Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A new kind of Liberalism

A review of ‘A new kind of Christianity’ by Brian McLaren
By Dr Christopher Peppler
Brian McLaren is an influential Post Modern thinker in Christian circles.  For that reason alone, his latest book A New Kind of Christianity, deserves probing and analysis for its impact on biblical truth and the centrality of Jesus to his arguments.

Brian McLaren has recently published his most definitive work to date in which he comes closer than ever before to clearly stating what he believes.  The book is subtitled, ‘Ten questions that are transforming the faith’ and the book is structured around two sets of five of these questions. 
He doesn’t state that the design is intended to contrast with the Ten Commandments, but the connection seems obvious – ten commandments on two tablets versus ten questions in two ‘books’. Brian states that the first book contains the ‘profound and critical questions that are being raised by followers of Christ around the world.’ (Pg. xi). The second set of five are, according to Brian, ‘less profound or theologically radical’ (Pg. xi) and are more practical in nature. I will deal with each of the ten questions, but first a couple of general comments.

Firstly, most of the questions are valid topics of interest. Today’s generation might well be asking them in their own way, yet they are questions every generation has posed in some form or other. However, there is presumption in the subtitle - I don’t think that the answers given, or the way the quest is being conducted, is in fact transforming the church. The vast majority of church theologians and leaders alive today have asked these questions but their answers have yielded, in the main, what we refer to as evangelical orthodoxy and not a new kind of Christianity.

Secondly, Brian contends that most people view the Bible, and God’s overarching plan, through one particular pair of theological spectacles. I don’t think that this is true on the scale he proposes. In any event, we all, including Brian, look through one or other set of ‘spectacles’. He also claims that most people read backwards from the church theologians back to the scriptures, and again I think that this is a wrong assumption. His contention is that we are seeing the Bible through the eyes of others and not through the illumination given by the Spirit. This underlying dichotomy sets up an unhelpful tension. As a critic, I am automatically positioned as one who is reading through out-dated and distorting spectacles. This makes it hard to interact with Brian’s observations without being written off as theologically myopic. Notwithstanding, I will attempt as fair a response as I can to Brian’s ten contentions.

Question One: What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?

Brian’s answer to this question influences his responses to all the other questions. He contends that the majority of today’s Christians have bought into a story line that has been imposed upon the scripture and that is in fact alien to it. He calls this aberration the Greco-Roman narrative, a product, so he says, of Plato’s and the Roman Empire’s philosophy. He makes no real attempt to support his contentions from either history or the writings of the early Greek philosopher. Briefly, this narrative reads as follows: God created man, man sinned and fell, God saves a few, and the rest are doomed to an eternity of conscious torment. Understandably, he writes, ‘How in the world, how in God’s name, could anyone everthink this is the narrative of the Bible?’ (Pg. 48)Well I, and all the theologians I know, don’t think that this is the Meta Narrative of the Bible, and so any attempt by Brian to invalidate this narrative is, for me, simply a straw-man argument.

Brian answers his lamenting question by proposing that we have bought into this false narrative because we read it backwards from modern theologians, through reformation theologians, then church Fathers and finally back to Jesus. By the time we get back to source we are already wearing distorting spectacles. I just don’t think this is true. Countless modern theologians have sought as best they can to look at the scriptures with fresh eyes and only then to validate their observations against historic church formulations. However, Brian believes that the Greco-Roman mind-set we bring to the reading of scripture is so strong and invasive that we fail to encounter the Elohim God of Abraham or Jesus, but instead find a Zeus-like projection whom Brian calls Theos. He is essentially saying that most readers have a Gnostic understanding of the Bible. He writes, ‘Every time we use terms like the fall and original sin, I believe, many of us are unknowingly importing more or less of this package of Greco-Roman, non-Jewish and therefore non-biblical concepts, like smugglers bringing foreign currency into the biblical economy, or tourists introducing invasive species into the biblical ecosystem.’ (Pgs. 57-58)

Actually, Brian does not believe in the fall or original sin. According to him, instead of documenting the rebellious fall of man, the early chapters of Genesis present ‘a kind of compassionate coming-of-age story.’ (Pg. 64) Brian reinterprets the Garden of Eden narrative. According to him, God simply states that if they eat of the forbidden fruit then, on that same day, they will die – ‘not spiritually die, not relationally die, not ontologically die, but simply die.’ (Pg. 65) 

Adam and Eve did not drop down dead on that day. So in what sense did they die? Well, according to Brian, God changed His mind and instead of killing them, He made clothes for them. Thus starts, what Brian describes, as ‘the first stage of ascent as human beings progress from the life of hunter-gatherers to the life of agriculturalists and beyond.’ (Pg. 66) He then completes the process of making a silk purse from a sows ear by observing that man’s disobedience to God’s primal injunction ‘results in obedience to a former command which never could have been obeyed from within the garden (be fruitful, multiply, fill and subdue the earth)’. (Pg. 67)

All of this seems farfetched to anyone with an orthodox theological training but, according to the thesis Brian presents, this would be due to the alien Greco-Roman Narrative mind-set. Of course, I have many questions that spring to mind. Questions like, was God lying when He told Adam and Eve that they would die the day they ate the forbidden fruit? Was the serpent a saviour figure when it encouraged Eve to disobey God? What sort of a game was God playing anyway when He told them not to eat the fruit while really wanting them to so that He could expel them and thus allow them to ascend?

Another huge question I have, is what then do we do with the contradictory scriptural evidence in places such as Romans 5:12-19?  What did Paul mean when he wrote, ‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned’? And what did he have in mind when he penned, ‘For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.’?  

