Category Archives: Apologetics

Why “Progressive Christianity” is the New “Liberal Mainline”… (and The Effort Not to Toss the Baby Out With the Bathwater)

There is a massive shift going on in American Christianity, particularly over the last decade, and it is time we owned up to what is going on. For all practical purposes, the death knell of the “liberal mainline Protestant” church is approaching, and it is approaching fast. Unless something remarkable happens to reverse it, the current trend is that traditionally liberal mainline Protestant churches will effectively cease to exist within the next twenty or thirty years.

This would sadly include the Episcopal Church USA, the denomination that I grew up in as a child (and loved dearly). The decline is not unexpected though.

The cultural influence of those big churches, with big steeples, on main street are fading, being replaced by the resurgence of conservative Evangelical churches. Such Evangelical churches, particularly “mega-church” style congregations, with large campuses out in suburbia, or taking over abandoned shopping malls, are becoming the signature identifying characteristic of American Christianity.

Not your standard picture of the church in the 21st century. We have mostly moved past this. But what are we moving towards?

“Mega-church” style churches grew out of the Neo-Evangelical movement of the mid-20th century, most commonly associated with the name of the late-evangelist Billy Graham. While smaller so-called “fundamentalist” churches still proliferate, with the King-James-Only movement being the most pronounced holdouts, the “mega-church” phenomenon dominates the Evangelical landscape today, and they are swiftly overtaking the liberal Protestant mainline.

Granted, there are valiant attempts to try to revive the liberal Protestant mainline. A renewed emphasis on liturgy, an interest in “spirituality,” service to the community, or else latching onto progressive political causes, has sought to try to bring new life into the mainline. But the decline of adherence to historically Christian doctrinal teaching has been working against those efforts to revitalize the church on “main street.”

But we all see the writing on the wall. The mainline is dying. Well-documented research on the “rise of the nones,” tells the story. Children growing up in the liberal Protestant mainline can not tell the difference between what goes on in their church, and what goes on outside of the church. What passes for the liberal Protestant mainline today is often a repackaging of secular America, with religious labels stuck on top.

The liberal Protestant mainline is doing everything it can to try to avoid looking “Christian”, while somehow still trying to be “Christian.” It may convince some people, particularly for those raised in those mainline traditions, who love certain elements of those traditions. But broadly speaking, it just is not working out very well. Newer generations of young people are not buying into it.

And everyone knows it.

The Slow Death of the Protestant Mainline, and the Shift to “Mega-Church” Evangelicalism

In one sense, Protestant Evangelical Christianity has benefitted from this looming implosion of the mainline. More people are gravitating to the world of the Evangelical mega-church. This newer breed of churches are providing the very things that the mainline once did, while largely working to shed the external trappings that felt confining in the mainline.

Less organ and choirs. More guitars and drums. Less ornamentation and a less “church-y” look. More of a sense of being in a plush movie theater, or a big box discount store, or a concert hall, all depending on your tastes. Less ties and more polo shirts.

But the real big differences are less external and more theological. In those Evangelical churches there is a greater sense that these people actually believe what is being taught in the Bible, as opposed to whatever was going on in the Protestant mainline. 

Recent data analysis by sociologist/political-scientist Ryan Burge helps to explain what is going on. Those with a Protestant mainline background, who desire to retain their faith, have grown disillusioned with liberal denominations, and are therefore more drawn to conservative, Evangelical churches. Those with conservative Evangelical backgrounds are more likely to stay within their traditions, as compared to cradle-mainliners. 

Burge puts it this way: “it’s twice as likely for a mainline Protestant to become an evangelical these days than for an evangelical to leave for a mainline tradition. In raw numbers, for every two evangelicals who became a mainline Protestant, about three mainline Protestants became evangelical.”

Here is one way to observe the mainline to “mega-church” shift: Rarely do you ever hear anymore about a distinguished mainline theologian, harkening back to the 20th century days of a Paul Tillich, Richard or Reinhold Niebuhr, or a Hans Kung (Roman Catholic). Now it is mainly popular Protestant evangelical pastors, like a John Piper, David Jeremiah, Rick Warren, or John MacArthur, with a few more Evangelical academic types thrown in every now and then (an academic class that hardly even existed a few generations ago). Protestant Evangelical Christianity is indeed vibrant and growing in certain parts of America, but there is a catch to it.

According to Ryan Burge again, much of that growth in Evangelicalism comes not from the unchurched, but rather from defections from the Protestant mainline. Essentially, the continued church growth associated with “mega-church” Christianity comes primarily from those disillusioned with the Protestant mainline. The influx of new faces in “mega-church” Evangelical churches is offset by more defections from Evangelicalism itself, where many cradle-Evangelicals are walking away from Christianity altogether …. just as you find in the Protestant mainline.

Trouble is brewing inside Evangelicalism. The decline of the mainline has meant that the problems that once plagued the liberal mainline are now making their way into the sanctuaries of Evangelical churches.

For decades, conservative Evangelical churches could be counted on as “holding the line” when it comes to fending off attacks to the Christian faith, whether they be “in your face” efforts to discredit the Bible, made by skeptical non-believers, or more subtle efforts to weaken Scriptural authority, advocated by Christians who have had a “cafeteria” approach to the faith, picking and choosing those things in the Bible that seemed acceptable to them, and discarding or simply downplaying the rest. If you wanted to find out where someone might be holding onto such a weakened view of the Bible, you would need to look at liberal mainline Christianity for that.

But with the decline of the liberal mainline, that population has begun to shift towards those Evangelical circles, that were once the bastion against theological compromise. For example, it would have been unheard of in Evangelical churches thirty years ago, to hear talk of sanctioning same-sex marriage, as a viable Christian option.

Not so today.

To put it another way, today’s Evangelical movement is becoming the new mainline…. and thus inheriting all of the problems that have come with it.

A 2018 study by political scientist Ryan Burge suggests the percentage of both Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals will continue on a slight decline, for the next ten years, with Roman Catholics holding on a little better. But the most dramatic shift is the rapid decline of the liberal Protestant mainline and the rapid increase of the “Nones” or “Dones,” that is those who profess to hold to “No Religion.” Unless a spiritual revival happens, the “Nones” and the “Dones” will eventually quadruple the number of “Mainline” Christians.

Protestant Mainline Stragglers, and Wounded Evangelicals Deconstructing Their Faith

What makes the shift more complicated is the growing presence of wounded Christians, emerging from the more conservative end of Evangelicalism. In generations past, these fallouts from “fundamentalism” eventually found their way into the mainline churches. But with fewer and fewer mainline options available to them these days, these people still remain in historically conservative Evangelical circles, though perhaps they find places to hide out, and stay off the radar… (but sometimes not). Well-intentioned movements that have energized previous generations of conservative Evangelicals (and that still have staying power today), such as Purity Culture, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Young-Earth Creationism, and culturally-white, right wing political causes have left scars felt by many Christians, having grown up buoyed by such movements.

Unlike their mainline counterparts, these wounded products of Evangelicalism are chafing against certain rigid elements of their upbringing. Processing those wounds and seeking a move towards healing is really what “deconstruction” is all about today.

…. side note…. If you do not know what “deconstruction” is regarding faith, the easiest way to explain it is when someone considers that they are at first strong in their Christian faith, but then begins to have a doubt about some particular aspect of that faith. As that person explores that doubt, other doubts are exposed. Then more doubts start to pile up. The prime analogy used by someone undergoing spiritual “deconstruction” is the sensation of pulling on a loose thread on a sweater, but when you keep pulling on it, the whole sweater begins to fall apart. …. That, in a nutshell, is a decent way of describing “deconstruction”end of side note

More and more wounded Evangelicals are trying to rebuild their faith, seeking to scrap those pieces of their upbringing that have become barriers to their Christian faith. In some cases, such wounded Evangelicals do find a restoration of faith, with a healthy measure of sobriety and moderation. In others cases, this process of “deconstruction” has sadly led to an all-out deconversion from the faith (see this video interview by Sean McDowell with John Marriott for a 3-minute explanation as to how bad the problem is). In other ways, someone might still call themself a “Christian,” and yet core components of Christian faith may or may not remain after such deconstruction, with certain edgy features poking out every now and then.

In the process of providing a haven for wounded Evangelicals, this leaves Evangelical churches in a precarious state. Reaction to certain excesses in the more conservative wings of the Evangelical movement can lead to overreactions that dismiss too much of the good along with the bad. It is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

We see this a lot in the world of online, Internet social media. As I have argued elsewhere, the Internet has made it possible to have easy access, at a click of a mouse, or a TikTok video, to information that was once locked up in libraries and university classrooms. Questions that were once only entertained in religion department seminars, and occasional PBS televised documentaries, are now topics that pop up in coffeehouses and while waiting around in a car repair shop to get your oil changed. Christian parents find it increasingly difficult to keep negative influences away from their children. It is almost impossible to keep this bombardment of information from encouraging doubt and skepticism, even in the most conservative of churches.

