Engaging the anti-critics

Last week I tweeted a link to Michael Kruger’s response to a recent message by Andy Stanley (AS) in which Stanley asserted that a mature Christian faith can’t be sustained by “the Bible says so” mindset.

Since my massive following on the interweb isn’t a monolithic group of like-minded cynics, critics, and ministerial Luddites, I wasn’t surprised to see contrary opinions toward Kruger’s piece. What was unexpected (but not surprising) was the dismissive stance toward the criticism in general (i.e. the act not the substance).

My purpose here isn’t to rehash any of the details from Stanley’s talk or Kruger’s critique but to offer a different perspective for the anti-critics who seem to fit somewhere within the following cross-section:

  1. The Groupies — Pastor X¹ can do no wrong. In the face of criticism, he is a priori impeccable.
  2. The Ends-Justifies-The-Message — Maybe he shouldn’t say xyz but he’s bringing people to Jesus. God is blessing his ministry so who are you to criticize?
  3. The Matthew 18 Peaceniks — Pointing out the error is just as wrong (if not more so) than the error itself because you haven’t personally spoken to Pastor X.²

Regardless of where the anti-critic finds his motivation I hope these thoughts might lend a new perspective on these friendly skirmishes:

(1) If it’s a conversation then we should converse. AS and North Point don’t “preach” they have “conversations.” All fine and good. But words mean things and a conversation is, by definition, an exchange of ideas. So let’s talk.

(2) Don’t assume the worst in the critic. Yes, there are AS-detractors for whom AS can neither say nor do anything good. Kruger’s critique, however, was a far cry from the irrational rant one would expect from a devoted detractor. His was measured and irenic. Some of us are convinced that AS’s prescription for deconversion will end up doing more harm than good. Should we still keep quiet?

(3) If AS can passionately assert we can certainly tolerate a dispassionate critique. As is true of most effective communicators, AS is passionate in his efforts to win the deconverted. Conviction expressed with passion is infectious. But when a contrary view can’t even be countenanced it’s worth asking what we find more attractive–light or heat.

As a man who is nothing if not hip and relevant, I’m all about continuing the dialogue. Feel free to talk back.


¹Groupies aren’t limited to AS. Every high profile pastor of every theological stripe has his groupies.

²See D. A. Carson’s editorial for helpful clarification and correction on the application of Matthew 18.

Parents, you need to read this book

reset-your-childs-brainIn the introduction to her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time, integrative psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley observes:

In a mere ten-year span from 1994 to 2003, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children increased forty-fold. Childhood psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and tic disorders are on the rise. Between 2002 and 2005, ADHD medication prescriptions rose by 40 percent. Mental illness is now the number one reason for disability filings for children, representing half of all claims filed in 2012, compared to just 5 to 6 percent of claims twenty years prior.

Now consider that this rise in childhood psychosocial and neurodevelopmental issues has increased in lockstep with the insidious growth of electronic-screen exposure in daily life . . . Children aged two to six now spend two to four hours a day screen-bound — during a period in their lives when sufficient healthy play is critical to normal development. Computer training in early-years education–including in preschool–has become commonplace, despite a lack of long-term data on learning and development. And according to a large-scale survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010, children ages eight to eighteen now spend an average of nearly seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen–a 20 percent increase from just five years earlier. (2-3)

Even if you end up disagreeing with Dunckley that Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) is contributing to (if not causing) an increasingly broad spectrum of behavioral and/or developmental disorders, you will certainly benefit from knowing the pitfalls that accompany unregulated screen-time for children. I’ll let the author make the case for herself but as a father of six and a full-time education pastor who regularly interacts with other people’s kids, I have to say that I found this book compelling.

