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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Blue Like Jazz

When I was nineteen, my former pastor’s wife gave me a book called Blue Like Jazz. I had heard enough about it to be suspicious, but I went home, closed myself up in my library, and read it. I was completely confused. The Christian faith he was talking about bore enough of a resemblance to what I had grown up with to know that he wasn’t a heretic (not that I knew what a heretic was), but it also sounded suspiciously like the emotional, nebulous platitudes that liberal theologians loved to pass off as poetic insight.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to the trailer for the Blue Like Jazz movie. I was mildly disgusted, since my last interaction with Miller hadn’t been exactly incandescent, but I’ve learned to read since my university days, so I figured I’d try it again. Something I’d neglected to do when I’d first read it was attend to the subtitle: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I had approached the book expecting a resounding affirmation of the solid Christian doctrine I didn’t have and didn’t understand, and instead got a story about someone who didn’t know what solid Christian doctrine was and had grown disenchanted with the Christian culture he had been taught was doctrine.

The book isn’t intended as a theological treatise, but as a reflection on the existential journey of a man with a genuine desire to love Christ, and who’s been disillusioned with the brand of Christianity he’s grown up in. He talks about his friends and housemates, his youth, the early days of his career, his life in the woods and in the suburbs of Houston with wit, verve, and charm, articulating the same doubts and fears we all have and illustrating the same foibles, vices and pettiness that characterize us. I was grateful for his humor, because it was still rather frustrating – although it’s true that Miller didn’t write it in order to expound a theological point, he did write it to talk about his understanding of who he is in relation to God, and it’s pretty hard to do that without bringing theology into the discussion.

It’s clear from the outset that Miller’s angst wasn’t with Christ himself, but with the brand of Christianity that so many of us are familiar with – the (here it comes) Christless Christianity that’s manifested by moralistic-therapeutic deism and the health-‘n-wealth gospel. He grew up thinking that God had a political and social agenda, and that if he (Miller) didn’t do his utmost to promote it through his own obedience to the cultural law, he wasn’t a true Christian. The ensuing culture shock following his matriculation at Reed College served as the catalyst for the exploration of what he believed about God and what he knew about himself as a creature made in God’s image.

Some of the things he comes to understand about God sound surprisingly similar to classical articulations of certain elements of Christian doctrine – original sin is a theme consistently woven throughout his interactions with his family and housemates (his resentment of his housemates’ existence intruding on the unfolding drama of his own life); there’s a hint of election when his friends Penny and Laura describe their conversion (they tearfully spoke of God ‘being after’ them); and the need for grace is beautifully illustrated in both his own attempts at keeping the law and in relating to his former girlfriend (he realizes his need for God’s charity in his failed efforts at hard-core piety, and the fact that he can’t accept his girlfriend’s love because he hasn’t accepted God’s). [i] It’s not explicit, but it’s there in an inchoate form.

Some of the conclusions he arrives at are decidedly problematic – his articulation of the gospel made salvation dependent upon man, and had little do with Christ’s propitiatory work on the cross.[ii] Another distressing moment came when he wrote that he realized that “[…] there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.”[iii] The idea of man’s nature being morally repugnant to God and yet possessive of something that compels his love is as popular as it is theologically unsound, so Miller’s adoption of it is perhaps less to be wondered at.

Miller is open in his dislike of institutions and the church, and considering his background, that’s not surprising. However, I got the sense that he couldn’t dissociate the one from the other, as if the church were little more than a Machiavellian machine, rather than a sinful, rebellious bride being redeemed by her bridegroom. This may be why the book garners such harsh criticism from some circles – while he acknowledges the presence of loving ‘conservative’ churches, he appears to dismiss them on personal rather than principled grounds. One doesn’t like to disregard the very real pain that those hurt by the church suffer, but neither is it wise to separate oneself from Christ’s visible body and the stewards of his oracles because of a few offending members.

Miller has since written other books, none of which I’ve read, so it’s entirely possible that his understanding of the gospel and the church have changed – Blue Like Jazz is a chronicle of a chapter in his life; not a profession of faith, and it ought to be interpreted as such. While we may (and ought) to read it thoughtfully and critically, with an eye to the theology inherent in the story, it behooves us to read charitably, being mindful of the fact that it’s still a story about a man’s search for God and his place within the greater drama of redemptive history.


[i] pp. 18, 180, 52, 81 and 231-232

[ii] p. 124

[iii] p. 238

More Scripture-Twisting on the Campaign Trail?

Raise your hand if you’re offended by politicians and church leaders using the Bible like a wax nose. On the left bank, there is the well-worn battery of references to Jesus and the rich young ruler, the command to “render unto Caesar,” and the last judgment where the sheep and goats are separated. As the Washington Post poses the question: “Jesus said, ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ In a time of economic turmoil and record poverty levels, are tax cuts for the wealthy moral?” Regular “On Faith” columnist and former seminary president Susan Brooks Thistlewaite is ready with an answer—and verses to back it up. Jesus told the rich young ruler, “‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money.’ But the young man, ‘who was very rich,’ turned away. Jesus’ comment? ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18: 21-25).” “All too true,” Ms. Thistlewaite sighs with all the self-satisfaction of someone who thinks she’s not the rich young ruler. “It’s also easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a bill with the rich paying their fair share of taxes to get through Congress. Not gonna happen.”

