Wednesday, April 25, 2018

John MacArthur Mischaracterizes N.T. Wright

At 3:16 MacArthur quotes N.T. Wright but conveniently leaves out some extremely important clarification ***at the center of the quote***.  Here is the actual quote in full:

I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.”
N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 132–33

Now I’ve read this book and many others by Wright and listened to dozens of his lectures. I know exactly what Wright believes the Gospel to be and how he believes it saves. I also understood how even the edited quote given by MacArthur doesn’t contradict 1 Corinthians 15:1-2. But by leaving out Wright’s very important clarification, MacArthur mischaracterizes the argument for those unfamiliar with Wright. MacArthur is either being blatantly dishonest or profoundly ignorant. Given that he freely admits that he doesn’t understand Wright I will go with the option that MacArthur is profoundly ignorant of Wright’s theology.

Again, quite fine to critique Wright’s work (I do so on his views of penal substitution and the intermediate state), but before MacArthur gets into the pew and publicly criticizes Wright he better understand what he’s talking about.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Jesus and the “Harrowing of Hell”: An Interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-22

On the Saturday just before Easter, I spent much of the day studying 1 Peter 3:18-22. This study came while the Roman Catholic Church was still reeling over Pope Francis’ admission and subsequent retraction of his view that unbelievers do not go to “hell” when they die. This Catholic incident caused many Christian theologians, scholars, and bloggers to discuss the issue, and, particularly since it was close to Easter, the issue of the state of Jesus on the Saturday between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. There are different traditions which speculate on what Jesus was doing or not doing that Saturday. Was he simply dead in the tomb, both body and spirit? Or did his spirit leave his body at death and go elsewhere? If the latter, then where did it go and what did it do?

One particular and often popular theory is that Jesus’ spirit descended into either “hell” or the realm of the dead and made some form of proclamation to the beings there. There are many different formulations to this theory, largely dependent upon the identity of the beings in this otherworldly realm. While I do not feel the need to analyze the various and sundry scripture verses used as evidence to construct the main idea of this theory, I did want to tackle the key passage of this theory: 1 Peter 3:18-22. This passage is the lynchpin holding the tradition of Jesus’ “Harrowing of Hell” together. All the other verses mentioned in this tradition are either used as evidence to buttress or elucidate the central interpretation of this passage.

Let me start off by saying that if this passage has been sorely misinterpreted (and it has) it’s only because this is a very difficult passage, one of the most difficult in the New Testament. Why is this so? Basically, in order to make his point, Peter delves into some pretty deep theology and is, perhaps, using some extra-biblical apocalyptic mythology to make that point.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned about this passage is its context within the overall purpose of Peter’s letter. The recipients are Christians living in Asia Minor (1:1) who are suffering under serious persecution (1:6; 2:4, 7, 11, 19; 3:13-14, 17; 4:4, 12-19; 5:10). Peter is attempting to encourage them on the one hand and give them wisdom on how to avoid persecution on the other (2:11-20; 3:1-13; 4:2).

In order to encourage, he likens them to stones being built into a holy house or temple (2:4-5). This is significant because the imagery of believers as a temple is common metaphor in the New Testament for the corporate nature of Christ, and the idea that all believers are summed up in Christ so that what can be said of him can be said of them. Allow me to quote myself:

We have the voluminous references to people being “in Christ” throughout the New Testament (Romans 8:2, 39; 12:5; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 30; 15:18, 22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:4; 3:28; 6:15; Ephesians 1:3, 10, 12, 20). Indeed, the followers of Jesus - the Church itself - are frequently called the “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 3:6; 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 24). Not only that, Christian believers as a group are referred to as a Temple (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21). To put this altogether: believers are in Christ, they are the body of Christ, they are a Temple, Jesus is a Temple, and believers are a part of that Temple body.”

The corporate nature of Christ and the Church is a fundamental concept of theology and runs all the way through the New Testament, being based upon several ancient Hebrew concepts.

In the context of 1 Peter then, not only is Christ is our example (2:21-25; 3:18; 4:1), but, because we are incorporated into Christ, we share in his sufferings (4:13-14). Therefore, if the sufferings of Christ (1:11; 2:7, 21-24; 4:1; 5:1) lead to his glory (1:11, 21; 3:22; 4:13; 5:1, 4, 10) then our sufferings will also lead to glory in Christ (1:7-8; 2:5, 9-10; 4:13-14; 5:1, 4, 6, 10). Thus, the sufferings the recipients of the letter are currently experiencing will lead to glory in Christ.

Obviously, I’ve given a very brief summary, skipping over a lot of important detail that is a part of Peter’s argument. Yet, it is within this context that we have our particular passage.

“For Christ also suffered for the sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” (v. 18-19).

In verse 18, Peter describes the sufferings of Jesus unto death and THEN immediately his resurrection: made alive in the spirit. It was the power of the spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 1:4; 8:11). Peter then follows this with “in which also” (en hōi kai), meaning in the spirit. This sequence makes clear that whatever is happening is happening after Jesus’ resurrection but by the power of the same spirit that raised him from the dead. This means that whatever proclamation Christ is making he did so after his resurrection and not between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

If these two verses tell us what this passage is not saying, then what actually is it saying? Who or what are these spirits? They were once disobedient in the time before Noah (v. 20). Peter then uses Jesus’ proclamation to them to reference the story of Noah’s salvation (v. 20) as a metaphor for baptism (v. 21) which symbolizes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (v. 21; see also Romans 6:3-7). Once again, we have the language of participation in Christ. Baptism symbolizes a believer’s participation in Christ, specifically participation in his death and resurrection.

Peter immediately follows this second reference to Jesus’ resurrection identifying him as one “who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities had been subjected to him” (v. 22).

I believe verse 22 is the key verse in helping us understand the meaning of this passage.

One of the central beliefs of Christianity is that God enthroned Jesus as King of the world, following his death and resurrection. Essentially, Jesus is currently ruling this world, sitting at the right hand of God (Mark 14:62; Matthew 22:44; 25:33-34; 26:64; Daniel 7:13; Acts 2:33; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; Revelation 3:21; Psalm 110). Having been made king over the world, all power and authority has been given to him (Matthew 28:18) and all powers and authorities have been subjected to him (Ephesians 1:20-22; Philippians 2:8-11; 1 Corinthians 15:24; Colossians 1:13; 2:10, 15; Jude 1:25; Revelation 2:26-27; 12:10; Matthew 9:8; 21:23; Mark 3:15; John 5:27; 17:2; Psalm 110).

