Monday, August 4, 2014

Catechism of the Catholic Church

I posted this to my "Recliner Commentaries" blog over a year ago and just realized that I failed to post it here here it is:
I recently finished reading the “Complete and Updated” Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York : Doubleday, 1995. 845 pages!) which is the definitive statement of what the Roman Catholic Church believes. I thought I’d give my impressions and analysis from an Evangelical perspective.
First, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I probably agreed with 80-90% of it! For example, as I expected, it affirmed the deity and the physical resurrection of Jesus (# 654, 643). It also affirmed the reality of hell and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, i.e. the idea that Jesus died an atoning sacrifice in our place for our sins (#1035, #615).

I was surprised to see that the Catechism affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of authorial intent in interpreting Scripture (#107, #109, #110, #136). I was even more surprised to find that the Catechism affirmed belief in a coming tribulation period (of unspecified length) during which the Antichrist will offer men apparent solutions to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth (#675).

On repentance, faith and grace

I was somewhat surprised, to discover what the Catechism says about salvation, grace and faith. Although the Catechism says that “It is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone…that…salvation can be obtained” (#181, #816, #1445), it also paradoxically affirmed the salvation of people who belong to other Christian churches (#818, #819, #838, #1271) and possibly even some from other religions (#841-843, #947).

The Catechism also affirms that conversion “is first of all a work of the grace of God” (#1432) and that “Our justification comes from the grace of God…the free undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God” (#1996). This comes through faith which is also “a gift of God” (#153, cf. #154, #162, #179). Faith includes not only “assent to his words” (#1122) but also love for God (#1033) and the “personal adherence of the whole man to God” (#176) in which man “seeks to know and do God’s will” (#1814; cf. #546). Such faith is preceded by repentance which is,

A radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with the hope in God’ mercy and trust in the help of his grace (#1431).

These statements on repentance and faith would sound positively Evangelical were it not for some other statements that give Evangelicals significant concern. For example, the Catechism teaches that the sacraments, and the “service and witness to the faith” are all necessary to salvation (#980, #1129, #1816, #1256, #1257; emphasis mine). The Catechism says that “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by…concern for the poor, exercise and defense of justice and right…revision of life…endurance of persecution…” etc. (#1435; emphasis mine).

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul strongly condemned the teaching that circumcision and good works were necessary for salvation. So when the Catechism teaches that the sacraments and the “service and witness to the faith” are necessary to salvation, this sounds very similar to the Galatian heresy. 
Evangelicals argue that “service of and witness to the faith” are the fruit of salvation, not the means to salvation. We would insist that conversion is evidenced by concern for the poor, the exercise of justice, etc. not the result of such good works.

This may seem like splitting hairs but the difference is absolutely crucial. Over and over again Paul taught that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, not by any good works we do. Paul writes, “For by grace are you saved through faith, and not of yourselves, not of works lest any man should boast.” Paul is quick to add, however, that “we are his workmanship created for good works” (Ephesians 2:8-10).  Works are the necessary fruit of faith, not the cause of salvation.

Sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism

One of the sacraments seen to be necessary for salvation is Baptism. The Catechism says that in Baptism “all sins are forgiven, original and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin” (#1263, cf. #405). According to the Catechism, baptism “communicates…the life that originates in the Father” and baptism “gives us the grace of the new birth” (#683, cf. #405).

In Catholic theology baptism is the New Testament counterpart to circumcision. Paul specifically argues, however, that circumcision was a sign of the covenant, not a prerequisite to salvation (Romans 4:9-11). Paul argued that those who were trusting in circumcision for salvation were not saved at all (Galatians 5:1-4). Evangelicals see little difference between insisting that circumcision is necessary for salvation and insisting that baptism is necessary for salvation. This is not to say that baptism is unimportant, indeed, the informed refusal to be baptized may be evidence of an unconverted heart. But baptism is the initial sign and evidence of salvation, not something that communicates or brings about salvation.

The Eucharist is another sacrament seen by the Roman Catholic Church as necessary for salvation. The Catechism teaches that the Eucharist is a literal sacrifice of Christ in which he “gives us his very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (#1365). The Catechism points out that the Old Testament priesthood was “powerless to bring about salvation, needing to repeat its sacrifices ceaselessly…” (#1450). On the other hand, the Catechism teaches that Jesus instituted the Eucharist to “perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again” (#1323).

First, it seems a bit odd that the Catechism should criticize the perpetual nature of Old Testament sacrifice while teaching the perpetual nature of the sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist. Second, the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist seems to downplay the “once for all” nature of Jesus’ sacrifice (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 10:1-10). Finally, to take Jesus literally when he said, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” appears to Evangelicals like insisting that when Jesus said, “I am the vine” he was affirming that he was vegetation.


I was puzzled by the fact that although the Catechism teaches that the Sacraments are necessary for salvation and that baptism actually imparts salvation, yet paradoxically the Catechism also held out hope that unbaptized infants might be saved (#1261). It also affirms that

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst who are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, an together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (#841-843).

