Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On Inerrancy

My latest document recovery: an article I wrote in response to William Dembski (of intelligent design fame) back in seminary on the question of the inerrancy (BTW, I almost made an error in how I spelled "inerrancy"):

Inerrancy? Eric P. Lemonholm

January 29, 1997

William Dembski wrote an intriguing article in the March 1996 Princeton Theological Review entitled “The Problem of Error in Scripture.” Dembski’s basic position seems to be shared by many here at PTS. The question I have is this: What difference does the doctrine of inerrancy make in how we read Scripture, and in how we live as Christians? Continue here...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

I have uploaded today's sermon here.

I have also uploaded a seminary paper I wrote on Religious Conversion, and one I wrote on A Christian's Encounter with Hinduism.

I have found a lot of stuff I wrote long ago by sifting through old floppy disks and forgotten folders. It's kind of interesting to me (and hopefully to someone else), even though some of it is a bit adolescent. I'll continue to upload it in a somewhat random manner. Please don't take anything I wrote long ago as necessarily what I believe today, though there is undoubtedly a trajectory of belief.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women!] do nothing.

- Edmund Burke

Here is a comment I wrote on, to hopefully get a discussion started:

A perennial challenge for me is how to preach faithfully about potentially partisan issues. Now, I know our call is to preach the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. But we are also called to preach the law, which reveals our sin and drives us to Christ. It seems to me, that if we confine ourselves to 'personal' sin (though what sin is purely personal?), and ignore corporate sin, then we are being unfaithful to the biblical witness.

For example, I've recently compared the Word Alone Network and the ELCA's websites by searching for some key terms, and here are the number of hits I came up with (keep in mind that the ELCA website is much larger):

"Iraq" Word Alone: 5 (0 sustained reflections on the war) ELCA: 677

"Torture" Word Alone: 0 ELCA: 108

"Refugee" Word Alone: 0 ELCA: 534

"Immigration" Word Alone: 0 ELCA: 508

"Genocide" Word Alone: 1 (in an article comparing homosexual practice to it) ELCA: 97

"Poverty" Word Alone: 21 ELCA: 1730

"Homosexual" Word Alone: 149 ELCA: 247

Based on that list, on what is the Word Alone Network's sustained theological reflection focused? All of those are political issues, and every one that Word Alone ignores is an issue of corporate, national and international action.

So, without descending to partisanship, how do we preach faithfully and prophetically about the life and death issues of the day? If we remain silent in the face of evil social, political, and economic systems, are we not in fact supporting them, and bowing to the golden calves of nationalism, racism, imperialism, sexism, etc.?

I know I got a little hot under the collar on Tuesday night, when I wrote the long blog on the Word Alone Network. I am just sick of their claiming that title, when the ‘word alone’ that seems most important to them is sex. Another comparison between the Word Alone and ELCA websites: “Sudan” - Word Alone: 0, ELCA: 186. About genocide, the ELCA has 97 substantive references, compared to one mention of genocide on the Word Alone website in an article about – you guessed it – homosexuality; in fact, the article only mentions genocide to equate homosexual practices to other sins, like... “incest, rape, bestiality, genocide.” It reminds me of the difference between The Christian Century and Christianity Today magazines during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Century was printing articles by and about Martin Luther King, Jr. and about the civil rights movement, and Christianity Today was silent – for which an editor of Christianity Today has since apologized. Silence in the face of evil is an endorsement of the evil.

My hope, though, is not to get embroiled in fruitless partisan arguments. Generally, what you see in these church discussions on sexuality is various people of good will and intelligence, who genuinely believe in the authority of scripture (word alone), seeing and honestly interpreting scripture differently, out of our different perspectives. Is it any wonder that conservative people read the Bible and interpret it in line with their conservatism? Is it any wonder that liberals do the same, and interpret the Bible liberally? Is it any wonder that the reverse doesn't happen? I am not advocating relativism, but a recognition of reality. The discussion is still worthwhile, because we are not confined to the boxes of our perspectives. We can learn from one another, from Scripture, and the world.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Breaking the Silence

On this sixth anniversary of 9/11, I remember and honor those who lost their lives in the acts of terror that day. I also honor all the American soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq since that day. I remember the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi citizens killed directly or indirectly because of our actions in those countries.

