Dr. Erik Thoennes of Biola University discusses the popular new pastime (even among some Bible believing Christians) of Church-bashing. The video needs no commentary.
Dr. Erik Thoennes of Biola University discusses the popular new pastime (even among some Bible believing Christians) of Church-bashing. The video needs no commentary.
I have discovered that when a Christian person discovers the following facts, they tend to become shocked and dismayed – maybe even a little scared.
Does any of this mean we have an untrustworthy Bible? Not at all! God has preserved His word with a degree of accuracy unmatched by any other ancient writings. We can be absolutely confident that the scriptures we possess are virtually identical to what was originally penned – and this goes especially for the New Testament. The science of textual criticism allows us to compare manuscripts in a way that allows us to arrive at a 99.5% certainty about our New Testament texts – that they say what the Apostles wrote – and the 0.5% that we’re still unsure of is shrinking all the time as more manuscripts are found and more work is done.
See, I discovered how dismayed a person can become with the above facts because I went through it myself. Resolving to get to the bottom of things was the best decision I could have made, and the Lord has richly blessed my study of the issues. (for anyone who wants to get an entry-level understanding into this fascinating subject, I recommend “Searching for the Original Bible” by Dr. Randall Price)
But without getting into the nitty-gritty of how all of that works (it would make this post substantially longer than it needs to be), I want to address the question that crosses everyone’s mind at one point or another:
Why would God allow errors and differences to creep into the text in the first place? Why do we have manuscripts that differ when God could have just zapped the copyists into human-Xerox machines?
Great question with an even greater answer. But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this story.
Before the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, died, the scriptures of Islam were not written down. Instead, Muhammad taught his followers the Qur’an (Muslim scriptures) verbally, and they memorized it diligently. A problem arose after Muhammad’s passing, however, when the disciples who had the largest portions memorized began to be killed in battle with the religion’s enemies. Thus, the decision was made to lay out the Qur’an in writing to preserve it for posterity. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t. It turns out that different disciples had memorized certain things differently, and this led to conflict over time.
Years and years after the death of the prophet it became clear that if something was not done, Islam would cannibalize itself. That is, each of the different disciples had their own school of recitation and set of written suras (Qur’an chapters) – but if the students of another disciple recited the suras differently, heated debates were the inevitable outcome as one school called the other heretics and insisted that they were improperly reciting the Qur’an, and vice versa. Multiple copies of the written Qur’an, many to most of which differed from one another with respect to the number of suras contained therein or in the actual wording of those suras, meant that consensus was difficult to arrive at as to what was proper and taught by the prophet Muhammad.
It was in this climate of escalating tensions that a man named Uthman, the 3rd caliph (leader of the Muslim empire), made a controversial decision. In order to preserve unity amongst Muslims, Uthman ordered that copies of the existing Qur’ans be brought together and that one single, authoritative text be created from these. Once this text – a compilation of texts from the existing Qur’ans overseen by men appointed by Uthman himself – was complete, Uthman ordered all Qur’ans apart from his new, authoritative version, be burned. Of course, this decision was not popular with everyone, but it appears to have been carried out with success regardless. From that point forward, Uthman’s text was to be maintained as the inspired Qur’an, and all that differed from it were worthy of the fire.
I want you to imagine for a moment that the Bible had a period of history where some leader – political or religious – exerted such influence and control over the text that they could create their own “Authoritative Version” however they wished; then, following that, they silenced all other voices by burning all manuscripts that attested to a reading different than this leader’s version. No really, imagine it. Because that’s what some popular novelists would have you believe, and many many people have bought into the bunk.
What if, say, Emperor Constantine had his way with the Biblical text and after he was done got rid of all the previous manuscripts, making his Bible version the authoritative and, indeed, only version in existence? What questions would this raise in your mind?
I imagine most of you would take this scenario and ask the following:
And the answer is we could never know since he would have destroyed all of the previous manuscripts. Thousands of textual variants would be removed by such a method, and maybe even enough to make textual criticism a pointless exercise. But at what cost?
Now, it is important for you to recognize this fact: there has never been a Christian Uthman. Dan Brown’s fiction notwithstanding, Constantine never had the power or the means to accomplish this. We can prove it never happened; not with Constantine, not with anyone else. And you know what? The textual variants are vital to us in demonstrating this.
In other words, if we had a manuscript tradition for the New Testament in which every manuscript read exactly like the other, would it not be fair to question how this came to be? At the moment, the liberals pick on us because our manuscripts have variants – but if our manuscripts were all 100% identical, every conspiracy theorist on the planet would have a basis for their suspicions. After all, we know that human beings aren’t infallible, and if we had zero textual variants at all there would be only 2 alternatives: A) God did it (that’s what Muslims try to pull), or B) someone got ahold of all the manuscripts at some point and standardized them to make them read identically.
