Friday, July 31, 2015

Cut-Flower Civilization

David Elton Trueblood, a Quaker theologian, wrote in his 1969 "A Place to Stand,"

"A quarter of a century ago a few of us began to say that faith in the possibility of a cut-flower civilization is a faith which is bound to fail. What we meant was that it is impossible to sustain certain elements of human dignity, once these have been severed from their cultural roots. The sorrowful fact is that, while the cut flowers seem to go on living and may even exhibit some brightness for a while, they cannot do so permanently, for they will eventually wither and be discarded. The historical truth is that the chief sources of the concepts of the dignity of the individual and equality before the law are found in the Biblical heritage. Apart from the fundamental convictions of that heritage, symbolized by the idea that every man is made in the image of God, there is no adequate reason for accepting the concepts mentioned. Since human beings are often far from admirable in their actual behavior, man's dignity is fundamentally derivative in nature."

This metaphor of a "cut-flower civilization" severed from its cultural roots and left seeking a moral center remains a powerful image of contemporary American society.

I am not advocating an unthinking portrayal of the founding of the United States as an intentional Christian nation. Rather I am simply observing that Western civilization - in both its European and American expressions - is rooted in Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian religion. Even with the sea change of modernity in the Enlightenment and industrialization and now with the "post-modern turn" away from the "Enlightenment project", American values, laws, and institutions have continued to reflect - sometimes in a thoroughly secularized form - "the fundamental convictions of that [earlier] heritage" that at least historically have provided "the chief sources of the concepts of the dignity of the individual and equality before the law."

The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote in apocalyptic terms of a time when "anarchy is loosed upon the world" and "the center cannot hold" - when "the best lack all conviction" and "the worst are full of passionate intensity."

This description does not sound too foreign in our world of sound bite truths, partisan punditry, and polarizing rhetoric.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Knight Jump Exegesis

Several years ago, I read an enthusiastic  Facebook post about a fantastic sermon that explained why true Christians would "rise to meet the Lord in the air" at the future "rapture of the church." The preacher had explained that since Satan was "the prince of the power of the air" that the church’s ascent into the air signaled the triumph of Jesus and his followers and ultimate defeat of Satan who obviously, at this point in God’s great scheme, had lost his "power" and princely rule over the air.

I responded to the post – my first mistake – by pointing out that the 2 biblical passages in question – I Thessalonians 4:17 and Ephesians 2:2 – had nothing to do with each other and were only related by the accidental keyword “air.”

I should have stopped there, but I continued. I said that making such an interpretive leap based on such a flimsy basis was exactly the kind of exegesis (biblical interpretation) for which Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are loudly criticized. This was my second mistake.

A barrage of Facebook responses quickly followed – all attacking my moral character, none responding to my point. The friendliest of the responses, knowing that I was a Florida native, stated that I had surely been in the sun too long. The harshest – from my former pastor’s granddaughter – simply pointed to James 1:8 that "a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways."

Leaving aside several valid questions about my moral shortcomings and fundamental instability, no one had a word to say about my criticism of this highly questionable method of biblical interpretation.


Anthony Hoekema’s “The Four Major Cults” describes this type biblical interpretation as "knight-jump exegesis." Its practitioners "jump from one part of the Bible to another, with utter disregard of context, to ‘prove’ their points."

"The Bible, for them, is like a flat surface in which every text has equal value. They . . . can jump blithely from a passage in the Pentateuch to a passage in the prophets or in the book of Revelation. They can thus draw their lines in all directions through the Bible, gleefully combine them in zigzag fashion, and put them together again in the most fantastic way."

Like a knight in a game of chess that jumps over other pieces, making abrupt turns to the right and then the left, these biblical interpreters  often string together disparate passages of different genres, different historical contexts, and wildly different meanings by connecting them around shared keywords and little more.


Here is a perfect example – taken not from the Latter Day Saints or the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society, but from a well-respected teacher in my Pentecostal youth:

Hosea 6: 2

“After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.”

II Peter 3:8

“. . . one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Revelation 20:4

“. . . and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”

Here is the rather bizarre conclusion drawn from these passages linked only by the keywords “day” and “thousand” (and deeply rooted in the assumptions of John Nelson Darby’s dispensational views of the end time).

Israel has fallen out of God’s favor due to their rejection of Jesus and God has turned to the Gentiles instead. But this rejection of the Jews will last only 2000 years (2 days @ 1000 years each) and then God will return favor to the Jews on the “third day,” a thousand year millennial reign (even though those that reign with Christ in Revelation 20 are clearly stated to be resurrected Christian martyrs, not the Jewish nation).

