Monday, July 11

Prescient Piper

When I started this four-part series in Acts back in December (so long ago that it was only going to be three parts back then), I had a visitor to the blog pose a very good question.  The anonymous visitor asked:
 "How do we categorize evangelical churches that are defintely adapting their environment to appeal to the postmodern, is fascinated with the new and different, but are still faithful to the Bible being home base for all teaching and practice? So they look alot like the emerging churches but are really not compromising like many in the movement."
Good question. While I'd like to think I answered part of that in the meta on that post - as well as in my most recent entry in the series, I read something today that is far more insightful.

In 1989, John Piper was preaching from Acts 20:28-31 and had this to say regarding the pursuit of newness and difference:
"Let me just mention one feature to watch out for in the recognition of wolves. As I have watched the movement from biblical faithfulness to liberalism in persons and institutions that I have known over the years, this feature stands out: An emotional disenchantment with faithfulness to what is old and fixed, and an emotional preoccupation with what is new or fashionable or relevant in the eyes of the world.

Let's try to say it another way: when this feature is prevalent, you don't get the impression that a person really longs to bring his mind and heart into conformity to fixed biblical truth. Instead you see the desire to picture biblical truth as unfixed, fluid, indefinable, distant, inaccessible, and so open to the trends of the day.

So what marks a possible wolf-in-the-making is not simply that he rejects or accepts any particular biblical truth, but that he isn't deeply oriented on the Bible. He is more oriented on experience. He isn't captured by the great old faith once for all delivered to the saints. Instead he's enamored by what is new and innovative.

A good elder can be creative. But the indispensable mark when it comes to doctrinal fitness is faithfulness to what is fixed in Scripture—disciplined, humble submission to the particular affirmations of the Bible—carefully and reverently studied and explained and cherished. When that spirit begins to go, there's a wolf-in-the-making."
  I couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, July 4

Sometimes you have to tear down before you can build

Once again, I've managed to let this blog slip into near-total obscurity. This is due, in large part, to the fact that I bit off more than I can theologically chew when it comes to this analysis of Paul's preaching at the Areopagus in Athens that is summarized for us in Acts 17. Still, that's no excuse - so it's time for me to tackle part two of this discussion. Parts three and four are, surprisingly, on the horizon as well. Then I'll get to tackle something fun: blogging through "Politics According to the Bible" by Wayne Grudem.

When we started our discussion of Acts 17:16-33, we'd taken a look at the many ways in which first-century Athens was like our twenty-first-century world: religious pluralism, urbanization and 'tolerance', an open hostility towards a biblical worldview, and a near-obsession with the new and different. Today, in part two, and also in the upcoming part three, we'll look at the framework Paul sets up in order before presenting the gospel - he tears down the worldview of the Athenians and lays out a biblical worldview before presenting a simple, but nonnegotiable, gospel that we'll look at in part four.

Paul tears down the worldview of the Athenians and lays out a biblical worldview before presenting [the] gospel.
Before we start, there's one thing we should really keep in mind. Luke takes only 10 verses to record the things Paul said in the Areopagus; it takes us maybe one or two minutes to read through it - and that's if we read slowly. But the Areopagus was not a place for short, bite-size presentations - this was the academic and cultural center of Athens, which was itself the academic and cultural center of the first-century Greek world! We can be certain that Paul expanded on nearly every point he made - this is clearly a condensed report of a much longer presentation. We can understand more of what Paul likely said if we look at his other writings, especially his thorough explanation of the gospel in Romans.  Nevertheless, even in this condensed version, we find a very clear refutation of the Athenian worldview - one which we would do wise to consider when facing our own biblically-hostile worldview.

Creator God
(v. 24a)

Paul starts out by making the bold claim that God "made the world and everything in it".  He would not have needed to make this point to audiences in Jewish synagogues, but here in the heart of a culture that was hostile towards a biblical worldview - much like our own - he began at the very beginning, not shying away from the biblical truth of creation.  This fact of creation establishes that God is other than His created order, thus eliminating the pantheism favored by the Stoics in Paul's audience.  It also demonstrates the folly, and sin, of worshipping a created thing instead of the Creator - idolatry. 

Are we willing to take on the secular worldview regarding creation in our day?  Or do we ignore this foundational truth because it's 'controversial' or because we think we might look foolish in the eyes of the world?  And what will we do with the modern worship of self, success, wealth, pleasure or happiness in our world?  Are we willing to point out the grievousness of the sin of idolatry when only the Creator is worthy?

