Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's Wrong with Prospering? The Gospel according to Joel Osteen

As the offering is about to be taken at the Compaq center, Joel Osteen's wife and co-pastor Victoria urges generosity as a way of prompting God's favor. "He not only wants to enrich you but do things for you you know nothing about," she said. "Let him breathe the breath of life into your finances and he'll give it back to you bigger than you could ever give it to him," she said. To which the congregation, said, "Amen," and the buckets went around. This paraphrased excerpt is but a part of a new article in today's NY Times about the ministry and enormous success of Joel Osteen, and in particular his recent book 'Your Best Life Now'. The whole article is worth reading. Here is the link.----

With 20,000 peeople regularly showing up at his church in the Compaq center in Houston and bringing in revenues of millions on his bestseller book, it is not a surprise that many will wonder and ask--- well what is wrong with a message that speaks about kindness, and generosity and success and prosperity? What could be wrong with this? What's wrong with a message that hardly ever mentions Jesus by name, or sin, or suffering, or self-sacrifice? Of course this message of prosperity is not new in America, nor new to American Churches.

There used to be a TV preacher from New York called Reverend Ike. One of his core messages was on the supposed Scriptural topic--- "The lack of money is the root of all evil". He kept saying things like, if you have trouble handling money, send it to me. Osteen is far more slick than this, and in fact far more accountable. His ministry maintains public records and provides financial reports, and in fact he has not taken a salary since his book went mega-platinum. He has also reportedly signed an enormous contract for his second book with Simon and Schuster. He is then not a shister or a crook it would appear. His example seemsfar more beguiling than the obvious huckster. Wherein lies the problem then?

The problem is several fold, and it involves a fundamental replacement of what the Bible actually has to say about wealth, with what our culture says about wealth and prosperity. And of course when you preach a message that is heard as saying "God wants you rich" or is heard as saying "if you give generously to God (i.e. our ministry) he will repay you many times over"), then of course the implication is that the Gospel message is really all about us, and ways to get God to fulfill not merely our needs and desires but even our conspicuously consumptive dreams. But is God really a nurturer of a vision of life that says its all about me and my material success?

How very different indeed this message is from John Wesley's Famous Sermon "On the Use of Money" in which he stresses that if you make all you can honestly and save all you can, but do not give all you can to relieve poverty, feed the hungry, make well the sick you may be a living person but you are a dead Christian. Wesley like the Bible warns of the enormous dangers of wealth, especially if it is used to provide one's self with an opulent lifestyle while others have nothing to survive on. As Wesley suggests my luxuries should always come after someone else's necessities, or I am living a selfish and self-centered life style. Wesley preached that Christians at the beginning of the industrial revolution should de-enculturate themselves, live simply, and have as their goal, giving so much to others during their lives that when they die they will have successfully given it all away. This sounds far less narcissitic and self-centered than the message of Osteen. And it comes from a different vision of God. God is not viewed as the grand sugar Daddy in the sky who exists to meet our every desire, and in particular our desire to live well, or even opulently. But forget the warnings of great church leaders of the past--- what does the Bible say about such things?

First of all, I would stress that there are more warning about wealth in the New Testament, than about any other ethical subject with the possible exception of sexual and relational issues. And right off the bat this ought to seem odd to us, since only a small percentage of first century Christians had any prospect of getting wealthy. Why such a stress on a message that is the polar opposite to Osteen's message in the NT when the audience was much poorer on the whole? It is a question worth asking. It has to do with fallen human nature and its desire to secure its own life on its own. But let's start with some texts we will not likely be hearing preached from Osteen's pulpit. Let's start with Jesus.

The Sermon on the Mount would be Jesus' version of "Your Best Life Now". In it he says "Do not store up for yourselvss trasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Mt. 6. 19-20.

This saying of course comes before the "do not worry about what you will eat, drink, or wear, because God will provide" message in 6.25-33. This text warns strongly against the accumulation of wealth, and in particular having and keeping for yourself more than you need. Jesus' real concern is found at the end of vs. 21 in the saying about treasure. Human beings are acquistive by nature-- consider how many Americans are addicted to shopping. Consider how our culture encourages us to think luxuries and necessities to the point that we can't tell the difference between the two.

If you want to know where a person's heart really is--- follow the money. This could be said of all of us. And what happens to already self-centered acquistive persons when they are encouraged to be even more that way is that they commit idolatry. Their real center of existence is not God. They only relate to God for what they can get out of God. Their real center of existence is their own prosperity and life style--- "God bless my standard of living". we should have seen Osteen coming when the "Prayer of Jabez" became a run away best-seller and an excuse for continuing to think that God wants us all to be rich, even if it destroys our soul.

Notice as well that Jesus says quite clearly three things at the end of Mt. 6: 1) we should seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and the necessities of life will be added to us. Jesus does not say anything about wealth will be added to us. He says the necessities will be taken care of if we are God-focused and seeking his righteousness, not our profit. And while we are at it it is well to remember that when Jesus says "ask anything in my name..." this means "ask anything that is in accord with my will, in accord with all my other teaching about the dangers of money and wealth, the sorts of things I would ask for". If you are praying prayers Jesus would not endorse, selfish and self-centered prayers, prayers about purely material success then you had best not sign Jesus' name to them, nor should you expect him to answer yes to them. 2) Jesus' teaching consistently tries to get us to focus on God and others, not our own desires or needs.

This is not in fact the character of Osteen's preaching unfortunately. He is doing his best to make us feel comfortable and happy if we are wealthy, and to simply see it as a blessing from God. But even if on occasion God does bless someone with abundant material resources, the next question should be stewardship. The next question should be how should I use these resources so that God is glorified and others are helped. It should not lead to a "God bless my standard of living" and we give ourselves permission to live high off the hog. There should always be the thught that God has blessed you to be an abundant blessing to others, and I don't just mean one's own family.

Mt. 6. 24--- "You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth." The issue is what is your object of ultimate concern? Where is your heart and treasure? When you take a human being who is acquisitive to begin with, and then take away all warnings about the dangers of wealth leading to idolatry, you are in trouble.

Someone should make a huge banner with this verse on it and hang it in front of the Compaq Center for all those entering to see. We could also hang up the Lukan beatitude "Blesssed are the poor" (Lk. 6.20). How about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16.19-31) which suggests that those who prosper in this life and do not help others will find the reverse is their condition in the life to come. So much for the slogan "he who dies with the most toys wins". We could also focus on Jesus' teaching about the fool who stockpiled his assests and of whom God required his life before he could get the full benefit from them. Have you notice that there is no theology of retirement, or pension accounts in the New Testament, no blessing of those who store things away just for themselves?

Jesus' brother James is equally insistent about the dangers of wealth. Read James 2.1-7 where we hear among other things "God chose the poor of the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom." He warns not to cozy up to the wealthy or give them preferential treatment not least because "Is it not the rich who oppress you?" You would have thought that after the Enron scandal the good Christian people of Houston would have become a little more wary of courting the rich and of lusting after the lifestyles of the rich.

