Thursday, August 12, 2004

Consistent scientific principles enable another NASA launch.

A Way of Knowing

One of my seminary professors once said in class that today's basic problem swirls around epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. He was right!

In the pre-Enlightenment era, the Western world sought universal truth. Plato taught the "real" world was the metaphysical world of which the physical world was a copy. In some ideal realm there was a real chair of which all physical chairs were but copies. Aristotle argued that the real world was knowable through the senses. Neither Aristotle nor Plato would dismiss revelation as a way of knowing. The gods did, on occasion, speak. Scholastics and Renaissance churchmen took up the arguments and continued them but the latter said humans were capable of knowing. Enlightenment philosophes said not only were human beings capable, they could know truth and reality because it was coherent. What was true was consistent with the testimony of the senses and the application of the scientific method.

Alexander Campbell, who Ernst Lee Tuveson said was the first to link Enlightenment thought to historic Christianity made sharp distinctions between fact, faith, and opinion. Fact was what was reality known by one's own senses. Faith was the belief of testimony. Opinion was what you believed without the evidence of sensory experience or testimony. According to Campbell, I know my office chair is real because I am sitting in it. That's a fact! I believe George Washington is buried at Mount Vernon because of the testimony of others (I can't see inside the tomb so I don't know it as a fact). I am of the opinion that God has made the worlds for man to explore (Scripture doesn't say that). Campbell would argue that the Scripture is God's Word to man given by revelation as a testimony to His person and work. He would not deny it was written in a context, but Campbell would say it was written for a purpose.

Today knowledge is either the perception of the individual or developed in community. It is always incomplete and absolute knowledge is impossible. There is enough truth in those statements to make them sound plausible.

As a historian, I have long been familiar with the "historian's dilemma." The dilemma is that if I seek an understanding of space-time events, I must do so through the investigation and interpretation of original documents. These documents may be written testimony of contemporaries, they may be government or church documents and records, they might be bills of sale, trade agreements, and a broad assortment of other materials. If I study the written testimony of those contemporary to the event, I must make allowances for the biases of the authors. Then, too, I must make allowances for my own biases and prejudices. The question is, can I ever know enough to say I know the exact nature of the event being studied? The answer is, No! There is always room for a variation of views. Could I, however, know something about the event? Yes!

Human knowledge on this side of glory is always incomplete and partial, but is it sufficient? Scientists tell us the "laws of nature" are not always as constant as we once thought but they are sufficient for practical use. Every time NASA launches a probe, it assumes on the basis of previous experience that the physical laws governing such a launch are sufficiently constant for them to plot a course to the craft's destination.

Postmoderns call everything into question, but I would argue that while we cannot know everything, we know from revelation, the experience of thousands of Christians whose testimonies we see and hear, and the ultimate coherence of the arguments that we can know "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" is absolutely true. It isn't just true for them. It isn't just true for me. It is true for all who choose to overcome their biases and heed the explicit and consistent testimony of the Word and the lives of others. Isn't that what brings us to faith? Doesn't the Scripture teach us we are "justified by faith"? (See Romans 3, Romans 10:19)

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


Postmodern Discipleship

I've been reading material about postmodernism over the past few years. I'm not sure I completely understand postmodern thought, but then who does? From those I've read, several characteristics stand out:
  1. Postmodern thought is not linear. As I understand it, that means that the old way of reasoning moved from proposition to proposition to conclusion with each necessarily arising from the previous and beginning from observed reality. Postmodern thought, however, is not necessarily circular. Instead, it receives input from a multitude of sources then draws a conclusion. It would be similar to getting data from random web sites and drawing a conclusion about whatever topic you were researching.
  2. Postmodern thought questions notions of perceived reality. Postmoderns assert that true truth can't be known because truth is a construct of a community. Each individual sees truth from their own perspective and their own biases thus they can never really know what is "out there." But, to coin a phrase popular on TV, "the truth is out there."
  3. Postmodern thought seeks a "kind of" spirituality. Postmoderns argue that science promised more than it could deliver. Furthermore, they react to the "modern" notion that the material world is really knowable and are not predisposed to dismiss that which is meta-physical. Most, however, have no firm conviction of "what is out there." A quote from President Eisenhower is descriptive of postmodernism. Ike said, "You can't go through a war without faith, and I don't care what kind of faith it is." It seems to me that Norman Vincent Peale's idea of putting "faith in faith" would sit pretty well with most postmoderns. This kind of spirituality doesn't need content it just seeks a feeling attributable to something beyond the self.
  4. Postmodern thought distrusts words. Words, they say, only reference other words. This is a product of French deconstruction. I'm not sure I understand all of this. The idea is that individuals use words to describe reality as they perceive it. Therefore, the words selected don't necessarily define what is since what is can't be known. As a result, postmoderns seek a feeling that brings with it a perception of meaning. Perhaps that's why the postmodern generation is so high on the visual media, sound that reverberates in the viscera, and ritual that communicates beauty and purpose without words.

