Sunday, December 25, 2011

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: Oswestry Christian Bookshop

The Shropshire market town of Oswestry, not far from the Welsh border, is plentifully supplied with chapels, both Welsh and English language. It is also the home of this rather charming little bookshop. Not only did they give a warm welcome on a rather wet Christmas Eve, but they have what every good Christian bookshop needs - a good, reasonably priced, secondhand section upstairs, well provided with comfortable seats for the weary shopper who has been strolling around Oswestry and marvelling at the town's many grand churches and chapels.

Oswestry Christian Bookshop is a nice bookshop. It is unpretentious, standing in a quiet side street and positively exuding a Christian welcome. Splendid little shop, it deserves a visit, and it has the great advantage of being in a town that also deserves a visit.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Should Christians Drink?"

This morning I received a copy of the 'Sword and Trowel' magazine from the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. While the magazine contains some useful material, every so often a hobby horse comes up. This is inevitable with a single editor, of course, but it can be unfortunate. This copy was a case in point, as it contained the 'distilled' version of Peter Masters' book Should Christians Drink?

Peter Masters is well known as an advocate of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks; which is fair enough, he is entitled to his opinion, and I am entitled to mine. I have no objection to total abstinence as a practice, and share with the total abstainers a horror at the level of alcohol abuse in our culture; where young people destroy their health with alcohol, we have a problem. Where we differ, perhaps, is in our response.

Peter Masters and those like him say that because of the high level of alcohol abuse in our society Christians ought not to drink any alcohol at all, and by implication that Christian parents should forbid alcohol to their children; this will be a great witness to a drunken society. On the other hand advocates of Christian Temperance (self-control) such as myself, while agreeing that Christians may abstain from all alcohol (which is why the title of Dr. Masters' book is misleading, the true question is 'May Christians Drink?'), hold that a sensible and moderate use of alcohol, avoiding the sin of drunkenness and refusing to be a slave to drink, may also be a great witness, displaying as it does a mastery of our desires, and a true use of God's good gifts.

The fact of the matter is that my mother drinking a glass of wine with her Sunday lunch cannot be compared in the slightest with a student getting drunk out of his mind on vodka, and it would be a most bizarre leap of logic from, "she drinks a little wine, I can fill myself with spirits". Perhaps it would be possible, but is not temperance really as much a rebuke as abstinence?

All too often the advocates of total abstinence have gone too far; out of a misguided zeal they have branded advocates of Christian temperance aiders and abettors of drunkenness, when we condemn intoxication as firmly and as absolutely as they do.

The great argument for total abstinence is that it is inexpedient, in the present state of things in this nation, for Christians to drink alcohol, since this might lead the ignorant to drink to excess while pleading the pastor's glass of sherry as a defence. That has some validity. What has more validity is the argument that we should be careful because of people who have had alcohol abuse issues in their past. What worries me is books that go beyond the argument from expediency to argue that it is now absolutely sinful. That and the appropriation of the 'temperance' label by the total abstinence camp as if it belonged to them alone. The great evil is being enslaved to alcohol, and that is what all Christians must oppose. To demand more than that is to introduce a needless division among the Lord's people.

Sadly Dr. Masters crosses that line in his book, as he argues that under the New Testament, because Christians are all priests, and in Leviticus 10:8-11 the Levitical priests were forbidden from drinking on duty. The trouble with this argument is that it tends to bring in the rest of the ceremonial law with it! If this law that related to the Levitical Priests is binding on all Christians, then what other laws relating to that priesthood are? All of them? Some of them? Should all Christians wear linen trousers at all times (Exodus 28:42-43, the Mormon 'temple garments' worn under their clothing come from this passage)? The whole argument is based on the premise that part of the ceremonial law is still in force, but part of it is not; and as is usually the case when one comes across such an argument, it is always the part that the writer wants to enforce that is in force, and the rest is not.

Finally, there is a false dichotomy represented by the title of Dr. Masters' book; the question is really 'may Christians drink?' The answer to that must be 'yes', because God has no-where forbidden all alcohol, contrary to the beliefs of some people. I am firmly of the belief that we are not to call that sinful which God has not himself called sinful; we do not have that authority. The Pope may claim the right to define new sins, I trust no Protestant will try to follow him down that path. If Jesus made wine at Cana in Galilee, then I need an explicit New Testament passage to tell me that it is now a sin for Christians to drink in any and all circumstances (clearly in a situation where it is liable to cause a brother to stumble it is wrong). Dr. Masters' argument ironically resembles hyper-dispensationalism in this respect!

Contrary to the statements of some over-zealous folk, alcohol is not evil; alcohol never killed anyone, its abuse did. The problem is not the bottle of wine, but the man who drinks that whole bottle in one sitting and then follows it with another bottle until wine inflames him. It is not alcohol that causes drink driving, it is irresponsible and wicked people who drink to excess and get behind the wheel.

Drinking wine or beer in moderation, so as to avoid intoxication, is allowable, for Jesus came 'eating and drinking'. It is not however mandated; if you feel that you would be a better witness as a total abstainer, then that's your decision. I'm having goose for Christmas dinner, you can have turkey, I will not judge your turkey, don't judge my goose. I may raise a glass of wine, you can raise your glass of non-alcoholic drink, I do not judge your diet at all! And let me say to those Calvinists who are over-zealous in their championing of wine, you do no-one any favours by opposing total abstinence. The fault is in the enforcing of it as a law, not in the observing of it as a practice. On this point we should live and let live, and advocates of total abstinence and of Christian temperance should work together against the dreadful evil that is drukenness.

Monday, December 19, 2011

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: The Christian Bookshop, Ossett

The great thing about independent bookshops is that they are all different; they have their quirks and their eccentricities. I come from a literary family (my father and my twin brother are both writers), and early learned the joy of the independent bookshop. Bookshops have their own characters and specialisms - no one person can specialise in all things, and no one bookshop can either. Quite often bookshops reflect their own background, just as people do; the former Anglican retains the Anglican stamp still, no matter how he may try to eradicate it. As for the man who is proud of his creed, how much more will he show it in his character?

It is so with this Strict Baptist bookshop that stands beside a Strict Baptist Chapel in the splendid Yorkshire town of Ossett. Between Huddersfield and Wakefield, Ossett proudly asserts its own character with its grand town hall and the soaring spire of its Parish Church, which has been mistaken for Wakefield Cathedral (by me!). Yet Ossett's greatest gem to me is the Christian Bookshop.

One enters a smart, light, modern shop on the ground floor, but if the shop is modern in appearance its theology is the good old theology of the Puritans and Reformers; not modern, and yet ever new. There is, I think, nothing worthless in this shop, it is all good stuff. It's the sort of bookshop I like, a bookshop that sells good books! The character of the stock is excellent, chosen with discernment and with more concern over what ought to be read than what the generality of Evangelicals are reading. What is lamentable is that so few Christian bookshops look like this.

Upstairs, however, is what I like best of all, a veritable Aladdin's cave of second-hand books; not cheap paperbacks (though there are such), but good old, solid books. There are many, many biographies in particular, many Strict Baptists, good old men who laboured in obscurity. The books reflect what a good Strict Baptist minister might have in his study. A man with a healthy bank balance might spend hundreds here, and any lover of good books will spend hours enjoying this excellent shop. Well done, say I, well done; there is at least here a Christian bookshop worthy of the name.

Six Books that Should Not Have Been Written (at least in the form they are in)

"Of the making of many books there is no end" says the Preacher, and while there are very many good and profitable books in the world, there are also a large number of really bad ones out there. Christians have produced a large number of books, and behold that the good are very good, and the bad are very bad! The thought occurred to me that it might be of help to reflect on five of the worst I have ever read, six books that ought not to have been written, at least in the form that they have. They are presented in no particular order.