Listen to what else James says "You covet something and cannot obtain it: so you engage in disputes and conflicts...You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God." (James 4.2-6).

Paul in 1 Tim. 6.6-10 puts it this way "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into this world, and we shall take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a rot of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains." There could hardly be a much sterner warning against believing in the health and wealth Gospel than this one.

We need to stop listening to the siren song of our culture about the goodness of personal wealth and material prosperity. We need to advocate a theology of stewardship which puts other people's necessities before our luxuries. We need to simplify our lifestyles and get a clear grasp on God's prioirties including God's especial concern for the poor and destitute of the world. We need to realize that what Jesus promised us if we seek the kingdom is not prosperity,but rather 'just enough' to take care of our basic needs. We need to remember that the Lord's prayer teaches us to pray for daily bread, not for resources today that I could not possibly use in 10,000 lifetimes. We need to heed all the warnings about how wealth can destroy the soul of an inherently self centered and acquistive creature-- namely any human being. We need to renounce the false gospel of wealth and health--- it is a disease of our American culture, it is not a solution or answer to life's problems.

Sometime ago when Donald Trump was riding high, he was interviewed on the subject of "how much is enough?" This was after he had assets totaling in the millions. His answer was very revealing--- "a little bit more." This is the truth about human nature, and what Paul says about that nature is that it needs to be crucified, not indulged, it needs to die not be pampered. The goal is this "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I wholive, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved mne and gave himsellf for me." (Gal. 2.19-20). The model for the Christian life is not Donald Trump, it is that man who made the ultimate self-sacrifice, the man who lived simply, fed the hungry, hung out with the poor, and renounced conspicuous consumption--- Jesus himself.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Partial and piecemeal, here and there
Vowels omitted, consonants square
No jots or tittles, not one iota
As if there was, a letter quota.

Line upon line, word for word
Scriptum continuum without an end
Space is so precious, conventions must bend

Fair hand copy, stylus in hand
Awaiting dictation, write on demand
Line length is even, no letters odd
So it must be--- the Word of God.

Written revelation, unveiled truth
Put on papyrus, sold from a booth
Unroll the scroll, unseal the seal
Meant to inform, not to conceal.

Nomina sacra, the Holy Name
In abbreviation, meaning the same
IX, XC, IHS too
Jehovah combines, God’s name times two.

Inspired authors, inspiring text
God breathed words, soul resurrects
Let it be written, let it be done
Fulfilling fulfillment, victory won.

In the beginning, God chose to speak
Creation created, in under a week
Even the last Word, God will have too
Alpha-Omega, indwelling you.



One of the more fascinating subjects to reflect on Biblically speaking is the theology of the Word. We are apt to see words as just combinations of letters or ciphers or symbols, but this is not how the ancients, living in an overwhelming oral culture, saw words. Words spoke things into existence if they came from God. Genesis 1 is quite explicit about this. But the Word could not only create reality, it could become a human being as John 1 says---‘and the Word took on flesh’. Clearly the ancients saw words in a different light than moderns tend to do. Even in Rev. 19.13 when John of Patmos wants to unveil the final mystery he tells us that the Word of God will leap forth from heaven once more to bring closure to the drama of history. Its not just the Author stepping out on the stage at the end of the play, though that is true, it is that the author becomes the last Word, the last act of the play, bringing it to its proper conclusion.
In this poem I have tried to share some of the things about how the Word came to us through the hands of the ancient scribes, who had as their tools, a stylus, some water made black with soot, a papyrus roll, and a very steady hand and ability to take dictation on the fly. It is hard to even imagine how laborious it was where every single copy of every single page had to be hand-copied—word for word. If it was possible the scribe would use a wax tablet to copy the words first there, and then make a fair hand copy on a scroll since papyrus was quite expensive (as was hiring a scribe). Words took on almost a magical quality, especially religious or sacred ones, and especially the name of a Deity in such an oral culture.
It is all the more interesting then that Christian scribes chose to use abbreviations for the divine names--- XC—Christos kurios; IX Iesous Christos; IHS the first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus, though later it was used in Latin to stand for ‘in hoc signo’--- in this Name. Experienced scribes knew that God’s names would be mentioned more than all others, and so they developed these sacred abbreviations, called nomina sacra. But it was the Christian theology that the sacred Word not only could create reality or come in person, it could also indwell and thus inspire ordinary mortals like me and you. In the end, there is no last word on the Word. There is far too much to unveil and to ponder.

Friday, March 24, 2006

What's inside the 'Inside Man'?

Its been a while since there has been a really thought provoking and interesting drama or thriller that does not rely on gimics, special effects, or large impressive sets or scenic vistas, but we have one now in Spike Lee's sparkling new film 'Inside Man'. Filmed largely in a single bank location and its surroundings this film is long on story and acting, and does not require razzamatazz to carry the film along. It is an example of old fashioned film-making at its best, and what a cast it has! We have Christopher Plummer as the regal Mr. Chase the owner of the Manhattan Bank in question, we have Willem Defoe as a police captain, we have Denzel Washington as the dashing Detective Frazier, we have Jody Foster as Ms. White the deal maker and intervention specialist, and we have Clive Owen as the mastermind bad guy--- or is he?

In one sense this drama is a morality play, as we see how different persons, in a crisis, are prepared to compromise their ethics either to survive, or profit or get revenge, or rescue hostages. But this is no ordinary hostage movie, because the bandit in question is not actually a bankrobber, nor has he any desire to kill any of those trapped in the bank when it is taken over by Clive Owen's gang.

The tension in the narrative is not caused by the question of whether the hostages will be released or not, for periodically throughout the movie we see them being debriefed by Frazier after they have been freed. No, the drama is driven by a series of related questions, for example--- What exactly do these bank robbers want? What are they after? It is clearly not money, or attention, or ransom for hostages. And what is it that Mr. Chase has hidden in that secret safety deposit box in that bank of his, which he is prepared to do anything to make sure is not revealed? But there is so much more.

Lee also explores racism and bigotry of all sorts on and off the NY police force throughout the movie, but he does it with a light touch. At one point Frazier (i.e. Washington) listening to the complaints of police brutality by a Indian Sikkh employee of the bank, complains his rights were trampled on and asks when he and his religion will be respected (he keeps asking for his turban to be returned). When he can't get even this, Frazier points out that at least one thing is going his way-- "I bet you don't have any trouble getting a cab", because of course there are so many Indian cab drivers in Manhattan. New York is seen as the melting pot that is more like a salad bowl where all the different nationalities exist side by side, but without blending together very much.

In an ensemble cast of this kind one could have wished perhaps for a bit longer film so Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer had even more opportunity to shine. There is no question but that Washington is the star of the show, but there are many wonderful bit parts and scenes which enrich the story, not the least of which is the 9 year old African American kid from Brooklyn who gives both the bankrobbers and the police his 'shtick" without fear. Would that there were more movies that were long on story and acting, and short on gimics.

