The name says it all!
Context matters. The name of this blog, Christians in Context, is intentionally ambiguous. You could take it any number of different ways – but one of the ways it can be taken is that we are to be Christians who study Scripture with a desire to be ever aware of the context of the text in relation to it’s surrounding verses, chapters, books, and the over-arching meta-narrative of Scripture as a whole.
I felt that Neal’s verses [in Part 3 of the conversation], as they were lifted out of context, should not be the subject of my primary response. Instead I focused on the character of God. However, I felt that I should deal with the specific texts he used to make his point and demonstrate the importance of looking at the text in context, and not verses in isolation. With that in mind, I wrote a follow-up post to demonstrate the textual fallacy of using verses out of context to illustrate a point.
A good friend visited me this week and asked me if I thought the “context argument” would carry any weight with the opposing viewpoint. On one hand, no. I don’t think it will because I have seen atheistic authors throw context under the bus claiming it is a cheap technique used by Christian apologists. On the other hand, how can they not acknowledge it?
Using a verse out of context to prove a point that the text as a whole does not affirm is a logical fallacy (Abstraction or Accent, more specifically Contextomy) used to build a Straw Man. The God that Neal was attacking simply does not exist! The combination of verses he used paint a picture that is not a fair representation of what the text actually illustrates when read as a whole.
If I take a beloved figure such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and quote a snippet of one of his speeches out of context, I can make it appear as though he was a hypocrite—or worse. Consider this hypothetical example:
Martin Luther King was not an advocate for civil rights at all! In fact, he is on the record as saying, “the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content.” He was opposed to civil disobedience and resistance, and felt as though the status quo was just fine. Now that they had blown off some steam, they will now be content and peaceful with things as they are.
Ludicrous! But MLK did say what is quoted above. But in context, we see his true meaning:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. (emphasis added)
We see this everywhere, particularly during an election cycle. Misrepresentation is a tactic used to construct Straw Men, but the opposition is always quick to bring up the context issue to set the record straight. That is, until they choose to construct their own Straw Man. At that point, context is a cop-out.
Bottom line, context matters. Creating a characterization from textual snippets that don’t fairly represent the whole is a tactic that belittles and demeans the conversation, whether that be in the political or religious arenas. Let’s engage in meaningful and honest conversation and debate, leaving cheap tricks behind us. This doesn’t just apply to me and Neal as we have our discussion over the next several weeks, but to all of us. The same thing happens within our own family. Calvinists misrepresent Arminians, Orthodox Christians misrepresent Free Church Evangelicals, ad nauseum. If we believe in the validity and strength of our position, we can represent it and the opposing view fairly. May Colossians 3:14 characterize our communication with one another, and may we represent Christ to the unbelieving world by conducting ourselves in a manner that is reminiscent of Him and gives the Father glory.Read More
I recently wrapped up a four week series teaching for the Master’s Class at Fellowship Bible Church. It was a blessing to be with those folks while Kevin was out of town. On the first week I opened the class with a brief devotional from Psalm 40:1-10. At the time when I shared that devotional, I was empathizing with the psalmist as he wallowed in that miry bog. Psalm 40 is a beautiful hymn sung by one who “waited patiently for the Lord” to deliver.
I was empathizing with the Psalmist because on that morning my family was looking at an uncertain future. In less than two weeks we had to move out of our home of the last four years. The move out was certain; where we were going was not. At that point we had no idea where we would live after June 1st. One of the challenges in finding a place to live was our employment situation. The family that Lisa had been nannying for moved the last week of May, so that income was gone. Although I was actively looking for full-time employment and had some irons in the fire, nothing had yet transpired. It’s difficult to find a landlord willing to work with a family with nominal income and uncertain prospects.
To add to the stress, I had been accepted into the doctoral programs at both the University of St. Andrews and Dallas Theological Seminary. Neither program is funded, and my ability to pay for either program was nil. In short, we were two weeks away from being homeless, unemployed, and unable to move on to the next step. Things felt bleak indeed.
