Category Archives: Witnesses

Kissing the “Purity” and “Courtship” Culture Goodbye??

Joshua Harris was only 21-years old when his blockbuster, best-seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published. The book spread like wildfire through evangelical churches. “Purity” and “courtship” were the watchwords of the day.

So, what do you do when 22 years later, the much acclaimed author informs his followers that he and his wife are pursing separation? (ALSO: See update near the end of this post, made after this blog post was originally posted)

This book will soon be a collectors item, as the publisher will cease further printings, per the request of the author.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Harris’ message was that young, single people should avoid the modern practice of dating, and pursue “courtship” instead. In courtship, single people should only pursue a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, with the intention of becoming married.  Modern dating had simply become a training ground for divorce. Therefore, if you want a successful marriage, casual dating should be avoided.

In those years, just as it still is today, the Christian emphasis on avoiding the dangers of sexual relations outside of marriage was being disregarded, in the wider culture. Premature physical intimacy, and lack of boundaries in dating, was dehumanizing, thereby confusing self-gratification with intimacy, and eventually destroying marriages.

Harris’ solution was to “avoid everything that leads up to that consequence.” Part of that included the advice, that you should not even kiss your prospective mate until your wedding day. Holding hands? Forget that, too.

What about emotional intimacy, characteristic of dating? That should be avoided as well, as “giving your heart away” before you get married, to someone else, only decreases your ability to give fully to the one you end up marrying.

I had been single for a long time before Harris’ book ever came out, but I could appreciate its appeal, when it eventually did. There had been infamously little published by Christian authors, about dating, throughout the 1980s into the early 1990s…. and I had made a series of mistakes. Sadly, the confusing and conflicting advice I got in my twenties, in those years, from other sincere Christians, did not help very much.

However, there was Elisabeth Elliot‘s 1984 book, Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ’s Control, that got passed around in my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship circles. Elliot, the surviving spouse of the martyred missionary in Ecuador, Jim Elliot, sought to address issues of the cultural obsession with dating, sex, and intimacy, with direct boldness. It was a message that many Christian young people, in my generation, needed to hear.

I was gripped with her message. Elisabeth Elliot wrote with confident authority, but there were a few things that were nagging in my mind, that I was not completely sure about. Reruns of Elliot’s radio programs are still available at the Bible Broadcasting Network.

As a teenager, Joshua Harris made some mistakes of his own. Reading Elliot’s book emboldened him to radically change course, and try to retell Elliot’s message for a new generation. Nervously, Joshua Harris even sent a copy of his yet unpublished manuscript for I Kissed Dating Goodbye to Elisabeth Elliot, to get her impressions. Harris was elated to hear back from Ms. Elliot, who affirmed Harris for writing a “worthwhile book.” Harris sent his manuscript out to be published shortly thereafter. In 2013, Harris returned the favor by writing the forward to a reprint edition of Passion and Purity, in which he tells the story I just summarized.

The success of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was founded upon a hard-hitting, counter-cultural message. On the positive side, I Kissed Dating Goodbye affirmed God’s good purposes for marriage, and for reserving sexual relations within the context of marriage. But on the controversial side, those Christians who still practiced “dating” were treated with spiritual contempt, among other things. Plus, and sadly, a number of those marriages, founded upon Harris’ principles of “courtship,” ended in divorce anyway.

Harris for years overlooked the views of his detractors. Harris went onto become an instant evangelical celebrity, following the amazing popularity of his book. While still in his twenties, Harris got married, started a family, and soon became a pastor of a mega-church, at age 30. He took on this pastoral responsibility, without ever having had any seminary-level, advanced, theological training.

The Sovereign Grace Ministries network of churches, of which he was a pastor of one, got embroiled in a controversy, over claims of child and sexual abuse, in the churches’ ministry programs.  The incidents that started the controversy happened prior to Harris’ tenure, but the issue was never adequately resolved. The controversy eventually led Joshua Harris to step down as lead pastor, in 2015, in order to pursue advanced theological training at Regent College, in British Columbia, Canada.

It was roughly during this time that Harris began to have second thoughts about the message of his book. Some tied the criticisms of his book with his belief in complementarianism, that men and women are different, emphasizing male-only leadership in churches, combined with the particular, extreme slant that Harris had been promoting. In an interview with Sojourner’s magazine, Harris concedes:

  • I think in our setting, though, the thing that I would say is that we had a very restricted view of the role of women. That’s one of the biggest things I regret in my time of being a pastor is the way we taught about women in the church, women in leadership, in the home, and so on. And I think there are massive indications when you don’t have a female perspective in in policymaking and decisions related to something like that. Like, I think that we would have made better decisions if there had been women in on those moments.But it’s not quite as simple as saying that … I think there were also theological problems related to our view of the role of pastors and our view of the role of the faith and ways that were, in our case, unique to our movement: the low view of psychiatry or therapists and those types of things, and the idea that pastors should be able to help you with any kind of life issue that you’re facing.When it comes to something like sex abuse, we just did not have the training. We needed to be calling in other people, we needed to be, obviously, making sure that — and we did report many cases of sexual abuse, but in some cases obviously we made huge mistakes.

    So there’s sort of a web of problems. But I do think that a very patriarchal, male-centered, low view of women has connections to sexual abuse in different cases.

Harris began to interact with readers of his book, listening to their stories. He chronicled his journey, in a documentary film entitled I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye. If you were ever troubled by Harris’ book, you would do well to watch this film and discuss it with others.

