Are You a “Lukewarm” Christian?

I could subtitle this blogpost as “further adventures in misreading the Bible.”

Today’s concept of being “lukewarm” originated in the Bible, but it has permeated nearly all of contemporary culture. For example, football players are scolded by their coaches for having lukewarm enthusiasm for their team. “Step it up, folks, or get off the team!!” It is a well-worn word picture, warning against half-heartedness.

Unfortunately, to be lukewarm has taken on a meaning that has been completely ripped out of its original, biblical context. A standard definition of lukewarm has come to mean “neither cold nor hot; tepid,” but there is a figurative meaning that can be traced back to the period of the Reformation, in the 16th century, to describe a person, or their actions, as “lacking in zeal.”

The ancient city of Laodicea, an early church city site, mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
(Credit: Rjdeadly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19781425)

In evangelical church culture, this has meant that a lukewarm Christian is someone who is neither hot; as in, “on fire for the Lord,” nor cold; as in “a nominal Christian,” or not even a Christian at all, one who is cold-hearted in their faith. Rather, such a lukewarm person is rather tepid in their faith, someone who says that they believe in Jesus, but that they are simply going through the motions of being Christian, with nothing truly heartfelt inside of them.

Being “hot” for the Lord is good. Being “cold” for the Lord is bad. Nevertheless, either being “hot” or “cold” is preferable to being lukewarm.

While this rebuke against lukewarm faith is surely correct, it completely misses the original context for where it is expressed in the Bible. In the early chapters of the Book of Revelation, Jesus issues a rebuke for each of the seven churches, being addressed in the text, with a particularly notable admonition towards the church in Laodicea:

“(v.14-16) And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth……(v.19) Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:14-16, 19)

The city of Laodicea, located near the modern city of Denizili, Turkey, was situated just a few miles from the neighboring cities of Hierapolis and Colossae (think, the Book of Colossians), during the New Testament period, of the 1st century C.E.  All three cities were known for the spring waters that flowed near and through them. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs, which were useful for medicinal purposes. Colossae was known for its cold springs, which were useful for drinking and refreshment purposes.

Laodicea, on the other hand, was known for its tepid, lukewarm water springs, which were completely useless. Visitors to Laodicea, in the New Testament era, were known to taste the water of Laodicea, only to spit it out, because it was so yucky. As a result, an intricate piping system was built to supply Laodicea with useful water, from the two other nearby cities, or other acceptable water sources. You can still visit the ruins of this ancient plumbing system today.

Original clay pipes in Laodicea, dating to the New Testament period, that were used to transport hot springs water from nearby Hierapolis, as Laodicea had no useful water supply of its own. (credit: ProudlyPetites travel blog)

Unfortunately, Bible interpreters of the 16th century Europe were unaware of this archaeological, historical context, for Laodicea. Presumably, Bible interpreters grabbed onto Jesus’ exhortation to be “zealous,” in the nearby verse, Revelation 3:19, and concluded that Jesus was primarily concerned about the temperature of the faith, of the believers in Laodicea.  In other words, it is better to be “on fire for the Lord,” or to be spiritually dead, instead of being lukewarm.

However, a look at the original, historical context for this passage of the Bible, brings out the appropriate clarity, regarding what Jesus’ warning to the church of Laodicea, really meant. Being “hot” is indeed useful. Being “cold” is also useful as well. Being lukewarm is not. Jesus’ teaching here is that we are to have a faith that is useful to God, and His purposes…. not a useless faith.

The spiritual temperature of a person’s faith is still important, though. Being “sold-out for Jesus” is good teaching indeed.

But it is just not what Jesus is getting after in this particular passage.

As verse 19 indicates, the passage is intended to stir the heart of the believer to accept God’s patient discipline, in their practice of faith. It was never intended as a means of threatening punishment. Rather, this passage was meant to encourage the believer to accept the Lord’s loving discipline, and respond with zeal to become more useful.

Be “hot” for the Lord, or be “cold” for the Lord. YES! Both of these are good, useful things. Being lukewarm is not.

