Sunday, December 21, 2008

Is faith a gift? Yes and No.

Is faith a gift? This is an important question for those interested in soteriology. To answer this question, we must begin by clarifying our terms.

First, "faith." What type of faith are we referring to? Some options are:
(a) saving faith - initial faith we place in Christ that results in our salvation.
(b) persevering faith - enduring faith that continues often in the midst of suffering.
(c) the spiritual gift of faith - the supernatural ability to trust God during hard times or for miracles.
(d) the Christian faith - the set of truths comprising the doctrines of the Christian religion.
(e) conscience - i.e. "I cannot do that in good faith."
There is often overlap between these different types of faith, but when we ask if faith is a gift, we are generally referring to definition (a), saving faith. Saving faith must have at least three components to qualify as genuine: (1) content - understanding the content of the Christian faith, (2) mental assent - the assent of the intellect to the propositional truths of the Christian faith, (3) trust - reliance upon God.

Second, let's consider what we mean by "gift." When we ask if faith is a gift, what we are really asking is whether the act of trusting is something that originates in God and is imparted to us, or whether it originates in us as a response to God. Of course, there are components of faith that certainly originate in God. For example our ability to have faith at all is ours because God created us in His image. The content of our faith is possible because God has accomplished salvation in Christ. But does the act of trusting originate in God or in us? This is what we mean when we ask, "Is faith a gift?". Let's examine the relevant biblical passages.

Ephesians 2:8
- "For by grace you are saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God."
This is perhaps the most popular biblical passage used to answer his question. This, it is argued, is a clear example of faith being called a "gift of God." However, when one examines the original Greek, it becomes quite apparent that this is incorrect. The key to understanding this passage is the Greek demonstrative pronoun translating "this" (touto) in the phrase "this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." This word refers back to some antecedent. Possible options are
(1) "faith,"
(2) "grace,"
(3) the concept of grace-by-faith salvation,
(4) adverbial force with no antecedent.
The demonstrative pronoun touto ("this") is in the neuter gender, while chariti ("grace") and pisteoos ("faith") are in the feminine gender. Therefore it cannot refer to "grace" or "faith." The fourth option is that the word touto has an adverbial force with no antecedent. In this case, we would translate the demonstrative pronoun as "and especially." The third option, which I take to be the correct option, understands the antecedent of touto to be the concept of salvation. In conclusion, the first two options are ruled out by the rules of grammar, and so one of the latter options must be correct. In either of the latter options, faith is not the gift, and so we must conclude that this passage does not teach that faith is a gift. Rather salvation is a gift that is received through faith.

Hebrews 12:2
- "...looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..."
If Jesus is the "author" of our faith, doesn't that mean that it originates in Him? Not according to this passage. Throughout Hebrews 11 there are numerous examples of people who were examples of great faith. These examples are used by the author to encourage his readers to persevere in their faith. When we come to Hebrews 12, the author moves from various examples to our Example par excellence: Jesus. The author of Hebrews chooses to use the metaphor of a race to depict how we are to live our lives as Christians. We are encouraged with the words, "let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith." The word translated "author" (arkegos) has a dual range of meaning, and can denote either a "ruler" or a "beginnner." Given the imagery of a race being used in this passage, the word is probably referring to Jesus as the pioneer of faith. In the "race" of the faith in God, Jesus is the One who made the race possible, and the first one to complete the race (which occurred on the cross). He is the forerunner who marked out the path of the race, and the champion who completed the race. This is what it means for Jesus to be the author and finisher of faith. And so this passage does not teach that our individual trust originates in God. Rather, this passage teaches that Jesus is the Original and Ultimate Example of One who placed His faith in God. Jesus is the Champion of the race we are to emulate.

Philippians 1:29 - "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake."
Because believing (or "faith" [pisteuein]) is said to be granted (or "graced" [echaristhe]), it is argued that this is an example of faith being a gift from God. I'd make two points about this passage:
(1) It seems that the "believing" referred to here does not refer to the initial conversion act of faith, but rather to continuing, enduring faith in the midst of suffering. It is not initial faith, but rather persevering faith. This is apparent from the historical context of the letter.
(2) The gift is not "believing" itself or "suffering" itself, but rather "believing in Christ," and "suffering for Christ." What makes the activity of believing/suffering gracious is not the activity itself, but rather the extreme worth of the object of that activity (i.e. Christ). And so you could translate the verse, "For to you has been granted the privilege on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer for his sake." This verse emphasizes Christ as the central object of worth--not belief or suffering.
So does this passage teach that faith is a gift? Not in the sense that faith originates in God. However, faith is a gift in the sense that we have a precious Savior in whom we are privileged to place our faith.

