Help! The Earth Is Melting! (Or Is It?)

In 1616 the Catholic Church condemned the views of Copernicus for taking the radical scientific view that the Earth revolved around the sun. Against precise mathematical calculations and empirical data, the church based their dogmatic rejection on the “clear” reading of Scripture, theology, and experience. Case closed. The Catholic Church wasn’t alone in resisting the Copernican revolution. Luther is reported to have said in response to news about Copernicus’s new theory, “Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Within a couple generations the conservative, Bible-believing Christians—Catholic and Protestant—had to swallow their pride and admit that Copernicus—that rascal!—was right. And in 1999 the Pope even apologized . . . sort of.

Fast forward a century or so. In the midst of the liberal political and religious philosophies of English gentlemen like John Locke, a new concept of tolerationism, pluralism, and democracy began to gain support. The problem, of course, was the absolute, divinely-ordained rule of the King of England and other monarchs. The conservative theologians defended the divine right of the Monarchy and appealed to Scripture and theology to denounce the liberal philosophies churning in the colonies. The political conservatives found themselves on the side of the King—and of political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. “Liberals” like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington rejected the doctrine of divine monarchy in favor of a concept of divinely-endowed inalienable individual rights (which, on last check, still cannot be found in the Bible).

Within a couple generations, however, the liberal political philosophy of Locke and Jefferson became the fabric of American patriotism and were suddenly found to be in perfect agreement with the revelation of Scripture. In fact, those liberals are now regarded as our conservative Christian forefathers!

A hundred years later conservative Christians appealed to the Bible to battle a new threat to social and religious order—the movement among “liberal” New England Congregationalists toward emancipation of the slaves and abolition of slavery. The conservatives appealed to the sanctioning of slavery in Scripture (both in the Old and New Testaments) as proof that the progressive movement to free the slaves was unbiblical. Denominations split over the issue—Northern and Southern Baptists; Northern and Southern Methodists . . . both sides appealing to Scripture, but the “progressive” or “liberal” view sounded the radical cries for freedom.

Within a couple generations the conservatives began reading those passages in the Bible differently and the evils of modern slavery were finally seen for what they really were: evil.

A century later the civil rights movements in the United States were spearheaded by liberals—religious and social progressives who were attacked by conservatives who appealed to a diverse line of arguments to defend institutional and corporate bigotry and hate: the distinction between Jews and Gentiles . . . Old Testament laws regarding foreigners and women . . . “clear” passages of Scripture that forbade women to even speak in church . . . the curse of Ham . . . the biblical principle of social order and peace. All of these were part of the conservatives’ arsenal against liberals who wanted justice and equality. Sadly, conservative evangelical colleges and seminaries were slow to admit women and minorities into programs for theological training.

Within a couple generations the conservatives came to regret their policies and actions and the narrow, bigoted way they read God’s Word in favor of their own misguided agendas.

As you can see, conservative Christians may have a great track record of preserving and defending the fundamental marks of orthodox doctrine, but they have a disturbing history of missing the mark on many scientific and social issues. Not all, of course, but some. They were critical and wicked when they should have been supportive and righteous (as in the case of slavery and civil rights). Or they were foolish and extreme when they should have been prudent and wise (as in the case of Y2K or the “New Order” conspiracy theories about the end of the world).

This brings me to my point.

What issues today are conservative Christians going to regret in fifty years? Will our children or grandchildren shake their heads and cluck their tongues at some of the things we evangelicals took a firm stand against? Or will they be embarrassed about some of the things we enthusiastically promoted? Some things, of course, we must stand against (heresy and sin) and some things we must promote (sound theology and morality). These things have never changed and have always been under attack. These things we have always defended and never regretted. (Though, of course, we may reg0ret the unloving, un-Christlike ways in which we promoted and defended the truth.)

But what about, say, global warming? Seriously, what do most evangelical Christians and conservative Republicans really know about the science of global warming? What qualifies right-wing talk show hosts to objectively sift through scientific data and determine that it’s all bunk? And why do evangelical Christians allow big businesses, ritzy politics, and glorified DJs to lead them around by their noses?

I’m no scientist. I honestly can’t tell you one way or the other if Al Gore, the Democrats, and all those Scandinavian scientists are right about the world “melting.” But as a historian of Christianity, I can tell you one thing for sure: when it comes to issues other than classic orthodoxy and Christlike morality, we conservatives have a rich and interesting history of being found on the wrong side.

There’s nothing biblically, theologically, or rationally unsound about the idea of global warming. (Unless you say the whole earth is going to flood.) In fact, with my dim view of humanity, I’d almost expect us to be destroying ourselves and our world through greed, selfishness, laziness, ignorance, and apathy. Just take a look at people’s eating habits at fast food restaurants and tell me these same fallen humans wouldn’t melt the planet rather than give up their SUVs. Again, I have no idea if the world is warming. I hope not. But I’m not going to be one of those people my grandchildren point to and say, “Why was grandpa such a dumb Christian?”

