Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Wait...This Conversation Isn't Over?: A Review of Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal L. Downing

Ever have one of those awkward phone conversations where you think everything that needs to be said has been said. You then try to get off the phone, only to have the person start talking again...about the same thing...

My first thought? "Oh no."

I feel the same way about Crystal L. Downing's book Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication. This is a book that strikes me as 7 years too late to the scene. It would have fit in perfectly with the tremendous amount of Emergent (capital E) literature that was being written during that time. Instead, it is half-way to 2013 and we get a book that reminds us, yet again, that we need to rethink the way we communicate the truths of the Bible.

Let's run through the obligatory checklist of cliched concepts and ideas presented in this book:

  • A disregard of inerrancy? Check.
  • A reminder that we are indebted to the past while also needing to think anew for the future? Check.
  • A call to cultivate Spirit-led community? Check.
  • A reminder that political power is overrated and culture change comes from "the margins"? Check.
  • A call to delight in the pluralism found within Christianity? Check.
  • A declaration that terms like "conservative" and "liberal" are unhelpful? Check.
I could go on but...honestly, if you in any way were connected with the Emergent church movement or read any of the literature during that time, you've read this all before. Sure, it is dressed up with some really entertaining illustrations and with some pretty solid discussion on semiotics. But we have been here. We have done that.

My critique of the book (besides it being a rehashing of what has already been said) is basically the same critique many "conservative" (oops, sorry) Christians have had of most Postmodern scholars and those within the Emergent movement. Crystal basically guts her own argument by assuming the Bible isn't inerrant. I provide a few quotes for you to get a taste of her view:

"However, like any map, the Bible is a network of signs that offers multiple intersecting routes to the final destination [Jesus]: law and grace, free will and determinism, faith and works, mercy and justice, tradition and change."

I am not exactly sure what she means here, to be honest. Is she stating that the Bible offers all of these as valid ways to Christ? Is she saying that the Bible is contradictory in what it proposes? Obviously, it should be said that law is not a route to Christ. Further, free will and determinism are not routes to Jesus. Maybe I am just not hip enough to get it.

Further, while stating many Biblical scholars have abandoned inerrancy in light of their studies (particularly Bart Ehrman), she writes,

"How should we respond to Ehrman's thoroughly erudite scholarship? After all, he has educated himself in the original languages of the Bible and has studied and compared numerous ancient documents in order to pinpoint not only the hundreds of changes made to biblical manuscripts but also contradictions within the biblical text. To argue for biblical inerrancy in response makes Christianity seem intellectually untenable to scholars familiar with the most ancient texts. Isn't the point of the Bible to do the opposite: to draw people into relationship with God? Ehrman himself, a one-time evangelical committed to inerrancy, responded to his discoveries by becoming a self-proclaimed agnostic. For him God's Word had become reduced to mere human words." (73)

Her conclusion based upon this paragraph? "Christians on the edge [that is, attempting to deal with contemporary contexts] I would suggest, respond neither with inerrancy nor with agnosticism. Following the Word of God, they offer, instead, the (re)signing of truth." (73)

This is an absolutely disastrous paragraph and was (and is) so befuddling to me that I had to re-read it five times to see if I was getting what she was saying. First, I am wondering if Ms. Downing is aware of the plentiful and valuable critiques of Ehrman's "erudite scholarship"? If not, then she should check into it. If she is, then it seems incredibly disingenuous to say that we should basically abandon inerrancy because of his scholarship. In fact, I have on my shelf at least four solid books by authors who also know the original languages and disagree with Ehrman.So essentially, we should abandon inerrancy because, "To argue for biblical inerrancy in response makes Christianity seem intellectually untenable to scholars familiar with he most ancient texts." This seems to be a basic dismissal of current Evangelical scholarship and somewhat short-sighted.