In conclusion, faith is not a gift in the sense that the act of trusting originates in God. Rather the act of trusting originates in us as a response to God. However, it is a deep honor and privilege to place our faith in so marvelous a Savior. Let's recognize the extreme worth of our Lord and be thankful for the privilege of being able to place our faith in Him.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chuck Norris, True American Hero

I just came across this a website with Chuck Norris facts. Quite impressive. Here's some of the more interesting ones:

1. When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

2. There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.

3. There is no chin under Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist.

4. Chuck Norris has two speeds. Walk, and Kill.

5. When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

6. If you spell "Chuck Norris" in Scrabble, you win. Forever.

7. Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.

8. Chuck Norris once shot down a German fighter plane with his finger, by yelling, "Bang!"

9. Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

10. Anytime someone is elected president in the United States, they must ask permission from Chuck Norris to live in the White House. The reason for this is because Chuck Norris has won every Federal, State, and Local election since 1777. He just allows others to run the country in his place.

11. Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table, because Chuck Norris only recognizes the element of surprise.

12. In a fight between Batman and Darth Vader, the winner would be Chuck Norris.

13. Chuck Norris is suing Myspace for taking the name of what he calls everything around you.

14. The opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan is loosely based on games of dodgeball Chuck Norris played in second grade.

15. Remember the Soviet Union? They decided to quit after watching a DeltaForce marathon on Satellite TV.

16. Chuck Norris is currently suing NBC, claiming "Law and Order" are trademarked names for his left and right legs.

17. Every time someone uses the word "intense," Chuck Norris always replies, "You know what else is intense?" followed by a roundhouse kick to the face.

18. Chuck Norris is so fast, he can run around the world and punch himself in the back of the head.

19. There are no steroids in baseball. Only players Chuck Norris has breathed on.

20. In fine print on the last page of The Guiness Book of World Records, it notes that all world records are held by Chuck Norris, and those listed in the book are simply the closest anyone else has ever gotten.

21. Chuck Norris can divide by zero.

22. Chuck Norris once kicked a horse in the chin.  It's descendants are known today as Giraffes.

23.  Chuck Norris has the greatest poker face of all time.  He won the 1983 World Series of Poker, despite holding only a joker, a Monopoly get-out-of-jail-free card, a two of clubs, a seven of spades, and a green #4 card from the game UNO.

24. Chuck Norris counted to infinity -- twice.

25. We live in an expanding universe.  All of it is trying to get away from Chuck Norris.

For more, see this website:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Winning Fight

"Christians are not perfect, just forgiven." I've seen this bumper sticker hundreds of times. If you see it, please rip it off. This is not the message we want to be sending. Christians are not just forgiven. We're forgiven and born to a radically new kind of life! We are much much more than "just forgiven."

What kind of fight is the Christian life? It is a winning fight. A victorious fight. A conquering fight.

God has given us His Spirit, and because His Spirit resides in us, we will see fruit in our lives. We will advance. We will make headway. We will progress. Fruit naturally grows on trees. It is the nature of an apple tree to produce apples. It is the nature of a believer in whom God's Spirit dwells to produce fruit. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-Control. Fruit.

Why is it important to remember this? Because one of the greatest obstacles to growth is unbelief in the possibility of growth. We ought to see ourselves as people who will make genuine progress in our lives, so that in five years the sin that I used to battle with everyday is no longer a significant temptation. The addiction I felt is no longer enslaving me. The sinful attitudes I struggled with have been replaced with good fruit. The fight is a winning fight.

So Christians are not sinners who happen to be forgiven. Christians are forgiven, redeemed, Spirit-indwelt, new creation saints who happen to struggle with sin. Let me say that again! We are not sinners who happen to be forgiven. We are saints who happen to sin. Our primary identity--the core of who we are--has been radically changed. We are new creations (2 Cor 5:17)! This perspective on our identity and on the Christian life in general is a main staple of Pauline theology. The Christian life is a fight, to be sure (see my previous post), but it is a winning fight.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Christian Life: Flawless or Fight?

The Christian life is not primarily a life of flawlessness--but a fight! A fight not of flesh and blood--but of faith. As Paul says, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil 3:12; see also 2 Cor 10:3-6; Eph 6:12; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 2:3-4, 4:7). The Christian life is a pressing on.

While I don't always agree with John Piper on doctrinal issues, he is a model of what a pastor ought to look like, and I would do well to imitate him. Below are a couple of powerful quotations from him.

"The mark of a true Christian, and the mark of a church member in good standing, is not perfection, but the persistent fight of faith that recognizes sin as sin, confesses it, and turns from it in new resolves of holiness again and again." From this sermon.

"And this faith will fight anything that get's between it and Christ. The distinguishing mark of saving faith is not perfection. The mark of faith is not that I never sin sexually. The mark of faith is that I fight. I fight anything that dims my sight of Jesus as my glorious Savior. I fight anything that diminishes the fullness of the lordship of Jesus in my life. I fight anything that threatens to replace Jesus as the supreme Treasure of my life. Anything that stands between me and receiving Jesus faith fights—not with fists or knives or guns or bombs, but with the truth of Christ." From this sermon.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Follow up on "Rabbi Jesus" in Velvet Elvis

The following is a follow-up on my previous post reviewing "Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell. If you haven't read the previous post, I suggest you read this first.

