Books: Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin (Part 1)

Since life is both complex and difficult, we all need a method to search for lifes meaning. Lesslie Newbigin provides a fascinating survey of how that task has been carried out in Europe and America. Newbigin (19091998) was a British missionary and pastor whose liberal theology expressed a high view of Christ but a flawed commitment to the reliability of the Bible.

Newbigins book Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) does two things really well. First, he presents a convincing history of how people in the West perceive reality and develop a worldview. Reading the first three chapters reminded me of how excited I felt reading Francis Schaeffers cultural analysis for the first time. The second thing Newbigin does well is to summarize the idea of personal knowledge developed by the Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi.

Newbigin sees two streams of thought as combining in Europe and America: (1) the philosophy of classical antiquity (Greece, Rome, Plato, and Aristotle), and (2) the history of the people of God mediated through Israel, the Bible, and the Christian church. Classical philosophy followed Plato in seeking an ultimate reality of ideas through asking questions (Plato) and analyzing causes (Aristotle). Gods people claim that ultimate reality is knowable through Jesus Christ, God personally with us.

Newbigin makes the interesting point that classical philosophy sought answers by asking questions of (impersonal) nature and our experience; in this approach, questions flow one way. But the Christian viewpoint asks questions within personal relationships with Christ and with other Christians; questions flow both ways. So, Jesus asks the disciples, Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:15).

One important development in the Christian understanding of reality was the slogan of Augustine of Hippo (354-430): I believe in order to know. Augustine said that knowledge begins with the faithful acceptance of the fact that God revealed himself in Christ. But Newbigin points out that such personal knowledge involves risk. To gain the knowledge that Christ brings involves a total commitment to him.

In the next post about this book I will try to summarize the ideas of Michael Polanyi and show how they relate to Christian discipleship.

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.

Are Evangelical Churches Neglecting the Cross of Christ?

Roger E. Olson, a well-known Arminian theologian, has written a blog post that has me wondering. The post is titled “Whatever Became of the Cross?” and may be found here.

Olson gets lots of opportunities to attend evangelical church services throughout the United States (and elsewhere). He says (1) the cross of Christ — as a physical symbol — is disappearing from evangelical churches, (2) the cross of Christ and the atonement of Christ for our sins are disappearing from “Worship and Praise” music, and (3) the cross of Christ is disappearing from evangelical preaching and is being replaced by practical solutions to life problems and an emphasis on the love of God. If true, this situation is serious!

Hey, I lead a sheltered life! I attend one church (Christ Fellowship in McKinney, Texas) and have not been in another church in three years. We have a large cross that hangs over the general area where our pastor stands to preach. Our pastor, Bruce B. Miller, presents the gospel in some form during every sermon. Our worship and praise music may or may not mention the cross, but we have the other areas covered so well that I have not noticed. Also, I really like our music and singing; it neatly bypasses my analytical tendencies.

So, tell me — are other evangelical churches trying so hard to blend in with the culture that the cross is getting lesser emphasis? What about Olson’s observation about “worship and praise” music failing to mention the cross or the death of Christ for our sins? I would like to hear some opinions about whether the cross of Christ is getting less emphasis over time.

One thing is sure: just mentioning “Jesus” in song or sermon is not enough. The Jesus Seminar mentions Jesus all the time, but they certainly do not believe in him or his atonement for our sins on the cross! If the trend Olson sees is real, then I condemn any decreased focus on the cross. The cross of Christ and his substitutionary atonement for our sins are central to Christian faith (1 Cor. 1:18–24 and 15:3–4).

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Ross Douthat talks about Hell; Craig Blomberg does too

Seems like the conservative voices on the New York Times op-ed pages are talking theology these days; go figure! This time Ross Douthat briefly and intelligently discusses the reluctance of Americans to believe in Hell.

Not only does Douthat’s analysis give the lie to the claims of atheists and those who believe in universal salvation, but it also exposes the way publishers exploit the preference of Americans to believe in heaven but to discount hell. Worth your time to read his points.

For a deeper look at Hell by a solid New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, check out this link. Blomberg ably discusses the little-known fact that the New Testament teaches different degrees of punishment for those consigned to Hell (Luke 12:46–48). Stalin will not fare quite as well as the school bully. A good article in a valuable blog.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

David Brooks talks about religions with absolute values

Do yourself a favor by reading this article by op-ed columnist David Brooks, the political conservative who writes for the New York Times.

While Brooks does not explicitly favor conservative Christianity in this piece, it certainly fits the description of what he favors. It is encouraging that someone as smart and plugged-in as Brooks has not fallen for the religious nonsense that is so common in America today. He says:

Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That makes me think of my home church, Christ Fellowship in McKinney, Texas, that is trying to encourage its people to live for Christ in ways that actually require sacrifice. In addition, Christ Fellowship takes a strong stand on historic Christian distinctives that run counter to contemporary, suburban values. I am not saying that we are an ideal church, but it is encouraging to be part of a church that is swimming against the cultural stream.

