Interlude: Sola Scriptura

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One of my favorite memories from my adolescent years is of arguing with my dad. Seems odd, right? I became a Christian when I was in Jr. High School and was excited to learn. One of the first Christian books I read was Luther’s Catechism. I read it because I wanted to know everything about God that I could possibly learn. I read and studied and absorbed. My father blessed me tremendously by pushing me to think about what I believed. His challenges to my thinking forced me to read the scriptures as a meter stick for my beliefs. Since then I have tried to practice this discipline in relation to my faith. When I read seminary texts, I try to check the scriptures to determine if the Bible supports the claims being made. When I read books from popular theologians, I read the Bible to determine the veracity of the claims. When I listen to sermons, I work to do the same thing. Measure, test and discern using the scriptures as the source for ultimate truth. Debating Bible with my father gave me this gift. At times, clever philosophies and theologies have come along only to be measured against the Word and judged accordingly. Let there be no doubt, at times I wanted them to be true, while at other times, I wanted to find them false. But my desires must always be subordinate to the will and truth of the God I serve. Paul pointed to the Berean church in Acts 17:10-12, referring to it as particularly noble because they tested everything he taught against the scriptures. Paul was happy that they questioned him and checked his teachings against the scriptures. Paul lived in a time rife with deceivers and false teachers, not unlike what we face today. In the wake of his ministry, Paul constantly battled false teachings, prompting him to say amazingly stern things to the effect of: if anyone teaches any gospel other than the one I taught, let them be accursed. (Galatians 1:8-9) What is taught in the church matters. We must measure and test. I don’t have time to write the next installment of my love wins review. I will probably write it next week. However, I wanted to take a moment to comment on my observations of the discourse thus far. After all, the debate ought to be part of how we measure and test. That having been said, I have been reading blogs and articles, listening to podcasts and having conversations. The bluster, incredulity, name calling and condemnation has been more distasteful than anything else. Now, I have read a few great articles and discussions from a variety of sources. I have also read some dump and mindless articles. One of the more discouraging trends that I have encountered time and again is scant discussion of the scriptures and facts. I suspect this is a product of the appalling degree of Biblical and theological illiteracy in the church. We have so much freedom and so many available resources that they have lost all value. In the end, if we are going to discuss the matter, the only thing of importance is the scriptures. Period. Sure, it is difficult to think that people may go to hell. Its a sad possibility, but that isn’t enough to make the scripture supporting the existence of hell null and void. Only God can decide the truth of the existence of eternal punishment or salvation by faith in Christ. God gives us the truth in the scriptures and only they can act as the arbiters of truth. If we are to debate, let us do so with the scriptures. This makes it tough because it’s easy to love Rob Bell. We want to defend Bell because we love him. Others want to attack him because they loathe him. It doesn’t matter either way. We can only look to the scriptures for truth. Love him or hate him, measure the truth of all teachings against the word of God. I rather like Bell, but I will not choose any teaching over the plain message the scriptures. Don’t argue about the other guy’s argumentation style, argue their scriptures. Nothing else matters. The most important lesson I learned from arguing with my dad is that the best way to learn is to study and read in pursuit of the truth. If this debate has caught your attention and gotten your blood boiling… Read the scriptures and study. Then the goal ceases to be defeating the evil heretic or the stiff necked evangelical and becomes about learning who our God is so that we can take a closer walk with him.