In regards to Jesus' status as a rabbi, I should have been a bit more precise... Jesus is called "Rabbi" at several points in the gospels (see Mark 9:5; 1:21; 14:45; 10:51; John 20:16). There are numerous times also when Jesus is called the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew word "Rabbi" (epistata "master" and didaskalos "teacher"). However, the word "Rabbi" did not refer to a formally trained, ordained rabbi in the sense that Rob Bell indicates. It did not begin to take on this meaning until 70 AD. The New Testament scholar, Craig Evans states, "...prior to 70 CE the designation 'Rabbi' is informal, even vague, and lacks the later connotations of formal training and ordination, which obtain sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple..." (Craig Evans, "Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus," From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith, p. 42). Notice that in John 20:16, the word "Rabboni" is even defined for the reader--confirming that it was not a formally defined status: "She turned and said to him in Aramaic, 'Rabboni!' (which means Teacher)."

In 66 AD the Jews rebelled against the Romans, and eventually in 70 AD Jerusalem was besieged. This ended in 70 AD when the Romans captured Jerusalem, and obliterated the Temple. Judaism following the destruction of their temple and their capital took on a much different flavor than Judaism prior to AD 70. Prior to 70 AD Jewish worship centered around the Temple and the sacrifices performed there. Jerusalem was the center of Judaism. Post AD 70, Jews were scattered around the world and faced the need to redesign religious activities without the Temple. The Essenes, Sadducee's, and Zealots largely disappear from the scene and the Pharisaic movement leads the way forward in Judaism. During the siege, a teacher named Johanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin and secured permission from the Roman authorities to reestablish his academy at Jamnia. Johanan was of the school of Hillel and favored submission to Rome. This academy became the dominant rabbinic school following the destruction of Jerusalem because it was officially authorized by Rome to represent the Jewish people.

The academy at Jamnia marks the beginning of the change from a temple-oriented Judaism comprising a variety of sects to a more united Judaism centered around the local synagogues. It was at this point that "rabbinic Judaism" came into being where "Rabbi" was defined as an ordained appointment to an office that gave one judicial authority in interpreting the Jewish law. Interestingly, the council of Jamnia also recognized the Old Testament canon for the first time. Other things also changed in Judaism during this period. Everett Ferguson describes this period: "...the rabbis produced significant changes in Judaism: making the study of Torah a central act of piety incumbent on all male Jews, and developing prayer into a communal act of service to God. In the process, the rabbis elevated a new type of holy man -- the scholar replaced the priest as the religious leader. Although the result in the circumstances of the post-70 period was something new, the rabbis were drawing on elements in earlier Jewish tradition in fashioning 'rabbinic Judaism'" (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p. 573). It was during this period that the Mishnah was written, which can be dated at about AD 200, and then around AD 500 the Gemara was written, which together form the Talmud. The mistake Bell makes is reading the Talmud and especially the Mishnah back into Jesus' times. But as Jimmy Dunn says, "...the portrayals of rabbinic Judaism in Mishnah and Talmud may not simply be projected backwards into the first century" (James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 90).

As you can see, the history is complex and I couldn't find an easily accessible source of info other than maybe wikipedia... You can check out a general book on NT backgrounds like the book I cited by Everret Ferguson, or maybe the one by James Jeffers called The Greco-Roman World in the New Testament Era. N.T. Wright's book, NT and the People of God is also helpful on this.... There are full-scale technical treatments of this issue by Lee Levine, and Jacob Neusner, and others... but they're big expensive books that are extremely technical. But this is the consensus view... there might be a couple of wacky scholars out there who disagree, but on a whole scholarship accepts the view I gave above.

Review of "Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell

To begin with, I should say that Bell's writing style is very flowery. He uses a lot of pictures, metaphors, questions, and one-liners, so it's sometimes difficult to pin down exactly what he's saying. This is intentional, I'm sure, because Bell wants to communicate post-modern's; he's not attempting to write a theologically precise book.

I'll begin with what I liked about the book:

Bell does a good job of emphasizing that the church ought to function as a community. I think that in a lot of ways our individualistic culture has lost this aspect of the church. We ought to see our church as our family in a very real sense, and we ought to do life together in community. Bell emphasizes this, which is good. Along the same lines, he challenges our contemporary model of church where one person uses their gift of teaching and everyone else listens. If people go to a church meeting and just listen to a sermon and then go home, and this is the extent of their involvement, then I doubt biblically if this could count as being a member of that local body.

I thought Bell's emphasis on the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth is a needed corrective in our culture that tends to see God's kingdom as wholly in the future and somewhere else (in heaven). He does a good job of correcting eschatelogical naivet├ęs by emphasizing that heaven will come to earth in the end. Also, I liked that Bell encouraged people to take a personal sabbath rest. This is much needed in our culture where busyness is seen as a virtue.

