How to escape the Bible with your theology intact

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There is a way of using the Bible to support your theology that really just amounts to doing everything in your power to avoid what the Bible has to say so that you can escape from the ravages of Scripture with your precious doctrine still intact.

Without naming names, over the last year I have had several conversations about the doctrine of hell with people who advocate the doctrine of eternal torment, where they argued in a manner very much like John in the following conversations (right down to the same phraseology, eg “equally likely as an interpretation” and “use Scripture to interpret Scripture”):

Karen: Hi John. Have you read passage A? It seems to pretty clearly deny the doctrine of eternal torment. It says that one day the lost will be destroyed. They will die and be gone. Don’t you agree?

John: No, I don’t think so. I think eternal torment is equally likely as an interpretation. Continue reading “How to escape the Bible with your theology intact”

“You will never die”: What did Jesus mean?

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Did Jesus say that believers would never ever die, indicating that even when their bodies die, they will live on with him in glory? You might have heard that, but what if he meant something different, promising that we would be spared the fate of disappearing into death forever?

I get some resistance to the biblical concept that human beings are frail and mortal, “dust of the earth,” that we return to the dust when we die, and that there’s no heavenly life to be had while our bodies lay in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Sometimes people even pit Bible verses against this biblical idea. One verse at a time, I think we can see that these objections fail, and the overall clear biblical portrait of human nature and death remains intact.

One of those objections comes from a particular interpretation of Jesus’ saying after raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11:25-26:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Never die. That gives pause to some people when they consider my view that immortality is received at the resurrection and that the dead are really dead in the grave, not living on as immortal souls. They wonder if this claim by Jesus must mean that if we live and believe in him now, we cannot lie dead in the grave without our souls living on in glory, because we will “never die.” It’s a good question to ponder, but there’s already a reasonable response to this worry, quite apart from the observation I’ll make soon. Jesus is here talking about those who live the new life that he has just referred to: Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will live – that is, via the resurrection. So when Jesus goes on to say “whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” he’s talking about the life of immortality after the resurrection. Continue reading ““You will never die”: What did Jesus mean?”

Kephalē in the New Testament: A survey

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I backed out of writing this series about those biblical passages about women in ministry not too long ago. It wasn’t because the evidence is hard to find or interpret, but it was partly because I had so little hope of anybody listening. They’d agree, I assumed, if they already held an opinion that they saw me affirming, and they’d disagree if they saw me affirming a view they didn’t already hold. The evidence rarely seems to really matter on this issue. People will find a way – any way – to make it fit an ideology. What would be the point of writing about this? But here I am, venturing into that series.

After a cautionary introduction post on what I am about to do (which I insist you read before you read this blog post), this is the first of my blog explorations of the contentious biblical passages about men and women in the church. Any comments you make on this post or any posts in this series must conform to the guidelines I gave in that cautionary post. Talk about the evidence and the issue strictly defined by the blog post. That’s all I’m prepared to allow. Behave or I’ll kick you out. I’m deliberately being boring so as to discourage the elements that make this issue frustrating.

Why would I want to be boring? Here is why: You will probably have seen people who get caught up sharing exciting links on social media about scientific issues. Vaccines cause autism! The earth is flat! Homeopathy cures cancer! Climate change isn’t happening! Quoting what people have said, citing anecdotes, attributing evil motives, citing cultural or traditional pressure, complaining about vested interest – these are all the sorts of things that fly thick and fast in discussions about theories like these. What is less common is the boring approach of slowly, slowly, slowly checking every relevant piece of data. It is not sexy. It does not make for good Buzzfeed articles. But if you want to know what is true and what is false when it comes to the theories that should only be formed after the ponderous work has been done, this is how you do it. The boring way. I am going to write several blog posts about the meaning of one Greek word, kephalē. Fun times.

Alright. Here we go.

Continue reading “Kephalē in the New Testament: A survey”

THOSE Bible passages about women

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Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62

I’m about to write about what the Bible says about men, women, and the church, and I do so with a sense of weariness at what might follow.

I have come to truly, truly hate the conversation among Christians about what the Bible says about the sexes and their roles (or lack of specific roles) in the church. I don’t say that about many conversations. People put their hand to the plow of biblical exegesis and then look back. Actually that’s possibly too kind – people put their hand to the plow of biblical exegesis as a gesture because they know that Christians are supposed to do biblical exegesis, but they are looking back the whole time. They are looking over their shoulder, away from the text and at the values they already hold. They are looking away from the text and at the world, fearful that they will look backwards or insufficiently progressive in the eyes of others. They cannot, at least as far as I can tell, make any distinction between “this is what I, a Christian person with my values, believe and is important to me” and “this is what this piece of text, external to me and written by somebody else, means.”

