The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 1: Biblical Authority

evangelicalism-2017Rapid change is the norm for now. This includes politics, economics, social standards, and ways of communicating. Irony abounds. Distrust of the “mainstream media” is countered by the proliferation and acceptance of “fake news.” Social media is hated and loved by the same audience.

What about the evangelical Christian world? Where does it stand as we begin 2017? Is it in a period of rapid change?

The modern evangelical movement came out of post-WWII reactions to the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early part of the 20th century, battles somewhat suspended during the Great Depression and the second world war. One of its enduring post-war expressions is the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), founded in 1949 to define and defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and to do biblical and theological research among a community of scholars who accepted this doctrine.

I have been member of the ETS for over twenty years and have attended a dozen of the annual meetings. As a Ph.D., I am a full voting member of the Society, one of about 4,000. Since I joined, I have been fascinated by the social aspects of the ETS: the influence of certain members, the uneasy alliances, the method of dealing with those seen as threats, the integration of new generations of scholars, and the growing influence of publishing houses (among other things). My analysis of the current state of evangelicalism is based on the shifting tides of the ETS as well as other personal observations. Here are five things I believe define evangelicalism in 2017.

1. Biblical authority is an increasingly empty claim for evangelicals.

The ETS stream of evangelicalism was based on two presuppositions concerning the Bible. First, the Bible spoke with God’s authority and was therefore the final word in all matters for humans. Second, the Bible was without mistakes in any and all matters (inerrant). Therefore, churches, families, and society itself should be ordered around teachings of the Bible.

Of course, the rub is that the Bible must be interpreted in order to be used. This has always been a weakness in evangelical scholars (see #3 in two weeks), for proof-texting and systematizing were widely used. The problem with proof-texting in particular was that it allowed the choice of some texts and the ignoring of other texts when one wanted to use the Bible as an authoritative guide.

On the congregational level, this picking and choosing is more evident than ever. Some large churches avoid teaching on the prohibitions and expectations of Scripture so as not to alienate congregants and (especially) visitors. God is love, not justice or judgment. Even when biblical standards are taught, they are widely ignored by members. Example: there is little difference in rates of divorce or premarital sex between evangelicals and the general population.

A few years ago, I was “working” at a Starbucks and overheard an interesting conversation between two young mothers who had just dropped off their children at school. One said, “I hear you and your family have been attending _____ Church. Do you believe all that stuff they teach? They are radicals in so many social issues, so out of step with modern society!” Answer, “Well, we don’t believe any of that stuff, but they have good programs for our kids.”

This is certainly no endorsement of biblical authority in the lives of members of a very large and well-know evangelical church.

Next week: 2. Separation of politics and faith is increasingly difficult.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and in no way are intended to speak for his employer.

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Advent Meditation for Christmas Eve: Singing the Messiah

sing-along“Sing-along Messiah” events are Christmas traditions in many communities. They involve community members bringing their copy of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah and joining the choir to sing the choruses in the performance. It is traditional to do the “Christmas portions” of the massive oratorio composed in 1741, Part 1 plus the “Hallelujah” chorus from Part 2. (Note: Part 2 of the Messiah is the “Passion” section, sometimes performed at Easter, Part 3 is sometimes seen as the Pauline section, singing of the resurrection of the dead.) It has been my privilege and joy to participate in Messiah Sing-Alongs at least ten times by playing in the orchestra. I love it. The community orchestras I have played in used these events as fundraisers. Instead of paying the performers, they pay you! What a deal!

Singing and Christmas have a tight relationship in our annual celebration. How do you think a Christmas eve service would be received if no Christmas carols were sung? All the public spaces are filled with a repetitive list of Christmas music. My personal opinion is it might be good to expand this repertoire a bit. I’m not sure I need to hear Dean Martin sing “Let It Snow” more than five or six times a year.

Some claim the greatest music ever written is Christmas music. Beyond the Messiah, we think of Bach’s Magnificat or Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Especially beloved is the Adophe Adam music written for Placide Cappeau’s poem “Minuit, chrétiens,” first performed in 1848 as Cantique de Noel. In America, a minister named John Sullivan Dwight offered an English version in 1855, and we still sing it: O Holy Night!

But why music and Christmas? Why a night that is more holy than others?