1. Alexander Hislop: The Two Babylons.
First published in 1858 as an expansion of a pamphlet published in 1853, the great burden of this book is to attempt to prove that the Roman Catholic Church is not Christian at all, but is really just old paganism with a Christian veneer. In order to 'prove' his point, Hislop reduces all pagan worship to the worship of Nimrod, his wife Semiramis, and their son. In the course of this polemic the author denounces the very symbol of the cross itself as pagan. The root fallacy is that Hislop everywhere proceeds on the principle that similarity proves connection, which is by no means proven, and which has been shown to be false time and again. The arguments that he uses have been quite successfully adopted by such authors as those drawn upon by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code to 'prove' that all of Christianity is in fact derived from paganism. The book is utterly useless, moreover, in the Roman Catholic controversy, for it proceeds not on the sound principle of addressing what the Roman Catholic Church now teaches or believes, but on a speculative theory as to the origins of its ceremonies and symbols. The book is calculated to produce a great deal of heat, but very little light. What is more, it is now horrifically outdated in terms of the scholarship that Hislop replies on. This book stands as an example of really bad anti-Roman Catholic polemic that should have gone out of print over a century ago; only foolish fanaticism keeps it in print.

2. Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk
This is another really bad piece of anti-Roman Catholic literature that ought to have been consigned to the dustbin of history long ago, but thanks to certain fanatics with more zeal than sense, it can still be obtained. It purports to have been written by a young woman who was an escaped nun, and in it she talks about terrible things going on in a particular Canadian nunnery. According to 'Maria Monk', the nunnery was nothing less than a seraglio for the Seminary across the street, the offspring of the illicit unions being smothered at birth and buried in the secret tunnel that linked the two establishments. It is perhaps almost needless to say that the story proved to be a fabrication from end to end, and no evidence of its truth has ever been found. 'Maria' had never been a nun, but was almost certainly mentally ill. Even were it true, it would be meaningless; the problem with the Church of Rome is not that its priests and 'Religious' are particularly wicked, but that its doctrine is wrong, and that is what these sensational works almost completely ignored. If every Roman Catholic priest was an exemplary moral person, and every nun a loving and humble person, Rome would still be wrong!

3. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins: Left Behind.
Projected as a trilogy, the Left Behind series began publication in 1995. The success of the first novel led to the saga being spun out to an obscene length. These books are probably some of the worst Christian fiction ever written. I am not a dispensationalist, but I do not refer to the theology that underlies these books; the rapture doctrine could, if handled well, be the basis for a compelling work of fiction, but Left Behind is not that. It is badly written, has cardboard characters, and singularly fails to rise above the level of the mediocre at any point, usually remaining far below that level. Put simply, this is a bad book, and the first in a series of bad books. It evidences an astonishing lack of imagination, while the protagonists are unpleasant, arrogant men who remain unpleasant even after their conversions. Now, this might be fine if we were meant to think of them in such a way, but we are actually meant to identify with them. The storyline is constructed on the basis of a certain understanding of the End Times that its authors regard this timeline as set in stone and unchangeable, which is fair enough; the failure is that they have their characters decide that they can do nothing to stop Antichrist and that they should therefore work for him. The authors' thought-processes at this point are beyond my powers to explain, but suffice to say that they are wrong. The problem is that they locked themselves into a narrative style that meant they only tell us what happens to two main characters, who therefore have to be at the centre of things, and then they decided that both had to be 'good guys'. It would have been far better either to have an omniscient narrator, or to have one of the two main characters end up on the bad side (as happens in the vastly superior end-times novel The Clock Strikes).
I have put Left Behind in the list because it represents everything that is wrong with Christian fiction; cardboard characters, a smug satisfaction with being 'not as other men are', and a pedestrian style that makes events that should be exciting dull as ditchwater. Oh, and it lacks all imagination, for which it should for ever be consigned to the dustbin of bad literature. Christian fiction is all too often synonymous with bad fiction; brethren, these things ought not to be so.

4. H.D. Williams: The Attack on the Canon of Scripture
This book is one of those where you read it with increasing irritation because it could have been a good book! There really is a modern-day attack on the Canon, as witness the arguments of the Jesus Seminar, and the arguments put forward by such men as Bart Ehrman, and there is a call for a good book on the subject; this is not it. No, this is a bad King James Only book by a man who does not understand the issue; it is not really about Canon Criticism at all, but textual criticism, it mixes up the question of the canon with the question of the text. The King James Onlyist is simply not equipped to deal with Ehrman. This is a missed opportunity.

5. Gail Riplinger: New Age Bible Versions
If anyone is surprised that I have included this book, then they ought not to be; my antagonism to Mrs. Riplinger is well-known. The reason for this is that she is a liar, and I have proven it (see previous blog entries). In the course of this book she fabricates quotations to make it appear that men taught things that they abominated, and denied that which they affirmed. This is not a book of scholarship, it is the product of a twisted mind. Mrs. Riplinger has convinced herself, I know not how, that every modern Bible version is a product of a Satanic plot to usher in a one-world New Age religion. Convinced that this is the case, she has set out to find evidence for it, evidence she thinks is hidden in the modern versions and in the writings of those responsible for them. To her mind these versions and their authors are certainly guilty, and so she proceeds on that basis. The result is, of course, entirely unconvincing to all those who are not already disposed to believe her. It is mildly entertaining in an absurd and tragic sort of way, but justifies the verdict of many, even King James Only people, who have pronounced NABV possibly the worst Christian book ever written.

6. Gail Riplinger: Hazardous Materials
A book so bad that one of the men quoted favourably in it wrote a rebuttal, HazMat as I semi-affectionately call it, is huge, rambling, and at times baffling. Though I have not been able to find any repetition of Riplinger's quote-manufacturing technique from NABV in it, it is if anything worse than its predecessor. First of all, HazMat is formless; it has no real progression in it, but is a collection of loosely-linked sections with only one connection, Riplinger's conviction that the study of Greek and Hebrew is bad and dangerous. The book is hysterical in tone, not to mention conspiratorial. On one page we are shown a picture of Archbishop Trench of Dublin wearing a medallion bearing a St. Patrick's Cross, which is labelled 'Masonic' on the grounds that Mrs. Riplinger has decided that the 'X' is evil, apparently not realising that such a cross may be worn for other reasons (such as Trench's Irish bishopric). She accuses Trench of 'putting a serpent on his book', when it is really the logo of his American Publisher (she spends about ten pages on the question without once tumbling to this simple explanation, which ought to have occurred to her in a matter of minutes). Oh, and she cites Hislop's Two Babylons, always a mark against an author. Add a rant against Calvinism, thoroughly pointless discussions of Cecil Rhodes and the Knights Templar, not to mention a discussion of the the Pyramids that literally caused me to laugh out loud, and we have a book that is surely even worse than NABV, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", as the Bard would say. I list Mrs. Riplinger as illustrative of the very worst tendencies in Fundamentalist literature taken to their extreme.

These are my opinions, and frankly I do not want to hear from Mrs. Riplinger's supporters until they have explained why it is acceptable for her to create bogus quotations to sustain accusations of heresy against men. The Bible says "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour", and unless you really want to argue that that only applies to Christians and therefore one can lie as much as one likes about those one deems to be non-Christians (a wretched sophism that I hope exists only in my imagination and perhaps an old Jesuit work or two), Mrs. Riplinger has flagrantly breached this law over and over. She refuses to listen to those calling her to repent, and therefore must be exposed publicly for the purveyor of falsehoods that she is.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Sanctification of the Common.

