Monday, February 28, 2011

The Gospel of John and the Problem of the Historical Jesus: Reflections from the Greer-Heard Conference

I am back from the Greer-Heard Conference, which was held at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana, this past weekend (February 25-26, 2011). There was much discussion in the forums and presentations, but the object of attention was the debate on the historical Jesus, between Dr. Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and the Chair of the Religious Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The debate was held on Friday night, February 25, 2011, at 7:00pm in Leavell Chapel (on the New Orleans Seminary campus).
Dr. Ehrman was allowed to speak first. His opening statements on the Scriptures themselves were magnificent. While listening to him, I was reminded of how captivating of a professor he really was, reminiscing over my own New Testament Literature class with him at the University of North Carolina back in Spring 2003. Line by line, Dr. Ehrman pointed out what he believed to be “historical discrepancies” in each of the four Gospels. For instance, he noted how one Gospel has Jesus dying on the cross during the week of Passover...while another has Jesus dying after Passover. “Which is it?” he asked. “They both cannot be right.” By the end of his opening statements, I got the distinct impression that defeating him would be a tall order.
And indeed, a tall order it was. In fact, it was such a tall order that I don’t even think Craig Evans came close to meeting it. Evans’s opening statement did not even respond to Ehrman’s claims. Instead, Evans simply tried to make a connection between the Bible and other works of antiquity: how the works of antiquity were written hundreds of years after the individuals lived and yet, they were still accepted as historical sources. When compared to these ancient works, the Gospels (according to Evans) had a rather outstanding record: the Gospels themselves were written no later than 35-40 years after the death of Christ. His argument was a lesser-to-greater: if the ancient sources were historically credible, having been written some hundreds of years after the events they record, then how much more historically reliable are the Gospels?
But what this really does is attempt to create “damage control.” Damage control is a tactic used to make something seem better than it may be portrayed as being. In fact, Evans’s remarks were pointed at the sole purpose of making the Gospels seem “less historically questionable” than the other sources of antiquity. Still, at the end of the day, making something “less questionable” or “the lesser of two evils” does not eliminate it from being still “questionable” or “evil.” Deeming something “less heretical” does not make it “orthodox,” so deeming the Gospels “less historically questionable” does not make them “historically accurate.” Evans’s damage control did not control...rather, it damaged the Gospels’ reliability even further.
Ehrman made it clear quite a few times in the debate that “I want you all to know that Dr. Evans is agreeing with me.” At one point in the debate he said, “I expected to have a debate where the opponent actually disagreed with me,” laughing to express how unbelievable the debate really was. These remarks are telling, indeed: the fact that Dr. Bart Ehrman was given “academic high-fives” from Dr. Evans shows just how horrible of a debate it really was. What has gone wrong in our world when the evangelical scholar begins to agree with the agnostic scholar about Jesus?
In the concluding remarks in the debate on Friday night, both got a chance to reiterate their points. Ehrman made it clear that the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 stated that the Bible contains “no mixture of error.” And yet, according to Ehrman’s evidence, the Bible contained historical inaccuracies that Dr. Evans could not explain away (nor did he try).
What did Evans say to end it all? He made an analogy between the Book of Proverbs and the Gospel of John:
“In Proverbs,” he asked, “Does not Lady Wisdom speak truth? Yes she does. But is there an actual Lady Wisdom speaking truth here? Do these events literally happen? No. Rather, the emphasis is not on what literally happened, but the truth that was spoken. When you come to the Gospel of John, Jesus is representing Lady Wisdom here, speaking truth. Remember what John says about Christ, that He is ‘the Logos’ (the Word)?”
I’m pretty sure that you will not find these exact words from the recorded conference itself in this order. It’s very likely that I am paraphrasing Evans’s words above. However, I have not lost the gist of Evans’s argument; he attempted to say something without being explicit about it. The fact that he said “Jesus is representing Lady Wisdom” in the Gospel of John ought to send off the mental light bulb in our minds. To see what Evans is saying, let’s set up a syllogism:
Premise #1: Proverbs is about Lady Wisdom speaking truth. However, there is no specific person speaking here (just personification).
Premise #2: In the Gospel of John, Jesus (as “Logos”, the Word) is representing Lady Wisdom speaking truth.
Conclusion: If Jesus is representing Lady Wisdom, then He, like Lady Wisdom, did not literally say the things recorded about Him. The emphasis is not that He literally spoke truth, but the true words He spoke.
Dr. Evans did not actually say the conclusion in his ending remarks; he simply left it to the evangelical mind to “fill in the blanks” of his argument. What he was trying to get at was that John’s Gospel is all about “the Johannine community’s affirmations about Jesus,” not that Jesus actually said and did the things that are written of Him. This has problems, however, when one comes to the biblical text.
I would say more, but time will not permit it. Despite the sad debate, I had a great time down in New Orleans with my brother Billy Birch and the Provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Steve Lemke. In my next post, I will tackle Evans’s words regarding the Gospel of John and its questionable historicity. Keep reading...