Sovereign God
(v.24b)

Next, Paul points out that this God who created everything and everyone is "Lord of heaven and earth" and "does not live in temples made by man".  For God to be sovereign over all of heaven and all of earth - i.e., over all of creation - was a direct contradiction to the pagan notion that each god or goddess ruled over their individual domains, or that each ethnic group or nation had their own god.  The God of the Bible is sovereign over everything.  Because His reign is universal, God is not tamed, or limited, by man-made temples. 

While we don't often come into contact with polytheistic worldviews in our evangelistic efforts, we definitely fight against a worldview that refuses to consider, let alone acknowledge, the sovereignty of God.  Do we clearly proclaim the sovereignty of God and the universality of His reign?  Or do we cow before the secular worldview and begin to think of God as only in charge of those who believe in Him?

Independent and self-existent God
(v.25a)

Paul points out that God "is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything".  This refers to the aseity of God - not a word we hear often anymore, but it means that God's very existence is independent of anything or anyone else. 
Are we willing to point out clearly, as Paul did, that God does not need us; rather, we need God?
Not only is He self-existent (which goes hand-in-hand with being the Creator), but His needs are not met by, or in, His creation.  In other words, God is very unlike the polytheistic culture to which Paul was speaking; in the Greek worldview, humans and gods interacted often - all because the gods 'needed' that which humans could offer.  Paul was clearly pointing out - in stark contrast to what the Greeks believed - that God had no needs that could not be met within Himself.

How different this is from many of today's modern evangelical pitches which suggest, or at the very least, imply that God needs us, that Jesus is incomplete without our love or belief.  Are we willing to go against the popular misconception and point out clearly, as Paul did, that God does not need us; rather, we need God

Utterly-dependent and created man
(v.25b)

The truth, Paul points out in the second half of this verse, is that man is completely dependent on God.  Not only are we created beings, but God "gives to all mankind life and breath and everything."  Every person who has lived, does live, or will live on this earth owes his or her very life to God - whether they recognize and admit it or not.  (This is also a reminder of God's common grace - it is all of mankind that He gives this to.)

The worldview we face today is strikingly different.  Even those who profess a belief in God would not likely go so far as to admit complete dependence upon Him.  Those of us who have grown up in America hold our independence in such high regard that the reality of our dependence on anyone is a concept that most will quickly dismiss.  We must not make that mistake; first, let us acknowledge our total dependence upon God and then let us not shy away from confrontation against a worldview that desperately tries to cling to its mistaken notions of independence and self-determination.

Mankind's descent from one man
(v.26a)

At first glance, we might wonder why it's so important for Paul to point out that all the nations of mankind are descended from a single man.  Two things come to mind - the first is that this contradicted many ancient ideas that held to the belief that different races and ethnic groups came into being in very different ways. 
They mistakenly conclude that because individual beliefs about the truth differ, there must also be individual truths rather than a singularly true Truth
The second, and more important, reason is because the gospel that Paul preaches is a universal gospel for a universal problem. (See Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:21-22.)  Sin and death were brought into the world through the actions of a single man - we are thus all born into sin and subject to death and judgment.  Paul cannot offer a gospel with a universal solution to a problem if he does not first make clear the universality of that problem.

We face a worldview today that, thanks to relativistic notions of truth, believes that something might be sin for one person, but not for another.  They mistakenly conclude that because individual beliefs about the truth differ, there must also be individual truths rather than a singularly true Truth.  Are we willing to point out the hard truth that all have been born into sin?  That all of mankind, as descendants of Adam, lies under the curse and will face death and judgment?  Or do we temper these truths and try to make the gospel a solution to problems other than the problem of sin?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Next time, we'll tackle the rest of Paul's efforts to dismantle the Athenians' worldview before presenting the gospel.  We'll see man's need to seek God, discuss the immanence (or nearness) of God, go more into the sin of idolatry, and talk about the certainty of judgment.  Then, in part four, we'll wrap this text up by looking at the very simple gospel that Paul presented.

Monday, March 14

After these messages, we'll be right back.

Yes, despite appearances to the contrary, I am working on parts two and three to the Acts 17 discussion we started in December. But that's not why I'm here, dusting this thing off today.

Any of you who've been reading this blog from early on know that one of the motivating factors in my starting this blog was reading the recognition that all sorts of false teaching was gaining traction in evangelicalism and that people in the church were ill-equipped to argue against the post-modern, heterodox, Scripture-as-gumby authors and bloggers out there.

