The Doctrine of God: Tawhid versus Trinity

Allah    This topic has absolutely ignited the media in recent months. For whatever reason, this question – whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God – has been all over my Facebook feed, and just in the past few weeks has been posted by Ravi Zecharias, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, and Answering Islam, among others…and not always with the same answer.

Without question, there are many similarities. Both Muslims and Christians (and Jews) trace their lineage back through Abraham (Muslims through Ishmael, Christians and Jews through Isaac), and all three maintain a largely Old Testament-based view of monotheism. If a Muslim and a Christian were to list the attributes of God, the lists would look remarkably similar – a “spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal creator God” would accurately describe both. However, similar descriptions cannot mask clear and critical differences. While my perspective may not agree with all these other bloggers, at the very least I hope to clarify the Christian concept (the Godhead or Trinity) as well as the Muslim concept (called tawhid), both of which are frequently misunderstood by Christians.

  1. The Christian Concept: The Godhead.

Most Christians likely (hopefully) have a basic understanding of the Biblical concept of God. He is manifest in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – each a separate person, but all sharing one essence (Godhood). The three are equal in status and power, but distinct in personhood. This has frequently been mischaracterized as polytheism or as an outright contradiction, though this usually does little more than expose a misunderstanding of the theology behind the belief. Some have tried to construct analogies to understand the Trinity (an egg, water, even my role as a father/husband/son/brother/etc), but all of these analogies fall short or commit a logical or theological fallacy. When it comes to really trying to understand the idea of “three in one,” I side with Martin Luther, who said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you a man who can comprehend the triune God.”  Though this may border on the incomprehensible, it is without a doubt Biblical. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in Christian doctrine until the middle of the third century,[1] it is clearly taught through five basic points in the Bible:

  1. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 8, 45:5, 14, 18, 21, 22, 46:9, 47:8, John 17:3, 1 Cor. 8:5-6, Gal. 4:8-9).
  2. God the Father is God (Deut 6:4 and throughout the Old Testament, as well as John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 1:1; Eph 4:6; Phil 2:11; 1 Pet 1:2).
  3. Jesus Christ is God (John 8:12-59; Mark 2:3-7, Col 2:9; John 1:1-4; Acts 5:31; Col 3:13; Ps 130:4; Jer 31:34).
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 1 Cor 2:10-11; Romans 8:9-11).
  5. These three are equal, co-eternal, and distinct (Eph 3:15; John 5:18; 1 Cor 2:10).

Understood this way, it is clear that the actual word “trinity” doesn’t have to appear in Scripture, the concept is clearly taught. There are book-length treatments of this topic (especially good is James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity), but this will have to suffice for now, and it is sufficient to point out the differences.

  1. The Muslim Concept: Tawhid.

In Islam, the doctrine of Allah is called tawhid. It is the central and defining doctrine of all Islam, and declares absolute monotheism, the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe.[2] More than just a religious belief, this doctrine has been central to Islamic reformers and activists as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order. Muslims are fiercely monotheistic, insofar as anything that even approaches equating something to Allah is one of the most severe sins in Islam (known as shirk). This strict monotheism is the root of all other beliefs, and the root of all values in the Muslim worldview. All values in Muslim religion derive from devoting one’s heart to Allah, and it is through this singly and wholeheartedly devoted love that a Muslim comes to divorce him/herself from the ways and things of this world.  This level of devotion is actually something that many Christians could learn from, and all Christians should respect.

Despite the differences within Islam and the sectarianism discussed in the prior blog, on this topic Muslims are almost completely united. Tawhid has been a rallying cry of Islam for centuries, uniting the Muslims throughout their history under the banner of various leaders from Ibn Taymiyya (14th Century) to Abd Al-Wahhab (18th Century) to the present day. No matter how diverse Muslims history has been, they have always re-united around the central doctrine of the oneness of Allah, the tawhid.

