Monthly Archives: June 2019

Paul, A Biography, by N.T. Wright, A Review

Reading N.T. Wright is delightfully invigorating. He is surely the most influential, and perhaps the most prolific, living New Testament scholar of our day, and an evangelical Christian to boot.

This has made Wright into the darling of millennial Christian thinkers, who look to someone like an N. T. Wright, as having the academic smarts, challenging the critical voices against Christianity in the 21st century, as well as possessing a cheerful, pastoral giftedness. N.T. Wright puts the often complex world of contemporary scholarship closer near the “bottom shelf,” where mere mortal, everyday Christians can appreciate and apply a more learned approach to the New Testament, as opposed to simply reading the Bible on their own, with little to no oversight to guide them.

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, … and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants. Now, with an outstanding biography of the Apostle Paul.

N.T. Wright: Scholar, Pastor and Popularizer

Otherwise known as “Tom” Wright, in his more popular writings, it has been often said that N.T, or Tom, Wright writes faster than most people can read. How he has found time to write as much as he has, while at one time serving as an active Anglican bishop, who only in recent years is now focused again on scholarship, is a wonder on its own.

Beleaguered by top notch critical scholars for several generations now, that appear to want to rip the Bible to shreds, thoughtful evangelicals take comfort in the fact that N.T. Wright has gone up against the brightest and best in the world of academia, and he has come out relatively unscathed. Even more so, he stands out with his good-natured, jolly British demeanor, as he declares his scholarly view of a wholly trustworthy and reliable Holy Bible. For a younger generation of evangelicals, N.T. Wright makes you feel like, intellectually, he has your back.

Wright earns the respect of non-believing and believing intellectuals alike, being read by everyone from British historian Tom Holland, to former editor-in-chief at Newsweek, Jon Meacham, just to name a few. Aside from Michael Licona’s brilliant work, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, N.T. Wright remains today’s most capable defender of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, through his highly cited academic work, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Culminating in Wright’s multivolume, comprehensive series Christian Origins and the Question of God, we find the “go-to” academic, contemporary treatment of critical issues in New Testament scholarship, correcting misguided efforts among intellectuals to take down historic Christian faith, starting with the infamous “Jesus Seminar” of the early 1990s.

I remember twenty years ago reading N.T. Wright’s written dialogue with liberal scholar Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus. Borg was known for dismissing every miracle of Jesus in the New Testament as fictitious, and yet, Wright had an answer for him at every turn. Still, the two men remained friends. I was left thinking, “Evangelical Christians need more scholars like N.T. Wright!

N.T. Wright is also a popularizer, engaging well with the wider culture, relating particularly to a more skeptical crowd, like a modern day C.S. Lewis. Along with New York City PCA pastor, Timothy Keller, N.T. Wright has been a featured speaker at Google’s headquarters, capable of speaking Christian truth to a largely sophisticated, unbelieving audience. Never parochial, always irenic, Wright receives invitations to speak at places, where more explosive and abrasive evangelical figures, such as an Answers in Genesis’ Ken Ham, would never find a welcoming reception.

Rudolph Bultmann, the German liberal scholar, who would have us “demythologize” the New Testament, was the most important New Testament scholar of the 20th century. Yet it would be fair to say that N.T. Wright enjoys the same stature, as Bultmann’s, for the early 21st century.

There is evidence to support this claim. N.T. Wright delivered the esteemed Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, in 2018, an academic honor in Scotland. Wright is the only New Testament scholar to have delivered those lectures, since Rudolph Bultmann did so in 1954 to 1955.

Like Bultmann, who was regarded as having the preaching ability of a Billy Graham, despite Bultmann’s complete rejection of the supernatural claims of the New Testament, N.T. Wright has an appeal in his delightful written prose and public preaching persona. In a world where orthodox Christian faith appears to be being pushed to the side, in a secularizing society, on an almost daily basis, Wright’s presence as a public intellectual, engaging the toughest critics of Christian faith, is a welcoming sign that the Gospel is not completely lost in the era of post-modernity.

Nevertheless, despite the accolades, Wright’s superstar status has raised questions, particularly among his own evangelical brethren.

N.T. Wright’s greatest expertise is in the life and theology of the apostle Paul, which makes it a wonderful treat to finally have from Wright a popular level biography of the great apostle, Paul: A Biography. In Paul: A Biography, Wright constructs for the reader a very illuminating, and even quite entertaining, portrait of Paul. Wright follows the path of Paul’s career, along the contours of the Book of Acts, while interacting with the best of today’s scholarship of the first century. Wright places the writing of each of Paul’s New Testament letters, within this narrative, serving as an introduction to the entire range Paul’s writings in the Christian Bible.

N.T. Wright’s Delightful and Engaging Portrait of Paul

I can not improve upon the excellent review given by British pastor-teacher, Andrew Wilson, at The Gospel Coalition website. But I can add some commentary on what I learned the most from Wright, in this sweeping biography, while registering a few cautions here and there.