Being “hot’ for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord. But being “cold” for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord also, strangely enough, when you read this Bible passage, in its historical context.

Nevertheless, the word lukewarm has taken on a life of its own, detached from its original context, having been embedded in the consciousness of Christians for about 500 years now, and still going strong. Some habits with how we use words prove hard to break.

It is true that such insight into the original meaning of the passage can not be gained simply by reading the text in isolation, in the privacy of one’s home. A visit to this part of modern Turkey, where Laodicea is located, would quickly impress a Christian with the real meaning of the text. But not everyone has the luxury to hop on a plane, and learn this lesson for themselves. For the rest of us, the help provided by sound, biblical scholarship can give us the insight we need to understand God’s Word more effectively.

In other words, reading the Bible as sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is not the same thing as reading the Bible as scriptura nuda, “Scripture naked.”  Thankfully, there are capable, faithful scholars of the Bible, who can open up our understanding, even for passages that have been taken out of context for centuries. There is a genuine place for historical scholarship that can help us to more faithfully and accurately interpret the Bible that we are reading.

Note: Peter Liethart quotes another New Testament scholar, Craig Koester, who suggests that the notion of “usefulness” of water, in Laodicea, was more specifically related to the practice of hospitality. Koester’s work indicates that when guests came to visit homes in Laodicea, Laodiceans may have used either cold water, to help chill (or supply) cold drinks, or warm water, to mix with wine, in order to warm up those type of beverages. Either way, the tepid water naturally found in Laodicea was not a useful beverage to anyone. So, the piped-in water was much preferred, whether it be hold or cold.  This is a slightly different take, than what I presented above, but the principle remains similar: cold water is a good thing, not a bad thing!!

 


David Barton’s “Creative” Re-Interpretation of the Founding Fathers

I had a great Fourth of July weekend. How about you?

On the 4th itself, I spent a great afternoon with Christian friends, complete with hotdogs, hamburgers, corn hole games, and watermelon seed spitting contests, and we even gathered for a moment of prayer, with a young man, who is serving his first year as a United States Marine, defending a country that we Americans love so dear. The fireworks got rained out, but that was okay. It was a great day to remember the freedoms that all Americans share. At the top of the list, as a Christian, I am most grateful to live in a country that values the freedom of religion, that allows me to worship freely, and celebrate the life we believers have in Christ, without fear of government interference or reprisals. Amen!

It is a freedom that Americans, of all worldview backgrounds, should never take for granted. I do wonder if it was as hot as it was back in the summer of 1776, when the Founding Fathers met together, as compared to the Virginia heat of the past weekend!

So, I was intrigued to learn that David Barton, of Wallbuilders, a popular Christian speaker, who goes around to various churches, to talk about America’s Founding Fathers, was recently interviewed by popular conservative talk show host, Ben Shapiro.

Let me say something right up front about David Barton. I admire his enthusiasm for American history and his concerns about how so many people have forgotten about the Christian roots of American society. He is an excellent communicator, and I do hope that his excitement in learning about history will become contagious, for the next generation.

Barton has had a number of critics on the secular left. Books with titles like The Godless Constitution have prompted many to dismiss the Christian heritage of the United States, and in many ways, David Barton has been right to try to correct that misunderstanding of history.

However, David Barton has proven to be a controversial figure. In 2012, Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies was pulled from publication, by his Christian publisher, due to criticism from other evangelical Christian historians and other leading scholars, regarding certain misrepresentations of history. As Jay Richards put it, Barton’s books and videos are full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”  The Museum of the Bible has had to correct years of misinformation propagated by David Barton, surrounding the so-called Aitken Bible. David Barton has issued confusing statements about whether or not Mormons can hold orthodox beliefs about Christianity, prompting a Christian radio outlet to cancel Barton’s radio show in 2011. In 2016, David Barton made the claim that he had an “earned doctorate,” only to retract that claim a day later, when he was challenged by at least one other scholar, with an earned PhD.

