Monthly Archives: June 2015

Splendor: Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot.

Elisabeth Elliot.

At the Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor has a brief yet marvelous tribute to Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015). As a young Christian, I remember reading The Shadow of the Almighty,  a defining classic work on Christian missionary service for much of the last half of the 20th century. Her book chronicled the story of her husband, Jim Elliot, who along with other missionaries, were killed by members of a Ecuadorian native tribe they were trying to reach for Christ. Her other classic work, Passion and Purity, challenged a new generation to rethink dating and reconsider courtship when selecting a mate.

Elliot was an inspiring and formidable woman. As Christianity Today magazine comments, she was and remains a remarkable role model for Christian discipleship. Now she has passed “Through Gates of Splendor.


Genesis: History, Fiction or Neither?

Many readers of Genesis 1-11 are not entirely sure how this part of the Bible relates to world and natural history. Creation? Nephelim? Flood? Babel? What is this all about? As the Christian community I am part of begins a “Summer Bible Study” series on this part of the Bible, these type of challenges are more important that ever. I can boil it down to this question: Are these chapters written from the perspective of a human eyewitness observer recording the events as they happen?

When it comes to the Gospels, the New Testament writers make it clear that we are dealing with eyewitness testimony. For example, Luke explicitly claims that he gathered the sources for his Gospel from eyewitnesses to the original events (Luke 1:1-4). But when we come to Genesis, things get a bit more vague. For example, the authorship of Genesis is traditionally attributed to Moses himself. But even the most conservative perspectives must acknowledge that Moses, who lived centuries after the events described in Genesis 1-11, was not sitting up in a tree in the Garden of Eden with his videocamera. So, then how do we understand Genesis 1-11 in relation to actual historical events?

Zondervan Publishers has released a book that tackles the topic, Genesis: History, Fiction or Neither?, as part of its Counterpoint series. The book editor, Houston Baptist University professor Charles Halton explains the purpose behind the book in the following video. The contributors include some veteran Old Testament scholars representing diverse points of views:

  • James K. Hoffmeier: Theological history.
  • Gordon J. Wenham: Proto-History.
  • Kenton L. Sparks: Ancient Historiography.

The book is important for not only Christians who are trying to make sense of the Bible but also skeptics who are trying to figure out if Christianity really makes any sense.

Continue reading


Tim Keller on Interpreting Genesis

New York City pastor, Tim Keller, offers a different approach than the one I put forward on how Genesis 1 relates to Genesis 2. Keller argues that Genesis 2 is actually historical narrative and that Genesis 1 fits more into a poetic genre, as opposed to a straight-forward historical narrative.

Keller may be right. The point I want to make is that different believers can look at some of the non-essential interpretation matters in Genesis differently, and they can still agree on the big picture, namely the essential doctrines concerning the knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the Creator, as well as who is humanity in relation to that Creator.

I call these the great “who” questions of faith: Who is God? Who is the Creator? Who is Man? These “who” questions are in contrast with the “how” questions: How did God create? How long did it take God to create? How does Genesis 1 relate to Genesis 2? The “how” questions are still important, but they pale in comparison to the great “who” questions that the Bible seeks to address.

The following short video by Keller demonstrates some of the challenges in determining the appropriate context and genre of this very ancient passage of the Bible in early Genesis. Keller and I both affirm that no one takes all of the Bible completely literally, and he gives his brief analysis as to what type of interpretive “grid” should be used when reading the Bible. We can still debate the smaller questions, but let us keep in the front of our minds the big picture.

I would highly recommend Tim Keller’s book Reason for God as a great book to give to a non-believer or believer who is struggling with these issues. Here is a quote from the book, around pages 93-94, that explains more in detail Keller’s approach to interpreting Genesis, and interpreting the Bible in general:

“Christians who accept the Bible’s authority agree that the primary goal of Biblical interpretation is to discover the Biblical author’s original meaning as he sought to be understood by his audience. It has always meant interpreting a text according to its literary genre. For example, when Christians read the Psalms they read it as poetry. When they read Luke, which claimes to be an an eyewitness account (see Luke 1;1-4), they take it as history. Any reader can see that the historical narrative should be read as history and the the poetic imagery is to be read as metaphorical.

The difficulty comes in the few places in the Bible where the genre is not easily identifiable, and we aren’t completely sure how the author expects to be read. Genesis 1 is a passage whose interpretation is up for debate among Christians, even those with a “high” view of inspired Scripture. I personally take the view that Genesis 1 and 2 relate to each other the way Judges 4 and 5 and Exodus 14 and 15 do. In each couplet one chapter describes a historical event and the other is a song or poem about the theological meaning of the event. When reading Judges 4 it is obvious that it is a sober recounting of what happened in the battle, but when we read Judges 5,  Deborah’s Song about the battle, the language is poetic and metaphorical. … I think Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a “song” about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation. Genesis 2 is an account of how it happened including Genesis 1. But it is false logic to argue that if one part of Scripture can’t be taken literally then none of it can be. That isn’t true of any human communication.

