Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The second problem with modern anthropology

As we continue in Genesis, we see the second big issue that we have to face for a Biblical doctrine of anthropology. (Again, I'm using "anthropology" in its theological, not scientific, definition.) Chapter 3 unfolds the saddest story in human history: the Fall. Adam and Eve were created good, in the image of God, and given just one command to obey. Yet enticed by the temptation of the serpent, first Eve, then Adam violated that command. They did get what the serpent promised, a knowledge of good and evil, but only by engaging in evil themselves.

The result of Adam's choice was the entry of sin into the world, not only for Adam and Eve but for all of humanity. Paul deals with this in 1 Corinthians 15, where he compares the arrival of sin through the first Adam with the arrival of redemption through  Jesus, the "second Adam." Sin permeates all of humanity, and as a result all people are guided by a fallen, sinful, selfish nature that must be reborn to  be made right with God.

Modern culture tells us that people are all basically good, and that if we only provide the right education, finances, and opportunity people will behave properly and do what is right. The inner drive of humanity, according to this view, is to be good and to do right. We are good, and only become evil when we are deprived of what we need materially, emotionally, and spiritually, so if we make the world a better place all evil will end.

Here we can rely on empirical observation. As we see the news, read the headlines, and observe our family members, colleagues, and friends, which do we see people drawn to: doing what is right or wrong? Do people, knowing that certain behavior is destructive for them physically, mentally, and relationally, then refuse to engage in that behavior? Which do you have to teach a new baby to do: be good, share, and cooperate, or be selfish, rebellious, and self-centered? If we are honest, our observations show us that people are, at their very core, evil.

That's why there are laws, rules, and governments. Evil must be restrained. Good must be promoted. We won't do the right thing unless we are taught it and sanctioned for doing the opposite. Evil somehow manages to thrive despite all attempts to restrain it, demonstrating just how ingrained it is in the human heart.

Which view you hold on this issue sways what you believe about the need for God. If we really are good and can perfect ourselves, we have no need for any god, since we are effectively god to ourselves. But if we see our own corruption and selfishness, we will recognize that we need something bigger than us, even bigger than all of humanity, to change us and make us the good we want to be.

Unfortunately, the dismissal of the divine does not tend to make people better, but worse. This aligns with what we see in human behavior. It also underscores a need to seek for something beyond us which can bring about the kind of change we need personally and societally to make the world a better place.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The first problem with modern anthropology

Let me start by saying that here I'm using "anthropology" in its theological sense, rather than as the name of a discipline. Anthropology in theology is the doctrine of man. You could argue that those without a belief in some sort of god have no theological anthropology, but every worldview has some basic belief about humanity and the nature of humankind. Therefore, we need to examine if a belief system's anthropology aligns with what we see in the world.

I've been teaching the beginning of Genesis to the children in our children's church program at my home church. Chapters 1- 3 spend time explaining the nature of humanity, and there are two points that are made. On each of these points, Biblical teaching diverges from modern thought. In each case, I believe that the Biblical view is more concordant with reality than the modern viewpoint.

The first of these is first laid out in Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in his own image,  in the image of God he created him; )male and female he created them." Chapter 2 fleshes out the actual creation of man and woman, and the commission given to them by God. Theologians have argued for centuries over the exact meaning of the imago Dei, but all generally agree it has to do with a qualitative difference between humanity and the rest of creation. It includes rationality, self-awareness, and moral/ethical reasoning.

Modern anthropology sees humanity as just another animal, perhaps more advanced in its cognitive function but certainly no different than the rest of the animal kingdom (at least; some argue humanity is no more significant than plants, microbes, or even non-living things). If you start from an atheistic perspective, this follows logically. If everything evolved from nothing in a completely random, undirected fashion, in which the survivors were the lucky ones who were fortuitously adapted to conditions, then humanity isn't so much advanced as just differently endowed by nature.

From that viewpoint, the concepts of abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and even eugenics (of a mild or radical stripe) make perfect sense. If every person is not qualitatively distinct from animals, they don't deserve special protection and eliminating them can even be considered ethical in that those who consume resources while contributing little to society are a liability rather than an asset.

From a Christian viewpoint, if every person is created in the image of God, then everyone, no matter what their condition, is qualitatively distinct from animals. If that is the case, killing the inconvenient, the weak, and the "defective" cannot be justified. Every person deserves life, respect, and the opportunity to live life to the fullest extent possible.

