The Wilberforce Test: Preaching and the Public Square

The following thought provoking article was written by Owen Strachan,  professor of theology and church history at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. It was originally posted on the 9marks site. He raises some important questions that our churches really need to begin to think about. We need men like Wilberforce today; why are our churches not producing men like this any longer.


William Wilberforce was born with life laid out like a Persian carpet before him. He was from fantastic wealth, had access to high society whenever he pleased, and had the social graces to charm most anyone he encountered.

Wilberforce was raised by an evangelical aunt but had drifted from a close connection to Christianity. When as a 26-year-old man he found himself empty and unfulfilled by his worldly trajectory, he secretly contacted famous pastor John Newton for counsel. Through Newton’s influence, Wilberforce soon embraced the religion of the “enthusiasts” of England, a derogatory term for Christians who zealously preached the new birth.

Two Paths Out of TrialsWilberforce became the champion par excellence of abolition in Great Britain. He lived to see the defeat of slavery and the slave trade in his homeland and its imperial territories. The striking thing about Wilberforce’s story is this: he did not work alone. His pastor, John Venn, the Rector of Clapham, is basically forgotten. Yet week after week, Venn fired the conscience and stirred the heart of Wilberforce and his activist peers. The public work of Wilberforce—world-changing work, that is—was shaped by the pulpit ministry of Venn.[1]

In considering this example, I would like to pose a question: could our preaching today raise up a Wilberforce? Could it pass, in other words, what we could call the Wilberforce test? In what follows, I will sketch out how it is that a pastor can meet this mark. Every pastor, I argue, is a public theologian, called by God to bring biblical truth to bear on all of life such that his people storm the gates of hell and promote righteousness and mercy in a fallen world.

THE CORE OF A PASTOR’S LABORS: EXPOSITORY PREACHING

Too often, we are presented with just two choices when it comes to the pulpit and public-square witness. Either the pastor is a political activist, or he is effectively removed from cultural concerns. Both of these models have serious problems.

The central conviction of the pastor is the truthfulness of the gospel. This gospel announces that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified for our justification and raised to life for our vindication. This message is the foundation of every minister’s work, which means that every minister stewards a theological reality. Every pastor, in other words, is a theologian. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. has noted that “The pastoral calling is inherently theological. Given the fact that the pastor is to be the teacher of the Word of God and the teacher of the gospel, it cannot be otherwise.” Mohler sharpens the point: “The idea of the pastorate as a non-theological office is inconceivable in light of the New Testament.”[2]

This is a very different conception of the pastor than we often hear today. The pastor in the historic model is not a coach, executive, administrator, cheerleader, or entrepreneur. Fundamentally, the pastor is the steward of the most precious message there is. But the pastor does not only loft this message into the air. He preaches it to all who will hear and watches as the Word and the gospel build a church. This church is not incidental to the gospel. As Mark Dever has said, “Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible.”[3] To a degree that we rarely acknowledge, the church is a living picture of the gospel.

This means that the pastor is a theologian, but a theologian attached to a people. The pastor serves as theologian to his people not primarily by writing dense articles in the church newsletter, but by preaching the truth and shepherding the flock. This is, as noted, expressly theological work. Mohler has said it like this: “There is no more theological calling than this—guard the flock of God for the sake of God’s truth.”[4] Pastoral ministry is not a retreat from theological work, an escape to the adoctrinal hinterlands of what is sometimes called “practical ministry.” Pastoral ministry occurs on the front lines of the great theological conflict between God and the devil. Every pastor a theologian, then; every pastor a warrior-priest, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Melchizedek, following the one who is greater than he.

Pastors are not politicians. They are appointed by God, however, to shape the worldview and thus the convictions of their people. Faithful handling of the Word of God means preaching the whole counsel of God. Preaching the whole counsel of God, in turn, cannot help but form and enliven Christian conviction, the principles that a believer must advocate in a fallen world, for the world lacks them even as it desperately needs them. Christian conviction is not made only for business meetings and quiet times. It is forged in the furnace of biblical exposition. Christian conviction looks like fire. It smells like smoke. It feels like a burning ember plucked from the flame. It emerges from the furnace of Scripture, and it is fashioned to sear and to awaken.

THE PASTOR PREACHING IN PUBLIC

Too often, preaching is described in much quieter terms than this. The grandeur and daring of biblical exposition is damped down. The private, solitary nature of the homiletical event is emphasized—each person quietly considering the claims of Christ. Preaching, to be sure, is aimed at the human heart. In biblical proclamation, God does business with the sinner. Though a pastor exposits the Word to dozens or hundreds or thousands of people, he understands that through his exposition, God meets with each individual person.

Let us hold fast to this “private” dimension of preaching. But perhaps we should ponder the recovery of the public dimension of preaching. As we have made clear, preaching is centered in the gospel of the Word. The gospel is a public announcement of a public event. Jesus was not crucified in private. He was spread out on a Roman cross, humiliated before all who would cast an eye upward at his foaming mouth and his heaving chest. His death was orchestrated and approved by the Roman political hierarchy. But the public nature of his horrific death goes far beyond Christ’s humiliation. His death, unlike every other death, was not only a cessation of life, but an act of atonement. No other person has atoned for sin in their passing. Only Jesus.

In paying for the sins of his people at Golgotha, Jesus accomplished a public work with profoundly private dimensions. All who will ever be found in him had their “record of debt cancelled” at the cross, according to Colossians 2:14. This cancellation was a “public spectacle” (2:15). It was the enactment of triumph over “the powers and authorities” of Satan’s kingdom. The cross that paid for private—or individual—sin was public, in other words. It was a display of divine force. It was a celebration of theistic power. It was an act of public shaming. Though Rome and her soldiers looked at Christ’s cross with disdain, God and his angels knew the truth. The power of Satan was broken. The head of Satan was crushed. Though hidden from the world, the defeat of darkness and death was accomplished.

Every time a pastor preaches the cross, they preach publicly. By this I do not only mean that they deliver a sermon in a forum to which the broader community is invited. I mean that from Bangladesh to Bangor, Maine to Bristol, England they announce to the cosmos that Jesus has won and Satan has lost. The church in which a pastor preaches is local. But the “theater,” to use Calvin’s language, is universal.[5] Every Sunday, across the world, 100,000 pastors announce together that the Messiah-King has come, and has triumphed. Satan must hear this every week, and must gnash his teeth every time he is reminded of his certain destruction.

There is another dimension of this public ministry to consider as well. The pastor’s message is not only addressed to the broader world, but is applicable to it. The Word and the gospel lay claim to all they encounter, advancing the kingdom of Christ over all the earth. The kingdom is dynamic. It does not shrink back. It is not overcome. It is undefeated, even as Jesus is undefeated, and his gospel is undefeated. The kingdom is inherently spiritual. It is the reign and rule of God. But though spiritual, the application of Christ’s Messiahship to this realm has powerfully public effect. By the preaching of the Word of Christ, human hearts are claimed, human behavior changes, churches are birthed, and Christians live out their faith in their community and culture. When all this happens, the gospel is working in the private sphere to influence the public sphere. The city of God, to quote Augustine, is ministering grace to the city of man.

