Tag Archives: conservative theology

A fresh alliance?

Last week, I read an article on the Evangelical Alliance (EA) website on the subject of diversity. This comes about a week after I did a survey for them on what it means to be an evangelical.

Both the article and the survey perturbed me somewhat. This is my attempt to articulate that discomfort.

In the survey, one of the questions was about what an values an evangelical christian should hold to. The first option there was along the lines of “Oppose same-sex marriage”. I shook my head in disappointment as I chose the option ‘Evangelicals should not do this’. It later got a bit farcical by giving the names of various celebrities and asking if they were evangelical, christian but not evangelical or not a christian. It seemed slightly valueless. Yet the article I read this week, penned by the Alliance’s General Director, spoke about diversity but didn’t mention what remains probably the most problematic issue faced by the Church in the 21st century – the acceptance of LGBT christians.

I’ve written before about the shameful decision that the EA made a few years ago when they ejected Oasis church for their leader’s stated support of the christian LGBT community.

It’s this sort of thing that gives evangelicals a bad name. To many, the term evangelical is automatically prefixed by the adjective ‘conservative’. Or for the particularly hateful, it is sometimes shortened to the pejorative term: con-evo. To someone who, like me, describes themselves as a liberal evangelical, this is somewhat irksome, as there is a kind of guilt-by-association levelled at me for being associated with those who hold views I don’t agree with. The common examples are being homophobic, opposed to women in ministry, anti-science, etc. I don’t deny that such views exist within evangelicalism. What I dispute is whether they define it or are otherwise characteristic of it. After all, such views also exist within the anglo-catholic world.

I would love it if everyone agreed with me on all things, it would make the world so much simpler and better (of course), but it’s never going to happen. I have to live and work with those who disagree with me, as do you. If we want to talk about diversity in evangelicalism, then that has to include diversity of opinion, of biblical interpretation and of praxis. Much as I might want everyone to be a liberal, overriding that is the desire for a Church (big C) that embraces both the liberal and the conservative. This is why, on the survey, I identified one of the key threats to evangelicalism as being the appointment of those who hold conservative views into positions of leadership. If the EA wants to embrace the idea of diversity seriously, then it has to change. It’s in danger of becoming the Conservative Evangelical Alliance, failing to properly welcome, respect, include and represent the views of those of us who are more liberal.

In its etymology, evangelicalism should be about bringing good news. The distinctive, defining feature should be the kerygmatic proclamation that the risen Jesus is the messiah. When Peter said that Jesus was the messiah (Christ), Jesus responded that that declaration was the rock upon which the church would be built. All else is mere window dressing. I want to be a part of a Church where the liberal can worship alongside the conservative, where LGBT are not part a hived-off community, but are fully integrated and where there can be good disagreement, where differences are set aside as we jointly focus on that which unites us.

One of the key passages that sums this up is 1 Corinthians 12:21-25

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”

To many christians, evangelicalism is the less respectable member. And there’s often, sadly, good reason for thinking this. Though to those that hold more socially liberal views (usually in contrast to conservative ecclesiology) the attitude towards evangelicals is often more one of ostracism than of the biblical view above of treating them with respect. Anti-evangelicalism is really quite fashionable, but it’s not helpful. So much as I call for the evangelical world to be more open, so the plea has to turn around to the non-evangelicals to be more welcoming to their brethren. We all need each other and that which ought to unite us is far more powerful than anything that divides.

Book Review: Taking God at his Word by Kevin DeYoung

After asking for reading suggestions at the start of the year, this was one of the suggestions that came up as a book to particularly challenge my thinking. Such challenges are always welcome. For my own view, I would recommend you read this and this.

It has to be said, it doesn’t get off to a good start. The way the book is structured is that DeYoung starts with his conclusion (that’s not just my view, he states it explicitly himself) and then spends the next 7 chapters attempting to justify that conclusion. So what is his conclusion? The subtitle of the book spells it out: Why the Bible is knowable, necessary, and enough, and what it means for you and me.

He begins by making a category error. He wishes to start with Psalm 119 but states that is an “intricate, finely crafted, single-minded love poem…about the Bible itself.” Really? The author of the psalm was writing long before the idea the bible ever existed. DeYoung is correct in stating that the bible is “a very long collection of books” but all too often he seems to treat it as though it were a single body of work with a single author.

Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, though. As this is meant to be a kind of executive summary, then all the supporting evidence and reasoning must come later. I just kept my ears pricked to see if anything in the first chapter was used as justification for later points. Such a possibility is hinted at as DeYoung states that he sees no problem with circular reasoning.

