Jun 11, 2015

Can We Still Believe the Bible, a book review

by John Vlainic

I was very pleased recently to happen upon a book which takes on the difficult issues we face today from both the secular world on the left and the ultraconservative church world on the right.

Like you, I am around people who are confident that “educated people all know that the Bible is no longer as trustworthy as Christians used to believe,” and people who are calling every Christian who does not unpack things the way they do as “liberal” and unfaithful.  If either kind of person were willing to do some reading, here is the book I would give them.  And even if they aren’t open, this one really helps me!

Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible?  An Evangelical Engagement With Contemporary Questions  (Baker, 2014)

So what is the book about?

Let me quote the author (pp. 7-8).  [My “translations” for you of what the six topics involve are in this blue font]:

There are some areas where a curious phenomenon has occurred over the past generation. I am thinking of areas of scholarship where new findings, or at least much more intense study of slightly old discoveries, have actually strengthened the case for the reliability or trustworthiness of the Scriptures, even while the most publicized opinions in each area have claimed that there are now reasons for greater skepticism!

Six in particular have captured my attention enough for me to devote some specialized study to them. They involve textual criticism [methods used to try to determine what the original texts of the Bible writers were – and how changes appeared in different copies over the years], the canon of Scripture [which special books are seen as acceptable to be included in the library we call “the Bible” (and why the ones chosen were)], the proliferation of English (and other) translations of the Bible [which of the many translations today can be trusted, and why], the doctrine of biblical inerrancy [the belief that the Bible can be trusted, especially using the word “inerrant” – see the Free Methodist approach below], the diversity of literary genres among books or sections of books that appear to many as historical narrative, and the manifestations [whether or not all the biblical materials that seem, at first glance, to be telling us exactly “what happened” are “historical” in the way we moderns use that word], and meanings of the miraculous [understanding the bible miracles, including, DID THEY ALL HAPPEN?].
Sadly, there has also been a backlash in each of these six arenas. A handful of very conservative Christian leaders who have not understood the issues adequately have reacted by unnecessarily rejecting the new developments. To the extent that they, too, have often received much more publicity than their small numbers would warrant, they have hindered genuine scholarship among evangelicals and needlessly scared unbelievers away from Christian faith. As my Christian eighth-grade public school history teacher, Dorothy Dunn, used to love to intone with considerable passion, after having lived through our country's battles against both Nazism and Communism: "The far left and the far right—avoid them both, like the plague!”

So you can see why a Free Methodist, who has little use for left wing skeptics and for right wing over-simplifiers, would like Blomberg’s approach.  Blomberg is on the spectrum where the people who teach in our denominationally-related colleges, universities and seminaries are.  That is why I share with you the links to Ben Witherington’s (from Asbury Seminary, one of our foremost Wesleyan biblical scholars) blogs on this book.  Witherington, of course, wants to nuance a few things Blomberg says slightly differently, but is extremely enthusiastic about the book’s value and wisdom.

This book will help you in responding to people, widely reported in the secular media (on the far “left”), who glibly assume the Bible cannot be trusted, and also in responding to people, widely reported in the religious media (formed on the far “right”), who are inclined to misunderstand good scholarship and fight the wrong battles about the Bible.

If I may think back to my days in the parish, I can think of two groups from your church this book can really help.

I remember students going off to University and coming back and telling me their profs teach (or imply) that real “scholarship” does not support what the Bible claims.  This book can help them to see how false this notion is.

As well I was aware that many of my people continually read what an old friend and pastor termed “pablum” – Christian books whose authors treat the Bible as a how-to-manual for complex disciplines like psychology, sociology, economics, politics, or any other major discipline typical of university curricula.  Tons of those books (and now web sites) are in use by our people.  Blomberg will help your people to read and think more discerningly.

I had one area of slight dis-ease with this marvellous book as I read it.  The author still wants to identify himself as believing in the “inerrancy” of the Bible, though he (rightly, I think) wants to qualify this word in several ways.  I understand his need to connect to this audience, but by the time Blomberg has redefined “inerrant” I agree with him, and, as evidenced on the web, many “inerrantists” are livid!

I think he would have been better off to drop the word, and to use language like that of our Free Methodist Article of Religion (which intentionally avoids the word “inerrant” – because it means so many different things to so many different people).  Here is the wording from ¶108 of our Manual:

The Bible is God’s written Word, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit. It bears unerring witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word. As attested by the early church and subsequent councils, it is the trustworthy record of God’s revelation, completely truthful in all it affirms. It has been faithfully preserved and proves itself true in human experience.
The Scriptures have come to us through human authors who wrote, as God moved them, in the languages and literary forms of their times. God continues, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, to speak through this Word to each generation and culture.
The Bible has authority over all human life. It teaches the truth about God, His creation, His people, His one and only Son, and the destiny of all humankind. It also teaches the way of salvation and the life of faith. Whatever is not found in the Bible nor can be proved by it is not to be required as an article of belief or as necessary to salvation. 

