The Value of Learning Biblical Hebrew

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In 2 Timothy, Paul encourages the evangelist Timothy to trust in “[a]ll scripture” as the “useful” source for transformative instruction which empowers God’s people to accomplish “every good work” (3:16–17 NRSV).[1] There is a reason to believe this reference to “scripture” is primarily an allusion to the Hebrew Bible.[2] Study of the Hebrew language, then, would be a necessary acquisition for the minister. The benefits of studying biblical Hebrew are vast and significant, ranging from the practical to the technical. The insights gained from the study of Hebrew allows the minister to provide biblical clarity for the benefit of their audience.

The Benefits of Studying Biblical Hebrew

There are several benefits studying Hebrew but only a selected few will be set forward for consideration. The ultimate benefit and goal for any minister of the Hebrew Bible is “to learn to exegete the Hebrew text accurately in order to preach authoritative, relevant sermons.”[3] Studying biblical Hebrew improves the proficiency to preach and teach what amounts to two-thirds of the biblical canon, a literary world that is often a difficult foreign terrain for most people.[4] Further, a knowledge of biblical Hebrew also liberates ministers from being dependent on commentaries, other secondary literature, and helps avoid making arguments exclusively from scholarly consensus.[5] Instead, a proficient knowledge of Hebrew will allow the minister to provide fresh and original messages that guide the church based on a deep personal wrestling with the original languages.[6]

For the minister, there are several benefits from a technical (professional) vantage point. The minister ought to know their subject matter in deeper ways than the average Bible reader.[7] Silzer and Finley point out that much of the exegetical task is to understand how language works to convey meaning, in other words, semantics.[8] A steady daily program of working through biblical Hebrew, along with the right tools (lexicons, grammars, and other aids) will increase exposure and proficiency to how the language functions.[9] Ideally, such would help mitigate against linguistic fallacies such as root, figure of speech confusion, and totality transfer which reflect an ignorance of how languages work.[10] Furthermore, the exegetical process helps the minister sort through technical questions which have no homiletic value but are required by the exegetical task. “The meaning of a sentence is not always obvious from the meaning of the individual words.”[11] This process to let context determine the meaning of words and phrases whether literal or figurative, ambiguous or clear ought to encourage humility (Jas 4:10), a much needed “benefit” to the craft of preaching and teaching.[12]

The Task of Ministers to Clarify the Biblical Text

The insights gained from the study of Hebrew allow the minister to be in a better position to clarify the biblical text using languages and images their audience understands. This task emerges from various needs. First, ministers are often asked to answer questions about translations and teachings.[13] The question “which translation is correct?” may seem a daunting one but it is actually an opportunity to help the person take their first steps into a larger world of Bible study. The minister must help to provide guidance and clarity in this sensitive but crucial area of Bible knowledge that all translations are interpretive aids to understand the original language of the text.[14] Finally, a minister who has adequate proficiency in biblical Hebrew will have the ability to address questions concerning the accuracy of certain proposed teachings or the need to correct inaccurate teachings.

Second, ministers must know when to bring out relevant insights from the text that English translations do not highlight but are quite helpful to see another level of depth to the pericope.[15] Wegner, for example, points to the phrase tōhu wābōhu which appears in the Hebrew Bible twice (Jer 4:23 and Gen 1:2).[16] It seems the prophet Jeremiah is using this unique phrase from Genesis (“a formless void” NRSV) to affirm that due to the sins of Israel the earth is once again “waste and void” (NRSV). This intertextual insight would most likely have gone unnoticed without work in the Hebrew text. Finally, and perhaps most significantly is the clarity that comes from a fresh and relevant application of the Hebrew text to the contemporary life of the congregation. Exegesis always has the singular aim “to produce a deeper understanding of biblical truth,”[17] the sermon for the contemporary setting must be shaped by these “freshly pressed” insights.

Conclusion

A knowledge of biblical Hebrew certainly provides practical and technical benefits for the minister who maintains a steady program to improve their proficiency in the language. Likewise, the insights gained from the study of Hebrew allow the minister to provide clarity when preaching and teaching. This will often include addressing questions regarding translations, teachings, or by providing fresh insight from the Hebrew text hidden by an English text; and finally, by aligning the message to the contours of the exegetical work in the original language.

Endnotes

  1. All Scripture references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
  2. Paul D. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew in Preaching: A Guide for Students and Pastors (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2009), 17.
  3. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 13.
  4. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 13–14; Peter James Silzer and Thomas John Finley, How Biblical Languages Work: A Student’s Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 161.
  5. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 15–16; David Ford, “Keeping up Biblical Languages while in the Ministry,” Foundations 14 (1985), 42; Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 4th ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 181.
  6. Ford, “Keeping up Biblical Languages,” 42, 44; Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 15–17.
  7. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 17.
  8. Silzer and Finley, How Biblical Languages Work, 160.
  9. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 20–22.
  10. Silzer and Finley, How Biblical Languages Work, 162, 165; Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis, 182–83.
  11. Silzer and Finley, How Biblical Languages Work, 176.
  12. Silzer and Finley, How Biblical Languages Work, 180.
  13. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 16.
  14. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 15.
  15. Ford, “Keeping up Biblical Languages,” 42.
  16. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew, 15.
  17. Ford, “Keeping up Biblical Languages,” 43.

Bibliography

Ford, David. “Keeping up Biblical Languages while in the Ministry.” Foundations 14 (1985): 41–44.

Silzer, Peter James, and Thomas John Finley. How Biblical Languages Work: A Student’s Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek. Grand Rapids, Mich: Kregel Publications, 2004.

Stuart, Douglas. Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. 4th edition. Louisville, Kent: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Wegner, Paul D. Using Old Testament Hebrew in Preaching: A Guide for Students and Pastors. Grand Rapids, Mich: Kregel Publications, 2009.

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God as Cause: The Cosmological Argument

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I clearly remember my elementary school science lesson of “cause and effect.” For every effect, there must be a sufficient and adequate cause. It is one of those self-evident truths of the natural world. Yet, when applied to the origin of our universe the matter becomes a disputable principle. For some time now, some physicists, like Dr. Victor Stenger, are on record affirming, “Not everything requires a cause.”[1] Meanwhile, the Hebrews writer affirms, “For every house is builded by some one; but he that built all things is God” (3:4 ASV).[2] Well, what about this “structure” —the universe— that houses “all things”? Is there an adequate cause to explain it? Is there reason to believe it was built by Someone? We, here, affirm that there is a reason to believe God exists.

There are four independent categories of arguments[3] used to provide a basis for believing a personal God exists, that we are not alone in the universe; and, more importantly, that our experiences have meaning and purpose. They all have their strengths, their appeal, and areas which the dispute naturally centers on. Yet, they are all valid reasons to make the case that God exists. Now, let us turn to the argument at hand.

Cosmological arguments are a group of arguments focused on establishing the “cause and effect” link between God (cause) and the universe (effect), by examining the effect and seeking an adequate and sufficient cause to explain it. In other words, it is based on a well established and self-evident principle of the world in which we live. Naturally, then, there are broad and narrow forms of the cosmological argument. A narrow form would be to focus on the origin of human beings as Thomas B. Warren did in his debate with then atheist Antony Flew.[4] We will be considering, however, the broad form, namely the origin of the universe (nothing too big).

First, we will reflect on the Bible’s cosmological affirmations, and then secondly, we will suggest a reasonable argument which affirms that the universe had a cause, and that cause is God.

Arguments from Revelation

The essence of the cosmological argument is found in the Bible. Consider a few examples. The very first line of scripture makes the clear “cause and effect” affirmation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Some readers of Genesis think that since there are poetic elements to this creation narrative (i.e., “God said,” “God saw,” measured creation days, etc.) its historicity is questionable; however, as Old Testament scholar Clyde Woods points out the passage conspicuously lacks Hebrew parallelism, “the fundamental characteristic of Hebrew poetry.”[5] Nevertheless, while the passage is stylistically shaped, artistry does not by itself dimmish its historic claims. Would one question the historicity of the “Star Spangled Banner” commemorating the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 simply because it is stylized? In a clearly “narrative” text, Moses affirms: “for in six days Jehovah made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is” (Exodus 20:11). 

The “Creation Hymn” psalms also offer cosmological affirmations. They extoll the power and greatness of God and display the sense of wonder, confidence, and admiration filling the psalmist.[6] In Psalm 19, David praises God:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament showeth his handiwork” (19:1).