  1. Key Differences

On the surface, this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theology of God, but when we turn to the center of Christian faith – Christ Himself – the differences emerge irreconcilable. Muslims deny that God had a son, and deny that Christ is divine, and would never consider Allah a “father” in the sense that Christians speak of their God. They deny both the deity of Christ and His resurrection, going so far as to consider these beliefs blasphemy (Qur’an 5:17, 5:73, 5:75). If Christians were to speak only of God the Father, the divine Yahweh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and describe His actions and His attributes, Muslims would likely agree with nearly every word. When we advance to the New Testament and the deity of Christ and the resurrection, arguably the two most central doctrines of the Christian faith, we must part ways with the tawhid of Islam and embrace the Trinity of the Bible. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? If we are willing to deny the deity of Christ and the resurrection, then yes — but we cannot. To claim Christianity is to affirm doctrines expressly denied by Islam, and therefore we cannot worship the same God. So how do we engage Muslims in conversation, and what common ground can we find for friendship and evangelism? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next blog.

[1] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England 2003.

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 If You Woke Up in Hell?

Hell   Earlier this week, a good friend of mine was challenged by a co-worker who claimed to be an atheist.  The challenge — “What would you think if you died and ended up in hell?”  This is an interesting challenge, especially from an atheist, and is normally a pointed way of asking, “What if you’re wrong?”  However, when we consider the challenge with careful thinking, we’ll find that the atheist has actually gained little ground here.  In fact, he may have actually lost ground.
   First, I believe in Jesus Christ — so if I died and woke up in Hell, I’d know that I was wrong.  But what was I wrong about?  Specifically, I was wrong in what I thought was necessary for salvation.  I believe all that is required is a belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ…if I’m wrong about that, then I’ll likely wake up in Hell.  That is, belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ is NOT all that is required for salvation.  But that’s about it.  I think somehow the challenger thinks that if we concede this point, then they’ve “won.”  However, if I die and wake up in Hell, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.  It doesn’t even mean that Jesus is not God.  It just means that I — and many other evangelical Christians — got salvation wrong.  Going further, if Hell exists, then the Hindus are wrong too.  And so are the Buddhists, as neither Hinduism nor Buddhism believe in the existence of Hell.  In fact, the atheists are wrong too — they also deny the existence of Hell.  And so do Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are annihilationists.  And the Mormons are also wrong, as their lowest level of Heaven (Terrestrial) is just a perfect Earth, and the “outer darkness” where evil people go is just ethereal existence, it is not the eternal conscious punishment of Hell.  Naturalists are also wrong, as Hell is clearly a supernatural place (unless he suggests it’s purely natural, just on another planet or in another universe we haven’t discovered yet).  Unitarians are wrong (all religions lead to God), universalists are wrong (everyone gets saved)…when it comes down to it, if I die and go to Hell, nearly everyone (including me) is wrong.
   Second, when faced with this challenge, if the challenger thinks he’s somehow “got you” or made points with this question, he’s mistaken.  Even if I grant the conditions of the question (me going to Hell), he still hasn’t made much progress in his argument.  He has provided no positive argument for atheism, or any evidence or argument against theism.  At best, all it means is that a central doctrine of Christianity is wrong.  If I die and go to Hell, it means I was wrong about what it takes to be saved.  That’s all.  It doesn’t mean naturalism is true.  It doesn’t affirm atheism.  In hindsight, a fun way to respond would have been, “Well, if I die and wake up in Hell, I’ll know with a high degree of certainty that atheism and naturalism are false.”  Stated simply, if Christianity’s salvation doctrine is false but Hell exists, then nearly every other religious view — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Universalism, Unitarianism, atheism, and naturalism — is also false.
   Fortunately, Christians can rest comfortably in the doctrine of eternal salvation.  Few things are stated more clearly in Scripture.  Unfortunately, the doctrine of Hell is equally clear — so the real task at hand is how to take this question and turn it into an opportunity to minister or witness to the atheist.  Now, THAT’s a challenge!

Creation Concerns Part 2

When examining the creation-evolution debate, there are two issues which are often erroneously conflated — the age of the Earth and the length of the creation period.  Within the Christian community, we generally agree that this creative act took place, but disagree on two subsequent questions:  How long ago did this creative act occur, and how long did it take?  In my last blog, I discussed in some detail the age of the Earth, coming down on the side of the “progressive” or “old-Earth” view.  In this blog, we’ll tackle the other half of the issue — how long did it take?  Again, I remind readers that this is a completely secondary issue, a good topic for internal discussion and debate, but not a topic that should divide Christians.