The ultimate conclusion of this biblical “sleight of hand” was that the millennial reign of the Jews will begin on or near the year 2000 and therefore the return of Christ must occur before this date.



The church of Jesus Christ has always appealed to the “analogy of faith” to best interpret the scriptures. The Westminster Confession states:

"The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly."

Succinctly – and maybe over simply – difficult biblical passages should be interpreted by those that are more easily understood AND the interpretation any specific passage must be made in light of the larger message of the entire biblical witness.

I may be unstable in MOST of my ways, but not in my biblical interpretation.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Speaking with Tongues: Four Views

The 20th century saw an emphasis on the experiential aspect of the Holy Spirit unparalleled in the history of Christianity. This accent arose from two separate but similar movements, Pentecostalism and Charismatic-renewal. Against this accent, there arose a strident, reactionary stance among some evangelicals, notably those of the Baptist tradition, which minced no words in denying the legitimacy of Pentecostals and their sister Charismatics. Finally, as might be expected, there developed a more moderate middle-ground which, while not adopting the theology of Pentecostalism, at the same time refused to reject outright the phenomena of speaking with tongues as did the reactionary evangelicals. Following is a brief description of this history.


Arising out of the holiness movements of the late 19th century, particularly the streams of Wesleyan Methodism and Black Christianity, a new theology of the Holy Spirit was developed which focused upon the phrase “the baptism of the Holy Ghost.” The essential theological uniqueness of Pentecostalism is the belief that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a personal experience which is marked by the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues. While a minor stream of Pentecostalism (the Apostolics) assert that one must speak in tongues in order to be saved, most Pentecostals see the baptism in the Spirit as an experience which follows salvation. While it is usual for Pentecostals to affirm the Christianity of those who confess Christ but have not spoken with tongues, it is also usual for them to regard as underprivileged and underpowered such Christians who have not “received the baptism.” The following summary describes the central features of majority Pentecostalism as it developed in the early 20th century:



  1. There are two primary works of grace--salvation and the baptism in the Spirit. Salvation is for the soul, and the baptism in the Spirit is for empowerment to do the work of the church.
  2. The baptism in the Spirit has as its unmistakable authentication the phenomenon of speaking with tongues.
  3. The baptism in the Spirit is desirable for every Christian. The only prerequisites are purity of life and sufficient faith.
  4. When one is baptized with the Spirit, the recipient has at his/her potential disposal all of the nine spiritual gifts listed in 1 Co. 12:8-10. He/she should seek God for the manifestation of these gifts in the life of the church.
  5. Christians who have experienced the first work of grace (salvation) should immediately begin to seek the second work of grace (the baptism in the Spirit). Until they have experienced speaking in tongues (the sign of the baptism in the Spirit), they are usually treated by fellow Pentecostals as adolescent Christians who have not yet spiritually come of age.

Reactionary Evangelicalism

Pentecostalism and its emotional character was culturally unacceptable to much of the larger evangelical community. Some of the extreme physical demonstrations in Pentecostal worship were highly offensive. Added to this was the fact that Pentecostals regularly called for Christians to abandon their own evangelical denominations in order to join the new Pentecostal denominations. Non-Pentecostal evangelical churches were often characterized by the Pentecostals as being “dead,” “dry” and “unspiritual.” Evangelicals resented this attitude held forth toward them by the Pentecostals that they were some sort of second-class Christians.

Based largely upon the works of B. B. Warfield, the Princeton theologian at the turn of the century, many evangelicals and most Baptists adopted the position that speaking with tongues was a sign gift intended to authenticate the message of the apostles during the first century. It was a sort of temporary “voice of God” until the canon of the New Testament could be completed. However, when the New Testament message was complete, and the various books of the New Testament had all been written, the sign gifts were no longer necessary. As such, the modern Pentecostal phenomenon was a grand mistake. The Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues was a deception attributed to psychological, emotional or even demonic deviation. Following is a summary of the essential stance of this reactionary stream of thinking:



  1. There is only one primary work of grace in the life of the believer—salvation. While God may perform many added works of grace within a believer’s life, there is no single one that should be categorized as a “second work” that is subsequent to and second only to salvation.
  2. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all Christians at the time they believe the gospel. The work of the Spirit is primarily internal and invisible, not external and demonstrative.
  3. The sign gifts (particularly speaking with tongues) do not extend beyond the apostolic age. They fulfilled their function when the New Testament canon was completely written.
  4. Modern practices of tongues-speaking are both inappropriate and invalid, whether performed in sincerity or not.