“A” wouldn’t get us very far, because if we claimed that we would be just going with blind faith – which is what the Muslims have to do (and which Christianity doesn’t, despite what you may have been taught).
“B” would be the automatic assumption. A perfect textual witness with no variants would make it impossible for Christians to be sure our Bibles had not been corrupted at some point along the way (apart from blind faith), and even more impossible to convince skeptics.
Bottom line: a little textual variation is a healthy thing.
But maybe this still doesn’t make sense to some of you who have little or no experience with this subject. Let’s try an example to illustrate:
Imagine that you have thousands of photographs of the Great Sphinx in Egypt. The pictures have their imperfections, and not every one is identical. But the fact that you have a great many pictures, all subtly different from one another, guarantees that you can be assured that you know what the actual Sphinx looks like. In fact, the numerous pictures, thanks to their minor differences, together testify to the great confidence you can have that you know what the Sphinx actually looks like. It’s all about variety, and this variety improves the degree of confidence you can have that you are seeing the real thing, does it not?
Below are some pictures of the sphinx. Sure, some have been tampered with, but those are easily picked out. Why? Because they stand out against the majority, which have not been modified.
Now imagine a different scenario where you still have thousands of pictures, but this time every single picture is identical. You will find your single picture below.
Now, tell me, if this is your only witness to what the sphinx looks like, what would be the most obvious thing to conclude? You either have to take it on blind faith that the 1000 identical photos aren’t telling you the exact same lie or you get skeptical and conclude, that’s right, IT’S A FAKE!! But now you have no way of checking it out to even make sure it’s a fake, much less find out the real deal regarding how the sphinx actually appears. Mix it in with the others above, however, and it quickly becomes apparent what the truth is and where the fake lies.
So again, this is why textual variants are not only okay, but vital, because they allow us to cross-check and triangulate the correct text. If we want to have any chance of knowing what the original autographs said, we need variants. The alternative is being at the mercy of a system where we only have one single text type, and yeah, some people would really like not having any confusing variants to haggle with – but the downside is you can never be sure if someone at some unrecorded point in the past substituted the real deal for a fake, because you have no variants to check it against.
In other words, if God had just “zapped” the scribes so that they copied everything perfectly, we would lose our ability to be sure that our text has never had an Uthman-style revision. Mercifully, He allowed textual variants to give us a 3D view of textual transmission so we can see how it has come down to us and be assured of no tampering.
But, but, but…
Now, one final point that might reasonably be raised is: “well how come God didn’t just preserve the autographs so we’d have in our hands exactly what the Apostles wrote with no need for all this gibberish about textual criticism? We could just refer to the original documents!”
Sounds good on the surface, right? But I for one am soooooooooo thankful that God did not allow the Church to remain in possession of the original Apostolic autographs. Why?
Have you ever heard of relic worship? Throughout most of the Church’s history there have been those who claimed to be in possession of one artifact or another from Christ’s life or that of the Apostles or church fathers. In the time of the Reformation it was not uncommon for a person who the Roman Church deemed required special penance for some sin to take a pilgrimage to a shrine with relics from the early days of the Church (real or exaggerated). Pieces of bone supposed to be from Paul, a lock of hair shorn from the head of Timothy, a bone fragment from the grave of Peter, on and on and on. These items became virtual idols for many in the Church, turning their focus from Christ crucified to pieces of dried flesh which might have just as well been from a pig’s ear as from the Apostle James. (see the wikipedia article on relics in Christianity for more on all of this) Even today the shroud of Turin is an object of veneration, as directly opposed to the one who supposedly wore it!
If we had the original autographs penned by the New Testament writers themselves, they would no doubt be the singularly most seductive items for relic veneration (read: idol worship) in the history of the Church. Their absence does not leave us uncertain as to what they said, but it does remove an incredible temptation from our paths. Thank God for that.
If you take nothing more than the following away from this post, I will have accomplished what I set out to do:
Do not sweat the variants. They are a tremendous boon to Biblical studies (in even more ways than I have been able to elaborate on in this short time), and we literally should be thanking God for providing us the Bible in the way that He has done. Because of how the texts have come to us, we can be absolutely confident that no Uthman has ever changed our texts, least of all in a way we could not discover and correct. It is truly impossible to conceive a more perfect system of preservation than the one that was employed by our Lord to give us His word accurately these many many years after He spoke them on earth.
But you don’t have to take my word for it…
This is a common feature in unitarian arguments, but it simply does not hold water for several reasons.