For example, I have always been a bit bothered about the reigning academic consensus, that contends that several of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul in the New Testament, were not actually written by him, such as Colossians and Ephesians. Yet I have never fully understood the evidence used to support this consensus view.

Wright cheerfully dismantles such claims against Pauline authorship, but does so by advancing Wright’s own provocative argument, that these letters, along with Philemon, were written while Paul was in prison in Ephesus. Most scholars have traditionally believed that Paul wrote these letters while in prison in Rome, or perhaps Caesarea in Palestine, if he wrote them at all. But Wright’s proposal of an Ephesian imprisonment, a minority view for decades among scholars, actually makes better sense of the available historical data.

An Ephesian imprisonment implies that the the letter “to the Ephesians” (Ephesians 1:1) could have been more of a circular letter, distributed among the small church communities, that were growing and adding new members in and near Ephesus (Ephesians 1:15), the second largest city in the ancient Roman empire. Likewise, with Colossians, the letter to the church in Colossae, a city no more than a 100 miles from Ephesus, it stands to reason that Colossians, too, could have been easily written from an Ephesian prison, as both Ephesians and Colossians share similar characteristics, along with Philemon.

The biggest drawback to Wright’s proposal is that Luke in Acts does not mention Paul being in prison in Ephesus. Nevertheless, Wright is able to put the pieces together, in a manner that explains why liberal, critical scholars of previous generations have erred in thinking that Paul could not have written Colossians nor Ephesians. Simply brilliant.

Here is another example: The intriguing “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians has often been interpreted in evangelical circles as a future coming “antichrist” figure. But Wright places 2 Thessalonians within the context of Roman history, within about a decade of the letter being written, when the Roman emperor Caligula, an utterly insane, autocratic ruler, sought to have statues of himself placed within the Temple compound in Jerusalem, reminding the Jews that the Roman emperor is to be worshipped as supreme.

Caligula’s reign was cut short by his death in 41 C.E., aborting Caligula’s attempt to profane the Temple, but it made many of Thessalonika’s Jews worried that another “man of lawlessness,” like Caligula, might rise up again against the Jews and those early Christians. Was this a prophetic reference to the coming emperor Nero, in Paul’s own day, …. or some future antichrist figure, yet to emerge in our present 21st century day?

While such questions often preoccupy curious American believers, Wright tells his readers that Paul’s intent in 2 Thessalonians, was not to set up speculation as to who a future “man of lawlessness” might be, but rather to say that Jesus is still Lord, over even the most blasphemous of Roman emperors, a warning that might benefit Christians today, who tend to obsess over “all things End Times.”

It is page after page of insights such as these that make Paul: A Biography a rewarding investment of one’s time to better understand the world of the apostle Paul. I truly enjoyed this book, and I commend it to others, even if “theology” or “history” books are not your thing.

That being said, N.T. Wright does have his critics, even among evangelicals, and not all are convinced by Wright’s attempts to chronicle the life of Christianity’s greatest apostle. Wright may be able to make the world of contemporary scholarship more understandable to the average Christian reader, but perhaps not understandable enough. And what is understandable draws some rather awkward, unfamiliar conclusions, that cast some doubts on certain features of Wright’s theological project.

N.T. Wright: The Cheerful Polemicist

For example, James Goodman, a British evangelical follower of the great 20th century Welsh preacher, Martyn-Lloyd Jones, gives Paul: A Biography a mere “one-star” review, believing that Wright is a type of trojan horse scholar, smuggling in the unbelieving errors of what Goodman contends is the radical New Perspective in Paul, that seeks to undermine the classic Reformation view of Paul’s teachings, of justification by faith alone. In a more generous and balanced review for Ligonier Ministries, New Testament professor David Briones, while finding many excellent and good things in Paul: A Biography, ultimately finds Wright to be unpersuasive, offering a caricature of the classic, evangelical understandings of Paul, traceable back to the leading lights of the Reformation, like Martin Luther and John Calvin.

So, why the bad marks from defenders of the evangelical Reformed tradition, for Paul: A Biography? For those who believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, N. T. Wright sends up red flags. This “righteousness of God,” which is alien to fallen humans, is applied, or “imputed,” to the Christian believer, as an expression of the love of God, through Jesus’ sacrificial death at Calvary. We as fallen, sinful human creatures, stand condemned before a Holy God, unless this Holy God, does something new on our behalf. The teachers of the Reformation contended that Christ indeed did such a thing, through this concept of the righteousness of God, being imputed to us. This righteousness thus declares the undeserving sinner to be justified by faith and faith alone, through grace and grace alone. Imputation is therefore considered to be the hallmark of true Gospel doctrine.

To Wright’s most conservative critics, Wright’s casually dismissive attitude towards this doctrine of imputation makes him just as complicit in attacking the Bible, as Wright’s liberal critics! To be fair, Wright does not hammer on this “anti-imputation” theme, as much as he has often expounded it in his more academic writings. Furthermore, not all of Wright’s critics lump him in a totally pejorative category, despite disagreements.

