Monday, January 23, 2017

Review of Butterflies in the Belfry--Serpents in the Cellar, by J. Michael Jones

Book Review
Butterflies in the Belfry—Serpents in the Cellar: An Unintended Pursuit for a Natural Christianity
J. Michael Jones, Naked Christian Press, 2016, 235p.

My friend Michael Jones has written an intriguing and poignant memoir in which he describes his journey from the destructive aberrations of Christian evangelicalism to a more holistic and “natural” style of Christian faith. His journey takes him from East Tennessee to Egypt where he experiences a crisis of faith. Upon returning to the States, suffering deep depression and failing to find healing in the evangelical churches and ministries he had previously known, Jones begins the “unintended pursuit” for understanding the Christian faith as it has developed in Western culture. The author shares this journey with the reader as, through his study and travel in other cultures, he comes to see the destructive impact that Greek philosophy has had in Christian culture. Philosophical dualism, whether of the Platonic or Aristotelian variety, has, in his view, resulted in unbiblical or unnatural forms of Christian faith. In sharing his experience, Jones offers the reader a more honest and healthy way of faith than is found in perhaps most churches of modern Western culture.

This is a very honest and helpful book. I can identify with the author's pursuit because I have walked much of this journey myself. Coming from similar religious backgrounds (small-town Southern Baptist Churches) to the same college and para-church ministry organization, we have seen some of the same unhealthy and destructive tendencies in fundamentalist and evangelical Christian faith. We have arrived at different places in our journeys, but his experience resonates with my own in many ways.

I was concerned when I saw the sub-title of the book: “an unintended pursuit for a natural Christianity.” Is that “natural” as opposed to “supernatural” I wondered. But no, what Jones was pursuing is a Christian faith in its purest form, a more Biblical faith, one not so affected by the corrupting effects of dualistic thinking. I appreciate that effort. He does a fine job of describing the historical consequences of Christian faith being over-laid with Platonic idealism or Aristotelian materialism. Yet I am not convinced that Christianity's use of Greek philosophical categories is all a bad thing, as Jones seems to think. Believing that “all truth is God's truth,” and that even pagan philosophers, through the use of reason can perceive that truth, I believe that, with much of Christian thinking, at least in the West, Aristotle and Plato can be very helpful. Nevertheless, I would agree that dualistic thinking, especially in its Gnostic tendencies, is a huge problem, and for Christians, Biblical revelation must not bow to Greek philosophy.

I wish that the author had explored the divide between Catholic and Protestant thinking to some degree—Luther's rejection of Idealism in favor of Nominalism and its effect on evangelical faith and practice would be a beneficial study to include in this pursuit, I believe. I think the historical overview could be improved by avoiding the historical bias revealed in the term “Dark Ages,” and I would want him to study further the suggestion that “during its first millennium, the Roman Catholic Church had ignored or even destroyed the original writings of the Greek philosophers” (p. 144). I would suggest Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization and Rodney Stark's Bearing False Witness as helpful correctives to what may be a bit of anti-Catholic bias in the author's reading list.

But these are minor reservations. This is a fine book and I am very glad he published it. The author is an excellent writer. I found myself close to tears as he narrates the desperation of his family's crisis in Cairo, and I felt the joy of his healing as he marvels at the goodness of God's creation. This book is an intelligent and honest portrayal of one man's struggle of faith in the contemporary world—it perhaps can bring healing and hope to others. It deserves a wide readership and I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Puritan and the Catholic: a short Parable

Two men went up to the temple to pray; one a Puritan and the other a Catholic. The Puritan stood up and prayed thus with himself: “God, I thank you that I am of the elect and not like other men. I have the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit and the infallible assurance of my salvation. I condemn all traditions of men and strive to keep even the least commandments of the law.” Meanwhile the Catholic beat his breast saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you this second man went away justified rather than the first, for “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Book Review: Is it sin to believe in Theistic Evolution?

Review of: Theistic Evolution: A Sinful Compromise, by John M. Otis, Triumphant Publications, 2013, 322 pages.