You are begging the question when you ask “how come the synoptics don’t talk about the Deity of Christ?” To give a “because XYZ” answer to that question, one has to assume that the synoptic gospels indeed do not speak of the Deity of Christ, but such an assumption would be highly erroneous! The basic fact is that the synoptics do teach the Deity of Christ, albeit somewhat implicitly. In a future installment we will cover the synoptic presentation of the Deity of Christ in great depth, but to whet your appetite (and prove I’m not just blowing smoke), consider the following:
Matt 18:20 (claiming omnipresence)
Luke 7:48-49 (also, you unitarians who say it doesn’t matter who Jesus is [creature or Deity], notice again the emphasis put on His identity)
Even if the synoptics had nothing to say about the Deity of Christ (which has been shown to be totally bogus), it is a logical fallacy to assert that this would mean Jesus was not by nature God. What do I mean? Simply that absence of evidence to the positive does not constitute proof of the negative. That is, just because there is a lack of proof in a certain area for something it does not then follow that the thing is disproven.
Example: the book of Esther in the Old Testament never mentions Abraham’s nephew Lot. To follow the unitarian line of reasoning – that absence of evidence for the Deity of Christ in the synoptics (even if it were truly absent) shows that He was not True God – we would have to also say that absence of evidence for the life of Lot in the book of Esther shows that he was not a real man.
This would be an absurd way to argue! The fact is that the gospel written by John is very explicit when it comes to the Deity of Christ (just as the book of Genesis is very explicit about the life of Lot), so to find a section of scripture where the evidence is not so explicit, such as the synoptics (or the book of Esther, in the case of Lot), does not overturn the evidence we do find in spades elsewhere!
Again, commit this principle to memory: absence of evidence to the positive does not constitute proof of the negative.
Let me give you one more example of this principle to add to your quiver before we move on. Suppose you were a defense attorney for a client who had broken into a home and killed a man. Now suppose that the prosecution had fingerprints, hair and DNA samples, actual video documentation of the entire incident, and eyewitnesses that pointed to your client as the culprit. All the evidence links to him.
You get up and address the judge and the jury, “Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client could not have committed this crime because we have not found the murder weapon.”
What do you think would happen? If not for the gravity of the proceedings, my guess is you would be laughed out of the court room. So the murder weapon is missing? So what? We have video documentation and eyewitnesses! You can point out all the gaps in the evidential net you like – the fact is there is more than enough evidence for a guaranteed conviction.
Now, as an aside, some people are just weird and would say, “Oh no! He/She’s right! We don’t have the murder weapon! We can’t be 100% sure the suspect did it unless we have a murder weapon!” Some of these people might even be on the jury, and if that’s the case, then you the defense attorney have done a good job of conjuring up doubt in people’s minds where none need exist (you have a flipping video tape!!!). This kind of deceptive tactic is used by the best liars because it seemingly lessens the degree of certainty you can have about a certain conclusion/conviction. But in the end, that’s all it is, a ploy to play on the fears of people by pointing out an area where the evidence is not so clear (not contradictory, just not explicitly clear either) and blowing it up so it seems like a bigger deal than it actually is. If you will remember the principle that absence of evidence to the positive does not constitute proof of the negative (getting tired of that yet?) you can avoid getting duped by all the people who will point to the gaps when the undeniable evidence more than overwhelms any doubts; and there are a lot of such manipulators, trust me.
I will of course grant (as I have from the beginning of this answer) that the synoptic gospels are not as “in your face” with the Deity of Christ as the Gospel of John is, and I think that’s really what the question at the top is referring to. So how come the synoptics aren’t in your face about it?
This question bugged me for the longest time. In my mind (and the mind of orthodoxy really), the Deity of Christ is the nail on which everything else is hung. So why-oh-why aren’t Matthew, Mark, and Luke more explicit about it?
The answer from liberal secular scholars is of course that, “Well, the early followers of Christ didn’t conceive of Him as God. It took time for that whole idea to grow, and so we see that John’s gospel, which was written towards the end of the first century (as opposed to the mid-first century synoptics) exhibits a “higher Christology” – that is, more clear statements about Jesus as God – than the earlier synoptics do.
Some of the more liberal Christian scholars, in an effort to retain this theory, try to soften it and have gone instead with saying, “Well, the first Christians did think of Jesus as Divine, they just had trouble with the concept and how to express and understand it, so it took them some time to reflect on it after Jesus’ ascension before they really got it.”
Now, obviously, the first answer from atheistic liberals is unacceptable. We affirm as Christians that the belief in the Deity of Christ is central to the message of the Gospel, and therefore for that doctrine to have been a late innovation is equivalent to our faith being in vain. Besides that, it doesn’t stand up to the facts; more on that in a moment.