But at the end of the day there is a further profound question underlying this film. Does a lifetime of good works, make up for some hideous sin of the past or should we say 'be sure your sins will find you out'? The supposed bad guy is the one who raises the deeper questions about love and truth. Spike Lee is smart enough and respects his audience enough to not tie up all the loose ends. And several aspects of the movie can be debated. But this is the sign of a good story which scares up more rabbits than it chases down. It will take a lot for there to be a better drama than this one this year. Ron Howard and the Da Vinci Code crew has just been put on notice.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Eternal Subordination of Christ and of Women

I am pleased to be able to provide here with permission a section of Kevin Gile's recent study of a recent theological trend that attempts to link relationships in the Godhead to relationships between men and women. What is especially odd about the argument discussed here is that it appears that theological conclusions are revised on the basis of certain anthropological conclusions about women. I would call this the tail wagging the dog, to say the least. This article is written by Dr. Kevin Giles and has appeared in the Vol. 32 No. 3 March 2006 issue of Catalyst magazine pp. 1,3-5. For more one, should consult the fine book by Giles published by InterVarsity Press in 2002 entitled The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate.


In the later part of the twentieth century the doctrine of the Trinity captured the attention of theologians more than any other doctrine, and this interest has not waned. At no time in history, since the theologically stormy days of the fourth century, has there been so much discussion on this topic. Books on the Trinity by Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox theologians continue to be published. No longer is it thought that the Trinity is an obtuse, secondary, and impractical dogma. It is recognized today that it is nothing less than a summary of the Christian understanding of God given in revelation. The Trinity is the foundation on which all other doctrines are built. It is of immense theological and practical significance.

Contemporary discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity agree that the God revealed in Scripture is by nature trinitarian. He is one and yet three differentiated “persons” who eternally co-exist in the most intimate communion of love and self-giving. In this “model” of the Trinity the equality of the divine three, both in unity and in relation to one another as persons, is very much to the fore. For this reason any suggestion that the divine three are ordered hierarchically, or divided in being, work, or authority is rejected. T. Peters in his 1993 book, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life, describes contemporary thinking about the Christian God as “antisubordinationist trinitarianism.” Similarly, the conservative evangelical, M. Erickson in his 1995 study, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Baker; 331), says that, along with other contemporary theologians, he believes in “the complete equality of the divine three.” David Cunningham, in his 1998 book, These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology (Blackwell; 112), is of much the same opinion. He speaks of “a radical, relational, co-equality” in modern trinitarian thinking. In my opinion, the finest study on the Trinity in the last ten years is that by T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (T&T Clark, 1996). He too emphasizes the co-equality of the differentiated, mutually indwelling, divine persons. Building in particular on the work of Athanasius, he makes the Trinity itself the monarche (sole source or origin) of the divine three and the Son the monarche of divine saving revelation. He is totally opposed to subordinationism in any form.

In the light of this powerful, contemporary stress on the co-equality of the divine persons who are understood to be bound together in the most intimate bond of love and self-giving, it is no surprise to find that some of the best contemporary expositions of the doctrine of the Trinity understand the Trinity as a charter for human liberation and emancipation (cf. L. Boff, Trinity and Society [Obis, 1988]; J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom [Harper and Row, 1981]; C. LaCugna, God for Us [Harper, 1991]; M. Erickson, God in Three Persons [Baker Academic, 2003]). If no one divine person is before or after, greater or lesser because they are “co-equal” (as the Athanasian creed says) this suggests, we are told, that all hierarchical ordering in this world is a human construct reflecting fallen existence, not God’s ideal. God would like to see every human being valued in the same way. It is thus the Christian’s duty to oppose human philosophies and structures that oppress people, limiting their full potential as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Erickson is one evangelical who is sympathetic to this agenda predicated on the belief that the persons of the Trinity relate as equals in self-giving love (333).

Evangelicals of Opposite Opinion
Paradoxically, in this same thirty-year period in which the co-equality of the divine persons has been powerfully reaffirmed and the implications of this teaching for our human social life recognized, many conservative evangelicals have been moving in the opposite direction. They have argued that the Trinity is ordered hierarchically, with the Father ruling over the Son. The Father is eternally “head over” the Son just as men are permanently “head over” women. In this model of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity, rather than being a charter for emancipation and human liberation, becomes a charter to oppose social change and female liberation.

This novel teaching was first enunciated by G. Knight III in his highly influential 1977 book, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Baker, 1977). He argued that the God-given permanent subordination of women in role and authority in the church and the home was supported and illustrated by the Trinity. For him, the Son is eternally subordinated in role and authority to the Father, despite the fact that the Father and the Son are both fully divine. He thus spoke of a “chain of subordination” (33) in the Father-Son and the man-woman relationship, and of an eternal subordination of the Son that has “certain ontological aspects” (56).

This new teaching on the Trinity came to full fruition in 1994 with the publication of W. Grudem’s, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994). Two chapters in this book outline his doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son in function and authority. The impact of this book on evangelicals cannot be underestimated. Over 130,000 copies have been sold and the abridged version, Bible Doctrine (ed. J. Purswell; Zondervan, 1999), with exactly the same teaching on the Trinity and women, has sold over 35,000 copies. For Grudem the Son’s role subordination, like that of women, is not a matter of who does certain things as we might expect on seeing the word “role,” but rather a matter of who commands and who obeys. He writes, “the Father has the role of commanding, directing, and sending” and the Son has “the role of obeying, going as the Father sends, and revealing God to us” (Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1995] 250) These words disclose the key issue; that is, the Son is eternally set under the authority of the Father. Grudem insists that this understanding of the Trinity is historic orthodoxy (cf. his latest book, Evangelicals, Feminism, and Biblical Truth [Multnomah, 2004] 405-43). It is, for him, what the creeds and the best of theologians have maintained throughout church history.

This hierarchical understanding of the Trinity has now almost won over the conservative evangelical community. Most evangelicals seem to believe this is what the Bible and “the tradition”—that is, the interpretive tradition—teach. However, I am also an evangelical, but I am convinced the opposite is the truth. The Bible (Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:13; etc.) and the interpretative tradition summed up in the creeds and Reformation confessions speaks of a co-equal Trinity where there is no hierarchical ordering.

Grudem and the many evangelicals who follow him say they are only advocating the eternal functional or role subordination of the Son, not the ontological subordination of the Son. Indeed, all Christians believe that the Son voluntarily and temporally choose to be subordinated for our salvation in the incarnation (Phil 2:4-11). The problem arises with the word “eternal.” If the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, and cannot be otherwise, then he does not just function subordinately, he is the subordinated Son. His subordination defines his person or being. Eternal functional subordination implies by necessity ontological subordination. Blustering denials cannot avoid this fact.