Over the past ten years, since devices like the iPhone have taken over the world, just about every cardinal doctrine of historically, orthodox Christian faith has come under fire among so-called “Post Evangelicals,” “Post Conservatives,”  “ExEvangelicals,” … you name it. The grievances associated with distorted presentations of such cardinal doctrines, ranging from substitutionary atonement to the authority/inerrancy of Scripture, have triggered knee-jerk reactions from those wounded by such theological misunderstandings. In some cases, those grievances are justified. Irresponsible teaching from the Bible coming from otherwise sound Evangelical pulpits has confused the intended meaning of the original Scriptural authors, as it was inspired by God. But in other cases, such grievances are not justified…. so out with the baby with the bathwater.

Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater! The danger associated with “Progressive Christianity”

“Progressive Christianity”…. and the Temptation to Toss Out the Baby With the Bathwater

This state of affairs then creates a most fascinating mix. Here you have both theologically liberal products of the dying mainline joining up with wounded Evangelicals, all gathering together in certain corners of the Evangelical subculture, sometimes incognito, and sometimes not. This is perhaps the best way of describing what is now becoming known as “progressive Christianity.”

It is important to realize that this mix is not uniform. Not all “progressive Christians” are alike. This is why it is best to leave “progressive Christianity” in quotes, as the definition of that term will be different from person to person. But the key thing to understand is that something broadly called “progressive Christianity” exists, and you will find it today in places you would never expect.

If you are in an Evangelical church, you might even find it right under your nose…. but you may not notice it right away. Furthermore, because it is so subtle, it may trip you up, if you are not careful.

… And this is why this massive shift towards “progressive Christianity” is not so good for the church. Rather, it creates a huge challenge.

Like the fundamentalist/modernist controversy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the secularizing cultural pressure to dislodge the moorings of historic, orthodox faith is at the heart of such testing. But unlike that controversy, a century ago, when large Protestant mainline denominations split into a large liberal wing, against multiple, smaller more conservative congregations and groups, today’s “progressive Christianity” is happening largely inside already existing Evangelical churches, that in previous generations were leaning more towards the “fundamentalist” side of the theological divide.

Loving Your “Progressive Christian” Friends… While Still Affirming Historically Orthodox Christian Faith

Now, this does not mean that we should become paranoid, and start looking under the pews in our churches, in an effort to sniff out the heretics in our midst. All you need to do is to take a glance in searching YouTube, and you will quickly find self-proclaimed “heresy-hunters” calling out what they think is false teaching, leavening the Evangelical flock, when all they are really doing is embarrassingly displaying their own ignorance.  The problem with “heresy-hunters” is that many times their wounded critics are often correct in certain elements of their criticism, and such critics deserve a fair hearing. In other words, sometimes efforts to supposedly “defend the faith” can become quite misguided and ill-informed.

Therefore, careful and generous listening is in order first and foremost when dealing with folks wrapped up in the orbit of “progressive Christianity.” Taking a “chill pill” might be in order before anyone brings out a pitch fork.

But it does mean that we should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

It also means that we need to be in prayer now more than ever. We need to pray for the “progressive Christians” in our midst, and ask the Lord for wisdom, that we might be able to engage in conversations with others, with love and grace.

The larger challenge, going forward, will be in the evangelization of those who have deconstructed their way out of the Christian faith altogether (but that is a different story).

I have had to learn the hard way that folks who have left the old liberal mainline, as well as those who have come up wounded in Evangelical circles, who are now seeking refuge in Evangelical churches, are both people for whom Jesus died for, and whom God loves much more than I do. We must be patient, long-suffering, and willing to go the distance to try to genuinely learn from those caught up in “progressive Christianity,” to try to understand what led them into “progressive Christianity,” in an effort to win them back over into the Gospel. This is not easy, and I have failed at this many times. Nevertheless, this is something that we must do.

If you not convinced by this argument, take a listen to Alisa Childers, a former singer for the Christian band ZoeGirl, who almost lost her faith while attending what she thought was a solid Evangelical church. Instead, she was drawn into the orbit of “progressive Christianity” in that very church. It took her years to “deconstruct” and then eventually to “reconstruct” her faith, along historically orthodox lines. She offers some great wisdom here for all of us.

A quote by Saint Augustine, an African Christian and the 5th century great father of the early church, is appropriate here: “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”


Spiritual Lessons During the Pandemic

Just a little over a year ago, the world was well underway in making a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What we all hoped would be a short-term problem, turned into a long, drawn out situation that has created more and more turmoil in an already increasingly divided world, having a definite impact felt on the Christian church. Now, as efforts towards making several effective and safe vaccines available are signaling towards an ultimate end of the crisis, I thought it would be helpful to share some lessons I have learned over the past year or so, as we head “officially” into the Summer of 2021, near the start of the summer solstice.

Towards the end of the post, I will make an important announcement about the future of my postings at Veracity. So, please stick around for that.

In summary, I have learned that as human beings:

  • We are intuitive creatures, who only allow analytical ways of rational thought to revise our thinking when our intuitions let us down;
  • We are sacramental creatures, who need concrete expressions of the divine to makes sense of life;
  • We are religious creatures, who crave transcendent ways of viewing the world;
  • And that Christians need to preach the weird stuff of the Bible. The story of the God of the Bible, as revealed in Jesus Christ, makes the most sense about reality.
We Are Intuitive Creatures

One of the most defining aspects of contemporary life in 2021 is how we are all connected to one another via amazing progress in Internet technology… and the results of this new world we live in are mixed. On the one hand, the distribution of knowledge has grown at an accelerated rate, which in some ways is really good. You can pretty much learn how to fix anything these days, just by watching someone’s YouTube video. During the pandemic, a lot of folks were beginning to wonder why they should poor thousands of dollars into an advanced education in college, when you can learn nearly anything on your own, through an Internet-connected laptop.

We live in interesting times.

Spiritually speaking, resources that were once locked up in physical libraries are now available via the Internet. Any high school kid can “fact check” a Sunday sermon in a matter of seconds with their SmartPhone, to see if the pastor is making something up or not. The growth of great Christian apologetic resources on YouTube is simply astounding. What would before take hours of research, making multiple trips to the library, a bookstore, or visits with your pastor, or waiting for some televised interview on cable TV or over-the-air TV station, can be resolved fairly easily by going to YouTube’s search bar and looking for what you are interested in.  I wrote a blog article about this roughly two years ago, but now things on YouTube, with respect to Christian apologetics, have exploded. Here is a list of my top SEVEN YouTube apologist channels I currently follow…. great stuff to listen to while riding my bicycle during the pandemic:

  • Dr. Sean McDowell : Son of apologist Josh McDowell, Sean teaches at BIOLA, and he has a number of gracious dialogues with Christians and non-Christians alike, pertaining to a defense of the Christian message. Sean is one of my favorite all-around YouTube apologists right now (Alisa Childers is a close second: A former singer for the Christian band ZoeGirl, she has great videos critiquing so-called “Progressive Christianity.”)
  • Capturing Christianity: Cameron Bertuzzi has some of the best interviews with scholars and apologists, covering a wide variety of topics, but mostly with an interest in philosophy. Cameron’s background is primarily in photography, and not really in academia, so that makes him just a normal guy asking pretty basic questions, with a few philosophy nuggets tossed in here and there (he loves William Lane Craig).
  • Inspiring Philosophy: Michael Jones probably has the biggest apologetics channel on YouTube, with over 200K subscribers. MIchael is a big fan of C.S. Lewis and his goal is to create a high quality video to address every known apologetic issue out there, particularly in the realm of the science/Bible debate.
  • Theology in the Raw: Preston Sprinkle, one of the nicest persons I have ever met, is pretty much the “go-to” guy to interview interesting people in the area of big cultural debates today, including LGBTQ issues and racism, areas that most other apologists tend to shy away from.
  • Ancient Egypt and the Bible: Dr. David A. Falk is an egyptologist, who specializes in the intersection between archaeology and the oldest texts of the Bible, particular with respect to the Exodus. Falk is a “Late-Date” proponent for the Exodus, and a professionally trained archaeologist, providing a lot of helpful correctives to the Tim Mahoney Patterns of Evidence franchise of Christian films, from his “Perspectives on the Exodus” series.
  • Risen Jesus. Mike Licona is probably my favorite New Testament scholar on YouTube, particularly with respect to defending the Resurrection.
  • Truth Unites: Gavin Ortlund is a Reformed Protestant, Gospel Coalition guy who has some interesting apologetics content, but he is best known for gracious dialogues with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox conversation partners. I have learned a lot about other Christian traditions, besides my own, through Gavin’s videos.

That is just a short list! If you know of other YouTube channels that have benefitted you, as you were stuck at home during the pandemic, please let me know about them in the comments section below.

