Author Archives: Clarke Morledge

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit.

The Bible With and Without Jesus: Jews and Christians Reading Scripture Differently

Jews and Christians read the same stories in the Bible differently: So argues Jewish Bible scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, as the sub-title to their 2020 book, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently.

So, why would I, as an evangelical Christian, read a book like this from two Jewish scholars titled as “The Bible With and Without Jesus?” Well, both Jews and Christians have at least one thing in common: The Old Testament, or what many Jews prefer to call “the Hebrew Bible,” or “the Hebrew Scriptures.” But one group reads the Old Testament with all eyes focused on finding Jesus in the text (the Christians), whereas the other group finds it difficult to see Jesus at all in the text (the Jews….. at least the non-Messianic Jews).

What do non-Christian Jews find in the Old Testament, if they do not find Jesus there? I was on a mission to find out. Having worked previously with a Jewish colleague of mine for seven years, with many hours of spiritual conversation, this was not just an academic interest. It was personal.

As Levine and Brettler put it, wherever there are two Jews, there you will find three opinions. This is as true now as it was in the time of Jesus, and in the few centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth.

 

How Jews and Christians Read the Bible in Different Ways

Last year, I read a history of the “time between the testaments,” Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, by Philip Jenkins (see this review on Veracity). Learning about the history covering several hundreds of years before Jesus was born helped me to better understand why sometimes understanding the Old Testament can be so tricky.

By the time Jesus walked the earth, different Jewish groups all held to the Law of Moses, yet came to different conclusions on certain important theological issues. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, and the Sadducees rejected it. The Pharisees believed in an oral tradition, that had authority side by side with the written Law of Moses. The Sadducees rejected anything that was not in the written Law of Moses; that is, the first five books of the Bible. As for the rest of the books of what most Christians call the “Old Testament,” such as the Prophets (like Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.), the Sadducees were highly suspicious as to their status as Scripture.

Other complexities abound: The Pharisees believed in a world filled with angels and demons, that interact with humans. The Sadducees rejected such grand diversity of supernatural beings, and present day communication with them, as being a bunch of nonsense, that obscured the reality of there being but one and only one ultimate divine power, that of God and God alone (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees emphasized the centrality of the Temple, whereas the Essenes (think “The Dead Sea Scrolls” people at Qumran, according to at least some scholars) rejected the Temple as a completely corrupt institution. But the Essenes went beyond even the Pharisees, as they considered books like 1st Enoch as part of Scripture…. but they interestingly dismissed Esther as not part of the Bible. This can be all quite confusing.

These type of differences, some of which are recorded in the New Testament, stem back to different ways of interpreting and translating the Hebrew Scriptures. Fast forward beyond the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70 C.E., the Jews eventually settled on a basic body of Scripture, and have since figured out ways of maintaining their tradition, without a central Temple. Nevertheless, Jews still today regularly debate the interpretation of many important aspects of their faith.

So, when I saw that Levine and Brettler had written a book that tries to show how Jews (in general) read the Bible differently than Christians, my curiosity was pricked, to dig into this issue some more. After all, I have long made the assumption that some of the most basic stories we find in the Old Testament are read the same way, by Jews and Christians alike. Apparently, my assumption has been quite embarrassingly wrong.

Levine and Brettler have been intimately involved in two major projects, that serious students of the Bible have found useful, one being The Jewish Study Bible (Brettler), taking an English translation of the Old Testament and providing study notes, written from a Jewish perspective, just like you would find in a Christian Bible. The other project is the Jewish Annotated New Testament (Brettler and Levine), which is geared towards introducing Jews to the thought world of the New Testament, but which has also helped me, as an additional resource to better understand a more Jewish context in reading the New Testament (see this book review at Themelios).

In The Bible With and Without Jesus, Levine and Brettler take some of the major theological themes as found in the New Testament, to compare how Christians view the same themes as found in the Old Testament, and contrast them with how such themes have been typically interpreted by Jews, who just read the Old Testament, by itself.

Jewish vs. Christian Understanding of Biblical Prophecy??

For example, biblical prophecy, especially as Christians have thought of Jesus fulfilling certain prophecies of the Old Testament, is a big issue. Since the Reformation, particularly after the first generation of folks like Luther and Calvin, many Protestant Bible teachers have tended to dismiss allegorical-type interpretations of the Old Testament, that were common in the medieval church, as such allegorical-type readings of the Bible tended to lead to doctrines that were considered to be theologically suspect, such as the perpetual virginity of Mary. As a result, most Protestant Reformed Christians have believed that only an historical-grammatical interpretation (sometimes called a “literal interpretation”) of the Bible is permissible when studying Scripture.

But this strict approach becomes a problem when trying to handle certain elements of biblical prophecy. For example, in Isaiah 7:14, we find the famous Christmas prophecy for the virgin birth of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Matthew. The immediate historical-grammatical context shows that the prophecy was originally fulfilled in the birth of the prophet Isaiah’s son, in Isaiah 8. But many Jews acknowledge that there is an additional, deeper meaning of the prophecy, that finds its fulfillment in the birth of King Hezekiah. Christian scholars, even Protestant Reformed scholars, typically refer to this interpretive method as typology (or as many Roman Catholic apologists frame it, in terms of a somewhat different hermeneutical method called sensus plenior, or the “fuller sense” of the text). C.S. Lewis called this interpretive characteristic of the Old Testament to be the second meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Levine and Brettler note Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, where the early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, engages in a debate with Trypho in the 2nd century C.E. As a Jew, unconvinced by the Christian message, Trypho was emphatic in insisting that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had King Hezekiah in mind back in the 6th century B.C.E, and not Jesus of Nazareth, centuries later. In other words, Isaiah 7:14 does not prophecy the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Justin Martyr, as a Christian, took a different approach, contending for the Gospel of Matthew’s claim that Jesus was the real reason and ultimate fulfillment for Isaiah’s prophecy.