The answer from these Christian scholars who want to say that the idea of Christ as God needed to grow up from some vague (though acknowledged) concept at the time of the ascension to the full-blown Christology of John’s gospel is likewise a bitter pill to swallow. Look, if Thomas could confess Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28) immediately after the resurrection, why would it take the Church another 30-40 years to really contemplate and affirm the message?
Let me tell you why both of these theories fail, and in so doing it will be an answer to the question of why the synoptics are not on-your-face with the Deity of Christ like John is.
Here’s the thing:
The Apostle Paul wrote many explicit things about the Deity of Christ in his letters, many to most of which pre-date the gospels (see especially the Carmen Christi in Philippians 2, which was probably an early Christian hymn and may even pre-date Paul’s conversion – placing it within a mere several years of Jesus’ resurrection). This means that the teaching of Jesus as God was already taking place well before the synoptics were penned, let alone John’s gospel account (so much for the development of this doctrine over decades).
Further, the vast majority of the teaching of the early Church was oral, which means that the Deity of Christ was most likely something that was covered by the traveling Apostles and Evangelists as they spread the gospel to the nations and therefore was not recorded for us as such until later. The gospels were written primarily to preserve a record of the teachings of Jesus, not as an apologetic tool to be used against every Johnny-come-lately heretic who denied the Deity of Christ. In fact, the first heresies about Jesus’ nature took several decades to crop up.
I want you to join me in a thought-experiment, just for fun. Imagine that you are a citizen in a Roman town and the Apostle Peter is passing through preaching the gospel of Christ crucified. You hear it and are intrigued, as are many others. In no time you and your fellows have banded together and are now meeting regularly to hear the Apostle preach about this man, Jesus Christ. He tells you that this man was God in the flesh, and that He did many miracles and even rose from the dead, claiming to be the firstfruits of a future resurrection for all who believe and trust in Him for salvation. After staying for some time, he appoints leaders for the Church in your area and goes on his way to continue to spread the news.
Now, before he goes, imagine that his interpreter, Mark (who was indeed Peter’s interpreter), says to you, “I’m writing an account of Jesus to spread to all the Churches. What do you think I should spend the most room talking about? After all, I only have a limited amount of papyrus to write on.”
What would you say?
Here’s another way of looking at it. Suppose you were at the bookstore looking for a book on George Washington. There are two options: one is a book written as an apologetic to prove that Washington was the first president of the United States. All it talked about over and over was the fact that Washington was the president, and oh, what a president, and did I mention he was the president? The second is a book which chronicles the things that Washington did (fight in battles, work a farm, survey land, etc.) and the things he said (speeches he made, letters he wrote, and conversations recorded for posterity). Which book would you buy? What would be more interesting and useful to you?
For my part, I’d want the second one. Good grief, I already learned he was the first US president in grade school, no need to belabor the point. Actually, I don’t care if the second book never even mentions that fact. I don’t need that book to give me the slightest clue that Washington was ever the president, because as I read I’m already assuming it, since it’s something I’ve already learned. The book can hint at his future (or past) presidency all it wants without saying it explicitly, and I’ll catch every hint because I’m reading the book with a basic foundational knowledge already in place.
So to go back to the thought experiment, you would already know full-well through the Apostolic teaching that Jesus is Deity (because, as Paul’s letters show, this was being clearly taught to the Churches within a matter of years after Pentecost and well before the synoptics). Therefore this would be old news, just like the presidency of Washington. So if Mark told you that he was writing a book about the Word made flesh, what would you want in it? For my part, I already get it, God became man for my sake. Fantastic news! Now that I know and believe that God was incarnate, I don’t want a whole book about it, I’ll just assume it. No, I want to know what God did and said when He was walking among men, in the flesh – and I would tell Mark as much.
And you know what? That’s exactly what we see in the synoptics. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are written with the underlying assumption that Jesus is God, and thus they do not seek to prove it (as John does), because it’s a given already. They simply record what the God-man did during His earthly ministry, as a biography.
It is just plain error (in my opinion) to read the synoptics while asking the question, “Is Jesus God incarnate?” They record what God incarnate did and said, and therefore you will be very confused if you read them without the underlying understanding that Jesus is God, but you might not be able to deductively prove that He is God incarnate from that text alone (which is why we have John!).
Still, why did it take John so long to get around to writing about the Deity of Christ?
Now, as to why John saw fit to prove the Deity of Christ and spend so much time on it in His gospel when the synoptics didn’t, it is very simple. John wrote his gospel account decades after the synoptics, and in the between period many false teachers had sprung up. One in particular who was known to John was a man named Cerinthus.
