My friend and one of my pastors, Hunter Ruch, sat me down after lunch not too long ago to record two sessions for the Williamsburg Community Chapel Institute. The Chapel Institute is a ministry of the Williamsburg Community Chapel, in my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Just a few comments about what you will see and hear. First, Hunter introduced me as the senior networking “director” of IT at the College, which is not accurate. I am more properly a “senior network engineer,” part of a team of IT staff, though my main responsibility is in the area of architecture and design. Secondly, I got a little lost halfway through the second segment, explaining some of the problems associated with “Christian universalism,” but hopefully I got back on track!! Please let me know what you think in the comment section below.
Iconic view of Prague Castle, in the Czech Republic, on a beautiful October day. The highlight for me in 2022!!
Towards the end of the year, I try to post a blog entry looking back over the past year in blogging, mainly to comment on some of the favorite books that I have read, looking back over some important issues in our world with respect to the Christian faith, and perhaps taking a glance into the future for the blog.
2022 turned out to be a special year because of a trip that my wife and I took to Europe, celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. It was the absolute highlight of the year for me. Three weeks. Six countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Italy. The trip really tapped into my love of church history, and I particularly enjoying meeting up with some good friends who live in Sicily. I will have a few extra posts to come out in 2023 that will chronicle a bit more of our trip.
Some Favorite Podcasts… (To Catch Up On)
OKay, this might all sound a bit rambling, as it is a hodge-podge of things I have been thinking through towards the end of 2022, but I will go with it anyway…. (otherwise, please feel free to skip this post and go about the rest of your day: Happy New Year!)….
First, let us talk about a podcast update: In 2022 I decided to take on some European history audiobooks to get me primed for our trip this past fall, on my work commute. I am still listening through some of them to finish them up! But it meant that I had to postpone listening to some of my favorite podcasts, to be picked up (hopefully) in 2023. I will just list five here:
Theology in the Raw. Evangelical theologian Preston Sprinkle has done some great interviews with people who are having an impact on what thoughtful Christians wrestle with in the 2020’s.
Sean McDowell YouTube. The son of pioneer evangelical apologist, Josh McDowell, has great interviews with scholars concerning issues of Christian apologetics. Excellent stuff on YouTube.
Naked Bible Podcast. Dr. Michael Heiser is top notch at doing in-depth Scripture study. Not exactly verse-by-verse exposition, but pretty close to it. Heiser is struggling with cancer right now, but he still manages to pump out great content every week. He is currently in 1 Samuel.
Bad Books of the Bible. Eastern Orthodox scholars Joel Miller and Jamie Bennett took a hiatus for much of 2022 in this podcast on the Old Testament Apocrypha, after looking at 1 Maccabees. But towards the end of 2022, they jumped into the “Wisdom of Solomon.” My fellow Protestants miss this, because we do not have these books in our Protestant Bibles, but even the leaders of the magisterial Reformation, like John Calvin and Martin Luther, suggested that Christians read these books, not so much for establishing Christian doctrine, but rather to be edified by Jewish writings written between the Old Testament and New Testament periods. Offbeat for Protestants, yes, but very helpful for understanding the background of the New Testament.
There are a couple of new podcasts out, that do verse-by-verse exposition, that have been recommended to me, but I honestly have not had time to check out myself…. but hopefully in 2023…. if someone knows about these, I would love to hear a review!:
“The Bible is a religious text that is revered by many people, particularly Christians, as a sacred and divinely inspired work. Some people believe that the Bible is the word of God and that it contains teachings and wisdom that can guide and inform their daily lives. Others may view the Bible as an important historical and cultural document, but do not necessarily believe that it is divinely inspired. Ultimately, whether or not one believes that the Bible is the word of God is a matter of personal belief and interpretation. It is important to approach the Bible, or any other religious text, with an open mind and to consider it thoughtfully and critically, rather than simply accepting it as true without questioning or examining it.”
There is a lot insight to ChatGPT’s answer, that anticipates some of the concerns for the church I will address later in this blog post….. How about another question:
“Is Christianity true?”
Here is the first part of ChatGPT’s response:
“It is not possible for me to determine the truth or falsehood of any particular religious belief, as truth is a subjective concept that can vary from person to person……”
Mmmm. Is that really the best answer? “Truth is a subjective concept that can vary from person to person?” Sure, there is a subjective element, but does ChatGPT not believe in objective truth at all? What do you think, dear Veracity reader?
OK. Here is another question, but let us try something else that is not theologically-oriented:
“Who is the best soccer/football player in the world? Is it Lionel Messi?”
“It is difficult to definitively say who the best soccer player in the world is, as this is a subjective question and opinions on the matter can vary widely. Many people consider various players to be the best at different times and for different reasons. Lionel Messi is certainly one of the most highly regarded and successful soccer players of all time, and he has consistently been mentioned as one of the best players in the world. He has won numerous awards and accolades, including six Ballon d’Or awards, which are given to the best player in the world as voted on by international journalists. However, other players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Pelé, have also been widely regarded as some of the best soccer players of all time, and it is ultimately up to each individual to decide who they believe is the best based on their own criteria and perspectives.”
Ah. This answer goes a long way to explain why ChatGPT’s partial answer to the previous question was so non-committal.
Let us go for one more question. A simply “yes” or “no” might do for some, but my guess is that ChatGPT’s answer will be nuanced….. perhaps a bit too-nuanced. What do you think about this? Here we go:
“Did Jesus of Nazareth physically rise from the dead?”
“The belief in the resurrection of Jesus, or the belief that Jesus physically rose from the dead after his death, is a central tenet of the Christian faith. According to the biblical accounts, Jesus was crucified by the Romans and died on the cross, but he rose from the dead on the third day after his death and appeared to his followers. The belief in Jesus’ resurrection is thought to be a key aspect of the Christian faith, as it is seen as a sign of Jesus’ divinity and a fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
However, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is a matter of faith and belief, and it is not something that can be proven or disproven through empirical evidence. Different people may hold different beliefs about the resurrection, and it is up to each individual to decide what they believe to be true based on their own experiences, knowledge, and perspective.”
ChatGPT is respectful of Christian belief, but I can still tell that the minds that created ChatGPT hold Christian truth claims at arm’s length. The moral to this lesson is this: If the only source for getting answers to the big questions of life is from the Internet, then the answers you might be looking for from ChatGPT might come up rather short.
Well, I hope that was fun!! ….. Now onto more serious matters….
Me with my longtime friend, Thomas Coyner: 1963-2022
A Brief Remembrance…
Though I experienced a lot of joy in 2022, I also had times of sadness. Just now on the last week of the year, my last remaining uncle died, which I am still reeling from right now, so I will not write about it more… therefore, I will move onto the next difficult moment…..
The toughest part of 2022 was perhaps losing a dear teenage friend of mine, Thomas Coyner. We met in high school, and we really bonded together as friends on a two-week wilderness Christian camping trip. Though I had grown up in a pretty liberal mainline Protestant church, I knew very little about the Bible, and less about having a personal relationship with Jesus. Thomas really helped me out, coming from a family background where so many of his family members were strong, well-grounded followers of Jesus.
Thomas drifted away from me after I went off to college, getting mixed up with the wrong friends, where drugs wrecked havoc in his life. It took a drug-related arrest and felony prison sentence to final bring him back around, and restore our friendship. Sadly, a genetic muscular disease started to degrade his life over several decades, even while he took upon himself the task of caring for his aging parents, who had their own serious health difficulties. Eventually, Thomas was unable to effectively care for himself beyond rudimentary tasks. The disease impacted his ability to speak, but it did not diminish his cheerful attitude. He never complained about his ailing condition.
I was able to spend an afternoon with him, and his immediate family, a few days before his death, where we got the photograph above together. I will miss my high school friend, Thomas Coyner.
Some End of Year Reflections…
Earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth II died, one of the world’s most devout Christian leaders, with a very evangelical faith clearly evident in all of her Christmas messages.. Interestingly, her son, Charles III gave his first Christmas message towards the end of 2022.
If you listen carefully, Charles gives a message similar to his mother’s, but with a slight twist. As noted by The Washington Post, Charles thinks of himself more as a “defender of faith” versus “defender of the faith.” Can you tell the difference?