Meanwhile, back on the right bank, NPR reported yesterday the latest use of the Bible for small government. The report quotes Richard Land (head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) as saying that “the Bible tells us that socialism and neosocialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never work.” Really, the Bible tells us so? As it turns out, not in so many words. However, the Bible does tell us that because we are by nature sinful and selfish, “people aren’t going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families.” (Is implies ought? Aren’t good laws supposed to guard the weak against the selfish ambitions of the powerful? Why couldn’t someone use the same logic to argue that out-of-wedlock teens shouldn’t have to carry their babies to term, since they’re not as likely to be ready to love and care for them?)

The report also cites the appeal to our Lord’s parable of the vineyard by WallBuilders’ David Barton. As the NPR piece puts it (better than Mr. Barton), in the biblical parable “the owner pays the worker he hires at the end of the day the same wage as he pays the one who begins work in the morning. Many theologians have long interpreted this as God’s grace being available right up to the last minute, but Barton sees the parable as a bar to collective bargaining. ‘Where were unions in all this? The contract is between an employer and an employee. It’s not between a group,’ Barton said. ‘He went out and hired individually the guys he wanted to work.’”
At least Congressman Paul Ryan (cited in the same report) has centuries of robust Catholic social thought to draw upon, including the idea of “subsidiarity” (similar to Abraham Kuyper’s concept of “sphere-sovereignty,” where the state isn’t the only charity in town). Like Rick Santorum, Mr. Ryan has been subjected to criticism by Roman Catholic scholars for his interpretation of subsidiary, but at least there is a broader tradition of reflection to draw upon than trading Bible verses that have absolutely no bearing on the subject at hand.

Sheep and goats (Matthew 25)

The sheep are commended: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” The righteous wonder when they did all these things. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Mat 25:35-40). A group of more politically liberal evangelicals calling itself Matthew 25 contributed significantly to President Obama’s first campaign. Former Republican senator John Danforth added, “I think Matthew 25 is a very good place to start” (Lisa Miller, “Heaven Help Him: Religious Centrists Bail on Obama,” Newsweek, Feb. 8, 2010, 18).

These verses are part of a single sermon that begins in Matthew 24:1: Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD) and the signs of the end of the age, with a focus on a long period of the church’s tribulation until the gospel is preached to the ends of the earth. The emphasis in the sermon is on preparing his hearers for imminent persecution. The sermon concludes with the statements above about the final judgment, with the separation of the sheep and the goats. What’s intriguing is that the “goats”—those condemned—are clearly professing followers of Jesus. After all, they protest their loyalty to Jesus. The difference is that the sheep cared for each other. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned his followers that they would be hungry, thrown out of their homes by their own family members who would even turn them in to the authorities, imprisoned, and abandoned. The sheep are those who cared for their brothers and sisters—even total strangers—in the face of persecution, even at the cost of their own safety.

In other words, Matthew 25 is not a generic call to care for the oppressed. There are many other passages one could go to for that. Matthew 25 is a specific statement about how the Shepherd looks after his sheep and expects the sheep to do the same. So closely identified with his church is Christ that he could demand of Saul in Acts 9:4, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” We are to look upon fellow-Christians as we would Christ. Christians who, for fear of their own lives, refused to show solidarity with fellow saints—”these my brothers” (v 40), were in effect denying Christ himself.

Rich young ruler

The story of the rich young ruler (Mat 19:16-22) also has a context that is somewhat different from the issues related to the US tax structure. The man asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The question itself provides a clue as to the point of Jesus’ strategy. The Mosaic covenant was based on reciprocity: fulfill the law and you will live long in the land. It never held out eternal life; the conditions of the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai pertained exclusively to the temporary geo-political nation of Israel.

Yet the question the young man asks is how to have eternal life: what’s the missing work. The law hasn’t changed, Jesus replies: “‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’” “Which ones?”, the man asks. After Jesus restates the obvious (namely, the Ten Commandments), the man replies, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Talk about setting himself up! The man’s concern is not for God or for his neighbor, but for himself and the one good deed that will put him over the top. Alms-giving was part of the routine, too, so giving to the poor wouldn’t have been foreign to the man. However, “‘If you would be perfect,’” Jesus tells him, “‘go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’”

It’s a bit cynical to suggest that the only thing Jesus was up to here was to convince the rich young ruler that he was not righteous. The kingdom that Jesus brings is defined by the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It isn’t a check-list for feathering one’s own nest. The man’s problem was not only that he was self-righteous, but that he was also so bound up in his identity with his wealth that he couldn’t even recognize his neighbor. The love that Jesus himself demonstrates in his self-offering is far more reckless than that love that he demands of us. Jesus doesn’t merely tell his disciples that the take-away is that it’s hard for the self-righteous to enter the kingdom, but, “‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Someone asked Nelson Rockefeller how much money it takes to be happy and he reportedly replied, “A little more.” From the earliest days of the apostolic era wealthy believers contributed significantly to the mission and welfare of the church as well as wider society. And yet, where there is more wealth, there is a greater opportunity to lodge one’s treasure in this age rather than in the age to come.