His conclusion? Josh Harris came to admit that he gave millions of people the wrong advice. Harris had condemned dating as being “unbiblical,” despite the fact that the Bible nowhere addresses the topic of dating. In an effort to try to help people live lives of purity, Harris ultimately realized that his solution was heaping toxic doses of legalism and fear, upon the consciences of his readers.

Josh Harris still believes in abstinence before marriage. But Josh Harris now believes that healthy dating can be a good thing, recommending books like Dr. Henry Cloud’s Boundaries in Dating, and Debra Fileta’s True Love Dates, instead of his own.

Reactions to Harris’ rethinking about his book have ranged the gamut. Some believe Harris has gone too far in condemning his own book, believing that “courtship” is still the way to go, and giving up too easily on otherwise good and sound principles.

Others believe that Harris did not go far enough, in making an apology. Nevertheless, Josh Harris made the decision to ask the publisher to discontinue the publication of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, along with two other books, that stress the same themes.

The popular conservative, and indeed, Reformed, Christian blogger, Tim Challies, interestingly agrees with Josh Harris’ critical analysis of his own book:

  • There are times when a kind of weirdness settles over evangelicalism, when for a while people are swept away by strange and flawed ideas. This usually happens when Christians are attempting to counter ideas that are prevalent outside the church. Instead of reacting in a measured way, we collectively over-react.

The type of self-chastisement that Josh Harris has been going through, despite being so confident in his previous views for so long, buoyed by constant affirmations of others who wanted to think the same way, can have devastating consequences.

Sadly, Josh Harris announced in July, 2019 that he and his wife are separating, after 20 years of marriage.

In thinking about the story of Josh Harris and I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I can think of several lessons for Christians:

  • Relationships are hard. While indeed helpful to many, there was nevertheless a subtle, deceptive allure to Josh Harris’ book, that sought to bypass that truth: Relationships are hard.
  • Friendships with members of the opposite sex are a good thing.
  • Doing fun things together is great, particularly in a group. Setting boundaries in relationships is essential. Avoid late-night solo dates. Revive the art of letter writing. An extreme focus on purity can actually backfire.
  • One can take to heart Josh Harris’ self-critical reflections of his own book, without abandoning a commitment to traditional, Scriptural sexual ethics.
  • The “purity” movement and the “courtship” movement have had some good things about them. But even the best of ideas can descend into an unhealthy form of legalism.
  • Christians may have good intentions in rejecting certain cultural trends, but we must caution against accepting ideas that are reading modern concepts into the Bible.
  • The “courtship” movement can set people up to have the wrong expectations about marriage, that are completely unrealistic, just as much as “dating” can do.
  • The idea of “courtship” works best when you have people in your life, who know you well, and who also know your potential spouse well. Such people can point out blindspots that you and your potential mate may miss. But cultivating the type of community, where such people can exist in your life, can be a difficult task, in and of itself. Ideally, such community should be experienced within a local church (but a lot of these points can apply to “dating,” too).
  • Churches should avoid recruiting young people, in their twenties, into becoming pastors of mega-churches, at such young ages, and they should make sure that whoever pastors their churches have adequate theological training, before assuming such leadership positions… also, getting advice from a 21-year old on how to prepare for, build and sustain a life-long marriage is rather insane.
  • Mentoring younger singles, and even young couples, by older, more mature married believers, is a critical need in our day.
  • The local church surely has a business-side to it, but first and foremost, a local church is a family, and not a business. Churches are ultimately families, governed by seasoned fathers and mothers, and not by corporately-minded CEOs.
  • There are good forms of complementarianism, and there are bad forms of complementarianism.
  • A lot of egalitarian types of thinking are, in reality, over-reacting towards such bad forms of complementarianism.

I happen to hold to a moderate form of complementarianism, but there are bad forms of complementarianism, that should be rejected. For example, there are those who teach that women are not to be in spiritual authority over men, because in their reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, such teachers contend that Eve was deceived; that is, from the text, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, ” because women are inherently more susceptible to becoming deceived than men. And because women are more deceivable, women should not be entrusted in positions of spiritual authority.

A more moderate approach to complementarianism will affirm that only men are to serve as elders/pastors in a local church. But this does NOT mean that this has anything to do with women being more susceptible to becoming deceived, than men. If anything, a healthy approach to complementarian theology would encourage women to give their perspective to men in the spiritual leadership of the church, while encouraging such men to receive such input gladly, with ready hearts and minds. Women and men can help one another see things that the other can not see.

The text of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 simply states an observation as to what happened in Creation. To try to read into the text some type of innate characteristic, created by God, that distinguishes men from women, as to their intellectual or spiritual capabilities, is an abuse of Scripture, reading something into the Bible that simply does not exist. To put it bluntly, the Bible does not teach that women are more spiritually gullible than men. This is an example of the type of patriarchal, bad complementarian theology that Josh Harris is now against. I have tried to articulate a more sacramentally-informed, non-authoritarian-istic perspective on complementarian theology in a twenty-part blog post series.

Such bad theology has inflicted an untold amount of pain and suffering in evangelical churches today. Josh Harris is surely working through a lot of the guilt and shame associated with his own promotion of such bad theology.

It might be best for Christians, who know of Josh Harris, to remember Josh and his wife in your prayers. This is a difficult time for the both of them.