In 1880 Bishop Westcott wrote; "There was a time when it was usual to draw a sharp line between religious and worldly things. That time has happily gone by. We all at last acknowledge more or less that all life is one... as citizens and workers we take our share in public business, we labour to fulfil our appointed task, because the love of Christ constrains us" (The Historic Faith P. 11). At around the same time Horatius Bonar wrote:

Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God,
In every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim
Thy being and Thy ways.

Praise in the common things of life,
Its goings out and in;
Praise in each duty and each deed,
However small and mean.

And further back George Herbert taught us to sing:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see;
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as, for Thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.
This is that famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own,
Cannot for less be told.

R.W. Dale of Birmingham wrote: "There is no occupation in which man can be lawfully engaged, in which he may not see God... He meant us to employ our hands in honest labour, as well as our lips in thankful praise" (Week-Day Sermons Pp3-4).

Dr. W.E. Orchard, in one of his sublimest prayers, writes:
"Teach us not to despise the life we are called to live, since it was given us by Thee. Teach us not to neglect the task of to-day because we cannot see its eternal effect. Teach us not to neglect the little duties which are training us for a great stewardship. May we remember that this life of ours has been divinely lived, that this robe of flesh and strange infirmity has been Thy garment..." (The Temple P. 51).

Let none despise the 'common things of life'. It has become fashionable for men to say that the Christian has to be a man of 'audacious faith', and that we should all seek to be famous. No, we should all seek that Christ should increase and we decrease. Westcott, Bonar, Herbert, Dale and Orchard have it right; Christ has sanctified for us the "common things of life"; the carpenter of Galilee served that rural population, and I am glad of it. Simon the Tanner was as necessary for the Gospel's spread as Simon Peter the Apostle; for Simon Peter needed shoes made with the product of that tanner's labour! And we have a whole book in the Bible, the Book of Ruth, that is about ordinary country folk doing what ordinary country folk do! I am so glad we do, for we need the ordinary country folk; and the ordinary town folk as well!

God's ways are not our ways, and the things that man values are not those God values; we look at "the rich man in his castle" and see not "the poor man at his gate," yet God may value the poor man at the gate far higher than the rich. Our culture lionises the idle celebrity, the vulgar and the profane, and despises the poor and the pious; but God sees things as they truly are. Oh that we might see things more as God does, and less as the world:

"We ask for no far-off vision which shall set us dreaming while opportunities around us slip by; for no enchantment which shall make our hands to slack and our spirits to sleep, but for the vision of Thyself in common things for every day; that we may find a Divine calling in the claims of life, and see a heavenly reward in work well done. We ask Thee not to left us out of life, but to prove Thy power within it; not for tasks more suited to our strength, but for strength more suited to our tasks. Give to us the vision that moves, the strength that endures, the grace of Jesus Christ, who wore our flesh like a monarch's robe and walked our earthly life like a conqueror in triumph. Amen." (Orchard, The Temple P. 121)

That is a true perspective on life from a man who worked on the railways and whose father worked on the railways; a working man turned pastor who knows the value of the working man, of the ordinary men who keep our world going.

So if someone should suggest that somehow Christians should not live ordinary lives, they are sorely mistaken; and I would suggest teetering on the brink of heresy. May we pray for them Orchard's prayer, "Teach us not to despise the life we are called to live..."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ecclesiastical Antiquarianism

I am not one of the 'New Calvinists'; as a committee member of the Sovereign Grace Union with shelves groaning with Banner of Truth books, and one who goes to the Banner Conference every year (apparently it's expected of the pastor at Bethel), I am most definitely one of the old Calvinists.

It is a fact (apparently) that there are various sorts of Calvinists; as more people discover the truths of Reformed Theology, the varieties of that theology increase, and these varieties are now cross-denominational. One trend that worries me is that a number of men are writing and speaking in a way that gives the impression that they believe the perfect model for a Christian society is 17th-century Holland.

One of the glories of Christianity is that it does not require a specific culture; while Islam tries to conform every culture it touches to Medieval Arabia, Christianity is varied in its cultural expressions, though united in doctrine. The Ecclesiastical Antiquarian (as I have dubbed him) disagrees with that, he sets up one particular culture as normative for Christianity and laments that we no longer live in that world.

Another sign of the Ecclesiastical Antiquarian is that he starts to adopt an antiquarian vocabulary; I do not mean in doctrine, for there is is a technical vocabulary there, but in describing other groups. In Medieval Constantinople the canons of historical writing were set by the Classical period, meaning that no vocabulary not in use then could be used, so that Arab invaders were called 'Persians' because the Arabs had not been foes in the Classical period. In the same way there are men who insist on referring to all Baptists today as 'Anabaptists', apparently on similar grounds. Do they call Muslims 'Mohammedans' as well? Times change, and labels that were used in the past (and never really appropriate, since the term 'Anabaptist' was used as a catch-all for diverse groups who agreed in nothing but the rejection of infant baptism) cannot be meaningfully resurrected today.

We live in a world where by and large it has been recognised that uniformity in religion is not desirable; it is at this point that Ecclesiastical Antiquarians are often least attractive, as they wistfully look back on a golden age of uniformity, forgetting that it was not so golden, and enforced by cruel laws.

The fact is that there never was a golden age; we look forward to that in the world to come.

Now, let me add that I am a hymn-singing, NKJV-using Independent who values our traditions, not some iconoclast who wants to introduce anarchy; but let us be moderate and remember that we are not living in the 17th century, or the 18th, or the 19th, or even the 20th.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: St. Paul's Bookshop, York

To deal with the obvious first, St. Paul's is a Roman Catholic bookshop; it therefore sells vestments, icons, statues and all that sort of thing. But the first thing one looks for in a bookshop is not its doctrinal position, but the obvious - books. It is truly depressing how many 'bookshops' today really seem to sell books as a sideline. Well, St. Paul's in York is not like that; it sells books. In fact the whole of the basement is full of books. Nor are they just Roman Catholic books; I saw at least one book by Martyn Lloyd-Jones down there in the new section. There is also an extensive and broad second-hand section; not as large as that in Barbican Bookshop, but then Barbican Bookshop is special like that. The books are well-presented, reasonably priced, and of good quality. The shop is quiet and conducive to browsing. What is more, the staff are friendly and helpful.

York is really a wonderful place for book-shopping and for sightseeing. Two reasonably-priced shops that actually sell books is good going.

St. Paul's is on King's Square in York, close to the Shambles. It is open Monday to Saturday from 9 AM.

Monday, November 21, 2011

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: Barbican Bookshop, York

The newest entry to 'In Many Bookshops' is an old acquaintance of mine, Barbican Bookshop in York, otherwise known as Wesley Owen, York. Now, modern Evangelical Bookshops have a tendency to be deeply depressing, a few books mostly by heretics, or just lacking all doctrine of any kind, and lots of junk. Barbican is what a bookshop ought to be - that is to say, it sells books. Lots of books! Arranged over several floors of the house in Fossgate, this is a peculiarly satisfying bookshop, and provides hours of enjoyment. Particularly satisfying is the splendid ascent to the large room of second-hand theological tomes at the rear of the shop.

I first made the acquaintance of this shop many years ago, but had no contact with it since about 2004, and feared it had either closed or changed its character. I found my fears wonderfully unfounded, and would urge anyone who can to go to Barbican Bookshop. What's better, the prices on the secondhand books are extremely reasonable. And best of all, it's in York, a lovely Medieval city.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Open Letter to John MacArthur

The open letter is a way of responding to another's statements that has been made infamous by Frank Turk over at the Pyromaniacs blog. He's the king of them, of course, and this will bear no comparison.

