Biblical Authenticity: The Gnostic Gospels

GnosticGospel     You heard it from Leigh Teabing himself on the last blog, “Now, listen to this.  It is from the Gospel of Philip…it was rejected at the Council of Nicaea, along with any other Gospel that made Jesus appear human, not divine.”  For years now — fueled partially by The Da Vinci Code, but predating it as well — Christians and critics alike have been touting the “Gnostic Gospels.”  Many of these documents are mistakenly categorized as such, since many who haven’t studied the topic call any gospel not included in the Bible a “Gnostic” Gospel.  In reality, there are Gnostic Gospels (those circulated by the Gnostics), Coptic Gospels (those from Egypt), as well as a number of other categorizations.  However, they all have this in common — they tell stories about Jesus, and they are not included in our Bible.  This has led many to question whether they should be, and to suggest that perhaps our Bible is “incomplete” or there are books that should be included, but aren’t…some even suggesting that there are books that are included, but shouldn’t be.  Who were the Gnostics, what are these “Gnostic Gospels,” and what impact (if any) should they have on the canon of Scripture we use as Christians?

1.  Who were the Gnostics?

In and around Jerusalem, both before and after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, various Jewish sects and “offshoots” took root in the surrounding hill country, often extending into the Sinai, Egypt, and farther. Most of these groups differed to some degree (usually a significant degree) with orthodox Jewish teaching, and for that reason were not always permitted to practice their religion inside the temple or even inside the city. One of these groups, originally, was Christianity — another was the Essenes, and another was the Gnostics. Perhaps more accurately an offshoot of Christianity than Judaism, the Gnostics accepted many of the New Testament scriptures, many accepting even the Christian gospel message of salvation brought by Christ, the Messiah. The Gnostics believed that the body itself was corrupt or even evil, such that the needs and sensations of the body — pleasure, leisure, food, sex, etc — interrupted the essential communion with God for which that body was created (Churton 3). They also believed in a secret knowledge (“gnosis” means “knowledge” in Greek), which only they knew about or possessed, and this gave them a special spiritual connection to the divine (Churton 33). Most of what we know about the Gnostics comes from Eusebius and Athanasius, writing about them in the middle of the fourth century (356 – 367 AD), though archaeological evidence has been found documenting their presence in Rome in the third century (Churton 57).

2. What did the Gnostics write?

In 1945, a young farmer boy and his brother were digging in the hills surrounding the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, trying to find sabakh, a soft topsoil used to fertilize their crops.  Instead, Muhammad Ali’s (no relation) spade hit a clay jar, which after further examination proved to be more than three feet tall.  Inside were 13 manuscripts in codex form (book-like, as opposed to scroll-like), written in Coptic script (basically the Egyptian language, but written with both Greek and Egyptian letters).  Eventually expanding to a total of 52 individual works, some were written by the Gnostics, others were written by the Copts (essentially early Egyptian Christians), and some were early Christian texts.  They included the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Apocryphon (“secret book”) of John, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Apocryphon of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, and at least 40 others (a complete list, along with the actual text of the documents, can be found at The Nag Hammadi Library website).

Some of these additional “gospels” and other documents repeat stories told in the Bible, and some repeat sayings of Jesus found in the Bible.  However, many (most) also include stories not found in the Bible, or attribute sayings to Jesus that we find nowhere else.  The dating of these documents — based on the papyrus, the leather covers, and the type of script used — is widely believed to be between 350 – 400 AD, though that lends little insight into when the originals were written.  Like our Biblical gospels, it is comparatively easy to establish an approximate date for the copies we have, it is significantly more difficult to discern the date of the original that was copied.  Most scholars today place them in the middle second century, probably between 120 – 180 AD (Pagels xviii – xix).

3. Were these gospels accidentally forgotten or “left out” of the Bible?

While these gospels were “lost” for a thousand years or more, they were well known by the second-century (and later) church fathers.  Some of these patriarchs quoted from both the Apocrypha (see my prior blog on this topic) and from some of the books discovered at Nag Hammadi.  Some patriarchs also thought some of these books (most notably The Shepherd of Hermas) should be included — Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, and some later church fathers vigorously debated the Apocrypha and some of the other gospels circulating at the time (Ehrman 331 – 340).  I’ll deal with canonization next, but we can rest assured that these “lost” gospels were not forgotten, nor were they inadvertently “left out” of the Bible.  They were well-known throughout the Christian community, and though they are not included in our Bible, it is for good reason.

4. Should these gospels be included in the Bible?

The topic of canonization — how Christianity decided (theologians will say “discovered”) which books were divinely inspired — is one of the most challenging and interesting questions in the entire field of bibliology.  Entire books, many volumes, have been written on this topic alone, so I will save it for the next blog.  For now, it is sufficient to know that the Gnostics were likely contemporaries of Christ, and some of the Gnostics (and some Christians, and some Copts) write “gospels” that told stories of Jesus of Nazareth.  These gospels are mostly preserved, have not been lost or forgotten, but were intentionally excluded from our Bible for reasons we will explore in the next blog.