The church, in other words, is the true culture. The community of God is created by the very mind of God. It is no mere organization. It is a living-and-breathing body, the spiritual entity that displays the glory of God and advances the kingdom of God. This means, as William Willimon has said, that the church is not only a change-agent in the world, but “is a world.” The church dares to “claim that this world, this culture—the church—is God’s way with the world, the appointed means by which Christ is bringing all things unto himself.”[6] To join the local church is not only to mark oneself as a believer as part of a larger body. It is to enter a new world, the true world.

So it is that preaching is public, for in preaching, the doorway to this other world, the true world, opens.

PASTORS AS PUBLIC THEOLOGIANS IN A FRAGMENTED WORLD: THREE CONSIDERATIONS FOR TODAY

Thus far we have sketched out what it means to be a pastor. I have argued that every pastor is a theologian, stewarding and announcing expressly theological realities. All the work of the pastor—discipling, counseling, evangelizing, leading, and everything else—proceeds from theistic truths. If God is not Triune, if the Word is not inerrant, if Jesus is not the only Savior, then pastoring is just community service with a spritz of spirituality. But it is not. Pastoring is essentially and inescapably theological work.

It is not only this: it is public. The pastor has the privilege of declaring that another world exists, and that this world is not far-off, but has broken into our own world. The kingdom of Christ is advancing with relentless pace, and though it suffers violence, no one can stop it (Matthew 11:12). Thus far we have a general understanding of the pastor as public theologian. In what follows, let us look briefly at three specific ways that pastors can function as public theologians for the good of their church and their world.

1) Pastors can publicly speak the truth in love on all kinds of ethical matters.

John the Baptist is a major forerunner in this regard. Consider the account of his death in Matthew 14:

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” (Matthew 14:1-4 ESV)

John sets a bold example for us in calling public sin to account. This example of ethical courage is for pastors and leaders of God’s church. We minister in continuity with John the Baptist. He is the original herald of Jesus Christ. He had no pulpit to call his own, but his work was the pastor’s work in its essence. John preached the truth. The truth is no respecter of feelings. The truth is no respecter of monarchs. The truth is no respecter of public/private divides. As Shakespeare said, the truth will out. If we were to put it more biblically, the truth must out.

We do not have the option, then, of quieting our theological witness on certain matters. Where wrong is being committed, the truth compels us to confront it. Where sin is being practiced, the truth inspires us to denounce it. Where evil is flourishing, the truth moves us to oppose it. This holds whether we are counseling a young believer with bad Internet surfing habits, discipling a world-making politician caught in a sinful relationship, or preaching to a church body perplexed by transgender identity. The truth is theological in nature, but it does not stop there. When it makes contact with the world, it creates an ethical witness. Pastors have no choice but to fill this role.

The gospel of Jesus Christ has fitted every pastor to call out sin and to promote goodness. This is not necessarily a complex calling. Ethical issues surely take on complexity, but at base, the ministry of John the Baptist that ends his life is a simple one. Pastors need not have written a dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr’s applied theology of depravity to be fitted for public witness on matters of sin and righteousness. They need to know Scripture. They need to have a biblically informed conscience. Then, they need to search their world and see where Herod still reigns, and where he must be opposed and called to repentance.

2) Pastors can train their people to be salt and light.

No text more speaks to this sense of identity than the call to be salt and light of the Sermon on the Mount.

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

This means that as a pastor, you are called to equip your people to be salt and light. This in turn necessitates that you train them in knowing how to be a set-apart Christian. This sort of training comes by hearing sermons, week after week, that describe and differentiate the Christian as a blood-bought witness of Christ. It is also crucial that the church body understand that it needs no degree, no credential, and no voice from heaven to be activated as an embodiment of salt and light in their community, their world.

We discussed this in terms of William Wilberforce in the introduction. Wilberforce was not a pastor. But he was profoundly moved by the preaching and activism of John Newton and John Venn. If there was no Newton, there would have been no Wilberforce. No Venn, no Wilberforce. It is this simple in historical terms. If we would have the slave trade ended, we would need not only a high-flown politician of sterling talent and an enviable network, but a preacher of the Word. The Word is what made Wilberforce what he became. Sermons were his diet. Exposition was his food. He practiced public ethics because his pastor and his mentor commended and preached public theology as the Bible presented it.

Newton awoke a young Wilberforce to the evils of the slave trade in 1787. On October 28, a Sunday, the two men had a lengthy conversation that led Wilberforce to pen a now-famous entry in his diary. “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” We do not know the specifics of the conversation that preceded this momentous—and ultimately predictive—statement, but it is clear that Newton exercised a powerful effect on his young charge. The very next day, Wilberforce contacted the Quakers, who were known for their persistent if underappreciated campaign to end slavery. Clearly, through Newton’s vibrant pastoral counsel, God set the wheels of history in motion.[7]

Newton continued to talk with Wilberforce over the years, and the politician came to hear him preach at St. Mary’s Woolnoth in London. In the late-1780s, Newton wrote the famous pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, testified before Parliament on the horrors of slavery, and supported the burgeoning abolitionist cause among evangelicals. He was a powerful force in British society for the cause of abolition and lended Wilberforce no small amount of aid in his work.

But it was Venn who provided Wilberforce with a steady diet of pulpit instruction. Were every person to live godly, Venn once thundered, “No scenes of cruelty would shock the eye; no cry of oppression would wound the ear. Tyranny and slavery would be only remembered with a sigh that human nature should once have suffered them.”[8] Every person did not live in such a way, however, and so it was the duty of Christians to show the world the virtues of faith:

Benevolence towards our fellow-creatures will produce [true religion] by depriving the heart of every angry passion, and leading us to sympathize in all the happiness of our fellow-creatures. The hope of glory will gild every prospect in life, and render all its afflictions light. Trust in God will impart abiding comfort to us, “for God will keep him in perfect peace who trusteth in him.” Above all, the love of God is an unceasing source of happiness; for this will make us satisfied with every dispensation of our Heavenly Father, and gladden our hearts in the view of his infinite goodness.[9]

These swatches of Venn’s preaching show that his heart was attuned to human suffering and the need of justice in the world. He did not hold back from preaching on ethical matters relevant to his Clapham context. In one famous address for the Church Missionary Society, he suggested rhetorically that Christians had done much to advance the cause of justice in the world:

Was a single hospital founded through their persuasion? Were schools provided through their suggestions for instruction of the inferior orders? Did they bear testimony against slavery? Or was the civil state of the poor at all meliorated by their labours? [10]

Venn preached directly against the slave trade. Yet his sermons also suggest that the primary way that believers could influence their context was by living godly lives characterized by love, hope, and trust. This life was no mere exercise in piety, but was anchored in the very nature of Almighty God.[11]

This pulpit ministry moved parishioners like Wilberforce to action. Yet the young man came to see that many Christians did not have what he had. Believers had too often seen their faith as inherently private and thus without connection to the greater struggles unfolding in their world. In his famous book, A Practical View of Christianity, Wilberforce decried the severing of theology from ethics in his native land:

The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.[12]

It is appropriate to read this passage as a verdict on the sleeping consciences of English Christians. Why did so few speak out against slavery and the slave trade? Why were the Quakers a lone voice years before the Clapham Sect mobilized against these evils? There are likely numerous factors, but a crucial one is this: the church’s doctrinal interest was weak. Where this happens, as Wilberforce notes, “the moral system itself” also begins “to wither and decay,” for it has been “robbed” of its ballast.