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Say it ain’t so: Review of Love Wins pt. 4

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This morning I drove Abbey to our Pastor’s home, where his awaiting wife took her for the day. This was her first day away from us. I was so preoccupied by the thought of it that I took a wrong turn. Then, I took another wrong turn. When I finally came to my senses, I was not where I wanted to go. In fact, I was a good bit turned around and wasn’t sure exactly where I was. I thought through my options at this point. I considered pushing on in the hopes of arriving at my destination by figuring out where I was going on the fly. I hate turning back. It feels like I am admitting defeat. Just as long as I keep moving and pushing forward, it’ll all be ok. Then, I looked at the gas gauge of my 12-mile-to-the-gallon-XTerra and decided that I would be better off not driving all over creation trying to find the way to my destination via the undiscovered path (that probably didn’t exist). Please note: As a man, I feel that all roads should lead me to where I am going without any need to ask for directions. Reality doesn’t usually agree with me. Some roads are just the wrong way to go. A similar question raised amongst skeptics today is that of the many roads to the same God. “Can’t I follow any religion and have it lead to God?” This seems to fly in the face of the really exclusive statements made by Christ on the matter. In my most charitable reading of the “There Are Rocks Everywhere” chapter of the book, this is the question being addressed. In the chapter, Bell indicates that Christ is the only way to salvation, but that He never indicates the mechanism by which this happens. Thus, the door is open to all cultures and backgrounds to be saved through Christ without having actually believed in Jesus himself. For example: by believing in Islam, they really believe in Christ. It’s just that he’s Jesus with a Mohammed mask.

Please note that I say this is my most charitable reading of the chapter because I find myself trying to interpret specifically what the heck it’s trying to say. It’s clear that the general sense is that this is the right direction in reading Bell’s words on this matter. The question I end up asking is whether he is talking about how every religion leads to Christ or something screwier. My less generous reads include: (1) Every faith leads to the creative force we experience as Jesus. (To be fair, this is my very least charitable reading and though I can see it, I have trouble buying that this is the right read.) (2) Christ saves everyone, so what then matters is what is going on with their hearts and how they live their lives. (3) A mashed up version of 1 and 2. It is difficult to figure out what he is saying primarily because he is extremely vague. He alludes to ideas in flowery language without saying what on earth he is saying. On a charitable day, I would suggest that this is the result of the fact that the material is controversial and he desires for people to read the book and look for the truth in the statements without labels. On a less charitable day, I would probably argue that it is because the material is so antithetical to the message of Biblical Christianity that to say it overtly would result in even his most ardent supporters balking. I will look at the overall theology of the book in a later post. Reading #2 is the one I think fits the best to the overall theology presented. Deep down, I think that that this is the read that he intended, primarily because it fits his understanding of hell/heaven well and allows for a cohesive train of thought in the text. But, I digress.

Because I plan on writing a response/review for this idea, it is necessary to pick a road and press on. I have chosen to address the most charitable reading I can manage. Please note, that this applies to all of my guesses as to what he means. The chapter title points to the pivitol text cited in the argument. Bell looks at Paul’s use of the rock from which water sprang in the desert in the book of Exodus. The passages to which he is referring can be found in Exodus 17 and 1 Corinthians 10, respectively. Paul’s statement about the rock is that it was Christ. He speaks of baptism and clouds and the crossing of the red sea. Bell reads the text to mean that the Israelites in the desert literally experienced Christ in that rock. He jumps off from there to indicate that if Paul could find Christ in the rock, he could find him anywhere. In this, he implies that all sorts of people find Jesus in their own cultures. Note I say, “implies” because he is vague in doing so. Before chasing after that, it is worth addressing the matter of Jesus as the rock. In Biblical interpretation, there is something called “typology.” A typology is something that happens in the Old Testament that points forward to Christ. Some notable examples would be the account of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son (God sacrifices his son, Jesus) or the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and placing the blood on doors to protect the Jews from death (like how Jesus is the Lamb of God and his blood protects us from death) or the sacrifices in the tabernacle (point toward Christ’s atoning sacrifice). The word typology comes from a Greek word used in 1 Corinthians 10:6 and in Romans 5. The word is “τύπος”. It essentially means a likeness. Its root means: an imprint, like an impression made by a stamp. Paul uses it to indicate that something that happened in the past can teach us about Jesus. In Romans 5, he says that Adam is a τύπος (type) of Christ, meaning he is a likeness. Paul then compares Adam to Christ in order to make the point at redemption is more powerful than sin. Is he indicating that Adam was Christ? Certainly not. In 1 Corinthians 10:6, Paul speaks of the τύπος in a way that indicates that the Christians are to look to the example of the Jews and learn from it. They are both typologies. Bell’s read requires that we recognize the rock in the desert as an experience of Christ, the crossing of the red sea as a baptism and the entire desert experience as a weird Jesus salvation moment for the Jews. The problem is that it is just terrible interpretation. One must ignore the point Paul is making about learning from the τύπος of the Jews in order to find a path to God through things that are Jesus, but aren’t Jesus.

