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November 14, 2005

The Passion of the Christ was a major marketing success. But it was more than that. It was an astounding, shocking success that few people felt was possible. It was, after all, a movie filmed in a dead language focusing on a dead man whom most people in the world hate. It was overtly Christian in both theme and content and pulled no punches in expressing the deeply-held, politically incorrect religious views of one man. Yet it made an enormous amount of money and will go down in history as one of the greatest marketing and financial success stories in Hollywood history.

So how was it that this movie came to be such a success? While there are certainly many factors involved, the primary factor was, quite simply, marketing. Astute marketers came to the realization that the Evangelical world was dry tinder just waiting for a spark.

And now the secret is out. Evangelicals are dry tinder just waiting for the strike of a match. Evangelicals are primed and ready to play a role in marketing efforts. Following on the heels of The Passion of the Christ comes The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In my mind, and in the minds of many conservative Christians, there is a considerable difference between these two movies. The Passion of the Christ was offensive to me for several reasons but two stand above the rest. The first was in the physical depiction of Jesus. I, and many other Christians, struggle with the depiction of Jesus in film. The second reason the movie was offensive was in the profoundly Roman Catholic beliefs expressed through the film. In fact, one can make a good argument that the movie was a visual representation of the Catholic mass. There were constant references to theology that would be affirmed by Roman Catholics but that is antithetical to Protestantism. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is different in these two respects as it presents only an allegorical representation of Jesus and the theology is generally consistent with biblical Protestantism.

It seems to me that a greater number of Protestants will be eager and willing to see this movie. This is something the marketers know only too well. Quoted in an article in The Christian Post is Abram Brook, editorial writer for Leadership Magazine. “[T]hey’re using all the tactics that made ‘The Passion of the Christ’ a blockbuster,” he says. “But…we have to wonder: ‘Is the church being used?’ or more precisely, ‘How crassly is the church being used?’” Just a few days ago I was speaking to a pastor who was marvelling that a company was willing to hand him all sorts of door-hangers and posters for the movie. But of course they were willing to do this! If the pastor distributes these, he is doing valuable, target marketing for the movie! It would seem the church is being used quite crassly.

The marketing that made The Passion of the Christ such a success is being used to promote The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In fact, the producers of the film hired the very same marketing firm that promoted The Passion of the Christ. Only a brief look at the shelves of a Christian bookstore will show many ways this marketing is being manifested. The article in The Christian Post says, “It’s in magazines, radio airwaves, television specials, churches, music concerts, Christian Web sites, and on scores of family-friendly books. The promotions do not scream for attention like the iPod campaign, but Disney has integrated Narnia into the cultural fabric of Evangelicals.” Narnia figures will be given away with McDonalds’ Happy Meals and there is even an action video game based on the books set to be released.

Other marketing efforts include “ ‘Narnia Sneak Peek’ events in churches across America integrated the movie into the local church. At the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., members of the 20,000-plus congregation viewed exclusive clips, received free gift bags full of outreach material, and were treated to a special live performance by Steven Curtis Chapman. In addition, C.S. Lewis’ stepson and co-producer of the film, Doug Gresham; Walden Media President and film’s visionary Michael Flaherty; and other Narnia filmmakers discussed the making of the movie.”

Brooks provides a valuable warning. “Whether the film is overtly Christian, as in The Passion, has Christian themes, or merely upholds values that Christians support, church leaders must be careful about endorsing Hollywood productions and the degree to which their support is expressed in their local congregations… There is, after all, considerable difference between referencing a current movie in a sermon and supplying the congregation with mass-produced study guides and small group materials.” Are there pastors who would hand the people in their churches mass-produced study guides originating from within a marketing machine? I’m sure there are. If The Passion taught us anything it is that pastors and church leaders are willing to be in the forefront of this type of marketing effort.

It is more than a little bit ironic that the film is being released by Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney has certainly been no great friend of Christians and Christianity in general over the past decades. Their recent films are filled with themes that contradict the Bible. Yet it is clear that in this case they have taken an interest in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, simply because of the revenue it represents. This irony is not lost on the London Telegraph:

The move is particularly remarkable because for the past decade Disney has been the subject of a religious boycott imposed by Christian organisations, who accused the company of betraying its family-values legacy by providing employee health benefits to same-sex partners, allowing gay days at its theme parks and producing what they considered to be controversial films, books and television programmes through Disney subsidiaries.

Now the wooing of evangelicals, combined with the departure of Disney chief executive Michael Eisner - described by some religious leaders as “anti-Christian” - signals the implicit end of the boycott and the beginning of a possible money-spinning franchise for the studio, which is desperately seeking a blockbuster hit that can deliver sequels, along the lines of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films. (source)

The article in The Christian Post concludes by stating that “Brook appreciates that the opportunity exists for the church to influence the types of films that the culture’s dominant media produces, but warns that ‘such influence comes at a price.’ He is also wondering where the next Hollywood collaboration will take the Church.” These are both valid concerns. This influence does come at a price. The price for The Passion of the Christ was monetary, in the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, but also spiritual, in subjecting people to a movie that was so filled with Catholic theology and imagery as to boggle the mind of this Protestant. We can also only sit and wait and wonder where Hollywood collaboration will take the church. We can be sure that marketing companies are not standing idly by, but are seeing in Evangelical churches a vast network of marketing fodder.

“Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, suggests an even more cautionary approach. “Every social group should worry about being taken advantage of by Hollywood,” Schultze said. “Moviemakers generally are more interested in getting various groups to buy and rent films than they are in serving those groups. Christians might be more gullible in the sense that they tend to believe various religious leaders who champion or criticize the latest movies even if the leaders have not seen the films and do not have a very good ability to interpret and evaluate them. “Factor in the Christian bandwagon effect, and one can see how Christians can be taken advantage of, even as they seek to do what is right,” Schultze said.” (Leadership Journal).

I sincerely hope this movie is used by God to draw people to Himself. While I have little hope that people will turn to God within the movie theatres (the gospel is, after all, not going to be clearly presented in the movie) I do hope that the strong Christian imagery and parallelism within the film will allow Christians to spark conversation with their unsaved friends. There is much to discuss. At the same time I hope that Christians approach this movie with discernment, being aware that it is being produced largely by unbelievers who care little for the Christian themes except for their usefulness in drawing a Christian audience to the theatres. I hope Christians think twice before consuming mass-produced marketing material under the guise of study guides and Bible studies. Above all I hope that Christians remember that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while a fabulous story is just that, a story. And to many, including those who are going to try to hand you posters, door hangers are action figures, it is just another product. There are marketers out there seeking to use you to promote this product. The question is, how crassly are you being used?

November 13, 2005

Before church began this morning I was thinking about exegetical fallacies. I’m not sure why this topic was on my mind but I was trying to think back to which of these fallacies I have written about on this site. I came up with three and promptly forgot one of them. I thought I’d collect the other two here for your reading pleasure.

Proverbs 29:18

The first of them is Proverbs 29:18 which you may have heard translated as “without vision the people perish.” A quick survey of my bookshelf turned up references to this verse in several books. The example I used in an article last year was taken from one of Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox updates:

MY IMAGINATION INFLUENCES MY ASPIRATION. In other words, your dreams determine your destiny. To accomplish anything you must first have a mission, a goal, a hope, a vision. “Without a vision the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18. I compared this verse to several other translations:

NIV - Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint
NLT - When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild
CEV - Without guidance from God law and order disappear
NKJV - Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint
HCSB - Without revelation people run wild
ESV - Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint
AMP - Where there is no vision [no redemptive revelation of God], the people perish

My conclusion was that, “It is possible that a brief, careless reading of one translation of the Bible could lead to confusion as to this verse’s meaning. But for anyone who rightly handles the Word of God, paying attention to the sense of the text and to the meaning of the specific words used, the meaning of this verse is obvious. This verse says nothing of the importance of having a church that is led by vision or a visionary. Ironically, this verse should underscore the importance of honoring God’s revelation, and warn those who would water it down by sloppy or deliberate misuse.”

You can read this article here.

Matthew 18:19-20

The second exegetic fallacy concerns Matthew 18 and in particular, the words, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

My conclusions about this verse were as follows: “Where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there. What this means is that Jesus is present spiritually to validate the decision that has just been made. Jesus will help guide the church officials and give them peace that the decision they were forced to make was the right one. I see no reason to expand this verse to mean that whenever two Christians are in the same geographic location, Jesus is somehow more present there than when they are apart.”

Read the article here.

As I remember other similar articles I have written I will append them to this list.

November 08, 2005

As you have probably noticed, I’ve added a King of the Week section to this site. This section allows me to highlight the contributions of other bloggers and to pay tribute to people who have blessed (or even just amused) me through their efforts. Doug from Coffeeswirls was there by default from the beginning of the site, but I am now going to begin a regular rotation of adding a new site each Tuesday.

So the very first King for a Week is none other than Centuri0n, aka Frank Turk, who blogs at …And His Ministers A Flame of Fire. Frank and I have had a couple of good-humored wars of words, but I have come to respect his writing a lot. It is clear that he is a James White devotee, as he seems to enjoy fighting point-by-point battles with Reformed Catholics. His site is an eclectic mixture of deep theology and inside humor. I enjoy reading it and am glad to make him King for a Week.

November 04, 2005

Yesterday I wrote about Bible translations, hoping to stir people to at least investigate the issues surrounding what has become a hot topic in the church. I believe that an influx of poor translations is beginning to erode the confidence Christians have in their Bibles, and unfortunately, this erosion of confidence happens with good reason. Yesterday evening I was reading Translating Truth, a book that is due for publication in the next couple of weeks. The third chapter, written by C. John Collins, provided an interesting example of translation gone awry and I thought I would share that today.

Philosophy of Translation

Collins quotes A.J. Krailsheimer, a teacher of French at Oxford, who translated Pascal’s Pensees into English. Here is how Krailsheimer explained his goal in this translation:

The purpose of any translation is to enable those who have little or no knowledge of the original language to read with reasonable confidence works which would otherwise have been inaccessible to them. It does not help if the translator introduces variants of his own, instead of following as faithfully as possible the chosen original, ultimate criterion of accuracy and authenticity.

This goal is little more than we would expect in any translation. He seeks to faithfully reproduce what would otherwise be inaccessible to the reader. He attempts to be as faithful as he can to the original, unwilling to sacrifice accuracy or authenticity by adding his own variants.