This is a powerful charge from a wise man. If the pulpit is theologically weak and ethically disengaged, the church’s call to be salt and light in a decaying, darkening world will go unheeded. The people will focus on their 401ks, their vacations, their school sports. Their faith will shrink. They will embrace “prosperity lite” theology such that they come to think that Christianity is fundamentally about their security and comfort. They will lose sight of the fact that they have been appointed as gospel agents in their communities, and that if they go silent, few exist who can take up the work.

The pastor is the one who stands against these woeful trends. The pastor must fundamentally and continually remind the people of their distinct identity and their divine calling. We are not here for ourselves, the pastor must regularly preach. We are here for the lost, and we are called to work while there is day to oppose evil and promote righteousness.

In this way, the pastor avoids making the pulpit political in the stereotypical way. He does not usually comment on ballot initiatives and candidates. But he is fearless in forming in his people the theistic and ethical convictions embedded in the Word. He is unapologetic about calling sins both ancient and modern what they are. He nurtures his people’s instinct for justice, debasing injustice wherever appropriate—social, racial, economic, and otherwise. Like Newton with the young Wilberforce, he offers counsel to his congregants that helps them probe the dimensions of their vocations and callings.

He does not hold back from encouraging his people to be who they already are in Jesus Christ: salt and light.

3) Pastors can call their people to love their neighbors.

In Mark 12:31, Jesus details the second greatest commandment, the one that follows from the first: loving God with everything you have. Jesus tells his disciples that “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Christianity suffers from a malnourished doctrine of “neighbor-love.” Such a doctrine does indeed mean baking cookies and befriending our neighbors, each a revolutionary action in a world that celebrates bowling alone. But it means much more than this. There is a world of activity and agency in the second commandment. We would be advised, like the crew of a spaceship in a Christopher Nolan space epic, to explore this world.

Texts like James 1:27 illuminate what neighbor-love can and should look like. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father,” James says, “is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” If we would claim to walk purely before God, we must be practicing “actional” faith. The Lord wants our faith to have an edge, to be directed in some way at those who cannot care for themselves. Christian faith is not only vertical, aimed toward the heavens. Christian faith is aimed at the whole world.

We cannot singlehandedly “change the world,” as we are sometimes told. We yearn to instantaneously overcome evil and instantiate goodness, but we are finite, limited creatures. So much of what is wrong in our realm will only be made right by Christ when he comes in glory. Until he does, however, God intends for us to be reaching into the darkness. He wants us to love our neighbor not only by speaking, but by acting on their behalf. He wants us not simply to critique the darkness, but to plunge into it.

We do so not as lone rangers, but as the church, led by faithful pastors. As the pastor preaches the whole counsel of God, he builds the convictional framework of his people. The gospel creates ethics. The people, in turn, begin to see in ways great and small how they can love their neighbor. They can volunteer at a homeless shelter, counsel abortion-minded women at clinics, mentor fatherless boys in their neighborhood, start a soccer league for struggling teens, and invite refugees from war-torn countries to their homes for dinner. None of these actions will likely make the evening news. None of them require a massive programmatic structure or even budgetary investment on the church’s part. All of these and many other forms of neighbor-love are small, incidental, humble, and gospel-driven. All of them are deeply meaningful.

As the church hears about such efforts, and prays for members who are loving their neighbors near and far, a cycle of investment begins. The gospel is seen not as a means to an end, but a message that creates a way of life. As this happens, the church shows the world that Christ’s body is a dynamic, others-centered institution. More than this, it reveals that it is not a culture, but the true culture. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have argued, it demonstrates that it “embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know.”[13]

TRUE CULTURE IS OFTEN COUNTER-CULTURE

If pastors do not preach the true culture, then no one will. This is the essential reality of our modern situation: voices who speak for the permanent things, who advocate for the good, true, and beautiful in the public realm, are disappearing. In days past in America, pastors could assume that a coalition of institutions and individuals stood alongside them in their work to strengthen marriages, help the weak, rescue the fatherless, and champion the good of the family.

Today, there are fewer and fewer like-minded partners in the public square. Our government looms ever larger, suggesting in a friendly but insistent voice that it can solve our problems, fix our families, and cure our ills. With hesitation, and a vague sense that this might not be a good choice, we cede it the ground it requests. With resignation, we sigh, Sure, government. You can fix my problems. You can teach my children sexual ethics. You can regulate my home. That’s fine—after all, who else is offering to help?

Christians increasingly buy into this mindset, failing to see that Caesar offers us not only a political program, but a theological system. The state can be our god, and our friend. The state can be our salvation. The state can give us meaning. The state is ready and eager to teach us theology, a theology of itself. If we doubt this tendency on the part of the state, we must reconsider the lessons of the totalitarian twentieth-century. Have Whittaker Chambers, Hannah Arendt, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoken—and suffered—for nothing?

When Caesar encroaches, Christians go numb. Pastors stop forming principles in their people borne of Scripture. They leave it to other voices to shape their people. But the church today must rouse itself. Pastors today are tempted to think that they need not equip their people for public-square witness. That, they have been told, is the job of professional ethicists. They do not see that they have been appointed by God to stand on the front lines of theological and ethical formation. The view that others will take up the public cross we are called to carry is a fiction, a pleasing illusion. In reality, those who would stand for the good, true, and beautiful are vanishing like shadows passing on the mountains.

Let us make this as practical as we can.

  • If pastors will not speak for marriage, who will?
  • If pastors will not speak for the unborn baby, who will?
  • If pastors will not equip the congregation to reach the fatherless young men who tear up their communities out of anger, who will?
  • If pastors will not speak a word on behalf of religious liberty, but will allow it to be taken from them with nary a word, who will?
  • If pastors will not instruct the youth of the congregation in biblical sexual ethics, views directly opposed by the culture, who will?

Let us see a generation of pastors who does not go quietly into the night. Let us witness a generation of pastors proclaim the whole counsel of God from Scripture, forming their people both theologically and ethically as they do so. The pulpit is not political. But the pulpit must be convictional. We are not yet a people weakened by the state, crippled by Caesar, as pastors were in Germany and Russia and China in the twentieth-century. They lost their voice. They could not offer protest. They could not equip the church to be what it fundamentally is: a witness, a sign and symbol of the true culture, and the dwelling-place of God.

In a fallen world, the true culture must often be a counter-culture. It must make the case that a secular kingdom does not want it to make. It must, like Christ and the apostle Paul, offer protest against injustice (John 18:23; Acts 22). We must not muzzle ourselves, for the prophets and apostles did not do so. We must make our case and preach the gospel. As long as we have strength, we must speak and act as the true culture. By our word and congregational witness, we must be a counter-culture to bring life to a secular culture that is in many respects an anti-culture.

CONCLUSION

Filling this role will be a lonely task. It was for William Wilberforce. It was for John Venn. We laud Wilberforce today for his successful campaign, but he paid a mighty price for it. We note Venn’s name, but he is unknown today, forgotten despite his epoch-making influence.