The Appeal of Eternal Subordination
To understand how this doctrine—ambiguous at best, and heretical at worst—of the Trinity has emerged in the last thirty years and almost taken over the more conservative side of evangelicalism, one thing has to be recognized. The issue is not really the Trinity at all. What has generated this novel and dangerous doctrine of the Trinity is “a great cause,” the permanent subordination of women. For some evangelicals “the woman question” is the apocalyptic battle of our age. They are convinced that the Bible gives “headship” (“leadership,” in plain speak) to men. If this principle were abandoned because of cultural change the authority of the Bible would be overthrown and the door would be opened to homosexual marriages, the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and believe it or not, the obliteration of sexual differentiation. To bolster support for this “great cause” the doctrine of the Trinity has been redefined and reworded to give the weightiest theological support possible to the permanent subordination of women. Every evangelical who has written in support of the eternal subordination of the Son is committed to the permanent subordination of women in the church and the home. This agenda is what drives them to advocate the eternal subordination of the Son.

The Tail Has Wagged the Dog
Until the twentieth century Christians universally spoke of the “superiority” of men and the “inferiority” of women. After the 1970s, with the advent of “women’s lib,” Christians had to abandon this language, and, in addition, most abandoned the idea that women were subordinated to men. Conservative evangelicals, without exception, gave up this language as well, although some sought a new way to uphold male hegemony with more genteel wording. They affirmed that men and women are equals, yet God has given them different roles. This sounds fine, but when unpacked it means women have the “role” of obeying and men the role of leading; no other “role” is in mind. What is more, this “role” is permanent since God ascribes it in creation. Since God established this social hierarchical order before the Fall, it cannot be changed. It is the ideal. As this difference in “role” (in plain speak, difference in authority) is the one essential difference between men and women, to deny the permanent subordination of women is to deny male-female differentiation as such. This novel case for women’s permanent “role” subordination raises exactly the same problem as their novel case for the Son’s eternal “role” subordination. If women are permanently subordinated in role, and their subordinate role can never change, then they are the subordinated sex. They do not merely function subordinately. Their God-given subordination defines their person or being. They are the subordinated sex.

Having creatively constructed this novel theology predicated on obfuscating terminology to uphold male hegemony, these same theologians then reformulated the doctrine of the Trinity using the same terminology, thereby justifying the leadership of men. They began teaching that the Father and the Son are equally divine: the Father and the Son simply have different roles or functions. And what are these differing roles? Not surprisingly, the Father has the “role of commanding, directing, and sending” while the Son has the “role of obeying, going as the Father sends, and revealing God to us” (cf.Grudem, Systematic Theology, 250). Differing roles again means differing authority. The Father rules over the Son like men are to rule over the women set under them. If anyone denies that the Father and the Son are differentiated by their differing authority, then they are accused of denying divine differentiation itself—that is, of falling into the heresy of modalism. To cap off the case, the claim is then made that this teaching is historic orthodoxy. This is what Athansisus, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Calvin, Barth, and Rahner teach on the Trinity. In reply to these claims I have carefully surveyed the evidence and found that the teaching of Scripture and the interpretative tradition directly oppose these ideas (The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate [InterVarsity, 2002], and in greater detail on the Trinity, Jesus and The Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Trinity [Zondervan, forthcoming]). What we have here is simply a newly worded case for an old heresy called “subordinationism.”

What has to be noted in all this is the circular nature of this reasoning.
1. A novel theology was first devised to theologically ground the permanent subordination of women based on the argument that men and women are equal yet differentiated by their God-given, unchanging roles; and then
2. the wording and ideas used to develop this novel case for the permanent subordination of women were utilized to develop a novel doctrine of the Trinity that spoke of the Son as equal, yet eternally subordinated in role or function; and then
3. this novel doctrine of the Trinity was quoted to theologically justify and explain the permanent role subordination of women.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then this means that the doctrine of the Trinity has been reformulated in terms of fallen male-female relationships to support what was already believed: women are permanently subordinated to men. Instead of correcting sinful human thinking, the primary doctrine of the Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity, has become a theological justification for such thinking. In the end, the doctrine of the Trinity, rather than being seen as a charter for human liberation, has become a charter for human oppression.

Thus, just as some have spoken of “Rahner’s rule, “Pannenberg’s principle,” and of “LaCugna’s corollary,” I suggest a “Giles’ guideline”: “Whenever the Trinity is construed to support some prior belief, then the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is inevitably corrupted and distorted.”

To conclude it may be helpful if I spell out the doctrine of the Trinity as I would enunciate it in the light of biblical teaching, the interpretative tradition, and the best discussions of the doctrine in recent years.

The Key Affirmations of Historic Orthodoxy

1. The God of Christian revelation is one divine being and three “persons.” Unity and divine differentiation are both absolutes. The unity of God is not to be thought of in terms of one substance, but rather, as the most intimate, most loving, and most profound triune communion. The triune God’s unity is the unique Being-in-Communion of the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What ultimately underlies this divine union and communion is the mutual interpenetration (Greek: perichoresis) of the three divine persons. The divine persons, on the other hand, in their eternal and immutable distinctions as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, are not to be thought of as three individuals or centers of consciousness, but rather as the one God in tri-personal existence and self-revelation, distinguished, but not divided. The Father, Son, and Spirit exist as Being-in-Relation.
2. The three divine persons are one in being. The divine three must not and cannot be differentiated on the basis of differing being. What they are in unity they are as differentiated persons. To suggest otherwise is to deny the homoousian principle, enshrined in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. This principle points to the real distinctions between the three divine persons and their absolute oneness in being. It categorically excludes the idea that any one divine person is more or less true God.
3. Inseparable in operations. Inseparability in being implies and necessitates inseparability in work/operation/function. The divine three are one in who they are and what they do. In every divine action all three divine persons work cooperatively and in harmony. They are never divided or separated in their operations. The doctrine of inseparable operations, it must be added, does not infer identical operations. It is agreed that the Father sent the Son, the Son took human flesh and died on the cross, and the Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost. These and other things are indelibly associated with one or another of the divine persons. To divide and separate the work of Father, Son, and Spirit is to undermine the unity and simplicity of the one God.
4. Indivisible in power and authority. The Father, Son, and Spirit are indivisible in power and authority. Since each divine person is fully God, each is omnipotent without any caveats. If the divine persons are one in being, equal God, they must be one in power and authority. If they are not one in power and authority they are not one in being and divinity. The Son is, then, subordinated God, not just in function but in his person. The idea that the Son must eternally obey the Father implies that the Father and the Son each have their own will. The Son must submit his will to the will of the Father. If the divine three each have their own will, then divine unity is breached and tritheism follows. To argue in reply that the Son can do no other than obey the Father—the language of compulsion is not appropriate—does not solve the problem. If the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) have one will, the actions of one cannot be conceived as obedience to another. In the NT, Christ is obedient as a human.
5. Differentiated but not divided. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not divided in being, work, or power, but they are eternally differentiated. Their distinctiveness is grounded in the tradition principally on three things, individual identity (the Father is the Father and not the Son, etc, etc), differing origination (the Father begets the Son, the Son is begotten, the Spirit proceeds), and differing relations (the Father is the Father of the Son, the Son is the Son of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father, or the Father and the Son). Differentiating the persons in these ways does not divide them. Differentiating them in being or power does divide them, leading both to subordinationism and tritheism.
6. There is order among the divine persons. The way the divine persons are revealed, how they relate to one another, and how they work, is never random or arbitrary. It is ordered. There is a pattern and consistency in the divine life that is unchanging. To argue that this order is a sub-ordering in being or power is to deny that the divine three are “co-equal” in being and power. The divine persons are ordered horizontally, not hierarchically.
7. The Son is subordinated in the incarnation. In taking human flesh the Son of God voluntarily relinquished his status, not his divinity or being as God, assuming the form of a servant. What is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is true and provides an accurate knowledge of God, but it is a revelation of God in kenotic form, of God in human flesh, of self-subordinated God. This means what is creaturely in Christ must not be read back into the eternal or immanent Trinity.