It is interesting to contrast this philosophy of translation with Eugene Nida, the father of dynamic equivalence. Nida writes:

To translate is to try to stimulate in the new reader in the new language the same reaction to the text as the original author wished to stimulate in his first and immediate readers.

Note the difference between these two philosophies. The first seeks a faithful translation of the words used by the original author while the second focuses primarily on the reader and his reaction to the author’s underlying intent. What can be lost in this method of translation is what Anthony Nichols refers to as “exegetical potential.”

This would mean in practice that a good translation of the NT will preserve a sense of historical and cultural distance…It will take the modern reader back into the alien milieu of first century Judaism where the Christian movement began. It will show him how the gospel of Jesus appeared to a Jew, and not how that Jew would have thought had he been an Australian or an American.

A Metaphor

Collins teaches Latin to his children and a few years ago his sister gave him a Latin Daily Phrase and Culture Calendar. In this calendar, most days have a Latin phrase accompanied by a suggested translation. There is also sometimes a literal translation given. What he found in these translations provides an interesting metaphor for the translation of Scripture.

My Latin has gotten a little bit rusty through the years, so forgive me if my attempts at translation are not perfectly accurate!

mutatis mutandis
After making the necessary changes
(lit.: Things having been changed that had to be changed).

The literal version, which renders the Latin with fair precision, makes some sense but translates to very difficult English. A slightly better rendering might be the necessary changes having been changed or the necessary changes having been made. From there it is not difficult to smooth the translation to After making the necessary changes. We can consider this a good, essentially literal translation of the original words.

Ubi leges valent, ibi populus potest valere
Where the laws are good, there the people are flourishing
(lit.: Where laws are healthy, there the people are able to be healthy).

This translation is somewhat true to the author’s words, but does not capture the author’s intended repetition of “valere.” A better translation, capturing this literary device, would be Where laws are healthy, the people can be healthy. This example shows, then, a decent but still flawed translation. At the very least it could have been better as it was quite simple to improve the translation to still be readable while maintaining the literary device.

Quod cibus est aliis, aliis est venenum.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
(lit.: That which is food to some is poison to others).

Collins points out something I noticed immediately when reading this translation. The literal translation is not quite literal enough because it misses the chiasmus, or parallel between the two parts of the sentence. A better translation would be What is food to some, to others is poison. This maintains the aliis, aliis construct. So again, we have a translation that keeps most of the words intact, but ignores a literary device.

Pares cum paribus facillime congregantur.
Birds of a feather flock together.
(lit.: Equals most easily congregate with equals).

In this case the literal translation bears resemblance in meaning to the original but very little similarity in the words (which literally translate to something like Equals with equals most easily congregate). The translator has seen fit to interpret and contextualize this phrase, rendering it with a modern aphorism. Returning to Nichols’ quote, we see that this translation may capture the author’s intended meaning, but it maintains none of its exegetical potential.

Mundus vult decipi.
There’s a sucker born every minute.
(lit.: the world wants to be deceived).

This is another case where the translator has done far more than translate, but has ignored the actual words and instead translated what he feels is the author’s intent. As Collins says, “Few lay people would call these last two “accurate” translations, because the words of the original have exercised no control over the renderings.” The exegetical potential is gone and the reader is forced to accept the author’s interpretation of both the words and his understanding of intended meaning.

Conclusion

I found this quite a helpful metaphor in understanding the differences between translation philosophies. The first example might equate to an essentially literal translation of the Bible like the ESV, KJV, NKJV or NASB. The second and third examples might be similar to a dynamic equivalent translation like the NIV or even the NLT. The final two examples strike me as being similar to The Message or the CEV.

And so we return to where we were yesterday. When reading your Bible, do you have confidence that you are reading the words of God? Do you have confidence that the translator has done his utmost to faithfully reproduce the author’s words, or has he also interjected his understanding of the words? Has he maintained the exegetical potential of the Scriptures, or has he done the exegesis on your behalf?

November 03, 2005

Imagine, for a moment, that you woke up one morning to find the front door of your house wide open, the brisk morning air blowing into the room. Your first thought, of course, is for your family. You race upstairs and throw open the door of your son’s room. He is lying peacefully asleep. Breathing a prayer of thanks you cross the hall, opening the door to your daughter’s room. Her blankets are in a heap beside the bed, her nightlight on, but she is nowhere to be seen. Frantically you search the house, calling for her, begging her to answer you. But she is gone.

Before you can pick up the phone to dial 911, it rings. You answer it immediately and are shocked to hear that it is a reporter from a local newspaper. He awoke this morning to find a strange package on his front doorstep. Opening it, he found that it contained a warning that someone had taken your daughter. A letter detailed several steps that he and you would have to take in order to have her returned to you safely.

Now let me ask you, when you talked to this reporter, would you ask him for a summary of the letter, or would you ask him to read it word-for-word? Would you ask him to provide his understanding of the kidnapper’s demands, or would you want to hear those demands in the very words used by the kidnapper? It seems obvious to me that you would want to not only hear every word from the letter but that you would strive to see it for yourself. You would want to know, study, understand and follow every detail of that letter. The fact is that words are important. This applies not only to series of words, but to individual words. We see the importance of words all the time in legal documents, recipes, love letters, interviews and quotations.