Dear Dr. MacArthur

I first came across your work when I was a young Christian at an Anglican college studying environmental science. Perhaps is defiance of convention, instead of drifting away from religion at college, I went from being a liberal Anglican to a Calvinistic Baptist. The Church at which I was converted had a small library, and the pastor under whose ministry I came to see my need of a Saviour from sin was a former Anglican curate who had become a Baptist. He was a great fan of C.H. Spurgeon, and it was through Spurgeon that I became aware of a man in California called John MacArthur.

There were two Christian bookshops in the city at the time, and in one of them (the more ecumenical one, ironically), I came across a glossy paperback called Ashamed of the Gospel. I appreciated the stand that you took then on the importance of standing for the truth, and even when a new edition came out, I kept my rather yellowed paperback of the first edition because it felt like an old friend. Your book The Gospel According to Jesus was an excellent reply to a heresy I first encountered in College, and while I would never describe myself as a 'fan' of yours (thankfully, horrible word to use in this context), I would say that I appreciate your ministry.

You probably know that I disagree with your eschatology, since I wrote a lengthy review of your popular commentary on Revelation Because the Time is Near, and I was one of those self-respecting Calvinists who was irritated by your claim that self-respecting Calvinists should be premillennialists, and your mischaracterisation of amillennial theology as 'replacement theology', but that's for another time. I have found your stand for the truth on the whole to be admirable.

However, just today, someone brought to my attention these words from a prayer of yours:
“This devilish conduct of infant Baptism has survived through two thousand years of church life from very early on, the third century, embedded in the fourth and still here. We could only ask, Lord, that the Reformation would be a complete Reformation.”
Initially I only heard it said that you had called infant baptism devilish, and I hoped that it had in fact been the Roman Catholic belief in baptismal regeneration ex opere operate that you were describing; sadly it proved not to be the case.

I understand that you think that infant baptism is wrong - I tend that way myself. But to call all versions of it, even the Calvinist version where infants baptised in infancy are not presumed to be regenerated, but are encouraged to trust Christ, and not admitted to membership in the Church without a credible profession of personal faith, 'devilish' is a rhetorical step too far. It preaches well to baptists, of course, but it really creates an unnecessary offence. the question of who are proper candidates for baptism is a secondary issue, albeit one that has been allowed (unnecessarily, in my view) to divide the Church. I am the minister of a Church that has an open membership, and I was pleasantly surprised to find how well that actually functions if it is allowed to. In this day and age, and I know you would agree, we need to contend for the Gospel, and baptism is not part of the Gospel.

You made the statement in the context of a prayer, and that is another matter that concerns me; statements made in prayer are not, the their very nature, backed up by exegesis. Perhaps you have exegesis, but prayer is not the place to describe those you regard as fellow-believers (such as Iain H. Murray, your Presbyterian biographer) as holding to a 'devilish' teaching, it appears to such as a slap in the face, and makes your more moderate Baptist brethren decidedly uneasy. It has also caused some extreme Presbyterians to crawl out of the woodwork and start declaring that Baptist Churches are not true Churches at all.

Dr. MacArthur, I retain a great deal of respect for you, but I would counsel you to remember that speaking the truth in love means treating fellow-Christians with respect, and that, it seems to me, you failed to do on this occasion. I salute you for your willingness to take a stand, but I am concerned that you are sending a mixed message here. On the one hand, you quite rightly receive Reformed paedobaptists into your pulpit, but on the other, you describe their views as 'devilish', while painting with a brush so broad that it covers both the Romanist doctrine of baptismal regeneration and the Presbyterian doctrine of covenant baptism; yet these are by no means the same thing, as you will see if you examine the relevant portion of a Presbyterian systematic theology text.

Please excuse my ramblings, and I remain your brother in Christ,

Pastor G. N. Charmley

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Plea for Fairness in Polemics

I have a large number of works in my library that may fairly be called polemical in nature, that is, they are written against a false or heretical position. These fall into two categories, those that are good and those that are bad. The good polemic is that which seeks to fairly and accurately represent the position it is seeking to refute, and that which is directed against positions rather than persons - that is to say, it is free from the taint of ad hominem argument (arguing against the person rather than the position). Bad polemics are stuffed with misrepresentation and ad hominem.

Not all that is called ad hominem is really so - for example, showing that a person has misrepresented a source is not ad hominem, because it is really germane to the argument to show that that which is claimed for support is no support at all. True ad hominem is an attack on the character of an opponent - for example, I am reminded of a case in a Church court where a man accused of heresy retorted that his opponent had an adult son who had become an actor. It involves bringing in matters about a person that have no relevance to the point at question.

On the other side is misrepresentation. It is very easy to accuse a person or group of holding to positions they repudiate, or doing things that they do not do. To give a current example, it is no good policy to argue against Harold Camping that he is a dispensationalist, because he is not; though his eschatology included dispensationalist elements, it was in fact a form of amillennialism. I have heard someone say of Mormonism "they do not believe in the deity of Christ", of course they do - they simply re-define deity, being polytheists.

Misrepresentation comes in many forms, from the simple making of false claims without any evidence offered to substantiate them to the use of mutilated and out-of-context quotations, followed by a statement "and so you see that such-and-such believes this." Somewhere in the middle of these two is the drawing of false inferences from quotations. So, for example, In New Age Bible Versions, Gail Riplinger (P. 304) quotes Westcott's words "Christ was and is perfectly man" as if they somehow substantiate the claim that Westcott did not believe in the deity of Christ; that is a false inference, inferring from "Christ was and is perfectly man" 'and therefore not God', although the inference is monstrous and heretical, for if it follows from Christ being perfectly man that he cannot be perfectly God, then there can be no incarnation. Lest I be misunderstood, let me say that she at no point proves that Westcott himself felt a true incarnation of deity to be impossible, and therefore this false inference is mere smoke and mirrors.

Often false inferences are made by taking obscure quotations out of context, and then building on them structures that their foundations will not and cannot support. So to give another example from Riplinger (who I consider one of the worst polemicists I have ever read), on P. 313 of NABV, she argues that Westcott did not identify the historic Jesus with 'Christ'. This is shown to be patently false by the foregoing quotation "Christ was and is perfectly man", where 'Christ' is used expressly of the man. It is also formally refuted by the following quotation:

"Popular Christology is largely though unconsciously affected by Cerinthian tendencies. The separation of Jesus, the Son of Man, from Christ, the Son of God, is constantly made to the destruction of the one, indivisible Person of our Lord and Saviour." - B.F. Westcott, 'Commentary on the Epistles of St. John' P. xxxvi

Note that the only thing Westcott can be saying there is that Jesus is the Christ, and that the sort of separation that New Age heretics and false teachers make between Jesus and 'The Christ' is a destructive falsehood. The misrepresentation is of a common type: rather than going to a place where a writer is expressly treating a subject, you take a quotation that is not addressing the subject at all and present it as if it is. While this will have no effect at all on the discerning reader, who will look up your reference and marvel at your deceit, it will confirm the prejudices of the ignorant. Thus according to Riplinger, Westcott denied the deity of Christ, the sinlessness of Christ, and the unity of the person of Christ. In fact he affirmed all of these things explicitly, something that no reader of his works could ever doubt.

The use of ad hominem and misrepresentation may work well in a play to the gallery or to convince the ignorant, but in the long run it can only be destructive, firstly because it makes refutation a lot easier than patient work and careful attention to detail. The careless polemicist actually does most of his opponent's work for him, by lining up an easy row of targets to shoot at. It makes Christians look foolish, ignorant, and nasty. Lies are from the Devil, for he is the father of lies, and the children of God cannot, must not, do the devil's work.