Bell does similar gymnastics with passages about other sheep and the great mystery of Christ. The traditional read on these passages is that Christ is speaking of the Gentiles being included in salvation through Him. Bell reads these passages to mean that He is speaking of those who believe other stuff being saved through Him. First, to understand a christocentric universalism (this means: “whatever you believe… it’s Jesus”) in these passages involves taking them totally out of context. Second, there is no overt Biblical support for the idea that every religion leads to Jesus.

Here again, I won’t address every passage misinterpreted and mishandled to force the universalist every-religion-leads-to-God-but-its-not-universalism-for-some-reason idea into the texts. There are bigger issues to address. First, how on earth is this in the book without it being the number one issue raised by critics? Is hell really that much more fun to talk about? Second, could Bell be right on this one? I am gonna say that he probably isn’t for several reasons. Christ makes numerous statements of exclusivity, which Bell speaks of, but indicates that there is an inclusively in the world (via the other sheep passage) that allows for Buddhists to be saved in this way. The only cited scripture that seems to used to support this position is the mistreated passages that I just mentioned. The problem is that Bell reads the meanings he wants into the passages, rather than considering what the Biblical writers intended. I suggest that if you read the book, take the time to read the scriptures Bell cites and see what they say in context. Frequently Bell uses one or two words from a passage to make a point, but neglects context. The problem with this is that if the scriptures directly taught anything like what Bell is suggesting, there would be more meat to the scriptural citations. As is, we are forced to bend and turn down every side-street trying to find the path to a destination that cannot be reached straight away by the roads presented in the scriptures. I can cut across retirees’ lawns and try to jump over the river on the way to the babysitter’s house, but it isn’t a legitimate path. Neither is this a legitimately established doctrine by scriptural standards.

There is a bigger problem with this approach. Well, another problem. I guess its hard to point to a bigger problem than: the Bible doesn’t support it. The problem is that of the general movement of scripture urging the spread of the Gospel. If Paul believed that every religion saved people and that was what he meant when he wrote the epistles, why did he waste his life witnessing? Why was he tortured over the exclusive claim of Christ? Even worse, if a person who believed in Zeus was saved by having the right heart and actions, did them rejecting the actual Jesus negate their salvation in Zeus because they were coming to Him through Zeus, but Paul screwed it up for them by introducing them to the actual Jesus? Paul’s actions only make sense if he believed that there was an eternal urgency that necessitated the frantic spread of the Gospel he endeavored upon. In fact, does this mean that Peter was wrong by indicating in Acts 4:12 that there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved? Or maybe Peter wasn’t in on the same theology that Paul was. But, that doesn’t work because Paul indicates that if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord you are saved (Romans 10:9). Well Maybe Jesus knew this stuff and didn’t tell the disciples. Of course, Jesus says in John 3:18 that “Whoever believes in God is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (The funny thing about that verse is that Bell cites verse 17…. The one right before it… to demonstrate that Jesus came to save, so hell isn’t a part of the equation.) Probably Jesus wasn’t  in on the big theological secret either. Or maybe Rob Bell is importing something into the scriptures that isn’t there.

Ultimately, I can drive forever in the wrong direction and never get to the babysitter’s house… or I can find the one narrow road that gets me where I am going.