In Psalm 8, David reflects on both the universe and the status of humanity as part of this universe:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers… For thou hast made [mankind] but little lower than God [lit. heavenly beings]” (Psalm 8:3, 5).

The universe (i.e., “heavens”) exists because of the will of God. David praises God for creating the universe and for creating humanity (cf. 139:7–16). This emphasis on the universe and humanity, reflect both the broad (the universe) and the narrow (mankind) forms of the cosmological argument.

The New Testament likewise affirms the cosmological argument. A biblical faith accepts that the universe was made by God —ex nihilo— from nothing (Hebrews 11:2). The prologue of the Gospel of John affirms that Jesus is the agent of creation.

In the beginning was the Word… The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. (John 1:1–3; cf. v. 14)

The Father brought “all things” into being through the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus. In a very real sense, then, Jesus is the cosmological argument.

The apostle Paul employed the cosmological argument on several occasions. Acts records sermons where he affirms natural theology (Acts 14:15; 17:24) to Greeks and Romans building his plea from the God who made the world. In Romans 1:19–20, Paul pointedly affirms that the testimony of the visible world reveals the attributes of the invisible Creator, namely, “his everlasting power and divinity.” Those that reject such evidence, he argues, are “without excuse.” Finally, Paul lifts up Jesus as the one who created “all things” and presently holds everything together (Colossians 1:16–17).

Arguments from Reason

Providing reasons for our belief in a personal God from nature and reason is found throughout Scripture. It is an act of faith and a natural outflow of loving the Lord with all our heart and mind (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:26). We should be very clear, that God has provided sufficient witness in the world to point us back to him. Yet, when asked why we believe in God and have hope in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15), it would be wise to think outside “the book” since for many quoting the Bible is insufficient.

Even when fully convicted that truth is on our side, we must face the truth of Alvin Plantinga’s words, “there are no proofs of God that will convince all rational persons.[7] But that has always been the story even among believers (Isaiah 53:1; Luke 16:27–30).

All we can do is present our reasons hoping that the “accumulated weight” of such arguments will be hard to ignore. After all, as biochemist Dr. Joe DeWeese (Lipscomb University) once said, “Creationists and evolutionists don’t have different evidence… we have different filters through which we understand and interpret that data.”[8] We share our “filter” in hopes it will persuade them to see that the universe points us to “clues” which point to God as the only adequate answer to existence.

Apologist Dr. Ralph Gilmore (Freed-Hardeman University) stresses that the heart of the cosmological arguments centers on three key concepts: causality, necessity (necessary existence), and contingency (contingent existence).

  1. Causality stresses the cause and effect connection between A and B (A causes B, or B is caused by A). This is the causal relationship.
  2. Necessity means that A necessarily exists due to its essence which makes A impossible to not exist.
  3. Contingency points to the dependency B has upon another for its existences, it has an “iffy” existence (B only exists “if…”). Thus, contingency points to non-eternal things or existence and implies the need for another to bring it into existences.

So, if the universe exists (and it does), its existence must be explained. It is as simple as that.[9] It is either here by necessity or contingently. Does it necessarily exists —is it eternal? Is it dependent upon itself —did it create itself? Did something outside of itself bring it into existence —God? Many have tried to side-step the force of this issue, but not without breaking away from the rules of proper thinking and established scientific knowledge.

The cosmological argument presented here stresses in the simplest terms that the universe began and has a cause for its existence. It is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument and was developed by Arabic philosophers of the late Middle Ages (kalam means “Arabic philosophy”).[10] One of these Arabic philosophers was the twelfth-century theologian Al-Ghazali, and his argument has been employed by theists of various persuasions ever since. It is considered one of the foundations of modern Christian apologetic approaches to establishing a positive philosophical case for the existence of God.

In his volume, On Guard, Apologist William Lane Craig summarizes Al-Ghazali’s argument into three simply stated premises:[11]

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

Premise 2: The universe began to exist.

Premise 3: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Craig asserts that this is a “logically airtight argument” because in order to deny premise 3 (“the universe has a cause”) one must prove that the first two premises are false. Though the issues are complex we will examine some of the objections made against premises 1 and 2.

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause

Craig affirms that in order to deny premise 1 two things must be argued: (1) that contrary to experience something can come from nothing and (2) that the universe broke into existence for no reason whatsoever – that is, without a cause.

To invalidate premise 1, some have appealed to subatomic particles (or, virtual particle, elementary particle), which are the basic building blocks of “all matter.” This includes elements which are “various self-contained units of matter or energy”[12] such as electrons, protons, neutrons, etc., and even the smaller parts which make them up. Some have argued that such can appear and disappear from nothing. From this, it is then argued that premise 1 does not always hold true. 

Craig reminds us that these particles, however, emerged in a vacuum which is not the same thing as “nothing,” for “in physics the vacuum is a sea of fluctuating energy governed by physical laws and having a physical structure.”[13] It has contours so to speak. Nothing, on the other hand, has no properties at all. Zero. Meaning, then, that nothing remains to be nothing; whereas, something can emerge in a vacuum.

This is not a controversial assertion. In a 2013 article posted on the Scientific American website entitled, “Something from Nothing? A Vacuum can Yield Flashes of Light,” Charles Q. Choi discusses the Casimir Effect, which was predicted in 1948 by Hendrick Casimir and measured in 1996 by Steve K. Lamoreaux.[14] This “effect” is a measurable phenomenon in quantum field theory. It basically says that the vacuum is not empty space but is full of virtual particles and their electromagnetic wavelengths which leave behind measurable effects.[15]

These subatomic particles have a “quirky” nature. However, though they seem to appear and disappear from nothing, in reality, they are emerging from the complex structure of the vacuum governed by the laws of thermodynamics. Consider Choi’s words:

Quantum physics explains that there are limits to how precisely one can know the properties of the most basic units of matter—for instance, one can never absolutely know a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. One bizarre consequence of this uncertainty is that a vacuum is never completely empty, but instead buzzes with so-called “virtual particles” that constantly wink into and out of existence. These virtual particles often appear in pairs that near-instantaneously cancel themselves out. Still, before they vanish, they can have very real effects on their surroundings. (Italics added)[16]

If someone were then seeking evidence that something can come from nothing and without cause, subatomic particles, it appears, is not that evidence. They do not emerge from nothing, they emerge from the vacuum.

Premise 2: The universe began to exist

The focus of the denial of premise 2 centers on denying that the universe began. Those that deny that the universe had a beginning appeal to concepts which are a bit complex. Case in point, some have said that the universe must be potentially a part of an infinite series of finite (contingent, “iffy”) causes.

In other words, looking backward, the universe has a whole series of causes, but no ultimate cause. There is no real line to separate a time from when the universe did not exist to when it began to exist. The same is true when looking forward. There is no real moment when the present causes will cease with the end of the universe.

Craig raises two problems to this approach. First, an infinite series of finite (contingent) causes cannot be potentially infinite at the same time. let me add another element to this claim. We must keep in mind that this infinite series of causes is made up of finite, or contingent causes. As Gilmore reminds us above contingency points to non-eternal things or existence, and this implies the need for another to bring it into existences. This denial has not solved the problem for it only further extends the dependent state of the universe indefinitely. This is not a solution.

In addition, it is significant to understand that the mathematical concept infinity (symbolically as ∞) is just that — conceptual; it does not exist in reality.[17] This is not controversial mathematics. Physicist Dr. Tom Hartsfield’s article, “Infinity is Not Real,” from the blog Real Clear Science (6 Aug 2013) outlines how problematic infinity would be if it were real.[18]

In summary, Hartsfield explains that while the concept of infinity is incredibly valuable for fields such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy, when brought into our world of measurable things it ruins all mathematical comparisons. It would require rewriting the rules for counting and division. For example, 6/2=3 and 6+2=8. Makes sense. Now observe infinity in the following mathematical sentences: 6/∞=0 and 6+∞=∞. Makes no sense in our world. “Compared to infinity,” Hartsfield points out, “every other number is nothing.” He concludes:

In our material, measurable world, though, infinity is never a real, physical quantity; it is only an abstraction. A mathematician can tell you about an infinite set of numbers, but as much as he wishes, he can’t find you a cup of coffee with infinite joe. That “bottomless” cup of coffee eventually runs dry.[19]

The universe cannot exist due to an infinite set of causes in the past or the future, because actual infinities do not grow or shrink. Thus, you cannot drink infinite coffee out of a cup of infinite coffee, and still, have the same amount of infinite coffee left over. Infinity does not shrink or grow. This well-established application of infinity, then, supports that the universe began to exist and is not the result of an infinite set of causes.

