A Letter to a Professor

Dr Hutchison,

Thank you again for taking the time last week and today for the personal feedback. I feel like I can reply to both since both messages are dealing with the same general issue. Please read this letter in a tone of candid friendliness, however contrary you may or may not find my opinions. The following paragraphs may sound a little didactic but please understand that I do not presume to teach you. However, I do believe that any belief worth having is worth holding strongly, and so I proceed.

Regarding your response that to say prayer should be frequent is “a huge understatement”: The reason why I use “frequent” and not “constant” or some synonym is that Paul, in all his praying without ceasing, was a very busy man that seems to have been engaged in many activities besides prayer. His own admonition had to refer to a disposition and not a literal habit (“without ceasing,” unavoidably to the hypothetical exclusion of the other many activities for which he and we are responsible), which means that while we must at all times maintain a God-ward heart and mind, the actual act of praying (“Our Father…”) has to be no less than frequent, but probably not actually more. Just as I may spend all day at my office along with the other pastors at my church and our conversation never really ends yet we are not constantly engaged in actual talk, the same must apply to our conversation with the Father.

Regarding legalism: It has been many years since I was asked to make my exit from Fundamentalist circles, but I have always been convicted by the necessity of showing grace to those who seem to experience none. It’s been a battle that has tested my patience many times, but I’m thankful to say that God has brought some fruit out of it and I have seen a number of old relationships restored and legalists turned toward grace. I am not wounded or cynical, but rather I’ve endeavored to make myself aware of the root causes of legalism itself. Legalism, in my estimation, is caused chiefly by teaching as commands from God the mere doctrines of men. This in turn leads to my next concern.

Regarding extra-scriptural ideas: In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul suggests that the infighting of his fan-club against those of Apollos or Christ is ultimately due to their lack of unity around the foolishness of the cross. In place of the centrality of Christ and grace, they argue over their personal teachers and opinions; as a solution, Paul makes the following statement: “I have applied all these things to myself and to Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Hearsay or not, the basing of any doctrine or dogmatic practice on the statements of believers (mature or otherwise) seems to be a very tenuous foundation at best, or (what is more probable) even a direct violation of scripture itself. While Moses, David, Daniel, Jesus, and Paul all demonstrate occasional prayers of substantial length, nothing else I’ve seen in scripture justifies the position that many hours of prayer on a daily basis is a normative or even useful thing for a believer to be engaged in. Please understand my spirit here — I am not attempting to make a dogmatic statement and I myself have many times been driven to long periods of prayer when God laid someone or something on my heart. What I am addressing is the notion that we as pastors ought to be teaching people to evaluate their spiritual maturity in part on an idea that is not commanded in scripture.

Finally, regarding past believers: While I have certainly benefitted from the study of the lives and works of many past believers, I cannot seem to escape their imperfections or even hypocrisy (Calvin’s condoning of public execution of a heretic and Jonathan Edward’s ownership of slaves being a few prominent examples), and these facts have two effects on me: first, they encourage me to know that God uses each of us despite our sins, but second, it also calls into question both their wisdom and maturity. It is one thing to be an imperfect husband; it is a different thing to murder or enslave. Again, I am not wishing to make a mean-spirited or arrogant statement, but the history of the church is littered with schisms, executions, crusades, and hypocrisies among institutions that stood against science and freedom of thought and expression. While church history is something we can learn from, the saints serve as a negative example perhaps as often as otherwise, so I’ve neither felt any particular danger in differing from them in my interpretations nor been convinced of rationale to do otherwise. I remain completely open to other viewpoints on this, but experience leads me to believe that even the best of us are not fully trustworthy, unlike the scripture.

Of course, there are those in the church who feel the need to backpedal and defend the spiritual giants of the past, and I think that’s admirable. Yet, I’m not sure they need the defense. Spiritual leaders are imperfect (just like all of us) and God’s grace covers their sins as well as ours. I have no desire to assassinate the memory of their character. However, in my dialogues with unbelievers, they allow no such quarter, and it is to them that I must carry the Great Commission. One cannot defend Calvin to an unbeliever by saying he only murdered one man or Edwards by asserting that he felt uncomfortable with the fact that he owned slaves. Hypocrisy is one of the top three reasons unbelievers give as to why they cannot become Christian in my experience, and it’s such an important thing that the Bible has an entire chapter devoted to it (Matthew 23). To defend them or openly hold them up as spiritual giants is a mistake as it comes to evangelism. We can safely learn what we can from Augustine or Lewis and then let them quietly slip back into the history books, judging both their teachings and mistakes as well as our own by the explicit statements of scripture and nothing more.