I had no time to properly address every misuse of scripture in this text. If you have issue with my approach or questions shoot me an email: youthguyerik@gmail.com

Say it ain’t so: Review of Love Wins pt. 3

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I have had a great 12-year stretch working with adolescents. During that time, I have found myself responding time and again to one of the great choruses of the adolescent subculture: “lots of people are saying…” Please note that various covers of this age-old tune have come out. These include: “everybody thinks so,” “everybody knows,” etc. What I have discovered in the last 12 years is that scratching below the surface will invariably result in “everybody” or “lots of people” turning out to be “the three guys I gossip with.” The strength of the argument is that it presents a sense of large and unified opinion backing the spurious statement being made, thus solidifying it as fact. This type of argument is called “argumentum ad populum.” It is a logical fallacy and is not a solid basis for a line of reasoning. We might see this in the statement: “Justin Bieber sells lots of records; therefore, he is the greatest singer EVER!” This statement is clearly wrong and clearly made by a 13 year old girl. Just because lots of people think its true, doesn’t make it any less true that Johnny Cash is actually the greatest singer ever. (Hey! My philosophy degree isn’t quite as useless as all that!) This is the central argument behind the chapter in Love Wins dealing with the tradition of the church regarding universal salvation.

Bell appeals to the early church fathers for support to the idea that universalism has always been around, we just ignore it most of the time because it isn’t orthodox. Please note that this is similar, but not identical to, a more common approach for demonstrating theological truth through appeal to the early church fathers. The proper way to look to the early church fathers as a measure for the validity of theological concepts is to consider their reflection of the teaching of the apostles, and Christ through them. This isn’t the same as appealing to the opinion of the masses, as is the case with the ad populum argument. It is appealing to the teachings of Christ directly. The thinking goes: “If Jesus taught the disciples stuff and they taught it later, then they must be teaching what Jesus taught.” Jesus is authoritative primarily because he was God. There is a collection of books called the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which features the collected writings of all of those guys from before the Nicene Creed was written (that was a basic statement of the beliefs of the church regarding Jesus, the Trinity, etc. Google it! It’s important!). Theologians will frequently look at these guys’ writings to establish things about the early church. This frequently includes the usage of words (check out the long boring part 2 of my Rob Bell Love Wins review), minutia of history that is lost otherwise, some theological ideas, etc. We find Bell referring to this collection of books when he speaks of Clement and Origen in his chapter on how universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” was a part of Christian thought since the beginning of the church. Clement and Origen are generally credited with coming up with the Universalist theology, which makes it odd to point to them because the stuff they taught has ALWAYS been labeled universalism even though Bell repeatedly denies universalism in his book… but I digress. Now, for this to be a valid argument from authority, it would need to be established that Clement and Origen got their teaching from Jesus or one of the apostles. The problem is that Origen was pretty open about the fact that he had synthesized Platonic philosophy (a Greek pagan guy’s writing) with Christian Theology, which is actual origin (pun) of this doctrine. This negates that apostolic authority that is sought by those appealing to Origen and Clement. Because Origen is open in his indication that the idea of universal salvation came from non-Biblical sources, it is his opinion rather than apostolic authority. Thus appealing to him and those who were taught by/agree with him is an appeal to popular opinion (ad populum). The lack of apostolic teaching is further demonstrated by the fact that this idea didn’t appear until 250 AD. 
This is in the ballpark of 150 years after the last apostle’s death. It simply was not a teaching of the apostles at all.

In addition, Bell appeals to their teaching as a demonstration that there has always been an element of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in the church, without actually revealing what it was that they taught. This is problematic. Clement was not overt in his teaching of Universalism. Origen, his student, taught that all things would be restored to God, which Bell resonates with as a central point in his “everybody says so argument.” For Origen, this included the devil and the fallen angels, who would repent and go to heaven. Further, Origen argued that our freedom to reject God through sin results in repeated casting to hell and restoration to heaven for ALL people throughout eternity. Now, Bell isn’t pointing to these arguments as true, but he is pointing to the guy who said this stuff as an authority of some sort. This is somewhat akin to saying “the crazy cat woman down the street thinks so.” (Please note that I am being a little tongue in cheek. Origen did make some useful contributions to church history.)