Muslims certainly do not undergo Christian baptism which, according to the Catechism, removes sin and imparts salvation. In fact, the Qur’an not only denies the Trinity in general (Sura 4.171; 5.173) and the deity of Jesus in particular (Sura 5.72, 116), it even insists that those who worship Jesus will go to hell (Sura 9.30-35)! It is a mystery how those who adamantly deny and denounce the cardinal teachings of the Roman Catholic Church can be seen by the Church to have eternal life—especially in light of First John 2:23 which says that “no one who denies the Son has the Father….” That alone is enough to cause Evangelicals to question the infallibility of the Pope and bishops, which raises the next issue.

Final authority

One of the biggest disagreements between Protestants and Catholics concerns the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Ever since the Reformation, Evangelicals have regarded the Bible as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. The Catechism, however, is clear that “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (#82) and that “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (#97).

First, this seems to contradict tradition itself. Ignatius (d. AD 110), for example, is careful to distinguish his writings from those of the apostles. In his letter to the Trallians he writes, “…I did not think myself qualified for this, that I, a convict, should give you orders as though I were an apostle” (3). To the Romans Ignatius writes, “I do not give you orders like Peter and Paul: they were apostles…” (4).

Similarly, in about AD 110 Polycarp writes,

For neither I nor anyone like me can keep pace with the wisdom of the blessed and glorious 
Paul, who, when he was among you in presence of men of that time, accurately and reliably taught the word concerning the truth. And when he was absent he wrote you letters, if you study them carefully, you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that has been given to you…” (3).

The same attitude toward the apostles seems to be found in Clement of Rome (AD97; To the Corinthians, 42, 47). It appears that authors of the very earliest post-biblical tradition did not consider their writings on par with the apostles and other writers of New Testament books. Instead, they regularly quoted from books now collected in the New Testament as their authority. This was even more true of later church Fathers. The idea that the Church would later lift their writings up to the level of Scripture would have been scandalous to them.

Second, the church fathers sometimes exhibit strong disagreements and outright contradictions among themselves. In other words, the only traditions that are treated as inspired are those selected by later Church leaders.

Finally, the Catechism is clear that “The task of giving authentic interpretation of the Word of God…has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone” (#85). More precisely, “the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (#85). The Catechism teaches that the Pope and bishops have infallibility with regard to faith and morals (#890, #891, #2035).

Infallibility of the Church

To Evangelical ears this is especially puzzling. First, there is nothing in Scripture that would teach infallibility of the Church. Second, this doctrine seems to create problems for the Church itself. For example, the Catechism strongly affirms that Christians should continually read the Scriptures for themselves. It says, “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful” (#131). The Catechism goes so far as to say that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (#133).

On the other hand, in times past the Catholic Church, as a matter of official policy, was instrumental in the imprisonment and even execution of those who insisted that Christians should read Scriptures for themselves, e.g. Wycliffe, Tyndale, and hundreds if not thousands of ordinary Christians whose only crime was the possession of the Scriptures in English. That raises the question: Which Church is infallible? Was it the modern Church which insists that Christians should read Scriptures for themselves, or the Church in times past that persecuted Christians who read the Scriptures?

Another example would be that the Church once taught that there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church (vestiges of this teaching are still found in the Catechism, e.g. sections 181, 816, and 1445). On the other hand, the Catechism now affirms that many Protestants (and possibly even some in other religions) are saved. Which teaching is infallible; the teaching in the Catechism of today which holds out salvation for non-Catholics, or the Church’s teaching in the past which confined salvation to the Roman Catholic Church alone?

Yet another example is the fact that the Catechism condemns torture and killing (#2297).  The catechism even acknowledges that “In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals of the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture.” The section continues, “Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood” (#2298).

Many will undoubtedly find this section misleading if not outright deceptive. First, while it may be true that clerics were forbidden to personally shed blood, it was the bishops of the church who handed the “heretics” over to civil authorities to be tortured and/or executed for their opposition to the Church. I’m sure it made little difference to the victims whether they were being tortured directly by the Church, or by civil authorities on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. Second, it is simply not true that these practices were always used “to maintain law and order.” Torture was often used simply to weed out and punish otherwise law-abiding and peaceful “heretics.” 

The point of this discussion, however is to ask the question: Which Church was infallible, the modern church which condemns torture, or the Church in times past which, for hundreds of years,
made it a regular practice?

Yet another reason to question Church infallibility is the Catechism teaching that man “must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (#1782). In times past, however, the Church regularly sought to force people like Martin Luther, for example, to act or profess contrary to their conscience.


Catholics would no doubt protest that these were not official proclamations of the Catholic Church but such protestations would sound pretty hollow to Protestants who were often the victims of such official persecution carried out by the bishops in full communion with Rome. 

Therefore, while there is much in the Catechism that Evangelicals and affirm and celebrate, Evangelicals will insist that that the Pope and bishops are not infallible and that some parts of the catechism are merely “barnacles” of tradition, added by the Church on its own authority apart from the authority of Jesus and the apostles.