During the pandemic, there has been an extraordinary increase in fascinating interviews with Biblical scholars and thought leaders, as so many smart people who have studied the Bible for years were stuck at home for months. Over the past year or so they have been able to share their knowledge with the online world, that anyone with a decent Internet connection can access, view and listen to, while doing all sorts of mundane tasks, from doing laundry to riding a bike near your home (like I have done during the pandemic).

However, this ease of access of information has come at a heavy cost, as our ability to adequately filter out overwhelming amounts of disinformation, has been hampered by our intuitive senses, that often only serve to reinforce our own assumptions, rightly or wrongly. Nowhere has this been so greatly seen as in the world of social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, etc. Such platforms know how to redirect your attention to articles, videos, etc. that match your interests, that tailor to your own assumptions, and blind you from seeing evidence that might challenge those assumptions. They can also send you down rabbit holes, that can sometimes be difficult to get out of!

Furthermore, if and when we do venture out from our information silos, the experience of hearing a different point of view can be very disorienting. This is particularly a problem for children and other young people, who are now growing up with a SmartPhone (apparently) glued to their hands, and their eyes absorbed in what they view on a screen. Being physically isolated during the pandemic, and being forced to use screens all of the time has not helped matters. Parents: Do your children a favor and keep them away from Smartphones until as late in life as possible.

On top of that, the way we use words and phrases seem to be changing at an increasingly rapid rate. Take for example the phrase “cancel culture.” About two years ago, the idea of “cancel culture” primarily referenced the practice in educational institutions whereby students were being shielded from listening to alternative points of view, on the basis that harm was being caused by simply hearing other points of view. Now in 2021, the phrase “cancel culture” has a plethora of applications, whereby being “canceled” can simply mean voicing a disagreement about a particular topic. However, voicing disagreement is not the same thing as restricting the freedom of speech. This definition of “cancel culture” is far removed from the original context I have experienced working in a university setting. It is as though the goal posts keep moving all of the time when it comes to how words and phrases, having significant cultural impact, are used in conversation.

Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, as young people are having an incredibly difficult time trying to navigate our online social media world. When was the last time you had a meaningful, reflective, face-to-face conversation with someone below the age of 18?

Jonathan Haidt’s incredibly informative book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, makes a lot of sense of these conflicting phenomena. Haidt argues that we are primarily motivated by our intuitions, and only secondarily motivated by rational, logical thought and empirical analysis. In other words, if our intuitions lead us in a certain direction, we become less likely to trust sources of information that drive against our intuitional instincts. In our informationally overloaded world, we are mainly inclined to trust authorities that align with our assumptions, and will tend to distrust evidence presented from other sources that we distrust. All of the various debates over the coronavirus, the vaccines, Black Lives Matter, the 2020 Presidential election, etc., all painfully demonstrate how the intuitive nature of humanity can sometimes cause exasperating conflict.

Some see all of this as a sign of the “End Times.” That very well maybe, but either way, it makes the task of navigating our post-modern world very challenging, particularly for the young.

Typically, we only consider alternative points of view when certain life experiences cause some sort of cognitive dissonance with our preconceived intuitions. For young people in particular, who have not had enough life experiences to build up a set of firm, intuitional boundaries, our complex online world can simply be overwhelming.

Here is another case to make my point. I have been trying for years to get various Christian friends interested in studying Christian apologetics. As Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has said, as a stern warning, you really are not doing evangelism in the post-modern world if you do not have at least some basic grasp of Christian apologetics. But I have learned that many of my fellow Christians never bother with thinking about apologetics until they encounter a loved one who has left the Christian faith. This is particularly a problem for parents. When a son or daughter, raised in a Christian home, walks away from church, it is typically only then that I meet Christians who begin wondering what type of evidence there is to the Christian faith. However, in my view, the best way to make use of Christian apologetics is BEFORE your son or daughter leaves the Christian faith…. NOT AFTER!!

There are no easily articulated answers here. But it does help to understand why people think and act as they do, and how they handle evidence, whether they be Christians or not. Knowing this has helped me to learn how to have better conversations with other people, as evangelical apologist Greg Koukl has so helpfully demonstrated with his basic introduction to Christian apologetics, Tactics.

Following our intuitions is not always a bad way to go. Properly calibrated intuitions can be a very good thing in that they can keep us from being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” as Ephesians 4:14 reminds us. We rely on our intuitions most of the time anyway. It only leads to trouble when you are staring reality in the face, and you flat out deny that reality.

Sadly, I have seen many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, simply dig their heels in and cling ever so tightly to their intuitive assumptions (NOTE: I have done this before myself, so I need to be careful when being so preachy here!!!). The fundamental problem is that many people simply believe what they want to believe, without considering all of the available evidence…. and if we are all honest, we generally have neither the time nor the interest to pursue the deep questions of life, until life situations force us to take stock of where we are at. I have had to change my mind on a number of issues over the years, in light of the evidence presented to me. It can be very painful to go through that kind of a process. It can be quite humbling. But I do not regret having gone through it. Learning the truth is worth it.

One particular area where we see this dynamic at work is in terms of how and where people get their news. The fracturing of the journalism industry makes it more difficult to even get the right “facts” to move conversations forward. Big Tech censorship does not help much either.

One tool that I have now found useful is GroundNews, a website that crawls the Internet to look at how different media organizations portray news stories, and ranks each news source for each news story on a sliding scale; for example, leaning right or leaning left. Ground.News is a helpful resource to make sure I do not get stuck and blinded in an information silo.

We are Sacramental Creatures

Some Christians balk at the idea of “sacrament,” as it may sound to some as being “too Roman Catholic,” but such hesitancy is unwarranted. As Saint Augustine famously said, a “sacrament” is simply a visible expression of an invisible grace. Many Christians have spent a decent chunk of the last year and a half watching church services online. But while viewing something via a screen is better than being totally disconnected from a church, it just is not the same as actually being physically present with someone else.

When it became reasonably safe to do so about a year ago, my wife and I began to meet again physically with our small group Bible study. This became our lifeline. Matthew 18:20 talks about where two or three are gathering, Christ is present among us. Nowhere have I experienced that reality more than being in physical fellowship with fellow believers. I had endured many Zoom sessions on a laptop, but nothing compares to being in a room with other Christians, studying God’s Word together.

This is what being a sacramental creature is all about. Being physically present with another believer makes the teaching of Scripture regarding the nature of the church all the more real. I have greatly benefited from online sermons and podcasts, over the past year and a half, but nothing beats sharing a “fist bump” with another Christian, as we “break bread” together over a meal, or even sharing snacks in someone’s home, and enjoying Christ-centered discussion. Gathering together in something like a small group is that visible expression of an invisible grace. When you take something rather mundane, like sitting down in someone’s living room with an open Bible, and praying together, it can be a journey into the sacred.

This whole notion of experiencing sacrament, through meeting in a small group Bible study, has helped me to better appreciate the role of Christian practices that are intended to reveal the great truths of the Christian faith, most significantly through acts like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (but not exclusive to those practices!). We need those practices designed to allow us to enter into certain mysteries, that I simply can not explain through words in a blog post, though writing about it does help to frame how to think about it. I have become more convinced that living through concrete expressions of Scriptural truth impacts us in ways that are nearly impossible to articulate intellectually.

Sadly, those very things that God uses to reveal truth to us, in non-cognitive ways, are often an occasion for bitter theological disputes, that tragically serve to divide people. Consider all of the church splits throughout Christian history over the nature of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. We see it also in more contemporary issues, like the relationships between men and women in the church and family (the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate), and in spiritual warfare, and in experiencing the person of the Holy Spirit (the charismatic vs. cessationist debate).  These all speak to sacramental realities at their core.

However, perhaps these debates all point to how important it is for Christians to revel in the importance of sacrament. If we are going to experience God through concrete expressions of Christian practices, we should be concerned about getting it right, theologically! Let us enter in and enjoy the presence of God as we experience the Divine through sacrament!

We are Religious Creatures

This will surely upset some people who read this, but I am more convinced than ever that this is true: As the so-called “Christian” West descends more into post-Christian, post-modernity, I have become increasingly aware that while the world around us seems to be becoming “less Christian,” this does not mean that people living in a secular world are becoming less religious. Recent trends show that the opposite is more likely the case.

Political causes are increasingly taking upon themselves religious overtones. Whether it be QAnon conspiracy theories on the right, or neo-Marxist ideologies and critical race theories on the left, we are witnessing what happens when people fail to fully engage the Christian Gospel, in its fullness. Ideologues, whether they be on the right or the left, can be just as dogmatic and intolerant as the so-called dogmatic and intolerant Christians they left behind, when they left the church (assuming they grew up with any real exposure to genuine Christian community to begin with).

A lot of Christians get pulled down into the rabbit hole of QAnon-type conspiracy theories. How many more failed predictions that Trump will be finally installed as the truly elected President of 2020 must we endure before we realize that these failed predictions are exactly that: failed predictions?