It will be interesting to see if the Riplinger Defence League shows up. If they do, may I ask them to explain to me how fabricating quotations out of snippets taken from different books is consistent with Christianity. I confidently expect no reply to this request.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is Mormonism a Cult? -1

Is Mormonism a cult? That is q question that has been raised by a recent event during the Republican primaries in the United States of America. In a series of posts I hope to address this question.

First of all, however, we need to ask the very important question, what do we mean by a cult? The website Cultwatch has a helpful couple of definitions of the word. The first is the 'Modern' definition of a cult, that is the meaning of the word as it is understood in our culture.
"The modern definition of "Cult" refers to any group that uses manipulative psychological “Mind Control” techniques to recruit and control their members"

The second definition is the older one that is generally intended when people call Mormonism a cult:
"The historical definition of a cult is any group, which claims to be a Christian group yet teaches something that is not primarily a Christian belief."

Clearly we have to be careful what we mean by a cult, but also how that word is understood by other people. I would suggest that most people outside of conservative evangelical churches are operating with what Cultwatch calls "the modern definition."

Now, Mormonism is certainly a 'cult' according to the "historical definition", it is a religious group that claims to be Christian but whose teachings are in contradiction to historic Christian beliefs, a claim that I hope to show to be true in future posts. It is certainly not a cult by the 'modern definition'. While early Mormonism certainly exercised a great degree of control over its members, modern Mormonism (by which I mean the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) does not. There are liberal Mormons who acknowledge that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith and was not translated from any gold plates; and these liberal Mormons are still members in good standing of the LDS church and teachers - a thing that no cult according to the modern definition could do. Thus we should not call Mormonism a cult to those whose primary or only understanding of the word is the modern definition, because it would lead to misunderstanding, and gives the impression that we are saying things about Mormonism that are not true.

Before the reader is tempted to anathematize me, let me re-iterate, according to the historical definition, it is a cult. It is a non-Christian religion that uses Christian terminology. If you like, it is a Christian deviation. The core beliefs of Mormonism are utterly inconsistent with the teachings of historic Christianity, and this is why we cannot accept Mormons as Christians.

God willing, I shall start addressing the reason I say this in the next post.

[Please note that I am addressing only the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, not any Mormon splinter groups such as the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Israel, or the Church of Jesus Christ Restored 1830]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees

"Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees", Jesus said. The Pharisees in the Gospels are characterised by self-righteousness and legalism, they believed that they had a righteousness that was pleasing to God from their observance of the law and they looked down on others because of it.

And that is what we need to beware of. The tendency comes in so many forms, a pride in our right doctrine as opposed to the fellows down the road who don't have it, a pride in our standing apart from the ecumenical movement, even a pride in our separation from those Churches that do not separate from error.

Do not misunderstand me, doctrine is important - but if we know the truth, then it is because we have been led to see it by God, it is not because we are smarter than others. Indeed, there are many really smart people who are atheists! You have nothing that you did not receive, and therefore you have nothing to boast about.You did not open your own eyes, God opened them for you.

Not having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness is important. There are many churches today that are not actually churches at all because Christ is not preached there - and there, but for the grace of God, we go. Again, it is Christ who keeps his people, we do not keep ourselves, and therefore the fact that we are not involved in such things as the ecumenical movement is a reason to fall on our knees and thank God, humbly, that he has kept us from being deceived.

The Pharisees earned their name from their desire to stand apart from the world - the name means 'separated ones'. There is much that is commendable in that desire, but sadly it took the wrong form. In their zeal to be 'separate' they added to the Law of God.

One of the worst manifestations of legalism is when a Church adds to the law of God. There is a story told of John Wesley, how he met a man who had been influenced by Russian Orthodoxy. The man said to Wesley words to the effect, "Mr. Wesley, you are a godly man full of zeal, one thing thou lackest - grow a beard." For this man, only men with beards could be saved.

The Bible condemns all those who said that "unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Now, God actually commanded circumcision under the Law, and yet those who forced that upon the Churches are condemned. What shall we say then to those who impose a law that God has not spoken? The man Wesley encountered was a legalist of that type, a man who has an extra-Biblical law that he wants to impose on others.

And now let me be controversial: teetotalism is not commanded in the Bible. That means that to tell a person "unless you abstain from all alcoholic beverages you cannot be saved" is to fall under the condemnation of the legalist. Now, the Bible is quite clear that drunkenness is a sin, being intoxicated with alcohol is wrong. But alcohol itself is never forbidden by God. I recently had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of an hysterical tirade from a man on the internet who, because I would not agree with him that alcohol is in and of itself evil, called me a false shepherd. That is the leaven of the Pharisees.

Modern myths notwithstanding, Jesus made alcoholic wine at the wedding at Cana - it is clear from the passage that the wedding took place shortly before Passover, but the grape harvest in Israel does not begin until July, and so there was no fresh grape juice available. Grape juice naturally ferments when stored, and the technology to pasteurize it was not available in ancient Israel, thus they had been drinking alcoholic wine before it ran out, and what Jesus made was like that which they had been drinking already.

Before someone accuses me of saying that Jesus was encouraging drunkenness, I should add that a wedding feast would have a very large number of people - commonly whole villages took part - and that this is in the context of a culture with a strong taboo against drunkenness.

Now, I am not saying "unless you drink alcohol you cannot be saved", that would be silly. Rather I am saying let he who drinks in moderation do it to the glory of God, and let he who abstains do it to the glory of God. But let neither judge the other in respect of drink, knowing it is to God, and not to you, that the other answers. Do not bind the conscience of the moderate drinker or the total abstainer. Tell the drunkard that he is mocking God by his act, and tell the legalist that he is taking God's name in vain. Let every man be persuaded in his own mind, and then let him do what he will, within the limits that God really has prescribed.

Beware of legalism. It kills. I have used the absolute forbidding of alcohol as an example, but there are many others. We are not wiser than God, and to order abstinence where God has ordered restraint is sinful.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jacques More, "Serious Mistranslations of the Bible" - first thoughts.

A friend of mine has asked me to review Jacques More's book Serious Mistranslations of the Bible (2011, Jarom Books) for him, and I have agreed. A book with a title like Serious Mistranslations of the Bible is setting out to be controversial. After all, at least by implication More is saying that at least the vast majority of English Bible translations contain "serious mistranslations'.

But Jacques More is not the sort of man to shy away from controversy. A former motor-mechanic turned theologian, he began his career as a Christian author with Will There be Non-Christians in Heaven? in which he argued that there are those among non-Christians who are already born-again (See here). His second book argues that Church leadership should not be exclusively male, and his third book was an anti-Calvinist tract called So You Think You're Chosen? In many ways Serious Mistranslations is a sequel to these books, or perhaps a re-issuing of some of the material in these books in an expanded form. Thus it begins with a discussion of the Greek word eklektos, translated 'Elect' in many passages. More argues that it has been persistently mistranslated since the time of Augustine, and that its primary meaning should refer to quality rather than choice.

A quick check of every major committee-written English translation that I possess (KJV, RV, RSV, NASB, REB, ESV, NKJV and NIV), shows that none of them favour More's translation. Left to itself this would be an argument from authority and therefore possibly fallacious, but rather it should be a pause for thought. More is not a Greek scholar, he is a student of New Testament Greek. His book is worryingly lacking in footnotes for a volume that throws doubt on the truthfulness of all English Bible versions. This worries me. I have only begun to read it, but it seems that More's method of dealing with passages that he disagrees with is to claim that they are mistranslated by practically everyone else.

Perhaps it is the format of the book, but it certainly gives the impression that More deals with words alone, and without due attention to context, perhaps as a result of his education. I have a great deal of experience of godly people adopting word-study fallacies where they obtain the meaning of a word in one place from its meaning in another, rather than seeking the meaning of a word in its immediate context. I am no expert in Greek - but neither is More.