Take, for example the Church’s teaching on Mary. The Catechism teaches not only that Mary was devoid of original sin, but that she was absolutely sinless during her entire life (#411, #491, #493, #508, #722, #966). By contrast, the Bible teaches that “There is no one righteous, not even one” and that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:10, 23). The Bible specifically indicates that Jesus is an exception to this rule (Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 9:14; 1 Peter 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; John 8:46) but there are no statements anywhere in Scripture that would say or imply that Mary is also an exception. The sinlessness of Mary is a doctrine developed by the Church long after New Testament times and is in direct contradiction to what the New Testament teaches (It is interesting that the Catechism actually talks much more about the sinlessness of Mary than it does about the sinlessness of Jesus).

Similarly, the Catechism teaches that Mary was “taken up body and soul into heavenly glory” and was “exalted as Queen over all things” (#966, cf. #969, #974). The Bible knows nothing of this. This is another example of “barnacles” which attached themselves to Christianity long after the time of the apostles. Other “barnacles” include the Church’s teaching on indulgences (#1471, #1479), purgatory (#1030-1032, #1054, #1475, #1479), Mary’s perpetual virginity (#499, #500), and the teaching that 
Mary and the canonized faithful become intercessors for us (#1014, #828), none of which have any basis in the New Testament.

Veneration and Worship

One of the most serious “barnacles” is the doctrine of the “veneration” of Mary and of icons. The Church recognizes that if people were to worship Mary or icons they would be guilty of idolatry so the bishops are adamant that veneration is not the same as adoration or worship (#971). Unfortunately, the Catechism does not always make this distinction. For example, section #1378 refers to the “Worship of the Eucharist” in which “faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine” is expressed by “genuflecting, or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord.” The section goes on to say,

The Catholic church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during the Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hoses with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful” (#1378, emphasis mine).

First, in this section the words “worship,” “adoration,” and “veneration” are seemingly used synonymously, so when Catholics say that they venerate Mary and icons, but adore or worship Christ, Evangelicals hope Catholics will understand our skepticism, especially in light of the impression we have that many average Catholics don’t really seem to make much distinction between veneration and worship.

Second, in an attempt to explain that the “veneration” of the icon of Christ is not idolatry, the Catechism states that icons of Christ “can be venerated” because the one “who venerates the icon is venerating in it the person of the one depicted” (#477). Since the subject of this “veneration” is Christ himself, we can only conclude that the word “veneration” here is used synonymously with worship.
It, therefore, appears to Evangelicals that the only distinction between veneration and worship is that if you “venerate” Christ, you are worshiping him but if you “venerate” Mary or icons you are not worshiping them. This is a distinction without a difference.

Third, section #2132 says,

Religious worship is not directed to images themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.

So the worship is not actually directed to the images but rather to what the images symbolize. Unfortunately, this does little to ease Evangelical concerns that Catholics are engaged in idolatry.
After Aaron crafted the Golden Calf he immediately announced a “festival to Yahweh.” He apparently saw the calf as a visual representation of Yahweh worship. According to the story, Yahweh saw it as idolatry and considered it to be a very serious offense (Exodus 32:1-5). Evangelicals generally fail to see much difference between the use of a golden calf in the worship of Yahweh and the use of a crucifix (or other icon) in the worship of Jesus.

It would be possible to argue that I am just quibbling over words, and that the Church is not really teaching the worship of Mary and that the sections in the Catechism that use the words worship, veneration and adoration synonymously were just unfortunate, unguarded statements. Similarly, it would be possible to argue that the Church is really not guilty of the Galatian heresy of requiring works for salvation, rather the Church really means that baptism, the Eucharist, other Sacraments and good works are the essential fruit of salvation and not something people must do in order to be saved. If this was the case, it would go a long way toward unifying Catholics and Protestants if the Catholic Church were to revise the Catechism with a view toward making these positions more clear.


I agreed with the majority of the Catechism and found it a joy and blessing to read. Nevertheless, some of the disagreements—like the infallibility of the Church, the “veneration” of Mary and icons, or the precise relationship between faith and works, are extremely significant and could be matters of spiritual life and death.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Homosexuality--Position statement