The bottom line is that the rich young man left sad, because he had many possessions. He had lodged his identity in both his moral and financial net worth and Jesus wouldn’t lower the bar. The man thought he had kept the law, but he really hadn’t kept it. The Pharisees might have made him chairman of the board, but Jesus told him the truth.

The tragic fact of this story is that those who invoke it against Republicans miss the point as badly as the rich young ruler. In fact, we show ourselves to be uncomfortably like the rich young ruler when we deflect the point to others—The Rich—and imagine that Jesus is suggesting that the Roman government should redistribute their income. The truth is, we are the rich young ruler and if we’re looking for “the one thing” we supposedly haven’t done to possess one more possession (eternal life), the command is for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. Have the invokers of this story done that? If they haven’t, then they don’t have a right to use the story against the “bad guys.”

Parable of the vineyard

Like all of the parables, this one is about the kingdom that Christ brings, as indicated by the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”. As with the others, the focus is on the division in the house of Israel that Jesus precipitates. Outsiders become insiders and insiders become outsiders. Here, in Matthew 20, the master hires laborers. Israel is often called the Lord’s vineyard (Is 5:1-7; Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1). But in this case, the workers who had been there all day begrudge those who arrived near the close of the workday. Jesus says that the master replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mat 20:15-16).

The religious leaders had devoted their lives to hard work in the Lord’s vineyard. They multiplied rules for piety. And they begrudged God’s generosity in making room at the table, right next to Abraham, for sinners and Samaritans, much less unclean Gentiles.

Sadly, even the disciples get in on the act. Matthew places this parable right before the narrative of Jesus’ announcement of his crucifixion and resurrection as the disciples jockey for positions of prominence and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. “‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Mat 20:17-28).

It’s not surprising that Mr. Barton doesn’t find labor unions in this passage, since they didn’t exist in first-century Palestine and the parable doesn’t have the 2012 election in view.

Small government vs. socialism

It’s not just that Bible doesn’t give us enough data on small government versus socialism; it’s not written to a society that would have known what these economic arrangements were in the first place. It’s completely anachronistic to expect the Bible to address economic systems that would evolve through centuries of Western history.

There are plenty of laws in the Torah that would make a Tea Partier think twice before inviting theonomists to join them on the campaign trail. In fact, God’s indictment in the prophets against Israel’s thorough breach of covenant frequently turns on the nation’s mistreatment of the poor. In any case, if you’re looking for small government, these texts will probably disappoint. So far in the political debates I haven’t heard anyone try to apply Leviticus 25:29 to the housing crisis: “If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption.” Every detail of social and civic life was included in God’s law—not as universal applications of God’s moral law, but as pieces of a puzzle that distinguished Israel as God’s holy nation.

You can’t pick and choose which of Israel’s civil laws to invoke and apply to modern nation states. As the Westminster Confession explains (chapter 19), although the moral law remains binding upon all, the ceremonial laws given specially to Israel to lead them to Christ are “now abrogated under the new testament.” “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

That is precisely why Reformed social thought, in conversation with—and sometimes opposed to—Roman Catholic social thought has brought theologically-informed wisdom to bear on broader ethical questions that are not determined explicitly or even implicitly from Scripture. Even Christians who share the same biblical and theological convictions will differ on a host of specific applications and must be given the charity and liberty to do so.

According to a recent Pew Study, Americans think that there has been too much about religion in the political campaign. And no wonder. It’s no time for Christians to back away from concern for the common good, bringing their deepest convictions to bear just as others do. However, the trading of Bible verses ripped from their covenantal context and intention is a sure way to trivialize God’s Word in our society, in our churches, and in our own lives.

WHI-1097 | Judging, Seeking, Knocking

“Seek and you will find?” Doesn’t Paul say that “no one seeks God?” (Rom 3:11). On this edition of White Horse Inn recorded before a live audience during our recent listener cruise, the hosts discuss Matthew 7:1-12 as they begin to wrap up their survey of the Sermon on the Mount.

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Without Excuse
Michael Horton
God’s New Society
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Matthew Smith

PROGRAM AUDIO

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RECOMMENDED BOOKS

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

Why the Missional Church Isn’t Enough

Jonathan Dodson posted a piece on The Gospel Coalition’s blog on Monday concerning how the “missional church” can easily turn its focus on consumerism instead of the history of redemption and God’s role in the advancement of his church. Here is an excerpt:

…Even with the resurgence of missional ecclesiology, we fail in sharing and showing the gospel in our own cultures. Clearly, the missional church is not enough, not only in its scope of mission, but also in its motivation for mission. When the motivation of the church is mission, we are destined to retreat, tire out, and fail. What, then, should we do? Throw up our arms in surrender and blend fully into our cultures with the hope of missional memory loss?