The Christmas story is full of paradoxes and there is none greater than the appearance of the angels to the Bethlehem shepherds. It was a visit of the most powerful created beings in the universe to some of the lowliest with the precious message of Christmas: the Savior of Mankind had been born! This could only be a message from the Lord God himself, great glad tidings, the good news of the Gospel for human redemption!

angels-and-shepherdsThe announcement by this lead angel was followed by something more astounding: the revelation to the shepherds of more angels, “a multitude of the heavenly host” (πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου), literally, “an army in the sky.” A singing army of angels, and this is what they sang:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

The KJV has the angels “saying” this refrain, but that misunderstands the variety of meanings of the Greek word lego (λέγω), which can refer to singing words as well as speaking.

These humble but obedient shepherds go to the place in Bethlehem village where the new Messiah has been born. Were they humming the angel’s tune? Were they singing it? Did they teach it to the new friends they made in the Jesus stable? Did the ox and ass keep time?

We live today in a world full of music. It is hard to escape it, our media saturation society drips music. How great it is to have at least some of that music focused on our Lord Jesus Christ! So in these last days of Advent, may we join the angels and sing.

Gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax

Glory to God in the highest and on earth Peace!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 4: Giving for and Receiving from the Messiah

four-candles-litWhen we were boys, my two brothers and I always got up early on Christmas to open presents. We expected toys! Grandma Bessie didn’t understand this: underwear! One year a belt! Never toys or anything cool. She just didn’t get it, I thought. Christmas was mainly about the presents I was getting.

Things changed when I was a junior in high school, age 16: my family had a very rough Christmas. My father was very ill with Hepatitis and was in the hospital. My dad was a doctor and while we were not rich, we always were comfortable. But doctors don’t get paid if they don’t work, and he was in the hospital a long time. From something my mother said, I realized that money was very tight. And I realized I was the only one who had a job, a little part-time gig in the down drugstore, so I took the money I had saved, about $150, and made a determined effort to buy nice gifts for my family: mother, father, older brother in college, and younger brother in grade school. I even realized we did not have a Christmas tree, so on the day before Christmas I stopped by a lot and bought one. At age 16 it was one of the best Christmases I have ever had.

I had moved from the joy of getting, to a much greater joy: giving. Perhaps I understood a tiny bit of being godlike, the joy that God felt when he gave us his Son. Perhaps I had begun to know that no one was rejoicing more on the first Christmas than God the Father.

Now I have over 60 Christmases under my belt. I enjoy getting gifts from friends and loved ones. I enjoy giving gifts to friends and loved ones. But there is another stage. The families of guys like me will usually say, “He is hard to buy for! I never know what to get him!” For years when I was asked what I wanted for Christmas, I would say something like, “I just want your love.” But that missed the point. I was denying others the joy of giving. I had not learned how to receive.

The angels who greeted the shepherds gave glory to God. And God received their praise. Not because God’s ego needed a boost, but because God knew they needed to give and they needed him to received their gift.

And perhaps that is something about Christmas we miss. We are very human when our concern is getting gifts for ourselves. We are most human when we are disappointed in our gifts. But when we give and when we gratefully receive from others, we are more like God.

Remember Mary, when confronted with the news that she would become pregnant although a virgin took a minute to process. But then she said:

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

She received the greatest gift of all, a gift that blessed us today, with humility and grace. No wonder we love her so much.

Advent Week 3: Journeying for the Messiah

week-3-adventI once spoke for a Christian Indian-American gathering and had a great time fellowshipping with my brothers and sisters from the great sub-continent of Asia. I enjoyed the curry-rich food with hints of many other spices I could not name.

While eating with my new friends, I was reflecting on why a person born in India would want to come to the USA. My assumptions were: better economic prospects, easier assimilation than some immigrant populations because they already speak good English, and family already in the United States.  These were all somewhat true, but none were the primary reason. Repeatedly, I was told that America was the place where they could live as Christians without fear of persecution or discrimination. India is a large, diverse country, but the Hindu majority sees conversion to the Christian faith as both heretical and, to some degree, unpatriotic. I struck me: they journeyed to America to serve Jesus more openly.

A delightful part of the Christmas story is the part played by the magi, popularly known as “wise men.” Only mentioned by Matthew, the magi story is sparse on details. Sometimes we call them “kings.” It is possible they had royal status, otherwise their quick access to King Herod is hard to understand. We like to think there were three wise men, although Matthew does not say. This comes from Matthew’s mention of three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (assuming the “one gift per magi rule”). We often say they were from Persia, but Matthew simply says they were from the “east.” Persia is east of Jerusalem, and given the historical circumstances at the time, it is as likely as anyplace for their origin. If true, this would mean they came from outside the Roman empire into the Roman world, and I think that is what Matthew wants us to understand.

