Distrustful Science

Female researcher looking into a microscope and writing notes atTen years ago I had an essay published entitled, “Ethics in a Postmodern World” in the volume Christian Ethics. At that time we did not know exactly what “postmodernism” was, but we were pretty sure that the Enlightenment consensus was breaking down. This was the “modern” world, and we knew something else was on the horizon, so it was labeled “postmodern.” The modern world had been characterized by supposedly rigorous logical analysis, and its companion, scientific methodology. The scientific method was the touchstone of truth, the laboratory was the gateway to the future.

In this essay, I attempted to define the new, postmodern world’s contours by giving six contrasts, six ways in which what I saw coming was unlike the 19th and 20th centuries. Postmodernity, as I saw it, was:

  1. Fluid rather than Foundational. Knowledge was based on a changing web rather than a foundational edifice.
  2. Multi-Connective rather than Sequential. If we disregard foundationalism, there is no obvious starting point or ending point, and sequentialism is less valid.
  3. Holistic rather than Compartmental. I meant this especially in regard to behavior. There is no more need to compartmentalize our lives. We don’t hide anything any more.
  4. Spiritual rather than Scientific. This is seen in the rise of folks who claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious,” but also in larger and larger distrust of the scientific community for having led us astray.
  5. Personal Story rather than Metanarrative. Our own personal stories become more important than the larger story of humankind, the story of salvation as told in the Bible, etc.
  6. Interiorizing rather than Externalizing. I meant this especially in the realm of authority. We no longer look to external authority figures to help us navigate the hard decisions of life. We are all independent operators.

I think these have held up surprisingly well. We don’t really talk about “postmodernism” any more, but no one is quite sure what age we have entered. I think we are close to moral anarchy, but that is another story.

I have been a reader of the Economist magazine for many years. I am challenged by its unlikely mix of social progressivism and economic, pro-business conservatism, which are pretty much the opposite of my views most of the time. A recent issue highlighted what was called, “Trouble at the Lab” (October 19-25, 2013). In this issue, an editorial and an article talked about the dismal state of scientific research and the unreliability of published research results. One shocking example was the report that the American drug company Amgen had tried to reproduce the results in 53 experimental studies that were considered landmarks in the study of cancer. The results: in only 6 of these were they able to replicate the published results. In other words, much of what is considered the “assured results of science” may be a house of cards.

This seems to me to be a validation of my point 4, that we are in a world that is Spiritual rather than Scientific. For many reasons, there are huge cracks in the credibility of the scientific information business. The breathless publishing and reporting of astounding “breakthroughs” in science that seem unbelievable and incredible may be just that, unbelievable and lacking credibility.

Scientific research is not done by men and women with no agendas and no self interests. The economic and reputation stakes are very high, so we should not really be surprised when the results are fudged or faked.

So who do we trust if science fails us? I think you know my answer to that question.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Persistent Proof Texting

DSCF0352My students know that I have an unending campaign against the practice in biblical interpretation we call “proof texting.” This has nothing to do with your phone or your Twitter account. Proof texting is taking a Bible verse in isolation from its context and using it as a validation (or “proof”) for a theological argument. The practice of proof texting comes from these somewhat questionable assumptions:

1. That all books, chapters, and verses of the Bible have an equal and independent authority. This is the mistake of what is called the “flat Bible,” that no text is more important than any other text. Of course we do not really operate that way in our Bible reading. Are verses in Obadiah (that condemn the ancient Edomites for their glee and participation in the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC) of the same theological value as the promises of Romans 8, Luke 2, or 1 Corinthians 15? Are the genealogy lists of the first chapters of 1 Chronicles of equal authority and value to the great psalms like Psalm 23, Psalm 32, Psalm 110, or Psalm 118?