The QAnon world of certain segments of the right, is particularly embarrassing, as more than a few of my Christian friends have appeared to buy into large chunks of the narrative. A lot of the enthusiasm associated with QAnon is closely associated with valid concerns over the direction of America, and the sense that the Judeo-Christian heritage of the nation is getting lost. However, much of this excitement over QAnon, and all things similar, stems in large part from professing Christians having a greater interest in politics than in participating in the communal life of a local church and fulfilling the Great Commission. If we were to focus on having better conversations with our non-believing neighbors, we would probably be less motivated to expend so much energy on political causes that often generate more heat than light.

For example, a recent survey, with data prior to the COVID-19 crisis, indicates that roughly 40% of Christians who identify themselves as being “born again” evangelicals attend church only one time per year, or less. The drop in church attendance has been on a slight, steady decline for at least 12 years. With attendance statistics like this, it is no wonder why there is not as much discipleship going on in our churches as there should be.

These right-wing extremes are evident in popular culture, and bring about ridicule of Christians in the media. One brief example will suffice. One particular Congresswoman, several weeks ago, has compared efforts to promote COVID-19 vaccination as encouraging “exactly the type of abuse” as murdering Jews in gas chambers during the Holocaust.

Really? Weeks later, this same Congresswoman apologized for making her vaccination-holocaust comparison after visiting the Holocaust Museum. I surely appreciate her apology, and think that there might be other satisfactory methods of defeating COVID, aside from vaccination (the presence of antibodies from a previous COVID infection, the possibility of using ivermectin as a treatment, etc.), but why it took her weeks to figure out that associating COVID-19 vaccination promotion with the Jewish Holocaust is a horrible comparison is beyond me.

But please allow me to poke at some of my progressive friends on the left, too: Take for example the Black Lives Matter movement (and its academic counterpart, Critical Race Theory) that engulfed the world in 2020. In one sense, Black Lives Matter seeks to continue the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, associated with the Christian-inspired leaders of the 1960s, like Martin Luther King, Jr., in an effort to end racism. When framed around that narrative, the message of Black Lives Matter is a positive call for real change and transformation. White American evangelicalism needs to hear more of the voices of African American Christians…. and vice-versa. There are some good signs that these type of conversations are indeed happening. Celebrating today, Juneteenth (technically tomorrow), goes a long way towards that end.

A lot of children, particularly white boys, are being indoctrinated into believing that they are the root of all evil today. We surely need to fight racism, but also need to address our underlying sinfulness, that cripples everyone, regardless of gender or skin color.

However, there is another side to Black Lives Matter, and many other things “woke,” that have sought to repudiate the Christian message with yet a different religious alternative, but not a better one. Take a walk across a college campus these days, and try to talk with someone about “Black Lives Matter” and you will know what I mean.

To put it another way, Critical Race Theory can be a valid tool to use to address certain issues regarding racism. But the problem with any tool is that it can easily evolve into becoming an entire worldview, that can distort reality. In other words, a hammer can be a great tool to drive in nails. But if a hammer is the only thing in your tool bag, then after awhile, everything begins to look like a nail. When that type of thinking sets in, you end up with an ideology, if not an alternative religion, that becomes impervious to self-reflective analysis and criticism.

Christians have historically preached a message regarding “original sin,” but in Black Lives Matter, the language of “original sin” can get replaced with a message of systemic racism. Instead of everything being reduced to sinning against a Holy God, now everything gets reduced to being something about race. Having a “spiritual awakening”, a hallmark of evangelical faith and life, gets replaced with having an “awokening,” whereby certain segments of society are encouraged to embrace one’s unconscious racism. Color blindness as a virtue, whereby we celebrate with MLK a vision of where someone is judged by the content of their character, instead of the color of their skin, is replaced in the new religious narrative with an appeal to be extremely conscious of the color of a person’s skin, flipping the MLK narrative on its head. Instead of the Christian message of forgiveness, the new narrative has no place for forgiveness, only a call to become an “ally,” and accept one’s miserable state (If people could just sit down and listen to African American thinkers, such as Columbia University linguist and atheist, John McWhorter, we would all receive a huge dose of common sense).

Historian Tom Holland’s most excellent book, Dominion, explores these themes more fully, for those who have the interest to dig into this more deeply. Suffice to say, as more and more turn their attention away from the Christian faith (or towards a watered-down version of it), they ironically turn more and more towards different religious ways of thinking, that serve as shallow copies of the Gospel, counterfeits that simulate the illusion of spiritual wisdom, without genuine spiritual power existing behind it. It will be interesting to see how support for things like QAnon conspiracy theories and Black Lives Matter will continue on in the future, or if some will begin to look for something more, all to realize that what they longed for all along can be found with Jesus!

The Lord’s Supper was meant to unite Christians together, as an expression of our common faith and practice. But far too often, the Lord’s Supper divides us instead. But let’s face it: The Lord’s Supper is a pretty “weird” practice of Christians. Perhaps a more reflective view of the mystery behind the Lord’s Supper will help us to better appreciate the “weird stuff” in the Bible.

Christians Need to Preach the Weird Stuff in the Bible

One of things that really struck me in reading Tom Holland’s Dominion last year during the pandemic is his challenge for Christians to preach the “weird stuff” in the Bible. The Bible has plenty of “weird stuff” in it, but most of the time, that “weird stuff” becomes an occasion for embarrassment for a number of Christians.

Tom Holland is a respected historian from the U.K., who walked away from his Christian upbringing during his teenage years. For decades, Holland spent much of his life thinking just how unimpressive, and irrelevant, the story of Christianity can be. But over the past ten years or so, this atheist has changed his tune. Tom Holland now sees that the secular world that he so greatly values and treasures would not have been possible if it had not been for the role of the Christian faith in the history of humankind. A number of other profound and influential cultural thinkers in our day, ranging from atheists like Jordan Peterson, to orthodox Jews like Ben Shapiro, to gay intellectuals like Douglas Murray, echo that same type of appreciation for the Christian story, despite their hesitancy to accept historical Christian faith as their own. Yet when asked what makes Christianity so distinctive for Tom Holland is what he called the “weird stuff” in the Bible.

Ironically, far too often, Christians will try to play down the “weird stuff” in the Bible, in order to try to make it all seem more palatable to skeptics. Now, this does not mean that we should embrace wacky, irresponsible interpretations of the Bible. But it does mean that we should endeavor to understand how the Scriptural writers of the Old and New Testaments viewed reality, and really try to get into their heads as to how they saw God and how they saw the world. As Dr. Michael Heiser puts it, an author whom I have been reading a lot lately, if something in the Bible is “weird, then it is important.”

Let us face some facts as Christians: Virgin birth, Resurrection, Angels, Demons, the Trinity….. these are all examples of “weird stuff” in the Bible that make sense to less and less people in the 21st century. Instead of shying away from this “weird stuff,” Christians ought to embrace this “weird stuff” and tell the world around them why the message of the Bible makes Christians look different.

The secular world around us does not need some wishy-washy expression of Christianity that merely parrots what the surrounding culture is saying, and then slapping Christian labels on top of it, to give it a flavor of “Christianity.” I find that most people out there who are interested in learning about the Christian faith really want to try to understand what the Bible is all about…. especially the weird stuff. In my own Christian journey, I find that by actually thinking through some of the weirder parts of the Bible, more carefully, that I begin to better appreciate just how radical the message of the Bible is, as best embodied in the character and person of Jesus.

An Announcement About What I Am Now Doing on the Veracity Blog… And the Future

I have been writing for the Veracity blog since about the fall of 2012. I have been thoroughly enjoying it over the years. But long-form blogging just is not what it once was, as in those early days. Today, the whole realm of social media really makes productive, invigorating conversation very difficult, if not impossible. For one thing, people just seem too bombarded with information, lacking sufficient enough tools out there to filter the good stuff from the bad stuff. This is a confusing state-of-things, but thankfully, we do have a lot of good Christian resources out on the Interwebs (see my recommendations on YouTube above for some examples)!

Though long-form blogging is not the same as what you find on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, dealing with some of the less-than-helpful comments on the Veracity blog has been becoming less enjoyable. Thankfully, some of the best dialogues I have had has been with thoughtful commenters, and that has been wonderful. Sadly though, far too many blog comments seem to be more about “virtue signaling,” as in “I disagree with you, so I will leave a snarky or self-righteous comment, just to show how good a person I am, and how deluded Clarke, the author of this blog article is.” Now, I know that I am never going to make everyone happy, and I have learned a lot from making mistakes in online discussions, too. But sometimes I get too many comments that never lead to anything fruitful, and this damages the soul. Rarely does this type of engagement lead to good-faith kind of conversations, which are the kind of conversations that I want to be after.

I originally started writing on this blog to stimulate better conversations within my own local church family. For those of you who are reading this blog, and fit in this category, I thank you for your continued interaction with me, and appreciate all of your comments, and I want to continue in those insightful and generous conversations.

