Monday, January 15, 2007

What If It's Not Historically True?

During Thanksgiving dinner, a conversation ensued about whether or not the events recorded in the Book of Job actually took place. Of course, most critical scholars reject Job's historicity, so those who agree with the critical scholarly consensus, but who wish for Job to still have some meaning, have some explaining to do. Some do this by asserting that the truths taught about God, Satan, man and the problem of evil in this beautifully poetic, albeit mythical, story are still true, even thought the events that convey the truths are not.

I made a feeble attempt to defend Job's historicity — I'm not very good on the spot unless I've recently studied the idea under discussion and even then … — but over the next few days, one statement kept nagging at me: "Whether or not the Book of Job is literally true doesn't make a difference in my day-to-day life." Everything in me revolts against such a statement because I believe the Bible to be a completely relevant Book that should make a difference in our day-to-day lives precisely because the things in it actually happened. The picture of God and His sovereignty found in the Book and Job's character under utterly unique and horrible circumstances cries out for us to live with a bigger picture of God and a humbler view of self. I don't think the message cries out so strongly if the story isn't literally true. However, I couldn't think of a precise way to argue that point with someone for whom Job's historicity doesn't make a difference. So, as is the case with many of the thoughts that give us pause throughout our lives, since the topic didn't come up again, I stopped thinking about it.

Until a few days ago, that is. Amidst the slew of Evangelical books published in the past decade addressing postmodernism, I actually found one worth reading. It is Heath White's Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian. If you don't quite have a handle on postmodernism and would like a place to start, this is it. If you do have a handle on postmodernism and would like a fresh perspective on how the Church ought to live in such an age, read this book. Even if you don't care about postmodernism at all, read it. It's just that good.

Anyway, in addressing the importance of the Bible's literal historicity, White, with characteristic simplicity and clarity, says:

"So let's ask: why is it so important that the Bible be (literally, historically) true, rather than merely instructive or edifying or inspirational? The answer, I suggest, is that the Bible is fundamentally the record of God's action in history. It begins with God initiating history in creation; it continues with God's calling Abraham and forming a special people, the nation of Israel. It passes to the life of a genuine historical man who was also God and to the founding of a uniquely inspired institution, the Christian church. It ends with the promise of a future divine intervention in history, a final judgment. The message of the long trajectory of the salvation story is that God acts in this world for the purposes of judgment and redemption. He has in the past with others: he will in the present and future with you. That's the story's point, and it isn't a very plausible point if the story isn't basically—literally, historically—true."

On the one hand, I admit that denying Job's historicity doesn't deny the historicity of the whole Bible. We don't have to believe in Job the way we are called to believe in the Resurrection. On the other hand, where lies the line of demarcation between those Books and events accepted as historically, literally true and those that aren't? If we don't have to declare Job a myth, why should we? A number of Evangelical scholars readily admit that Job has gone through stages of redaction. For instance, there is no need to believe that the story's participants originally spoke in such constant rhythmic, poetic patterns. At the same time, there is no need to deny that all of the main elements of the story have a historical core, of which the opening and closing chapters seem to be trying to convince us. I think the message of the Book of Job carries more weight if it literally and historically took place. Rather than side with the critical scholars, many of whom deny that God exists or that He acts in the world, I choose to trust those scholars who take the message of the Bible seriously, but not blindly, and who seek to figure out how the Book of Job can be so beautifully dramatic and poetic yet still preserve for us a literal, historical account of God acting in the world, a message which gives us hope that He can and will do so with us as well. I could be wrong, but with no reason to believe that I am, I'll let the story speak to me as most of my fellow believers throughout history have let it speak to them, i.e., more powerfully because it actually happened.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Let's Not Overstate the Case

In the December 2006 issue of First Things journal (#168), J. Daryl Charles writes a stimulating article titled "Protestants and Natural Law." The thrust of the article is that, over the last few centuries, Protestants have lost a robust natural-law theology as it exists, for instance, in the Roman Catholic Church. With such a loss, Protestants lack any adequate basis for a moral apologetic or for contribution to civil society. To prove his thesis, Charles points to three Protestant theologian/ethicists who not only lack a positive natural-law theology, but actually denounce a role for natural law in Christian theology. His examples are Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. On the basis of his research, Charles makes claims like:

"[Protestants] are remarkably joined in their opposition to natural-law thinking."

"Many, Protestant Evangelicals in particular, presume that natural-law thinking fails to take seriously the condition of sin and places misguided trust in the powers of human reason debilitated by the Fall."

"Despite the cleavage between theological fundamentalists and progressives, objections to natural law have united most Protestants."

I was disturbed by Charles' general claims about Protestant objections to natural law, in spite of his initial caveats, for a number of reasons. First of all, during the more than 10 years I spent as a student in an Evangelical institution, I became adequately acquainted with natural-law theory and theology, and not primarily in negative categories. Second, after reading the article, I checked my primarily Evangelical library and easily found extended and very constructive discussions on natural-law theory and theology. And I would hazard a guess that the Evangelical theologian/ethicists that I checked out are at least as representative of the Protestant Evangelical community as are Charles' examples, if not more so. I have never heard of John Howard Yoder and, while recognizing that as a fault, it makes me think that he might not be as representative as Charles would like him to be. Combined with the spectrum of opinions that exist about the orthodoxy of both Barth and Hauerwas, or at least their continuity with general Protestant thought, these realities should give rise to significant skepticism about Charles' sample.