Postmodern thought has far more to it than I've mentioned here. You can see from what I've written that "sound doctrine" is not important to discipleship. Discipleship is no longer seen as the understanding of absolute propositions but is instead a felt spirituality. A major problem with this is a lack of balance. One can practice all of the spiritual disciplines without understanding. To do so can lead to asceticism because you can get "caught up" in seeking after a specific feeling. The law of diminishing returns (is that a modern idea?) pushes toward ever stricter discipline until you have a repeat of Simeon Stylites (a pillar monk). Those who seek a feeling without corresponding content might end up "blown about by every wind of doctrine."

Here's a thought for you. I believe postmoderns are right to state that perception often distorts what really is. All of us have our biases. Mine affect how I interpret historical events. If I report on an automobile accident, I do not tell all of what occurred because I can't know all of what occurred. I see the accident from my perspective and my biases. But to say I can't know all of what happened doesn't mean that I can't know some of what happened. To assert that reality is unknowable because I can't possibly have universal knowledge about reality does not mean that I can't discover some true truth about reality! Furthermore, if God, who can perceive all there is to know about reality (isn't that part of the definition of God?), communicates it to me through words can't I at least perceive part of what he tells me? Isn't it possible that he, who created all that is, might know how to communicate with me through words in such a way as to give me a picture of reality? If so, then it becomes my problem to sort through my biases and my prejudices and my weaknesses and subordinate them to God!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Evangelist Billy Sunday preaching on "The Sawdust Trail."

Can pragmatism coexist with sound doctrine?

Can pragmatism and sound doctrine coexist? Today's culture is highly pragmatic. Most of what I've written about here reflects a tension with "what works" and "what's right." I know that sentence sounds like something is wrong just because it works." I don't mean that at all! The problem, as I see it, is that there are those who think that "if it works it must be right." That's not true! At the same time, there are those who think that the reason their church isn't growing is because they "are right" and what they're doing "is right" and "narrow is the way." That's not true either.

I think Thomas Campbell -- yes the one from the early 1800s -- had it right in his Thirteen Propositions published in The Declaration and Address." Campbell strongly believed in teaching the Bible but he recognized that in the life of the church there are those practices that are helpful but not described in Scripture. In the last of the propositions Campbell maintained that "expedients" (things that work) not found in Scripture may be helpful and they are permissible, but -- and this is a big but -- they should never be retained longer than they are helpful.

I do evangelism differently than I did it in the 1960 and 70s when I was first in ministry. I use a modified "101" approach. We invited 53 people to come to our home for a conversation about the church and about what Christ teaches about membership. Fourteen showed up and it was, to the say least, an interesting afternoon. Last Sunday seven responded to the invitation. In prior years I've used the Jule Miller filmstrips, Bible studies in the home, evangelistic calling, evangelistic meetings (for those I couldn't get down the aisle a super-salesman often could). When the "101" approach no longer works, I'll dispense with it. I will do so not because it is wrong, but because it is no longer effective. The Great Commission tells us to go preach the Gospel but it doesn't not specificially tell us what methodology to use.

My quarrel with things as they are is not that we alter methodology in order to become effective. It is that we all too often think that because we do what works we don't need to teach content after folks walk the aisle. There just has to be a balance.

Monday, August 09, 2004

On Leadership and Theology

Historian David F. Wells offers some interesting perspective on the contemporary church. In his book No Place for Truth, I'm told Wells asserts that today's ministers are more concerned with psychology and management than theology.

Most of the preachers I know in our megachurches would dispute that, but not for the reasons you might suppose. They would resist the charge they were concerned with psychology preferring to say they wanted be relevant and meet needs. To the second charge, they would state they were more interested in leadership than in management.

A closer look, however, reveals that the needs addressed usually take the form of marriage counseling, self-image therapy, keys to successful business or decision-making. You can find hundreds of these books, even books from a Christian perspective, on the shelves of countless bookstores. God wants biblically-based homes to be sure, but I have to wonder if one can truly build such a home apart from an understanding of who Jesus is and what he has done in history to redeem the individuals making up a marriage.