As a final disclaimer, I want to reiterate that I’m in no way upset; I’ve appreciated your counterpoint and concerned feedback, and there are certainly exceptions to the things I’m claiming here. I see your point and don’t particularly disagree with what you’ve said so much as I believe that it’s worth considering that there may be more (or in this situation, perhaps less) to the story.

JS

Image of God

The most significant passage of the Bible that discusses the image of God in man is Genesis 1:26-27, which states “God created mankind in his own image…male and female.”[1] However, the precise meaning of this passage is something that is debated among theologians. The fact that man was somehow created in God’s likeness is repeated later in the book when, after the fall and flood, God requires man’s blood for blood because they bear his likeness; no other explicit reference to the image of God occurs in the Old Testament.[2] The New Testament adds several new passages, however; with 1 Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9 confirming the latent image and likeness of God in man. What it means for humanity to have been made in God’s image and how that still relates to us today is explained somewhat by 2 Corinthians 3:18, which describes sanctification as the process of being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.”[3]

The most dominant interpretation of this throughout church history is the substantive view, which sees the image of God as some kind psychological, moral, rationale, or (in some cases) even physical reflection in man.[4] Other theologians have seen it as the experiencing of a relationship (relational view)[5] or the carrying out of the function of human dominion of planet earth (functional view).[6] While it is possible that all of these aspects have something to do with the true meaning of the image of God, what we do know for sure is that the image of God in man is universal and no one person seems to have “more” of it than another; indeed, the image of God is from God and remains untarnished by the fall despite what human sins and failures may be. Being made in the image of God means that there is some kind of substantive aspect in ourselves that enables us us to actively and functionally fulfill our destiny to reflect the character and dominion of God in this world.[7]


[1] Genesis 1:27

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1998), 459.

[3] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1998), 461.

[5] Ibid., 463.

[6] Ibid., 465.

[7] Ibid., 470.

Philosophy VS Theology

It is unfortunate that theology and philosophy share such a strained relationship because theology should be more accurately understood as a partial subset of philosophy. Both philosophy and its subsets (ontology, metaphysics, ethics, and so on) share identical questions and answers with religions, they are essentially the same issue; that is, a Biblical faith or a Christian worldview should itself be seen as a philosophical category. Because theology incorporates aspects of history as well as literary interpretation, perhaps theology in the most general sense merely overlaps with philosophy like a Venn diagram; on the other hand, secular philosophy itself also has a history and also is based largely in the written texts of philosophers long departed. The key distinction in this writer’s perception is that philosophy is generally seen as more scientific or academic (or at the least, more rational) whereas theology is perceived in the culture at large as largely speculative and subjective. This dichotomy represents a larger rift in our cultural consciousness, that of the gap between faith and reason or between religion and science. In this case, the gap between theology (most particularly systematic theology and apologetics) and philosophy is an artificial one because both disciplines use the same apparatus (the mind, writings of earlier thinkers, science, cultural exegesis) and seek the same answers. The only true difference is theology’s claim to supernatural revelation, which is itself a particular of its philosophy.

Egyptian and Persian Influences on the Bible

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to this article, and in response I had a few thoughts…

a. Regarding the entire article. I believe in the supremacy of grace over karmic religion on account of the resurrected Christ. I do not believe in the strict exclusivity of truth or revelation in the Christian religion itself. It is interesting to note the similarities (and quite possibly even the borrowing) between religions. If what we say (that “all truth is God’s truth”) is true, how could we expect otherwise? The Bible was not (as the author noted) written in a historical vacuum. To note its influences should only make our understanding and appreciation of it richer.

b. Regarding #8, the Book of Proverbs. I also have a slightly more nuanced view of inspiration and inerrancy as it relates to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. I believe that we have strong reason to believe that they rightly represent the character of God, but certain elements could have been embellished (did Saul, David, and Solomon all actually reign for exactly 40 years each, especially considering the importance and repetition of that number elsewhere in Hebrew writings?) or accurately represent erroneous views at the time. The book of Job is a significant example, being a story not labeled as fiction but 1. probably was and 2. contains multiple perspectives on truth. That said, even with a more strictly traditional view, I don’t think it’s a stretch to posit that there may have been common Proverbs said by an Egyptian king and repeated by and attributed to an Israelite one. Curiously, a small selection of proverbs with similarities does not suggest the entire book of Proverbs was lifted from another document.

C. Regarding #6, the Canaanites. As the author noted, this has been an ongoing debate for some time. The short answer is that there’s no real reason why the Biblical account could not have been true. Consider: even by the time the family of Abraham left Canaan for Egypt, they numbered fewer than 100. Regardless of one’s view of the exodus from Egypt, history would have to view the origin (at least in one sense) of the Israelites as being largely Canaanite with a strong Egyptian influence, even if (strictly speaking) they began as Chaldeans.