REFERENCES

Bruce, Frederick, The Canon of Scripture, InterVarsity Press Academic, Downers Grove, IL,  1988.

Churton, Tobias, The Gnostics, Barnes and Noble Books, New York, NY, 1987.

Ehrman, Bart, Lost Scriptures:  Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 2003.

Geisler, Norman and Nix, William, A General Introduction to the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1986.

Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1989.

Textual Criticism and Inerrancy

P52-2-450hGreetings once again, and welcome to a fun and controversial topic!  Rest assured, as usual we will ensure we think clearly about it.  Over the past few months, I’ve been taking a New Testament Textual Criticism course from Dr. Dan Wallace, who is likely one of the greatest New Testament scholars and textual critics alive today.  Textual criticism is not simply criticizing the New Testament text, it refers to the science and the discipline of trying to recover the original text of the ancient autographs (original writings themselves).  I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and observations from this fascinating course (link above if any would like to take it).

  1.  I suspect most Christians think we are more sure than we actually are about what the originals said.  Now, I am a Biblical inerrantist, but I may have to adjust my view to encompass the autographs only.  That is, do our current translations accurately reflect what was originally written?  The fact is, we just don’t know.  We do not have any of the originals, and within the first few decades after the originals were written, we see differences in the texts.  Which (if any) accurately reflects the original?  We can’t be sure.
  2. The Bible we have today is sound in its history and its doctrine, but likely contains text that was not in the original.  Let me tell you what I mean by this.  We know, with a high degree of certainty, that there are passages in our Bibles today that were almost certainly not in the originals.  Some of the passages may have been in the originals, but have been edited or altered.  However, all of these variations make absolutely no difference whatsoever in the core doctrines and history of Christianity.  Textual critics today have categorized all variants (there are literally hundreds of thousands of them) into viable and not viable, and into meaningful and not meaningful.  Many of the variants are viable (they are actual variants, real no-kidding differences in the texts), but are meaningless.  An example here might be the spelling of the name “John,” which in some manuscripts has one “n” (Ioanes) and in other manuscripts has two (Ioannes).  This is a viable variant, but it is meaningless.  Those that concern us today are those variants that are both viable and meaningful, which Dr. Wallace says encompass less than one half of one percent of all known variants.  Of all these meaningful and viable variants, only two are longer than a word or a phrase — the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) and John 7:53 – 8:11.  Let’s look briefly at these two.
    1. Mark 16:9-20.  If you have a Bible handy, turn to this passage and it is almost sure to have a caveat — after verse 8, mine (NET) says, “The Gospel of Mark ends at this point in some witnesses [manuscripts], including two of the most respected manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus)…”  It goes on for several paragraphs, in quite some detail.  My NIV also says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 – 20.”  According to Dr. Wallace, there is not a textual critic alive today who thinks that these verses were in the original.  However, there are many scholars who think the case against these verses is weak, and many believe firmly that they belong in the Bible.  Without the original, there is no way to be sure — but this is a prime example of a meaningful and viable variant.
    2. John 7:53 – 8:11.  This portion of the Bible, called the pericope adulterae (story of the adulteress) is well known to most Christians.  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”  We’ve all heard the story.  But, like the long ending of Mark, this is not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts we have, and most textual critics today do not think it was part of the original text of John.  It is another meaningful and viable variant, but again without the original we cannot be certain, and it makes no difference in the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

These are the two most famous textual variants, but there are many more.  Others are shorter — only a word or two in many cases — but they cast additional shadows on how sure we can be that we have an accurate representation of the original texts.

The last verse of Luke is likely a conflation (combination) of two different texts (text types) — my NIV and NASB say the disciples went about “praising God,” but others say “blessing God.” What did the original text of Luke say?  Again, we don’t know — and many modern translations today simply say, “…praising and blessing God.”  They combine the two.

We also see differences in the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7.  The oldest and most reliable manuscripts are missing the Trinitarian formula, called the Comma Johanneum, they say simply, “For there are three that testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood” (NET).  Some translations (KJV) have added a second trinity to read, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost:  and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in Earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood:  and these three agree in one.”  However, this longer trinitarian formula was likely added by the church at a later date, to solidify the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture.  It is almost certainly not in the original.  The longer reading is absent from nearly all manuscripts, only present in a few very late ones.

The list is actually quite long — in Phil 1:14, 1 Thess 2:7, Mark 14:65, Luke 5:30, Mark 1:1 and Mark 1:2, John 14:17, Rev 1:4, and numerous other places in Scripture.  However, we’ll stop here, as I think the point stands.  So, where does that leave us?

3.  We can have confidence that our text reflects the original in well over 99% of cases, but there are some that remain in question.  So, what’s the bottom line for the Christian? We can have confidence in Scripture, and in our history and our core doctrines, but we need to be careful in our definition of inerrancy.  Our Bible today, no matter which translation you use (NIV and NET are my favorites), contains text that likely wasn’t in the original, contains additions and deletions and adjustments by scribes, and includes mistakes (scribal errors).  Does this mean Jesus didn’t exist?  No.  Does this mean the Bible is unreliable?  No.  Does this mean Christ wasn’t raised from the dead?  No.  Does it mean Christianity is false?  No.  But I think it’s important for Christians to realize that our beloved Bible is subject to the same “messy” process of transmission and translation as any other ancient work.