But neither does Wright, even in Paul: A Biography, seek to offer much irenic comfort to his Reformed critics, a recurring weakness in Wright’s work, in my view, though Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will find some reassurance in N.T. Wright, in their respective understandings of Paul. Wright’s approach is not completely of disagreement with, but rather one of relative indifference to, classic Reformation theology, which is enough to isolate N.T. Wright from the most conservative corners of the evangelical movement. Though greatly softened in Paul: A Biography, there is still a polemical edge in this popular work of Wright’s, that seeps through from time to time.

If imputation is not critical for Paul’s message of the Gospel, then what does N.T. Wright say is critical for Paul’s message? For N.T. Wright, Paul’s central theme is that God, through His faithfulness to His covenant with Israel, has now extended that same covenant, with those same covenant promises, to the Gentiles, in Jesus Christ. For Wright, the Reformation emphasis on the human sinner, receiving a declaration of being made righteous, so that we might be reconciled to God, is a fine message, and does play some type of role in Paul’s thought, but it is not the central idea that catapults Paul’s ministry. Instead, the Good News of the Gospel that Paul preaches is grounded upon the reality that God faithfully keeps his promises to the covenant people of Israel, and then brings the Gentiles in, to enjoy those same promises as well.

Some readers will take N.T. Wright as therefore actually down playing the central doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, namely of justification by faith and faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness to the lost sinner. Concerned evangelicals, like pastor John Piper, at Desiring God ministries, and even more moderate voices, like that of the late John R.W. Stott, take Wright’s tendency to introduce false dichotomies into his work to task, while still greatly appreciating the positive work that Wright is truly offering the church.

Another example may help to explain unease about Wright, in certain evangelical quarters. Wright does exceptionally well in Paul: A Biography, in defending Paul against the common claim that Paul was a misogynist, that he “hated” women. Wright wonderfully shows that women were some of Paul’s most trusted colleagues in ministry, and that Paul valued having women in church leadership. But does this more egalitarian, sympathetic view towards women really undercut Paul’s (often disputed) teaching in the pastoral letters, that the office of overseer, in the local church, is to be reserved for men only? Is there not a possible both/and solution here, as opposed to an either/or, pick-your-side approach to be considered, as offering critical insight into the temperament and teaching of the great apostle? Wright skirts around this most important issue, just as he does in the justification debate, that might offer a third-way rapprochement in the controversial “women in ministry” debate, that divides evangelical churches today.

Wright does a much better job in Paul: A Biography, of establishing a view of Paul as being thoroughly Jewish, as opposed to critics who believe Paul to be the “inventor of Christianity,” one in direct opposition to historic Judaism. Wright’s study of Second Temple Judaism offers a vivid appreciation for Paul’s Jewishness, that previous generations of scholars, both liberal and conservative, have often never fully considered.

Nevertheless, Wright does not fully satisfy his critics in Paul: A Biography, by not adequately addressing the question of what promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically to the Jewish people, if any, remain as valid possibilities for future fulfillment, in the mind of Paul. For example, many conservative evangelical Bible teachers would insist that Romans 11 envisions, at the very least, a great mass turning of Jews towards the Gospel, prior to Christ’s second coming. In Paul: A Biography, Wright does not even provide a hint of anything like that to be the case, proving to be a frustration to at least a few evangelical scholars and Bible teachers.

Towards the end of Paul: A Biography, Wright drops what some might consider to be a bombshell, regarding how one should think of the “End Times,” and beyond. Gone from Wright’s prose is the misty vision of believers, in white robes, with halos over their heads, in a blissful yet ultimately boring heaven, that characterizes many popular views of the Christian afterlife.

Wright brushes this kind of otherworldliness aside. Wright believes this view of a heaven above, as well as its damnation alternative below; that is, hell, to be a product of the Middle Ages, and not something that goes back to the mind of Paul. Rather, Wright sees Paul envisioning a type of new heavens and a new earth, a restoration of what God originally created, to be the future of a redeemed humanity. Wright is surely writing of a necessary corrective here, as millennial author and pastor Joshua Ryan Butler agrees, along with an older evangelical, Randy Alcorn, (see Veracity blogger, John Paine’s review of Randy Alcorn), but is Wright overcorrecting too much?

The vast majority of evangelical Christians today, along with the skeptics who mock them, attribute the “end of the world” language, used in much of the New Testament, to be speaking of a literal conflagration of the space-time existence of this present world. In contrast, N.T. Wright sees this “end of the world” language as mostly about anticipating the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, something that actually did take place in 70 C.E.

Wright understands Paul as surely believing in a future bodily resurrection of the dead, as well as a physical future return of the Lord Jesus, but pretty much everything else with respect to the “End Times” was fulfilled shortly after Paul’s death, presumably sometime in the decade of the 60’s C.E., or shortly thereafter.

