Learning at Daniel’s feet

Brent White shares his testimony of his conversion to being a strong conviction about the truthfulness of the Bible.

Included in the post are comments on a British podcast by a Christian apologist and Oxford mathematician. The full transcript of his lecture explaining how the Book of Daniel is a perfect book for Christians trying to figure out how to live in the 21st century. The speaker, John Lennox, speaks specifically of Great Britain, but I think many of his observations apply to us — or will in the coming years. This is how he frames the story of Daniel.

So, we have a young man who has been brought up to believe in God and he’s suddenly without warning precipitated into a completely alien culture. He’s moved physically. Now we haven’t been moved physically in this country, but in recent years and with increasing acceleration, we’ve been shifted from a culture that has been broadly monotheistic, in a culture that is increasingly relativistic, that’s increasingly atheistic, and that’s increasingly marginalising the capacity of the possibility of articulating faith in God in public….

To maintain your faith in God and your public witness in that kind of a situation is not easy. My view is that if we can gain anything from looking at this book that will help us to unpack the secret of Daniel’s stability and his conviction and his power and understanding, then it is worth doing.

If you prefer to listen, the lecture audio is here.

What God Has Joined | Christianity Today


A biblical argument about the grounds for divorce.

Does this strike you as sound, or is it fitting the argument to the conclusion?

The lepers of Samaria

I was reading in 2 Kings last night when I came across a story I had forgotten from previous journeys through this book. In 2 Kings 7:3-20, we learn the story of the lepers of Samaria.

The background is this. The city of Samaria, the capital of the divided kingdom of Israel, is under siege and conditions have gotten bad. People are eating anything they can find, including their own children. (2 Kings 6:24-29). In the midst of the famine, the prophet Elisha declared that within 24 hours, wasting and famine would be replaced by abundance and plenty. The officials of Samaria did not believe such a thing was possible.

The story turns then to four men with leprosy who sat at the gate of the city. They were desperate. They decided together to go over to the enemy camp of the besieging army. If the enemy took them in, they would not starve. If the enemy killed them, they would no longer be suffering and dying.

When they got to the enemy camp, though, they discovered it empty of people but full of food and treasure. The Lord had set the enemy to flight. They had fled in panic leaving behind all their provisions and treasures. Alone in the midst of this bounty, the lepers went from tent to tent, feasting and gathering up treasures, until a thought struck them.

“Then they said to each other, ‘What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report to this to the royal palace.’” (2 Kings 7:9)

It is a fascinating story, and I have left many interesting bits out. Go read it yourself if you like. Here are a few stray thoughts that it stirred up in me.

First, the lepers played a crucial role in the revelation of the hidden good news. These men were outcasts and desperate. There really is nothing noble in what they did, but in the midst of their desperation, they were the only ones to venture across to the hostile camp where good news was waiting for them. There is a truth here about us. When we are at the edge life or death, we can be driven to discover good news that was waiting for us all along.

Second, those inside the city were trapped by their fear, the false security of their walls, and their unbelief in the providence of God. Even after the lepers reported what they had found, the leaders were terrified of a trap and slow to hear the good news.

Third, good news must be shared. If the lepers had feasted and reveled alone while the starving city close by suffered on, they would have been fit for punishment. Holding on to the good news for our own joy and need is wrong. This is a tale about the necessity of evangelism, perhaps?

I’m sure there is more treasure in this story than I have unearthed, but reading it last night was one of those moments where the joy of reading the Bible came to me again. Read your Bible prayerfully. Ask God to teach and shape your life by the Word. You will discover good news lying hidden there in its pages.

Trying to figure out how to think about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner

I fear opening up a firestorm here, but I am at a loss.

I’ve seen all the coverage of Bruce Jenner deciding he should be called Caitlyn Jenner and how far Jenner has gone to cut, slice, and reshape his body. According to one story, Jenner has had facial surgery, surgery to reduce his Adam’s apple, and breast augmentation but has not had surgery on his genitals.

From a non-Christian stance, I don’t understand why this is seen as a reasonable thing to do rather than as a form of mental illness. This 2004 article about why John Hopkins stopped doing sex re-assignment surgery comes down on the side of mental illness. This 2014 piece in the Wall Street Journal by the same author — the former head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins — cites research studies and argues that people such as Jenner should be getting treatment rather than surgery.

I know there are whole fields of social science and social theory dedicated to the proposition that sex and gender are socially constructed ideas, and advocates of these theories reject the kinds of arguments made by the psychiatrist above. (Here is one example of such a rebuttal.)

Shifting back to Christian concerns, I know as well that the theory of the social construction of knowledge is based on the theories of atheist philosophers such as Karl Marx and Michel Foucault and rejects the idea that their is any truth beyond what humans agree is truth. In other words, the theories of gender at the base of most of culture’s conversation about sex and sexuality are at their foundation antithetical to the idea God exists and that God’s truth might be something beyond and above our comprehension. Those foundations make me resist the counsel of such theories.

I’m only beginning to try to grapple with this. The Bible appears to me to be pretty clear in its view that male and female are categories of creation. I don’t see any support for the notion that we can choose what we are. So even as the entire culture celebrates and applauds, I have a hard time avoiding the conclusion that Jenner’s suffering requires something other than a scalpel, a lifetime of hormone injections, and a new TV show.

What do you think?

Q: Should these two things define the church?

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

If we in the church are an extension of the original apostolic ministry, then shouldn’t the core of our mission be defined by the tasks originally set out by Jesus? In this passage those tasks are preaching and driving out demons.