When I shared the Psalm with the class, I mentioned none of the above. From the devotional, I launched into my teaching. One of the key points that I brought out from the Psalm that morning was the psalmist’s reaction to his deliverance. In Ps 40:9-10 we see that the psalmist was not silent. He publicly praised the Lord for what the Lord had done. I exhorted the class to not rob God of the glory due to Him. When God provides, when God delivers, when God demonstrates His faithfulness, we are to proclaim what He has done!
I had no idea what God would do, or if He would do anything. My faith in Him is not dependent upon Him doing what I feel like He should do. If we ended up homeless and no work opened up, God would still be God, and God would still be good. His goodness is not dependent upon my skewed and selfish expectations. The silence of God is not the absence of God nor is it an argument for His non-being. Sometimes the silence of God is exactly what we need, as painful as that might be.
Two days after our scheduled homelessness, I had the opportunity to stand before that same class and do what the psalmist had done. I announced to the class what God had done. In the space of two weeks we went from being without a home, job, or educational future to having a home, a job, and a fully-funded educational future! To God alone be the glory!
Through my good friend and mentor, Dr. P., we were put in contact with the owner of a house in Garland who is serving as a missionary in Hong Kong. The house he owns met and exceeded all of our needs. The house was vacated the day before we needed to move, so we were able to drive our moving truck straight from our apartment to our new home. (There is more to this story that I will share in a later post.)
Earlier that week, I was offered a full-time position at the seminary. And not just any position. For the past four years I had served as a Howard Hendricks Leadership Fellow with the Department of Spiritual Formation at DTS. I loved every minute of it. The position I was offered (and that I subsequently accepted) was that of Associate Director of the Department of Spiritual Formation and Leadership. God provided me not merely with a job that would provide an income and benefits. God provided me with a ministry about which I am passionate, working with men and women I know and love, and serving the institution that has served me so well.
What about that uncertain academic future? One of the benefits of this new position at the seminary is a tuition benefit. My Ph.D. (with the exception of the required books) has become fully funded! This abundant and merciful provision is not what makes God good. If this were all to be taken away tomorrow, He would still be God, and he would still be good. Again – To God alone be the glory!
“I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord. I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”
Neal, your post today necessitates two responses. This one, and one that deals specifically with the texts you bring up in your post to illustrate a cruel and capricious deity. This response will deal specifically with misunderstandings related to God’s love. At the end of the post will be a link to the entry dealing with the specific biblical texts you brought forward.
1 John 4:8 is often twisted to say many things about God, based on an incomplete and fluffy understanding of what His love actually is. It is important to keep reading (always) so that 1 John 4:10 shines a light on the preceding verses. When I say that God is love, I am keeping in mind that He is also good. He is also mercy. And justice. And wrath. The character of God is such that He is all of these things extended to perfection.
So what does that have to do with this conversation? The character of God cannot be compromised. His love cannot be extended at the expense of justice, nor can wrath be extended at the expense of mercy. Never is one attribute exercised independently of the others. The above verses are a good illustration of this. God’s perfect love extended to us through the act of redemption required that His perfect justice be satisfied. This explains the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and the ultimate complete satisfaction obtained through the work of Christ.
To emphasize one aspect of the divine nature above the others as a governing attribute (i.e. God’s love is supreme, and all other attributes are to be governed by it) is to pervert one’s understanding of God. No particular attribute is supreme. Suggesting otherwise requires rejecting certain truths about God. So, for instance, His love never invalidates His justice; rather, His love always satisfies His justice.
Love without justice isn’t love at all—it’s favoritism or partiality. This isn’t a conversation about what is “fair.” Consider the following:
This hardly seems fair, does it? The first man may look at the second with bitter resentment. Or, if he has affection for the second, he may be thankful that the other man received a lighter penalty. The second man may look at the first and experience guilt that he got off easy. But that guilt may be assuaged by the reality that the first man did receive what he deserved.
I read somewhere that in a society where justice exists without mercy we have a brutal self-righteousness. On the other extreme, a society governed by mercy at the expense of justice leads to lawlessness.