A second problem is found in this arguments rejection of the established thermodynamics laws of nature. These laws clearly establish that the universe had a beginning. Dr. Don B. DeYoung calls them, “the two most basic laws in the entire science realm.”[20] He summarizes them as follows:

The first law states that energy is conserved or constant at all times. Energy, in whichever of its many forms, absolutely can be neither created nor destroyed. This rule ensures a dependable and predictable universe, whether for stars or for human life…

The second basic law of nature also involves energy. It describes unavoidable losses in any process whatsoever which involves the transfer of energy. The energy does not disappear, but some always becomes unavailable, often as unusable heat. Stated in another way, everything deteriorates, breaks down, and becomes less ordered with time.[21]

The second law, known as entropy, says that “unless energy is being fed into a [closed] system, that system will become increasingly disorderly.”[22] Imagine an unopened carbonated bottle of soda. Over time the soda in the bottle will lose its fizz and go flat. That analogy reflects the effects of entropy on the universe.

This implies a few things. First, eventually all the energy in the universe will eventually spread itself evenly throughout the universe, and the usable energy will decrease and the universe will “flatline” like the soda analogy. This is a fixed issue.

Second, since we are not in a present state of disorder, and energy is still available, then our universe has not had an infinite past. As Craig points out, “we’re in a state of disequilibrium, where energy is still available to be used and the universe has an orderly structure.”[23] Since an infinite set of events is a complete number of events, we should be experiencing entropy (equilibrium), but we are not.

And third, this “running down” (entropy) of our universe implies that it had a beginning. Even the late Stephen Hawking affirmed:

Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang.[24]

Whether one’s cosmology (view of the origin of the universe) includes the Big Bang model or not, the universe had a beginning. In order to have a “running down” ending, there must have been a point when all the available energy was at its peak. Much like our cell phones, the fact that the battery will die implies that it was fully charged at its beginning. For our universe, then, the fact that it will “flatline” in what is called the “heat death” points to a time when it was new and full of energy.

Premises 1 and 2, then, still hold firm, and they should be upheld as formidable arguments that the universe and all that is in it had a beginning. It had a beginning and was brought into being (Premise 3) by a Cause Who necessarily exists due to His essence, namely God.

Concluding Thoughts

At times, well-meaning Christians do not feel compelled to enter debates like this, yet the apostle Peter told his Christian readers to be “ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).

At other times, well-meaning Christians see the damage often done when entering such discussions. As my friend Jeremy Marshall cautions, “preachers tell the story of the home [the human story] while scientists tell the story of the house [the natural world]; preachers err when they try to tell the story of the house, and scientists err when they try to tell the story of the home.” I agree, but Someone brought both the house and the home into existence, and these point us back to Him (Romans 1:19-20).

Let us remember one significant point to all of this:

[I]f there was ever a time when absolutely nothing existed, then there would be nothing now, for nothing produces nothing but nothingness! Since something does exist, it must follow logically that something has existed always [namely, God].[25]

Endnotes

  1. Qtd. in Jeff Miller, “Can Quantum Mechanics Produce a Universe from Nothing?
  2. All Scripture references are taken from the American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
  3. The ontological, cosmological, teleological, and the moral/axiological.
  4. Thomas B. Warren and Antony N. Flew. The Warren-Flew Debate on the Existence of God. Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press, 1977. The link leads you to the video version of the debate.
  5. Clyde Woods, “Concerning Creation —Genesis 1,” in New Beginnings: God, Man and Redemption in Genesis, ed. David L. Lipe (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2001), 488.
  6. Roland E. Murphy, The Gift of the Psalms (2000; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 44.
  7. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 128, italics added.
  8. Joe Deweese, “Why I am a Creationist – Joe Deweese, Biochemist.” Youtube.com.
  9. Wayne Jackson, et al., Surveying the Evidence (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, 2008), 24–25.
  10. Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 68–69.
  11. William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook, 2010), 74.
  12. Christine Sutton, “Subatomic Particle,” Encyclopedia Britannica.
  13. Craig, On Guard, 74.
  14. Charles Q. Choi, “Something from Nothing? A Vacuum can Yield Flashes of Light,” ScientificAmerican.com, 2013.
  15. Choi, “Something from Nothing?”; Stephen Reucroft and John Swain, “What is the Casimir Effect?,” ScientificAmerican.com.
  16. Choi, “Something from Nothing?”
  17. Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 103.
  18. Tom Hartsfield, “Infinity is Not Real,” Real Clear Science; BigThink.com.
  19. Hartsfield, “Infinity is Not Real.”
  20. Don B. DeYoung, “Physics,” in In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, ed. John F. Ashton (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2001), 34243.
  21. DeYoung, “Physics,” 34243.
  22. Craig, On Guard, 93.
  23. Craig, On Guard, 92.
  24. Qtd. in Keller, The Reason for God128, italics added.
  25. Wayne Jackson, Surveying the Evidence25–26.

Suggested Reading

Ashton, John F. Editor. In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2001.

Baxter, Batsell Barrett. I Believe Because… A Study of the Evidence Supporting Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1971.

Choi, Charles Q. “Something from Nothing? A Vacuum can Yield Flashes of Light.” ScientificAmerican.com. 2013.

Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs, CO: Cook, 2010.

Dickson, Roger E. The Dawn of Belief. Winona, MS: Choate Publications, 1997.

Geisler, Norman L., and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.

Jackson, Wayne, Eric Lyons, and Kyle Butt. Surveying the Evidence. Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, 2008.

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.

Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Edited by Walter Hooper. 1970. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Miller, Jeff. “Can Quantum Mechanics Produce a Universe from Nothing?ApologeticsPress.org.

Milne, Bruce. Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief. 3rd edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Moreland, J. P. Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997.

____. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity. 1987. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1988.

Morris, Henry M. Compiler. That Their Words May be Used Against Them: Quotes from Evolutionists Useful for Christians. San Diego, CA: Institute for Creation Research, 1997.

Reucroft, Stephen, and John Swain. “What is the Casimir Effect?” ScientificAmerican.com.

Shelly, Rubel. Prepare to Answer: A Defense of the Christian Faith. Nashville, TN: 21st Century Christian, 1990.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. 5th edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.

Sutton, Christine. “Subatomic Particle.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

Warren, Thomas B., and Antony N. Flew. The Warren-Flew Debate on the Existence of God. Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press, 1977.

This is a much-expanded version of the article originally published in The Glendale Gleaner (Newbern, TN: Glendale church of Christ).

Mind Your Business

Reprinted with permission from the June 2018 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine. Slightly revised edition.

36795505_10100258496833579_1001973826721939456_nI am not a fan of church politics, but I know they exist. Sometimes it reminds me of walking through the streets when I was a kid. You always had to have enough “friends” with you; you had to make sure you were stronger than the “other guy” and never get caught walking alone, especially in an alleyway. It saddens me to admit that “brotherhood alleyways” do exist. It appears in the form of the public shaming of preachers or schools; it appears in certain back channels where preachers or churches are undermined every step of the way due to a difference of opinions. In a word, brethren, we get consumed with the actions of others, and we seek to control them. We can’t seem to mind our own business and be about our Father’s business to love our community with the gospel.

It seems appropriate to begin this discussion with a brief look at the conjoined issue of ego. Jesus always found a way to check the egos of His disciples when they interfered with the priorities of the kingdom of God. Three examples from Mark 910 are helpful to point this out. In Mark 9:3337, the Lord had to refocus the whispers and debate among the Twelve regarding who was “great” in the kingdom of God. Greatness is measured by service, not by wielding power (cf. Luke 22:2428). In Mark 9:3841, Jesus corrected the disciples’ sense of managerial entitlement when they failed to stop a “nameless” disciple’s ministry. What matters is Jesus’ authority, not that of the disciples.

A little later, in Mark 10:13–16, the disciples impose their opinion on when Jesus was ready to provide ministry. Jesus undoes their harm by demonstrating that the kingdom of God is to be at the disposal of the vulnerable. I would argue that the actions of the disciples probably emerged from a good place, but these moments should remind us that personal ego often gets in our way of manifesting the kingdom of God. I truly believe the church is the place where our egos are supposed to die (Rom 6:1-10), but sadly they often resurrect.