What can we conclude? Since Christian believers occupy different positions on both the meaning of Genesis 1 and on the nature of evolution, those who are considering Christianity as a whole should not allow themselves to be distracted by this intramural debate. The skeptical inquirer does not need to accept any one these positions in order to embrace the Christian faith. Rather, he or she should concentrate on and weigh the central claims of Christianity. Only after drawing conclusions about the person of Christ, the resurrection, and the central tenets of the Christian message should one think through the various options with regard to creation and evolution.

That last part shows some real wisdom that followers of Jesus should keep in mind at all times. Contrary to some well-intended yet misguided approaches, I do not need to debate the age of the earth or even the scientific theory of evolution with a non-believer. Instead, I should focus first on the central claims of the Gospel: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.


Spiritual Diagnosis

Sphygmograph

Transmission Sphygmograph, c. 1900

Do you ever think about your spiritual health? Spiritually speaking, how are you doing? How about those around you? How about your church? Are you making a difference? Are you trying hard enough? How good is good enough?

I do. I think about spiritual effort a lot.

Dick Woodward used to call this kind of thinking “a checkup from the neck up.” (Dick had a way with words.) Spiritual diagnosis was a prerequisite for the Sermon on the Mount—it’s all about attitudes. And Jesus Christ had a lot to say about attitudes and spiritual effort.

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Revelation 3:15-16, NIV84

That sounds frightfully harsh…but wait a minute. No need to worry, we have Sola Gratia. What about Ephesians 2:4-5 and Romans 3:23? It’s all about grace, right? We don’t have to be good enough. Gimme a break, we all fall short. I’ve got a job that wears me out, responsibilities…I don’t have the time or energy to do more. Besides, salvation doesn’t depend on our works.

The problem with that kind of attitude about spiritual effort is that it constitutes what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Grace without Discipleship? How can we diagnose grace without discipleship? Well, it could look like serving your church or ministry in a leadership position and feeling a little too complacent. How is your personal discipleship coming along? Is there urgency in your service? Are you working effectively to promote discipleship—or are you part of an organization that’s largely going through the motions? Isn’t it best if everyone just gets along and serves in harmony? It’s best not to rock the boat. Maybe. But if we heed Christ’s words to His churches in Revelation, this is indeed serious business. So how hard should we row? There’s that checkup from the neck up again.

An Ethic for Ministry

Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly VirtueMarion and I recently had dinner with Drs. Andreas and Marny Köstenberger. Not surprisingly, we got around to talking about personal discipleship and the Veracity blog. When I mentioned the spiritual basis for the blog in Philippians 2:12, Andreas told us about a book he had written that expands upon these ideas.

Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue is an exhortation written to scholars, but with broad application to anyone involved in ministry. The burden of the book is to “urge all of us who sense God’s call to scholarly labor to pursue earnestly, and with God’s help, the scholarly virtues discussed in this book.”

We don’t really talk about virtues anymore. It’s as if the word went out with parasols and medicine shows. But the pursuit of biblical virtues constitutes an appropriate cornerstone for personal discipleship.

The biblical basis for Excellence is the apostle Peter’s exhortation for believers to “grow in the rich knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2).

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence, knowledge; to knowledge, self-control; to self-control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, brotherly affection; to brotherly affection, unselfish love. For if these things are really yours and are continually increasing, they will keep you from becoming ineffective and unproductive in your pursuit of knowing our Lord Jesus Christ more intimately. … Therefore, brothers and sisters, make every effort to be sure of your calling and election.”
2 Peter 1:5-8,10a (NET Bible)

Just as Paul instructed believers to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), Peter directs us to work on our faith. And he sets the bar very high—the first virtue is the pursuit of excellence in increasing measure. With this scripture in focus, we have the answer to “how hard should we row?” and we have an ethic for ministry. Complacency has no place in the church, so go ahead, rock the boat if need be, but appreciate that Christianity is serious business.

One of the things I appreciate most about Excellence is the passionate humility with which Dr. Köstenberger paints the text. A book exhorting readers to steadfastly pursue excellence and Christian virtues could easily have swayed between dogmatic cheerleading and impersonal instructions for self-help. But it doesn’t. Without pulling any punches, he makes the point that mediocrity is not pleasing to God but does so with a gentle and genuinely humble voice. The book is extremely well written and thought out.

Dr. Köstenberger also offers practical suggestions for keeping the work of the ministry from becoming stale and getting off track. I particularly appreciated what he had to say about the importance of balancing purposeful rest with hard work. In fact, the book is full of well-formed balancing points. For lots of reasons, I read the text at just the right time.

The following quotes from Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue should give some indication of how helpful this text can be in thinking about spiritual diagnosis and spiritual effort.

Being set apart unto God as a scholar also entails a rejection of the false modernist dichotomy between faith and scholarship, a wholehearted pursuit of truth, complete dependence on the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, a balanced life that does not turn our scholarship into an idol, an awareness that the primary orientation of our work is to be missional, and an engagement in spiritual warfare through faithful witness to the truth.

Without the Spirit’s empowerment, our pursuit of holiness and excellence through growth in godly virtues will devolve into mere human self-effort that invariably results in pride and failure.