I am sure that Josh Harris and his wife are both wonderful people, and I do hope the best for them. If there is any good news to come out of this whole story, it is this: It takes a lot of courage to admit that you were wrong. Josh Harris has displayed this courage, and I commend him for it. Would we all have such courage.

UPDATED: Monday, July 29, 2019

After posting this a few days ago, I have learned today, that along with Josh Harris’ announcement about his separation, he also announced that he no longer considers himself to be a Christian. In particular, he announced on Instagram that he regrets his previous posture regarding the LGBTQ community, and that he now fully affirms “marriage equality.” Christianity Today magazine has a very helpful followup essay, on this topic. According to Harris, “Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.⁣⁣” I pray that Josh Harris finds his way back onto the path, in God’s timing, and more deeply experiences the grace of God.


Was Von Braun a “Creationist?”

In reliving the historic Apollo 11 moon landing this past week (see the PBS American Experience, Chasing the Moon film), it came to mind that the Apollo 11 team of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins would never have made it there, if it had not been for the rocketry skills of Wernher Von Braun. In his earlier years, Von Braun built rockets, for Adolph Hitler, that threatened the city of London, during the latter stages of World War 2.

A former Nazi, Wernher Von Braun came to the United States, to eventually gain the confidence of President John F. Kennedy, encouraging that the Americans could actually beat the Russians to the moon. Von Braun’s Saturn V rocket sent the astronauts to the moon, to make their historic, televised visit, on July 20, 1969.

Towards the last portion of his life, Von Braun revealed that he believed in God, and that God’s design could be seen in creation. So, it would appear that Wernher Von Braun was a “Creationist.” But what kind of “Creationist” was he? Was he a Young Earth Creationist? An Old Earth Creationist? Or an Evolutionary Creationist?

Many Christians are deeply divided on this issue.

Both the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, make the claim that Von Braun was indeed a Young Earth Creationist.  Such sources contend that Von Braun criticized the teaching of evolution only in public schools. In defense of his view, Von Braun stated in a letter, that was read in a California court case, over Young Earth Creation being taught in schools:

for the amazing string of successes we had with our Apollo flights to the moon … was that we tried to never overlook anything. It is in that same sense of scientific honesty that I endorse the presentation of alternative theories for the origin of the universe, life and man in the science classroom. It would be an error to overlook the possibility that the universe was planned rather than happening by chance

It would appear, also, that Von Braun did write a forward to a book, endorsing Young Earth Creationism. But as a blogger for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) reports, Von Braun later clarified the meaning of this letter:

“1. If fundamentalistic religion means belief that the book of Genesis gives a correct scientific account of how the world came into being; that 4004 BC is the date of the origin of the earth, and that all living things were “created” in their final form rather than developed through evolutionary, “survival-of-the-fittest” processes, then I am most emphatically not a believer in fundamental religion.
2. If, however, the question is whether behind the many random processes which are operating in nature, there is a “divine intent”, my answer is an equally emphatic “yes.” With this position I am only sharing and accepting the views expressed by giants of science such as Newton, Kepler, Faraday, Pascal[,] and Einstein.”

It would appear that the Young Earth Creationist claim, of Von Braun believing in an earth that is less that 6,000 years old, is complicated by Von Braun’s later clarification. He would more than likely be somewhere between an Old Earth Creationist and an Evolutionary Creationism.

Either way, Von Braun was clearly a “Creationist,” in the sense that he was a Christian. But the specific belief he held, as to the age of the earth, along with the related age of the universe, where the scientific consensus holds as being about 13.799 billion years old, and not 6,000 years old, according to Young Earth Creationists, appears to have been in some measure of flux, during his life.

But something tells me that the specific details of Von Braun’s beliefs, and their relationship with the beliefs of most scientists today, who hold to the scientific consensus, might not gain that much interest among many Christians today, at least, not as much as it should. Yet perhaps, it is better to focus on the fundamental belief that God created the universe, the “who” of Creation, and not get so hung up on the exact timing and mechanical detail as to how God created the universe.

I take to heart, that the inventor of the awe-inspiring, massive Saturn V rocket, that put a “man on the moon,” looked to the God of the Bible, for his own inspiration.


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

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

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

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

N.T. Wright: Scholar, Pastor and Popularizer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.T. Wright: The Cheerful Polemicist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rachel Held Evans Reflections ( & on Warren Wiersbe, Bonhoeffer, and the Crisis of “Big Tent” Evangelicalism)

Veracity readers have observed that I have briefly commented on the illness and recent death of Rachel Held Evans. Many who have appreciated her writings, whether they agreed with her or not, have mourned her untimely death, yet not without controversy.

I have thought quite a bit about her over the previous few weeks. Rachel’s story is a lot like mine, yet at the same time, very different from mine. First, I will note the similarities. I knew her only through articles on her blog and podcast interviews, but I have shared some of the same experiences.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

After growing up in a conservative, evangelical Christian home, in Dayton, Tennessee, “ground zero” for the Scopes Monkey Trial, between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, in the 1920s, Rachel Held Evans went to a Christian college, where she learned of the story on television, of a woman in Afghanistan, named “Zarmina,” who was publicly executed, in the middle of a soccer stadium. She was rightly horrified of this news, but what threw her faith into a tailspin, was a series of followup conversations, with some of her Christian classmates. Rachel’s friends had insisted that Zarmina, despite the injustice done to her, nevertheless ended up going to hell, solely on the basis that she was a Muslim.