The man on his own may be right, but he needs to offer compelling arguments. In the interests of full disclosure, may I add that I am somewhat biassed against books like this one that are self-published, since they have not had to pass an editorial pen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Defamation of Religions"

The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) has been pressing (link) for "defamation against religions" to be placed on the United Nations' Human Rights agenda. The trouble here is that it is not overly clear about what this means.

We have seen Pakistan's blasphemy laws used as a blunt instrument against Christians, usually by people with a personal grudge. There are even some Muslims who feel that the central claims of Christianity are an 'insult to Islam', because if the New Testament as we have it today is true, then various claims of the Qur'an are, it follows, false. If Jesus is the eternal Son of God and not just a human prophet, then the Qur'an is wrong when it claims he is not. If Jesus died on the cross, then it follows that the Qur'an is wrong. And if the Qur'an is wrong, then it is not the word of God. At this point the sensible thing to do would be for us to reason together - but it has always been easier to use violence, as centuries of history have taught. And it's not just Muslims, it is found in Christendom as well, Roman Catholics against Protestants and State Churches against Nonconformists. The book of Acts records cases where Jewish and pagan leaders used violence in an attempt to silence opposition - it is always easier to do that than it is to allow true religious freedom.

Not that there is not such a thing as defaming a religion. The first example that comes to mind is the infamous 'Blood Libel" against the Jews, first invented in the Middle Ages. The Blood Libel is the idea that the blood of a Gentile child is part of the ingredients of the Passover matzos - a claim that is patently ridiculous in the face of the prohibition against eating blood that all Jews observe! There have been many lies told about religious groups with the intention of creating hatred against them, and there still are. A few examples that come to mind are the ancient claims that Christians were cannibals (probably based on a misunderstanding of the Eucharist) and committed incest (probably misunderstanding the Christian practice of calling one another 'Brother' and 'Sister'. Paul says that the Apostles had the right to have "a sister as wife', meaning freedom to marry a Christian woman). Modern claims that come to mind include one saying that all Muslim men have to kill a non-Muslim to be considered truly men, and that human sacrifices take place in Mormon temples. These lies really are defamation, and should be punished first of all by society - we should refuse to listen to them and treat those who maliciously repeat such claims as the troublemakers they are.

But to restrain religious freedom - and as an inheritor of the traditions of English Nonconformity wish to extend that freedom as far as possible - because one religious group is upset by another religious group's claims is frankly tyrannical. I do not like the claims of Islam about Jesus, God and the Bible - but they have the right to teach them, and I have the right to challenge them. I find the teachings of Mormonism about God frankly pagan - but I am very glad that they have the freedom to build their temples, as I have the right to give good and true reasons why Mormonism is not Christianity. My feelings - and your feelings - must not be made the basis of restrictive laws. Christianity is not spread by the sword in any way, and the truth will be triumphant over error in a fair contest.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Thoughts on the Atrocity in Norway

We have all been shocked by the terrible crime committed in Norway last week. Anders Behring Breivik, previously an unknown man holding extreme and murderous political views, planted a bomb in Oslo before traveling to an island retreat where the youth wing of the governing party was holding a camp. The details are well-known as to what he did next.

It is quite plain what Christians are to think of such actions. The Bible is abundantly clear that "You shall not commit murder." Yet a word is perhaps necessary since Breivik claims to be a Christian.

That profession is quite false, he claims to be a disciple of Jesus, but Jesus "went around doing good". Jesus did not come to destroy, but to save, and in John 18:36 Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight." So, then, it is clear that a man who seeks to kill people is not a Christian, and cannot be. No murderer can inherit eternal life unless he first repents and believes in Jesus. Breivik is unrepentant, he is therefore still lost and in the gall of bitterness.

He is described by the press as "a right-wing Christian extremist." He is not a Christian, whatever he may claim, because he ignores the law of God. He is said to believe he is in a war. I have my suspicions that Breivik may be insane, but the reality of the matter is that he is not in a war. He is not a soldier except in his own imagination, and he has no warrant for committing the crime that he has committed.

Christians follow the Prince of Peace. No man does God a service by murder, whatever he may think, and the man who kills in Jesus' name is committing an act of blasphemy as he does so. "You shall do no murder" still stands in the Law of God, and the man who says, "I love God" but does not love his neighbour is a liar.

The message of Christianity is the Gospel, the word means Good News. Breivik's twisted ideology is one of hate, and is good news to none. I sincerely doubt whether he even knows the meaning of the word grace, or the meaning of love. For God's love is self-sacrificial, it is the love of Jesus dying on the cross to take away sin. And there is grace even for Anders Behring Breivik if he repents of his sins and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ.

He is no Christian who commits murder. But we follow a Christ who was murdered, and who prayed for his killers, "Father, forgive them."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why Harry Potter is not a Danger

Well, here it is, the final film in the popular Harry Potter series is out. And with it comes the final flourish of anti-Potter hysteria among Christians. Let it be said that it is not everyone's cup of tea - this is a story of good versus evil, and the evil is seriously evil. Characters die in this film, there is fighting in it.

But the claims that Harry Potter is a danger to children, and the books and films are somehow teaching the occult are frankly fallacious. Yes, the stories are set in a fantasy world where magic as depicted in English folk-traditions is real. But that's just it, to J.K. Rowling, author of the series, those stories are not real, they are fantasy. The world of Potter does not exist - and no-one in their right mind would say that it does. Yes, in the novels that world exists alongside of ours, but in reality it does not - any more than any other parallel-world fantasy does.

The novels cleverly merge two genres, the genre of fantasy literature and the old British genre of the boarding-school novel. They aim to do one thing - to tell a good story. They chart the journey to adulthood of Harry Potter, the central character, and his friends. In the stories he overcomes the opposition of various evil characters, and finally has to face Lord Voldemort, the most evil wizard of all time. And Voldemort is satisfyingly evil as well, a man who has de-humanised even his own appearance.

What about the magic? Simply put, it is mechanical, and magic powers are something a person is either born with or is not born with - one cannot acquire magic abilities. Thus Hogwarts, the boarding school in the books, is a school where those with magic powers learn to use the powers they have, not a school where people learn to do magic. We might indeed say that magic in Harry Potter is like mutant abilities in X-Men - you're born with it. Hogwarts is like Xavier's Institute, a place where those with powers learn how to use those abilities.

The fictional magic of Harry Potter is a matter of those magic people saying the right words, often in just the right tone with the right accentuation. It is not the invoking of demons or spirits to do one's bidding, something that is a constant feature of genuine occultism. In fact the magic of Harry Potter is not religious at all - it may surprise some to learn that the only genuinely religious imagery in the books is Christian. Neopaganism, the New Age movement, and Wicca, are religious bodies, and practice a form of nature-religion, often with a feminist slant. There is no sign of that at all in Harry Potter. Magic is a tool in these books, not a religion, the Wizards and witches of Harry Potter are a race of people, not a religious body.

It is true that some Neopagan groups have used Harry Potter as a recruiting tool, but then Mormonism tries to use the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis for the same ends, even putting out a book arguing that Lewis unknowingly taught Mormonism. The abuse of a book for propaganda purposes tells us far more about the one abusing it than it does about the book itself.

There are those who argue against fantasy literature using Genesis 6:5, which reads in the KJV:

"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."

