Long Before Luther [A Review]

34525486“Was the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone an invention or a recovery?” Though Protestants might easily dismiss that question, it would be foolish to do so. The Roman Church asserts that this doctrine that is so central to Protestants is an innovation, and that we have thus been living in error for the past 500 years and need to return to the straight and narrow path found only in Mother Church.

It does not help, of course, that Protestants (and especially evangelicals) can sometimes act as if the modern Church just sort of appeared out of thin air without caring one bit where it came from. Slightly better (but only slightly!) is the belief that the true Church only arose 500 years ago when Luther posted his theses. This is not, however, how any of it works: we came from somewhere, and in one way or another we must reckon with our history.

In a peculiar and ironic way, this narrative of Church History is one that the 16th century Reformers like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli would themselves reject. While they did believe that there was corruption and theological infidelity and corporate sin in the Church that needed to be repented of, this was not a task of reinventing the Church or starting a new Church; their aim was to come back to the historical teaching of the Church. As Fred Sanders has recently put it, they intended to be more catholic than the Roman Church would allow them to be.

It is thus with great pleasure that I learned about Nathan Busenitz’s new book, Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel From Christ to the Reformation. There have been hundreds of books published this year in honor of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s theses, but this one stood out to me precisely because it works so powerfully to confront this false notion that the true Church was dormant or dead until the 16th century.

Structure

Busenitz focuses in specifically on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith with the intention of refuting the Roman Church’s claim that it was an innovative doctrine, having no historical precedent. He begins by looking at the scriptural warrant for the doctrine and then proceeds to examine the doctrine in theologians before Augustine, in Augustine himself, and then in later medieval theologians such as Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Throughout the whole book Busenitz stays rooted in primary sources, only leaning upon secondary sources to supplement his interpretation or to interact with others who read the sources differently than he does. Given that Busenitz holds a doctorate in church history and patristic theology, the section on the pre-augustinian Church and on Augustine himself are much stronger than the last section on the post-augustinian Church. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but it’s worth noting because there is certainly far more that could have been said about the medieval period than is spoken of here.

Areas of Improvement

Let me reiterate that I am so deeply thankful that this book has been published; Protestants could stand to have a lot more books like this on our shelves. That being said, I see two primary areas where this book could have been considerably strengthened: its doctrinal focus and its engagement with detractors and critics.

Doctrinal focus. In one sense, one has to commend Busenitz for his laser focus on a single doctrine for an entire book-length project; it would be easy to go a mile wide and an inch deep, and because he doesn’t do that he is able to interact extensively with primary sources. That’s pretty rare in popular-level evangelical books, and it’s wonderful that he does so.

Nonetheless, justification by grace through faith is not an adequate summary of everything the Reformers were trying to accomplish, and focusing only on this one doctrine exposes Protestants to the criticism that we only care about getting people saved without investing much thought into the life and function of the Church, and how individuals fit into the whole. Yet for Luther, Cranmer, Calvin, and the rest, the doctrine of soteriology was only part of the project of reformation.

In the medieval point of view, what distinguished the true Church was apostolic descent (can we trace a spiritual genealogy all the way back to the NT?) whereas for the Reformers the true Church was marked by the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and, for the Reformed at least, the right exercise of Church discipline. Right preaching of the Word came from the ad fontes impulse to dig back down to the primary sources rather than relying on millennia of interpretations instead. They weren’t abandoning Church history, but they were returning it to its proper place. Long Before Luther expressly does not intend to tackle all of that, but I cannot help but feel the book is a bit lopsided as a result.

Engagement with detractors and critics. Having only relatively recently begun to dig into patristics and reformation theology myself, I am in no way qualified to make judgments about whether Busenitz interprets the sources fairly or not. I imagine that most readers of this book will be in the same boat, and for the most part we are required to simply trust that he is not just lifting quotes out of context and using them as proof texts. That’s a scary place to be as a reader, and I imagine his case would have been rhetorically strengthened had he engaged opposing viewpoints more thoroughly.