It is my case that the Bible, implicitly, and the historically developed orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, explicitly, affirm divine unity, the eternal personal distinctions of Father, Son and Spirit, the oneness of being of the divine three, their inseparable operations, their indivisible authority, an order among them, understood as a disposition, and the temporal and voluntary subordination of the Son in the incarnation.

By Kevin Giles, author of The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (InterVarsity, 2002) and Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (Zondervan, forthcoming).

I would say as a footnote to this discussion, that while I would not subscribe to every last detail of Gile's analysis of the Trinity, I quite agree with him that it is a mistake to assume that a text like 1 Cor. 11.3 is arguing that Christ is eternally subordinate to God the Father. 'Kephale' here can certainly have the sense it has when it is referring to the origins of something, for example a river. When we speak of the 'head' of a river, we mean its source, not some authority over it. Similarly, God's only begotten Son comes from God the Father. This is not a statement of his ontological or functional subordination to God the Father. As Giles points out, it is when the Son takes on a human nature that he assumes a subordinate relationship to God the Father. As Phil. 2.5-11 makes perfectly clear, the pre-existent Son of God had the condition and status of being equal to God, but he chose not to take advantage of it, but rather humbled himself (involving a choice, not an inherent condition or state of the divine Son) and took on a human nature.

If we return once more to 1 Cor. 11.3 what must be added is that whatever 'kephale' means in the relationship of Father and Son, is also what it means in the relationship of man to Christ and woman to man. In each case, 'source' is the proper rendering of 'kephale'. This quite naturally alludes to the Genesis story in which woman is literally brought forth out of man. But we might ask-- in what sense does 'man' have his source in Christ? There are two possible answers to this. In the first place Paul does affirm that Christ pre-existed and was involved in the creation of humankind from the beginning. Col. 1.16 is explicit about this, and we could compare what is said in John 1 as well. But we should also remember that Paul has a last Adam Christology applied to Jesus as well, in which Jesus is seen as comparable to the historical Adam and so the founder of a whole new race of human beings-- those who are in Christ, both men and also women. I think that the former idea rather than this latter one is alluded to in 1 Cor. 11.3.

Thus to sum up: 1) 1 Cor. 11.3 provides no justification at all for the notion that Christ is eternally subordinate to the Father; 2) nor does it provide any justification for the idea that men are perpetually in authority over women. That's not what kephale means in any of these examples here in this verse.

There is one more thing to note. Male-female hierarchialism is of course grounded in certain assumptions about gender. It is a very odd thing to start with that assumption and then apply the insights to the Trinity, where no gender hierarchy could possibly be involved.

Finally, the point that Kevin Giles makes about the relationship of the Father and the Son can easily be substantiated by a few quotes from the church fathers. I have space here for one, and it is a comment made by the venerable Bede of Durham, the father credited for saving the church's great heritage of wisdom during the dark ages. This is his comment on the beautiful doxology found in Jude vss. 24-25: "This summary bestows coequal and coeternal glory and the kingdom both on the Father and the Son through all and before all ages and refutes the error of those who believe that the Son is less or later than the Father, when it says that glory, splendor, lordship, and power belong to God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord, and this not from some beginning in time but before all ages both now and for ever. Amen."

Think on these things.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Craddock Stories-- Those Women Preachers

Fred Craddock's recent book 'Craddock Stories' edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001) is a gold mine of Craddock's stories used in both preaching and teaching. Here is one sample:

"When I was in Cincinnati, I met a lot of people I was glad to see...One of them was a fellow in one of the churches in the Midwest; I'll not identify him any further. Grumpy sort. A controlling man---that was the problem I had with him. I gave Bible studies and preached in his church lots of times. He's a layman in the church, and a sort of controller, a very controlling man, one of those people that act like they're in the background-- 'Well I don't know, I don't know, I don't know"-- but they're really in charge. He controls his family, controls his kids, control his grandkids, controls the whole family, controls the church, but acts like, "I don't know, I don't know." But he did.

I saw him coming. There was nowhere to go. I shook hands with him and said 'How're you doing?' He said, 'I'm doing all right.' I didn't recognize him-- I didn't recognize him. I said, 'How's the church?' He said 'Better than we've ever been.'
'Really?' And this is what he said: 'God is at work in our church.' I never heard him say anything like that; I've just heard him criticize. 'God is at work in your church.' I said 'That is wonderful.' He said: 'We're in better shape spiritually and in every way than we've ever been in my memory.'

'This is wonderful! Who is your minister?'

He said "We have a woman.' He never did give me her name. he said 'We have a woman.'

I said 'You do?'

He said 'Yeah, I voted against her, and all my family voted against her but we got outnumbered.'


He said: 'I was wrong. I was wrong in my estimation of women.' And then he looked at me and said, 'Brother Fred, if I was wrong about her, I was probably wrong about a lot of stuff.'

Isn't that great? Finally he met the gospel, broke the pattern, and he was making a new way.'

(p. 121).

The point of this is important. All of us have prejudices of course, and all of us have our various interpretations of various NT texts which we think are correct. But what happens when we see so clearly God's blessing of a particular person in ministry that it overcomes even the most extremely strongly held view, and causes one to ask not 'was the Bible wrong?' but rather 'was my understanding of the Bible wrong?'

It was Jesus' word that "you shall know the tree by the fruit it bears." Obviously experience is not the only criteria for deciding this issue, but it is an important one. If Jesus had not healed the blind man he would probably have never become a follower of Jesus. But his personal experience led him to think in a new way about things.