I work with children, teens, and young adults with various special needs. To the world, these people are expendable. Some of my students will never leave a wheelchair; some will never communicate with other people; some exhibit behaviors that are societally disruptive. The way we handle those like my students reflects our view of humanity, both theirs and ours. My greatest fear is that someday bioethicists like Peter Singer will find a society conducive to their thought, and children like my students will be "allowed to die with dignity" without any choice on their part. (Don't dismiss this lightly; it's already happened, if only to a limited extent, in places like Nazi Germany and Communist China.)

Most people recoil from such thinking. There is something, I believe something innate, that tells us to value the weak, the sick, the poor, and the "special." Most of us hold to some form of belief in the uniqueness of humanity, even to some form of imago Dei, that prevents us from wanting to harm or kill those who are less than perfectly able to adapt to society. In our hearts and minds, we recognize that the Biblical view of humanity is closer to reality than the modern view; even if we don't believe the Bible itself, we recognize it holds wisdom on this issue.

A belief in the uniqueness of humanity is an "expensive" belief. It doesn't just cost us in money, but in time, effort, and resources to meet the needs of those who cannot fend for themselves. Yet to hold to the opposite belief is also expensive; it costs us our own uniqueness and place in the university, as well as disturbing our instinctive altruism. It also keeps a question alive in our minds: "What happens when society no longer values me?" (Those who propose the elimination of those who lack "quality of life" often assume that they themselves have enough to warrant continued existence.) In the end, the question is what price we as people want to pay for our belief in the nature of our own humanity, and the Biblical view more closely aligns with what we believe about our own selves.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Many years later...

OK,it's actually only about two years since I last posted on this forgotten blog. Yet rather than start a new one, I thought I'd come back and restart this one so I don't lose my past content. While it was written a while ago, most of it deals with subjects that aren't tied to the current events of the time. Perhaps some is still of value.

What do I plan to do with this blog now? Pretty much the same thing I did in the past. I want to write about Bible passages I study, theology, apologetics, and philosophy, and general observations about the world. It's surprising how much the questions raised by our world have changed in two years. I want to look at some of those questions even as I write about other aspects of my study.

I've also started to learn a new skill since I last blogged- American Sign Language. I'm not close to fluent yet (I have exactly one year of college study under my belt), but it is something I will continue to pursue. Learning a new language makes you think about concepts and how we express them, and forces you to dig into your own language a little more. I may refer to some of the insights I am gaining from ASL as I go along.

I don't expect a huge wave of followers, especially as blogging is one of those things that has kind of faded in the past two years. People are tweeting, texting, and Instagraming now. I just can't wrap my head around sound bite discussions. I prefer a somewhat longer form, and blogging is my "short" way to communicate. Even if only a handful of people read this, I hope it is helpful to you.

So welcome back to my study! I hope we can journey together through God's Word, a Christian worldview, and the way they apply to our world today. I am looking forward to keeping you informed periodically as we travel this path together.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Explore the Bible: Joshua 1:1-9

Explore the Bible: Joshua 1:1-9

One of the areas of study that fascinates me is the origin and transmission of the Bible. From its writing to its preservation, from its beginnings to today, the way that we have received the Word of God in writing is a truly remarkable process. The long span of time covered by the writing of Scripture- about 1500 years- is amazing in historical context. To put it in perspective, 1500 years ago there was still a Roman empire, the prophet Mohammed had not yet been born, the AD/BC system for dating had not yet been invented, and Christianity had not yet split into its Eastern and Western branches (and the Protestant Reformation was still a millennium away!).

One of the questions that arises when examining the history of the Bible is how the books that eventually were recognized as the official canon of Scripture were treated when they were first written. We have hints that at least some were accepted as coming from God at an early date, while others took a while for the church to fully recognize. Occasionally we find passages of Scripture that provide us with clues to this process.

In Joshua 1, we have some indications of the beginning of the recognition of the writings of Moses as an authoritative book of law (instruction, in the ESV). Moses had just died, and Joshua, as his assistant, would have had access to all that he had written during Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It’s even possible Joshua might have helped in the writing, as a secretary or amanuensis, but we are not told this in the Bible. Still, given that Deuteronomy is largely a long sermon by Moses, it isn’t hard to imagine that Joshua at least “took notes” as he spoke.

What we do clearly see in Joshua 1 is that the Lord instructs Joshua to take the book that Moses has written and to read and meditate on it daily. We break Moses’ writings down into five books, but as a collection they are called the Torah (Law) by Jews, and the Pentateuch (five books) by many Bible students. This book was now the guide Joshua was to follow as he took over the leadership of Israel from Moses. Within a few years of its composition, or even just a few weeks or months of the writings at the end of Deuteronomy, Joshua received the command to treat this collection as an authoritative source of God’s commands and instructions.