To be fair, he does do some of this: on p. 25 he uses Alister McGrath’s contention that sola fide is an innovative doctrine as a springboard to get into his argument. In the section on Augustine he gives ample time to the argument that Augustine believed in sola caritate iustificare (“justification by love alone”) rather than by grace through faith alone. Given that the entire book is a defense against the accusation of theological innovation, though, I would have hoped to see this sort of interaction throughout more of his argumentation. This would have also increased the size of the book, but it would have been worth it.

Conclusion

It’s a rather short book weighing in at just over 160 pages minus notes and appendices, and seems to be targeted at the armchair theologian; it’s not as technical as historical theology can get, but I could imagine it going over the heads of some readers who have never read much in this vein before. My criticisms aside, I really do appreciate this book and Busenitz’s zeal to see a Protestant Church more connected to and grounded in its own history.

You can pick up a copy on Kindle for about $9, or you can purchase it from the publisher for roughly the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age [A Review]

Why do greater certainty and more control only heighten our fear for what remains outside our control—especially if the possibilities are so improbable?

—Bob Cutillo, MD

It is a curious thing that health care, whose very existence was once solely predicated upon helping people, has become an intimidating, monolithic, even frightening system that nobody fully understands and that can even ruin people physically, financially, and emotionally. It is not that anyone sets out with an evil gleam in his or her eye seeking to scuttle the lives of the medically needy; instead, we have arrived at the current state of health care rather unintentionally. The root problem is that we believe our health to be a possession to which we are entitled and our health care a service which we have purchased, and thus are owed good service.

This is at least the thesis of the recent book Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Dr. Bob Cutillo, a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, Colorado. it is true, of course, that when you or I go to the doctor we do expect competent and accurate diagnosis of any issues we are suffering from. What happens, though, when the diagnosis is something that cannot be treated? We may rage and splutter at the doctor as if we are being short shrifted, but this belies the fact that we have forgotten that health is a gift, not a possession. Nobody receives a guarantee in the birthing room that he or she will live a long, healthy, and disease-free life. Every healthy day we live is undeserved.

31qfo2suwml-_sy344_bo1204203200_With a certain amount of irony, it is this acceptance of our true lot in life that actually leads to a better relationship with our health. Life is a gift, and when a doctor, medicine, drug, or procedure restores us back to health this is also a gift. When we receive the news that a chronic condition is incurable or that death is knocking at the door, we can receive that news with sorrow, but also with a certain measure of peace and contentment, because every good day we have ever lived has been given to us.

I personally have a complicated relationship with the medical establishment; luckily I only have ever been to the doctor for something really serious a couple of times, but the heartache of sickness and death is not far from any one of us. I have lived my life in the peculiar valley that many others dwell in; on the one hand there are those who insist that everything about the medical establishment is good and ought to be accepted uncritically if it is uttered from the doctor’s lips. On the other hand, there are those who swear off anything and everything that has to do with the AMA; healthy living is a specific formula of nutrition, vitamins, essential oils, natural remedies, and even things like homeopathy and reflexology. To be honest, one of the reasons I picked up Dr. Cutillo’s book was to see if he might provide a way forward.

Reading Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age did not automatically reconcile these two groups in my mind or even provide me with an obvious third way, but Dr. Cutillo did help me recognize and understand that the posture of control is evident in both of these groups—they just disagree on how to control life. Viewing life as a gift, however, offers a certain amount of liberty in both. You can receive the diagnosis from the doctor without being disillusioned when the news is bad.

If I have any critique to offer of the book, it’s that its target audience is not always clear. Sometimes it’s as if Cutillo is writing to medical professionals, and sometimes to laypeople. The result is a book that feels at some points laser-focused in its intent and at other points simply over my head. That is a relatively small critique, however, and in general there is plenty of food for thought for any reader. Though I would hesitate to call this a five star book, it nevertheless is one of the most interesting, applicable, and genre-crossing books I have read this year. I highly recommend it.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $10 or WTS Books for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Cover photo courtesy of 强 石.

The Wonder-Working God [A Review]

What are we supposed to do with miracles? Sigh. We could write them off as pre-scientific descriptions of very natural phenomena or we could look at them as mythological tales designed to communicate theological truth. Both of these options allow us to breathe a sigh of relief as we neatly sidestep the awkwardness of actually taking them at face value. After all, you and I have no context to believe in the miraculous save for children’s stories, so it makes us feel uncomfortable when someone suggests that these miracles are real, historical events. Pass the tinfoil hat on over, right?