 In his new book, Theistic Evolution: A Sinful Compromise, John Otis continues his mission of warning Christians of the heresies he sees threatening the Church. Like his earlier work, Danger in the Camp: An Analysis and Refutation of the Heresies of the Federal Vision, Otis' special concern does not seem to be with the Church at large, but specifically with those churches whose doctrinal formularies include the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The author is a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS), but his primary focus of attack is not his own denomination, (of which there are apparently only 9 congregations) but one that he left some 20 years ago, the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA numbers some 1400 congregations). 
Pastor Otis is particularly concerned with the growing acceptance of certain ideas concerning the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. Otis believes that the Bible allows only one view of the days of Genesis 1—that these are literal 24 hours days—and that any allowance for the possibility of the “days” meaning a long period of time is a dangerous and sinful heresy. Furthermore, Otis is convinced that only a young-earth cosmology is faithful to Scripture—he believes any teaching that the earth might be older than about 6000 years is also a dangerous heresy and a sinful compromise.
I can not find much to praise in this book, except the author's evident concern to protect the authority of Scripture and to maintain the purity of the Reformed churches. Those are, I believe, worthy goals. But I believe his efforts in that direction are significantly misguided, making this a sad and disappointing book. I will endeavor to show a few reasons why I believe Otis' efforts are misguided and do not help the cause of Christ and His Church.

I. First is the lack of judgement shown in the author's use of sources and authorities. This is very evident in chapter 2 of the work, concerning the chronology of Genesis. Here he introduces us to the work of James Ussher, by way of the words of praise for him written by one Floyd Nolen Jones. After quoting Jones, Otis observes: “I think it is noteworthy that Ussher's critics today, such as Peter Enns and Jack Collins,[two of several "sinful compromisers" attacked by Otis] pale in insignificance to James Ussher, and both do not merit to be mentioned in the same league as him.” But he apparently believes that Floyd Nolen Jones is in Ussher's league, and therefore, Otis must think, Jones is way ahead of men like Enns and Collins in scholarly credibility. I looked up Mr. Jones on the web and discovered his “credentials” on his personal website:

Having attained a Ph.D. as well as a Th.D., Dr. Jones has garnered majors in the disciplines of Geology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Theology, and Education from six institutions of higher learning. A magna cum laude graduate and an ex-evolutionist, he also possesses a minor in Physics and is an ordained Minister (SBC). Dr. Jones twice served as adjunct Professor at Continental Bible College in Brussels, Belgium and was Chairman of the Department of Biblical Chronology at Pacific International University.”

This alone should raise many red flags for a discerning researcher. What schools did Jones attend? Who granted the PhD and ThD? Is the Continental Bible College a highly-respected institution? How many universities do you know that have a “Department of Biblical Chronology?” Is Pacific International University merely a diploma mill? 
Now for comparison we can visit the web for information about Enns and Collins, and we find that Enns has a PhD from Harvard and taught at an academically respectable seminary (Westminster) for many years. Similarly, Jack Collins has 2 degrees from M.I.T., plus a PhD from the University of Liverpool and has had a long teaching career at another well-known conservative reformed seminary.
Are Enns and Collins, or Otis and Jones, closer to playing in the same league as James Ussher? The reader can decide.

II. Another disturbing tendency in Otis' writing is his apparent conviction that the way he reads Scripture is the “right way.” So we see repeated such phrases as “a plain reading...” or a “literal reading...” or a “literal interpretation...” of Scripture. Otis believes that Genesis 1-3 cannot be in any sense poetic or symbolic, but must be interpreted literally. Furthermore, he asserts that the historical context of the writer or original audience is of no consequence, since the words are the inspired words of God. Apparently Otis believes that inspiration means that the language of the ancient Hebrew people can always be adequately translated in such a way that the meaning is always clear. It is not necessary, Otis believes, to approach the text with the questions that the original writer was seeking to answer, or from the point of view of the original readers. It seems that Otis believes that an inspired text means that we can ask modern questions of a text written 3000 years ago and expect to find a sufficient answer literally given. Now it is one thing to agree with the confession that all things necessary “for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life is either expressly set down in scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” But it is quite another to assume that any and all questions may be answered by Scripture. Is it possible that the questions being asked, and answered, in the time of Moses had nothing to do with the length of the days of creation? Surely we must agree that is at least possible.

Otis also exemplifies poor exegetical methods in his attempt to argue for a literal “calendar day” interpretation of Genesis 1. He writes: “A word study for the word 'yom' in the Old Testament reveals that the preponderant use of this term demands that we understand it to be a literal twenty-four hour period of time. The word occurs 1,704 times in the Old Testament, and the overwhelming usage has to do with a normal day from morning to evening.”