Friday, February 18, 2011

"To Provoke An Appropriate Dispositional Attitude": The Pluralistic Nature of Eternal Security

As of last week, I spent time tackling Neal Punt’s “A Theology of Inclusivism.” This week I read John Hick’s “An Interpretation of Religion” as part of my reading for my independent research class. It is a requirement in my Master of Divinity degree that I am so grateful to the Lord about. I have loved every moment reading and studying about the religions and the role they play in God’s plan of salvation.
I finished Hick’s work (a 380-page beast, to say the least) yesterday morning...and the ending was probably more shocking than all the other things Hick said in his book (although he is pluralist, those things shocked me as well). The ending finds John Hick writing and describing what he calls “The Mythological Character of Language”:
“We can approach this through a distinction between literal and mythological truth. The literal truth or falsity of a factual assertion (as distinguished from the truth or falsity of an analytic proposition) consists in its conformity or lack of conformity to fact: ‘it is raining here now’ is literally true if and only if it is raining here now. But in addition to literal truth there is also mythological truth. A statement or set of statements about X is mythologically true if it is not literally true but nevertheless tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to X. Thus mythological truth is practical or, in one sense of this much-abused word, existential. For the conformity of myth to reality does not consist in a literal conformity of what is said to the facts but in the appropriateness to the myth’s referent of the behavioural dispositions that it tends to evoke in the hearer” (John Hick, “An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition.” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, page 348).
I grew up learning the inherent meaning of words. In my public school education, I was taught in English class that words have meanings. In each sentence, there is a subject, verb, and predicate (description statement or phrase about the subject). The subject is the topic of the sentence; the verb is what the subject (a noun) does; in some cases, the word “is” serves as the verb. The predicate gives more detail about the subject. For example, in the sentence, “The doctor is sick today,” we notice that “sick today” tells us that the doctor is ill (sick), and that the time of his illness is the present day (today). We cannot assess that the doctor was sick yesterday (unless we have further info) or that he will be sick tomorrow (we do not know the future). All that we know is that, given the present day and all of its successive moments, the doctor is ill. He is not feeling well.
To accept something like the above simple sentence and its analysis requires an inherent belief in the intrinsic meaning of words. For instance, the words “good” and “bad” do not mean the same thing. When I was growing up, I began to see intrinsic meaning in words decline. The word “bad,” which once meant “something horrible,” began to mean “cool” and was deemed to be “good.” The word “fat,” which used to mean “overweight,” began to mean “cool, prosperous,” and even became an acronym. “Fat” was now spelled as “PHAT” and meant “Pretty Hot And Tempting.” And now, to be “PHAT” (fat) was a good thing. It was no longer a means of joking on someone...and those like me who are overweight were given something by which to fire back at those who thought we had “a little too much meat on our bones.” Sadly enough, the word “overweight” doesn’t mean much of the same thing anymore. Now if someone is not a size 6 or less, they are characterized as overweight. What is wrong with our world when words have lost their meaning? What does this mean for all the sentences I have written already in this post, INCLUDING this one???
This, my friends, is what happens when words are stripped of inherent meaning. But language fads like those above have become the norm because, by so doing, society has torn down its commitment to truth. Modernity toyed with the idea of relativism, but still maintained a somewhat firm commitment to objective truth; today, that has been eliminated, and we live in a world committed to the postmodern mindset that says “Nothing has inherent meaning in and of itself; rather, we can provide our own meaning to life.”
This existentialist idea of creating meaning in life could not be more evident than in the life of John Hick. Hick himself is a self-professed pluralist, one who does not mind telling you that the Bible is nothing more than a human creation and that Jesus is just a more divine than Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, or Brigham Young. In the above quote from Hick, we find that Hick distinguishes two types of truth: literal versus “mythological.” The idea of “myth” as bearing truth has also taken on a whole new view today, which is scary indeed. The word “myth” once meant false; today it means “true under certain conditions.” We have started to label something true as “false” and something false as “true” so much that eventually, we will not know the true from the false. And is this not the case now?
Let’s read again Hick’s definition of “mythological truth”:
“But in addition to literal truth there is also mythological truth. A statement or set of statements about X is mythologically true if it is not literally true but nevertheless tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to X. Thus mythological truth is practical or, in one sense of this much-abused word, existential. For the conformity of myth to reality does not consist in a literal conformity of what is said to the facts but in the appropriateness to the myth’s referent of the behavioural dispositions that it tends to evoke in the hearer.”
What makes a statement “mythologically true”? Whether or not it brings about “an appropriate dispositional attitude,” a right response to the statement made. The statement can be an exaggerated one, as long as it achieves the right goal. It is situational in nature and goal-oriented in intent. The statement does not have to be “true” as truth is basically defined...rather, it only has to achieve a desired purpose. If an employer wants to motivate his employees to work harder, he can promise them a raise even if he will never make good on his promise. Rather, the purpose of his deceit was to bring about the response of greater effort. In other words, “The end justifies the means.”
Hick is a pluralist. To him, words can be given their own meaning apart from an intrinsic inherent meaning. But the most depressing part of all of this is that a mythological view of language (pluralistic) has made its way into the church. Thomas R. Schreiner will qualify as my first example:
Warnings and admonitions, however, express what is capable of being conceived with the mind. They speak of things conceivable or imaginable, not of things likely to happen...they appeal to the mind to conceive how actions have consequences. Warnings and exhortations project a supposition that calls us to imagine that a particular course of action has an unequivocal and inviolable consequence. Because they are suppositional, warnings and admonitions appeal to our imaginations (Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001, page 207).
It is all about conception and imagination to Schreiner, not reality. When he says that the warnings are “not of things likely to happen,” he is expressing a pluralist tendency to count words as nothing more than mere ideas. There is no intrinsic meaning to the words “Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him” (Hebrews 10: 38, NKJV). There might be intrinsic meaning into the first sentence...but there is no meaning to the second. In the doctrine of eternal security, no believer can fail to obtain salvation. It is just “an appeal to imagination,” as Schreiner says. The warnings are not important because of inherent meaning; they are only important because they make us “conceive” of God’s seriousness and turn around and persevere in the faith.
Molinist support is given to Schreiner’s view in the following:
“Our authors [Schreiner and Caneday] acknowledge that the failure of such people to persevere indicates they were never truly saved. So what the warning passages describe happens to false professors but not to the elect, and the Means-of-Salvation position seems to collapse into the standard Evidence-of-Genuineness view held by most Calvinist evangelicals” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, page 184).
Molinism itself holds to the Evidence-of-Genuineness view (“Salvation and Sovereignty,” pages 187ff), so Molinists also agree with these individuals.
Molinism gives is own espousal of eternal security in its Evidence-of-Genuineness Proposal:
“The Evidence-of-Genuineness proponents base their doctrine of perseverance on God’s promises in Scripture that He will complete His work of salvation in the individual believer. Even though a believer may fall miserably and sin terribly, he cannot remain in that condition. A Christian may fall totally, but his fall will not be final. The true believer will persevere. The warning passages serve as litmus tests...those who are not genuinely converted will eventually show their true colors. Therefore, the judgments threatened in those passages are not directed toward believers but are intended for false disciples, who for one reason or another are masquerading as real Christians” (“Salvation and Sovereignty,” pages 177-178).
What about Paul’s warning to the Ephesians that “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5, NKJV)? What about Paul’s words in the next verses, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience...therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:6, 7)? These words have no meaning for the genuine believer, we are told. They only refer to fake believers. So now, we have a great deal of warning texts in the Bible that do not apply to genuine believers. But did God not write the Scriptures to His own? Did God concern Himself more with unbelievers in Scripture than believers? Did Paul concern his writing more with unbelievers than believers? This is where the pluralistic notion of eternal security breaks down. It presupposes that the confidence passages are all that exist. The warnings are not “literally true,” but true “mythologically”: that is, they bring about an intended response for the fake Christian (that is, to be saved and turn from his sin). They have no intrinsic meaning, do nothing for the real Christian.
When warnings become meant only for the non-Christian in the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God, there is a major problem. It’s easy to attack John Hick and call him a “pluralist”; but how many believers check themselves so as to not wear this charge? Eternal Security has made evangelicalism pluralistic in its biblical hermeneutic, Christian Theology, and godly living...and yet, how many of us ever take time to notice?