But what is astounding is that the reason Ehrman left Christianity is because he couldn't justify any of his beliefs because he thought the Bible contained errors. The solution proposed by Ms. Downing solves nothing! If the Bible has errors, then how can we trust any of what it says? If you knew I lied a lot and had a predisposition for creating myth, then it would stand to reason that you wouldn't trust my messages very often. To say, "Well, let's just trust you, even though we know you are a liar" is foolish. That is, basically, what is encouraged here.

She cites approvingly of Peter Enns, who has championed the "Incarnational" model of the Bible. The Bible is both inspired by God but since it is written by men in a particular culture, it must contain errors. Quoting C.S. Lewis, Crystal states, "For [Lewis], 'the right spirit' is not one that seeks to either prove or disprove the Bible's scientific and historical accuracy: opposite sides of the same coin. For him, the right spirit is on the edge; it is a spirit that believes in the resurrection of Jesus while aware that the Bible has certain inconsistencies in the way it points to the same ultimate reality. The right spirit opens itself to the Holy Spirit, seeking in the Bible truths for life lived in relationship with our creation and redeemer." (79)

Apparently, if the Bible is unhistorical (or a-historical), it really doesn't matter because we can get great life lessons. Unfortunately, if the Bible isn't historically accurate, we have a problem. The problem is, we can't trust it. An illustration here might help:

I love the wild west and I try to read a lot about the wild west. Now, what is the measure of a good history book? The fact that it can paint a true picture of the events that happened while minimizing or eliminating error. There is a reason a book like Empire of the Summer Moon gets nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while The Frontiersman, though claiming to be true, did not. The one is extremely accurate and based on many historical sources. The other incorporates facts that are known to be incorrect. While both books are entertaining to read, only one really is right. Guess which one I am trusting?

In the same way the Bible is either historical or it is not. It is either trustworthy, or just a good fictional read. I admit, this sounds a lot like the whole "either/or" thing that is mocked within this book. But I am either/or because both/and simply doesn't work. It will lead to a doctrinal disaster. (As a quick aside, with Ms. Downing's confidence in the Spirit leading people, why is she so convinced the Spirit couldn't have created an inerrant Bible?)

An example of this is how Ms. Downing insists that the three non-negotiable truths Christians must communicate are God's triunity, the incarnation and the free gift of salvation. First, I must confess that her list is utterly anemic and the logic behind picking these three things strikes me as incredibly arbitrary. Norman Geisler has written on this topic and has done a far, far better job discussing the essentials. But second, because she has gutted the trustworthiness of God's revelation, what makes us think (or be led by the Spirit) these three essentials are true? What if there is no Spirit? What if this whole thing is arbitrary?

Her final statement is perhaps the most absurd of all: "In other words, recognizing something as 'a sign,' even without fully understanding what it means, is far preferable to worshiping the sign as holy in and of itself." (80) I'll admit, I am at a loss to figure this statement out. First, I know of no one that claims we know the Bible ("the sign") fully and no one that worships the Bible. That strikes me as a straw-man. She states a bit before this, "...some Christians seem more passionate about protecting the holiness of an inerrant sign (the Bible) than about humbly considering how to be transformed by what the sign points to (God's holy character and loving acts)." (80)

Hogwash. Every major defender of inerrancy I know also has a deep, abiding passion for seeing God's truth and transformation. Norman Geisler is a  great example of this as are many of the SBC theologians. Further, I would argue that if we cannot understand the sign (or can't trust the sign) then the sign doesn't even serve a purpose. Her opinion: Maybe the sign is right. Maybe the sign is wrong.

My thoughts? Get a new stinking sign you can trust! Otherwise you might end up in the lake. The trustworthiness of signs matter. That is why I recommend you stay far, far away from Changing Signs of Truth. With Ms. Downing's changing signs, the road ends quickly and the lake comes up mighty fast.