2. Related to the “flat Bible” fallacy is the approach to the Bible that treats it like a dictionary where each verse is a separate entry that stands alone. My old teacher, Walter Kaiser, referred to this as the “treasure box” approach to Scripture, likening it to a box full of jewels that one could reach into and pull out a single treasure many different times. The truths of the Bible depend on the context of the verses. It is not a box of loose jewels but a magnificent crown where every precious stone has its place and plays its part.

3. The assumption that because the Bible speaks to us (and it does), that there are no historical or cultural factors that must figure into our understanding. We sometimes think the Bible speaks to our contemporary situations without any filters. If the Bible tells slaves they must submit to their masters, then, by golly, we should be submissive and uncomplaining employees no matter how horrible our jobs or our bosses.

Yet the practice of proof texting is ingrained into many Christian leaders and preachers. I feel it in myself all the time. I was taught in sermonizing that if you wanted to make a point, the best method was to find as many verses to support that point as you could and quote them without regard to context. I find myself doing this all the time. Let me give you an example from a writing project I was working on this weekend.

In Luke 17:3, Jesus teaches,

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

This seems to be straightforward instruction on how to deal with offending people: confront them, expect an apology, then forgive them. Yet we know that this doesn’t work very well in many situations. It doesn’t work well in most job situations, where co-workers do not like to be corrected and are sometimes loathe to apologize for anything. There are two problems with taking this verse in isolation as a universal formula for human relationships:

1. Jesus is talking to his disciples. If anything, these are words for relationships within the Christian community, not for all relationships. To expect a non-believer to repent when confronted is not part of his teaching. Furthermore, there was nothing particularly new in this formula for Jesus’ first century Jewish hearers. This was somewhat standard practice in their communities.

2. The real danger is taking this verse in isolation from 17:4:

Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’
you must forgive them.

What he is saying in this verse is that his followers must be extravagant forgivers, ready forgivers, willing forgivers. There are not to be limits on how often we forgive. This is what the teaching is about. But, what about those who sin against you and don’t repent? Should we forgive them? Jesus is really silent on this here. His point is to push his hearers to greater forgiveness, not to give a legalistic formula with hard boundaries.

So, don’t proof text Luke 17:3. In fact, let’s stop proof texting altogether.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

We’re All Hypocrites

Jesus%20Teaching%20In%20TempleDuring his ministry, Jesus denounced “hypocrites” as vehemently as any group. More than prostitutes. More than extortionist tax collectors. More than drunkards. In fact, there is no evidence that Jesus campaigned on moral issues, decrying the bad behavior of his people. Yes, he commended those who kept the law of Moses, but he lifted up loving God and loving our neighbor as the core commandments. And he warned against judging others.

“Hypocrite” is a transliterated word from the Greek (and my regular readers know how I feel about transliteration rather than translation). It is used rarely in the Greek Old Testament (LXX), and occurs only in the Synoptic Gospels in the New Testament (Matt 13x, Mark 1x, Luke 3x). It is a pejorative label that Jesus affixes to those who oppose him the most, These are the “Scribes and Pharisees,” those who knew Scriptures the best, and who appeared to live by Scriptures the most. We can find Jesus’ understanding of a “hypocrites” clearly in Matthew 15:7-9, where he quotes Isaiah 29:13 as a defining characterization of these hypocrite-opponents. There are three things in this Isaiah passage that apply:

  1. Hypocrites give praise and honor to God with their words, but not in their hearts.
  2. Hypocrites worship in a vain, false manner.
  3. Hypocrites erect rules and doctrines that are not from God, just human creations.

Wow! We usually define hypocrites as folks who say one thing but secretly do another. They are the ones who establish many rules for behavior, yet don’t follow these rules themselves. This certainly applies to #3 from the Isaiah list, but #2 and #1 are a little different. They deal with false worship.

Hypocrites are those with the hidden heart. Their lives don’t ring true because the interior is not as pure as the exterior appears. Hypocrisy in this sense is not so much deception as it is a dilemma. Hypocrites give an appearance of righteous living when the reality is a hidden struggle. Perhaps this is why Jesus loved people like Matthew the Tax Collector so much. There was no pretense. There was apparently a desire to have fellowship and approval from God, but no attempt to hide his despicable profession and riotous lifestyle.