Heliocentrism . . . divine monarchy . . . slavery . . . civil rights. Next time you dismiss the possibility of global warming as loony poppycock or liberal propaganda, run this list through your mind. Then use that same mind for the reason God gave it: to think. I don’t know if climate change scientists and global warming advocates are off their rockers. Maybe they are jumping to conclusions. Maybe not. Maybe they’re more right than wrong. Or maybe they’re off their rockers. But then again, Copernicus, Locke, Lincoln, and MLK, Jr. all appeared to be a little “off” in their own days, didn’t they? So, until the issues of global warming and man-made climate change is thoroughly explored, debated, and settled, I’m going to suspend judgment. And unless you’re God or a purely objective scientist who can perfectly and simultaneously process all the data and guarantee a right answer . . . you best shut up, too.

Why Seminary? (Why Not?)

SeminaryAs a seminary professor, I’m often asked why anybody would want or need graduate-level studies devoted to biblical, theological, historical, and practical training in preparation for Christian ministry (a.k.a. “seminary”). Most of the time, this question springs from a genuine curiosity or interest in seminary studies. But other times the inquiry betrays the underlying assumption that seminary is both unnecessary and unhelpful (or sometimes even dangerous).

Sometimes I hear people say things like, “Well, the disciples never went to seminary. They were just simple blue-collar tradesmen without any doctrinal or practical training. Therefore, seminary isn’t necessary.” This objection is pretty easy to dismiss. The disciples weren’t uneducated, self-trained, amateurs. Actually, they had three years of twenty-four/seven first-hand teaching and side-by-side experience in the presence of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. If you had that kind of training, I’d excuse you from seminary. In fact, I’d trade in my own Bible college degree, Master of Theology diploma, and Ph.D. for those three unaccredited years at the feet of the Savior.

Other times people say, “Mega-church Pastor So-and-So doesn’t have any seminary training, and he has a successful and fruitful ministry; therefore, seminary isn’t helpful.” I have two answers for this objection.  First, larger numbers and bigger budgets don’t mean the untrained celebrity pastor is “successful” in God’s eyes. All too often I see teachings and practices in the ministries of such untrained pastors that reveal an ignorance of central gospel truths, theological imbalance, or pragmatically-driven ministry models. Be careful how you define and identify “successful and fruitful ministry.” Second, just imagine how much more successful and fruitful a sufficiently-trained pastor might be with the same gifts!

Occasionally I have people who scoff at seminary, claiming to be self-taught Bible students who want or need no formal instruction. They have an underlying distrust and even animosity toward formal training—“Seminary is dangerous!” They believe biblical scholars and theologians have no advantage in reading, interpreting, and teaching God’s Word. Sometimes they think seminary training just complicates a person’s simple faith. Or occasionally they appeal to the Holy Spirit as their only teacher, usually appealing to 1 John 2:27. To this train of thought, I respond with the following six points. First, it’s usually only those who don’t have quality seminary training who are convinced they don’t need it. But how would they know whether they could benefit from something they’ve never had? Second, if “a pupil is not above his teacher” (Luke 6:40), then those who are self-taught will never rise above their own idiosyncrasies. Simply put, people who are self-taught haven’t had qualified teachers. Third, Paul encouraged the Corinthian believers, “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20).  And the author of Hebrews castigated his readers for being “dull of hearing,” remaining children in their knowledge, requiring somebody to re-teach them the basic principles of the faith when they should actually be teachers (Heb. 5:11–14). Clearly, he expected them to continue to learn and grow in their knowledge beyond infancy and simplicity. Fifth, Peter warned that those who are “untaught” (the Greek term literally means those who have not received formal teaching) were more likely to twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). The corollary to this is that those who have received formal training are less likely to be unstable in their doctrine and less likely to twist Scripture into a doctrinal hang-man’s noose. Finally, nobody should deny that the ultimate teacher of truth is the Holy Spirit. However, the Holy Spirit carries out His teaching ministry by gifting teachers in the church, whose responsibility it is to teach believers (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28–29; Gal. 6:6; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 4:13, 16; 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:2, 24; 4:2; Heb. 5:12; Jas. 3:1).

So, if there aren’t compelling arguments against seminary training, what positive benefits are gained through seminary? Why should those called to Christian ministry go through a graduate program of biblical, theological, historical, and practical training? Why would we spend all that time, money, and energy on a two-to-four (or more) year course of study? If we aren’t going to get a degree to make more money or to be inspired to live a better Christian life . . . why would we endure seminary studies? To answer the “Why Seminary?” question, let me use the analogy of home improvement.  A complete seminary program equips believers for faithful and fruitful ministry by: 1) cleaning out doctrinal junk, 2) rearranging doctrinal furniture, 3) remodeling doctrinal structures, and 4) firming up doctrinal foundations.