We need to hear afresh the challenge from three letters: Jude, 1 Peter, and 3 John. At the heart of our church politics problems is that we have, at times, misapplied what it means to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), become meddlers (1 Pet 4:15), and have failed to curb our egos (3 John 9).

Contending for the Faith

Many an article, sermon, blog, and petition have been published under the premise to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3). This is a very honorable goal. But at times the methods we use “to contend” lack Christian substance. The verb “to contend” (epagōnízomai) may be taken to mean, “to contend about a thing, as a combatant”[1] and give some legitimacy to a “war-time” church culture; but the metaphor should be taken in its natural direction. It may refer to “the intense effort” of an athlete to overcome the challenges of a sporting contest.[2] In this case, “to contend” is about self-discipline in the face of exertion, continuing the struggle for the sake of the faith.

Jude is the voice of reason the church needs to hear today. A careful reading of Jude does not support a “Cry ‘Havoc!,’ and let slip the [spiritual] dogs of war” agenda to demoralize and humiliate our brothers when we disagree theologically. In fact, Jesus warned that such tactics would endanger us with the fire of Gehenna (Matt 5:22). Instead, Jude writes that a proper response to the perversion of the gospel and subversion of Christ’s authority (v. 4) is to stay faithful to the content of the faith (v. 3), to trust in God’s Word, to trust the Lord will judge false teachers (vv. 59, 1416), to trust that such people will self-destruct (vv. 10–13) and to maintain a Spirit-centered culture of grace, mercy, love, and redemption within the church (vv. 17–23)all while affirming a distinction exists between the faithful and the ungodly false teachers and their corruption of the gospel itself (v. 12).

Jude does not shy away from revealing the errors of false teachers and the dangerous consequences that flow from their influence. The effort Jude speaks of is not to be spent on attacking the defectors, but instead, the exertion must be spent within our own souls, within our own congregations. We must resist the temptation to enable an ungodly inhospitable war-time church culture. With precision, Jude makes this little letter a rich description of the inhospitable environment the false teachers created in the church by their influence (vv. 12-13): they hinder love and community, they consume what others need, they withhold what is needed for life, and create a disappointing chaotic and unreliable spiritual incubator for the people of God. That is not what Jesus has called us to be.

Jude does not authorize intrusive efforts to “defend the faith.” Some among us have thought for quite some time that if they publicize an error long enough; generate enough brotherhood support; vilify the names of brethren or institutions; act like church “newscasters,” showing us the cold fronts of error among us; guide us through “connect the dots fellowship”; or act like church “J. Edgar Hoovers,” then we have contended for the faith. We have been so wrong. In truth, Jude’s brief message is bent on moving Christians to “exert effort” in embracing God’s wisdom, God’s sovereignty, and the Christian call to continue to be a fellowship of grace and mercy, love and forgiveness while affirming a distinction between ungodly false teachers and their corruption of the gospel itself (Jude 12). Those are quite different responses.

Jude concludes his letter by saying,

“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (vv. 20–23).

This is the work of contending. Today, we need to learn that many times the best way to deal with false teaching is to focus on the work of our local congregation, be patient with our brethren, and be gracious to those struggling rather than entering into a shouting match, in other words, staying busy with our own work and minding our own business.

Meddlers and Bullies

Meddlers. In 1 Peter, the apostle Peter addresses a number of Christian churches undergoing a forceful front of localized persecution of “shaming” in the northern provinces of Asia Minor (1:1; 2:12; 3:13; 4:4). Peter reminds them to respond to such shame-based threats by providing a kind and respectful verbal response, explaining their hope in Jesus as Lord (3:14–15). He further exhorts them to refrain from “clashes” with the community due to punishable crimes (murder, thievery, evil-doing, meddling; 4:15). Indeed, the only clash that will glorify God is when Christians are unjustly persecution for the name of Christ (4:16).

We need to give thought to Peter’s word, “meddler” (ESV, NIV). It is listed among the four offenses Christians must avoid. English translations show the difficulty of rendering this compound word (allotri + episkopos), the New Revised Standard Version has “mischief-maker”; the New King James Version, “busy-body”; and New American Standard Bible, “troublesome-meddler.” Quite possibly, Peter coined this word because it is found nowhere in Greek literature before him. At the core, the “meddler” is someone who apparently takes or seizes control of the affairs of others. Peter condemns Christians controlling others “tactlessly and without social graces.”[3] Too many times Christians think their duty is to control the choices of our neighbors. I suspect it is because we seek the right outcome of godliness. This, however, becomes a “no win” scenario. The local church is a fertile field for this temptation. Many cultish tactics have been used in the name of “discipling” our brethren. Pulpits are used not only to “persuade men” but to “meddle” in the affairs of our members. Elders cross the line separating overseeing and control. But those with more daring egos can emerge to be “the overseer” of brotherhood affairs with ungodly force and shame to establish control. Peter reminds us to “mind our own business.”

Bullies. In 3 John, the aged apostle John writes to Gaius an embattled faithful Christian leader, who is part of the collateral damage of a church bully named Diotrephes. The church setting was desperate, requiring his own personal touch (vv. 10, 13–14). The issue? False teaching? Nope. The tension was about control over mission work (vv. 5–8). Traveling preachers were part of early church culture. Over a period of time, John had commended several to this church for support, anticipating their needs would be supplied to reach the next leg of their journey. Instead, he found a polarizing church culture had matured, manifesting in Diotrephes and Gaius.

Maybe Diotrephes began this journey with a proper concern for church autonomy in matters of missions or with a desire to serve the church. The only motive explicitly given in this letter is that he “likes to put himself first” and his rejection of apostolic authority (3 John 9). The outcome, however, was wickedness, suppression, and subterfuge. He created an inhospitable and volatile church culture where suspicion reigns and alternative opinions are silenced and ousted (v. 10). It was all a bit like an Orwellian 1984 dystopia. Diotrephes was the “thought police.” He thrust his voice into areas beyond his authority, and in order to do so, he imposed his opinion by force and manipulation.

There is no question that ego became a problem, and behind that lay sin. Diotrephes became a mission-killing church bully because he chose self over the kingdom of God. He chose “preeminence” (KJV, ASV), “to be first” (NET), “to be in charge” (ISV), “to be number one” (Plain English NT), “to have first place” (FHV), “to be first in everything” (Phillips). Third John shows us the damage rendered by elders and preachers who dominate others like an “intolerant general” when something is not done their way. A church bully by any other name would still reek of wickedness. Brethren, we need to humble our pride and “mind our own business.”

Conclusion

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I feel like an outsider, even after being a part of the church for now over twenty years. But I have seen church bulletins as subtle tools for shaming congregational members and even preachers from outside of the congregation. I’ve known preacher friends receiving a copy of a brotherhood “journal” with a post-it note attached as a “friendly” reminder of how “misguided” they are for their views. Brotherhood magazines have been leveraged to do excessive numbers of exposés about this school or that preacher rather than teaching what the Bible says. For what purpose? To establish unity? None of this brings unity; instead, such actions seem designed to permanently polarize. Church, we can, and must, do better (John 13:35). Part of the solution is to be about our “local work” and to “mind our own business” (Romans 14:4).

Endnotes

  1. W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and Testament Words (Nashville: Nelson, 1985), 2:125.
  2. E. Stauffer, s. v. “agōn,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:134-40. [In addition: BDAG 356, “The primary semantic component in the use of this verb in Jd 3 is the effort expended by the subject in a noble cause.” It gives “expression” to the Greco-Roman “ideal of dedication.”]
  3. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 224-25.

Jovan Payes preaches for the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, California.

To subscribe to Gospel Advocate, click here.

The Word of God among the Denominations

Reprinted with permission from the February 2018 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine.

20180124_150851.jpgHebrews affirms, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12 ESV). This is part of a warning in Hebrews, which affirms that Christians who defect from God will fail to meet their rest as their Israelite counterparts did (vv. 1-11). God holds his people —and His creation— accountable by His presence (“sight”) in the word of God (Hebrews 4:13). This is a raw incontrovertible truth.

This passage makes no caveats; it makes no attempt to remedy a distinction between God’s word and God’s presence. They are both manifested at the same time. God is involved with real life (time and space) with Israel and with Christians. God makes promises and keeps his word regarding their “rest,” and God holds His people and creation accountable to His word. God is Lord of heaven and earth and everything in between, and He holds it together by the power residing in Jesus (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). The word of God is connected not only to the authority of God but also to His nature and how He reveals Himself to the world.