The ESV translation reads Isaiah 7:14 as follows, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  For most Jews, the “virgin” is said to be a mistranslation of the ancient Hebrew, since the translation of “virgin” comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, favored by Greek-speaking Jews, including the earliest Christians, in the first century. However, the Septuagint’s translation may indicate an older, more authentic Hebrew tradition, that is currently lost. Or it may indicate some special insight that the Septuagint translators had, which was not made clear in the ancient Hebrew tradition, preserved by the Masoretic text. This Masoretic text, that most orthodox Jews believe to be authoritative, translates “virgin” simply as “young maiden.”

When the verse talks about “give you a sign,” Levine and Brettler note that the “you” is plural, which might suggest that the prophecy does, in fact, have a plural meaning, which might allow for one of the “you” to refer to the time of Joseph, the betrothed husband of Mary, in addition to the original reference to the time of Isaiah, through the birth of Isaiah’s son, or even the prophetic prediction of Hezekiah’s birth. Levine and Brettler’s discussion of this controversial passage reveals the complexities that show why Jews and Christians have differed in their interpretation of certain key texts of the Bible.

Psalm 22 provides another famous example of how New Testament writers used this Old Testament psalm to speak of Jesus, according to Levine and Brettler. In Matthew 27:46, we have Jesus’ well-known cry upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” which is a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1. But certain Jewish traditions extending back to the time just before Christ treat Psalm 22 differently. In the Apocrypha version of the Book of Esther, part of what Roman Catholics call the deuterocanonical writings, we have a Greek commentary to the Hebrew version of the Book of Esther. The Hebrew version of Esther, commonly found in Protestant Bibles, has no reference to God found in the text. So, the Greek version offers a theological interpretation of Esther’s story, running throughout the text. But many Jews have noted that some significant parts of Esther contain direction allusions to Psalm 22, leading many Jews, even today, to say that Psalm 22 is not about Jesus, but rather, is about Esther.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) can only be appreciated in a postmodern way; that is, by admitting that the original meaning intended by the original author has very little bearing on what the text says to us today. In postmodernism, what really matters is the reception history of the text; that is, how different reading communities over the centuries have articulated the meaning of the text, for themselves. Yet this would not be consistent with how Jews and Christians have understood the inspiration of Scripture, over thousands of years. Instead, the Bible has a progressive character of revelation to it, where God continues to unfold its meaning and the reading communities develop in their understanding of the text, as God intended it to be understood. In the case of the Christian, the culmination of this progressive revelation is the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah, whereas a non-Christian Jew sees the culmination of the message differently.

Helping Christians and Jews Understand Why They Read the Bible Differently

Levine and Brettler admit that their project is two-fold, to help Christians better understand how Jews approach the Bible, and to help Jews better understand how Christians read the Bible. As a Christian, I would say that both Levine and Brettler are to be warmly commended for treating the Christian tradition fairly.  I was won over by their effort, not to try to get everyone to agree on “the” interpretation of particular passages, but rather to encourage sympathy as to why Jews and Christians do indeed differ, in their reading of the text. Nevertheless, there is a polemic edge that pokes through in some spots The Bible With and Without Jesus. Their project is not an apologetic for any sort of relativism. Rather, their work is still an apologetic for their approach to Judaism.

For example, in their chapter on supersessionism in the Book of Hebrews, they correctly note the New Testament claim that the revelation of Jesus does supersede other Jewish interpretations of the Jewish Scriptural tradition. The author of Hebrews repeatedly tries to show how Jesus is better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, and better than the ancient Jewish sacrificial system. Levine and Brettler reject such a claim, as they consider themselves to be faithful Jews, unconvinced that the Christian message, that asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, is really true. In other words, Levine and Brettler are convinced that the Jewish tradition is still doing pretty well as it is, thank you very much, without having to make an appeal of accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Furthermore, Levine and Brettler would not fit into a purely “conservative” category of scholarship, and this might bother some Jews, in addition to some conservative evangelical Christians who might read their work. For example, Levine and Brettler find a plethora of evidence in the Book of Jonah, that would indicate to them, that this short, popular story from the Old Testament is a work of historical fiction. A few conservative Christians scholars might agree with them, but a vast majority of Christians, and many Jews as well, will probably find such an idea difficult to swallow. But unlike other prophetic books, like Nahum, Hosea, and Haggai, the Book of Jonah has a completely different look and feel to it, which raises questions, both today and in the long history of Judaism and Christianity, as to what is really supposed to be going on in the Book of Jonah. Is it an allegory, a report of factual history, or something more complicated than that? While Levine and Brettler affirm that Jonah was a genuinely historical prophet, in Israelite history, they conclude that the story of Jonah and the big “whale” (thanks to William Tyndale’s translation of Matthew 12:40, that made its way into the King James Version of the Bible), and subsequent repentance of Nineveh was originally meant as a theological message, describing the merciful and compassionate character of God, and not as observable history.

Levine and Brettler happily argue that the Bible is ambiguous, or “slippery,” in its very nature. They would contend that such ambiguity is a virtue. To a certain degree, such ambiguity should cause Christians to embrace a kind of hermeneutical humility, particularly when Christians are unable to agree with one another, on certain Scriptural passages, involving non-essential matters of faith. Fair enough. However, there are limitations to this. Such limitations are found on both the Jewish and Christian sides of the discussion. But I will only focus on a Christian critique here.