Friday, February 11, 2011

The "Strangeness" of Belief In A "Certain" Salvation

“How strange to think we must communicate this good news conditionally by telling sinners that Jesus Christ will save them ‘if they believe.’ When will Jesus save these individuals? Either those to whom we witness have been reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:21) or not” (Neal Punt, “A Theology of Inclusivism.” Allendale, MI: Northland Books, 2008, page 186).
In this post, my goal is to examine Punt’s claim that we should not tell people that God will save them on the condition that they believe. Why should we not tell them this? What biblical warrant is there for this? Punt then cites his belief that reconciliation has been achieved in Christ, but this is based on his Calvinist presupposition (as I revealed in the last post), not the Scriptures. In this post, I will demonstrate that faith is the condition for salvation from the Scriptures themselves.
First, the importance of faith can be seen in a text such as Matthew 8, where the centurion pleads with Christ to heal his sick servant: “only speak a word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8, NKJV). Jesus’ response took note of the centurion’s faith: “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (v.10) The centurion’s faith is what Jesus marveled over: that a Gentile could have more faith than even His own people.
In Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus Himself proclaiming repentance and belief: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). According to Jesus, belief is essential to salvation. Otherwise, what need would one have to “repent and believe in the gospel”?
In Mark 16:16, Jesus speaks more on faith, when He said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Jesus, then, is not just concerned with those who reject Him...rather, He is concerned with both those who reject Him and those who accept Him. It seems useless, then, for Christ to tell people to believe in Him when He has actualized their salvation and they are already “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). The only way a person has an actualized salvation is if they are “in Christ.” Not every person is “in Christ,” which is the reason why Paul labels it a condition using the word “if” (Gr. Ei as in eight).
John 3:16 is a classic verse well-known to every believer. The verse says that “whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” The one who believes is the one who will experience everlasting life. John 3:18 shows us that the entire world Jesus dies for does not believe--- for some will believe, but some will not. This is why Jesus offers two choices: salvation or condemnation. Evidently, Jesus died for the world, but the world will not experience eternal life unless it believes. The verse does not say, “Every one shall not perish but have everlasting life”; rather, the verse says, “the one who believes” (Grk. ho pisteuon), or rather, “the believing one” has eternal life. The unbelieving one then, only receives condemnation because he or she has not believed on the name of Christ (Jn. 3:18).

Romans 10:9-11 is another great passage that believers quote when the gospel is preached: “that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (v.9). Notice that there are two conditions, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus” and “if you believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead.” These two conditions (confession and belief) are what lead to salvation. Paul clarifies this in verse 10: “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made known unto salvation” (Rom. 10:10, NKJV). The verb “will be saved” is a future verb, demonstrating that to be saved is “future” to the person who has yet to confess their sins and believe on the name of Christ.
Ephesians 1:13 is a great passage to show the importance of believing on the name of Christ. The verse says, “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise...” In Ephesians 1, we see that although believers were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, until they believed in time, they were not sealed with the Spirit. How then, can one claim that reconciliation (salvation) is actualized for every person when not everyone possesses the Spirit (which is the confirmatory sign of salvation)? If salvation were actualized for everyone, then everyone would possess the Spirit (which is not the case). Therefore, if Punt’s view is right, he has to contradict this verse and say, “Everyone, when Christ died and rose, received an actualized salvation and already possesses the Spirit.” Such is not the case.
To argue that God has already actualized salvation for every person contradicts scriptural teaching. The truth is, that salvation is potential or possible for every person. However, if every person were already saved, then what need would there be for faith? Where do the Scriptures state that “we are saved to believe”? I don’t find that phrase anywhere in Scripture; rather, it states that “we believe to be saved” (Eph. 1:13; Rom. 10:9-10; Gal. 3:22; 1 Thess. 2:13). If Punt is correct, then everyone has an actualized salvation, but needs to believe for what reason? I don’t know; and I doubt that Neal Punt would know either...


Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Unconditional Good News?