For further study, look at the course referenced above, or the book “The Text of the New Testament” by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts or the Evangelical Textual Criticism website.

Four Quick Tips on Conversing with Muslims

ChristianityIslam    Many times, when fellow Christians hear of my apologetic and evangelistic focus on Muslims, they are simply aghast. “I wouldn’t even know how to talk to a Muslim!” they say. “Weren’t you scared?” ask others. “How did you know what to say?” Well, I don’t always know. But I’ve talked to Muslims in Egypt and Turkey, and I’ve had lengthy conversations – some spanning years – with Muslims from Oman, England, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and I’ve never been scared, and I can hopefully shed some light on how to approach these difficult conversations.

  1. Approach them prayerfully.

If prayers for Muslims are not a part of your regular prayer life, they should be. As I pointed out in a previous blog, these wonderful people are beautiful creations of God, and God has already told us that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and come to a knowledge of God. We are also clearly instructed by Jesus Himself to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us – this may apply to Muslims, or atheists, or almost any other unbeliever. How many of you have made ISIS a topic of regular prayer (for their salvation, not their destruction)? You are clearly commanded to in Matthew 5:44. The first step to any successful engagement with Muslims is to make them a regular part of your prayer life, and this may include your own attitude as well, so that your heart is “in the right place” to converse with Muslims.

  1. Approach them respectfully.

Muslims, and unfortunately many others in our society, are quite used to being disrespected and “talked down to” by Christians, especially those who are trying to evangelize. Muslims are not just backwater Mongols who led the Ottoman Empire to conquer a third of Europe in the 16th Century – they are prominent members of American society today, from doctors and lawyers to educators, business owners, even Nobel prizewinners in physics (Abdu Salam) and molecular biology/chemistry (Aziz Sancar). This is actually a good rule of thumb for all engagements in life, as you never know when you may be talking to a Muslim (or a Nobel prizewinner). I have a friend who is a devout Muslim, but rides a Harley and looks the part! Not all Arabs or middle-easterners are Muslims, and not all Muslims are middle-eastern or Arab, so approach each conversation with great respect for the person and the religion. You don’t have to agree with it, but my all means don’t disrespect it.   If you do, your conversation will be over before it starts.

  1. Approach them fearlessly.

This may come as a “shocker” to some. Let me say it again, very clearly – I am not afraid of Muslims, and you shouldn’t be either. When I left for Cairo to continue my Middle Eastern focus for my last Master’s Degree, many of my Christian friends strongly cautioned me not to talk to any Muslims (probably not possible in Cairo), and certainly not to advertise or talk about Christianity. Others assumed that every Muslim in the world is just wandering around looking for Christians to behead. This is ridiculous and ignorant. Though the numbers vary depending on which study you read, militant/jihadist Muslims constitute between 5 – 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are largely concentrated in certain areas overseas (Syria, eastern Sinai, parts of Saudi Arabia). In other words, there is about a 95% chance that any Muslim you encounter wants the exact same things that you want – to go to work, perform well, feed their family, and essentially live their life in peace. There is absolutely no reason to fear them, and no reason to be afraid of talking to them about nearly any topic. Others believe that all Muslims live by the mantra “convert or die,” which is more misinformation and ignorance. This is a good segue into our last point…

  1. Approach them deliberately.

What do I mean by “deliberately?” I mean that in order to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with Muslims, especially on the topic of religion, you must learn about them, study them, and truly work to understand them. By doing so, you are respecting them (point #2), you will quell many of your fears about them (point #3), and you will not make key errors that could derail the conversation. If you believe that all Muslims want to convert you or kill you, or that all Arabs are Muslim, or that all Muslims hate Christians, these false impressions will dramatically affect how you approach any conversation with Muslims. You must be deliberate – intentional – about how you approach them, and about with whom you converse. If your friend is a devout Muslim and you start the conversation with whether or not Muhammed is a real prophet, your conversation won’t get far. If your friend is a Sunni and you start trying to convince him that the twelfth or “hidden” Imam isn’t really coming back, you’ve just exposed your ignorance (this belief in a “hidden” Imam is exclusive to a subsect of Shi’a). Educate yourself about the basics of Islam – two great resources are “Understanding Islam” by Thomas Lippman or “Islam: A Primer” by John Sabini. When a Muslim you’re conversing with realizes – and it won’t take long – that you’ve made the effort to understand their religion and just want to talk, you’ll be amazed at the doors that will open.

Conversations with Muslims don’t have to be tense or standoffish, nor will they inevitably devolve into violence or disagreement. If you prepare for these conversations prayerfully, respectfully, fearlessly, and deliberately, you’ll find most Muslims to be kind, engaging, respectful in return, and willing to answer nearly any question you ask. And if you’re still not sure where to start or still have questions, just comment on the blog – I hope these past few blogs have helped your understanding, and I’ll answer any other questions that come up in my final blog next week.