Rachel began to wrestle with deep questions about heaven, hell, predestination, religious pluralism… you name it. But as Rachel put it, in one of her blog posts, “It was not the so-called ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart.”

She could and did read some books on Christian apologetics, that sought to provide answers to her questions, that helped to make a decent amount of sense in her head (here is a YouTube link showing how apologist Frank Turek answers such questions). But what really bothered her was the callousness of her Christian friends. How could her Christian friends, without shedding a tear, matter-of-factly say that Zarmina would spend an eternity in eternal torment, due to her lack of a verbal Christian confession, after being cruelly shot in the back of the head, because Zarmina failed to satisfy the legalistic demands of the Taliban? Rachel wondered if the Gospel really offered anything to someone like Zarmina.

In her book, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, formerly titled, Evolving in Monkey Town, and a myriad of other blog posts, Rachel explored how her doubts about God, with respect to Zarmina, opened up a floodgate of other questions, a Pandora’s Box of issues ranging from her belief, from early childhood, about Young Earth Creationism, to questions about genocide and violence in the Bible. Nevertheless, despite her doubts, she could never let go completely of her Christian faith, even though the shape of her faith was indeed changing.

But what really caught people’s attention, was with the release of her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master.” In this book, Rachel questioned how the evangelical Christian movement has at times treated women, based on certain readings of the Bible, that struck her as misogynistic. In response, a host of young, millennial Christians today have gravitated towards books like this, as a call, for example, for more women to enter full-time Christian ministry. Rachel affirmed that women do have a voice, among God’s people. Rachel asks, why do traditional views about women  selectively elevate certain texts in the Bible, while ignoring others?

Though I have been hesitant to follow the whole line of Rachel’s thought, what I have appreciated so much about Rachel Held Evans was her unflinching honesty when asking these questions. Sadly, not everyone who heard her story felt moved to give her room, to wrestle with her doubts. This antagonism, from otherwise well-meaning Christians, only served to add fuel to the fire of her doubts.

Rachel represented what some might call the more progressive wing of evangelical “egalitarianism;” that is, the view that women should be able to serve as pastors and elders, on an equal basis with men. Rachel’s “more progressive” wing has been highly emotionally motivated, appealing to a sense of justice, that women should be serving in Christian leadership, because of the abuse of power that are at times employed by men to “keep women down.”

An Example of Something That Drove Rachel Held Evans Crazy

Rachel’s critics have felt that she was attacking some core elements of Bible teaching, yet her critics have not all been united in their opposition to Rachel’s brand of egalitarianism. I digress for a moment to reflect on a recent public controversy, within weeks following Rachel’s death….. I can guarantee you that if Rachel were still alive, she would have been all over this….

Consider the controversy this past Mother’s Day (2019), among Southern Baptists about non-ordained women preaching a “sermon” from a pulpit on Mother’s Day. Some 25 years ago, the furor over the ordination of women in Baptist circles eventually led to a cleaning of house of Southern Baptist institutions, purging advocates of women’s ordination from the Southern Baptist leadership ranks. But when popular ladies Bible study teacher, Beth Moore, who is not ordained, and has no desire to become ordained, was invited to preach for a Mother’s Day sermon, and a Southern Baptist theologian, Owen Strachan, vigorously objected to such practice, it was like the whole Southern Baptist denomination was reliving the controversy from the 1990s, all over again.

But this time, the battle was not only between egalitarians and complementarians, it was largely among complementarians themselves, such “complementarians” believing that women are not to serve as elders or pastors, in a local church. The more traditional crowd, represented by Strachan, puts a hard line down, that women should NEVER enter a Sunday pulpit and preach a “sermon”, even if such a speech were to be given in a more gentle context, that of being a Mother’s Day “exhortation,” as opposed to an authoritative “sermon.”

But the more moderate complementarians, came to Beth Moore’s defense, viewing Strachan’s hard line as being way over the top, even to the point of obliquely bringing charges of heresy against Strachan, for having a deficient view of the Triune nature of God (!!!), as with this article by Mortification of Spin podcaster, Aimee Byrd. Byrd recalls the controversial 2016 change to the English Standard Version Bible’s translation of Genesis 3:16 (see Sam Powell’s articles here and here), that forced the English Standard Version translation committee to reopen discussion on how Bible translation decisions are made for that particular translation, sparked by disagreement among Bible translators themselves. What are the consequences of the Fall, with respect to relations between male and female, and how does this compare with God’s intended good purposes from the beginning at Creation?

The point of this digression is this: Rachel’s more conservative critics have not all agreed with her, but hardly have they agreed among themselves. Digression over: Now, back to more specifically about Rachel Held Evans’ story….

Rachel Held Evans and the Slippery Slope?

Were Rachel Held Evans’ writings on women and the Bible, where she would stop in her journey of theological doubt? Or was she on some “slippery slope,” where A Year of Biblical Womanhood was simply one point on her theological trajectory? Rachel herself even admitted that she was going down that “slippery slope,” but she insisted that it was not a slope away from God.

Rachel’s calls for justice eventually moved beyond concerns about women in the home and in the church, to broader topics regarding gender, most controversially for her support of same-sex marriage. Any lingering suspicions that her evangelical readers had about her unorthodoxy, regarding her views on women, were confirmed by this latest foray into supporting same-sex marriage. The reaction from her suspicious evangelical observers was swift and largely unrelenting. She was a Jezebel, bringing false teaching into the church, and therefore compromising the faith.