The primary spiritual disciplines advocated by Scripture are prayer and the obedient study of God’s Word.

We need to cultivate the discipline of rest, of regular time set aside for reflection, planning, and relaxation. In the long run, this will ensure that we will be at our most productive. I often find that after a week or two away from the office, I return invigorated, sharper, and more focused and alert.

The principle, then, is this: rest in God’s grace, look to him for guidance, and then do the work (in that order!). Don’t put self-effort and striving ahead of listening to God. And balance hard work with regular rest and relaxation (which means don’t forget to take a vacation once in a while, or take a day off on your son’s or daughter’s birthday or on your anniversary).

Mediocrity, sloppy workmanship, and a half-hearted effort do not bring glory to God or advance his kingdom.

The message here is not simply to try harder, to put in more effort, and to make things happen through sheer force of will. Salvation is entirely by God’s grace (Eph. 2:8–9), and sanctification is by grace as well (Eph. 2:10). This means that the pursuit of scholarly excellence must be undergirded by a keen sense of God’s continual grace in the personal and professional spheres of our lives and that we should pursue scholarly excellence in an environment of grace, not in a spirit of self-effort or unhealthy competition.

As evangelicals, we have too often, in Franky Schaeffer’s words, been “addicted to mediocrity,” and this mediocrity has in many cases become a curse—a curse that has kept us from reaching our personal, creative, and academic potential given to us by God, and has prevented us from impacting other believers as well as unbelievers for the glory of God and for his kingdom.

To your wisdom, add grace. Everything a Christian does should be characterized by grace. Grace should permeate our thoughts, words, and actions, and make a noticeable impression on those with whom we come in contact, both believers and unbelievers.

What are you and I going to do? Will our scholarship be characterized by a mean-spirited, confrontational, and harsh attitude? The writings of some evangelicals show little love for their scholarly opponents; in fact, one might almost conclude that they despise them. Unfortunately, these brothers in Christ do not seem to realize that the scholars on the other side of a given issue are, ultimately speaking, not the enemy. Satan is our common enemy.

Graciousness in response to criticism requires that we take ourselves out of scholarship to some degree and leave the results in God’s hands.

This balance, of course, is hard to achieve. It is much easier to spend long hours in one’s study and to ratchet up an impressive record of scholarly publications while neglecting one’s family. Conversely, someone may be a great father and husband but only a mediocre scholar (though, if a choice has to be made, the latter is, of course, to be preferred over the former).

While dangers are doubtless lurking ahead, commit yourself to excellence. The God you serve is himself characterized by excellence, and that same God has called you to the pursuit of excellence for his glory and for the good of others. If you pursue excellence and progress in it, you and others will be blessed, and God will be glorified.

HT: Dr. Andreas Köstenberger, Museum of Historical Medical Artifacts (transmission sphygmograph photo)


Beyond the Mask

Interested in swashbuckling adventure that is suitable for a family audience that is friendly to a Christian worldview? Frankly, it is difficult to find much coming out of Hollywood that fits that description. I am no movie critic, but I am encouraged when I see creative efforts to break out of the Hollywood mainstream in independent film making that try to tell a good story that touches on the themes of the Gospel. The more people support these type of films, the more chances you will see better films made in the future.

Beyond the Mask is a new movie that is part-action adventure, part-history lesson, part-patriotic plug, and part-Gospel centered. Set during the era at the beginning of the American Revolution, a resourceful young man who finds himself enmeshed in the dark underworld of corrupt, crony capitalism is seeking redemption to restore the goodness of his name, but who ends up discovering romance, the spirit of American liberty, and a relationship with Jesus Christ in the process. You can think of it as Tom Cruise with special effects and lots of fights between the good guys and the bad guys.

Sure, a film from an alternative studio like this will not have the latest, super-expensive Star Wars effects, but I was actually surprised and pleased at how good they were. Critics complain that such films are nothing more than evangelical propaganda, but these days, it really is almost impossible to find any film that is not propagandistic in some form or another. The question is: what message are these movies promoting?

True, some might find the swashbuckling a bit too much for very young audiences, and the storyline does comes off as a bit predictable and fantastic in places (a Guy Fawkes plot using an invention by Benjamin Franklin with anachronistic bombing technology??). But hey, the film is great fun, and you do not have to worry about some anti-Christian agenda undermining what you are trying to teach your kids. Much like last year’s historical fiction Alone Yet Not Alone, Beyond the Mask is a fun story that will also hopefully inspire a young generation to gain a better appreciation for history. Forget Left Behind and go for this film instead. My wife and I went to the see the film last week as part of a Williamsburg, Virginia homeschooling community effort to bring in Christian film to local movie theatres, and we had a great time.

Produced by Burns Family Studios, essentially an outfit run by evangelical homeschoolers, Beyond the Mask was written by Paul McCusker, a creative writer behind Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey (see this review). This Patheos film blog review by Kenneth Moreland I found helpful and this interview with the Burns family.

Showing in the Williamsburg area (Newport News) at the Kiln Creek Cinema 20 for one week beginning June 5.


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