Is Baptism “Essential” for Salvation? Reconsidering the Wording of the Question

Historically, the Christian tradition I have been a part of (the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ) has believed and taught that baptism is the time a penitent believer in Jesus Christ receives salvation. Thus, it has become common nomenclature to say that “baptism is ‘essential’ for salvation.” This phrase has become so common and standard that it has often been used as a litmus test for biblical fidelity. If you do not believe that baptism is essential for salvation, then you are, by definition, a defector of the faith–someone who no longer believes in Scripture and authority of God’s Word.

But is this phrase a good way to state the view of baptism that the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have historically held? I contend that it probably is not, and we ought to reformulate the statement, particularly jettisoning the term “essential.” Continue reading

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Doing Theology: Truth and Knowledge

A student of mine once commented, “We don’t know which religion is true, so we might as well just believe in what we want and be happy!” This statement captures well a very popular idea today. It basically says that there really is no such thing as truth, and even if there is, no one can really know it. This idea calls into question the very foundation of being able to talk about God and knowing things about him, or doing what we call “theology.” Continue reading

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Do We Have the Right to Believe Whatever We Want?

A popular idea today is that we have the “right” to believe whatever we want or choose as we wish when it comes to religious and moral beliefs. This concept probably comes from a sense of self-autonomy and the American sociopolitical context in which we live. In large part, it comes from the popular notion that there is no objective truth when it comes to religion and morality–it’s the old Schaefferian upper and lower story split when it comes to what we can and cannot know. Whatever the reasons, the pressing question is, “Do we really have a right to choose to believe whatever we want, especially religious and moral beliefs?” Continue reading

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Martin Luther: A Heretic and Propagator of a False Gospel?

Martin LutherThe 31st of this month will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and the celebration has already begun in many quarters of the evangelical world. As part of this celebration, many are reminiscing and re-telling the important event that began it all: Martin Luther posting his 95 theses in Wittenburg. Interestingly, as evangelicals are celebrating the boldness of Luther, some unwittingly make him out to be a heretic and spreading a false gospel.

This may sound a bit outrageous, but consider the popular 9Marks ministry. Several weeks ago a good friend of mine sent me a 9Marks link that dealt with a question about the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (CC/CoC)(If you are unfamiliar with the ministry of 9Marks, check out their website HERE.) An inquisitor (a “Steven” from “Virginia”) remarked that he was rather confused about what exactly these churches believe. He commented that many of the churches have ambiguous statements of faith or none at all, so how should he interact and relate to this group of churches?

As interesting (and troubling) as this question was, the 9Marks answer and interaction with it revealed a theological inconsistency that is all too common in evangelicalism in general: an acceptance of Martin Luther’s view of justification by faith while leaving out his view of baptism. The result? In this case, the great founder of the Protestant Reformation would not be allowed to be a member of a 9Marks church. In fact, Luther would have to repent for perpetuating a false Gospel! Continue reading

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Christianity May Be Bigger Than You Think

JesusLike with most Midwesterners, my world as a young lad was small. I grew up in a small town where you could run into every school teacher at the movies or the bowling alley. It’s what kept us children in our place and sometimes thinking of new ways to be sneaky. No one ever wanted his parents to run into a teacher on a Friday night who would expound upon the misdeeds of their secretive, yet innocent child. 

The smallness of the town made my Christian world even smaller. The church was small. The building was small. For my childhood, the smallness was great, wonderful, and comfortable. I knew my Christian friends well and they knew me, probably more than I knew myself. The church camp I attended was small, but again, the people there knew me and cared for my spiritual growth. There was just something about the smallness that was endearing and comfortable. It provided stability, and everything about the environment made me who I am today. Although I no longer reside in that small town (and that small town no longer exists!), the influences will never entirely fade away. Continue reading

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Moral Totalitarianism: The Irony of Moral Imperatives in a Secular Culture

church and stateThis is a guest post written by Rich Hoyer, director of The Reveal Conference

There is an irony afoot that many people don’t recognize.  It is the incongruence of the moral “truths” that our secular society is foisting upon the populace and the lack of a basis for those “truths.”