First, a quality seminary education will successfully clean out doctrinal junk. If you’ve ever watched Hoarders, you know that those with a hoarding disorder always need outside help. They have completely lost the ability to discern between what to keep versus what to throw . . . what’s healthy and beneficial versus what’s unhealthy and damaging. Only a person with an objective perspective who lives outside the home can see what the hoarder can’t—that they have accrued unnecessary, useless, worthless, and sometimes even unhealthy and dangerous junk. Similarly, seminary should challenge students’ “folk theology”—cliché, debunked, or exaggerated doctrines and practices that have little or no foundation in Scripture, history, or sometimes even orthodoxy. Good seminary training will open the doors and windows of a person’s beliefs and practices, providing opportunity to haul out the useless and damaging doctrinal junk, airing out errors and shedding light on oddities. Of course, like hoarders, it’s always up to the student to “clean house” when necessary.

Second, a seminary education will skillfully rearrange doctrinal furniture. Every home I’ve been in has a number of chairs, a table or two, a sofa or so, permanent and moveable fixtures, and other furnishings that make a house a home. But some homes are better coordinated and decorated than others. Picture the difference between a bachelor’s haunt and the White House . . . or the furniture section of a local thrift store and the mock-ups at Ikea . . . or the typical college dorm room and a suite at a Hilton. Yes, the haphazard furniture functions just fine, but the set-up lacks symmetry, proportion, and beauty. And amateur “homemakers” have a tendency to constantly rearrange things, striving to achieve an elusive balance . . . or at least keeping guests from constantly bumping into and tripping over everything. In the same way, most lay people who lack seminary training have all (or most) of the essential elements of a functional Christian theology, but they almost always lack a centering theological principle, a biblical narrative arc, or a sense of how the smaller and larger pieces of the doctrinal puzzle fit together as a whole. Quality seminary training provides a balanced, full-bodied arrangement of Bible, theology, history, practical ministry, and other essential elements. No vital element will be missing. No portion will be inappropriately exaggerated. No central elements will be shoved off to the side. By submitting to a complete degree program in a seminary context, graduates can rest assured that they have been exposed to a tried-and-true arrangement of the furnishings and fixtures of Christian theology.

Third, a quality seminary education will help students remodel doctrinal structures. This goes beyond merely superficial rearrangement and proportion. Sometimes seminarians need major deconstruction and reconstruction of their doctrinal convictions. Oftentimes students come from a theological ghetto that has minimized or exaggerated certain beliefs and practices. They have been baptized into one confession that never challenged them to think critically about their own tradition. Or they have been raised in one way of doing ministry and have never considered whether such a model is the most culturally appropriate or even biblically faithful way of doing things. In my own experience, Christians from a free church or low church background have no room in their doctrinal home for a biblically, theologically, and historically faithful doctrine and practice of the sacraments. Remodeling will make room. Christians from a liturgical or high church background often can’t imagine a time in history when the church didn’t have this or that particular form of worship . . . nor can they appreciate the liturgical diversity in the Christian tradition. Remodeling will make space for models of worship that were previously unfamiliar. Many pragmatically-driven Christians don’t have a completely accurate and healthy understanding of such fundamental doctrines as the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, or even the Gospel. Remodeling will repair the walls that protect and promote these vital truths. Some Christians with very narrow church backgrounds—especially those who have been to a Bible College—will have an opportunity to revisit some of the structures they received without question . . . or at least without a full awareness of the diverse perspectives within orthodox protestant evangelicalism. Quality seminary training provides a safe, cautious, constructive, and expertly-guided opportunity for substantial remodeling of one’s doctrinal structures prior to engaging in full time Christian ministry. This is vital, because once a person is in the thick of ministry, a faulty and flimsy structure can collapse under pressure and a radical or reactionary “gutting” of one’s theology can destroy a church. Seminary, not ministry, is the place to get your theological house in order.

Finally, a seminary education will firm up doctrinal and practical foundations. Seminary doesn’t answer all biblical and theological questions, but a balanced seminary curriculum will equip future leaders with the language skills, interpretational methods, theological framework, and historical backgrounds necessary for tackling these questions on their own. It moves the learner from the level of parroting canned, cliché responses to predictable questions to the level of thinking through new questions and providing compelling answers. It moves a Christian from the passive and unconscious acceptance of the core doctrines of the faith to a place where he or she can actively and consciously understand, articulate, and defend these doctrines. By firming up the foundations of the Christian faith, seminary will instill confidence in future pastors and ministers. Seminary training will shorten the preparation time needed to put together biblically faithful, theologically sound, and practically compelling sermons and lessons because most of the foundation work will have already been done. Just as a firm foundation will keep a building from teetering when the earth shakes and the storms blow in, a well-balanced seminary training will stabilize a person’s life of ministry, preventing him or her from swaying with every wind of doctrine or crumbling like those whose ministries are built on a foundation of shifting sands.