One area I particularly thought was good was Bell's treatment of sanctification (he didn't call it this). Bell states that we are not primarily identified as sinners, but as new creatures. He stresses that rather than focusing on sin management, we ought to focus on who we are in Christ, and then we will naturally begin to live as Jesus lived. This, I think, is a very powerful message and a much needed corrective. Along the same lines, he states that transformation in actions occurs when there is a genuine belief/trust in true reality--the reality that is described in the Bible. He ties this in with the idea that 'all truth is God's truth,' and the implications he draws from this for missions, evangelism, and other areas are good and useful.

Now I'll address the negative things about the book, which I'm sad to say, I think outweigh the positive things. I'll organize my thoughts under two headings: Philosophical issues, and exegetical issues.

A. Philosophical-Theological Issues
Bell begins by assuming that God cannot be described in human terms, so all our theology/doctrine are human constructs. This is a very dangerous false idea. It is true that we cannot capture all of who God is with language, but we can speak truly about God. In fact, you can't capture all of any person with language because persons are not static objects. In heaven, I will grow in my relationship with God more and more each day forever--even if I come to understand every Bible passage and theological doctrine with complete understanding--because God is a person. I will also continue to grow in knowing my wife, and every other Christian for all eternity. You can never fully know a person. However, just because I don't fully know my wife, doesn't mean that I don't know a whole lot about her. In the same way, although we may not be able to fully describe every aspect of who God is with language, we can describe Him truly. Dan was absolutely right without even reading the book. Bell is "conflating God's incomprehensibility with His ineffability." Bell also seems to draw a false dichotomy between knowledge and wonder. According to Bell, if you really knew God, then this leaves no room for wonder and awe about God. I would argue that the opposite is true. If you don't know God, then you will be without wonder and awe, and as you come to know Him and see Him as He truly is, you will grow in your wonder and awe of Him. God chose to inspire a book to teach us about Himself, and the words in that book give us true and accurate knowledge about God.

A second philosophical problem with the book is that Bell is relativistic. He seems to assume that all 'paintings' of Christianity are equally valid. According to Bell, the pre-reformation Catholic 'painting' is just different than the Reformer's 'painting.' But these two 'paintings' cannot be equally valid because they are diametrically opposed at important points. Furthermore, this idea is self-refuting because the idea that all 'paintings' of the Christian faith are equally valid, is itself a painting of the Christian faith. Is the 'painting' that says, "there is only one valid way to be a Christian" itself a valid 'painting' of the Christian faith? It seems to me that Bell has been unduly influenced by our culture's views about pluralism and tolerance. He seems to buy that in order to be tolerant, you have to accept other people's ideas as true. The real definition of tolerance is to allow someone to hold a different viewpoint even though you fundamentally disagree with them. Bell's relativism extends to two important areas: doctrine, and Scripture.

With reference to doctrine, Bell argues that we ought to see doctrine as the springs on a trampoline, that we jump on as we live in Christ. The springs are not the main point; they merely facilitate the main goal of "finding our lives in God." Now there is some truth to this analogy, but it is also very dangerous. If we don't like a doctrine or two, we can just take them off the trampoline and keep jumping. Here's Bell's take on the Trinity: "It is a spring, and people jumped for thousands of years without it. It was added later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, question it. It flexes, and it stretches" (22). And then again, here's Bell's take on the virgin birth: "What if that spring was seriously questioned? Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?" (26). Bell's unspoken conclusion seems to be that we could still be Christians without these fundamental doctrines; we could still keep jumping. But clearly we would consider someone who had rejected the Trinity and the Virgin Birth as being a non-Christian. You simply cannot throw out the core doctrines of the Christian faith and still call yourself a Christian. The idea of progressive revelation is that although a doctrine might be revealed over time, once that doctrine is revealed it is our obligation to believe it. People once did not believe in Jesus, but that's because Jesus had not been revealed. Now that he's been revealed, it is our obligation as Christians to believe in Him. The same goes for the Trinity and the virgin birth. If Bell wants to open up dialog to seriously discuss these doctrines, then that's great. But when he implies that we can do without them, that is unacceptable.