We live in a secular society in the US and Canada.  In many ways, it’s post-Christian, one which has been and is shedding traditional Judeo-Christian values.  Secularism started out as the belief that religion shouldn’t be controlling government.  The church and state should be separate.  One religious group should not be running government to the exclusion of others.  Yet today, secularism has morphed into a full-fledged worldview that has, even unwittingly, taken up religious status among its adherents.

Secularism is now a practical atheistic belief system that, while it may allow for spirituality of some kind, certainly views all religion as akin to being folklore.  There is no such thing as religious “truth.”  Religious claims are matters of preference.  Moral claims are matters of pragmatic necessity in that they keep society functioning. Continue reading

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The Irrationality and Evil of Moral Relativism

6 and 9 meme“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”

~Isaiah 5:20~

If teaching in higher education for the past thirteen years has taught me anything, it is that moral relativism (the idea that what is right and wrong is simply a cultural construct) is the accepted ethical framework of the current American culture. What is more startling is that it is not just the secularist or atheist who believes that objective moral right and wrong do not exist; self-proclaimed Christians also believe in moral relativism.

It is common place in many of my courses for students to claim that actions such as rape, murder, and torturing babies for fun is not absolutely wrong for everyone. Just recently, a female student, as shocking as it may seem, told me that rape is only evil because that is what our society has decided. If it had decided that it was morally right, then it would be o.k. to rape.

This is not just anecdotal evidence. More dramatically, it wasn’t but two years ago that a colleague of mine lectured my ethics class during my absence in which about forty students could not discern whether rape is morally wrong for all people at all times. When my colleague recounted the incident, he said that he asked the class twice whether rape is absolutely wrong morally, and he received nothing but blank stares and “I-don’t-knows.” He finally called out the females in the class, asking them what they thought. The response was chilling: only a handful commented, “Yeah, I guess. Maybe.” When I returned to my class the following week, I put them on the spot again: “Is rape morally wrong for everyone at all times?” I received the same response: blank stares. Continue reading

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Fake News and Alternative Facts: What’s the Truth?

Image taken from the Huffington Post

Image taken from the Huffington Post

By now most people have become familiar with the idea of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” “Fake news” are stories contrived by news outlets, either legitimate or illegitimate, that are not real, i.e., make-believe. Akin to fake news, “alternative facts” is a newly coined phrase (used specifically by President Trump’s Counselor, Kellyanne Conway) used to describe a different understanding of a particular issue. As now understood, “alternative facts” is a euphemism for falsehoods. Continue reading

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Trump and the Hypocrisy of Christians

trumpProbably like most people, over the last week my Facebook page has been lit up with presidential politics. My page has been especially littered with comments by those who have been critical of my postings of articles and my comments of Trump being an illegitimate candidate for president. Now that Trump’s behavior toward women has been clearly confirmed, the discussions have only intensified and many have begun expressing their thoughts in regard to Trump as a viable candidate. The one consistent theme that has troubled me is how some Christians are attempting to defend the indefensible. It’s difficult to escape the notion that the accusation of unbelievers that Christians are hypocrites may somewhat be true.

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What Did Andy Stanley Say? A Question of Methodology

andy-stanleyAndy Stanley has seemingly gotten himself into trouble again with some evangelicals over his recent sermon “The Bible Tells Me So.” My Facebook page has lit up over Stanley’s most recent comments about the nature of Scripture. David Prince, Professor of Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reflected on Stanley’s comments in a blog and concluded that they are not “cutting edge” but “old liberalism.” Rustin Umstattd, who teaches as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, concludes very similarly in one of his blogs. Even the well known Christian apologist Frank Turek has weighed in on the “controversy” in both a blog and a podcast (“Bad Christian Arguments for God“). Contrary to Prince, Turek concluded that Stanley is actually correct.