But as we think about Venn, and about Newton, we are reminded that the cause of Christ is a humble one. It is not a call to glory. It is a call to self-sacrifice. It is a call to be a man of conscience, unafraid of what the world may do, unashamed of the gospel. It is a summons to equip the church to be salt and light, to love its neighbor, to collectively seek and pray for the advancement of the kingdom over every corner of the earth.

The pastor who preaches for the transformation of his people is equipping them for service in this life that will echo into eternity. As he forms the doctrine and ethics of his flock, he is pleasing the Lord. To return to our original query, he is passing the Wilberforce test, preaching such that his people can plunge into the darkness.

The question before us today is this: will we?

Editor’s note: This essay is an expansion of the author’s talk at T4G 2014: “The Pastor as Public Theologian in an Increasingly Hostile Culture.” In 2015, he has a book coming out on this topic with Kevin Vanhoozer entitled, The Pastor as Public Theologian (Brazos, 2015).

*****

[1] See Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Crossway, 2003), 314-17; Eric Metaxas, William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (HarperOne, 2007), 185.

[2] R. Albert Mohler Jr., He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 106.

[3] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H, 2012), xi.

[4] Mohler, He Is Not Silent, 107.

[5] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.6.1.

[6] William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon, 2002), 209.

[7] See Jonathan Aitken, John Newton, 309-312.

[8] John Venn, “Godliness Profitable to All Things,” Sermons of the Rev. John Venn, M. A., Rector of Clapham, Three Volumes in Two, vol. II (Boston: R. P. & C. Williams, S. Etheridge, 1822), 22.

[9] John Venn, “On the Nature of True Religion,” Sermons, 247.

[10] “John Venn—The Forgotten Center of the Clapham Sect,” Kairos Journal, accessible at http://kairosjournal.org/document.aspx?DocumentID=5092&QuadrantID=2&CategoryID=10&TopicID=17&L=1.

[11] Venn also derived into more directly political matters at times. Wilberforce sometimes took Venn’s sermons home with him as a guide to thinking through governmental policy. See Michael Hennel, John Venn and the Clapham Sect (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 198.

[12] William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Preferred Christianity (Cosimo, 2005), 205. Originally published as A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes, Contrasted with Real Christianity (1820).

[13] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 17–18.

Wisdom beyond the homosexuality debate

Rosaria Butterfield has written an insightful article about understanding homosexuality through the lens of a Christian worldview, but the beauty of her article is that it goes far beyond dealing with questions about homosexuality alone and focuses on the way that the ideas of others can shape our views about theology and set the direction for our life choices. Her article was prompted by a recent student protest at Wheaton College after she was invited to come and share her testimony. In response to this protest, Rosaria set aside time afterwards to meet with those who had protested against her to hear their concerns and discuss their issues. In her article she states that “This may seem a quirky observation, but I know too well the world these students inhabit. I recall its contours and crevices, risks and perils, reading lists and hermeneutical allegiances. You see, I’m culpable. The blood is on my hands. The world of LGBTQ activism on college campuses is the world that I helped create. I was unfaltering in fidelity: the umbrella of equality stretching to embrace my lesbian identity, and the world that emerged from it held salvific potential. I bet my life on it, and I lost.” Rosaria exemplifies how we can truly reach out in love and grace when we are met with opposition without compromising that which we know to be true. While the issue that prompted her article is homosexuality, it is only one of a myriad of issues facing the church today where a similar loving but firm response is needed from the church.

 

You Are What—and How—You Read by Rosaria Butterfield

The Gospel [not] in our image

There is a growing trend in our postmodern culture to treat “religion” like a buffet line, serving ourselves portions of things we like from each religion and rejecting those things that seem distasteful to us.  Instead of seeking to understand what is true, too often we make our decisions based only on what feels good to us.

Stuart Townend and Keith Getty are to be commended for standing strong against this modern trend. Together they wrote “In Christ Alone” with the intent of sharing the complete Gospel message in song. When they were asked, last year, to allow their hymn to be published with altered lyrics that removed parts of the Gospel message that others were uncomfortable with, they refused because they wanted to ensure that their hymn would continue to communicate the whole Gospel message. Thank you Stuart and Keith for writing such a powerful hymn and thank you for being willing to stand firm when their was pressure to compromise. A complete interview with Stuart Townsand and Keith Getty can be found here.


God, the Cosmic Vending Machine

1like_1prayerThere is an ever growing trend in social media where prayer is equated with clicking “like.” While the accompanying pictures often depict real tragic circumstances, they frequently don’t depict real life situations. They are often very old pictures of situations that were resolved long before the first “prayer request” was ever made on social media.These requests are not made by friends or relatives of the person depicted but by scammers who have searched the internet for images intended to pull on your heart strings. Why do people make these requests? It is not because they are seeking prayers, it is because they are seeking profits. It is one way that internet scammers engage in “like harvesting.”  Each “like” does not equal a “prayer,” each “like” equals an increase in the ranking of their page which allows them to have much broader distribution of subsequent advertising that will come later.

More importantly, each click also represents a tragic misunderstanding of prayer. God doesn’t want our “like,” he wants our heart. The bible tells us that Jesus gave his life so that we might enter into a true genuine relationship with God, the creator of the universe. Real prayer is that time we spend with God communicating with him about those things which most deeply touch our heart and it is a time when we allow God to speak to our heart; it is a time to get to know God more deeply. Real prayer is powerful because it represents a true sharing of our heart with the one who already knows the perfect answer to every problem and has the power to do anything. However, God is not a cosmic vending machine in which we put our spare change and push the button of our choice, he is the Eternal King of the universe to whom we must approach with true respect and reverence. When you pray, please don’t share your “like” on facebook, but instead humbly share your heart with the God and King who loves you and so deeply longs for you to truly know him that he endured the cross for you.

 

The failure of the local church

“The best kept secret of mission agencies in our day—speaking ever so broadly–is that the mission force is less equipped for service than the people they serve.” Rollin Grams

Earth boyRollin Grams has written a good article (The loss of Mission)  that outlines some significant problems within evangelical missions today. Tragically, many of the issues he raises are spot on but relatively unknown to those in the churches that have funded these missionary endeavors for decades. Ultimately, the responsibility for many of the failures he outlines in this article lay solely at the feet of the local church which has, for far too long, closed its ears and eyes to problems that it needed to address decades ago. Many of these problems laid the foundation for for some of the most divisive and heartbreaking battles that have erupted within mission organizations in the last few years.  By ignoring these issues for so long, the church has allowed them to grow into the monsters that we are facing today. Here is an outline of the issues addressed in Rollin Grams’ article, it is an article every Christian should read!

  1. Denominations have, by and large, lost the vision for mission.
  2. Independent churches cannot hold the vision of mission by themselves—they cannot hold it intelligently, adequately, accurately, efficiently, or appropriately.
  3. Local churches have lost the vision for mission.
  4. Many churches think that overseas exposure trips are mission work.
  5. Many churches do not want to meet with their missionaries or get to know them well.
  6. Many churches like to collect missionaries like exotic, salt-water fish.
  7. Many churches like to define what the mission should be.
  8. Most mission agencies have lost the vision of mission.
  9. Missionaries have little understanding of the mission of the Church and little training to accomplish this mission.
  10. The approach to financing missions is disconnected to the mission of the Church.