More than once in ministry I have been told by unaffiliated Christians that they have no interest in a church because “the church is full of hypocrites.” I have even been schooled about the hidden peccadilloes of some members of my flock on occasion. My answer to this is sometimes very shocking. I say, “Well, we’re all hypocrites, aren’t we?” And I think it is true. No church is so open that all our sins are on the table. We are all hiding something, and some of those things are just between us and God. Where there is a difference, I think, is that we realize these things are not hidden from God, and this accountability motivates us to change, to clean up our lives. And this does not happen overnight. It happens day by day, as we seek to eliminate the unbearable tension in our lives of professing one thing and living another. And we do make progress. By the grace of God and the cleansing power of his Holy Spirit, we grow and mature, and the hypocritical side of our existence grows smaller and smaller. And some day, we will stand before our Savior having left all sin behind, for there will be no hypocrites in heaven, because we will be changed fully into his likeness.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

NeoCalvinism and Big Churches

Calvin ZZNebraska Christian College recently had Paul Williams on our campus for the Dunning Lectures. Paul is a columnist for the Christian Standard magazine (check our his column), and his writing is very refreshing and stimulating, but his career was made as the head of the Orchard Group, a church planting organization.

In a lunchtime discussion, Paul was asked what the future of the Christian Churches looks like (the “Restoration Movement”). He did not give a precise picture, but he noted that the leadership in the movement has shifted from the outstanding teachers in the colleges and seminaries to the pastors of the largest churches. And, he added, “They’re all pragmatists.” In other words, don’t look to them for doctrine or theology. They are more interested in what works effectively to grow and build churches.

This was not news to me. I have been saying in one form or another since the 1990s, “It’s not about theology any more.” The great theological battlegrounds in the Restoration Movement of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the inerrancy of Scripture, the support of missionaries, even the role of women; no one cares very much about these things any longer. We rarely hear preaching or teaching about the nature of God, the nature of sin, the nature of Scripture, or the nature of Salvation. Many of our students in a school like Nebraska Christian College are unmotivated to learn about the Bible deeply. Their cry is, “Give me something I can use. I will never use what you are teaching me about interpreting Scripture.”

There does seem to be a counter-stream to this non-doctrinal approach, however. In many large churches, the old Protestant doctrines of Calvinism are flourishing. This has been called Neo Calvinism, New Calvinsim, and other things. I like the label NeoCalvinsim. The leading advocates for this are John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and others. Many in the Restoration Movement have been heavily influenced by these guys, and accept whatever they say and write somewhat uncritically.

Calvinism is biblically based, to be sure. I had the great privilege of taking a doctoral course in Calvin from Kenneth Kantzer, the former editor of Christianity Today and surely one of the greatest Calvin scholars of the last generation. In doing this, I read the entirety of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, making me one of a small handful of people in the Restoration Movement to have done so. I think I understand the Calvinistic/Augustinian system of theology quite well, and I agree with it in many points. John Calvin did have a beard that would have qualified him for Duck Dynasty or ZZ Top, but I don’t think he got everything right.

There are two, related doctrinal items in Calvinism I believe are not reconcilable with the majority of Scripture’s teaching. First, the doctrine of complete, utter, total human depravity. If this is a starting point, one must believe that men and women can do nothing toward their own salvation. Salvation must necessarily be an act of God for each individual. When we push this to its logical conclusion, salvation or lack of salvation are determined by God with no human decisions or actions influencing God’s decisions. This is why baptism is of little importance for a thoroughgoing Calvinist. It is either superfluous, a non sequitur, or must be given a role not found in Scripture (such as the typological fulfillment of circumcision).