However, I frankly get more interaction with people outside of my own local church family on the blog. I am not entirely sure why that specifically is the case, other than the fact that I do not participate in some of the more popular social media apps (like Facebook), that a lot of my local Christian friends like to use. I much prefer reading something like a letter, a carefully crafted blog post, or even better, a book, than I am in slogging through a barrage of “pithy” Facebook comments, that typically engender more frustration than enlightenment, in the current social media landscape.

I have met some really fascinating people via Veracity, from all over the world, and really look forward to meeting some of you in-person some day! But such interaction with people who only connect via the Internet, and who live far away, is just not the same as having flesh-and-blood encounters with human beings living within my own local community.

I write all of this to explain why my frequency in posting has been dropping off during 2021. This downward trend will likely continue. I want to try to continue to use Veracity as a means of publishing book reviews, and preparing educational materials for use in adult Bible classes, with an aim to stimulate better conversations in Evangelical Christendom. I still have several blog posts queued up, so I am not completely going away.

However, the biggest contributor to this change of frequency in posting is actually technical. Veracity is a WordPress blog, but WordPress has been making some changes to their platform that have really become painful. WordPress is in the process of retiring their “classic editor” in favor of a newer style of editor. Unfortunately, that newer style of editor is clunky, less user friendly, and does not work well in all web browsers. I will give it another shot to see if WordPress can get their act together, but I feel more inclined at the moment in bagging WordPress completely, and moving to some other platform, like SubStack. WordPress is nice in that you do not get distracted by annoying advertisements, so hopefully something will improve here. We will see how well all of this goes over the coming summer months.

In the meantime, stick around for some of the next blog posts showing up over the following weeks, featuring some reviews of some books that I have found really helpful. Blessings to you all! Keep the faith in Jesus!!


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:


The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Carl Trueman on Our Cultural Crisis … and “Mr.” Potato Head??

Who am I?” A profound yet difficult question. How does one go about trying to answering it?…. and what does this all have to do with “Mr” and/or “Mrs” Potato Head?

A generation ago, the thought of “a woman being trapped in a man’s body” was commonly rejected as unthinkable silly talk. Such a thought was judged to be simply incoherent.

Today, the idea that anyone can simply define their own gender, as an expression of one’s self, is quite normal, in many social, political, business, and educational institutions. Three examples come to mind to illustrate this:.

  • Among ordinary Americans: A 2020 Gallup poll shows that 1 in 6 Americans, between the ages of 18 and 23, consider themselves to be somewhere in the “LGBTQ” category, as opposed to 1 in 50 Americans, ages 56 and older.
  • In politics: In the month that I am writing this post (March, 2021), the U.S. Senate is considering a bill, already passed in the House of Representatives, called “The Equality Act,” that would enable sweeping changes in current law, regarding how schools, employers, religious-affiliated institutions, and even parents of children handle such questions of self-identity.
  • In business: A book that features testimonies from trans-persons who later regretted pursuing gender reassignment surgeries, or other medical procedures, Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally, was delisted from the world’s largest book seller, Amazon.com, as Amazon says that the book violates their company policy, which prohibits them from selling books that “frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.

That first example alone blows my mind every time I think about it. So, how did this radical perception of the self change so rapidly within such a short period of time?

While still keeping the characters of “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Head, in February, 2021, Hasbro announced that they will remove the “Mr” from the overall brand name, which is now simply, “Potato Head.” Now “kids [can] create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads,” presumably with interchangeable parts, where dads can become moms, and moms can become dads. How did we get here? Carl Trueman helps us out. (Link to the full Hasbro press release, including the video you have to see to believe)

The Roots of Our Current Crisis Regarding the Self

Before going any further, it is important to say that gender dysphoria; that is, having a sense that one’s personal experience of gender is not congruent with one’s biological sex, is a real phenomenon, involving real people, with real confusions and real consequences. We should never be quick to brush off the difficulties facing by people, particularly youth, who struggle deeply with troubling, and often painful experiences related to gender identity. (See my review and personal reflections on Preston Sprinkle’s marvelously helpful book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, The Church, & What the Bible Has to Say ) But aside from such personal and pastoral issues, as important as they are, there is the broader question of how such fluid understandings of gender have emerged in the larger cultural conversation, in the secular West. Where did this sudden emergence of gender identity questions come from?

If you consider yourself to be a thinking Christian, and the current wave of interest in all things “trans” concerns you, then I know of THE book that you need to read: Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution is a long awaited attempt to frame the historical and philosophical factors that have led to our current, cultural moment. Trueman currently serves as a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, but he has had a distinguished career as a Fellow at Princeton University, and in teaching church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in England, Trueman is what can best be described as a confessional Protestant, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, holding fast to an unabashedly Reformed and Puritan mode of evangelical faith, and a cohost of the Mortification of Spin podcast, an intellectually and spiritually invigorating podcast I listen to from time to time. But as Trueman articulates so well in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he is fully conversant with the best of modern and post-modern philosophy and historical studies. His work is lucid, insightful, and inviting, all at the same time. In fact, you really do not learn of Trueman’s confessional convictions as a Christian, until towards the end of the book, but he does so in a thoughtful and irenic fashion, without shying away from the challenges of today’s controversies.

How Did We Get Here, to This Cultural Moment?

Back to the original question: “Who am I?”  The question of one’s self-identity has undergone a cosmic shift over the past few centuries, argues Trueman. The touchstone on which Trueman places his analysis comes from the thought of the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, author of the highly acclaimed The Secular Age. But for Trueman’s purposes, he zeroes in on Taylor’s work as to how the concept of the self has changed during the modern and post-modern eras. In particular, Taylor argues that the shift in answering the question, “Who am I?,” has increasingly moved towards an inward, introspective direction. In the premodern world, the concept of self-identity was wrapped up in what some external, objectifying source said about you, such as a parent, a feudal lord, or a priest or other spiritual guide expressing a body of church teaching. The quest to understand one’s self-identity is grounded today in a therapeutic mindset, by “looking within.”

Reinforcing this point, Trueman highlights the thought of American sociologist, Philip Reiff, who says that today we have a “plastic” view of the self, whereby we can fashion our own-self conception to be whatever we like it to be. Together with that, Trueman adds Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre as yet a third voice, who suggests that today’s language of self-expression is primarily “emotive,” namely that today’s ethical “values” are essentially the products of “expressive individualism.”

Trueman contends that this bend towards “expressive individualism” is inescapable now. The Christian church is caught in the thick of it all. Diagnosing how we arrived at this “expressive individualism” is the set of historical ideas that Trueman seeks to unpack in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Owing largely to the influence of Sigmund Freud, all of these trends find their biggest impact in the areas of human sexuality and gender: Someone is “gay” because they “feel” that way, and that tells them a lot about “who they are.” Or, as has emerged in recent years, we have the idea that someone can define themselves as being a “man” or a “woman,” simply on the basis of how they “feel.” The language of identity has moved, in small increments, from the objective to the subjective.

Far be it for me to try effectively lay out the full framework of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I can best refer the reader to consult either the summary reviews written by Regent College theologian Paul Helm, at his website, or at MereOrthodoxy.com. Let it suffice to say that Trueman does a masterful job weaving in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Darwin to buttress his thesis, along with some erudite analysis and critique of the Romantics, like William Blake and Percy Shelley, as well as an engagement with other seminal thinkers like Rousseau and Nietzsche. In particular, I once had a particular fascination for William Blake’s view of Christian spirituality, but Carl Trueman has convinced me that such a warm appreciation has been sorely misplaced, due to Blake’s advocacy of “free love” in his early years. Among a host of other insights, Trueman gave me the most succinct analysis of ethicist Peter Singers’ rationale for accepting abortion that I have ever read, due to Singer’s attack on orthodox Christianity (readers interested in pro-life concerns should read The Rise and Triumph for that reason alone!)

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the consequences that have been born out in terms of the legalization of same-sex marriage and widespread public acceptance gender re-imagination, is all the fruit of cultural trends in the past few hundreds of years that Trueman brings to light. While readers may know very little about Rousseau and Nietzsche, in particular, the thought patterns they championed have seeped into all levels of society, from pop-culture to the halls of academia.

Book reviewer Mark Ward calls The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self an “excellent — though long and at times tedious — book.” I would not characterize it as “tedious“, but it does assume at least some familiarity with a number of the world’s greatest thinkers since the 18th century age of Enlightenment, which might be daunting for the uninitiated. But Ward is right to point out that far too often Christians will dismiss the uncomfortable ideas of the Sexual Revolution in a very glib fashion as being “from Satan,” as though that should settle the matter. This is naive.

All ideas, including evil ones, do not spring up from nowhere. They have a history. There is a path that such ideas follow. At first, these ideas appear to be ridiculous. But then slowly over time, they gain more and more traction, until whole societies will adopt them as perfectly acceptable. For Westerners in the 21st century, this is including not simply mainline liberal Protestant churches, but even evangelical churches, to varying degrees. Today, we see the growth of such ideas being slowly cultivated, which eventually bears the fruit that we see all around us. Reviewer Andrew T. Walker likewise has other helpful insights, as well as does this interview with Trueman by Fred Zaspel.

