biblical obedience

What is Biblical obedience? Abraham, Huck Finn, and Adolf Eichmann

There’s a movement within United Methodism called “Biblical Obedience” whose name itself is offensive to many Methodists because it advocates full inclusivity for LGBT people. I’ve already written about my understanding of what the Bible actually teaches on this issue, but what I really want to¬† contemplate today is the question of obedience itself, setting aside the LGBT issue for a moment. The most radical example of Biblical obedience I can think of (other than Jesus’ journey to the cross) is when God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. This story raises difficult questions. Is obedience always a good thing? How do we know whether we’re obeying God or conforming to the world, particularly if our world happens to be saturated in church culture? How does Abraham’s radical example translate into our day? Does it look more like Huck Finn’s quest to free his friend Jim from slavery in rebellion against his cultural values or Adolf Eichmann’s willingness to follow orders and carry out the genocide of the Jewish people? Continue Reading

cross-carrying

The kingdom is for outsiders: a “skinny-jeans evangelical” response to @scotmcknight

I’ve been enjoying the stimulating conversation at the Ecclesia National Gathering in DC. Scot McKnight started things off with a polemic against the “skinny-jeans evangelicals” (like me, sometimes) who tend to define the kingdom of God as happening “when good people do good in the public sector for the common good.” I think his polemic is legitimate. There is a furious backlash among evangelicals of my generation against the culture wars, which can turn us into generic “social justice” activists who no longer have any concept of church. “Kingdom” gets used as a code label to define a here-and-now social gospel over against an “eternal fire insurance” gospel. As McKnight says, “If the kingdom means everything, it means nothing.” He comes up with five Biblical principles for what the kingdom must include. But I think he needs some help from a “skinny-jeans evangelical” heckler like me, because I don’t think his five principles avoid reaffirming and returning to the problematic Christendom of the past. Continue Reading

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Five hypotheses about original sin and total depravity

So I went to the Facebook United Methodist Clergy page yesterday with the question of whether “total depravity” is really a Methodist doctrine, and the response was pretty fierce. The phrase “total depravity” means different things to different people. Some take it to mean that humanity is utterly wicked, while others take it to mean that every aspect of our humanity is corrupted by sin, which are different claims. To me, the most important thing to understand is that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We would be helpless without it, which is a moot point because it’s all around us; we are depraved when we don’t acknowledge and seek it. In any case, based on the discussion with other Methodist clergy, I wanted to make the following five hypotheses concerning the topic of original sin and total depravity. Continue Reading

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Did we crucify Jesus or did God? (Using @ScotMcKnight to bludgeon bad atonement theory)

Scot McKnight had a very interesting post last week concerning a recently popular“scapegoat” atonement theory about Jesus’ cross based on the cultural theory of French philosopher Rene Girard. The scapegoat theory’s basic idea is that God the Father doesn’t demand Jesus’ blood as the price for humanity’s sin, but that we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin. McKnight contends that the Girardian view doesn’t count as an atonement theory because in his interpretation of the scapegoat theory, “we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death.” McKnight says that for an interpretation of the cross to be atonement as such, it must implicate us in the death of Jesus, “the cross [must be] in some way against us.” Interestingly, McKnight’s terms for a valid atonement theory don’t delegitimize Girard’s scapegoat theory nearly as much as they invalidate the default evangelical understanding of the cross as the satisfaction of God’s wrath. I heartily agree with McKnight’s understanding. Humanity crucified Jesus, not God; it is our needs which the cross satisfies, not God’s. Continue Reading

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“I used to be exactly like you before I got saved”

There are two obnoxious tendencies that many people seem to fall into quite naturally. The first is to universalize your personal story as the basis for making presumptions about the lives of people around you. The second is to define yourself against other people. I definitely do both of these. Growing up moderate Southern Baptist, I have always defined myself against fundamentalism, and since it’s very hard for me to understand where fundamentalists are coming from, I often come up with presumptuous cynical explanations for why fundamentalists do what they do instead of just admitting I can’t understand them. So here’s the question with which God has confronted me recently: do I have to say that other people are lying about their stories for the story of my journey with God to be valid? Continue Reading

calvin vs wesley

Is God’s love more holy than his holiness is loving?

It may seem like a nonsensical distinction but I think it makes all the difference in the world in Christian theology. Which term gets to modify and define the other? Love or holiness? Is God’s love more holy than his holiness is holiness? I suspect that the reason that Wesleyans and Calvinists tend to talk past each other is because Wesleyans say God is most fundamentally love and thus define holiness in terms of love while Calvinists say God is most fundamentally holy and define love in terms of holiness. There are two quotes in particular that capture this distinction. Continue Reading

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A response to @BillMaher’s recent comments about God

I’ve been reading an interview with outspoken atheist comedian Bill Maher in the Atlantic. The interviewer asked him a question about God and his answer was intriguing to me. The question was along the lines of Pascal’s Wager: “What if you’re wrong and you’re dooming yourself to hell? Do you ever worry about that?” Here is Maher’s response:

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Were there mushrooms in Eden?

There are few things that make me smack my head more than the idea that Adam and Eve’s bite into an apple caused all of the decay and disease that exists in the world. I’ve written before that I believe the “death” that came to Adam and Eve (who are allegorical characters representing the human race) which Paul describes in Romans 5:12-13 is the death of innocence, not physical death as such. If you’re going to say that physical death didn’t happen until after the apple bite, then what you’re saying is that mushrooms and bacteria and viruses weren’t created by God until after Eden, which would mean that there wasn’t a real ecosystem and biological existence as such is dependent on sin. Continue Reading

micaiah and false prophets

Is the Old Testament a debate between priests and prophets?

I’ve been reading two books recently that have me really wondering what to do with the Old Testament: RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God and Richard Beck’s Unclean. Sproul’s book uses some of the most troubling Old Testament depictions of God to define God’s holiness since holiness has to do with God’s otherness and incomprehensibility. Beck talks about the way that the ethics of mercy and sacrifice pull in opposite directions. The God depicted by the prophets seems to care mostly about mercy, while the God depicted by the priests in the Torah seems to care mostly about sacrifice. It may be a taboo question, but is the Old Testament really a debate between the priests and the prophets? Continue Reading

Sproul

R.C. Sproul’s self-exalting “solidarity” with God’s holiness

I knew I was going to read something that would rankle me in RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God. Well sure enough I did. I wanted to articulate a rhetorical move that Sproul makes, because it’s common among writers and preachers who share his theology. Sproul talks in his book about Rudolph Otto’s term mysterium tremendum (fearful mystery), which he applies to the holiness of God. It describes a gap of incomprehensibility between us and God. But what Sproul does rhetorically is to put himself on God’s side of the mysterium tremendum gap. If I claim that God is incomprehensible on the one hand and then “defend” His incomprehensible actions as perfectly reasonable on the other, this “solidarity” with God has the result of exalting me and putting me on God’s side against the rest of humanity. Continue Reading