A Middle Position

Under the leadership of its founder, A. B. Simpson, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (founded 1887) became the proponent of a more moderate position. After much study, Simpson felt compelled to reject the Pentecostal viewpoint. However, he was not willing to reject tongues-speaking altogether. He settled on the middle-ground that tongues might be an evidence of the indwelling of the Spirit, but certainly not the exclusive evidence. As such, tongues-speaking was allowed but not encouraged. Simpson’s dictum “seek not—forbid not” eventually became known as the “Alliance position.” It affirmed that tongues-speaking was a spiritual gift that could be experienced in any age of the church, but it denied that tongues-speaking was a necessary sign of the baptism in the Spirit.

This position, while largely in the minority for several decades between the early 20th century and its midpoint, gained ground rapidly after the 1970s. As one Baptist theologian. E. Glenn Hinson, stated, "....tongues has been neither as significant as Pentecostals claim nor as insignificant or as bad as some non-Pentecostals claim.” A major evangelical seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, has adopted this posture, and it is represented in various evangelical churches. The tenants of the middle position go something like this:



  1. There is only one primary work of grace in the life of the believer—salvation. While God may perform many added works of grace within a believer’s life, there is no single one that should be categorized as a “second work" that is subsequent to and second only to salvation.
  2. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all Christians at the time they believe the gospel. There is no such thing as an “unfilled Christian.”
  3. The work of the Spirit is both internal/invisible and external/demonstrative. It guides as well as empowers with spiritual gifts.
  4. No spiritual gift may be relegated exclusively to the apostolic age. On the other hand, no gift is universal among Christians as though all or even most Christians should necessarily experience it. Gifts are given at God’s sovereign initiative, and they are not to be begged or demanded.
  5. Spiritual fruit, not spiritual gifts, are the measure of Christian maturity.
  6. Speaking in tongues, when it occurs, is better exercised as a private devotional praise to God rather than a demonstration in public worship.

Charismatic-Renewal (Neo-Pentecostalism)

Charismatic- renewal, though quite similar to Pentecostalism in its theology of the Holy Spirit, has a different historical starting point. Instead of arising within conservative Protestant Christianity, as did Pentecostalism, Charismatic-renewal arose within mainline denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, beginning in the 1960s. In general, it is a trans-denominational, ecumenical movement that affirms the importance of speaking in tongues. In its earlier period, it did not issue the call for “come-outism” that characterized the early Pentecostals. Furthermore, Charismatics did not arrive with all the stringent holiness baggage of behavioral codes and taboos that were so common among some Pentecostals. Theological differences were largely set aside in order to accommodate the freedom of charismatic expression in tongues and related gifts. Charismatics were free to remain in their own denominations, whether Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran or whatever, but were able to come together through secondary organizations, such as, the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International.

In the late l970s and early 1980s, a new phenomenon appeared in the rise of Pentecostal-charismatic churches. These were generally sovereign bodies without any denominational affiliation, and often enough, they were composed of remnants of classical Pentecostals along with those Charismatics who had left the mainline denominations. These churches are usually less ecumenical than were the early leaders of charismatic-renewal. On the other hand, they have avoided the more culturally despised practices and demands of classical Pentecostals. These churches frequently mushroom in size, though they maintain a fairly fluid constituency.

Summarizing the tenets of charismatic-renewal is more difficult than for the foregoing groups because of its trans-denominational, ecumenical character. Three general observations can be made, however.



  1. Demonstrative spiritual gifts in general and tongues-speaking in particular are an important form of public and small-group worship. Tongues-speaking is equally important for one’s private devotional life, and the private use of tongues-speaking is often referred to as one’s “prayer language.”
  2. There is no consensus among Charismatics as to whether or not tongues-speaking is the necessary authentication of the gift of the Spirit. Protestant Charismatics tend to say “yes,” while Catholic Charismatics tend to say “no.”
  3. Charismatic-renewal tends to view the human predicament as the misery of being dominated by the personal forces of evil (as distinct from historic evangelicalism, which views the human predicament as the misery of being captive under sin). As such, charismatic-renewal focuses on the need to combat the demonic adversary, and therefore, frequently engages in exorcisms.