This “partial preterist” position, regarding the “End Times,” is held by a few other evangelicals, such as the late R.C. Sproul, but Wright does relatively little in Paul: A Biography to fully dissuade the vast majority of evangelicals today, who foresee a future apocalyptic ending of the world, following the script of the popular “Left Behind” films and books. You would have to look to some of Wright’s other books, to learn what he is really talking about, particularly when it comes to the afterlife, which is more along the lines of what you find in something like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

A Recommended Biography of Paul, and an Introduction to N.T. Wright’s Grand Theological Project

Though I enjoyed Wright’s book tremendously, there are two, broadly cautionary notes I have with Paul: A Biography, as I reflect on some of the more controversial ideas put forward by this brilliant Anglican scholar. One is the tendency of Wright to possibly overreach in giving the reader a psychoanalytic evaluation of Paul’s mindset. There is simply too much that we do not know about Paul’s inner workings for us to fully evaluate what was really going on inside Paul’s head.

This does not mean that we can not probe. Informed by his competent grasp of Greco-Roman history and Second Temple Judaism, Wright does a masterful job of teasing things out of Paul’s letters, that a casual reading might probably miss. Nevertheless, sparks of insight should not allow us to become too carried away. We still need to be measured and cautious in our judgments, of what Paul really said, and not read certain speculative perspectives in unnecessarily.

Secondly, Wright is driven firmly by his narrative, formed by his moderate New Perspective in Paul paradigm, that focuses so much on the theme of Jewish exile, in a political world at odds with pagan Rome. As a result, Wright fails to adequately point out the gravity of the spiritual dimension of human lostness, as taught by Paul. To be fair, as an evangelical, Wright does not deny the spiritual import of Paul’s message, to the individual; that is, our need for a personal Savior, which Wright surely affirms. But neither does Wright emphasize this as much as he could.

As Susan Grove Eastman comments in her review for The Christian Century, “Wright mutes Paul’s radical diagnosis of the human condition.That diagnosis is far more global than simply viewing Rome as the enemy. In fact, Paul talks very little, if any, about Rome or Caesar. They are not worth his notice, and they are not in view when he uses the language of bondage and freedom. Whereas Wright emphasizes Jewish antipathy to Rome and posits that Paul wanted to plant his gospel of Christ’s lordship in opposition to the imperial claims of Caesar, Paul sets his sights on enemies far greater than any human power or institution. The enemies, as he repeatedly says, are sin and death, and it is the brutal reign of these suprahuman powers that Christ overthrew on the cross, thereby setting humanity free. That is the regime change that truly liberates.” If such a pointed critique came from a stalwart evangelical magazine, like a Christianity Today, that would be one thing. But to hear this from a Protestant mainline publication is unexpected, to say the least.

Still, despite some of the above concerns, many others find Paul: A Biography as being a delightful introduction into the life and ministry of Paul. Robert C. Trube’s review of Paul: A Biography, is a fine example of a Christian reviewer, who enjoys Wright’s captivating portrait of Paul, in terms of illuminating the human side of the man, often obscured by centuries of intractable theological debate.

This is what I appreciated most about N.T. Wright’s vivid portrait of Paul, a description of a man with shortcomings and human limitations, with whom I can relate. This, more humanized side of Paul, typically gets brushed under the rug, when many Christians consider that Paul was also the writer of a large portion of Sacred Scripture. Paul was surely one of the greatest servants of God, but he was still a flawed human being, in need of a Savior, just like you and me.

Wright’s Paul: A Biography may not completely supersede F. F. Bruce’s 20th century classic evangelical biography, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, but it succeeds in a way that F.F. Bruce’s work does not. Bruce’s Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free is more technical in his documentation, whereas I listened to Wright’s Paul: A Biography as an audiobook, and I never felt burdened once while listening.

F.F. Bruce is very solid, and far less controversial in his critical judgments, whereas Wright’s book flows better as great historical literature, with loads of valuable and fresh insights. Time after time, I simply had to stop listening to the audiobook version of Wright’s book and go, “Wow. I have never, ever thought of that before! This is great!So, despite the above noted cautions, Wright’s Paul: A Biography serves a dual purpose, of being one of the finest biographical surveys of Paul’s life and writings, along with being perhaps the best introduction to the theology of N.T. Wright, an invitation to explore the rest of Wright’s more scholarly work.

Eric Metaxas interviews N.T. Wright on this video podcast:


Lead Us Not Into Temptation??

 

Vasili Surikov. The Temptation of Christ. 1872

This summer, my church is doing a “Summer Prayer Challenge,” where we are encouraged to pray the Lord’s Prayer, on a daily basis.

However, I can not keep out of my head the recent decision, some months ago, by Pope Francis to change part of the Lord’s Prayer. For most English-speakers, the controversial phrasing follows the 16th century Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s translation, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The current Pontiff rejects this translation, as it gives the wrong idea, as “it speaks of a God who induces temptation.” Francis contends that God is not pushing me into temptation, to see if I fall, or not.

Back in Thomas Cranmer’s day, King Henry VIII interestingly shared the same view as today’s Pope. Henry probably would approve of the new English version of the prayer from Roman Catholics, “Do not let us fall into temptation,” instead of “Lead us not into temptation.

Francis is not completely without justification for being troubled by the traditional reading. He has in the back of his mind 1 Corinthians 10:13 and James 1:13.