            Homosexuality is one of the hottest political and social issues of our times. Since it is discussed in the New Testament and since I teach New Testament, I wanted to produce a clear, concise statement of my position on this issue.
            First, a genuine Christian position on homosexuality must never be about hate. The New Testament is very clear that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. I do not consider gay people to be my enemies, but for those who do, I would remind them that Jesus commanded his followers to love even their enemies. All Christians should love gay people. Gay people should never be mocked, ridiculed, threatened, or abused. Gay people will never be won to Christ out of hostility. They should be treated with love and compassion.
            Second, the issue is not, or should not be, about orientation, but about behavior. The Bible simply does not address the issue of sexual orientation. It addresses behavior. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the men of the city gather at Lot’s house and demand, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” That is about behavior, not orientation. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman.” That’s about behavior, not orientation. Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman…is detestable.” That’s about behavior. Romans 1:27 speaks of how “Men committed indecent acts with other men.” That’s about behavior. Finally the English Standard Version translates αρσενοκοιται in First Corinthians 6:9 and First Timothy 1:10 accurately as “men who practice homosexuality.” That too, is about behavior. The same is true of the condemnation found in Jude 7.
            Orientation is about attraction and temptation, neither of which by itself is sin. Personally, I am attracted to women and have sometimes been tempted by women—That fact alone does not make it sin. Even Jesus was tempted in all points as we are—yet without sin. So when a man is attracted to or tempted by another man, or when a woman is attracted to or tempted by another woman, that by itself is not sin.
There is a difference between attraction and lust. Lust has to do with strong desire that one chooses to focus and dwell upon. I think it was Martin Luther who once said, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building nests in your hair. Both gay and straight people can choose what they focus on and lust after. They do not always choose to whom they are attracted. There is nothing, therefore, inherently sinful about a celibate homosexual. In fact, a Christian who is attracted to people of the same sex, but who refrains from sex with people of the same sex out of a deep love for Christ should be commended for his or her dedication to Christ!
In addition, there is also nothing inherently sinful about same-sex love that is non-sexual. The love David and Jonathan had for each other is said to have surpassed even their love for women, which is saying a lot considering David’s attraction to women!
            Third, while there is nothing inherently sinful about same-sex attraction or same-sex love that is non-sexual, the Bible is very clear that having sex with someone of the same sex is not only sinful, it is particularly heinous to God. Leviticus 18 and 20 are clear that God even expects pagan nations to know better, and that he will destroy nations over the practices listed in those chapters. Those practices include sex with close relatives, sex with animals and sex with people of the same sex.
The condemnation of the behavior of sex with people of the same sex is not just in the Old Testament, it is repeated several times in the New Testament. The Bible is very clear—sex with people of the same sex is sin, just like sex with close relatives is sin or sex with people outside of marriage is sin.
            People have, of course, raised all kinds of objections to this position. First, some will admit that the Old Testament condemns sex between people of the same sex, but the Old Testament also says we should stone murderers and we don’t do that anymore either. That’s true, but the fact that we don’t stone murderers doesn’t make murder any less of a sin. Besides, no one is advocating the stoning of gay people (except in some Muslim countries).
Second, some will acknowledge that the Old Testament condemns sex between people of the same sex, but will argue that the Old Testament also says we shouldn’t eat pork, etc. The implication is that the prohibition against sex with people of the same sex, like the prohibition against eating pork, should be ignored. It is certainly true that The New Testament teaches that the New Covenant has superseded the Old Covenant in some respects (for example, regarding sacrifices, food laws, priesthood and ceremonial purity), but that does not mean that we can just throw our Old Testament out. We know that New Testament writers continued to believe that the Old Testament was valid because they extensively allude to and quote from the Old Testament as their Bible and final authority. Unlike the sacrifices or dietary laws, the fact that the prohibition against sex with people of the same sex is repeated several times in the New Testament makes it clear that this prohibition was not annulled.
We should also note that the context of Leviticus 18 and 20 is not about sacrifices, ceremonies or dietary laws. As mentioned above, it contains numerous sexual prohibitions including sex with close relatives and sex with animals as well as sex between people of the same sex.
Third, some people object by pointing out that Jesus never condemned
homosexuality. It is true that there is nothing recorded in the Gospels about Jesus specifically condemning sex between people of the same sex, but Jesus didn’t specifically condemn sex between children and parents, or sex with animals either. Jesus did, however, specifically condemn sexual immorality (e.g. Mark 7:21 where the word "porneia" is used; a word which can include homosexuality according to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament; Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1968, vol.6, 581). In Jesus’ culture all Jews, including Jesus, agreed that the Torah was their Bible. In fact, Jesus strongly affirmed and upheld the Torah (Matthew 5:17-18)—and the Torah specifically condemned sex between people of the same sex.
Fourth, some people object saying that Romans 1 is discussing idolatry. They argue that Paul is, therefore, discussing the kind of orgies that took place in the context of pagan worship but that he was not condemning loving same-sex relationships. That Paul was not condemning loving same-sex relationships, however, is simply asserted by the critics, not demonstrated. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that would lead us to believe that Paul would have approved of sex between people of the same sex in any context. That fact that he specifically condemns the practice three times—without qualification—shows that the critics’ objection is false.
While it is true that Paul is discussing idolatry in Romans 1, that is only a partial truth. The whole truth is that Paul is condemning the willful rejection of what may be known of God leading to idolatry. Paul says that as a result of this willful rejection, “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity” and to “shameful lusts” as well as to wickedness, evil greed malice, etc. The fact that Paul is discussing idolatry in Romans 1 does not  excuse any of the sins he lists in that chapter, whether murder, deceit, slander or sex with people of the same sex. Nowhere in the Bible is there any hint that sex between people of the same sex is acceptable to God.
            Fifth, another objection is that Romans 1 is about the behavior of the Caesars, not about loving same-sex relationships. Some of my arguments on Romans 1 above also answer this objection, but this argument about the Caesars ignores the fact that some relationships between an emperor and another man or a boy were undoubtedly loving same-sex behaviors! Paul still condemns the behavior, whether loving or not. Besides, there is nothing in Romans 1 about the Caesars anyway. That is something read into the text, not from it.