How strange to think we must communicate this gospel news conditionally by telling sinners that Jesus Christ will save them ‘if they believe.’ When will Jesus save these individuals? Either those to whom we witness have been reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:21) or not. How much more genuine our embrace of sinners would be if we looked upon these particular persons as being among those for whom Christ died. Premise B gives us biblical warrant for making this assumption. Because God in Christ has reconciled himself to them, therefore they must repent, believe, and joyfully obey. God will judge those who finally remain indifferent to or reject this message” (Neal Punt, “A Theology of Inclusivism.” Allendale, MI: Northland Books, 2008, page 186).
Have you ever had times in your life when someone said something that just took you by surprise? I have had that happen quite a bit in my 26 years of life. In fact, sometimes, I’ve been so shocked that I just stood there, speechless, dumbfounded...with a “deer-in-headlights” kind of look.
The first sentence of Punt’s statement above took me by surprise when I read it for the first time. If we can’t tell people that Christ will save them “provided they believe,” then what are we to tell sinners who need to be saved? That they are already saved, and just need to live like it? That seems to be Punt’s claim: “Because God in Christ has reconciled himself to them, therefore they must repent, believe, and joyfully obey.” But if Christ has reconciled them, and this reconciliation has been actualized, then why do they need to believe? To entertain this idea requires one to hold to Calvinist theology---something to which Neal Punt adheres. Several times in his book, he seems to attack the Arminian notion of potential salvation, such as can be seen in the following quote:
“Arminian exegetes have just as much trouble with the word ‘Savior’ in 1 Tim. 4:10. They accept the capitalization of ‘Savior’ because they say it does mean ‘Savior from sin.’ Dr. Clark Pinnock speaks on behalf of all Arminian exegetes when he says, ‘God is “the Savior of all men [potentially], and especially of those who believe [actually]”’ (1 Tim. 4:10)...Arminians fear that without the word ‘potentially’ this text would say God ‘is the Savior from sin for all persons,’ that is, universalism---all persons will be saved. To avoid this heresy, the word ‘potentially’ must be added in this text as in all the other so-called ‘universalistic’ texts” (Punt, “A Theology of Inclusivism,” page 117).
This “actualized salvation” of Punt’s must be proven from Scripture, not merely assumed. In making this claim, I am doing nothing different than Punt himself does in regard to Pinnock’s claim of “potential” salvation: “Where do Pinnock and other Arminians get the word ‘potentially’ for this and for all the other ‘universalistic’ texts? It comes neither from the immediate nor the extended context of the Bible” (117). Boldly enough, I will make the same charge about Punt’s claim of actualized salvation: it does not come from the Bible, but instead comes from Punt’s Calvinist presupposition.
First, let’s examine Punt’s words about how “strange” it seems to tell someone that God will save them if they only believe. He writes that this is ludicrous because
“Either those to whom we witness have been reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:21) or not.”
Punt quotes the verse 2 Corinthians 5:21. The verse states, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The word “might” is represented in the subjunctive case, which emphasizes potentiality or possibility. This does not say that Christ became sin for us so “we would live up to the righteousness He has already purchased.” Rather, the verse says that He took on our sin so that we could have the possibility of becoming righteous by faith in Christ. One would have to do away with this in order to hold to Punt’s belief.
Next, prior to verse 21 comes verse 20, where Paul states, “we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (v. 20). The question we must ask ourselves is this: “If we are already reconciled to God, then why would Paul say, ‘Be reconciled to God’”? Punt assumes that reconciliation is actual for every person, but the apostle Paul here seems to disagree with him. Why, for instance, would a landlord tell someone “pay the rent,” if the rent has already been paid? If every person has already been reconciled, then for Paul to use these words would seem rather redundant and foolish. I don’t think the apostle Paul was redundant or said anything that would be illogical in the Scriptures. The question is, do you agree with Paul or Punt?
Punt is also disproved by the words of a verse believers everywhere hold dear, 2 Corinthians 5:17--- “Therefore, IF anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...” (NKJV) The word “if” signifies a condition to being a new creation (that is, being in Christ). If Neal Punt is correct, then 2 Corinthians 5:17 implies that every person in the entire world alive at this moment is “in Christ” and is a new creation. Is every single person saved at this moment? You and I know from experience that every person is not saved. Therefore, the condition is there to explain why some are “new creation” and others are not. Punt overlooks this verse in his Calvinist presupposition that salvation is actualized for every person.
Look at Punt’s words: “either those to whom we witness have been reconciled to God or not.” The answer is, they are not reconciled to God until they believe. We’ve seen from 2 Corinthians 5 that there is a condition to being reconciled to God (see 2 Cor. 5:17). But there is also another reason why verses like 2 Cor. 5:18 cannot apply to every person--- the context of the letter itself.
To whom did Paul write the letter of 2 Corinthians? Did he write the letter to every single person, whether believer or unbeliever? Journey back to the beginning of 2 Corinthians to find the answer:
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia” (2 Corinthians 1:1, NKJV).
Where in this does it mention the ordinary citizens of Corinth and all of Achaia? It doesn’t. The letter is addressed to “the church of God which is at Corinth” and “all the saints who are in all Achaia.” The letter is addressed to “the church” and “saints,” indicative of the saved. So God has reconciled the saved to Himself...that is, those who have confessed and believed on His name. Those who have not have yet to experience the reconciliation that Christ has achieved. For the sinner, reconciliation is possible...for the saved, salvation is actual. Punt fails to distinguish the difference between the two, and this costs him majorly in his exegetical work.
The world is reconciled to God in Christ...but, the purpose of Christ’s coming was so that “the world might be saved” (John 3:17), not that the world “would be saved.” The potential salvation for the world that Christ offers is still available today; but each person must confess and believe in order to experience the salvation Christ has already provided. In the same way that a prisoner is not freed until the money enters the hands of the court, so we are not freed from sin until we accept the redemption Christ has given. Christ desires that we be freed from sin...but He will not free us without us.
I will tackle the “strangeness” of Neal Punt’s claim in my next post.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Evangelical Inclusivism