Thus, modern Christians vary in their assessment of the issue of speaking with tongues. Scholarly works along with popular ones have arisen to defend and/or attack the phenomenon of glossolalia. By the early 21st century, the theological edges of the issue have softened somewhat, though in the background the above four broad perspectives still are maintained to greater or lesser degrees.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

One Taken, One Left Behind

"Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left." - Matthew 24:40-41

"I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left." - Luke 17:34-35

In my theological immaturity, I accepted Darby's dispensational interpretation of the "left behind" passage in light of I Thessalonians 4.

"For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." - I Thessalonians 4:16-17

Accordingly, the "taken ones" are raptured away from impending judgment at Christ's second coming and the ones "left behind" face the horrors of the impending tribulation.


But now, a more literal reading of the "left behind" passage raises a simpler, but even more profound question. Are the "ones taken" escaping judgment and the ones "left behind" facing it? Or, is the opposite true - are some "taken" to judgment and those "left behind" avoiding a similar fate? Or, equally likely, do both those "taken" and those "left behind" face the same sure, swift, sudden, and complete judgment that Jesus has repeatedly pronounced. After all, the immediate context is that the entire generation goes on heedless of the looming judgment - eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage.

The larger interpretational issue - at least as I see it - is: What is the guiding metaphor - the image in such common currency among Jesus' contemporaries - that provides the interpretive framework for this saying. There are two likely candidates: (1) the "division of souls" at the last day or (2) the military theme of the invading army and exiled people.

The "division of souls" is one of the most repeated themes of Jesus' kingdom teachings. Nations are divided right and left, the sheep from the goats. In the last day, some will experience a baptism of the Spirit - that great final eschatological outpouring foreseen by Joel - while others receive a baptism of fire (the fire of judgment, in context - "Now is the axe laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire."). If this image stands behind the ones "taken" - the ones "left behind" dichotomy, someone is surely facing judgment, while others are escaping it.

The specter of the invading army and the brutal disruption of exile was one of the dominant collective memories of post-exilic Judaism - not unlike the Holocaust for contemporary Jews. The rumblings of military conquest - the military might of the Roman armies, enforcing the Pax Romana with the edge of the sword - is everywhere apparent in the collections of Jesus' apocalyptic sayings - Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 17 and especially Luke 21. If this image serves as the framework for the "left behind" passage, then those who are "taken" face the brutality of exile, while those "left behind" are spared this immediate indignity, but face the bitterness of defeat nevertheless.


What do you think? Is Jesus arguing that some will face judgment while others escape in this passage? Or do all face the certainty of military defeat and God's judgment alike?

Stammering Lips and Other Tongues

Here's an old item that used to surface from time to time. Remember how we used to emphasize the phrase "stammering lips" from Isaiah 28:11 (KJV)? In those marathon seekers services at campmeeting, chronic seekers were said to have "come close"--they had stammering lips--but they didn't speak in tongues clearly (which is an odd conclusion, when you stop to think about it, for folks who didn't even speak English all that well, let alone some other language in the world).

In any case, here's perhaps a better alternative understanding of that enigmatic phrase.

It really starts in the Deuteronomic code of blessings and curses for covenant obedience and disobedience. One of the curses for covenant violation was eventual invasion by a foreign army (Deut. 28:49). "Yahweh will bring a nation against you from far away...a nation whose language you will not understand." Isaiah then picks up this theme of judgment (and virtually all the prophets were Deuteronomic in one sense or another). The context of the oracle in Isaiah 28 is clearly a judgment within history. The spiritual leaders of the nation were so befuddled that their teaching role to the people was nearly nonsensical. Those who should have been spiritual leaders, the priests and prophets, were drunk like everyone else.  They had visions, but their visions were the hallucinations of alcohol (28:7-8, 1, 3).  Prophetic communication was no more than gibberish (28:9-10). It was like baby-talk (28:10). The Hebrew tsaw latsaw tsaw latsaw qaw laqaw qaw laqaw is virtually nonsensical.  Most scholars take the words to be a mockery against the gibberish of either the wine-sodden prophets described in Isa. 28:7 or the drunken people trying to mimic Isaiah's words.  A number of suggestions for translation have been made, including the ideas that 1) the words are a type of onomatopoeia, 2) that they are the meaningless words with which children are taught to walk, 3) that they are the babyish teaching of the Hebrew alphabet, or 4) that they are a string of nonsensical verbiage approximating the English, "Burble, burble."  The NEB offers the dynamic equivalence, "It is all harsh cries and raucous shouts," which strictly is no translation at all.  Some scholars only transliterate the words without attempting any English equivalents.  The NIV footnote is quite appropriate when it says the sounds are "probably meaningless sounds; perhaps a mimicking of the prophet's words."