“The Chosen” Mormon Controversy
I need to add some balance to what I am going to say next….I am not a big television watcher at all, but I know that many of my Christian friends have enjoyed the hit multi-season series, “The Chosen.” an in-depth dramatic presentation of the life of Christ, that has been viewed by millions.
The series is the brain child of Dallas Jenkins, son of the popular novelist Jerry Jenkins, who co-authored with the late Tim Lahaye the previously popular film series, Left Behind. Dallas Jenkins is a film-maker himself, and The Chosen has become the most successful crowd-funded film project of all time.
I have to admit that I have only seen one or two episodes myself. Not knowing much more than that, I have to say that I am glad that something like The Chosen is available, as an alternative to much of what is being pumped out rather frequently by traditional television media, the revamped Disney corporation, and Netflix. If The Chosen does nothing more than to encourage people to dig into the study of the Bible, then I think that it is worth it, despite any criticisms.
Frankly, a lot of the criticisms and calls for a boycott seem way over the top for me. Yes, VidAngel, the distributor for the show, and who helped to build Android and iPhone apps for watching The Chosen, was started by some Mormons. And yes, various scenes in the films, depicting the city of Jerusalem, were filmed on property owned by the LDS (Latter Day Saints). And furthermore, yes, Dallas Jenkins has become friends with a number of Mormons who have expressed great interest in making The Chosen a success.
But just because Mormons have been involved in the distribution and set creation for the project does not necessarily mean that “The Chosen” is actively promoting Mormon doctrine about God. You have to actually look at the script for the film series and examine what is being said to figure that out.
For that matter, my car was probably built in Japan, with at least some part of that car having been installed by someone who was an active adherent to the Shinto religion, which is completely different from the Christian faith. Should I stop driving my car now??
Guilt by association is never a sufficient reason alone to condemn something.
If you think I am just being rather unconcerned about the importance of true doctrine, just take a few minutes to listen to this following interview that Christian apologist Melissa Dougherty had with Dallas Jenkins. Melissa is a former New Ager, who became a Christian a few years ago, and she has a very helpful YouTube channel, that would be of benefit for someone wrestling with beliefs associated with the New Age Movement. Melissa asks Dallas some tough questions, which is good! This all being said, The Chosen is clearly introducing material into the screenplay, as the Gospels themselves are highly selective, and do not neatly translate well to film without some adaptation. In other words, viewing the The Chosen is no substitute for actually reading and studying the Bible for yourself. If you think my fairly positive and tentative support for “The Chosen,” given what knowledge I do have, is not adequately based, then I would like to know.
Retired pastor and author Brian McLaren identifies with being a “progressive Christian,” but just barely. McLaren was once one of the most influential leaders in American Evangelicalism nearly 20 years ago. Times have changed.
Brian McLaren: The Theological Driftings of a Former “Emergent” Evangelical Leader Turned “Progressive Christian” Turned ????
With that out of the way, and yet before I launch into my primary focus of my “year in review,” I would like to share a sobering story to frame what I will say next….. For a number of years, I have had a book on my shelf by Brian D. McLaren, a now-retired “non-denominational” pastor, entitled A Generous Orthodoxy. This is a book I had been meaning to read, for two main reasons: (1) the book came highly recommended to me, and (2) I loved the title. The title conjures up the idea that Christians need to get past all of the denominational bickering of the past and move on towards a “generous orthodoxy” that simply focuses on the ethics of Jesus.
Who could argue with that? Well, … read on…. I really resonated with that type of message (or a least I thought I did), but I just never got around to reading the book, despite the urging of other friends who suggested that I read it. As I write this, the book still sits in my bookshelf, occasionally drawing me in to dip in and read it…. but I am not sure if I really want to anymore.
That made me go “tilt,” but I need to carefully explain this, as a lot of these kinds of conversations generate more heat than light…..
Should A Christian Attend a “Gay Wedding”? Did Brian McLaren Cross a Line Here?
To this day, I can appreciate the difficult situation McLaren had in trying to know how to best love and support his own son. Even among historically orthodox Christians, like myself, who do not believe that the Bible affirms same-sex marriage, there is no uniform consensus on how to respond to such a situation. After all, if someone receives an invitation to attend a same-sex wedding, whether it be a family member or not, there is no explicit text in Scripture that addresses this.
The Gospel Coalition posts an article saying that attendance at a same-sex wedding inherently communicates that the attendee is endorsing the union, and thus advises the Christian to respectfully decline such invitations, even for a family member. Instead, a Christian should suggest an alternative, such as inviting the friend (or family member) and the significant other over for dinner, as a meaningful gesture of friendship, or something along those lines. But attending a same-sex wedding should be off-limits for the committed believer in Jesus.
Sometimes Christians in our churches, and those who are investigating Christianity, have questions, looking for a place where such questions can be discussed, but they do not always sense the freedom for having such an open dialogue. Quite often, conversations are shut down before they even get a chance to start, such that those who are looking to have those conversations begin to look elsewhere.
Then there is the recent controversy regarding Amy Grant……I have not kept up with the whole story, but the recent news that Christian contemporary music mega-star Amy Grant will be hosting her niece’s lesbian wedding on Grant’s farm tells us that even the most applauded Christian celebrities are not far from being faced with such a difficult dilemma.
Here is my approach, and I would think that Brian McLaren would support this: When those deeply close to you make decisions you do not agree with, I would want to carefully navigate how to keep a friendship or family relationship growing, and maintain a listening posture, without feeling like I was betraying my own deeply held convictions or dishonoring the Lord, trusting that God would impart wisdom to me and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work to reach someone’s heart, for the sake of the Gospel.
I have never been to a same-sex wedding, nor have I been invited, but I have been to other kinds of weddings for non-believing friends of mine, who do not view marriage the same way as I see it taught in the Bible. I went to those weddings not as an endorsement of the couple’s view of marriage, but because I wanted to maintain the friendship. In some cases, my going to the wedding served as an entry-point for a deeper, spiritual conversation after the wedding, for which I was grateful, that I probably might not have had otherwise. On the other hand, I can think of other kinds of supposedly “traditional” weddings where I simply could not attend, as I knew that my presence there would have been an implied endorsement.
Yet while I want to be as “generous” as I can be with Brian McLaren, nevertheless I find some serious, serious problems here. I agree with McLaren that Christians need to more proactively, intentionally walk with LGBTQ folks through their journeys. However, actually performing a same-sex wedding, and trying to do so within a Christian context, goes far, far beyond the category of Scriptural faithfulness.
In other words, to answer the question posed in the subheading above, yes, I do believe that Brian McLaren crossed a line here…. and it is rather blatant.
Like others like him, Brian McLaren sought to justify his position by finding all sorts of examples where Christian leaders, or even ordinary Christians, have fostered some type of abuse, inflicting harm on those should have instead received support from God’s people. Sadly, this is not that hard to do. But just because some Christians have used the Bible as a weapon does not give us permission to undermine or redefine 2,000 years of consistent, received church teaching, thus stretching the boundaries of a “generous orthodoxy” to its uttermost limit, and even beyond.
I am pretty sure that our church leaders who prepared the teaching handouts for that training class did not know that much about Brian McLaren’s backstory. They just liked the article that McLaren wrote as offering excellent wisdom for a church small group leader. But it did make me wonder, “What was the process for vetting material to be used for training small group leaders in our church? Who is really responsible for that?”
McLaren’s new position on same-sex marriage was not consistent with the traditional perspective on marriage described in the membership covenant of our church. My question was simply this: Even though McLaren’s views on marriage were not part of the training materials that I received that evening in our church, I wondered if it really was the wisest thing to be distributing such written material authored by McLaren in our church meeting. Were we inadvertently platforming McLaren’s teachings, even though his stated position on marriage went contrary to the views of marriage held by our church’s members? Could we not have used similar teaching material written by a different author, who was more orthodox in their thinking?
Since then, Brian McLaren dropped off of my radar. No more Brian McLaren article handouts were being handed out at small group leader training sessions. Perhaps leaders in my church picked up on the story about Brian McLaren and wisely chose not to distribute his teaching materials any more, in an effort to avoid some type of endorsement conflicting with our church covenant. That was years ago, so I can only guess.