It is time for each of us, as part of the body of Christ, to again become intimately involved with the missionaries we send. Only then will we begin to understand the tragic failures of the past and then hopefully, in repentance, we will seek to bring godly correction so that the Gospel message will not be hindered.

 

Should We Expect Unbelievers to Act Like Christians?

This was a question that was debated in my own church before and after the 2008 elections. On the ballot that year were two significant initiatives i.e. Prop 4 which required parental consent for minors seeking an abortion and Prop 8 which was an amendment to the California constitution that defined marriage as union between one man and one woman. To the dismay of many, our church said very little about either of these propositions and did not take an official stand on either issue. The heart of the debate about how the church should respond to these initiatives was focused on questions about whether we should we expect unbelievers to act like Christians in regards to the moral issues addressed by these ballot initiatives. Russell D. Moore raises many of the same questions in his recent article that were raised in the discussions that ensued after the 2008 elections in my church. In seeking to answer these questions, he begins where I believe every Christian should begin i.e. by looking to the examples we have been given in Scripture.

 


Should We Expect Politicians to Act Like Christians?

Recently I was asked whether John the Baptist lost his head for expecting a lost politician to act like a Christian. John, you’ll remember, was executed for telling Herod that it was not lawful for the king to have his brother’s wife.

This is an important question, not simply for understanding the background of this particular text. Christians often shrug off questions of public ethics because we say, “Why should we expect lost people to act like Christians?” I once heard a prominent preacher say that it didn’t matter to him if his neighbors went to hell as prostitutes or as policemen; it only mattered that they were going to hell.

In one sense, this is a good impulse. After all, Jesus never acted shocked or appalled by the behavior of the lost people. Jesus spoke with gentleness to the lost sinners around him, but with severity at religious leaders, hiding their sin behind religiosity and using their positions to serve selfish interests.

And the apostle Paul wrote that he didn’t judge “outsiders” but instead that it is those “inside the church whom you are to judge” (1 Cor. 5:12). The gospel didn’t come to achieve a society of morally straight people unreconciled to Christ.

But, if all that’s true, why does John persist in calling out this obviously unregenerate political leader for his sexual behavior? John isn’t incidental to the biblical story. Jesus calls him the greatest of the prophets.

Obligation of a King

This wasn’t really a question of merely personal behavior by an outsider. Herod was clearly a pagan internally, but he held an office instituted by God, an office with obligations for obedience to God. The rulership over Israel, after all, wasn’t the equivalent of the queen of England or the president of the United States. Israel was a covenant nation of priests. The king was to be of the house of David, and he was to model the line of Christ.

In the same chapter of Deuteronomy that the apostle Paul quotes to speak of internal church discipline, the law lays out the qualifications for king. He shouldn’t use the office to serve his appetites for things or for sexual gratification (Deut. 17:17), but ought to meditate on the Word of God and act according to it “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left” (Deut. 17:20).

Not Merely Private Morality

This was a question of public justice, not merely of private morality. Herod’s sin was multifaceted. Yes, it was a private act of sexual immorality, taking as his own a woman he shouldn’t have. But Herod was acting not just as a man but as a ruler.

Herod, of course, was a puppet king, acting as a client of the Roman Empire. He couldn’t have provided what he offered in his sexually ignited boast of giving Herodias’s daughter “up to half my kingdom” (Mk. 6:23). Herod didn’t have the same power as David, but it was the same principle at work. David’s taking of Bathsheba was more than just an immoral use of his private parts, but an immoral use of his public office.

We can all see what this means, even apart from divine revelation. One of the good things the feminist movement has brought to us is the way we deal publicly now with sexual harassment. An employer who pressures an employee for sexual favors isn’t just an immoral person; he is misusing power. When the CEO sleeps with an intern, his offense isn’t just against God and his wife, but is also an unjust abuse of power.

In line with all the prophets before him, John spoke out against the powerful misusing their privilege to exploit the vulnerable. Think of Daniel telling Belshazzar that the “writing is on the wall” for his prideful kingdom’s fall or Isaiah speaking truth to power to those who “rob the poor” and “make the fatherless their prey” (Isa. 10:2). Think of, after John, Jesus’ brother James denouncing the landowners who exploit workers with unjust wages (Jas. 5:4-6).

Judging Outsiders

John risked his neck to speak on this question not just to Herod as king but also to Herod as a man. Paul doesn’t “judge” the pagan outsiders, that’s true. He means that there is no means of holding those outside the church to the accountability of church discipline. But the church can still discern between good and evil. Even as Paul calls out the sin of the church member in Corinth, he compares it to the moral climate of the “pagans” on the outside (1 Cor. 5:1).

Jesus deals gently with tax collectors and sinners. He doesn’t, as he does with the religious leaders, call them whitewashed tombs or turn over their market tables. But he doesn’t refuse to speak to their sin. When he meets the woman at the well, he isn’t shocked by her serial monogamy, but he doesn’t leave it unquestioned either. He asks her, “Where is your husband?”

Those outside the church aren’t our battlefield but our mission-field, that’s true. We shouldn’t rail against them as though they are somehow different than we are, apart from God’s mercy in Christ. But the gospel is to be pressed on all creatures, on every human conscience. And the gospel is a call not only to faith but also to repentance. God now “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed,” (Acts 17:31), Paul preached at Mars Hill.

We then speak to lost people not only of the historical truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and not only of his grace and mercy in receiving sinners. We also call them to turn from sin, and to agree with God that such sin is worthy of condemnation. Without this, there is no salvation. We speak then, as the apostle did to a pagan ruler, about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25).

Still Accountable

Our lost neighbors might be “pagan” in the sense that they are not part of the community of God, but they are still accountable before God. Their consciences are embedded with a law. John wasn’t the first to say to Herod that he couldn’t have his brother’s wife; this was hardly new information. Herod’s conscience already told him that much, and pointed him to his accountability on the day of judgment. John’s rebuke was an essential part of gospel preaching.

Christians often ping back and forth between extremes. The church of the last generation was often more concerned with a moral majority than with a gospel priority. In our attempt not to fall into that error, we could fall into an opposite, and just as dangerous, ditch. We could assume that all moral norms speak merely internally to the church, and we could fail to speak to unbelievers about such things. Such would be a refusal to love our neighbors, to warn them of what we will face at the judgment seat. But it would also be a refusal to preach the gospel. Without defining sin and justice, we cannot offer mercy. Guilty consciences don’t initially like those words. None of us did, at first. But that’s the mission we’ve been given. Some of us may wind up with our heads on silver platters. Jesus knows how to put heads back on.


Article by Russell D. Moore. He is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Originally posted on The Gospel Coalition Blog

 

Is Allah the God of the Bible?

AllahIt is becoming increasingly common to hear Evangelical Christian missionaries suggest that “Allah” is the name we should be using for “God” in Islamic contexts and many bible translation organizations are now frequently using “Allah” in the translations they produce for Islamic contexts.  Because there has been so much misinformation from both those opposing and those supporting this practice, trying to evaluate this practice has often proved to be very difficult for those on the outside who are trying to understand this issue. The difficulty in evaluating the claims being made has often lead people without direct knowledge of the issues involved to simply defer to the “experts,” leaving the door open to some very troubling practices in the mission’s field today. It is my hope to bring some clarity to the questions surrounding this issue so that we can better understand when this is the right practice, when it is wrong, and when the answers are not as clear as we would like them to be. It is important to recognize that anyone who tells you that the practice of using ‘allah’ as the word for ‘god’ in the bible is always right or it is always wrong either does not himself understand the issues or he is being deceptive; the answers to these questions are not quite that simple. With that background I would like to evaluate the following common arguments used in this debate.