Brian of course has a reinterpretation of the whole book of Romans and I will mention that further on in this review. What this convoluted tale of ascent through disobedience reveals most clearly is the liberal hermeneutical system Brian employs. Orthodox evangelical hermeneutics allows for different literary forms within the biblical revelation, yet respects the text enough to refrain from bending it to fit a human philosophy or reading into it what it does not say. The Genesis account does not suggest, even by inference, that God was lying to Adam and Eve (that would cause a whole lot of theological problems of its own) and nor does it infer that God changed His mind about the death penalty. 

Liberalism denies the supernatural and so if Adam did not drop down dead when he and Eve ate the fruit then it can only mean that either God was bluffing or He changed his mind. Real and actual spiritual death just doesn’t fit into the liberal paradigm. Brian gives some support to my suspicion when he later attributes the Egyptian plagues as natural phenomena. He writes, ‘The so-called supernatural, in this way, seems remarkably natural.’ (Pg. 77)

Even in these early chapters of the book, it starts to become clear that whilst Brian contends that most others read through Greco-Roman spectacles, he himself is reading the biblical narrative through Liberal spectacles. And with that in mind, we need to progress to the second of the ten responses that are distorting the faith.

See also

Question Two: How should the Bible be understood?

Brian starts his discussion with a prolonged critique of how his predecessors supported the practice of slavery by quoting the Bible. He also slips in the matter of South African apartheid for good measure.  He claims that these ungodly interpretations of scripture came about because of the ‘habitual, conventional way of reading and interpreting the Bible.’ (Pg. 100) All of this is to prepare the ground for the major contention that ‘our quest for a new kind of Christianity requires a new, more mature and responsible approach to the Bible.’ (Pg. 101) Obviously, we will need this sort of perspective if we are to accept his strange reformulation of the Genesis account of sin and separation from God. What then is this ‘more mature’ way of reading and understanding the scriptures?

Brian contends that most evangelicals read the Bible as though it were a constitution. By this, he means that we tend to read the Bible as though it were merely a set of rules and laws and inflexible propositions. He writes, ‘We seek to distinguish ’spirit’ from ‘letter’ and argue the ‘framers’ intent’, seldom questioning whether the passage under review was actually intended by the original authors and editors to be a universal, eternally binding law.’ (Pg. 103) This of course is patently incorrect. One of the basic principles of evangelical biblical interpretation is to seek to answer the question ‘what did the original hearers or readers understand by this?’ In seeking to answer this question, we take into consideration the biblical, historical, and cultural contexts. We also seek to make critical determinations between specific history-bound incidents and universal principles. But having set up this straw man argument Brian then proceeds to claim that ‘read as a constitution, the Bible has passages that can and have been used to justify, if not just about anything, an awful lot of wildly different things.’ (Pg. 103) This last part is true, but not because of a so-called constitutional approach to scripture, but because of bad hermeneutics! 

But, if the ‘constitutional’ view is immature and harmful, then what is the mature and productive view of the Bible? Brian’s answer is that we need to understand the Bible as a portable library. Of course, the Bible is a library of sixty-six books. But whose library is it? ‘It’s the library of a culture and community.’ (Pg. 105) Which culture and community is this? It is the Jewish culture, then the early church community, then in a sense, the current Christian community. This is an important point. What he is essentially suggesting is that the Bible is the product of a particular people within a historic period who sought to document their understanding of God, mankind, history, and so on. We, as the current believing community should reframe its observations in terms of our current culture and times. It is not that Brian regards the Bible as uninspired for he writes that ‘I certainly believe that in a unique and powerful way God breathes life into the Bible.’ (Pg. 108) He also accepts that the biblical library is uniquely important to us as modern followers of Christ Jesus, but as a community resource and not as an authoritative ‘constitution’. 

It is hard to pin down exactly what he means at this point but it seems that Brian has a distinctly non-orthodox understanding of biblical inspiration and authority. He appears to suggest that biblical authority rests in a community’s understanding of the progressive, evolutionary, understanding of God and His ways. To illustrate his view of this he evaluates the book of Job. He claims that at the end of the book God appears to be contradicting the truth of everything that Job’s comforters have said. He then asks how we can then claim that the bulk of the book of Job is inspired in the traditional sense. He also suggests that ‘God’ in Job is a character and that the book does not set out to record what God actually did say to Job. Its value to us lies in the drama it presents which enables us to enter into dialogue with the real God as we read and ponder on the contents of the book. To use his words, ‘to say that the text is inspired is to say that people can encounter God – the real God – in a story full of characters named Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Satan, and even one called God’ (Pg. 123) 

Brian claims that his approach to the Bible is neither conservative nor liberal but a third way that puts us neither under nor above the text, but ‘in the text- in the conversation, in the story.’ (Pg. 125) However, I am hard-pressed to see how his approach is anything other than liberal.

Brian’s responses to these two first questions are foundational to his entire theology. Actually, the second question conditions the first. If we understand the Bible to be a cultural collection of stories that we receive, not as statements of truth, but as invitations to enter into community discourse within the people of faith, then we can reinterpret the overarching narrative of scripture any way we want. 
See also

Question Three: Is God violent?

The main point that Brian makes here is that the Bible reflects an evolving human understanding of God’s nature and character. He contends that the many violent stories in the Old Testament are descriptions of how the people of that day saw God as a violent tribal deity. However, he claims that none of the violent accounts in the Old Testament comes close to our modern Greco-Roman concept of a God who punishes people in Hell for eternity. He contrasts the violent exploits of ‘a character named God’ with the orthodox depiction of ‘a deity who tortures the greater part of humanity for ever in infinite eternal conscious torment.’ (Pg. 130)

Brian holds that the biblical revelation of God moves from a violent tribal God to a Christ-like God. As a result, he writes that ‘we cannot simply say that the highest revelation of God is given through the Bible… Rather, we can say that, for Christians, the Bible’s highest value is in revealing Jesus, who gives us the highest, deepest and most mature view of the character of the living God.’ (Pgs. 150-151) Of course, Jesus is the purest and most direct revelation of the Godhead, but we cannot lift our understanding of Jesus out of the full biblical context. Where other than in the Bible do we find an account of who Jesus is and what He said and did? Equally, how can we adequately understand what He said and did, without appreciating the Old Testament background? And, how can we fully comprehend what He said and how to apply it without the writings contained in the balance of the New Testament? The Gospels give us what Jesus said and did, the Old Testament gives us why He did and said what He did, and the New Testament writings give us how to understand and apply what Jesus said and did.