But Rachel also has had a loyal base of fans who have supported her, that makes up what some call today “progressive Christianity.”  The pushback she received, or at least, what she perceived, from conservative evangelicals, eventually encouraged her to “leave evangelicalism,” to finally make her way into a Protestant mainline church, a story she told in her next book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  Her last published book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, chronicles her journey further, showing how she was able to shed her previous view of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, to a more liberal, mainline Protestant approach to faith, that seeks to view the Bible, not as divine source of knowledge, but rather as a spiritual conversation partner, a written voice to be brought alongside, on equal footing, with one’s own, personal experience with God.

Rachel continued to say that her sliding down the slippery slope was not away from God, but rather towards God. But when she was saying that, what did she mean by “God?” Where exactly, was her faith journey leading her?

Evangelicals and Where to Draw the Line on What is Essential vs. Non-Essential to Orthodoxy

The deeper problem that Rachel Held Evans has exposed to the church is that evangelical Christians have a difficulty in discerning where to draw that line between what is essential to faith, and what can be safely set aside as non-essential, the adiaphora of Romans 14:1. Some draw the line in one place while other Protestant evangelical Christians draw it in another.

In the age of Billy Graham, there were obviously challenges to evangelical identity, but in the age of the Internet and social media, the challenges as to what can rightly fit under the “big tent” of evangelicalism have multiplied. For some, Rachel Held Evans left the fold of evangelicalism when she questioned certain aspects of the doctrine of hell. For others, it was when she questioned Young Earth Creationism. Others could tolerate these things, to a certain extent, as these controversies have been around for awhile.

But when Rachel Held Evans began questioning women’s roles in the church, appealing to the modern sentiment of feminism, some felt she definitely crossed the line there. Others, have given her the benefit of the doubt, and gave her a pass on that. But when it came to her support for same-sex marriage, she crossed the line for everyone…. well, just about everyone.

“Big tent” evangelicalism suffers from not having an arbiter to help to define such boundaries. Evangelical Christians can “believe the Bible,” as their authority, but not necessarily agree on all matters of interpreting the Bible. Contemporary evangelical traditions, that have typically honored the Bible, and the Bible alone, as the standard of revealed truth, while dismissing the importance of confessional statements, such as creeds and other historical statements of faith, that seek to somehow descriptively summarize the character of God, find themselves exposed by the wit, charm, and challenging critique that came from Rachel Held Evans’ keyboard, through her blogs and books. She exposed just how difficult it is to discern what those boundaries of “right belief” are in the early 21st century.

Evangelicalism is in crisis. Christianity Today senior editor, Mark Galli, wrote about this crisis in evangelicalism, just weeks after Rachel Held Evans’ death. I would say that it all comes down to be a crisis of authority, or as Galli himself put it, quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn,  “We have forgotten God.” The tricky part comes in trying to figure out, what do we mean by “God?”

The Calm, Trusted Figure of a Warren Wiersbe, vs. the Cacophony of the 21st Century

The death of Rachel Held Evans, and what it means for evangelicalism at large, is starkly contrasted by the death, two days earlier (on May 2, 2019), of venerable Bible teacher, Warren Wiersbe. Wiersbe lived to the ripe old age of 89, after serving in an impeccable preaching career in Baptist churches, following a conversion in high school at a Youth for Christ rally, led by then 26-year-old evangelist, Billy Graham. Wiersbe went on to teach at Moody Church in Chicago, and then at Back to the Bible ministries, with a radio ministry that continues to this day. Wiersbe lived a full life of Christian faithfulness. Warren Wiersbe’s grandson wrote this brief memorial for his grandfather, the “bridge builder.”

You would be hard pressed to find any controversy brandishing Wiersbe, in today’s online, social media world. His life’s work was focused on the exposition of the Scripture, a noble goal for any minister of the Gospel. For Wiersbe, the path to knowing God is clear enough, through a diligent, measured study of the whole of the Scriptures, following after Jesus. But the problem with Wiersbe is that if you did not travel in dispensationalist, non-charismatic circles, you might never have known who he was.

I never knew of Wiersbe until my wife started to listen to the Bible Broadcasting Network, some 15 years ago. So much of evangelicalism today is led, not by cohesive doctrinal statements, but rather by personalities, whom you can trust, and the media enterprises that promote them.

It was Gutenberg’s printing press that gave Martin Luther, the 16th century Reformer, a platform to share his thinking. Since that time, up until the modern age, ever more cheaper printing presses helped to galvanize other evangelical movements, though books, pamphlets, and newsletters. Yet it was the radio in the mid-20th century that helped to make Warren Wiersbe a trusted source of authority, for a whole generation and segment of evangelicals. Billy Graham experienced it with his televised Crusades and movies in the latter half of the 20th-century.

But the rules have changed in the age of the Internet, where FCC regulated FM radio is becoming outdated, and steadily replaced by Internet media vehicles, like Twitter, Facebook, and podcasts on iTunes, where the competition for gaining a hearing or attention is fierce. Anyone with a microphone, or GoPro camera, can upload to YouTube, and perhaps establish a following.