  1. Allah is a generic noun used to describe a divine being and is the proper word to use to describe God.
  2. Allah comes from the same root as Elohim in the bible and is the proper word to describe God.
  3. Allah was originally the name of the pagan moon God and should never be used in a bible translation; it is Satanic.

Is “allah” really a generic noun for divine being?

Missionaries who advocate using “allah” as the word for “God” in Islamic contexts tell us that the word “allah” is simply a noun used to describe a divine being just as the word “god” is a noun used to describe a divine being in English. These missionaries will point out that “allah” is the word used for “god” by Arabic speakers in most religious contexts including Christian contexts and just as we properly use the word “god” to describe the Hindu god, or Mormon god, or Buddhist god, etc…, those in Arabic speaking countries use “allah” in a very similar way. These claims are all true and these answers seemingly suggest that the claims made by these missionaries are valid. However, there are many more questions that still need to be asked before coming to that conclusion and if we stop here we will have made a tragic mistake.

In order to understand the real issues involved in this controversy, it is important to understand that there is almost zero concern by anyone with experience in Arabic cultures about the appropriate use of ‘allah’ in Arabic bible translations. Georges Houssney has been a vocal critic of missionaries and bible translators who have inappropriately used the word ‘allah’ in bible translations and yet the modern Arabic bible translations produced under his direction use the word ‘Allah’ for God. Obviously, this question is not “should ‘allah’ should be used in translations of the bible?,” the question is “when and where should it be used?” In an Arabic bible translation, ‘Allah’ is the appropriate word to use when translating the Greek word ‘theos’ (god), the Aramaic word ‘elah’ (god), or the Hebrew words ‘el, eloah, or elohim’ (god). However, in other languages, like Persian, Amharic, French, English, etc… the word ‘Allah’ is not a generic noun, it is a proper name. In these contexts, the name ‘Allah’ brings to mind only the deity of Islam.The Al-Kitab English translation of the bible demonstrates this issue quite well. In this translation, Duet. 6:4-5 is translated as 4Hear, Israel: Allah is our God, Allah is one: 5and you shall love Allah your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In the original Hebrew text, ‘elohim’ is the generic noun used for ‘god’ and it is twice translated as the generic noun ‘God’ in the Al-Kitab translation but the proper name ‘Yahweh’ is translated as the proper name ‘Allah.’ Clearly the translator of the Al-Kitab understood that, in English, ‘Allah’ is a proper name and not a generic noun. His translation1 demonstrates that he believes that Allah (of the Qu’ran) and Yahweh (of Scripture) are one and the same and it is this point of confusion about Christian theology that we should be careful to avoid. As was done in the Al-Kitab, some missionaries are now proposing that we use ‘Allah’ in languages where there has already been a long history of bible translations that uses other words to describe God. Within these cultures, these new translations are raising as much alarm with the local churches there as would be raised in our own churches if we were given the ‘Al-Kitab’ version to use in our English speaking churches. Our Christian brothers and sisters are rightly concerned about these new ideas in bible translation and we who are funding much of this translation work should stop and hear their concerns.

 

Does Allah really come from the same root as Elohim?

Missionaries supportive of IM will often point out that the word “allah” is derived from the very same Semitic root as “elohim” (The word used for God in the Hebrew bible) and while this is correct, it is also misleading. Unfortunately, this too often becomes the bases for the claim that these are essentially the same word and therefore interchangeable and that is incorrect. Looking at the words for god in Arabic (“allah”), Aramaic (“Elah”), and Hebrew (“Eloah”) written in a Hebrew script it seemingly confirms that these are in fact the exact same word and it is easy to see how someone could be easily confused.

Here are all three words in Hebrew:

allah-elah-eloah

If you cannot tell the difference, you are not alone. Without knowing the vowels or the context even a native Hebrew speaker would not be able to tell these words apart; they are truly identical. However, that does not mean that a Hebrew speaker would be confused about which word is being used in daily speech. When we speak, we always include the vowels and when written with the vowel markings, the differences between these words is very easily discernible. See below:

allah-elah-eloah-pointed

While it is true that these words are derived from the same root, it is simply not true that they are understood the same way. A Hebrew speaker who hears the pronunciation “allah” will always assume that the speaker is referring to the Muslim god. Here is how “allah” is defined in Abraham Even Shoshan’s Hebrew dictionary (The Hebrew equivalent of Webster’s English dictionary):

Allah-milon-ivrit

This dictionary reference reveals two interesting facts. First, the word “allah” is understood specifically as the Muslim god by Hebrew speaking people despite its common root. Second, the word “elohim” is understood in Hebrew as a generic noun for “god/gods;” this form is used almost identically to the way ‘allah’ is used in Arabic. While both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages that share a common root for the word “god,” in Hebrew “allah” is used only in reference to the Muslim “god” and “elohim” is used as a generic word for “god.” In Arabic we have the exact opposite situation; the word “elohim” is used only in reference to the Hebrew God and “allah” can be used to refer to any “god.” The idea that words derived from the same Semitic root are themselves the same cannot be supported when we examine how these words are used in real life situations.

 

Is ‘Allah’ really the name of a pagan moon god?

No, it is a word used in reference to many different deities (including a pagan moon god) in the same way that the English word ‘god’ can be used in reference to many different deities. In the title of this section the word ‘god’ is itself used in reference to a pagan moon god; however this does not mean that the word ‘god’ is the “name” of a pagan moon god any more than a similar use in Arabic confirms that ‘Allah’ is the “name” of a pagan moon god. Confusing proper names with generic nouns is something that is, unfortunately, frequently done in arguments presented by both sides and it is always wrong. On the other side, it is not uncommon to hear those proposing that we use ‘allah’ in Islamic contexts suggest that the Greek words ‘theos’ and ‘kurios’ were “names” of pagan gods, or the Germanic word ‘gott’ (from which the English word ‘god’ is derived) was the “name” of a pagan deity. Confusing proper names and generic nouns is one of the quickest ways to cause confusion because it is often difficult for those who do not understand these foreign languages to recognize the difference. Arguments, on both sides of this debate, that begin with the claim ” the word __fill-in-the-blank__ is the name of a pagan god” are almost always in error. When you hear these kinds of arguments it should cause the alarm bells to start ringing!

 

Another consideration

Sometimes ‘Allah’ has been used to translate words other than ‘god’ and that is always wrong. When it is used as a translation for words like ‘father’ it is the wrong word to use (even in Arabic translations) and is a reflection of serious compromise. Islam teaches that god has no familial relationships and some translators have attempted to resolve this conflicting claim between Islam and Christianity by replacing familial language in Scripture with alternative words that lack a familial understanding. In some cases, the word chosen for the translation of ‘father’ has been ‘Allah’ and this mistranslation obscures one of the most important truths in scripture i.e that God is our Father! Even in contexts where ‘Allah’ is the correct word to use for the translation of ‘god’, using ‘Allah’ to translate other words like ‘father,’ ‘lord,’ ‘Yahweh,’ etc… is never correct.