So, how do we view the week of creation?  Reading Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, we immediately see a clear pattern of “On the first day…on the second day…on the third day…”.  The traditional/historic Christian view has been that these are literal, 24-hour solar days. Unfortunately, few who believe that have actually read closely the account in Genesis 1. Open to it. If you read the whole first chapter, carefully and critically, you should notice some problems. First and foremost, the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, so it is unlikely that the first three days are solar days. Even worse, if the sun and the lights in the sky weren’t created until day four, where did the light come from on the first day? Furthermore, the plants and vegetation were all created on day three…how could photosynthesis occur without the sun? Sure, plants could probably survive for a day without the sun…but why would God create plants that require sunlight to survive, but not create the sun yet? These are just a few problems, you could probably ferret out a few more if you read closely.  Young-Earth creationists have worked hard to develop coherent answers to these questions, and some do address the concerns intelligently.

But if the days in Genesis 1 and 2 don’t refer to literal 24-hour days, what do they mean? Well, taking into account both a critical reading and the old-Earth/progressive view discussed in my prior blog, they certainly don’t mean 24-hour days.  It turns out that in this case the Hebrew language is not a whole lot different from how we use language. At times, we use “day” to refer to the period of daylight (“during the day” versus “during the night,” a period of about 8 – 10 hours). Other times we use it to refer to an entire 24-hour period (as in “the day before yesterday”), or an entire indefinite period (“back in my grandfather’s day”). In English, that one word can refer to 8 – 10 hours, 24 hours, or an entire epoch/age/generation. Not surprisingly, it’s the same in Hebrew. The Hebrew word “yom” is the word translated “day” in Genesis 1 and 2. Does it have to mean 24 hours, as most if not all young-Earth creationists would support? The answer is no.  Even in the first few cases of Genesis 1, it specifically states, “…and there was morning, and there was evening, the first day.” From morning to evening may actually be closer to our use of the word to refer to dayLIGHT — the 8 – 10 hour period — not a 24-hour day. To make matters worse, look ahead to Chapter 2 of Genesis, specifically 2:4. Depending on the version of your Bible, it might say, “This is the account of the heavens and the Earth in the day they were created.” Other translations say, “in the time” or “when” they were created. Point is the same, and you may have guessed it — the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:4 is the same word “yom,” used here to mean the entire creative period. Advance to Genesis 4:3, and it says (again depending on the version of the Bible you use), “In that day, Cain brought forth…” or perhaps “In the course of time, Cain brought…” At this point, you can probably guess. Genesis 4:3 is also the same Hebrew word, “yom,” here used to mean an entire indefinite period.

While there are other factors (such as the use of the ordinals “first,” “second,” “third,” and so forth before the word yom), the point is that there is nothing in context, in language, or in interpretation that requires the days in Genesis 1 to be literal, 24-hour days. That doesn’t mean they aren’t, it just means the text doesn’t require it.  In fact, the context and the chapters that follow seem to indicate precisely the opposite, that these are NOT 24-hour days. As we’ve seen, “day” in Genesis is variously used to mean the period of daylight (Genesis 1:5, 8, elsewhere), the entire creative “week” (Genesis 2:4), or an indefinite period of time (Genesis 4:3). Add to this the previously-discussed fact that the first four days are likely not solar days (since the sun didn’t exist yet), and the seventh day — God’s creative or Sabbath rest — is still ongoing (Hebrews 4), and the argument that Genesis 1 refers to seven literal, 24-hour days starts to quickly break down. I know that’s a lot to wrap your arms around — so let’s put it all together.

1. The text in Genesis does not mandate a literal, 24-hour day or a 7-day creation. In fact, such an interpretation causes significant problems with the Genesis 1 text, and makes other areas of Genesis (chapters 2 and 4) problematic.