Yet if we want to take the Bible seriously (and offer it the respect we would wish for ourselves), we can’t write miracles off at all! Thus, we have before us three questions that demand answers. First, what is a miracle, precisely? Second, how valid is it to believe the miraculous could actually happen? Third, why do miracles happen? With his latest release, The Wonder-Working God, Jared Wilson seeks to examine these questions head-on.

Moving Beyond “Just Because He Could”

Wilson has gained a reputation in my eyes as a thoughtful, reflective, and exultant The Wonder-Working Godpastor/author who knows how to craft exquisite prose that keeps the gospel primary. I was hesitant to pick up this book, thinking that it might focus inordinately on the second question raised above. Apologetic works defending the validity of miracles are valuable, but in my opinion the third question above is far and away the most important question to ask and answer. We need to know what purpose miracles serve. 

Here’s why I think so: if we prove that Jesus could turn water into wine or feed 5,000 people with a lunchbox, we still haven’t justified his actions as meaningful or even sane. I’m an evangelical through and through, by which I mean that I see the gospel (the evangel) as central to the Christian faith along with its saving power. Yet if we believe that Jesus came chiefly to save sinners, then what role do miracles play? Enabling the blind to see is nice, but it doesn’t deal with sin, right? If we say, “Why, they prove Jesus to be the Son of God!” then we have to struggle with the fact that Jesus was often urging people to keep his miracles on the down-low. I cured your leprosy to prove that I’m God, but don’t tell anyone

 Wilson seems to sense the great importance of the Why question. In exploring the water-into-wine miracle, he says this: “Jesus is not performing a neat trick. He isn’t just supplying a need. He is signaling the immediate presence of the ancient promise” (ch. 2). When he explains the purpose of miracles within the grander scheme of scripture, Wilson draws from CS Lewis and NT Wright: “The glory these miracles reveal is that of the Creator God come to bend creation back to order” (ch. 4). In other words, Wilson firmly plants his interpretation of the miraculous in the arch of redemptive history. 

There is nothing in the created order that wasn’t created by Jesus, and he has come back to straighten out what we have bent and broken. Here we have our answer to question one, about what miracles are: “Then comes Jesus Christ, bending, it seems, the very laws of nature. In fact, he is straightening them out” (ch. 1). Miracles, according to Wilson, are not aberrations of natural law, but corrections to natural law. Jesus says, You bend to my will, not the other way around.

He does not spend an inordinate amount of time on question two about the historical validity of miracles, but if you start with his definition above, the question becomes far less of an irritant. If we have the humility to accept that we could be the ones who are wrong, who are broken and bent, then our natural law begins to look like an unnatural law and we become receptive of the True King who has come to set things right. We who are living in a land of death yearn for the impossible, namely, the conquering of death. No wonder the allure of the Harry Potter series! No wonder that I see articles pop up in my news feed all the time about the latest scientist claiming that he’s figured out how to help people live forever! If you’ve ever been to a funeral then you know how foreign and unjust death is, like the intrusion of an unwelcome visitor who has set up camp in the world that was meant to be. Well, that’s precisely what Wilson’s thesis is–Jesus the Wonder-Working God is coming and cleaning house in a very real, non-metaphorical way. “My death,” he says, “will not be symbolic. It will be real. Therefore, a metaphorical resurrection is no hope to me. I am looking forward to those rekindled amino acids” (ch. 10). 

Conclusion

Wilson has no use for a Jesus who is anything less than God himself. Jesus works wonders because he is God. His miracles are real and historical because he is God, and we are not. One of the great things about Wilson’s writing is how big and central Jesus is–lots of us claim to have a high view of the scripture and the gospel, but when it comes down to brass tacks we spend a lot of our time talking about anything and everything else. Wonder-Working God reads like a running stream-of-consciousness devotional commentary on the miracles of the gospels, and for the most part it works well. Wilson’s prose is less exquisite and precise than something like Gospel Deeps, but is nevertheless still clear and comprehensible.