When it comes to the need for seminary-trained church leaders, I admit that my perspective is biased, prejudiced, and one-sided. After all, I’ve devoted my life to teaching future pastors, teachers, evangelists, missionaries, and lay leaders. But my perspective on the value of seminary training isn’t an effect of my position as a seminary professor; my dedication to teaching as a seminary professor is motivated by my conviction that seminary training is needed today more than ever. No meandering internet reading sprees can replace seminary’s planned, balanced, curricular approach. No narrow, in-church training program can compete with seminary’s full-bodied education by diverse pastor-scholars who are experts in their fields. And no amount of practical ministry experience can fill in the inevitable gaps in biblical, theological, and historical knowledge needed to face the questions and challenges bombarding believers in our post-modern, post-Christian world. Yes, I’m sold-out for seminary training. But I have good reasons to be.

So, then, why seminary?

Why not?

“Silence of the Bishop”: A Calm, Cautious, and Controlled Response to Critics of Christianity

Not long ago my family and I were strolling along a crowded street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we approached a group of very strange-looking Goths, my kids began to show signs of fear. My five-year-old instantly gripped my hand more tightly. My ten-year-old son drew close to me and started whispering about his worries. My twelve-year-old daughter grabbed my wife’s arm. By the looks on their faces, my kids thought we were in imminent peril.

In reality, there was no danger. We were entirely safe. My kids were just experiencing the effects of classic xenophobia. But they were just kids. And kids get scared of all kinds of things.

When we reached a quieter corner, I took my children aside and imparted some words of wisdom: “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

That non-event in Chinatown that caused my children such stress illustrates an important principle that applies not only to the family, but also to the family of God. In families, parents have experience and perspective kids can’t possibly have. They’re able to size up situations more quickly and thoroughly than children. That’s why parents need to set the tone for an appropriate response to merely perceived (as well as real) dangers.

The same is true for leaders in the Christian community in their responses to critics of Christianity.

 

Typical Responses to Critics of Christianity

In our era of new media—blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook—critics can quickly and easily make unsubstantiated or less-than-substantiated claims against the Bible or Jesus or the history of the faith. And many—both unbelievers and believers—take these claims seriously. When a perceived threat to the faith hits the public square . . . when another credentialed critic slams Jesus . . . or when some new scientific or historical discovery challenges the Bible, the pastors and teachers of the church often tune their responses to the same frequency as those critics who sounded the exaggerated alarm. Yet the Christian’s answers are often just as hasty (and just as irresponsible) as those of their non-Christian opponents. Too frequently they treat a cat’s hiss like a lion’s roar then respond with a tranquilizer gun that could take down a brontosaurus.

But what choice do Christian leaders have? How else should we respond to news that rattles the cage of a skittish Christian community?

The common approach today is to respond instantly to every criticism: Be ready to have an answer for every challenge. If somebody emails us for a quote, we need to be prepared to say something. If the news asks us for an interview, we must take that opportunity to set the record straight. If the cameras show up for a comment, we should have our makeup in hand. Why? Because Christians need to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:25). This is the apologetic approach of the modern media age. At one level the reasoning makes sense: if we don’t answer, people will think we don’t have an answer—not only our critics, but also those believers whose spiritual safety is our responsibility.

Now, I have no intention of criticizing this approach in its entirety. This kind of readiness and willingness to take opportunities to respond to critics has been part of the Christian faith for centuries. And Christian leaders ought to take advantage of opportunities to clear the air of controversy and calm the hearts of those with fragile faith. Yet my contention is that this is not the only Christian method of responding to critics . . . nor is it always the wisest.

In this essay, I want to suggest a different approach—less popular today, but no less Christian.

 

The Silence of the Bishop

Around the year A.D. 110, while under arrest and on his way to Rome to be fed to the lions, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a handful of letters to several churches in Asia Minor warning them of false teachers and urging them to faithfully contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Apparently, though, the bishops of Ephesus and Philadelphia were not known for a strategy of vocal debate with false teachers and critics. In fact, it seems that some in their churches were even disappointed by their bishops’ strategy of keeping silent instead of debating their critics in the public square.