Who is able to step forward, and lead evangelical believers today? Do we gauge our leaders by the number of Twitter followers, or Facebook likes, someone has? Or some other criteria? If there is one thing that all can agree on about Rachel Held Evans, is that she was a master of the new Internet-based media of blogging, Twitter, and YouTube videos. Her loyal following has been just as dedicated as were those in an older generation, who clung next to their radios, to listen to Back to the Bible.

I surely do not have the definitive solution to the problem. But the common thread should be discernible.  Simply listening to old radio sermons, given by evangelical stalwarts, such as a Warren Wiersbe, can help to a certain extent, but it is not enough in the age of YouTube.

It would help the greater evangelical Protestant movement to look towards our fellow Christians in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, to help us to establish a better path forward, in an increasingly secularized world. I throw in my lot in with C.S. Lewis, who argued the case for a “Mere Christianity.” Like Rachel, we should take measures to let go some of the quirkier things in Protestant evangelicalism, or at least, hold them more loosely. But unlike Rachel, recalling the ancient faith, that has been passed down from generation to generation, as C.S. Lewis did, is really the way to go. From my vantage point, the route of “progressive Christianity” is just as much a dead end, as is the knee-jerk fundamentalism Rachel reacted against.

Frankly, if it was not for conservative evangelicalism, that formed that rather “love-hate” relationship Rachel Held Evans had with it, I would have probably gone the route of secular agnosticism or atheism. But not “progressive Christianity.”

The Big Theological Concerns, That Evangelicals are Hard Pressed to Address

About 25 years ago, Eastern Orthodox bishop Thomas Hopko speculated that the coming crisis for the Christian movement over the next 50 years would be over the theology of gender, as to what it means to be male and female. I believe that Thomas Hopko was undoubtedly correct. Given Hopko’s prophetic insight, we are about halfway navigating through that process of ironing out what orthodox Christians believe, concerning gender. Just as the church wrestled with trying to articulate a theology of the divinity and humanity of Jesus, in the tumultuous 4th century, that gave us the Nicene Creed, so today we face a period of wrestling regarding a theological anthropology, of what it means to be male and female.

It should come as no surprise to understand that the role of women and the same-sex marriage were the real flash points for Rachel Held Evans. These are gender issues. I am hopefully optimistic that many of the justified concerns that Rachel had, during her lifetime, can be resolved within the remaining 25 years of Hopko’s prophetic vision, without overstepping the fundamental concerns, of a Christian orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, the eventual path that Rachel took reveals just how sharply different her journey has been from mine. Unlike Rachel, I did not grow up practicing “sword drills,” to see who could memorize the most number of Bible passages. I had grown up in a mainline church, much like the one that Rachel and her family finally ended up at.

I knew nothing about a “Rapture” of the church, whereby believers would be taken up into the air to meet with Jesus, and rise to heaven, as the definitive sign that the End Times had arrived. I was more into the eschatology of Star Trek and Star Wars, in my mainline Christian upbringings.

I never once contemplated the thought of how Noah was able to fit all of those animals on the wooden ark, or whether the Great Flood was local or global.

This was all foreign to me. Though I learned much about a number of aspects of the Christian faith, in its broader scope, in those years, I knew relatively little about the Bible, much less the interesting debates that have tended to divide conservative evangelical Christians.

The Bible was largely an unknown book in my childhood, aside from hearing a few Bible stories. It was not until I made my way into an evangelical Christian community, as a high school student, that I began to seriously read and study the Bible. I moved from a mainline to an evangelical community. Rachel moved in the opposite direction, from an evangelical to a mainline community.

Yes, I can relate to the “scandal of the evangelical heart,” that Rachel writes about. But my answer has been to try to learn how to read the Bible better. Instead of simply imbibing what I had been taught about the Bible, which was not much, I sought to learn about Scripture, by asking a lot of the questions that Rachel had, right up front.

I am still pretty much the same way. I do not find much appeal for the type of thinking that Rachel Held Evans grew up with, namely that of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Sure, I believe the Bible, but I believe the Bible because I find the Bible to be true, because the evidence supports it. It may not mean that I accept whatever tradition gets passed on, as though we should believe such-and-such, merely because that is what we have always been taught, without ever thinking about it.

In my mind, this is what leads to the type of “scandal of the evangelical heart,” that really troubled Rachel Held Evans: a failure to really think. The disconnect between head and heart in much of conservative evangelicalism is a real problem. It is a barrier to experiencing the joy of personal discipleship.

To matter-of-factly conclude that an humiliatingly executed Muslim woman in Afghanistan would wind up in hell, without a sense of grief or compassion, or a twinge of wonder, reveals a really distorted faith. Troubles in our heart should lead us to ask questions that put our minds to work. To fail to have such troubles is a mark of spiritual deadness. Rachel was right to point that out.

Let us face it. If we as evangelical Christians really believe that others around us are going to perish in hell eternally, then why are we not driven with compassion to do everything we can to help them follow a different path?

What I did not share with Rachel, in her drive to “clean house” in her evangelical world, was her tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Leaving evangelicalism” may provide a type of “solution” for those who are burned out by “the scandal of the evangelical heart,” but it is a solution that is really no solution at all, in the long run. When doubts plague us, the answer is not to go the route of the liberal leaning end of the Protestant mainline. I have been there and done that.

The problem with doubt, is not that it exists. That is a given. The problem with doubt is that it so easy to sit with it far too long with it, and allow it to paralyze our faith.