If this is true, then at least parts of the Bible were treated as Scripture almost immediately. This doesn’t fit with what some scholars suggest about the history of Judaism. They believe it evolved gradually over many, many years, and that when we see something that looks like an early acknowledgement of an authoritative Scripture that means the book in which we find that reference must have been written centuries later. Some go so far as to question whether Moses and Joshua really lived, or were just later legends conceived by the priests to establish what they wanted Israel and its kings to believe about the origin of the nation.

Now it is true that we do not have the original books of Moses as written by his own hand. However, some scholars believe that Moses’ original manuscript may have survived until at least 620 BC, when, during repairs under King Josiah of Judah, Hilkiah found the “book of the law” in the Temple. Moses had originally deposited a copy of the book next to the ark (Deuteronomy 31:26), and many believe this was the copy Joshua would have read, passed down for generations. While we don’t know how the book was lost, under these circumstances it would have been found over 800 years after it had been written! While this seems almost impossible, we have manuscripts today that have survived far longer and are still readable. I have seen fairly up close some of the Dead Sea scrolls fragments, which date back 2000 years, and although my language skills are rusty, I could definitely make out the letters and words on those manuscripts.

We do know that copies were made, and that the scribes who wrote these copies came to have very strict rules so that they could guarantee that they transmitted the words accurately. (In fact, some of these strictures are still applied by those who write out the Torah scrolls for Jewish synagogues today.) The Torah still guides the worship and practice of Jews today, and has a great influence of Christians as well. Given what we read in Joshua, the Torah has been seen as God’s Word and God’s Law for over 3400 years, ever since it was written by Moses and handed over to Joshua. The Bible began with the books of Moses, and has continued to hold its place of authority ever since, even as the Holy Spirit inspired more books to be written and added to Scripture.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Explore the Bible: 2 Peter 1:12-21

Explore the Bible: 2 Peter 1:11-21

The inspiration of the Bible is one of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity. While the doctrines of God and of Jesus Christ may be more important in and of themselves, since God is the source of all things and salvation comes through Jesus, without a reliable revelation of God we could never know the truth about God Himself. There is a certain amount of information about God available through what we call general revelation, the natural world and the inner conscience of the person, but that only helps us understand that there is a God and that we are not innately good. We need to know far more to be right with God, and only He can reveal to us the truth that we need.

2 Peter 1:20-21 is perhaps the clearest statement about the inspiration of Scripture in the Bible, along with 2 Timothy 3:16. The role of the Holy Spirit in “carrying along” the writers of the Bible gives us a good picture of the process. The Bible was not simply dictated by God and dutifully transcribed by the human authors (except for a few places where the authors indicate that they are writing exactly what God says), but the human authors wrote in their own words and styles while the Holy Spirit guided and protected the final product so it was exactly what He wanted written. The Bible is without error and authoritative because it comes from God, but it also is a collection of works that show the personalities and emphases of human writers over some 1500 years.

Despite being a clear statement of inspiration, the phrase “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation” has caused some disagreement among scholars. Some see it as referring to the original authors, with the implication that what they wrote was not merely their own ideas but the words the Spirit wanted written. Others see it as referring to the readers of Scripture, who cannot simply make the Bible say what they want it to say, but must be subject to what the Spirit intended the author to say.

When the context is considered, I believe that more weight should be given to the first option. Since the passage makes note of the role of both the human author and the Holy Spirit, and the previous passage deals with the reliability of the testimony of witnesses to Jesus’ glory, there is a definite idea that the authors of the Bible were not operating on their own, but that they were following the guidance of the Spirit, even though they may not have been aware of it at the time.

However, sometimes when a Biblical author uses an ambiguous word or phrase, he may have both ideas in mind. I don’t think there u\is anything wrong with seeing both of the explanations above as true, even if one is primary. The second meaning also is needed in our modern setting, in which so many people try to import into the Scriptures a meaning that the author never intended to convey (and in some cases couldn’t have meant, given his historical setting). Before we start to apply the Word of God to our lives, we have to know what it says, and to do that we need to know what the author wanted to express to his original readers. We can’t just twist the words of the Bible to say what we want them to mean and think we have the truth that God has revealed in our own ideas.

The doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible boils down to one question: is the Bible the true, reliable authority over our beliefs and practices, or are we the authority over what the Bible says? If it is truly God’s revelation, we have no choice but to submit to His authority. If it is not God’s revelation, then we can ignore it at will. Without the Holy Spirit, we will not see the beauty and glory of the Word. As we submit to the guidance of the Spirit, we will all that the Lord reveals to us, and put it into practice in our lives.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 4:12-19

Persecution is a very real issue for the church of Jesus Christ today. You’ve probably seen the videos of Christians being executed for their faith, or read the stories about the way Christians in some countries are being exiled from their homes and all they have. In places like that, standing for Jesus literally requires a believer to lay down his or her life for Him. As their brothers and sisters, we need to stand up for the persecuted church and the martyrs who are giving their lives for His sake.