The Bible might convey things that you find offensive.

As an individual Christian person with your own beliefs, values and priorities, you must be willing and able – not just with your lips but with your actions – to reconcile yourself to the fact that when you are interpreting a piece of text, even a piece of text in the Bible, you might not agree with it. The Bible might convey things that you find offensive. You need to be willing and able to shut up, keep your voice out of it, and let the text speak even when it violently rides roughshod over what you would have said if you had been the author. Even when it sounds bigoted in your opinion. Even when it’s embarrassing. Shut up and listen. Continue reading “THOSE Bible passages about women”

With the spirit and with understanding: Tongues part 2

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This is part two of a series on “speaking in tongues.” In part one I looked at the idea that there’s an angelic language, and those who speak in “tongues” might be speaking in the language of angels. There really wasn’t any good evidence that St Paul thought that way. However, most of what he wrote about speaking in other languages appears in 1 Corinthians 14, so that’s where we’re going to look in this article. I’m going to walk through part of that chapter here. Some people think that St Paul described speaking in tongues as the gift of speaking in a spiritual language that we do not understand, as a way of building ourselves up spiritually. Those who think this way, I maintain, need to read Paul a bit more carefully. Continue reading “With the spirit and with understanding: Tongues part 2”

Jesus never said ANYTHING about X!

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Christians shouldn’t oppose X, because Jesus never said anything about X! Right?

With same-sex marriage being the topic of the day for a lot of “progressive Christians,” this is an argument I’ve seen lately. Since Jesus never said anything about same-sex marriage, Christians shouldn’t oppose it either. When I last saw it, I queried whether it was even true, but the same line was repeated back to me each time: Jesus said NOTHING about same-sex marriage (the capitals were used in the reply). Continue reading “Jesus never said ANYTHING about X!”

Why a Christian should accept a Divine Command Theory, part 1

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If you’re a Christian, you should hold a divine command theory of ethics, and I’m going to tell you why.

As I’ve indicated before, I hold a Divine Command Theory of ethics. That’s the view (or family of views) in which what is right or wrong is what God commands (or forbids). I hold it tentatively in that I don’t think I have anything personally invested in holding this view. I don’t have to hold this view and I really would give it up if I thought the objections to it were any good. As best I can tell, they are not. I’m going to commit the philosophical sin of peering into other people’s motives, but I think that most non-religious criticisms of divine command ethics are really motivated by the critics’ rejection of religious beliefs, and since a divine command theory involves religious beliefs, it must be false (in the critic’s view). Continue reading “Why a Christian should accept a Divine Command Theory, part 1”

The Tongues of Men and Angels: Tongues part 1

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“Speaking in tongues”? It may sound like gobbledygook, but some people think they are speaking in the language of angels, whatever that is. Are they right?

The last century (give or take a couple of decades) saw the birth of a new movement within Evangelicalism. The Pentecostal phenomenon is now ubiquitous in world Christianity, including within the mainstream churches (where it is more often called a “charismatic renewal,” with the term “Pentecostal” used to describe denominations marked by charismatic practice and theology). I have commented on some aspects of the movement before, in particular its belief in the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” I’m going to write a couple of articles on the distinctive Pentecostal / charismatic phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” regarded with suspicion by some within the wider church, with amusement by those outside, but widely viewed as evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit by insiders. It seems all the more appropriate that I should publish the first instalment in this series today, on Pentecost Sunday! Continue reading “The Tongues of Men and Angels: Tongues part 1”

How not to foster healthy Christian discussions about politics

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The Bible says not to be a selfish, hateful jerk. So you should be progressive, like me. Obvious, right? Well, no. Please stop. Sit down. We need to talk, because you’re hurting our ability to talk about politics in a constructive or loving way when you do that.

I don’t like the attempt to make Jesus into a gun-toting, welfare condemning, war-on-terror condoning hang-em-high Republican. That sort of cultural myopia is just cringeworthy. But if you’re going to condemn it, don’t go and do something just as cringeworthy by saying that to the extent that someone has an ounce of Christian virtue, they’re a left-wing liberal or progressive – just like you. Fundamentalism comes in more than one flavour.

Continue reading “How not to foster healthy Christian discussions about politics”