Question Four: Who is Jesus and why is He important?

I have no problem with most of what Brian says about the Lord Jesus Christ. What he doesn’t say troubles me. He doesn’t say that Jesus is divine and he doesn’t say that Jesus is Lord and is thus to be obeyed. My other problem comes with his statement, right at the end of this section of his book, that Jesus ‘did not come merely to ‘save souls from hell’. No he came to launch a new Genesis, to lead a new exodus, and to announce, embody and inaugurate a new kingdom, as Prince of Peace.’ (Pg. 180) His use of the word ‘merely’ could indicate that Brian believes that Jesus came both to save souls from hell and to initiate and model a social agenda. However, as becomes clear in his responses to the next few questions, Brian does not believe in ‘the gospel of salvation’ in its orthodox sense, nor in Hell. So, according to Brian, Jesus came as a social and not a spiritual saviour. This is a typically liberal view. Orthodox theology does not discount social transformation, but it makes it subordinate and subsequent to spiritual regeneration.

I read and reread the chapters giving Brian’s response to question four but I can’t find where he actually answers ‘who is Jesus and why is He important?’ other than in the following statement. ‘Jesus matters precisely because he provides us with a living alternative to the confining Greco-Roman narrative in which our world and our religions live, move and have their being too much of the time.’ (Pg. 168).

Question Five: What is the gospel?

Given Brian’s understanding of the overarching biblical narrative, how we should understand the Bible, the nature of God, and the mission of Jesus, his response to this question should not come as a surprise. He writes that the Gospel, ‘wasn’t simply about a new way to solve the religious problems of ontological fall and original sin… It wasn’t simply information about how individual souls could leave earth, avoid hell and ascend to heaven after death. No: it was about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven for all people. It was about God’s faithful solidarity with all humanity in our suffering, oppression and evil. It was about God’s compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another – before death, on earth. It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom.’ (Pg. 186)

Here again Brian presents only half a truth. In his discussion on the nature of the Bible, he states that it is essentially only a medium for community and individual encounter with God. It isn’t ‘only’ this, it is also a written revelation of God’s will for humanity, the church, and us as individuals – it is both existential and propositional. In this section, Brian declares the temporal aspect of the Gospel while ignoring the eternal aspect. He ignores  scriptures such as the John chapter three discourse that culminates with probably the most well-known words in all of scripture; "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The orthodox understanding of the Gospel is that it is the good news of eternal life in Christ Jesus. Yes, of course that new life starts here on earth and must express itself in goodness, kindness, compassion and service, but it doesn’t end at that.
Of course, Paul’s letter to the Roman’s presents particular problems for Brian’s earth-bound gospel but he gets around this by redefining the purpose and content of the epistle. ‘Paul never intended his epistle to be an exposition on the gospel.’ (Pg. 191) he writes.
Question Six: What do we do about the church?
If Jesus’ mission was social transformation (Kingdom of God), and the Gospel is the good news of God’s agenda of social transformation, then it makes sense that churches are ‘communities that form Christ-like people who embody and communicate, in word and deed, the good news of the kingdom of God.’ (Pg. 220) This is a very one-dimensional description of the church’s reason for existing.  Prominent biblical analogies for the church include Body of Christ, Household (family) of God, and pillar and foundation of truth.

Question Seven: Can we find a way to address sexuality without fighting about it?

The bottom line we would expect from Brian here is that because most civilised cultures accept homosexuality then so should we Christians. Biblical prohibitions were set within a less tolerant culture and should not stand in our way. Actually, Brian does not clearly say this. Instead, deviating somewhat from the actual question, he asks whether ‘humans were made to fit into an absolute, unchanging institution called marriage, or whether marriage was created to help humans – perhaps including gay humans? – to live wisely and well in this world.’ (Pg. 237) Then, he likens the current gay debate to the church’s reaction to Copernicus and Galileo, and its more recent response to fossil evidence of an ancient earth and Darwin’s theory of evolution. 

He then restates the Gospel as the good news of God as liberator, creator and reconciler. Finally, he presents insights into how the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 must have compared Hebrew rejection with Phillip’s acceptance. His climax to this story reads, ‘As Philip and the Ethiopian disciple climb the stream bank, they represent a new humanity emerging from the water, dripping wet and full of joy, marked by a new and radical reconciliation in the kingdom of God.’ (Pg. 246) This is where he leaves the reader to deduce a suitable stance on homosexuality.

See also

Question Eight: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

‘There is no single fixed end point towards which we move, but rather a widening space, opening into an infinitely expanding goodness.’ (Pgs. 261-261) This of course leaves no room for a Hell of any kind, or for a second coming of Jesus. Brian explains New Testament references to the Parousia as ‘the full arrival, presence and manifestation of a new age in human history. It would mean the presence or appearance on earth of a new generation of humanity, Christ again present, embodied in a community of people who truly possess and express his Spirit, continuing his work.’ (Pg. 266) He claims that this new age started in AD 70 and his advice to us is ‘not to wait passively for something that is not present (apousia), but rather to participate passionately in something that is present (parousia).’ (Pg. 267)

So, in Brian’s grand narrative there is no Hell, and no second coming of Christ, but rather on-going eternal life for all.

See also

Question Nine: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?