Dreams and Visions

dreamingI have a dream…well, I had a dream…but what does it mean? In the past two weeks, I’ve received precisely the same question from two different friends. Both believe that God has appeared to them and spoken to them in a dream, and both wanted to know if it was God or something else or if they were to attribute special significance to the event. Since then, my Facebook wall has exploded with similar questions and a few mildly heated discussions on the topic. As you’ve come to expect, with this topic and all others, here at CTC we will seek to be Biblical first in all things. As my alma mater frequently emblazoned on their entry marquee, “Think Biblically…about everything.” So, what does the Bible say on this topic? And while we’re at it, why do anything halfway? So, I looked up every single instance in the Bible of God appearing to people in dreams, and this is what I found.

  1. Unless you are a prophet or an apostle, this is highly unusual. From the Fall through Revelation, God communicates to people in dreams many times, but in most cases it is to an apostle or prophet. He appears to Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Jacob (Genesis 28 and 31), Joseph (Genesis 37), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Gideon (Judges 7), Solomon (1 Kings 3), Daniel (Daniel 2 and 4), Peter (Acts 10), Paul (Acts 16 and 18, 1 Corinthians 12), and John (Revelation). In fact, it appears from Scripture that this is one of the primary means, if not the primary means, that God communicates with His prophets and apostles. Here’s the key – the primary way God communicates with His prophets and apostles is through dreams and visions, but the primary way God communicates with His people is through prophets and apostles. For us, that means through their writings in His Word (the issue of whether there are prophets or apostles around today is something for another blog). So, unless you are a prophet or an apostle – a bold claim with fatal consequences if you’re incorrect – you should not expect God to communicate with you in a dream, rather you should be in the habit of looking for His communication to you through His Word.

Now, there are a few exceptions (Abimelech in Genesis 20, Laban in Genesis 31, Pharaoh in Genesis 40, the Midianite armies in Judges 7, Zecharias in Luke 1, Joseph in Matthew 2, and Cornelius in Luke 10). But these are all highly unique circumstances, and are certainly not of the sort that we normally hear today where God appears in a dream to help make some decision (which house to buy, how many kids to have, or whatever — I don’t see any Biblical reason to believe that God answers these sorts of questions though dreams, but that is a completely separate blog.) In fact, after the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), with the exception of Revelation there is not another instance of God appearing in a dream. It appears, Biblically, that once His communication to the prophets and apostles was complete, His appearance in dreams ceased. [Note – if it wasn’t God that appeared to you, beware. If it was Aunt Sally or your grandmother or some dear departed friend, we are dangerously close to the demonic realms here. I cannot find a single example of this in Scripture – every appearance in a dream is God, Jesus, or an angel. Anything else, in my view, is likely demonic and reason to exercise extreme caution.]

  1. You can’t trump Scripture with your experience. Yes, I borrowed this from Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, but it’s a great point that is entirely valid in this discussion. No matter how many times I have this discussion with people, it always seems to come back to this: I tell them what the Bible teaches, and they tell me about the dream they had. I know these dreams can be powerful and compelling, but you cannot “overrule” what Scripture teaches with your personal experience. If there is any inconsistency or question about what the dream has revealed, reject it.
  1. God can do what He wants. With point #1 above firmly supported by Scripture, we also know that God can do whatever He desires that is consistent with His nature, and there are multiple examples in the post-apostolic age of God appearing in dreams to both believers and unbelievers. He obviously used a vision to reach Paul, and many have heard the amazing story of Nabeel Qureshi (he told the story to Christianity Today here, if you haven’t), who is representative of many Muslims who have reportedly been converted to Christianity through visions and dreams. However, several points are critically important here.
    1. God will not reveal anything in a dream that is inconsistent with Scripture. God cannot lie, and He is perfectly consistent. If anything in the dream challenges the clear teaching of Scripture – such as a dream telling you to divorce your wife or any dream advocating or supporting sin – you can rest assured the dream does not have God as its source.
    2. God will probably not reveal anything in a dream that He has already revealed in Scripture. God is a good Father. When my daughter asks me a question I’ve already answered – usually multiple times – I quell my frustration and simply ask her to remember the answer I gave the last time she asked. When I asked my mother – a professional linguist – the meaning of a word, you know the answer I received. Yep…”Look it up!” Returning to another great point by Koukl, this actually leaves us with relatively little for God to “reveal” in a dream. If it’s contrary to Scripture, it’s unbiblical. If it’s contained within Scripture, it’s unnecessary.

Biblically, unless you are a prophet or an apostle, you should not expect God to appear to you in dreams, nor should you seek answers in your dreams. So, what do you do if you think God has appeared to you in a dream? First, test it (1 Thess 5). Is what the dream revealed entirely consistent with Scripture? If so, hold onto it…if not, then reject it. Similarly, if you are following a teacher who claims to be receiving revelations from God through dreams or visions, be extraordinarily careful, as this is rare.  Test every statement in light of Scripture.  Second, share it. Talk to other mature Christians, and have them help you understand it. Finally, obey it. If God truly has given you guidance in a dream, then it becomes an obligatory command upon the believer. You do not have the option to obey or not, such a revelation would carry weight equal to His revelation in Scripture.