Let's examine this. Certainly there are more usages of “yom” that indicate a single day, but there are of course many usages in the Old and New Testament of “the day” meaning more than a single day, such as “the day of the Lord” language found in places, especially in the prophets. For instance: ”For it is the day of the Lord's vengeance, and the year of recompences for the controversy of Zion.” (Isa. 34:8). In II Cor. 6, Paul quotes Isa 49:8 “and in the day of salvation I helped you.” Paul then states, “now is the day of salvation.” Would Pastor Otis suggest that this “day of salvation” that Paul proclaims is a single 24-hour day? If so, is it the day Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians or the day they received the letter? Obviously day means more than a single day. But what is especially telling in the author's exegesis is his ignoring the use of the word day or “yom” in one place in the immediate context of the disputed passage, i.e. Genesis 2:4 “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” Genesis 1 has described the Lord making the earth and the heavens in six “days,” and Otis has argued that these days can be no other than 24-hour days. Yet here is Genesis 2 speaking of “the day” (singular) when the earth and heavens were made. Were the heavens and earth made in six days or in one? Does Genesis 2 contradict Genesis 1, or does the author of Genesis simply use the word in another way than Pastor Otis allows?

In “argument 2” of Chapter 2 of the book, Otis presents “Key Qualifying statements.” Here he purports to show that the phrase “evening and morning” always refers to a day as a “twenty-four hour” period. To “prove” this, he then quotes two passages from Exodus. But unfortunately for his point, the passages quoted do not depict a 24-hour period, but rather something like 12 hours. The first text is “the people stood before Moses from morning until evening.” And the second: “Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening until morning.” Now if Otis wants to show that the language of Genesis 1 (“there was evening and morning, the nth day”) means a “day” is 24 hours, in seems rather odd that he would choose a passage that shows an assembly in the daylight hours and another that describes keeping lamps lit at night—each passage showing no more that a 12-hour period.

An objection to Otis' insistence that “day” in scripture means a 24 hour period is the usage of the term in II Peter 3:8-9, which says that with the Lord “a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day.” The author says this is the “fall back verse that all compromisers want to use.” Otis admits it is “plainly obvious that this meaning is to be understood figuratively.” What he doesn't explain, however, is how it is plainly obvious here that, as he writes, “with God, time is meaningless.” Especially is this odd, since Otis elsewhere argues that to suggest that God may create through long periods of time rather than instantaneously, would be to “rob God of his glory.” 

Pastor Otis apparently believes that an instantaneous creation is more glorifying to God than for a creation to be brought to fruition over long ages. Why is this? Is there anything in the Bible itself to support the conclusion that God working immediately, rather than mediating his work through others or through processes, is more glorifying to himself? How about the glory of God in his Church being established and the gospel being victorious over his enemies? I know that Otis believes the Church will be victorious, and he also believes this is not instantaneous, but a long struggle, entailing the preaching of the gospel and the faithful obedience of his people. If an architect designs a building, let us say something on the order of Chartres cathedral, and then gives the task of construction to stone masons and carpenters who work on that structure for a hundred years, is the glory of the architect diminished because the work was mediated through others and through time? I think not. Indeed, when the work is successfully completed, it is perhaps all the more glorious that such a plan could be effected with such amazing results.

III. Another thing that disturbs me about Otis' methodology is his apparent total disregard for general revelation. Closely tied to this, of course, is his absolute commitment to a rigid view of sola scriptura. It is distressing to me that one who claims to want to exalt the glory of God seems to almost totally disregard the glory of God manifested in His creation. As the Confession says, “the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God...” The study of the world that God made is the study of general revelation. With the God-given powers of observation and deduction, man observes nature, formulates theories, makes hypotheses, draws conclusions. This is what we call science. We can do science because we are made in God's image—endowed with reason and intellect. Now I do believe that science, done well, brings us closer to understanding God through understanding his creation. Science done poorly may lead us in the other direction. But Otis' tone in this book seems entirely dismissive of the scientific endeavor.
 If a Christian, pursuing high-level scientific research (someone such as Francis Collins for instance), should maintain that he sees God at work through evolution, Otis will accuse this good man of being a “pseudo-scientist” and a “sinful compromiser.”Again, he seems to suggest that all questions can be answered by scripture alone. It seems clear to me, and I think it seems clear to most thinking Christians, that the Bible was not given in order to answer all questions, but, as the confession tells us, gives us “that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.”

It seems to me that for Otis, as for many I have known in Reformed circles, the concept of sola scriptura is an often unexamined presupposition. It is unexamined in the sense that, it seems to me, many of these brothers have never realized that the Bible itself doesn't teach “sola scriptura.” In other words, they have taken an unbiblical presupposition as the starting point for their theology. (If anyone knows where the Bible does teach “sola scriptura” please let this writer know).