Brooks also rightly states:

Rigorous theology also allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally. . . . Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment.

I don’t know if Brooks is a Christian, but what he is saying is a helpful counter to the “no-sharp-edges view of religion” that is commonly pushed in American media of all types.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.



Books: Forged by Bart Ehrman is reviewed by Ben Witherington

Bart Ehrman’s new book Forged is getting lots of attention. I have not read the book, and don’t see the need after reading the detailed analysis by Ben Witherington of the Asbury Seminary faculty. [Use the links at Witherington’s blog to start at the beginning.]

Bart Ehrman is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He has a doctorate from Princeton and worked for years with Bruce Metzger, a world-famous expert on New Testament manuscripts who died in early 2007. Ehrman has written many books, but none is a commentary on any book of the Bible.

Witherington is a well-known New Testament scholar, and he shows in detail why many of Ehrman’s conclusions are either seriously flawed or flatly wrong. So far, Witherington has posted six long blog entries. I advise you that these articles are both long and difficult for those who may not have a strong background in New Testament studies. Even then, sifting for nuggets is fun.

Witherington describes the likely effect of Forged by saying, “This book is likely to addle scholars and lay people all across the spectrum of belief.” He says that Ehrman seeks to prove that there is deliberate fraud going on in the Bible in that those who are alleged to have written the books in the Bible did not do so. In other words, Ehrman claims Paul did not write the Pauline letters, Peter did not write the letters that bear his name, and so on.

You will quickly get the idea of Ehrman’s book Forged from the subtitle: “Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.” This book is the latest effort by Ehrman, who claims to have once been an evangelical Christian, to discredit the Bible in every way he can think of. He has also written Misquoting Jesus (February, 2007) to attack confidence in what we know about the New Testament manuscripts used to translate our English Bibles.

Ehrman is well educated and even more articulate. He has the right résumé to gain a hearing in many venues — all the more so since he now vigorously attacks the Christian faith he once held. But Bruce Metzger died in 2007, so he is not around to rebut the claims his former associate now makes about the unreliability of the New Testament manuscripts.

Ehrman’s arguments are convincing and his conclusions are sensational when he speaks to people who are not his scholarly peers. But he does not fare so well when he deals with those who know their fields. Ehrman ran into a buzz saw at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2008 when Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary, a highly regarded expert in the textual criticism of the New Testament manuscripts, demonstrated that Ehrman spoke very differently around New Testament experts and then made extreme claims about the same subjects in public settings. It was a devastating demonstration of Ehrman’s two-faced approach!

Ben Witherington, the author of many New Testament commentaries, has the background to demonstrate how Ehrman ignores information contrary to his claims and makes many claims that are simply false. The question is: why does Ehrman do it? I admit that I do not know why. But it appears to me that Ehrman has figured out the shortest path to a big payday, and that lies in attacking Christianity by undermining confidence in the Bible. He scores a lot of appearances on TV, radio and at speaking engagements.

As I said, Ehrman seems convincing until someone like Wallace or Witherington systematically dismantles his arguments. At the end of the day, it is obvious that Ehrman has to know he is making poorly supported claims, but his goal is more important to him than the truth. He is doing a lot of damage to the faith of some Christians, and that is very sad. Just as bad, he is causing some who might investigate the claims of Christ to turn away.

My advice is to avoid all Ehrman’s books. Use the time you save to read the Bible that Ehrman constantly attacks. You will be glad for making that decision, but he will not be able to say the same when the bill for his actions comes due.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


A short history of the Western Church — Part 1

Unfortunately, the Christian church in America is woefully ignorant of its history. This deficit in knowledge hurts Christian evangelism because we do not have any clear idea of what we are asking people to join, other than a faith-relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus formed a community of faith (Matthew 16:18). English translations of the Bible use the word church to refer to that community, and the church has a history!

By church I mean the collection of all true believers in Jesus. The extent to which this group overlaps with the institutional Church (mark the capital letter C) has varied greatly. The Roman Catholic Church (abbreviated RCC) is the primary institutional Church for most of the history covered here. Also, this history focuses mainly on Europe, because that is the channel of our spiritual heritage in America.

Outline of church history

  1. The early church Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)
  2. The political church Constantine (306-337) to birth of Luther (b. 1483)
  3. The Reformation church Luther (1483) to World War I (1914-1918)
  4. The modern church World War I (1914-1918) to 1970

Synopsis of church history

The early church Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)

Several factors characterized the early church: persecution (usually to death), rapid expansion, and the struggle with heresies and secular philosophy.