When faced with the holiness of God, the reality of Romans 3:23 is staggering. The just sentence for the sinfulness of man is death. God’s justice cannot be compromised for the sake of love, and we cannot call God evil for requiring that the penalty be paid. That is the beauty of the Biblical story of redemption and recreation—He provided a way for His perfect justice to be satisfied so that we might be the recipients of His perfect love.
With that in the background, a brief and incomplete discussion of the texts you brought forward can be found here.Read More
Wow, Neal. A lot of stuff in that post. I hardly know where to start! You did a quick cruise through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. As I read your thoughts, I see you wrestling with apparent inconsistencies in the text, discord in the overall message, problems with the idea of Hell, and the actual state of the human condition. All of these deserve a response, but I think it best to just start with one and we can go back to the others as our conversation continues.[1. In particular I want to deal with how the concept of Hell is not contradictory to the message of the Bible. But before I can do that, I need to deal with the issue of the nature of man you addressed in your post.]
You said, “we’re not evil. … I can’t accept the premise that I’m a sinner in need of sacrificial grace because I know by experience that … isn’t true. You’re not either.” I’m in a little bit of a tight spot here, because I can’t use the Bible to defend my positions in this conversation, at least not exclusively, as you are rejecting any authority it may have.[2. That might be a great discussion down the road—why do I consider the Bible reliable?] But I’ll do the best I can. To start, I disagree with your statement I quoted above. When I consider who I am by nature, and who God is, the conclusion is inescapable. There is a gulf there. He is wholly righteous. Indeed, he is by definition the highest good – goodness itself.
A common misunderstanding occurs when theologians toss out terms like total depravity. “I’m not totally depraved!” We say indignantly, “I do lots of good things!” The point of total depravity is not that we are totally depraved. The bible acknowledges that unbelievers can do “good” things. See Deut. 5:28; Matt 7:11; Luke 6:33; and Rom. 5:7. [4. If my plugins are working right, you should be able to read those passages by mousing over them.] But note that I put the word good in quotes. Why? Because the Bible also acknowledges that apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit, we cannot truly do good things or be rightly described as good. (Gen. 6:5; Jer. 13:23; Mark 10:18; Rom. 7:18) Total depravity is not saying that we are as bad as we could possibly be. Rather, it affirms that there is not a part of us that is not corrupt or corrupting.
You said that you “know by experience that [my being evil] isn’t true. You’re not either.” Neal, my experience tells me something quite different. I need to only look to the past to see the evidence that I am, when left to my own devices, evil. And I don’t have to look back to my pre-conversion days to see that. I still often choose to operate in that capacity to do evil despite the fact that because of the regenerating work of the Spirit in my life I am no longer a slave to that desire.
So let’s look at what you stated: “we want to be good and do good. We work very hard to be good and do good.” I agree that for many, this is true! But what you said immediately before that is also true, “we may do sucky, mean things from time to time.” All of us do evil things, despite the desire many of us have to not do them. Why? Why is it such a universal constant that all of us do “sucky, mean things” at some point in our lives, usually repeatedly? My answer, and the answer of the Bible is that apart from a work of God, we have no choice but to do so. Augustine said that ever since the Fall, man possesses the ability to sin [5. posse peccare] and does not possess the ability not to sin.[6. non posse non peccare] It is only after we have been regenerated that we possess the ability to sin (still) and now the ability not to sin.[7. posse non peccare]
My experience, the testimony of the Bible, and the witness of all human history demonstrate this. Evil (sin) characterizes the human race throughout history with only one exception—Jesus Christ.Read More
I have been a fan of the tech blog GeekBrief.tv since its inception in 2005. When I read that Luria (Cali Lewis) and her husband/producer/writer Neal Campbell were getting a divorce, I felt as though this was something happening to old friends. I had been watching their program for years, and felt as though I knew them. (I think there is something there about the power of technology and media, but that’s a blog post for another day…) As someone who has gone through the pain of divorce, I felt compelled to reach out to Neal. I sent him an email meant to encourage, assuring him that he wasn’t alone, and offering to meet with him over coffee to talk if he ever felt the need. I never thought in a million years that he would respond—but he did.