I can't not speak for others, but I have heard and had many wonderful Evangelical women teachers and preachers who have done wonderful orthodox work for the Gospel and the Kingdom. I have also often found it to be the case that those who argue most strongly against women doing these kinds of ministries are men who have never experienced such ministries at all, never mind been fed by them. This is a great tragedy and it does not have to be this way.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Misanalyzing Text Criticism--Bart Ehrman's 'Misquoting Jesus'

Bart Ehrman is both an interesting person and an engaging lecturer. He speaks well, he writes well, he obviously has a gift for what he does. I like Bart though I find his spiritual pilgimage troubling, and as an alumnus of UNC I am sad to see him as the successor to Bernard Boyd at Carolina. Boyd had such a positive spiritual impact on many persons including myself while at Carolina. In fact I have been told some 5,000 persons went into some kind of ministry as a result of Boyd's decades of teaching the Bible at Carolina.

I am however glad Bart is honest about his pilgrimage. If only he could be equally honest and admit that in his scholarship he is trying now to deconstruct orthodox Christianity which he once embraced, rather than do 'value-neutral' text criticism. In my own view, he has attempted this deconstruction on the basis of very flimsy evidence-- textual variants which do not prove what he wants them to prove.

His most recent book, "Misquoting Jesus" has now made it to the NY Times bestseller list. It is apparently receiving a wide audience, although you can never tell whether those who buy the books actually read all the way through them. And with this book that might be just as well. The first four chapters provide a laypersons guide to textual criticism, and while one could quibble with this or that, basically Ehrman has provided us with a clear statement of the principles applied in that discipline. This is material I could happily assign to seminary students wanting to understand the basics of text criticism. I don't have a lot of qualms or quibbles about much of what he says there. However, like reading the Da Vinci Code, in the middle of this book it takes a left turn and what we have is a simplified version of what was present in Ehrman's earlier scholarly monograph-- "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture" and along the way we have some personal testimony on why he has become an agnostic.

Dan Wallace, whom many of you will know if you know the NET Bible or has now reviewed Ehrman's book which he has graciously agreed to allow me to reprint here. What follows after that are some of my own comments as well. Especial thanks to the folks at for allowing me to reprint Dan's review here, particularly Ed Komoszewski.

Review of
Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005)
Daniel B. Wallace,
Executive Director,
Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (

Bart Ehrman is one of North America’s leading textual critics today. As a teacher and writer, he is logical, witty, provocative, and sometimes given to overstatement as well as arguments that are not sufficiently nuanced.

His most recent book, Misquoting Jesus, for the most part is simply New Testament textual criticism 101. There are seven chapters with an introduction and conclusion. Most of the book (chs. 1—4) is simply a lay introduction to the field. According to Ehrman, this is the first book written on NT textual criticism (a discipline that has been around for nearly 300 years) for a lay audience.

The book’s very title is a bit too provocative and misleading though: Almost none of the variants that Ehrman discusses involve sayings by Jesus! The book simply doesn’t deliver what the title promises.

But it sells well: since its publication on November 1, 2005, it has been near the top of Amazon’s list of titles. And since Ehrman appeared on two of NPR’s programs (the Diane Rehm Show and “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross)—both within the space of one week—it has been in the top fifty sellers at Amazon.

For this brief review, just a few comments are in order.
There is nothing earth-shaking in the first four chapters of the book. Rather, it is in the introduction that we see Ehrman’s motive, and the last three chapters reveal his agenda. In these places he is especially provocative and given to overstatement and non sequitur.

In the introduction, Ehrman speaks of his evangelical background (Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College), followed by his M.Div. and Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary. It was here that Ehrman began to reject some of his evangelical upbringing, especially as he wrestled with the details of the text of the New Testament.
The heart of the book is chapters 5, 6, and 7. Here Ehrman especially discusses the results of the findings in his major work, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford, 1993). His concluding chapter closes in on the point that he is driving at in these chapters: “It would be wrong… to say—as people sometimes do—that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case.”

Some of the chief examples of theological differences among the variants that Ehrman discusses are (1) a passage in which Jesus is said to be angry (Mark 1:41), (2) a text in which “even the Son of God himself does not know when the end will come” (Matt 24:36), and (3) an explicit statement about the Trinity (1 John 5:7-8).
Concerning the first text, a few ancient manuscripts speak of Jesus as being angry in Mark 1:41 while most others speak of him as having compassion. But in Mark 3:5 Jesus is said to be angry—wording that is indisputably in the original text of Mark. So it is hardly a revolutionary conclusion to see Jesus as angry elsewhere in this Gospel.

Regarding Matt 24:36, although many witnesses record Jesus as speaking of his own prophetic ignorance (“But as for that day and hour no one knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father alone”), many others lack the words “nor the Son.” Whether “nor the Son” is authentic or not is disputed, but what is not disputed is the wording in the parallel in Mark 13:32—“But as for that day or hour no one knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father.” Thus, there can be no doubt that Jesus spoke of his own prophetic ignorance in the Olivet Discourse. Consequently, what doctrinal issues are really at stake here? One simply cannot maintain that the wording in Matt 24:36 changes one’s basic theological convictions about Jesus since the same sentiment is found in Mark.
In other words, the idea that the variants in the NT manuscripts alter the theology of the NT is overstated at best. Unfortunately, as careful a scholar as Ehrman is, his treatment of major theological changes in the text of the NT tends to fall under one of two criticisms: Either his textual decisions are wrong, or his interpretation is wrong.

These criticisms were made of his earlier work, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which Misquoting Jesus has drawn from extensively. Yet, the conclusions that he put forth there are still stated here without recognition of some of the severe criticisms of his work the first go-around. For a book geared toward a lay audience, one would think that he would want to have his discussion nuanced a bit more, especially with all the theological weight that he says is on the line. One almost gets the impression that he is encouraging the Chicken Littles in the Christian community to panic at data that they are simply not prepared to wrestle with. Time and time again in the book, highly charged statements are put forth that the untrained person simply cannot sift through. And that approach resembles more an alarmist mentality than what a mature, master teacher is able to offer. Regarding the evidence, suffice it to say that significant textual variants that alter core doctrines of the NT have not yet been produced.

Finally, regarding 1 John 5:7-8, virtually no modern translation of the Bible includes the “Trinitarian formula,” since scholars for centuries have recognized it as added later. Only a few very late manuscripts have the verses. One wonders why this passage is even discussed in Ehrman’s book. The only reason seems to be to fuel doubts. The passage made its way into our Bibles through political pressure, appearing for the first time in 1522, even though scholars then and now knew that it is not authentic. The early church did not know of this text, yet the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 affirmed explicitly the Trinity! How could they do this without the benefit of a text that didn’t get into the Greek NT for another millennium? Chalcedon’s statement was not written in a vacuum: the early church put into a theological formulation what they saw in the NT.

A distinction needs to be made here: just because a particular verse does not affirm a cherished doctrine does not mean that that doctrine cannot be found in the NT. In this case, anyone with an understanding of the healthy patristic debates over the Godhead knows that the early church arrived at their understanding from an examination of the data in the NT. The Trinitarian formula only summarized what they found; it did not inform their declarations.

