White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Should we open Congress with prayer?

bleeprayerBrian Lee, former White Horse Inn staff member and current pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington D.C., recently penned a provocative piece for The Daily Caller on the topic of whether ministers of the gospel should offer a prayer before congress.  He wrestled with this issue for some time after he was recently invited to serve as a guest chaplain for the US. House of Representatives. The article also includes links to the text and video clip of the prayer he offered earlier this month.

Modern Reformation Conversations – The Real Presence

We sat down with the Rev. Dr. John Bombaro of Grace Lutheran Church and professor of religion and philosophy at the University of San Diego to discuss the high art of books, the personality of the tangible, and the effects of the digital on the reality of the Incarnation.

Happy Monday!

WHI-1152 | Jesus & His World

What can we learn about the Bible from the study of archaeology? Are there any discoveries in particular that shed light on the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth? What are we to think of skeptics who refuse to believe in the historicity of biblical stories unless they are confirmed by archaeological evidence? Joining us to discuss these issues is Craig Evans, author of Fabricating Jesus, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies, and, more recently, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence.

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Dave Hlebo

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Jesus & The Eyewitnesses
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Adler in the Modern Age

White Horse Inn producer Shane Rosenthal and I were chatting about the May/June issue of Modern Reformation and thought you might appreciate some helpful hints on how to approach a blog post.  Save your attention-span talents for reality television, or Richard Dawkins’ lastest book, or finding a really good doughnut shop.

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Inventing My Religion

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Yesterday I offered the musings of a generalist in reaction to Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). As promised, today Michael Kruger digs more deeply into the book as a noted specialist in the field. President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), he wrote his dissertation at Edinburgh under Larry Hurtado on early Christian writings. In addition to scholarly monographs in this field, he is co-author of The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity and his new book, Canon Revisited (highly recommended). He has an extended review of Taussig’s new release at his website, but for us here he focuses on the final section of A New New Testament.


The problems in this section are no less abundant than in other sections, so we will only be able touch on them briefly. We can divide our discussion into three sections: (1) historical problems, (2) methodological problems, and (3) theological /philosophical issues.

Historical Problems

There are many historical/factual statements throughout this section that are highly questionable. Let me just mention three.

1. On p.484, Taussig claims that we have fragments of the Gospel of Thomas “from the first hundred years after Jesus died.” In other words, prior to c.130. Curiously, he never mentions which fragment he has in mind. The only options are P.Oxy. 1, 654, and 655, but these are all third century. To suggest there is a Thomas fragment from the early second century is shockingly inaccurate.

2. On p.501, Taussig claims that Clement of Alexandria rejected the gospels of Mark and Luke and “accepted only Matthew and John.” But, this simply isn’t true. Clement affirmed four and only four gospels as authentic. At one point he dismisses a passage in the Gospel of the Egyptians on the grounds that “We do not have this saying in the four gospels that have been handed down to us” (Strom. 3.13). Eusebius agrees and says that Clement affirmed all four gospels (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.14.5-7).

3. On p.506, Taussig argues that there was no New Testament in “the first five hundred years of ‘Christianity’” because “the technology of book production was such that combining all twenty-seven texts into one was more or less impossible.” I find this statement to be incredible. The technology for large codices was in place long before the year 530 (five hundred years after Christ). Not only do we have full NT and OT codices in the 300′s (e.g., codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), but we have multi-quire codices all the way back in the second century (e.g., P66), suggesting that the technology for larger books was in place quite early.

Methodological Problems

When it comes to choosing the books for this “new” canon, it is clear that Taussig is using a particular methodology. Let me just mention one aspect of this issue.

When describing how these new books were chosen, Taussig says they were “selected in a manner similar to the way historical Christianity made many of its crucial choices: by a collective decision-making process” (512). But, this modern “council” does not function at all like the ancient ones. Taussig gives the impression that ancient councils actually chose books and decided the canon. But that is a misleading way of describing the process. The ancient councils did not just “pick” books they happened to like, but affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. In other words, these councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.

In contrast, this modern New Orleans council, is simply picking the books they prefer, not the books that have historically functioned as foundational to the Christian faith. For example, this new council included a bizarre and esoteric poem entitled The Thunder: The Perfect Mind. Was this a foundational document for early Christianity? Not at all. For one, it is not necessarily even a Christian document, never mentioning the name of Christ or any distinctively Christian doctrine. Moreover, as Taussig himself admits, “There is no mention of Thunder in any other known piece of ancient literature”(179). Is this a foundational document? Hardly.