 

Sometimes the answer isn’t quite black and white

When a different cultures interact with one another it is common for one culture to adopt words from another. In English we use the words like ‘hors d’oeuvres’ (French), ‘angst’ (German), ‘pro bono’ (Latin), ‘tour’ (Hebrew), sometimes without even recognizing the foreignness of the word itself. Adopting words from other languages is an extremely common practice that affects every spoken language. In languages that have been heavily influenced by Arabic cultures this can create a situation where questions about the use of ‘allah’ are not nearly so easy to answer. For example, due to Arab influences, Turkish adopted many Arabic words including the Arabic word for God. Turkish was originally written in the Arabic Script and the very first bible translations were translated by Arabic speaking Muslims beginning in the 17th century; these translations were then used by Christians for centuries. These early translations used the word ‘allah’ for ‘god’ and its “Turkishized” plural ‘ililar2‘ for ‘gods.’ So while this was not a Semitic language, it had adopted this Semitic term and used it to describe many different deities. However, Turkish also has its own Turkish words for ‘god’ and ‘gods’ i.e. ‘tanri’ and ‘tanrilar’ and, because of the history of the Turkish language, modern translations of the Bible typically use these Turkish words for god. In the 1920’s and 30’s the president of Turkey instituted a series of language reforms in an attempt to create a pure Turkish language. As part of his reforms, he changed the Script used to write Turkish from its historical Arabic Script to its modern Latin Script. He prohibited the use of many Arabic loan words (including the word ‘allah’) and ordered that translations of religious texts like the Qur’an and Bible use the Turkish words for God. As a result, today in Turkey both ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are understood and used as generic and equivalent words for God. Because of this unusual linguistic history, it is not unusual or unreasonable for Christians in Turkey to use the word ‘Allah’ in reference to God but it is also not the only choice and it may not be the best choice to use in a modern bible translation. This is one of the few cases where there is a considerable amount of gray area to consider when trying to answer questions about the use of ‘allah’ in Christian ministry and/or Bible translation.

 

Concluding thoughts

While in some languages ‘Allah’ is the correct word to use when speaking about the God of Scripture, it is never correct to say that the god of Islam is the same as the God described in our Christian Scriptures. The picture of God presented in Islam is very different than the picture of God that is presented in our Scriptures and trying to harmonize these divergent ideas about who God is can only lead to confusion. So as we evaluate specific instances where ‘Allah’ is used in bible translation or Christian outreach, we need to be asking primarily whether this usage is likely to cause people to associate the God of Scriptures with the god of Islam? Because the stakes for misunderstanding who God is are so high, we need to be diligently ensuring that we and the missionaries we support are making good biblical choices in these areas and that takes a little bit of diligence on our part. Here are some questions we can ask that can help us understand whether using ‘allah’ as the word for ‘god’ is appropriate in the contexts that we, or our missionaries, are involved.

  • Is there and established history of bible translation in this language?
    • When there is already a history of bible translation in a particular culture, the words they have already chosen to describe God are the words that should typically be used. Alarm bells should be ringing when a translator chooses to ignore the traditional terminology used in existing bible translations.

     

  • How has the local Christian church received these new translations?
    • In many cases, the strongest objections to these new translations has come from the local Christian churches in the countries where these bibles have been produced. If local Christian churches are opposing these newer translations because they are concerned that the terminology being used has been chosen to harmonize Islam with Christianity, we too should be concerned. Too often our Christian brothers and sisters abroad have felt abandoned and powerless to intervene when our western missionaries have begun ministries and bible translation projects that use terms that have created confusion about the differences between Islam and Christianity. It, unfortunately, is becoming more frequent for missionaries to be working in opposition to the local church instead of working with them.

     

  • In the language of this culture is ‘Allah’ a generic noun or a proper name?
    • There are many questions that should be asked in order to make this determination. Are there other words for ‘god’ that are commonly used? What terms have religions other than Islam used? Is there a plural form of ‘Allah’ that can be used to describe ‘gods?’ If possible, ask a native speaker that does not have a stake in this debate because their understanding will almost be certainly better than the missionaries (on either side of the issue) that are not native speakers of the language. If the answers to these questions suggest that ‘Allah’ is a proper name, then it almost certainly is the wrong word to use for God in bible translation or Christian ministry.

     

 


Notes:

1. The Al-Kitab includes a translation of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Qur’an.

2. As a result of the Turkish language reforms, the cultural understanding of ‘ililar’ as a plural form of ‘allah’ has been almost completely lost. It is found in old Turkish bible translations but this form is not used in modern Turkish.

The PCA General Assembly’s consideration of the Insider Movement report

Written by Andrew C. | Wednesday, June 26, 2013

kingdom CirclesThe Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met in Greenville, South Carolina 17-20 June 2013 for its 41st General Assembly. Commissioners flying and driving into that growing and vibrant Southern city may have gotten more than they paid for. As a long-time observer to the GA, I can say that meetings are sometimes long-periods of boredom occasionally interrupted by moments of inconsequence. Doing things “decently and in good order” does not generally make for engaging theater.

This GA lacked nothing in the category of drama. One of the more anticipated events in the four days was the consideration of the PCA Study Committee on Insider Movements, which included both a majority report and minority report. This missiological creation referred to as the insider movement, teaches that people come to Jesus most effectively when they do not leave their families, communities, and (here is the rub) their birth religions. Translation for those who do not know “anthropology-speak”: Rather than going to Jesus outside the camp (Hebrews 13:13) in faith, and leaving behind their former way of life, including their religious practices, converts are urged to remain inside their former religious affiliations.

This idea, championed on the floor by some prominent church leaders: Mark Bates, pastor of Village Seven PCA in Colorado Springs, Rick Hivner, and Nelson Jennings, formerly of Covenant Theological Seminary (the denomination’s seminary), supported the minority report in adopting a taxonomy distinguishing absolutely between different degrees of “Muslim.”

I was confused. Having read both reports, it appeared to me that Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, the author of the minority report, was asserting that being a nominal Muslim was better than being a strict one. Perhaps I need to go back to school, but it seemed to me to imply that one kind of Muslim was further away from God than another. Two questions came to mind: Is there any such thing as a Muslim not fundamentally shaped by religion? And is there any such thing as an Islam closer to God than some other form of the same religion? Is not Islam a fallen religion, a structure like the Tower of Babel, erected by inherently religious humans to worship a false God?

It seemed that in the drama of the General Assembly that the church was perhaps sleepwalking away from its historical understanding of the relationship of Christ to the visible, historical church (equated to Christendom in the minority report) and to the religions of the nations. You could feel the beginnings of a change in the climate after the assembly boxed itself into a corner. Rather than choosing be either the majority or minority reports, it voted to follow the lead of Pastor Bates and vote to combine both reports into a single report, by appending the minority to the majority report. I wonder if the sense of the assembly mirrored the feeling of the designer of the Titanic when he descended below decks and discovered that the hole in his boat was a lot bigger than he thought.