I must reflect on the issue of partisanship today. I have been thinking about this especially since I received an issue of the Word Alone Network’s newsletter (located online here) especially Robert Benne’s article ‘Replacing the Center with the Periphery.’ Now, I resonate with many of the supposedly core concerns of Word Alone – the five ‘solas’ or ‘alones’ of the Reformation: salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, as revealed in scripture alone, with all glory to God alone (solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria). Now, how those ‘solas’ are understood or worked out theologically is another question, and I am sure that I differ from many Word Alone members (I am not a Word Alone member) in that regard. But I share the conviction that we need to keep the main thing the main thing – and that main ‘thing’ is a Person – Jesus Christ. If you put any other good thing in the center, be it social justice or peace or equality, for example, you actually work against those goods, because what properly motivates Christians to seek justice, peace, and equality is a living faith relationship with God through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Benne outlines a schema of concentric circles, with “core Christian beliefs” (the Triune God, etc.P at the center, “implications of Christian beliefs in history” next (Benne cites the example of “the overturning of slavery”), and finally specific “public policy and legislation” at the periphery. He then argues that the leadership of the ELCA treats the core as fuzzy, but is dogmatic about the periphery. That is to say, the ELCA treats the ‘solas’ as less than ‘sola,’ while peripheral issues take center stage. Specifically, Benne argues that the ELCA’s “social ethics and public policy commitments” suggest “a thorough accommodation to ‘the world’ - in this case to the world of left/liberal elite opinion.” Benne cites many ‘peripheral’ concerns of ELCA leaders as evidence of a liberal agenda, including “whether or not we should have invaded Iraq,” quotas to ensure “inclusivity,” “global warming,” and various commitments to fight racism, sexism, heterosexism, and imperialism.

Now, I am not particularly interested in defending the leadership of the ELCA in Chicago. I think they can do a capable job of that themselves, and frankly, I am more concerned with what’s happening on the local level of the church. Sometimes, I do share the Word Alone impression that the leadership of the ELCA is out of touch with what matters in the local church. For example, I recall all the energy the Bishop’s office spent in advocating Called to Common Mission – our full communion with the Episcopal Church. It caused a great deal of division in the church, and has very little practical effect in most churches. I cannot think of any practical difference it has made in either of the churches I have served. Episcopalians could receive communion in our churches before the agreement, and they can after. We could cooperate in mission before, and after, the agreement. The only practical difference my Bishop in Northeastern Minnesota could see coming from CCM was that, as Bishop, he now had to go to all ordinations in the synod, instead of almost all of them. It didn’t practically affect any of the 75,000 other Lutherans in the synod.

I also share the Word Alone Network’s concern to keep the ELCA decentralized and representative. The concentration of power in the offices of bishops would not, I believe, empower and enable the spread of the gospel at the local level.

But, here is what I find interesting: when you search the Word Alone Network’s website as Benne searched the ELCA website, you also find some interesting emphases. For example, whereas the ELCA website has 677 references to “Iraq,” many of which refer to statements by the Bishop’s office or social policy resolutions on the war, Journal of Lutheran Ethics articles on our ethical obligations to Iraq, etc.; a Word Alone website search turns up only 5 references to Iraq, none of which are serious reflections on the war. And yet, the Word Alone website has about 149 references to “homosexual,” while the whole ELCA website (a much larger archive than the Word Alone website) has 247. A third example: the Word Alone site has 0 references to “torture” and 0 references to “Abu Ghraib” to the ELCA’s 108 and 8. Poverty: 21 for Word Alone and 1,730 for the ELCA. Refugee: Word Alone – 0, ELCA – 534. Immigration as a contemporary issue: Word Alone – 0, ELCA – approximately 508. (Word Alone on “abortion” - 11, ELCA – 108.)

Benne argues that “public policy and legislation” issues are peripheral, and that would explain Word Alone’s silence on Iraq and torture. But their focus on homosexuality would imply that that is a central issue for them – and indeed, Benne puts “traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality” at the core of Christian convictions, along with “salvation through Christ alone” and “the Trinity itself.” Based on the material I receive from Word Alone, the seven verses in Scripture that seem to address homosexual behavior overwhelmingly outnumber (in importance) the 3,000 verses that address issues of justice for the poor and oppressed, the widows, orphans, and aliens. It is fascinating that Benne states that whether or not we should have invaded Iraq is a complex issue, about which “Christians of good will and intelligence differ” - but he does not say the same thing about homosexuality. For him and the Word Alone network, there is no room for differences on that issue. If I disagree with them on that supposedly core Christian issue, am I not a Christian of good will and intelligence?