In our culture, we face opposition, but at this point in time not at the same level. That doesn’t mean that Christians in Western society don’t face serious consequences for standing up for Christ. Some have faced lawsuits, some have lost businesses, others have been fired (or not hired) because of their beliefs. Still, most of our opposition at present comes in the form of attempts to denigrate our faith, to paint us as bigots of various stripes, or to try to shame us socially. These are uncomfortable, but certainly not risks that warrant abandoning our Lord and our faith.

Sometimes when we face opposition, we start to see everything as persecution. If anyone criticizes us, or finds our behavior or words objectionable, we think of ourselves as martyrs suffering for our Savior. When we do face opposition for the sake of Jesus, we should stand strong, but not overstate what is happening to us. But in some cases, Christians aren’t suffering because they are standing for the cause of Christ, but because they engage in genuinely objectionable behavior.

I knew a young man once who, as a new Christian, believed he was being persecuted for his faith. When I asked him about his “persecution,” he told me he was being reprimanded for sharing his faith and reading his Bible. As I probed a little deeper, I found that he was witnessing to his co-workers while he was supposed to be doing his job, and that he read his Bible not on break times, but while he was on the clock. I had to gently explain that what his company objected to wasn’t his faith, but his theft of time from the company.

Peter reminds us in this passage that when we are persecuted because we have done evil, we should not expect the Lord to reward us. We must stand up for Christ, but we must also be people of integrity. Perhaps that will bring us into conflict with what we are ordered to do on the job, and we may have to take a stand and face the consequences. Generally, however, we can be those who do our jobs, or live in our communities, with an honesty, integrity, and compassion that those who do not know Jesus can’t match.

When we do face opposition for the name of Jesus, Peter tells us we are blessed. We may not feel blessed as we stand up to the world, and suffer the consequences, but we must remember that this world is not our home. As followers of Christ, we measure what we have in light of eternity, and when our priority is to honor and serve Jesus we can stand, whatever may be thrown at us. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 4:1-11

The lifestyle of a committed Christian should look much different from the lifestyle of someone who is still living according to their own standards. Sadly, this isn’t the case in our society anymore. Polls about attitudes and practices consistently show that professing Christians, even evangelicals, live in a way that is barely distinguishable from the world around them. There is an attraction that sin holds that can tempt any of us to stray from God’s standards. The lure is the same as it was in the Garden of Eden: to be like God, determining for ourselves what we will do.

Peter reminds his readers that their lives have changed in this passage. The time that they lived as pagans in the past is more than enough time to have indulged in sin. This isn’t a comment on the quantity of sin that is expected of the unbeliever; instead, it is a comment that any time spent in sin is more than enough time. In light of the change brought by Jesus, sin is to be a past practice. While we know that in this life we never achieve perfection, we should be more and more drawn to following Jesus and to turning away from the sins that we practiced in our past.

The list of sins in this passage is typical of the lists we see in other New Testament passages, and is not meant to be a comprehensive list of sins but a list of sins that typically reflected pagan practices. Overindulgence in food, wine, and sex were rampant throughout the Roman world, and people generally expected their friends and neighbors to participate in wild parties. When Christians did not, it surprised those around them, and maybe even made them a little suspicious of what they were up to. It certainly would lead to pressure being put on the Christians to conform to the world around them.

Now read that last paragraph again, except change “pagan practices” to “American culture.” I joked with my group studying this passage that verse 3 sounds just like college life! In many ways, our culture is reverting to the ethics and morality of the pagan cultures that thrived around the early church. We’re told that humanity is essentially good and getting better, but when we look at what people actually do we see this isn’t so.

So what are we as Christians to do in light of the “paganization” of our culture? We need to do what Peter encourages the readers in his day to do: to live out our faith consistently in the eyes of the world. It won’t be easy, and we should expect opposition when we challenge the world’s value system, but we need to show Jesus Christ to a desperately sinful world. This is what the early Christians did, and it was their lives, even more than their words, that caught the attention of their unbelieving neighbors. We can’t afford any longer to have the church look like the world.

Both our lives and our words should speak of Jesus every day. The time for sin is past, and we need to commit ourselves to living more for our Lord every day. We will stumble, but as we live, serve, and witness together, we will help each other grow to be like our Savior, and we will bring a message of truth, love, and hope to those around us.