He begins each chapter with a passage from one book or another of the bible and uses this as his starting point. In particular he chooses 2 Peter 1:16-21, Hebrews 1:1-4, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Acts 17:1-15, 1 Corinthians 2:6-13, John 10:35-36 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

The chapter headings give a flavour of what to expect:

  • Believing, Feeling Doing
  • Something More Sure
  • God’s Word Is Enough
  • God’s Word Is Clear
  • God’s Word Is Final
  • God’s Word Is Necessary
  • Christ’s Unbreakable Bible
  • Stick With the Scriptures

Very early on, we see the most revealing statement that summarises what is wrong with this book. He gives a summary of an exchange with an unnamed “liberal pastor” about the historicity of the virgin birth. In it, he states this pastor wrote “I don’t claim that you need to accept my understanding.” Now that’s a very gracious and affirming statement. Nothing to be condemned there. I don’t force others to conform to my view. If I believe them to be wrong, I may point out why, just as others are welcome to correct me (and of course, both parties are entitled to a defence of their views). But DeYoung will not have that. His response to the pastor was “I do claim that you need to accept my understanding.” (emphasis original). In other words, DeYoung sets himself up as arbiter of the interpretation of the bible and claims himself to be infallible. Though his argument is trying to show that he thinks the bible is infallible, his de facto position is that he is a person of perfect understanding. If he were not, then his view may be open to questioning, to challenge and even to change. It is one thing to be firm in one’s convictions and robust in their defence, but this level of arrogance is sufficient reason to view DeYoung as an unsound, unhumble teacher whose work is not to be trusted.

As with many conservatives, DeYoung has an unhealthy preoccupation with the idea of authority. He wants to be able to view the bible as a stand-alone document that contains all the right answers. Obviously, if one could do this, then that would be wonderful. Clearly DeYoung thinks he has found his paradise and wishes to show people how to get to his enlightened position. Yet it’s not that easy. In arriving at his conclusion, he has abdicated his responsibility to “love the Lord your God….with all your mind”. For while he is correct in pointing out that christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise, the mind must form one part of our love. As someone so educated (the book cites he has an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) one would have hoped that he’d be a bit more serious when it comes to utilising the gift of logic and the skill of fact-checking.

One of the failings of the book is to be suitably specific. For example, in his view the bible is wholly clear and can be readily understood. But if you read the chapter, there is no evidence of his appreciating the times, the cultures or the languages the bible was written in, nor to the various audiences to whom the books were written. In the chapter where he argues that the bible is readily understandable, he doesn’t tackle any of the difficult problems that must be addressed by one wishing to assert such a view. The first example that sprang to my mind was of statement about being meeting Jesus in the sky in Thessalonians. Is this readily understandable? If one takes an English translation prima facie then it would be an obvious backup for “rapture theology”. Yet as soon as one gains an understanding of the cultural norms prevalent at the time Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica, where it was customary for a people to leave the city and welcome the returning king in as they approached (c.f. Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem about a week before he died) then it casts a wholly different light on the passage.

One of the telling signs in the book is the sources DeYoung quotes. Obviously, there are some scriptural references, though all too often they are piecemeal, stripped of context and have a strong odour of proof texting about them rather than the aroma of exegesis. DeYoung makes a few very loose and broadsided comments about “liberals” but doesn’t quote any or give the reader any insight as to where such claims about these liberal views may be checked. The closest we get is a single reference to Karl Barth, one of the most robustly orthodox of evangelical theologians of the last 200 years! Instead, we have what appears to be some straw man arguments. I cite as my example (see, it’s not that hard!), the question of historicity. DeYoung argues for a binary all or nothing: either the bible is a completely reliable record of the history it purports to document or one may take the “liberal” point of view where history doesn’t really matter. There is no room for nuance. Yes, some things are really important historically. I would fully affirm the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; those twin events are not only the lynchpin of christianity, but are well attested and can be relied upon as historical events as strongly, if not more so, than many an event in the ancient world. But what about the parting of the Red Sea? Is that even the correct understanding; perhaps it was the Sea of Reeds as some have suggested. Are we to understand the creation story as being in the same genre as we do the book of Acts? I would say, no. They were written for different purposes, in different styles, by different authors, in different cultures and at different times. This is where I find the approach of N.T. Wright much more reasonable, in his appeal to critical realism (see The New Testament and the People of God for more on this topic) as the way the historically-minded person ought to set about their understanding of christianity. But this seems like too much hard work for DeYoung, who wants to take the shortcut that gets him to a quick and easy answer.

One notes that his non-scriptural sources, aside from excluding any actual liberal sources, are very strongly leaning in one direction. J.I. Packer gets numerous mentions (see here for my review of his work, Knowing God), John Calvin gets a fair few, as does a work entitled Reformed Dogmatics. All of these seem to be chosen because they back up DeYoung’s view, not because they are necessarily the most appropriate sources to use. If they are indicative of DeYoung’s own library, then it is indicative that his focus is very narrow indeed, which has resulted in a certain level of cherry picking. A more balanced work would cite the views that DeYoung sees himself as opposing as engage with them.