That was the start of something that has turned into a friendship that continues to this day. When Neal and I first met, he was wrecked (understandably) by what was happening in his life and marriage. In the midst of this pain he began to experience a crisis of faith (read the details in Neal’s introduction). Over two years later, Neal has gone from the point of returning to the faith of his youth to now rejecting the story of Christianity. As he said in a recent Facebook update, “Breaking up with Jesus is hard to do. It’s such an embedded part of the southern take on life. However, shift happens!”
My story is very different. Where Neal grew up in the faith and rejected it as an adult, I grew up cynical about Christianity yet came to faith as an adult. This fascinates Neal—How is it that as he became an adult he recognized that “a relationship with God [is] a delusion,” yet I as an adult (shaped in the forge of empirical rationality) came to recognize that a relationship with God through Christ is the only hope any of us actually has? In Neal’s introduction he speaks of how reading the book of Job began to open his eyes to the ridiculousness of the Biblical message. Interestingly, it is through the story of Job that I find the greatest comfort in the midst of suffering. (I preached on this recently. If you’re interested in a brief exposition as to how I find comfort in Job, you can watch/download the message here.)
Thus begins our conversation. Over the next several weeks and months, Neal and I will be talking about this shift on our respective blogs. Today we have both posted our introductions to this conversation. Going forward Neal and I will be posting regularly, interacting with the other’s blogs. The neat thing about this conversation is that Neal and I are friends; we disagree, but we don’t argue. This is a fundamental issue, indeed, I would say the fundamental issue. If we simply verbally beat each other up, our friendship would be scarred, and this conversation would be pointless. I know Neal well enough to know that this will be a respectful, challenging, and thoughtful exploration of why we believe what we believe. We look forward to doing these blog posts in the public square and hope that you will join us with your respectful and thoughtful emails and comments.
And so it begins!Read More
In my job at the seminary I often hear a common complaint from students who are nearing the end of their studies. These men and women who have dedicated countless hours to the study of God and His word suffer from a common ailment—dryness in prayer. This problem is particularly pernicious in that by its very presence, it exacerbates the ailment. I know I have experienced this. The lack of desire to pray intensifies with the need to pray. Vicious.
John of the Cross (AD 1542–1591) was familiar with this pattern. In his Degrees of Perfection he writes, “Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.” If anything, our spiritual dryness and lack of desire to prayer should serve as a catalyst that drives us to our very knees! These seminary students suffering from this ailment have often relegated the Word of God to a textbook and God Himself into a scientific specimen to be studied. This was never their intention, but slowly and insidiously, it became their reality. We need to pay attention to the condition of our heart, guarding it from the cancer of complacency and the disease of disinterest.
The Bible is no mere textbook, nor is our God a cadaver upon the ivory table of academia, despite Nietzsche’s insinuations. The first is the divine revelation of the latter, both drawing us into a living, active, and transformative relationship. Prayer is an essential component of our response to that reality. When we are disinterested in prayer, we should take the admonition from John of the Cross seriously. It is in those moments of spiritual dryness that our need for the revitalization of prayer is all the more essential. For Aquinas, prayer was a time of contemplation through which our will is brought into alignment with God. Should that not be our heart? If prayer has become an area of neglect in your life join me in echoing the below words of Samuel Johnson as he recommits himself to the discipline of prayer:
O Lord, in whose hands are life and death, by whose power I am sustained, and by whose mercy I am spared, look down upon me with pity. Forgive me that I have until now so much neglected the duty which Thou has assigned to me, and suffered the days and hours of which I must give account to pass away without any endeavor to accomplish Thy will. Make me to remember, O God, that eery day is Thy gift, and ought to be used according to Thy command. Grant me, therefore, so to repent of my negligence, that I may obtain mercy from Thee, and pass the time which Thou shalt yet allow me in diligent performance of Thy commands, through Jesus Christ. Amen. ~ Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)