            Sixth, one’s sexual orientation is genetic—gay people are born that way. But the disputed question of whether people are genetically predisposed to being gay is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. From a biblical perspective, the issue is about behavior, not about sexual orientation or genetics. For example, it is not sin for someone to be genetically predisposed to being an alcoholic. It is not necessarily sin for someone to be tempted by drinking too much.  Becoming drunk, however, is condemned as sin in the Bible. Similarly, it is not sin to be genetically predisposed to being gay. It is not sin to be tempted by someone of the same sex. But the Bible teaches that it is sin to lust after someone of either sex, and it is sin to have sex with people of the same sex just as it is sin for opposite sex couples to have sex outside of marriage.
            Seventh, some people object saying that we don’t make other sins illegal, like adultery, for example. True, but this is a “straw-man” argument because the fact is that no one is arguing for making sex with people of the same sex illegal either.
            Eighth, some argue that people should be able to marry whomever they love. Really? Should the government also support or promote polygamy, polyamory, incestuous marriage or the marriage between adults and children? If the only issue is love, then the answer would have to be yes—In fact, some would say the answer should be yes. Others would say that this begins to make marriage, as the union of two people for the purpose of raising and supporting children, meaningless. At least one gay rights activist was honest enough to admit that making marriage meaningless was the whole point of the same sex marriage debate.
            Ninth, some will argue that even scholars can’t agree on the interpretation of the homosexuality passages in the Bible so we should avoid being dogmatic and judgmental on this issue. Actually, you would be hard pressed to find any subject on which all scholars agree. You could undoubtedly even find some perverted scholars who would say that having sex with children was OK! The fact, however, is that for more than 2,000 years virtually all scholars did agree that the Bible teaches that sex between people of the same sex is sin. It has only been very recently, when society began to push same-sex marriage, that so-called scholars have come out of the woodwork to re-interpret these passages to support their cause. Make no mistake about it—The Bible itself is very clear: Sex between people of the same sex is sin.
The real issue
Finally, the real issue is not about whether someone should be able to marry someone of the same sex. The real issue is about freedom of religion. In Oregon a Christian baker had been happily serving a gay customer for years. When the customer, however, decided to “marry” his gay lover and wanted the baker to bake the wedding cake, the baker determined that her religious convictions would not allow her to support gay marriage in this way and she refused. The state of Oregon pressed charges against her.
When gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, the public school system began promoting it. One Christian family did not want their children exposed to this propaganda and asked that their children be exempted from the class sessions in which homosexuality would be promoted. The school refused. The family sued. The judge determined that since gay marriage was public policy in Massachusetts, the family did not have the right to exempt their children from such instruction (the idea that parents have no right to exempt their children from state indoctrination on any topic should concern all Americans of any social or political persuasion)!
In Boston, a Catholic adoption agency that specialized in difficult placements was forced by the state to go out of business because they could not in good conscience adopt to gay couples. In Maryland a Christian camp faced legal battles with the state because they could not in good conscience rent their own privately owned facilities out for same-sex civil unions. A Christian family in New York also faced legal battles when they could not in good conscience rent out the facilities on their own farm (which they made available for weddings) for a gay marriage.
In yet another case a Christian counselor faced legal opposition when she declined to counsel a gay couple having relationship problems. Even though the psychologist referred the couple to another counselor who was open to gay relationships, the gay couple sued anyway. Similar legal battles were faced by a Christian photographer who could not in good conscience photograph a gay wedding.
            Chai Feldblum, who was the Obama appointee to head up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission once said that when gay rights clash with religious freedom there is virtually no case in which religious freedom should win. Several law school professors once wrote that the clash between gay rights and religious freedom was going to be a “train wreck.”
            It is very important to note that this issue is NOT about whether Christian camps, adoption agencies, photographers, psychologists, or bakers should serve gay clients. I personally don’t think it would be sin for a Christian photographer or baker, for example to photograph, or bake for, a gay wedding any more than it would be sin for them to serve clients who are living together outside of marriage.
This issue is also NOT about whether the government should be able to force people to violate their beliefs. For example, if someday the government passed a law forcing me to swap my gas car for an electric car because of climate change dogma, this would violate my belief that climate change is more political than scientific, but it would not violate my religious convictions.
The real issue, politically speaking, is whether the government should be able to force people to do (or refrain from doing) something that they sincerely believe would constitute sin against God! That is what the first amendment was designed to protect. There are always exceptions to any rule of course, (e.g. freedom of speech does not allow you to yell fire in a crowded theater), but generally speaking, a government is tyrannical that attempts to force people to do things they sincerely believe are sinful. This is just as true, whether we are talking (hypothetically) about a government that would force a Muslim grocer to sell alcohol, or a Jewish deli owner to sell ham, as it is about a government that would force Christians to promote homosexual behavior.
There is a very simple solution to this problem. If the government would simply ensure that any and all gay rights laws and regulations were also accompanied with strong freedom of religious conscience protections, the issue would largely dissolve. The fact, however, is that many gay rights advocates (both gay and straight) strenuously object to religious conscience protections, and such objections, in my opinion, are not only in opposition to the first amendment, they are fundamentally anti-American.
First, gay people are people for whom Jesus died—every bit as much as he died for me or you. Those who call themselves Christians but physically or verbally abuse gay people are like Pharisees, demonstrating that they really have no concept of God’s grace or the magnitude of their own sin.
Second, the Bible says nothing about sexual orientation. It is not necessarily sin to love, be attracted to, or tempted by someone of the same sex. Third, the Bible is very clear that sex between two people of the same sex is serious sin—so serious that the Torah said God would destroy nations over it. Finally, the real issue, politically speaking, is about freedom of religion.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Review of Aslan's "Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