Tensions rose when the commissioners engaged in an extended debate on the floor concerning the Arabic word for God, “Allah.” It was passionate and quite confusing. From my perspective as an observer, it tangled up two ideas: (1) That “Allah” is an Arabic word and (2) that the God of Muslims is or is not the same God worshiped by Christians (from my perspective, of course, he isn’t!).

While Dr. Jabbour carefully explained that Arabic Christians have historically called God the Father “Allah,” he disclosed what seemed to be two more problems with his ideas. First, the God of Muslims is monistic. It is only one and never three. It can never be the same God as the God of the Bible. It could also never be the God of either Christians or of the Christian church. In other words, the very idea of God irreducibly divides Muslims and Christians.

Jabbour and other’s use of Allah is not wrong because it is an Arabic word. It is wrong when it obscures the fact that a religion of light cannot also be a religion of darkness. Perhaps Jabbour has no choice. Maybe that is the only way he can justify keeping followers of Christ in the mosque. I am sure that he could not do so if he felt that Islam was inherently evil. It was self-evident that he does not, neither Hivner nor Jennings, believe that Islam is completely fallen. Rather, it has to be seen by them as in some way redeemable, transformable from the inside.

That brings to me a scoring of style not just content. On this basis, the advocates of the minority report clearly almost won the day. If the vote to recommit the reports back to the study committee had not been narrowly won, the PCA would have been on record of accepting radically different ideas concerning the nature of religion, the nature of the church, the nature of conversion, and the exclusive connection between Jesus and his church. How did such a state of mutually assured destruction (think of the day when Americans and Soviets came close to blowing up each other and our planet) almost win out? That one is easy. Style.

The advocates of the minority view were masters of style. They quickly promoted a wholly ambiguous, homey, emotional, and misleading report by presenting it as being eminently practical and compassionate. It rated high in emotional intelligence (EQ). It was the love report. The majority report, a masterful and balanced (perhaps over-balanced) treatment of truth, religion, a covenantal reading of Scripture came across as somewhat obscure and fussy. It needed to be more direct in its conclusions and recommendations. Finding bottom lines at times required a magnifying glass. Its introduction was erudite and profound but, in this reporter’s view may have sailed over the commissioners’ heads.

Well, the PCA received a reprieve this week. It came dangerously close to plummeting off a cliff it did not even see coming. The committee has another year to refine and resubmit its report. It is hard to see how the minority report can change unless it becomes even more indistinct and misleading. Perhaps it can apply more camouflage to hide the fact that it thinks that Muslims can remain Muslims and not leave the mosque. No amount of assurance that syncretism is avoided or that doctrinal standards required by the Bible are maintained can alter the fact that, at the end of the day, Islam remains but Christianity is not needed. With that said, the majority report needs its pencil point sharpened; it needs to make its points clearly and simply.

The constituencies behind each will also begin to mobilize for next June. In this GA, it was clear that advocates of the minority report were prepared. They crowded the microphones and set the pace. The advocates of the majority report were unprepared and late. They get one more chance to get it right.

Andrew C. lives and works East Asia in a sensitive country.

The original posting of this article can be found here.

Christian Unity

Andrew Wilson published an article on the theology matters blog explaining why need to understand how to interpret the Bible properly and why principles of proper biblical interpretation are often ignored today. As Andrew points out, good men genuinely seeking to understand Scripture do frequently come to different conclusions about its interpretation in specific areas but those differences are far less significant than the general agreement that they all share. The Christian faith of godly Christian men throughout history is far more easily characterized by its unity than by its differences. When we begin interpreting the Bible by seeking to understand the message that the author intended, we end up arriving at amazingly similar conclusions. But when we begin by looking for the message we want to see in Scripture, even interpretations that are in opposition to the author’s intent become possible. In the latter case, it is no longer God’s inspired word that is authoritative in our lives; when we ignore the authors intent, we have deluded ourselves into believing that we alone decide what is good and what is evil and we have believed Satan’s lie that we too can become like God. (Ge. 3:5)

If you would like to read Andrew Wilson’s article, it can be found here.

A biblical and scientific Adam

adam0518As the battle between Darwinism and the Bible rages, some evangelicals have backed away from maintaining that Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals created in the way Genesis 2 relates. In a just-published article from the Westminster Theological Journal, Westminster Theological Seminary professor Vern Poythress brilliantly explains why such a surrender is wrong biblically and scientifically. Poythress, with both a Th.D. and a Harvard Ph.D. in mathematics, is well-positioned to write about both theology and evolutionary theory.

Adam versus claims from genetics

Did Adam and Eve exist? Does science say otherwise? The human genome project has produced voluminous data about the information contained in human DNA. Various news media and scientists tell us that this information demonstrates our ape ancestry. How do we evaluate these claims? Evaluation is important for theological reasons. As the claims based on genetics have mounted, the theological discussion about Adam has heated up. From people with biblical and theological training we hear the argument that we must revise our understanding of the Bible and theology because we have to accept that evolution is an established fact.[1] In response, we hear the opposing argument that the Bible and theology call on us to retain the conviction that Adam was a historical individual whose fall into sin resulted in guilt and sin for all his descendants.[2] On both sides, people with training in biblical studies have understandably avoided discussing in detail the character of the scientific claims, and yet these have obviously greatly influenced the side that has abandoned the traditional understanding of Adam.[3] It is important to undertake a theologically informed evaluation of claims coming from genetics.

We cannot within a short compass examine all the claims and all the evidence in detail. But we can summarize some of the main points, and direct readers to more extensive information.

I. Ninety-nine percent common DNA

We may begin with a commonly cited statistic, the 99 percent identity between human DNA and chimp DNA. In 2005 the Cornell University News Service reported: “Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor, and even today 99 percent of the two species’ DNA is identical.”[4] In 2010 the University of California at San Francisco News mentioned the same figure: “The genetic codes of chimps and humans are 99 percent identical.”[5] In 2005 the National Institutes of Health News reported, “Our closest living relatives share perfect identity with 96 percent of our DNA sequence.”[6]

But assessing these claims is more challenging than it may appear. Note that the NIH report mentions 96 percent instead of 99 percent. Why? The same NIH report also includes the figure of 99 percent further on in its description, so none of the figures is an error. It turns out that the 99 percent figure arises by using a number of restrictions: (1) ignore repetitive portions, (2) compare only sequences that can be aligned naturally with one another, and (3) consider only base-pair substitutions, not “indels” (see below).

Comparisons of this kind get technical, because there can be several kinds of correspondence and noncorrespondence between DNA strands. Let us lay out briefly some of the issues. At the level of molecular structure, DNA contains a “code” composed of four “letters,” namely, ACGT (the letters stand for four distinct bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine). The DNA code uses a particular sequence of letters, such as ATTGTTCTCGGC, to specify the exact sequence of amino acids that are to be used to construct a protein.[7] Human DNA and chimp DNA align when one finds the same sequence of letters in both kinds of DNA:

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A variation is called a “substitution” when there is a different letter at some one point in the sequence:

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(The T does not match the G in the middle of the sequence.) A variation is called an “indel” (short for insertion/deletion) when one of the sequences has extra letters:

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If the comparison focuses only on substitutions within aligned protein-coding regions, the match is 99 percent. Indels constitute roughly a 3 percent difference in addition to the one percent for substitutions, leading to the figure of 96 percent offered by the NIH.

You can read the rest of the article here.