Bell's relativism also extends to the interpretation of Scripture. Bell argues that the Bible has to be interpreted, a point with which very few people would disagree. But Bell goes further than this. He wants his readers to understand that they are entitled to interpret the Bible as much as anyone else (50). Furthermore, no one's interpretation is any better than anyone else's; they are all equally valid. He states, "When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means. They are giving their own opinions about the Bible" (54). Earlier he writes, "Everyone's interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. No one is objective" (53). Bell applies this principle asking why we worship on Sunday rather than Saturday? "At one point in church history, a group of Christians decided that the Sabbath is not Saturday, but Sunday" (56). He goes on to ask why we do not sell all our possessions for the poor, or make women wear head coverings, or why do we say a wife's role is to submit to her husband? Bell answers, "This is because someone somewhere made a decision about those texts...Somebody in your history decided certain Bible verses still apply and others don't" (55-56). The effect of all this is making people feel bewildered at ever really understanding what the Bible says. It's true that every Christian can interpret the Bible for themselves (this is what we call the priesthood of believers), but the point is to get as close as possible to the author's original intended meaning, and some interpretations are flat out wrong, and some are better than others. Furthermore, although it's true that no one comes to the Bible without any pre-understandings, this does not mean that we cannot arrive at valid interpretations of a text. By being aware of our own biases and tendencies, and examining the context and flow of a passage, we can come to an accurate interpretation of a text.

B. Exegetical Issues
In addition to the philosophical problems in the book, there are numerous exegetical problems.

1. Jesus is not a rabbi as Bell indicates. Bell seems to read the Talmud and Mishnah back into Jesus' times, when in fact these books describe Judaism after the two Jewish wars when Judaism was whittled down to Pharisaism and was much more focused on the Torah. You'll notice in the Bible that Jesus never has encounters with Rabbi's... Pharisee's, Sadducee's, Scribe's, and priests, but no rabbi's. The reason for this is that there were no rabbi's hanging out around synagogues in Jesus' day. In fact there is no archaeological evidence that there were any schools anywhere in Galilee. There were some schools in Jerusalem, but this was far from Galilee. There simply were no ordained rabbi's in Jesus day like the one's that Bell describes. These ordained rabbis did not become prevalent until much later. This mistake of using a later rabbinic grid to interpret Jesus leads to a number of errors. One of the most prevalent errors is Bell's usage of Jesus' binding and loosing (Mt 16:19; 18:18). When Jesus speaks of 'binding' and 'loosing,' he's not talking about forbidding and allowing certain interpretations of the Old Testament texts. To 'bind' means to make a ruling that is binding, not to forbid something. To 'loose' means to free someone from the obligation or debt that was once bound upon them. Binding and loosing are mentioned only two times in the New Testament (Matt 16:19; Matt 18:18; see also John 20:23). In Matthew 16, Peter has just made a confession that Jesus is the Christ, and in response Jesus gave him the keys of the kingdom and told him, "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The point here is that Peter (and all disciples of Jesus) have the authority to admit and exclude people to the Kingdom of God. They do this by the proclamation of the gospel (this is why this follows Peter's confession of Jesus' identity). Similarly, in Matthew 18, the context deals with church discipline, and the point is that the church has the authority to admit/exclude people from God's Kingdom by declaring the terms under which sins are forgiven or retained. So contrary to what Bell contends, the Jerusalem council in Acts is not an example of 'binding' and 'loosing.'

2. Bell's Greek/Hebrew and history need some work. First, he seems to treat the biblical languages like they are a magic key that makes the text mean something different than it says in English. Whenever a teacher does this, you can assume (1) they're interpretation is probably wrong, and (2) they probably don't know Greek or Hebrew very well. In Bell's case, both are true. There's numerous examples, but one example is Bell's reference to the word 'virgin' in Matthew (26). He states that the word Matthew uses for virgin actually comes from Isaiah, and that the Hebrew word for virgin means several things. He says this to suggest that the virgin birth may not be a doctrine found in the Bible. In reality, the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 is almah, which means 'young woman.' In an honor/shame culture, this word surely included virginity, but would not focus exclusively on that trait. However, Matthew is not quoting the Hebrew, but the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint), where the word parthenos is used. Parthenos is equivalent to our English word virgin. Further, Bell suggests that the reason that Matthew includes a reference to a virgin birth is that it appealed to the members of the cults of Mithras and Dionysius. The Mithras cult did not exist until well after the writing of Matthew, and the cults of Mithras, Attis, and Dionysius did not focus on real historical persons. The worshipers knew that the gods they worshiped were not historical individuals. They therefore did not talk about actual virgin births. Finally it is simply not true that Julius Caesar or the other Emperors were said to be born of virgin births. Bell is right about the word euangelion (good news) being used by the Emperor cult, and that it was adopted by Christians to make their own claims about Jesus. As N.T. Wright says, "Jesus is the reality of which Caesar was only the parody." In short, it seems that Bell knows just enough Greek, Hebrew, and history to sound knowledgeable and therefore be dangerous.

3. There are numerous other questionable exegetical issues, but it would take too long to examine each of them. Some of the more flagrant one's are as follows:
- When Peter was walking on water, Peter lost faith in himself so it follows that I need to understand that Jesus believes in me, rather than focusing on believing in Jesus.
- The Bible states that all things are reconciled to God. So all people are forgiven--even those in hell.
- Hell is full of forgiven people who simply have chosen to live in their own version of their story, rather than in God's version of it (146).