Therefore, since the people could not (or would not) understand God's message, God now would speak to them more plainly in the savage language of the Assyrians (28:11)!  The foreign tongue of invaders, in fact, was precisely what the Deuteronomic code had threatened (cf. Deut. 28:49). The very people who had been promised the land of Canaan as a resting place (cf. Deut. 12:9-10; cf. 25:19) had refused to listen to God.  They had allowed his word to become nothing but gibberish (Deut. 28:12-13a).  Consequently, their future was a judgment within history (Deut. 28:13b), and the tool of that judgment would be the Assyrian foreigners.

The Pentecostal-Charismatic interpretation that Isa. 28:11 is a prediction of tongues-speaking in the New Testament, therefore, can only be regarded as a mistake.  To be sure, St. Paul quotes this passage in the New Testament (cf. 1 Co. 14:21), but he mentions it in order to caution the Corinthians that foreign tongues, as for ancient Israel, are not necessarily a sign of God's approving presence. Sometimes, and this time in particular, tongues-speaking can be a sign of God's judgment to those who refuse to believe (1 Cor. 14:22a). Tongues-speaking has no congregational value in and of itself, but only consists of unintelligible sounds (1 Cor. 14:6-12). Hence, edification requires understandable content, which tongues does not offer (1 Cor. 14:13-14).
Consequently, Paul appeals to the Torah and the Prophets. Strange languages were a sign of judgment upon the ancient Israelites. Even though God had promised them the land of Canaan as a place of rest, they would be injured, snared and captured by foreign invaders as a divine discipline for their covenant disobedience (Isa. 28:12-13). Hence, tongues-speaking, in itself, was not necessarily a sign of blessing. In the case of ancient Israel, it served as an indication of God's displeasure, a negative sign pointing to the unbelieving hearts of the people (1 Cor. 14:21-22a). Paul does not seem to intend that tongues-speaking is always a sing of divine displeasure, but he does wish to point out that tongues-speaking should not automatically be taken as a sign of God's approval.

Hence, If unbelievers attend a Christian worship service, tongues-speaking will not encourage them to confess their sins, but will prompt them to dismiss Christians as insane (1 Cor. 14:23). Only a clearly worded and understandable message would serve to bring an unbeliever to repentance and the knowledge that God was truly at work among Christians (1 Co. 14:24-25).

OK, that that slant out for size and see what you think!

A Revised Canon?

The formation of the canon was always problematic for me (along with the mechanics of the inspiration of the bible) but your faith in "the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church fathers vis-à-vis their canonical decisions and processes" informed and inspired inspired my faith. Still though, it's somehow always easier for me to believe in inspiration and canonical decisions occurring a long time ago in a land far, far away.

Theories of the Afterlife - Considering "Love Wins"

I'm sending this email and attachment to several of you whom I very much respect, hoping for your wisdom and feedback. Indirectly, it concerns the upcoming release of Rob Bell's book "Love Wins", which is his theological commitment to conditional immortality. Several years ago, I did a study while at Troy Christian Chapel on the subject of Personal Eschatology, and I have attached the notes to that study. I'm hoping you will have a look at pages 12-18, which is the last part of the study addressing the afterlife. Recently, I've had input from three or four people here at TCC as well as some students at University of the Nations in Kona, where I just lectured last week, who are troubled about Bell's endorsement of conditional immortality. I also understand (sort of like Paul's reports from the house of Chloe) that some people here in my own congregation seem to like Bell. Quite honestly, I've never been much impressed with Rob Bell. He tends to be sensationalist and always seems to have an ax to grind against his evangelical heritage. Nonetheless, he is quite popular, especially with those who tend toward theological revisionism and emergent church trends. He is not as far left as Brian McClaren, but he certainly seems to gravitate toward theologically concepts that ruffle feathers. The fact that he is, so to speak, in my own back yard here in Michigan accentuates the situation locally.

In any case, since this subject is already coming up, I wish to present a balanced and biblical approach, not overreactionary, but not short-changing the Scripture, either. Hence, I would value your input on the way I handled this subject in the past and whether or not it is adequate for what may be coming down the pipeline.

Click here to view my study on Personal Eschatology.

The Toughest Passage in the New Testament?

As I was reading this weekend, I came across one of those biblical passages that continues to challenge me even though I have thought about it for many years. You know the kind where your normal interpretive principles lead you to a very uncomfortable conclusion - so your thinking turns to other ways to of reading the text until you reach the point that you realize that you are exerting a lot more energy trying to EXPLAIN AWAY the text rather than trying to EXPLAIN it.