This is what Peter is saying in verse 22. Following is death and resurrection, God enthroned Jesus as King and ruler of the world and then gave him power and authority over all other power and authority on earth. Ephesians 1:20-22 is another clear and compact example of this teaching.

Now what are these powers and authorities? Here we get into some very deep and complicated theology. Other than the Hebrew conception of corporate influence (of which this is closely related), there is probably nothing theologically deeper than the biblical conception of power relations which was more readily understood in the ancient world but which seems completely foreign to the contemporary post-Enlightenment worldview.

Notice how Peter refers to the subjugation of “angels and authorities” in verse 22. He does so because “angels” (aggelos) were considered a form of power alongside numerous others identified by such terms as archai, archontes, thronos, kyriotes, kyrios, dynameis, and exousia among others. Walter Wink has done immense work in analyzing the power terms of the Bible and they help us understand the interaction between the “spiritual” and the physical. Since a significant part of the book I am currently writing is an application of Wink’s theory of biblical power relations to ministry - specifically the church - allow me to quote myself.

“Wink proposes that ‘“principalities and powers” are the inner and outer aspects of any given manifestation of power. As the inner aspect they are the spirituality of institutions, the “within” of corporate structures and systems, the inner essence of outer organizations of power. As the outer aspect they are political systems, appointed officials, the “chair” of an organization, laws.’ He arrives at this conclusion by surveying and analyzing the whole range of New Testament usage of the language of Power with corroborating support from the contemporaneous literature. He concludes that the Biblical writers employed interchangeable terms of Power which can refer either to the visible or invisible aspects of any given manifestation of Power, or even both together, as the context required. The language employed indicates that, in the Biblical view, the Powers are both visible and invisible, both earthly and heavenly, both spiritual and institutional. Wink notes the following:

‘The clearest statement of this is Col. 1:16 which should have been made the standard for all discussions of the Powers: “For in him [the Son] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones (thronoi) or dominions (kyriotētes) or principalities (archai) or authorities (exousia) – all things were created through him and for him.” The parallelism of the Greek, ably rendered here by the RSV, indicates that these Powers are themselves both earthly and heavenly, visible and invisible.’

                “In this view, the Biblical thought is that there is a spirituality behind (or within) physical manifestations of power. Behind every ruler, behind every nation, behind every administrator, institution, church, and pastor, there is a spirituality at work. The Powers possess simultaneously both an outer, physical manifestation and an inner spiritual essence, or gestalt corporate culture, or collective personality. The spiritual Powers, specifically, then are not to be understood as separate ‘heavenly entities’ but as ‘the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power’. … Every business, corporation, club, organization, school, government, denomination, and church has this combination of both outer and inner, visible and invisible, physical and spiritual. The Powers are both spiritual and institutional.

“Importantly, these Powers are not fundamentally bad but the good creation of a good God. However, all of them have fallen into corruption, having turned towards idolatry, becoming more or less evil in intent. It is when a Power turns towards idolatry, placing its own will above that of God’s, however consciously or unconsciously, that the Power becomes demonic. Thus, ‘demons’ are the psychic spiritual powers emanated by organizations, institutions, individuals or sub-aspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others in a radical rejection of and idolatrous estrangement from God.”

                This is why Peter includes angels, along with authorities and powers, as having been subjected to Christ at his enthronement following is death and resurrection. Angels, like demons, are the inner spirituality of a given manifestation of power. If all power in heaven and on earth, spiritual and physical, has been given to Jesus and all power has been subjected to him, then, naturally, angels have been subjected to him.

Now let’s go back to verse 19 of 1 Peter 3. What are these “spirits” in prison to whom Christ made some proclamation after his death and resurrection? Verse 22 suggests we should understand these spirits as referring to the inner manifestations of particular powers. These would have been powers that became disobedient, fell into corruption, turned towards idolatry, and became evil in intent.

What the proclamation entailed is somewhat uncertain. The context suggests it probably consisted of a declaration of Jesus’ victory on the cross and the disarmament of the powers. You can see this very idea in Colossians 2:9-15. In this passage, Paul speaks about the incorporation of believers in Christ in which they participate in his death and resurrection – symbolized in baptism (vv. 10-1) – and how the forgiveness of sins defeated the rulers and authorities. In doing so, Paul says that Christ “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them” (v. 15). I think the proclamation, like the public display and triumph, is a way of Christ’s victory over the corrupt, disobedient spiritual powers.

But these particular spiritual powers were in “prison” when Christ’s proclaimed his victory over the powers. What Peter means by “prison” (phulake) is a bit ambiguous. The word can mean “prison”, “guard”, “post”, or “hold”. Revelation refers to spiritual powers being in prison. In this apocalyptic and symbolic work, the prison (phulake) in 20:7 refers to the “abyss” where the Satan is bound. In the Gospel of Luke’s account of the Gerasene demonic (8:26-38; cf. Matthew 8:28-34 and Mark 5:1-20), the demons beg Jesus not to send them to the abyss when he exorcises them from the man (v. 31). A request Jesus grants. However, in Revelation 18:2, after the fall of “Babylon”, the place becomes a phulake for demons and unclean spirits. Again, this could mean prison or post. But if Peter is referring to these same spirits in 2 Peter 2:4 when he refers to angels being cast into “pits of darkness” (seirois zophou) and “consigned to Tartarus” (tararōsas) then perhaps prison is meant (see also Jude 1:6 and Enoch 20:2). This seems probable. These would then be disobedient spiritual powers during the events recorded in Genesis 6 that were somehow spiritually imprisoned. Of course, the Genesis account does not explicitly mention powers. The idea of disobedient angels imprisoned before the time of Noah comes from the non-canonical Book of Enoch (18:14-16). This is a mythological and apocalyptic book that gives a fictional and symbolic account of spiritual powers. It seems that Peter was speaking of a forgotten tradition using a literary reference in order to refer to Christ’s subjugation of the Powers. Why do so?

