Foley and Izzard: Funny but unfair

In quick succession I came upon a series of unconnected posts in which atheist comedians have a go at God and religion. I don’t mind in principle—there is plenty in religious spheres to critique and to poke fun at—but two of the bits that I saw most recently claim as a weakness things that are actually among the greatest strengths of Christianity.

Dave Foley: Faith is like belief in Santa Claus

Foley on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch

Foley and comedy jacket on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch.

Dave Foley is perhaps best known for playing a lead role in the vastly underrated 90s sitcom News Radio. His stand-up seems not to have hit News Radio heights, and in this mostly awkward sketch (among other things) he describes people of faith as ‘creepy’, and compares believers to grown people who believe in Santa—adding that we’d be treated as lunatics if there weren’t so many of us.

I’m not sure why this analogy is so widely thought to be valid. Perhaps it is due to the common mistake that atheists make of conflating all religions together as though Jesus and Jim Jones and Juno are all basically the same. The example that Foley gives of religious craziness is that of transubstantiation in Catholicism: the bread and wine actually (not figuratively) become Jesus’ body and blood (though not in any way that affects taste or form). But this was the kind of thing that the Western world fought a fairly well-known war over in the 1500s. The Protestant world told the pope that we’re tired of this nonsense about 500 years ago.

The comparison with Santa is a false one for several reasons, but the most important one being historicity. Even if Saint Nick was a real person, Santa mythology about the North Pole and the world’s worst commute on Christmas Eve has no basis in reality. Believing it would be an act of willful self-delusion. And perhaps most religious beliefs are of the same order. The point is that the Bible has always differentiated itself from ‘the gods of the nations’ because of God’s acts in history. The old prophets repeatedly mocked people who cut down a tree and used part of it for the fire and part for furniture and part to make a god to worship. And the whole argument of Christianity from the minute it left Jerusalem was that Jesus rose from the dead and brought forgiveness, as he said he would—something has happened in history.

Disbelieve it if you like, but unlike Santa, the existence of God is not a priori an irrational idea, and unlike Santa, Jesus’ resurrection is an historical claim for which there is evidence to be weighed. I know it is annoying to have to carefully dismiss evidence that you have no interest in believing, but in much the same way as the argument ‘Evolution is stupid because just look at the human eye!’ is really annoying, atheists should stop doing a discredit to themselves by trying to make the Jesus-Santa link stick.

Eddie Izzard: God’s plan


Eddie Izzard is a brilliant comedian, and as much as I wanted to hate ‘Glorious’, his deeply irreverent take on history and the Bible from the 90s, it is undeniably funny. His famous quote about God’s plan is doing the rounds again, and while I can imagine it being hilarious when he says it, it surely doesn’t take too long to realise that this is actually a rather foolish critique.

The main reason why it doesn’t work is that the ability to understand a plan demands several things that Eddie Izzard does not apprehend. One needs firstly to understand the problem that the plan addresses. In the case of the biblical storyline, the issues are human rebellion, consequent disruption of divine-human relationship, and the problem of evil and death that result from that. Eddie doesn’t say what he thinks the problem is, but I would put money on it not being the one that God’s book identifies. I suspect what people such as Izzard usually think the goal should be is total human happiness and otherwise being left alone, which ironically cuts against what God is trying to do quite severely.

Secondly, understanding a plan requires a grasp of the ‘rules of the game’. Complaints about the problem of evil usually demand that God should intervene in history in order to stop bad things from happening. However, these complaints rarely get specific about how God should go about doing this. Seeing as most of the world’s evils are human evils, God would  seem to me to have two major paths open to Him to stop human evil. He could kill the wrong-doer without delay, which would mean the death of Adam & Eve and (however literally you take that story) the eradication of humankind. This would mean the failure of His goal to restore divine-human relationship. So delay then.

The second route is to miraculously intervene every time someone is about to do something bad so as to prevent the crime (a bit like Minority report). But then it doesn’t take too much thinking before one realises that this would need to be carried out on the level of speech, and probably even on the level of thought (because most evil actions begin there). So God would have to remove the consequences of our evil impulses either by miraculously staying our hands and tongues, or by eradicating the freedom of will altogether. Again, this would be failure of the goal, because it replaces relationship with slavery. So a cure then.

If it’s to be a cure, then that’s what Christianity has always said He’s always been doing. You may protest that He’s taking awfully long about it, but again as has long been said, if God is taking His time at least it means you have the opportunity to take part in the cure.

The final thing that one needs in order to understand a plan is a grasp of the strategy by which the goal is being pursued. This is the part that Izzard clearly has an issue with, but is there any surprise in that? Does Izzard expect that his casual glance at the facile number of things that he or any of us understands about human history should yield clear apprehension of what is being done and should be done?

If one takes chess as an example, there are very limited parameters and relatively few variables, but great players are still able to think so far into the possible futures of each game that they can come up with strategies that catch their opponents by surprise. In the ‘Game of the Century’, for instance, Bobby Fischer faced world-champion Donald Byrne, and chose to sacrifice his queen. To chess imbeciles such as myself, allowing the capture of your most powerful piece would represent a mistake, but Fischer ensured that the cost of her capture was so high that the game would be his anyway. His strategy was so far beyond what other people expected (including his opponent) that it made certain individual actions seem nonsensical.

When one extends the number of variables to human history, the ability to map possible futures is surely out of our grasp—even that of Eddie Izzard. Funnily enough, this is exactly the point of one of the oldest extant discussions of the problem of evil, known as The Book of Job. In the story, Job suffers a crushing series of unjustified evils, and his friends all tell him that God is just and so it must be punishment for something that Job has done. Job protests that he is innocent. When the verdict comes, Job is proven correct, but the rebuke for all parties is that they are all passing judgement on matters about which they know nothing.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:1-5)

There is a plan—and we know more of it post Jesus than Job did—but don’t expect that all of it should be obvious to you, me or Eddie Izzard.

It is the business of comedians to take cheap shots, I suppose, but surely (having claimed the intellectual high-ground as their own) atheism can make arguments to match. It seems to be everyone’s loss when we stop discussing and start playing to the crowd.

Structure of Genesis 12

I was recently notified that my article on the structure of Genesis 12 was published in the Scriptura journal towards the end of last year. There is an open-access online version, so you can read it here:

This is the abstract:

Genesis 12 is a crucial chapter in biblical theology, with most scholarly attention being given to the promises at the start. Structurally, however, the chapter should be viewed as a unit, and its emphasis falls on v.10. This article aims to demonstrate that the text is best viewed as a series of five speech-response pairs, with the central ‘pair’ emphatically omitting any speech. The absence of speech in v.10 is an interpretive key, identifying the theme of testing as central to this episode, and placing the promises made to Abram in their proper context: the gifts and blessings of God are ultimately less important than being in properly ordered relationship with the Giver.

It sounds a little dull, I’ll concede, but it actually fixes a number of the open questions about Genesis 12, and it is my first proper contribution to academia thus far. Huzzah. (I think it reads better than it sounds here too.)

Creation Ministries International and church division

I recently was part of a church event in which I was asked to speak about the conflict between science and the Bible, especially over the matter of creation (audio/text here). My argument, as ever, is that the big question concerns the genre of the creation stories. The biblical creation story can be read quite naturally as belonging to any of three or four genres, not all of which commit the reader to a specific view of how creation came about in space and time, and so there is no necessary conflict between the two.

The point about genre is easy enough to demonstrate, but still unsettles people (I suppose people generally prefer certainty over possibility), and sure enough, I received a letter that read as follows:

Dear Jordan,

I am really sorry that you have had unfortunate experiences in trying to defend your faith when coming up against the “scientific community”. Please receive the enclosed newsletter I have just received this very week as a gift. May your confidence grow in our God’s word & the knowledge of His sovereignty daily.

In His love,
[Illegible signature]

I was upset by the letter, because contrary to everything that I said, it implies that I disbelieve the Bible’s view on creation, rather than what I repeatedly said, which is that there are several genres into which the creation narratives can reasonably fit, and that a text can be figurative without being less true. (An example that I used was the book of Revelation, which talks of beasts rising from the sea etc.; though we take it figuratively, we do not believe it any less than the more literally historical texts in the Bible).

I was unable to discover who sent the letter, but in any event, I can’t really blame this person. Standing behind this view is one or more Creationist organisations that have made misunderstanding and vilifying dissenting Christian voices into an art-form. The enclosed newsletter to which the letter refers was produced by CMI, and it perfectly demonstrates their refusal to entertain any view that varies from their own, which in turn leads to faithful Christian people being defined as compromisers or doubters or in some other way defective.

I have scanned the document in full for you to read here, but I would like to respond to several of the points that it makes, because whatever you think about Creationism itself, an organisation that has been speaking to Christians for as long as CMI has no excuse for pretending that there is only one Christian view of Genesis 1-11. I have the highest regard for several friends and family members who hold Creationistic views, but this divisive CMI tactic is anti-gospel, and it’s about time that we all stop putting up with it.

1. Creationism denial is Creator denial

‘The crying need for the faithful proclamation of biblical creation should hardly need highlighting. Is the Church as a whole awake on this issue? The answer is a clear and categorical no! On the contrary, there is a widespread refusal, even on the part of many professed evangelical Christians, to empha­sise (or even to acknowledge) Paul’s teaching. The Bible makes clear that Creation-denial (“the things that have been made”, Romans 1:20) is tantamount to Creator-denial (“For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God”, 1:21), and that idolatry directly follows (“because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator”, 1:25).’ —Philip Bell, CMI

The first thing that CMI refuses to understand is that non-Creationists are not denying creation or their Creator. This is a deeply ingrained error; so much so that I often find myself explaining to other Christians that ‘Creationist’ and ‘someone who believes that God is the Creator of all things’ are not the same thing.

Many of us non-Creationists are saying little more than that it is not the author’s intention in Genesis 1-3 to tell us how the universe was created (i.e. to describe the order of events, time period etc.), but rather, the clear purpose is theological—it lays out the biblical worldview (i.e. the place of man and woman within creation, and in relation to God). And in fact, even when Creationists talk about the theological meaning of Genesis 1-3, these are the same things they speak about. It is clearly the central purpose of the stories; the ‘how’ question is secondary in any responsible interpretation of the text (and is never given any importance elsewhere in scripture).

Us ‘professed evangelicals’ who deny that this secondary matter is within the text’s purview continue to affirm with the rest of scripture that God was the active agent in the creation of the world, no matter what mechanism was used to bring it about.

2. Creationism is essential to the gospel

‘The hope of the Gospel is the only answer to this sorry state of affairs. The message “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) is the Good News indeed… Without an understanding of the reliability and relevance of biblical creation, people will continue to languish in their ignorance, deceived and deceiving each other (2 Timothy 3:13)… By proclaiming Creation in a scientific age we expose the folly of worldly thinking, while simultaneously pointing people to the Creator-and-Saviour of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ…

‘We proclaim Creation, not only because it is true, but because effective evangelism requires it. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is founded on an historical Adam and Eve, the serpent tempter, the taking of the forbidden fruit, and the promise of the Victor over Satan (Genesis 3:15). History’s simple message—all are sinners; sin’s penalty is death, spiritual and physical; Christ came to deliver us from sin’s penalty and power, and from the sting and dominion of death—is founded on historical events recorded in Genesis.’ —Philip Bell, CMI

One could quibble with several details in these quotes—not least the idea that they ‘expose the folly of worldly thinking’, because while the gospel certainly exposes human sin and rebellion, Creationism tends to devolve into squabbles about the interpretation of cherry-picked scientific evidence.

The main issue, however, is that CMI thinks the proclamation of Creationism—not biblical creation—is essential to evangelism. The reason is again that they assume that there is no difference between the theology of Creation (which all evangelical Christians believe—see point 1) and their literal-historical hermeneutic that leads to creation science. So anyone who leaves room for non-literal elements in the text must disbelieve biblical creation.

I made a semi-serious quiz for my narrative-exegesis class that can help to illustrate the basic error that CMI makes here. The quiz takes the form of true/false questions such as:

History is:     T/F
Metaphor is:     T/F

These questions are obviously foolish; history and metaphor in general are neither true nor false—they are descriptions of reality that may be accurate or inaccurate. Our school textbooks in Apartheid South Africa taught skewed history that served our white racist ideology (it was a false explanation of real events); conversely, Jesus taught in parables, which are figurative, but Christians would argue are true descriptions of reality.

Nevertheless, I am proud of my T/F quiz, because it exposes the kind of bias that many of us carry, and which CMI smuggles into their argument about Creationism and the gospel: something must be fully history to be true; figurative language would mean it didn’t happen (metaphor is false).

What CMI refuses to hear is that evangelical non-Creationists also believe those key gospel ideas that are listed in the article: that God is Creator, that humankind fell into sin and are subject to death, and that Christ died and rose again to reunite us to God. The gospel depends on all of that being true. It does not depend on all of Genesis 1-11 being literally historical. Whether God made the world in 6 days or 6 billion years, it doesn’t change the truth that God is the Creator. The 6 days could be representative of any number of things (order, preparedness, 6 ages etc.) without changing the basic truth on which the gospel depends.

Ironically, the thing that finally made me not-a-Creationist was the realisation that Creationism does not help to proclaim the gospel. On the contrary, it makes a battleground out of the scientific mechanism by which God created—something that doesn’t actually matter all that much. Rather than teaching the gospel, it usually gets lost in trying to cure people of evolution, a distraction that offers no guarantees of also curing their rebellion against God.

3. Jesus was a Creationist

‘The Bible clearly teaches the creation of all things in six days a few thousand years ago (Genesis 1–2); the intrusion of sin and the Curse, blighting the originally perfect universe physically and morally (Genesis 3); the geographically global, devastating Flood (Genesis 6–9); and the historicity of Babel, with the confusion of human language (Genesis 10–11). Furthermore, Jesus and all the New Testament writers affirmed this view of Genesis 1–11.’ —Philip Bell, CMI

The view that Jesus and the apostles were Creationists makes regular appearances in Creationist arguments, but again it makes basic errors.

Firstly, it assumes that the only true presentations of history are literal presentations. What the NT says about Genesis 1-3 certainly depends on it being true history. However it is simplistic and mistaken to think that this requires it to be literal history. There are several ways of presenting history that are not literal. For example, the Bible often stylises history in poetic forms, and the book of Revelation presents the future history of the church age in a highly symbolic way, and yet we take it as true though it is not literal.

For example, Judges 5 says that the Lord marched down from Edom, and that the stars fought for Israel. This is not literal but it is true. And the NT could comfortably look back on that war and affirm that the stars contended against Canaan without implying that actual stars came and fought. The form of the original can be repeated without implying anything about its literalness or otherwise. In the same way, the NT can repeat elements of the creation narratives without implying anything about the literalness or figurativeness of the original.

The genre of Genesis 1-3 is the big question. It could be literal history, but it could be poetic, or like the prophetic literature, or a special genre used for worldview stories. In any of the latter three, whatever really happened in creation would be stylised in order to clearly communicate the significance of what happened, rather than the historical detail of it. It would no longer be the Creationist’s brand of literal history, though it would remain true. And crucially, none of these genres would necessitate any change to the way in which the NT refers to it. Jesus can still affirm the form of the original and its significance without implying anything about how literally it should be taken.

The second problem with the CMI argument is again the confusion of biblical creation and Creationism. The things in the creation story that the New Testament affirms are relatively few. The NT interest in creation overlaps with the Creationist interest in creation in a handful of small ways. To say on this basis that the NT teaches 6-day young-earth Creationism is presumptuous to say the least.

Take for example the one place in the NT in which I can find reference to the seven days—Hebrews 4:

For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,
“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”
although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”

Clearly the issue is the theology of rest not the mechanism of creation. This does not teach young-earth Creationism; it merely refers to the significance of the creation story, using the terms in which that story has been communicated in the canon. It would make no difference to Hebrews 4 if God finished founding the world in six minutes or six trillion light years, as long as that process reached a state of rest. So this passage fits into the creationist view, but it fits just as comfortably into mine.

Perhaps the more irksome issue in CMI’s line of argument here is the degree of arrogance that underlies it. Firstly, the starting line is that the Bible ‘clearly teaches’ young-earth Creationism. This might seem like an innocent statement, but consider that this is being written by the CEO of CMI in Europe. This is a person who is surely well aware of old-earth Creationists and evangelicals of various other convictions whose singular point is that the teaching of the Bible depends on the intended meaning of the text, not just on what it says on the surface. It is far from clear that the science of creation plays any role at all in the teaching of Genesis. To say that Creationism is clearly taught is incredibly disingenuous and represents a breath-taking dismissal of thousands of faithful Christians who study the Bible with complete devotion and yet have arrived at a different conclusion on a secondary matter.

Secondly, the argument he is making is not exegetical; he is not explaining how these texts must be understood in a Creationist way. He is merely citing NT references to Genesis 1-11 as though Christians such as me have either never read the NT or have had to tear those pages out of our Bibles so that we can hang onto our supposedly warped views of creation. To claim NT citations as evidence of Creationism is wrong. To merely point them out as though I couldn’t possibly have read that far in my Bible without having become a Creationist is insulting.

4. Non-Creationistic views dishonour God

‘Last, but not least, God is glorified when we uphold the Word of God and proclaim its teaching on Creation and the Creator. His name is honoured. The same cannot be said for teaching which undermines the same even if by well-meaning Christians. Christians seeking to live godly lives in this ungodly world should be at the forefront in repairing and restoring the breaches in the foundations and walls of Christendom (Isaiah 58:12). We need to hold fast to our confession of faith in Christ (Hebrews 10:23), making every effort to contend for the faith handed down to us by previous generations of faithful believers (Jude 3). Proclaiming Creation in a scientific age should be a staple part of every Christian’s engagement in the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:11–12).’ —Philip Bell, CMI

This final quote would be perfectly fine if it were not that we have already been made aware that CMI operates on different definitions of the gospel and what it means to uphold the Word of God. This quote sums up nicely the problem that organisations such as CMI perpetuate in the Christian world. There is nothing unusual in asking questions about the genre of a biblical text, nor in revising interpretation on the basis of new research—this is the basic stuff of exegesis that happens continually. But for some reason, asking these basic and necessary questions of Genesis is out of bounds.

And so, CMI has taken it upon itself to publicly define anyone who does not unquestioningly apply their literalist hermeneutic as in violation of the faith, as doubters of scripture, and as dishonouring to God. It doesn’t matter to them that they’ve been told repeatedly that other evangelicals do proclaim creation and the Creator; that we agree on the central theology of Genesis 1-11; that we are passionate about the careful, faithful exegesis of scripture; and that we contend daily for the gospel of Jesus Christ. None of these things actually matter to them. What matters is their fight against secular science, and anyone who doesn’t support them in that fight is an enemy. And so they have spent the last 40 years refusing to listen, and making it their public ‘ministry’ to condemn Christians who see things differently.

I am completely in favour of Christians holding to Creationist convictions if they are persuaded by the evidence that this is the best reading. I am totally happy for scientists and researchers to try and prove divine design or to overturn the evolutionary paradigm if it is incorrect. But it is about time that we stop supporting organisations such as CMI that maintain a studied refusal to listen to other Christians and who willfully breed division and judgement on a matter that is demonstrably secondary to the faith.

Monologue on exegetical preaching

Digging up some old notes from a class I no longer teach, I found this little introduction to a lecture about exegesis. It is an exhortation to prospective preachers on the importance of their task and the necessity that they remember that they’re not celebrities.

The Preacher’s Profile

Dear Preacher,

I encourage you to look in the mirror each morning and tell yourself two things:

You are boring.

You are not funny.

If you were a philosopher, motivator or an entertainer, how many people would come willingly to hear you speak? For most of us: about zero. Given that this is true, how fair is it of you to imagine that the audience is there to hear you, when they are clearly only there because they feel they have to be? Because you have a captive audience who believes that it is God’s command that they are there, they will sit through almost any garbage you can throw at them, and they’ll appreciate it no end when you make your speech more tolerable for them through anecdotes and jokes. Their appreciation – the fact that they laugh so hard when you say something lame about sports – might delude you into thinking that you are a treat to listen to. No; you are boring and you are not funny, and the longer you remember that, the better. You are to resist the temptation to make yourself a minor Sunday-morning celebrity. The only thing that makes you valuable up front of the church on a Sunday is that you have been tasked with the awesome responsibility of speaking God’s words.

You are boring. The Bible is not.

I get so disappointed when I go to church, and the preacher never goes any deeper than what this or that verse very obviously says on the surface. The passage says something about God’s love, and so the preacher starts talking about four kinds of love, including an anecdote here, an illustration there, a neat application etc. Boring sermons are criminal, NOT because we should be interesting, but because the bible IS interesting. It’s deep and inspiring and challenging and surprising. It is God speaking to us. We believe that God has spoken in his Word, and that the text therefore says the most important things in the world. How can that be boring?

Exegesis is like digging a mine. Digging is hard work and it’s time-consuming. We don’t do it because we like holes, but because we expect to find gold. If you haven’t laboured to understand why God had a passage preserved for you for millennia, and if you haven’t seen the surprises and challenges in the text, and if you haven’t been excited by what God says, you can bet that almost no one else will be.

Being orthodox is extremely important, but not saying anything wrong is not the same as saying something right. You can be not wrong without ever preaching an expositional sermon. To exegete a text requires that you actually listen to what the text is saying. It means scratching beneath the surface. It means asking ‘why?’ all the time.

Consider James 3:14-15. You can preach that text unthinkingly: ‘Envy and bitterness are bad. Got it.’ And you’ll never need to ask yourself why James has to point out to his reader the massively obvious fact that envy and selfishness are not wisdom from heaven! Why am I not surprised by something that the author expects that I’ll find surprising?

I am certainly guilty of expecting the Bible to be all religious and austere, and so will your congregation. When we expect it to be boring and conservative, we don’t really notice that it contains humour and irony and hyperbole. You don’t notice that Paul is including a bad joke about Cretans in Titus, or that the story in Judges about Micah’s idols is supposed to be a farce. You notice those things when you ask ‘why?’.

So, all this hard labour aims at clarifying what God has said, so that when you stand up in front of your audience, you can speak God’s words — the most important words in the world — instead of trying to make your generic theologisms more interesting by being a Sunday morning entertainer.

Expert Exegesis

I’m teaching some biblical exegetical classes at the moment, and one of the things that I feel it is necessary for aspiring exegetes to understand is that teaching the Bible responsibly is more than just pointing out and explaining some things that lie on the surface of the text. Exegetes need to use original languages, background study etc. to investigate the setting of the text and to fix the relationships between its component parts. Exegetes need to take a view that goes well beyond what is demanded of the usual reader.

I found an interesting parallel of this in an article about some expert football commentators who are renowned for their eye for detail. The article describes the view of the game that these experts prefer:

“Watching Neville and Carragher watch football is an education. Their favourite toy is boot-room cam, a camera providing a view of the entire pitch so they can monitor the whereabouts of all 22 players at all times. “The viewer wants to see where the ball is and what’s going on around it, so we watch it differently,” Neville says. (Source: Guardian)

While it gives a less dramatic view of the game, watching all players at once gives them an idea of the movement, positional play and tactics being employed at any one time. Obviously, it would be turgid and boring if the experts discussed all the details and interrelationships that they observed, or if they mentioned the unseen just to show off. But their expertise enables them to give insight into the game that other viewers would have missed, and it prevents them from making superficial judgments about an event or player’s contribution.

This is the kind of thing that makes someone an expert, rather than a paid amateur. If it is valuable in football, how much more should Christian teachers be encouraged to deliver expert insights into the text. We also want to avoid mentioning things just because they’re things that everyone else (say, without a Greek Bible) might not have noticed, but of all disciplines Christian teaching should be keenest to eradicate shallow teaching and superficial judgments.



NT Wright on Science, Scientism, and the New Testament

NT Wright delivered a lecture earlier this year in which he addressed the question, ‘Can a Scientist Trust the New Testament?’

As is his custom, he manages to get at the problem in an arresting and unexpected way. He argues that much of our trouble with the New Testament—even those of us who have chosen to trust it—has come about because we’re all victims of a worldview that has a mixed up view of science, fact, and knowledge. Although this worldview is largely discredited, most of us still are clinging on to it, whether it’s the atheist who thinks that ‘progress’ has left religion in the past, or the Christian who thinks that God is only visible in ‘the gaps’.

I reckon this article is a must-read for atheist and Christian alike. Full version in the link directly below, and a couple of teaser quotes follows after that:

PDF Version

“Every time someone says ‘Now that we live in the modern world’, or ‘in this day and age’, or even ‘now that we live in the twenty-first century’, they are appealing implicitly to a narrative to which we are all supposedly signed up, a narrative in which a new day has dawned, bringing freedom, especially from the constraints imposed by older tyrannies, including that of the church. The word ‘progressive’, used by columnists in the Guardian as the catch-all term for a whole range of agendas, expresses this belief. There is an almost touching faith in this story of inevitable progress. One might have thought that the history of the last nearly three hundred years, which is full of wars and genocides and atom bombs and terrorism, might have shaken it. One might have thought that the postmodern critique, showing the dream of progress to be riddled with corruptions of one kind or another, might have undermined it. Perhaps the real question today is, Can Someone in the Twenty-First Century still Believe in Progress? – and the answer ought clearly to be No. But this great myth still dominates popular and public discourse. And – this is the point – it has got muddled up with the quite different story of science proper. And when that happens we have something we might call scientism.”

“But let me just stress two things [about the Resurrection]. First, beware of the idea that it is only through modern science that we discovered that dead people don’t rise. This is a classic example of ‘scientism’, not only to make claims not only about what we ‘now’ know but to suggest that nobody knew it before. Whenever the topic of resurrection comes up in the ancient world, the poets and philosophers all know the answer: of course it doesn’t happen. It isn’t the case that prior to 1750 people didn’t know the laws of nature, so were ready to believe in resurrection, whereas now we do so we aren’t. As C. S. Lewis says, the reason Joseph was worried about Mary’s pregnancy was not because he didn’t know where babies came from but because he did. The resurrection of Jesus was just as difficult to believe in the first century as it is for us – equally difficult, but no more. Believing that Jesus was raised from the dead always takes a worldview-shift. It cannot be fitted into any other existing framework.”

Practice what you preach when you preach

This is addressed to preachers. Especially the evangelicals: those who believe that the Bible is the written word of God.

Let’s imagine that your church were visited by an outside researcher. An alien perhaps, or an angelic being if you’re not into the alien thing.

Imagine that this researcher was trying to determine what you believe about the Bible just by examining what you do with the Bible. How would you stack up?

What should we say about scripture?

As evangelicals, we believe that ‘all scripture is breathed out by God’, and so in spite of the fact that it was written by many human authors over many centuries, there is also an overall unity because God’s mind lies behind it all. So God has communicated with the world through the scriptures that He has preserved for us.

And what is God’s book like? Is it a coherent philosophy full of universal truths? Eternal wisdom on topics of spiritual interest? No, as we know, it is a raw collection of many different types of literature, including stories, prophecies, letters, and even poems and songs. The eternal truth and wisdom that it contains emerges from the storylines of the histories and the Gospels, or from the careful argumentation of the letters to the churches.

Are these books written to the believers across the aeons? Are they equally true and accessible to all readers? Indeed, they are written for all believers, but not to all believers. Each book had its own particular audience, bound to a particular time and culture.

This is how we believe God chose to speak His word to us—through this Bible. Yet when we preach every Sunday, does our practice bear this out?

What kind of preacher are you?

When an attentive outsider observes how you preach, what conclusion would they draw about your doctrine of scripture?

1. The Medieval Roman Catholic

Imagine you are the researcher, transported back in time to a Medieval Catholic church. The service is given entirely in Latin, including the message read from a collection of sermons. You don’t understand Latin, and so you are completely baffled, but no matter—none of the people beside you in the pews understand Latin either.

How would you judge the beliefs of this church? Where would they have found ‘the word of God’? Clearly they didn’t find it in the intelligible communication of scripture. Tradition and church order was obviously more important, even if nobody (not even the preacher!) understood what was being read.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God’s word is mediated by the Church, and the Bible is a document of Church order.

2. The motivational speaker

Now imagine you’re transported into a church in which the speaker is styled as a ‘life coach’. Perhaps the preacher discusses current affairs in order to provide some wisdom or encouragement to his listeners. The preacher may use the Bible, but only to help you towards ‘a better you’.

Many churches have declared their lack of confidence in the Bible, and teach this way as a result. Others teach this way because they are attempting to be Christianised versions of Oprah. Either way, the Bible is clearly of peripheral interest and only drawn in when a verse can be found that says something of service to the topic at hand.

More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible contains much wisdom concerning the best way to live.

3. God’s word to us today

The previous two preachers are the kind that we as evangelicals love to hate, but how do we stack up in comparison?

In a church that I know and hold in high regard for many reasons, the sermons regularly affirm an orthodox doctrine of scripture, are based on biblical texts, and show deep reverence for the Bible as God’s word. However, the church is suspicious of academic study and intellectualism, and so its preaching usually prizes openness to what the Spirit is saying to the church now. They prefer to preach freely and without notes so as not to stifle the Spirit. Neither in its sermons or its cell groups does the church work systematically through books (or even chapters) of the Bible.

What conclusion would an observer draw about their doctrine of scripture? The sermons may be helpful exhortations to love, faithfulness and good works, but they are rarely if ever sustained explanations of the Bible.  Texts are separated from their contexts, and because there is no continuity week-by-week, there is never any sense of the storyline or argument of which each verse is a part. In practice, the Bible is a point of departure for a message generated from other sources.

Although messages are inspired by or based on the Bible, the preaching does not explain the message of the Bible in the terms in which it was written. The ‘word of God’ seems to be something that God ‘lays on the heart’ directly.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God speaks to His church, and this is often inspired by what is written in the Bible.

4. Direct application

A wedding sermon I heard this week (while playing ‘alien observer’ in another church) nicely exemplified the ‘direct application’ method of preaching.

The message was from Psalm 45, which speaks of the groom (seemingly the king) wielding the sword and the bow, the bride dressed in gold, and their children being princes in the land for generations. To his credit, the preacher moved through the text piece by piece, which would seemingly acknowledge that God’s word is related to the message of the text as it was written.

However, the text was assumed to be about every marriage (not the wedding of Israel’s king), and each of its details was assumed to be directly applicable to the couple being wedded that day. So allegories were constructed to account for the sword, arrows, and golden fabric, and the preacher even insinuated that it was the literal duty of the couple to have children.

Does it not matter that the psalm was written to Old Covenant Israel? That Jesus’ coming has changed things? That children played a special role in the OT that they do not in the NT? That Israel’s king and his children were theologically important in a way that does not translate any longer?

The preacher was at least explaining the text, but without the controls of literary and historical context that help to uncover what the text originally meant. He ignored the progression of time and revelation, and made no reference to differences in covenant and culture. He treated the Bible as though it were written to us, not just for us. Under those rules, I’m just pleased the message wasn’t about God’s command to be circumcised.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God supernaturally makes His word apparent to readers of the Bible (or perhaps only to specially chosen readers).

5. The topical preacher

Evangelical preachers seem most often to preach topically, that is, their sermons try to give the Bible’s view on justification, or homosexuality, or marriage etc. I have no major objection to topical preaching, but again, what would the observer deduce about our doctrine of scripture? The Bible itself is not arranged in this way. God’s word is not topical—the message emerges from material that is carefully arranged into plots and arguments, or structured as poetry. It has order, progression, context.

It is obviously helpful to distill out of these texts a theology of this or that, but should we consistently neglect how the Bible has been written in favour of a compendium of neat verses arranged around our theme for the day?

While topical preaching is often commendably biblical, it does not preach what God has said in scripture (at least not in the way that He said it); it preaches what God would probably say on a certain subject if we could ask Him.

More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible provides enough information to allow us to uncover God’s word on various subjects.

‘What’s your point?’

I don’t mean to point fingers at other churches or to imply that my denomination (or our preaching) is more evangelical than yours. Who cares whose church is more at fault? Nor is this an attempt to provoke church members to become dissatisfied with their churches, or to suggest that the only valid preaching is exegetical preaching. Perhaps my hurried analysis of evangelical preaching is malformed and unfair. I’d welcome better suggestions concerning the relationship between our doctrine of scripture and our preaching of it.

This is merely a provocation. Our evangelical beliefs about scripture seem to be strongly worded in our doctrinal statements, but weak in practice. If we say that God has spoken in the Bible as we have it, why do so many churches neglect exegetical preaching almost entirely? The Good News is a message that is narrated by scripture. If we don’t work hard to understand that message in the terms in which it was given, we are likely to be presumptuous and to misunderstand it. And if we misunderstand the source material, our preaching can only ever be false (or, at best, true by accident). Is there any task more important than trying to attain deeper understanding of the message of the Bible?

Unless the Bible is the word of God in some mystical magical way, then the word of God is accessible to us only by exegesis. Yes, exegesis is hard and it demands painstaking study (maybe even in Greek and Hebrew). Understanding the message that was intended when it was written requires us to understand how each text connects to the next one, why a writer said what he said when he said it, and how his reader thousands of years ago would have understood it. Yes, it is somewhat academic, and yes it makes things rigid. But no, it does not limit the Spirit. It limits the spirit of the preacher, but not the Spirit of God. It is precisely the word of the Spirit that we have in scripture—why would His own words be a limitation?—and it is the minister’s duty to handle it with care (2 Timothy 2:15).

As evangelicals, we may preach that the Bible is the written word of God, but do we practice what we preach when we preach?