Think of a courtroom. Even if you have never been involved in a court case, you may have seen cases tried on some of the court shows like People’s Court or Judge Judy. Maybe you took time off work to watch the O.J. Simpson trial. When a lawyer or judge asks a person to recount the details of a case, does he allow the person to provide a summary, or does he dig deeper and demand the exact words and phrases that were used? It is not enough for a person to testify that “the defendant threatened my life.” The judge will demand to know the exact words the defendant used. Did he say, “Give me your purse or I’ll kill you?” or did he say, “Give me your purse or else…?” In either case there was a threat, but only one can be accurately shown to be a threat against the person’s life. The other was merely interpreted to be so. In this instance it may or may not be the case.

Whether following instructions to find one’s daughter or standing before a court in an attempt to put an assailant in prison, individual words play an important and even crucial role.

If we place such importance on individual words in so many areas of life, why is it that we are so willing to read translations of the Bible that, in many ways, are mere summaries of the actual words? If we agree, and I’m sure most of us do, that there are no words more important than those written in Scripture, why do we read versions of it that make a mockery of the words that were breathed out by God?

Consider just a couple of examples. Romans 13:4 discusses the role of civil government. The authorities, says Paul, have the right to “bear the sword.”

“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (ESV) The word translated as “sword” is machaira and means “sword.”

But consider this passage in some less-literal translations:

“But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.” (NLT)

“If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.” (CEV)

“But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.” (The Message)

Noticeably absent from these three translations is the word “sword.” The translators have seen fit to provide what they feel is the main idea of the passage, that the civil authorities have the right to punish those who do wrong. But this is a verse that has long been used to discuss the Christian view on capital punishment. It is an important verse in this context and in others. But in these three translations there is nothing to discuss, for the “sword” has been removed and punishment, which may be imprisonment, fines or community service, among other things, has been substituted. This same word is used in Acts 12:2 where we read of the murder of James the brother of John. In this passage the NLT speaks explicitly of a sword, while the CEV suggests one with the words “cut his head off” and The Message speaks of “murder.” In either case, the translators have, in this second passage, translated a word in a way that is inconsistent with how they have translated it in another passage. They have done so in order to interpret and not to make a more clear translation.

Let’s look at a second example. A standard translation of Psalm 32:1 might read as follows: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (ESV) This translation is not a transliteration, or direct translation of word position, punctuation, and so on, but is a readable translation that attempts to translate each word that is in the original language. Now let’s look at a few translations from less-literal versions of the Bible.

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean. (The Message)

Oh, what joy for those whose rebellion is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! (NLT)

Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away. (CEV)

What has become of the word “covered?” It has been replaced by “wiped clean,” “put out of site,” or “wipe away.” But is “covered” not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book? Should we, as the reader, not have access to that word? Conversely, “fresh start” is foreign to the text and is provided as an addition to the passage without alerting the reader that these are not God’s words, but the translator’s.

Consider even the words of Solomon, written to his lover, describing her unsurpassed beauty. “Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.” (ESV) The Message renders this, “…like a flock of goats in the distance streaming down a hillside in the sunshine.” Note that addition of “sunshine.” The author may claim poetic license, but the fact is that he has added a word that is foreign to the text. The New Living Translation adds a small amount of interpretation, suggesting that her hair falls in waves. “Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead.” If I were to write a love letter to my wife, do you think she would want it word-for-word, or does she merely desire access to the content of my thoughts? Again, translators have interpreted rather than translated.

What I mean to show in these examples is that anything other than an essentially literal translation of the Bible works to undermine the Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures. This is a topic that I cannot adequately cover in only a small article so I will not attempt to do so. But on the basis of these examples I would urge you to consider this matter on your own. As Christians, people of the Book, we need to have confidence in our text. What basis do we have for our faith if we cannot have confidence in the Bible? We cannot overestimate the importance of ensuring that what we study is the clearest, best, most accurate translation of God’s Words that we can possibly find.

I have written more about translating in the past and would direct you to this article as well as two books by Leland Ryken, one big and one small.

November 01, 2005
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (David Hume).

That quote, taken from David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, would summarize what the average person believes about miracles. Miracles are impossible because they violate laws of nature, and the very nature of these laws dictates that they are inviolable. Certainly in discussing the Christian faith with unbelievers the Christian evangelist often encounters this roadblock where a person is willing to believe in God and in the person of Jesus Christ, but he is unwilling to believe in miracles. But it is not only philosophers and unbelievers (two terms that I assure you are not entirely synonymous!) that struggle with this concept of miracles. Many Christians have an improper understanding of God’s providence which in turn leads them to misunderstand what exactly a miracle is. Many Christians believe that miracles are an intervention of God whereby He violates one or more of the laws of nature. The Christian might state his belief that since God created the laws of nature he is able to violate them when and if he sees fit. In this way we see that what Christians and nonChristians believe about miracles may be remarkably similar.