2. The genealogies in Genesis and Leviticus contain significant gaps and overlaps (see my previous blog).

3. The ages of the individuals in the Old Testament may be symbolic, not literal.

4. Nearly all of the evidence we see today, in nearly every field of natural study (science), indicates that the Earth is far older than the 6000+ years presented by many young-Earth creationists.

I could go on, but you get the point. In my view, the earth is many millions, perhaps billions, of years old, the creative “days” refer to vast periods of time, animals and other living creatures (Genesis 1:20 – 24) were created well before mankind, and many had become extinct (including the dinosaurs) before mankind was created. We did not live simultaneously with the dinosaurs. Please understand, this view is entirely consistent with both scripture and our current understanding of science. Though some will object, there is nothing wrong with using science or natural observation to inform our reading of scripture. Twice before the church has made this error, at one time believing the Earth to be the center of the solar system (some said the universe), and later concluding based on scripture that the Earth is flat.  Both of these views — like young-Earth creationism, the traditional and historic Christian perspective — were eventually abandoned in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps young-Earth creationism is next or perhaps it will endure, I don’t know.  One last note — please don’t make the mistake of thinking that believing in an old Earth equates to supporting Darwinian evolution. That’s a completely separate matter.

“Biblical” Marriage

20120811-231930.jpgFollowing up from my prior blog on the Chick Fil-A issue, I received a question from Bill in Alexandria the other day. I’ve also received several emails, and had a number of posts on my Facebook site. It’s not directly related to Dan Cathy’s comments or the same-sex marriage debate, but I’ll answer it as best I can.

The question revolves around Facebook posts and a YouTube video that has been making the rounds lately (you can watch it here, but I don’t recommend it…it’s a waste of your time). It’s very, very difficult to respond to a video like this, simply because she’s all over the map and has absolutely no idea how to read the Bible or interpret Scripture.

All of these things — the YouTube video, the emails, the Facebook posts — revolve around the same basic contention. That is, that “Biblical or traditional marriage” is not defined as a man and woman, includes the requirement to marry my brother’s wife if he gets killed, requires me to stone my wife if I can’t prove she’s a virgin at marriage, permits multiple wives and concubines like Solomon and others, you’ve probably seen the list. Let’s try some clear thinking.

1. The Biblical definition of marriage. This starts at the very beginning — Genesis. In the story from Genesis 2, shortly after God creates man, he realizes that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and he creates a companion for him. That companion established the first “marriage,” from a Biblical perspective — one man, one woman, with a relationship described in Genesis 2:24, which outlines a very special spiritual, emotional, and physical union. This is reinforced throughout Scripture, especially in the New Testament. This includes instructions for men to love their wives in Ephesians 5:22-33, and the definition of a godly man being the husband of one wife in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 1, and elsewhere. Most Biblically-literate Christians are also very well aware of the New Testament’s constant comparisons between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church, which further defines what marriage is and how it behaves.

All combined, we understand that marriage, Biblically defined, is a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, characterized by love, sacrifice, Christ-centeredness, and meeting each other’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Divorce, adultery, and fornication are all violations of this Biblical ideal. Are there other examples of marriage in the Bible? Sure, especially in the Old Testament. But to equate these examples with the Biblical “definition” is to make a critical error is hermeneutics (the science of the study of Scripture) — that is, to equate the descriptive with the prescriptive. This simply means that there are many things in the Bible that are describe various situations, but do not require us to emulate the behavior. In fact, many times the Bible describes behaviors that we are NOT to emulate. Paul supervising the stoning of Stephen, for example (Acts 7:54 – 8:1), is obviously descriptive — the Bible does not condone or endorse this behavior. Examples abound, from David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24) to a hundred other examples — including Solomon and David taking multiple wives.

Throughout Scripture, we see many cases of Godly men taking multiple wives — and then see the consequences of that sinful behavior. Nowhere in Scripture is this behavior prescribed. In fact, every prescriptive passage with regard to marriage always identifies it as a wife and husband. Jesus quotes Genesis 2 when talking about a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to a wife (Matthew 19). This passage is directly followed by one that makes it clear that once joined, the union is permanent (except for unfaithfulness). Fast forward to 1 Corinthians 7, and the story is the same. And note the language in these passages — the language of “should,” “do not,” and similar phrases make it clear that these are prescriptive passages. Every prescriptive passage, from Matthew 19 to 1 Cor 7 and elsewhere, detail a long-term, monogamous, heterosexual union.