For while The Bible With and Without Jesus succeeds in helping the reader to better appreciate why people can read the Bible so differently, thus creating a pathway for better conversation, it still can not get beyond the fact that the fundamental New Testament claim, that Jesus is the Messiah, stands in stark contrast with any other Jewish reading of the Old Testament. Effectively, the New Testament seeks to set forth the definitive commentary and critique challenging other (competitive?? for lack of a better term?) Jewish readings of the Old Testament. After all, Jesus, Paul, and many of the key figures in the early Jesus movement were all Jewish themselves. Yet the scandal of the New Testament is the claim, drawing on the testimony of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Messiah, that the teachings of Jesus seek to properly interpret the true meaning of Israel’s Scriptures.

Applying this to the example of Isaiah’s prophecy noted above, Christians believe that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had Jesus in mind, despite how other Jews might interpret it. Why? Because the New Testament teaches that the birth of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of what is preserved in the Book of Isaiah.

Critics will indeed dispute this. The claim that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Jewish Messiah is stilly a gutsy bold claim. Grounded in the resurrection narrative, the claim of a once-died but now Risen Messiah still offends the sensibilities of most Jews.

Sadly, Christians like me, for the past 2,000 years, have at times assumed the worst about the Jews. After all, Christians over the centuries have sometimes settled for some rather odd, at best, or even conspiratorial, at worst, understandings of what Jews really think. In response, a number of Jewish critics have charged that it is the Christians who have been the ones to twist the Old Testament Scriptures to serve Christian purposes, thereby obscuring the message of the Torah.

But once we dive into the world of the New Testament, peeling back layers of tradition, we can see the essential Jewish character of the earliest Jesus movement. Far from being a Hellenized (Greek-influenced) heretical spin-off from Judaism, as popularly believed by some in modern times, or even more so by certain extreme skeptics, that Christianity was simply a “copy-cat” religion of other pagan faiths, the early Christian movement was rooted in the central debates of Jewish thought, that were alive and well in first century Palestine, and other surrounding Jewish communities.

The New Testament as Authoritative Commentary on the Old Testament (…. and Not Some Attempt to Paganize/Hellenize Judaism)

Contrary to many critics of Christianity today, there are good reasons to believe that the Christian faith is thoroughly rooted in a first century, Jewish theological context. Here is a good example of this, that blows my mind, every time I think of it, with respect to the work of Dr. Michael Heiser (see my review of Heiser’s groundbreaking book, Angels). Dr. Michael Heiser teaches about how Jesus uses the reference to the “cloud rider” and “one like a son of man,” in Daniel 7:13-14, to refer to himself, in his defense before Caiphas, the High Priest, in Matthew 26:62-65. For years, it really puzzled me as to why Caiphas immediately charged Jesus with uttering blasphemy, because of this statement by Jesus. However, during the inter-testamental period (that time between when the Old Testament and the New Testament were written), some Jews were actively thinking about how to best interpret Daniel’s mystifying statement.

It was as though Daniel was suggesting that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was giving a prophecy regarding the coming of Yahweh, in human-flesh form (“one like a son of man”). Does this mean that there were somehow “two Yahwehs,” one who was not like “a son of man,” and another who was? According to one Second Temple Judaism tradition, this is exactly what they believed.

This “two-Yahwehs” (or “two-powers”) theology was alive and well in the days of Jesus, which is really the reason why Caiphas freaked out, over Jesus’ claim made before the Sanhedrin. Interestingly though, the mainstream of Jewish thought eventually abandoned this interpretation of Daniel, during the early Christian era. Christians, in turn, found in this Jewish strand of thinking, the basis for affirming the divine nature of God the Son, simultaneously with the divine nature of the Father, thus serving as the Old Testament basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. If you have about 10-minutes, it is worth hearing Dr. Heiser summarize the whole thing:

For a 7-minute exploration of the topic at a deeper level, follow this link to YouTube. If both Christians and Jews are “people of the book,” what really separates them, when it comes to how they interpret Scripture? It is worth now taking a stab at an answer.

Whereas Jews can suffer through having multiple interpretations of their sacred texts, but still remain Jews together, due to their ethnic identities and traditions, this can not be said so easily of Christianity. Christianity is not about embracing a particular ethnic identity, rooted in tradition, as in Judaism. Rather, Christianity has an essential universal claim to truth that demands a response from any and all peoples, not just those who share a Jewish tradition. The Christian faith is ultimately bound up in its unified affirmation of fundamental Christian doctrinal teachings, primarily focused around the proclamation of a crucified Jesus as the Risen Messiah.

We Christians still have much to learn from our Jewish friends, in that many Christians still divide over and against one another, in non-essential areas of Christian doctrine. Many of these disputes have been ongoing for centuries, where it is unlikely that there will be any clear resolution to such controversies, prior to Christ’s final return. We can learn more than a few tips from our Jewish friends, in learning how to still view one another as fellow Christians, when we have disagreements with one another over non-essential matters of the faith. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Levine and Brettler’s book.

At the same time, there are essentials to the Christian faith that can not, and need not, be compromised. If you try to take away an essential to the Christian faith, you no longer have a Christian faith. Either Jesus is the crucified Messiah, Risen from the dead, or he is not. Either Jesus is the unique Son of God, or he is not. Either God has revealed himself  in the pages of the New Testament, thus completing what was started in the Old Testament, or he has not.

And so, this means, that Jews and Christian still have much to think about and talk about. Let the conversation continue.

 

The following 4-minute video clip is from an interview with Brettler and Levin about how Christians and Jews interpret the Sabbath commands of the Bible differently. I am not necessarily endorsing the video, but this section of the interview is surely food for thought.