One of those heterodox authors is Rob Bell. The recent announcement of his latest book - Love Wins - started a little bit of a firestorm in the blogosphere. While I was concerned (rightly, as it turned out) about this new book, it turns out I wasn't nearly concerned enough. While I won't be reviewing the book myself anytime soon (I've got too many good books to read), I am so very grateful to Kevin DeYoung for the detailed, thorough, and biblical review that he posted today. It's a long one - 20 pages in PDF form - but I strongly recommend it.

Kevin DeYoung's God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins”

Sunday, December 5

Deja vu, all over again

Before I disappeared into the vast blogless void early last year, I had begun planning a series of posts delving into Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus in Athens, as described in Acts 17. Then, when I came back on the scene a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned this series as one of the things that might get some ‘airtime’ here on the blog. Before we get started, you might want to open up a new window with Acts 17:16-33 for reference.

In later segments, we’ll talk about the essential groundwork that Paul lays down in order to break down the worldview of his hearers before he even gets to the gospel. Of course, we’ll also cover the brief, but clear, gospel message that Paul preaches. However, in this first installment, I want to point out how eerily similar first-century Athens was to our own modern world - it is those similarities that will help us see just how Paul’s apologetic can be used as a framework for our own.

Religious pluralism

“... the city was full of idols.”   “... I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”

There were two primary causes of the pluralistic society into which Paul came to preach the gospel. First was the Roman Empire’s historical tendency to adopt “local” gods into their pantheon, and to require the local populace to worship the Roman gods as well. This practice helped ensure that a subjugated people would be less likely to rebel; after all, the “gods” were now on both sides! 

The other reason for the pluralism he encountered in Athens - and one which is far more recognizable in our own post-modern culture - was simply the result of urbanization. The close quarters in which so many people had to live and work created a sort of ‘coerced civility’, or what today we would call 'tolerance'. Of course, this has many good aspects - like the fact that we don’t seek to kill or imprison someone who thinks differently than we do - but it also tends to soften the distinctive edges of various belief systems.
Tolerance is a good thing when applied to the behavior of individuals, but a bad thing in our belief systems.
To put it more clearly, tolerance is a good thing when applied to the behavior of individuals within a culture, but it can become a very bad thing when it appears in our belief systems.

We now live in a culture that is steeped in religious pluralism; a culture that demands “tolerance” for every perversion of truth imaginable, all while simultaneously redefining the term. This is why so many who claim to be Christians no longer want to acknowledge the clear and unavoidable claims of exclusivity that Christ made regarding himself. But, as we’ll see in a later article, Paul did not flinch from this fact as he spoke to those in the Areopagus.

Hostility towards a biblical worldview

In whichever towns Paul went, he would always begin his preaching in the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5, 13:14-43, 14:1, 17:1-3, 17:10-12). Even here in Athens, that’s where he started (see Acts 17:17). In that context, he would (rightly) assume that his hearers had a biblical worldview; he would then use Scripture to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.

But his dealings with the various philosophers shows that Paul was now preaching to people who were not merely biblically illiterate, but to people who held worldviews that were in direct contradiction with Scripture (and with one another, for that matter). Only two are mentioned in the text itself - Epicureans and Stoics - but understanding the way they viewed the world is essential to understanding the nature of Paul’s preaching.
Understanding the way Epicureans and Stoics viewed the world is essential to understanding the nature of Paul’s preaching.

(A quick aside before I go on: I should mention that “philosophy” in ancient Athens did not mean “the subject you major in if you don’t want a job when you graduate”. Philosophy, in this historical context, meant the same thing that we would mean when we talk of a person’s “worldview” today - it’s an entire way of life, an all-encompassing, over-arching understanding that defines how a person sees, interprets and responds to the events of their life.)

Epicureans viewed reality as the random combination and dispersion of atoms; they would find the concept of a bodily resurrection absolutely laughable (see Acts 17:32). Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists, and identified the divine as the principle of reason within all and - via the concept of an impersonal ‘fate’ - ruling all.

These disparate worldviews lead Paul’s hearers to insult him: “What does this babbler wish to say?” The Greek word for “babbler” here literally means “one who picks up seeds” and suggests one who pecks at ideas as a chicken, and then spouts them off without fully understanding them. There is a strongly condescending attitude coming from these learned men of Athens.

Similarly, we now live in a time where we can no longer safely assume a basic biblical worldview here in America, let alone anywhere else in the world. To the contrary, those with whom we must share the gospel now possess a worldview that, like those of the Epicureans and Stoics, is completely contradictory to Scripture. Whether it’s the secular humanist belief that we live in a world created by random chance (Epicurean), or the New Age pantheistic beliefs of postmodernism (Stoicism), we face worldviews that are strikingly similar to what Paul encountered. Finally, I don’t think I need to point out the condescension, if not outright hostility, with which most of the world views Christianity. Go and share the gospel with strangers in a public place for even five minutes and you’ll quickly be called worse things than “babbler”!

Fascination with the novel and unusual

“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Luke gives us a preview of the response Paul will receive by portraying the Athenians as intellectual dilettantes more than actual truth-seekers. Skepticism had made major inroads by this time in history, and Athen’s intellectual life was marked by uncertainty and turmoil. They were fascinated with the trivial, obsessed with the new, and often enamored of the inconsequential.

Today’s culture is no different; as evidence, I point to the success of the banal, so-called “reality” television programming flooding our airwaves... or to the rise in the last decade of 24-hour news networks... or to the constant need to know what relatively useless thing our ‘friends’ are doing on facebook or twitter.
Our fascination with the new and different is pursued with more vigor, and on a larger scale, than anything the Athenians could have ever dreamed!
Our fascination with the new and different is pursued with more vigor, and on a larger scale, than anything the Athenians could have ever dreamed! Sadly, we see some in the church fall victim to this mentality - the emergent and emerging church movements are prime examples of how an obsession with being ‘cutting-edge’ can go much too far.

Conclusion

We could have gone into far more detail about the idolatry in Athens and how similar it is to our current “spiritual, but not religious” world - but that may be its own post someday down the line. For now, we’ll go with these three similarities: religious pluralism, a worldview antithetical to biblical truths, and fascination with the new and different. It seems clear that our world is far more similar to first-century Athens than one might initially believe.

In our next two segments in this study of Acts 17, we’ll take a closer look at how Paul directly addresses the worldview of his hearers, taking it on and dismantling it piece by piece. He does not try to fit the gospel message into the worldview of his hearers, as so many in our modern church seem to do. Instead, he does the hard and necessary work of tearing down worldviews that are incompatible with the biblical gospel before he even gets to the gospel itself!

As always, your thoughts, comments and questions are welcome. Stay tuned...

Sunday, November 28

The Santa Claus theology phenomenon

On long road trips, my mind often wanders (as my wife will testify, it usually doesn't return when called). Over this Thanksgiving weekend's 900-mile jaunt, I got to thinking about the similarities between how kids think about Santa Claus and how adults think about God.

As young children, we grow up being told about Santa Claus and how we need to be good little boys and girls so that Santa will bring us the toys that we ask for. (Unless, of course, we ask for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, in which case Santa will warn us of the likelihood of self-inflicted ocular injuries.)

Have you been a bad little boy?
We're also told -- by adults with furrowed brows, pointing fingers and very serious voices -- that, if we are not good children, the only thing we will find in our stocking is a lump of coal.

Perhaps you were a well-behaved child and you almost never disobeyed your parents. (How about giving me their phone number so I can ask them for myself?) Maybe you were a typical child and only did what you shouldn't do when you thought you could get away with it. Or perhaps you were a real troublemaker, causing all sorts of consternation on the part of your parents - not to mention your probation officers. Whatever the case, did you ever get a lump of coal for Christmas? Did you ever even know someone who was given such a symbol of childhood-obedience failure?
Did you ever even know someone who was given such a symbol of childhood-obedience failure?


The truth is that most of us -- at least most of us here in middle-class America -- usually got almost exactly what we asked for, regardless of whether we were "good" or "bad".

So follow the bouncing-logic-ball for a moment. "Good" kids get toys. "Bad" kids get coal. I was kinda-bad, kinda-good throughout the year. I got toys. I did not get coal. My big brother, who gave me an atomic wedgie just last week, didn't get coal. In fact, I don't know anyone who got a lump of coal. Ergo, all kids are "good" enough for toys. Also, ergo, no kid is "bad" enough for a lump of coal.

Santa-warped logic: no one is "bad" enough for hell and God will still give everyone what they want because they're mostly good, or because they try to be good.
Fast-forward that childhood logic to adulthood and confront that same person with the biblical truth that no one is good enough for God (Rom. 3:10-11), and that we are all facing an eternal, burning lump of coal, and that Santa-warped logic will lead them to believe that no one is "bad" enough for hell and that God will still give everyone what they want because they're mostly good, or because they try to be good.

Be honest with yourself: do you view God as nothing more than a cosmic Santa Claus? If you don't (and I sure hope you don't), you probably know someone who does... how do you lovingly break through this faulty Santa-logic and convince your friend, colleague or family member that, one day, "they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead" (1 Pet. 4:5), and that God "commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed "a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness" (Acts 17:30-31)?