2. Old Testament Mosaic and Levitical laws. Now, on to this issue or stoning those who aren’t virgins, marrying my brothers wife if he dies, and other concerns. I have already blogged about the fact that we are no longer under the confines of the Mosaic/Levitical law, and that definitely applies here. The New Testament is perfectly clear that we are no longer under the law, and that Christ has fulfilled the law. It is still useful to us as a historical and teaching tool (1 Tim 3:16-17), but we are no longer subject to the law or justified by it. We have a new law now, the law of Christ. You can read more in 1 Corinthians 9, Galatians 3 & 6, Romans 8, or Hebrews 8. Joel C. Rosenberg also has a great blog on the topic — no need to restate his great exposé here. Biblical marriage, under the law of Christ, is loving, caring, and uplifting, much like Christ Himself.

Sticks and Stones…

20120716-220730.jpgSeveral weeks ago, I received a comment from NotA on my prior blog, “Q&A: Mormonism”:

“The Bible also ‘clearly’ says we should stone people to death who work on the Sabbath. It also ‘clearly’ tells us how to keep slaves, and how to make them permanent.”

I assume this comment was meant as a means to discredit the authority of the Bible — in other words, since the Bible allegedly tells us to do these things which are clearly ridiculous or immoral, then we can’t trust the other things it tells us to do. Ignoring the obvious non-sequitur, I simply asked NotA if or when he had studied the Bible…I find that these objections, and others like them, are often presented by those who have heard the objection from others or read it in another book. It is not an objection that is easily arrived at by a study of the Bible itself. Regardless, I’ll do what I can to clear up this common misconception…the capital punishment issue in this blog, slavery in another.

Let’s go to Scripture first. Does the Bible say that those who work on the Sabbath should be stoned? Yes, it does. First, there is a teaching in the Mosaic law, found in Exodus 31:14 – 17 and 35:2. While this law does not specifically direct stoning, it does say that anyone who does work on the Sabbath should be put to death. There is also a well-known story in Numbers 15:32 – 36. In this story, during the time the Israelites are in the desert, a man is found gathering wood on the Sabbath, so the people bring him to Moses and Aaron and ask what is to be done with him. After praying, God clearly commands them to stone him, which they promptly do. So, in this case, the Bible does clearly show that this man is to be stoned for working on the Sabbath, I have no dispute there.

Trying to think clearly about this issue, I can think of three reasons someone might disagree with this command. First, you may think capital punishment is just wrong. Whether found in the Bible or in the US Code or State laws, capital punishment is wrong — never justified. If this is your objection, we can have a great discussion, but it ceases to really be a theological or Biblical issue.

Second, you may disagree with the form of punishment. While capital punishment (electric chair or perhaps lethal injection) is not necessarily wrong, stoning is wrong. It’s cruel and unusual or barbaric. Again, this doesn’t really take up a Biblical issue. The Mosaic code is simply prescribing the death penalty for certain crimes, and stoning was the standard means of administering capital punishment in Jewish culture. Dead bodies (and in some cases, criminals even while they were still alive) were considered unclean, so no Jew could touch them. So, they needed some means of administering death “from a distance”. Obviously, there was no firing squad, and no electric chair or lethal injection in 4,000 BC or in the first century…the result? Stoning.