Rather than chastising those pastors for failing to arm themselves for disputation and to meet their opponents at high noon for a public shoot-out, Ignatius actually praised their refusal to engage in doctrinal battle royal. To the church in Ephesus he wrote: “The more anyone observes that the bishop is silent, the more one should fear him” (Ign. Eph. 6.1). Similarly, concerning the bishop of the Philadelphian church, Ignatius wrote, “I am impressed by his forbearance; he accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking” (Ign. Phld. 1.1).

Scholars have gone back and forth on exactly what Ignatius meant by praising the silence of the bishop. However, by placing Ignatius’s commendations in their Hellenistic rhetorical context, Harry O. Maier concludes, “Ignatius’ praise of silent bishops is not an attempt to defend ineloquence, nor is it intended to urge circumspection in theological debate; still less is it evidence in the first instance of the cosmological theorizing of a speculative theologian. Rather, it represents an idiosyncratic treatment of a commonplace in ancient rhetorical art concerning the discipline of well-timed and temperate speech that accomplishes important tasks of promoting social harmony and civil good order” (Harry O. Maier, “The Politics of the Silent Bishop: Silence and Persuasion in Ignatius of Antioch,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS, 55.2 [2004]: 506). For Ignatius of Antioch, the silence of the bishop meant “the opposite of intemperate speech and as such connotes the well-deployed rhetorical ability of the virtuous who have trained themselves to use the right word at the right time to achieve the common good” (Maier, “Silent Bishop,” 506).

Ignatius and the wise bishops of Asia Minor avoided mimicking the empty chatter of their foolish detractors. The heretical false teachers were talkative, impulsive, loquacious babblers. In response, the wise Christian leader should be cool, temperate, self-controlled, thoughtful, moderate, and well-reasoned, keeping silent in the face of opponents’ ceaseless prattling . . . but speaking calmly, cautiously, and controlled at the proper time and in the proper tone (cf. Maier, “Silent Bishops,” 507–509).

 

Answering a Fool according to His Folly

In today’s culture of information overload, public debate, blog posts, podcasts, talking points, sound bites, tweets, and re-tweets, the ancient Christian virtue of remaining silent in the face of hurricanic hullabaloo seems more like a vice. Instead, when a scholar touts some new discovery as a challenge to the faith, many Christian leaders feel compelled to respond immediately . . . as if the discovery actually constituted a legitimate and dangerous challenge to the faith. But is this the wisest approach? Is meeting the unfounded alarm with equal panic a healthy path toward engaging the shrill detractors and critics in a hostile culture?

The book of Proverbs states two apparently contradictory perspectives on engaging the fool’s folly. The first: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Prov. 26:4). In other words, when we respond to fools in a way that stoops to their methods, reasoning, manner, and tone, we will appear to be just as foolish as the fool himself. Yet the very next line shines light from a different angle: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (26:5). Without lowering ourselves to the manner of a fool (26:4), wisdom often demands that we respond appropriately when such a response will likely lead to the successful censure of the wiseacre. These verses need to be understood in light of their intended results: when answering a fool will result in folly, we should remain silent (26:4). But when answering a fool appropriately will lead to a correction of the fool’s self-estimation, we should instruct him (26:5).

This kind of calm, cautious, and controlled response seems to be in view in Peter’s classic “apologetics” passage, where that apostle writes, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). This passage implies that the person is making a genuine inquiry concerning the devoted believer’s Christian hope; he’s not an arrogant scoffer engaged in a public smear campaign. The manner of response should be with the virtues of “gentleness and respect.” Similarly, Paul instructed Timothy to “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Rather than shying away from genuine teaching opportunities, the faithful pastor or teacher should patiently engage in instruction.

This virtuous approach to engagement in the public square requires that we speak when it’s appropriate to speak . . . and that we be silent when we should be silent. It means we refuse to match the shrill tone of excitable detractors. We evade escalating polemics. We avoid being dragged into flash-in-the-pan controversies that will burn themselves out. It means that we know when to open our mouths and gently but firmly answer the fool who thinks he’s wise in his own eyes . . . and when to shake the dust off our feet, refuse to give holy things to the dogs, and avoid casting pearls to pigs (Matt. 7:6; 10:14).

When we look to the Lord Jesus for examples of responding to questioners and critics, we find that Christ displayed unpredictable and varied approaches, too. If He perceived that the challenges were inspired by wicked or disingenuous motives, He would simply refuse to answer them (Matt. 21:24; John 8:3–9). When the disciples asked an honest (though confused) question about His second coming and the destruction of Jerusalem, He not only answered their own question, but He also addressed bigger issues that should have concerned them (Matt. 24:1–51). Sometimes Jesus answered simple, honest questions with simple, straightforward responses (Mark 12:29–31; John 4:19–24). At other times He simply remained silent (Matt. 26:63; John 18:9). Overall, Jesus exemplified the kind of calm, cautious, and controlled engagement with questioners and critics we might expect from the One Who is Wisdom incarnate.