I agree that the Iraq issue is complex, and Christians of good will and intelligence differ on it. The ELCA is a big tent, and in our congregations we have liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans and every other political persuasion. We will disagree on many issues. But thank God the leadership of the ELCA is at least taking a stand and engaging in the public sphere. They are a part of the conversation. From my admittedly partisan perspective, we Americans were duped by deliberate misinformation into a war in Iraq that was not necessary, that was incompetently managed for years with no consequences for incompetence, that has enriched the friends of our leaders who started the war, while taking the lives of thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and unleashing Al Qaeda and civil war into Iraq. Our missteps in the Middle East, including our growing tolerance for torture, have raised up a whole new generation of terrorists, and made Americans less safe for many years to come. Now, I wholeheartedly support our troops. They are striving hard to bring good out of the foolish decision our president made to shock and awe his way into the history books, and they are indeed bringing good out of evil at great cost to themselves.

Now, you can disagree with me about the war in Iraq, and still be a Christian of good will and intelligence. I, for example, have no clear opinion on when or how we should withdraw from Iraq. We made the mess there. I know we can’t just leave today and say “see ya!” I honestly do not know how to maximize the good and minimize the evil in Iraq in the near future.

But let’s talk about the Bible. Were the Hebrew prophets, like Amos, silent in the face of injustice, oppression, or violence? Did Jeremiah keep silent in the face of foreign affairs blunders that affected the safety of the nation of Judah? Did Jesus keep silent in the face of the religious-political-economic leaders in Jerusalem? Did John the author of Revelation keep silent in the face of the violence of Imperial Rome? Moving ahead in history, was Martin Luther silent about the major political and social issues of his day? Did he not at least have something to say about them? Why is Word Alone so focused on what committed, faithful homosexual couples do in bed, when war, terror, torture, starvation, mass homelessness, AIDS orphans in Africa (the list could go on) abound? Why are those issues not on their radar screen? Why be so bold in standing up to the supposed evil of blessing gay unions and so timid in facing the real pressing issues of our time? Are issues of justice and peace really peripheral Christian issues? Are they not pervasively biblical and theological? Is there no Christian response to, for example, torture?

Robert Benne has, indeed, lifted up the political and social concerns of the ELCA leadership which, indeed lean to the left – and more to the left than the average Lutheran church member. That’s not really surprising, any more than it is surprising that college professors tend to be more liberal than their students. And, I am not even, at this point, defending any single stand of the ELCA leadership, though I tend to agree with them on most of these issues (as you can see). But it is equally obvious that Word Alone, in its publications, has an equal and opposite bias. They have placed a conservative view of sexuality at the core, and moved the prophetic emphasis on justice and righteousness to the periphery. Their silence in the face of the evils of empire is a tacit approval of them. Benne rightly lifts up the Gospel as the center of church life, and the Word Alone Network serves a good purpose when it reminds us all of the priority of the Gospel, the ‘solas’ of the Christian faith. Would that Word Alone also truly kept the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the center, and not a conservative quietism that is silent in the face of social, national, and international evil.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Five Things My Children Should Know

I’ve been tagged by David at Here I Stand to write five things I want my children to know. It’s a great question as we prepare for a new year of Christian education at church. Here are my five (finally), sitting on the shoulders of giants:
  1. See things as they are, not as you wish them to be – including yourself. David McCullough lifted this up as a strength of George Washington, and it was also a strength of Abe Lincoln and Jane Eyre. So much good leadership and good judgment depends on seeing yourself and the world clearly.

  2. Be honest with yourself and others. This is related to number one. Be transparent. Be real. Be the same person in all contexts. Don’t hide your limitations and strengths. Let the real you shine forth.

  3. Do justice. Be fair. Challenge and strive to change unjust social structures. Treat all people as equals. Treat all people as children of God. Realize, for example, that an Iraqi life is as precious to God as an American life.

  4. Love mercy. Share your bananas. Help the poor. Visit the sick and imprisoned, Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Help those in need.

  5. Walk humbly with your God. Pray. Read the Bible. Have an inner life. Make space in your life for silence, reflection, listening. Be open to hearing God speak through many voices in your life.

BTW, I'll tag Kris with this list.