We need a greater, more captivating motivation than “missional church.” When the motivation for mission is mission, people will revert to consumerism. However, if our missional endeavors are motivated by something greater, more certain, than our oscillating passion for the advance of the gospel, then there is hope. If the history of redemption will not come to a close until God’s glory has been completed, then the assurance of mission starts and ends, not with the church, but with God! God’s commitment to his own glorious expansion throughout space and time is the hope of the world. The hope of mission is not the church; it is Jesus committed to ushering his full, redemptive reign over all space and time, including every people.

As we bring missional failure and success to the feet of Jesus, we will be increasingly motivated for mission by his mercy and his might. We need to be increasingly captivated by the expanding glory and beauty of Christ among the nations. Missional church is not enough. We need Jesus’ insistence on the spread of his redemption throughout history for his glory. We need his commitment to his complete glory breaking into history to complete the display of the riches of his grace.

Read the rest of “Why the Missional Church Isn’t Enough.”

WHI-1096 | Seeking First the Kingdom (Part 2)

How are we to understand forgiveness? Does God forgive us only on the condition that we forgive others? What does Jesus mean when he calls us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God”? On this special edition of White Horse Inn recorded before a live audience in Miami, Florida, the hosts will discuss these questions and more as they interact with Matthew 6:14-35 in their continuing series through the Sermon on the Mount.

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The Law & The Gospel
Michael Horton
Thy Kingdom Come
Kim Riddlebarger
Our Father in Heaven
Michael Horton

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Zac Hicks

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Justified
Modern Reformation Essays on Justification

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An Introduction to the Facts

This looks like an amazing resource from someone we’re proud to call a friend of the Inn!

You can purchase Doug’s book on Amazon.

Communicating the Claims of Easter

The focus of my last post was the public character of the resurrection that makes the gospel rather different from the sheer power of personal assertion or experience. Here are some suggestions for communicating this central Christian claim to others—and not only at Easter!

    Suggestions for Conversations
  1. The gospel’s effects are deep and wide, so you can start anywhere in the argument. For example, in the philosophers’ forum in Athens, Paul began by telling his Epicurean and Stoic audience that they misunderstood who God is and how he relates to the world. God is neither irrelevant and aloof from the world (contra the Epicureans) nor part of the world (contra the Stoics). Though he doesn’t depend on the world, the world depends on him and God is concerned and involved with the world he has created, governs, and saves. It’s an argument for Christian theism, showing unbelievers how they cannot even live consistently with their own assumptions unless the Triune God known in Scripture is the source of all reality. You can also begin the conversation by sharing your own experience—the difference Christ has made in your life, as long as you realize that this isn’t the gospel itself. Or you can go straight to the resurrection and work more inductively, from the most particular claim to its broader implications.
  2. On one hand, don’t assume that you and your conversation partner share the same assumptions. On the other hand, don’t assume that you don’t share any common ground. Especially to the extent that one has been shaped by the naturalistic presuppositions that dominate academic culture in our day, a claim like the resurrection will be ruled impossible at the start. Miracles do not happen because they cannot happen: that’s the a priori assumption of the deistic/atheistic worldview of today’s Epicureans. If you’re reasoning with modern “Stoics”—basically, a pantheistic worldview, the assumption will be that everything is divine and miraculous; so the idea of special divine interventions like the resurrection will seem just as foreign to New Agers as to New Atheists. Again, you can begin by exposing the irrationality and inconsistency of these worldviews and then discuss the resurrection within the context of a biblical worldview or begin with the resurrection claim. One strength of the latter approach is that the resurrection, as a historical event, disproves their worldview. Here is an event that actually happened, which their worldview cannot account for. Even if they do not accept the argument, much less trust in Christ, this can at least help to weaken their excuse that the biblical claim is nothing more than private assertion or experience, unaccountable to public debate. It can help to expose to our friend the fact that he or she is “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”—that is, no longer rejecting the claim because of reason but because of the same irrational act of mere will that he or she had attributed to believers.
  3. Remind yourself that the Spirit alone can give people faith through the gospel. As in the account of his raising of Lazarus (Jn 11), Jesus may ask us to roll away stones, but only he can raise the dead. The apostles not only testified to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but reasoned with Jews and Greeks. They gave arguments and evidences. At the same time, the gospel itself is “the power of God unto salvation…” (Rom 1:16) and it has to be proclaimed.