Here are a few definitions of miracle:

  • According to many religions, a miracle is an intervention by God in the universe.
  • An event in the natural world, but out of its established order, possible only by the intervention of divine power.
  • An event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to a supernatural or divine power.
  • A marvellous event manifesting a supernatural act of God.
  • An event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God, operating without the use of means capable of being…It shows the intervention of a power that is not limited by the laws either of matter or of mind, a power interrupting the fixed laws which govern their movements, a supernatural power.
  • Miracle is a 2004 concept album credited to singer Celine Dion and photographer Anne Geddes.

Consistent in all of these definitions (or five of six of them, at least) is the understanding, either implicit or explicit, that a miracle requires an intervention of God in which he interrupts the fixed laws of nature to accomplish His will. I would like to show today, however briefly, that this understanding is not entirely correct for it presupposes fixed, inviolable, laws of nature.

A biblical understanding of God’s providence requires us to understand that God upholds the world from moment-to-moment. God’s creative activity did not end His involvement with the world; rather, God has been sustaining the world since the very moment He called it into existence. God is as fully involved in the world today as He was during the initial act of Creation. Said otherwise, God’s act of creation continues even today. Conservation and creation are near synonymous terms when we examine God’s involvement with our world.

God tends to govern the world in a way that is predictable. We often refer to the predictability of nature by discussing “laws of nature.” We saw this clearly in the definitions of the world “miracle.” But is it right for Christians to understand that there are laws of nature? I believe that there is a sense in which we can, for nature is clearly governed in predictable ways. If I were to reach my arm out and drop my can of Diet Coke from the window beside me it would fall and land on the head of my dog, two floors below. If I were to repeat this experiment tomorrow, I have every reason to believe that gravity will play the same role and will once again pull the can of Coke towards my dog’s head. There is a consistency in our world. But is this consistency based on laws?

It seems to me that Christians would do better to understand the laws of nature in terms of regularities rather than laws. When we speak of laws, we understand something that is inviolable. We might even think that God Himself cannot violate these laws, once again, because they are by their very nature inviolable. With this understanding a miracle is a violation of a law - a violation of the inviolable. When Moses, through the power of God, parted the Red Sea, he must have violated any number of laws. God intervened with the law of gravity and violated it, holding back water and piling it in a great wall.

The danger of this view is that we may come to believe (in practice if not in theory) that God’s involvement in the world and in our lives is sporadic rather than consistent; exceptional rather than normative. We may feel that it is the laws of nature that keep the world running while God watches over it all, allowing the world to work like a machine. And we may feel that a miracle is an activity of God’s intervention in our lives, after which he retreats once more into being a bystander or member of a cosmic, divine audience.

The alternative, I believe, is to understand “the laws of nature” as regularities rather than laws. In this way a miracle is no longer a violation of the laws of nature but an exception or an anomaly. A miracle is merely a break from or exception to divine routine. In this sense God did not violate laws of nature when He used Moses to hold back the waters of the Red Sea. Instead, God governed that part of His Creation just a little bit differently for just a little while. As an exception to the routine, God allowed waters to part and allowed water to defy gravity by rising into a wall on either side of a channel.

There is a very real sense, then, in which a miracle differs from what we consider normal only because it is an exception to the routine. In either way God is upholding and governing. We would do well not to see miracles as a greater display of God’s power or involvement than the routine, for doing something exceptional is no more difficult to the Creator and Sustainer of the universe than maintaining regularity. In fact, we may do well to see divine routine as being more impressive than the performance of miracles, if for no other reason than the fact that while a miracle benefits only a small number of people, the consistency of God’s providence benefits all men all the time.

Of course, as flawed human beings, we are more easily impressed by the exception than the rule. It is here that I would like to quote James Spiegel from his book The Benefits of Divine Providence. “Ironically, because the majority of people take for granted God’s faithful governance, his occasional deviations from cosmic routine are necessary to shake them out of their doldrums. Miracles, then, are uniquely impressive to us more because of the peculiarities of human psychology than because of any additional divine power they display (which is objectively no greater than when things run as usual). We are wowed by the miraculous only because we have been spoiled by God’s awesome regular providence (which, I should add, is our fault, not his).”

What difference does it make when we have a proper view of God’s providence? Spiegel answers as follows. “God is always working directly in the world in the most fundamental metaphysical sense, actively sustaining it, in the sense of constant creation, from moment to moment. Therefore, a miracle claim does not disturb belief about the underlying cause of nature’s uniformity. God is no more or less at work in the world when turning water into wine than when grapes ferment during the normal process of making wine. What makes the former sorts of events special and deserving the term miracle is, of course, the absence of certain secondary causes. But the supernatural cause behind it all remains constant…and consequently the strain to believe is significantly less than in [a low view of providence].”

So what we come to understand is that concepts like “miracle” and “laws of nature” are really just means we use to describe the metaphysics of the actual phenomenology of God’s providence, which is to say, the difference between how it appears that God works to us and how He actually works. A biblical understanding in this matter can have a profound impact on both life and faith.

October 27, 2005

OneTrueGodBlog is, at least in theory, a great idea. The format is simple and unique. Hugh Hewitt asks a weekly question and encourages a panel of prominent Christian bloggers to post a response. Unfortunately there are often few responses given.