One particular application has to do with how poorly Protestant evangelicalism, in general, does at presenting a truly sacramental expression of distinguishing between male and female, in the life of the church. Far too often, evangelical churches will get sidelined with questions about whether or not women can serve as elders/pastors in a local church, thereby missing the deeper question as to how churches can effectively model what it means to be Fathers and Mothers, in an age where understandings of gender and human sexuality owe more to cultural stereotypes, as opposed to reflecting on the great theological truths of the Christian faith. We live in age when differences between male and female are often reduced to something merely having to do “with the plumbing,” and even that can be altered, with the appropriate medical procedure.

 

Calling All Christians To Think Theologically… and Imaginatively

Trueman admits that diagnosing the problem is one thing. The harder part comes in trying to come up with an adequate solution. The chaos resulting from this therapeutic revolution appears to have no end in sight. Furthermore, this reconceptualization of the self has political consequences. It is not enough to merely tolerate inward expressions of the self. They must all be recognized as morally valid. This explains why the ratcheting up of the culture wars, over the previous few decades, have now reached such a high, fever pitch. The advocacy for the “Equality Act” is no historical accident. It is the culmination of years of culture pressure, building up slowly over time.

Trueman does suggest that the answer for Christians, in how to respond to this movement, lies in the importance of community. As Christians grapple with these issues, they need to do so within the context of a worshipping community, in submission to the study of the Scriptures, as opposed to working out their angst on their Facebook and Instagram social media pages.

Comparatively, the so-called LGBTQ community, though it is hardly a monolithic entity, has enjoyed strong bonds of community, over the past few decades. Such bonds are in many ways as supportive, if not more supportive, than what you find in many Christian churches. But the communal cohesion of the LGBTQ movement has been its primary engine for success, and orthodox-minded Christians have much to learn from this strong sense of community bonding.

As far as the “Potato Head” brand goes, the idea of mixing and matching “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Heads, with presumably interchangeable parts, to produce different varieties of families and gender transitions, is merely one of the many ways Philip Reiff’s concept of the “plastic” self is being integrated into the norms of post-modern society. Critics of those who are concerned about this transformation of the self will surely dismiss such criticism as being hyper-over-reactive. But it is the up-and-coming generation of young people who will be left trying to figure all of this stuff out.

What To Do About It?

Is the answer to try to boycott Hasbro? Probably not, at least not in the long run. Neither is trying to return to some “golden age” of Christendom the answer either, through trying to control and takeover the machinery of civil government. At least, that is my take, and from reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I gather this is Carl Trueman’s perspective as well. Applying such cultural pressure might accomplish something in the short run, but it will surely just enrage proponents of such cultural shifts, causing them to double-down against Christian “intolerance.”

Thankfully, Christians are not alone in their anxiety about all of this. There are also secular liberals, and other thinkers, who are deeply concerned about such fluid understandings of the self. Consider best-selling author Abigail Shrier, from her appearance before Congress arguing against the proposed Equality Act. Her testimony that the Equality Act would encourage great harm against women and girls, in our society. But Christians need to go further than this, with a more transformative outlook upon contemporary Western culture.

What it does take is for Christians to learn how to think about the Bible’s view of the self, and how that is contrast with today’s view of the self. Christians ranging from plumbers and construction workers to soccer moms to college professors need to be able articulate an evangelical theology of the self. This is not a job just to be left with pastors and Christians public intellectuals. It is something that must be cultivated in Christian small groups meeting in living rooms, Bible classes meeting in church buildings, and in one-on-one get togethers for coffee and lunch.

Every Christian believer needs to be a theologian able to articulate a theological anthropology that adequately describes a Scriptural view of the self. Christians can then help their non-believing neighbors understand the beauty of what God intended for humanity, without flaming the passions of the culture wars. Christians need to rediscover the value of natural law, and think creatively to stir the imagination with a genuine picture of what the Kingdom of God really looks like, that our secular neighbors might find attractive. We must recover the art of persuasion. Thinkers like G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis did this in their generations. We need new Christian voices to do the same in ours. Carl Trueman sets out the task before us.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is surely to be one of the most, if not “the” most, important and reasonably accessible intellectual history of the West to date, that bears consequences in the marketplace, the voting booth, and in the world of education, that shapes our children. Christians need to be conversant in these matters, so that we can be better persuaders of the truth of the Gospel, as opposed to automatically going to the “you must be Satan” line of attack, and thus stopping the conversation. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will help the thoughtful Christian to engage these new and revolutionary ideas, that appear to be going mainstream, so that we might be able to have thoughtful and meaningful discussions, even where there are sharp points of disagreement. This is a must-read for Christian pastors and thought leaders, or any Christian committed to thinking deeply about the rise and triumph of the modern self.

A number of excellent interviews with Carl Trueman are available on YouTube, but I found this discussion between Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler and Trueman to be particularly engaging.  You may not agree with every aspect of the discussion, but if you are on the sidelines about whether or not to read this book, I would urge you to listen to an interview like this, and I believe you will agree that the topic is perhaps one of the most timely and important ones Christians, as well as non-Christians, need to have together.


Women Should Keep Silent in Church? : A Corinthian Conundrum Considered

Should “women keep silent in the churches,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35? Is it really “shameful for a woman to speak in church?” This is one of those more difficult passages in the Bible, for several reasons.

Some critics of the Christian faith read these verses from Paul, and they therefore conclude that Christianity is hopelessly misogynistic. A few cases in church history have shown that there is a grain of truth here, so the church does need to take this on the chin, to a certain extent.

Various Christians leaders, ranging from Tertullian to Thomas Aquinas, believed from these verses that women should not sing or pray out loud, when men were present. Some Presbyterians up through the late 19th century restricted women from singing in church worship services.

The #MeToo movement today has led many to believe that the church still silences the voices of women…. in ways that go much beyond women’s participation in a worship service, with more perverse consequences. The well-publicized moral failure of evangelist/apologist Ravi Zacharias, accused of sexually abusing other women, sadly reminds us of this. Compounding this, I learned a few days before publishing this post, that Beth Moore, a popular women’s Bible study leader, and a sexual abuse survivor, has left her denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, saying that her denomination has not done enough to listen to the voices of women who have suffered sexual abuse in that Protestant tradition.

Other liberal-minded, or “progressive” Christians, will point out that Jesus was definitely NOT misogynistic, but will claim that Paul probably was, based on certain Bible passages like what we read in 1 Corinthians 14. Some so-called “Red-Letter Christians,” simply take Jesus over Paul, when it comes to teaching regarding women. Others might merely comment on Paul’s inconsistency of thought, when elsewhere in Galatians 3:28, he says that there is neither “male [nor] female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28 then becomes the paradigm by which we can throwout other verses of the Bible that trouble us. So, we just have to put up with the rest of Paul’s lingering misogyny, when we find it here and there, and thus roll our eyes when we get to such passages as found in 1 Corinthians 14.

While these progressivist approaches are meant to somehow salvage Christian faith, it all comes across as rather desperate, and does not lend itself to give us a great deal of confidence in the Bible as God’s inspired word. After all, if Jesus really did select Paul to be his representative voice to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:1), as Paul repeatedly claims, then if Paul failed at the job, this would also reflect poorly upon Jesus. Do any genuine Christians really believe that Jesus royally messed up when he picked out Paul to be his great ambassador to the Gentiles? I would certainly hope not!

When Christians default to this kind of thinking, we end up with a faith that merely picks and chooses verses of the Bible we do like, and reject the rest, a “cafeteria” approach to Christianity, which is really no Christian faith at all. However, a closer look at the Scriptural evidence shows that there are better approaches to this difficult passage, that do not demand the reader to adopt some extremist viewpoint, whether it be on the progressive or traditionalist end of the controversy.

When I wrote my multi-part blog series on “women in ministry” two years ago, I purposely avoided discussing this passage because of its complexity, as I will show in this current blog post. There are basically three different approaches that Bible scholars propose, to try to resolve the difficulty in 1 Corinthians 14: (1) Paul is addressing a particular situation in the early Christian church, that we are largely unfamiliar with today, (2) Paul never actually wrote this passage in his letter. It was inserted by a later copyist into the text of 1 Corinthians, or (3) Paul is quoting a Corinthian objection to women speaking in church, with the purpose of refuting their argument. Let us examine each proposal in turn.

Is Paul Addressing a Particular, Cultural Situation, That Would Require Women to Remain Silent in Church?

No matter where you land in the “women in ministry” debate, often referred to by theologians as the “complementarian/egalitarian controversy,” 1 Corinthians 14:34-45 presents difficulties that extend far beyond the claims of misogyny in the Bible.