For Protestant evangelicals, we can take part of our cue from Rachel Held Evans, as Rachel herself suggested: To go back and really study the Bible. But it involves more than that. Celebrating the Great Tradition, that binds evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox together, despite ongoing substantial differences, has the most promising future.

Yes, we need the Scriptures as a conversation partner, but we need to learn how to hear the voice of God in the Scriptures, calling us to repentance, as our authority, so that our emotions and experiences can be brought in alignment with His Will and His Purposes, instead of trying to fit God into the grid of our own personal experience. This has been the historic teaching of the Christian movement, and we would do well to submit our own hearts, with their questions, to that.

This is a hard, hard thing to do. But do it we must.

We need the Bible as our authority, not because our experiences and emotions are invalid. But rather, we need to see the Bible as our authority because ultimately, I can not trust my own experiences and emotions, nor my own understanding of what constitutes a standard of justice. I can only trust God, and what God has revealed through Christ as being truly just.

Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death at 37, is surely a cause for unbearable grief for her family, her husband, her children, and close family and friends. But it also raises some questions, as to what might have happened next in her spiritual journey, if she not have died so soon.

Lives Cut Too Short: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Held Evans

This all may sound like rambling to you, but hang in with me for one more reflection….

Rachel Held Evans’ death reminds me, in some ways, of the untimely death of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a World War 2 prison camp, when he was executed, just days before the Allies liberated Flossenbürg.  Bonhoeffer had written several Christian classics, before being arrested, for his role in an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer was only two years older than Rachel Held Evans, when he died.

But Bonhoeffer’s last book, a series of Letters and Papers from Prison, raised a number of questions, as to where Bonhoeffer was heading theologically. The radical “God is Dead” theologians of the 1960s heralded Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a signpost signaling a new era, whereby the modern world would embrace a “religionless Christianity.” In other words, Christianity, as articulated by Bonhoeffer, was the spiritual forerunner to what the liberal theologian Harvey Cox called a “Secular City.”

For awhile, this vision of a “Secular City” looked like it might come to pass, a vision that was birthed in the Protestant mainline church. It surely appears that this is what has happened in the Protestant mainline church, in the early 21st century, and it continues to do so. The remarkable growth of the “Nones,” those who show that they have “no religious preference,” come primarily from mainline church backgrounds, and not conservative evangelical church backgrounds (learn about Dr. Tricia Bruce’s research on the “Nones” here).

As a result, the type of biblical illiteracy I grew up with in the mainline church has only increased, as that population has become more secularized. Such people do not have Rachel Held Evans’ type of hang ups about the Bible, because they do not know anything about the Bible.

Welcome to the postmodern, post-Christian world.

True, Western culture in general has become increasingly secularized since the 1960s, but evangelical Christianity, as expressed in a number of Bonhoeffer’s earlier books, has not gone away. In fact, the memory of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been rehabilitated, as one who faithfully kept the faith. We have books like Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, that continues to inspire many evangelical Christians today, to hold fast to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy, despite the pressures of a culture, that seeks to either destroy, or merely ignore, historical, Christian faith.

So, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have lived longer, what really would he have become? Would he have become that advocate for “religionless Christianity,” a backing away from evangelical faith, where the “strange new world of the Bible,” that converted Swiss theologian Karl Barth, from an ultimately corrosive, theological liberalism, towards a more orthodox faith, recedes from view, a move that mainline liberal Christians from decades ago predicted? Or would he have seen his explorations of doubt, in his Tegel prison cell, as a temporary detour on his spiritual journey, that would eventually lead him back on the path, to a more firmly held confidence in the God of the Bible, affirming a faith that has been historically received, down through the centuries?

I wonder the same thing about Rachel Held Evans. Would she have continued on in her journey, following the trajectory that she was apparently following, that tended to follow nearly in lock step with the surrounding, secularizing culture? Or would she come to a full stop, and sense that she had gone too far away from the historic teachings of the Christian faith, and return more (though surely not completely) towards the faith of her youth?

We will never know this side of eternity. But I do wonder about it.

If you would like to support Rachel Held Evans’ family, here is where you can go to help.

 


Who Was Mary Magdalene?

9th in a series.

I am going down a bit of a rabbit hole in this post, so hang on, as it is going somewhere… When many Christians read the Gospels, they will often smash different elements of the stories together, creating a type of “super-narrative,” neglecting the subtle and not-so subtle nuances employed by the four, individual Gospel writers. The question of, “who was Mary Magdelene?,” is a case in point.

In 591, Pope Gregory the Great popularized the idea that Mary Magdalene was “the repentant prostitute.” You see this idea conveyed in a famous scene in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus intervenes to save the woman caught in adultery. Gibson has her dressed as a prostitute, none other than Mary Magdalene.

What Pope Gregory did, that inspired folks like Mel Gibson, was to take Mary of Bethany, a woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (John 11:1-2), another unnamed sinner, who poured alabaster oil on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), and this woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), and then combine all three women figures into yet still another, single composite character, Mary Magdalene, named in Luke 8:1-2.

In 1517, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a French Bible scholar during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, wrote a treatise arguing that the three “Mary’s”; Mary of Bethany, the unnamed “Mary the sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magadelene, were actually different people. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was reviled by the church establishment for his views, challenging church tradition, and he had to flee France, to save his life.

Some beloved church traditions can be hard to break.