I’m back today to tackle a little more of Neal Punt’s work, “A Theology of Inclusivism.” In the last post I did on Punt’s work, I talked about Punt’s contradictory “fumble” regarding whether or not faith is a condition for salvation. Punt says both in just a matter of a few pages, and the reader is left wondering whether or not even Neal Punt knows what he believes regarding the issue.
Today’s post will tackle Punt’s title “A Theology of Inclusivism.” For many, the word “inclusivism” brings up all sorts of connotations. When one places the word “evangelical” in front of it, this can also lead to an even bigger confusion surrounding the phraseology.
Have no fear, though; Punt tells us what we can expect from his discussion on “Protestant Inclusivism” by his definition of inclusivism:
“Inclusivism is the teaching that, although Jesus is the only Savior, nevertheless salvation is possible through Him even among those who have never heard the gospel during their lifetime on earth. This perspective is called Evangelical Inclusivism because it is based directly upon the inspired, infallible, written Word of God, making its claims upon no other source (Neal Punt, “A Theology of Inclusivism.” Allendale, MI: Northland Books, 2008, page 146.
From Punt’s words, those who have never heard the gospel can still be saved...and this comes directly from God’s Word. I agree that those who do not have the aid of a human missionary can still be saved (God has other means by which to bring the gospel message, since the gospel message is essential to faith).
Where I disagree with Punt has to do with his statement that “Evangelical based directly upon the inspired, infallible, written Word of God, making its claims upon no other source.” Such a statement is a rather confident one, since the Scriptures themselves seem very supportive of the exclusivity of Christ (that is, that Christ through the gospel is the only means to salvation, see Acts 4:12).
Punt decides to go after an exclusivist (one who argues the centrality of faith in Christ), such as Ronald Nash. Nash makes three critiques against inclusivists: 1) the misuse of Romans 10; 2) the biblical imperatives to “repent” and “believe”; and 3) the so-called “universalistic” texts.
In discussing Nash’s critique of inclusivists regarding Romans 10, Punt does not use Scripture; rather, he critiques Nash’s view based on his dichotomy of “objective” versus “subjective” salvation. In addition, he claims that, since “by his blood Christ ‘purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9)...what Nash calls the indispensable ‘special revelation’ has not been proclaimed to ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’” (Punt, 153). My question is though, does this mean that the special revelation of Christ and the gospel is to be disregarded on the basis that “not everyone has heard”? I think not. This emotional appeal is not a sufficient argument against the Scriptures themselves, which argue that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The next critique Nash makes regarding inclusivism is its negation of the biblical commands to “repent” and “believe.” (see John 3:16, 18) If such commands are given with no specifications as to who is required to follow these commands and who is not, then doesn’t that settle the question? Inclusivism, then, becomes nothing more than a “heart-tug” because, whether inclusivists like it or not, every single person has to “repent and believe the gospel.” What is Neal Punt’s response to this?
“These demands to repent, believe, and live in joyful obedience through Christ, which can be called ‘demands of the gospel,’ have never been made known to those who live their entire life beyond the reach of the gospel. It is simply unwarranted to conclude that these gospel demands are made of those who never hear the gospel during their lifetime on earth, as Nash insists” (Punt, “A Theology of Inclusivism,” page 154).
Once again, I will make the claim that this is an emotional appeal. Let’s say that, hypothetically, Punt is right---that some do not receive the gospel from the hands of a human missionary. Does this discount the person getting the gospel at all? In other words, does the lack of a human missionary signify the lack of gospel presentation altogether? Is God’s work stunted, His plans thwarted, via the absence of a human missionary on some remote island? Let’s note Alister Macgrath’s response:
“So what about those who have never heard the gospel? Is the universality of the gospel compromised by the fact that, as a matter of history, the gospel has not been preached to all and its benefits made universally available? There can be no doubt that certain types of evangelical theology have caused considerable anxiety in this respect by their apparent insistence that only those who respond to the explicit verbal proclamation of the gospel will be saved. Pluralists and many others rightly observe that this is to write off the vast majority of those who have ever lived, who are deprived of salvation by matters of geographical and historical contingency. But this is a flawed theology, which limits God’s modes of actions, disclosure, and saving power (Alister Macgrath, “A Particularist View: A Post-Enlightenment Approach,” from “Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World” by Dennis Ockholm, general editor. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, page 178).
The person who says, “the lack of a human missionary indicates the lack of salvation for those who never hear,” is a person that is committed to either a) God didn’t choose for such persons to hear the gospel (Calvinist) or b) God cannot save them except through means of general revelation. And I think that both positions are terribly flawed in their outlook.
Calvinist exclusivists and Arminian inclusivists get the answer to the question “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?” wrong. The answer is not found in arguing general revelation (to the inadequacy of faith in Christ) or the doctrine of unconditional election (which posits that those don’t hear the gospel were never elected for salvation to begin with); instead, the answer is found in a Classical Arminian approach to missions. I will get into this missiological approach in my next post. Stay tuned...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

In Memory of My Mother, Teressa A. Richardson (June 28, 1956--February 3, 2009): The Lord, Our Light and Salvation

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked came against me to eat up my flesh, My enemies and foes, they stumbled and fell. Though an army may encamp against me, My heart shall not fear; Though war may rise against me, In this will I be confident.

One thing I have desired of the LORD, That will I seek; That I may dwell in the house of the LORD, All the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD, And to inquire in His temple. For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; In the secret place of His tabernacle He shall hide me; He shall set me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me; Therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His tabernacle; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the LORD” (Psalm 27, vv. 1-6, New King James Version).