‘Evangelism would cease to be a matter of saving souls…No, instead, a reborn, post-imperial evangelism would mean proclaiming the same good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.’ (Pg. 290) Then he writes, ‘This kind of evangelism would celebrate the good in the Christian religion and lament the bad, just as it would in every other religion, calling people to a way of life in a kingdom (or beautiful whole) that transcends and includes all religions.’ (Pg. 291) But, to be able to biblically justify this pluralistic approach Brian has to deal with, what he calls the ‘reflex verses’ that contradict his position. So, concerning John 14:6 which quotes Jesus as saying that He is the only way to the Father, Brian writes that it ‘has nothing – absolutely nothing – to say to the questions it is commonly quoted to answer.’ (Pg. 291) He claims that Jesus is simply answering the question “Jesus, where are you going?” and that if we don’t see His answer in terms of this question then we are ‘not interpreting his words: you’re misappropriating them, twisting them, abusing them.’ (Pg. 292). In order to support his contention, Brian has to reinterpret verses 1-3 where Jesus spoke about going to His Father’s house. He writes, ‘Many assume that ‘my Father’s house’ means ‘heaven’, which sets up John 14:6 to explain how to go to heaven.’ (Pg. 294) Then he points out that in John 2:15-17 the words ‘my Father’s house’ refer to the Jerusalem temple. Next, he extends the argument by pointing out that Jesus referred to His own body as the temple. A little further down the page he equates Jesus’ body with the church. So Fathers House = Temple = Jesus = Church. He then concludes his case with the claim that in John 14:6 Jesus was ‘telling them that there will be a place for them in the new people-of-God-as-temple that Jesus is preparing the way for.’ (Pg. 295) Brian then writes, ‘In this way, then, it appears clear that the term my Father’s house – like the terms life, abundant life and life of the ages – is, like Jesus’ core message of the kingdom of God, not about the afterlife but about this life.’ (Pgs. 295-296). 

Of course all of this ignores verses 1 -4 with its analogy of a groom who prepares an additional wing onto his father’s home, marries his bride, and then takes her to the now extended family home. It also ignores Jesus statement that “I will come back and take you to be with me.” And it also ignores Jesus’ comparison of himself with the Father (vs. 7 - 9). Instead, we are expected to buy into a convoluted daisy chain that reinterprets the passage!

See also

Question Ten: How can we translate our quest into action?

It really isn’t necessary for me to comment on this last question because I do not believe we should be translating Brian’s quest into action of the type he envisions. Quite the contrary, we should be taking stock of just how the orthodox Faith can be diluted and humanised into a liberal faith, and walk away from this as fast as possible.

It is good to ask questions and to seek deep and satisfying answers. It is reasonable to agonise over a Christianity that has so often presented itself as harsh, loveless, and power mad. It is evidence of a tender heart to wonder how a loving God could consign the bulk of humanity to eternal conscious torment. But, it is neither good or reasonable to attempt to recast the biblical narrative, redefine the nature of the Bible, and reformulate the principles of interpretation in order to create answers that the seeker finds acceptable. This is what I think Brian has attempted to do. 

The first question concerned the overarching storyline of the Bible. The ‘new’ Meta Narrative according to Brian reads as follows. God created man good and eternal. Man has made mistakes but God has used these to evolve human potential and wholeness. There never was a fall into sin and death and so there was no need, in that sense, for Christ’s atonement on the cross of Calvary. Man never died spiritually so there is no need for a ‘new birth’ of anything other than a philosophical kind. Because there was no ‘fall’ there can be no Hell, no judgement as we understand it, and therefore no need for Jesus to come again. Our mandate, according to Brian, is not to save souls but to reform society, uplift individual lives, and accommodate God-seekers of all religions. The church exists for this purpose. The end. This is, of course, nothing like the orthodox Meta Narrative, which in turn is nothing like the Greco-Roman parody that Brian claims it is.

The second question was about how we should understand the Bible. Brian proposes that we should understand it as a cultural library and access and interpret it in terms of our current culture. He holds that its inspiration lies in how it provides us with a means of dialoguing with God within our current contexts. He does not see it as authoritative. The orthodox understanding, however, is that the Bible is both inspired and authoritative as well  well as both propositional and existential.We understand it with reference to its original cultural context and we apply it in our current context. 

His third question was ‘is God violent?’ and his fourth question concerned the importance of Jesus Christ. His contention is essentially that the scriptures merely record the understanding of succeeding generations who projected their own violent natures onto God. He correctly identifies the Lord Jesus Christ as the final revelation of God yet he appears to disconnect Jesus from the rest of the scriptures. The result is more a Jesus of liberal philosophy than the Jesus of the Bible.

Question five was about the nature of the Gospel. Brian’s gospel is the good news that God loves everyone and that all people are on an ever-expanding eternal journey into the realm of His love and presence. ‘Salvation in this life equates more to social transformation than just personal transformation, and the life long process of being made into the image of God.’ The orthodox understanding of the Gospel is that it is the good news that in Christ Jesus all people can have eternal life if they accept what He has done and commit to His lordship. Salvation is inclusive to all who repent and believe but exclusive in that this salvation is only available in and through Jesus Christ.
These then are the five most important questions and Brian’s responses to them. The second set of four questions concern the applications of the first five responses to issues such as the purpose of the church, sexuality, the future, and world religions. The final question is a sort of ‘where to now?’, to which I respond, ‘get back to orthodoxy…. Fast!’

For a comprehensive, very critical, but long audio of an academic panel discussion see also

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Liberal Gevaar

In many evangelical circles, and certainly amongst most fundamentalists, the world ‘liberal’ carries with it a definite emotional and theological charge. Liberals are seen as threatening the Faith and undermining true Christian theology. Liberals have a nefarious agenda; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and so on. Liberal theologians, on the other hand, are concerned at what they observe as a lack of love and compassion for the human condition among fundamentalists. They also take exception to what they perceive as the naïve and uncritical spiritualisation of evangelicals. Some, like bishop Spong for instance, even contend that unless they save Christianity from unscientific supernaturalism it will become first irrelevant and then extinct.

