Unhealthy Churches are Terribly Effective Antimissionary Forces

Unhealthy churches cause few problems for the healthiest Christians; but they are cruel taxes on the growth of the youngest and weakest Christians. They prey on those who don’t understand Scripture well. They mislead spiritual children. They even take the curious hopes of non-Christians that there might be another way to live, and seem to deny it. Bad churches are terribly effective antimissionary forces. I deeply lament sin in my own life, and sin’s corporate magnification in the life of so many churches. They seem to make Jesus out to be a liar when he promised life to the full (John 10:10).

Mark Dever, Preface to the Second Edition, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, (Crossway, 2013), 17. 

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The pleasures and pains of teaching

Many people have asked me how the transition has gone from teaching theology and apologetics in seminary to teaching undergraduate pastoral theology in my new job at Lancaster Bible College. My answer: Everything about the new job has been beyond my expectations, and for that I am like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. But when you ask about teaching, I have to say that it’s so much fun, I feel guilty for taking a paycheck. Teaching has always been that way for me. Usually a thrill, sometimes excruciating, but never dull.

I read something today that captures the highs and lows of teaching. I can give a hearty “amen” to this statement by Parker Palmer in his excellent book, The Courage to Teach (Jossey-Bass, 2007)He captures very vividly the feelings of so many teachers.

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind–then teaching is the finest work I know.

But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused–and I am so powerless to do anything about it–that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a fool I was to imagine that I had mastered this occult art–harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well! (p. 1-2)

The gritty, coming-of-age tragedy that is Mud

Sometimes you need to read a book or watch a movie that vividly portrays the tragedy that is the human experience in order to be reminded of the sorry state from which we are delivered in Christ. Last weekend I happened upon a little-known recent movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon with the forgettable title of Mud (2013). Actually, the real stars of the movie are the pair of adolescent actors that portray two young teens, Ellis and Neckbone (yes, Neckbone), in the deep South. This virtually unknown film that showed on limited release earlier this year scored a whopping 98% rating among movie critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a respected movie ratings website. McConaughey and Witherspoon turn in solid performances as two washed-up losers, Mud and Juniper, whose youth and hope have faded with every bad decision they have made. In contrast, the two boys from broken and worsening family situations cling to sanity and virtue by a thread, as the adults in their lives come apart at the seams.

The movie is gritty, but not extremely so. Like all coming-of-age movies (think of 1986’s Stand by Me) the reality of teen boys coming into adulthood includes profanity, violence, and sexual references (although they are not as bad as they could have been in this movie). This is a movie that will make you think about the tragedy of sin and foolish choices long after the credits roll. It depicts the confusion, anguish, and sense of betrayal that so many children experience when their families disintegrate and adults disappoint them. And yet hope springs in the story even as the plot darkens. After years of failing to make things work, Mud and Juniper find peace in a brief, but loving gaze across a short distance, where volumes are spoken before they finally go their separate ways. Mud’s manipulation and betrayal of the boys’ trust is redeemed in the end when he saves Ellis’ life not once, but twice. The violent storm of Ellis’ parents crumbling marriage calms to a drizzle, and we see him smile for the first time at the end of the movie. The viewer is left with a sense that in the midst of the curse of sin that rests on this world, hope is still present.

Mud reminded me of how awfully destructive sin is. It keeps people who love each other apart. It robs life of innocence and joy, leaving only bleakness and hopelessness. But redemption is available. The movie does not have many overt spiritual references, although the few subtle allusions are meaningful. There is no Savior offered, so don’t look too hard for Christian themes. The hopelessness of much of the plot is what I find thought-provoking. Just like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, there are no real answers found in the world of men, only despair and meaninglessness. Only outside of us is there hope. Only in Christ is life more than a round trip from dust to dust, or in this case from mud to mud.

The Greatest Challenge to the Faith of Serious Students of the Scriptures, Part 2

Against-the-Gods-300x462John Currid’s new book, Against the Gods: Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Crossway, 2013) offers answers to the challenge of OT higher criticism that provide a welcome alternative to evangelical scholars who feel that they must give priority to ANE texts in the interpretation of the OT. Without denying the complexity of the relationship between OT and ANE, Currid offers solutions to some of the thorniest problems while maintaining a high view of Scripture.