Theological Issues

Finally, it should be noted that Taussig, in this final section, reveals a little of the theological motivation for this book. There is nothing wrong with having a theological motivation, but it is still worth pointing out.

Taussig offers a reason for adding these documents, namely that they “can make a real difference in the spiritual lives of ordinary people” (489). What kind of difference? “[The Gospel of Mary] inspired women to think of themselves as real leaders in conventionally male-dominated situations. The Gospel of Thomas proclaims the radical availability of God inside people, and The Thunder: Perfect Mind reframes what it means to be men and women” (489).

It is here that we come to the heart of this book’s theological aims. In fact, Taussig even admits, “These kinds of significant meanings in the lives of real people are at heart of what the New Orleans Council…wanted for the public” (489).

Thus, this book is not about history but theology. Not about the past, but the present. It is a book designed to change our conceptions of gender and to make it more egalitarian. And it is a book designed to give us a Gnostic version of God, a God found inside of us.

In sum, Taussig has produced a new set of Scriptures to accommodate his new theology. And thus he has reversed the normal order of things. While theology usually comes from Scripture, Taussig has used his theology to create a new Scripture. It’s man-made religion at its best.

A New New Testament?

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A Buddhist monk, a rabbi, a nun, and a Protestant professor walk into a bar…

If it weren’t so sad, it might be a good set-up for a joke. But a recent Huffington Post article heralds a New New Testament that now includes heretofore lost pieces of Scripture. As the book’s subtitle has it: “A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.”

The author, Hal Taussig, is a United Methodist pastor and visiting professor at Union Seminary in New York. He has written several scholarly works along similar lines as well as more popular books such as A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots; Reimagining Life Together in America: A New Gospel of Community (with Catherine Nerney, SSJ); Reimagining Christian Origins (with Elizabeth Castelli); Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration (with Susan Cole and Marian Ronan). This book is the fruit of a meeting convened by Mr. Taussig at Union with a modest group of like-minded scholars and spiritual leaders of different communities. The event culminated in votes for the inclusion of what came to be ten new additions to the New Testament.

Remains of the Jesus Seminar?

My immediate reaction is that it displays the dearth of imagination. Various liberals, it’s the usual cast of characters from the ruins of the “Jesus Seminar.” Given their bios, Buddhist spirituality seems to be the tie that binds. Which makes sense of why they prefer Gnostic gospels to the real ones. And why the Christian church didn’t take long to recognize that they weren’t an authentic part of the New Testament. And remember the reports of the Jesus Seminar participants casting votes for the verses they thought belonged to the proper New Testament? Same methodology with this one.

There was a time when liberals were on the cutting edge of scholarship. Though often weaving entire systems out of thin air, they at least had creativity in their favor. Frankly, it’s astonishing that scholars of any standing in the guild would offer these texts to the public as if they had been freshly discovered in a Vatican vault. Surely they’re familiar with Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian and other ancient Christian writers who refuted these Gnostic writings. It’s also astonishing that those who are so dogmatically committed to late dates for the canonical texts (despite the scholarly trend in recent years) offer dates for the pseudo-gospels that most specialists would consider not implausibly but impossibly early. Evidently, the projected audience for this book is the reader waiting eagerly for a sequel to The DaVinci Code. If evangelical scholars tried this sort of methodology they’d be drummed out of the Society of Biblical Literature.

The key thing in all of this is to see that those who do not like the Bible we actually have are driven by theological motives to spin old heresy as “the other Christianity.” After all, liberalism is the “other Christianity,” which Christianity has consistently rejected as not Christianity. Conspiracy theories abound. A male-dominated clergy (never mind the deeply misogynist remarks in various Gnostic gospels) obsessed with a “blood cult” (Christ’s vicarious death for sinners) marginalized the voices of the ecclesiastically underprivileged (heretics).

There’s a long history here. Various Gnostic revivals erupted in the Middle Ages, claiming to be the true Invisible Church (over against the false visible one). Then radical Pietists like Gottfried Arnold re-wrote church history with the orthodox as villains and the Gnostics as the true Invisible Church. This approach was picked up by the Tübingen School of higher criticism and became part of the mother’s milk for generations of liberal ministers. Those who don’t like Christianity need their own Bible. That’s fine. There are lots of religions that have their own normative texts. However, they don’t pretend to slip in missing gospels to a canon that they don’t really like in the first place.

Which Canon, Which Community?

Only in America do scholars imagine that they can invent a new kind of Christianity by casting votes. Talk about a conspiracy of elites ignoring the voices of millions of believers from every continent and language! Contrast this with the reception of the biblical canon—early and geographically widespread—by the whole church.

