Introducing: Church Grammar

In this short introduction we discuss the purpose and hopes for the Church Grammar podcast, and look forward to some forthcoming guests and topics.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

John Sailhamer: In Memoriam

I learned on Twitter earlier that John Sailhamer has passed away.  Due to his failing health over the last decade, his last major project – The Meaning of the Pentateuchwas published way back in 2009. In our consumer-driven, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately American culture, that may as well have been a century ago. But Sailhamer’s influence has always been more about his positive impact on students than his publishing per se. If you read his books – The Pentateuch as Narrative, Introduction to Old Testament Theology, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, even Genesis Unbound, as well as his commentaries – it seems obvious that these arise directly out of his teaching. And if you talk to his students, they’ll confirm that this is in fact the case.

This is why I feel a great loss at Sailhamer’s passing, even though I never had him for a class. One of the greatest regrets of my life is not taking him for Hebrew or Old Testament my first year at SEBTS; he left the next year for Golden Gate. But in God’s providence I still feel as though I’ve been under his guidance, since during my time as a secretary at SEBTS I served two “Sailhamerites,” as we called them. Every day, for almost 4 years, I worked as an administrative assistant for these men, so that while I was making copies or filling out reimbursement sheets for them they were schooling me in the ways of Sailhamer.

At first I was skeptical; I hadn’t taken Sailhamer or anyone else that followed him during my M.Div, and it was only through serving these men that I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then I began my first semester of doctoral work and took a Hermeneutics seminar. Suffice it to say that Sailhamer’s hermeneutical idiosyncrasies came up a number of times, and I needed to find out why. I picked up Introduction to Old Testament Theology, and I was hooked. I was convinced that the shape of the canon is hermeneutically crucial, that meaning is text-centered, and that intertextual links between biblical texts are the building blocks of the canon and of good theology.

Due to other factors, I had already changed my concentration to biblical theology, and now I changed my dissertation topic almost immediately – the canonical shape of the New Testament. Jonathan Catanzaro and I started a “Canonical Theology” student group. My first published article, written mostly while I was still at SEBTS, was due to Sailhamer’s impact on how I read the NT. To say, therefore, that Sailhamer’s influence on me during my doctorate was substantial would be a vast understatement.

Over the years I’ve shifted a bit on some of these issues; for instance, I no longer agree that historical background is inconsequential in understanding particular texts. I sometimes don’t find Sailhamer’s intertextual connections, or, more often, his theological conclusions given those connections, convincing. But the foundations of Sailhamer’s approach, namely a close literary and intertextual reading coupled with canonical consciousness, still drive the way I read the Bible. Even though I never had a class with Professor Sailhamer, he remains one of the top five people who have influenced how I read and understand Scripture.

Because of this, I was incredibly excited to meet John a few years ago when I was still at California Baptist University. One of John’s close friends at SEBTS, Bob Cole, who also was one of those Sailhamerite faculty I served, took me with him to see Sailhamer in SoCal. At that point John’s health had declined such that he was consigned to what amounted to an electrical, driveable recliner; he fell asleep often, usually while one of us was talking to him; and he could barely speak. But I will, with the Lord’s help, never forget that he seemed to have the entire Hebrew Bible memorized, even in his condition. Bob and I would mention this or that text, and John would slowly but surely convey how that text was linked to other texts, parse the verbs, note other grammatical connections. He couldn’t walk, could barely talk, and couldn’t stay awake, but the man had hidden God’s Word in his heart. And it was because he did that over the course of decades he influenced so many to read the Old Testament as an eschatological messianic book, a book that’s goal and content is Christ.

Thank you, John, for your labors. May you rest in the peace of Christ.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Yesterday a comment on the Internet[1] sparked some reflection about the nature of neighbor-hood and the people who inhabit the Middle East. The comment in question seemed to conflate America, and particularly its Christian inhabitants, with an idealized version of Israel on the one hand, and Middle Eastern peoples, particularly devout Muslims, with Israel’s OT enemies on the other. In doing so, the commenter was saying both that we should take care of our neighbors –fellow Americans – and keep at bay those who hold to Islam because the Arab peoples can only ultimately be consigned to idolatry and violent hatred for Isaac and Jacob’s descendants.