I hesitate to mentions this concern, for it is only tangentially related, but I worry for Wilson as a human being because over the past few years he has seemed to grow more grim in his writing. I don’t know him in person at all, but I have noticed him subtly growing more polemical over time. I’m thankful that he takes a hard line on things like the prosperity gospel and the “leadership industrial complex” of middle class mega church evangelicalism, but the value I find in sitting under Wilson is how authentically and beautifully he exults in the gospel, not in how angrily he castigates his nemeses. Such angry rants are present in this book, but are thankfully not dominant. My hope for Jared Wilson is that he never becomes a crotchety old cynic, but instead sets an example of how to stay centered on the gospel throughout one’s life without letting the threats to the gospel take the spotlight.

All in all, I would recommend The Wonder-Working God to you if you’re looking for some help in understanding the place of Jesus’ miracles in the greater flow of redemptive history. 

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $13.50 (paper) | $10 (digital) or on WTS books for $8 (both paper and digital).

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

The Word of the Lord [A Review]

Hers is a name that I have seen more and more frequently over the past year on the blogs I frequent as well as on Facebook amongst my friends. Until recently, however, I had known very little about Nancy Guthrie, and so I decided to pick up one of her books for a review.

The Word of the Lord is part of her series Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament which are Bible studies aimed at helping women read Old Testament (OT) books with an eye toward their fulfillment in the gospel. The Word of the Lord looks specifically at nine of the prophets, arranged chronologically, beginning with Jonah. Her treatment of each prophet consists of a personal Bible study, a teaching chapter, a “looking forward” section (situating the prophet in light of Jesus’ return), and a discussion guide. Her design is that an individual would devotionally use the personal Bible study to walk through the biblical text, and then use the teaching chapter and the looking forward section to prepare for a corporate Bible study. She then gives the discussion guide to facilitate a group exploration of the text week-to-week. These housekeeping details aside, I’d like to use the bulk of this review in reflection on Guthrie’s overall purpose and method, and then offer a few closing comments by way of evaluation.

Purpose and Method

Do you find the OT to be rather daunting? Intimidating? Where do you even start? Especially when it comes to the prophetic writings, we often find ourselves a bit lost in the labyrinth of strange words, peculiar poetry, and hard-to-pronounce names. Sure, there’s an occasional well-known story (Daniel and the Lion’s Den), or poem (The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, traditionally read around Christmas), or inspirational coffee mug verse (Jeremiah 29:11 anyone?), but beyond these the prophets tend to remain an impenetrable forest.

Guthrie’s aim is in helping the average Christian woman enter into this forest for herself and gain a certain level of comfortability so she can begin to navigate on her own. This is but a survey of the prophets, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for an in-depth study of a specific book. That being said, Guthrie is a very good guide and will help you get your bearings for later adventures in the prophets. Her compass always points toward Jesus, and she’ll help you see how every prophetic oracle and narrative yearns expectantly for its fulfillment in Christ.

There are a lot of ways to go wrong when we interpret the prophets; common errors include cherry-picking them for moralistic tales (You, too, can endure the fiery furnaces of your own life if you just have faith) or for promises of prosperity (God will prosper you too, if you trust him). Further, some tend to go into the prophets as if they were some sort of code book that could unlock the secrets of the end of the world. In contrast, Guthrie’s purpose is to see the gospel when she reads the prophets. She works hard to help us look for a true and better Jonah who goes to all the world proclaiming the good news of God’s clemency for those who repent and believe. She helps us see Hosea as a picture of a divine husband who woos his wayward wife back to him time and again. She wants us to understand that the blood-spattered conqueror described in the final chapters of Isaiah is Jesus the Just, who will never let evil have the final word.

She accomplishes her purpose well, and that is in large part due to her socratic method of questioning that enables the reader to come to conclusions for herself. This is the personal Bible study that begins each chapter. Do not expect easy, spoon-feeding type questions, however. Consider the following, her second question about the book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 6 tells us about the vision Isaiah was given “in the year that King Uzziah died.” Since Uzziah ruled for fifty-two years, he would have been the only king Isaiah had thus far known. With that in mind, why might Isaiah have needed to see the vision, recorded in Isaiah 6:1-7, at that time?