Let me say the above in a differently. Our God, who is beyond time and space (God’s transcendence), enters our earthly “realm” bound by time and space (God’s immanence) with His divinity and authority (sovereignty) intact; furthermore, God enters into relationship with His creation (Abraham, Israel, Christians) by revealing Himself in creation and in His word. God is active both in creation and in His word. Creation reveals God’s existence and hints at elements of His attributes (natural theology), but it is His word that reveals God and His “will” so that humanity can enter into covenant with God. The word of God was both proclaimed orally through particular spokesmen (patriarchs, prophets, kings, apostles), but the prophetic word was not only through oracles but also in written communiqués embedded with the same divine authority (2 Peter 1:16–21). These writings reveal the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:11–16), His purposes and mystery (Ephesians 3:1–6), His involvement in human events (Acts 17:26–27), and the righteousness by which He will bring justice to the world (Acts 17:30–31).

To say it bluntly, the Bible is the word of God set in a permanent written form. Paul declared, “all scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Scripture bears the character of God and is no “dead” codebook, for it transforms every “man of God” into a competent, equipped servant (2 Timothy 3:17). The profitability of all Scripture is due to its quality as “God’s breath.” There is no pecking order between the spoken or written word of God. The inspired written word is as inerrant as God’s character. There is no source outside of the Holy Spirit-given Scripture that speaks God’s transforming work since it is the depository of the gospel’s message. What the word of God promises, God will do; what God proclaims, God’s holds His creation accountable to (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

The above may seem to belabor the point, but as anticipated by the title of this piece, we will sketch how the word of God is handled among Liberal (Modern) and Neoorthodox influences. It is essential for the church to reflect on these twentieth-century influences because dialogue is healthy, truth has nothing from which to hide, and any redefinition of biblical Christianity must be given due consideration (Galatians 1:6-7).

The following historical sketches will probably not satisfy everyone, but they will be enough to see their direction and how they redefine significant elements of historic Christian beliefs and their tendency to subvert scriptural authority.

Liberalism/Modernism

The word “liberal” is a very loaded word. It is often used with contempt to show disapproval of someone else thought to be progressive (instrumental music, expanded role of women, etc.). But this is not the historic sense of the word. Liberalism emerged in the late nineteenth century through the interplay of many players, thinkers, and philosophical trends. The influence of Liberalism, or Modernism, is seen in three levels: (1) revelation is not the final answer to reality, (2) naturalism is the key to reality and religion, and (3) since the Christian documents are built on ancient myths and superstitions, the historic supernatural claims of Christianity is immaterial. To be a “Christian” is a matter of experience and the “essence” of its teaching.

Liberalism, as an intellectual revolution, is a child of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment). The “Age” saw the elevation of human reason over the institutional “church,” which wielded divine revelation. It was “the church” that dictated to the people what to believe about reality. Divine revelation was the final answer to determining truth and what really happened in the past. This was displaced with rationalism, scientific history (criticism), and naturalism as final answers to genuine and authentic history and truth. In essence, as Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen point out, the maxim “I believe in order that I may understand” was turned to “I believe what I can understand.”[1] Faith was overturned by a reason informed by modern findings — thus, this point of view is called “Modernism.”

Everything that was received as genuine knowledge, now, was shaped by the natural world. This was further supported by what is called “the principle of analogy,” popularized by the liberal theologian Ernst Troelsch (1865–1923), which argued that the present is the best way to understand the past. The consequence was detrimental in the extreme on the trustworthiness of Scripture. The supernatural elements interwoven in Scripture are, by definition, myths and superstitions. This meant that there are no miracles, no supernatural interventions by God, and no resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, many new schools of “criticism” emerged to study Scripture with mixed results.

This naturally led to an embrace of “the essence of Christianity” so long as reason and experience allowed. “Liberals” are open to the modern findings from the natural world, open to a religious humanism and science —in particularly embracing Darwinian evolution as the process by which God created. If God exists, He could only be revealed through religious “experience.” It was also immaterial if the events of Scripture happened or not because religion is a condition of the heart. Yet, the apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that if the resurrection event has not occurred, both our preaching and faith are in vain and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17).

Another arm of Liberalism is the demythologizing of the New Testament pioneered by the “Form Critic” Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). Bultmann argued that historic person of Jesus is built on untrustworthy sources. The New Testament is Christian propaganda shrouded in the imagery of the Greek myths and Roman legends. As such, they are not relevant for faith nor spiritual truth claims. It is the symbolism that matters. Today, one only need to watch the latest “history” programming to find modern theological liberals interviewed. Theological liberalism has significant questions that need to be answered, but it brings Christianity to a logical dead end.

Neoorthodoxy

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) ignited a movement when he published his commentary on Romans in 1919. It charted a new theological direction away from Liberalism/Modernism. Barth (pronounced “bart”) was not fond of the misnomer “neoorthodoxy,” but his strand of thinking regarding the meaning of “revelation” and “the word of God” would rival the prevailing traditional belief held historically by the church. As a consequence, many regard Barth as one of the great theologians and the father of modern theology.

Orthodoxy affirms the teaching of historic Christian truth based on Scripture. This includes, for example, the following concepts: the inerrant inspiration of scripture, the triune Godhead, the deity and virgin birth of Christ, the historic creation and fall of humanity, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ, the return and final judgment. Barth argued, on the other hand, that “revealed truth” was not written, but was the outcome of an encounter (an experience) with God. Thus, instead of scripture as being the objective word of God, Barth argued for a subjective experience with God initiated by reading the Bible.

Barth was offering a completely different course of thought altogether. “Revelation” does not appear in the form of propositional truths. Arguing book, chapter, verse, or appeals to the very words of scripture is insufficient to reveal God. Revelation (the word of God), it is argued, is an “event” in which God acts in history (God’s immanence). Barth even argued that revelation is not found in natural theology (Acts 17; Psalm 19; Romans 1) but, instead, in events like the call of Abraham, the exodus, and the resurrection. Millard Erickson is spot on when he classifies Neoorthodoxy as an illumination theory divorced from an objective standard.[2]

Although Neoorthodoxy is not a unified movement, there are three interconnected witnesses (modes/forms) that shape its view on revelation.[3] First, Jesus is the word of God in the truest sense, for He reveals God in the event of His incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. This is true revelation, the very gospel. Second, Scripture points to Jesus but it is a flawed human (read “errant”) attempt to provide a witness to divine revelation. It is instrumentally God’s word but not properly. Third, the proclamation within the faith community —Barth preferred “community” to church— is likewise instrumentally God’s word. The Bible, then, only becomes God’s word when God uses it to reveal Jesus Christ in the encounter, contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16.

In fact, Neo-orthodoxy is quite a popular approach to handling the Word of God, even among churches of Christ. A popular theological branch of this movement is “Canonical Criticism,” popularized by the late American scholar Brevard Childs (1923–2007). It seeks to broadly bypass much of the liberal destructive criticism of the twentieth century by accepting the texts of Scripture as literary units. Nevertheless, this point view struggles, as did Barth’s, to embrace the Bible as a very human (errant) book while appealing to its authority for theological thought as if they were inerrant. They seek, in the words of one sympathetic professor, to “articulate a doctrine of Scripture that recognizes human flaws in it.”[4] Treating the Bible as an inerrant text is simply a form of bibliolatry.

Keeping the Faith

Today, the phrase “Word of God” means different things to different believers, and that includes preachers. Liberalism ultimately rejects a supernatural Christian faith, and is at home with amputating its historic claims of a resurrected ascended Lord Jesus, in exchange for a subjective diluted Christianity. Neoorthodoxy, on the other hand, embraces a supernatural Christian faith, but it rejects the supernatural origin, inerrancy, and authority of the Scriptures which undergird its claims. The Word of God has always been a manifestation of God’s presence in our lives, in His proclamation, and in His Scripture without pecking order. Let us join Paul who declares, “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Romans 3:4).

Notes

  1. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 17.

  2. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 220–21.

  3. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. G. Foley (New York: Holt, 1963), 26–36.

  4. Christopher Hutson, “Scripture as the Human Word of God: Why Faith Contradicts Inerrancy,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 44.1 (2011): 210–21.

Jovan Payes preaches for the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, California.

To subscribe to Gospel Advocate, click here.