So, does God appear to us in dreams today? I think He does, but I think it is highly unusual, largely unnecessary, and often misused. That’s all for now…go back to sleep.

What’s the Best Argument for Christianity?

debateA few weeks ago, I engaged in a lengthy discussion with SM, an atheist, who repeatedly asked this question. He simply wanted to know what my best argument for Christianity was, and he’d be happy to defeat it. Well, I didn’t take the bait – simply because that’s not how the discussion process works, but more importantly because the answer to his question is a bit more complex than he had hoped. In short, there is no single “best argument” for Christianity. Two points and three suggestions for your consideration:

  1. The “best argument” is dependent upon the objection. In other words, an argument I find completely compelling – even convincing – may be entirely unmoving to another. If I reject Christianity because I don’t believe God exists, there are good arguments to use in those situations. I might start with the cosmological argument, moving on to teleological and moral, and try to make some progress. Based on this objection (atheism), the best argument is probably cosmological. Alternatively, if someone rejects Christianity because they don’t believe the Bible is authentic, there are good arguments to address this objection. I might use a historiographical approach, or discuss manuscript evidence or even archaeological and historical evidences. Another great challenge might be from someone who was mistreated by Christians, or encountered hypocritical Christians, and therefore concluded that Christianity is false. Evidential arguments will likely be of marginal use in this circumstance – this would require a more pastoral approach, revealing Christ’s true teaching and what Christian behavior truly looks like.

There simply is no single “best argument” for Christianity. This is the art of apologetics – tailoring the argument to match the objection. If someone offers an emotional objection and I launch into an exposition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I will likely make little progress. Similarly, if someone has an objection based on evidence or the lack thereof, offering a testimony about how Jesus makes you feel will likely be received as simply your subjective experience, and largely uncompelling.

  1. Jesus never offered us a “best argument”. He tailored His argument to the objection and to the audience. He never changed the message, but He regularly tailored His arguments and His evidence to the audience and to the objection. When confronted with objections from the Jewish sects – Pharisees and Sadducees – Jesus countered their objections using references from the Torah (Matthew 9, 12, 16, 19, 21, elsewhere). When confronting objections from Roman pagans and other gentiles, appealing to the Jewish prophecies would have carried little weight, as this audience didn’t know these prophecies, and if they had would probably not have recognized them as authoritative. In these situations, Jesus (and Paul, as in Acts 14) used miracles or other devices to demonstrate authority rather than an appeal to Scripture. When confronted with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus again doesn’t refer to fulfilled prophecy, He simply uses love and forgiveness to share His gospel message (Samaritans shared some Jewish beliefs but not all, and a Samaritan woman would probably not have been familiar with the Jewish prophecies).

This same method of tailoring His argument to His audience follows Him wherever he goes. In Matthew 4, while Jesus is in the fishing village of Galilee, He uses fishing analogies – “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.” When in the “grainfields” (Matthew 12, probably the agricultural area between Jerusalem and Galilee), He uses agricultural analogies – the mustard seed, sowing and reaping, and others. Had Jesus spoken to the fishermen about the mustard seed or about sowing and reaping, or if He had challenged the shepherds to become fishers of men, His message may have been lost or misunderstood. As Christian ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) and ministers of the gospel, we should do no less. We should follow this Christ-like model – to communicate the message of Jesus, but to do so in a manner sensitive to the audience and tailored to the objections or resistance we are likely to encounter. Never, anywhere in Scripture, do we see Jesus or any of the apostles using a formulaic regimen to share the gospel.

Here is the challenge to clear-thinking Christians: I know of no course where you can learn this. I can’t think of a book that walks you through this process. No, this comes from experience, trial and error, and getting out there and working to share the gospel and overcome objections to it. It is difficult, and there is no “easy out” or panacea that will always work. However, I can offer a few pointers.

  1. Listen.  When talking to someone who has rejected Christ, simply listen. They will eventually share with you their reason for doing so, and usually not immediately. It might take some carefully and prayerfully asked questions, and it might take more than one discussion. If in the first five minutes you start preaching the Roman roads to someone who has rejected Christianity because they don’t think the a Bible is authentic, you’re actually disrespecting them and telling them, quite clearly, that you aren’t listening. Listen first. Question gently and artfully. The other person will almost always, eventually, reveal their reason for rejecting the gospel.  Then, it’s up to you to use the next two recommendations to bring the person back around to the Gospel.
  2. Study.  If you think all you need to do is share your personal testimony, you’ve got a big surprise waiting. If you think all atheists are idiots, you’re in for another surprise. If you think all you need to do is live a “good life,” and people will convert to Christianity just by watching you, then you don’t know Scripture and aren’t following the Biblical model. You need to study. You need to study Scripture, examining how Jesus and Paul and Peter spread the gospel. You need to study – brace for it – theology. You don’t have to enroll in seminary or a Master’s program, but you need to know what you believe, why you believe it, and be able to answer basic objections to the gospel. This is nothing other than the clear command of Scripture in 1 Peter 3:15 – 17.
  3. Practice.  I know it’s difficult. I know it sounds intimidating. I know you’re scared. Unfortunately, the ability to articulate and defend the gospel message is not a gift given to some, it is a command given to all. And the best way to do this – I’d suggest the only way – is through practice. You’ll mess it up, so do I. You’ll face objections you can’t answer, so do I. Some of your study and some of the objections might challenge your preconceived notions – even challenge your faith. Me too. It’s okay, God is with you and will carry you through, and your faith will be stronger on the other side.

