Friday, December 28, 2012

What Is “Salvation”?

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."
                                        Luke 2:11
    At Christmas time we speak of the birth of the "Savior." But what does that mean? In what sense is Jesus a "Savior"? What exactly is "salvation"? The term is widely used in evangelical circles, yet the concept is not always clearly understood. It is one of those words and phrases that has come down to us from the past, and we use without really thinking about what it means. The word itself suggests some sort of deliverance from peril, but what is the peril? Most Americans today are not aware of any. They are quite comfortable living their middle class lives and pursuing the American dream. They generally cannot relate the word "salvation" to anything in their personal experience.
    The word, however, is a biblical one. The apostle Paul could write, "Much more then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him" (Rom. 5:9; NKJV). "Wrath"? What is Paul talking about?
    In his Epistle to the Romans Paul has given us one of the most thorough explanations of the Christian concept of salvation that we have. He begins his discussion by saying, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . ." (Rom. 1:18). "Ungodliness" is the attempt to live life apart from God, the refusal to acknowledge Him as Creator and Lord. The underlying Greek word ("asebeia") might better be translated "impiety." It roughly corresponds to what we think of today as "secularism." "Unrighteousness" is basically injustice and lack of conformity to God's law – our mistreatment of others in defiance of God's norms. What we have here, then, is a vivid picture of a world in rebellion against God and bent on evil. And it is this that has brought down the wrath of God.
    All of this undoubtedly sounds very strange to modern ears. We are not used to thinking this way. But in our materialistic society we are not used to thinking about the larger questions of human existence. Modern western man is the proverbial ostrich with his head stuck in the sand, perfectly oblivious to what is going on around him.
    Consider the facts. Human existence presents us with a strange paradox. We are rational, thinking human beings, yet we have difficulty making sense of our existence. On the one hand we live – we have life and energy, and we strive to enjoy life to the fullest. Yet death is an inescapable reality. Death seems incongruous, somehow out of place in a world abounding with life. Is there any discernible meaning or purpose to all of this? If we were somehow meant to live, why do we die?
    But this throws us back to an even deeper question: is there any meaning or purpose to life at all? The answer of modern philosophy, if it is honest with itself, is "none whatsoever." If the literal truth about who we are and how we got here is evolution, if we are the result of a blind, purposeless natural process, then we are essentially an accident. There is no "design" behind anything. We simply exist, as an accident of nature, and our "essence," or distinctive identity, is something man-made and artificial, something we acquire as we go through life. And indeed this is what probably most people do in actual experience – they wrap their lives around careers, relationships, sports, politics, hobbies, you name it. Anything to give themselves a reason to get up in the morning and face the daily grind.
    But in the end it really isn't very satisfying. It often disappoints us when things don't turn out the way we wanted them to, and it leaves the deeper questions of life largely unanswered. It is at the bottom of it a form of escapism, an attempt to evade the real issue. Do I have any real dignity and worth? Do I have a worthwhile goal in life? The answers to these questions provided by secular philosophy are all disappointed. To get real guidance on these matters we need to turn to Scripture.


Next: The Problem of Evil 

You might also enjoy:
What Makes Christianity Different? 
The Legacy of the Counterculture 