Even though Jesus had been executed by Roman capital punishment, the Christian movement was initially too insignificant to get attention in Rome. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost in the year 33 resulted in a tremendous influx of new believers (Acts 2:41). But violent opposition soon developed as well. Many believers died for their faith, but the church grew even faster during persecution.

The Apostle Paul, having been falsely accused by the Jews, appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:11), and that brought the message to the heart of the Roman empire (Acts 28:16, 31). The rapid expansion of the church and its failure to practice emperor worship brought it into early and frequent conflict with Roman authority. Persecution drove many Christians out of Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Roman general Titus in the year 70.

Of greater danger to the faith than death were the inroads of Greek philosophy. In certain instances we are still struggling with accommodations made to shape the Christian faith into a philosophically-pleasing package during this early period. For example, the idea that God has no emotions entered Christian thought during this period.

The political church — Constantine (c. 274-337) to Luther (b. 1483)

The Roman emperor Constantine (c.274-337) brought an end to most persecution and favored Christianity above all religions. While this was a positive development, it also brought about many changes. Under imperial favor, church life became much more formal and church buildings more monumental. One may reasonably say that from this time until Luther challenged the established order in 1517, the church became entangled with political power. The true church was overshadowed by the institutional Church, which was often a major element of regional political power. This is still true today in some ways.

Of course, all great changes produce a reaction. The popularization of Christian faith (both professed faith and true faith) under Constantine caused some believers to retreat from the tumult. This led to a tremendous increase in monastic movements and their monasteries. They still exist.

Heresies, councils and Augustine

Many heresies plagued the church during this period, including Arianism and Pelagianism. In short, Arianism taught that God the Father was greater than Jesus or the Spirit, and Pelagianism taught that man could achieve salvation by worthy human works. The church rightly rejected these views during councils held in the fourth century. These councils also reached a final consensus concerning the exact books recognized by the church as inspired by God, now collected for us as the Bible.

Augustine (354-430) of Hippo, in North Africa, was the most influential theologian of this period. His views became the theological foundation of both the RCC and later the Protestant Reformation (see below).

Rome fell to the barbarians in 455, and one historian credits the barbarian invasions of Europe for bringing about the great upsurge in the authority of the Bishop of Rome, now known as the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.[1] A second factor that led to this result was the fall of other Christian centers in Africa and the Middle East to the invading Moslems during the seventh and early eighth centuries. There is no doubt whatever that the RCC was the only dominant religious institution in Western Europe until the sixteenth century.

Eastern church and western church split apart

While most Christians in America fit into the stream of Western Christianity, it should be remembered that Eastern Orthodox Christianity, originally centered in Constantinople (on the European shore of the Bosporus in modern Turkey), developed in parallel with the RCC. A formal split occurred in 1054, after a long accumulation of theological and political differences, and the Eastern Orthodox Church is still powerful today in its historic regions.

Characteristics of medieval Christianity

The two focal points of medieval Christianity were monasticism and the papacy.[2] During much of this period the RCC popes were totally involved in matters of political and financial power, while many of the monks had withdrawn from such worldly matters to devote themselves to lives of contemplation and service. For example, Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) founded the Franciscan order under a rule that its members could own nothing. Other monastic orders took less stringent vows.

John Wycliffe (c.1329-1384) was a man ahead of his time. Almost 200 years before the Protestant Reformation roared onto the stage of history, the Oxford-educated Wycliffe advocated many of the same reforms in RCC theology and practices that would later be advanced by others. Wycliffe taught that the Bible was the only authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice. Perhaps the contribution for which he is best known is the idea that the Bible should belong to the people, not to the Church and its priests, and that the Bible should be in the language of the people, not Latin. Influenced by Wycliffe’s views, his followers completed a translation of the Bible into English by about 1392.

Part 2 will cover the period from the Protestant Reformation to World War I.

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984), 1:242.

[2] Gonzalez, 1:301.


A Model for Christian Life – Part 3 (end)

[This post ends this three-part series. Be sure to read the first two parts!]

Our Identity in Christ: “New Man”

A second aspect of our identity is that of the “new man.” Consider the following verses from the Bible:

“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his practices 10 and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of his Creator” (Col. 3:9–10, HCSB[1]).

“you took off your former way of life, the old man that is corrupted by deceitful desires; 23 you are being renewed in the spirit of your minds; 24 you put on the new man, the one created according to God’s [likeness] in righteousness and purity of the truth” (Eph. 4:22–24, HCSB).

“knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:6, NKJV).

The person-you-were-before-salvation died with Christ, and that person is the “old man” or “old self” (NIV) that Col. 2:9 says we have stripped off. The person-we-became-after-giving-our-allegiance-to-Jesus is the new man that Col. 3:10 says we have put on.

Romans 6:6 states a crucial truth about the old man when it says, “our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (NKJV). We learn here the crucial facts that our old man was crucified with Christ, and the purpose was to break the dominion of sin by rendering it powerless.