 My article on Reza Aslan's Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, published in the Minnesota Christian Examiner, 2007.

Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan is a New York Times bestseller, and for good reason. Aslan is a brilliant story-teller. In Aslan’s story, Jesus grew up under the oppressive rule of corrupt temple officials and brutal Roman overlords. It was a time of numerous uprisings by Jewish rebels and would-be-messiahs who sought to overthrow Rome by force. All this helped to foster Jesus’ resentment and rage against the rich and powerful.

According to Aslan, Jesus shared the anti-Temple feelings of other Galileans and his preaching of the kingdom was “a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120). Armed only with zeal, Jesus was welcomed as royalty as he rode into Jerusalem and confronted the Temple authorities with his claim to be Jerusalem’s rightful king. As a result, Jesus was arrested and executed by crucifixion, which the Romans reserved for the most serious political crimes.

So if Jesus’ message was a call to revolution, why don’t the Gospels tell the story this way? Aslan’s answer is that the Gospels were all written after the fall of Jerusalem by Christians who didn’t know Jesus and were trying to distance themselves from the rebellion. They, therefore, revised the story of Jesus to remove the fact that he was a zealot.

I found myself enthralled by the story and even agreeing in many cases. I agree with much of Aslan’s historical background material (though not always with his “spin”). I agree that most Jews in Jesus’ day opposed Roman rule and that some actively sought to overthrow it. I agree that Jesus thought of himself as Israel’s Messiah and that he envisioned a literal kingdom on earth. I also agree that Jesus was crucified by the Romans on charges of sedition.

But while there is much with which I agree, my disagreements are far more significant.

First, just because Galilee was a violent province before and after Jesus’ lifetime does not mean that Jesus grew up preaching a call to revolution.  Imagine, for example, a book detailing all the violence of the civil rights era and arguing that Dr. King, therefore, must have been an advocate of violent revolution! Jesus’ peaceful message, like that of Dr. King, was “radical” because it was so countercultural.

Second, while I agree with Aslan that Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah, Aslan seems to think that this fact must necessarily mean that Jesus was a zealot intent on overturning Roman rule. Aslan seems unaware that many Jews in Jesus’ day thought the Kingdom of God would be established by the direct divine intervention, not by human violence. They need only wait and be faithful until God acted.

Certainly the Essenes were one such group. Interestingly enough, Aslan argued that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist who may have been influenced by Essenes. Yet Aslan doesn’t even entertain the possibility that Jesus agreed with the Essenes in their view that the kingdom would come by divine intervention, not by revolution.

Third, the extreme skepticism Aslan brings to the Gospels is unwarranted. He argues that the only two firm historical facts we can know about Jesus are that Jesus “was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.”(xxvii), and that this resulted in his crucifixion by the Romans. Aslan seems unaware that even most of the radically skeptical Jesus scholars believe that the Gospels contain more historically reliable information about Jesus than this.

More significantly, however, although Aslan says “there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus,” (xxvii) he builds his case on other facts in the Gospels that he considers to be reliable. It appears that Aslan is very skeptical of everything that undermines his theory but accepts everything that he thinks may support his theory. Unlike many serious Jesus scholars, Aslan never sets forth the criteria by which he determines what is reliable.

Fourth, Aslan’s creative writing skill is one of the strengths of the book, but it is also one of the most serious weaknesses. Many readers will no doubt find it impossible to tell where the facts end and the creative storytelling begins. For example, when Aslan describes Jesus’ followers as “hiding in Gethsemane, shrouded in darkness, and armed with swords” and adds that they “will not be taken easily” (147), the reader is led to imagine a well-armed band of resistance fighters hiding out in wait for the Romans. This impression is pure fiction.

In Aslan’s view the reason not one ancient source presents Jesus as a zealot is because they were trying to cover up Jesus’ true identity.  On the other hand, a second possibility might be that the reason none of our ancient sources present Jesus as a zealot is because Jesus—like the Essenes and other Jews of his time—was not preaching rebellion against Rome but was proclaiming God’s direct intervention. Jesus was warning people to repent in preparation for the day when God would directly intervene in human affairs to set up his kingdom.