Norman Geisler, in the prolegomena to his 4-volume Systematic Theology, Carl F.H. Henry, throughout his 6-volume work, God, Revelation and Authority, and Scott Rae, in his introduction to ethics, Moral Choices, all give significant attention to natural-law theory and theology and the role it should have in thought, word and deed. A positive article on natural law is found in the very recent New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, which was published by InterVarsity Press, an Evangelical publisher. This data simply does not align with Charles' negative portrayal of the place for natural law in Protestant thought.

But the purpose of my reflection is not to refute Charles' thesis or to defend the place of natural law in Protestant, namely Evangelical, thought. I want to use his example as a warning for all of us, especially myself. I think there is a genuine temptation for each of us to speak of things about which we know very little as if we knew a great deal about them. We may have read about some point of view or even a point of view as expressed by an actual proponent of it and make claims as though we were thoroughly acquainted with such a point of view. This is quite dangerous. Not only are we likely to speak falsely about the particular view, we may, depending on our company, lead others to think as falsely as we do. Another potential problem is that we will exaggerate our claim such that we attribute to a large group what is only the view of a portion, possibly a small portion, of the group. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Charles is not adequately acquainted with the development of natural law in Protestant thought. He is eminently more qualified to discuss the matter than I. Nor am I saying that we should never speak about anything until we know it thoroughly. My warning is that we should be honest in our conversations and careful in our speech so that we don't overstate our case, as I believe Charles has. Undoubtedly, some Protestants lack a proper theory and theology of natural law. But I think Charles has given into temptation when he says that many Protestants, especially Evangelicals, are remarkably united in opposition to natural law.

I know this warning may not sound particularly insightful or novel. It shouldn't. We should all be living this way. The problem is that we don't. I used to say a lot of things about Democrats because I didn't know very many. Now that all of my in-laws are Democrats, I don't say as much any more, or at least I don't speak as categorically. I want to close this entry with a very poor bit of advice that was once given to me by a pastor and give just the opposite. After a sermon that included a discussion of various world religions, I asked this pastor if he had read the Bhagavad-Gita, which I bought and was skimming after a trip to India. He said something like, "Eric, I don't read anything by unbelievers. I don't want to give time to the enemy. I read books by believers that tell me about unbelievers. That spares me a lot of effort." Don't do that. Rather, let us be diligent in our study, honest with our findings and careful in how we pass on that which we have had the privilege to learn. We may have to talk less and listen more but that may not be such a bad thing.

Monday, January 1, 2007

A New Year or Just Another Day?

During the course of yesterday's sermon, our pastor told the congregation that he had a secret to share with us. The secret was that tomorrow (i.e. today, January 1st) was nothing special. This secret, of course, was revealed during his message about what we should be reflecting on as the new year comes upon us. So, even though tomorrow, i.e. today, is nothing special, we should be reflecting on the fact that we, as believers, are of one spirit with God (I Corinthians 6:17) as we celebrate the new year. Nonetheless, the statement was clear: The incoming of the new year is nothing special.

Initially, I was in agreement with our pastor. I had been thinking the past few days that the entrance of the new year doesn't have any specific spiritual import. When we do things like make resolutions, we are simply trying to do things, or to stop doing things, that we should have stopped doing, or started doing, before now. Even our reflecting, if we are reflecting as Christians, is something that should be done much more frequently than once a year. I have thanked God countless times for the myriad of events and blessings that have occurred throughout this year — our 3rd anniversary, finishing language school, going back to America, the birth of our beautiful baby boy, a safe return to Ukraine — why does reflecting on them as this year ends and the next begins make it more appropriate or special?

But then, the new year arrived. My wife and I naturally reflected on the great things that 2006 brought us and how great a God we serve. And I began to think about what I could do differently this year to improve my moral and spiritual quality of life in the coming year. If I really believe that today is nothing special, why am I using it as a special time?

I don’t have a solution to this puzzle. I still ideally believe that today is nothing special but maybe that's just the thing. Ideally, today shouldn't be special. But I am far from ideal. It is because of my failure to adequately reflect on a regular basis and because of my failure to correct my bad attitudes and actions as they reveal themselves that I need a concrete event to mark change or a new beginning. I will try to adjust my schedule to allow more time for prayer and I will try to read through the Bible in a year, starting today. Ideally, I would have responded to my conscience and the convictions of the Holy Spirit to do these things 6 months ago, when I began to feel their weight. I didn't. So here I am, at the beginning of 2007, committing to act on those promptings. Is it because today is special? Yes and no. No, because it's just another day. January 1st is no more special than June 1st, if I would have responded then. But, yes, today is special because it is the day that I am choosing to act as I ought to act, choosing to strive toward the ideal, choosing to give myself more fully to God as I ought to have 6 months ago. In this way, the new year is quite special indeed. May the God Who promises to one day make the ideal a reality strengthen each of us this new year as we live for Him.

Happy 2007!