Although not a major focus of the book, parents would also benefit from the counsel that Dunckley provides concerning communication and discipline. A good bit of content is universally applicable. For example:

It’s very easy to get caught up arguing and debating whether there’s a problem and whether this is the right solution–which is exactly what you don’t want. Children will always have more energy than you, so it’s to their advantage to keep you engaged. It’s to yours to keep it short! (164-165; emphasis added)

And my personal favorite:

Who knows, but considering the current trend is wearable computing, the next wave of devices might make today’s screen-time problems seem laughable . . . So be wary when the next new technology comes out and steer clear of adding new devices to the home. It’s harder to have and give up than never to have at all. (240-241; emphasis added)

It may not be a fun read but it’s necessary. So take a look but be prepared: the diagnosis and prescription are not for the faint of heart.

In the marriage debate, we are not like King Canute

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I was prepping for some premarital counseling when I came across this gem from Christopher Ash in 2003. With boundary lines constantly changing, this is good counsel:

…marriage (as a part of the created order) exists as a significant institution in the world whether or not societies conform to its free constraints. So when as Christians we seek to persuade society about this moral order, we are not defending the institution of marriage, as though the God-given institution of marriage were under ontological threat . . . it is not within the power of humankind finally to destroy created order. It was given to humankind in creation, it stands above human history and the human will, and finally it will be restored and transformed in the new heavens and earth. No institution that is part of the created order can be destroyed by human disobedience. Human nonconformity leads not to the destruction of the order, but to judgment on human beings. No Christian movement needs to defend marriage: rather we seek to protect human beings against the damage done to them by cutting across the grain of the order of marriage. That knowledge takes a burden off our shoulders . . . we are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.

-Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 81-82

Judas & Peter

Aside

Recently heard someone present Judas & Peter as two disciples with a shared experience but different outcomes. Both men walked with Jesus, both men turned on Jesus, & both men expressed remorse; but whereas Judas hung himself, Peter was restored and became a prominent leader.

What accounts for the different results? On this telling, it was that Judas never returned to his fellow disciples while Peter never left. The difference was community.

True, Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of these two men.

There’s no need for psychoanalysis when Scripture details the difference between the two.

Concerning Judas:

John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?”

John 13:18  “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘HE WHO EATS MY BREAD HAS LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME.’

John 17:12  “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

Concerning Peter:

Luke 22:31-32  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat;  but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Look to the text.

Pipe & Pencil (3): divine omniscience and human ignorance

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When God became man he took for himself “a human mind, subject to the same laws of perception, memory, logic and development as our own.” As the Son of God Christ knew all things, but as Son of Man he had to learn  (Luke 2:52; Heb 5:8). Omniscient in his divinity; ignorant in his humanity.

This human ignorance is attested by Christ himself: “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mk 13:32). How omniscience and ignorance coexist in one person is a mystery beyond my comprehension. And yet the mystery may be a profound comfort. Like us, Jesus walked in darkness. Our Advocate knows firsthand the inner turmoil that accompanies our faith’s obedience as fear & ignorance whisper in our ear:

The other line of integration between the omniscience of the divine nature and the ignorance of the human is that just as Christ had to fulfill the office of Mediator within the limitations of a human body, so he had to fulfill it within the limitations of a human mind. Part of the truth here is suggested by the first of the three temptations in the desert: ‘tell these stones to become bread’ (Mt 4:3). The essence of the temptation was that the Lord disavow the conditions of the incarnation and draw on his omnipotence to alleviate the discomforts of his self-abasement. He could have turned the stones into bread; and he could (perhaps) have known the day and hour of his parousia. But the latter would have undone his work as surely as the former. Christ had to submit to knowing dependently and to knowing partially. He had to learn to obey without knowing all the facts and to believe without being in possession of full information. He had to forego the comfort which omniscience would sometimes have brought. This, surely, was a potent factor in the dereliction (Mk 15:34). The assurance of the Father’s love, the sense of his own sonship and the certainty of his victory were all eclipsed, and he had to complete his obedience as the one who walked in darkness, knowing only that he was sin and that he was banished to the outer darkness. He suffers as the one who does not have all the answers and who in his extremity has to ask, Why? The ignorance is not mere appearing. It is a reality. But it is a reality freely chosen, just as on the cross he chose not to summon twelve legions of angels. Omniscience was a luxury always within reach, but incompatible with his rules of engagement. He had to serve within the limitations of finitude.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 169.
[emphasis added]

Pipe & Pencil (2): the felt weakness of Jesus

Christ has put on our feelings as well as our flesh. -John Calvin

In his discussion of the incarnation, Macleod turns his attention to our Lord’s human emotions. Perhaps most poignant are his reflections on Christ’s experience through his time of suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross.