I believe that Peter, like Paul in Colossians 2:9-15, is attempting to connect the believers participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, symbolized in baptism (v. 21), with the subjugation of the powers that followed that death and resurrection. From 2 Peter 2:5, we know that Peter likes to use the story of Noah as an example. In verses 20-21 of our present passage, Peter speaks of Noah’s family being “brought safely through the water” and then says this corresponds with how baptism saves through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, having understood this passage this way, we can put Peter’s argument this way:

“You are suffering under persecution. But because you are believers participating in Christ, specifically through his death and resurrection, symbolized in baptism, then you share in his sufferings and he shares in yours. Jesus’ sufferings unto death led to his resurrection to glory. So shall your sufferings in Christ. Jesus’ resurrection into glory enthroned him and subjugated the powers of the world to him, including the ancient powers of the world. And just as in ancient times God saved Noah’s family from judgment through the waters, so God shall save you through the water of baptism which symbolizes participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which leads to glory and victory. So follow the example of Jesus Christ, being obedient to God’s will (1:2, 14, 22: 2:14-15, 20; 3:6, 17) which leads to a good conscience (2:19; 3:16, 21), not disobedient which leads to judgment (2:8; 3:1, 20; 4:17), so you patiently bear under unjust persecution and find favor with God (2:19-20).”

                I think this interpretation makes sense of this very difficult passage.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-55): A Brief Commentary

For the past two weeks I have been reading Isaiah 40-55 as a devotion. I wrote down my thoughts as I read.

Second Isaiah is breathtakingly amazing. It is an epic work of triumphant Yahweh. It's the unfolding of the plan to rescue creation. It is SO very important for how Jesus, Paul, and the early NT writers understood how God was fulfilling the promise to Abraham and rescuing creation through Jesus. You are really missing out on the meaning of Christianity if you don't understand this connection.

40:3 (Mark echoes it in his gospel 1:3). This is good news. The coming of Yahweh to his people. The Coming of Yahweh indicates that sins have been forgiven (40:2).

40:12-31. Clear statement of monotheism. Yahweh is the creator. Empires and nations come and go and are reduced to futility, but God endures forever. Yet, he is involved in history (vv. 23-24) and looks after those who hope in him (vv. 29-31).

Side note: Chapter 40 appears prominently in the film Chariots of Fire.
Side note: 40-41: I wonder if the author of Job 38-41 was inspired by these chapters.

41:2. Yahweh raises up Cyrus as the means of continuing the covenant. Cyrus' personal success is due to God's utility. Kings, nations, and empires are falling by the wayside of history, returning to dust, but Israel, the family of Abraham, remains. But only because their god is the creator God who is faithful to his covenant.

41:8-9. More on the covenant. Israel is the family of Abraham. They have been called to serve Yahweh. God has not rejected them despite their sin. Here the Servant is corporate Israel as a unified figure. Monotheism and election here.

Kings, nations, and empires are falling by the wayside of history, returning to dust, but Israel, the family of Abraham, remains. But only because their god is the creator God who is faithful to his covenant.

42. The first Servant Song. A chosen one. The spirit rests upon him. Non-violent figure. He will be faithful to the covenant. He will establish justice upon the whole earth, not just in Israel.

42:5-9. The creator god has called the Servant for the purpose of the covenant. He has made him a covenant. He is to be a light and redeemer to the world that is imprisoned within the darkness of powers of idolatry and false gods.

42:18-25. Yet the Servant (clearly Israel here) is blind to the truth and the reality of God's plans in history. Yahweh wished to be faithful to covenant and spread blessings, but Israel proved faithless. Instead, judgment came upon them.

43:1-7. But Yahweh still loves his people and will not leave them. He will bring the children of Israel together from around the world.

43:8-13. Israel is the proof and witness to the nations that Yahweh is the almighty creator God.

43:14-28. Yahweh destroys Babylon for the sake of Israel. A new Exodus is taking place. While Israel proved by their cultic practices that they did not honor their god, Yahweh will forgive their sins anyway for his purposes. Israel faced the cherem but was redeemed.

44:1-8. Yahweh, the creator god, who chose Israel, will renew his people like he will renew the land. The saving/renewal power of Yahweh will result in the nations wanting to become his followers and his people.

44:9-20. A polemic against idolatry. A brutal satire on the absurdity and futility of it. Sarcasm and ridicule. Swiftian. The idolater is one who is spiritually blind. He is led astray be a deluded mind. See the works of Walter Wink for connection between idolatry and delusion.

44:24-28. Again, Yahweh is the Lord of History. His ways confound the prognosticators yet sends interpretive words to his prophets. He determines the course of events. In this way, he had called Cyrus for his purposes to decree the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

45:1-13. The creator god uses the pagan Cyrus for his purposes, for his chosen people, for the covenant in order that Yahweh's name can be known throughout the world. Yahweh goes before Cyrus' armies (much like the Ark of the Covenant went before Israel's). Creation and history are continually being intertwined in these chapters. Yahweh is lord over both. He is bringing Israel out of physical exile, being faithful to the covenant, in order to bless the entire world.

45:14-25. The prophet predicts a religious conquest of the world. Yahweh is inviting all nations of the earth to share in the salvation of Israel. This is God's faithfulness to his covenant. But woe to the idolaters!

46:1-13. False gods are falling. Their idols lead only into captivity and exile. This is the state of the idolatrous. Yet, while people carry the idols of their false gods, Yahweh will carry his people. Deliverance is coming. Yahweh will establish his victory.

47:1-15. An oracle against Babylon about to meet its fall by Cyrus.

48:1-22. Israel has been unfaithful to Yahweh and his covenant, yet God has been patient for his own purposes. He has revealed the truth throughout Israel's history and will continue to do so. Yet Israel refuses to listen, Yet, liberation and restoration are in store. Yahweh is not governed by the conduct of Israel. The purpose of the punishments against Israel is to make it what election and covenant destined Israel to be. Yahweh notes the promise of offspring as numerous as the sand on the seashore (v. 19). This is a reference to the covenantal promise God gave to the patriarchs (Genesis 22:17; 32:12; cf. 15:5). Yahweh is saying that there is a historical purpose for the election of Israel and the covenant - to bless the nations. Israel has been faithless to that purpose, but God is going to honor the covenant for his purposes.

49:1-6. The Second Servant Song. Identity of the servant in some doubt among scholars. Possibly Israel. Possibly another figure whose identity fluctuates between himself and Israel. This servant will renew Israel and be used to bring salvation to the world. The mission of the servant to restore Israel but this is the lesser part of the mission. The fuller mission is a restoration of the world.

‏49:7-13. Again, the covenant for Israel is a medium for which Yahweh's revelation and salvation reach all nations. The powers of the world will bow before God.

49:14-26; 50:1-3. Some theodicy here. Israel is in despair over their circumstances. However, Yahweh has not forgotten Israel. He remains faithful. He has power over the nations and rulers of this world and they bend to his will. His power to destroy shows his power to build.