To this point in the gospel, the content of Jesus’ preaching has been the original proclamation of Mark 1:15. The kingdom has come near. Repent, and believe the good news. I have zero reason to believe the apostles were sent out to preach anything different. Is it fair to say that preaching the kingdom is the first task of those who see their ministry as in a line with the apostles?

Also to this point in the gospel, we have seen Jesus drive out demons. Here he gives the apostles the authority to do the same thing. Has the authority passed down to us today? If so, why do so few mainline United Methodists speak of such things, much less do them?

What do you think?

Making sense of bucket three

United Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton was gracious enough to engage in a Twitter exchange with me recently, which given all the important things he has to do is likely not the best use of his time.

Hamilton has a proposed a principle of biblical interpretation that appears to have a lot of support in our denomination. In a nutshell, he argues that texts in the bible can be sorted into three different categories or “buckets.” In the first bucket are all the texts that truly reflect the eternal will and character of God. In the second bucket are the texts that reflect the will of God in a certain time and place but no longer apply to our different context. In the third bucket are texts that never reflected the will or character of God.

For quite a long time, much of the church has recognized the existence of the first two buckets. It is a Christian commonplace that the coming of Jesus Christ changed the relationship between human beings and the law of the Old Testament. The way I’ve seen of talking about this is to say that the law could be divided into three categories — civil, ceremonial, and moral — and only the third is still binding today. This view is reflected in the language of the United Methodist Articles of Religion’s discussion about the Old Testament, for instance.

This two bucket approach is not reserved for the Old Testament alone. Scholars have also argued that some of what authors such as Paul argue in their epistles are similarly meant for a particular audience in a particular place and should not be taken as eternal decrees binding forever on the church. There is a lot to argue there, but the principle that some of Bible is directed at a particular context or problem is not widely disputed.

So, I have no problem with the first two buckets.

What has caused me trouble since I first read about Hamilton’s three buckets approach is that third bucket.

I don’t have a problem with saying that some of the verses in the Bible do not reflect the will and character of God. For instance, the men demanding Lot throw his daughters out in the street to be raped are not speaking on behalf of God. But that is not Hamilton’s point. What he argues is that there are some passages in Scripture that claim to represent the will and character of God but do not. We might say they are mistakes or lies or fabrications or even blasphemy.

One thing that is not clear to me is how we should fill up this third bucket. I posted a question to that effect on Twitter and eventually Hamilton graciously responded with a few tweets:

In Hamilton’s book on the Bible and elsewhere he argues that we should use Jesus Christ as a kind of filter to help us read the Old Testament. Based on what we know of Jesus, we screen out parts of the Old Testament that don’t fit with our understandings of Christ’s character.

I have no standing to argue with Hamilton, and so do not wish to frame what I’m about to write as an argument. It is more my testimony, a discussion of why I find this whole third bucket concept troubling. Clearly, there are a large numbers of United Methodists who do not share my struggles, so hear this for what it is, one imperfect man’s difficulty.

I’m not sure how to rank my struggles, so in not particular order, they go like this.

The Trinitarian Concern: At my most recent meeting with my supervisory committee, the first question they asked me was to explain the Trinity in three minutes or less. I’m sure my answer left something to be desired, but I passed the test. The one sentence summary is that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one. I don’t know how to use Jesus as a filter to read the Old Testament without dividing the Trinity against itself. I believe that Hamilton would say we are not dividing the Trinity but using the clearest revelation of the nature of God to strain out the imperfect or mistaken pictures of God. But I can’t make my brain do that because our Trinitarian claim is that every action of God in the Old Testament was an action taken by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Old Testament is just as clear about the character of God as the New. When God called for vengeance on the Midianites in Numbers 31, the pre-incarnate Christ was the one calling for that. That is just as much a revelation of Jesus Christ as the Sermon on the Mount.

The Lack of Imagination Concern: Some of the candidates for the third bucket get there because we can’t understand or imagine God doing some of things that the Bible says God does or did. To be completely frank here, I don’t think my imagination is a good standard by which God should be judged. If things that I could not imagine happening were used to throw texts out of the Bible a lot of what Jesus did would have to be ripped out of our New Testament. When my imagination becomes a box into which God must fit, I get a God no larger than my imagination. That is an idol, one I’d rather not depend upon.

The Pretty Full Bucket Concern: If Numbers 31 outrages us so much that we say it must be a lie about who God is, what do we do with the Exodus? Let’s be clear about this. In the Exodus, God killed thousands of children and babies. Do we third bucket that, too? Numbers 31 is a fairly obscure chapter. The Exodus is central to the story of all the Bible. That whole Passover celebration was precisely in response to the death that God unleashed on the Egyptians. Passover does some important theological work for Christians, too. If we take out every chapter and verse of the Bible that shocks us, how much will be left for the first two buckets?

So how do I answer Hamilton’s questions in his tweets?

The only answer I have is that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and I am not. I do not understand how the Son could command the death of children and also die on a cross for the sins of the world. I don’t understand that, but in the end I think that is my problem not God’s.

I know that answer is not very persuasive to “thinking Christians” or skeptical non-believers. It does not make the Bible more reasonable or attractive. It does not make it easier for me to explain God in a way that won’t offend people. Since I’m still trying to break out of the sin of seeking to please people, it would be easier for me if I could toss stuff that confuses and scares me in the third bucket, but I simply don’t know how to do that and say what remains deserves the respect and attention of our congregations.

I’m not prepared to start tossing parts of the Bible in the third bucket. I do not know how I could do that and still stand up every Sunday and preach from the Bible. Personally, I could not do that.