The most pressing issue is that 1 Corinthians 11 is actually encouraging women to pray and prophesy in church worship settings. Paul specifically urges women to wear a head covering, but he certainly allows women to speak in church, through prayer and/or prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5).1  Paul’s climatic verse honoring male and female equally, Galatians 3:28, only raises the stakes higher.2 So, if Paul allows for women to speak in 1 Corinthians 11, but then forbids women to speak in 1 Corinthians 14, just three chapters later, that would indicate that Paul was contradicting himself, or that he said one thing at first, only to change his mind later in the letter. Having this type of in-your-face contradiction is not suitable for something claiming to be the Word of God.

But if you follow the time-honored principle of Scripture-interpreting-Scripture, you can look at a parallel passage to get a hint at what is going on. 1 Timothy 2:11-12 includes these phrases that can remind the reader of 1 Corinthians 14:3

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness…. she is to remain quiet”

Readers often focus on the “she is to remain quiet” part. Some might run off in a huff and mutter, “There goes that misogynistic Paul again!” But what is typically missed is that Paul wants women to “learn.” Why might that be an important cultural clue that students of the Bible should notice?

In contemporary Western culture, we regularly take for granted that both men and women should be properly educated. However, in the first century Greco-Roman society, the education of women was the exception, rather than the norm.

Imagine yourself in an elementary or middle school classroom today, and a substitute teacher comes in, but they show little ability to keep control of the classroom. If left to their own devices, the students will talk amongst themselves, resulting in chaos, and no learning occurs in the classroom.

Since women in the first century rarely participated in classroom-type settings, they would be very prone to be disruptive in instructional situations, including church services. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, believed that the ministry of teaching was essential to the mission of the church, and he firmly believed that order was necessary to allow for learning to take place. But what was so radical about Paul is that he specifically encouraged women to learn the Scriptures, along with the men. In doing so, Paul was widely out of step with the dominant culture, that saw no reason for educating women. Our current day Western culture, which evidently values the education of both men and women, is in many ways the multi-century product of the Apostle Paul’s radical vision completely overturning a fully misogynist society, in Greco-Roman times (Just consider historian Tom Holland’s view of Christian history).

Therefore, far from being a misogynist, one could safely argue that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 follows the same pattern as 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Paul wants women to learn, but he wants them to learn within the context of an orderly learning environment, where there are not constant interruptions, and people are actively listening. Here are the two controversial verses from 1 Corinthians, in full:

34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

The advantage of this approach is that it modifies Paul’s encouragement for women to actively participate in various ways during the worship service, in 1 Corinthians 11, for a legitimate cultural purpose. For the sake of preserving order within the church, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul follows the same pattern as taught also in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Because of this, the general tone of consistency across all of the passages of Scripture involved, and the weight of tradition down through the ages, many if not most Christians find this proposal to be most likely and acceptable.4

The downside to this approach is that such a cultural modification may not satisfy all critics of this proposal. Some might still say that the while the in-your-face contradiction is removed in this interpretation, it is not wholly removed. It is merely muted.

Furthermore, supporters of this proposal will often note that women “are not permitted to speak, and should be in submission, as the Law also says.” So, where does “the Law” say that women are not to speak, out of submission? Supporters of this view contend that the Old Testament in general teaches this principle. But detractors against this view observe that there is no specific Old Testament passage, in the Law of Moses, which requires women to be silent, within the context of submission. Male headership? Yes. But the silence of women? Not explicitly. You will search the Old Testament in vain to try to find such a prooftext.

We do find instances of women being asked to remain silent in the oral tradition of the Jewish law. However, Jesus frequently rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, arguing that the oral law of the Pharisees would often nullify the commands of the written law, as found in our Old Testament (see Matthew 15:1-6). Therefore, according to critics of this view, if we understand that Jesus rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, it seems highly unlikely that Paul would be commending the oral tradition here. Nevertheless, supporters of this view contend that the Old Testament; that is, “the Law,”  implicitly instructs for women to be silent in worship, out of submission.

A close variation of this particular proposal notes that 1 Corinthians 14 includes a lengthy discussion of the proper order in a church worship setting, where people offer a “tongue” or prophetic word. In this view, the prohibition against women speaking in church is not absolute. Rather, it is intended to be a prohibition against women evaluating prophecy, specifically. Again, Paul is most concerned about establishing order within a church worship service; thereby necessitating his command that uneducated women should behave in an orderly fashion in a church worship service. Again, the concept of what “the Law also says” is a broad appeal to order within the practice of corporate worship, in opposition to having confusion distorting that practice. For example:

29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

We then get to Paul’s principle that addresses how women are to behave in church. This Pauline ruling emphasizes the universal extent of this teaching, “as in all the churches of the saints” (v.33b), with the concluding admonition that “all things should be done decently and in order.”

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.5

Paul does not want women to look foolish or be shamed in church, so he seeks to honor women, who have received less education than the men. But this call for order, between the sexes, is not something Paul merely wants. He reminds his readers that this call for order is also a command from the Lord. In other words, there is a timeless principle involved, which has a particular application in this 1st century church situation.

Did an Unknown Copyist Insert Verses 34-35 Into 1 Corinthians 14?

This second particular approach is very interesting, in that it dives into the nitty-gritty of how the Bible got to be English Bible we have today. In the days of the early church, they had neither computers nor Xerox copying machines to preserve written documents. Instead, the church relied on copyists to continually copy the Bible over and over again, for each new generation of readers, as written materials tended to decay over time.

In the vast majority of cases, the New Testament copyists did exceedingly well in preserving the ancient text, that would eventually become the basis for our English Bibles today. However, there were times when mistakes were made, and textual critics are needed to step in and analyze where such mistakes were made, in order to correct them.

Nevertheless, there are certain cases where even the finest textual critical scholars are not in complete agreement regarding the authenticity of certain, small portions of the New Testament.  A classic example of such controversy is regarding Mark 16:9-20. Most English Bibles today will note that some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.  Opinion is divided as to what to make of Mark 16:9-20, but many scholars contend that Mark 16:9-20 was not original to the Gospel of Mark, because of the big differences among the manuscripts.

This becomes important because there are some churches that will use Mark 16:18 as the basis for snake handling in church, “they will pick up serpents with their hands,” and they will not get hurt by those snakes … Uh… I will go with the scholarly majority on this one. How about that? 😉

Interesting, there are some textual critical scholars who put 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in the same category. The larger majority of English translations follow the standard order for these verses, but this verse ordering is following only one particular tradition.

The “Western” tradition of manuscripts, and a few other variations put these verses after the very end of the chapter, after verse 40. It would read like this (we can start with verse 33, to get a feel for it):

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order…. .34 The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

So, where do these two verses really go? Between verses 33 and 36, as found in most Bibles today? Or after verse 40?

Some scholars conclude that the confusion over where to put these verses may indicate that this passage is an example of what scholars call an “interpolation,” where something of a different nature is inserted into something else. In other words, some scribal copyist may have inserted these two verses into the text, merely as a side commentary in the margins, and then this got copied into the main body of the text by later copyists, who never detected the illegitimate insertion.6

The advantage of this approach is that it raises enough suspicion about the precise nature of these two verses, such that it would warrant any Christian to proceed with caution, and not make a whole doctrine out of these two verses, in the event we eventually learn that these two verses were wrongly inserted into the New Testament, not by Paul himself, but rather, by a later copyist.

The downside to the proposal is that we have zero New Testament documents that omit these two verses. So, in this particular case of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, it does not match up exactly with the situation we have with Mark 16:9-20, where there are certain early manuscripts that omit those verses altogether.

Was Paul Quoting a Corinthian Saying, For the Purpose of Refuting It?

This last major approach to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 actually turns the whole idea of Paul approving of the idea found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 on its head. This proposal suggests that what Paul is doing here is quoting from a Corinthian saying, that would prohibit women from speaking in church, for the purpose of utterly refuting it. A little background is in order to understand this.

First, when the New Testament was originally written, and copied by copyists later, down through the centuries, there were no quotation marks in those ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. This tradition of not having quotation marks available, to aid the reader, was even extended to the popular English version of the Bible, the King James Version. You will not find quotation marks in the King James Bible, but you will find them in more modern translations, as scholars have been able to detect where a New Testament author was quoting from some other source, as opposed to where they were not quoting from an outside source.

Next, it is important to know that there were other letters involving Paul, aside from 1 and 2 Corinthians, which are not available to us in our Bibles. 1 Corinthians should probably be called “2 Corinthians” instead, because Paul has already mentioned a previous letter he wrote to the church of Corinth, which is now lost (1 Corinthians 5:9). Evidently, Paul is writing our traditionally called “1 Corinthians,” found in our Bibles, partly to respond to another letter sent by the Corinthians to him. This letter from Corinth, was probably written in response to Paul’s first, now lost letter to the Corinthian church:  “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (1 Corinthians 7:1).

In answering the Corinthians previous letter to him, Paul quotes certain sections of that letter, and then he responds to those concerns. For example, read the opening of chapter 7 in full:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.