 

How can a Christian worship Jesus, and still be a monotheist? For a more in-depth examination of the “two-Yahwehs” or “two-powers” theology, which was an important component of some Jewish thinking, during the time of Jesus, that prefigured the development of the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarian thinking in Christianity, please spend some time considering the following teaching by Dr. Michael Heiser:

For a longer and earlier version of this lecture (with somewhat inferior audio-quality), please consider this presentation of Dr. Heiser’s teaching:


John Stott’s 100th Birthday

John R.W. Stott would have been 100 years old today. He died ten years ago, but the man left his mark on the history of the worldwide evangelical church. A tribute website to Stott’s influence rightly states that Stott was “an English Anglican who impacted evangelical Christianity in the 20th Century more than any other individual.”

John Robert Walmsey Stott (27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011)

I discovered John Stott as a college student, through a series of small booklets Stott wrote for InterVarsity. Over his life, Stott wrote about 50 fifty books, but what set Stott above many of his peers was a combination of three qualities:

  • John Stott combined the warmth and heart of a pastor with a crisp and keen intellect.
  • John Stott was a gifted leader.
  • John Stott had a heart and passion to reach the world for Jesus.

John Stott came to know Christ at age 17 in the United Kingdom, on the eve of World War II, after hearing a talk by youth evangelist Eric Nash, “What Then Shall I Do with Jesus, Who Is Called the Christ?  Stott would eventually go onto becoming the Rector of All Soul’s Church, Langham Place, in London, where he would serve for most of his life. He studied the Scriptures for hours and hours, and appreciated the value of sound, verse-by-verse expository preaching.

Though Stott never married, he was very much a “people-person.”  He partnered with the American evangelist, Billy Graham, to sponsor a series of revival meetings in England in 1950s, that sparked the worldwide ministry outreach of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Yet Stott was not content simply to be a pastor, as he believed that cultivating a Christian heart should also be accompanied by cultivating a Christian mind. He encouraged the development of British-based Bible commentaries, to revive an interest in thoughtful evangelical Bible scholarship, that had languished by the mid-20th century. One of my favorite Stott books to this day is his commentary on the Book of Romans. Stott was both a pastor and a teacher.

Together with Billy Graham, John Stott drew together evangelists and missionaries from all over the world to convene at Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, one of the most important statements of evangelical belief and practice, during the modern era. A tireless supporter of the work of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, John Stott traveled the world as a leader to promote the global work of spreading the Gospel.

Stott was not without controversy, as he clashed with fellow senior evangelical leader Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1960s, over evangelical involvement in the Church of England, which had grown increasingly liberal in theological direction. Lloyd-Jones urged evangelicals to leave the Church of England, while Stott urged evangelicals to stay, and maintain their influence in the national church. Stott also urged other fellow Christians to affirm God’s design for marriage, as being between one man and one woman for a lifetime, contrary to certain popular trends today.

Stott steered a middle-way through theological disagreements, that still plague 21st century evangelicalism. In the 1960s, he gently admonished the leaders of the Keswick Holiness movement to abandon their late-19th and early-20th century commitment to “let go and let God” theology and embrace a more classic, Reformed view of sanctification, that emphasizes gradual growth and change in the Christian life.  Stott was a critic of excesses in the charismatic movement, while avoiding knee-jerk reactions against the charismatic movement, by advocating an “open yet cautious” approach to modern manifestations of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Stott sought a middle-way in the debate over “women in ministry,” by affirming the principle of an all-male-only eldership in local churches, while simultaneously encouraging the development of female leadership in other ministries of the church. Stott accepted the antiquity of the earth, and was open to the scientific theory of evolution, while firmly believing in an historical Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, who later fell into sin.

Stott was no mere traditionalist, simply accepting tradition for the sake of tradition, as he sought to follow Scripture wherever it led him. Most controversially, Stott eventually adopted a “conditional immortality” view regarding the doctrine of hell, at least in a tentative matter, as opposed to holding to the view of hell as conscious eternal torment.

My favorite John Stott book is The Cross of Christ, which is my view the best, contemporary well-rounded exposition of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. In The Cross of Christ, Stott affirms the classic Reformation of view of penal substitutionary atonement, while emphasizing that God’s self-substitution at Calvary corrects certain misunderstandings that many often have about penal substitution.

Check out the John Stott 100 website to learn more about Stott and about his many helpful books.


Finding the Right Hills to Die On: Gavin Ortlund’s Case for Theological Triage

Do you know how to diagnose theological controversy, and treat it well? Author Gavin Ortlund helps us to figure this out.

Wearing masks in church? Vaccinations? What about critical race theory? Racism? QAnon? The Election!! I try to be optimistic, but it seems like Christians have had a lot of opportunities to divide over many different issues in 2021, many of them with theological underpinnings (The challenges of trying to do “online church” for over a year has not helped matters). Finding the right hill(s) to die on is not easy. I have my own story to tell about theological controversy, but it goes back a few years.

However, before I jump into that, I need to issue a disclaimer: It is very tempting, in the face of intractable theological disputes (or political disputes among Christians) to either run off into a corner, and cut yourself off from other people, and double-down on your viewpoint. It is also tempting to try to “church hop,” in order to find another expression of Christian faith that suits you better…. only to find that your new church has a lot of the same problems as your old church did, just framed in a different way.

Yet perhaps the most difficult temptation is to become cynical, and simply get disgusted when theological controversy arises, over a matter that you find to be somewhat trivial, over-hyped, or perhaps destructive, or even downright stupid, but that someone else considers to be super-important. Of course, there is the other side to this: someone ELSE might strongly disagree with YOU, because they think the issue is really super-important, and they find it frustrating that you do not seem to understand the gravity of the issue! After all, the same Jesus who loves the whole world is also the same Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple, challenging the complacent! So, maybe you SHOULD be more concerned about the issue being discussed!!