There are a number of issues here, but I will focus on two. I think they can be summarized in two questions – who is my neighbor? And, who is Israel?

Regarding the first, Jesus makes it plain in the Gospels that if one wants to discern who counts as a neighbor, he should first think of the person with whom he has the most enmity and work from there. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is chosen because to a Pharisee that would have been the most theologically and ethnically offensive choice. Jesus’ point is that neighbor-hood is not nationalistic – the Samaritans were viewed as outside Israelite society; it is not ethnic – the Samaritans were viewed as a sub-par ethnically mixed group by “pure” Israelites; and it is not about theological correctness – the Samaritans were viewed as worshiping incorrectly by citing Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the proper site for worshiping Yahweh. In other words, the definition of neighbor-hood starts with the person I least want to be my neighbor and then works from there. In 21st century rural Deep South America, I’d imagine the epitome of someone who is the opposite[2] of a resident of that area in terms of nationalism, ethnicity, and theology would very likely be an undocumented Syrian refugee. That is the starting point for neighbor-hood for a Christian.

This, I think, is fairly easy for many Christians to grasp. What may be harder to work through is the subsequent statement about Middle Eastern peoples only being able to produce idolatry and hatred towards Isaac and Jacob’s descendants. In other words, the idea is that in the Old Testament Israel was the faithful worshiper of Yahweh, and now, since America is Israel, we are the faithful Christian nation. Conversely, in the OT the descendants of Ishmael and Esau were always idolatrous and at enmity with Israel, and now, since the Middle Eastern nation-states are Ishmael and Esau, they can do nothing but produce idolatry and enmity.

I don’t know any other way to say this – that is just a very poor reading of the Old Testament. In fact, I’m not sure anyone with this view has read the Old Testament very much(not a shocking proposition in light of the incipient Marcionism in many churches). In the Old Testament, Israel commits idolatry over and over and over again.[3] Israel is unfaithful to Yahweh and Yahweh almost destroys them many times.[4] Conversely, it is the nations that many times exhibit obedience to Yahweh in contrast to Israel’s disobedience. Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Gibeonites in Joshua 10 are prime examples. Further, God in the OT Prophets promises to save not just Israel but the nations – the Ishmaelite nations particularly – as well. The promise of salvation that Christ fulfills is not for an ethnic group but for all people. Justification by faith is for Jews and Gentiles, Jacobites and Ishmaelites alike. There is nothing inherent in anyone aside from our common inheritance of Adam’s sin nature.

To claim that Americans, or Germans, or Brazilians, or Chinese, or Kenyans, or anyone else has some kind of advantage over any other ethnic group with respect to the way Adam’s sin has affected us all is unbiblical. To claim that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in some way not for another ethnic group is unbiblical. To claim that a certain ethnic group is not my neighbor based on our political, nationalistic, ethnic, or theological differences is unbiblical. This kind of thinking has no place in the kingdom of God or his Church.


[1] I will not link to or quote this comment for two reasons: 1) I have no desire to draw any more attention to it that I already am, and 2) the sentiments expressed are by no means held only by this one person. Through personal experience and observation of our current culture I am certain this kind of thinking is prevalent throughout the USA.

[2] Of course, the Samaritans were not the opposite of the Pharisees; they were closely related to one another in many ways. A closer analogy might be African Americans, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, but really throughout American history. You could also posit a non-English speaking undocumented Hispanic immigrant. The list goes on.

[3] E.g. Exodus 32, Joshua 7-8, Judges 8, 2 Kings 12.

[4] See for instance Exodus 33, and Joshua 7-8 and Judges 20-21 when the herem (command of total destruction) is placed on tribes within Israel. This command is given to Israel to destroy the nations in Canaan but in these and other instances Israel is so unfaithful that Yahweh turns the command on their heads.