In conclusion, Bell seems to write from a very relativistic perspective. The book has serious philosophical and exegetical problems. Looking over Bell's sources, it seems that he reads a lot of authors who hold esoteric and minority positions. Finally, Bell seems to lack a focus on the glory of God. In my opinion, Rob Bell should refrain from writing more books until he learns to control his creativity, and learns to answer more questions than he asks. I'm concerned that readers of Bell's book will finish it with a greater sense of relativism, less confidence in their knowledge of the truth, and a cynicism towards contemporary Christianity.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"The Shack" by William P. Young: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly

The Shack, by William P. Young, is a book that has created a flurry of activity--both praising it's merits and denigrating it as heresy. After questions by numerous friends, I decided to read it and write a small review.

The Good

To begin with, the story is emotionally gripping. The Shack tells the story of Mac--a father whose daughter is abducted by a child molester, and murdered in a shack. Following this ordeal, Mac receives a note from God inviting him to meet God ("Papa," as He is affectionately referred to throughout the book) at the shack where his daughter was murdered. Mac decides to go to the shack, not fully knowing what to expect, and ends up meeting with God. In the pages that follow, Mac works through the loss of his daughter with God and ultimately learns to forgive his daughter's killer.

A second positive feature of the book is that it emphasizes relationship with God. The bulk of the book concentrates on a series of conversations Mac has with different persons of the Trinity. In these conversations, there is an emphasis on relationship with God as opposed to following a list of rules or religious expectations. In general, this is a good thing (but see my criticisms below for more on this point).

Finally, the book does a good job attempting to answer the emotional problem of evil. In his conversations with God, the deep grief that Mac is experiencing is met with the simple truths of the Bible. Mac therefore learns to accept the simple truths of Christianity in the midst of his suffering. These truths include simple realities such as:
God loves you,
you can trust God,
God has a purpose you cannot see,
and God is with you when you don't sense Him.
Most of the theological truths in the book are not anything especially deep or new, but rather standard truths of orthodox Christianity. One thing that I appreciated about the book is that it does not attempt to answer the "Why?" question with a specific answer. Instead, the book offers general truths regarding God's nature and care, and Mac learns to stand in the reality of these truths. This is how the emotional problem of evil (in distinction to the intellectual problem of evil) ought to be dealt with.

The Bad

While there are good things about The Shack, there is also a number of negative things present in the book. To begin with, relationship with God is emphasized to the neglect of other truths about God such as His majesty, holiness, wrath, and justice. When Mac goes to the shack, the three persons of the Trinity appear to Mac: the Father in the form of an African-American woman, the Holy Spirit in the form of an Asian woman, and Jesus in the form of a Middle-Eastern Jewish man. God the Father is known throughout the book as "Papa," and it seems that Papa is always in the kitchen baking some delicious food for Mac and is always available to have conversations around the kitchen table or on the front porch. This portrayal of God emphasizes God as being our friend, but greatly neglects God as King and Lord of the universe. In our culture where the gravity of God's holiness is rarely felt, this does not help produce respect for the Almighty God. Part of the way that this low view of God is conveyed is by how Mack approaches God's presence. He does so without any sense of unworthiness and without a reverent fear of God. Because this is more of an attitude than a propositional truth in the book, it is easily transferred to readers without their conscious knowledge. This makes it especially dangerous.

Much has been made of God's depiction as a female. It should be said that the book explicitly points out that God does not have a gender, and that both genders are derived from the nature of God, and that God can reveal himself in many ways. The book explains that the reason God chose to reveal himself as masculine in the Bible is that God knew that sin would result in a lack of good fathers. This reasoning is a conjecture without any biblical support that probably is more telling about American culture and the author's personal experience than it is about God's purposes in the Bible. While it is beyond the scope of this critique to argue for this point, I believe that God's depiction of Himself in the masculine throughout Scripture goes to the very nature of masculinity and the nature God Himself. It is therefore problematic to portray God as the opposite of how He has repeatedly chosen to reveal Himself. Instead, we ought to respect God's self-revelation in the Bible.

There are things mentioned in the book that run completely contrary to orthodoxy. Probably the most flagrant of these is religious pluralism that borders on universalism. In the book, the idea is expressed that people of all religions are believers in Jesus (perhaps by other names). Additionally, non-Christians are referred to as God's children throughout the book. At one point, it is expressed that sin is it's own punisher, and God does not need to actively punish sin. This is in line with the general theme that God is our friend, as opposed to our King. The book's depiction of God makes it almost unthinkable that God would exhibit wrath towards sinners. These types of errors are found subtly throughout the book.