However, it is important to note that among the Eastern Orthodox, this tradition established by Pope Gregory never took root. In the Christian East, Mary Magdalene is instead often known as “an apostle to the Apostles.” She was the one who announced to the male disciples that Jesus was Risen from the dead (John 20:11-18).

This one little piece of information is significant in the debate over women in church leadership today. For example, some contend that women should not teach a man, unless a man in present. After all, when Priscilla sought to instruct Apollos in “the way of God more accurately,” her husband Aquila, was right there with her, and joining in the teaching effort (Acts 18:26 ESV).

But here, when Mary Magdalene goes off to inform the male disciples, as to what the Risen Lord Jesus had said to her, she was acting solo. But those who reject the practice of having women as teachers over men, without qualification, should note this important story of Mary Magdalene. While no men accompanied her when she presented her case for the resurrection to the male disciples, she was still acting under the spiritual authority of Jesus Himself, who as we should remind ourselves, was male.

So, was Mary Magdalene “teaching?” If so, in what way was she “teaching?”

Recovering the Historical Mary Magdalene

Though some Roman Catholic scholars have tried to re-piece together Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene, the majority of scholars today agree with Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples that such a composite association of Mary Magdalene is highly unlikely. For one thing, “Mary of Bethany,” came from the town of Bethany. “Mary Magdalene,” or “Mary the Magdalene,” is another way of saying “Mary of Magdala.” In other words, she was from Magdala, which is a different town, nowhere near Bethany. Magdala is near Galilee, in the north of Israel. Bethany, is in the south, near Jerusalem.

The unnamed “Mary the sinner” of Luke 7 shows up right before Mary Magdalene, in Luke 8, but there is no obvious link between the two women. Though it is possible to link the unnamed “Mary the sinner” with Mary of Bethany, because of their similar treatment of Jesus’ feet, nothing else in these two episodes links these two women together.

Furthermore, nowhere in the Gospels is the woman caught in adultery ever identified as being Mary Magdalene!

Modern scholarship confirms that the name “Mary” was a very popular name among Jewish women, in the first century, so the confusion is understandable, which partly explains why the Gospels specifically identify “Mary of Magdala” apart from “Mary of Bethany.”

Aside from the risk to d’Étaples’ life, you could say that little harm has been done here by this confusion of the Mary’s. No critical theological doctrine is at stake. Gregory probably meant well by trying to simplify the story of these Mary’s.

But the biggest problem with Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene approach, is that it has generated endless speculation into the notion of Mary Magdalene as “the repentant prostitute,” particularly among those who love the thought of scandal:

Was she really that repentant? The Gospels’ presentation of Mary Magdalene does identify her as being in Jesus’ immediate circle. Perhaps she and Jesus had some type of … you know…. (hush, hush, whisper, whisper)…  thing going on?

There is no end to this type of craziness. Novelist Dan Brown made a mint off of his blockbuster book, The DaVinci Code, that propagated the conspiracy theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and had children, the existence of whom the Vatican has been suppressing for centuries, somewhere in France. This is right up there with NASA faking the moon landing on a Hollywood-type set, off in a desert out in Arizona. But a biblically illiterate public today still somehow manages to eat this type of stuff up, just like the Albigensian heresy group did back in the 12th and 13th centuries!

Mary Magdalene continues to fascinate people, though the Gospels only give us a limited amount of information about her. Her biggest role in the Gospels remains that she is explicitly named in the New Testament, as among the women after the crucifixion, the first to be witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).

Jesus clearly gives Mary certain instructions to pass onto the other male disciples (see also John 20:1-18). But does this necessarily make her the first woman pastor or elder?

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena (1835) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov.

New Developments in Our Understanding of Mary Magdalene?

Controversially, some have recently tried to place her as a prominent leader in Jesus’ band, alongside the twelve male disciples, giving her a type of spiritual authority role, thus raising another round of discussion, regarding the roles of women in the leadership of the church today. But we should be very cautious with such speculation.

A case in point is the 2018 film released in the United Kingdom, Mary Magdalene, giving British audiences a new look at who Mary Magdalene might have been. Mary Magdalene wins support from scholars for steering away from the image of Mary Magdalene as a “the repentant prostitute.” But in other respects, the reports are very mixed, and not altogether exciting. Some critics say that Mary Magdalene leans too heavily on the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. Gnosticism is a heresy that has been condemned by the church in every age. The likelihood of the film’s release in the United States remains in doubt.

The esteemed New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado has seen the movie. Though he was not overly impressed by the film, in his informed review, Hurtado carefully summarizes the early speculative traditions about Mary Magdalene, for the serious Bible geek. Even a prominent Australian egalitarian blogger, Marg Mowczko, panned the film. The trailer for the movie that might never make it to the United States is below.

If you want a good, in-depth scholarly explanation for who Mary Magdalene really was, dispelling conspiracy theories, take about 17 minutes for Dr. Michael Heiser’s FringePop321 video (Dr. Heiser is a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and author of The Unseen Realm). The renewed interest in “Mary of Magdala,” through books and movies that speculate a lot, may actually spur thoughtful study of the more reliable, biblical framework behind this most mysterious and attractive of Jesus’ early followers.

In the next few blog posts in this series, we will discuss 1 Timothy 2:12, and the nearby verses, one of the most hotly debated passages in all of the New Testament, that divides complementarians and egalitarians. Stay tuned, and learn what the fuss is all about…..

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