Aquinas Takes Science to School

Aquinas asks in Question I of the First Part of the Summa Theologica, “Whether Sacred Doctrine is Nobler Than Other Sciences?”

In his first objection he notes that the other sciences (e.g., in modern terms, the hard sciences) “seem to be more certain than sacred doctrine.” This is because faith, the principle of theology, can be doubted, while the principles of the other sciences are certifiable. This type of argument is alive and well today, as scientists, and indeed much of the Western world, see empiricism and rationalism as the only way to verifiable truth. Religion has its place, but it is relegated to interiority, assisting individuals in their quest to feel good about life. This is due in part to science’s claim to an omniscient metanarrative, i.e. that empirical research and presuppositionless logic alone can lead humanity to knowledge of the truth.

Aquinas takes this view to the cleaners in his response, saying,

…this science [theology] surpasses other speculative sciences: in point of greater certitude, because other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err, while this derives its certitude from the light certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be deceived; in point of the higher worth of its subject matter, because this science treats chiefly those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason, while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason’s grasp.

[Nerd] Boom.

Cultural Liturgies and Scriptural Imagination

As I continue to work through Barry Harvey’s Can These Bones Live?, I’m consistently reminded of Jamie Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project. Both Harvey and Smith argue that the church’s worship practices are formative for her people, both in their growth in Christ-likeness and in their witness to and mission in the world. The liturgical life of the congregation is thus vital for the believers’ ability to live in the world while not being of the world, especially since, as Smith in particular is at pains to demonstrate, every culture has its own liturgies that compete with the church’s. In the West, and particularly in the US, consumerism, materialism, and therapeutism are drilled into our brains through the repeated patterns in advertising, television and movies, and even the shape of our cities. The pull of the immediate, the pleasurable, and the stimulating is always on a screen, whether it be an electronic billboard or a TV or a smartphone.

The church’s practice of Word and table, of proclamation and participation, smacks in the face of our Western cultural liturgy. Instead of feeding on instant gratification, celebrity culture, self esteem, and visual stimulation, we feed on the Word of God as it is read, prayed, sung, preached, and tasted. Instead of seeking a city that is already here, which we have built, we are constantly reminded of a city that is to come, whose author and builder is Yahweh. We are not the products of the moment, YOLO-ing ad nauseum, but the heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the new Adams and Eves bought by the second Adam, the new Israel, the new Temple of God, the bride of Christ. We stand in the long tradition of those called out by the Spirit of God, conversing with and learning from Athanasius and Augustine and Anselm and Thomas and Calvin and Wesley about how to speak about the Triune God and his work for us. As we read and pray and sing and preach the Scriptures, we are reminded of who we are in Christ, not who we are on social media. As we recite the creeds we are reminded that we are not products of the moment who finally arrive at the truth but heirs of the Great Tradition. As we partake of the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are a purchased people who are put into fellowship together by our fellowship in Christ and who await his return in glory, not a social contract or a homogenous interest group or a political lobby with no real hope and no real foundation. And as we eat the bread and drink the cup we are reminded that our nourishment is God and God alone, not fast food or gourmet food or sex or power or self esteem. As we give, we are reminded that our money is not for own pleasure and gratification, and indeed is not even our own, but is given to us as stewards for the advancement of God’s kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel. And that task, that Great Commission, is something we are called to each week in the benediction, as we are sent out together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all who will listen, whether near or far, so that they too might sit with us and feast.

As both Harvey and Smith state, the effect of the church’s repeated worship practices is thus to form believers’ imaginations. How Christians perceive the world is impacted by how they worship. Further, as Harvey notes in chapter 4, as Christians hear the Word and see the Word in worship, their imaginations are formed primarily in scriptural terms. Their perception of the world is shaped by scriptural images and stories instead of by the culture’s images and stories.