Book Review: The Safest Place on Earth

Safest Place on Earth - Crabb.jpg

Dr. Larry Crabb is an established licensed psychologist, a well-known Christian author on marriage and biblical counseling topics, and current Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Colorado Christian University (Morrison, CO).[1] 

Dr. Crabb earned his Ph.D in Clinical Psychology from the University of Illinois, and has been a professor of psychology since 1970. Dr. Crabb also provides workshops and weekend seminars across the United States as part of his non-profit New Way Ministries and its web presence which features interviews, video lectures, and other multimedia outlets to share resources from his School of Spiritual Direction.

Dr. Crabb has been involved in counseling and marriage, in self-help ministry, and in developing a context of “spiritual community” for over 40 years, and so has earned a place among the various “Christian voices” seeking to make the church a better place.

In 1999, Dr. Crabb released a significant but brief volume on the church as a safe spiritual community. The volume is entitled, The Safest Place on Earth: Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed (238 pages).[2] Dr. Crabb has registered his own frustration with two elements which bear upon the community of the church and its spiritual health, which he further addresses in Real Church: Does it Exist? Can I Find It? (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2009).

In The Safest Place on Earth, however, Dr. Crabb establishes a vision for the church as a group of believers on a journey towards God, and it is within the journey that spiritual community must begin and end for spiritual healing and direction. Despite Dr. Crabb’s own training in psychology, he believes when it comes to the soul care that ought to go on within the church, such assistance must yield “to special revelation and biblically dependent thinking.”[3] Dr. Crabb is adamant,

We don’t need more churches, as we usually define the word. We need more spiritual communities where good friends and wise people turn their chairs toward each other and talk well.[4]

Structurally, The Safest Place on Earth is organized in seventeen chapters, divided into three parts, and finishes with a section of questions for each chapter. The layout follows a very clear program of development, and the content is written in a popular style. Dr. Crabb is able to articulate and shape a conceptual paradigm of what is a spiritual community and what is not a spiritual community without complex vocabulary. His illustrations, personal anecdotes, and insights from personal interactions are delivered to support his vision for a spiritual community is very clear and helpful ways.

Dr. Crabb also interacts with and depends upon the works of Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen[5] (1932-1996), who focused on spiritual solitude, spiritual community, and spiritual compassion, along with Swiss Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier (b. 1928) and his work connected to L’Arche communities which have overlapping concerns.[6]

A Book Summary

In part one, Dr. Crabb develops and sharpens the idea of spiritual community and how the church needs to develop sensitivity to being the spiritual community it was intended to be. Spiritual community is, according to Crabb, at the core of what the church is.

It is people facing each other in intimate, honest, and safe ways as they journey together on their way to God. Spiritual community, however, will not occur if there is no opportunity for vulnerability and a full sense of validation from these that witness the vulnerable parts of who we are.

One of the difficulties in church community life is to wrestle with the crux,

if they knew who I really was, the church would probably not like me.

To be a spiritual community, then, we must be able to love free from ego and embrace those so broken by those things which burden our souls and even cripple us.

The health metric of a spiritual community is its ability to love the unlovable, the broken, those that can only let you love them in their brokenness.

In part two, Dr. Crabb reframes the New Testament discussion of flesh and spirit elements of our soul in terms of the analogies of the Lower Room (carnal/wretchedness) and the Upper Room (spiritual/greatness).

It is in this phase of the book that Dr. Crabb focuses on the part of the church community that needs to be addressed first — our internal struggles to be spiritual. Enter Dr. Crabb’s “two rooms” analogy which he builds from the words of Jesus:

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23)

And he amplifies these words with Paul’s regarding “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27).[7]

In essence, the two rooms represent fully furnished environments that exist within us.

Now there are two rooms inside us, the one we built where our natural self thrives, and the one the Spirit built where our natural self suffocates and our new self flourishes.[8] 

Dr. Crabb does not explicitly use all the terms, but these “rooms” parallel the Freudian id, ego, and superego dynamics, the difference being they are spiritualized.[9] The lower room is self-furnished by our wretchedness and “dark forces” with its corruption and stench (id). The upper room is furnished by the Spirit of God only enjoyed once we open the doors of the lower room, acknowledge its stench, and celebrate the confidence to be a new us (an obedient us) empowered by God’s grace and teaching (superego?).

Finally, we consciously (ego?) take these “two rooms” within us and the internal struggles that go with them —because we prefer to be in the lower room— to receive outside help from “another room” which is the spiritual community, the church. This room is furnished by the Spirit with safety, vision, wisdom, and power.

In part three, Dr. Crabb continues his visioning for spiritual community with another analogy of “turning our chairs toward each other” but now by “turning our souls toward each other.”

In this process, the members of the church community must practice three needed things. First, spiritual community can only be done by the Holy Spirit. Second, personal holiness grounded in the Spirit influences the pursuit of personal holiness of others. Third, there must then be a safe place to “own and trace our desires to their source.”[10] 

Spiritual community, however, will only occur when spiritual passions are “supernaturally” aroused when we are together in spiritual community experiencing acceptance, mutual faith in God’s presence in our lives, affirm the “upper room” elements in our lives, and allow God to change us without applying human pressures of forced change.

It is certainly a place of risk, but risk will always be a factor when embracing the need for vulnerability. Therefore, the real question is: will we, the church, be the safe place for those being vulnerable?

Response and Review

I chose this book principally because of the title. In fact, I had seen this title on the cover of the September/October 2001 New Wineskin magazine as part of the issue theme of “Authentic Christian Community.”[11] The concept peaked my interest because I do feel the church has not been the safest place on Earth in managing people’s sin. One example will suffice. I once heard a preacher react to the exposed sins of others with the derogatory question, “where are the normal people?” That’s not a safe place for healing. Nor is the following response to a fellow congregant’s addiction any safer, “there’s a word they need to learn – repent.”

Rebuking sin is the easy work of preaching, but creating a compassionate environment to help brothers and sisters work through repentance is the harder – and in my judgment – more fruitful work of ministry.

Crabb’s book further calls the church to be the community through which Christians experience spiritual healing for spiritual problems often mistreated —according to Dr. Crabb—as psychological disorders or problems. The gospel and the New Testament teaching that the church is the dwelling place of God, and Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit, seem to support the overall agenda that the culture of the local congregation should be more attuned to openly working through sin, temptations, and openly celebrating grace, and spiritual empowerment by God. Even Paul declares that the church is being recreated (2 Corinthians 5:17) and repurposed for ministry (Ephesians 2:10).

Dr. Crabb’s book both intrigued me and made me uncomfortable in that he elevates the spiritual components of the church where the Holy Spirit dwells. Again, it is not that I’m troubled by the Holy Spirit, it is that in many pockets of the Churches of Christ the Holy Spirit and the use of “community” have been so tinged with so-called “liberal agendas” in the latter, and doctrinal controversial hotbeds regarding the former. His emphasis that the church is specifically designed to be a spiritual community and therefore it must be that spiritual community on a journey to God is what stands out the most to me. If we are not a spiritual community, then there will not be the Spirit.

I do not agree with all of his points on the “wretchedness” of man, but Dr. Crabb has challenged me to speak more about the Spirit and the church as the community in which God does His best work to heal us from the effects of sin.

Concluding Thoughts

What I liked overall about the book is the Dr. Crabb’s challenging call to the church to be a safe place for the sort of healing love that needs to exists between God’s people, so that the Spirit of God may work through the church to heal its members as they bear each other’s burdens with the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). The church must be so, because, as Dr. Crabb reminds us, we are traveling together on a journey to God.

I recommend the challenge of this book to every Christian and church leader. The reminder that Scripture centers the body of Christ as the place where the Spirit dwells, and therefore must be the safe place where the members of the body can serve each other empowered by the same Spirit. To overcome sin, the church must be, and in some cases become, the place where no one struggles with sin void of love, compassion, support, and patience as we journey to God breaking free from the bondage of sin.

Endnotes

  1. “About Larry Crabb,” http://www.newwayministries.org/larrycrabb.php.
  2. Full details: Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth: Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed (Nashville, TN: W Publishing, 1999).

  3. Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 7.

  4. Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 10.

  5. “Henri Nouwen Society,” http://henrinouwen.org.

  6. “History of L’Arche,” https://www.larcheusa.org/who-we-are/history.

  7. Unless otherwise stated all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of The Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

  8. Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 62–63.

  9. Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 78–79.

  10. Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 121–30.

  11. Larry Crabb, “Is the Church the Safest Place on Earth?,” New Wineskins 5.4 (Sept/Oct 2001): 12–15.

How Strong is Your Family?

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If you were to take a sheet of paper and list what you believe are the top ten qualities of a strong family, what would you put down? And, from among these ten qualities, which would be among the top six?