I draw your attention to the fact that the “new man” language refers to both men and women in Christ. As we find in Gal. 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Our Identity in Christ: “People of God”

While the previous two aspects of Christian identity take on an individualistic hue, the fact that we are part of “the people of God” is plainly relational. The “people of God” language is key to 1 Pet. 2:9–10. However, in 1 Cor. 12:12–14 and Eph. 4:4–7, 15–16, we find that we are corporately called the body of Christ. Consider as well that of the hundreds of commands to believers in the New Testament, almost all are given in verbal forms that are second-person plural. In other words, we are responsible as the people of God to carry them out.

The Touchstone: Pleasing Christ

As life-managers, new men and women in Christ, who together comprise the people of God, we should make decisions and take actions with only one principle in mind: pleasing Christ. Consider the following verses:

“So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9–10). See also Col. 3:17.

Resources for Our Journey

As we think about the resources we have for living to please Christ, we must start with the knowledge that, by God’s kindness, we lack nothing:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Pet. 1:3)

Our first resource is knowledge of the Word of God. See 1 Pet. 1:23–25; Col. 1:9–10, 3:10; 2 Tim. 3:14–16; Heb. 4:12; Matt. 7:24. Remember that Jesus said, “The scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

The Holy Spirit indwells us to provide a constant infusion of insight, power and protection. See John 14:26; 2 Cor. 3:17–18; Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:16.

By Christ’s powerful sacrifice to win us access to God, we may approach God with our prayers at any time. See Heb. 4:16; Col. 4:2; Phil 4:6.

We also enjoy the company of the people of God as our companions on the journey. See Eph. 4:1–13 and the numerous “one another” commands.

Context for Life-Management

God has given us a great deal of information about the context in which we live out our Christian lives. First, it is not a monastic life of individualism (“just-me-and-God”) but a shared life of shared joy and challenge (Eph. 4:1–13).

It is also a life of continuous transformation. Sometimes the Word speaks of this change as something being done to us by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18), but in most cases this transformation is embodied in a command to us (Rom. 12:2; Phil. 2:12-13; Eph. 4:23).

While the transformation process has many elements, several deserve special attention. First, there is growth in knowledge (Col. 1:9–10; Eph. 4:13–14). Second, there is our exercise of faith as an active, open response to the truth (Matt. 9:17–22; Luke 8:4–15; Heb. 4:2, 11:6; James 2:22; Gal. 5:6). Third, we are expected to manifest active love (Gal. 5:6; 1 Cor. 13; John 13:35; Matt. 25:40). Fourth, we are reminded that the purity of our perception makes a profound difference (Matt. 6:22-23; Col. 3:2–3).

Another major element in the context of our life journey has two sides. On the one hand, we are dead to sin, and so we can and should refuse to commit acts of sin (Col. 3:5; Rom. 6:11; 1 Pet. 2:24; Rom. 8:13). On the other hand, we are free to serve God, making the members of our bodies weapons for righteousness in his hands (Rom. 6:18, 22; 1 Pet. 2:16).

Finally our life-management takes place in a setting of spiritual warfare and suffering (Eph. 6:11–12; 1 Pet. 2:11; John 16:33).

To sum up, we live in a shared setting of continuous transformation, spiritual warfare and suffering, while we refuse any expression of sin and live lives of love and righteousness to glorify God.

Responsibilities of Life-Management

We have already seen that the context of life-management includes both the Holy Spirit’s action as well as our own. In this section the focus is on what Christ expects of us.

Perhaps the hallmark of Christian life is obedience (John 14:15; Matt. 7:24; Matt. 28:20; Rom. 6:17; Heb. 5:9; Phil 2:12). Jesus said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:40). It is fitting to note that this obedience often occurs through acts of love and kindness.

Among those commands we are to obey, a wise manager should take note of the great commandments (Matt. 22:36–39; Matt. 7:12) as well as the great commission (Matt. 28:18–20. We should emphasize what our King emphasized.

Another critical area of obedience is to actively cooperate with the transformation process (Phil. 2:12–13; Rom. 6:13, 8:13). Give attention to maximizing things like exposure to the truth, the active exercise of faith and love, and refusal of sin.

Next, our Lord requires us to remain alert at all times, because he may return at any moment (Matt. 24:36–44). We are to watch, not wait, for his return

Expectations That Motivate

Every manager lives with the knowledge that his or her management will come under review, and our life-management for Christ is no exception. We live today knowing that our deeds will be judged for reward (2 Cor. 5:9–10; 1 Cor. 3:12–15).

We live for Christ, knowing there is no greater cause! We look forward to receiving glory and honor in his service (Rom. 2:9–10, 8:17, 8:30; Phil. 3:21).

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] HCSB means Holman Christian Standard Bible.