A few implications come to mind as I think through both of these men’s work:

  1. Intentional, repeated worship practices are vital for the health and growth of any local church. (I’m grateful to be at a church where what we do in worship is intentional and repeated; more on how we incorporate some of these practices in a later post.)
  2. In Harvey’s explanation of shaping the Christian imagination, he says that we should look to scriptural types to understand our current situation (e.g. the African American civil rights activists looking to the Exodus narrative). He then also cautions against misappropriating types, such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s application of messianic OT language to Emperor Constantine. I’m unclear how he distinguishes a correct and incorrect application of scriptural types, so while I’m sympathetic to his discussion of shaping Christian imagination, I’m cautious about appropriating his call for a typological reading of current events in the church.
  3. I can’t help but think of the swath of mass shootings that have occurred over the last two decades, and their seemingly rapid increase in the last five, and of our culture’s attempt to explain them. In my mind part of the explanation lies in how we form and shape the next generation, and right now our culture forms people through a barrage of gratuity, whether violent or sexual, instant gratification, self worth, entitlement, consumerism, and therapeutism. That’s a bad mixture when someone with a gun isn’t feeling great about themselves or their peers.

Jesus Juking and the Super Bowl

I’ve seen a lot of tweets / posts today to the effect of “Christian, don’t get more excited about the Super Bowl tomorrow than you are about worshiping Jesus with the body of Christ.”

On one level, I get this, and I think those who are saying it mean well. There is a legitimate danger of idolatry with sports, as with any area of life. We ought to constantly be on guard against placing anything in our hearts above our affection and love for God. If this is the message these men and women are trying to send, then I heartily agree.

And yet it seems to me that these statements may imply something else, perhaps unintentionally, something in addition to a warning of idolatry. In my opinion, these comments imply an uncrossable line of “excitement”, where one cannot be more “excited” about a football game (or whatever it is gets you “excited”) than you are when participating in corporate worship.

There are at least two things that strike me as odd, and perhaps wrong headed, about these statements. The first is that they equate the type of excitement a person shows about or during a football game to the type of excitement (if we can even call it that) a person shows about or during corporate worship. These, in my opinion, should not and cannot be compared.

To give an example: in my excitement for a football game, I might stand up at some point and yell “oh COME ON! That’s a terrible call!” Or, maybe the team for which I’m cheering makes a great play, and I stand up and yell loudly whatever my team’s cheer is. Would that type of expression be at all appropriate during corporate worship? Should I be intensely involved in how the service ends? If it doesn’t end in as dramatic a fashion, or perhaps with my favorite song, does that mean we lost at worship?

In other words, the simple fact is that “excitement” for worship means something entirely different than it does for a sporting event. This makes the attempt to draw some imaginary line where I can’t get more excited about the Super Bowl than church even more puzzling. First, because they aren’t equivalent, and second, because it promotes undue worry on the individual’s part. “Uh oh, I’m not excited enough during the sermon – I need to pump it up a notch just in case the game is really good this afternoon!” Or, during the game: “oh man I didn’t yell that loudly in church – sorry Jesus!” This is, if we examine it carefully, nonsensical.

The second reason why I think these types of statements are problematic is because I think they imply yet another false equivalency between worship and sports. My excitement over corporate (and individual or family) worship comes because I understand my own sin and Jesus’ payment for it in his penal substitutionary death, because I worship the risen Christ, who burst the bonds of death and began renewing the world at his resurrection, because Christ is king over all things at this very moment, even my own life, because Christ shows me the Father, the Creator of all things, and because Christ gives me his Spirit, who allows me to understand his Word and worship him in spirit and in truth.

My excitement over a sporting event comes because I attended the school or grew up in the city or live in the city now or just because I’m on a bandwagon.

*These are not the same thing.*

I should also point out here that sporting events are by nature temporal, both in the sense that they are season to season and game to game, whereas corporate worship is a regular and ordinary means of grace.

*These are not the same thing.*

Now, I want to say again that sports can become an idol, just like anything else. We need to guard against finding our ultimate happiness in anything other than Christ, including whether or not our team wins a game. But finding ultimate happiness in a sports team is not the same as being excited when they play, and being excited when they play is not the same thing as being excited about worshiping the risen Lord Jesus.