Otis declares that scientific observation should not inform our interpretation of Scripture. As an experiment in that method, (sola scriptura, no information from scientific observation) let us ask how we might interpret this text: “That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other,” (Isa. 45:6, cf Isa 59:19, others). These verses indicate the sun rises and sets. We know, or at least scientists tell us, that the Sun does not move in relation to the earth—it does not literally rise in the east and set in the west. Science has demonstrated that the earth revolves, giving the appearance to those on earth that the sun is moving. In the ancient world the “obvious” and “literal” reading of this scripture would certainly seem to indicate the sun moves, and not the earth. Is it now poor hermeneutics or a “sinful compromise” to allow our knowledge of science to inform us that we should probably interpret these verses in a non-literal fashion?

I do not consider myself a theistic evolutionist. The Bible tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. How God did it is not my concern. Nor was it the concern of the ancient creeds which simply declare that God, the Father almighty, is “maker of heaven and earth and of all things, visible and invisible.” 

It is a sad thing to see and taste the continual bitter fruit of brother warring against brother. It is sad to see the continued disunity of the church when our Lord prays for its unity. It is discouraging and distressing to see an old friend using his talents and gifts to perpetuate the protestant schism, rather than to heal that breach. I pray that he might return to the Christ-centered focus of the scripture, the ancient creeds, and the ancient church, and that he will leave behind this war about the opinions of the theologians of the Westminster Assembly.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Parable of the New Farmers

     Once there was a man who wanted to be a farmer. He obtained a few acres of land with a house and a barn and purchased a tractor and various supplies. Everyday he would put on his overalls and his straw hat and ride his tractor out into his fields. Through the field ran a concrete drainage ditch. The man would take his seed and diligently cast the seed into the drainage ditch. The man did this day after day and, of course, nothing grew from the seed he had sown.
     His neighbors had observed this odd behavior, and wondered what was going on. Finally one farmer in the community ventured to ask: “What is it you think you are doing out there?”
     “I am farming,” was the reply.
     The neighbor could hardly suppress his laughter but the man was not amused.
     The neighbor responded: “But you are sowing seed in the drainage ditch. Nothing can grow there! How can you call this farming?”
     “How dare you not call it farming?” the man said. “I am doing exactly what I feel like doing, and if you say this isn't farming then you are a hateful bigot.”
     The neighbor spoke to some of the other men in the community, and from time to time they would come out to the field and watch this strange behavior of the man casting seed into the drainage ditch. They talked about this odd neighbor and finally agreed along the lines of “well, I guess he can call that farming if he wants to, but I don't think his methods will catch on, at least not around here, anyway.”
     Some time went by. The man continued this odd behavior, along with his new partner in this experiment. Soon others had joined them, somehow managing to buy more land, and before long much of the farmland in that community was in the hands of these experimental “farmers” who sowed seeds in ditches and never harvested a crop.
     The local newspaper did a story about this new method of farming. The state agricultural extension agent was asked his opinion of this phenomenon. The agent was quoted as saying, “what these men are doing has never been recognized as farming in the entire history of civilization.”
     That's when things got ugly. Letters to the editor flowed forth condemning the backward, hateful, bigoted opinions of this “so-called expert.” Threats of lawsuits ensued. An organization of “new-farmers” began to demand to have representation in the local Farm Bureau. Demands were made for equal protection under the law. They declared they the “new farmers” were not being allowed the same governmental recognition and benefits as traditional farmers. They demanded that laws be changed so that “new farmers” could receive the same government subsidies, favorable loan interest rates, tax breaks, and disaster relief as did the traditional farmers. Soon the schools were involved. Libraries were searched for books that only described farming in traditional terms. It was demanded that these books be removed because they tended to reinforce antiquated stereotypes. New books were written extolling the virtues of the “new farming” methods. For a while the Future Farmers of America withstood the new movement, but even they eventually gave in to the unrelenting pressure and charges of “hate speech” and simply disbanded their organization.
    So it came to be that the definition of “farming” was forever changed and a man could now be a farmer, even if he only sowed his seed in drainage ditches.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Voting for a lesser evil or against a greater evil?

I think Mitt Romney is not the ideal candidate for the presidency. But four years have shown that Obama is not fit for the office in any regard. Having no experience in executive management when elected, he was unable or unwilling to forge bi-partisan support for one of the most important legislative initiatives in US history. The Democrats pushed through the health care act with arm-twisting and special deals for a few Democratic senators and congressmen. The offers of amendment from the Republicans were ignored, and bi-partisanship was abandoned. Promising before elected that any legislation passed would have ample time for review and careful consideration, the health care act was rushed through, with Nancy Pelosi famously declaring, “you have to pass it before you can know what is in it.”

That is the management style of Barack Obama. He does not unite us, but divides us. And, instead of working on the serious problems facing our nation, he has spent the past year or more campaigning and fund-raising for re-election. Obama apparently has no time to meet with the Prime Minister of Israel, or other foreign leaders, but is always available, it seems, to appear on TV with David Letterman or the ladies of “The View.”