To sum up, it seems to me that McLaren has journeyed far from the comparatively modest explorations of his works of twenty plus years ago. At this point, he seems to have adopted a process metaphysic coupled with a metaphorical view of theology that ranks the value of doctrines as forms of life that spur pro-individual, social, and environmental behaviors….. in keeping with [McLaren’s] pragmatic orientation, he is not particularly troubled if others achieve those same ends wholly outside a Christian form of life. Indeed, one might say that on McLaren’s view Christianity is an incidental husk, one that is useful insofar and only as it aids us in loving one another…..
…. So is McLaren a Christian? No doubt, his many fans will give a hearty yes while his many conservative evangelical critics will respond with an equally hearty no! …. I submit that McLaren … [has adopted] a sweeping skepticism about the truth status of Christian doctrine but who nonetheless advocates remaining in the Christian form of life so as to increase love of neighbor and the mystery that stands behind it all.
Frankly, I do not see a whole lot of difference between McLaren’s attempt to redefine Christianity and outright disbelief in the Christian faith. For if McLaren had simply stated that he was no longer a Christian, then it would sadden me, but it would have come across to me as being way more honest.
Instead, Brian McLaren’s thinking these days comes across as though he has embraced the “Gospel of Wishful Thinking” more than the historical Gospel of Jesus. If Rauser’s assessment of McLaren’s latest book is correct, then I must confess that I am both grieved and bothered by where McLaren is at now. Does it grieve and bother you?
Is there such a thing as an inevitable “slippery slope?” I would argue that going down a “slippery slope” is indeed a logical fallacy, as not everyone who embraces one particular “progressive” expression of Christianity necessarily is on their way down to apostasy. It would be going too far to say that Dallas Jenkins is sliding down a slope towards Mormonism and away from orthodox Christianity. However, in the case of a Brian McLaren, the slope away from historic, orthodox Christianity appears to be well-lubricated for him.
Some people are drawn to folks like Brian McLaren, because they resonate with McLaren’s on-going concerns about doubt and disillusionment, as they wrestle with their own doubts. However, I would pushback on this to say that there are also those who are drawn to progressive Christians like McLaren, only to be driven deeper into their doubts, and abandon their faith.
Did Jesus “Change His Mind” Because of “Mistakes” That He Made?…. Brian McLaren’s New Reading of a Somewhat Difficult Text
If you think I am misrepresenting Brian McLaren, or being too hard on him, let me share with you something that McLaren said in a recent interview, promoting Do I Stay Christian? In that interview, McLaren commented on Jesus’ first miracle, as recorded in the Gospel of John, at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-12 ESV). When Mary, Jesus’ mother, comes to Jesus saying that the wedding party had run out of wine, Jesus gives what appears to be a rather stiff rebuke (v.4):
“Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
Interestingly, Mary then speaks to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Oddly, at first glance, Jesus then proceeds to turn the water into wine. Admittedly, it is a rather strange passage. I mean, would you ever talk to your mother like that?
Sadly, a lot of church sermons will simply brush that issue aside and move on to talk about Jesus’ power that turns water into wine. So, kudos to Brian McLaren for not side-stepping the obvious. But a careful exploration of a good study Bible, like the ESV Study Bible, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, or the Christian Standard Bible Apologetics Study Bible, three sources that I consulted and highly recommend, might help illuminate what is going on.
Evangelical scholarship on John 2:4 broadly indicates that Jesus is warning his mother not to try to press in too hard and insist that Jesus inaugurate the full coming of the Kingdom of God, right there and then. Instead, Jesus performs the miracle as a sign that points towards the future coming of the Kingdom, a good example of typological interpretation of biblical prophecy at work within the Gospels themselves, whereby the miracle at the wedding at Cana is a “type” that looks forward to the full revelation of the heavenly wedding banquet, where Christ the bridegroom is united with his bride, the Church. The messianic times were breaking through into human history at the wedding of Cana, but it would not be until Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross that the full impact of the Messiah’s coming would be felt.
The NET (New English Translation) notes that the verse here is actually using an idiomatic expression common in first century Greek, “Woman, what to me and to you.” This idiom suggests that the speaker is saying that the matter at hand is simply none of his or her business. In other words, Jesus is saying to Mary, “That is your business, how am I involved? My hour has not yet come.”
McLaren begs to differ with all of this, suggesting that in verse 4 Jesus is being “a little bit cheeky” saying to his mother that he will not perform the miracle. However, later, upon seeing his mother’s insistence for Jesus to do something, Jesus gives into his mother’s wishes and performs the miracle anyway. In a sense, McLaren is saying that Jesus has made a mistake, then realizes his error, and then “changes his mind” and acts differently. For McLaren, this incident shows him just how human Jesus really was; that is, Jesus made “mistakes” and learns from them.
What exactly does McLaren mean by “mistakes” here? It is one thing to say that Jesus did not know everything. Mark 13:12 tells us explicitly that Jesus did not know exactly when the Kingdom would arrive in its fullness. In his humanity, Jesus set aside the divine attribute of omniscience, which explains how Jesus was able to learn, and increase “in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52 ESV).
However, the problem here is the kind of “mistake” McLaren believes Jesus is making at the wedding of Cana. It implies, at least in my mind, that Jesus is at first a bit abrupt with his mother, then he realizes how he was in the wrong in doing so, and therefore he then rectifies the situation by performing the miracle anyway, as though Jesus was acting out some form of repentance.
Dear reader: Do you think Jesus, as the Son of God, who is without sin, would really behave this way?
Ponder that a bit before you read on about my year in review……
Clarke’s Blogging Year in Review…. a Series on “Historical Criticism” of the Bible
My primary focus in early 2022 was writing a multipart blog series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible. Simply put, “historical criticism” is about getting at the story “behind the text” of Scripture. Two current cultural trends prompted me to address this topic. First, the stunning decline of the mainline liberal Protestant church has created a new crisis in evangelical Christianity. Many mainline liberal Protestant churches, that stood on the corners of 20th century Main Street, are simply dying today, with rapidly aging congregations. Unless something disrupts the current trend, a number of the formerly largest Protestant denominations will cease to exist within the next few decades, or they will become minor cultural oddities.
As a result, more and more people who once populated the Protestant mainline are making their way into evangelical non-denominational and interdenominational churches. While this may appear to be a boon for evangelicalism, in many ways the same problems that have taken down the Protestant mainline (and put them on the “sideline”) are now entering the evangelical megachurch world. Sociologists often associate this as a consequence of the rise of the “nones” and the “dones.”
This ties into the second cultural trend, associated with the rise of social media. The current fascination with stories of “deconstruction” within evangelical Christianity showing up on Facebook, Instagram, etc., reveals the shallowness of much of American megachurch Christianity, and the failure to address the challenge posed by the “historical criticism” of the Bible, that is shaking many folks’ confidence in Scripture as God’s Word. Briefly stated, “deconstruction” refers to the experience of those raised in our churches, some of whom are simply asking good yet tough questions about Christianity. Admittedly, there are those who have been “deconstructing” , who yet remain in the faith. They find their Gospel footing again, and have a renewed confidence in the God of the Bible. We should be grateful for that.
However, there are others who are either walking away from the faith altogether, or redefining faith with meanings that differ significantly from any form of historic orthodox faith. Some call the latter challenge, of redefining faith, as part of the progressive Christianity movement. The first post in the series begins here.
What is most interesting about this interview with Brandan Robertson is in how he redefines faith with meanings far afield from historic orthodox Christianity. He redefines terminology, such as “the Bible is inspired,” to mean something completely different from how evangelical and other historically orthodox Christians think about the inspiration of the Bible. While not all “progressive Christians” can be easily lumped into the same category, such as what Brandan Robertson describes about himself, a common feature in progressive Christianity is the redefining of classic Christian terminology, also including “resurrection,” “atonement,” “sin,” “hell,” “Jesus’ divine nature,” “second coming of Jesus,” “marriage,” “male,” “female,” etc., this list goes on, to mean things radically different from how historically orthodox Christians have viewed these things for 2000 years. For example, Brandan Robertson believes that when Luke 2:52 says that Jesus as a young boy “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man,” that this means that Jesus “made mistakes.” As in the story above about Brian McLaren, does this suggest that Brandan Robertson believes that Jesus sinned? Watch the video and decide for yourself:
While some efforts towards “progressive Christianity” can be positive, healthy reactions against a wooden, fear-based fundamentalism, other expressions of “progressive Christianity” are not.