As near as historians can tell, Cerinthus taught that Jesus was a mere man, a mortal creature. According to Cerinthus, when Jesus was baptized the “Christ spirit” attached itself to Jesus and enabled him to exercise divine powers. At Jesus’ crucifixion this “Christ spirit” left him to return to heaven, and Jesus died, again a mere mortal creature.
Now, it’s important to recognize that this heresy was one of the first of its kind, and therefore it wasn’t a problem decades before when Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their accounts. However, the evidence points rather squarely to the conclusion that John was actually responding to this teaching of Cerinthus when he wrote his gospel. In other words, John’s goal in writing his gospel account was to prove that Jesus is Himself Divine! Consider the words: “These things are written that you may believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31) – do you see how soundly this refutes Cerinthus’ teaching that Jesus and the Christ were 2 different things?
The fact is that early on, there were really no heresies denying the Deity of Christ, so we would not expect the earlier synoptics to place a strong emphasis on it – they would rather be more concerned with what God incarnate taught than proving that He was God incarnate, because everyone already accepted that. Later on, when Cerinthus started spouting his heresy that Jesus was a mere mortal man, John saw fit to pen his gospel roundly refuting that error.
Finally, I want to point out that there was one slightly earlier heresy than Cerinthus’ (Jesus being only man, not God) and that was proto-gnosticism. This heresy held that Jesus was only a Divine being, but not actually man – He just appeared to have a physical body, which was actually an illusion (this is known as Docetism). Good ol’ John wrote against this heresy just like he wrote against the Cerinthian error, and you will find that this is recorded for you in 1st John, his catholic epistle – read it and see if you can tell how adamant he is in saying that Jesus was truly man! (see esp. 1 John 4:2)
In conclusion, the Deity of Christ is found in the synoptics, however they were written before the heresies denying the Deity of Christ began to appear, therefore they focus mostly on what God in the flesh did and said on this earth and did not waste precious space (and it was precious in those days of expensive writing materials) hammering home the evidence for His Deity, especially since they would have known that their readers had a firm grasp on this concept already from Apostolic teaching.
John wrote about the Deity of Christ extensively and explicitly because by the time he penned his account the Cerinthian and Gnostic heresies had arrived on the scene, therefore as the last surviving Apostle he spent his final years leaving the Church with an irrefutable witness to the Deity and humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To our unitarian friends: please understand that the synoptic gospels were never meant to convince you of the Deity of Christ. They were meant to teach what anyone who already believes in the Deity of Christ wants to know: “if God came to earth in the flesh, tell me about what He did and what He said while He was here!” The gospel of John was meant to convince you of the Deity of Christ, so I suggest you spend your time there. And to those unitarians who will want to find a way to throw the gospel of John out because you are running from the Biblical testimony of the Deity of Christ, read “Evading Truth – Speculation” and take stock of the reasons you are trying so very hard to avoid the obvious truth:
Jesus is God!
I hope all this made sense without being redundant. Feel free to leave a comment if I need to elaborate on anything or clear something up.
My Pastor, Rev. Eric Brown, gave a fantastic sermon this morning which ties in extremely well with my last post. Check it out here or link to “Confessional Gadfly” in the sidebar and look for his 2011 Epiphany 4 sermon.
Read the sermon!
The fact that there are so many teachers out there pointing people inwards for security and assurance of salvation, creating a subjective gospel based on “experience” – that breaks my heart.
That good-hearted people are duped into thinking that spirituality is defined by feelings instead of by reality – that breaks my heart.
When a born-again Christian goes through a spiritual low spot in their life and concludes that they were “never really saved” because, if they were, they would simply “have more faith” – that. Breaks. My. Heart.
Folks, I gotta warn ya, there’s a lot of plain ol’ crap being spread in American Evangelicalism today about the mechanics of salvation. The consequence of this crap is that thousands of baptized Christians are regularly questioning whether they are “saved” or not. This is especially manifest in the revival culture that we see in Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, and Charismatic-type denominations – though I’ve even seen more than a trace in Reformed Baptist circles as well.
You go to Church where you are taught that you will “know” when you are saved because a) you will get a feeling from the Holy Spirit – be it speaking in tongues, a tingling in your toes, or a burning in your bosom, b) you will desire to “accept” Jesus into your heart and “accept” His sacrifice for your sins, and/or c) you will “experience” new life and regeneration.
All is well for a period of time, but after a while, you begin to question: a) “was that really the Holy Spirit I thought I felt so strongly – or just indigestion?”, b) “did I really accept Jesus and His sacrifice, or did I just think I did?”, and/or c) “have I really experienced new life and regeneration? After all, I’m still sinning like a pagan, I was angry with my mom, I couldn’t stop myself from coveting my friend’s car, etc. If I had new life and was regenerate, wouldn’t I be a better person now?”