Nevertheless, David Barton must have some type of teflon coating, as he still manages to bounce back from the controversies. He was able to find another Christian publisher to republish his book on Jefferson. Popular Christian actor Kirk Cameron made a movie that featured an interview with David Barton, without addressing any controversy. Even one of my (otherwise) favorite Christian authors, Eric Metaxas, featured David Barton in a book Metaxas wrote, a few years ago, without mentioning Barton’s troubles.

Like Lazarus, David Barton manages to rise again.

It is enough to drive conscientious, but otherwise less entertaining, evangelical Christian historians and scholars bananas. Because David Barton has no doctoral training in history, he is not part of any peer-reviewing, scholarly community, that can double-check his work. Why Christian leaders still promote Barton, while simultaneously failing to encourage him to submit to peer-review, and thereby correct some of his errors, is baffling.

I actually enjoyed meeting David Barton, when he came to my church to speak, about 14 years ago. We had a pleasant conversation, and I got the sense that he is a sincere man, with a desire to serve God and honor our nation’s Christian heritage. But two weeks of fact checking his presentation, and finding glaring errors, made me rather leery of what he is doing. I just wish he would fess up to making such mistakes and correct them, instead of dismissing all of his critics as secular, left-leaning liberals.

This is hard to quantify. But if I had to ballpark it, roughly about 80% of what David Barton says is reliable. The other 20% is pure bunk.  The Gospel Coalition has a very helpful blog post covering some of David Barton’s problems in detail, with a fantastic interview with prominent evangelical historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, to help set the record straight, regarding The Search for Christian America.

The strange thing about this is that most Christians would never knowingly tolerate reading or listening to someone, who got 4 out of 5 things right. Christians are supposed to be people committed to the TRUTH, more than anything else. Right? How would you know what 80% to trust, and what 20% to distrust? But hey, that is apparently the world we live in today.

So, in the interest of setting the record straight yet again, here are some reflections on Ben Shapiro’s interview with David Barton: first, from Warren Throckmorton, the author of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, and then secondly, a running commentary of the Shapiro interview by Messiah College historian, John Fea, the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Revised Edition: A Historical Introduction.

Last count, there were over 120,000 views of David Barton on Shapiro’s show on YouTube. So, we somehow have to get the word out to at least 120,000 people that maybe there is more to the stories that David Barton is telling.


Concluding Thought on Owen Barfield’s History in English Words

I have to return Owen Barfield’s History in English Words to the InterLibrary Loan, so I am putting in a quick, final comment here.

Owen Barfield was one of C. S. Lewis’ most influential friends, and exceptionally brilliant. J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, was profoundly influenced as well by Barfield.

Barfield was most definitely quirky, theologically. But it really is amazing how Barfield was able to put together the philological insights he had in this relatively short book.

I am ultimately a “Bible guy” on the “God Squad,” as some people think of me. But I am just fascinated by how Christians, and my fellow evangelicals, in particular, get stuck on the meanings of words, as they make their way from the pages of the Sacred Text, through voices of preachers in the pulpit, to the average Christian, who is trying to figure out what the Bible is all about. Even more fascinating is how various interpretations of the Bible, that are hinged upon key words, get morphed over time, without people completely realizing it. Barfield is a great companion here, to work these thoughts out, in this introduction to his thought, History in English Words.

The standard recommendation for studying Barfield is generally to start with History in English Words, then move on to read Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, and then finally tackle his Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry. Not sure when I will be able to get to these.

In the meantime, back to C.S. Lewis (later this summer??)…..


“Conservative” and “Liberal” as Christian Labels

A quick followup to a previous post from a week or so ago about “verbicide”…..The shifting sands of culture, underneath our very feet, have a far reaching impact on how Christians use words.

Take the labels “conservative” and “liberal.”  To conserve, as in conserving or preserving a tradition, is pretty straight forward.  To be liberal, or to liberate, is to set free, or to discard a tradition, is well known. But most of the time, we use these type of words as pejoratives, to identify parties or viewpoints we do not like.

Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings, in company with friend C.S. Lewis, writes about the history behind the adoption of the predecessor words to “conservative” and “liberal,” namely “tory” and “whig,” respectively (History of English Words, p.73-74).

“Spite, which always loves a rich vocabulary, is also the father of those venerable labels tory and whig. The old Celtic word tory was first applied in the seventeenth century to the unfortunate Irish Catholics, dispossessed by Cromwell, who became savage outlaws living chiefly upon plunder; after that it was used for some time of bandits in general, and at the close of James II’s reign the ‘Exclusioners’ found it a conveniently offensive nickname for those who favored the succession of the Roman Catholic James, Duke of York. Thus, when William of Orange finally succeeded in reaching the throne, it became the approved name of one of the two great political parties in Great Britain. Whig is shortened of whiggamore , a name given to certain Scotchmen from the word whiggam, which they used in driving their horses. It was first used of the rebellious Scottish Covenanters who march to Edinburgh in 1648; then of the Exclusioners, who were opposed to the accession of James; and finally, from 1689 onwards, of the other great political party or one of its adherents.”

Lewis himself observes that the terms conservative and liberal came to replace tory and whig, having been born into a political context. Along with the terminology of conservative and liberal came the use of right and left.

In the summer of 1789, France had its revolution, only 14 years after the American colonists declared their independence from Great Britain. That summer, the French were divided amongst themselves as to what to do with the French monarchy, which had become an unmanageable form of government under King Louis  XVI, burdened by overwhelming financial debt. When the French National Assembly met to draft a constitution, different parties gathered together in the room, according to their sympathies.

The meeting of the famous Tennis Court Oath, when French leaders met on a tennis court, standing on one side of the tennis net, as opposed to the other, gives a visual picture of when “right” and “left” got embedded in the Western consciousness. Those who favored a constitutional form of monarchy, much like the British system, gathered on the right side of the room. Those who favored dismantling the traditional monarchy, advocating a more egalitarian form of governance, gathered on the left side of the room. The language of right wing and left wing has been with us ever since.

Eventually, such political language entered the theological arena, whereby conservatives on the right would hold to a more traditional view of Scripture and Bible doctrine, and liberals on the left would reject such tradition. Among evangelicals today, the use of the word “liberal” is tantamount to questioning a person’s theological orthodoxy. Alternatively, to be a “conservative” theologically is considered to be a good thing, as the surrounding Western culture continues to be ripped from its traditional, Judeo-Christian moorings. But when and if such “conservatism” is perceived to be reactionary, or otherwise ill-advised, we often hear more pejorative sounding words used to describe one’s theology, like the word “fundamentalist.”

What a shift from the older meanings that these words once possessed! To be “conservative” was once understood to be something noble, conserving those traditions which were indeed truly good. To be “liberal” was to contend for freedom, one of the greatest virtues found in the Bible, as in, for the “truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Alas, not any more.

Labels. Labels. Labels.


Apologetics: Norman Geisler

Norman Geisler.

Evangelical apologist Norman Geisler died today, at the age of 86. The author of over a hundred books on Christian apologetics, theology, and philosophy, Norman Geisler has left a dramatic footprint upon the evangelical Christian world.  Dr. Geisler was critically instrumental in founding two evangelical seminaries, Veritas International Seminary and Southern Evangelical Seminary, and taught classes at other well-known evangelical institutions, including Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Dallas Theological Seminary. His influence has been felt all over American evangelicalism, ranging from preachers like Andy Stanley to popular apologists like Lee Strobel and Frank Turek.

As the Veracity blog has been principally focused on apologetics, we would be remiss not to recall Dr. Geisler’s contributions. According to his testimony, Dr. Geisler had grown up in a mostly ex-Roman Catholic home, stemming from his father’s bitterness against the local Roman Catholic priest. Norman Geisler’s father had approached the priest, about marrying a Lutheran woman, asking the priest to officiate the marriage. The priest responded that this was against the rules of the church, but that he would gladly accept a bribe of $500, to ignore the rules. Norman Geisler’s father left the church with disgust.