What I love about her questions is that they don’t lend themselves to obvious, one word answers. When I read the above text, it did what a good question should do: lead me to me consider something I had never thought of before. Yes indeed! Why did Isaiah need to see that vision? All of her questions in The Word of the Lord are just as well-formed and thought-provoking, if a bit verbose sometimes.

After the personal Bible study there is a brief commentary on the prophet at hand where she takes the opportunity to discuss the text and its relevance to us. Here she fills in appropriate historical and cultural background information to illuminate the text. I was relieved to find that she generally stays centered on the text (examine an average page from a teaching chapter and it will be peppered with relevant biblical quotes). I also commend the way she structures the study so that her commentary is sandwiched between questions for the individual and questions for a group.

Critique

I’ll limit myself here to one critique, which I see as one of the study’s only weak points. Though Guthrie tends to stick pretty close to the text, sometimes her use of historical/cultural background to illuminate the text gets flipped on its head, and the text starts illuminating her historical/cultural background info. It’s a problem that is larger than this book, and which seems to be endemic in evangelical preaching and teaching today. 

Here’s what I mean: try counting the number of sentences in her teaching chapters that begin with “Maybe,” “Perhaps,” “It seems,” “One would think,” etc. For example, in her teaching chapter on Jonah under the section “Jonah’s Resurrection,” she writes this:

We can’t help but notice that his prayer of chapter 2 does not include any confession of his sin. Perhaps that’s why the fish vomited Jonah out. Let’s face it: the whole idea of vomit is disgusting. Perhaps God was disgusted with the stubborn self-obsession of his prophet, even though he did intend to use him.

Let me be clear that there’s nothing inherently wrong with such speculation. Along with Guthrie I am genuinely curious about some of the details that the text omits. But at the end of the day we must admit the inherent uncertainty of speculation: perhaps the fish vomited Jonah out because the fish was disgusted with Jonah’s unconfessed sin, but perhaps the fish wasn’t

She is correct in saying that nowhere does Jonah repent in the text, but the argument from silence is a sword that slices both ways. Perhaps he never did repent, or perhaps he did. Perhaps the fish and God were disgusted with Jonah, but on the other hand perhaps they weren’t. Jonah is a short, concise work, and it is well within the realm of probability that it only summarizes the events of Jonah’s tale.

I do not mean to belittle Guthrie or her work in any way; as I said above, she has written an otherwise fine Bible study and this criticism (which is the exception in The Word of the Lord rather than the norm) is not enough to hinder me from recommending it. Nevertheless, I do find the prevalence of such speculation within the evangelical world to be concerning. As protestants, we believe in Sola Scriptura; in other words, what we have on the biblical page before us is sufficient for life and godliness. This is not a prohibition against looking at historical/cultural data, but is instead a profound belief that scripture can stand up on its own. Speculation leads us to draw our teaching points more from what is not there than from what is.

Steven Smith, in his May 2014 article about the movie Noah, examines this misappropriation of historical background in a very different context:

The movie “Noah” represents some profound acting and directing in one really strange movie. In so much as Darren Aronofsky is a director, he is typical of Hollywood: very gifted and a little bizarre. Oddly perhaps, as an exegete of Scripture, Aronofsky is typical of much evangelical preaching. Regarding his interpretive approach to the events recorded in Genesis 6-9, I find myself struggling with the same challenges, especially in two areas. First, he filled in gaps in the story with information that scratched the itch of curiosity while throwing sawdust on the trail that would take us to Christ. Therefore, he missed the end, the purpose of the story. The movie then is a warning of sorts for preachers.

I’m fairly well convinced that scratching the itch of curiosity is what we’re often trying to do with our historical/cultural background information. Guthrie certainly does not throw sawdust on the path to Christ, but I would be remiss if I did not address this whole issue as somewhat of a weakness.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, The Word of the Lord fills a needed gap in the evangelical world for solid biblical studies for women that empower them to encounter scripture for themselves rather than instilling an unhealthy dependency upon more able scriptural interpreters. Guthrie does the work of a good teacher, which is to instruct her readers to the point where they no longer need assistance. In the final analysis, this is a commendable Bible study even in view of the weakness stated above.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Worship Leaders, We are not Rock Stars (review)

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

The modern church is an interesting paradox. We’ve become cooler, more flashy, and more attractive so that those who were bored and uninterested by the cultural trappings of church would come back. But this has created tension because while we want people to come to church to look upwards toward God, they’re now so enamored with the man on the stage that they begin to think that the worship leader is who they’re coming for (or the preaching pastor, but that’s another matter). Stephen Miller looks for a solution to this “rock star syndrome” in his new book Worship Leaders, We are not Rock Stars (Moody Press, 2013).