At this point, one of two things happens. 1) The person decides they need to “re-commit to Christ” – this can be through attending a revival meeting (that’s the essence of a revival, trying to get people to “re-commit to Christ”), forcing themselves to read the Bible more, trying to become “hyper-spiritual” with praise music and the like, or sometimes even getting baptized again (since the first time they obviously weren’t saved). Or 2) they lose all hope of ever having a true conversion and give up altogether. Often #1 takes place at least once, then several times more (how many exactly depends on the individual), and then inevitably #2 follows.
I want you to notice a couple of things about the progression above. For starters, the paragraph on the evidence of salvation/regeneration (blue) contains no objective measures, only subjective ones! How on earth can subjective measures be a reliable indicator of anything? They simply can’t provide security, which is why in paragraph 2 (green) the obvious questions are asked: i.e. did I really feel what I thought I felt? Inevitably, since you are asking about transient feelings the answer will be, “I’m not sure!” Thus, not being sure, the person in question decides to take action to obtain some assurance (red paragraph) – problem is, they are just repeating the subjective, experience driven process that got them in this mess to begin with!
What does this mean? It means that we can never have what we so desperately long for, assurance of salvation, by looking inwardly – which is by definition subjective. No, what we need is an external, objective standard.
And what might this objective standard be? Not in navel gazing, asking “did I really commit or not?” The question is never about whether or not you have done something, but about whether or not God has done something, for you.
The answer is that God has done something for you: He has drowned the Old Adam in you and raised the New Man in the waters of Baptism – that’s what makes you born again, not some passing feeling. He has scourged His body and poured out His blood for the remission of your sins and to seal His covenant promise to you – that’s what justifies you in God’s sight, not “accepting” Jesus and His sacrifice. He tells you about all of this in His own eternal Word – not in some sinner’s prayer you recite to “invite Jesus into your heart”.
Friends, you will go through times of spiritual famine, of that I can assure you. Just look at Elijah, or Jacob, or Moses. For crying out loud, look at the Psalmists, who in what seems like every other psalm cry out to God wondering why He is so far away. Look at the Apostles, who even after Jesus ascended had their own low spots in the road – and who wouldn’t as many times as they were jailed and beaten? Why the heck do you think Paul wrote so much about encouragement in his letters, because all the saints were just overflowing with faith every minute of every day? I don’t think so.
For all the spiritual valleys you will inevitably encounter, God’s promises do not change. In Matthew 28:20 – when Jesus promises to be with His disciples always, was there any contingency clause attached? Any, “I will be with you if…”? No.
In the words of Paul, even if we lack faith, “He is faithful.” 2 Timothy 2:13 Why? Because “He cannot deny Himself.”
You see, it’s not a question of how much faith you have; it’s a question of how much faithfulness He has. It is infinite, therefore you have no fear, for He cannot deny His own faithfulness.
Those of you who’ve ever attended any type of Christian “revival” may well do a double take when you see this video (thanks to James White at Alpha and Omega Ministries).
What do you think? If you had watched this with the sound off, maybe semi-ignored the ethnicity of the older-man, would you have guessed “yeah, Islamic conversion”? For my part, I think I would have assumed this was some youth-conference altar call, maybe complete with a “come to Jesus” sermon and “sinner’s prayer”. In fact, replace every mention of “Islam” with “Christ” or “Christianity” and you have a scene which might just as well be found at the next “Billy Graham Crusade” or local tent revival.
Does this disturb you, as Dr. White asked? I think it should. I think it should for the reasons he mentioned: because if this is the type of “conversion” non-Christians are having, how is a Christian “conversion” different in any substantial way?
Yeah, yeah, leave the “because we’re actually right and they are wrong,” at home. I’m sure they would say the same of us, it’s not valid. Similarly, don’t tell me “because a Christian in this scenario is actually sincere, that boy is definitely not”. Why? Do you know his heart? He looks sincere enough to me.
I think Christians, especially those of a southern Baptist or Pentecostal background, need to be aware of things like this. It certainly seems to me – and I think the statistics will back me up on this – that such “altar call conversions” rarely endure. This is why you see people “re-committing” themselves to Christ, not sure “if the first time really took”. There are folks out there who have been baptized 3 or 4 times, simply because they experience a season of spiritual famine and therefore concluded that they “weren’t sincere enough” last time.
I would love to do a full write-up of my thoughts on this, and at some point I probably will. But for now, time is not something I have a lot of, so I leave you with this thought:
What is the nature of a truly saving faith? Is it allowed to go through dry-spells, experience doubt, and feel abandoned by God at times? Or does a really saving faith by definition mean that you remain perpetually on the same plain of spiritual high you were on the day you “converted”?