Finally, there is a general attitude that pervades the book that portrays the institution of the church as dry, empty and without substance. Orthodoxy is seen as missing the "deep truths" about God's love, friendship, relationship, and grace and is instead seen to be focused on rules, expectations, and law. And likewise seminary is seen as being a place of cold useless knowledge. This general attitude pervades much of the current emergent literature, and is the result of a post-modern tendency to see authority with disdain. In reality, the main theological insights that the book offers are simply restatements of orthodox Chrisitianity, although they are portrayed as "deep truths" only accessible through this special encounter with God at the shack. At one point, Sunday School and even the Bible itself are portrayed with this negative attitude! It is simply unacceptable that the book portrays the Bible with disdain instead of the prominent position that the Bible demands as God's unique form of revelation to us. Because this is an attitude that pervades the book, it is especially easy to see how readers could unintentionally adopt the same general attitude, which is dangerous.

One thing that makes The Shack dangerous is that the misinformation above is presented as the thoughts of a man coping with the tragic loss of his daughter. It therefore makes one prone not to question these issues, but instead let them slide by with the grace that we normally would give to someone grieving a tremendous loss. However, because this is a fictional book depicting God Himself, we ought to be careful that we do not inadvertently gain false views about God by accepting these thoughts of a grieving fictional character. It would be easy to allow the emotional impact of the book bypass our discernment so that we don't consider which statements about God are true and false.

The Ugly

One of the most popular critiques of The Shack is a sermon by Seattle pastor, Mark Driscoll. After listening to Driscoll's take on The Shack, I'd have to say I think he blows some of the statements in the book out of proportion. (His view on The Shack can be found here: ). He has four charges against The Shack:

1. The depiction of the Father and the Holy Spirit as humans violates the command to not make a graven image unto yourself.

In context, this 2nd commandment is dealing with the way in which God is worshiped. We are commanded not to make an image for the purpose of worship or veneration. The full verse states,
"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." Exodus 20:4-6
God commanded images to be made of serpents and cherubim, so this must be specifically forbidding the creation of images for the purpose of worship--not the creation of images in general. It is a stretch to say that this precludes us from using any metaphor or symbol to understand God--otherwise it would be wrong to represent Jesus as a lion in the Chronicles of Narnia, not to mention the numerous biblical metaphors used for God (i.e. fortress, rock, shepherd, father, etc.). Additionally, God has chosen to reveal Himself in numerous forms: a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a cloud, etc. However, I will say that the particular metaphors/forms that Young uses do not promote a high view of God, and in some ways run contrary to the biblical view of God. To the extent that they create a false conception of God in our minds and therefore our worship, they are sinful.

2. The depiction of the Father as an African-American female and the Holy Spirit as an an Asian female is goddess worship.

Simply because the author describes God as revealing Himself as a female does not mean that the book advocates goddess worship anymore than metaphors in the Bible about God being like an eagle, lion, or lamb means that we are engaged in animal worship. Later in the book God the Father reveals himself as a Gandolf-looking grandfather figure. I suspect that this is a resistance to the particular metaphor of a woman representing God. I am sympathetic to this as my above criticisms indicate, but I think that saying this is goddess worship is going a bit far. Indeed, within the pages of Scripture the metaphor of a mother is used of Paul and even God (1 Thes 2:7; Psalm 131).

3. The book advocates modalism.

This is Driscoll's weakest point, and this point makes me question whether he even read the book. Modalism is the heretical view that God is one Person who reveals Himself in 3 different forms or modes of being. This is contrary to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity in which there is one God who eternally exists as 3 Persons. Driscoll cites a passage in which Papa states, "I am truly human in Jesus," claiming that this is modalism. In this passage the author is emphasizing the same point that Jesus makes in John 14 saying, "Whoever has seen the me has seen the Father." In other words, Jesus is an exact example of the character of God--Jesus is God in the flesh. This is not modalism. At worst, this is just imprecise theological wording--which might be excusable given the genre of the book. The book is a fictional story, and therefore we should not apply the same rules of interpretation to it as we would apply to a systematic theology. If the book does lean towards a trinitarian heresy, it would not be modalism, but instead tri-theism (there are 3 gods) because we see constant interactions between the Persons of the Trinity, without seeing how these Persons are unified as One Being.

4. The book indicates that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, but instead only a circle of relationship because heirarchy only makes sense among sinners.

I think this is Driscoll's best point. The book indeed indicates that there is no heirarchy in the Trinity, but instead emphasizes God's unity. In one sense, the book is correct. The book emphasizes that when making decisions, the Godhead is unified in their decisions and there is no conflict in which one Person of the Trinity overrules another Person of the Trinity using their power/authority. Rather there is a relationship of complete trust/unity between the Persons of the Trinity. So when Jesus prays in Gethsemene saying, "Take this cup from me, yet not what I will but what you will," He is in an attitude of absolute trust towards His Father. Having said that, the book does error in advancing the view that there is absolutely no heirarchy in the Trinity. This is a result of the common post-modern assumption that all heirarchy results from power plays and manipulation of others. In contrast biblical heirarchy involves a mutual understanding of roles and humble submission and trust. Just as there are roles within the husband/wife relationship, although husbands and wives are equal in their being and worth, so within the Trinity there are roles which create a heirarchy, but there is no heirarchy when it comes to the being or worth of the members of the Trinity.


