most useful ways I have heard moral dilemmas framed was that morality is hierarchical, not absolute.

I got this from an old church community group leader who studied both philosophy and theology and had a lot of very well-reasoned things to say. This was no exception.

Now, this is not to deny that morality is objective. This is not to deny that there is a lawgiver (being God). This doesn't mean that morality is dependent on culture or that there is no actual right and wrong. It just means that sometimes, moral principles will conflict so that you can't follow both of them fully and properly. In these cases, you have to choose to give priority to one over the other, and in doing so, you have not sinned.

Any time that you are in any moral dilemma, this idea of hierarchical morality comes into play, whether you think of it in those terms or not. After all, the whole reason we call it a dilemma is because different moral principles conflict and cannot both be followed.


Biblical Examples

The Bible has many examples, although of the two most interesting to me, one is actually pretty mundane (on the surface, that is). Consider the following two examples:

- The Israelites were tricked into making a treaty with a nation that God had told them to destroy. We see this in Joshua 9 with the Gibeonites. The Israelites were in a moral dilemma. They were commanded not to form a treaty with the Gibeonites, but having been tricked, they certified their treaty with an oath in the name of the Lord. They could not keep their oath without breaking the Lord's command to drive out all the Canaanite nations in the land, or vice versa. Ultimately, they chose to honor their vow (thereby obeying the commandment to keep their vows) at the expense of following the commandment to drive out the Gibeonites.

- In Matthew 12:1-13, Jesus's disciples were accused of sinning because they were picking and eating grain in a field while they walked with Him on the Sabbath. Under the Mosaic Law in the Bible, working on the Sabbath was forbidden.

It was by no means the only time Pharisees got upset about Jesus or His disciples doing things on the Sabbath, and Jesus defended their actions in different ways. For example, in another instance He pointed out that doing certain things are not a sin and, as part of His argument, appealed to the fact that no one bats an eyelash at someone untying a farm animal and leading it to water on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). But here, Jesus goes a different route: He points to the hierarchical nature of morality.

In this case, Jesus brings up two instances where people were justified despite breaking the written commandment of God. The commands do not have exceptions written in, like modern legal statutes would today. The fact that Jesus would do this should therefore give us pause as believers. If we took an absolute approach to God's commands in scripture, we would have quite a problem. However, when we think of morality as being hierarchical, it isn't a big deal. All moral laws come from God, whether written or not. The written scripture of the Bible is uniquely authoritative because it is more defined and clearer (being written down in words), but all morality is from God just the same. If other moral laws are hierarchical and can at least potentially have exceptions, why would this not be the case just because a moral law is written down?

When His disciples were accused of sin by the Pharisees, the Lord reminded them of when, in the Old Testament, David and his men were in the midst of war and were given consecrated bread from the temple to eat. Although Jesus does not say so explicitly, the fact that He appealed to that instance to defend His disciples implies that they did not sin, even though it was against the Old Testament Law for anyone but priests to eat that bread (Matthew 12:3-4).

Jesus then follows up with how those working in the temple on the Sabbath, in His own words, desecrate that holy day. God commanded that no one should work on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3). But Jesus says, explicitly in this case, that they are innocent (Verse 5). They had two conflicting moral principles: follow God's command to not work on the Sabbath or fulfill the command that there be specific temple observances on the day of the Sabbath (e.g Numbers 28:9-10). An absolutist would have no choice but to say that God's law contradicts itself since both laws must always be followed no matter what (which is literally impossible to do). But just as the Jews before Jesus had no qualms about Levites working in God's sanctuary on Saturdays for over 1,000 years before Jesus came, here Jesus simply declares the innocence of those who rightly put one moral principle over another.


Other Examples

There are examples we can easily think of outside the Bible as well. Most serious Christians think sex outside of marriage is a sin, and most professing Christians (and many non-Christians) think adultery is wrong. However, most of us would say that if a married woman is threatened with a gun or a knife by a rapist and submits, she is not guilty of the sin of adultery. An absolutist would be in quite a pickle because such a woman technically had a choice. She wasn't physically bound. She could have chosen to resist and face almost certain death, rather than having sex with the rapist. She technically chose to have sex with a man other than her husband over getting killed. 

Nevertheless, no reasonable person would ever say the woman was guilty of any sin. It wouldn't even be a difficult moral determination. It is only a moral dilemma in the strictest, most literal sense of the term. We would say, without question, that she is completely innocent. But we can only say that because morality is hierarchical, and therefore, the extraordinary circumstances justified her actions.

Many real-life examples are not nearly so easy and clear-cut, but the same idea applies. Whether you are deciding whether or not to lie to protect someone, whether you're not sure if you should blow the whistle on wrongdoing at work when doing so could jeopardize your job or even the whole company, whether you're unsure of whether your nonprofit should accept that donation from a questionable source, there are many times where our duties and other moral principles conflict and the right choice will necessarily mean fulfilling some and not others.