Today at both the Center for Theological Studies (CTS) and Men and Women in the Church, the day is set aside to honor the memory of my mother, dearest friend, and inspiration, Teressa A. Richardson. For those who may not know, today marks the two-year anniversary of her death. Mom died back on February 3, 2009 after a three-year battle with breast cancer, lung cancer, and brain cancer. When it was time the Lord took His servant home to be with Him for all eternity...and mother slipped away from this life.
She died when I was still 24 years old; and even today at age 26 (soon to turn 27), I still miss my mom in my life. No matter how many seasons come and go, holidays, birthdays, or classes, I still miss her in my life. In the last two years I’ve learned that nothing on this earth will ever take her place...and nothing on this earth will ever truly heal the void she left in my life when she passed from it.
The passage above, Psalm 27, was one of my mother’s favorite passages. The Psalm begins with “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?” If I could sum up my mother’s life in a few words it would be these. She was one who, even in her tough times, could still take joy in knowing that God was still on her side. I can remember best when mom was sent home for six months. She was battling lung cancer and her doctor told her “Ms. Richardson, you’re gonna have to be out of work for at least six months.” My heart sank when I heard the news. But mom told me something afterwards that I wasn’t expecting:
 “I told the doctor ‘I will go home for six months; but I will go back to work.’ The doctor looked at me and said ‘But Teressa, you don’t understand how big this cancer is.’ And I looked at her and said ‘Oh, but you don’t understand HOW BIG MY GOD IS!’”
Mom took me by storm with those words. Even in the midst of her storm she could say “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?”. She didn’t even fear the cancer because the Lord was her light (He led her in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s Sake, Ps. 23:3) and He was her salvation (He could deliver her from the cancer). No matter how great her cancer was, it didn’t stand a chance when standing next to her Great and Almighty God!
David cried out “When the wicked came against me to eat up my flesh, my enemies and foes, they stumbled and fell” (v. 2). Mom experienced deliverance from cancer in her lifetime. I remember the first time she came down with cancer when I was still in college. She told me over the phone (I was still away in college at UNC-Chapel Hill) “I’ve got something to tell you.” I kept pressing her to tell me what it was but she waited until I was home. The news broke my heart but that night, standing in her mother’s (my grandmother’s home), grandma, mom, Danielle, and I all stood around in a circle holding hands as grandma began to call upon the name of the Lord in prayer. I cried so many tears in that prayer, crying to the Lord to heal my mother...
And I can remember when He did. That day, we all went to the clinic with mom to see her to her doctor’s visit. And I can remember when mom came out crying and saying “The cancer is gone!” I remember crying and screaming and saying “Thank you Jesus!” as my family tried to calm me down. All I could do was cry and scream “Praise the Lord!” throughout the doctor’s office. My mother was healed of her cancer and I wanted EVERYONE to know that the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, had done it; He had healed my mother of her life-threatening disease! She returned to church and in her testimony broke down in tears as she began to tell the church family of what God had done for her. God had healed her and she wanted everyone to know of the goodness of the Lord. Whether in good times or bad times, mom was determined to be a witness for God with every breath she was given. As verse 3 says, even though the army enclosed around David, he was confident of God’s power. Even though the cancer enclosed mother, she was confident that her God, at any moment, could deliver her.
Verses 4 and 5 tell of David’s desire to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and his reason for so doing: “for in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; in the secret place of His tabernacle He shall hide me; He shall set he high upon a rock” (v.5). Mom loved to dwell in the house of the Lord, to be amongst fellow believers and live in the presence of her God. Sunday mornings were church mornings---no questions asked. You could like it or were going to church. If you were alive and breathing, church was the place you were headed to on Sunday morning when the sun began to shine. She loved to meet with the saints of God, encourage, and give her testimony of the Lord’s goodness. She taught Sunday school and encouraged our church family to be about witnessing to the lost and dying people of the world. She often said that God did not save us to sit down on the pew; no---He saved us so we could go tell someone else and bring them to the “Living Water” that only Christ could give. David realized the benefit of living in the presence of God and being a child of God: when the going gets tough, God is right there fighting for His children. Mom found joy in doing the Lord’s work because she knew that when trouble would come, God would always “show up” and come through for His own. She was always troubled at how people can have so little time for God, but cry out to Him so much when they have a disease like cancer that they cannot get rid of. And how could they expect God to remember them when they surely seemed to care little about Him or His kingdom? She would tell the Sunday school class “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). She used to tell them that before the days turn bad, remember God even in the good times. And she lived that out in her own life.
In verse 6 David praises God because “now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me.” God finally heard David’s cries and delivered him as David knew God would do. In response to the Lord’s goodness, David began to bless the Lord: “Therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His tabernacle; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord” (v.6). Mom experienced the goodness of God in her life; and it drove her, like David, to sing praises and bless the Lord. Even during the times in her life when she felt as if God was distant, mom would still praise Him; when God would bless her, she would praise Him and give thanks to His Name for His goodness; and when she was battling for her own health and life, mom could still praise God for His goodness. Even through her tears she could still praise God. I thank the Lord that I got to see a woman who never tired of praising God, even in the storms of life.
If mom were here she would ask you, “Is the Lord your light and your salvation?” Is God present in your life? Can you agree with the psalmist David in this statement? Can you say that, because God is on your side, you have nothing to fear, no need to fear? If you don’t know the Lord I challenge you to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior today. The Bible, God’s Holy Word, declares that “nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). We can only be saved at the name of Jesus Christ, and at the name of Christ alone.
You may ask, “Why do I need to receive this Jesus?” You need to receive Him because we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). We all have done something wrong to offend the Almighty God. Because He is holy, He has to deal with sin. Each of us sinned in Adam (Rom. 5:12) and deserved to die, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). But I love the end of that verse: while “the wages of sin is death” it is also true that “the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Christ paid the penalty for our sin when He died on the cross. He became the curse for us, bore the curse that we deserved to bear so that we could take on His righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Here is how the prophet Isaiah summed it all up:
“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for OUR transgressions, He was bruised for OUR iniquities; the chastisement for OUR peace was upon Him, and BY HIS STRIPES WE ARE HEALED. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him THE INIQUITY OF US ALL” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
It is our sin that put Christ on the cross. But He paid our debt because God so loved the world (John 3:16). It is in love that God gave His Son, and whoever believes and calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. In times of trouble, as He hid mother, so also He will hide you.
Sickness, disease, and death will come as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow; but do you know the One that can heal your sin-sick soul? “There is a balm in Gilead,” and His name is Jesus. Only Jesus will do. There is no other that can take His place. If you do not receive Him, you are condemned already and nothing but Hell eternal awaits you (John 3:17-18). But if you receive Him, not only will you receive a friend that sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24), you will also spend eternity with Him. The choice is up to you. Don’t delay: receive Him today.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"To Be Or Not To Be?": Neal Punt and the Condition of Faith