But the Pope’s critics have a strong case to make against him, as the new reading flies against a more strict translation of the original Greek text. The controversy sheds some light on why it is so important to read the Bible more contextually. Daniel Wallace, one of my favorite Bible scholars, who is affiliated with Dallas Theological Seminary, explains why.

Wallace argues that the traditional reading of Matthew 6:13, “lead us not into temptation,” is contextually tied to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, just a few chapters prior. In Matthew 4:1, we read that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Do you see the connection between Jesus’ prayer that his disciples not be “led” into temptation, and Jesus’ own experience in the wilderness, where he was “led” by the Spirit, to be tempted by the devil?

Perhaps we can just sum up Pope Francis’ decision to try promote the right doctrine, just in the wrong verse…. Well, not exactly the right doctrine, as critics say the change impinges upon God’s sovereignty.

Wallace explains: Leading into temptation is not the same as tempting. God the Holy Spirit led Jesus into temptation, but he did not tempt him. God tests, but Satan tempts.

The new translation decision eliminates the ambiguity and even the apparent absurdity of the text, which makes it easier for some Christians, and inquisitive non-believers, to digest. But in doing so, we miss a very important connection between how we are to think about God’s sovereign rule, and the relationship between the temptation of the Lord, and our temptation to sin, that we experience on a daily basis.

Food for thought.


Verbicide

I might step on some toes here.

I am just as guilty here as the next person, but in C.S. Lewis’ masterful work, Studies in Words, p.7-8, the great Oxford don nails it:

“Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty,’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality.’ Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative. . . . and to end up by being purely evaluative– useless synonyms for good or for bad.”

I see this type of verbicide happening all of the time among Christians, including myself. I will use a word like awesome, simply to say that I like something, which is hardly what awesome meant some thirty years ago, in normal speech. To create a sense of awe, or reverence, about something or someone, is what awesome has typically meant for years. Nowadays, awesome has become almost a throw-away word, used to describe how good that hamburger tasted, that you just ate for lunch.

But among fellow Christians, the problem seems like an epidemic. Some believers insist on the literal interpretation of Scripture, when it is clear that literal merely has an inflationary characteristic, that Lewis identifies back in 1960, when he wrote Studies in Words. It is found in the common colloquialism of “it is literally raining cats and dogs out there!” Surely, no one believes that your neighbor’s siamese cat and yellow labrador just landed on your front lawn. No, it simply means that it is raining really, really, really hard.

Verbicide. We have killed the word literally.

We have turned the word literally into something not literal at all. Or to recall the previous blog post, whereby we discovery that metaphors can become so stable, that they can actually become new words. Just think of the word concrete, which in construction lingo, refers to a mixture of cement and sand, and other materials. But it could also have a metaphorical meaning, abstracted away from its construction context, to mean something that is firm or stable itself….. You know, something concrete.

Then there is that old discussion about inerrancy. For some, inerrancy is an affirmation that Scripture is the Christian’s authority. Why would you submit to something as your authority, if you lack the confidence that it is without error? A humble posture of obedience to the teachings of Scripture is predicated on the assumption that you accept the Bible to be true. This is the reason why inerrancy, which affirms the truthfulness of Scripture, is so important.

However, often inerrancy gets spun around to say, “My interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, and your interpretation is not!” So, two Christians can both hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, but if one Christian does not agree with an interpretation of a particular passage, that another Christian holds to, in good conscience, sometimes they might pull out the charge that the other Christian is denying the inerrancy of the Bible.

Yet what they really are doing is arguing for the inerrancy of their own, particular interpretation of a Bible passage. When thought poorly, in this manner, biblical “inerrancy” has less to do with describing and affirming the authority of Scripture, and more to do with evaluating the acceptability or non-acceptability of someone’s interpretation of the Scriptures. Not all interpretations of the Bible are created equal, but when we do stuff like this with words, then the word inerrancy becomes almost useless.

Note, however, I am not saying that inerrancy is not a useful word. I still firmly believe that it is. You can have a correct interpretation of a particular Bible passage, but still refuse to submit to it, if you fail to trust the Bible as God’s True Word. Affirming the inerrancy of Scripture is the first step, but not the last step. We still need to learn how to interpret Scripture correctly. Hopefully, this makes sense and is clear.

So, what I am saying is that when a word like inerrancy gets transformed from Lewis’ descriptive sense; that is, describing the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture, as in the classic usage, to Lewis’ more evaluative sense; that is, “your interpretation of the Bible is bad; therefore, you must be denying the inerrancy of the Bible,” then we have pretty much committed verbicide, thus rendering inerrancy as being an ineffective word.

And that is not good. It is not helpful. But that is what we do.

People of the Word can do some crazy things with words.

If you poke around on social media, whether it be following Twitter, reading Facebook posts, or in the worst possible case, that absolute scourge of the online era, reading YouTube video comments…. I find it to be a terribly depressing display of how Christians can commit verbicide, without much reflective thought. Why some people, even followers of Christ, would resort to such incoherent and even vitriolic language you find online, that they would never-ever-ever use in face-to-face to conversation, is simply appalling. But as the era of using social media has now pretty much become the norm, I am now starting to hear to such abusive talk, by the murder of words, ranging from comments given at a Bible study, to everyday face-to-face conversation with another believer…. And much of this we pick up from the world around us, particularly from our social media habits.