What is new about this “progressive Christianity” movement is that it is not simply taking place in the dying liberal Protestant mainline. Rather, it is taking place right in the heart of evangelical megachurch Christianity. Brandan Robertson did not grow up in a mainline Protestant church, but rather, he is a graduate of Moody Bible College, a leading evangelical institution of higher education, and he has served as a pastor at a “nondenominational” or “interdenominational” church that markets itself as being “evangelical in style but radically progressive in the message.” This is not your grandmother’s fundamentalist church!!
I read several books in 2022 that dived into the story of “historical criticism” of the Bible, and various aspects of the “deconstruction” phenomena, and the progressive Christianity movement, which I blogged about in the “historical criticism” series:
A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, by John Barton. Barton is a liberal Anglican scholar at Oxford who wrote a very readable summary of how mainline liberal Protestants look at the Bible. Barton’s views are now becoming a common feature of progressive Christianity, that is seeping into evangelical megachurch Christianity today.
Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is probably the most well-known critic of evangelical Christian faith writing today. My review of his book about the afterlife was by the far the longest and most detailed book review I wrote this past year…. and probably the most important.
Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief, by David Bentley Hart. D.B. Hart is perhaps one of most influential theologians living today (and one of the most entertaining writers I have ever read!). Some fifteen years ago, Hart was a champion of a Christian critique of the New Atheist movement in his Atheist Delusions, a book that was recommended to me by many evangelical friends of mine. Now Hart is an emboldened, and down-right dogmatic proponent of a Christian universalism. Despite his Eastern Orthodox background, the story of David Bentley Hart is the story of someone who started off on the right foot but who now has gone into a fully progressive Christianity direction.
Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle, by Paula Fredriksen. Paula Fredriksen, a world-class New Testament scholar, argues that Paul did not convert to Christianity such that he left his Judaism behind. Instead, Paul saw Christianity as the fulfillment of Old Testament Jewish promises. Even though Dr. Fredriksen does not share my evangelical Christian theological convictions, I contend that historically orthodox Christians can still learn something from her insights into Paul.
In 2023, I plan on digging into some more pressing issues related to “historical criticism” of the Bible. I wish more evangelically-minded churches would take this challenge more seriously. The future of the church, and the faith of our children depends on it.
More on the Debate about How Men and Women Can Flourish Together in Both the Church and in the Family
In 2022, I also did a two part series on the ever-present complementarian-egalitarian issue; i.e. about the role of women in the church and family, focusing on two different books:
In 2023, I plan on reading one more book on this topic and blog about it, as well as writing a blog series on the related topic of head coverings, as discussed in 1 Corinthians 11, which is a challenge for any Christian, complementarian or egalitarian. Then I want to move on to something else.
I would recommend Mike Winger’s YouTube series that covers the complementarian/egalitarian debate in-depth. Mike is a Christian apologist and a pastor, so he is not an academic by profession, which some critics fault him for. But he does a decent job covering the different views. He lands on the “moderate complementarian” side of the debate, not taking an extreme complementarian approach (like DeYoung), but he does not embrace egalitarianism (Peppiatt). Just a warning: many of Mike’s videos are long, but he is a good presenter, even if you do not agree with his conclusions, and I have listened to him for hours at a stretch.
Some egalitarian scholars have written some responses to his videos. I have not seen that many rebuttals from the more extreme complementarian direction yet, but I am sure that they will come, too. The debate just seems to go on… and on…. and on….and on…….. Some complementarian arguments I find are not very convincing, but on the other side, a number of egalitarian arguments are just as unconvincing, if not worse. I tend to land near Mike Winger, but I am more moderate than he is. A lot of extreme complementarians seem like they just want to double-down against any reasonably egalitarian argument that is actually pretty good. Like Mike, I really wanted to be convinced of egalitarianism, but I simply could not get there without thinking that the data was being distorted to an unfair degree by some egalitarian authors. I want to try to find some middle ground in this debate, but it just seems to be getting harder and harder as time goes on….. *SIGH*.
On the other hand, the controversy over gender in the church today has helped me to dig deeper into the Scriptures, in order to explore the answers found in God’s Word.
Back in the early 1990s, I heard an Eastern Orthodox bishop predict that the debate about gender within the church would be the defining theological debate for the next fifty years, paralleling the debate over the deity of Christ that eventually gave us the Nicene Creed in the 4th century. That was twenty years before public opinion in the West shifted dramatically on the question of same-sex marriage and before most people began to think seriously about transgender issues. Almost thirty years after hearing that prediction I have come to believe that this Eastern Orthodox bishop was 100% correct!!
Divine Violence and the Character of God , by Claude Mariottini. Dr. Mariottini invited me to review his book and I was glad to do so. It is an extremely difficult and delicate topic, but something made ever more pressing due to the war in the Ukraine.
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, by Ronald Hutton. This is perhaps the best go-to reference source for explaining how we got many of the holidays in the United States. It is pretty dense and academic, but packed with evidence to dispel many of the popular misconceptions about where Christmas, Easter, and Halloween came from.
I finally got around to reading C.S. Lewis’ classic, Mere Christianity. Simply excellent. A must read. Why did I wait so many years before I read this??
Aside from listening to Audible and ChristianAudio.com books on my work commute, I have to say that YouTube is still where it is at to get excellent content regarding Christians apologetics.
FINALLY, here is my book of the year, that I can recommend to every Christian who reads Veracity:
Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, by Bill Mounce. Readable and practical. Dr. Mounce is a senior Bible translator, who has had an enormous impact on both the NIV and ESV bible translations, which are two of the most popular Bible translations available today. This is perhaps the best single volume you can get that addresses common issues faced by Christians today when sharing their faith and their confidence in the Bible.
Now a few more little “odds-and-ends”…. I have been enjoying the PourOver, a Christian summary of the news, without all of the vitriol of the 24-hour news cycle and social media madness. Recently, they recommended a new Bible app, Dwell, that I might try out for 2023.
Speaking of news, for years I was one of those loyal NPR (National Public Radio) listeners, who faithfully listened to NPR’s All Things Considered radio program almost every evening on my commute home from work. More than a few times I would have one of those “driveway moments,” as I continued to listen spellbound to one of NPR’s stories. I always knew that there was a bit of liberal bias in their reporting, but I thought they did at least a decent job interviewing someone on the “other side” of the issue.
I gave up on NPR for two reasons, the main one because I started to shift to podcasts and audiobooks for my commute. The other reason was that I kept getting the sense that NPR stopped trying as much to enter into dialogue with diverse points of view. But this year, I learned that a whole cross-section of former NPR supporters, not just evangelical Christians like me, have given up on NPR, particularly over the past 5-7 years.
What amazes me is that the vast majority of this “I stopped listening to NPR when….” group are actually secular-minded or others with a liberal political bent. Apparently, NPR has gone so far to the cultural left that not even someone like my mother, who was a life-long political liberal, would be able to stand what has happened to NPR. Author and public-intellectual, Peter Boghossian, who would describe himself as a classic liberal and an atheist, put out a multi-episode podcast, All Things Re-Considered, featuring interviews with such former NPR listeners, and even former NPR employees, who have become disillusioned with NPR. The days of a widely trusted news journalist, like a Walter Cronkite, are sadly far behind us.
My book reading (or should I say, “listening”) list keeps growing, as we head into the New Year. But there are some really important issues found in these books that I believe will be of help to fellow Christians, that I hope to blog about further.
Well, that is my rambling update for 2022. Onwards to 2023!! Happy New Year!!
Oh, if you are still in the Christmas mood (or you are Eastern Orthodox, and just getting into it!), you might enjoy this bluegrass version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” & “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” by the Petersons…… or if you are tired of winter, the Peterson’s have a new version of “Wayfaring Stranger”:
This summer was amazingly hectic for me with my job at the College of William and Mary. One phrase summarizes my summer: Supply chain delays. But now that students are back on campus, things are starting to settle down.
What follows is my attempt to recap some things that have made me think a lot, so far this year…. Bart Ehrman, “women in ministry,” where do you get your news, David McCullough, Roe vs. Wade, Jordan Peterson, Alex Jones and Sandy Hook, what is the best argument for the Resurrection, the “Late-Date” theory for the Exodus, Henry Emerson Fosdick 100 years later, “progressive Christianity,” divine hiddenness, and analytic philosophy.