What has aroused such a response to Stanley’s sermon? For one thing, as Prince and Umstattd note, Stanley began his sermon by saying that the foundational problem with Christian faith is that it is based upon the idea found in a children’s song: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” In other words, a major problem why many people leave the Christian faith is that Christians have often put faith in the Bible rather than faith in Jesus. According to Stanley, the Bible is true insofar as it accurately represents the historical facts concerning Jesus (as well as other events for that matter). The Bible, he contends, did not even arise until the fourth century and there were Christians the entire time leading up to that century. So what was it that made them Christians? he asks. It wasn’t the Bible; it was the testimony of the disciples of Jesus. According to critics, such talk as espoused by Stanley, “severs the Scriptures” (as Prince says) from the reality of Jesus. Critics are going so far as to say that Stanley now believes in “limited” inerrancy, i.e., that the entire Bible is not true.

What are we to make this? To begin, I think it’s important to actually listen to the entirety of his sermon, which you can do here before making conclusions. It is also helpful to listen to Russ Moore’s interview of Stanley on these issues. (I originally listened to the interview on a link provided by Turek, but it has subsequently been taken down. If you wish to watch the interview, Turek directs to contact the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which Moore serves as president.) As I watched the interview and Stanley’s sermon and then reflected on what others are saying, here is what I came away with.

The Use of the Term “Bible”

For one thing, Stanley uses the term “Bible” in a rather unique, nuanced way, thereby leaving the door open for some to possibly misunderstand him to be saying that the Bible is not the Word of God and cannot be trusted. In fact, I would go as far to say that Stanley does not use the term “Bible” consistently throughout the presentation. However, most of the time, it seems that he uses the word “Bible” to mean “all the collected books of the OT and NT that we have today in one single volume that we call ‘the Bible.'” He definitely uses the term “Bible” in this sense for most of the sermon as can be seen during his historical analysis, indicating that “the Bible was not a single book like we have today.”

As far as this goes, this is a historically accurate statement that all theologians, historians, and apologists have recognized. There is no controversy here. What I think gets Stanley into trouble is that he mentions about only once that this is what he means by “Bible.” Most people when they hear “Bible,” they think of “God’s authoritative Word, whether in part or in whole.” And so when Stanley says things like, “The Bible didn’t exist until the fourth century,” people automatically begin thinking that he means it in a Dan Brown Da Vinci Code kind of way: that there were no NT letters or gospels around at all to serve authoritatively for the church until the fourth century when a council came together and voted what writings should be included in a canon called “the Bible.” Stanley, however, doesn’t mean this at all. This is more clearly evident if one listens to the sermon in its entirety as well as his interview with Moore. He could have, however, avoided the confusion in his sermon by saying (more than once) something like this: “There was not a single volume of collected writings known as ‘the Bible’ in the first 300 years of Christianity. Rather, they had single letters, Gospels, and other writings penned by the apostles and their assistants (like Mark and Luke.) Thus, they had a ‘Bible,’ or authoritative writings, but unlike what we have today in one volume.”

If one is not careful to keep Stanley’s nuanced definition of “Bible” in mind, it can lead to other confusions as well. For example, Stanley refers to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul to argue why we know Jesus rose from the dead. He says things like (these are paraphrased) “Jesus loves me this I know for John tells me so,” and “Jesus loves me this I know because Peter saw it so.” In other words, Stanley is actually referring to the “Bible”–in the sense of books of the Bible–to support the verity of Jesus rising from the dead. Thus, Stanley evidently believes that the individual books of the Bible (namely, the NT) are reliable witnesses to the Resurrection. This could possibly leave someone wondering, “How can you use books of the ‘Bible’ to support the Resurrection when you stated earlier that it is NOT the ‘Bible’ that we know that Jesus rose from the dead?” The logical answer is because, as stated above, Stanley uses the term “Bible” to rigidly mean “all the books of the OT and NT that are collected in one volume.” Thus, if he refers to individual books of the NT, he is not strictly referring to the “Bible” as we have it today, but to the individual manuscripts that testify to the Resurrection.