As a young kid, Norman Geisler did not know the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus. At age 9, a persistent local Bible church shared the Gospel with this young boy, by taking him to church every Sunday, but he consistently and stubbornly refused to receive Christ, until he finally made a confession of faith, eight years later, at the age of 17.  His interest in apologetics was born from subsequent years of being unable to answer questions posed to him, by those he conversed with, when doing door-to-door evangelism, doing jail ministry, and serving in rescue missions.

As a young man, despite not being able to read during most of his years in high school, Norman Geisler knew that either he had to get some answers to these questions, or else, he should stop witnessing. So, he decided to go and find some answers.

Amazingly, after years of getting a theological education, including getting a doctorate in philosophy, focusing on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Geisler rose as a leader in the evangelical Christian movement of the 1960s and 1970s, serving as one of the original authors of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. He also help to lead the burgeoning Evangelical Theological Society, the primary intellectual and scholarly think-tank for American evangelicalism, until departing the society in 2003, over what he saw as theological drift in the society.

I first encountered Norman Geisler upon thumbing through his When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, that helped me to answer some of the tougher questions fielded to me, when I worked in youth ministry. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Geisler at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, about five years ago. There was twinkle in his eye and a passion in his energy to communicate the Gospel with others, by clearing away intellectual difficulties, that might be spiritual roadblocks for skeptics and seekers. It was easy for me see how Dr. Geisler was able to winsomely make the sometimes intimidating world of Christian apologetics accessible to youth ministry leaders, hard-working evangelists, and normal, everyday people, who have questions about faith in God.

Dr. Geisler’s unbridled passion for truth was encouraging, but it could also get him into trouble, and cause deep seated frustration with other fellow Christian apologists and theologians. Dr. Geisler, who excelled as a classical or philosophical apologist, was not always as proficient in other realms, such as evidentialist apologetics, presuppositionalist apologetics, or New Testament studies.

Dr. Geisler at times sought to defend certain beleaguered, troubled Christian leaders, whom he should have never defended. At other times, he would drive verbal and written attacks against other Christian scholars, that were sadly unwarranted, undeservingly tarnishing their reputations. There were moments where reading Norman Geisler was like feeling a sense of confident relief, “Yes, there are answers!” But there have been other times in reading Dr. Geisler, where I wanted to either scream or cringe. Alas, sometimes, an interest in defending the truth can lead even the best of Christians to become needlessly defensive, missing opportunities for learned engagement with more nuanced and accurate expressions of truth. I have done the same myself, over the years.

But in recalling Dr. Geisler’s years of faithful service for the cause of Christ, it would not be fitting to focus on particular deficiencies of certain apologetic blunders, here and there. Rather, it would be better to reflect on the greater picture of Dr. Geisler’s remarkable legacy, namely his desire to uphold the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We should consider the ways that God used this man, whom a local Bible church at one point probably thought of as being an “unreachable” teenager. Nevertheless, God saw to it to empower Norman Geisler to help several generations of believers and non-believers, to gain a greater sense of confidence in the tremendous and awesome glory of God, through the power of His Word.

Norman Geisler’s most popular, and perhaps best book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be Atheist, a popular outline to his classical/philosophical approach to apologetics, has been on my reading list for a few years now. I continually encounter other Christians who have been strengthened in their faith by this book, and other similar works by him. My fellow co-blogger, John Paine, did a three-part blog series (#1, #2, and #3) on “How We Got the Bible,” a few years ago, based largely on another book co-authored by Dr. Geisler, From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible.

In a time when skepticism and unbelief are growing more than ever, in our secular world, it is encouraging to know that there have been Christians, such as Norman Geisler, who have sought passionately and intelligently to reach out to others with the Good News of Eternal Life, through Jesus Christ. I am grateful that God has used Norman Geisler to help stir that same passion within me.

 


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