50:4-9. Third Servant Song. A prophetic figure. His mission grows more difficult, yet he won't respond to violence with violence or to insult with insult. Instead, Yahweh will vindicate the servant. The language is legal. The servant will be justified, declared righteous.

‏50:10-11. But those who do not hearken to the voice of the servant will not share in his vindication. You will not be justified, declared righteous.

51:1-23. Reference to the call of Abraham (v. 2), the Garden of Eden (v. 3), and the Exodus (v. 10). Possibly a reference to mythological incident and the blended imagery of creation and exodus against chaos (v. 9). Yahweh promises judgment, victory, deliverance, salvation to all the nations (vv. 4-8). Yahweh, the creator, promises to free the oppressed from the oppressor (v. 13-16)

52:1-12. A messenger brings Good News of peace and salvation. He announces the Kingdom of God (v. 7). Yahweh is returning to Zion (v. 8). The ends of the earth shall see salvation (v. 10).

52:13-15; 53:1-12. The Fourth Servant Song. The Servant is exalted but there is nothing to commend him. He has no beauty or attractiveness. A low, humble person. He bore people’s diseases and pain. Because of it, people thought him afflicted by God. He was wounded and crushed. A victim of a legal injustice. He is killed. Yahweh brings transgressions upon him so that his plan may succeed. The curse of the people come upon him. Yet, he is innocent. Despite death, he will experience long life. He is delivered from death. And he will deliver many. His is an atoning death. This is a saving act that is going to astonish the powers of the world. The suffering of the righteous becomes the medium of salvation.

54:1-17. The ancient sins of Israel are referred to. Israel is likened to an unfaithful wife. However, what might have been a divorce was merely a temporary separation. Now reconciliation has begun. This recalls the theology of Hosea. The reference to the barrenness of the wife (v. 1) recalls Sarah and the promise recalls Abraham (vv. 3, 10). There is also references to unbreakable covenants (vv. 9-10). The vision of the enduring Jerusalem approaches the eschatological. It is a community of the redeemed.

55:1-13. Yahweh invites everyone to eat and drink. Food and drink that will make people live. An eternal covenant will be made. The covenant will be made out of God’s love for David (possibly a reference to 2 Samuel 7:11-16 and Psalm 89). He will be a witness, a prince, a ruler of people. Those who don’t even know him will run to him. There is a call to everyone to come to Yahweh. Seek God, seek forgiveness. The creator god’s thoughts are beyond humanities. His saving purposes can grasped, but not its scope. Yahweh sends his Word out. The externalization of his person. It shall not come back unfulfilled. It will accomplish its mission. Instead of thorns and thistles, trees, bushes, and flowers will grow. A reversal of the curse of Eden.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Recommended Religious Reading List

Here is a recommended religious reading list:

*Top Ten in Bold

Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Transforming Mission – David Bosch
Dogmatics (vols. 1 and 2) – Emil Brunner
I and Thou – Martin Buber
The Book of Daniel (ABC) – Alexander A. Di Lella and Louis F. Hartman
The Message of Genesis – Ralph Elliott
Christian Theology – Millard Erickson
Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally – David Hesselgrave
Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship - Alan Hirsch and Debra Hirsch
The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God - Aubrey Johnson
The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel - Aubrey Johnson
The Concept of Anxiety – Soren Kierkegaard
Concluding Unscientific Postscript - Soren Kierkegaard
Either/Or – Soren Kierkegaard
Fear and Trembling – Soren Kierkegaard
Philosophical Fragments – Soren Kierkegaard
Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Soren Kierkegaard 
Mere Christianity – C. S. Lewis
The Baptist Heritage – Leon McBeth
Apostasy – Dale Moody
Word of Truth – Dale Moody
The Axioms of Religion – E.Y. Mullins
The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression – E.Y. Mullins
Message and Mission – Eugene Nida
Customs and Culture – Eugene Nida
Nature and Destiny of Man – Reinhold Niebuhr
A Literary Approach to the New Testament – John Paul Pritchard
Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. I-VI – A.T. Robertson
Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel – H. Wheeler Robinson
Understanding Genesis – Nahum Sarna
New Testament Theology - Frank Stagg
The Polarities of Human Existence in Biblical Perspective – Frank Stagg
Can We Do That? – Andy Stanley and Ed Young
AquaChurch – Leonard Sweet
Soul Tsunami – Leonard Sweet
Blinded by Might – Carl Thomas and Ed Dobson
The Powers Trilogy - Walter Wink
The Challenge of Jesus - N.T. Wright
The Day the Revolution Began - N.T. Wright
How God Became King - N.T. Wright
Jesus and the Victory of God - N.T. Wright
Justification – N.T. Wright
The New Testament and the People of God – N.T. Wright
Paul and the Faithfulness of God – N.T. Wright
The Resurrection of the Son of God - N.T. Wright
The Creative Leader - Ed Young

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Natural Evil and the Death of Animals

Natural evil is evil for which no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible for its occurrence. Examples include the sufferings resulting from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. The idea is that these events are bad but cannot be blamed on the moral lapses of Man. Some Christians believe that such environmental phenomena are the result of the Fall of Man and would not have occurred in an unfallen world as God originally intended. The point of this article is not to critique this overall theory but to confine myself to a specific subset of it.

One of the primary results of the Fall of Man - as told in the story of Genesis 3 - was that humanity was prevented from accessing the fruit of the Tree of Life. The idea is that God had intended humanity to live forever by eating this fruit (Genesis 3:22), but disobedience and sin put a break on that intention. The result was humanity’s descension into corruption and death (Genesis 2:16; 3:3, 19). Death then reigned through humanity until the resurrection of Jesus (Romans 5:12-21). Eventually, death will be completely defeated (1 Corinthians 15:26, 54-55; Revelation 20:14; 21:4). At that time, those who are believers in Jesus will be resurrected into incorruptible, physical bodies that are immune to decay and death (Romans 5:17, 21; 6:4-9, 23; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 54; 2 Corinthians 1:10; Revelation 20:6; 21:4).

Importantly, the biblical verses concerning death and its solution explicitly do so with regards to humanity. Death is the inevitable result of sin, but life comes from God through Jesus the Christ (Romans 6:23). However, despite this explicit human death context, there are those who argue that the references to death implicitly refer to death in creation. The idea is that all death, including the death of animals, is the result of the Fall of Man. In this thinking, if Man had not originally sinned, animals would not die. Furthermore, if animals would not die, then humans would not have killed animals and animals would not kill animals. The corollary to this interpretation, obviously, is that animals would not kill other animals for food. Presumably, they would kill plants for food.