 

Accomplishing More . . . through Silence?

After that brief encounter with a group of Goths in Chinatown, I told my children, “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

In our age of religious, social, political, and cultural attacks on the Christian faith, Christian leaders can’t afford to get seduced into responding to constant potshots. As Ignatius of Antioch taught us, there’s something virtuous about the calm, collected, “silence of the bishop” in the midst of a barrage of enemy fire. There’s something to be said about a Christian leader’s cool approach to critics’ outrageous claims and scholars irresponsible assertions—an approach that rises above the fray, shrugs off the flack, and communicates to younger believers that ultimately no weapon formed against us will prosper (Isa. 54:17).

However, when we leaders behave like every volley in the so-called “culture war” needs to be met with an immediate and decisive retaliation, we may be inadvertently communicating to our people that we’re in constant danger of imminent decimation. Rank and file Christians might begin to believe that if we don’t have an instant answer to every foolish attack on the ancient faith, then the faith itself will be in danger of losing.

Of course, there will always be a contingent of Christian apologists and scholars out there engaged in a failed modernist exercise of “understanding seeking faith.” Deep down they hide their belief that some terrible misunderstanding, unanticipated piece of damning evidence, or cleverly articulated argument could potentially topple the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

However, in a classic Christian approach of “faith seeking understanding,” whether criticisms come in drizzles or downpours, trickles or typhoons, we will not be shaken (Ps. 62:2). To some our unwillingness to answer the fool according to his folly will look like an inability to put the scoffer in his place. But I believe the calm, cautious, and controlled Christian leader is a much greater boon to the Body of Christ than the half-cocked “hero” who is always itching to jump into the fray. I agree with the words of Ignatius of Antioch, that often the silent bishop “accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking” (Ign. Phld. 1.1).

“Use Things the Way They’re Meant to Be Used”: Beyond Regs and Norms

I’m hardly the model parent. I have no special training or expertise. I have no success stories (my oldest is just 13). And when I’m coping with my three kids’ day-to-day, hit-and-miss behavior, the fruit of the Spirit often gets juiced. However, over the years I’ve crafted a few “standing orders” that have helped maintain some modicum of control in my family. One of these is pretty simple but all-important in the Svigel household: “Use things the way they’re meant to be used.”

When followed, this rule can lessen the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Here’s how it works: Imagine your six-year-old grabs a five gallon bucket, turns it over, and tries to use it as a stepping stool to reach a bicycle helmet hanging in the garage. Suddenly the rule kicks in: use things the way they were meant to be used. Tragedy avoided. Or your ten-year-old can’t find his pocket knife to whittle bark from a branch. Instead, he grabs a pair of scissors, opens it up as wide as it will go, and starts shaving the twig with one blade: use things the way they are meant to be used.

Let me suggest that this rule of thumb can be applied when making ministry decisions, too. In fact, taking into consideration the intended purposes expressed in the Bible adds another dimension to the age-old debate between the “regulative principle” and the “normative principle.”

 

Regulatives vs. Normatives

For a long time Protestants have debated proper worship from two perspectives: those who adhere to the regulative principle (“Regs”) argue that whatever is not expressly commanded in Scripture is to be prohibited in worship and order. Those who hold to the normative principle (“Norms”) argue that whatever is not prohibited by Scripture is permissible in worship and order.

For example, some proponents of the regulative principle reject the use of musical instruments in worship because the New Testament neither prescribes nor mentions their use. On the other hand, followers of the normative principle would use a growing variety of musical instruments for worship because nothing in the New Testament expressly forbids their use. As another example, Regs tend to practice believer’s baptism exclusively, as this is the practice explicitly seen in the New Testament. Norms may practice infant baptism because nothing in the New Testament clearly prohibits it.

Needless to say, many evangelical churches follow a very broad normative principle, feeling the freedom to employ almost anything in their worship and order as long as it doesn’t violate a clear teaching of Scripture. Usually, then, a strong pragmatic principle tends to steer decisions. So, as an extreme example, if the Bible doesn’t clearly forbid driving motorcycles up and down the aisles and around the stage in order to illustrate the power of the Holy Spirit, then a church is free to ride motorcycles throughout the worship center if it will communicate the point in a memorable (read: entertaining) way. Or, to use a less extreme example, because the New Testament doesn’t clearly prohibit the use of artwork in the sanctuary, we are free to use art, images, multi-media presentations, plays, skits, movies, smoke, lightshows, dance, and other artistic expressions to communicate our message in memorable (!) ways.