  I just finished reading a book last night called “A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and A Theology of Religions” by Todd L. Miles. I recommend this book to anyone who desires to convert those of other faiths (Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, Mystic, etc.). Todd Miles does a wonderful job of refuting the inclusivist position of Arminians such as Clark Pinnock and Amos Yong. Let me just say that, while both inclusivists are Arminian, I disagree with their theology. F. Leroy Forlines is an example of an Arminian exclusivist, one who firmly believes that Christ is the only way (and name) for salvation. I firmly believe that those of us who are conservative, evangelical Arminians should support guys such as Leroy Forlines and staunchly oppose the inclusivist theology of religions as advocated by Clark Pinnock and Amos Yong.

I finished Miles’s book and sat down to start reading Neal Punt’s “A Theology of Inclusivism.” I actually wanted to read it sooner, but other magnificent research reading got in the way (thanks so much, Dr. Ken Keathley--- smile!).
I read the first couple of chapters and then stumbled onto chapter 5, titled “Isn’t Faith Necessary?”. Regarding faith and its role in salvation, Punt writes:
“But, strange as it may seem, none of these Spirit-directed activities are a prescription or prerequisite for our union with Christ, not even faith (“A Theology of Inclusivism.” Allendale: Northland Books, 2008, page 54).
According to Punt, faith is not a “prerequisite,” or pre-requirement, for salvation.
Punt’s language becomes more emphatic with these words:
“None of these human activities, not even faith, is a requirement or condition for salvation...” (54)
Faith has been labeled as a “prerequisite” (from the statement above) and a “condition” for salvation. Punt states that faith is not a requirement to be met before salvation, so he clearly espouses the Calvinist notion of regeneration (that is, that regeneration comes before faith). God first regenerates, and then the person excercises faith, which, for Punt, is a “fruit not a condition” (see pg. 49).
And why is it that faith cannot come before regeneration?
“Any requirement or condition for salvation would be incompatible with the undeniable fact that by Adam’s transgression, he and his descendants became ‘dead’ in sin, not merely weak or sick (Eph. 2:1)” (55).
So there can be no conditions for salvation, not even faith. Punt has confirmed this so far.
But he doesn’t “punt”; rather, he “fumbles” when it comes to his next section, “The Urgency of Faith.” Punt writes:
“It appears that if nothing else, faith is one prerequisite, condition, or requirement for salvation (56).
But his statement made on page 56 contradicts what he wrote on pages 49, 54, 55, etc. On the surface, to say “faith is not a condition for salvation” (54) and then turn around and say “faith is a condition for salvation” is to make contradictory or opposing statements. To say the latter statement signals to Punt’s readers that he has negated the former statement.
The question I pose to Neal Punt is, “Is faith a condition for salvation or not?”. And this is a question that only Neal Punt can answer for himself. I will return with more to say about Neal Punt’s work. Stay tuned...