It’s a simple point, but I think it goes to the heart of this whole genre of “Re-Imagining Christianity” as if early Christianity were an extended Oprah show. The point is this: certain canons give rise to certain communities. Representing the wider church (long before the rise of the Roman papacy), church councils met not to select texts for inclusion in the canon but to discern which texts were already canonical. As church historians like Eusebius recount, the church’s act was discernment and submission, not creativity and decision. There’s a reason you’ve heard of the 27 New Testament books we have.

The Christian Church, despite all of its divisions, received these as their normative scriptures from the beginning. They were in use as sacred Scripture in churches stretching from the shores of the Atlantic to the far reaches of Asia. Clement of Rome quotes from 10 of the 27 books in 95 AD; Polycarp, 16 of them in 120 AD, and so on. They are appealed to as the final court of appeal. The Church only felt obliged to settle the issue when Gnostics tried to add their own scriptures, radically different in worldview, doctrine, practice, and historical connection to the apostolic communities. The first orthodox canon that we know about is the Muratorian Fragment, which may date as early as 170 AD.

Various Gnostic sects arose as parasitical on Christianity—drawing from biblical imagery and terms, but entirely subverting the biblical message. By any standard of critical scholarship—the language used, historical references, etc.—these are much later than the earlier texts that became normative the new covenant community soon after they were written. The claim of A New New Testament that the ancient church was playfully enjoying a symphony of texts beyond these is nothing more than the projection of contemporary heirs of the ancient heretics.

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that this argument only works if, with the ancient church, we believe that the Word is the mother and the church is the offspring. The Word spoken by the apostles created the church; then whatever the Holy Spirit wished to have committed to writing as the new covenant constitution became the basis for preaching, teaching, worship and discipline. If the church created rather than recognized the canonical Word as the voice of its Great Shepherd, then two problems arise. First, we must discount the way in which the earliest Christian writers appealed to Scripture, imposing the anachronism of a later (medieval) development. Second, we have little to say when writers like Hal Taussig, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and others claim that the only reason we have these 27 books is the arbitrary will of a circle of leaders claiming the mantle of the apostles.

In the next post, my friend Michael Kruger, who has read the book in advance of its release, will offer a specialist’s interpretation. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh (under Larry Hurtado) was on non-canonical literature of the early Christian period. Since then, he has written helpful studies bearing on this topic. With Andreas Kostenberger, he is the author of The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. His own recent book, Canon Revisited, is the new gold standard on the subject. Michael Kruger teaches New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), where he is also President.

Can Christianity Survive Gay Marriage?

Our friend, Gene E. Veith, links to Rod Dreher’s recent article in American Conservative on the death match between Christianity and the changing sexual mores of America.

This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?

Dreher’s entire article is worth a read. But Veith’s conclusions are stellar:

If Christianity becomes radically marginalized, having no cultural power at all, perhaps Christianity will have to return to its essence:  Christ, the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins.   Because no matter how much people wish to erase anything that restricts them and makes them feel guilty, if Christianity is true (and it is), the moral reality remains.  It’s like thinking we can destroy nature; nature always destroys us.  Sin kills.  People in a society that give itself over to sin will feel those sins.  The Gospel will become good news again.  Christ will save them.  And, ironically, once the Gospel predominates again in the Church, cultural influence–including the Christian view of sexual morality–may well come back as a byproduct.

Read the whole thing.

WHI-1151 | Questions of Faith, Part 4

What do today’s college students think of Jesus or the Bible? What do they think about churches in our day and why have some of them abandoned their faith? The hosts will discuss these issues as they interact with the views and opinions of today’s college students in the fourth and final program on Questions of Faith.

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A Review of ‘To The Wonder’

The following is by filmmaker Anthony Parisi and is used with his permission. It was originally posted for the Cinema & New Media Arts at HBU. Visit him online at http://www.anthonyparisifilm.com

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In The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick crafted a grandiose yet personal theodicy through a family story against the cosmic backdrop of creation and redemption. His new film To the Wonder is equally existential and autobiographical but focuses its attention on marriage. As in Scripture, the institution is explored as a mysterious analogue of Christ and the church.

Like much of his work, the experience may be challenging for casual audiences. It is impressionistic in style and visually driven. There is almost no dialogue aside from the glide of prayerful voice-overs. Malick rigorously avoids explaining character motivation and lets the silence serve as a blank canvas for our own introspection and reflection. Though it can be frustrating, the patient and adventurous will find some of the most beautiful cinema on screen this year.