Morality Is Still Objective and Divine

Some may confuse this with morality not being objective, as though there is no true moral law. But that is not true. There is a real, objective moral lawgiver, being God. It is just that principles are somewhat broad and we have to properly apply them to specific instances. In specific instances, if we could read God’s mind, we would know exactly what to do in that specific case. In each instance, the right thing to do is absolute. The point is that with any issue, you cannot simply consider one principle and ignore the others that are relevant. Even if the decision is easy and the right action is obvious, there probably is one principle that took a back seat to an obviously more important principle in that case.

Some might say this line of thinking is situational ethics and is therefore bad. But “situational ethics” is a bit of a nebulous term. In the broadest sense, yes, ethics are situational. But in that broad sense, we have the Bible to point to as affirming that yes, circumstances do affect what course of action is morally right and what is morally wrong. And even those who raise the specter of situational ethics will, in practice, acknowledge that an act that is wrong in one situation can be right in another. Many of them, for example, would agree that killing a human being is a terrible thing to do. In most situations, it is murder, a sin and a crime that should be severely punished. However, if that human being has a gun and is about to kill innocent hostages, killing that person is made right and justified (i.e not a sin) because of the…let’s say it together…situation.

The fact is, even those who take very absolute positions on things are ultimately working within a hierarchical moral framework anyway. Some see a command in scripture and say that therefore it is (as they interpret its meaning) always to be followed absolutely, no matter what. But they are simply putting that particular command above every other command and moral principle. And when moral dilemmas do come, they can cite the moral principle or explicit scriptural command that they followed until the cows come home as if it is the only thing that matters, but they ultimately chose that principle and the corresponding course of action over other moral principles that they surely had acknowledged at some point in the past.

For example, someone who believes a Christian must never, ever kill another human being under any other circumstances and who therefore refuses to use lethal force to stop the killing of others is putting one principle (killing is bad) over another (e.g. love your neighbor as yourself, love your wife as your own body, protect the innocent, etc.). And a believer who does intervene with lethal force is putting the latter principles over the former. Whether they consciously thought about it in the moment they made their decision is not the point. The point is that there were other principles at play whether they thought about it or not.

What about situations commonly posed by Christian apologists as absolutes, such as the common claim that it is always wrong to torture a small child just for the fun of it? Such scenarios, I believe, do illustrate that there is objective morality. In no cultural context and in no situation would it ever be morally acceptable to torture a small child for the fun of it. I don’t think any reasonable person can truly say there is no such thing as objective morality in light of that scenario. Some things just simply are wicked.

However, that scenario is not a broad principle, but rather a specific application of moral principles to a specific situation. That scenario already assumes the fact that there is no moral principle in favor of torturing a small child other than the principle that people should be allowed to have fun. And while the principle that people should be allowed to have fun is an important principle, the moral principles of “children need to be loved and nurtured” and “torturing people is bad” clearly outweigh it! It is an easy decision, obviously, But it still is hierarchical.


Application Outside of Questions of Pure Morality

In much of western civilization, but especially the United States, there is a lot of discussion about people's rights. Properly understood, all rights come from God and government can neither create rights to take them away. Government is supposed to protect the rights of its people. For this reason, especially in the United States, governing national constitutions affirm certain rights that the people have over the power of the government.

This matter is not purely a moral matter, as it pertains to human institutions trying to apply what is right and wrong, as far as they have a role in it, and not what is actually right and wrong itself. But since we do have a concept of individual rights, especially in the USA where our constitution has a whole section on them, the concept of morality being hierarchical also applies to individual rights. Rights are also hierarchical.

For example, in the United States, our constitution affirms that every person has the right to follow their conscience and practice their religious beliefs apart from any non-divine government using its coercive force to interfere. The first amendment to the constitution prohibits government from infringing on the free exercise of a persons religion, with no exceptions listed. The point is not that all religions are right or good (obviously I don't think they are), but that is to be between the individual and God.

At the same time, every person also has a right to life and to not have their life taken by another person. So with that in mind, imagine if a Islamic extremist determines that following his religion (at least as he understands it) means he must kill his daughter who abandoned Islam when she went to college. It is impossible for the government to avoid infringing on his free exercise of religion and to also protect her right to life. In this case, of course, any civilized government would not permit the man to kill his daughter because her right to life clearly and obviously outweighs his right to religious freedom. But while it was an easy decision, it still was one person's rights taking precedence over another, just as moral principles sometimes do.


Conclusion


Honestly, I’m not even trying to make any groundbreaking points here. I just think that when you start thinking of morality being hierarchical, it allows the moral intuitions we already have to make sense. For many, especially Christians, we think of moral laws and principles as rigid principles that can never be broken - except then we do break them and cannot explain why it was the right thing to do even though we know it was. Framing morality this way, as being hierarchical, gives us an intellectual explanation for what can seem hard to explain. And it probably will allow us to better think through moral dilemmas we might come across in our lives.

So, that's I had to say there, at least for now. Happy New Year!