    Some Arguments for the Resurrection
  1. First, the New Testament itself provides historical access to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be sure, Scripture is the authoritative Word of God. However, even in conversation with those who do not share this conviction, we can point out that the New Testament texts enjoy an unrivaled transmission history compared with other historical texts.1 Historians rely on the eye-witness reports of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. You can pick up an English edition from Amazon. Yet there are only 8 copies and the earliest dates from 1,300 years after its original writing. However, we possess today fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament that date within decades of their origin and tens of thousands of ancient copies.
  2. Second, there is the evidence of the Old Testament prophecies. Perhaps a first-century Jew could have claimed one or two, but the probability of one person fulfilling literally hundreds of these prophecies made centuries before is statistically impossible. Except that one actually did. Like Cinderella, Jesus is the only one who fits the glass slipper of Old Testament promise. This is one reason why the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide startled the liberal Protestant academy in 1982 with The Resurrection of Jesus, arguing that Jesus rose from the dead—even though Lapide does not believe that he was the Messiah.
  3. Ancient Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources agree that Jesus lived, died, and was buried. This is not even disputed by the scholarly consensus.
    • According to the Jewish Talmud, “Yeshua” was a false prophet hanged on Passover eve for sorcery and blasphemy. Joseph Klausner, an eminent Jewish scholar, identifies the following references to Jesus in the Talmud: Jesus was a rabbi whose mother, Mary (Miriam), was married to a carpenter who was nevertheless not the natural father of Jesus. Jesus went with his family to Egypt, returned to Judea and made disciples, performed miraculous signs by sorcery, led Israel astray, and was deserted at his trial without any defenders. On Passover eve he was crucified.2
    • Late in the first century, the great Roman historian Tacitus referred to the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate (Annals 15.44). In AD 52, the Samaritan historian Thallos recounts the earthquake and strange darkness during Christ’s crucifixion (reported in Luke 23:44-45), although he attributes the darkness to a solar eclipse.3
    • Of course, alternative explanations to Christ’s death have been offered. The so-called swoon theory speculates that Jesus did not really die, but was nursed back to health to live out his days and die a natural death. In Surah 4:157, Islam’s Qur’an teaches that the Romans “never killed him,” but “were made to think that they did.” However, we know also from ancient sources how successful the Romans were at crucifixions. The description in the Gospels of the spear thrust into Christ’s side and the ensuing flow of blood and water fit with both routine accounts of crucifixion from Roman military historians as well as with modern medical examinations of the report.4 As for the Islamic conjecture, no supporting argument is offered and the obvious question arises: Are we really to believe that the Roman government and military officers as well as the Jewish leaders and the people of Jerusalem “were made to think that” they had crucified Jesus when in fact they did not do so? Furthermore, why should a document written six centuries after the events in question have any credence when we have first-century Christian, Jewish, and Roman documents that attest to Christ’s death and burial? Roman officers in charge of crucifixions knew when their victims were dead.

Liberal Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes, “The ‘Christ-myth’ theories are not accepted or even discussed by scholars today.”5 Even Marcus Borg, co-founder of the radical “Jesus Seminar,” concedes that Christ’s death by Roman crucifixion is “the most certain fact about the historical Jesus.”6 There are numerous attestations to these facts from ancient Jewish and Roman sources. Even the liberal New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson concluded that the burial of Jesus in the tomb is “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”7

The burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels (Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50; Jn 19:38-39). This is a specific detail that lends credibility to the account. Furthermore, it’s an embarrassing detail that the disciples would not likely have forged. After all, according to the Gospels, the disciples fled and Peter had even denied knowing Jesus. Yet here is a wealthy and powerful member of the ruling Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), coming to Pilate to ask for permission to bury Jesus in his own tomb.

Adding to the embarrassment, according to John 19:38-42, Joseph was assisted in the burial by another leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (who met with Jesus secretly in John 3). Joseph was of such a stature that Pilate conceded to deliver the body over to him, but only after confirming with the centurion that Jesus was in fact dead (Mk 15:44-45). Everybody who was anybody knew where this tomb was, especially Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There was no question about where Jesus had been laid.

The controversial claim is not that Jesus lived, died, and was buried. A little more controversial, though, is the claim that his tomb was empty on the third day. However, this is disputed by contemporary rather than ancient opponents.

  • Romans, too, were concerned about the disruption caused over Jesus’ empty tomb. A marble plaque was discovered with an “Edict of Caesar” commanding capital punishment for anyone who dares to “break a tomb.” Called the Nazareth Inscription, the decree was provoked by disturbances in Jerusalem and the plaque has been dated to somewhere near AD 41.8
  • Suetonius (75-130 AD), a Roman official and historian, recorded the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 48 because of controversy erupting over “a certain Chrestus” (Claudius 25.4).
  • In a letter to the Emperor Trajan around the year 110, Pliny the Younger, imperial governor of what is now Turkey, reported that Christians gathered on Sunday to pray to Jesus “as to a god,” to hear the letters of his appointed officers read and expounded, and to receive a meal at which they believed Christ himself presided (Epistle 10.96). Although unable to locate Jesus, dead or alive, the very fact that Jewish and Roman leaders sought alternative explanations for the resurrection demonstrates that the empty tomb was a historical fact. For the gospel story to have come to an easy and abrupt end, the authorities would only have had to produce a body.