In sum, Ehrman’s latest book does not disappoint on the provocative scale. But it comes up short on genuine substance about his primary contention. Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm lay readers on issues that they have little understanding of. Unfortunately, the average layperson will leave this book with far greater doubts about the wording and teachings of the NT than any textual critic would ever entertain. A good teacher doesn’t hold back on telling his students what’s what, but he also knows how to package the material so they don’t let emotion get in the way of reason. A good teacher does not create Chicken Littles.

I am in basic agreement with what Wallace says in his critique of Ehrman, which is why I have reprinted here. It is simply not the case that any significant theological truth is at issue with the textual variants that Ehrman wants to make much of.

As I remember Bruce Metzger saying once (who trained both Bart and myself in these matters) over 90% of the NT is rather well established in regard to its original text, and none of the remaining 10% provides us with data that could lead to any shocking revisions of the Christian credo or doctrine. It is at the very least disingenuous to suggest it does, if not deliberately provocative to say otherwise.

Take for example the arguments that Ehrman makes in Chapters 5ff. in this book. Does the absence of the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5 somehow prove that the NT has no notion of three person in one God? Absolutely not. There are a whole variety of texts where such an idea is found (see e.g. Mt. 28). Furthermore, its not so much whether we have a 'formula' here and there, but whether the notion of the divinity of Christ and the divinity of the Spirit are affirmed in various places in the NT along with the divinity of the Father. And in fact they are--- repeatedly so. Even our chronologically earliest NT documents, Paul's letters are perfectly clear on this point.

Take another example. Ehrman points to the fact that in Matthew's version of the ignorance saying (cf. Mk. 13.32 to Mt. 24.36) as some sort of proof that Jesus should not seen as divine, at least in Matthew's Gospel. We can debate the textual variants, but even if we include 'not even the Son' here which is certainly present in Mk. 13.32 it in no way proves that Matthew presents a merely human Jesus. The Emmanuel (God with us Christology) which we find at the beginning and end of this Gospel rules that notion out all together, as do various other texts in Matthew where Jesus presents himself as the Wisdom of God come in the flesh (see my forthcoming Matthew commentary).

Furthermore, Ehrman does not reckon with the profound theology of divine condescension reflected in a hymn like Phil. 2.5-11 which suggests that the pre-existent Son of God deliberately put on hold the 'omnis' so he could be fully human while remaining divine. By this I mean that he accepted our normal limitations of time, space, knowledge and power to be fully human. Notice that as Hebrews says however he was not like us in regard to sin. Sin, is not an inherent quality that God originally programmed into humanity. Ehrman writes as though he has never seriously dealt with the concept of divine self-limitation and Incarnation-- an idea we find in the NT from its earliest Pauline sources to its latest Johannine ones.

Furthermore, it is simply false to say that Jesus is presented as non-divine in the Synoptics in general, or even in their earliest source material (Q?, M?, L?), whereas in John, Jesus is presented as divine. The Fourth Gospel certainly more clearly and loudly presents the divine side of Jesus, but this is by no means lacking in the other Gospels, and there are no nefarious textual variants out there lurking that suggest there was ever a Gospel or a Gospel source that merely presented Jesus as man or a teacher or a messianic prophet.

Consider for example the fact that Jesus's two most frequently used phrases are Son of Man (in reference to himself) and Kingdom of God (which he is bringing in). Where in the OT do we find these two notions, indeed where do we find them together? In Dan. 7.13-14 where the Son of Man figure is promised to reign forever in a kingdom on earth. One has to ask-- what sort of person could personally reign forever in a kingdom? Who would God give this privilege to? The answer is to a forever person who was also a 'son of man'.

I have argued at length that Jesus exegeted himself and his mission out of Dan. 7.13-14 in my book 'The Christology of Jesus'. He also saw himself as God's Wisdom come in the flesh. This means that the historical Jesus saw himself as both human and indeed more than human--- as divine. The church then was not wrong in any sense to view him in this fashion. The tired old notion that the divinity of Jesus was something concocted late in the first century A.D. is historically false. Whether one likes it or not, Jesus is the one who suggested such a notion himself and the church simply amplified and clarified these ideas.

I want to turn around now and say something about one thing Ehrman is right to complain about. Ehrman is right that later pious scribes sometimes over-egged the pudding, to use a British phrase. Sometimes they did revise the text to better highlight Christian doctrine including the notion of the Trinity and other such truths. This is really quite irrelevant because when one stripes away the later accretions one still has a portray of Jesus that involves: 1) the virginal conception; 2) the atoning death of Jesus; 3) the bodily resurrection of Jesus; 4) the raw stuff of Trinitarian thinking, and we could go on. Ehrman's so-called evidence that these are later ideas imposed on the text by scribal corrupters is frankly false-- historically false, text critically false, theologically false.

Take another issue. Ehrman makes much of the fact that originally Mark's Gospel ends at Mk. 16.8, or at least its original ending is lost, and so we do not have an account of Jesus's resurrection appearances in this Gospel. In the first place, it is not at all likely that Mk. 16.8 is the original ending of this Gospel, as has recent been made abundantly clear by Clayton Croy's fine recent monograph on this subject. 'The Greek phrase 'for they were afraid....' is not a proper ending to any such book. It is grammatically awkward and inappropriate as an ending. I have argued as well in my Mark commentary at length that the original ending is lost, and the later material in Mk. 16.9ff. does not represent the original text. On this last point, I think Ehrman would agree.

But let us take the harder tact for a moment. Suppose Mark's Gospel does end at Mk. 16.8. Does this mean we have no early evidence of Jesus rising from the dead? Absolutely not. We have evidence from over a decade earlier in 1 Cor. 15-- Paul provides us with a long list of witnesses of the risen Lord, including himself. He is citing a tradition here and not making this up. This is what the early church believed whether they were disciples of Paul or Peter or John or James. Notice for example the Aramaic prayer at the end of 1 Cor. 16--- marana tha--'Come o' Lord'. Paul here cites a prayer that Aramaic speaking Jewish Christians he knew uttered. It is a prayer prayed to Jesus for him to return. All the earliest disciples of Jesus were monotheistic Jews, and yet here they are praying to Jesus for him to return. You don't pray to deceased rabbis to return.

I am glad we have a book like 'Misquoting Jesus' to tease our minds into active thought, though ironically very little of the book as anything to do with the actual sayings or teachings of Jesus himself. The title like the book is more of a tease, than really providing substantial evidence for 'the orthodox concotion of the Christian faith'. I would simply say to the reader-- caveat emptor. This author has a strong ax to grind, and the fact that he grinds it well in fluid prose makes it all the more beguiling. As my granny used to say-- Don't be so open minded that your brains fall out!

Monday, March 13, 2006

'Capote'-- In Cold Blood

This movie is not for sissies. It is a powerful and gripping drama telling the tale of Truman Capote's relationship with a murderer on death row in Levenworth Kansas, a story which became enshrined in the prize winner novelesque work of non-fiction entitled 'In Cold Blood'. The movie deals with the brutal murder of a family in a tiny community of Holcomb Kansas in November 1959. Those expecting to see a thriller will be disappointed, as this is a character portrayal of two figures-- one of the murders Perry Smith and Capote himself. As it turns out, these two figures have more in common than one might expect. The story has no real suspense in regard to the fate of the killers. the suspense comes in telling the story of the relationship of these two men as it developed between 1960-65.