The February, 2002, issue of NebFact a resource bulletin of The University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Lincoln, Nebraska, provided just this kind of information.[1] It focused on the issue of family life relationships. It summarized the research work of the Nebraska professor, Dr. John DeFrain, on “American Family Strengths.”

Built on extensive research, covering a span of 25 years, DeFrain concludes that while what constitutes a strong family varies from culture to culture, and society to society, they have one thing in common: they have “qualities that contribute to the family members’ sense of personal worth and feelings of satisfaction in their relationships with each other.”

Psalm 133 and Family Strength

It should be the goal of every family that each member can say two things: (1) “I matter to them” and (2) “I love being with my family.” When both of these statements are realized, then the practical foundations for a strong family are in place.

The 133rd Psalm suggests as much:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1–3 ESV)[2]

This psalm of David (per the superscription) centers on family, a family that is united in their bond and in the Lord.

The psalm is certainly an echo of the Genesis account and the first family. The Lord assesses the Creation as “good” (tob) when God gave the light (1:4), gave the earth and the waters (1:10), gave the plants and the trees (1:12), gave the moon and the sun (1:18), and gave the animals of the sea and air (1:21). Yet, it was decidedly “not good” for Adam to be alone (2:18). It was only until humanity became a family unit (“one”) that things are described to be “very good” (2:18–25; cf. 1:31). The use of “good,” then, in this psalm is a reminder or a call to embrace the goodness and the pleasantness of family together as God intended.

The portrayal of this unity is found along two images: the pouring of oil and the dew of the mountain. As a member of the family, one should feel as integrated to each member of the family like oil that pours upon the head, down to the beard, and on throughout the garments (v. 2). The pouring of oil to soothe or to consecrate did not isolate head, or beard, or garment — it applied wholly to the person and garments. As was the dew that descended on Mt. Hermon and extended to the mountains of Zion, the dew on the land united the land. Zion may be where God descends and where Israel ascended, but the dew united them (v. 3).

We should not walk away from the truth that family has been forged by God, and receives a blessing when it submits to His provisions (Deuteronomy 6:4–9). Nancy deClaissé-Walford reminds us:

the words of the whole psalm reminded the people that their family relationship was established not by blood, but by their mutual share in the community of God, a community that received blessing [sic] from its God.[3]

As sure as the family is to be a blessing to its own members, the family is how God planned to bring about the gospel blessing through Abraham (Genesis 12:3): “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

What Makes a Family Strong?

John DeFrain and his colleague David H. Olson point to six general overlapping qualities which have a proven record to make families strong. Olson and DeFrain call these qualities, “The Family Strengths Framework,” and they are (1) commitment, (2) positive communication, (3) spiritual well-being, (4) appreciation and affection, (5) enjoyable time together, and (6) the ability to cope with stress and crisis.[4] The following is a summary of these qualities of strong families (according to Olson and DeFrain) along with some supplemental perspectives I have picked up along the way.

First, commitment. Key Qualities: trust, honesty, dependability, faithfulness.

Members of strong families demonstrate a commitment to one another with an investment of time and energy toward them, marking the family as their highest priority. This is not a controlling commitment but one that empowers, encourages, and trusts, especially with regards to marital sexual fidelity.

Ed Wheat and Gloria Okes Perkins’ emphasize from the Greek word storge the importance of creating the atmosphere of “belonging” with “natural affection” (Romans 12:10).[5] This fits well with the trusting and honest environment which comprises a family strength. Wheat and Perkins go on to paint a picture of welcomeness. It is not a “spectacular” and swooping love that builds strong marriages. Instead, it is a “comfort love,” necessary and nourishing, taken for granted and unexciting.

The family culture it creates needs to allow for members of the family to trust they can be comfortable in “their own skin” and safely accepted by their family when the outside world rejects them.

Second, Positive Communication. Key Qualities: sharing feelings, giving compliments, avoiding blame, being able to compromise, agreeing to disagree.

Members of strong families spend time “talking with and listening to one another” in meaningful ways (sharing feelings). They will not always agree with each other but will have the coping skills to disagree, agree to disagree, and compromise without blaming each other. Humor is also a significant unifying feature, a stress reducer, and a way to bring levity to struggles of daily life.

Gary Smalley’s “Five Levels of Intimacy” model fits well here (cf. Making Love Last Forever): (Level 1) having shallow (think clichés) discussions (“good morning,” etc.), (Level 2) sharing basic facts about life or self (“it was hot,” etc), (Level 3) sharing opinions, concerns, or expectations (may risk an argument), (Level 4) honest sharing of one’s deepest feelings with an honorable safe listening environment (“Let me see if I understand what you’re feeling…”), and (Level 5) honest sharing of one’s deepest needs with an honorable safe listening environment (“Let me see if I understand what you need…”).[6]

Communication is the glue that keeps the whole family together. We would do well to enjoy each other’s company through positive communication.

Third, Spiritual Well-Being. Key Qualities: hope, faith, humor, compassion, shared ethical values, oneness with humankind.

Members of strong families believe that faith, hope, or optimism about life are important to a healthy connection to the world. There is a sense in which transcendence of the “every day” to the sacred is embraced, shared, and desired. Their ethics and values emerge from their spiritual orientation. The sense of belonging to a caring and supportive community is important to connect the family to the world. This is considered to be “the most controversial finding of the family strengths” research.

According to F. M. Bernt, research shows that culturally, there has been a move away from a culturally shared value toward a personal/subjective sense of what is important.[7] In other words, people used to have a stronger sense of a shared morality and priority, but that frame of reference has eroded. Today, people are more likely to lean on their own priorities – moral and spiritual. Case in point,  research shows that a “strong marriage/family” will seek a strong spiritual well-being. However, when polled to list the top five traits parents wish to pass on to their children “loyalty to church” is never included. Instead, the top five traits listed are: “willingness to work hard,” “frankness/honest,” “independence,” and a three-way tie between “social mindedness,” “economy in money matters,” and “good manners.”

This fits well with George Barna’s research, Growing True Disciples.[8] The Barna Group, a church statistics ministry, shows that many believers say faith matters, but few, in fact, admit to investing the kind of energy to pursue actual spiritual growth. This may point to a partial answer to a very complex question: “why are our young people leaving the church after they leave their ‘church going’ families?” It seems that discipleship is not a real practical priority. “Dragging” children to church is one thing, training them to become disciples of Jesus is quite another thing. If adult members of the family do not embrace discipleship, it will be very hard to expect the children to embrace such.

The church cannot be expected to raise people’s children, but we need to create an environment for all members to develop as disciples of Christ (1 Timothy 2:1–2).

Fourth, Appreciation and Affection. Key Qualities: caring for each other, friendship, respect for individuality, playfulness.

Members of strong families regularly show their deep feelings for one another through care, friendship, respect, and even playfulness. This does not mean the family is free of tension. Strong families do not ignore negativity. Yet, sharing criticism is outweighed by a genuine concern to show respect. Marital sexual intimacy in strong marriages is likewise built on this positive interplay of friendship and respect.

Gary Chapman’s model of The 5 Love Languages[9] provides very practical ways to demonstrate appreciation and affection; namely: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. This is not only for marital intimacy but also works in broad ways for all family members, acknowledging that some people react better to certain expressions of love.

The key is to remember that healthier families are nurturing with care, affection, friendship, togetherness, and the joy of each other’s company. This takes effort and a commitment to creating a home culture where the language of family interaction is endearing.

Fifth, Enjoyable Time Together. Key Qualities: quality time in great quantity, good things take time, enjoying each other’s company, simple good times, sharing fun times.

Members of strong families create happy memories by spending considerable quality time together. Despite the tension of “much” time versus “quality” time, the focus of strong families are to make every moment together memorable, grounded in simple good times, where the “shared times” (picnics, fishing, meals, trips, etc.) leave indelible marks of joy on each member of the family.

In keeping with the above, Paul Faulkner discusses, in What Every Family Needs with Carl Breechen,[10] the importance of “spending quality time.” Faulkner asserts that there are four hindrances to spending quality time together. These “big fours” are built into American’s aggressive consumer and materialistic culture ([1] money, [2] beauty/sex, [3] intelligence, and [4] athletic ability). These make it hard for families to spend time together.