An extreme example of the temptation to become cynical can be found in Abraham Piper’s recent TikTok videos. Abraham Piper is a son of John Piper, one of evangelicalism’s most well-known pastors. At age 19, Abraham was excommunicated from his church, then tried to return later, only eventually to walk away from the faith. In the meantime, Abraham Piper has since become a multi-millionaire making jigsaw puzzles. He also has a TikTok page, with over 900 thousand followers, (compare that to his famous pastor/father, who has a 1 million Twitter followers) where a number of Abraham’s videos flesh out how he has deconstructed his faith on subjects ranging from “Almost nobody believes in a literal hell,” “If you’ve ever quit a religion, did you become something else?”, “If you still live with evangelical parents,” and “Three times Jesus stole stuff from people.”

Provocative stuff, for sure. But pretty sad in the end.

By the grace of God, I have not gone to such major extremes, with any of these temptations, and I certainly would not encourage them in others. When Christians double-down on their beliefs, or church-hop to get away from other Christians who do not see things exactly the same way, or who walk away completely and give into cynicism, the result is usually bitterness and resentment towards others, and that is never healthy. However, I can see how a lack of honest conversation, preventing people from expressing their questions and doubts in a non-confrontational way, can drive people to go to certain extremes. Finding the right hills to die on is not a very easy thing to figure out. Raising questions and doubts can sound scary when theological controversy surfaces, but they need not prompt conversation partners to automatically go into “freak out” mode when controversy arises. I would like to share my own brief story, and offer a positive resource I have found for working through such difficulties.

Why Splits in Churches and/or Other Christian Fellowships Can Be Nerve-Racking

Perhaps this will sound like a rant, but it is a pet peeve of mine: There are certainly times where Christians do need to separate from church bodies and/or other Christian fellowships, when they have lost their way spiritually or morally, drifting into theological error. However, there are other times when Christians can divide over matters that during the time of crisis seemed all-important and ultra-critical. However, looking back on the controversies months or years later, we realize that such controversies were far too overblown, doing more harm than good.

Here is my story: It was the 1980s and I was a campus leader in my small college Christian fellowship group. The charismatic movement swept through my group and I was caught right in the middle. Two of my dearest friends, who both helped to disciple me, took opposing perspectives in the controversy.

One of them, who later married a wonderful gal I had dated in college, had taken me to a charismatic prayer meeting. For a guy like me, growing up in a liberal mainstream Protestant background, I was dumbfounded when people started to speak in tongues all around me. My friend helped to establish me in having a regular “quiet time” with the Lord, using the Dake Annotated Bible, a popular Pentecostal study Bible in those days (Though I must confess I found myself buried more often in reading Finis Jennings Dake’s notes, as opposed to just focusing on the text of Scripture itself… but that is another topic for another time).

My other friend, who helped to answer a lot of my spiritual questions while I did my laundry, was one of the most passionate defenders of biblical inerrancy… a real stickler for clinging to the text of the Bible. He had been kicked out of a charismatic Bible study, for asking too many questions, and was told never to come back. To say that he “disliked” the “charismatic movement” would be an understatement. He firmly believed that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate after the last of the first century apostles had died. Once the New Testament was completed, the church had no more need for such miraculous gifts. In his mind, speaking in tongues in our modern era has continued to be all about promoting deception in the church.

Both of my friends truly sought to love Jesus, but they had a difficult time getting along with one another. Trying to find common ground between my two friends was like trying to get my dog to get along with another neighbor’s dog. It was exceedingly difficult. And the rancor disturbed our whole fellowship group. Most people simply tried to stay on the sidelines, adopting more of a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” approach, but that did not go over very well either.

After my friends both graduated from my school, the controversy erupted among the followers my two friends left behind. As a campus Christian leader, I was simultaneously accused of “quenching the Spirit” by one party and of “smuggling charismatic deception” into the group, by another party. Weeks of meeting with people who had gotten their perspectives out of joint eventually produced some good fruit, and many relationships were eventually restored. We got through the crisis, but this was not terribly unlike the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” parties that have divided churches in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

I really hated being in the middle of this theological controversy, which was also a controversy of different personalities. Nevertheless, theological controversy is just something that Christians, particularly Protestant evangelicals, simply do and have from time to time. The question is how do we navigate such treacherous waters. Trying to figure out which battles to fight and which battles to lay aside requires gaining a lot of wisdom, a process that I must honestly (and personally) admit can be pretty hard to discern.

Gavin Ortlund’s Helpful Resource for Doing Theological Triage

That is why I took a great interest in Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, put out by the Gospel Coalition and Crossway books. It is a pretty short yet powerfully succinct book, that elaborates on Al Mohler’s theological triage model, discussed in a previous Veracity blog post. Another helpful resource in this category is Andy Naselli’s and J.D. Crowley’s book on the Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, also reviewed here on Veracity.

Gavin Ortlund outlines, as I would frame it, basically four orders of theological issues, faced by Christians:

  • First rank issues:  These would be theological issues that are “essential to the gospel.” For example, if someone denies the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, or the necessity of believing that Jesus died for our sins, then these would be issues serious enough for a Christian to leave a church and seek a new fellowship.
  • Second rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).
  • Third rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church.”
  • Fourth rank issues: These would be teachings that are “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).

The ranking system that Ortlund uses is reasonable enough. The problem comes in trying to figure out what doctrines fit in which ranking. This is where the “triage” part comes in, where being able to diagnose which issues belong in which category requires some wisdom and forethought.

