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Posts Tagged ‘New Testament’

“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18

“For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:22-24

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” Galatians 6:14

“Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)” Philippians 3:17-19

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Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

This passage really nagged at me when I read it as a Mormon. It even says that these things are an apearance of wisdom, for crying out loud. I’m not saying it was a slam-dunk, but it always felt uncomfortably close.

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This is hard to explain and causes me a lot of anxiety, so I ask my readers to be charitable and patient with me.

Once I realized that I had become a Christian, I started reading the Bible seriously. In addition to reading reading, I also bought an audiobook of Johnny Cash reading the New Testament (it’s just amazing and I recommend it most highly) and started listening through it when I went running. I had read the New Testament a number of times before, but always filtered heavily through the lens of Mormonism. This time, I did my best to approach it without so many preconceived notions. I don’t know if that’s ever really possible, but I gave it (and continue to give it) my best shot.

I still remember exactly where I was when I heard Romans 9. It hit hard and then wormed its way into my mind. I spent the next six months, at least, just struggling and grappling with predestination. I read Augustine’s Confessions. The idea of unconditional election was really disturbing to me, and went against everything I had grown up believing (Mormonism has strong Wesleyan roots and has an Arminian-esque belief in “free agency” that is absolutely central to Mormon belief), but I could not shake the idea that it was Biblical.

So early last fall, when I was perusing Jack’s blogroll one day instead of working, I found myself on Parchment and Pen, reading some of their posts on Calvinism. I was intrigued. This was really interesting stuff, and seemed so much more filled with grace than the Calvinist stereotype. Somewhere I saw that they have a podcast, and one of their podcast series was called “An Invitation to Calvinism.” So I downloaded it and listened.

It was great stuff. Michael Patton, Tim Kimberley and Sam Storms seemed warm, earnest, knowledgeable, and authoritative. What they said made sense, and really fit with the mighty wrestlings I had been having with parts of the Bible like Romans 9. It felt like my mind was opening up to a newer and deeper faith in Jesus Christ.

I started following their blog, and then before too long I was reading the Gospel Coalition and Challies.com (which I first heard about from Tim’s blog but wasn’t really interested back then because ew, Calvinism). From there I found Reformedish and the Heidelblog. I bought the Reformation Study Bible. I read Pilgrim’s Progress. I was praying a lot more, and reading the Bible all the more eagerly. This was all so heady.

I became interested in the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. I bought a Trinity Hymnal and a Psalter.

And lo and behold, I found myself reading Calvin’s Institutes, and just loving it.

And then I heard about Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Google it if you want, but I wouldn’t bother if I were you. It’s a charismatic/Reformed network of churches that is in the middle of a child sex abuse scandal right now that will make you want to vomit. And the sexual abuse is all tied up in an abusively authoritarian system of church governance that is of obviously Calvinist provenance. Church discipline that is out of control and far worse than the worst stories I have ever heard about Mormon excommunications. “Covenants” held coercively over the heads of members. It’s all just so obviously poisonous.

And then (thanks, Wartburg Watch) I also started reading similar things about Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, and the Acts 29 Network. Not the sexual abuse, but the same kinds of authoritarian spiritual and ecclesiastical abuses. And it’s all just different flavors of the same kind of poison.

So why does that matter? It matters because then I read about how much the people at the Gospel Coalition just have fawned over Sovereign Grace Ministries and it’s founder, C.J. Mahaney. And I read about how they all basically have closed ranks around him. And it matters because Derek Rishmawy posts at the Gospel Coalition. and so does Kevin DeYoung (I’m in the middle of a book about the Heidelberg Catechism by him, and I like it a lot, except every time I pick it up I throw up in my mouth a little bit because the back cover has an endorsement by C.J. Mahaney).

It matters because Michael Patton and Sam Storms are members of an Acts 29 church. And that breaks my heart because these guys seem like just, incredibly good and smart guys who love Jesus and love to teach God’s truth. My wife and I are about 3/4 through their Discipleship Program and we’ve loved it–it’s brought us so much closer to Jesus Christ and to each other. But at the same time, it’s not like I know Michael Patton personally. How am I supposed to trust him, knowing that he’s in bed with Acts 29?

I talked to one of the partners at my firm the other day, he’s an elder in a PCA congregation nearby. I’ve visited his church, and it seems just lovely. But in our conversation he told me how much he looks up to Marc Driscoll and “those Acts 29 guys.” What am I supposed to do with that?

How do I know how far the poison goes? How do I tell the sheep from the wolves? How do I protect my family from abusive churches?

Look, I’m not naive. I was raised Mormon. I went on a mission. I was endowed. I know for a fact that a religion can seem just wonderful and happy and Jesus-centered and Holy Spirit filled but really be rotten to the core. And I don’t think I’m being crazy or alarmist here: Jesus made this stuff absolutely clear. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Bible warns us again and again to beware of false prophets and false teachers. And I have four kids and a beautiful wife I have to look out for. So yeah. I’m wary.