This second option is precisely what the Gospels teach, it coheres well with what we know about first century Jewish groups, and it does not require extensive, speculative historical re-imagination.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Witnessing for Jesus

I recently attended a pastor’s workshop in which the leader—if I understood him correctly—taught that Christian witnessing is about telling what God is doing in your life.

Like many others, my life has often been filled with enormous emotional pain. When I was about six years old my cousin and best friend was walking behind a horse when he was kicked in the head and died. My best friend and brother-in-law was crushed in the back of the garbage truck he was working on. My two younger brothers died suddenly of massive heart attacks. My father-in-law died of Lou Gehrig's disease. 

My mom and dad both died of emphysema (and other complications) struggling for every breath they could get. My first grandson died during delivery. The pain of all of these deaths put together doesn’t even compare with other emotional pain I’ve experienced.  I suspect that if I shared with others that this is how God has worked in my life, they would say, “You Christians can’t even get drunk to ease the pain! Why would anyone want that?!”

I suspect that the workshop speaker was talking about sharing the good things God is doing in our lives, but that can be deceptive. Becoming a Christian does not mean that life will then be a bed of roses—it may become a bed (or crown) of thorns! The fact is that God often works through the trials in our life.

Take St. Paul for example. Imagine Paul telling people how God had worked in his life: Before he met Jesus, Paul was well-respected and rising in status faster than many of his contemporaries. After he got saved and started preaching Jesus, Paul got death threats in Damascus, Jerusalem and elsewhere. He was run out of town in places like Pisidian Antioch,  Iconium, Thessalonica and Berea. He was stoned nearly to death in Lystra, and was imprisoned in Philippi, Caesarea and Rome.

In Second Corinthians11, Paul summarizes what God was doing in his life saying that his ministry had resulted in hunger, thirst and sleepless nights. He says that five times he had been whipped, three times he had been beaten with rods and once he had been stoned. Before finally being beheaded he would spend years in Caesarean and Roman confinement—and we’re not talking modern prisons with weight rooms, basketball courts and TV’s. It was more like darkness, cold hard floors, and vermin.

Jesus taught that those who would follow him should count the cost—because it could cost everything! Those who leave the impression that following Jesus will solve all your problems are lying to you!

Telling people what you think God is doing in your life is hardly sharing the Gospel! The Gospel begins with the biblical teaching that “all have sinned and come short God’s perfect standard.” Our sin has separated us from God and places us under his terrible wrath. Paradoxically, however, in God, love and wrath coexist. In his love, God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, and endured mocking, beating and torture on a cross as a sacrifice to save all who would turn to him in repentance and faith (i.e. allegiance, loving devotion).

Following Jesus in faith does not always lead to personal peace and prosperity in this life. In fact, for many people following Jesus makes life worse—for some, much MUCH worse! But we follow a Lord who endured unbearable suffering for us. Why would we expect anything different?

Bottom line, being witnesses for Jesus involves talking about Jesus, not necessarily about what you think God is doing in your life.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What did Jesus look like?

What did Jesus look like? Unfortunately, no one knows the answer to this question but one thing we can be sure of is that he did not look like the image portrayed in art and movies.

Jesus was a Jew from Palestine which means that his skin was darker than those of us from Norwegian ancestry. Most Jewish men in Jesus’ day wore long untrimmed beards (think Duck Dynasty) and there is no reason to think Jesus was any exception. We don’t know how long Jesus’ hair was but I wonder if the image of a long-haired Jesus comes from confusing Nazarene with Nazarite.  Jesus was a Nazarene, i.e. someone from Nazareth, but we have no reason to believe he was a Nazarite which is someone who took a religious vow that involved not cutting one’s hair (like Samson).

Jesus was an itinerant Jewish prophet, which meant that he and his disciples traveled from town to town along dirty, dusty, and sometimes muddy roads littered with the droppings sheep, goats and other animals. Bathing and oral hygiene was a luxury that Jesus and his disciples probably rarely enjoyed. As a result they were often dirty, sweaty, stinky and may have had bad breath! In other words, the image of a nicely groomed and squeaky clean Caucasian Jesus with pearly white teeth is the stuff of pious western imagination. This much is pretty certain.

I’d like to press a bit further, however, and propose that Jesus may have been a physically large man. I would imagine Jesus something like a bearded Jewish version of Hoss (Dan Blocker) in the old Bonanza TV series, or Michael Oher, the Baltimore Raven’s tackle who was portrayed as a gentle giant in the movie, Blind Side.

People in Jesus’ day tended to be smaller than they are today so I’m not suggesting that Jesus was actually 6’4” or 300 pounds like Dan Blocker or Michael Oher. I am suggesting, however, that Jesus, like Saul in the Old Testament, may have stood head and shoulders above the rest—and was probably powerfully built. In the Gospels Jesus is described as a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). A carpenter may have made furniture. On the other hand, a carpenter may also have worked with large, heavy beams for building construction. The Greek word for carpenter could also mean stone-cutter. If so, it would mean that Jesus regularly worked with large stones. Working with heavy beams or large stones would tend to make someone quite strong.