But this is to misuse the King James Bible. The word 'Imagination' in 1611 did not have the same restricted meaning as it has today. Thus the New King James translates the same passage as:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The word 'Intent' has taken the place of 'Imagination', and that with good reason. The text is not simply saying that the ante-diluvians were taken up with fantasy about wickedness, but they were taken up with thoughts of wickedness. It is certainly not saying that the faculty of imagination is more depraved than any other - if it were, then the text would either imply that all fiction is full of wickedness, which is demonstrably wrong, or it would be warning us against all fiction simply because it is fiction, which makes no sense at all. The faculty of imagination is one we all possess, and may be used for good (as in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) or evil. Simply quoting Genesis 6:5 out of context does not accomplish anything. One must prove that a book really is evil, and that is what the anti-Potter writers have failed to do. They have shown that Necromancy is evil, and that neopaganism is false religion, but that is beside the point.

So what needs to be proven? That Harry Potter teaches wickedness. So another track is to say that the lead characters often show disrespect for authority figures and disobey them. That is true, but needs to be qualified. First of all, the Bible records men's sins without praising them, so why would someone insist that a work of fiction present perfect characters who never do anything wrong? That is calling for all fiction to be utterly fantastic in another way. Secondly, there are times when the authority figure is abusing his or her power - are we truly saying that authority should be obeyed even when it is abused? Finally, the highest authority in the school, the headmaster Dumbledore, is always respected and usually obeyed. He too is shown as flawed, but he is good. So there are both good and bad authority figures. Harry discovers (as all children do as they grow up) that even those he respects the most are not perfect and have feet of clay. But he still respects them.

And finally, in these stories good is good, and evil is evil. The quote that someone maliciously lifted from the first book and presented without context, "There is no good or evil, only power", comes from the mouth of Lord Voldemort, the villain, and is intended to show how evil justifies itself. But the stories show plainly that there is a difference between good and evil, and evil must be fought.

In the end, to read or not to read is for the conscience of the Christian, and personal preference. It ought to be left there and not lifted to a matter of principle. No-one can read every book in English, and no-one should be made to feel guilty for having read or not read. What is to be deplored is the misrepresentation of these books by certain Christians, and the conflation of all fiction depicting magic as if it were all identical.

Fantasy literature is set in a world that is not ours, a world where there are dragons and magic, a world it is really rather easy to tell is not ours. The real danger is the subtle teaching of an ungodly worldview in books, films and TV shows that purport to be set in the real world, where godliness is mocked and ungodliness promoted. It is in shows that claim to be reflecting reality when they must be a distorting mirror (real life is not worth watching on TV). My fear is that Christians are so concerned about the occult that they forget that a godless worldview is just as dangerous as a worldview in which all is thought of as divine.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It's not about Big Names

The celebrity is the phenomenon of our age. People were once famous for doing something important and/or heroic. Today the famous people are mostly famous for being famous. We have the distinctly unedifying spectacle of people who are famous for having appeared on a vacuous reality TV show, or having been part of a manufactured band. These are the famous - the celebs.

Now, while I find the whole thing nauseous, I find it all the more irritating in the Church. It is no accident that the most famous writers whose books load my shelves are dead, and have been for a while. They are also diverse. I do not buy into the idea of the Christian celebrity, it's all about Jesus, after all.

There are basically a couple of problems with the Christian celebrity. The first is that people tend to follow the celebrity uncritically. I am reminded of our most rebellious tutor at seminary, who set an essay on a passage that was designed to test this. The seminary was founded in part by a noted preacher of the last century, one who has a couple of multiple-volume sermon series' on New Testament epistles. This preacher had written on this text, but it was the opinion of our tutor that the famous man was in error. Fair enough - I think he was too. But the essay wasn't about that - it was about proving that we did exegesis of the text and did not just follow the famous man - or any other famous man - uncritically. Those students who failed dismally in the essay were those who said in effect, "The famous man said it, it must be true." The celebrity culture tends to lead to people uncritically accepting the famous man's views without actually examining it.

Related to this is the presentation of the celebrity as a modern saint. I have two biographies of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday. One is a whitewash, to be blunt. It covers up all his faults, and presents a very flat view of a great man. The other is honest without being a hatchet-job. We have faults - we all do. We are all sinners, and we need to be honest about that. The best of men are but men at best.

Jesus is not a celebrity. He is our Lord and Saviour, and the eternal Son of God. There is no room for a celebrity in the Church. And that means that you and I, dear reader, have to avoid making celebrities. "For all are yours, and you are Christ's."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reasons why preachers don't preach on Eschatology

Why is it that so few preachers today talk much about the Second Coming? In my opinion - and this is just my opinion - there are two main reasons.

1. Prophetic Speculation.
Well, I haven't taken a survey, but it is my feeling that the number one reason for this is that which Harold Camping represents - people who made predictions.

Now, of course these folk came from different regions, from the cultic fringe of the Watchtower Society's 1975 prediction to the more vague suggestions from the like of Hal Lindsay, who said "well, Israel returned to the Land in 1949, a Biblical generation is 40 years, and so we can expect the rapture before 1989." This of course led to excitement as 1989 approached, followed by disappointment. The result, however, was highly unfortunate - it meant that a lot of sane preachers were dissuaded from preaching on the subject of the Second Coming. Probably because I was converted in 1998, and had never been exposed to the sort of prophetic speculation that existed in the 1980s, I do preach on the Second Advent of Christ, and I have often heard people comment that "we don't often hear about that." Things were different before - but not very healthy.

Prophetic speculation is the enemy of preaching the Second Advent of Christ, and Harold Camping is going to have dealt another blow to Biblical preaching, as a new generation of preachers worry that if they talk about Christ coming again they will be associated with Camping.

2. Silly Controversy

Contrary to popular belief, some ministers dislike controversy, and there is nothing like eschatology to get Christians arguing. Now, I like a rational debate as well as the next chap - the trouble is there's a lot of foolish rhetoric flying around on all sides. To give an example, one chap has said in effect that "Harold camping is just a consistent amillennialist." I'm afraid that sort of language disgusts me. It's like saying that Dispensationalists believe that people were saved by their own obedience to the law in the Old Testament, or that R.C. Stam is a consistent Dispensationalist. It's just silly. Then there are those Dispensationalists who accuse amillennialists of holding "The Roman Catholic view" - and their counterparts who say that Dispensationalism is based on the work of a Jesuit priest. Neither actually move the debate on at all, they are cheap points-scoring tactics designed to appeal to the prejudices of one's own supporters. I'm afraid I have to say this sort of thing makes me very angry. This is an in-house debate, and can only be dealt with with care and sober minds. A disagreement about the timing of the Second Advent is not in itself a heresy. Jonathan Edwards was Postmillennial, C.H. Spurgeon was pre-millennial at the time of his death (having changed his views), and Calvin was probably amillennial. To make one's millennial view definitional of the Gospel is so wrong that people doing this has led people like myself to turn from the whole business is total disgust

But keep on preaching this: Jesus is coming back. In person. In the flesh, to judge both the living and the dead.

Prescription for Anxiety

This has rather surprised me. This is last Sunday morning's sermon. Preaching in the course through John's Gospel I came to the text "Let not your heart be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me." So the question presented itself, how to present it? Well, it seemed that the best direction to take the message was to major on the fact that Jesus was reassuring anxious disciples. The title, I confess, is influenced by a book (which I have not read) by Leslie D. Weatherhead, who pastored the City Temple in London during World War 2. Weatherhead was a theological liberal who was into psychology (he wrote at least five books relating to psychology). But this sermon has nothing to do with Weatherhead!

What happened next was that, in about four days it has become the fourth most popular sermon on Bethel's SermonAudio page, with over 210 downloads. Why? I must confess that the only reason I can think of is that the sermon deals with a topic - anxiety - that a lot of people take some interest in. Or as one might say in a cynical mood, post a sermon with a psychological-sounding title, and people will listen.