The logical corollary to the doctrine of total depravity is the doctrine of predestination. If salvation is wholly of God, it is predetermined and set before our birth. God chooses who will be saved (election), not us. A Calvinist who accepts total depravity yet rejects predestination is not being logically consistent. These persons are sometimes called Four-Point Calvinists (or, by my Five-Point friends, Calvinists who flunked logic).

It is difficult for me to reconcile this with the repeated Scriptural teaching that God is not willing that any should perish (see 2 Peter 3:9). If God is unwilling that any should perish or not be saved, then the doctrine of predestination is nonsense. Sophisticated nonsense with some scriptural support, to be sure, but still nonsensical. As I understand his somewhat impenetrable writings, this is why the twentieth century Calvinist (some would say hyper-Calvinist) Karl Barth finally concluded that all would be saved. His understanding of predestination and the teaching of God’s unwillingness for any not to  be saved led him to universalism, a position recently occupied by Rob Bell for some of the same reasons.

The bottom line, though, is that there is not much difference between the large church of a NeoCalvinist like Mark Driscoll and the large church of a pastor who does not really know what Calvinism is. Since preaching and teaching is largely devoid of doctrine, it doesn’t come up very much. I just wonder where this will lead in the next ten years. It will be interesting to see.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Strange, Romantic World of the Bible

For my faithful followers, I apologize. Due to illness, I have been absent from this blog for many days.

Ely #13A great definition for the “romantic” that I learned in college many years ago is, “interest in the long ago and far away.” This is tied to the Romantic periods in literature, music, and art that flourished in the 19th century. It was tied to a revival of the study of the ways of the ancient Romans (hence the name) and originally had nothing to do with human love stories.

In this sense, the study of the Bible must needs be “romantic,” because it presents a strange world that knows nothing of Twitter, iPads, jet airplanes, nuclear war, stock exchanges, American democracy, or blogs. Yet there is a persistent attempt to read the Bible as if it were the product of the late 1970s, a little out of date but pretty close.

I am teaching a class on the Parables of Jesus right now, and as I revisit this familiar material, I am again struck by the many things one must know about the ancient world in order to make sense of this subject. Today I am talking about the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4, and let me just list a few issues in Mark 4:1-20 in order to understand the text correctly:

  1. Why would Jesus teach from a boat beside a lake?
  2. What really is a “parable”?
  3. What does it mean to “sow” in a field?
  4. Why would anyone put seed on a path?
  5. Is a crop that returns 30x or 60x or 100x a good one?
  6. What is a “mystery” in the Bible?
  7. How can Satan snatch the word from people who have just heard it?
  8. Why does “deceitfulness of wealth” mean? How can wealth deceive?

These are just a few things I notice. If we go on through the chapter we might list a few more:

  1. What is a “lamp” in the biblical world? Why might you put it under a bowl?
  2. What is a mustard seed or a mustard tree?

For those of us who have been reading the Bible for decades, we slip into this strange world of the Bible quite easily. Of course Jesus was teaching outdoors. Of course fields were seeded by hand. Of course a “mystery” was something revealed by God, not a detective story. We know these things.

But with the rise of biblical illiteracy, these things are not self-evident or self-explanatory to the vast majority of the unchurched, nor to many who attend a service on Sunday.

This may seem like it is leading to a pitch for Biblical Higher Education, and it is. We need a ministry of church leaders who are well versed in this strange, romantic world of the Bible, and can explain its details without becoming simply infatuated with the ancient world. We need biblical scholars, not classicists. This sort of training does not happen in the local church any more. It does not happen in the home. Some of this information is available on YouTube or in a study Bible, but those sources are thin, inconsistent, and often just plain wrong.

Students at Nebraska Christian College, I am talking to you because I know many of you read this blog. Learn these things well. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t understand references in the Bible and find the answer. When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy,” what does that mean? Why Stephen accuses the Jews of being “stiff-necked,” what does that mean. (Hint: these two answers are related.) Let us be servants of the Word who unlock this strange world of the Bible for our people, and thereby shower them with the riches of God’s Word.