Q&A with biblioblogger and FSU fan Chad Chambers about National Championship Game and Theology

Chad Chambers and I decided to celebrate the National Championship Game between Florida State and Auburn University (of which we are fans respectively) by answering a few questions about the game itself and the connections between football and theology. You can find my answers to his questions on his blog – Cataclysmic.

1. Given FSU’s recent success coupled with starting an unknown redshirt freshman at quarterback, what were you expectations for FSU coming into this season?

My expectations for FSU this season were they would have a good, not great, season. I thought a 10-2 record was most likely, with us losing to either Clemson or Florida and one game we shouldn’t.

Although 11 players were drafted from last year’s team, my optimism came from the simple fact we have better players than just about every team we face (Clemson and Florida being the possible exceptions). I thought even if Winston struggled at times, like most first year starters, the talent surrounding him would be enough to win most games.

2. At what point during the season did you begin to think, “This team could be really good?” And then, “This team could play for a National Championship?” Why?

I will highlight four things:

A. Winston’s performance in the 1st game of the season against Pittsburgh was extraordinary (25-27, 356 yards, 4 TDs/0 Ints). After the game, many FSU fans, myself included, thought if this a true picture of what kind of QB he would be then this team would be really, really good.

B. After the Boston College game the defense made several changes, most importantly moving Christian Jones from LB to DE. Up to that point, the defense had been good but not great especially against the run. After the personnel changes, the defense became dominant. The one concern was meeting a big, physical power running team because the defense is built to stop spread offenses. That concern was highly diminished as Florida’s season crumbled (and perhaps after Auburn beat Alabama see prediction below).

C. In the first quarter of the Clemson game, it became obvious this team should finish the regular season undefeated. It was no guarantee, but it was assumed FSU would be a double-digit favorite in the rest of their games (and some have them as double-digit favorites against Auburn).

D. It has been the cumulative effect of winning big every week. This team never let down, never played down to competition or had an off week. Basically, it had one off quarter all year against Boston College and trailed by 14 points, but it responded with a 35-3 run in 2nd and 3rd quarters. The ability to focus on every game and not just win but win big reminded me off the great FSU teams of the 80’s and 90’s.

3. As a Southerner, I am very familiar with the way sports, especially football, and religion are intertwined. As Christians and football fans, how should we respond to those who integrate religion with sports? Does this mindset open doors for honest discussion or make discussion more difficult?

The saying “Football is religion” is burnt into my head from my upbringing. I can remember playing games on Friday nights and even as an arrogant and stupid teenager thinking this is crazy! Don’t get me wrong I lived for Friday nights and reveled in the attention but I still knew something was wrong.

To fully answer this question the way football and religion are intertwined would take way too much space (this is a blog post not a book!) because there are so many different layers to it. I want to discuss only one side, the sense of belonging or participating that comes from following football or sports in general. Being a fan involves a collective emotion as you witness your team’s fortunes rise and fall during a game or season. It sparks conversations, relationships as you share in ecstatic moments of joy and despair but more than that it involves a loss of one’s self in a ‘higher’ purpose. The me becomes we, and it is not just us fans banding together in support of a team; we as fans we feel like we become part of the team.

It is this experience of becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves that in part drives us to talk about sports like they are religion. Religion is meant to offer meaning and hope to the whole of life, but all to often Christianity has become me and Jesus and it loses the communal, the me becoming we. So sports are often used to fill the void. They are used as a way to find a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, a purpose, and a hope. All religious language. All longings that cannot be filled by sports, even if your team wins the National Championship.

Therefore, how should we respond as Christians? More of our churches need to move out of the simple come to Jesus and go to heaven mentality. We need to become places that reach the whole of life by being places of belonging, meaning, purpose and hope centered around the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Our places of worship must mold us in a community of living witnesses to the transformative power of the gospel. And we should foster active communities who seek to understand scripture more fully and witness to it more clearly.  