D. Regarding everything else in the article. The preponderance of the author’s assertions is based in ideas drawn from Zoroastrianism. This really is a three part discussion so I’ll use multiple paragraphs for this one.

1. Regarding heaven and hell and the trinity. There are a number of doctrines that were created by the church in its first few centuries that are not strictly taught in the Bible which were quite possibly amalgamated from other religions. The Biblical doctrine of hell, for example, is much sketchier than orthodoxy presents it. The word “trinity” isn’t mentioned in the Bible (though, of course, the concept can be seen). The Marian doctrines and canonizing of saints in the Catholic church are often seen as drawn from the Egyptian Isis and Greek Artemis. And let’s not even get started on the origins of Christmas.

2. Fun fact: Zoroastrianism is well known and documented as having originated in the 7th century, and it wasn’t officially crystalized into what we know as “Zoroastrianism” until the 6th century (500s BCE). On the other hand, even liberal sources put the prophet Isaiah as living in the 8th century BCE. While Zoroastrianism’s possibly influence on Christianity is noteworthy, suggesting a Zoroastrian influence on Isaiah (or really, another from the Old Testament era) is purely anachronistic. Perhaps just as important, whatever influence Zoroastrianism may have had on early Christian philosophers, it is dwarfed by the continuity of Abrahamic faith that Christianity inherited from the Jewish scripture.

3. This is where it gets particularly interesting (to me, at least). The idea of monotheism has always been strictly bound to the continuum of religions that sprung from the faith of Abraham. For example, Mormonism comes from Christianity, which came from Judaism, which came from Moses, a descendent of Abraham. Baha’i split off of Islam, which evolved from Christianity and Judaism. Obviously Protestants and Catholics are two major branches of Christianity itself, and so on. Historically, there are only two religions that are posited as being exceptions to this: first is the attempt at monotheistic reform by Akhenaten, pharaoh of Egypt in the 14th century BCE, and the second is Zoroastrianism.
Now, whether you’re a liberal and you date the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt in the 13th century or whether you’re a conservative and you put it in the 15th century, we all agree that the children of Israel were both (a) monotheistic and (b) in Egypt for several hundred years prior to the exodus. In other words, there is no historical doubt that the only known monotheistic faith in the world at that time (Abrahamic monotheism) had a living presence in Egypt leading up to and during the time of Akhenaten — the first and only Egyptian to attempt to create a monotheistic religion in Egypt.
Additionally, the Assyrians conquered and began exporting Jews east in 720 BCE (8th century) and Babylonians conquered Judah in 607 BCE and began exporting Jews until at least 586 BCE with the destruction of Jerusalem. By the time Persia had established its empire less than a century later (the same timeframe as the origin of Zoroastrianism), Jews (again, the only known monotheistic religion in the world at the time) would have been living among and influencing the Persian culture and worldview for nearly two centuries already.
In other words, in both Egypt and Persia, there is strong reason to believe that the otherwise unique idea of monotheism was drawn not by the Biblical religions from the Persian, Egyptian, or Canaanite religions, but rather the other way around. (of random note: this is what some posit as the reason for the magi following the star of Bethlehem; perhaps these –almost certainly Persian– scholars had interest in a Messianic prophecy they heard from the Jews in exile?)

 

All that to say, I don’t know if I would say the author of the article is strictly wrong, but she does seem to fall into the common misconception that Zoroastrianism influenced Abrahamic monotheism rather than the other way around. While there are a few striking similarities between aspects of Christianity and Zoroastrianism, this is easily attributed to either the idea of 1. All truth is God’s truth or 2. Both of them got it wrong, since some of ideas aren’t actually contained in the Jewish or Christian scriptures at all.

Re: Head Coverings

Ah, head coverings. The short of my opinion is the idea of cultural relativism. It breaks down like this:

A. First and certainly foremost, the standards Paul set forward here were not just subjective but unique (and limited) to his specific time and place by the reckoning of other scriptures. Paul assumes that “nature itself [teaches] you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,” (v.14) however others in the Biblical past (such as Samson and other Nazirites) had the honor of long hair as men. In short, some passages in the Bible (in this case, during ancient Israel) view long hair as an honor, whereas in Paul’s situation it was considered a disgrace for some reason.

B. It is instructive that Paul himself does not present the long hair/short hair dichotomy as absolute. In verse 6 he mentions that “if a wife/woman (same word in the Greek) will not cover her head, she should cut her hair short” even after explicitly says that to do otherwise would dishonor her head (v.5). In short, Paul says one thing is best, but there are alternatives. In other words, the standard is not absolute.