A bit disjointed for sure, but all very important. I have a bunch of thoughts, but instead of individual blog posts about each topic, I will try to keep things fairly short, and include the summaries below. Read on!! ….
Blogging Recap… Featuring Bart Ehrman
I have written several blogs this year that I put quite a bit of thought into, after reading several books on my bike ride commutes to work. The longest series is on the “historical criticism” of the Bible, some of its history dating back to the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, how “historical criticism” has both positively and negatively impacted the church, and offering a sample of Bible passages, with a model of doing “historical criticism” in a nuanced way, that appreciates the value of allowing historical method to inform our interpretation of the Bible, without slipping into unnecessary skepticism of the Bible’s divine inspiration.
My fundamental claim, in a nutshell, is that the most common methodology employed by historical critics like Bart Ehrman, as well as “Progressive Christians” who adopt the same methodology, is that they believe that you can only do proper historical research on the Bible by treating it like any other piece of human literature, which in their minds, implies that you must bracket off claims regarding the inspired nature of the Scriptural text as being the very Word of God, at least temporarily. If you fail to bracket that off, you ironically risk distorting the interpretation of the text. Historical critics like Bart Ehrman says the Bible is inherently contradictory, and so he dismisses attempts to try to harmonize Scriptural texts, even in the most nuanced way, as actually obscuring what the Bible is trying to tell us.
I am increasingly concerned that the negative impact of “historical criticism” that in the 20th century wrecked havoc in mainline Protestantism is now creeping into certain areas of less denominationally oriented evangelicalism, in a way that most evangelicals are completely unaware of. I will just leave it at that.
The most substantial book review was for Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell. I had not read through a Bart Ehrman book before, with such detail. I can see why Ehrman has so many followers. I am just surprised that there have not been any Bart Ehrman fans who have jumped down on me and made critical comments on the blog yet. I strongly disagree with Bart on many points, but I have to concede that he articulates probably the most cogent critical view that I have read attacking the reliability of the New Testament, which partly explains why he is such a popular author. Plus, I would describe him as an honest non-believer, who does not try to pretend that he is a Christian. His interest in Christianity is primarily historical, trying to make sense of Jesus of Nazareth, the single most influential person in the world who has ever lived. If you want to understand why so many educated people reject the Bible as being authoritative, you better read Bart Ehrman. The chances are high that some highly educated “former” Christian you know, or someone who is going through a faith “deconstruction,” has read some Bart Ehrman.
An Update on the Complementarian/Egalitarian Divide in Evangelicalism
Nevertheless, I still hold high regard for evangelical Christians who are egalitarian in their convictions. My main concern is not in the specific conclusions that are drawn, but rather, I am concerned about the hermeneutical methods that some use to draw their conclusions. A faulty hermeneutic in one area of reading the Bible can lead to other distortions of Scripture in other areas.
So, Where Do You Get Your News?
We do not live in the 1970s anymore. Gone are the days of three major television news outlets, CBS, ABC, and NBC nightly news programs, and the hegemony of newspaper publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. For most of the 1990s, I narrowed down the options even more: The only time I bothered with listening to the news was on my evening commutes with NPR’s All Things Considered playing on the radio. Today, we get our news from various sources, which all give us conflicting and contradictory views of the world, which pretty much makes civil discourse in society today near to impossible.
I try to steer clear of exclusively of heavily biased news sources. Occasionally, I will read longer pieces by liberal outlets like the New York Times, but I try to balance it out with stories from the much more conservative Wall Street Journal. My wife likes listening to The World and Everything In it, the daily news podcast put out by WORLD News Group, which styles itself like a conservative evangelical alternative to NPR’s All Things Considered. WORLD has gotten better over the years, but recent staff upheavals at WORLD make me a little leery as to its future.
I pretty much stick with Ground.News, a secular outfit that ranks the bias of various news organizations when reporting stories, which I find quite helpful. But I have decided to try the PourOver email newsletter and podcast, as it offers to give a Christian perspective on the news while trying its best to steer clear of heavy bias, without flooding your brain, as it only comes out three times a week. So far the PourOver is a very refreshing approach to the news.
The Late David McCullough
While the bulk of what is posted on the Veracity blog is an Christian apologetics, my other love is for church history ( and history more broadly). Not too long ago the popular American historian David McCullough died. For me he models what a good historian does. He was the author of various best sellers, including 1776 and John Adams.
At the risk of being a little controversial, blogger Samuel D. James has some insightful thoughts regarding what Christians can learn from McCullough. James points out that some recent Christian books criticizing evangelicalism historically have fallen into a bad habit. In the most memorable quote by James, one particular author “wanted me to see the subjects of her history the way she sees them, not as how they saw themselves. How they interpreted their lives and beliefs was of little consequence. How the generations after them interpreted them was everything. This is the kind of history that gets people angry and eager to deconstruct whatever they sense is tainted by moral failure…. What renews my soul about reading David McCullough’s work is that it doesn’t do this.” Now that is provocative, but I am inclined to think that James is right, based on some other writings I have read along the same lines.
The Overturning of Roe vs. Wade
Like a lot of people, I was really surprised when the U.S Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, earlier this year. On the other hand, I am not convinced that the court’s verdict will have a lasting impact on public opinion about abortion, though I could easily be wrong. By putting the issue back in front of the states, the legislative debates will surely continue and get really complicated on a state by state basis. Perhaps the only solution will be something like an amendment to the federal constitution to ultimately settle the matter, and I do not see that as happening anytime soon. The main reason for thinking this is that even if extensive anti-abortion laws get passed, it might be almost impossible to enforce them. Without public support, passing unpopular laws will probably achieve little.
Marvin Olasky, an outspoken pro-life journalist, agrees citing what we know from history: “From the 1840s through the 1940s, public opinion concerning abortion was more negative than it is now, but even during that era, enforcement of abortion bans was rare. Millions of abortions occurred during that century, but only a tiny percentage of doctors did prison time. It was hard to get police to arrest, juries to convict, or judges to support jury decisions and turn down appeals.” As the subtitle of his article in Christianity Today declares, “Looking ahead, Christians should focus less on enforcement than on changing cultural attitudes.”
In the meantime, I am grateful for friends who work in or otherwise support crisis pregnancy centers that offer assistance to those in need. In my area of Williamsburg, Virginia, the closest center is CareNet Peninsula. They do great work there. It is through such efforts that perhaps there will be a day when abortion becomes an unthinkable option for people faced with such difficult decisions.
The “right to life” cause, in the political sphere, is primarily an effort led by Christians, as Bible readers seek to make their moral convictions known within the public arena. There are notable exceptions to this, as the late and famed New Atheist Christopher Hitchens opposed abortion. But by and large, I doubt if we will see a remarkable surge in support of the “right to life” until we have a massive wave of Christian spiritual revival in the West. That can only come about by prayer and evangelization, which means in part engaging in the type of apologetics being promoted here on the Veracity blog. Interestingly, history shows us that as more and more people came to Christ in the Roman Empire, in the first 500 years of the church, that this shifted public opinion away from promoting abortion. As more people embraced the Gospel, the less support there was for abortion. Perhaps this can be a lesson for us in the 21st century.
I just recently ran across a short, Tik-Tok type video, put out by one of my favorite YouTube apologists, Michael Jones, at Inspiring Philosophy, who addresses the objection that the Bible actually sanctions induced abortions, based on Numbers 5:27. I have been hearing the Numbers 5:27 pro-abortion argument a lot lately, and really did not know how to respond to it, until I saw Jones’ video. Jones argues that the NIV translation is unlikely, and explains what might be a much better translation. Worth checking out:
The Return of Jordan Peterson
While the world was swirling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outspoken Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, had a close brush with death of another kind. As a result of a successful nation hoping medical tour, Peterson finally made it out of this crisis and is back on the public stage. Many have described Jordan Peterson’s teachings as a “gateway drug” to Christianity, and I believe this is correct.
The following video by Peterson is perhaps the best short video supporting a psychological apologetic for complementarianism, urging Christians to stop downgrading men with constant talk about “toxic masculinity” and instead challenging young men to step forward and take responsibility, as a matter of Christian virtue. As Peterson argues, by supporting young men this will have a positive impact on young women as well. Plus, I believe that taking seriously Peterson’s argument will go a long ways towards trimming back the number of mass shootings, which are almost universally committed by young, disaffected and lonely males, longing for a sense of visionary purpose in life…. and that ranges from the Uvalde, Texas elementary school shooter, who had no father figure in his life, to the May 2022 racist shooter in Buffalo, N.Y. where as a child, he felt he did not have “that much importance” to his family, and that “my parents know little about me,” despite outward appearances that he had a nice, balanced family life.