I specifically remember a well-known evangelical leader writing an article a decade ago about his experiences watching the Discovery Channel. He noted a scene in one nature show showing a python swallowing a pig whole. He concluded that such a scenario could not have been God’s original intention for his creation. But is his conclusion correct? It seemed to be based more on subjective feelings of disgust rather than on sound Biblical theology. Can we use the Bible to learn whether God intended animals to kill other animals for food?

I think the clearest Biblical answer comes from Psalm 104. This is a psalm of praise to God, specifically identifying his greatness as Creator. God is majestic because he has created a wonderfully good and ordered world. And in and through this ordered world, God cares for the sustenance of his living creatures.

“He sends forth springs in the valleys;
They flow between the mountains;
They give drink to every beast of the field;
The wild donkeys quench their thirst.” (vv. 10-11)

“He causes the grass to grow for the cattle” (v. 14)

Then we have these important verses:

“You appoint darkness and it becomes night,
In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about.
The young lions roar after their prey
And seek their food from God.” (vv. 20-21)

 These two verses are followed by the following:

“O LORD, how many are Your works!
In wisdom You have made them all;
The earth is full of Your possessions.
There is the sea, great and broad,
In which are swarms without number,
Animals both small and great.

They all wait for You
To give them their food in due season.
You give to them, they gather it up;
You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good.” (vv. 24-25, 27-28)

What verses 20-21 explicitly state is that young lions seek other animals to eat for food and that this process is from God. While verse 14 indicates that God ordered his good and wondrous creation so that some animals should be fed on the plants of the earth, verses 20-21 indicate God orders this same creation so that other animals will devour other creatures for their food. Animals eating other animals is a part of God’s good an ordered intention for his created world.

I made this argument more than a decade ago, reasoning through my observations of how God created animals.

“Examine the carnivore animals of God’s creation: lions, cheetahs, eagles, bear, vultures, wolves, sharks, etc. They are designed by God to hunt and kill other animals. The teeth, the claws, the speed, and the senses – it is all designed to find, chase down, kill, tear apart and devour other animals. Examine many of the animals of God’s creation that are hunted by carnivores: deer, skunks, porcupines, elephants, rhinoceroses, fish, lizards, rabbits, etc. They are designed by God to escape, defend, and hide from other animals. The camouflage, the speed, the defensive capabilities are a part of their being. These capabilities assume a life of potential death and the ability to kill and avoid being killed.”

The teachings of Scripture indicate that God always intended for animals to prey on each other and that this process is a part of his good and ordered creation. Casual observation of that created order confirms this interpretation of Scripture. Working backwards from this corollary, we can then infer that God does not have a problem with the death of animals in his good creation, and that the death of animals is not a result of the Fall of Man. Instead, the death that resulted from the humanity’s sin was specifically concerned with that of human beings created in the image of God. This being the case, whatever we think about natural evil, it should generally exclude the death of animals.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Why do Christians Believe that Jesus is the Only Means of Salvation?

The great scandal of Christianity in the Western, postmodern age is the fundamental, exclusivist claim that salvation, both individually and corporately, can only be found in allegiance to Jesus the Christ. This is a foundational claim of Christianity and has endured through the millennia, even in times and places of great persecution. In the early centuries of Christianity, coming into prominence in the Greco-Roman world of polytheism, Christians maintained the truth that “Jesus is Lord” and that their only allegiance was to him and no other god, including Caesar. For this abiding principle they faced torture, death, and persecution. After Christianity became the de facto religion of Western civilization, the issue of the Faith’s exclusivity became less central through general acceptance of the truth. During the Enlightenment period and early modernity, many philosophers and religious thinkers began to see Christianity more as the highest ideal of an evolving naturalistic religion rather than as a faith inherently separate from all others. This view weakened the exclusive claims of Christ, setting Jesus up as the highest and noblest truth to be followed rather than as central to salvation. Later modernity focused more on whether the claims of Christianity were true or not. By the time of post-modernity, the questions had devolved even further. The idea of truth (highest or otherwise) was no longer pertinent. Now, all religious faith traditions were of equal value and none had an exclusive claim to the truth. Salvation was said to be found in any faith, or no faith … whatever. Nevertheless, the millennia claim of Christ’s exclusivity remains. It is central to the Faith and how creation works.

I believe the primary reason many people object to the exclusive claims of Jesus is they think the means of salvation are arbitrary and not inextricably linked to objective reality. People tend to think religion is a purely subjective experience and, thus, that all such experiences are basically the same. But are they? If so, how do we know? Should the atheistic paganism of Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews be given the same salvific value as the Christian monk who gives up all his possessions to help the poor? If so, then God has certainly created a random universe without order or justice. Unless we are going to advocate for a universal salvation for everyone irrespective of their deeds, then there must be some form of exclusivity involved. Who then is excluded? A person who believes in God but commits horrific, murderous crimes? An atheist who lives a moral life? A person whose life has been 50% good and 50% bad? Where is the tipping point? What is the standard? Is there an objective principle by which someone is said to be “saved”? Christianity has always stated that, yes, there is an objective standard to reality and salvation, and it is Jesus the Christ. For example:

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5)

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36)

“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

“I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18)

“That all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23)

“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11-12)

“No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)

“Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1:9)

Then there are these other verses: John 3:3; Matthew 25:41; Isaiah 44:6; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Matthew 7:13-14; Ephesians 2:1-22; Acts 16:31; Romans 6:23; Romans 5:1-21; Matthew 7:23; Acts 13:38-39; John 17:3; Hebrews 7:25; John 6:35; John 11:25; John 8:51; John 6:50-51; Matthew 11:27; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 John 1:7; Ephesians 2:18

Then there are dozens more passages that speak of Christ’s centrality in creation, his unique relationship with God, and his supreme Lordship over all the world and everything in it. This last point is particularly important. It makes the claim that Jesus is the one true King of this world and that he is currently ruling it (Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Acts 2:33; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20-23; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22; Revelation 3:21; Psalm 110:1).

When the early Christians proclaimed that “Jesus is Lord” they were not simply asserting his divinity. They were also asserting a counter-claim to the prevailing culture. In the early Greco-Roman world, the emperor was the kyrios, the lord of the world, the one who claimed the allegiance and loyalty of subjects throughout his wide empire. The early Christians insisted that Jesus’ messiahship and divine sonship were validated by his resurrection, and, thus, he was the Lord, the kyrios, of the whole world. The believed their task was to bring the world, all the nations, into loyal allegiance — hypakoē pisteos, the obedience of faith — to this universal Lord.