Last week Hewitt asked the following question: “Please recommend the five books you would have a Christian college student read who was interested in deepening his or her faith but who also had all the time constraints and background education of most college kids today. (In other words, no Summa Theologica or Institutes.)” There was only one reply to the question. David Allen White suggested the following: Plato’s “Phaedo” Dialogue (“On the Immortality of the Soul”) and Aristotle’s “De Anima” (“On the Soul”); Thomas a Kempis’s IMITATION OF CHRIST, Dante Aligheri’s THE DIVINE COMEDY, KING LEAR and Dostoevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. Those are definitely interesting choices, but, with all due respect, I’m not sure it is an awfully effective list. Perhaps the occasional student who fancies himself a real intellectual and has a full scholarship would have time and inclination to read those titles. I would suggest, though, that very few students would make it through that list of books.

I would like to propose what I consider a more realistic list of five books. These are more realistic because the average college student, whether studying engineering or philosophy, would be able to read and enjoy them. Consider this a list for the average guy like myself. Set aside Wild at Heart, Blue Like Jazz, The Purpose Driven Life and read on.

Most students would benefit from a book written specifically to address issues of maintaining faith through the college experience. A book like University of Destruction (review) or How to Stay Christian in College (which I know only by reputation) might prove invaluable in forewarning young people of the difficulties they are bound to face in college. After all, as the old saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. These books will prepare kids to deal with the temptations that will be offered to them and provide practical guidance for studies, relationships and the pursuit of truth.

Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (review) by Michael Horton is an examination of the doctrines of grace that is entirely accessible to teenagers or adults. It will prepare a student to come face-to-face with God’s amazing grace in saving a people for Himself. It is challenging, devotional and utterly biblical. I can think of few books I have recommended more often or more highly than this one.

Decisions, Decisions (review) by Dave Swavely, which makes similar arguments to those made by Gary Friesen in the classic Decision Making and the Will of God is a valuable study on how to make decisions that honor God and are consistent with His Word. During these formative years students will be faced by many difficult decisions regarding moral choices, career choices and spiritual choices. A book that addresses how to make decisions in a biblical manner will help students rely more on the Word of God and less on their feelings or subjective “leadings.”

Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem. This may not be the type of book people read from cover-to-cover, but it is an invaluable reference tool in matters of theology. Other than the Bible, this is the one book that never leaves my desk and I turn to it constantly. It makes for great devotional reading and is also always available for reference on almost any topic. Every Christian can benefit from it.

At this point I began to have trouble. Do I recommend a devotional work as the final title? A great theological work? A book that will prepare students to evangelize their friends? Perhaps a title like Prophetic Untimeliness (review by Os Guinness would be a good suggestion as it will help students overcome the bias towards the modern over the ancient and help them see the fallacies of relevance. Or maybe a practical reference book like Now That’s A Good Question (review) by R.C. Sproul. But in the end I think any student would do well to read Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (review). It is another modern day classic that will help students learn and appreciate the disciplines that build strong Christian committment and character.

While I do not consider it part of this list, I would also recommend every student have access to a good study Bible based upon a solid translation of the Scriptures. My first choice is the Reformation Study Bible, available in the English Standard Version. A student will benefit far more from immersing himself in this book - God’s book - than in any other.

So there we have it. University of Destruction, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Decisions, Decisions , Systematic Theology and Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. A Christian college student could do far worse than to have those titles on his bookshelf and that collective wisdom in his heart.

October 25, 2005

Over the past few days I have been reading The Benefits of Providence, a newly-published book written by James Spiegel. It is a deeply challenging book that is filled with weighty subject matter. It has given me a lot to think about and meditate upon. I look forward to attempting to summarize this book in a meaningful in an upcoming review. I am sure it will be quite a challenge.

The book is, of course, an examination of divine providence with corresponding application to the life of the believer. It is far more than “mere theology,” but is filled with useful application. Today I would like to discuss one small section of the book. In the second chapter the author compares and contrasts two views of providence, the high and the low. He defines the high view as the Augustinian (which most of us would recognize and apply to our lives) and the low view as the Open Theistic view. At one point, while discussing the hermeneutics of providence, he makes a distinction between two understandings of divine action. The first is the phenomenology of divine action which refers to the way God’s activity appears to human beings. The second is the metaphysics of divine action. This refers to the way God actually works within and behind the world.

These are, of course, both important aspects of what the Bible teaches about God. Even if you have never stopped to consider the difference between these it will become immediately apparent that there must be a difference between the reality of God’s actions and how we perceive them. It is important that we focus some attention on each one of these without allowing a focus on one of them to blind us to the other. Spiegel provides a brief example of what can happen when there is too great a focus on either one of them. It is this I would like to discuss and expand upon today.