To think that all-powerful God submits to human fear & weakness! Macleod is worth quoting at length:

But the narrative [concerning Gethsemane] does not owe its force to the adjectives alone. The whole account resonates the acutest torment and anguish. This appears, for example, in the fact that he took Peter, James, and John with him, not merely for companionship but so that they might watch and pray with him. It was of paramount importance for himself, for the universe and for mankind that he should not fail in his task, and the temptations that beset him on the eve of his agony represented a real threat to the completion of his obedience. Hell would do — was doing — all in its power to divert him from the Father’s will. Hence the supreme urgency of watching and praying; and hence the need for the prayers of others. Could there be a more impressive witness to the felt weakness of Jesus than his turning to those frail human beings and saying to them, “I need your prayers!”?

In the event they failed him. He had to watch and pray alone. Had the redemption of the world depended on the diligence of the disciples (or even on their staying awake) it would never have been accomplished . . . But the impressive thing is that he turned to them at all. How deep must have been his need and his fear!

…It is clear from all the accounts that Jesus’ experience of turmoil and anguish was both real and profound. His sorrow was as great as a man could bear, his fear convulsive, his astonishment well-nigh paralyzing. He came within a hairsbreadth of break-down. He faced the will of God as raw holiness, the mysterium tremendum in its most acute form: and it terrified him…

When Moses saw the glory of God on Mt. Sinai so terrifying was the sight that he trembled with fear (Heb 12:21). But that was God in covenant: God in grace. What Christ saw in Gethsemane was God with sword raised (Zech 13:7; Mat 26:31). The sight was unbearable. In a few short hours, he, the Last Adam, would stand before that God answering for the sin of the world: indeed, identified with the sin of the world (2Cor 5:21). He became, as Luther said, ‘the greatest sinner that ever was’ (cf. Gal 3:13). Consequently, to quote Luther again, ‘No one ever feared death so much as this man.’ He feared it because for him it was no sleep (1Thess 4;13), but the wages of sin: death with the sting; death unmodified and unmitigated; death as involving all that sin deserved. He, alone, would face it without a [covering], providing by his dying the only covering for the world, but doing so as a holocaust, totally exposed to God’s abhorrence of sin.. And he would face death without God…deprived of the one solace and the one resource which had always been there.

The wonder of the love of Christ for his people is not that for their sake he faced death without fear, but that for their sake he faced it, terrified. Terrified by what he knew, and terrified by what he did not know, he took damnation lovingly. 

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 173-175.
(emphasis added)

Grab your pipe & your pencil

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For some time now I’ve felt the need to read through a good book on Christology–first, to push back the horizons of my ignorance; second, and more importantly, to feed my soul. In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis wrote:

I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This has certainly been true for me as I work my way through The Person of Christ by Donald Macleod. I honestly don’t know how many people would share my experience in this book–sometimes you “happen” to come along the right book at just the right time. Regardless, Macleod’s has been that book for me which is one of the reasons I’ll periodically pass on some of the more challenging and/or meaningful portions here.

One more thing. For those who might like to find their heart singing over some challenging theology but don’t know how or where to start, maybe look here or here.

Here, then, is an excerpt from the chapter “Christ, The Son of God” on the relevance of Jesus’ transfiguration (pipe & pencil not included):

…[the transfiguration] has an on-going ministry. For Jesus, the trauma is past: he has entered into his rest. For us, it is not past. We are still struggling and suffering. To that situation the transfiguration still speaks, because it discloses not only the glory eternally possessed by the Lord, and not only the glory for which, as incarnate Mediator, he was destined, but also the glory of his people . . . The transfiguration showed not only what he would become but what we would become. The New Testament makes this connection explicitly. We are to be where he is (Jn 17:24). Our bodies are to be conformed exactly to his (Phil 3:21). We, in him, are to become sharers in the divine nature (2Pet 1:4). For Jesus on the Mount, this vision of what lay beyond the cross, not only for himself but for his people, would have been an immeasurable encouragement.