Faith/belief, then, is not an abstraction devoid of content or context. The Faith that indicates salvation has a specific content: Jesus as Lord.

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." (Acts 16:31)

See also Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:15-18; 3:36; 5:24; 6:40; 8:24; 20:31; Acts 10:43; 13:39; Mark 16:16; Luke 7:50; Hebrews 4:3.

This is the reason the early Christians followed Jesus commission to go into the world to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), specifically based on the fact Jesus had all authority over the world (v. 18). This is the reason they preached the good news to unbelieving Jews, including pagan gentiles (Acts 13:47; 28:28). Paul himself says, “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name's sake” (Romans 1:5).

The early Christians also believed that Gentiles becoming obedient believers was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 18:49, 22:27; 117:1; Isaiah 11:10; 42:4; 49:6; 56:1-8; 60:1-3; Jeremiah 16:19-21; Zechariah 2:11; Malachi 1:11; cf. Romans 15:9-12). These prophecies stem all the way from the calling of Abraham: “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3; 17). Following the Fall of Man (Genesis 3) and the splintering of humanity, God called Abraham and appointed Israel as the means by which he would save the world and create one family of both Jews and Gentile believers. The book of Galatians is about this one family God has created through Jesus and those who believe, both Jews and Gentiles (3:3, 5-9, 22-29; 5:5-6). This is why Paul, in the book of Romans, mourns that so many of his contemporary Jews did not believe and did not have salvation because they rejected Jesus as Lord (9:30-10:21).

Again, Jesus’ “Lordship” is not simply a claim of divinity but an assertion of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and the one, true ruler of the of the world (Psalm 110:1; Matthew 22:44). The Four Gospels themselves are stories that tell how Jesus became King. The Good News is about the arrival of the Kingdom of God (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Mark 1:14). The Kingdom of God is the rule and will of God on this earth, reversing the curse of the Fall of Man (see Romans 5:12-21). People are called to turn away (repent) of their sins and have that obedient faith, that allegiance to Jesus, the one true ruler of the world. Salvation comes from allegiance to Christ. Those who do not have allegiance to Christ are judged condemned. As John writes:

“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:17-18).

Yet, the choice to believe and accept Jesus as Lord is open to all who hear the Gospel.

I write all this to simply show what early Christians believed about the exclusivity of Jesus. It is Jesus’ Lordship and our required allegiance to him that necessitates that exclusivity. This is why contemporary Christians believe that only Christianity, and no other faith tradition, provides salvation.

Again, this summation is all very basic and general. One can go deeper and speak about how this allegiance to Jesus works towards our salvation. Then we are talking about the concept of “headship”, incorporation, what it means to be the Messiah/Christ, and how what one says about the Christ can be said about his followers. That also brings into the discussion “the faithful obedience of Christ”, how it led to his resurrection/salvation, and how his followers are to have that same kind of faith to experience resurrection/salvation. Then, if one wants to go even deeper than that, one can talk about the ancient Hebrew conception of anthropology and how it formed the basis for understanding their religion. This understanding formed the basis and rationale for pertinent Judeo-Christian theological concepts. Even then, one can begin studying the biological development of the psyche in primitive humans to understand how ancient Hebrews arrived at their anthropological/theological conclusions. This is one of my current areas of study. I mention all this latter depth in brief only to emphasize that the Christian concept of the exclusivity of Christ to salvation is not an arbitrary belief but derived from something for more fundamental to humans.

This is why the exclusivity of Christ can never be divorced or downplayed in Christianity. His role in creation, salvation, judgment, and resurrection is central to the Faith. His crucifixion and resurrection are the linchpins that hold the religion and the history of the world together. Without the exclusivity of Christ there can be no salvation.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Some Thoughts on the Protests in Iran

News stories are selected and characterized in order to enhance a narrative which supports a worldview and furthers an agenda. The Iranian protests are too big to ignore; the press has to cover it or it looks blatantly obvious that they are biased. But then how do they cover it? Ideally, they’d like to cover it to further their agenda/worldview. At the very least they’d prefer to characterize it in order to limit any damage to their agenda/worldview. As of now they haven’t figured out how to do either. Again, their problem is that they have no direction. Their typical go-to source for coverage on Iran appears to be at a loss as well. All the source can offer is “Let’s not talk about it.” The press tried that, but it’s not working. It’s starting to look odd. Granted, it worked with the recent Iran-Hezbollah-drugs story (see Politico) but only because it was a past event that could be ignored. But what’s currently happening in Iran is a real time developing event. Hilariously, the press’s first news reports about the protests came AFTER the Iranian regime had given their characterization of the events and … wait for it … parroted exactly what that regime was saying. That was a sign of desperation on the press’s part, and that characterization fell apart pretty quickly. As of now, they still haven’t settled on a best characterization. I think they are hoping this thing blows over quickly. Of course, that now means the Iranian regime cracking down on the protestors. The regime has shot quite a few so far. And, of course, like having Net Neutrality, the Iranian government controls the Internet there and is blocking the social media sites the protestors are using for news and organization. In the end, I doubt this will go like the collapse of European Communism in 1989-1991 or the uprising against Mosaddegh in 1953. I suspect it’ll be more like the Chinese regime at Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 or the failed uprising against Erdoğan in 2016. I hope and pray I’m wrong on this. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to see what characterization the press eventually settles on.

Just a writing update ... [Updated]

Just a writing update:

My New Year’s Resolutions for 2017 were to write one essay a week, finish writing two books, resume work on my Moody book project (lectures in Biblical Theology 42), start work on a new book on ministry, and start looking for publishers.

I wrote 40 essays this year but eventually stopped in September to devote my writing time fully to that new ministry book. This is why I haven’t posted anything new since September 6th.

Early in the year I finished my first book of essays. The second book I wanted to finish this year is an adaptation of my thesis, The Use of Jonah in the Luke-Acts. I started revising it earlier in the year but still have a little more to do on it.

The Moody book project is progressing. I’ve been re-reading many of Dale Moody’s works and much of the secondary works about him. Mostly I’ve been focusing on writing the opening biographical work. I was able to finish the introduction and biography on Thursday and have begun some initial revisions of my previous work.