C. Because both scripture and Paul’s own words suggest that the hair and covering standards in vv.2-16 are subjective and not absolute, we should wonder to what they are subject. Paul states certain (apparently) commonly known ideas, such as that “it is disgraceful for a woman to shave her head.” (v.6) Maybe that was commonly known in his time and culture, but short(er) hair on woman is certainly not regarded that else elsewhere. The only reasonable option is to conclude that whatever Paul’s notions are here, they are culturally bound and therefore the literal reading has less significance for the modern reader than for the original audience. 

D. Additionally, the real meaning of the passage is obscured by Paul’s reference to angels as the end of v.9. The word “because” suggests that Paul meant that clause to be something of an explanatory note, but something was clearly lost in translation or (as is more likely) the cultural gap between now and then. 

E. It is also of note that 1 Corinthians 7 and following all are part of a Q&A Paul has in which he quotes something they wrote, and then answers back to them. It seems unlikely but is nevertheless possible that some of the stranger elements of vv.2-16 were written as an incorrect understanding on the part of the Corinthians and that Paul’s answer lies at the end or perhaps even after the passage. For example, in this passage v.10 ends with the assertion that a wife/woman “must have a symbol of authority on her head,” yet the next verse (v.11) begins with “Nevertheless, for those in Christ neither men nor women are independent of each other.” It seems to be in contrast with the passage up until that point, so it’s possible that from perhaps about vv.4-10, Paul is quoting the Corinthians, then responding to their (inaccurate) views in vv.11-16.

F. In any case, there is some instruction to be gleaned from the principle that Paul suggests while we also must understand the actual literal instructions in vv.4-16 must be ignored. What principle do I myself see as the remnant of this passage after the culturally subjective element has been filtered?  In marriage, the head of a wife is the husband, but both are dependent on each other and both must submit to Christ. I don’t know that there is much more to this passage than that.

Glorifying God in the Midst of Conflict

While conflict often has negative implications for the lives of those who experience it, this is not necessarily the case. Conflict itself is a natural and unavoidable result of the interaction of different people with different ideas and desires. Although these differences have historically led to all kinds of harmful consequences ranging from divorce to genocide, a God-centered worldview can render conflict a welcome and useful way to engage each other and glorify God. However, even in those situations where one side or the other will not embrace a God-centered view of conflict, one can still behave in such a manner as to reflect the glory of God.

A Biblical Example

A prime example from the scriptures of how this interaction can play out is found in Galatians 2:1-21. The apostle Paul describes how after a fourteen-year stint of ministry he returned to Jerusalem with his protégés Barnabas and Titus only to find that there was a growing influence of Jewish legalists who “slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Jesus Christ, so that they might bring us into slavery.”[1] Paul himself was outspoken in his criticism of and separation from these people, allying against them with influential leaders in the Jerusalem church such as James, John, and Peter.[2] Not long afterward, however, Paul encountered a very different attitude from his ally Peter while ministering at Antioch:

But when [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.[3] 

A number of things should be noted here. First, two believers were in conflict and one of them felt very strongly that the other was in the wrong. While conflicts can come in many forms, it is common in all of them for people to assume that they themselves are correct even if they do not possess full understanding of the other person’s perspective. However, in this particular case, Paul is clearly in the right, yet he still reacts to this conflict in a Christ-like manner, as will be demonstrated.

Second, Paul was concerned first and foremost about the glory of God. Paul was disturbed by the doctrinal underpinnings of Peter’s behavior and goes on to describe why Peter’s behavior was so reprehensible – which turns out to be primarily on theological grounds. Specifically, Paul asserts “if righteousness were [possible] through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”[4] While God does not need us to defend him, it is telling that the rest of Paul’s reaction is rooted in his zeal for an accurate idea of God and his grace.

Third, Paul is also clearly motivated out of love for his friends. Titus was Greek by birth, and even though initially the Jerusalem church did not expect him to embrace circumcision,[5] he would have been deeply offended by his coworker Barnabas so quickly abandoning support of him and switching sides.[6] Barnabas himself, being in Jewish in background, was particularly susceptible to this Jewish legalism, but of course it was Peter himself that began the defection. Paul would have wanted to encourage Titus by showing support for him while feeling alienated, and his tone indicates he wanted to rescue Barnabas from the aftermath of Peter’s failure.