While some of the criticisms of The Shack are unwarranted and overblown, there are reasons to be cautious of this popular book. After reading it, I would not recommend it to a friend. The errors in it are subtle and therefore dangerous. Additionally there are a number of excellent (better written!) books available on dealing with loss and grief, and each of these would address the same issues as The Shack without the negative baggage. In contrast to The Shack, I would not hesitate in recommending the following books on loss and grief (in this order):

Baffled to Fight Better by Oswald Chambers
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Hauken
A Grace Disguised by Gerald Sittser
The New Freedom of Forgiveness by David Augsburger

In any case, the author of The Shack has made it clear that they intend on producing a film based on the book, and therefore Christians ought to be informed on the good and bad found in this story so that they can serve as a guide to others. It's very easy to unconsciously adopt the attitudes in this book, and therefore Christians must exercise extreme discernment in confronting subversive attitudes and statements found within it. Below are a couple of other reviews for people interested in further reading.

Philosophy of Christian Education

I believe that the goal of Christian education is to equip students in mind and character to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.

The universe is created to reflect God’s glory, and therefore ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ Consequently, all subjects from spelling to science ought to be taught from a distinctively Christian worldview whereby the source and meaning of life is rooted in God Himself. God has uniquely revealed Himself through His authoritative Word—the Bible. Therefore we ought to see the Bible as the most relevant book on earth, and must study it with absolute precision and care. The teachings of the Bible should permeate every subject taught. Christians have a responsibility to be able to give an articulate, reasoned defense of their beliefs (1 Pet. 3:15-16; Jude 3), and to play an active role in reaching people from every tongue, tribe, and nation for Christ (Mat. 28:19-20). A Christian education ought to equip and motivate students to lovingly fulfill these responsibilities.

The primary means of sanctification is the transformation of mind in accordance with the truth (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:10). Through Christian education students should increasingly see reality rightly, and thus be transformed. Recognizing that we almost never act contrary to what we truly believe, it is imperative that an open and honest educational environment is maintained where students are free to discover truth, rather than forced to regurgitate ideas they do not believe. In this way students will develop a holistic Christian worldview that impacts all areas of life rather than a compartmentalized faith impotent to effect genuine transformation. In sum, Christian education ought to result in the creation of intelligent, thoughtful, warm-hearted Christians who wear Christ attractively.

Philosophy of Ministry

I believe that all members of the Body of Christ are called to be ministers to one another, and ministry is largely a synergistic team-activity whereby the Body of Christ builds itself up in love. The role of church leaders is to equip the saints for that ministry (Eph. 4:11-16). As such, we should be in the business of releasing ministry rather than holding onto ministry, which means that our job is to create and nurture an environment which frees and empowers all the body to function under the guidance and enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, an accurate assessment of our ministry is not how large our ministry is, but rather how confident and active people are in using their Spirit-given gifts. Recognizing that ministry rolls forward on the ball-bearings of relationships, it is important that leaders approach their connection with the body primarily in relational not professional terms--all the while being guided by the rails of God's Word.

I believe that the leadership of the church should be undertaken by a team of godly men under the authority of God’s inerrant Word, with Jesus Himself as the Chief and Head Pastor.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Core Values

It's important to know what's important to you. Unless you identify what's important to you, it will be impossible to live strategically in accordance with your priorities. I have identified four core values in my life:

International Vision – God has commissioned believers to play an active role in reaching people from every tongue, tribe, and nation for Christ. This involves these people being personally attached to the Triune God and their growth towards maturity (Matt. 28:19-20). Therefore it is crucial that the body of Christ sees and reaches out to the world. This especially involves preaching the gospel where Christ has never been preached.

Biblical Literacy – God has given believers His Holy Word so that they might know and follow Him. It is a great privilege for believers to be able to study and understand His Word for themselves. Therefore the body of Christ must be equipped to accurately handle the Word of Truth so that they might be fit for every task to which God has called them (2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17). The church should see the Bible as the most relevant book on earth, and must study it with absolute precision and care.

Mobilized Community – God has gifted each member of the body of Christ uniquely, and the church grows to maturity as each part functions within the body to build itself up in love (Eph. 4:11-16). Therefore members of the body must learn to develop and use their gifts as they are empowered by the Spirit for the edification of the whole body. This is accomplished as leaders help people find their place so that they are rightly arranged to function with the rest of the body, and as they encourage people towards the proper exercise of their gifts.

Cogent Thinking – God has created the universe to reflect His glory, and as Christians, we have the ability to see reality rightly. As such, it is imperative that we emphasize the development of the Christian mind so that people think rightly about reality (Rom. 12:2) and are able to articulate what and why they believe with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15). The church should be in the job of creating intelligent, thoughtful, warm-hearted Christians who wear Christ attractively.