Let’s adopt the idea of a large, powerfully built Jesus as a hypothesis. The strength of any hypothesis is its explanatory power and this hypothesis would explain several pieces of evidence in the Gospels.
First, it would explain why Jesus was attacked for being a glutton (Matthew 11:19). After all, no one calls a skinny person a glutton no matter how much they eat. Olympic swimmers, for example, may consume thousands of calories but no one accuses them of gluttony because they are thin.

Second, it would explain why no one is ever recorded as trying to stop Jesus when he overturned the money changers in the temple. If Jesus was just average size, why wouldn’t someone stand up to confront this man who was destroying their livelihood in front of their very eyes?

Third, why is it that the Gospels only record Jesus as having been confronted by groups of people—never by individuals?  Numerous times in the Gospels people get so outraged at Jesus they want to kill him, but no one ever dares to shove him down and tell him to shut up. Perhaps the Gospels just don’t record such instances, or perhaps Jesus mere physical appearance was enough to intimidate most would-be attackers.

Fourth, a large Jesus would explain a very puzzling story surrounding his preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. The crowd became outraged and “drove him out of the town” and intended to throw him off a cliff. Once they got to their destination, the text says “he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30). This could be explained as a miracle but there might be a more down-to-earth explanation. Suppose Jesus passively allowed himself to be driven out of town but, because “his time had not yet come,” he would not allow himself to be thrown off a cliff. Perhaps he then turned on his captors (maybe throwing a few of them aside like tables in the Temple courtyard) and then walked through the crowd with no one person daring to be the first to try to stop him.

Fifth, one might wonder whether his size was a contributing factor in his early death. Scholars have long noted that people generally survived crucifixion much longer than Jesus did. This could have been supernatural. After all, Jesus did give up the spirit—No one took it from him. Without denying that Jesus gave up his life, there may have been a natural explanation as well. For example, a person’s survival time on the cross may have been inversely proportional to the severity of the flogging. On the other hand, it could also be that Jesus’ size and weight caused his heart to give out earlier than would be the case with average size men. It could also be a combination of all three.

Finally, when Jesus was arrested, it was not by a few temple policemen but “a large crowd armed with swords and clubs” (Matthew 26:47). The perceived need for this crowd could be because Jesus was known to travel with a group of disciples, some of whom were armed (Matthew 26:51); but if Jesus was a big man who was powerfully built, it would make sense for the authorities to be prepared just in case of violent confrontation with the one who had just that week singlehandedly disrupted temple business.

One possible objection to this theory could be that being overweight is sin and Jesus was without sin. The western world today is obsessed with being thin but this obsession may be more cultural than biblical. The Bible never speaks in terms of being overweight. It speaks of the sin of gluttony. Wealthy elites would sometimes eat until they couldn’t eat anymore, and then induce vomiting—not because they had an eating disorder but simply so they could go back to the party and eat more, like a never ending Thanksgiving dinner! I would suggest that this is an example of gluttony. Jesus was not a glutton. Besides, I’m not suggesting that Jesus was morbidly obese, just big. Being a big man could open him to false charges of gluttony.

While no one knows what Jesus looked like, I would argue that it is more likely than not that Jesus was a tall, large, and powerfully built man. But so what? What difference does it make? Ultimately it doesn’t make any difference—or the Gospel writers would have mentioned it. On the other hand, a large powerfully built Jesus does make sense of some otherwise puzzling data in the Gospels.

But there may be a more practical implication. I would suggest that one of the biggest obstacles to men accepting the Gospel is the stereotype of Jesus as the meek and mild wimp. Few men want to follow a meek and mild wimp! Regardless of Jesus’ physical size, the stereotype is false. Jesus was no wimp.  Jesus was fearlessly confrontational and his bravery in facing even life-threatening danger was second to none. Nevertheless, the image of Jesus as a gentle giant like a Hoss or Michael Oher would be a much more evangelistically appealing to most men than an ancient version of Mr. Rogers.

Another practical implication is that the discussion itself may help to stem the tide of creeping Docetism—the idea that Jesus just appeared to be human. All Evangelicals believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man, but in popular Christianity the humanity of Jesus is often given little more than lip service. We sing, for example, of the “Beautiful One I adore” which is a wonderful song as long as we remember that “Beautiful One” was probably not the first phrase that came to mind when someone saw Jesus coming down the road. 

Without in any way downplaying the deity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus is important because we must never forget that Jesus felt those thorns on his brow, the lash on his back and the nails in his hand just as we would have. Jesus’ humanity was important because “he himself has suffered when tempted, [so] he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18 ESV) and he is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV). The humanity of Jesus is important because we do not just get our instruction for life from divine communication with the cosmic Jesus, but from the divinely inspired remembrances of the teachings of the real human Jesus as he traveled from place to place with his disciples. 

What Jesus actually looked like is not important. That Jesus was not only God but was also human is extremely important.