*Thanks to IVP Academic for providing a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review of "Historical Reliability of John's Gospel"

John's Gospel has come under attack for years. When one compares it to the synoptics, it is obvious to see the differences. John seems to write with a more theological than historical bent. John records many unique stories, only found in his gospel. The end result is that the fourth gospel is often discarded in scholarly discussions. For instance, the Jesus Seminar has largely rejected John, stating that it is made up of false stories.

Craig Blomberg seeks to establish the historical reliability of the Gospel of John in his book, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel. Blomberg is well qualified to do this, being an expert in gospel literature and having also penned, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Blomberg's work here is unique because it functions as a commentary that focuses almost exclusively on defending the reliability of what John has written. One will not find an in-depth exegesis of any one given passage. Rather, one will find a series of tight, logical arguments that favor trusting what John has written.

The work itself is somewhat tedious after awhile--not because Blomberg is a bad author but because most of the attacks on John from liberal scholarship follow the same basic arguments. For instance, many liberal scholars reject the possibility of miracles a priori because it goes against a naturalistic worldview. Blomberg has to continually refute that very idea throughout the entire Gospel. In essence, whenever a miracle occurs, Blomberg addresses the critics in virtually the same way. Again, this isn't a shortcoming on Blomberg's part. Rather, it is a testament to how shallow much of the recent criticism of John's Gospel actually is.

At times it feels as if Blomberg sacrifices too much for the sake of scholarship. For instance, when dealing with the arrest of Jesus in John 18, he argues that when Jesus said, "I am," the shock of the statement caused the soldiers to stumble on the uneven ground and since they were likely walking close together, many fell. Blomberg then argues that John saw the irony in this and interpreted it as such. While I understand he is attempting to defend the Bible from historical critics, I think that his argument here does more to discredit his own position. If John has interpreted natural causes as being divine here, what prevents us from using that same argument throughout the rest of John's Gospel. Perhaps John was over-interpreting purely naturalistic events. Again, I don't think Blomberg's position here is totally discredited; it just seems to be undermined a bit. It also makes one wonder if it is always helpful to try to defend an event based on purely naturalistic causes. I think it is wiser to simply state John records that when Jesus spoke, the men fell at his power. Whether it is historical cannot be discerned. It seems disingenuous to John, however, to try to interpret the event as caused by a purely naturalistic sequence of events.

Overall, however, this book is excellent. It deals effectively with major and minor criticisms of John's Gospel. The bibliography is exhaustive and Blomberg clearly knows his stuff. Pastors and seminary students will likely find in this work reassurance and joy that the Gospel of John can still stand strong after the smoke from the attacks has cleared.

*Thanks to IVP for providing a review copy of this work in exchange for a fair review.*

"Canon Revisted" Review

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger is one of my frontrunners for the best book I have read in 2012. Let me give you a few reasons why:
1) Kruger's book is uncompromisingly conservative and unique. It is in vogue to argue that the New Testament cannot be authoritative and inerrant because the canon itself was established until later in church history. However, Kruger argues persuasively that the canon, rather than be authoritative because of the community (the Church and the history of the acceptance of the letter) or history (if the letters are authentic or not), is authoritative because it is self-authenticating.

The argument is odd, but devastatingly effective. He states that, "God has created the proper epistemic environment wherein belief in the New Testament canon can be reliably formed." [94] There are three components to this epistemic environment which are providential exposure, attributes of canonicity, and internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

What this means is that God providentially exposed the church to the books which make up the canon. The attributes of canonicity means that the books possess divine qualities, are corporately received and are of apostolic origin. Finally, the Holy Spirit testifies to these books within the believer's life.

Kruger essentially argues that Christians have warranted belief for accepting the Bible as canon. Obviously, the question is why should anyone accept these premises and Kruger spends the second half of the book arguing why. I found his overall argument persuasive. But it was also refreshing to find someone argue some forcefully in favor of the canon.