Phenomenology at the Expense of Metaphysics

Open Theists provide a clear example of a group of people who have allowed their focus on phenomenology of divine action to blind them to the metaphysics of divine providence. In an earlier article I defined Open Theism in this way. “Open theism is a sub-Christian theological construct which claims that God’s highest goal is to enter into a reciprocal relationship with man. In this scheme, the Bible is interpreted without any anthropomorphisms - that is, all references to God’s feelings, surprise and lack of knowledge are literal and the result of His choice to create a world where He can be affected by man’s choices. God’s exhaustive knowledge does not include future free will choices by mankind because they have not yet occurred.” Here are some characteristics of this teaching:

  1. Man has libertarian free will. Man’s will has not been so affected by the Fall that he is unable to make a choice to follow God. God respects man’s freedom of choice and would not infringe upon it.
  2. God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. Indeed, He cannot know certain future events because the future exists only as possibility. God is unable to see what depends on the choices of free will agents simply because this future does not yet exist, so it unknowable. In this way open theists attempt to reconcile this doctrine with God’s omniscience.
  3. God takes risks. Because God cannot know the future, He takes risks in many ways - creating people, giving them gifts and abilities, and so on. Where possibilities exist, so does risk.
  4. God learns. Because God does not know the future exhaustively, He learns, just as we do.
  5. God is reactive. Because He is learning, God is constantly reacting to the decisions we make.
  6. God makes mistakes. Because He is learning and reacting, always dealing with limited information, God can and does make errors in judgment which later require re-evaluation.
  7. God can change His mind. When God realizes He has made an error in judgment or that things did not unfold as He supposed, He can change His mind.

Open Theists, to their credit, have invested extensive effort in attempting to understand the personal relationship between God and His creatures. They have studied the passages in the Bible about God’s interaction with the world and have formed what they feel are biblical understandings of the freedom God extends to humans. But where Open Theists have gone wrong is in downplaying the way God actually works behind the scenes. Their emphasis on the way things appear to humans has blinded them to the metaphysics of divine providence. When they encounter what believers have historically considered anthropomorphisms, for example, they interpret these literally rather than figuratively. When they see that God extends freedom of choice to human beings, they understand this as being libertarian free will. And so they interpret the metaphysical through the phenomenological rather than alongside it. Spiegel says, “They commit the egregious mistake of using biblical phenomenological data as evidence for metaphysical claims about God. Consequently, their doctrine of providence is fundamentally unbiblical, and their portrait of God is woefully incomplete.”

Metaphysics at the Expense of Phenomenology

At the opposite end of the spectrum to Open Theists we might find hyper-Calvinists. Hyper-Calvinists, who in reality are anti-Calvinists since they deny many of the crucial teachings of historical Calvinism, overemphasize the metaphysics of divine providence and this blinds them to the realities of human freedom and responsibility. Many Christians have struggled to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility and have often done so with results that are far from satisfying or convincing. But hyper-Calvinists have done the church a great disservice by removing almost all emphasis from the phenomenological.

A popular definition of hyper-Calvinism, adapted from an article written by Phil Johnson, is as follows:

1. [Hyper-Calvinism] is a system of theology framed to exalt the honour and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners … It emphasizes irresistible grace to such an extent that there appears to be no real need to evangelize; furthermore, Christ may be offered only to the elect… .
2. It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will of God and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of sinners, notably with respect to the denial of the use of the word “offer” in relation to the preaching of the gospel; thus it undermines the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them; and it encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect. [Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism,” New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), 324.]

Phil Johnson provides the following five characteristics of this aberrant theology:

  1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
  2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
  3. Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
  4. Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
  5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

Calvinists, and indeed most evangelicals, affirm that the offer of the gospel is given in sincerity to the non-elect and the elect. Calvinists believe, though, that only the elect are able to respond to this call. Hyper-Calvinists, in stressing the metaphysical, deny either that the offer is truly given or that it is given in sincerity. They stress the secret will of God at the expense of the revealed will, which is to say they stress metaphysics at the expense of phenomenology. Similar to Open Theists, then, they commit an egregious mistake. But in this case the mistake is in using biblical metaphysical data as evidence for phenomenological claims about God. Like Open Theists, their portrait of God is woefully incomplete.

Conclusion

Charles Spurgeon, when asked about the seeming contradiction between human freedom and divine sovereignty replied famously, “I do not try to reconcile friends.” It seems to me that the same is true when we discuss divine action. The way God actually works and the way it appears He works do not stand at odds with each other. We do not need to reconcile these as if they are enemies for which we need to make an uneasy peace. We can affirm both of them while trusting and believing that God has been good to us in revealing only as much as we can know and understand. It is only when we place appropriate emphasis on both the metaphysical claims and the phenomenological that we can be confident we have a biblical portrait of God.

October 24, 2005

I was about eighteen years old the first time I saw a dead person. Just a few days earlier my grandmother had unexpectedly suffered a massive heart attack and had died nearly instantly. The family was given the opportunity to say “goodbye” to her before the funeral. We were ushered into a room in the funeral home, and there, across the room, she lay in an elegant coffin. I took a deep breath and walked over to where she lay.

Grammy didn’t look a whole lot different than she had when she was alive. She lay peacefully and could almost have been asleep. Almost. As children we used to pretend to be dead sometimes, but of course we weren’t capable of acting it out very well. But Grammy wasn’t acting. Her chest was not rising and falling as her lungs filled with air and her eyes were not fluttering as they do when people sleep. Grammy could snore with the best of them - I remember as a child giggling at the racket she made when she slept as I passed by her bedroom - but this time she made no noise as she slept. There was no doubt about it - my grandmother was dead. Death pervaded her entire being. It wasn’t just that one part of her had stopped working - all that she was; her entire body, mind and soul had ceased functioning.