More to come…
Given the ongoing short series I’ve been doing on Christian witnessing over the past couple of weeks, I think this might be a good time to do a little contrasting between what I mean when I talk about “witnessing” and particularly “conversion”, against what some of you might think I mean by these things. You see, there is a distinction between truly Biblical evangelism as prescribed in the text of scripture and what we (unfortunately) see a great many evangelical Christians engaged in today. I briefly touched on this in “Witnessing – Arrogance or Agape (Part 2a)”, but I think it bears fleshing out a little further.
Remember in all of this that, as we’ve pointed out, true conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is He who causes the person to be born again as a New Man in Christ Jesus, even as the Old Adam drowns in the waters of baptism. You are merely the person honored with the task of spreading the Gospel to the nations – this calls for humility, not pride.
In all of this, preach Christ, and Him crucified, and nothing else. In this way you will be witnessing Biblically. Take your focus off Christ, and Him crucified, and you will not be witnessing Biblically. That’s as simple as I can make it.
God bless you in your vocations!
In the field of apologetics, there is one type of person that you must be prepared to encounter, and one which you indeed will encounter on a regular basis. In fact, I would go so far as to say that 95% of the serious skeptics you encounter will fall into this category of person in one way or another, at some time or another. Some to a very limited extent, some in the most extreme of ways – as with most things there exists a continuum. I am speaking of a type of person I will refer to (for lack of a better term) as the “Conspiracy Theorist”.
The short definition of the Conspiracy Theorist is the individual who, though the plain and reasonable truth be clearly and accurately presented, cannot bring himself to abstain from rejecting it (for reasons of his own) and so engages in all manner of fanciful speculation to avoid the obvious conclusions and thus justify his own doubt. “Yeah, but what if…?” is a refrain common to his lips.
There may be many reasons for this – the most common, I believe, being simply that to allow for a certain matter to stand as truth would necessarily require some massive overhaul in the Conspiracy Theorist’s essential worldview. Therefore, the Conspiracy Theorist faces a dilemma: either acknowledge the insufficiency of their worldview to account for the plain facts (and therefore surrender control of their own worldview to the truth), or arbitrarily invent reasons to reject the truth, even if such reasons are not based on any rational or factual foundation whatsoever.
This ties into apologetics at several points. For instance, too often in the field of Biblical studies this manifests itself in people who are uncomfortable with the words of Jesus (be it His numerous claims to Deity, His admonitions that He is the only source of life, etc.) claiming that, “Jesus never said (such and so), that was added later on by Constantine or the Knights Templar”. This conspiratorial argument is so often used, in fact, that it is the very reason we are calling this type of person the “Conspiracy Theorist”.
Now, in point of fact, there is no evidence of mass manuscript tampering in the history of the Biblical text, and the reality is that so overwhelmingly does the textual witness speak against such speculation that it is simply a laughable assertion flat out. Be that as it may, the bread and butter of many Conspiracy Theorists is preying on the ignorance of the many who will simply swallow the claims hook, line, and sinker. Pretty soon, everyone is a Conspiracy Theorist! (thanks Dan Brown, you’ve made almost a whole generation of such thinkers)
As another example, consider the below transcript of an interview Ben Stein conducted with atheist Richard Dawkins, which was featured on the controversial documentary “Expelled”.
BEN STEIN: Who did create the heavens and the earth?
RICHARD DAWKINS: Why do you use the word “who”? You see, you immediately beg the question by using the word “who”.
STEIN: Well then how did it get created?
DAWKINS: Well, um, by a very slow process.
STEIN: Well how did it start?
DAWKINS: Nobody knows how it started. We know the kind of event that it must have been. We know the sort of event that must have happened for the origin of life.
STEIN: And what was that?
DAWKINS: It was the origin of the first self-replicating molecule.
STEIN: Right, and how did that happen?
DAWKINS: I told you, we don’t know.
STEIN: So you have no idea how it started.
DAWKINS: No, no. Nor has anybody.
STEIN: What do you think is the possibility that Intelligent Design might turn out to be the answer to some issues in, uh, genetics or in Darwinian evolution?
DAWKINS: Well, it could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, by probably some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it’s possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer. And that Designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe. But that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable, process. It couldn’t have just jumped into existence spontaneously. That’s the point.
No, Dr. Dawkins, the point is that you have evaded the fundamental problem that life cannot come from non-life. Do you see what took place here? So firm is Dawkins in his atheistic worldview, that when all the evidence in the world (literally) points to a creator, he chooses to avoid the obvious conclusion (i.e. that there is a god), not by providing any reasonable, evidence based alternative, but by pure, unadulterated, arbitrary speculation. It’s simply mind boggling how much evidence he undermined by simply saying, “maybe aliens did it. Proof? Nah, we don’t need proof. As long as the other side can’t prove we’re wrong we can continue to speculate ‘till the cows come home and avoid a version of reality we’re uncomfortable with.”