The opening images are of a couple caught up in the sweep of love in Paris. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully explore France as Marina whispers the heightened poetry of a lover, “You lifted me from the ground. Brought me back to life.” They visit an ancient cathedral at Mont Saint-Michel nicknamed the Wonder of the West. “We climbed the steps … to the Wonder,” she proclaims, their feelings of passion momentarily aligned with the grandeur of the architecture.

Marina and her daughter Tatiana move to America and begin living with Neil in Oklahoma. The flatlands are beautiful and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki hovers adoringly over every inch of creation. Marina visits a church, where the priest’s sermon is on the divine love our marriages are meant to follow. “The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give his life to her,” Father Quintana preaches, “He does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely.”

Meanwhile, Quintana is a man haunted by the fragility of his religious feeling. As he walks the streets to visit the poor, he laments that his heart is cold and he doesn’t feel the presence of God as he once did. He mournfully prays, “Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found?” In the next scene at a local pool, this question begins to emerge as the central concern of the film. Marina looks up at Neil and finds him attentively watching another woman in a swimsuit nearby. A series of scenes quickly move us forward to show love fading and hearts hardening. Voices are raised. Fighting begins. The gloom setting in over the house matches Quintana’s somber face after performing a local wedding.

Neil is noncommittal and absently lets Marina returns to France when her visa expires. Over the next several months he begins a relationship with an old acquaintance (Rachel McAdams) but this too comes to a dead end. “What we had was nothing,” she laments. “You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.”

In To the Wonder, everyone is haunted by the fleeting nature of their affection toward God and each other. The rapturous images of hands outstretched to the sky become hollow and repetitive. This may be a romantic filmmaker like Malick at his most self-critical, ashamed by his own failure to live up to the beauty his camera uncovers. The glory of the created order seems to testify against the ingratitude of his characters rather than lead them to transcendence.

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In time Marina returns and marries Neil at the courthouse. They are happy again but still find that their passion comes and goes. Eventually they pace the house on different floors, avoiding each other. They kiss with a mournful quality. At their church ceremony, the exchange of rings becomes a tortured image of failure. “This sign I give you is a sign of our constant faith and abiding love…”

Like the psalmists in Scripture, Quintana’s spiritual struggles also persist, “My soul thirsts for you. Exhausted.” “Will you be like a stream that dries up?”

The story marches on toward catastrophe and adultery. Marina’s ominous walk up the stairs of a motel is painfully drawn out. The man she sleeps with has a tattoo of a skull on his chest. Sin as suicide. It is the final failure in a long series of failures. It is as if Malick is recapitulating the narrative flow of Old Testament history. The covenant community was frequently described as God’s unfaithful bride; repeatedly taking one step forward and two steps back over the course of millennia. As recognized in the film by Quintana, “The prophet Hosea saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his people. In that broken marriage we see the pattern.” Like the Mosaic economy of old, this story has steadily driven us toward a confrontation with covenant unfaithfulness and final breakdown.

For the first time we hear the words, “Forgive me.”

What follows is startlingly unambiguous and Christological. Aching music from Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 begins to play as we watch Father Quintana visit the poor, the diseased, the dying. Even Neil, who prior to now has had no faith, walks alongside him. Marina asks God the question we’ve been asking the film up to this point, “Where are you leading me?”

A flood of images pour over us as Quintana walks with the disabled, holds shaking Alzheimer’s hands, and visits hospital beds. He touches the outcasts and the broken. He meets them in their weakness. We hear his voice recite the famous prayer, “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart.” Back at home, Neil moves toward Marina and kneels at her feet, kissing her hands in a flooding moment of grace.

This climax has crashed us upon the shores of the gospel. Sacrifice and forgiveness.

In the film’s closing moments, Malick resists simplistic resolution to the lives of the characters. Their marriage is not suddenly restored. The primary thrust here is eschatological. We end with prayer and with hope. “Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.” We’ve glimpsed a partial redemption already breaking in but not yet fully reached. The Sabbath rest is still beyond this wilderness.

But the final image points us to “the Wonder”, the cathedral of Mont Saint-Michel standing tall after centuries. The skies are stormy but it stands tall; a symbol of the covenant-keeping Christ whose care for his bride never changes. The only hope for fainthearted lovers like us.

WHI-1150 | Questions of Faith, Part 3

Are all religions basically the same? Why should a person choose Christianity as opposed to other faith traditions? Is evolution compatible with Christianity? Are miracles impossible? Joined once again by Greg Koukl, we will discuss these questions and more as they continue to interact with a number of “on-the-street” interviews recorded at a University of California campus.

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