What am I supposed to do with all of this? How am I not supposed to feel betrayed and distrustful? And how am I supposed to navigate this as a new Christian?

What am I supposed to do?

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Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

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1. Are you a Christian?

In the sense that most people probably mean when they ask that question, my answer has to be no. I like Jesus just fine, but I do not believe that Jesus is the only-begotten son of the One True God, or the One True God uniquely made flesh. I believe in good and evil but I don’t believe that I am guilty of sinning against the One True God, and I don’t believe that I am in need of salvation that only God can provide. I don’t believe that a contemporarily obscure greco-Jewish messianic figure was the central pivot point in the spiritual history of the cosmos (not that there’s a specific reason he couldn’t be; just that I don’t believe he is). I don’t believe that the Jews are the chosen people of the One True God. There are many parts of the Bible that I do not believe are scriptural or inspired writing. I am not personally committed to the person of Jesus in any way.

2. Why not?

I’m just not. I don’t think it makes sense for me to have to affirmatively have a reason to disbelieve Christianity. Quite the opposite: I am not Christian because I don’t have enough sufficiently compelling reasons to be Christian. The burden of persuastion is squarely on the religion, and in my case, the burden just has not been met. I am unpersuaded. I find Jesus compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling. I find Christianity compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling.

I find value in culture and tradition, and I recognize that Christianity has played a pivotal role in my culture’s history, but it’s not the only spiritual tradition in the mix (look at our great art and literature and see for yourself: classical mythology may be out of favor on Sunday mornings, but it has stayed the course pretty fucking powerfully in our cultural consciousness). And given my own personal religious background–born and raised Mormon but gone apostate–it’s hard for me to claim “Christianity, generally” as my own personal cultural tradition, especially given the pluralism of the society I live in now. As great as I think it would be to identify with a particular tradition and to feel like my spirituality was connected to firm cultural roots, I just don’t, and I never really have.

3. Have you read the Bible?

Yes. I’ve read the Old Testament all the way through once, and different parts of it a number of other times. I’ve read the New Testament at least twice all the way through, and individual parts of it many times. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I know my way around the book really well. I have mixed feelings about the Bible, as indicated above, partly because I think it’s sometimes a mistake to think of the Bible as one work. It’s not one work; it’s an anthology of works by different people at different times and in widely different cultural circumstances. Parts of the Bible have the character of scripture to me: they resonate mythologically (Genesis, 1 & 2 Samuel) or they are profoundly mystical (the Psalms, the gospel of John, Revelations, many of the Prophets). Other parts just don’t feel holy to me. The epistles may be complex, masterful and fundamental works of theological wordsmithy, but that doesn’t make them have spiritual weight. I’m basically familiar with the process of selecting what went into the canon, and I conclude that the canoneers were simply evaluating the books with different criteria in mind from what I am using. I’m comfortable with that.

I think there’s wisdom and relevance in the Bible. Maybe not uniquely so in an inherent sense, but certainly given the Bible’s place in western civilization for the last 2,000 years, it has a preeminent or at least prominent place in our cultural, philosophical, and spiritual history. The Bible is beautiful, resonant, and generally has a lot to offer, and I don’t think that being a non-Christian changes that. It may change the way I approach the text, but it doesn’t dissuade me from approaching it in the first place.

4. Do You Go To Church?

Absolutely. I like going to Church. I like going to Church with my wife, and I intend to keep on going for the rest of my life. And though I’m not much of a believer, I find value in community, and I intend to be active and involved. I don’t feel the need to attract attention and be the center of attention because I’m a non-Christian going to a Christian church. I’m happier to just be quietly heretical. But like I said, I like Jesus, I like the Bible, I like Church. I don’t agree with everything that gets said, but nobody should, about anything, ever. So I’m comfortable with that.

We don’t have a church we go to right now, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. When we find a church we like, we’ll go to it. And it will most definitely be a Christian church.

My kids will be raised Christian. I’m comfortable with that. They’ll know I’m not, and they’ll know that not being a Christian–or that being various shades of Christian–is a live option for reasonable people. I want them to be able to make up their own minds, but I’d also like to give them a decent tradition to be raised in and to be able to fall back on when they need to without feeling that they are forced to conform to it. And I’d like them to grow up seeing that vast differences in approaches to faith are ultimately reconcilable and mutually compatible.

I don’t really attend any other kind of non-Christian spiritual gathering, either. I’m tangentially affiliated with a group of revival Druids in Chicagoland, but I have never actually met with them in person. And revival Druidry isn’t necessarily incompatible with Christianity anyway.

5. What do you think about Christians?

I like ’em just fine. I’m married to one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be Christian. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to commit to a faith or a tradition. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take a stand and decide what you do and don’t believe. I understand completely that someone could find Jesus uniquely and supremely compelling, even though I don’t necessarily. I understand completely that someone could believe in One True God: sometimes I kind of do, too.