Monday, December 24, 2012

For unto Us a Child Is Born

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

    As we have seen in a previous blogpost ("What Child Is This" – 12/12/12) the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, writing in the 8th Century B.C., had a vision of the future redemption of Israel. Isaiah lived during a turbulent time in Israel's history. The nation was in a deep state of religious and moral decline, and was threatened by its powerful northern neighbor, the Assyrian Empire. Finally, in 733 B.C. the axe fell. The Assyrians invaded Israel and carried most of the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity.
    As noted earlier, these developments raised profoundly disturbing questions about the problem of evil and the nature of divine justice. If the Jews were God's chosen people, and if God was bound to them by a covenant, then how could He allow a disaster like this to happen? Does this mean that evil finally triumphs? As we have seen from recent tragedies, the question is still with us today.
    In one of the earlier chapters of his prophecy Isaiah gives us a picture of the coming Messiah. Referring to the disaster that had befallen the northern tribes of Israel, Zebulun and Napthtali, he declares, "Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed" (Isa. 9:1; NKJV). Significantly, these were the same areas destined to be the scene of much of Jesus' earthly ministry. Nazareth, His boyhood home, was located in what had been the territory of Zebulun; and Capernaum, located on the Sea of Galilee in what was once the territory of Naphtali, was His base of operations for His ministry. In a spiritual sense, the people who lived there in Jesus' day "have seen a great light;/ Those who dwelt in the shadow of death, /Upon them a light has shined" (v. 2)
    The immediate context, however, describes a deliverance from the devastation of war. But the question is, when does this take place? And from what follows it becomes evident that what is in view here is not some localized and temporary phenomenon, but something universal and permanent. Isaiah is looking far beyond his own day to something that lies in the distant future. For he goes on to describe a special king, a unique sovereign, who will sit upon the throne of David and rule forever.
    Who is this ruler? In a strange, paradoxical way He is both God and man. He comes into the world born as a human child: "For unto us a child is born,/ Unto us a Son is given" (v. 6). Yet He is called "Mighty God" and "Everlasting Father."
    What will His rule be like? We are told that "of the increase of His government and peace/ There will be no end," and He will "order it [i.e., His kingdom] and establish it with judgment and justice" (v. 7). "Peace" (Heb. shalom) conveys the idea of a state of rest or equilibrium that results from being whole or complete. "Judgment" (Heb. mishpat) refers to the proper administration of justice. "Justice" (Heb. tsedaqah), which might more properly translated "righteousness," signifies conformity to God's Law. And what does God's law require? "Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law . . .Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:8,10).
    Is there any real justice in the world? We obviously see little of it today. From Damascus, Syria to Newtown, CT, the world is filled with conflict and violence. Human society is profoundly disordered. If the present world of space and time is all that exists, as some maintain, there is no basis for hope. But the birth of the babe in Bethlehem points to a brighter future. It is God's down payment on His promise to deliver a better tomorrow. Mary's child is destined to usher in an age of peace and justice.
    Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012


The Angel Announces the Savior's Birth

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares, / And their spears into pruning hooks; / Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, / Neither shall they learn war anymore."                                                     – Isa. 2:4b; NKJV
    During this Christmas season several news items came to our attention. One, of course, was the horrific shooting incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. But there was also an article in the Dec. 10 issue of Newsweek magazine about "Moral Injury," and more recently USA Today carried an interview with Grover Norquist about his steadfast opposition to tax increases (12/17/12). They all, in a curious sort of way, are connected.
    The big question in the wake of the school shooting is how to prevent future tragedies like this occurring again. One proposed solution is to outlaw military style assault rifles like the one used in the incident. The NRA will undoubtedly argue that it is not guns that cause violence, but the people who use them, and in one sense this is perfectly true. However the rifle in question is a military weapon – it was designed specifically to kill as many human beings as possible. No one is going to use it for deer hunting, for target practice, or for self defense. It has no legitimate civilian use. It makes no more sense to make it available to the general public than it does to put tanks and fighter bombers on the civilian market.
    Obviously more needs to be done to bolster school security. How was a heavily armed gunman able to enter an elementary school? For that matter, why did the gunman's mother leave her gun cabinet unlocked when she knew that she had a mentally disturbed son? But probably the most important thing we can do to prevent future attacks is to improve our mental health system. Almost all of these attacks are carried out by young, emotionally disturbed males, and their acquaintances knew this long before the attacks. We need to find a way to identify these people and get them help before they commit an unspeakable crime.
    The Newsweek article discussed the diagnosis and treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Up until now the standard view has been that it is a fear-based disorder – they live in constant anxiety of getting killed. But the counselors who have spent time talking with these GI's and vets say that a different story has emerged. What these combat veterans are suffering from is guilt – guilt over having killed innocent civilians or not having saved the life of a comrade. This has forced the military to face a deeply troubling question: is there something about killing that violates the human conscience? For the Christian the answer is obviously "yes." Human beings "show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness . . ." (Rom. 2:14-16). Even a hard-boiled atheist cannot escape this basic fact of human psychology. Either he must admit that the pangs of conscience reflect some sort of objective reality, or else he must hold that the conscience is irrational and that there is nothing inherently "wrong" about killing other human beings.
    All of this raises a serious question about America's foreign policy. Soldiers find themselves in these morally difficult situations because of the nature of the assignments given them. We send them overseas to put down an insurgency. But once there they find that it is often difficult to tell friend apart from foe. They all look alike, they all dress alike, they all speak the same incomprehensible foreign language. In the heat of the firefight, when the bullets are flying, it is inevitable that innocent civilians will be killed. The GI has to live with this on his conscience potentially for the rest of his life. It is no wonder that he is emotionally traumatized.
    Which brings us to Mr. Norquist. He was asked by business journalist Maria Bartiromo how he could say that taxes should never go up. His answer was, in part, "The federal government has been taking about 18% of GDP in taxes for the last 20, 30 years. That is more than sufficient to run a reasonably sized government."
    That all depends on what constitutes "a reasonably sized government." Tax rates are considerably higher in a number of European countries. What Mr. Norquist fails to mention is what the US government spends that money on: most of the budget is devoted to defense, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. What does Mr. Norquist think we should cut? Does he really think that the elderly should not receive medical attention? Reforms obviously need to be made to the major entitlement programs (a point seemingly lost on Mrs. Pelosi), but the fact remains that the U.S. spends 5% of its GDP on defense, more than France (3.2%), Britain (3%), Italy (1.8%), or Germany (1.7%). Wouldn't it make sense to bring our defense spending more in line with that of our NATO allies?
    We got Osama bin Laden. Isn't it time to say "mission accomplished," and bring the troops home?
    Which brings us at last to "the reason for the season," why Christ was born. War, violence, and murder have unfortunately been a part of human life since Cain slew Abel. Human society is fundamentally disordered, and death is the price we pay for our depravity. The only real hope for mankind is divine salvation. We need forgiveness, reconciliation to God, and inward cleansing. And to accomplish this a babe was born in Bethlehem.