The fact is that many within the evangelical community have been misled into a false model of what evangelism looks like. They think what will happen is they’ll meet someone who’s never heard of Jesus, walk them down the Roman roads, pray the sinner’s prayer, add another notch on their belt and move on to the next poor unsaved soul. In reality, especially here in America, you are far more likely to run into someone who has already heard the gospel, and has rejected it for some reason or another. You’ll have to listen, question, understand their objections and reasons for rejection, and be prepared with well-reasoned answers to guide them to the truth. Are you ready?

What Love Isn’t

heart-3

In the last several weeks, I have been sharply critical of several popular pastors and speakers. I’ll save my concerns about Beth Moore, Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and others for another blog – what I want to think clearly about this time is the most common objection I received to this criticism. In short, numerous people admonished me that I shouldn’t be so critical, that I should “just love them,” or that as Christians, we shouldn’t judge other Christians, we are called to simply love them. What this has exposed to me is what I think is a disappointingly unbiblical perspective on Christian love.

The fact is, we are certainly to love each other, but it is not enough to just be loving. I can love my enemy until the cows come home, and he will still spend eternity in Hell if I don’t make the effort to share Jesus Christ with him. News flash to “feel good Christians”: the most loving person you know is still going to Hell if he/she reject the free offer of grace that Jesus provides. You simply cannot love your way into salvation, nor can you love others into salvation, this is nothing more than repackaged works-based salvation. It gets a lot of “likes” as a Facebook status and looks great on Pinterest, but it cannot save. Any of us could quickly flip to 1 Corinthians 13 to find what love is, and any of us could probably quote 1 John 4:8 to show that “God is love.” I don’t dispute this, and I know it’s the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36 – 40), I get all that…but I want to turn it around a bit and encourage Christians to think for a moment about what love isn’t.

  1. Love does not mean agreement.  I can disagree with someone, and still love them – anyone who is married can easily affirm this truth. I love my wife and daughter more than anyone on Earth, yet we disagree frequently. If a pastor – mine or one in the media – says something that I disagree with, and I express disagreement, that is not being unloving. I can disagree with my wife on her choice of hairstyle (not advisable), her preference for Illinois basketball, or anything else, and love her no less. In fact, some issues are so important that love requires – and the Bible commands – engagement and disagreement. Which brings us to…
  1. Love does not mean we don’t correct error.  If someone holds a belief that is clearly in error, in some cases we are required and commanded to correct the error. As Greg Koukl has famously stated, if a diabetic believes that eating ice cream will decrease their blood sugar, we must intervene and correct the error – potentially saving their life in the process. I cannot retreat to my subjectivist corner and simply conclude that they are entitled to their beliefs, and it’s not my business to correct them. The Bible is clear here as well. Shortly after one of the great verses on love, Paul tells us in Colossians, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” We are to admonish one another using the wisdom of the message of Christ in the Scriptures. “Admonish – to express disapproval or criticism, in a gentle and earnest manner.” We are actually being told to express disapproval for and criticize those among us who are acting or speaking contrary to the message of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Ephesians follows closely, with a lengthy passage on Christian living. The well-known passage in 4:1 – 14 encourages us to be mature in the Lord, so that “…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” This is a clear warning against false teachers, those whose “deceitful scheming” and “cunning and craftiness” risks misleading the body of Christ. Instead, we are to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). I don’t see another way to read this verse other than as a command to correct those who are deceived by false teachers. We do so lovingly, of course (which is reinforced in verse 16), but we must guard against these false teachers. We simply cannot lean on love to avoid the requirement to correct error, which leads directly to…
  1. Love does not mean we endorse unbiblical behavior.  Especially from teachers! As young Timothy was under Paul’s charge, preparing to take over the church at Ephesus, Paul knew the Ephesians were already plagued by false teachers. Both of Paul’s letters to Timothy make this point repeatedly – in fact, the first point of the first letter is telling Timothy to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3 – 4). These people want to be teachers, but they “…do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” The parallel here to the many false teachers present today could hardly be more obvious. Again, the relationship to love is reinforced – love that comes from a “…pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith,” from which these false teachers have departed. One could easily read 1 Tim 1:1 – 7 as saying that teaching false doctrines is a direct departure from Christian love, thus Christian’s loving response is to correct and rebuke the error. But it doesn’t stop there. After a list of the many false teachings Timothy will likely face in Ephesus, Paul tells Timothy, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 4:6). Again, exposing false teachings and holding these teachers accountable, ensuring Christians are following sound doctrine, is what it means to be a “good minister of Christ.” This wonderful chapter ends with Paul’s command to “Watch your life and your doctrine closely.” We could all benefit from such a command! What matters is not only how you behave, but what you believe. Paul’s second letter makes many similar commands, telling us that “Opponents [to the gospel] must be gently instructed,” and the well-known uses of Scripture in 3:16 which includes rebuking and correcting believers. Just prior to his death, Paul’s primary charge to Timothy was to “Preach the Word…correct, rebuke, and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction, for the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2 – 3). Not to belabor the point, but Titus echoes these commands in every single chapter: “Encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9), “You must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), “These are the things you should teach, encourage and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15) and so on.