Starting from the bottom up is easiest for me to process. A good example of a fourth rank issue is about where the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians from. My lead pastor holds the view that Paul wrote these letters while in a prison in Rome. This is the predominant view among many scholars as well. But I disagree with my pastor on this one, as I find the case for Paul having been in an Ephesian jail, when writing these letters, as more convincing. But is this dispute weighty enough for me to leave the church? No, of course not. The average Christian probably might yawn, and say, “Who cares?“, and for the most part, they would be right. The theological ramifications involved are in the category of indifferent.

However, there are other issues that are important, but neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church. Like Gavin Ortlund believes, issues such as the age of the earth, and the timing sequence of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus, including the nature of millennium, are surely important, but they are neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church.

It is the second rank category that most troubles me. Yes, there are issues that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” But I find that the category of urgent is far more elusive and slippery than what counts as essential and non-essential. For example, Gavin Ortlund is a credo-baptist, believing that believer’s baptism for adults should be a doctrinal standard for the church, while generally accepting previous receivers of infant baptism as members in his church; that is, infant baptism is “improper, yet valid.”

Ortlund therefore places the nature of baptism in the category of a second rank issue. It is urgent for the church, and it has an impact on how a local church governs itself.

But as someone in an interdenominational church, who values the diversity of different church backgrounds, I am not convinced that baptism necessarily belongs in that second rank category. As I experienced in my college years, I found it valuable to look for common ground, and cling to that, for the sake of the unity of the fellowship, while honoring that a subset of the group, or particular individuals, might hold to one particular perspective rather strongly. To that end, I find it worth it to try to keep the category of second rank issues as small as possible, and move as many issues as possible down into the third rank category. Ideally, I would hope that the second rank category can be squeezed down to basically nothing….However, that is not always practical.

The issue of baptism, to me, can fit within a third rank category, as long as there is a genuine commitment to find common ground. For example, both proponents of credo-baptism (adult believers baptism) and paedo-baptism (infant baptism) can agree that adults can be baptized. So, it surely makes sense that you can have adult, believer’s baptisms in a Sunday morning worship service.

But it is also reasonable NOT to have infant baptism performed during a Sunday morning worship service, lest you disturb the consciences of those credo-baptists, who do not find paedo-baptism to be legitimate. Instead, if someone wants to have their infant child baptized, then why not have a private, at-home service, or part of a small group experience, as long as a pastor is willing to perform such a baptism?

Such a solution sounds acceptable to me, but this may not satisfy the need for clarity that a pastor like Gavin Ortlund would have for a local congregation. Being content with having a “common-ground” solution, with allowances for practices that fit an individual’s or a small group’s consciences, may not satisfy a local church’s desire for consistent doctrine and practice across the entire church fellowship.  There are those for whom a “common-ground” solution would not be good enough, coming across to some as being too restrictive and over-emphasizing conformity, while others would protest that not enough uniformity in church doctrine and practice can lead to other problems in the life of the local church.

The two areas that stick out for me, where this would be most problematic, is in the charismatic movement controversy, as exemplified by the introductory anecdote from my years in college; and in the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, particularly regarding whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church, in terms of governance of the church.

Some local churches do have a commitment to look for “common-ground,” while honoring issues of conscience, whereas other churches will find certain conflicting applications of conscience to be unworkable, in a local church. For example, speaking in tongues in a corporate worship service, in an interdenominational church, is not a workable solution, as that would not be pursuing a “common-ground” approach, though it might be very permissible to allow speaking in tongues in a small group Bible study, in the same church.

The various complexities surrounding the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” debates have taught me over the last year that the quest for unity can often be elusive when dealing with “urgent” matters, where the coronavirus controversies do fit within that second-rank category. Compound all of this with seemingly endless controversies regarding critical race theory and racism on the left, and nutty QAnon conspiracy theorizing on the right, have left many churches struggling for maintaining bonds of fellowship and unity. The craziness of 2020 led apologist Natasha Crain to call this “disagreement fatigue,” and I think that is a good way to put it. Finding “common-ground” is not always easily found.

For example, I know of Christians who refuse to wear masks and/or refuse to get vaccinated, based on some moral principle. They will cite their “freedom in Christ” as a reason why they should follow their conscience on this matter. But if someone is in church leadership, and they hold to this position, they also need to realize that their exercise of freedom is not beneficial to those other believers, whom for whatever reason, are unable to take the vaccine. Such vulnerable persons will likely not feel safe to stay in such a church. If the exercise of someone’s “freedom in Christ,” particularly in leadership, causes another fellow believer in Jesus to feel like the only path they can reasonably take is out the exit of the church door, then that tells me that such a church needs to rethink what it means to truly follow one’s conscience. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught me, is that I have a greater appreciation now for why some churches implement theological triage that includes the value of second-rank categories of controversy.

I just wish we did not have to be so distracted by such second-rank category issues, as I believe they keep us from focusing on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission, to make disciples of all of the nations. But alas, that is just the nature of things, in our social media driven world today.

Gavin Ortlund has a helpful YouTube channel, where he tries put of lot his theological triage philosophy into practice, by in particular inviting Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons into conversations, in an attempt to find common ground with his own Protestant evangelical tradition, and the other major historic Christian faith movements. It is worth taking a look at the Truth Unites channel to see how he does it.

In the following video, Gavin Ortlund applies some of the insights from Finding the Right Hills to Die On to the discussion of the millennium, making the case that the millennium is a third-rank doctrine, and not a first or second-rank doctrine. So, I appreciate Gavin’s graciousness towards others, even in areas of disagreement, which is a big reason I consider Finding the Right Hills to Die On to be an excellent resource for working through issues of Christian conscience, within the context of a local church.