Unsatisfied by alternative explanations (mass hallucination, a mere vision of a spiritually risen Christ, the disciples’ theft of the body from the tomb, etc.), Pinchas Lapide concludes that “some modern Christian theologians are ashamed of the material facticity of the resurrection.” Their “varying attempts at dehistoricizing” the event reveal their own anti-supernatural prejudices more than offering serious historical evaluation. “However, for the first Christians who though, believed, and hoped in a Jewish manner, the immediate historicity was not only a part of that happening but the indispensable precondition for the recognition of its significance for salvation.”9

Today, like every day since the first Easter, some mock, others express openness to further discussion, while still others embrace the Risen Christ, exclaiming with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). Not only the Lord and God, but “My Lord and my God!” If faith involves knowledge, it is more than that; it is trust. It is not merely believing that Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Christ, but embracing him as our Lord and Savior.

We know God as our redeemer through his saving work in Jesus Christ. It is this revelation that is strange, counter-intuitive and even offensive to our fallen hearts. Contrary to our distorted intuitions, the gospel does not encourage our conquest of heaven through intellectual, mystical, and moral striving. It announces that even while we were enemies, he reconciled us (Rom 5:10). While we were dead in sins, he made us alive in Christ (Eph 2:5). We are saved by God’s good works, not our own (Eph 2:8-9). Because we are sinners, God’s speech is disruptive and disorienting. It is not we who overcome estrangement, but God who heals the breach by communicating the gospel of his Son. |The Word of the Risen Lord ~Our Lord’s resurrection is not just a wonder: one of those things that we chalk up to mysteries that we don’t yet have the tools to explain in natural terms.

First, the resurrection means that Jesus’s claims concerning himself must be ours. This one who was raised claimed to be the eternal Son of the Father who came down from heaven, the Word incarnate (Jn 1:1-4, 14). He prophesied his own death and resurrection, as well as the destruction of the Temple (which occurred a little over three decades later). The religious leaders were able to conclude from Jesus’ words and deeds that he “made himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18), and Jesus did not dispute this charge. Jesus assumed the role of judgment on the last day, which the prophets reserved exclusively for Yahweh.

Second, the resurrection means that Jesus’ view of Scripture must also be ours. Even Jesus submits himself to Scripture and the phrase, “It is written,” is for Jesus the highest court of appeals. The words of the prophets are simply the word of God for Jesus (Mt 4:4, 7, 10; 5:17-20; 19:4-6; 26:31, 52-54; Lk 4:16-21; 16:17; 18:31-33; 22:37; 24:25-27, 45-47; Jn 10:35-38).

Jesus assumes as historical truth the miraculous events, laws, and doctrines of the Old Testament. Also well-attested is the calling and authorization of the Twelve as his apostles, although Judas was replaced with Matthias. Jesus said that to hear the apostles is to hear Jesus himself, and to receive them is to receive the Father and the Son (Mat 16:16-20; 18; 28:16-20; Ac 1:8). The apostles themselves understood that they were speaking authoritatively in Christ’s name and in spite of some friction early on, Peter acknowledges Paul’s writings as “scripture” (2 Pe 3:16). Taken together these writings are called a canon (from the Greek kanon, “rule”): the norm for faith and practice.

Even more decisive for the liberation of his kingdom than George Washington for the American republic, Jesus founds his empire in his own blood. And the New Testament is his new covenant constitution.


[1] Historians today rely on classics like Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, Caesar’s Gallic War, and Tacitus’ Histories. The earliest copies we have for these date from 1,300, 900, and 700 years after the original writing, respectively, and there are eight extant copies of the first, ten of the second, and two of the third. In contrast, the earliest copy of Mark’s Gospel is dated at 130 AD (a century after the original writing) and there are 5,000 ancient Greek copies, along with nearly 20,000 Latin and other ancient manuscripts. The sheer volume of ancient manuscripts provides sufficient comparison between copies to provide an accurate reproduction of the original text. Ironically, a number of fashionable scholars attracted to the so-called Gnostic Gospels as an “alternative Christianity” have far fewer manuscripts and the original writings cannot be dated any earlier than a century after the canonical Gospels.[Back]

[2] Joseph Klausner, Yeshu ha-Notzri (Hebrew), Shtible, 1922. Translated and reprinted as Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Bloch, 1989), 18-46. Collected over the two centuries following Christ, the Talmud is of course further removed from the events than the New Testament. However, it contains a number of older fragments. Even the liberal Jewish Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes, “Certain bare facts are historically not to be doubted. Jesus, who emerged into public notice in Galilee when Herod Antipas was its Tetrarch, was a real person, the leader of a movement. He had followers, called disciples. The claim was made, either by him or for him, that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem, possibly in 29 or 30, and there he was executed, crucified by the Romans as a political rebel. After his death, his disciples believed that he was resurrected, and had gone to heaven, but would return to earth at the appointed time for the final divine judgment of mankind” (Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3rd ed. [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010], 33). The basic historical claims of the Apostles’ Creed are present in this description of the earliest belief of the Jewish Christians.[Back]

[3] Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 19-20. [Back]

[4] See, for example, William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255 (1986). See also the extensive bibliography on this point in Gary R. Habermas, “The Core Resurrection Data,” in Tough-Minded Christianity, ed. William Dembski and Thomas Schirrmacher (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 401 fn 10-11.[Back]

[5] Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3[rd] ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publications, 2010), 197.[Back]

[6] Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987), 179.[Back]

[7] John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), 131.[Back]

[8] Clyde E. Billington, “The Nazareth Inscription,” Artifax, Spring 2005.[Back]

[9] Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1982), 130.[Back]

Horton & Olson conversation with Ed Stetzer

Last month, Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research interviewed Dr. Horton and Dr. Olson concerning For Calvinism and Against Calvinism on his The Exchange broadcast. The video is below:

To purchase For Calvinism click here.