Blomberg clearly shares this confidence in the scriptures with us, though he chooses not to drop the word “inerrant”.  Yet he helps us with those (on the far “left”) who do not share our confidence in the Scripture and with those (on the far “right”) who say with vigour that they do – but without carefully looking at what the Bible actually says!

In the end, I would agree with Scot McKnight’s blurb on the back cover, where he says that this book is the finest example of how to defend the Bible.

May 28, 2015

Grace, Sovereignty and Free Will

by Beverly Kay

Thinking about God, life and love has always been a part of who I am. Steeped in Scripture in a family that encouraged me to think, ask questions and look at all sides of a situation I grew up a practical theologian. Often I don’t have the academic terms of reference for what I believe, but for me a belief has very little value if it doesn’t truly have an effect on how I live. As I listen to others, or read books, what is said will either ring true in my spirit as lining up with Scripture or there will be an uneasiness that leads me to dig and discover where the fine line of balanced Truth really is. Sometimes that is a short journey. Some things I have wrestled with for a long time. The balance between God’s Gracious Sovereignty and the free will of the human soul is one of those long term struggles. I see the differing sides of the issue, but my heart seeks the balanced Truth, not the easy proof texting that often takes place in this discussion.

Lately, because I work at the reader’s advisory desk at our public library, I have found myself reading a lot of fiction. My goal is to help other readers who want to read something beautiful, real and wholesome. Sometimes that is a challenge, but I have often been pleasantly surprised! Historical fiction is my favourite, especially when the author digs long and hard to present things as honestly and factually as possible even though their main characters are usually invented. I have found that most authors write from their own theological and philosophical frame of reference. Anything less would be a challenge for truly gifted writing flows from the soul and speaks to others.

I just finished a book that began its story in WWII London, England just before the blitz. It was the story of choices, living with the consequences, striving to redeem oneself and the ultimate reality that all along God’s grace was giving opportunities to stop and choose something beyond our own selfish will. My soul resonated with some of the statements made by the main characters, and as I read the conversation with the author segment at the end, I saw why.

The author was asked, “In your mind, does fate or providence determine the outcome?” My heart sang, “YES!” to the core of Meissner’s response. “I believe we’ve been given a free will to choose and that God in His providence sees all and knows all but doesn’t do all.” She gave an example from the book when the oldest sister was reflecting back on a key choice she had made, realizing that at this turning point the she had been given an opportunity by God NOT to make a choice that would prove disastrous, Meissner makes this summation: “God doesn’t make the decision for her; she does. That is the terrifying beauty of free moral choice.” The other reality that was emphasized by this story is that each of our choices affects not only ourselves, but also people around us.

As I pondered this viewpoint, I came to rest on these two thoughts. The first is that God in His gracious sovereignty has opened to us the opportunity to join Him on the Way, to embrace the Truth and receive His Life through Jesus our Saviour. He knew exactly what we needed for salvation and redemption and He provided it all. But scripture makes it very clear that it is ONLY those who believe and receive His Son: walking in the Way, living in the Truth and sharing in the Life that are given the right to be called sons and daughters of God. He has given us the open door, we have to choose whether we will co-operate with His Grace and receive all that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Secondly, as we daily choose to live the Life, speak the Truth and walk in the Way, we are being instruments of God’s grace in the lives of others. As we allow God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done in and through our lives, then we are truly salt and light. We share in the ministry of God’s reconciliation and grace; we open a door to give another the opportunity to choose God’s Way, Truth and Life over their own blind, selfish desires. God cheers us on, encouraging us to choose “His good pleasing and perfect will” over our own, but the choice is still ours to choose. May we daily choose Life and Truth over death and lies, and encourage others to do so as well. Grace in the Journey my friends!  

Apr 28, 2015

Wesley the Evolutionist?

by Matthew McEwen

John Wesley is best known for his sermons, but in addition to journals, letters, and Biblical commentary, he also wrote material in other fields such as medicine and the natural world.  One publication could even be considered an environmental textbook entitled, “A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation.”  Given that John Wesley (1703-1791) was a life-long student and read of scientific discoveries, it is an interesting question to consider is whether he would have been an evolutionist had he been a contemporary of Charles Darwin (1809-1882)?  