The temptation to seek our own fame and fortune is nothing new (see Jesus’ temptation narrative in Matthew 4:1-11), but in our sinful, broken world it certainly is what we are prone to do. In the opening pages, Miller shares his own relatable story of how he was searching for record deals and touring opportunities with his band when he was struck with the selfishness of it all: the original desire of using his gifts to serve the church had been usurped by a new desire to use the church to serve himself. In a frank, “been there, done that” tone, Miller helps worship leaders walk from such a place to remembering who we really are.

He outlines 8 ideas of what it means to be a worship leader that make up the bulk of the book. We are:

  1. Worshipers
  2. Redeemed and Adopted
  3. Pastors and Deacons
  4. Theologians
  5. Storytellers (Liturgists)
  6. Evangelists
  7. Artists
  8. Christians

It’s a good reminder, and Miller writes clearly and succinctly (the whole book weighs in at just over 120 pages!). Through each chapter, Miller strives to reorient our gaze from ourselves back to God, who after all is the one we’re worshiping. He intentionally writes in the positive, recognizing that much of what has already been written about the current state of music in the church is very negative and not very helpful in forming a better worship leader. In other words, if the worship leader isn’t leading well, what should he be doing instead? The content of the book is Miller’s answer to that question.

The book is well-written and concise, theologically accurate, and does a fantastic job of laying a basic foundation for who a worship leader is and what his/her job looks like. While there are many other excellent books on the topic that give much more thorough outlines of leading worship (perhaps Worship by the Book edited by DA Carson comes to mind, or more recently Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper), the strength of this book is its brevity. It would be a great resource for a young musician with talent and passion to develop a theological foundation for what he/she does.

Pick it up at Amazon for 8 bucks.

If You Were a REAL Christian…

…You’d take the Bible literally. Right?

I know that by adding “Right” there, I’m immediately alienating most theologically conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians right off the bat. I can just hear it now: “Ben’s become one of them crazy liberal types.” Sackcloth. Ashes. Gnashing of teeth. But here’s why I am willing to go public against one of the most deeply-rooted shibboleths in modern conservative Christianity: I love the heart expressed by the phrase, but I think there are far more accurate and responsible ways to verbalize it.

First, the Heart

When people say that Christians must “Take the Bible literally,” what I really hear is that we must read the Bible through the lens of belief in its authority, inspiration, accuracy, truthfulness, beauty, and relevance. I agree! As a student of God’s Word, each morning I strive to approach scripture seriously and submissively, even when it would be easier if I didn’t. If the Bible describes greed, arrogance, material excess, homsexuality, self-centeredness, alcoholism, abuse, lack of good stewardship, abortion, et. al. as sin (either explicitly or implicitly),  then I feel compelled to agree. Those are sins, and when they describe me, then I must conclude that I am a sinner along with all the requisite consequences sin entails. It is not my job to seek out a way in which I am exempted, or in which my friend is an exception to the rule, or in which a particular sin is simply a cultural-historical artifact. To do so would be to ignore my affirmation of Scripture’s authority over me.

Second, the Problem

Hopefully I’ve asserted myself clearly enough that what I say next won’t be simply written off as crazy liberal hogwash. Here is my issue with taking the Bible literally: we don’t actually do so. Before you close this tab, let me elaborate. As Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family helpfully explains,

As we read it seriously and truthfully, we don’t believe that God is literally a rock, much less my rock. If so, how big is He? Is He igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic? God says He’s my fortress. Is he stone or wooden? How tall are his walls? What’s his configuration? Am I being disrespectful to God with such questions?  It seems like it. And that’s the point. We dishonor God and much of His Word by trying to take it literally.

But is God literally my salvation? Oh my, YES! And I tremble at the literal truth of it.