If I were the Pope, and we still had one organized church body, I would instigate a ban on all Christians writing on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube video comments, or at least impose a 24-hour cooling off period, before a Christian types out a response to something they have seen or read online, with threats of immediate excommunication, in order to stop the madness.

If I was smart enough, I would just stop right here….. But please indulge me a few more paragraphs to gripe a bit more about the problem with verbicide….. Otherwise, you can stop now, and enjoy the rest of your day….

Here is a classic example as to why I never simply assume what someone means anymore when they use particular words, particularly when it comes to social media: What grieves me these days is watching what has happened to something like the word gay. In the 1890s, it meant describing someone who was “happy.” Any sexual flavor to the word was simply unknown.

In popular culture, this meaning was preserved even in the opening credits of the 1960s Flintstones cartoon, “we’ll have a gay old time!”

That practice shifted, however, somewhere in my lifetime.

Thirty years ago, and for some of us, still today, gay means to describe the experience of persons, who find themselves with some sort of disposition of being sexually attracted to another person of the same sex. To be gay does not necessarily mean being sexually active, though that is possible. It generally applies to describing someone’s sexual orientation, which may or may not be immutable, but that typically does not change for most people, who think of themselves as gay.

Sure, there are reports that one’s sexual orientation may change over time, but such reports are rarely common. Being gay is more of an internal struggle, as indicating that one’s experience of sexual attraction, is outside of the norm. To be gay, in this sense, is a product of the Fall, but it is not an indication of any particular moral failure, on the part of the person who has this disposition, if they do not act on this disposition, either in thought or deed. To be gay, therefore, only becomes sin when one is tempted to act upon such desire, and succumb to that temptation, either through imaginative lust, or by actually participating in a sexual relationship.

Sadly, over the past few decades, much of the church’s response towards those who say that they are gay has been to try to get them to become heterosexual. But the goal of sanctification is not heterosexuality. Rather, the goal is holiness.

As a result of this misstep in the church, over time, the language of being gay has evolved for some, to be a type of descriptor of someone’s ontological identity. This shift has become sharply pronounced and accelerated in the era of Facebook and Twitter. Instead of merely describing a person’s experience of sexual attraction, the use of the word gay goes deeper than describing personal experience of sexual attraction, as it has come to describe “who I am, as a person,” for someone who thinks of themselves as gay.

A shocking example of this is the same-sex couple in Colorado, who took Jack Phillips, a master cake decorator, to court, for claiming that Phillip’s refusal to endorse a same-sex wedding, using Phillip’s skills as a artist, contrary to Phillip’s evangelical theological beliefs, was actually an attack on who they were as persons. This same-sex couple, and others like them, make the surprising leap that a failure to approve of a particular behavior, by not using socially approved forms of speech, is somehow a violation of someone’s else’s personal identity.

I do not personally know of anyone who consciously thinks of themselves as being gay like this, but clearly I do hear about it. Surely, as contemporary culture continues to raise awareness of “LGBTQ” concerns, the word gay is more and more used, in the media, as indicating a type of social or political identity, implying the active expression of same-sex erotic activity.

My concern is that in response, many Christians then take this word, gay, also in a morally evaluative sense. To be gay, therefore, has no place in God’s divine purposes, even indirect, and therefore not good, in any way, shape, or form. If someone’s experience of same-sex attraction persists, then many Christians believe that there must be something awfully wrong with that person’s faith.

What a shift from the 1890s, the 1960s, or even the 1980s.

So, when a Christian describes themselves as a “single gay Christian,” or a “celibate gay Christian,” they must be careful to define what they mean. But for a growing number of Christians, because of the morally evaluative sense, so prevalently attached to that word, “gay,” any attempt to define what the word means, in any merely descriptive sense, arouses deep suspicion.

Acknowledging the experience of being gay, as a product of the Fall, is insufficient, for some Christians. To the one who holds such deep suspicions, the language of gay must be rejected at every point, for the believing Christian. “Gay” and “celibate” are inherently contradictory, despite any effort at explanation and precise definition.

In other words, we have killed the word “gay.”

As a result, some Christians over the years, have cast aside the wholly negative language of gay, and then, in the most neutral sense possible, as so many of us think, and now speak exclusively of being “same-sex attracted.” In other words, to be same-sex attracted is to have such a disposition, or orientation, towards finding a member of the same sex attractive. This sense of being same-sex attracted can be characterized as allowing for a presentation of a temptation, that could lead to sin, either in thought, as in lust, or in deed, engaging in sexual relations. The same-sex attracted Christian then wrestles with their condition, seeking to resist temptation, that they might not succumb to sin, if they wish to be faithful to the classic teaching of the Scriptures.  Interestingly, the very language Christians use here has become a topic of intense debate, within the evangelical church.