Nevertheless, we should not define doctrine based on what Jordan Peterson says, but rather we should look to the Bible as our final authority. Jennie Pollock, a blogger in the U.K., has a nice short essay summarizing what she says, “Why I love my complementarian church.”
As a bonus, I found a really provocative approach to the issue of having “women as elders” by Dr. Gerry Breshears. In the following video interview by Preston Sprinkle, Breshears argues as a “soft” complementarian that only qualified men are to serve as local church elders, but interestingly, this has NOTHING to do with hierarchy. In fact, Breshears contends that neither Paul nor Timothy would have qualified to become church elders, even though Paul was an apostle and Timothy was the undisputed leader of the church in Ephesus. Agree or not, Dr. Breshears’ presentation will turn your head upside down on this (as it did mine!):
Alex Jones, Sandy Hook, and Conspiracy-Theory Driven “Christianity”
There is just some absolutely crazy stuff going on at the fringes of the evangelical Christian world. The story of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who was recently sued by parents of a child killed by the Sandy Hook mass shooter, says that he is a “Christian.“
Author Elizabeth Williamson has written a whole book about this, An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, something I want to put on my reading list. Here is part of the promotional flyer on the cover for the book: “On December 14, 2012, a gunman killed twenty first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Ten years later, Sandy Hook has become a foundational story of how false conspiracy narratives and malicious misinformation have gained traction in society….One of the nation’s most devastating mass shootings, Sandy Hook was used to create destructive and painful myths. Driven by ideology or profit, or for no sound reason at all, some people insisted it never occurred, or was staged by the federal government as a pretext for seizing Americans’ firearms. They tormented the victims’ relatives online, accosted them on the street and at memorial events, accusing them of faking their loved ones’ murders. Some family members have been stalked and forced into hiding. A gun was fired into the home of one parent.”
As Williamson argues, the professing “Christian” Alex Jones was propagating this conspiracy theory, repeatedly using his InfoWars platform to spread these lies, influencing his followers to threaten some of those Sandy Hook parents. Over time, Jones eventually started to back off on such claims, but it took a number of years before he finally emphatically admitting that the killings were real, during this summer’s trial. Why it took Jones so long to admit his errors is baffling. Was it all just for show? Why he continues to propagate further lies and just plain odd behavior is even more troubling.
The testimony of this mother of one of the kids murdered at Sandy Hook, confronting the lies that Alex Jones continues to spread is heart-wrenching:
You read that right: the largest religious group in the American South are unchurched people claiming to be evangelical Christians.
Effectively, we have a steadily growing number of people who are leaving churches, while still claiming to be Christian, who are no longer being discipled by churches but who are instead being discipled by right-wing media outlets, that claim to promote Christian values. Historian Daniel K. Williams summarizes it like this: “Data suggests that, when their attendance drops, these nominal Christians become hyper-individualistic, devoted to law and order, cynical about systems, and distrustful of others.”
I can believe Williams because I know of a several professing Christians who have pretty much given up on going to church. They are not Sandy Hook conspiracy promoters, but they follow the same pattern that Williams summarizes.
As a reaction against this, I also know of several professed “Progressive Christians” who have a negative view of conservative evangelical faith, particularly that which often carries the label of “Christian nationalism.” But it might help such friends of mine to consider that perhaps what they are reacting against is not actual Christianity being practiced in our churches, but rather, they are reacting against a kind of fake Christianity practiced by professing “Christians” who would rather stay home and watch conservative media outlets on television instead of going to a vibrant Christian fellowship on Sunday mornings, and otherwise actively becoming part of some community, where they might get discipled in the faith.
Just something to think about.
Dispute over the Minimal versus Maximal Facts Argument for the Resurrection
Christian apologist and YouTuber Mike Winger is a bit simplistic here, but he has a decent short summary of each approach:
The minimal facts argument, articulated best by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, suggests that we limit the evidence used in our argument to those facts that the widest spectrum of biblical scholars and historians, ranging from conservative to liberal, will most reasonably accept. For example, many scholars and historians today believe that the Apostle Paul only wrote 7 of the 13 letters in the New Testament attributed in him. Also, many scholars suggest that a good deal of the material we have in the Gospels is historically unreliable, much of it being the product of the early church placing ideas and words on the lips of Jesus. For people who are to some degree aware of what such scholars and historians say, the minimal facts approach will probably meet the least amount of resistance. Nevertheless, the goal is to try to persuade people that Christians can be thoughtful and still believe in the Resurrection at the same time, so that inquirers might consider taking further steps in having a deeper understanding of what the implications of the Resurrection are, so that they might embrace the whole of the Christian message.
Alternatively, the maximal facts approach suggests that we use the entire arsenal of evidence from the New Testament to make our case for the Resurrection. My thought is that we should use whatever approach makes sense, based on the assumptions made by the audience with whom we are engaging. If someone follows the broad scholarly opinion, I would lead with the minimal facts argument. If someone is willing to accept the whole of the New Testament as historically reliable, or is at least fairly open to it, then I would use the maximal facts approach instead.
In other words, Christians should invest the necessary time to be able communicate both arguments, both the minimal facts and the maximal facts approach in their evangelistic conversation. Since in my experience, most Christians I know are not familiar with the minimal facts approach at all, and that they tend to fumble their way through some variation of the maximal facts approach, it would be the most wisest thing to learn both approaches, with their pluses and minuses.
The key is this: Know your audience. Adjust your argument accordingly so that you keep the discussion on track, in hopes that your friend will take a closer step to knowing Jesus. Pretty straightforward, to me, at least.
I have come to conclude that the so-called “late date” theory of when the Exodus occurred is probably the best explanation of both the Scriptural archaeological data, as YouTuber apologist Michael Jones, and his Egyptologist consultant, Dr. David A. Falk, suggest. Here are some of the latest and best YouTube videos that dig into the details. I am still open to changing my mind on all of this, but to date, this position seems to be the best argument to make to support the historicity of the Exodus:
Lest anyone think I am being unfair here, you might want to listen to the following interview that Sean McDowell did with archaeologist Dr. Titus Kennedy, who favors an early date (15th c. BCE) versus Jones/Falk’s late date (13th c. BCE) proposal. Jones was previously an early date advocate, like Kennedy, but was convinced on the late date (as I am) by Dr. Falk. If you are still persuaded by the early date proposal, let me just say that the late date proposal, in my view, is easier to defend with non-believers, regarding the historicity of the Exodus. At some point, I hope to do a whole blog series regarding the historicity issue of the Exodus, but that’ll be some time far off into the future!!
I could be wrong about the “Late-Date” (13th century). The “Early-Date” (15th century) could be correct. Whatever I am, I am not impressed by chariot wheels stories passed around by Ron Wyatt. No Christian archaeologist is either.
As a bonus, here is another cool video from Inspiring Philosophy about the stopping of the sun moving in Joshua 10:
Shall the Fundamentalists Win? – Harry Emerson Fosdick 100 Years Later
On May 21, 1922, Henry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist serving in a New York City Presbyterian Church, preached a most (in)famous sermon entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s sermon was a tipping point in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early 20th century, that led to the split between liberal mainline Protestants and conservative evangelical fundamentalists in America, during the 1920s. One hundred years later, church historian Darryl Hart discusses the impact of this sermon on the church today.
The Debate over Defining “Progressive Christianity”
The problem with “progressive Christianity” really is about definition of terms, but it also points to the difficulty in being able to know where to draw the line between essentials and non-essentials of Christian faith. In the 20th century, the line between liberal mainline Protestantism and conservative evangelicalism was pretty clear. Here in the 21st century, this is not the case any more, as the term “evangelical” gets played around with a lot. In my view, it is better to err on the side against progressive Christianity.