Let me use an illustration now:

I have a colleague at work who regularly asks the question: “Can you send me the headcounts, please?” In their mind, they are very clear about what they are asking for. Yet to me, it is not. Are they asking for the number of employees or the number of full time equivalents. Are they asking for the latest figures, a snapshot as at the year end or an average over a period? As soon as one starts to ask these questions, there is evident confusion on the part of the other person, as they don’t understand all the distinctions. Sometimes, they merely repeat the simplistic, initial request hoping that the complications they hadn’t foreseen would simply dissipate.

So it with Kevin DeYoung. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but it seems that in the few instances he pays lip service to serious matters like form criticism, he seems to lack an understanding of the questions posed by that school of thought. Instead, he offers us the off-handed dismissal that what Jesus thought

Ultimately, this is the work of a confused person who desperately wants to believe that they have a perfect textbook in front them, as to do so bypasses a lot of thinking that would otherwise be needed. Yet there is little appreciation of what the books of the bible are or what the intentions are that underly their purpose. Instead of having a holy trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, who are revealed to us in scripture, and whom we know through the revelation of the Spirit, through the communal life of the Church, through the determined study of the bible, scripture is, for DeYoung, treated as a member of the trinity: perfect, complete and unquestionable. Not only that, but his approach is wholly cataphatic.

In conclusion, it is not a worthwhile effort in reading if you want to gain a reasonable understanding of how to read the bible. Its main value is an example in how American conservativism works and how that can lead to a kind of fundamentalism. To finish, I am reminded of what Paul said to the church in Corinth: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned as a child…” On the basis of the evidence of this book, Kevin DeYoung still does.

Book Review: Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

Having stated that I intended to look at the theology of hell, this was my first port of call. The book is predominantly written by Francis Chan, as is stated fairly early on. Preston Sprinkle did some more of the research that went into the book, but Chan’s voice is the one that dominates the narrative.

The opening of the book is an odd mixture of both the sound and the conservative. Whilst the authors sometimes run along the line of thinking that I outlined in my introduction, they also seem to make quite a lot of unjustified assumptions, such as biblical infallibility. What also emerges fairly early on is that this is largely, though not wholly, a reaction against Rob Bell’s Love Wins, a title I intend to read as part of this current study, but have not yet picked up.

The authors start out, then, by looking at the idea of universalism. They quickly come to the conclusion (if they hadn’t already reached it before starting) that universalism is not an idea consistent with christian theology. However, they play a sleight of hand here, by use of the following piece of flawed logic:

A) Universalism stands in opposition to the traditionalist idea of hell as physical place of eternal torment and punishment.

B) Universalism is false.

C) Therefore the correct picture is that hell is a physical place of eternal torment and punishment.

Anyone who has studied logic will be able to tell you from the above statements that A & B, even if proved correct, do not logically lead to C. The authors seem to ignore this however and proceed onwards down what I think is a path that keeps good biblical study in sight, but at arm’s length. I was then left reading the rest of the book thinking to myself, “you haven’t dealt with X properly and you’ve ignored Y.”

For instance, one of the aspects of a study of hell I was looking for was the use of certain terms. While their look at Gehenna is very interesting and threw in an angle I was previously unaware of (namely, that the earliest reference to it being a rubbish dump wasn’t until AD/CE 1200). Yet they all too quickly jump, without reasoning, to interpret Gehenna as hell. Yet the treatment of Sheol is so brief it is shoddy, whilst Abaddon and Hades barely get a look in, particularly with the latter’s link to Greek mythology being ignored entirely.

The tone of the book is incredibly patronising at times. Here’s just an example: “How can I believe these passages yet sit here silently? I know some of you have faced this same conflict. Even as you’re reading this, there are probably people within a few feet of you who may also be going to hell. What will you do? It could be that the Lord wants you to put the book down.” With such annoying passages as that littering the book, I certainly couldn’t recommend it to any non-christian friends. I would also hesitate to recommend it to any christian friends as it is far from a detailed, thoughtful exegesis on a highly important topic.

In writing what seemed to be a study with a pre-determined conclusion, the authors overlook or skim over many a passage that might put a dent in their point of view. For example, when they look at Romans 9, they completely overlook Paul’s use of the word apoleia, meaning destruction. Instead, they carry on with the “eternal punishment” line.  In fact the whole idea of annihilationism is rather lost in this book. It gets a brief mention, with the authors acknowledging that there are quite a few mentions of destruction, but these are dismissed by then going, “Oh, look over here. Here’s one passage that fits in with our worldview, so let’s focus on this one.”

It is very telling that the authors only refer only to conservative writers, paying little no attention to voices that detracted from their own view. Yet I suppose that leads fittingly to my conclusion on this book. If you want to investigate the theology of hell then this is essential reading insofar as it is a good example of one line of thinking, but it is far from being an holistic or thorough account. It is an ideal example of an appeal to tradition masquerading as a biblical study; a thoroughly conservative eisegesis.