A excellent example of this type of preference of one term, “same-sex attracted” against another similar term, “gay,” to describe the experience of some Christians, who nevertheless hold to the traditional view of marriage, as being exclusively between a man and a woman, can be found in a 2019 resolution among Southern Baptists.

In other words, for Southern Baptists in 2019, it is permissible to “identify” as being “same-sex attracted,” while still affirming celibacy. But it is NOT permissible to “identify” as being “gay,” while still affirming celibacy. Why? Because presumably being “same-sex attracted” carries no morally evaluative stigma with it, whereas “gay” does.

According to C.S. Lewis, this is how we go about murdering words.

But just within the last couple of years, I am seeing that same language of “same-sex attracted” being cast under the same, morally evaluative scrutiny as gay once was. Now even some Christians are calling on others to reject the language of same-sex attracted, as inherently being a damnable sin, by the mere presentation of a Fallen desire.

I am an advocate for ministries, like Celebrate Recovery, where Christian people gather together, and confide with one another that they are “recovering or sober alcoholics,” and the like. Granted, there is a danger here. For it might be misconstrued, that to describe one’s self as a “recovering or sober alcoholicis an unfortunate means of “identifying” with your sin, instead of trusting fully with Christ, as the very center and grounding of one’s identity. All sin is sin, so we should not major on the particularities. Christ and Christ alone is and should be our sole identity. I totally get that.

However, there is also an equally important danger going too far in the other direction. The aversion to using the language of a “recovering or sober alcoholicmight lead one to think that one’s particular experience, wrestling against a particular tendency towards a particular sin, might cause us to downplay the particularities of a person’s struggle. In other words, I am concerned that there might come a day when is it no longer permissible to self-describe oneself as an “alcoholic,” in this manner, because it inherently implies a morally evaluative status.

But this would be wrong-headed. For the best way for an “alcoholic” to make their journey towards recovery, is by finding support among other “recovering alcoholics.” There can be some overlap with “recovering pornography addicts” or “recovering gambling addicts,” but the experiences are nevertheless still different. Someone with a gambling addiction is not always the best person to help someone with an alcohol problem. A recovering alcoholic can only offer limited assistance to someone who suffers from chronic overeating.

I suggest, we should not shy away from talking about the unique aspects of one’s experience with unique sanctification struggles, for fear of “over-identifying” with something apart from Christ. Sadly, I believe that the Southern Baptist 2019 resolution can lead some towards this type of unhealthy shyness.

What makes the 2019 resolution so bizarre is that Celebrate Recovery, with its goal of helping people with their “hurts, habits, and hang-ups,” had its genesis in a Southern Baptist church.

Theologically, it is like it is becoming more impossible to carefully distinguish temptation from sin, without collapsing the latter onto the former. It reminds of me of playing tag football as a kid, when my neighbor would move the goalposts, right in the middle of the play. I thought I was getting to the touchdown zone, only to discover that the touchdown zone had moved down the field, another few yards away.

What a frustrating thing it is, to have a conversation with someone, thinking you are talking about the same thing, only to realize that the goalposts have been moved on you, and you discover that you can not even agree on the basic terms of the conversation.

Perhaps it is because I do not watch television any more, on a regular basis, that I notice these things. Perhaps it is due to the way Facebook, and other means of social media exchange, take place in an online world. But it really bothers me to see so many, otherwise earnest Christians falling into these changing patterns of thinking and expression. And, if I am honest, it probably influences me in such subtle ways that I am not even aware of it.

Alas. We as Christians follow the ways of the world without thinking carefully and clearly, just as Lewis observed.

Or perhaps a better way to put it is this: language is changing, and these days, in the era of social media, it is changing more rapidly than ever before. But sadly, Christians can easily get stuck in certain language patterns, without realizing it, that can make effective communication exceedingly difficult.

We live in strange times.

Lord help us.


How Christians Change Words

I am doing a study on how Christians use words, taking a look at reading some of the Inklings, namely Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis. But I ran into this nugget from a blog post by Logos software bible scholar, Mark Ward, author of the extraordinary Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, that I reviewed last summer.

So, what is a “pastor?” Furthermore, what is an “elder?”

I have already written about that elusive term “elder.” So, let us focus on the former here.

Oddly enough, for the word “pastor,” the venerable King James Bible (KJV) only uses that exact word once in the whole Bible, Ephesians 4:11. Otherwise, the term “pastor,” from the Greek word poimen, is translated as “shepherd,” as in being a shepherd of sheep.

Notice that in Ephesians 4:11, the word pastor does not describe an office, but rather a particular spiritual gift. Elsewhere, the concept of pastor/shepherd describes a certain function in the church. Notably, that same concept of shepherding is used to describe the function of the elders (from the Greek, presbyters) of the church in Ephesus, who are charged by Paul (Acts 20), to care for the flock, and protect them from spiritual wolves, that threaten to come in and devour the sheep (Acts 20:28-30).