Consider the serious lack of judgment displayed by the president in choosing Joe Biden for the vice-presidency. Who really wants Joe Biden as a potential President? In Danville, Biden plays the race-card as he declares the Republicans want to “put ya'll back in chains.” In Lynchburg, he speaks of his good friend “Tom” Kaine. In the vice-presidential debates he spent over an hour impersonating Chuckles the Clown, rather than engaging in serious consideration of very serious questions. Then, in a moment of apparent sober reflection, he declares that as a “practicing Catholic” he is determined to defy the teaching of his church. Then he asserts that Obamacare offers no threat to the freedom of Catholic and other institutions to provide health care coverage that does not conflict with religious convictions. In this regard Biden is either terribly uninformed or an absolute liar. Over forty religious and private institutions, including Notre Dame and the evangelical Wheaton College, are suing the Obama administration for relief from the requirements of the HHS department. These colleges and businesses and charities would not be hiring attorneys and filing lawsuits if there were not a significant threat. Biden is either a liar or incompetent. The evidence suggests he is both.

We must also consider the administration's response to the tragedy at the Libyan consulate. Who determined to ignore the repeated requests from our embassy in Libya for enhanced protection? Who spun the false narrative that the attack there was a spontaneous demonstration in reaction to a YouTube video? Why did the president, vice-president, secretary of state, our ambassador to the U.N., and many other spokesmen continue to mislead the public about the causes and response to this tragedy? The handling of this affair shows either gross incompetence or gross dishonesty. On the heels of the bungled “fast and furious” guns-for-criminals fiasco, one should be very suspicious of this administration's ability to handle national security matters.

Finally, what of the morality of this administration? Does anyone think it is moral to conduct warfare in such a way that far more civilians are killed than enemy combatants? The Obama administration has greatly increased the number of drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. CNN recently reported: “U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed far more people than the United States has acknowledged, have traumatized innocent residents and largely been ineffective, according to a new study released Tuesday. The study by Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law calls for a re-evaluation of the practice, saying the number of "high-level" targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low -- about 2%.” Another way of stating that statistic: for every 2 terrorists we kill, 100 civilians (including many children) also die. Authorities of the present administration indicate they intend to increase such attacks. It is unfortunate that Romney has not indicated that he will change this policy. I hope that he would if elected, and we can encourage him to do so, while the President apparently intends to continue this immoral warfare.

I don't suggest voting for the “lesser of two evils.” I do believe in voting against what is evil or foolish. It may be uncertain what Romney will do, but it is clear what Obama has done. Many of the actions of the current administration are at best foolish, and at worst evil, and should not be supported.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The City of God vs. The City of Man

          I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
          Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
          Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
          And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
          I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
          I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.
And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
This hymn, "I Vow to Thee My Country," is the composition of Cecil Spring-Rice. According to Wikipedia, the hymn was first composed in 1908, but revised in 1918 when Spring-Rice was serving as England's ambassador to the United States. If you watched the wedding, or the funeral, of Princess Diana, you perhaps recall the singing of this song, a favorite of Diana's, and of many in England. It is sung to a tune adapted from Gustav Holst's Jupiter (in The Planets suite).

Apparently the author originally titled the composition Urbs Dei or "City of God." What are we to think of the sentiments expressed in this song? Is it morally acceptable to give to one's country such "love that asks no question, ... that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best." Is our nation to be worshipped with the sacrifices of our soldiers on the fields of battle wherever and whenever our politicians demand it?

The third stanza recognizes the call to serve another country: "most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know." The Scripture teaches us that as followers of Christ, we are "strangers and pilgrims" on the earth, or "resident aliens." We belong to another country, we serve another king.

I am increasingly conflicted about the demands and expectations of participating in the politics of modern American life. On this day, the feast day of Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, I am reminded of one who paid the ultimate sacrifice in solidarity with her people as a servant of "another country," a heavenly one.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The School in Jackson Town

(sung to the tune "The House of the Rising Sun")

There is a school in Jackson town
They call it seminary
And its been the place for many a poor boy
To learn theology.

One teacher was a Taylor,
He taught me how to preach.
Another was a Fowler,
Taught me Greek to exegete.

Then there was Greg Bahnsen:
The first Theonomist.
Some say he was a heretic,
Some say a true Calvinist.

There is so much they taught me,
But some things they never did.
If there is but one true Church,
Then why is her oneness hid?

One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
The texts they do seem plain.
Then surely just one body,
Not many, as Protestants claim.

Oh Mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done.
But listen to the Fathers,
Hear them, as they follow the Son.