Easter for Atheists and Skeptics

“Turn your scars into stars and your cross into a stepping stone.” Trivializations such as these have now become a staple even in many evangelical churches at Easter.

A mainline Methodist tells the story of visiting a well-known evangelical church at Easter, hoping to hear the gospel. Waiting in anticipation, he says there was nothing in the service that pointed worshipers upward, to God and his saving deed in Christ. Perhaps it’s all in the sermon, he thought. However, his patience was not rewarded. The message was about how Jesus made it possible for us to come back from our losses even stronger than we were before.

Just a few hours ago a friend sent me this announcement from a local church in his area for the upcoming Easter 2012 service: “Join us for two special Sundays. The Living Lord’s Supper! A live re-enactment of Da Vinci’s Last Supper featuring drama and music.” The sermon: “How Easter Can Change Your Life!” “Pastor Jack Millwood will explain how the power of Easter can change you from the inside out!…This true story (i.e., Palm Sunday and Easter) has changed the world- it can help you make the changes you want to make in your life!”

On Saturday, March 26, atheists and skeptics gathered on the Washington Mall for the “Reason Rally,” where speakers and singers mocked religion. Richard Dawkins, the movement’s pop star, called on the 20,000 gathered there to “ridicule and show contempt…publicly” for the beliefs of religious people. The movement’s organizers take pride in being the “marines” for a new war on faith. War language was all over the place<—an "onward atheist soldiers" sort of theme. As USA Today reporter Cathy Lee Grossman reported, “Outrage was the parlance of the day, however, for many speakers, including David Silverman, Reason Rally organizer and American Atheists president. He reveled in the group’s reputation as the marines of atheism, as the people who storm the faith barricades and bring ‘unpopular but necessary’ lawsuits. Silverman may have gone a bit further in his rhetoric than he intended. In a thundering call for ‘zero tolerance’ for anyone who disagrees with or insults atheism, Silverman proclaimed, ‘Stand your ground!’”

Richard Dawkins Calls on Atheists to “Ridicule and Show Contempt” Toward Religious People

“I’m an atheist, Mom” was one of the more popular signs. In fact, one speaker was Nate Phelps. He is the son of Fred Phelps who leads Westboro Baptist Church, whose website is named, “God Hates Fags” (evidently, among others, such as Jews “who killed the Messiah”). To be sure, this has to be about the most ridiculous aberration I’ve come across yet, but it would be interesting to have surveyed the crowd for the number of militant atheists who came from conservative or even fundamentalist homes. A YouTube clip captures the exchange between a Christian evangelist and a group of atheists at the Rally. In the clip at least, the evangelist’s message doesn’t mention Christ but simply asserts God’s existence and demand for repentance, while rally attendees demand, “Prove it.” The evangelist responds, “Keep the commandments for 30 days and see if God doesn’t reveal himself to you.”

So what do all these stories share in common?

At least one thing they share is a lack of reason on all sides. It’s striking that in Athens, the Apostle Paul was reasoning with Jews in the synagogue and Greeks in the marketplace about the resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:17). His arguments attracted the attention of the philosophers, who invited him to address their debating society. Quoting Greek poets and philosophers, his speech, reported in Acts 17, reached its climax with the announcement of Christ’s resurrection. Many scoffed, while others said “we will hear more on this later,” and a few became believers. Throughout Acts, that’s the way it goes: reasoning in synagogues and marketplaces, some mocking and others confessing Christ. Public claims were made concerning events that had changed the world fewer than 800 miles away, in Jerusalem, only a couple of decades previously. Paul uses martial language, too. He speaks of “pulling down strongholds” and being at war. However, the “strongholds” or fortresses he has in mind are not civil laws or secular humanist organizations. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Paul knew nothing about a struggle between faith and reason, but only one between faithful reasoning and unfaithful reasoning.

Of course, most evangelicals believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection. No doubt, that conviction will be asserted in many churches this Easter. However, will it be the message that Paul and the other apostles proclaimed?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not simply a historical claim that secures whatever we may wish to use as an advertisement for Christianity. Jesus Christ “was delivered up for our transgressions and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The effects are myriad, but the good news itself is that in the life, death, and resurrection of his incarnate Son, God has rescued us from his own just wrath and has made us co-heirs with Christ of every heavenly blessing. The horizon of this redemption is not simply the inner life (a “peaceful, easy feeling”), but objective peace with God because of something that Christ has accomplished outside of us in history (Rom 5:1). And it guarantees not only our present justification and renewal, but our own bodily resurrection to everlasting life when Christ returns.