I was taken aback by the finality of death. Grammy could only act out her state of being. She was dead and had no choice but to act dead. Nothing I could do, nothing the doctors could do, could ever make her act alive again. Her body was an empty, decaying shell that had served its purpose and was already beginning to return to the dust from which it had come.

As I looked down at her pallid face, how I wished that she would open her eyes just one more time, take my hand and tell me that she loved me. And how I wished I could spend just a few minutes to tell her about my plans for the future; if she couldn’t be there to witness them at least I could tell her that in just a few months I was planning on asking Aileen to marry me. I could tell her some of the goals I had set for my life. But it was too late for that. Had I spoken to her, the words would just have been spoken into a void.

It was irrational of me to hope against hope that she might just give me one more chance to tell her how much I was going to miss her and just once chance to make sure she really knew about Jesus.

If you have ever taken the time to read through the Bible, or even a portion of it, you’ll know that it devotes great attention to life and death. The words “dead” and “death” appear hundreds, even thousands of times within the pages of God’s Word. Why the great emphasis? The answer is evident when you look at the world. Take a look around in your school, your office and maybe even your home or your church and you will see dead men walking all around you. These people may still have a heartbeat and may still be able to hear and speak, but in a spiritual sense they are dead. The Bible is devoted to explaining the cause of and solution to this death.

I want to take you to just a couple of verses in that book, verses that most people read and just pass on by without ever reflecting on them. It is a pity to pass them by for they contain something that is too important to miss. Genesis is the first book in the Bible and we are going to look at the fifth chapter which speaks about the first man who ever walked this earth - a man who was created perfect in a perfect world. It was a world that knew no evil, no sin, no death. Verses one through three read “This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”

You may be wondering what possible importance I could attach to verses that seem only to list some genealogical details. But look closer. The first verse says “He [God] made him [Adam] in the likeness of God.” So God created a man who was in His own image. That means man was perfect, holy and spiritually alive. Man had perfect, unbroken communion with His Creator. Now look to verse three. “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image.” Do you see what has happened here? Somewhere between Adam and his son, a change took place. Where Adam was created in God’s likeness and in God’s image, Adam’s son was created in Adam’s likeness and in Adam’s image!

The key to understanding this transformation is contained in another book of the Bible - one written two thousand years after the first. In Romans 5 verse 12 we read “…Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…Yet death reigned from Adam.” We are all familiar with the story of how Adam and his wife Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. While the act of eating a piece of fruit God had forbidden them to touch seemed quite harmless, it was an act of willful rebellion against the Creator on the part of human beings. Through that act of rebellion and disobedience, sin entered the world. Having entered, it has multiplied, increasing to the point that it has extended to every being in the world. And that includes you and me.

Death reigns in this world, doesn’t it? They say that the only inevitabilities in life are death and taxes. You can cheat the government and avoid taxes, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who can cheat death. It’s a fact. A few months ago I saw a short program on The Learning Channel about a man who is obsessed with delaying death and even the onset of aging. This man consumes vast amounts of vitamins and minerals, literally thousands of pills every week. Yet it is a fool’s game and one he is guaranteed to lose. You and I and everyone you know are going to die some day. This man, despite all of his pills, will die too. We don’t know when, where or how, but we do know it is coming.

Did you notice that the Bible chooses not to speak about sickness reigning from Adam? It never says that illness and discomfort entered the world through one man, does it? It speaks of death. Finality. Decisiveness.

Ever since Adam, death is our natural state of being. When you look around you, you see dead men acting out death. A dead man can not act alive. My grandmother, when she lay in that casket, had no choice to act alive, did she? Death ruled over her, forcing her to act out her state of being. In the same way, people who are spiritually dead have no option but to act out death. They may have the vague appearance of life, but the fact is they are dead. They have no ability to change their state of being.

Is the same true in a spiritual sense? Can a person who is spiritually dead change his state of being and come to life? The answer is both yes and no. Stayed tuned for the second part of this article where I will explain.

Every now and then I go rooting through the archives and find an article either I did not finish or feel could be written better. This is one of those that I did not finish. Hopefully this time I can get it right!

October 23, 2005

In my reading of early church history this past week I came upon a passage from Justin’s First Apology in which he describes the worship of the early church.

“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

“Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

“And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”

I was struck both by the similarities and the differences between worship today. Nick Needham points out that the three primary ingredients of the early worship services were the reading and expounding of Scripture, prayer, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Noticeably absent, of course, is music and singing. While we do know, even from other accounts written from Justin, that music was a part of the services, it was clearly not as central to the services as we make it today. Conserversely, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a more important part of the service, or at least than the service of most of today’s Protestant churches.

It is interesting to note as well that during the early history of the church, and in fact until the 14th century, Christian worshipped while standing. Pews (and stackable, cushioned seats) are quite a late development. Those who were tired or infirm would be able to sit around the outside edge of the church while others stood. Standing was also considered the proper posture for prayer. Generally those who prayed would keep their eyes open looking towards heaven, and their arms outstretched.

One thing Justin does not make clear, but which seems clear from other documents, is that the service was divided into two components. The first, the service of the word, which included singing, reading of the Scripture and the sermon was open to everyone. The second part, the prayers and Lord’s Supper, were open only to baptized believers. Everyone else had to leave.

Corporate worship was an important time for believers and they worshipped, at least initially, very simply.

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