 


Hans Küng: Dissent

Hans Küng, an influential and controversial Swiss Roman Catholic priest and theologian, has died this week at age 93. Hans Küng, was the youngest theologian to participate during the 1960s at Vatican II , a most remarkable event of the 20th century, that sought to bring Roman Catholicism into a more robust dialogue with the modern world. Küng was an avid proponent of such reforms, though many Roman Catholic faithful believed that he had gone too far, as evidenced by Pope John Paul’s censure of  Küng, when the latter directly challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility (among other things).

Hans Küng, popular yet maverick liberal theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, as a young priest and spokesperson at Vatican II.

My introduction to Hans Küng was through one of his many writings, namely his widely popular 1974 book On Being a Christian, that my mother had bought. On Being a Christian was one of the first theological books I read cover-to-cover during my senior year in high school, about a year after Küng had been officially censured by the Pope. My mom’s copy of the 700+ page book is filled with my vigorous underlining with a red pen. It was a fascinating dive into many of the things of which I had questions about, in what it really meant to be a Christian, soon after I had read through the New Testament, for the first time. From Küng I learned about the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and different theologies of the cross.  It was startling to realize that a great deal of what Christians often believe comes from tradition first-and-foremost, and only secondarily from a close examination of the Scriptures, and Küng was direct enough to say that. On Being a Christian ranks as one of most sweeping and accessible theological classics of the 20th century. Most of the more heavy topics went way over my high school teenage head, but it impressed me that Küng avoided dense theological jargon, making it a very engaging read. I was most impressed by Küng’s conviction that ‘Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, finally authoritative, decisive, archetypal, is what makes Christianity what it really is’ (p. 174)

Nevertheless, I soon realized that Küng was a maverick and progressive liberal when I got to his chapters regarding the possibility of salvation outside of the church. Previously, the 16th-century Council of Trent was clear enough: “no salvation outside of the church,” and that meant that Protestants were all roasting away in you-know-where.

Now, Vatican II had settled on a “concentric circle” approach to how far salvation might extend towards non-Roman Catholics. Of course, Roman Catholics were at the center of the circle, whereas Protestants, like myself, were in the next circle outside of that, being “separated brethren.” Other circles were added at different levels to accommodate those of other religions and even atheists. The basic idea was that the closer you were to the center of those circles, the higher the likelihood you might be saved, and the farther away you were from the center, the less likely you would be saved.

Küng’s approach, however, took me by surprise, adding a twist to the official position of Vatican II. He suggested that various Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. could indeed be saved, as long as they were faithful to their own various religious traditions. This seemed to me to push back against the very uncompromising teaching of the Bible, as taught in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Perhaps God might find ways to reach others who have yet to hear the Gospel, through means that we in our limited human perspective can not fully understand, such as through dreams, etc. But Küng’s approach, that sought to honor the religious efforts and good works of non-believers, appeared to undermine the very principle of Scriptural bedrock teaching, that we are not saved by our religious efforts, but rather by the gracious and saving work of Christ alone.

On top of that, I read Küng’s most confusing section about the resurrection. While Küng affirmed a belief in “resurrection,” he simultaneously rejected the empty tomb. How Küng was able to reconcile that belief with the witness of Scripture was beyond me (see Richard Bauckam’s review of Küng’s seminal work).

Though well-intentioned, it has always appeared to me that progressive attempts to “modernize” Christianity, to make the faith more palatable to contemporary sensibilities, do so at a cost of diluting some of the great foundation truth claims of historically orthodox Christianity. This is true, not only of the Protestant mainline tradition, in which I was raised, but also in progressive elements of Roman Catholicism, the theological home where Küng dwelt. So, it really was not a surprise that then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), who had once been a close ally and friend of Küng’s at Vatican II, later sought to aid in Pope John Paul II’s censure of Küng, believing that Küng had simply gone too far.

I have a copy of Küng’s memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom, that a friend has given me, that I had been hoping to read one day, before Küng died. Alas, this did not happen. Küng did much to help Vatican II, as a reform movement within Roman Catholicism, to succeed as well as it has, and his positive contributions, of which there are many, deserve such hearty recognition. For example, Küng was extraordinarily gifted, being one of the first Roman Catholic theologians to address a group of prominent astrophysicists on the relationship between faith and science. Küng was also prominent in starting a dialogue between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians over the nature of justification, breaking the ice in a conversation that had been stalled for over 400 years. Küng was also outspoken in his views regarding priestly celibacy, as he understood the mandated practice as being against Scripture and contrary to the historic tradition of the church. He also criticized Rome’s ethical policy that prohibited artificial birth control.

However, Küng’s tendency in certain other areas to push historic, orthodox boundaries to the breaking point serves as a painful lesson to anyone who believes that you can simply rewrite fundamental doctrines of the faith, and pretend that you are somehow still “preserving” the faith once handed down to the saints, over the centuries.

It simply does not work.

A “faith” that merely pretends is merely wishful thinking that lacks any substance behind it. Both the faithful in the churches and critics outside of Christianity will see through a supposed “faith” that pretends certain things to be true, when in fact, they are not. Dissent, when it effectively serves to undermine orthodoxy, produces more confusion and mindless wishful thinking than anything else. However, dissent, when properly engaged to steer the church back onto its proper course, is something to be commended. May the positive elements of Küng’s dissent be remembered more than his negative elements of dissent.