A. M. Ramsey relates this to the twin concepts, opsis and theiosis. Opsis is the spiritual vision which beholds the glory of the Lord. Theiosis is the transfiguring process which results: we are changed into the same image (2Cor 3:18), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and one day we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1Jn 3:2). This goes back to the core of God’s own redemptive determination: to conform all his people to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). Yet, as the sequel to the transfiguration shows, neither opsis nor theiosis goes on in ideal circumstances. We have to go down from the Mount to the demon-possessed valley. It is there that we must practice opsis; and only there that we can experience theiosis.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 107.
[emphasis added]

Resolved: Jesus was merciful because he was angry

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Discuss among yourselves [emphasis added]:

The holy resentment of Jesus has been made the subject of a famous chapter in Ecco Homo. The contention of this chapter is that he who loves men must needs hate with a burning hatred all that does wrong to human beings, and that, in point of fact, Jesus never wavered in his consistent resentment of the special wrong-doing which he was called upon to witness. The chapter announces as its thesis, indeed, the paradox that true mercy is no less the product of anger than of pity: that what differentiates the divine virtue of mercy from “the vice of insensibility” which is called “tolerance,” is just the under-lying presence of indignation. Thus–so the reasoning runs–“the man who cannot be angry cannot be merciful,” and it was therefore precisely the anger of Christ which proved that the unbounded compassion he manifested to sinners “was really mercy and not mere tolerance.” The analysis is doubtless incomplete; but the suggestion, so far as it goes, is fruitful. Jesus’ anger is not merely the seamy side of his pity; it is the righteous reaction of his moral sense in the presence of evil. But Jesus burned with anger against the wrongs he met with in his journey through human life as truly as he melted with pity at the sight of the world’s misery: and it was out of these two emotions that his actual mercy proceeded.

-B. B. Warfield, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” The Person and Work of Christ

Why Christians aren’t ‘nice’

Near the end of a 2012 discussion of his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray touched on the difference between raising kids to be nice versus raising kids to be good. You can take a look and reflect for yourself (watch 39:06-40:12) but I wanted to draw attention to this statement in particular:

Being nice is a way of moment to moment not creating trouble. It is not a way of inculcating standards and behavior that will get you through tough times.

Now this was in the context of child-rearing but  Murray’s point is one that I have groped for when discussing the pseudo-Christian response to today’s sexual revolution. To wit, nice is the new love.

What the social engineers demand is that Christians be nice–that we acquiesce; go along to get along. Protests notwithstanding, the last thing they want from us is love unless they get to define it. In the new moral order love isn’t so much “patient” as it is “permissive.”

Yes, “love is kind” (1Cor 13:4). But keep reading. “Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth” (1Cor 13:6). And that’s why love isn’t always “nice”–because it rejoices in the truth. Love asserts that some things are right and some things are wrong. Love insists there is a fixed moral order that has been transgressed. Love says what we would rather not hear and rejects what we would rather accept.

And so the Christian who truly loves becomes a troublemaker. And troublemakers will never be considered nice.

(S)elected reflections on Romans 9

…for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.”

For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.”  So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. {Rom 9:11-12, 15-16; NAS}

Some brief thoughts after spending 4-5 weeks teaching Romans 9.

  1. This passage should be taught in a spirit of grace & humility.
  2. Unconditional election seems to be the most straightforward interpretation but also the hardest one to come to grips with.
  3. After acknowledging how utterly sinful and rebellious we are (Rom 1-3) it’s curious that so many of us consider free will to be an advantage for salvation.
  4. God is too often conceived of as cold & indifferent in this passage. Having been on both sides of the lectern, that has as much to do with shallow teaching as anything else.
  5. The implications in this passage will always be acutely felt by Christian parents.
  6. Paul gives us this passage to affirm God’s faithfulness & mercy but our initial impressions seem to run the other way.
  7. A true grasp of unconditional election is not without sorrow.