This is not really a problem. In fact, it can be very helpful when dialoging with unbelievers. It’s actually a very common method of apologetics.  It is an attempt to gain common ground with an unbeliever by showing that the NT documents began as individual and independent testimonies to the Resurrection. Often unbelievers have the misunderstanding that the Bible, as a collected volume, is either one large book written by a group of conspirators or it is just a hodgepodge of mythical letters that were later collected by a bunch of authoritarian councils to start a religion and control the masses. By pointing out the historical development of the canon rather than saying “I’m a Christian because the Bible says so,” these misunderstandings can be cleared away. This seems to me to be exactly what Stanley is attempting to do: show that the Bible is in fact numerous independent witnesses to the Resurrection and life of Jesus. Anyone who has ever engaged a believer by saying “because the Bible says so” will readily recognize the value in such an approach. A direct appeal to Scripture without giving the nature of it first (that it is actually a collection of numerous independent testimonies) when engaging an unbeliever is apologetics DOA. Unbelievers have no respect for Scripture and do not see it as authoritative or even objectively true. Thus the pat phrase “the Bible says so” is methodologically inferior when engaging the cognitively engaged unbeliever. In other words, one cannot presuppose the inerrancy of Scripture with an unbeliever (although we as believers certainly believe in inerrancy and inspiration).

Stanley Is a Little Sloppy…But He is No Apologist Either

In places Stanley is a little sloppy historically. For example, Stanley has a few inaccuracies regarding the biblical canon. It is incorrect to say that the OT was not a single volume in the first century as Stanley says. It clearly was as even seen by the existence of the Septuagint. Also, I think Stanley is probably historically inaccurate when he says that the people copied the NT letters “because they were true, not because they were infallible.” First, how would Stanley know this? Has he been able to get into the psyche of the copiers in the first century? Second, it seems more plausible to me that they copied them because they were true AND they were infallible, especially in light of the fact that Paul and Peter refer to other NT letters as “Scripture” (see 2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Timothy 5:18).

Stanley is also a little sloppy when explaining how unbelievers view the Bible as a whole. He lists quite a few objections that unbelievers often bring up regarding the Bible: age of the earth, the fall of Jericho, and the Exodus. In this part of the sermon one could certainly be left with the impression that Stanley is affirming that such events cannot be reconciled with present day science or archaeological evidence. Umstattd has definitely understood him this way. It does not, however, appear that this is Stanley’s position. When he mentions these objections it is in the context of what unbelievers have said, not what Stanley himself says or believes. Thus, it appears that Stanley has been misunderstood. Such a misunderstanding could have been more likely avoided if he were to have emphasized the fact that this is what unbelievers are saying, and to say so more than once.

Finally, Stanley expressing that “the burden is just too much” to respond to these objections by unbelievers is a little off the mark. This is what apologetics does: it replies to objections to putting faith in Christ and attempts to clear away any intellectual rubble that is in the way. It seems to me that Stanley is throwing out the apologetics baby with the theological bath water. As some of his critics have pointed out, there are numerous pieces of evidence for much of the biblical record that unbelievers have difficulty with. Many of these objections have been around for centuries, and thankfully many of them have been responded to. Thus it is not too burdensome to engage biblical objections that believers have. At some point, we will have to do so. Sweeping them under the rug won’t make the go away. But I don’t blame Stanley too much here. After all, he is a minister and not an apologist. This certainly doesn’t excuse him, but it helps one understand why there is some sloppiness in the presentation.

Ultimately, what this all comes down to is a different methodology in presenting a case for the verity of Christianity. Stanley desires to focus upon showing that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact based upon the idea that there are numerous independent witnesses rather than just saying “because the Bible says so.” Yes, there are some finer points that Stanley gets incorrect and may even have “misspoken” about, but he’s a public speaker and not an apologist like Frank Turek or William Lane Craig. His sermon is not worth all the hoopla it has received. Maybe the controversy has been sparked by those who are just a little too theologically trigger happy to weed out those who may even slightly appear unorthodox. Perhaps we need to be a little more careful. Let’s not shoot Stanley…yet.

The Blade

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