Now, both the regulative and normative principles address matters that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (though they might be reasonably deduced from Scripture). Regs forbid anything not clearly affirmed; Norms allows things not clearly rejected. Yet what about the use of practices explicitly mentioned in Scripture in ways that are neither clearly condoned nor explicitly condemned? That is, the intended uses of some things are clearly articulated in Scripture, leaving us with clear direction on how they are to be employed, things like prayer, worship, leadership, money, Scripture, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The question then becomes: if Scripture teaches us clearly that Practice X is to be used for Purpose Y, is it also okay for us to use X for purpose Z? Let me give two examples.

 

Using the Bible the Way It’s Meant to Be Used

Scripture itself clearly sets forth the Bible’s intended uses. Scriptures point us to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27; John 5:39; Acts 8:35; 18:28; Rom. 1:2; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). It’s to be read publically in church for instruction (1 Tim. 4:13). It also contains the wisdom of God needed to walk in righteousness (Ps. 119:105). In fact, its two main purposes can be summed up by 2 Timothy 3:15–17—“The sacred writings . . . are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” So really the purpose of Scripture is twofold: 1) to point us to a saving knowledge of the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15); and 2) to teach us how to live as children of God (3:16–17). In other words, the explicit purpose of Scripture is to regulate our faith and practice.

But what about other uses of the Bible beyond these two?

Is it right to use the Bible as a guide for dieting—WWJE (What Would Jesus Eat)? Is it okay to also use the Bible as a science textbook? A management manual? A guide for “biblical economics”? A pocketbook for political science? A source of frameable quotes to hang in our bathrooms? Is it right for us to publish special interest study Bibles that focus on only one particular topic in Scripture (whether end times, animals, or apologetics) . . . or to package the presentation for one particular audience (whether moms, dads, leaders, or specific ethnic groups)? If the Bible was meant to point us to Jesus, how badly do we err when we use it to point to other things . . . or to point to us? If the Bible was written to equip believers for every good work, do we err when we use it to justify political opinions, glean dietary advice, or formulate scientific theories?

In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Bible the way it’s meant to be used?

 

Using the Lord’s Supper the Way It’s Meant to Be Used

Most evangelical churches know they’re supposed to observe the Lord’s Supper (also called “communion,” “the Lord’s Table,” or “the Eucharist”). And most know that the New Testament spells out clear purposes, confirmed by the early church’s practice. The Lord’s Supper is meant to reflect the “one body” of the gathered church (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:20) rather than a family’s normal meal at home (1 Cor. 11:22, 34). Around the Table, Christ’s disciples gather to dine with the Lord, commemorating His saving death and resurrection and anticipating His personal return (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Practiced properly, this community covenant meal provides spiritual blessing and strengthens faith (1 Cor. 10:16). Both the New Testament and early church confirm that the churches observed the Lord’s Supper every Sunday as part of the weekly gathered worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:18–20; see my essay, “Should We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper Every Sunday in Church?”).

Even though we have a sufficient picture of the intended purpose of the Lord’s Supper, what about other uses of the observance of the meal besides these?

Is it right for us to observe the Lord’s Supper at home in our families? On camping trips with friends? Should it be used as an evangelistic tool, presenting the gospel through the meal and asking unbelievers to partake as their first act of faith? Should its intended weekly observance be suspended in favor of an annual feast? What about partaking of the Lord’s Supper as part of our individual, private prayer time and devotion? Or during an “online” service with whatever elements we have at hand—bread and juice, pizza and Coke . . . donuts and coffee? How far from its intended purpose dare we take the Lord’s Supper before we end up out of bounds? If Communion is intended to be an act of covenant renewal among the gathered church as a commemoration of the suffering and death of Christ during corporate worship, do we err when we observe it in ways not intended by the Lord and practiced by His apostles?

In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Lord’s Supper the way it’s meant to be used?

 

Use Things the Way They’re Meant to Be Used

The constant tension and occasional conflict between proponents of the regulative principle and adherents of the normative principle will probably endure until the end of the age. Regs forbid things not clearly affirmed in or reasonably deduced from Scripture. Norms allows things not clearly rejected in Scripture. But in the midst of this legitimate debate, we sometimes fold in things for which the Scriptures are very clear regarding their purpose and function. This raises an important question that neither the Regs nor Norms directly address. If the Bible explicitly tells us the way things are meant to be used, on what basis and by what authority do we use them in ways that were unintended?

Of course, this question, too, deserves a fair-minded debate. What are the limits of liturgical freedom beyond the prescribed functions in the New Testament before we’re guilty of offering strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10:1)? Are we not, then, better off sticking close to the clearly-articulated purposes and intensions of the Bible rather than cleverly, creatively, and perhaps dangerously and rebelliously making our own uses for them?