4. What do you think about the current move to pay college athletes? Is this a case of systematic injustice or is the system fair? Is this a moral issue the church should be discussing?

As someone who was ‘paid to play’ baseball in college, I have thought about the question a lot because I get asked about it quite often. But to be honest, I do not have an answer. The world of college athletics is different now and the money is so much more, I can’t relate to the experience of today’s athletes. Furthermore, the difference between being a player at a big-time football (even some basketball) program is a world away from playing in a non-revenue sport. I will say, if it becomes a situation where universities are required to pay every athlete in every sport it may very well be the end of college athletics as we know them.

As to the last part of the question, yes the church should be involved in discussing these issues because it should be interested in discussing all moral issues.

5. There has been an intensifying discussion recently concerning the physicality of football and the relationship to Christian ethics. Do you consider football inherently “violent”? What is your definition of violence? Does the Bible address this issue, and, if so, can a Christian faithfully participate in football as a player or fan?

Answered by Mike Skinner (contributor at Cataclysmic who writes a lot about violence. And as you can see also a football fan).

I confess I would have to answer this question with an asterisk: I am a football fan.  So upfront, I fully own up to a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to my nonviolent christological commitment and my love of football.  My ad-hoc definition of violence would be: “an intentional action against another in which permanent (or lethal) physical, spiritual, and psychological damage is a real possibility.”  I do, however, think there is a tension between the physicality (/violence) of football and the call to Christian living embodied by Jesus and encouraged by the Scriptures.

I think the tension is found in three places: 1) football has the tendency to glorify violence (who doesn’t get a little satisfaction out of a BIG hit), 2) it has a tendency to promote a hyper-violent/angry/competitive vision of masculinity, and 3) it is a sport that often dehumanizes the athletes at the expense of entertainment (long-term damage to bodies/minds, etc).  [I think there is a spectrum here – with sports like UFC being on one end and sports like basketball being on the other end – in terms of violence].  I think questions of intentionality (are the players really “trying” to hurt each other?  are we really “attempting” glorify violence, etc?) and inherency (does it have to do these things?  Is it inherent to the sport itself or simply inherent to individual/corporate nature of humans?) are legitimate responses to my above analysis, however.

Ultimately, I think the Bible does call us to an awareness of how our lives are shaping our own moral character and affecting those around us.  The things that we watch, pay money to attend, cheer for, and spend time doing are always forming us as virtuous creatures (whether we want it to or not).  Indeed, out of all the popular sports in America, football has a very distinct liturgical shape to it.  Thus, it shapes our own character, our society, and has long-term effects for certain men who are “sacrificed” for our entertainment.  All of that might seem a tad “much” for the average Christian – and I again want to acknowledge that I enjoy being a fan of football.  There are many good things that football does as well (particularly in shaping discipline, teamwork, critical thinking, community among fans, etc).  And on a list of what is wrong with the world, I would consider it towards the bottom (if indeed it is a problem).  As a nonviolent Christian, I’ll worry about the violence of football when we can stop things like unjust drone strikes.  Until then, I’ll be praying that the Texans draft Johnny Manziel.

6. What are the keys for FSU to be successful against Auburn in the National Championship game? What is your prediction for the game (winner and score)?

The key for FSU is slowing the run. I know this is obvious, but that does not make it less true. Auburn’s game plan seems to be simply to outscore the other team and it has worked because Auburn’s running game, especially in the last half of the season, has been unstoppable. I am still not sure whether to call it a power running game since it relies more on zone blocking schemes rather than power blocking, but regardless it works. Yet, I do not think FSU has to stop Auburn because they should be able to score on Auburn’s defense, but they do need to slow them down.

I can see the game going three ways:

          A. FSU slows Auburn early and jumps out to double-digit lead. From         there the two teams trade scores with the FSU winning something         like 42-28.

          B. Neither team is able to consistently slow the other and we get a   good-ole Western (Pac-10 football since in California) shootout. In         this case, I think FSU has the better defense and will make the one       stop needed to make a difference. Prediction in this scenario, FSU    wins 45-42.