Almost every book of the New Testament stands on these two pillars of belief and behavior. We are to love, that is not in question. But part of loving is disagreement, part of loving is correcting error, and part of loving is rebuking unbiblical behavior and refuting false teachings. Arguably, it is both unbiblical and unloving not to follow these commands. So, if I question the teachings of a popular preacher or teacher, I am not being unloving. Quite the opposite. This applies to me as well – I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and the most loving things my students could do is challenge me when they think I’m wrong, and hold me accountable to the Biblical standard. I expect nothing less, nor does Jesus Christ, nor should you.

The Christian and Civil Government

CapitolThe Clear-Thinking Christian is back!  After two years off to complete my Master’s Degree at Biola University, I’m “back on the blog” and ready to answer more challenges and questions…this time, with credentials (as if that mattered…).

Having just come through another election season and with another already generating momentum, the Christian’s role in government is a frequent question.  As with most topics, views vary — some suggest that Christians are commanded to participate in civil government, others move in quite the opposite direction, claiming that government is evil and Christians should not participate.  As with most blogs, this one has its genesis in a challenge I recently received, this one from another Christian and classmate, ER.

ER and I were discussing the unique case of Kent Hovind, a Christian creationist known as “Dr. Dino” who has been quite popular among the young-earth creationist crowd over the past several decades.  A little background here:  As one of the primary founders of Creation Science Evangelism (now known as Creation Today) and the driving force behind Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum, Kent Hovind generated quite a following in the Christian community.  Regardless of how you feel about his theology (not the point of the post, though my views on the topic are likely clear from my blogs), the relevant matter is that Kent Hovind has spent the last 8 years in federal prison for multiple charges involving his tax dealings with Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum (all the details are available from Forbes Magazine here).  In short, he and his wife were not filing 1040s, and were keeping large amounts of cash for most transactions, which masked them from the IRS, and he treated his theme parks as tax-exempt organizations, though they had not received that designation from the IRS.  That’s the background…so what’s the point?

My friend ER said he was not a fan of Kent Hovind “until the tax thing…then I developed a great amount of respect for him.”  ER’s respect for Hovind was based on his ability to evade — personally and professionally — paying taxes.  When I challenged ER on this point, he further articulated that he believed the state to be “the great Satan” and that we are Biblically commanded to resist the state, which he followed with assurance to me that Jesus would support everything Hovind was doing.  Resisting an inherently evil entity (the state) is not only advocated by Christ, but also Biblically commanded.  He referenced 1 Samuel 8:4 – 18 as support for this view.

That’s the situation…now it’s time for some clear thinking.  As with all things, we will seek first to be Biblical.  What does the Bible say about participation in, and submission to, civil government?  It is far from silent on this topic, providing abundant guidance on on how and in what circumstances Christians should engage with government, setting clear bounds for both obedience and dissent.  Following Scripture, several points seem clear:

1.  Civil Government was not part of God’s original design.  After the fall, mankind succumbed to the temptations of sin and the devil, and while he maintains his special place in creation, the presence of sin no longer allows him to live with complete and unrestricted freedom.  The resulting “society of fallen beings”[1] develops very quickly after the fall, with violent crime (murder) present by the fourth chapter of Genesis, followed closely by urban development, industry, philosophy, and art evident by the end of that chapter.  This society of sinners further degenerates into crime, guilt, corruption, and condemnation, mandating the establishment of some sort of civil order, detailed in chapters six through nine. This civil government cannot provide social perfection and therefore rules with force rather than love, but nevertheless it provides a structure of law, obedience, prosecution, and punishment that creates a flawed but adequate social order in which mankind can fulfill his Biblical mandate.  This was not God’s original plan. The world is wholly the creation of a transcendent, self-existent God, and was created perfectly good.  The entire world, including man and all his social connections, belongs to the divine Creator, but in following Satan’s temptation mankind fell and took the world with him into a state of brokenness. This condition of sin and evil is a perversion of the original good, and has polluted the whole natural order.  However, the Christian can rest assured that no matter how powerful the state becomes, it owns nothing it governs — all of creation, including mankind and his institutions, were redeemed by Christ.  This is the “beginning condition” of the world, in which we then move to establish civil government.