Before I share my #1 candidate for the toughest passage in the New Testament, let me point out two close contenders to the crown - passages that drawn me in and then haunt me with misunderstanding.


Matthew 11:12 - "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers [permits] violence, and the violent take it by force." (NKJV)

Matthew 11:12 - "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcibly advancing, and forceful men lay hold to it." (NIV)

The partial parallel in Luke 16:16 - "every man presses into it" - is somewhat helpful, but not completely.

What is the "violence" that the kingdom permits? And how do men forcibly seize the kingdom? Is this strong language simply a statement of the total commitment that the kingdom requires? I don't think so - the emphasis is on human status (forceful men) or human action (take it by force).

This saying of Jesus has such poetry and power it its wordplay. I only wish I knew what it meant.


I Corinthians 15:29 - "Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?" (NIV)

NRSV and ESV say even more explicitly "in behalf of the dead."

NO. I am not becoming a Latter Day Saint. But I have long rejected the simple, literal reading of this passage by explaining that "the dead" refers to the "dead Christ" - thus, baptism into Christ is pointless if Christ remains dead and not resurrected. THIS IS THE WORST KIND OF INTERPRETATION. "The dead" in this passage is a genitive plural masculine noun. It refers to many people, not to one.

Clearly the interpretive context of this passage must be the belief of some in the Corinthian community that the resurrection is already past. This pre-Gnostic tendency reappears later in a more fully realized form which "spiritualizes" resurrection at the time of conversion (see "The Treatise on Resurrection", also known as the "Epistle to Rheginos"). But this does not really help interpret this passage.

If I try to understand this passage literally and historically (before any theological questions) - if I apply Occam's razor that the best answer is usually the simplest - then it seems that some in the Corinthian community practiced a baptismal ceremony in behalf of the dead. Is this the same as "proxy baptism?"


After saying all of that, I am still left with my #1 candidate for the toughest passage in the New Testament.

Romans 11:25b-26a - "Blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved." (KJV)

Romans 11:25b-26a - "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved." (NIV)

I normally read Romans 9-11 through the lens of the "remnant theology" that is prevalent in the prophetic writings of the Hebrew scriptures. Paul (like the author of the gospel of Matthew) sees Christians - especially Gentile Christians - as true Israel, the "Israel of God," a remnant of God's larger election of rebellious national Israel.

But this is NOT the message of the "grafted branches" that precedes the verses in question. The election of Israel (the root) is holy, some branches (national Israel) have fallen off (but not all), Gentiles have been grafted in to God's larger plan, but many "natural branches" (those of Israel who have fallen away) are also grafted in. Then comes the eschatological bombshell - Israel's blindness is only IN PART and it has an END DATE. In God's future, ALL Israel will be saved.

Is this passage separate from the root/branches analogy or it's conclusion? Is "all Israel" the "Israel of God," the remnant? Or is "all Israel" the sum of Gentiles and Jews "grafted in" to the root of God's election? Or does the passage mean what it literally seems to say - in some sense - in the eschaton - ALL Israel will be saved (Israel in contrast to the Gentiles? Israel including the "grafted in" Gentiles? Or all Israel in some other sense?)

If primitive Christianity (both Jesus and Paul) was a Jewish sectarian group - which I strongly believe it was - a "Judaism" among the many "Judaisms" of the first century - if the founders of the faith had no intention of dividing with the larger Jewish faith - but rather proclaimed the fulfillment of the prophets through the decisive act of God in Jesus and in a new and different way of observing the Torah (which stood against the exclusiveness of Second Temple Judaism) that included the Gentiles - if Paul, in particular, saw the inclusion of the Gentiles as the fulfillment of God's plan for the Jews (and, in turn, all humanity) - holding one standard for Gentiles (freedom from the "works of the law" - the signs of Jewish ethnicity - i.e., circumcision, Sabbath observance, cleanliness regulations, dietary laws. etc.) while never contesting the legitimacy of Torah observance for his fellow Jews -  then this offers a very  different picture of the Christian faith that that which we have on this side of the "parting of the ways" of Jews and Christians.

On the reading of this passage - "all Israel will be saved" - rests the full implications of the new perspective on Paul. Is Paul saying that the Gentiles participate in God's election of Israel without strict adherence to the "works of the law" (circumcision, dietary laws, etc.) while Jews continue to participate in the same election thought Torah observance? If so, do Jews have to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus the Christ? Or are they already recipients of God's gracious salvation via God's covenant with Israel - the tangible expression of God's election - which is witnessed and maintained through Torah observance (covenantal nomism)?