What I think is arrogant, though, is to pretend that you can be absolutely certain about any of it. There’s just no way. There is no way to know something without the possibility that you are wrong. We’re nervous systems floating in a dark jar, and we put a lot of faith in the data our senses feed us and the way our brains process that data. We could be wrong. We could be misled. We could be in the Matrix, and we would not know it or have any way of knowing it. The whole world could be a convincing illusion (some Hindus certainly think it is). Not only is it a possibility, but its a possibility that we can’t even judge how likely it is, because we have no frame of reference.

I’m not saying you have to waver or be wishy-washy. Practical existence means that, despite the possibility that it’s all an illusion, you have to act like it’s not. There’s virtue in taking a stand, and value in making sacrifices for what you believe. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that it’s possible you’re wrong, and find a way to weigh that against your convictions. In my mind, that’s faith. Unwavering certainty is just foolishness and self-deception. Going forward despite the possibility of being wrong is faith. What’s more, unwavering certainty makes people make bad decisions. The possibility of error allows us to act in faith but temper our actions with the consequences of error. It doesn’t mean paralysis. It just means our decisions, even the ones made on the basis of faith, are better decisions, because they are decisions we have weighed and considered properly.

6. Will you ever change your mind?

Maybe. Who’s to say? I change my mind about a lot of things, all the time. I try to live an authentic life, and sometimes that means backtracking and taking things back. I can live with that.

7. What would it take to make you change your mind?

Anything that would make Christianity and/or Jesus somehow uniquely or superlatively compelling. I don’t think it’s possible for Christianity to be objectively proven, and even if it’s theoretically possible, I think that Christianity has managed not to do it for two millennia, and I’m not optimistic about it’s chances of being objectively proven anytime soon.

So it would take something personal and subjective to make me into a Christian. A powerful mystical experience? A spiritual need uniquely filled? Something to make Christianity stand out and above everything else that I find just as compelling or more compelling. It’s a kind of spiritual economics. The value of being exclusively Christian would have to outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs of the rich extra-Christian spiritual landscape that I would have to forego.

8. Haven’t you already had powerful spiritual experiences confirming the unique truth of Christianity?

Yes but no. At one point in my life I said I did, because it was important in my faith tradition to be able to say that, to be able to testify publicly that you had received a personal spiritual witness of the truth of Jesus Christ. So I went looking for this witness I was supposed to have, and the first powerful emotional experience I had that was Jesus-related, I labeled personal revelation. It was not intentionally dishonest. The cornerstone experience I had was an emotional breakdown in a set of circumstances effectively designed to be a lab for spiritual/emotional breakdowns. It is suspect because of the setting, and because of the effort and desire I put into getting a specific result that I believed I would get.

The point is, no emotional experience is objective proof of anything. At best, it’s proof that you’re having an emotional experience, that’s all. Spiritually emotional experiences are relevant, but how we weigh them, the creedence we give them, and the conclusions we draw from them are not necessarily straightforward. An experience that was compelling to me under one set of circumstances may simply no longer be compelling to me, for any reason.

I had an emotional experience, but I no longer find it sufficiently compelling to believe in the unique truth and exclusive divinity of Jesus.

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After I had a dream about the English Standard Version, I went out and bought a nice slimline copy with an embossed celtic cross on the cover, and I’ve decided to start reading the Bible in earnest, starting tonight.  I’ve “decided to start reading the Bible” a couple of times in the last few years, but i have a weird feeling about this time, like I’m going to make it stick.  I kind of feel, I don’t know.  Hungry for it.

For what it’s worth, I’ve read the King James Version a couple of times (well, the Old Testament once, and the New Testament maybe three times, the Gospels at least one time more than that), but it was a long time ago as a Mormon missionary, and the experience was filtered pretty heavily through the lens of my Mormon belief.  Nevertheless, grappling seriously with scripture for the first time resulted in some of the early seeds that eventually led me away from Mormonism.

I want to read the Bible again, as a Christian this time.

My wife and I have challenged each other to read the New Testament by the end of the year, in any version (sort of a Christian counterpart to the LDS Book of Mormon challenge).  I also think I’d like to read through the Gospels in several different versions (ESV, Message, NRSV, NIV, and the KJV again).  Ultimately I’d like to read the Old Testament again, but probably in an easier translation (NIV, Message, Good News, something like that).  I have no desire to labor through the KJV Old Testament again; not without a much better foundation biblical knowledge.

What am I expecting to get out of my reading?  Well, like I said, I’m feeling a bit of hunger for the Word (that seems lame when I write it out like that, but it’s pretty much true).  I want to get a better handle on who Jesus really is.  I want to feel closer to God.  I want to strengthen my relationship with my wife.  And I want to grow spiritually.  I’m having trouble figuring out where and how to do the latter, but I’m planning on writing another post on that soon.  Suffice it to say for the moment, that as a relatively new Christian, I’m lacking quite a bit in the guidance department.

Anyway, I’m really going to try to stick to reading this time.  I’m not going to starve when the food’s sitting in front of me.  I’ll keep the blog updated on any developments.

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