Theological liberalism 
So what is theological liberalism?  I would describe liberals as people who hold the following theological beliefs:  Concerning the Bible, they generally believe that the scriptures are no more inspired than other important literary works. As a result, they subject the Bible to rigorous ‘higher’ criticism and discount much of its historic reliability and factual accuracy. Concerning salvation, they understand regeneration as a reprogramming of the individual mind and the transformation of the structures of society. Liberal theology is both humanistic and anti-supernatural. On the positive side, this results in a focus on compassion for people and consideration for the human habitat. On the negative side, it strips Christianity and the Bible of everything that cannot be logically explained. Angels have never been scientifically evaluated therefore they cannot exist. A miracle is merely the mythological name given to a natural process we do not yet fully understand. Rebirth is actually just a way of describing the process of intellectual and moral transformation. The virgin birth is superfluous… and so on. I need to note though that there is a continuum from old fashioned liberalism on the one end, through neo-liberalism, evangelical orthodoxy, to fundamentalism on the other end. Some fundamentalists regard the average evangelical as somewhat liberal, and many liberals see little difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Relevance of Christianity under liberalism
As an evangelical, I have very real problems with most that goes under the heading of theological liberalism. I accept that the Bible has a human aspect to it, but I do not accept that it is anything other than divinely inspired and authoritative. If, as many liberals contend, most of the New Testament is simply a record of the philosophy of Paul of Tarsus, then it provides only limited help in the 21st century and no certainty for an eternal future. If the Gospels record the embellished mythology of overzealous first century Christ-followers, then perhaps Jesus did not do what they say He did and His teaching is no more definitive than that of any other wise man of His day. If man is essentially good, then sin is just a religious word for social dysfunction. If right and wrong, morality and immorality are genetically or culturally determined, then homosexuality is just a matter of personal preference or predisposition, and abortion on demand a societal convenience. If science stands above scripture as the yardstick of truth, then tomorrow’s truth will not be the same as today’s truth and both will be uncertain. If God is an archaic name for cosmic group consciousness, then the possibility of a personal relationship with him, her, or it is an absurd idea. If Jesus was just a radical Jewish teacher and activist then I am without a saviour and my only hope for the future is my own effort, the success of my particular race or society, and a lot of luck. If this is what the Christian Faith truly is then it isn’t worth saving.

The problem with fundamentalism
I see no point to a liberal Faith of the kind I have described. However, a note of sober caution is in order. Liberalism is not the only aberration within the greater body of the Church. In my opinion, extreme fundamentalism, on the other side of the continuum, with its harsh separatism and exclusive definitions of biblical inerrancy, creationism and so on, is an ill-conceived over-reaction to liberalism. In its own way it does just as much damage to the credibility and vitality of the Christian Faith.  Naive and slavish literalism denigrates the rational aspect of biblical faith; fixation on non-fundamental doctrines fragments the church; separatist pride and lovelessness opens the chasm between church and world even wider than it already is.

Liberalism in disguise
Another caution is that we should recognise the liberalism in our own views and practices. When we focus on societal change as the Faith priority, then we are comfortably in line with the liberal agenda. When we practice our Faith as an essentially private matter, largely unconfined by the demands and restraints of church life and doctrine, then we are being distinctly liberal. When we respond accommodatingly to unbiblical societal norms with the mantra, ‘different strokes for different folks’, then we are surely liberals at heart. So perhaps, rather than being as concerned as we often appear to be with only  the liberalism we identify in the institutions of the church, we ought also to examine the insidious incursion of it into our own lives and thinking.

I can’t speak for you, but I actually don’t want religion of any type, liberal or other; I want a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as illuminated by the Holy Spirit … so help me Father God.

[Technical note to reader: If you would like to comment, simply click on the hyperlink below that says 'X Comments', a new page will open where you will be able to write your comment] 

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Power, Prayer and Proclamation

“Why do we see so few genuine miracles in our day?”  Have you ever asked this question? I certainly have. We see a lot of hype, psychological manifestations and pseudo-miracles, but my heart aches for the real and the holy. It’s not that God has decided not to ‘do miracles’ anymore so the problem isn’t His. Could it be ours?

It is not only the scarcity of miracles that concerns me, it is also the disconnect between how we live and what we observe in the lives of the early disciples. Those men and women who made up the first century church were passionate about Jesus and powerful in the way they ministered in His name. When they prayed with one heart and mind the place they were in shook (Acts 4:31). When Peter’s shadow fell on the sick they were healed (Acts 5:15).  They were devoted to God and to each other (Acts 2:42-47). When they preached they did not call for a ‘while all heads are bowed’ secret response to the Gospel. Instead they proclaimed boldly, “Repent then, and turn to God” (Acts 3:19). They were different to people around them and different to most believers today.

In 2005 George Barna conducted a survey among United States Christians. Among other things, he ascertained that:

  • The typical churched believer will die without leading a single person to a lifesaving knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ.
  • Churched Christians give away an average of about 3% of their income in a typical year, and feel pleased at their ‘sacrificial’ generosity.
  • The likelihood of a married couple who are born-again churchgoers getting divorced is the same as couples who are not disciples of Jesus.
So the terrible reality seems to be that most of us are no different to unsaved people. I guess if we want to minister miraculously as Jesus did we need to live as He did – differently. If we want to experience what the early disciples experienced then we need to be like them.