Am I trying to say that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally at all? Absolutely not. The Bible asserts that Jesus is literally God and that he literally died and literally rose from the dead. Jesus will never be content as a mere metaphor for “a greater spiritual truth.” But does that mean that the Bible doesn’t include any metaphors for greater spiritual truth? To say so would be ridiculous. When Psalm 103 tells us that God removes our transgressions from us “As far as the east is from the west,” we immediately understand that God’s forgiveness of our sin is complete and absolute. The fact that David uses a simile shouldn’t perturb us because while it is a non-literal comparison, it is nevertheless plain what is meant.

We don’t speak literally in everyday life because to do so would be obtuse and dull. For example, if you tell me that I am really dense it would be rather silly of me to understand that I have more mass per square inch than an average human body. Such a misconception would be forgivable in a brand new English speaker, but for those who know the language well it would border on insanity. If we allow ourselves the freedom to speak rhetorically, poetically, symbolically, or in any other non-literal way, why do we not allow the Bible the same freedom?

Last, a Bit of a Suggestion

What if we just said that we believed the Bible to be authoritative, inspired, accurate, truthful, beautiful, and relevant? What if we came to a place where it was less about what watchwords we used to prove our conservativism and more about the presence of fruit in a life shaped by the Holy Spirit as our minds are renewed by God’s Word? In my experience, reciting the shibboleth to prove that we’re “in” leads less often to worship and more often to controversy and quibbling over words which, as Titus suggests, isn’t the point. I’ll let someone else have the final word.

Religion vs. Relationship

It’s not knowing ABOUT God, it’s about KNOWING God, or so the folk theology goes today.

It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship. However you slice the pie, it’s something we’re incredibly concerned with today.

Jesus is my boyfriend
What’s your relationship status?

Such pop preaching has arisen for various reasons, but I’d wager that our primary goal as Christians to say such things is to somehow lure non-Christians into our churches. If we can somehow convince them, the de-churched, that we’re really not like the churches that they originally ran away from (we swear!) then they’ll come back.

“Oh man, did you hear?” They’ll say. “There’s this dope new church in town that’s about relationship, not religion! This really makes me want to wake up early on a Sunday morning instead of sleeping off yet another hangover with my girlfriend. This suddenly does away with the massive loads of emotional baggage I have with Jesus.”

Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that a change in terminology has drawn any new non-Christians through our doors. For all our donuts, coffee, and lighting, the offense of the gospel still remains, well, offensive. Calling Christianity a relationship instead of a religion might provide a short-term boon, but in the long-term all we’ve really done is modernize our jargon.

Again, call me a cynic, but what are we supposed to do once a “seeker” peels away the layers of our new slang? The gospel is still (hopefully at least) underneath. If the offensiveness of the gospel is why they left, the only way we can get them to come back is to jettison the gospel!

The word “religion” likely came from Augustine as he sought a descriptor for the “covenant relationship” found in Christianity. Denotatively the word religion speaks of covenant relationship and worship. Certainly it also has connotations of obligation and rite that we are loathe to associate ourselves with, and I would be the first to confess that I’ve jumped on this relationship bandwagon.

Lest you hear me condemning you, let me say clearly that this is more of a reflection than a cultural critique. This is me, wondering if what we’re doing is a good thing, if it’s actually going to change anything. Under the old banner of Christian religion, people went to church, spent time with The Lord on their own, guided their children in the pathways of righteousness, helped the poor and needy, and even gave their lives up for the cause of Christ. What’s changed, other than the paint? If that lifestyle didn’t look attractive in Times New Roman in the pew hymnal, it’s not going to look much different in Helvetica on an HD projector. The flesh is still the flesh, and it still wars against the Holy Spirit. If we can trick the flesh into coming for the ambiance and the hipness, it’ll still tune out when we get to Jesus. Should we ditch it all then? No. But we ought to recognize that it’s no silver bullet.

We are called to faithfulness in the preaching of the gospel and the discipleship of others. Fruitfulness belongs solely to the Holy Spirit. If we try to take his job and forget our own, then what have we become but a business in the lifestyle and entertainment industry? Let’s be content planting the seed or watering the garden. If growth comes, we can know it was from The Lord.