The word elder, and its related term, overseer, do correspond to a type of office in the church, as in 1 Timothy 3, as one who is “able to teach,” “not a recent convert,” and so on. This meshes well with the function of pastoring the flock.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, or beating it to death, ponder a moment again about that word elder. Oddly though, Christians today typically do not always regard the word elder has having the same sense of pastor. Often, we split the concept of elder from pastor. Many churches will have a group of elders, but those elders are different than the pastor or pastors, which can be really confusing.

Then there is the term overseer. The old King James Version translation of that Greek word, episcopos, “bishop,” does get used by different denominational groups. Furthermore, for those traditions that tend to predate the Reformation, there is the terminology of priest, that is sort of, but not quite, synonymous with the Protestant pastor, but that is another whole intricate discussion.

But for some odd reason, the term pastor appears to win out, above them all, to describe the leader of a church, in many evangelical circles. I typically hear someone called “Pastor Bob,” but never “Shepherd Bob,” and only sometimes “Elder Bob.” Never have I heard someone called “Overseer Bob,” or “Church Leader Bob,” despite the fact that most modern translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 speak of the word overseer or the phrase church leader, to describe an elder. Rarely do you hear “Elder Bob” mentioned as the “Pastor.”

As Mark Ward points out, this is an example of when a metaphor, becomes so stable over time, that it effectively becomes a whole new word. If I could pay money to get every student of the Bible to grasp this, I would surely go broke.

To be a pastor was once used to describe a practice in animal husbandry. Now a pastor has become almost exclusively an ecclesiastical term. You rarely see a shepherd caring for their flock of sheep, in industrial, modern societies. But when observed, I never hear the term pastor used, only shepherd.

A pastor is nowadays almost always a “religious” term.

What was once a metaphor to describe the function of an office, has now become the office itself. Rightly or wrongly, that is what Christians do to words. Language changes.

…..Which just goes to prove that a lot of the discussions we have in our churches today about church governance can be exceedingly difficult, when we do not share a common vocabulary, by not recognizing how metaphors change character over time, to create new meanings.


How Modernity Influenced the Evolution of English Words

I have been reading Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, and it has some amazing insights into how language changes.

By way of introduction, consider the cartoon above, about “thinking outside of the box.” Today, “thinking outside of the box” is thought of as a virtue. It suggests getting outside of one’s traditional, conceptual world, and considering a larger context for thought. The adage is promoted all over the English-speaking world, ranging from staff development training sessions in corporations, to our political discussions, and in how we think about our view of the world more broadly.

But is it really possible to completely “think outside of the box?” Or is it more accurate to say that humans who uphold such a virtue are really just jumping from one box into another box, merely fooling themselves that they are somehow above the “boxes” that others impose on them? What about the boxes we all impose on ourselves, without realizing it? What happens when you think you are “thinking outside of the box,” only to eventually discover yourself living inside some other box?

The age of the “Enlightenment,” or what some call “modernity,” represents that period in Western history when science developed in ways unimagined heretofore. Now, there have always been Christians, like myself, who believe that science and faith go hand-in-hand with one another, or at the very least, say that science and faith are not at war with one another. But the rise of science, and along with it, the more metaphysically-minded belief of scientism, has had a massive influence on how the English language has changed over just the past few centuries, as scientism leans towards having a more ideological focus, intent on supplanting Christianity…. as though scientism seeks to “think outside of the box” of Christianity.

For example, Barfield in his chapter on Mechanism (p.183-200) notes that the practice of adding the tag of “-ism” to an end of the word, as in scientism, is a modern development, indicating a change in how modern people have a more “contemplative attitude towards all we ourselves do and feel and think,” as Barfield framed it. Perhaps this is because we live in a world that is so captivated by science, along with the accoutrements of technology, with our washing machines, and other labor-saving devices, with our cell phones and Google, all affording us the time and energy to be more contemplative, at least for some. We then take something like science, and give it a more ideological component, by adding the “-ism” tag to the ending of the word. Also, there is the word feminine, which gives us now the related feminism, as well as the word human, and its modern related humanism. The list can go on.

Then there is the whole trend towards the secular, in an attempt to marginalize the spiritual. The growth of scientism has enabled the popularity of words like determinism, as a secular alternative to the word predestination, allowing one to speak of such things without the theological assumptions of the latter.

The practice of prepending “self-” to a whole variety of words, is in particular a product of the Enlightenment, as with words like self-acceptanceself-respect and self-help. You never had self-help books written prior to 19th century, but we are completely overwhelmed with the self-help genre in books today.

The word pious once meant describing someone as devout and spiritually faithful. Now it has the connotation of feeble-mindedness. Even the word religion, which once meant something to describe the whole of human life, with respect to one’s relationship with God, has now been placed in a special category. To be religious is be someone who believes in God, as though religion is a type of add-on to human existence, and not something essential to human existence. In other words, everyone is a human being, but only some are religious, a way of thinking that would have been unthinkable a few hundred years ago.

All of these changes are new, as the modern world has sought to divide the natural and supernatural realms, which were formerly united.

Methinks that the advocates of scientism today have simply jumped out of one box, into another box, without knowing it.


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