Furthermore, the horizon is not only our individual salvation, but the restoration of the wider creation (Rom 8:18-25). Wherever Paul preached this good news, he appealed to the common knowledge of recent events surrounding the resurrection. Of course, the message was suited to the audience. To the Jews, the plot-line was already somewhat in place, so that he could announce Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. To the Greeks, he sought to expose the foolishness of idolatry and to show them that they are not even living consistently with what they know by nature. Yet in both cases, Paul’s aim was to get to the resurrection of Jesus as quickly as possible.

Wherever this gospel has spread, it has provoked controversy, mockery as well as faith. After all, it is a genuine historical claim. One can treat private assertions as interesting or irrelevant, but public truth claims, especially of eternal consequence for all people, evoke reaction and response.

What do people in our society today have to say in response to our claims when they are either merely dogmatic assertions or expressions of private therapy?

In reading Mr. Dawkins and other “new atheists,” I do not find any engagement with the central claim of Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they make light work for themselves by saying that faith is the opposite of reason. As Dawkins has written, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” And yet, they have the example of myriad Christian testimonies to undergird this assumption. This Easter many will sing, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” There is a widespread assumption that faith is merely a decision, a sheer act of the will, safely hidden away on the inner island of the self where criticism, history, and reason cannot disturb. And this is as widely assumed perhaps in Christian as in secularist circles.

This is not just about apologetics; it’s about the gospel itself. Do we really believe that there was a turning point not only in our individual hearts at some point in our life, but in world history around 33 AD? Did God really assume our humanity as a zygote in the womb of a Jewish virgin? Did he really fulfill the law, perform signs as harbingers of the new age, bear our judgment, and rise again as the beginning of the new creation? Did he really take our dreary history of sin and death into his grave and walk out of that grave as the mediator, guarantor, and first-fruits of the age to come? Is it really true that even though we suffer now, our bodies will be raised in glory, like Christ’s, to share in the wonders of a restored cosmos without the threat, much less the reality, of evil, pain, injustice, sin, and violence? And does everything in this gospel turn on the testimony of eye-witnesses?

To all these questions the apostles answer in the affirmative. More than anyone, their “personal testimony” could have been to the difference it had made in their lives<—morally, therapeutically, and experientially. While those effects are mentioned, though, their testimony was to public events:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have died. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all he was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am… (1 Cor 15:3-10).

Jesus does indeed make a difference in our lives, but only because he rose again in history and his resurrection secured something much wider, deeper, and richer than our own personal experience. He changed the face of history, not merely by his example or by inspiring others to great accomplishments in history. It is not because there are happier people, hospitals, and greater liberties, but because God himself accomplished in his Son what no one but God could have achieved, once and for all. Only because the horizon of this redemption is so all-encompassing does it have such a transforming impact for our own lives. But by reducing this vast, public, and all-encompassing announcement to the narrow confines of our personal decision, morality, and experience, we not only perpetuate the faith-reason split in apologetics but trivialize the gospel itself.

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the arguments that make Easter good news to atheists, skeptics, and believers alike.

Reformation at Home

As some of our tag-lines suggest, we want our partners and supporters to apply the Reformation insights they’ve gleaned from White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation to their own circles of influence. Recently, one of our partners in the Pacific Northwest worked with us to design and purchase space on a billboard near her home.

 

The billboard was a significant investment of time and money. Maybe you aren’t in a position to do something so dramatic, but you still want to see Reformation take root with your family and friends. Here are a few other ideas that our partners have developed as a way to bring the Reformation home:

  • host your own Conversations for a Modern Reformation: after a few of the guests on our recent cruise experienced a series of conversations about the challenges facing the church they began hosting their own conversations. What sorts of insights would you glean by convening a conversation made up of Christians from different churches in your town? Once you’ve identified some of the challenges, can you also come up with some of the answers?
  • sponsor White Horse Inn on a local radio station: some partners and partnering churches purchase airtime on a local station (sometimes for less than $75 per episode) and also include their own commercial for a church or study group before or after the broadcast. A few of our partner-sponsored broadcasts include: KDJS in Minnesota, KPXQ in Arizona, and WTIB/WNBU in North Carolina.
  • help lead a White Horse Inn discussion group: using materials from the White Horse Inn, these discussion groups allow you to join the conversation with the White Horse Inn hosts. Groups have been formed all across the U.S. Some meet every week, some meet less often. Do whatever works best for the folks in your group. Click here for more information on starting a group.
  • purchase and distribute bulk subscriptions to Modern Reformation magazine: a number of churches give Modern Reformation away for free on their book tables. Some Sunday school teachers develop lessons from previous year-long themes and copy articles to pass out to their class. Take advantage of our pastor’s subscription price of only $16, which includes a special bulk subscription deal.
  • do you know someone who needs to (re)learn the meaning of grace? Go through the 20th Anniversary edition of Putting Amazing Into Grace with them using the new DVD study. For groups of 1 to 100, this DVD will walk you through the main parts of Mike Horton’s best-known book. All you have to do is push “play”!

Call our office at 800-890-7556 or visit us online for more information or to take advantage of some of the great resources we’re making available to you.

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