The occasion for their coming to Jerusalem was the appearance of a new phenomenon in the sky, what Matthew calls a “star” (ἀστέρα). This indicates the magi studied the stars and has led us to conclude they were astrologers, people who believed the movement and alignment of astral phenomena signaled or even controlled future events. This has led many to conclude they were not Jews, but this is not a necessary conclusion. Later Jewish sources indicate a place for astrology in practice. This includes the Talmud and the much later Jewish phenomenon known as the Kabballah. I think it is both possible and even probable that these men were Jews. We must imagine the details, but I think the background of the magi was something like this:

star-of-bethlehemThere was a guild of Jewish men who studied both the Torah and other Jewish writings as well as the stars and planets. A new, unusually bright star-like light appeared in their night sky and they concluded it was a sign from the Lord that the long-promised Messiah of their Scriptures had been born. They determined that there were no further answers for them where they lived in Mesopotamia and decided to travel to the most Jewish city of all, Jerusalem, to get answers. Once there, they went to the head man, King Herod, perhaps not realizing he was not really a Jew. They unintentionally created a crisis for Herod, who feared any legitimate claimant to his throne. Herod had quick access to the best Scripture scholars of his city, and they determined that the scroll of the prophet Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. This made sense to everyone, for Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the prototype of the Messiah. Therefore, the magi hurried to Bethlehem, just a few miles south, promising to come back and report to Herod what they find (probably the next day). As they set out, they find guidance from a truly miraculous “star,” perhaps a visionary experience that only they could see. They find the young Jesus with his mother and father in a Bethlehem house where they worship (bow down) to him and give him three lavish gifts.

Like my Indian friends, they had journeyed far to worship the Lord Jesus. It was a hard journey, a journey of faith. It was rewarded with joy and fulfillment.

As we come to the Lord Jesus in this season of Advent, may we, too, come in faith. May we brush aside the unbelievers like Herod who would exploit us or discourage us. May we realize the purpose of our journey, to serve and worship Jesus the Messiah.

O Come, let us adore him.
O Come, let us adore him.
O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 2: Aligning for the Messaih

advent-second-weekWhere does an idea begin? What starts a practice that becomes entrenched and commonplace in society? There are many things that depend on a single individual coming up with a new idea, something that had never been done before, and setting a trend that continued. For example, why is our counting system 10-base (decimal) and our time system 60-base (sexagesimal)? Why do men shave the hair off their faces? Why do we drive on the right side of the road in America, but the British dive on the left? Who first thought of these things?

A second thought: how do things get aligned? If we are talking about the front wheels of a car, the answer is, sometimes, “Very expensively.” But remember your old geometry lessons. Two points are always aligned:

two-points

Three points are a little trickier:

thee-points

But if we rotate our view of these three points by 90°, we would find they are on the same plane and appear to be aligned:

three-points-rotated

If we get beyond three points, alignment becomes an increasing challenge. This is why stools were traditionally three-legged rather than four. Three leg ends will always touch the ground equally, four legs will tend to be wobbly. Five legs are nearly impossible to keep in alignment.

Put these two things together: Initial idea and alignment.

One of the most marvelous aspects of studying the Bible is to see prophecy in the Old Testament aligning with fulfillment in the New Testament. This is heightened when we contemplate the Christmas story as revealed in Scripture. We usually understand the idea of a Messiah beginning in God’s promises to Adam, Eve, and the serpent shortly before expulsion from the Garden. The tempting serpent is given is cursed to crawl on his belly (i.e., snake) and, therefore, to eat dust. The Lord also give the serpent this dire promise:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
(Genesis 3:15)

The idea: God promises to send a Savior, the offspring of Eve, who would deliver mankind by defeating the serpent (Satan) and all the evil he causes. In a nutshell: Mankind needs a Savior and God will provide. Christians believe this promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Two point alignment.

But this is not the only prophecy about a Messiah. Consider three others related to Christmas:

  1. The Messiah would be from the royal tribe, Judah.

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
(Genesis 49:10)

  1. The Messiah’s conception would be miraculous, his mother a virgin.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

  1. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David, as his rightful heir.

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

This is not the place to expand on these three prophecies, but when we count these items, we get this:

Genesis 3 + Genesis 49 + Isaiah 7 + Micah 5 + Jesus Christ = 5

This is not alignment of merely two, or three things. It is alignment of five things over a period of 1,500+ years, and this is just a small sample of the prophecies and fulfillments realized in Jesus Christ. The marvelous alignment of God, his plan for our salvation patiently implemented, never forgotten! Evermore and Evermore!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University