These observations have troubled me deeply for several years and so I set out to try to identify the root causes of my dilemma. Of course it is a hopeless quest to try to simplify such a complex issue and to reduce it to a set of prescriptions. However, my main findings are as follows:

Most of us have an essentially materialistic mindset. We need to realise that the Kingdom of God is shifted 180o to the kingdom of this world (John 18:36). What is more, it is the worldly kingdom that is up side down, not the Kingdom of God.  Problems occur when we still live as if the world is the right way up; as though it were the same as the Kingdom of God. To act differently we need to first think differently. I believe that as we start to see the world as it really is, from a spiritual perspective, we will begin to speak and act as the early disciples did.

We also have a terrible misconception of who we are. Most disciples of the Lord Jesus see themselves primarily as servants, even slaves. Our favourite prayer is “Lord, please use me”. Yet the New Testament revelation is that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God.  “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). The wonderful passage in Galatians (3:26 to 4:7) that sets out our true status ends with the words, “so you are no longer a slave, but a son.’ Of course we serve, as bond-slaves, but service defines what we do, not who we are. We are sons and daughters who serve. There is a profound difference between a son and a slave mentality. A slave defines who he is in terms of what he does. A son determines what he does because of who he is.

Perhaps the underlying reason we are generally so passionless and powerless is that we have failed to realise just who we really are. Consider some of the implications of sonship:

  • The privilege of prayer, both personal and corporate.
  • The prerogative of revelation.
  • The potential for empowerment.
  • The response of service.
  • The catalyst of revival.
That’s what I want! What about you?

My third major finding was that so many of us seem to have become confused concerning the nature of prayer, the stewardship of spiritual power, and the need to proclaim in word and ministry – prayer, power, and proclamation.

Regarding prayer, we have largely reduced what is meant to be intimate communion with God into stylised categories such as petition, intercession, and so on.  When did prayer stop being simple heartfelt communication, and start becoming a series of formulas?

We also seem to have confused prayer with proclamation. For instance, some folk address demons, and even the devil, as part of a ‘prayer’ meeting. Others deliver mini sermons to others in the group over God’s shoulder. Do you know what I mean? “Dear Lord, let us….” Or even as blatant as lecturing others and then adding “and so Lord, help us to….” We also routinely pray for the sick when Jesus actually instructed us to heal the sick. Have you noticed that Jesus never prayed for people who needed His ministry?  None of the accounts of Jesus casting out demons or healing, record Him as praying for the afflicted person. He simply instructed, proclaimed, declared, and imparted healing and life.

Regarding power, a lot of people either effectively deny that God still imparts ‘power from on high’, or limit it to an initial, once off,  ‘baptism in the Spirit’ experience. Yet surely one of God’s responses to our prayers is to empower us so that we can grow up as His children to be and do as Jesus did. And that is what we can experience!

Finally, having prayed and received power from on high, we need to proclaim in word and deed – we need to speak and do in the power of the Holy Spirit and under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, perhaps as we restore the dynamic unity of prayer, power, and proclamation we will live our lives in Christ more as the early disciples did and experience more of the miraculous Kingdom of God..

Being Filled With The Spirit

In the seventies, my wife Pat and I became disciples of the Lord Jesus. The first church we attended was a traditional Pentecostal assembly, and the leaders wasted no time in instructing us in the need for baptisms. First they baptised us by immersion in water and then, some months later, they laid hands on us to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. The Charismatic renewal was in full flood then and we were soon exposed to people who identified themselves as ‘born again, baptised in the spirit, tongues talking believers’. It came as a sad shock to realise that some folk regarded themselves as higher class citizens in the Kingdom of God because of their ‘second experience’. Our naivety was also assaulted by traditional folk who thought that being ‘born again’ was some sort of cult membership initiation. On the one hand we heard Charismatics referred to as ‘holy rollers’, and on the other to traditional worshippers as ‘the frozen chosen’. My, my, my!

If we unpack the core differences concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit from their traditional and language wrappings, it comes down to the following: Pentecostals and most Charismatics believe that there are two distinct experiences of the Holy Spirit. The first is when He gives us new spiritual life and we are born anew from above. The second is when He empowers us for ministry. The first experience is being ‘born again’ and the second is being ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’. 

The teaching of the traditional non-Pentecostals is that there is only one experience, and that we receive the full blessing of the Holy Spirit when we are converted from the dominion of darkness to the Kingdom of God – “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13 NIV) Lying between these two positions is the path I choose to walk. I accept that when we become disciples of the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit gives us a new spiritual life, and we are thus born again in a very real sense. I also believe that the Holy Spirit empowers us for life and ministry many times afterwards. I understand that sometimes there is a significant time delay between conversion and effective empowerment and I can see that in these cases an encounter with the Holy Spirit can be a dramatic and radical ‘second’ experience at a level of intensity beyond subsequent anointings. 

For me, the issue is not so much the label we attach to the experiences, nor the timing of these encounters with the Holy Spirit, but the fact that we need to fully embrace His presence and ministry in our lives. A key text is Ephesians 5:18 where, in the context of God’s will for us, it has; “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (NIV). The Greek word translated as ‘be filled’ is a present tense imperative verb. The present tense indicates that it is something that should occur repeatedly.  The imperative indicates a command, or at least an entreaty.  This statement embraces both initial and subsequent experiences of the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit. More than this, it points us firmly to the need for frequent spiritual infillings. Perhaps, to avoid any confusion it would be better to refer to being filled with the Holy Spirit rather than baptised in the Holy Spirit. In this way we will not restrict ourselves to just one formative, post regeneration, spiritual experience.

The Greek word pleeroústhe, ‘be filled’, contains a further aid to our understanding; it is in the passive voice. This means that we, the objects, receive the action, we do not generate it. We receive an infilling of power from on high and it is the Holy Spirit who does the filling. He gives and we receive. We do not ‘plug into’ some heavenly power; rather we receive from the one who is the very source of spiritual power – the Holy Spirit Himself.