I will make a confession: when I was younger, I never would have believed that such people existed. Had you told me that there were individuals out there who would, even when confronted with the most blatantly obvious of facts, still insist on speculating their way out of the most undeniable of truths, simply because they could not handle the reality of things as they are, I would have laughed out loud. This is such a foreign way of being to me. For my part, if the facts point in a certain way such as to establish something beyond a reasonable doubt, I do not begin dabbling in unreasonable doubt just to be contrary or avoid conclusions that may cause me discomfort. This is called intellectual dishonesty, and it’s wrong.
Over the years, however, I have met people who would have stood in a field at noon and argued that the bright yellow source of light in the sky was not the sun, simply because they didn’t want to believe it was daytime. They exist.
Check yourselves, friends, that you too do not fall into the trap of engaging in conjecture just to justify your own personal belief system. Remember to “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), but do not refuse to believe something because it contradicts your worldview. Instead, seek to conform your worldview to that which is right and true.
So how do we respond to the Conspiracy Theorists in our midst? To date, the only effective way I have found of dealing with such people is prayer. You and I can’t soften a heart of stone – but God can replace it with a heart of flesh.
At first blush my gut said, “bad idea”, but I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions in my assessment, so I paid a visit to their home page. Now, I consider myself a pretty fair guy, generally I’ll try to look past the junk to find the diamond in the rough, as it were. I watched the video on the front page (not the same as the one above) and, though it wasn’t easy, I managed to find some pros amongst the cons. Unfortunately though, in the end my bad feeling was largely confirmed. Below is my at-a-glance review: 2 pros and 2 cons.
Let’s face it, sad as it is, most of us don’t get as much from the written word (comprehension-wise) as our parents and grandparents did. Thanks to digital media, our minds no longer have to work to put pictures to the story. The most effort our brains put forth these days seems to be trying to remember where we left the remote, and what time “Iron Chef” comes on. This is regrettable, but as much as you or I wish it wasn’t the case, them’s the facts. A Biblical theme park gives modern man an opportunity to get the history without having to use an atrophied imagination.
Hey, everybody loves theme parks, right? I mean, I was never the biggest fan of the Incredible Hulk growing up, but did that stop me from riding his roller-coaster at Universal Studios? No it did not. By the same token, this might provide people not familiar with the Good News of God With Us, Jesus Christ, an opportunity to be evangelized that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Of course, that would be to assume that the Gospel being preached at “Holy Land Experience” actually is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and not something else. On that note, we turn to the cons.
This worries me, to tell you the truth. In my opinion, this type of “Theme Park Christianity” – to coin the phrase – seems to thrive on one word: “experience”. Seriously, follow the link to the home page and watch their little video; count the number of time they say “experiencccccccce” in the 3 or so minute playtime. I gave up at 11, but I’m sure there’s more. “Experience love”, “experience peace”, “experience joy”, the message starts out. Blech. This makes me worry that the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified for you is something secondary to the whole “experience” of the theme park.
And what happens when customers (there’s a word that should never be associated with the Gospel) lose their spiritual high several weeks back from spring break? Could this create a new type of spiritual junkies who need to keep going back every vacation to get their fix? With all the emphasis on “experience”, does that not create the very problems we see with people coming out of Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations who believe that a lack of that spiritual high they’ve been told all Christians have perpetually (if they’re true Christians, say the Pentecostals) means by default that they are no longer “saved”?
Bottom line, does this place give out T-shirts with admission that say, “Remember your Baptism”? If that message is not preached (with or without the T-shirts) then this place has every chance of purveying a false gospel with the end result of making people feel insecure in their faith. Definitely a con.
Ok, ok, I know I just said that. I considered “It has the potential to make people look for God in places other than His Word and Sacraments”, but doesn’t that equate to the same thing?
“You’ll even have the opportunity to experience Holy Communion in a setting reminiscent of the Last Supper”, the video boasts. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but Communion at a theme park borders on outright blasphemy to me. Sure, people always need the means of Grace… but is it valid when given by a non-ordained cosplayer for the price of admission? I’m pretty sure, no.
The video ends with the same “experience blank” stuff that it started with, and the last one is “experience Jesus”. Thanks but no thanks. My called and ordained servant of the Word proclaims the Law and Gospel every Sunday morning, without any price of admission because Christ already paid for it. He announces forgiveness of sins and serves the means of Grace in humility and reverence. He points me to my Baptism in which my security lies. In other words, I don’t need some theme park to give me what I already have:
Justification by Grace through Faith.
What do you think? Any pros and cons I missed?