Other prominent influencers in the Christian movement have also died within the past month, but who were significantly more orthodox and less controversial in their thinking than Küng. John Polkinghorne (1930-2021) was a world-class, Cambridge-trained physicist, who shocked his colleagues when he left the world of science to embark on a path towards Christian ministry in the Anglican church. Polkinghorne’s work to integrate science with Christian faith has helped many Christians reconcile what many others believe is irreconcilable.

Argentinian evangelist Luis Pulau (1934-2021) was in many ways the “Billy Graham” of Latin America, who preached the Gospel to millions, and who became a unifying figure for evangelical Protestants all across Latin America, in the latter half of the 20th century. I will never forget hearing Luis Pulau speak at Urbana 1984, when he addressed the vexing topic of Christianity and other religions, one of the topics that so energized Hans Küng. Pulau reminded his listeners, including me, that there is a good answer for those who worry about the salvation of those who have yet to hear the Gospel:  Genesis 18:25 asks, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Luis Pulau’s answer was a resounding “YES,” and that has been good enough me.

The following illuminating 2009 interview with Hans Küng, before he became debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, while Benedict was still Pope, gives a flavor of Küng the man, Roman Catholic critic, and thinker.


Franklin Graham Supports COVID Vaccinations…. And Gets “Cancelled” For It By Some of His Followers?

I just got my first COVID-19 Moderna vaccine.

Some of my Christian friends, however, are a bit nervous about the vaccines. Sure, there are genuine concerns. But most of these concerns, upon closer examination, are unwarranted.

Hesitancy about using vaccines has a variety of factors behind it. A March 2021 Pew Research study observes that about 33% of Black Protestant Christians are wary of taking a COVID vaccine. The same study observes that about 45% of White Evangelical Christians are either cautious or dead set against any COVID vaccine.

So it comes as no surprise that when Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, and an influential spokesperson for many evangelical Christians today, announced his support for taking COVID vaccines, the reaction from some of his most ardent followers was swift and furious. Like Graham, I have relatives in my family line who served as medical missionaries, where the administration of vaccines have saved countless numbers of lives. Nevertheless, some denounced Graham as promoting a “devilish lie.” Some of Graham’s critics believe that taking the vaccine is a sign of taking “the mark of the beast.” However, a careful reading of Scripture shows that taking “the mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation, is a loyalty oath, and not something that can be forced upon someone by someone else. It would appear that bad interpretation of the Bible is just as much a pandemic as is COVID-19.

Furthermore, when people use Bible passages like 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“Do you not know that you body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…“), that is really a misuse of the Bible. You might as well decline the use of any modern medicine, if you plan to be consistent with that way of thinking. Paul even recommended that Timothy take some wine to remedy the latter’s health ailments (1 Timothy 5:23). So it seems odd for Paul to suggest that if he really had in mind a prohibition against all forms of medicine.

Others are hesitant about such vaccines because of suspicions about government programs.

Others are unsure, because as in the case of the Moderna vaccine that I took, these mRNA vaccines are so new and have not been tested across millions and millions of people. However, the mRNA vaccine technology is not as new as people think, having undergone a number of other successful test trials in other applications over the past several decades.

Then there is the long held distrust of the medical establishment by the “anti-vax” movement, which is totally against vaccines of any and all kinds.

Critics of vaccines do have at least one point to make in their arguments, and it is an important one: No vaccine is entirely risk free.

When I went to get my vaccine, I was asked a whole list of questions, to make sure I was the right candidate to receive the vaccine. Not everyone should take the vaccine, because of certain side effects. But the percentage of people who should not take the vaccine is very, very small. For most people who do experience side effects, those side effects are relatively mild and do not last for long. If people have questions about their use of a vaccine, they should consult their doctor. If their doctor does not offer good answers to these questions, then that might be a strong signal suggesting that it is time to find a new doctor.

But while no vaccine is entirely risk free, that is true with just about everything in life. I know of many people who think nothing of it to hop into a car, and drive across town to run an errand or go to work. However, the likelihood of getting into a life-threatening automobile accident is orders of magnitude higher than is experiencing a life-threatening injury from a vaccine. Still, I see thousands of people driving in their automobiles all of the time. Furthermore, taking a COVID vaccine is much, much safer than being exposed to the COVID virus itself.

I have come to learn that vaccine hesistancy is not just an American evangelical Christian thing. A large percentage of secular Europe is more skeptical of vaccines than is the American evangelical Christian community. I have also seen paranoia at the other extreme, too, where some people are so freaked out by COVID-19, that they will wear a mask while driving in their car…. even though no one else is with them!!

Yesterday, Christians in the West celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus, along with the hope of Christ coming once again to right all wrongs and heal all diseases. Yet unless Jesus returns in the near future, the likelihood is that mass COVID vaccination programs will continue to be effective in reducing the pandemic, and life should return to a more regular pattern of normalcy.

COVID will never fully go away. Yet the same is true about the 1919 Spanish Flu, based on the N1H1 virus, that killed millions of people, in the wake of World War One, a century ago. Descendants of the 1919 N1H1 virus still exist today, though they typically come in a more muted and less deadly form. Still, getting a yearly flu shot goes a long way towards making the flu more of a nuisance and less deadly than it was when 50 million people died a hundred years ago, when fewer treatment options and no effective vaccines were available then.

Aside from the health factors, Christians really should support COVID-19 vaccination, for the simple reason that such decisions impact their witness to the truth of the Gospel. For if Christians get the reputation that they are highly susceptible to conspiracy-thinking that goes against science, then the next generation of young people will be only more and more inclined to judge the Christian faith itself as yet just another conspiracy theory that should be rejected.

Let us help our young people have more confidence in the truth of the Gospel… and not less.


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