Currid advocates, among other approaches, polemical theology as a way through the difficult terrain of OT studies. Polemical theology “is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical authors take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world.”

Currid is not the only one who advocates polemical theology. Others agree, but with a caveat. These scholars believe that since the OT writers were using thought forms common in the ANE in order to proclaim Yahweh as the true God, the details need not be factual. What matters, they say, is that Yahweh, and no other god, is the true God. They claim that many of the stories in the OT are mythic in nature, but they accomplish the purpose of countering pagan myths and establishing Yahweh as the true God. Many of these same scholars also believe that Genesis is directly dependent on Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts. One must ask, if this is the case, where does inspiration fit, or more pointedly, why is it even needed?

Currid, however, refuses to think so uncreatively and simplistically. He believes that there is no conflict between polemical theology AND inerrant Scripture.

“We must strongly question, however, whether the position that the Bible demythologizes ancient Near Eastern legends is the only and proper way to understand the relationship between the two literatures. It seems to me that this position emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between Genesis 1 and other Near Eastern cosmogonies [theories of the origin of the universe] to the detriment of the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the biblical record. It undervalues and undercuts the originality and exceptional nature of the Hebrew world-and-life view. Thus sits the question in a nut-shell: is the Hebrew creation account distinct thought at its very core or not? Is it merely another ancient Near Eastern myth that has been cleansed or is it a radical, unique cosmogonical view? Or is it something in between?”

Currid also questions whether every Mesopotamian ANE text that is claimed to be the source of OT texts really is all that similar to the OT text. “Indeed, important parallels do exist between the two; however, one wonders whether these parallels have not been overly emphasized to the detriment of cosmogonic parallels among other societies of the ancient Near East.” He proceeds to document in several chapters that the parallels between OT texts and ANE texts are abundant, and not limited to one culture or language. This fact worries many people and leads critical scholars to conclude that the biblical text is, therefore, not unique, and consequently our concept of inspiration and inerrancy must change.

It perhaps would be helpful for OT scholars who feel that there is no way to preserve the traditional view of inerrancy in the face of these issues to consider the doctrine of the universal implanted knowledge of God (Romans 1:18-23). The ANE creation and flood accounts (among others) that parallel the OT accounts are best explained, I believe, by an understanding that every person has a knowledge of God from birth, yet suppresses that knowledge and exchanges it for a lie. Societally this could mean that early civilizations retained knowledge of the creation and flood, yet exchanged the truth of these events as sovereignly initiated by Yahweh for pagan myths. As a result, many ANE texts written before their OT parallels were partially distorted, pagan cosmogonies developed in rebellion from the truth and rejection of Yahweh. The OT texts, therefore, serve a twofold purpose: reveal the true accounts of the origin of the universe, AND refute the parasitic, counterfeit pagan accounts with the truth.

Surprisingly, few OT scholars have considered this possibility, which has the explanatory power needed for the most significant challenges in OT studies. This oversight may arise for any number of unfortunate reasons. Either these scholars are unfamiliar with this concept, or they don’t find it has sufficient explanatory power, or finally, they may already have a pre-commitment to the OT as a document of its times, with no revelatory uniqueness. Either way, it is unfortunate that only a few scholars, such as Currid, leave room in their proposals for an idea that is effective and faithful.

Currid concludes his book with a cautious approach to OT studies that belies a humble, yet confident belief in the reliability of Scripture. “Polemical theology certainly does not answer every question about the relationship of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern literature and life. There is much to that relationship that simply cannot be understood and explained by the use of polemics.” At times, however, he argues that polemical theology can serve as a solid and reliable interpretive lens by which one can provide explanations for the relationship between ANE and OT parallels.

I highly recommend Currid’s book for those who have encountered some of the problems of OT studies. He documents enough parallels to demonstrate his argument convincingly. Additionally, he provides a creative solution to the challenges of OT studies that doesn’t require an abandonment of inerrancy as has been traditionally held. Against the Gods is highly beneficial to the body of Christ and to OT scholarship. He is to be commended for his valuable and faithful work.