So this is my choice for toughest passage in the New Testament.

Do you have a comment? Or maybe you would like to offer your own candidate for toughest passage.

Why Am I Still Paying for Adam's Sin?

The concept of Original Sin has always disturbed me.  I have long struggled with the notion that I am somehow responsible for Adam's bad choices whether it be from inherited sin or fallen nature or whatever.  I've always been biased toward the notion that people lay hold of the grace of God freely offered to all.

That great practical theologian known as my mother always said, "Son, I don't care what everybody else did.  I want to know what you did."  That is, I'm not accountable for others' behavior:  I'm accountable for my behavior.

So when we were studying Donald Bloesch's "Systematic Theology" at JCM (such a GLORIOUS, WONDERFUL course ... ranking up there with "Life of Jesus" and "Romans" in its truly liberating power), I struggled mightily with this notion.  I was hoping that over time I had somehow outgrown this discomfort but it still rubs me the same wrong way!

Monday, July 27, 2015

New Book of Interest: Heretics and Politics

A new book has just been published and is being released as per the attached announcement (see attachment).

As most of you know, I had a life prior to my life as an evangelical pastor, and in this former life I was on the faculty of two colleges, Jackson College of Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi and Cascade Bible College in Portland, Oregon. Some of you to whom I am sending this missive were either faculty or students at one or the other of these institutions. Others of you may have an interest in this book because you know or knew some of the principle people concerned.

 In short, this book, researched and written by historian Thomas Fudge (University of New England, New South Wales, Australia), details the demise of Cascade Bible College and its link to Jackson College of Ministries via the life and ministry of Donald W. Fisher. Closely associated with Fisher, of course, were Dr. Joseph Howell and myself. Since all three of us figure prominently in this historical narrative, I thought you might want to be aware of its publication. I have read a preliminary draft, and so far as I can see, the historical details seems to be correct. This treatment documents a sector of religious history that would otherwise be lost entirely except in the fading memory of the few who were participants.

If some of you take the time to read the book, I, for one, would be interested in your reflections, especially from those who were in some way linked to these institutions.

Click here to view the promotional flyer for the new book.

The Moral Center of Islam?

Given the nearly daily interaction between Islam and western nations, it strikes me that there is minimal perception about the nature of this middle-eastern religion as it is commonly portrayed by the general media. My sense is that there are regular assumptions about Islam that are carry-overs from Christianity but not actually part of Islam itself. For instance, a few weeks ago in an interview with a Muslim cleric, the news commentator asked him directly, "Doesn't the Qur'an say that we are to love our enemies?" The cleric nearly swallowed his cud. It's a good idea, but it comes from Jesus, not Mohammed.

This, in turn, led me to wonder about whether or not Islam has a moral center, which is not quite the same thing as a theological center. Certainly Islam has a theological center, and it is that Allah is the only God and Mohammed is his prophet. Christianity has a theological center, also. "To us there is but one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ." At the same time, Christianity also has a moral center, first drawn from the Decalogue in the Torah and later from Jesus' commentary on the Decalogue in his Sermon on the Mount. Does Islam have anything similar? In my reading of the Qur'an and the Hadith, I can find nothing comparable to either the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus about moral life.

Hence, to assume that Islam is, so to speak, "on the same page" as westerners, whose moral sensitivities are largely derived from Christianity (however far they may have strayed from the classical church), is to assume what, in fact, is not the case. The longer we hold such assumptions and attempt to come to the table for dialogue with Muslims, the harder it will be to make any real progress. One sees on bumper stickers the little sign spelling out "co-exist", using symbols from the world's great religions. This is a fine sentiment, but if cannot work if even one of those entities does not see it that way.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Best Sources for Apostolic Pentecostal History

Several of you have asked me about the best sources for Apostolic (Oneness) Pentecostal history. Without a doubt, the 2 best books for this study are

*David Reed's "In Jesus' Name: The History and Beliefs of Oneness Pentecostals" (Deo Publishing, 2007).

*Talmadge French's "Early Oneness Pentecostalism, G. T. Haywood, and the Interracial Pentecostal Assemblies of the World" (2011 Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Birmingham).