Following the lead of such individuals as John Maxwell, most would say there is a world of difference between managing and leading. Maxwell defines management as "the process of assuring that the program and objectives of the organization are implemented" (Developing the Leader Within You, Introduction). He defines leadership as having to do "with casting vision and motivating people." He continues saying that managing is making sure the work is done by others but a leader inspires others to do better work." Now I have to tell you that the difference here is pretty thin. I would think a good manager would inspire people to do a better job.

Let me make a couple of observations before I post today's blog. First,I remember when the Christian Standard magazine spent a year on the importance of leadership in the Restoration Movement. At the end of the year, I don't think much changed occurred in most churches. In those days, most of us were taught that the eldership in a church comprised the leadership. We avoided the "pastor system" as rooted in a false idea of church. I find it interesting that Alexander Campbell preferred the term Bishop in reference to the preacher. Because of what we believed, most of us deferred leadership to the local elders. We tried to "sell" them on our ideas, but if they chose not to accept them nothing happened. It was Bob Smith's (shudden -- a Baptist) book, When All Else Fails, Read the Directions that offered me some correctives. Then a study of church history convinced me that the "Bishop" was, in the New Testament Church, an individual selected from the Presbyters (elders) and given a leadership role in the church. He may well be one of those men worthy of double honor because they give all their time to God's work (1 Timothy 5:17-18). I am convinced that at the very least, the minister should be elder qualified and an elder. If he were an elder, then he would be able to legitimately use the title "Pastor." As an elder among elders, his role would be far better defined and his qualifications understood.

Second, as long as we teach only psychobabble from our pulpits we will make shallow Christians who believe they are disciples because they build a tolerable marriage or have a positive self-image (and perhaps are even self-actualized). Please do not get me wrong! I do believe there are biblical principles that apply to building a positive self-image, sound mental health, and a successful family -- and they should be preached! What I am begging for is a better balanced preaching program that supplements what people hear in a small group (often more psychobabble but from those who don't know anythng about it) or a Bible class. I'm talking about preachers who aren't afraid to boldly teach what the Bible says about God, the authority of Scripture, Jesus' propitiation (look that one up), the place and nature of baptism for the remission of sins, and a host of other issues comprising sound biblical doctrine.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

A Muslim family studies the Qu'ran.

Taking religion seriously

Terry Mattingly's "Get Religion" blog ( today presented some interesting thoughts about commitment to faith. Terry pointed out that the one thing today's media and government sources don't want to do is to suggest Muslim terrorists might be working from their faith construct. Nearly everyone in the "politically correct" crowd says terrorists do not reflect true Islam. Instead, terrorists, we are told, represent the lunatic fringe -- the "fundamentalist" version of Islam.

What a crock! Islam is not now and never has been a "peace loving" religion. The Qu'ran is filled with surahs suggesting the "infidel" (that's us, folks) must be converted or killed. When Islam rose and began its conquest in the 700s, its means of conversion was not persuasion -- it was the sword. Now I'll admit that some misguided Christians also used the sword. Charlemagne "converted" thousands with a sword held to the neck of his defeated enemies and they responded, "No one ever explained the gospel to me so clearly." Most early Christians carried the Christian message with the understanding that "faith comes by hearing" (Romans 10:17). Islam over ran Arabia, North Africa, much of the Middle East, and eventually Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire fell to its armies. Islamic rulers permitted Jews and Christians to coexist with them as long as they paid an annual indemnity and did not proselyte or evangelize. Many nominal Christians soon found social and economic advancement came only with conversion.

Today's Islamic terrorists are not interested in merely influencing western policy. Sure, they don't want the west supporting Israel, paying bottom dollar for oil, and keeping infidel troops in Muslim lands. They do want to take their false religion to the western world. They are being remarkably successful at it, too.

The point I really wanted to make is the fact that most Americans can't see the source of the real threat because secularism, naturalistic worldviews, and compartmentalizing of the faith has crowded out genuine Christianity. Christianity, for most of us, requires little commitment and certainly no sacrifice. Today's version of Christianity appeals to the "me-ism" of the day in spite of all the talk about "it's not about you!" For most church attenders, it is all about them. Even conservative Bible-believing churches with expectations don't really expect genuine discipleship. They teach it is "nice for nice people to be nice." If you attend, cough up for the coffer, and maybe get your weekly dose of therapy in a small group you are a "real Christian." As long people feel good and "feel God" (meaning that the bass is so loud it vibrates your bones) then they are happy in their nice churches.

If Islamic "fundamentalists" can commit religious suicide to further the interests of their god, what should Christians -- who know the one true God -- be willing to give up for Him? That's something to think about!