2) Kruger's book is modest in what it attempts to prove and, as a result, is effective. In other words, he doesn't try to say "the canon is 100% divinely inspired." Rather, he argues that "we can have rational confidence that the canon is 100% divinely inspired." This, to me, was the smart move to make. In a day and age when our epistemological confidence is constantly being eroded, Kruger starts by humbly building our foundation of what we can know. Further, he rightly reminds the reader the importance of faith in constructing our confidence.

3) Canon Revisited flows extremely well and yet is scholarly. In my opinion, Kruger's writing style is enjoyable. Don't get me wrong: Canon Revisited doesn't read like Harry Potter. But as far as scholarly works go, this is a very interesting and enjoyable work. It is heavily footnoted and exhaustive in its bibliography. This makes Canon Revisited a virtual wall that every person dealing with canon in the future must scale.

So much more could be said in favor of Kruger's book. However, I will leave it at this: this is perhaps the best recent apologetics offering released. Any student of scripture needs to read this. I would also suggest that any student in college who is struggling with some of the common charges against Scripture at a secular university read this book. This is an excellent book, through and through.

*Thanks to Crossway for providing a free review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a favorable review.*

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chick-Fil-Jesus?: My Thoughts

I will keep this simple. Colossians 3:17 tells us, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

1 Corinthians 10:31 reminds us, "So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

Similarly Romans 14 constantly reminds us that food could destroy the work of God if eaten in a way that is not humble or driven by the love of Christ.

These verses collectively lay out some really good principles of Christian living.

1) All things we do are spiritual and therefore should reflect the gospel.

2) This means that what we eat is ultimately a gospel issue if done properly or improperly.

3) If you ate at Chick-Fil-A (CFA) today, then fine. How did you eat there? Did you eat with a spirit of humility? Did you eat with a vindictive spirit? Was your goal to "take a stand for Jesus" (how does eating a chicken sandwich do that again?) or was it to glorify God (which by the way, you should be seeking to do tomorrow as well)? Did you eat there because you are against others or did you eat there out of a spirit of compassion and love? Did you cause any fellow brothers or sisters in Christ (maybe those struggling with homosexuality) to stumble in their faith by eating there? Did you eat in a self-righteous manner and attitude? Did you give thanks to God as you ate there? Did you overeat while you were and so disobey God by being a glutton? Just some questions to think about....

4) If you didn't eat there today, did you refuse to do so because you felt other Christians were being immature? Did you pass judgment on your brother or sister in Christ for doing that (and so violate God's Word)? Did you act in a self-righteous manner because you felt you were somehow being a "cool Christian"? Did you show love to those who differed in opinion from you or did you try to shame them? Did you love Christ and glorify Christ in whatever you did choose to eat instead today? Did you bring glory to Christ in NOT eating there today? By not eating there, did you cause any fellow brothers or sisters in your church to stumble in their faith?

Here is how it worked out in my own life: I wasn't going to eat there simply because I didn't care and I didn't see how it was going to legitimately advance the Kingdom. However, Sunday, one of the members of my youth volunteer team asked if we could order CFA for our ConXion night this Wednesday.

I love CFA. I appreciate the stance the CEO has taken on this issue. I love my church and I know several people from my church were wondering what stance I would take. Since I knew that I could eat at CFA or not eat at CFA and still glorify God either way, I opted to eat there. I used this time to teach our youth that it is more important about what we are for than what we are against. I think we also should encourage people (even CEOs) when they take a stand for what we approve of.

I had to confess to God though that I had a very self-righteous attitude when I saw how many people were in CFA. I thought to myself, "Most of these people are probably here for the wrong reasons." Then I realized I was being self-righteous and judgmental. I realized that ultimately, it is by God's grace that I can eat and that I should give thanks for CFA and the opportunity I had to eat there today.

So I ate at CFA and enjoyed the gospel...not because buying a chicken sandwich made me holy or righteous (something I by virtue of being united with Christ), but because I strove to eat for the glory of God.