Now, Clement and Origen did have a school in Alexandria that taught this universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason.” By all accounts it remained prominent for quite a while. This leads to the second half of the argument regarding the presence of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in church history. Bell points to Clement and Origen as holding the belief. He then goes on to list several well-known names that acknowledge the presence of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in the church. These names include: Jerome, Augustine, Eusebius, Gregory, Basil, etc. Now, it’s key to note that around 250 AD Origen was teaching heavily. Augustine and Jerome wrote in the early 400s AD. Eusebius wrote in the late 300s AD. Basil and Gregory wrote in the mid 300s AD.  This puts the full breadth of the witnesses supporting/mentioning the doctrine to a 50-150 year stretch, with a heavy emphasis on 50. Now, it is also important to note that this rash of sightings of Universalists during this era is easily accounted for. There was a school teaching it. I drive by the Humvee factory on the way to work every day. I frequently see Humvees on the road on their way to the train yards for shipping. Therefore, lots of people drive Humvees because I see them every day. Lots of people has always driven Humvees because I see them every day. Henry Ford taught about the importance of Humvee maintenance… He must have because I see so many people driving them. Everybody thinks so. See the problem? Bell makes a moment in history seem like an eternity. The total argument is not based on apostolic authority, but an appeal to ad populum for authority. Worse still, its ad populum that simply doesn’t exist beyond a short stretch in the history of the early church.

The only other name mentioned is Luther. Martin Luther is cited in a letter, responding to a friend’s inquiry about God forgiving those in Hell. His response essentially was: “God can do anything He wants.” This is far from a point of doctrinal support, particularly in light of the fact that Luther wrote about Hell quite a bit. Luther’s larger writings on the subject are neglected, probably because it doesn’t support the premise.

There you have it. That is the full breadth of the “lots of people in the Christian tradition held this view” support that is pointed to in the book. It’s just not true. In my research, I have found the suggestion from historians (I’d have to look it up and I need to cook lunch for my wife so I won’t. E-mail me if you want names) that this particular theology came about as a result of Platonism’s infusion with the church and died out again quickly because of the lack of scriptural support. This does happen with various doctrines. Popular culture and philosophy makes in-roads into the church and ultimately the influence dies.

Now, we CAN learn from the early church fathers regarding the doctrine of hell. Polycarp was a student of John the Beloved Disciple. This was the guy who leaned on the breast of Christ at the last supper. He was one of the infamous “sons of thunder.” He wrote 5 New Testament books. Irenaeus was Polycarp’s student and wrote about his life. In Irenaeus’ writing there is a clear acknowledgement of eternal hell. This is a real point of apostolic ascendancy. The teaching has a clear line from the apostles to these guys. They don’t acknowledge Plato or any philosophers as sources for ideas. In addition, their teachings appear in the second century. Earlier than the third century when universalism popped up. This is not an example of “everybody says so.” This is an appeal to authority to establish fact. It is also neglected in the explanation of the vast stream of Christian tradition referred to vaguely in Love Wins.

What is the point? Simple, Bell’s argument that the church has always held these beliefs is spurious. Even if there is a history of the doctrine, it runs contrary to the teachings of the disciples and is demonstrably the result of synthesizing philosophy and Christianity.

I will take this moment to reiterate something. I am not taking joy in this effort. I am (was) (maybe am still I am unsure) a Rob Bell fan. I am not certain what to do with any of this. I will point out falsehood, though with a heavy heart. I am not trying to play gotcha at all. This is about the basic facts of the discussion that are glossed over in Bell’s book. Basic facts that most people lack the resources to research. Instead, they look to shepherds and teachers for guidance and education. It is appalling to me that they are taught shoddily. The mantle of ‘teacher of God’s people’ is one that should be taken up with fear and trembling. The whole thing saddens me.