A recent example of someone describing Wesley as an evolutionist is found in the book God of Nature and Of Grace. Author Michael Lodhal acknowledges that John Wesley claimed the earth was 6 000 years old, yet he raises the question of whether Wesley would still make the same claim today.  Lodhal’s suggests: “He would have no good reason to do so.  Astronomical evidence clearly teaches us that our universe is many billions of years old; geology’s evidence is that our planet is at least several billions years old; biology and genetics offer abundant evidence that living things have evolved in amazingly complex and painstaking routes over many millions of years.”   Since Wesley’s understanding of anatomy included the four basic elements, “It is quite obvious that Wesley did not glean this concept from the Bible; rather, it was part and parcel of his experience of the world, culturally mediated, as the ‘popular science’ of his day.”  This Lodhal uses to say that Wesley’s experience informs theology and reading of Scripture.  As such, were Wesley to have the knowledge of today’s science, he would be led to conclude that the earth is billions of years old. 

Michael Lodhal is not the first, however, to describe John Wesley as an evolutionist.  Laura Bartels Felleman’s article “John Wesley’s Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation: A Methodological Inquiry ” lists the various historical suggestions of Wesley as an evolutionist.  The first such claim began with William H Mill’s “John Wesley an Evolutionist” in 1893.  A similar claim occurred in 1924 by Frank Collier, in a pamphlet entitled “Back to Wesley” A third claim happened a year later with the title John Wesley the Evolutionist and suggested this theory was cordially accepted.  In an article in the 1927 Methodist Review by William C.S. Pelloew there is reasoning to explain why Wesley would have studied the claims for evolution based on his interest in science and the natural world.  But this work does not claim Wesley would have agreed, only that he would give the theory a thorough and serious consideration.   Felleman points out that, “In this letter to the editor of the London Magazine, Wesley is criticized for rejecting the latest theories in astronomy.  Wesley’s response was that he did not find these theories convincing and could not subscribe to them with full confidence.  This correspondence shows that Wesley was not as receptive to every scientific theory proposed during his lifetime….”    

As far as the Bible is concerned, Wesley never questions the Biblical account of creation, the condition of pre-fall humanity, or the flood narrative.  One would be right to suggest Wesley would give a fair and thorough consideration of the scientific discoveries of the later 1800s, or what is known today, but his conclusion on the matter of creation versus evolution must remain mere speculation.  It would be inappropriate for either side of the debate to claim John Wesley as their champion.

Many Christians today are concerned with the ongoing debate about the origin of species, but what also requires special attention today is the extinction of species.  Of course there is not much sense in caring for penguins or polar bears if one’s end-time theology is such that humanity is going to be raptured into heavenly bliss while this old earth is destined to burn to a crisp.  While Wesley the evolutionist might be unresolved, John Wesley’s eschatology is very clear.  Turning to one of his sermons (“The New Creation”) we hear him say that there is hope for this earth because of a glorious expectation that one day, “all the earth shall then be a more beautiful paradise than Adam ever saw.”   It would be hard, if not impossible to make the case for Wesley the evolutionist, but reading his sermons such as “The New Creation” or “The General Deliverance” or reading his “Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation,” those who do want to claim John Wesley as their champion are those who would call him Wesley the environmentalist.         


* Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation is available here: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-compendium-of-natural-philosophy

Jan 26, 2015

More than Food (Part II)

by Derek Spink

“In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place and out of step with the times.” - Richard Foster

Many people in both the sacred and secular communities may be confused by why Christians would fast, what fasting is, and what fasting is not.  Let’s look at a quick breakdown of these questions:

Why fast?
-          To enjoy intimacy with the presence of Jesus today (Mark 2:19-20)
-          Jesus modeled it (Matthew 4:2)
-          A long history to stand on (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23, plus the Patristics and later spiritual giants)
-          For physical health (even secular physicians commend its benefits)
-          For spiritual breakthrough (I Corinthians 6:12; 9:27; “When you take control of your physical appetite, you develop strength to take control of your other appetites.” – Elmer Towns)
-          For the benefit others (we intercede on others’ behalf—Ezra 8:21, and our deprivation develops within us a new, acute awareness for others’ needs and hurts to which we can respond tangibly)

What is fasting?
-          An act of worship (Luke 2:36-37)
-          An act of humility (John 4:32; we place ourselves in a vulnerable position before God, trusting he will nourish us with spiritual food)
-          A gift from God to strengthen our spiritual vitality and victory
-          An opportunity for us to become more attentive to God (we recognize our inadequacies and his adequacy)