Finally, Paul acts. Instead of letting the offense go and causing resentment and faction, he deals with the problem. In dealing with Peter himself, Paul also shows respect by addressing the problem at the same level; instead of gossiping about it, Paul dealt directly with the offender:

But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to [Peter] before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews? We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”[7]

While we do not know what became of the legalists who caused the initial heresy, it is clear that Peter and Barnabas were receptive to Paul’s rebuke, as Peter himself later acknowledged the divine authority of some of Paul’s writings.[8] Had Paul failed to embrace the conflict in a way that glorified God by either refusing to confront or by failing to do so in a spirit that reflected a love for God and for people, the letter to Galatians might have recorded a much sadder outcome.

Responding to Conflict in a Way That Glorifies God

While the relationship between Peter and Paul (and the account of these two men representing the tension-ridden transition from Judaism to Christianity in the first century) may be more momentous than any relationship conflict that one might encounter today, the principles of how to glorify God remain the same. The simplest way of understanding how to glorify God in conflict is that we must operate in a frame of spirit, mind, and behavior that accurately represents who God is and how he would have us live.

First, we must examine ourselves before passing judgment on other people.[9] Conflicts are rarely one-sided, and conflicting human desires are often the result of idolatry – that is, one or more parties in conflict are valuing something or someone more than the glory of God.[10] Any time we seek to meet our needs in anyone or anything other than God himself, we will ultimately come up short and use other people for our own ends.[11]

Second, the one who first realizes there is a conflict has the obligation to begin the process of reconciliation.[12] To do otherwise is both to disobey Jesus Christ as well as risk bitterness and resentment building as each blames the other while also waiting for the other to solve the problem, often gossiping in the process. Instead, Jesus insists that the two sides privately take up the matter and attempt to solve their differences between themselves before taking the conflict more public.[13]

Third, any communication must be done in a spirit of humble kindness. Having already illustrated his principle in the previous Biblical example, Paul writes a few chapters later in Galatians 6 that “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you also be tempted.”[14] When healing rifts between people, there should never be a desire to win an argument or put the other person in his or her place, but rather direct and private action motivated by the good of the other person and the glory of God.

Conclusion

Conflict occurs between all people, but it is always possible to glorify God when settling differences between other people. Rather than seeing conflict as a thing to be buried or avoided at all costs, believers should view conflict as an opportunity to better understand each other as well as God’s purpose in their lives. By dealing with conflict Biblically, quickly, and in a spirit of love for God and each other, Christians can model the glory of God in conflicts with each other.


[1] Galatians 2:4

[2] Galatians 2:5-10

[3] Galatians 2:11-13

[4] Galatians 2:21

[5] Galatians 2:3

[6] Galatians 2:13

[7] Galatians 2:14-16

[8] 2 Peter 3:15-16

[9] Matthew 7:1-5

[10] Alfred Poirier, The Peace Making Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 58.

[11] Ibid., 49.

[12] Matthew 5:23

[13] Matthew 18:15-16

[14] Galatians 6:1

A Purpose Statement

  • My purpose as a human is to pursue intimacy with God through prayer, service to other people, and meditation on the scriptures so that I will find my deepest joy in glorifying him.
  • This joy in Christ will overflow so that I can then share it with other people, giving to them and receiving from them this same joy in Christ to the glory of God and our mutual friendship.
  • Having delighted myself in God and acknowledged him in all my ways, I have been led to the specific purposes of teaching and counseling from the scriptures (especially among military personnel) and reflecting the glory of God through art (especially photography).
  • In any of these spheres, my purpose is both to glorify God in the thing itself that is inherently pleasing to him, as well as to use those spheres of contact and influence for the mission of God.
  • Toward the end of being able to discharge this calling and also to finish well, I will manage the stresses of life in this ministry capacity through proper use of recreation (to sharpen the mind, to stimulate the heart, and to strengthen the body) as well as the setting of boundaries to keep my life product within the production capacity God has set for me.

The above bullets represent my collective purpose statement, covering the various areas of ministry and concern for the prevention of ministry failure. I see the ultimate purpose of any human being chiefly in terms of his relationship with God, which is inextricably linked both to God being made much of (his glory) as well as the happiness and deep fulfillment in the human. Regardless of one’s profession, one’s relationship to God and one’s place of service inside the Kingdom of God are the centrally defining aspects of anyone’s existence.

The concept of life purpose and God’s calling on one’s life can be confusing, but the scripture is actually quite plain. Rather than relying on a specific sense of “calling,” the Bible encourages us to delight ourselves in the Lord in order to be guided with the right heart desires,[1] and to acknowledge him in all of our ways in order for him to make our path lead straight to his will.[2] This is not a matter of knowing God’s will in advance, but rather following him step by step based on our desires, talents, and opportunities.


[1] Psalm 37:4

[2] Proverbs 3:5-6