In defense of Alisa Childers, I must say that in the various videos that I have seen, Childers is actually quite honest and revealing that “progressive Christianity” is indeed a very loose and difficult concept to define, as various “progressive Christians” will often contradict one another. For some reason, Randal Rauser does not see this. Perhaps this is because Alisa’s book comes across as less nuanced, and I will admit that I have not read her book, so Randal might be right. Still, I think she has a good approach to this, even when I do not completely agree with every particular position she takes on certain issues. I would say that her journey away from egalitarianism to complementarianism is a perspective that does not get discussed that much.
To her credit, Alisa Childers has a quite revealing interview with Bobby Conway, the One-Minute Apologist, who actually went through his own deconstruction process a few years after he started his One-Minute Apologist YouTube channel. As he describes in the video, the destructive behavior that resulted from his deconstruction process cost him his job as a church pastor, but thankfully he has been in recovery since then.
The Problem of Divine Hiddenness
If there was one area where I think that both atheists and even progressive Christians raise a good question, that I personally struggle with, it has to do with the problem of divine hiddenness. To put it briefly: “Why doesn’t God seem to reveal himself to people who are open and seeking him?” This is something I have to do some more thinking about, so I am not making any claims here. Many Christians tell me that the reason why God sometimes seems silent in a person’s life is because that person has some sort of sin impeding their ability or receptibility to actually hear from or see God at work. I am not so sure about that at this point, but I am willing to learn more. Justin Brierley at “Premier Unbelievable?” invited atheist Alex O’Connor (aka Cosmic Skeptic) and Christian apologist Lukas Ruegger to discuss the issue on the Unbelievable? YouTube channel and podcast. This (and the following) video I probably need to listen to a few times before I finally have some remedial grasp:
Philosopher Liz Jackson was also interviewed a couple of years ago on this very topic:
…. and then there is this…..
And Finally….. A Christian Approach to Philosophy
I want to introduce you all to a fairly new friend of mine. Dr. Philip Swenson teaches philosophy at the College of William and Mary. I met Philip through the ministry of the Cambridge House, a Christian study center serving the campus community at William and Mary, here in Williamsburg. Dr. Swenson, as you will see below, has interests in the area of free will and responsibility, where he talks about stuff like Monism and compatibilism, and other fancy ideas that I can barely pronounce. Frankly, philosophy at this level is not really my area, but I still enjoy learning things from Philip. You may agree or disagree with him, but the main thing is that Philip loves Jesus!
Recently, Philip told me that he has a few interviews up on a Christian apologetics YouTube channel. So, if you think that Christians are dumb anti-intellectuals, the following videos will cure you of that misguided notion (HA-HA!!). Philip has an interesting background, having grown up in a charismatic church but currently attends a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. What a combination. He was recently interviewed a couple of times on the Analytic Christian YouTube channel (the last video is response by another Christian philosopher, Justin Mooney at Denison University, in defense of Molinism). I will probably have to listen to these a few times myself to get everything, but for those who appreciate analytic philosophy from a Christian perspective, here ya go!!
…. For the Rest of 2022….
I have started reading a couple of other books which I hope to complete when my wife and I go on vacation later in the Fall. For example, I am near the end of reading a book on “Divine Violence” in the Bible, which has been very helpful to think through during this age of the ongoing war in the Ukraine.
Also, I FINALLY got around to reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I have been putting off for about 40 years, and that is no joke. Why did I wait so long? Mere Christianity is really an excellent book, one of the best apologetic books I have ever read. Look for a book review coming out fairly soon. Stay tuned!!
…. Oh, and Just For Fun….
Found the following video, from a bluegrass band, Southern Raised, performing (oddly enough) the song “Thunderstruck” as an instrumental. Their YouTube channel describes them as a Christian band, but I must say that their version of this well-known song by the Australian heavy-metal rockers, AC-DC, is much better than the original. Lot’s of fun… just wait ’till mid-way towards the end!
When two theological heavyweights clash with one another, the ensuing dialogue can be fireworks. But one can learn a lot about the state of the church from such disputes.
The immensely erudite and (apparently recently) idiosyncratic Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart published an extended essay, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Listen to this summary in Hart’s own words). Hart has been one of the greatest theological voices undermining the pretentiousness of the New Atheist movement. In exposing the fault lines of thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Hart’s Atheist Delusions has been regarded as one of the finest polemical works against early 21st century atheism.
Alas, Hart’s star has since fallen after his That All Shall Be Saved, a bold and dogmatically absolutist defense of a Christian universalism, which argues that while there is still a future hell and divine judgment, that experience of hell is ultimately purgative and redeeming, such that none are ultimately lost in the very end.
Like what former megachurch pastor and now California surfer and podcaster Rob Bell strongly hinted at, and what the author of the evangelical blockbuster novel, The Shack, William Paul Young finally came out and admitted, at least to a certain degree, the brilliant and exceedingly well-read David Bentley Hart has whole-heartedly endorsed a theological position that has historically been condemned by the vast majority of Christians. Hart does not care. Anyone who disagrees with him about universalism is effectively morally challenged, in his view, and he is not afraid to unload condescension on his critics.
That was just a few years ago. Now that this previous storm has passed, he has yet again triggered even more controversy.
Shocking truth claims: Did you know that the four Gospels were not based on eye-witness testimony, and that perhaps the Gospel of John was written as late as the second century, and not by the Apostle John? Or that the Apostle Paul had no knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity? Or that a good chunk of Paul’s letters were never even written by him in the first place?
While Dr. Barton is not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, A History of the Bible is well poised to become a standard exposition for contemporary scholarship rooted in historical criticism, aimed at both believer and non-believer alike. This popular presentation of Barton’s vast research of the Bible over many decades, published by Penguin Books, one of the most reputable book publishers in the world, will surely impress many readers, and in many respects has much to offer. However, one wonders why Dr. Barton continues to describe himself as a Christian believer, and even an Anglican priest, after he dismantles a long history of confidence in the Bible being the very written Word of God.
In an interview since that broadcast, Barton does not go as far as Bart Ehrman does, in labeling the four Gospels or the “disputed” letters of Paul as outright “forgeries” (many scholars believe that Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, and Titus were not written by Paul), but rather as an Anglican priest he is still able to say that Christians can find these New Testament books “useful” as part of the accepted canon, even if they were not written by the people who claimed to write them.
Really? Why would a Christian find certain writings to be “useful” that had the explicit purpose of deceiving their readers? How can one treat such writings as being authoritative, under that kind of shadow?
Dr. Barton admittedly has some qualms about all of that, but he forges ahead to try to make some kind of defense of the Bible.
Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is Helpful
First, let us consider some of the benefits provided by Dr. Barton’s book. Just from these abridged readings of A History of the Bible, the reader is intrigued to learn more about how the Old and New Testament texts came together, how these texts have been preserved over the centuries, how Judaism and Christianity eventually parted ways, and the importance of allegory in the history of Bible interpretation. You can find this type of material elsewhere, but one sure benefit of A History of the Bible is that this is all assembled together in one volume.
John Barton rightly corrects the common misunderstanding that the early Christian church had a completed list of what constituted the books of the entire Old Testament portion of the Bible. To the contrary, the definitive listing of the books of the Old Testament was not firmly established in the Western church until the 16th century, when the Roman Catholic Church officially adopted the books of the “Apocrypha” at the Council of Trent, while the Protestant Reformers officially rejected the “Apocrypha,” declaring it to be inappropriate for establishing church doctrine. In other words, books in the “Apocrypha” like 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are unfamiliar to most Protestants today, were actually well-known to Christians for the first 15 centuries of the church, though their canonical status was unclear across Christendom.
Furthermore, the ordering of the books in the Old Testament differs between Jews and Christians, and there is a theological reason for the difference. Christians place the prophets at the end of the Old Testament, which fits in with the overall Scriptural narrative. The story moves from creation to fall to the promised hope of redemption, where the prophets anticipate the coming of the Christ, who will accomplish that redemption. In fact, the Book of Malachi, which ends off the Christian Old Testament, itself ends with a vision for the coming “Day of the Lord,” with the prophet Elijah announcing that time of judgment. It is no mystery that John the Baptist, the herald for Jesus the Redeemer, emerges in the Book of Matthew next, as the “new” Elijah. Furthermore, the figure of Adam is central in the Christian story of the Old Testament, the created human who suffers a terrible fall, where Jesus becomes the “second Adam,” restoring Adam to his original created purpose, according to the New Testament.