What is fasting not?
-          A legalistic adherence to ritual (Isaiah 58:3-5)
-          A way of ‘fixing’ problems in my life or convincing God (God will not be manipulated or cajoled)
-          A way to demonstrate piety/spirituality (not a public exhibition, as Jesus taught in Matthew 6)
-          Mandatory/compulsory (especially for salvation)

Having a healthier understanding of those basics, we can now embrace two natural questions as follow-up:

What is a proper fast?
Biblically, we have no specific guidelines as to what a ‘proper fast’ should look like, which makes sense because we see such a variety of fasts throughout scripture, each it seems with their own purpose.  Jesus gave only one qualifier/rule for his followers: Don’t be like the Pharisees.  In other words, don’t do it for show; don’t just put on a false spiritual veneer.  Do it unto God, not to impress others.  For both prayer and fasting, Jesus instructs us not to make a scene (Matthew 6:5-6, 16-18).

How can I fast?
-          A ‘normal’ fast—no food; just water/juice
-          An ‘absolute’ fast—nothing ingested at all; intended to be short-term, very serious health risks possible
-          A ‘partial’ fast—certain foods or certain times of day
-          A ‘non-food’ fast—giving up time with Facebook, TV, other habits, etc.

Remember: whether we forego food or entertainment, we must replace it with something else.  So, instead of eating or playing a game or following social media, we spend time in prayer/meditation, scripture reading, or even serving the needs of others.

Food fasts are not for everyone.  Depriving the body of food for any extended period can have serious health risks for some people (e.g., expectant mothers, those with diabetes, or others with a medical history).  If that is you, then you should consult with your doctor before beginning a food-fast.  Even though fasting is healthful to many, God’s nature and character would never command a physical exercise that would harm people either physically or emotionally.  But, even if you are one for whom fasting may not be physically possible, you can still enter into the spirit of fasting even while remaining on your essential diets (as evidenced by the various types of fasts described above).

Jan 12, 2015

More than Food (Part 1)

by Derek Spink

“In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place and out of step with the times.” - Richard Foster

Online and within churches, you can find people asking why Christians don’t seem to fast anymore (not a new question, by the way…although the motivation behind it is different now than in Jesus’ day—see Matthew 9/Mark 2/Luke 5). Richard Foster, in his Celebration of Discipline, argued that fasting appears to be a lost discipline. According to Foster, there are two culprits:

1. Feel-good religion We simply don’t want to be bothered with talk of self-denial or sacrifice. Our ‘get-all’ social mentality has convinced us that we are entitled to satisfying our urges—whether related to food, sexuality, money, etc. This consumerist mindset has also taken over our spiritual disciplines to such a degree that even in church circles we become focused, for example, on evangelism and outreach (and rightly so—that was Jesus’ model and command), yet we can forget the spiritual factors behind church growth. Slick marketing campaigns may have their place, but we mustn’t forget what Jesus said to his disciples—their greatest work could only be accomplished by their constant connection to God (along with, in some translations, its companion: fasting {Mark 9:29}). Self-denial has lost its place in many current church circles.

2. Misuse History, unfortunately, demonstrates an oft-wrong example. We have an image of monks and others who have ventured into unbalanced emphasis here. Gnosticism is a heresy that arose in the early days of the Christian church that separated physical matter from the spiritual realities. As a result, the body and all things physical were evil, which led to people living all kinds of licentious lifestyles; for, if the body was evil, it didn’t matter what I did with my body. As a result, some monks and mystics fell into a trap, and by their extreme fasting, they were saying, “Look, I’m not giving in to the evil, fleshly, material world!” What resulted was a misguided approach, completely unbiblical in thinking and completely unbalanced in practice. Self-flagellation/mutilation developed (even if unintentionally) into works-righteousness, attempting to earn God’s blessings and favour. We still see its residual effects on perceptions of fasting today (maybe most significantly during Lent).

Fasting Today

In 2012, a posting on an internet forum in the UK asked the question, “Why don’t Christians fast?” A “liked” response from the group was, “Because there’s food to eat. These age-old traditions came from practicality as much as anything else. Fasting is a good way to save food if there is little to eat.” While this is likely not the reason behind many Christians’ lack of practicing the fasting discipline, the reality remains that many in our churches don’t understand the importance of fasting for their spiritual lives. Many people are confused by why Christians would fast, what fasting is, and what fasting is not. Stay tuned for Part II where we will look at a quick breakdown of these questions and more!

Do you agree with Richard Foster’s assessment that fasting seems to be a lost discipline for Christians? Please feel free to take a moment and share your thoughts.