As I said, these two men had some similarities of background and nature. For one thing both of these men were abandoned by their parents early in life. Capote was eventually raised by aunts, while Smith finally ended up with his sister in an orphanage. Both of them also had a deep desire to be famous and appreciated. One of the more telling moments in the movie is when Capote reads from Smith's diary an imaginary acceptance speech where he tells the imaginary audience how grateful he was for their adulation. Of course Capote lived out this scenario in real life. Smith and Capote are both verbally gifted, artistic, extremely sensitive and shy, and both have a cold blooded side. Smith is a cold blooded killer, while Capote is a cold blooded glory hound and writer, prepared to lie at length to get what he wants out of Smith. On the one hand, Capote is prepared to say he feels like he grew up in the same house with Perry with the latter going out the back door and the former going out the front door. On the other hand, Capote is certainly using Smith to provide the fodder so he can write his magnum opus--- a historical novel which reads more like fiction, but is in fact a narrative of real events.

Capote was part of the N.Y.literary scene in the late 50s and early 60s. He hung out with a variety of persons including figures like Tennessee Williams and the authoress of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. And yet Capote had a curiosity, call it morbid or not, to get close to a killer and write his story, while pretending to befriend him. A funny thing happens along the way-- Perry Smith does become someone Capote does, and yet does not, care about. He can't make up his mind. And when he sees the hanging of Perry, it changes him irrevocably. Capote was never able to write another significant work after 'In Cold Blood' came out. He developed writer's block thereafter, and there is a sort of strange justice in this, since he was trying to build his own fame on the basis of a gruesome crime and the sensationalizing of it in a novel, while longing for the executions to hurry up and happen so he could finish his novel and get the whole experience over with.

Philip Seymour's portrayal of Capote is masterful and accurate from my memory of the man and what he was like. It is not a surprise that he won the Oscar for best actor for this performance. He even sounds like Capote and has his mannerisms down cold. This is truly an example of a performance 'in character'. But the movie also raises afresh the debate about capital punishment. If one was ever going to make a case for capital punishment this sort of hideous crime which the killers admitted to, provides a rationale for it.

But there are reasons for pause. In the first place a good case can be made that many innocent persons have been put on death row and executed. Can the executing of even one genuine killer justify the repeated taking of innocent life (since we are no all-knowing and make mistakes in our judgments of others)? I don't think so.

Secondly, I have as much problem with capital punishment as I do with abortion. In both cases we may well be talking about taking away a human life before they have had opportunity to be in right relationship with God. I especially stress this in regard to the living who are on death row. Who knows if they might not repent, even if they have done a crime, and receive Christ a week after there scheduled execution? Can we really say that executing an unsaved person is not sending them straight to hell? I for one would not want that on my conscience. So I would say that there is at least as good a case that can be made from a Christian point of view that opposes as that which endorses capital punishment.

Then there is one more thing. I think as Christians we are called to be totally pro-life, not just pro-life when it comes to the unborn. Did Jesus not say that he came that we might have life and have in abundantly? Does John 3.16-17 not say that it is not God's desire that any should perish but all should have everlasting life? What are the logical consequences of these theological ideas?

I cannot speak for others, but for me it means we should be totally pro-life-- opposing war, capital punishment, and abortion. I realize these three issues are not identical and one can make a reasonable case for supporting one sort of ban on taking life, while not objecting to others. I simply find this an inconsistent point of view. Are the unborn of more sacred worth than the born? I don't think so.
Is an innocent man wrongly convicted on death row somehow of less sacred worth than the innocent life in the womb? I don't think so. I would encourage those who are debating this to watch a movie like 'Dead Man Walking' or 'the Green Mile' and think about these things.

I am not interesting in arguing about rationales for capital punishment provided from OT covenants, since Christians are not under or obligated to those covenants. I believe we must stick to what the NT suggests about such things, and if we live by the Sermon on the Mount and the ethic of forgiveness and suffering violence rather than perpetrating it, then there are consequences to embracing such an ethic.

In the end, I would say go and see the movie 'Capote' if you are a mature Christian person. And ask yourself the question-- what thoughts does it prompt when you think about life and death issues?

Sunday, March 12, 2006


In freedom there’s a bondage
Which leads to endless choice.
In bondage there’s a freedom
Excusing loss of voice.

What frees a person shows us
What bound them long before.
What binds a person demonstrates
The thing she loves the more.

Commitment and concession
Contrast in this respect
One’s accepted freely
The other with regret.

Freedom is hardly freeing
If only freedom from.
What good is escaping evil
And missing Kingdom come?

Freedom from’s inadequate
Unless there’s freedom for.
What good is no encumbrances
Without an open door?

Redemption’s more than freedom
From chains that bind the heart.
It’s also a fresh purpose,
A goal, a brand new start.

The yokes we cast off tell us
The things that held us down.
The yokes we take up freely
Remind us where we’re bound.

No matter our opinions
The truth will set us free.
For freedom I have been released
To bind my heart to Thee.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Compassion Fatique on the Gulf Coast?

I was on a plane full of Presbyterians from Michigan flying from Memphis to Gulfport yesterday. It was yet another work detail coming to help with the cleanup in Biloxi, Gulfport, Waveland and other places. The ride down I-90 is still stunning to see all the huge buildings and churches quite literally gutted and the old southern houses destroyed. I felt less badly about seeing the casino boats demolished. The oddest sight of all was coming to Biloxi and there, like a gigantic Noah's Ark was the wreck of one of the casino's in the shape of the ark, resting next to a pier. One can imagine what it might be like if God had not promised to Noah not to destroy the world again by water. One has to look for rainbows amidst the rubble and choas on the coast.

And since all the media attention has been on New Orleans, much of the story in Mississippi has gone untold. Mississippi is of course the poorest state in the union, a solidly red state, which has been left red-handed and red in the face due to the lack of government response. Yet thankfully the church has seen its opportunity to stand up and try and do something about this major disaster which will take years to recover from. Thankfully many parts of the church are seeing their responsbilities to the rest of the body of Christ, as well as to the rest of humankind and doing something about it.

There are many heroic and moving stories to be told, but I will leave you with one that was telling and made the national news. Canadian Baptists, part of an organization called Grassroots have been in New Orleans rebuilding homes. The CNN reporter interviewed them and asked "What do you think of Mardi Gras"? Their response was succinct--- "no one needs to be getting drunk and acting in immoral ways to drown their sorrows and try and forget. We all need to get to work and help rebuild people's lives and homes."

Praise the Lord for such folks--- they have seen this disaster as an opportunity to be the hands of Christ even to those whom we may not think deserve it. It is what Jesus would have us do, and it is a good witness.