2.  Civil Government is a result of the fall, but is established by God.  God’s attributes of creativity and sovereignty extend into providence – that is, the very same One who created the Earth and all it contains also preserves it and governs it. This means that God established all governments present on the Earth, and their continuation or dissolution is simply a matter of God’s providence.  The first appearance of civil government is in a covenant between God and the survivors of the flood, detailed in Genesis 8 and 9.  This covenant with Noah had four provisions.  First, civil government is for the protection and improvement of human life (Genesis 9:7-11), reinforcing God’s desire to see humans prosper and succeed. Second, the ultimate source of all government is the sovereign Lord Himself, it is not the result of a social contract or natural culmination of human effort (Genesis 9:13, 16, 17). Third and fourth, government has a moral basis, founded on man’s creation in God’s image.  Indeed the very concept of justice is a religious concept, rooted in the perfectly good nature of God, extending to every civil right and all authority on earth.  This divine establishment of all government is mandated by the fact that man is sinful, capable of incredible evil, and can only be curbed by the restrictive power of the Holy Spirit upon man’s heart and of the government upon society.  The fact that all government is fundamentally religious also means that justice – up to and including the death penalty – is actually divine vengeance, God’s vindication as governor of the universe.  This Noahic Covenant is echoed in Jeremiah, Isaiah, Psalms, and Daniel, with many of the books of prophecy and poetry reinforcing the concept that it is God who directs the rise and fall of nations, and that He establishes the criteria for kings and rulers and judges (see Daniel 1:2, 4:17, 5:21, 6:26, 7:27, and essentially all of chapter 2; in Isaiah, see especially 44:28 and 45:13; also Jeremiah 22:13 – 17).

3.  The Example of Jesus Christ is One of Submission and Obedience.  While the majority of Biblical proscriptions for civil government are found in the Old Testament, the New Testament gives us guidance as well, not least in the conduct of Jesus and the disciples when dealing with civil government. From His youngest years, Jesus obeyed both His parents and the local authorities.  Although at times He clearly thought the administration (both religious and civil) was corrupt and unjust, He obeyed nonetheless.  Jesus taught, and taught His disciples to teach, to “Submit yourself to every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13 – 14, 17), to even do the bidding of the Pharisees whom He despised and consistently refuted (Matthew 23:2 – 4, 13 – 29).  He obeyed the laws of the civil authorities as well, whether Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate, though He never gave them more than they requested.  He never encouraged disobedience, or rebellion against a pagan, idolatrous, and unjust civil government (contrary to the charges brought against Him and for which He was crucified).  Even His famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:20 – 22) stands as a timeless synonym for obedience to both civil government and the sovereign God of the universe.

Jesus not only set the example for obedience to civil government in His actions, he taught clearly on the topic as well.  In Matthew 17, Jesus is pressed about paying the legally-required temple tax.  This could have been a difficult issue, since the tax supported both the Jewish religious authorities and the construction of a temple for pagan worship.  Jesus wisely sidesteps the central issues, and details that the tax must be paid if for no other reason than to avoid offending the governing authorities.  The second passage, briefly mentioned above, is Jesus’ command to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Various Jewish sects, with varying levels of attachment to the Roman authorities and degrees of compliance with Jewish law, were uniting against Jesus, trying to trick Him into blasphemy or into trouble with the Roman authorities.  When challenged by what could be a true dilemma, Jesus’ artful answer not only resolves the implied conflict but also addresses the fundamental issue underlying the question.  Jesus saw no explicit contradiction between politics and religion, nor did He think submission to one excludes the other.   This answer, in the spirit of love and fairness, is perhaps the greatest Biblical text on the entire topic of civil government.

Paul also teaches on the topic of obedience to civil government, in fact giving more insight than we receive from Christ during His ministry.  Five key passages are relevant here – the first in 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul indicates that pagan rulers of human government are all part of God’s providential plan, though they are unaware of it.  Following closely is 1 Corinthians 6, which discourages a litigious spirit in Christians under the assumption that the civil rulers have less knowledge, and less divine authority, than the apostles.  By far the most significant of the five passages is Romans 13, clearly instructing Christians to submit to the power of ruling authorities, all of which are put in place by God.   Simply put, resistance to constituted government is resistance to God’s ordinance.  Paul’s final two admonitions, in 1 Peter 2 and Ephesians 6, round out his consistent admonition to honor God by submitting to governing authorities.

So, what does this all mean?  With great respect to my Christian brother ER, his view is squarely at odds with the teachings of the Old and New Testament, the living example of Christ, and the teachings of both Christ and the Apostles.  Hovind’s tax practices were both illegal and unBiblical.  No doubt, there are limits, and these are evident from time to time in Scripture as well — if man gives a command that violates God’s command, there may be Biblical liberty to resist or disobey (perhaps that will be the subject of a future post).  There will always be exceptions (I’m sure someone will bring up Hitler) — but the nearly unanimous testimony of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation, is one of obedience to civil government as a divinely-instituted mechanism for God to conduct His affairs among men.

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[1]. Robert Culver, Civil Government: A Biblical View, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 18.  His entire book is worth reading on this topic, and is the foundation of much of this post.