I began writing the new book on ministry in September and, with 16 chapters completed, I am about halfway done with it. The last three months have been difficult as I focus on the central chapter which combines Aubrey J. Johnson’s analysis of the Hebrew conception of corporate solidarity with Walter Wink’s analysis of the Biblical conception of Powers, and then how these two conceptions can be applied to ministry. Yeah, this is why it took me three weeks just to outline the argument of the chapter. I’ve had to reread all of their works on the subject, read critiques of these works, and study all the relevant Scriptural passages. I finally finished this central chapter just this evening.

At the same time I’ve been listening to a series of lectures by clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson on a psychological interpretation of early Biblical stories. Peterson is not a Christian but he does have a healthy respect for the Biblical stories and takes them very seriously. His approach is phenomenological in basis, interpreting the stories from a Jungian psychological, Nietzschean, biological standpoint. Some of what he has to say about the biological and neurological basis of human consciousness and how it’s communicated through the most ancient of Biblical stories has relevance to my studies of Aubrey and Wink. So far there are 13 of these lectures, each two and a half hours long, and I finished them two weeks ago. A 14th lecture is expected.

With regards to finding publishers for these books, I have only stuck my toe in that water. A more extensive search will come in 2018.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Quick Thought on Property and Natural Law

The concept of Natural Law (found in Hebrew-Christian thinking, Greek philosophy, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Smith among many others) argues that there are manifest, inalienable rights inherent to reality that can be comprehended by human reason and are universal to all mankind. One of these natural rights is that of private/personal property. This can be understood by the existence of the individual. The individual is fundamentally a personal/private property unto him or herself. ...The concept of private property begins with the acknowledgement of the existence of the individual. From this come ideas of the right to life, the right to privacy, the right of self-preservation, abolition of slavery, freedom of association, and freedom of religion among others.

Marxist thought (drawing from Rousseau, Hobbes and Hegel) - in an attempt to undermine the philosophical structure that undergirds capitalist thought - rejects the concept of private property down to its most fundamental level, arguing that property and rights come from the state and administered by government. This rejection is the philosophical basis for why in so many socialist countries (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.) there are severe human rights violations, abolition of private property, forced labor, collectivism, no freedom of association, and political executions. If there is no natural right to private/personal property, then the state grants to individuals rights and property. Under socialism, you don’t own yourself; the collective state owns you. And if the state is administered by the government, then government can effectively and legally deprive you of life, liberty, and property in the name of the interests of the collective state. For the individual to claim for himself or herself life, liberty, and property apart from the state would be considered, at the very least, stealing. This is why many socialists proclaim “Property is Theft.”

Therefore, when the government seeks to cut taxes for the populace, and particular individuals complain that cutting taxes is “giving it to the wealthy” and “stealing from the national treasury”, now you’ll understand the philosophical underpinning that guides such statements.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Interpreting the Prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:9-10) in its Context

Yesterday I referenced Bruce Wilkinson’s book, The Prayer of Jabez, centered around 1 Chronicles 4:9-10.

“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.”

I mentioned that since that book came out in 2000, the criticisms of its theology have become well-known. It has been called an evangelical health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim it type of doctrine. Because too many people want to understand this passage in terms of the Prosperity Theology, a proper understanding is lacking. It is my purpose to set the Prayer of Jabez in its proper context and interpret it appropriately.
1 and 2 Chronicles were originally one book. The author wrote a very theological interpretation of history from Adam to the Decree of Cyrus in 540 BCE, focusing on God working through history to bring about his divine purposes through the one, true family of Israel. Special emphasis is placed on David, the Temple, and the cultic practices of Israel. The theological approach is similar to that found in Deuteronomy that emphasizes the cause and effect relationship between God and his covenant people. If Israel maintains their part of the covenant, they can expect blessings. If they fail, they can expect curses. It was the purpose of the covenant that God made with Abraham (and Israel) that the world would be blessed and the curse of the Fall of Man would be reversed. The first nine chapters are genealogies showing how God worked through the families of the earth from Adam to Abraham and eventually to the Davidic line. In chapter four we get a snippet from the unknown life of Jabez. Why does the author of the Chronicles include the anecdote in his work? What purpose does it serve?

This two verse story opens with the knowledge that Jabez’s birth was troubled, and his mother named Jabez (sorrowful) because of the pain (jozeb) of the childbirth (reversing the last two consonants). The ancient Israelites believed in the power of words to shape reality under certain circumstances (i.e., blessings and curses), particularly when it came to the naming of children. The naming of a child at birth could affect its destiny. This is why Jacob immediately renames Benjamin to something more positive when Rachel calls out a sorrowful name and dies giving birth (Genesis 35:18). A bad name could leave a curse on one’s life. This appears to have been the case with Jabez. In his prayer, Jabez asked God to bless him so that evil would not bring him pain. He was seeking a reverse of the curse.

Now admittedly Jabez’s prayer was an immature one. He wanted to escape the pain of his life through material possessions. This attitude was not uncommon for a people that did not believe in an afterlife and conceptualized divine blessings in terms of children, land, and its produce.

Of course, many people today seek to escape the pain of their lives and the results of their characters and actions through the accumulation of material possessions. Jabez may have been more honorable than his brothers, but he was still very spiritually immature. Indeed, it is unadvisable for any Christian to pray such a prayer in this manner. Nevertheless, God did grant the request. I am reminded of Romans 8:26 when Paul says that “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” In this incident, God answered the weakness of Jabez’s prayer for relief and reversed the curse with a blessing.

Knowing that this passage is about turning a curse into a blessing, it makes sense why the author of the Chronicles wanted to include it. The history that he unfolds is about the curses and the blessings that follow from Israel’s behavior towards the covenant. This reaches a head in the ultimate curse: expulsion from the land in the Babylonian exile (2 Chronicles 26). Yet, in the final three verses of the book, the Lord reverses the curse through the decree of Cyrus, and God’s people return to their homeland. God turned a curse into a blessing. Therefore, the Prayer of Jabez is an early example of what God would do with Israel. Ultimately, God uses Jesus to reverse the curse of the Fall and bless the whole world. But, again, the blessings of the covenant and the covenant itself were for the purpose of blessing the entire world.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with praying to God to relieve one’s pain or prevent pain from occurring (see Luke 22:42). 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 shows us a God who can reverse the curses in our lives and turn them into blessings. However, it should be noted, it’s God’s intention that the blessings he sends your way be used for the purposes of his Kingdom. The purpose of a blessing is to bless others. As both Jesus and Paul will teach, the major problem of Israel is that they wanted to keep that blessing for themselves. This selfishness with the blessing brought a curse. Therefore, pray to God to relieve your pain, but pray that God can use you to be a blessing for others.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Defending Joel Osteen in Light of Incipient, Evangelical Prosperity Theology

As many people know, Pastor Joel Osteen was pilloried in the media recently when he was wrongly accused of heartlessness with regards to the plight of the people suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. The accusations against him were completely unfounded and EASILY disproved, but – once again – people ignorantly piled on in a complete rush to judgment. As Ed Stetzer wrote, “The response from many people spreading false information shows their character, not Osteen’s. The irony for some in this moment is clear: they hate Osteen because they believe he distorts the truth—and then they do the same when they critique him with false information.”