When I discuss the spiritual manifestations of 1 Corinthians 12 with some folk, a fairly common response goes something like this; “Why do I need to speak in tongues and what difference would it make if I did?” I point out that tongues are a form of prayer (1 Corinthians 14:2) and provide the believer with a Holy Spirit given means of expressing adoration and dependence that goes far beyond the limitations of our mother language. A similar question can be posed; “I am saved by the grace of God, so why do I need to be ‘spirit filled’?” Well, if you have been regenerated, born again, then in a way you are already ‘spirit filled’. But are you effective in life and ministry? When you put a new rechargeable battery into a torch you will have the ability to shed light. But batteries discharge by being used, and rechargeable batteries loose their current even when the torch is not in use. We are much like that – if we are not recharged then we loose what charge we have. Being filled with the Spirit is just not an optional, charismatic, religious experience – it is a spiritual life, and light, necessity!

When Zerubbabel returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia to rebuild the Temple, the prophet Zechariah spoke this word of God to him; “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6 NIV) He could attempt to rebuild the temple by organizational group might or by personal power, and in this way erect a building. However, only the anointing power of the Holy Spirit could enable him to restore the Temple, the place where God dwelt by His Spirit. We too can do many good works in our own strength. By organizing and mobilising the church we can do even greater works. But if we are not anointed by the Holy Spirit for these tasks then that is all they will ever be, good works. NGOs’ and social societies can do good works, but only a spirit filled disciple of the Lord Jesus can make an eternal difference in the lives and destinies of people and nations. Is this a bold claim? Perhaps it is, but this is how I understand the prophetic word to Zerubbabel and the injunction of the Lord Jesus to His disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to “wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” (Acts 1:4 NIV)

So then, we NEED to be spirit filled, not just once, but often. But what do we need to do? ....We need to ask. Jesus said this; "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:11-13 NIV) It is so simple that it is almost impossible for us to comprehend. “Just ask?” “Yes, just ask!” However, asking is not a perfunctory or casual enquiry. To ask for empowerment is to acknowledge total dependence on God. To ask Him to fill us with His Spirit is to admit that we cannot be effective without His empowerment. Perhaps this is why we so often fail to ask… to really ask. James pinpoints the problem; “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives…” (James 4:2-3 NIV) This is hard to swallow, but it is often the true diagnosis of our condition.

We need to be constantly filled with the Spirit and we need to express our motive and humility by asking. If we do, then will we instantly be ‘mighty men of God’ or ‘wondrous women of faith’? Probably not, but I believe we will become more effective in ministry than we were before, and we will be more sanctified in lifestyle than we were. The Holy Spirit both empowers and frees from sin. Anything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, done in the anointing power of the Holy Spirit can make a life-changing difference and even a small adjustment towards holy living, affected by the work of the Holy Spirit, can change us eternally.

We can argue about being baptised in, by, or with the Holy Spirit. We can set ourselves above others because of our claim to a higher experience of the Spirit. We can discuss when the various acts of grace occur in our lives. But all of this will not change anything! What changes us, our church, and our world, is the power of God. Being spirit-filled is not the subject of a doctrine or a tradition, it is a spiritual life necessity.

God Is Not A User

Sincere disciples of the Jesus often pray, “Lord use me, please use me.” The intention is honest – they want to be useful, to serve, to make a difference, and to extend the Kingdom of God. However, the particular choice of words reveals something seriously amiss.

Generals use troops to attack enemy positions, often with massive loss of life. In biblical times, rich men used slaves for their pleasure and profit. Morally corrupt, or desperate, mothers use their little children to beg at intersections. But God does not use His children!

In Old Testament times God occasionally used pagan kings to achieve His ends (Isa 7:20). Once He used a great fish, a vine, and a worm (Jonah).  He even used a donkey (Numbers 22:28). But He never used His children! Jesus used language (John 10:6 16:25) and He taught us to use our worldly wealth (Luke 16:9). But He never used His disciples!

Those who are born again of the Spirit, who are disciples of Jesus, are sons not slaves (Galatians 4:7). We are children of God. We are sons who serve, not servants who pretend to be sons. (Ladies, for ‘sons’ please read ‘daughters’). Listen to this; ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ (1 John 3:1). We are children of God, not tools God uses to achieve His grand purposes. We are sons and daughters of the Most High, not dispensable ‘canon fodder’ in some cosmic conflict between good and evil.

How we understand our relationship to God has a profound effect on our theology and on the way we live. As His children, God has one overarching purpose for our lives – that we come to know Jesus, grow to be like Him, and help others to do likewise. To achieve this, God draws us into a co-operative relationship. He allows us to work with Him, to speak for Him, and to minister in His name and power. As we obediently co-operate, we grow and mature, from glory to glory -   ‘And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Theologically, this understanding sheds light on issues such as God’s sovereignty versus man’s freedom to choose - God sovereignly grants us a meaningful degree of discretion so that we can mature as His children. It also helps us understand how the scriptures can be both divinely inspired and humanly produced. - God worked with human authors to produce what He wanted recorded for our growth and guidance.

At an entirely practical level, our understanding of our relationship to God makes a major difference to how we live. “God use me” implies a lack of responsibility and accountability, because if God chooses not to use me, then so be it, it’s not my fault. However, if God allows me into a co-operative venture with Himself, then I have a part to play, no matter how small.

God’s co-operation with us also sets a powerful example for us to follow. If God uses people then so should we! But, if God co-operates with us for our growth, then so should we co-operate with others for their growth. How many marriages have collapsed because husbands try to use their wives?! How many children grow into dysfunctional adulthood because parents try to use them for their own ambitions, pleasures, or vicarious achievements?!