The scriptures show that money is not evil, but it is the “love of money” that leads to every kind of evil (1 Timothy 5:10). Beauty and sex-appeal is only as enduring as the godly fearfulness and prudence beneath the skin (Proverbs 11:22; 31:30). The vaunted praise of the naturalistic mindset of our society is limited by its detrimental lack to include God in it (Romans 1:19–20). And finally, the obsession with athletes and their skills to the point they displace God as the focus of our hearts is truly the stuff of idolatry (Acts 8:9–11).

It is, therefore, important to be proactive, not passive, in making time —as a priority— for family members in order to overcome the persuasive time killers. Husband and wives need to work together by changing work schedules, reducing professional involvements, and even giving spouses “veto powers” over these matters.

Sixth, Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis. Key Qualities: adaptability, seeing crises as challenges and opportunities, growing through crises together, openness to change, resilience.

Members of strong families will develop the skill to effectively cope with the unavoidable troubles, stresses, and crises of life. Strong families are less crisis-prone than dysfunctional families because they often prevent the sort of troubles that their counterparts do not. The four main troubles strong families face are —in statistical order— illness and surgery, death, marital problems, and the problems of their children. Strong families adapt to these, and other troubles, through a series of strategies that help family members pull together. The resilience to admit the need for help is listed here in statistical order: every member has a part to play to ease the burden, help is sought to solve problems that the family cannot, counseling is sought to learn better-coping methods.

Parents and guardians of children would be wise to have a preexisting list of recommended Christian counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists of all ages available to assist their families to cope with stress and crises. Aside from other services, the American Association of Christian Counselors website may be a good place to start to find helpful Christian counseling resources. Counselors are available to help assess our stability and situation: mental, spiritual, or emotional.

Nevertheless, we should always remember that God is the only true help for the ill that no pill can cure (Psalm 121:1).

Concluding Thoughts

There are no perfect families, and this includes the “strong families.” The conclusions by Olson and DeFrain, and others, simply illustrate the sorts of behaviors that have shown to yield a healthy family atmosphere. You might even consider this simply a survey of “best practices” among families that have healthier relationships than others. They do not, however, promise to create perfect families.

In the end, all families -including Christians ones- can gain a great deal when these Family Strength qualities are pursued and practiced. Christian families are no less prone to dysfunction as non-Christian families are, and vice-versa. Families essentially boil down to relationships, and the value felt and satisfaction experienced from being together. We return to the two overarching signs of a healthy family: (1) “I matter to them” and (2) “I love being with my family.” 

For the child of God, we seek another dynamic to be at play in the success or strength of the family, and that is God and his Word, and our story together revealed in Scripture to be at the core of what we do as a family. Moses’ call to Israel is for all of God’s people and ought to be “heard” today:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4–9)

Endnotes

  1. John DeFrain, “Creating a Strong Family: American Family Strengths Inventory: A Teaching Tool for Generating Discussion on the Qualities that Make a Family Strong.”
  2. Unless otherwise stated all quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of The Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016)
  3. Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, The Book of the Psalms, NICOT, ed. E. J. Young, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 939.
  4. See, “The Family Strengths Framework” in David H. Olson and John DeFrain, Marriages and Families: Intimacy, Diversity, and Strengths, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 75–80.
  5. Ed Wheat and Gloria Okes Perkins, Love Life for Every Married Couple (New York: Inspirational Press, 1980), 80.
  6. Gary Smalley, Making Love Last Forever (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1996), 142–44.
  7. F. M. Bernt, “The Ends and Means of Raising Children: A Parent Interview Activity,” Activities Handbook for the Teaching of Psychology, vol. 4, eds. L. T. Benjamin, et al. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999), table 55-2.
  8. (Colorado Springs: Water Brook, 2001).
  9. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
  10. Carl Brecheen and Paul Faulkner, What Every Family Needs: Whatever Happened to Mom, Dad, and the Kids? (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1994), 177–79.

Be the Gift (1 Peter 4:10-11)

Be the Gift

It is a staggering thought when you think about it. Christians have gifts to share with their neighbors. Much like the old nativity hymn of the three orient kings, who came from the far east with rich gifts for the newborn king Jesus, Christians have gifts to share with the people they come in contact with every day. In a word, we have a calling. It is greater than Toys for Tots, it is greater than Secret Santa, it is greater than the presents carefully wrapped and laid under the Christmas tree. The gifts Christians have are those which come from God, they are packaged by him and must be shared.

When the apostle Peter wrote to the beleaguered Christians in the northeastern Roman provinces of Asia (1 Peter 1:1), he wrote to encourage them to embrace the slander and the social persecution with the reminder that they walk in the footsteps of Jesus (1 Peter 2:21). For example, should they suffer unjustly —as did Jesus— the suffering will bring about the opportunity to extend grace to the world. Furthermore, the Christian must not focus on the momentary suffering but instead upon God’s validation and vindication. As God vindicated the suffering servant Jesus, so will He vindicate his suffering people (4:1).

As You Have Received God’s Gift

As an extension of this moral encouragement, the apostle goes on to address very practical aspects of Christian living in chapter 4. Here is an excellent moment to pause and reflect upon the truth that doctrinal purity is important, but these Christians are called to practice godliness in the face of persecution. In one of the summarizing passages of this exhortation, Peter writes the following:

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet 4:10-11 ESV)

A point that is not readily notable from the English version is the connection between gift (charisma) and grace (charitos) in verse 10. They are built on the same word root, which was interconnected at the social level. It portrays God as a benefactor —a gift giver— for his people, and asks of them (us) to also be gift givers (benefactors) as well.

This makes the term “good stewards” (oikonomoi) equally enlightening. It is a word that has domestic and political usage, and this usage is seen in the New Testament documents. In the ESV, the word is translated “manager” of domestic affairs (Luke 12:42, 16:1, 3, 8; Gal 4:2), and once as “treasurer” which would have been a political office in Rome (Rom 16:23). As here in 1 Peter 4:10, “steward” in passages that emphasizes a conservatorship over a given responsibility (1 Cor 4:1-2, Tit 1:7). It was a well known Greco-Roman phenomenon that members of a benefactor’s household were also “brokers” of the gifts of the head of their household. The imagery of Peter’s message is parallel to this type of behavior.

Christians as members of God’s house are blessed by their Father’s gifts so that they may be brokers of God’s grace. We are in a very real way representatives of God’s house and what we offer in a variety ways is the very gift of God — Jesus Christ and the gospel message. We are to teach it, we are to proclaim it, but most importantly we are to live it. Below, we will consider the points left behind in this section by the Spirit through Peter in verse 11.

Whoever speaks…

One of the overarching themes of the film, Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary on the American education system, is that many within the system are waiting for someone to fix it, to do the hard work to shore up its failures. Instead, such systemic problems will only be fixed by teachers and educational leaders working together and initiating helpful and creative programs. There is no one person who can fix the educational system of America, all resources must come together. The same is true with sharing the gift of Jesus and His gospel.

Every Christian (woman and man) must remember that our gift is a gift of words. Not just any words, but words of God. For this reason, when a Christian shares the gospel it truly is God’s gift of grace we are sharing. We must not speak our words. We must not speak from our own anger. We must not speak our theories of the word. We must not speak our pet religious opinions. We must not speak from any other basis other than from the depository of God’s word — found only in the Scriptures. Our words must be as if it were God talking. God’s word is the only true gift (1 These 2:13).

Whoever serves…

Christian activity is always dramatically presented as services rendered as one who waits on tables, doing as told by their superior (Acts 6:2; John 2:5). Every Christian (woman and man) must remember that our gift is also a gift of action — of service. Christians broker God’s grace with others with the service we render to other people. Edgar Guest was spot on with this passage when he penned the opening lines of his poem, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way” (“I’d Rather See a Sermon Than Hear One Any Day”). Indeed, there no greater opportunity in life than to serve as an example of God’s grace to others.

Words can be misunderstood. Actions, however, are less so. But, serving others often comes with a tall price. Service is not convenient emotionally, nor physically. It is perhaps for this reason that Peter says that Christians who serve others to do so empowered by the strength supplied by God. We do not serve others based upon our own merits. It is a hard lesson for so many of us, but we need to trust in God for Him to be God when we are serving others. Whether it is food, clothing, shelter that we offer as expressions of God’s varied graces, we do so, trusting that God will make our service His gift and that alone should empower us to serve.

Concluding Thoughts

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, Christians can make a mark in the world and in the times in which they live. My prayer for all of us is to be the Christians we are called to be. Be the best gift you can be to your family and friends in word and service. Let it be the kind that brings glory to God and not to self. Remember, to say, “it’s not about me… it’s about Him.” “To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (4:11).