Maybe we ought to apply my household rule to better manage the household of faith: use things the way they’re meant to be used. I know in my own family this principle makes sense. It prevents things from being broken. It gets things done more efficiently. And it also keeps people safe. Perhaps some of our churches and believers have suffered unintended damage because we have failed to follow a reasonable rule of thumb: use things the way they’re meant to be used.

Railroading the Resurrection: Why Am I Persuaded… but Not My Uncle?

I believe in the miraculous bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth about thirty-six hours after he genuinely died on a Roman cross. My uncle? Not so much. But why not? Why do I see the constellation of evidences pointing to the resurrection, but he sees just a bunch of random points of flickering lights?

Here’s the problem. Some read the Gospel accounts in the New Testament and see them as facets of a unified whole; others read the same documents and see mutually exclusive accounts that contradict each other. Some think through the various historical arguments for the resurrection and find themselves persuaded that the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth best explains all of the evidence; others hear the same arguments and conclude that they are simply under-determinative given the high burden of proof. So, what’s the problem? Why is there such an impasse when it comes to the evaluation of the exact same evidence? Why do I approach the evidence and arguments with the eyes of belief, while others approach the same evidence and arguments with the eyes of disbelief?

Well, let me tell you what is not the reason. It’s not that one scholar has more facts than the other. We’re all dealing with the same pieces of information. Nor is it simply that one scholar is smarter than the other. Nor is it that one scholar went to a better school than the other. Or is of a more noble character than the other. Some of these things may very well be true, but they are merely red herrings when it comes to discovering the root cause of why one person concludes that Jesus Christ rose from the dead while another concludes the exact opposite.

So, if it isn’t a simple matter of quantity of facts or quality of thinkers, what is it?

I sometimes hear it said that a person’s interpretation of the facts of history and historical documents affects whether one will accept or reject the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, this is partly true. If a person rejects out of hand the possibility of supernatural intrusions in historical events, he or she will interpret all historical events as having natural explanations. Even if a person is open to the possibility of supernatural explanations but holds such events according to an exceptionally high burden of proof, his or her historical method will involve ruling out all possible natural explanations before seriously considering the supernatural. Or if a person approaches any historical text with a cautious distrust or suspicion, he or she will tend toward disbelieving the things that appear to most people to be unbelievable or unexpected. So, it’s quite true that how a person interprets history and historical documents will certainly affect whether one will accept the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as an historical event.

On the other hand, it’s also true that one’s acceptance (or rejection) of Jesus’s resurrection affects how one interprets history and historical documents. If a person believes the resurrection of Jesus to have taken place, he or she will read the accounts of the resurrection tending to believe them. Also, the inevitable historical effects of the resurrection will be approached with openness—the reality of a true (versus fictitious) version of Jesus’s person and work; the authority of genuine eye-witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection and post-resurrection words and deeds; the establishment of an authentic (versus inauthentic) community of disciples; the appointment of a mission to preach throughout the world; and the sending of the Holy Spirit by the resurrected and ascended Messiah.

In other words, the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead is not as simple as analyzing historical evidence and coming to logical conclusions, as though we were working with measurements that we simply plug into an objective equation. The talking heads on PBS or the History Channel make is sound just that simple. They make it appear that if a person would set aside their simple-minded naïveté and objectively examine the bare facts, he or she would inevitably conclude that Jesus was just a dead man whose memory became the victim of old fashioned myth-making. However, these same scholars are themselves powered by a complex set of presuppositions (“their own rules of the game”) that lead the evidence like steel rails guiding an engine down the tracks toward its inevitable destination. It makes no difference whether the train has two cars or twenty—ten pieces of evidence or a hundred. The route of the train is limited to the historian’s guiding principles and presuppositions. (Of course, they will argue that these rails are reasonable, demonstrable, and necessary guides to keep historical inquiry from derailing and causing disaster.)

Before you think I’m simply stacking the deck against unbelievers, please note well: the same is true for the Christian interpreters. Christian historians are not less intelligent, less educated, or less privy to all the facts. Instead, they engage the facts with a different set of rules. Their worldview includes at least the possibility of miraculous intrusions by a living God. They are generally more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to ancient testimonies, regarding them as “innocent of falsehood until proven guilty” rather than “guilty of fabrication until proven innocent.” Their rails include God’s revelation in and through history and an understanding of history that includes creation, deterioration, redemption, and restoration, within which narrative the resurrection of Jesus plays a central role. So, the believing historian is also guided by rails that carry the same cargo of facts in a different direction. And the believing historian will also say that these rails are necessary guides to keep historical inquiry from derailing and causing disaster.

Of course, there are evidences and arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. And there is room for discussion, debate, persuasion, and conviction regarding the strength or weaknesses of these evidences. My point, however, is that there are unseen forces at work in the process of critical evaluation that play a major role in where the evidence is actually led.