Jews, on the other hand, place the two books of Chronicles at the end of their “Old Testament,” their Hebrew Bible, and not the prophets. The last phrase of the last verse in the Chronicles is “Let him go up,” which refers to the promise of the restoration of the land following the Babylonian exile. This is an invitation to the faithful Jew to dwell in the Promised Land. For the Jew, the story of Scripture is more about God establishing the Law with His people, with the promise that if they remain faithful as His people, they will dwell in that land. As for Adam, his presence is largely forgotten after the first few chapters in Genesis, according to Jewish theology. Dr. Barton brings that point out nicely, but I only learned about that difference after being a Christian for about 35 years. Why had it taken so long for me to learn about that?
Plus, Dr. Barton is quite right to say that you can pretty much find whatever you want in the Bible, as the teaching of the Bible has been “shape-shifted” to take upon the concerns of whatever age or culture the reader is in. That really is not a compliment towards readers who use the Bible that way. Simply consider how much effort was made to find out where the COVID-19 virus came from, just by looking at the Bible. Uncomfortable realities like these are sprinkled throughout A History of the Bible. Like taking a cold shower, A History of the Bible will challenge a number of cherished, yet erroneous beliefs.
Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is NOT Helpful
Unfortunately, Dr. Barton’s liberal bias reveals a persistently bad habit by those who lean too heavily on historical criticism to adjudicate the ultimate interpretation of Scripture, by supposing that a contradiction in Scripture exists, where a reasonably plausible alternative actually makes better sense of the text, within the whole message of Scripture.
Barton makes no attempt to hide his liberal bias. This bias permeates and distorts much of his otherwise helpful prose. For John Barton, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation fall under the category of adiaphora, or “disputable matters,” from Romans 14:1, which the ESV translation renders as “opinions.” Would any truly historically orthodox Christian find that acceptable? Absolutely not. Nor does any historical creedal document in Barton’s own Anglican Church agree with him. Stretching “disputable matters” to this degree is essentially useless.
Here is another example: In the story of the rich young man who comes up to Jesus, Mark tells us that the man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the man with: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
It is an interesting thing to consider why the Gospels differ here. But Jesus’ response to the young man in Mark’s version does not necessarily imply doubt about Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ question back to the young man most likely means to get the young man to think (as well as should modern readers), and consider the implications of what he is saying. For if only God is good, then Jesus’ question back to the young man is quite relevant to Jesus’ identity. Mark focuses more on Jesus’ identity, whereas Matthew focuses more on ethical action, that flows from one’s relationship with God. Matthew complements Mark, and vice-versa. To read a contradiction between Mark and Matthew here is to read something into the text that need not exist. Because the discipline of historical (or “higher”) criticism sometimes trains even the best of scholars to look for contradictions, it becomes easier to see such contradictions, when a more nuanced, and far more interesting solution is available to the reader.
When it comes to the common scholarly proposal that many of Paul’s letters were not written by him, Dr. Barton manages to ignore the conservative argument that differences in writing style and vocabulary, tailored to a specific audience, using different secretaries, might sufficiently account for “discrepancies” between the “undisputed” and “disputed” letters of Paul. Nevertheless, Dr. Barton seems okay to live with the “taint of forgery” (p. 186) in such questionable letters, where he can find certain teachings to be persuasive in certain areas, while acknowledging this does take away from the full divine inspiration of these New Testament texts.
This is a bit of an aside, but an important one, nevertheless: Barton’s position regarding what he misleadingly calls the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church” (p. 186), in which his Church of England affirms women serving as elders/presbyters, actually is enhanced by his ambiguous view of Pauline authorship of disputed texts. When it comes to the disputed 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastoral letters, where most arguments take place regarding whether or not women may serve as elders in a local church, Barton is easily dismissive of what is taught here. “The Pastorals have no place in attempting to reconstruct the thought of Paul” (p. 186), but acknowledges this regarding what he calls regretfully the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church“:, where conservatives oppose women serving as elders, and liberals affirm women serving as elders”:... conservative opponents who appeal to Paul tend to rely on 1 Timothy, and more liberal believers reply that this letter is not really by Paul anyway. Along these diverging lines, little meeting of minds is possible” (p. 187).
At least Barton is right about that. The gulf between conservative and progressive Christianity seems to widen with each passing year. It is important to note that evangelical egalitarian arguments in favor of both Pauline authorship of the Pastorals AND the affirmation of women serving as elders do not even register a blip on John Barton’s radar. More on that in a future blog post in this series, or for a more in-depth look, read this earlier Veracity posting reviewing a recent book by historian Beth Allison Barr.
Anyway, here is what Barton says on p. 187, as his way of making a conclusion on the “forgeries” of certain letters associated with Paul:
‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are they authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’
All of this comes from the pen of a scholar hailed as writing “the definitive” book on the Bible for the 21st century.
Why does Dr. Barton neglect to tell his readers the following?: The Gospel writers and Paul probably were not aware that they were writing “Scripture” when they were composing their work. But this need not preclude others from recognizing the inspired nature of their texts. Paul himself was quite forceful in claiming that his message was received via divine revelation, and not a product of man’s (Galatians 1:11-12). It would have made no sense for his readers to have rejected his occasional letters as inspired, and at the same time come to recognize that Paul’s Gospel verbal preaching came from God.
Does A Liberal, Historical Critical Approach to Defend the Bible Really Work?
Speculating on “contradictions in the Bible” may make for interesting scholarly discussions, as a more sophisticated response to a wooden, rigid dogmatism. But this does little to inspire people to have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word. Furthermore, the underlying posture towards the Bible adopted by Dr. Barton is nothing new. For example, doubts about the authorship of several of Paul’s letters are derived from the ideas of early 19th century German theologian F. C. Baur, but the whole project of historical criticism goes back to 17th century philosophers, like Baruch Spinoza, or even earlier.
Making ill-conceived judgments about the sincerity of John Barton’s progressive Christianity would be out of place. In other words, Dr. Barton clearly identifies as being a Christian, and there is no compelling need question to that. But one must consider the ramifications of his teachings. Based on the arguments presented in A History of the Bible, it deserves asking why one would want to become a Christian after reading this book.
“As the Bible fades into the background from the general culture it acquires a power to shock and influence which its previous familiarity has reduced. We might ponder as evangelicals for example on the extraordinary case of Jordan Peterson, who gives 2- to 3-hour talks and draws millions by lecturing mainly on the Bible, without even being a Christian at all…. There is a growing demand to learn about the Bible and what it says to us today from the general public…. Maybe some great biblical scholar can write a book like this, about the Bible from an evangelical perspective, aimed at the general public?“
To answer Marshall’s question, I say, “Here! Here!” If only our churches were to address the topics found in John Barton’s A History of the Bible, from a more historically orthodox perspective, framed within a compelling story, we would not only curb the tendency towards a progressive drift in evangelical churches, we would also unleash the power of the Bible itself to dramatically change the lives of people, who have a hunger to know the God of the Bible better. If we fail to take up that task, then we will find our young people looking to books like Dr. Barton’s, and then wonder why anyone would make any fuss about the supposed revelatory “faith” being promoted in the Bible.
If the church fails to take up that challenge, then we might as well tell folks to read books by agnostic/atheist scholar Bart Ehrman, and avoid the complicated efforts to try to “rescue” Christianity from the jaws of skeptical “historical criticism,” as John Barton tries to do.
Attempts like A History of the Bible to somehow rebuild a more flexible form of the Christian faith from a brittle fundamentalism might convince some people reared in the church, searching for a reason to continue to believe. But for the vast majority of folks for whom the Gospel remains opaque, a staunchly progressive approach to the Bible leaves those readers flat. That type of apologetic simply does not work.
…. In our next blog post in this series, there will not be a book review, but we will consider how some of the thinking behind “historical criticism” has shifted from the 20th century, to the 21st century, where the prominent 20th century biblical scholar, Rudolf Bultmann enters the story. Stay tuned for that………. Muslim apologist Paul Williams, at Blogging Theology, interviews Dr. John Barton about his book, A History of the Bible. If you want to get a feel for how a highly intelligent, knowledgeable, progressive Christian employs “historical criticism” when reading the Bible, you might find the following interview educational… but you might find it disturbing as well. There is just enough really good stuff in A History of the Bible, that it can easily overshadow the spiritually damaging elements in it that can sneak up on you, and knock out the legs from underneath your faith: