Why I (as a Pentecostal) Believe in Evangelicalism

Two things deserve credit for this post. First, my good friend Andrew Williams recently wrote a post on his blog titled “Can We Stop Trying to Be Evangelicals?” that in many ways served as a catalyst for this post. I agree with much of what Andrew said in that post regarding the tendency away from a dynamic expectation of the work of the Spirit in the church by a new generation of adherents and consider his point a good one. But I was a little troubled by the title, mostly because I know that many of my fellow Pentecostals feel that Evangelicals are to our movement what Pope Leo X was to Luther—namely, our theologically short-sighted forefathers who have sold out the true gospel. This was not my friend Andrews point, nor do I believe this assessment for a minute. But, I do think it’s widely held among some Pentecostals and Charismatics and that is the reason I am writing this. Second, my book on Carl F. H. Henry, the elder statesman of Evangelicalism, was officially released this week , and some are sure to wonder why an Assemblies of God missionary would take an interest in a Reformed Baptist theologian who was himself a defining force of the neo-Evangelical movement. After all, aren’t Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism diametrical opposites, the proverbial oil and water of the theological world?

For me, they are not, and here’s why.

  1. Evangelicalism must be defined, historically, as more than its 20th/21st century expression. The modern use of the term “Evangelical” can be traced all the way back to the Reformation, which itself was seen as a return to apostolic Christianity. And yet, is this not fundamentally the chief claim of Pentecostal theology? When Pentecostals desire to completely disassociate ourselves from Evangelicalism we are in effect cutting off an important part of our theological heritage.
  1. The most widely accepted definition of Evangelicalism (Bebbington’s quadrilateral) centers on four aspects: Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. What of these four things is at odds with Pentecostalism? (Hint: NONE!). Yes Pentecostalism may be seen as more than this, but it cannot be less if it is to be orthodox.
  1. There are indications all throughout the NT of the non-ubiquitous nature of charismatic expression, indicating a somewhat non-uniform nature to ecclesiastical expression of various gifts, including tongues. And so, if our argument is that evangelicals don’t believe what we believe and they don’t practice what we practice, then we are faced with reality that not even all Pentecostal denominations agree with one another, and that there was at least some diversity on this issue right out of the gate (NOTE: this is not a who’s right, who’s wrong point, but rather, a note that diversity rather than uniformity has long characterized the exercise of the charismata).
  1. Evangelicalism holds forth the greatest promise for a united front on important issues such as theological reflection, cultural engagement, social justice, and evangelism and missions. The more divided and fractured the body of Christ becomes, the less potential there is for mounting an effective response to the world’s most pressing challenges, especially reaching the lost. This is presumably what caused classic Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God to join the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the mid 1940’s.
  1. Evangelicalism may not speak for Pentecostals now, but it will never speak for Pentecostals if Pentecostals close the door to communication and dialogue. Yet, isn’t it possible that God would have us learn from each other and grow together in our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus? We need look no further than the sad history of fundamentalism to see that barricading one’s self behind closed doors can lead to nothing but disaster.
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Free Sample Chapter: Carl Henry’s Theology of Evangelism and Social Concern

Wipf & Stock, the publishers of my book, Evangelism and Social Concern in the Theology of Carl F. H. Henry, released a few days ago, have graciously made available a free sample chapter (ch. 1). This chapter lays the ground work for the study and introduces some of the key themes and issues addressed. If you are interested in this topic, this free chapter will help you know whether this volume will be useful to you. Feel free to share any questions, comments, or concerns you may have. I look forward to hearing from you!

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD FREE CHAPTER: Ireland_09502_Excerpt

Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

 

Were Adam and Eve Historical Persons?

Book Review: John H. Walton. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. Kindle edition.

lost world

Thoughtful readers of the opening chapters of Genesis have long wrestled with not only internally difficult passages, but also with how these chapters relate to developments in science. Resultantly, interpretations of the world of Adam and Eve and its significance to contemporary Christianity have produced wildly different conclusions ranging from the overly simplistic to various forms of concordism that do obvious violence to a biblical worldview and to the stability of the text. In this excellent volume, John H. Walton has provided an intriguing study of these passages and the difficulties involved that deserves careful attention and consideration. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, sets forth a fascinating set of propositions that aims for the very thing that is most often missing in this discussion, namely, the need to read these chapters of Genesis primarily in their Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. His presentation is lucid, thoughtful, and challenging, and this text should be read by all interested in this topic. But be warned; this is not light reading, and, if you are an Evangelical, as I am, you are likely to have one or more of your cherished understandings of Gen. 2–3 challenged.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of this text lies in its methodology. Walton, though interested in how the biblical text comports with science and modern thought, does not take an approach that seeks to harmonize Scripture with scientific developments. Rather, his primary concern is rightly to advance an understanding of the Genesis narrative that finds its hermeneutical guide in its own ANE context. As such, he concludes for instance, that Genesis is an account of “functional origins, not material origins,” (Proposition 3). That is, “the seven day origins account in Genesis is a ‘home story’; it is not a ‘house story.’” He does this, as he does throughout this text, by looking first to the biblical text, and second to other ANE literature to better understand how various images and ideas functioned in that cultural context. Interestingly, though Walton, like others, finds parallels with other ancient texts, he also shows how the biblical text often comes to vastly different conclusions about the world, humanity, and God than do many of the contemporary ANE pieces of literature. Thus, Walton has shown that one of the goals of the Genesis account is to present a direct challenge to then prevailing notions about human relationships both to each other and to their Creator, and in relation to the theme of order and chaos.

Some of the more interesting and challenging perspectives Walton advances include the idea that Adam and Eve are both historical persons, but also archetypal. That is, in Scripture the words for Adam and Eve are used in more than simply a single uniform manner. Plus, the words “adam” and “eve” are Hebrew, and Hebrew as a language did not exist during the time Adam and Eve lived. Thus,

That means that these names are not just a matter of historical reporting, as if their names just happened to be Adam and Eve like someone else’s name is Bill or Mary. Although I believe that Adam and Eve are historical personages––real people in a real past––these cannot be their historical names. The names are Hebrew, and there is no Hebrew at the point in time when Adam and Eve lived.

 Though such concepts may be at first somewhat difficult for some to swallow, that difficulty most often lies in the tendency to read Genesis through our own cultural lens and conceptual categories. This is the very thing that Walton seeks to overcome, and he does it in a very thorough and convincing way.

My only criticism of this text, even though I don’t always agree with all of his conclusions (I do find them all at least worth considering though) is that there are times when I think he fails to give adequate attention to the notion of progressive revelation, and consequently leaves certain key canonical questions unresolved. While I think Walton is correct to say that ancient Israelites would not have interpreted the serpent as referring to Satan, an idea that awaits further development in salvation history, it seems he could have done more for the reader in clarifying his view regarding how contemporary believers should understand this element of the story in light of New Testament (NT) passages that do make this connection (Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:9; 20:2). Walton does note the NT development, but in my view, could have done more to aid the reader in how to best interpret the relationship between the OT and NT understanding.

In conclusion, this is one of the most exciting books I’ve read on this subject, and provides some of the most reasonable resolutions to difficult issues in Gen. 2–3 that are biblically faithful, grounded in sound exegesis, and thoughtfully considerate of ANE literature and imagery. Not to mention, the book also contains an excellent excursus by N. T. Wright on Paul’s use of Adam. Thus, I suspect that this text will be a central feature in future discussions about how to understand not only the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, but also Pauline interpretation of these important passages.

 

 

What does ‘biblical literalism’ mean?

Bible_paper

For many people, the term “biblical literalism” implies someone who, at least cognitively, lives in the dark ages, envisions complete enmity between science and religion, and who has failed to adapt their outdated religious views to contemporary culture. In some circles, being called a biblical literalist is about the worst thing you could say about someone. You may as well have insulted their mother. For others, though, the term is a welcome label and they wear it gladly.

The problem is that the term “biblical literalism” is often used without clarification and without definition. As a result, saying someone is a biblical literalist doesn’t actually mean much of anything at all anymore. The problem is further exacerbated in that too many people use the term as a “waste-basket” (i.e., catch-all) term to refer to anyone who upholds any part of the Bible as being true, but especially the parts with which they themselves disagree. For example, opponents of gay marriage are often derogatorily labeled “biblical literalists.” The implication usually is that even if the Bible does not allow for homosexuality, then Christians should simply adapt their understanding of the Bible to fit better with our modern culture. They should chuck aside their “literal” interpretation and adopt a more widely accepted view. This, in fact, was precisely the argument made in a recent NYTimes column.

The problem with calling someone a biblical literalist in a derogatory fashion, and just because their views are unpopular, lies in that there is simply no necessary connection between the number of people who believe something and whether or not that thing is actually true. In other words, something could be true even if no one believed it. Consensus and truthfulness have zero necessary correlations. Many a mob has been wildly wrong. And so, when people toss around the term “biblical literalist” in a thoughtless manner and use it to mean that someone’s beliefs are archaic, what they’re really doing is trying to paint them into a dark corner of anti-intellectualism. The term, used this way, is simply a red herring meant to shut down dialogue. The irony in this is of course that nothing is more anti-intellectual than an unwillingness to engage in honest debate and dialogue.

A better way to understand biblical literalism is to understand the Bible as containing a wide array of types of literature and the most faithful interpretation takes each type or genre on its own terms. For example, a literal understanding of Psalm 98:8, which says “let the rivers clap their hands,” does not result in the necessity of rivers actually having hands. Such an interpretation would be nonsense. Rather, it is evident that the writer is using figurative language because the genre in question is Hebraic poetry.

When Sylvia Plath says in her poem Metaphors, “I’m an…elephant,” she doesn’t mean that she’s actually a pachyderm. Her poem is about pregnancy, and well, its fairly easy to understand what she’s getting at. A person who wishes to interpret Plath’s poem most faithfully then must understand what she, as the author, intended to say, and that means understanding that she was talking about what it feels like to be pregnant. Importantly, those who have been pregnant would likely agree that Plath is teaching something true through her use of metaphors. In other words, figurative language does not imply the absence of truth.

This task of discerning the figurative speech and its intended referent is admittedly easier in some texts than in others. We don’t have to do too much investigative work to figure out what Plath is getting at. The same is true with the Psalms because the Psalms are entirely poetic. But some books mix genres, such as the Gospels, which contain a good bit of historical narrative, metaphors, and symbolic language.

Biblical literalism, properly understood, actually has nothing to do with any particular conclusions about the meaning of a text. Instead, it ought to refer to a method of reading the Bible that is in concert with the way we read everything else that is written. Biblical literalism is no more of an anomaly than New York Times literalism or Earnest Hemmingway literalism, all of which simply mean that we read things according to the type of literature they are and interpret them on that basis. To read the Bible literally is to take those portions that use literal language at face value according to its genre, and to likewise respect the use of figurative language, all the while understanding that even figurative speech can be used to teach important truths. In no field of knowledge, including biblical studies, does literalism mean interpreting a text to say something that it doesn’t say. There are biblical literalists and critics of biblical literalist alike who would be well-served in learning this distinction.

 

 

 

 

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Jesus’ famous cry from the cross. For his followers, it seemed the end of the road. Most of them fled. John and some of the women stayed. The One in whom they had fully trusted and forsaken everything to follow was now dying a criminal’s death. Unfairly tried and unfairly convicted, to be sure. But Jesus was crucified nonetheless. He would die soon, and then what? Life was ebbing. Hope was fading. Darkness was coming.

Then from the cross, Jesus lets out a cry in his native Aramaic.

“ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” (Matt. 27: 45-46).

Desperation and agony, certainly. But more than that, too. Looking closely, we also see faith and hope. After all, Jesus is quoting Scripture.

 Ps 22:1    My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?

Hanging on the cross, Jesus’ perfect fellowship with the father was broken. He who knew no sin had become sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Did he really feel forsaken? Without a doubt. Was there real separation from God? Somehow, mysteriously, it seems there was. Both Matthew and Mark seem to interpret it this way.

But there is more. Jesus is forsaken, but God is still “My” God.

Its hard not to see here hope mixed with despair. As R. T. France says, “this shout expresses not a loss of faith, but a (temporary) loss of contact.”[1] Perhaps, Jesus, in the final moments of His agony, held to the hope that things were not as they seemed. After all, Jesus had already predicted His own death and resurrection (Matt. 20:17–19). And in Gethsemane He seemed to anticipate something of the horrible events yet to come. That is, He was not taken by surprise by all of it. And when the horrific events had come in full, as Jesus hung on the cross, He turns to Scripture in search of both a cry of help and an expression of trust. He comes up with Psalm 22, verse 1.

But by declaring that God was yet “My” God, Jesus held together two things often seen as contradictory. Fear and faith. Questions and confidence. All wrapped together in this little verse from the Psalms and uttered here by a dying Savior. He feels forsaken, but yet declares God is “his” God.

Of course, His faith was proved right. Hope was not dead. Death would not win. Darkness would not overcome. Resurrection was coming. Jesus, in the midst of His suffering, both cried for help and declared his trust. And under far less severe conditions, is it really too much that God would ask the same of us?

[1]R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1077.

Mysteries about “Mysteries of the Bible–Jesus”

As always, a good read by Larry Hurtado. Every Easter, magazines and television shows drag out the latest installments of bad reporting on the life of Jesus. Even if you’re not in the UK and aren’t watching the show to which he refers, the issues he addresses apply broadly to these popularized accounts of the life of Jesus. This recent post from Hurtado’s blog is well worth a read:

Larry Hurtado's Blog

Last Friday evening here in the UK the TV programme, “Mysteries of the Bible–Jesus” showed (Channel 5, 9 pm), and already I’ve had one commenter asking why I allowed myself to be included in the programme.  So, a few comments are in order.

First, when you’re approached by researchers for such a TV programme (at least in my experience), you’re not usually told the larger storyline or sweep of the programme.  They simply say they have some particular questions that they’d like to interview you about. So, you can deal with those questions but never know in advance where the rest of the programme is going, or even if they’ll use all or any of your own interview.  I, therefore, have no responsibility for this or other programmes for which I’ve been interviewed.

But let me now turn to some matters that made me feel glad not to be responsible…

View original post 439 more words

Are all religions basically the same?

A friend recently asked me about religious pluralism. I thought I’d share here what I shared with him.

Religious pluralism is the idea that all religions are basically the same. Implied in this idea is that there exists a certain similarity between the world’s religions that places them ontologically on level ground. The religions of the world are all thought to be culturally conditioned ways of encountering the same “Reality,” a reality which Christians happen to refer to as “God.” Usually, claims regarding pluralism are described using a vague concept of “common morality.” But what are we to make of these claims?

First, no one who has seriously undertaken a comparative study of world religions could possibly say (at least not with a straight face) that all religions are basically the same. They exhibit fundamental differences, not just at the periphery, but on major theological issues such as the nature and existence of God, definitions of good and evil, and the afterlife. For example, many Buddhists are atheists and don’t believe in “god” at all. Many Hindus are polytheists and worship a whole pantheon of gods. Some world religions don’t believe in heaven at all, and among those that do there are fundamental differences regarding how one gets there and regarding what “there” actually means. How can these wildly divergent beliefs then be described as “basically the same” in any legitimate way when they are so obviously and fundamentally different? The answer is they can’t and only the willfully ignorant would ever claim otherwise. Plus, if one wishes to talk about cultural conditioning as it relates to religious beliefs, then surely the very notion of pluralism itself is subject to its own critique. Pluralism is a very western idea and one that is rarely held in most other parts of the world especially among those who have not been influenced by western thinking. Thus the claim that religious beliefs are all culturally conditioned is itself a culturally conditioned religious claim, and, therefore, the argument is self-defeating. In other words, if all religious claims that are a product of their culture should be held lightly and suspect, then so too should pluralism because it exactly fits that description.

In reality, claims to religious pluralism are intellectually lazy because they exhibit an unwillingness to consider the weight and veracity of various religious claims. In other words, just because other religions exists, why should we assume thereby that they are all equally valid? The answer is we shouldn’t. Religious claims can be weighed and evaluated if one is willing to do the hard intellectual work of actually investigating them. Pluralism is simply reductionism and intellectual laziness at its very best.

Is the Church called to non-violent protest?

sider book

I recently completed Ronald J. Sider’s latest book, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (BrazosPress, 2015). Here are my thoughts.

First, few people have as much authority to write on the subject of non-violent action as Ron Sider. He is more than an academic who has theorized about this (though he is no less than that). He is someone who has embodied his beliefs in the power of nonviolent action, and his account of his experiences in Nicaragua (pp. 47-48) testify to this. So, when Sider calls both pacifists and Just War proponents alike to put their lives on the line for the sake of peace, he does so with some authority.

This text is a moving account of how non-violent protests have brought ends to bloody conflicts and government corruption the world over. I found myself moved to near tears reading about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and, equally, of the way in which the women of Liberia played a key role in ending the civil war there through non-violent action. These stories need to be read and read again.

As someone who has at times been horrified by fellow Christians who sometimes seem all too eager for the US to engage in another war, I found these stories deeply challenging and am inclined to think that most evangelicals could benefit from reading this thorough account of how non-violent action has succeeded in place after place around the globe.

But I have a couple of criticisms of this book. My biggest criticism relates to the subtitle: “what Christian ethics demands but most Christians have never really done.” In this text, Sider makes a very good case that non-violent action often succeeds. But, oddly, he never makes the case that Christian ethics requires this. If Sider hopes to convince the evangelical community of the rightness of his argument, he will have to do more than stack up case studies. He will have to provide a biblical argument. Given the strong statement of his subtitle, it is surprising that he never actually does this in the book. As a result, one never comes to understand what Christianity uniquely contributes to non-violent action. Indeed, a few of his examples are of those who had no specifically Christian commitments at all. And so my question is, where does the uniquely redemptive message of Christianity fit into all this? Where precisely does the Prince of Peace fit into these efforts, as surely the church that is called to protest is equally called to proclaim. This needs to be clarified.

Finally, Carl F. H. Henry once said that the church is called to “a moment of protest.” Henry’s point was that in certain times of crisis the church must oppose governments when those governments have lost sight of their God-given roles in upholding justice. But Henry’s emphasis was that this was only to be momentary. Protest cannot become the central feature of the church’s life and practice. But some of the ways in which Sider seems to envision the church’s non-violent action seem to move in the opposite direction.

Sider declares at the outset that this book is not meant as a contribution to the ongoing debate over Just War Theory vs. Pacificism. Yet, I do think it shortsighted to not more fully address this very complex topic. What I mean is that at times Sider appears to give the impression that “if we would just give peace a chance,” it would work most if not all the time. But this seems very naïve. Yes, some nations were able to use non-violent protest (e.g. Finland) and refuse to deport their Jewish populations, but non-violence had no hope of pushing back the German Army that had taken over Europe. To do that it took a brutal, bloody, and yet necessary war—a war that, furthermore, likely saved thousands upon thousands of lives that would have otherwise been destroyed by Hitler’s aggressive and racist agenda. Sometimes, war is the most compassionate and humane option. The same could be said of the US Civil War. How many millions of African American lives were saved by ending slavery, through a very bloody, and yet, seemingly necessary war. My point here is just to say, that at times war is the best worst choice. Sometimes it is simply the only viable option.

Having said that, I also remain solidly convinced that the contemporary church (perhaps especially in America) needs to be reminded of the power of non-violence and also of the church’s biblical mandate to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). And this book does that very, very well. I highly recommend it.

“But they are our children”: The Crucial Role of Women in Development

I’ve been reading Ron Sider’s new book on non-violent action (see my review here), and in it Sider provides a beautiful quote that perfectly captures the essence of development and community building. This statement well captures what we do in Africa and why the local church is so crucial, primarily because a local church focus maximises and values the insights of local peoples. The following quote is by Leymah Gbowee, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work toward ending the civil war in Liberia primarily through the empowerment of women. Gbowee writes:

Organizations like the UN do a lot of good…but there are certain basic realities they never seem to grasp…Maybe the most important truth that eludes these organizations is that it’s insulting when outsiders come in and tell a traumatized people what it will take for them to heal. You cannot go to another country and make a plan for it. The cultural context is so different from what you know that you will not understand much of what you see. I would never come to the US and claim to understand what’s going on, even in the African American culture. People who live through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.

That includes women. Most especially women. When it comes to preventing conflict or building peace, there’s a way in which women are the experts…we know our communities. We know our history. We know the people. We know hot to talk to an ex-combatant and get his cooperation, because we know where he comes from. To outsiders like the UN, these soldiers were a problem to be managed. But they were our children.

1. See Ron Sider, Nonviolent Action (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014), 114; and Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers, 171-172.

Why I don’t like going to church: Confessions of a Theologian, Part I

I’m a theologian. The study of the Bible and the nature of the Church lie at the very heart of everything that I do and hold dear. Yet, honestly, I sometimes don’t like going to church. I’d rather just stay at home, and here’s why.

First, for a theologian, attending church can be mentally exhausting. It’s my nature (and indeed the way God has wired me) to critically analyze most things. I used to feel terribly guilty about this, until one day a fellow theologian counseled me saying, “you just have to realize that this is the way its going to be for you for the rest of your life. It’s not a bad thing. It’s simply part of your calling and you just have to discover how to manage it with grace.” Since then I’ve tried to live by those words and it has helped tremendously. But still, sometimes I just don’t feel like being gracious and would rather just stay at home.

And then there’s the people.

Churchy people can be especially difficult to handle sometimes. For example, every church seems to have that one lady who lives on Planet Jesus and who believes that every one of life’s challenges can be overcome with a simple cliché and a clack of the tambourine. “You just gotta keep praisin’ brother!” Clack-ity-clack.

But when I think about these things in light of the Gospel, I’m reminded of the real reason I sometimes don’t like going to church. All of these things, the parts of the sermon or parts of the worship service which I wish were different, the people whom I wish I could change and make them someone other than who they are, all point to one thing. They all point to the reality of my own sinfulness. They declare with a load voice that I, the theologian who has made a career out of studying the Bible, have yet to fully abide by its most central precept. Namely, “you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).

In other words, everything I don’t like about church is in reality a reflection of my own self-centeredness. In fact, the word “like” itself suggests that I tend to see church as existing primarily to meet my needs. My lack of grace toward the tambourine lady flows from the fact that I’ve never really tried to get to know the tambourine lady and understand what makes her tick. To put it simply, I’ve never really loved her as I love myself. My dissatisfaction with the music or with the sermon, though sometimes might reflect real issues that need to be addressed, more often testify to the fact that I came to church not to serve, but to be served. Odd behavior, to say the least, for one who follows Him whose whole life was described in exactly opposite terms (Matt. 20:28).

In short, all the reasons that I sometimes don’t like going to church declare with a loud voice that I absolutely need to be there. They declare that I need to continue to grow in the grace of loving others and bearing with them in their struggles. I need to discover and rediscover and discover all over again that Christian community is not just about getting fed (thought it is about that). But there comes a time when we have to stop bellying up to the banquet table and instead find our way to the kitchen, and begin to labor for the nourishment and strengthening of others.

The more I do this, the more I find that church can be infinitely rewarding.