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.

Is Belief in the Resurrection Required?

Answering a question today, submitted via email from Aaron in Alexandria. “My brother asked me the other day if the belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a mandatory essential for salvation. I wasn’t 100% on the answer so I told him I wasn’t sure but that it was definitely the quintessential proof that Jesus was the truth. I know Paul teaches you must believe in the resurrection, but the thief on the cross obviously was not aware of it.”

First, belief in the deity of Christ is required to affirm Christianity — in fact, it is arguably the defining belief of Christianity. Believing in the existence of Christ but denying his deity places you in the same camp as the Jews and Muslims. Similarly, believing in the deity of Christ but denying his resurrection presents at the very least a consistency problem. It seems to me that the step from existence to resurrection is a smaller step than from existence to deity, and the resurrection is the primary way in which Christ demonstrated/proved His deity.

Second, we have to understand what the resurrection accomplished. It gets back to the basic gospel message — we are sinners in need of salvation, and we are unable to save ourselves. We are completely reliant on someone (or something) else, and for the Christian it is complete reliance on Christ for our salvation. The effectual means of that salvation is the resurrection. The penalty for our sin is death, and to be reconciled with a perfectly just God, that penalty must be paid. Christ paid the penalty. He was crucified to pay the penalty for our sins, but it was his resurrection that provided the justification — that is, the resurrection is how we are seen good before God. If you don’t believe the resurrection occurred, then how are you justified before God? See Romans 4:24 – 25: “…God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” It was the resurrection that provided the justification.

The point is made even more strongly a few chapters later, in Romans 10. When discussing the disbelief of the Jews, in verse 9 Paul very clearly lays out what is necessary for salvation: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” However, Paul seals the deal, firmly and unequivocally, in his letter to the Corinthians. In the earliest known creed of Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed in 1 Cor 15, Paul passes on to us that which he received of “first importance” — that Christ died, was buried, was raised, and appeared. This all-important Creed is followed by almost an entire chapter on the resurrection, where we are told very specifically, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” A Christian faith devoid of the resurrection is simply not a Christian faith.

In short, denying the resurrection comes very close to denying the deity of Christ, it denies the means of our justification, it denies the earliest Creed of the church, and it likely denies our resurrection (and thereby salvation) as well. It doesn’t get any more essential than that.

What Must We Believe?

I fear the the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message — in fact, it has undermined the very definition of Christianity. When I meet someone today and they tell me they’re a Christian, I’m sorry to report that it tells me very, very little about what they actually believe. I know people who call themselves Christians, but deny the unique deity of Christ, or deny the historicity of the resurrection, or other key doctrines I would consider “essential”. This leads to an obvious question — what does it mean to say,”I’m a Christian?” If I make that claim, what does it mean that I believe?

John Wesley is reputed to have said, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”. But what if we can’t agree on what the essentials are? About 10 years ago, I started teaching a lesson series called “Essential Christian Doctrines,” or ECD, with the goal of answering this very question. Many of the issues we deal with among Christians are secondary issues, those which we can discuss and debate but not divide over. This includes young-Earth versus old-Earth creation, Calvinism versus Arminianism (and Pelagianism and other variants), and basically every flavor of eschatology (end-time theology) including pre-trib, post-trib, amillennialism, premillennialism, dispensationalism, and so forth. When we boil it down to the simple question of the Centurion in Acts 16, “What must I do to be saved,” it even relegates evangelical sacred cows like inerrancy and the canon of scripture to secondary status.

So what essentials remain? The easiest way to do this is to examine what the first Christians considered essential – those beliefs that they thought and taught were necessary for salvation.
There are a number of places in Scripture where we can turn for guidance — for example, 1 Timothy 3:16. In this one verse, you have the deity of Christ, His incarnation (humanity), resurrection, and ascension. Another key passage, perhaps the most well-known on this issue, is 1 Cor 15:3 – 5. Like the verse in Timothy, this passage affirms the death, the atonement, and the resurrection. Most theologians believe that these two passages are the foundation for what later became the Apostles’ Creed. Finally, we can look at Peter’s sermon (commonly called the “Kerygma”) in Acts 10:36 – 43. This passage is perhaps the best expression of the core doctrines maintained and taught by the early church. It affirms the deity of Christ, the personality and power of the Holy Spirit, the humanity and death of Christ, His resurrection, his second coming and final judgment, and salvation by faith in Christ.

So, based on the stated beliefs and doctrines of the first Christians, we can eliminate quite a few from the “brainstorming” list above. Those that remain, those that were taught by the followers of Christ, include:

i. The Deity of Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit (the Trinity).
ii. The humanity of Christ (the incarnation).
iii. The death and resurrection of Christ (the substitutionary atonemtent).
iv. The sinfulness of man.
v. Salvation by grace through faith.

If you do not affirm these basic, core beliefs, then you do not fall under the minimum essentials to be called a Christian. If you believe the essential doctrines, and do not hold to others that are contradictory to these, then you can confidently and proudly proclaim that you hold to the same historic Christian faith taught by Christ and the apostles. To be sure, there is some room for discussion here…but I think this is a fair conclusion based on an examination of the relevant Scriptures and Christian history. What to you think?

Can A Christian Believe in Evolution?

I’ve encountered many, many Christians who readily state “I don’t believe in evolution.” In my opinion, this is one of the most ill-informed and unhelpful things a Christian can say, especially to one who disagrees. More importantly, without sufficient context, it is a blatantly false statement. Let’s try to think through this clearly.

It depends on what you mean by evolution. If you define evolution simply as “change over time,” then evolution is not only common sense and easily proven, it is actually Biblical. Languages evolve, societies evolve, cities evolve, you get the idea. Evolution, in that context, is not in dispute, and should be accepted by all Christians.

Alternatively, if you define evolution as “the ability of a species to adapt to its environment,” this is also so certain that it nearly approaches common sense. Again, let me be clear — the ability of a species to adapt to its environment through inherited genetic traits, including natural selection — is not in dispute, and should not be opposed by clear-thinking Christians. This is commonly called “microevolution.”

Finally, if you define evolution as the “molecules to man” hypothesis, where every living thing on Earth shares a common ancestor and that life began as some pre-historic, single-celled organism which has since developed into the complexity and diversity of life we see today, this is where the Christian (and the non-Christian, by the way) can reasonably depart. It’s important to note, however, that the dispute over this issue it not solely religious. There is a significant debate within the scientific community as well about whether or not this “macroevolutionary” Darwinian model is true. In the wonderful words (paraphrased) of Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, “The question isn’t whether a dog and a wolf share a common ancestor, I believe they probably do — it’s whether a whale and an avodado do.” For that is precisely with the macroevolutionary model teaches. At this point, clear-thinking Christians and non-Christians alike can reasonably dissent.

I hope you can see, when investigated a bit more closely, the refrain “I don’t believe in evolution,” when stated by Christians, is not only misleading, but rarely accurate. Similarly, affirming a belief in evolution to a certain degree does not mandate that we abandon the Biblical model (which I’ll discuss in a separate blog). There is nothing in the Bible that is inconsistent with natural selection or microevolution…and a clear-thinking Christian can readily affirm a belief in both the Bible and in evolution (properly characterized) without sacrificing their intellectual integrity or their Biblical foundation.