Think too of the effect on church leadership. Elders are supposed to emulate Christ and grow His people. Pastors do not own churches, nor should they use churches to further their goals. Pastors should follow the example of Jesus, and give of themselves so that the church members can become more like the one they follow… Jesus!

So, “Lord, please use me” is probably not what we should pray. Rather pray; “Lord help me to follow you. Help me to serve others in your name. Give me ears to hear and eyes to see, a mind that seeks after you, and a heart of love for you and your children. Lord, help me please to be more like Jesus. Amen.”

Our way or God's Way

There is a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads to death

It’s the start of another year. Perhaps we should number it 2008 PC – the year two thousand and eight, Post Crash! The end of last year was a dark time for our share prices, property values, interest rates, rand value, and inflation rate. When the smoke clears away from the rubble of our fallen financial edifices we will no doubt realize that the whole towering financial system was built on flawed foundations. Kingdom of God finances stand on the principles of earning before spending and creating before consuming. However, the financial foundation of the kingdom of this world is to borrow and spend today in the hope that tomorrow we will be able to borrow and spend even more! But, Romans 13:8 reads, ‘Owe nothing to anyone – except for your obligation to love one another’ NLT. With hindsight, it seems like the world went down a wrong path and hit a brick wall in 2008.

Proverbs 14:12 reads, ‘There is a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads to death’ NIV. It makes two points that we should ponder carefully as we go into 2009. The first is that our ways are seldom God’s ways, and the second is that we need to carefully consider the destination to which our paths lead.

Isaiah 55:8 states the first point in stark terms; “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, declares the Lord’.  We can’t deny the evidential truth of this. Jesus chooses two men, Paul and Barnabas, to reach the Gentile world – our way would probably be mass rallies and crusades, TV campaigns, and the like. Jesus taught that to get much we need to give much – we say that to get much, borrow much!

Why is it that we so often find ourselves going down our own way, rather than God’s way? I don’t think it’s because we don’t want God’s way, or that we don’t pray or read the Bible enough. I think the prime reason is that we just don’t understand God’s ways. His ways are so different to what we are accustomed, what we have been taught through the educational system, and what we see modelled all around us. We need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). But how do we do this? How do we reform our mindsets? At the risk of over simplifying, I suggest a three step process.

Step One:  Stop thinking and doing what we already know to be contrary to God’s way. ‘Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God’ Jeremiah 26:13 How can we walk down God’s way if we are consciously walking down another path?

Step Two:  Seek God’s way with wholehearted attention. Obviously this entails reading the Bible, but it means more; to seek His ways means that we must diligently study, meditate on, and practice the words and deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ. God walked this Earth, He struck a path through time, He showed us the Way, and He caused this way to be recorded in scripture for us. And His way is not just a set of values or doctrines, but an ongoing and vital relationship with Himself, for Jesus said, “I am the Way…” (John 14:6). Before the early disciples were called Christians, they were known as the people of The Way. That’s what we should be today; people of His Way.

Step Three:  Having repented of known error in our ways, and having steeped ourselves in the life of Jesus, we need to walk with wholehearted trust down God’s Way in our lives. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths’ (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Oh dear, I have just run out of column space – I have exceeded my allotted words  and I don’t have room to deal with the second point that Proverbs 14:12 makes. I do hope this is not going to be indicative of the year ahead.

May God bless you in 2009, may He make His way clear to us, and may we walk in it.

The Privilege of Prayer

In my previous article (Joy! August 2009) I asked why we, as Christians, are generally so passionless and powerless. I suggested that one of the reasons was that so many of us are confused concerning the nature of prayer, the stewardship of spiritual power, and the need to proclaim in word and ministry – Prayer, Power, and Proclamation.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we have separated these three elements instead of integrating them into one - three yet one. Conversely, we tend to confuse these elements with each other.

A well known adage is, ‘there is power in prayer’. But there is no power in prayer. Prayer precedes power, but in itself, prayer is simply communion with God. Prayer is the communication component of our end of an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father. God is certainly powerful, but how can the act of speaking to him have power in itself? Yet preachers often tell us that prayer ‘works’ (another expression which confounds me). Powerful results of prayer are simply evidence of God’s response.

We confuse the response with the request when we say that there is power in prayer. Even more seriously, we confuse the object with the method. God is the one to whom we pray (object), and prayer is the method of communicating with him. Yet prayer is foundational to both power and proclamation. In prayer we express our dependence on God and our willingness to proclaim His will in word and deed. In prayer we ask Him to fill us with power from on high so that we are able to powerfully proclaim His word.

As children of God, we also ask Him, in prayer, to exercise His power to achieve what we perceive to be valid kingdom endeavours. It might appear on the surface that our prayers have released power, but it is actually God who chooses to manifest His power. An example of this is in Acts 4:29-30, where the disciples prayed, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Verse 32 records that “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” The disciples prayed, and God responded with a mighty demonstration of his power.

However, the text also reveals that God went further than just demonstrating His power; He also filled the disciples with spiritual energy so that they could speak His word with boldness. This is the second level connection between prayer and power. God may respond to prayer with direct acts of power, but He may also respond by imparting power to us, His children, so that we can act in His name. This seems to be the Father’s preferred response to our prayer requests. Why? I think it is because He wants us to grow up to be responsible and mature members of his household; children who have learned both dependence on Him and responsible stewardship of His authority and power.

As always, let’s take our queue from Jesus. Matthew chapter seventeen records how Jesus went up a mountain to pray. Whilst He was praying, He had a dynamic spiritual encounter, heard the voice of the Father, and received an illuminating anointing. Jesus then went down the mountain and cast out a demon from a suffering boy - Prayer, followed by the receipt of power, followed by proclamation.

Prayer precedes power, and power is essential to effective proclamation. In my next article I will present something from my latest book ‘P3’ concerning power from on high.