The quoted Corinthian saying is highlighted above. The Corinthians, in this particular quotation, were saying that celibacy is the only appropriate calling of the Christian, whereas Paul rejects that argument and affirms the validity of marriage as a genuine calling for the Christian, where sexual relations should rightly take place.

Paul makes rhetorical use of the Greek word translated into English as “or” in order to argue against the Corinthian position (1 Corinthians 1:13; 6:16; 9:6, 8, 10; 11:22), or to reject a particular practice at Corinth ( 1 Corinthians 6:2; 9, 19; 10:22; 11:13).

One particular case shows how Paul’s rhetorical skill works: In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul first lays out the Corinthian quoted sayings, with some brief responses interspersed (in this instance). Paul’s purpose here is to rebuke the Corinthian mindset, which was allowing certain unethical conduct to continue on unchecked:

12 All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.13 Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Note the highlighted phrases, which are quotes from the Corinthians. Then Paul unloads on his original readers by interjecting his rhetorical “or” to refute the thinking of the Corinthians fully (see the highlights in verses 16 and 19):

14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

This same type of pattern has been recognized by various scholars in our 1 Corinthian 14 passage under review (note the quoted part, that I have highlighted, for verses 34-35, as well as the rhetorical “or” language in verse 36):

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,
34 The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers and sisters, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.
Verse 36 could also be translated as follows, substituting the acceptable English exclamation “what” for the rhetorical use of “or”:   “What!!? Was it from you that the word of God came? What!? Are you the only ones it has reached?” 

The point here is that Paul is quoting a Corinthian saying, in verses 34-35, for the purposes of refuting it, starting with Paul’s mockery of the Corinthians in verse 36.

The more substantial argument for this interpretation relies on the gender implied by the language used in this entire passage, noted above. The idea that women should remain silent, is part of the Corinthian logic. Yet Paul specifically uses masculine language in verse 36. In New Testament Greek, as in many other gendered languages, masculine language can refer to “men only” or “men and women.” But in this case, since women are being specifically addressed in verses 34-35, and the fact that the “from you” and the “only ones” mentioned in verse 36, are masculine, it would consistently indicate that Paul is addressing “men only” in this verse. For if Paul had intended his rebuke against the women of Corinth specifically, Paul would have used feminine language in verse 36, which he has not. Therefore, this would indicate Paul’s rebuke is directed against the men in Corinth, who are promoting this false teaching.

A reinforcement of this interpretation comes from observing that “the Law” referenced in verses 34-35 probably comes from the oral law, and not the written law, associated with the New Testament. In other words, it would make sense for Paul to rebuke the Judaizers in Corinth, who wish for the Christians to hold to the oral Jewish law.

Paying attention to the gender of the language, verse 36 could more accurately be translated as follows:

What!!? Was it from you men that the word of God came? What!? Are you men the only ones it has reached?”

Far from approving of the “silence of women,” Paul is actually reinforcing his argument from 1 Corinthians 11 that women should be encouraged to participate in the church worship service, through the exercise of prayer and prophesy, just as the men do. As long as things are done in an orderly fashion, Paul is encouraging men and women to worship together.

A fully reconstructed reading of the passage might look like this, with all of the important contextual differences highlighted :

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints.
34 The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
36 What!!? Was it from you men that the word of God came?  What!?  Are you men the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers and sisters, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

The advantage of this approach is that it completely removes all possible contradictions between 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14, thus serving an apologetic purpose for defending Scripture better than other approaches. It also has a great deal of supportive, contextual evidence, as it extends a well known pattern of how Paul interacts with the quotations of the Corinthians, in this letter, to make this particular difficult passage exceedingly less difficult.7

The downside to this proposal is that it completely flips a great deal of traditional teaching regarding this passage. Has this more contextualized approach met the burden of proof to sufficiently overcome more traditional interpretations of this passage?

Clearing Up Confusion over a Corinthian Conundrum

Which proposal to resolving this Bible difficulty is best? You be the judge based on the evidence, knowing that this blog post is but a brief exposition of the main ideas and points of evidence available.

My own conclusion at this point is that the final proposal, that of this being a quotation/refutation device used by Paul to support his teaching that women should participate fully and NOT be silent in church, has the greatest amount of explanatory power. The clincher for me is that I am very skeptical of the idea the Paul would approvingly cite a portion of the Jewish oral law, as binding on the Corinthian church, particularly when Jesus makes such a big deal about how the oral traditions of the Pharisees have led them to fail to see the truth of the Gospel. The idea that Paul would knowingly leave a potential contradiction like this in one of his letters, without any clarifying explanation, is unbecoming to the character of sacred Scripture, in my mind. Nor am I convinced that some later Christian scribe would insert a similar reference to the Jewish oral law, centuries later into the New Testament. However, the other two positions are still acceptable, given the assumptions they carry, so I have no reason to be dogmatic here. The point is that we need not “bring back the patriarchy” in order to have a fully authentic Scriptural faith that properly incorporates 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. But neither do we need to throw certain passages of Paul out, simply because we do not like the taste of them.

It is important to note that Paul nevertheless affirms a principle of order, when it comes to the practice of Christian corporate worship. He also acknowledges that there are real differences between men and women, and that such differences should be honored and upheld by all of the churches of God. In particular, men and women are not interchangeable in the mind of Paul, as expressed through the Scriptures, as it is clearly taught in 1 Corinthians, particularly in 1 Corinthians 11. As London-based pastor and author, Andrew Wilson, puts it, there is a “beautiful difference” between male and female, a complementarity in how men relate to women, and vice-versa, and this is something that the New Testament calls all Christians to celebrate.

Notably, 1 Corinthians makes absolutely zero mention of elders and/or overseers in the church at Corinth. Paul is primarily concerned about how the entire local church body functions, men and women together, giving honor and glory to God. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is not interested in addressing how the church should be governed, nor is he making any special plea regarding how the sheep are to be shepherded, by those entrusted to their care. Paul leaves the discussion of such other matters, particularly with respect to church elders and/or overseers, to the Pastoral Letters, with a particular focus found in 1 Timothy.

For more reflection on the centrality of 1 Timothy for articulating a sacramentalist approach to honoring the distinction of male and female, within the context of a local church, please explore the “women in ministry” blog series, linked here.

 

Notes:

1. The head covering issue is troubling for many as well, as most American Christian women, aside from certain traditions like the Mennonites, do not use head coverings. But the whole topic of head coverings is fascinating, that deserves separate attention. I urge readers to get a copy of Michael Heiser’s Angels, to dig into the nitty gritty of what is going on with head coverings, in a way that will probably surprise you. I reviewed Angels in 2020, and wrote about it here.  ALSO: in this blog post, I am mainly quoting from the ESV translation of the Bible.

2. Please note that Galatians 3:28 is getting abused more and more in the current Western culture climate. To learn about this, see this blog post from 2020.  

3. 1 Timothy 2:12 is probably one of, if not the most, controversial verses in the New Testament today. I address the central concerns in other blog posts (#1, #2, #3). But in this blog post, only the women being “quiet” part is being addressed.  

4. Some even say that the supposed contradiction (according to Sam Storms), between 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14, is way overstated. Some contend that 1 Corinthians 11:5, “but every wife (or woman) who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven,” is really a conditional statement. It should be read as “if a woman were to pray or prophesy with an uncovered head, it would be disgraceful.”  Paul only rejects the whole practice of women praying or prophesying in church until 1 Corinthians 14. But this type of translation appears to be a case of special pleading, as I know of no other English translation that tries to translate 1 Corinthians 11:5 in this matter. A variation of this view suggests that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches that a married woman should wear a head covering, when around their marriage husbands, in a private setting, and this practice has nothing to do with a public, corporate act of worship. But 1 Corinthians 11:16 refutes this idea, as this practice is applicable in all of “the churches of God,” which would indicate a public, worship setting. I only mention this perspective as there are only tiny minorities of Christians who hold to such views.  

5. Note that the word “brothers” highlighted here generally means “brothers and sisters,” when in the plural form. Other translations, such as the NIV specifically spell out that both men and women, “brothers and sisters” are addressed here. While the majority of complementarian scholars accept this particular proposal, a number of egalitarian scholars are open to some variation of this proposal as well, such as Marg Mowcko, a prominent egalitarians blogger, whom I used for reference for doing research for this blog post. Complementarian Denny Burk takes the alternative view described in this section of the blog post, staying within the scope of this particular proposal. Author Aimee Byrd takes a position midway between Mowcko and Burk. Burk takes the position that women are only being restricting from judging prophecies. Yet for some very Reformed interpreters, even this solution is going too far

6. The most notable proponent of this “interpolation” view is made by Gordon Fee, in his New International Commentary of the New Testament, on First Corinthians.

7. Kirk MacGregor is a very articulate, persuasive proponent for the “quotation-refutation device” rhetorical proposal. I have tried to summarize MacGregor’s argument in this blog post. 


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