Now I’ve heard people hate on Joel Osteen since I was at seminary. It seems like people love to do so. Why? Basically, I think this is because he is a well-known, popular pastor who preaches sermons with prosperity gospel theology. I’ve never jumped on this hate train, though I certainly don’t mind honest critique of his so-called theology. I have lightly kidded him in the past but all in good fun. Now why haven’t I felt the need to attack Joel Osteen? Three reasons:

First, the Word of Faith movement, with which Osteen belongs, is not within my sphere of influence. I tend to fall within mainstream evangelical Protestantism (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc). I don’t touch upon Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Word of Faith and others much unless, maybe, the Pope makes some grandiose pronouncement that he intends for us all to follow (snicker). For the most part then, I follow the principle of Luke 9:50 (“Leave him alone. For whoever is not against you is for you”) and John 21:22 (“What is that to you?”). I call this the Biblical doctrine of minding your own business.

Second, Joel Osteen seems like a nice, humble guy. I’ve never gotten the idea or heard any rumor that he acts inappropriately behind the scenes. I once saw video of a preacher being interviewed behind the scenes at a Christian speakers’ conference. At the back of the shot, in the distance, was Joel Osteen in a candid moment, not realizing he was on camera. He was thanking the various people who were working behind the scenes at the conference (the “little people”). Granted, that was only a snapshot, but even his demeanor suggested to me that he wasn’t walking around thinking he was a big shot. Believe me, there are far too many preachers and pastors out there who are jerks, bullies, and egotists. The Bully Pastor is a far bigger problem with which the Church in America has to deal. It’s refreshing to see a minister not behave in such a manner.

Finally, and this gets to the heart of the matter, in terms of Osteen’s poor theology, well, let’s face it: half the pastors in this country preach sermons with poor theology. And that half estimate is probably being generous! Granted, much evangelical theology is bad and most people, including most pastors, just accept what they hear without considering whether or not it’s true. But even by that standard, the sermons being preached out there are cheap. These preachers just aren’t studying. Granted, God is still using these preachers for evangelism and discipleship, but only just enough that the Kingdom of God chugs along. God still works through weakness. So when I hear various preachers condemn the theology of Joel Osteen I think, “Take the plank out of your own eye first.” But let me be more specific at the hypocrisy.

Osteen is known for advocating Prosperity Theology. Here is a good definition: “Prosperity Theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth.”

Naturally, I think the Prosperity Theology is wrong. It’s unscriptural and relies on a poor hermeneutic for understanding what the Bible does say about blessings. Many other Christians and theologians have explained why it’s bad, so I have no desire to explain why that is the case. Most mainstream evangelical preachers and pastors will state clearly that they are against the whole “health and wealth” theology. In fact, they will state unequivocally they are against the Prosperity Gospel and will denounce it in no uncertain terms. But then …

But then a preacher will want to do a Bible study series on Bruce Wilkinson’s book, The Prayer of Jabez, and do a sermon on 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 using Wilkinson’s interpretation: “bless me and enlarge my territory!” Of course, since that book came out in 2000, the criticisms of its theology have become well-known. It has been called an evangelical health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim it type of doctrine. Wilkinson says that “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers” and “I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.” The book suggest that this passage in 1 Chronicles is some kind of secret key that unlocks all the blessings God has in store for believers. Indeed, it treats Jabez’s prayer as a mantra to be recited word for word and portrays divine blessings in terms of miracles, material blessings, and mundane popularity. As one person wrote, “For Wilkinson, the prayer has become the secret to success in every endeavor. God is viewed as a butler who responds in a mechanical manner when certain words are recited.” To say that reciting someone else’s prayer gets God to give you what you want like some magic words (“Accio Moolah!”) is ludicrous. As I’ve said before, “Pray the Prayer of Jabez and God will expand your territory; pray the Prayer of Jonah and you will be vomited up onto a beach.” This understanding of the Prayer of Jabez is not just a poor interpretation of Scripture or simply spiritual immature; it’s plain prosperity theology. Yet many preachers who denounce Osteen’s theology will preach 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 in a like manner.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, my pastor doesn’t preach the Prayer of Jabez in such a manner.” Good. I should hope not. But how does he preach Malachi 3:10? “’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’”

As I’ve written before, this verse, as it is commonly preached, has been taken severely and unnecessarily out of its context. While the Bible does talk about giving for ministry, the tithe itself does not apply to Christians. Malachi 3:10, as a reading of the whole chapter makes clear, concerns the ongoing faithlessness of Israel to meet its covenantal obligations, particularly the requirements of the Torah, which includes the tithe. The purpose of the covenant was to solve the problem of evil and through Israel be a blessing to the world (Genesis 15, 17, 18, 22; Malachi 3:12). Faithfulness to the covenant brought blessings, but faithlessness brought a curse (Deuteronomy 28). Malachi is warning the people that they are cursed for their disobedience (3:9). Yet, the prophet does so within the context of the prediction of the coming Messenger (3:1) who will enable the people to fulfill the covenant and the purpose of the Law (see Deuteronomy 30). The early Christians saw this prediction fulfilled with the appearance of Jesus (Mark 1:2). This verse (3:10), this chapter, is about how God is saving the world; yet we’ve reduced it to “Give money to the local church so God will give even more money to you.” That is how this verse is regularly preached. What is the nature of such an interpretation other than prosperity theology? At best, you can apply Malachi 3:10 by saying “Give to ministries not in order that God will bless you, but so God will use it to bless the world through you.”

So, in light of this incipient Prosperity Gospel, of whom do you think I should be more critical? Osteen who preaches health and wealth according to his Word of Faith theology or the preachers who criticize Osteen but teach similarly health and wealth sermons contrary to their own stated theology? I prefer to focus my energies on furthering the Kingdom of God within my own sphere of influence.