Now, I'm a preacher first and foremost. I'm not a psychologist, I haven't studied the subject, and unlike Leslie Weatherhead I don't have a degree relating to it. . I don't intend to practice it, and if you need psychological help, find a good Christian psychiatrist. And don't expect to find me preaching a series on "Psychology in the service of the Soul." That was a Weatherhead series!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why I don't think Barack Obama's a Muslim

A friend of mine recently e-mailed me a link to a video on YouTube which he feels gives evidence that Barack Obama is in fact a Muslim. I disagreed with him and pointed to Obama's social policy, particularly his advocacy of homosexuality (evidence here). This is not compatible with Islam, which punishes homosexuality with the death penalty. On the other hand there is one solution that takes all the evidence into account, and that is that Obama is a liberal protestant. I have heard a liberal minister in a British chapel say that "Christians should reverence Mohammed." There was no doubt that the man was not a Muslim, yet he used a service on Ascension day to bewail the fact that Christians did not accept Mohammed as a prophet. Liberals, as we have been reminded by the recent actions of the Church of Scotland and the PCUSA, are accepting of and even promote homosexuality. So, if Obama is a Muslim his promoting homosexuality is inexplicable, but if he is a liberal protestant - which, it must be remembered, is his own testimony - then everything makes sense, it fits.

The reply I received was rather surprising to me, it was in effect "he's hiding the truth". Given that Obama has actually said "I am a Christian", we would have to say that if he is really a Muslim, he is flat out lying most of the time and pretending to be a Christian with a foolishly high level of respect for Islam. We would have to say that he attended Chicago's Trinity UCC for many years as part of an elaborate deception. That make him more than just a liberal Muslim, it would necessitate the conclusion that he is really a villain masquerading as a liberal. It would require him to really be a radical playing a part in order to further Muslim ends. Now of course if you think that he is really a Kenyan-born Islamic extremist who has been systematically infiltrating the Democratic party to further Muslim aims to dominate America, that would make sense, but for myself, I find this hard to believe, given how flimsy the evidence is. It's on a level with believing that the World Trade Centre was not really brought down by a terrorist attack. If you adopt a conspiratorial view of history you can of course believe all sorts of things on the flimsiest of evidence, but I am not sure that this is a good idea. In effect that is to say, "Because of this tiny amount of evidence here (which can still be explained if he is, as he claims to be, a protestant liberal) we should ignore everything else as just deliberate deception and conclude that he is a Muslim."

I'm afraid I can't do that. It is incumbent on us to examine all the evidence, not just that which agrees with our conclusions. To dismiss his voting record on homosexuality as a deception, to claim that his record as "the most liberal senator" is a smokescreen, seems to me a little perverse.

The claim has been made, "well, look at all the things Obama's said about Islam!" Look at these quotes:

"America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity, and morality. This year, may Eid also be a time in which we recognize the values of progress, pluralism, and acceptance that bind us together as a Nation and a global community. By working together to advance mutual understanding, we point the way to a brighter future for all."

"Islam brings hope and comfort to millions of people in my country, and to more than a billion people worldwide. Ramadan is also an occasion to remember that Islam gave birth to a rich civilization of learning that has benefited mankind."

"Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith."

"We see in Islam a religion that traces its origins back to God's call on Abraham."

"All Americans must recognize that the face of terror is not the true faith -- face of Islam. Islam is a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. It's a faith that has made brothers and sisters of every race. It's a faith based upon love, not hate."

The answer, of course, is President George W. Bush! The quotes, with many others, can be found here. I suspect that for every pro-Islam Obama quote that can be found we can find a very similar Bush quote - yet no-one is claiming that George W. Bush is a secret Muslim.

I do not know why there are people I regard as otherwise sensible who wish to believe that Barack Obama is in fact a Kenyan-born radical Muslim masquerading as a liberal protestant born in Hawaii. It truly baffles me that anyone would protest that the Hawaii certificate produced by Obama is an obvious fake and then, in the same e-mail promote a couple of clumsy forgeries claiming to be from Kenya as absolutely genuine!If you dismiss the Hawaii certificate (and I am not entering into the question of whether that is genuine or not), you must also dismiss the Kenya certificates.

Conspiracy theories are a form of false world-view, whether they make the great enemy Islam, Roman Catholicism, or the New Age movement. Instead of dealing with the world as it is the conspiracy theorist interprets evidence based on the conspiracy - the conspiracy becomes to him or her the necessary presupposition of his or her thought. Thus the interpretation of facts becomes a sort of game, one is required to "read between the lines", to take sentence fragments out of context, and even to weave them together into new contexts, because the true "context" is the conspiracy. That's not how you do research, that's how Harold Camping was able to say that we can know the date of the end of the world.

And where do you stop? Logically you end up with a vast, world-wide conspiracy, everything that happens is orchestrated by them, and the conspiracy theory becomes un-falsifiable. The conspiracy theorist's world becomes a private construct in which nothing is as it appears. In other words, taken to their logical conclusion conspiracy theories end in madness. Now, I am not saying that all conspiracy theorists are crazy, because most people who hold to some sort of conspiracy theory are inconsistent at some point. It is, however, dangerous, partly because it leads us to take our eyes off the ball. All the world's evils are not the result of Rome, Jack Chick (Jack Chick thinks that the Roman Catholics invented Islam, by the way), there are atheists, there are secular tyrants. The world to more complicated - but God is on the throne.

I don't think Barack Obama is a Muslim because there isn't enough evidence that he is, and the evidence that he is not is far more compelling. That's not the same as saying he's a fine upstanding Christian man - he isn't, he's a theological liberal from the Protestant tradition. It's certainly not the same as saying I think he's wonderful - I don't. But it is to say that I cannot accept the conspiracy theories!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Challenge of Freedom

On his state visit to the UK, President Obama said that this is a pivotal moment for the west, as we see change in North Africa and the Middle East. It is a challenge, he said. Now, it is a challenge, but may I say that it is every bit as much of a challenge to the Muslim world as it is to the west. There is much that is encouraging about the recent fall of dictatorships in North Africa. There is also much that gives cause for concern. The word 'Freedom' is much in the air, but one is concerned that it has not really been grasped.

Writing to the Galatian Christians, Paul tells them, "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free." This sums up what H.J. Taylor, in his book of the same name, calls "The challenge of freedom." The challenge is to use freedom to promote freedom. The temptation of course is to regard freedom as something that I have, and must guard jealously so that no-one else obtains it because that would be inconvenient. That is simply to replace one tyranny with another, which is a disaster.

Freedom must mean the freedom to speak one's mind or it means nothing. There are points of view that I find utterly repugnant - to give one example, I am disgusted by the shallow and bigoted policies of the British National Party. I am disgusted by militarism and by racism. But at the same time, I would not wish to live in a society where their rhetoric was a criminal offence. Freedom means the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to say things that are revolting and even stupid. Obviously there is a limit - and that is seeking to overthrow freedom, to destroy liberty in the name of liberty. Without free speech, there is no real freedom.

Freedom must mean the freedom of minorities, or it is simply the tyranny of the majority. It is to feared that this is what many in Egypt think freedom is, the freedom of a Muslim majority to persecute a Christian minority. Now, this also means that as Christians we must be prepared to allow for pluralism, and we must resist the temptation (for such it is) to restrict the liberties of others. The Gospel does not win any victories by the sword, and Christ's Kingdom is not of this world. So there must be religious freedom - not an enforced secularism, but a state that is not the instrument of any religious party.

The challenge of freedom is to use it for freedom. I am afraid that I do not see it being used for freedom in Egypt and Syria, and unless freedom is used for freedom, it will end in a new Tyranny even worse than the first.