          C. Very similar to the last version except both teams come out tight,          rusty after 30 days off and so the score ends up being in the 20’s    rather than the 40’s.

Since you asked for my prediction not predictions, I think the first option is more likely, so I will go with FSU 42 and Auburn 28.


Scripture and Science

The relationship between science and Scripture is a hot topic today. I am of the opinion that, too often, Scripture is asked to accommodate to the positivist rationalistic assumptions and conclusions of modern scientific inquiry. Here are Vos’ insightful words on the subject:

“At present many writers take exception to [death entering the world through Adam’s sin], largely on scientific grounds. With these as such we have here nothing to do. But, as is frequently the case, strenuous attempts are made to give such a turn to the Biblical phrases as to render them compatible with what science is believed to require, and not only this, some proceed tot he assertion that the Scriptural statements compel acceptance of the findings of science.

Attempts of this kind make for poor and forced exegesis. Scripture has a right to be exegetes independently from within; and only after its natural meaning has thus been ascertained, can we properly raise the question of agreement or disagreement between Scripture and science.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 36-37.


Scholarship and Christian Charity

Yesterday I was reminded again by a good brother of how important it is to speak with love and humility towards those with whom we disagree. This has me thinking today about Christians and scholarly engagement with one another’s differing theological stances. Of course, I’m also reminded of this because of the continuing debate about Calvinism within my own denomination. The following is not really an argument for anything or a set position on what it means to have charity in Christian scholarship, just a few thoughts about the subject.

First, as I think about this issue, I’m reminded of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the church, the body of Christ, is unified in Christ. When we engage other brothers and sisters on matters in which we disagree, our first thought ought not to be how I can win the argument but how I can love and be unified with my co-heir in Christ. I’ve encountered the statement elsewhere that “unity is accomplished through the truth,” and while I understand this on one level – the church MUST guard against false teaching – I do not in many cases think this is the best approach. On second and third level issues, where the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” is not at stake, such as Calvinism, I doubt that the way to unity is continued argument until one side capitulates. When we engage fellow believers on these types of issues we certainly ought to do so with conviction, but shouldn’t that also be coupled with a strong dose of humility? I know that I am not right about everything, nor will I ever be, and so the idea that I can only be united in fellowship or missional cooperation with my brother if he “comes to the truth” (i.e. agrees with me) about a certain matter seems to me to be the exact opposite of humble. The idea that everything is a first order issue – that if you don’t agree with me then we are of a different faith altogether – seems to me to fall under this category.

Second, I have heard writers, speakers, theologians, and preachers mention Luther (or some other such person) and his tone towards those with which he disagreed as evidence that a certain invective tone is permissible in theological argumentation. Again, this seems wrong headed to me for a few reasons. No one theologian is ever correct about everything, and this includes the tone they use. I’m not so sure that Luther, giant as he is, ought to be commended for the vindictive way in which he speaks of his opponents at times. Further, our culture is 500 years separated from his, and while I abhor some of the ways in which “political correctness” has permeated our speech, we do not swim in the exact same linguistic, cultural, or emotional waters as the Reformers. Then there’s the fact that none of us is Luther, or any of the Reformers for that matter.

Finally, I also have noticed an increasing amount of people, whether Baptist or Anglican or Methodist, Calvinist or Arminian, egalitarian or complementarian, liberal or conservative, who seem to be waiting for someone, usually a “celebrity” pastor or theologian, to say something upon which they can pounce. Why do we do this? Part of the answer, I think, is that controversy is what draws people to books, blogs, websites, tv shows, and even churches and pastors. And so, in our American sub-conscious desire to rise up, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and get rich and famous, we stir the pot. We nitpick at each other.

This all bothers me. And it bothers me that I am so easily ensnared in it. I do all of this and more, and so I am not in any way trying to pull out anyone else’s speck while ignoring my plank. But I hope that we, as the body of Christ, bought by his blood and raised to new life by his Spirit, can treat each other with more Christian charity and humility than I have seen of late.