Reed—Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology and Research Professor at Wycliffe College, Toronto, Canada—offers the best comprehensive look at the roots of Oneness Pentecostalism in Pietism and late 19th-century evangelicalism as well as the formative of years of the new movement between the Azusa revival (1906-07) and the "New Issue" in the Assemblies of God (1914-16). His insights about the influence of William Durham on early Oneness leaders like Frank Ewart, Glenn Cook, Robert McAlister, and Franklin Smalls are original and invaluable. Because of this work, I realize the need to go back and read Durham's published work and periodical articles from 1908 to his untimely death in 1911 and to better address the special challenge of separating later remembrances of Oneness leaders from the contemporary witness of primary documents, especially the abundant, but not always easily accessed, Pentecostal periodical literature of 1900-20. Reed also includes a survey of Oneness teachings under the banner: “The Theology of Oneness Pentecostalism.”

French, an Atlanta pastor and former UPCI Bible college instructor (and my old compatriot from Apostolic Bible Institute), offers an astounding amount of information I have never seen before about the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World—both before and after its embrace of Jesus' name baptism and the "one God" message. The short-lived movement of the New Issue men into the PAW after their exit from the Assemblies of God in 1916, their subsequent departure, and the ensuing independent trajectory of the PAW's history (in contrast with the predominantly white Oneness organizations we are familiar with through Clanton's "United We Stand") are all eye-opening. The dividing power of race and the impact of Jim Crow laws and attitudes among southern Pentecostals make for an interesting backdrop of controversy in contrast to the tales of "unity out of confusion" that are usually told (not only in the denominational "histories" (hagiographies), but also in William Menzies' thesis of white Oneness consolidation and black Apostolic diffusion that informed my earlier research). In French's hand, the founders of Oneness Pentecostalism become three-dimensional men that show shortcomings amidst greatness and greatness amidst shortcoming. He has produced a very readable work despite the often confining form of a dissertation.

While I do not agree with every detail of these two works, I endorse them wholeheartedly as well-documented, thoroughly informative works and as the springboards for all such future research. Whatever shortcomings you might find, their benefits will far outweigh any reservations you might have.

Both books are available at

P.S. I have not read Daniel Seagraves’ dissertation, “Andrew D. Urshan: A Theological Biography.” David Reed holds this work in high regard.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: "One Nation Under God"

Good afternoon, my friends.  It was so good to see you in Nashville.  I was reminded of how much I have missed your company. We need to find a way to get together again soon.  There were many conversations we did not get to finish.   ( I was also reminded of the things I remember fondly about my time at JCM and, well, those I do not.  The reunion was a microcosm of my experience in Jackson. But that is a different email.) 

We had a brief conversation on Friday evening before dinner about the relatively new book One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse.  I recalled a pretty good review of it by John Fea in Christ & Culture (linked here and attached above).  I have not yet read the book.  So, my comments are tentative.  But if Fea has summarized at all accurately, I suspect that I am in agreement with the general thesis, namely that the modern notion of America as a “Christian Nation” is a fairly recent creation of post-New Deal political conservatives and evangelical leaders working in tandem to save the US from the twin evils of socialism and religious liberalism.  This was no conspiracy of a secret cabal; it was done publicly and overtly in the light of day by trusted leaders.  We saw a clear resurgence of this religious nationalism around the bicentennial, prompting responses by historian Robert Handy A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities and evangelical scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden in A Search for Christian America.  The rise to prominence of the religious right saw new expressions of this idea in the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and again recently in the debates over same-sex marriage and Obamacare. Ironically, Kruse’s argument seems to parallel the one made by Matt Hedstrom in The Rise of Liberal Religion, which traces the ascendancy of “mainline” Protestantism through a systematic and effective use of the print culture. (This is one of those rare books that will actually change the way I teach.  It is a very good book.) 

Fea points out, rightly I think, that Kruse is in danger of overplaying his hand. The Age of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Graham was not the first time that we have heard such rhetoric.   Sixteenth-century Puritans, early nineteenth-century Methodist revivalists, antebellum abolitionists, and Gilded Age progressives all waved some version of the “Christian America” flag.  And although the Constitution was a decidedly secular document, the vast majority of citizens then and now have strongly affirmed their Christian identity.   Kruse, however, seems to think that something is different in this rendition of the "We are a City on a Hill” sermon,  newly framed as it is by a particular political and economic vision.  From my reading of other literature on the topic, I think that he is probably right. But then, maybe that merely reflects my own discomfort with the current rhetoric of American exceptionalism and evangelical politics.  I keep hearing the voice of the prophet Amos, “Woe to those who are ease in Zion!”