Finally, you may think the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. There’s nothing inherently wrong with capital punishment, but it’s far too harsh for something as minor as picking up wood (the Numbers example). I can certainly understand this objection, and I’m sympathetic to it. It does seem harsh to arrest someone and stone them to death for working on the wrong day of the week. However, this is completely out of context in two key ways. First, it sounds harsh or barbaric to our civilized Western society in the 21st century. However, compared to other ancient Near-Eastern codes of laws (Sumeria, Ur, Hittite, Hammurabi), the Mosaic law was actually a significant advancement in moral code. Compared to today’s standards, it seems harsh — but it is actually mild by ancient near-eastern standards. Second, the point of the Mosaic code was not to establish a fair and democratic system of equal justice, it was to establish — positionally — the role of the nation of Israel and their God. It set up a theocracy, with Yahweh (God) as the spiritual, moral, and political leader of the nation. Simply stated, the point was to teach obedience. If the Israelites couldn’t obey simple (comparatively) instructions about what to eat or wear, or what to do and when, then they wouldn’t obey far more important instructions about worshipping other gods, adopting pagan customs, and so forth. God was trying to establish a pattern of obedience to test the commitment and trustworthiness of the Israelites before granting them the greatest reward in Biblical (and arguably human) history — the Promised Land and the lineage of the Messiah.

So, going back to NotA’s objection, my disagreement is not with the charge that the Bible prescribes stoning for working on the Sabbath. It does. Perhaps surprisingly, my disagreement is with the use of the word “we”. Unless you are a Jew living by the Mosaic Code under the theocracy established for the nation of Israel, then the Bible does not, in fact, say that “we” should stone people for working on the Sabbath. In fact, every day is considered equal now, though we are still expected to obey God in all things. The “Sabbath rest,” under the new covenant, is not found on a particular day of the week, rather it is found in Christ (Hebrews 4:1 – 11). The Sabbath was simply the shadow of things to come, the reality of the Sabbath is found in Christ (Colossians 2:17).

Q & A: Mormonism

I’m fascinated by the fact that my post on “Would I Vote for a Mormon” is my most popular blog yet — received almost ten times as many hits as any of my prior blogs. I’ve also received via email a lot of questions on the post, too many to answer in individual comments, so this follow-up blog will answer some of those questions I’ve received.

1. AB: Who defines what Christianity is?
A. No one person, at least no one on this Earth. The Bible clearly defines what a Christian is, and what beliefs are necessary to call yourself a Christian. This was largely the topic of my prior blog on “What Must We Believe“. So, as stated in that post, if you reject any of those key beliefs, or affirm beliefs that are clearly contradictory to them, then you cannot call yourself a Christian. Am I saying that Mormonism rejects some of the core beliefs or Biblical Christianity, or holds beliefs that are contradictory to those beliefs? Yes, and I think LDS adherents who are students of their faith and history would readily agree.

2. DM and AB: Have you seen the “I’m a Mormon” billboards with Mitt Romney on them? I am worried that the Mormon church will capitalize on this any way they can…”branding” Mormons as just a family-loving, God-fearing, Christ-loving people. That actually sounds like a pretty good “brand” to be associated with. What’s not legitimate about a faith that promotes those values?
A. I think you’re entirely correct about the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Not only that, I wouldn’t for a minute dispute that the LDS are a family-oriented, God-fearing, Christ-loving people. I think all three are accurate characterizations of LDS, but we have to dig a little deeper. It’s a good “brand” to be associated with, and there’s nothing wrong with promoting those values. In fact, my entire post was intended to affirm the fact that I think Christians and Mormons affirm almost exactly the same values — I think it was clear in the blog that the very reason I’d vote for an LDS candidate is because we share the same values. The only aside that I mentioned, which really could be a whole series of blogs in itself, is that while Mormons and Christians affirm the same basic ethical, moral, and family values, they affirm a remarkably different set of religious/theological beliefs.

3. DM: Do you think a Mormon getting elected President will lend legitimacy to a cult system or belief that is contradictory to Christianity?
A. Possibly, but I don’t think so. I just don’t see enough overlap between a candidate’s political views and their theology. I don’t really see how getting elected President would “lend legitimacy to” his theological views. If we were in a country where the elected or appointed political leader was also the de facto religious leader (Saudi Arabia, Iran, arguably Israel), then certainly so. But in the United States, where we have a clear distinction between our religious and political leaders, the election of a candidate to political office in my view lends no special credence to their religious beliefs. At the end of the day, even if we concede that a Mormon President lends credence to their theology, that still is not in and of itself a reason not to cast that vote — at that point, a close examination of the alternative candidate becomes necessary.

Just my thoughts, others may disagree.