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American Militarism 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


    Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, in his recent article in Newsweek magazine entitled "The Myths of Jesus," concludes by saying that the gospels of the New Testament "are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts." But this raises a perplexing question: what kind of "religious truths" can exist apart from "historical facts"? Can a narrative be historically false but nevertheless theologically true? What exactly is a "religious truth"?
    Dr. Ehrman attempts to explain: ". . . for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christchild and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what actually happened, but in what actually does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth."
Friedrich Schleiermacher
    The suggestion is not new. Ever since the days of the Enlightenment the literal truth of the biblical narratives has been challenged by skeptics. It was the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who tried to find a way around the problem by appealing to "feeling" as the basis for religion. In his view faith does not depend on the literal truth of the Bible, but on subjective feelings or inward intuition. This basic approach, with various modifications, has been typical of liberal theology down to the present day.
    While this solution is certainly appealing, it nevertheless has some serious problems. First of all, it rests on a dishonest reading of Scripture.. Dr. Ehrman tells us that "these are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts." But the biblical writers themselves did not see it that way.. They insisted that they were describing what God had actually done in real space and time. In the prologue to his gospel, the specific gospel that Dr. Ehrman attacks as unhistorical, Luke specifically states that "it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught" (Lu. 1:3,4; ESV). In so doing he specifically appealed to eyewitness testimony. In other words, Luke self-consciously set out to write history, and now some "good news" that was based on metaphors and myths, and his aim was specifically to let his readers know what had actually happened.
    And so did all the biblical writers, from Moses in the Old Testament to John the apostle in the New. A major part of their polemical argument against polytheism was based on the fact that the Lord God of Israel really does act in history. This is what distinguishes Him from the dumb and useless idols of the surrounding nations. If the events described did not actually happen, however, then the all argument falls to the ground.
    But more importantly, if our faith rests on nothing more substantial than figures of speech and subjective feelings, then it becomes impossible to distinguish our "broad vision" and "fuller sense of theological meaning" from pure fantasy. Our faith is disconnected from objective reality and amounts to little more than wishful thinking. This, in fact, apparently turned out to be the case in Dr. Ehrman himself. We understand that he now considers himself to be an agnostic. His grasp of "theological meaning" appears to be slipping through his fingers.
    In short, "religious truths" that are not related to actual events in history are nothing more than fairy tales – make-believe stories about things that exist nowhere except in our own imaginations. Something is either true or it is not true – it either corresponds to reality or it does not. If the literal truth of who we are and where we got here is evolution, and if the Bible is nothing more than a collection of ancient myths and legends that reflect an obsolete pre-scientific worldview, then it is useless to pretend that the Bible has any relevance for us today. The biblical writers did not know what they were talking about and were just plain wrong about a lot of things.
    But what if they were telling the truth about what they claimed they saw?

Other blogposts related to the issue:
Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? 
The Problem with Liberal Theology 
Letter to a Unitarian Minister 

Saturday, December 15, 2012


    Every year around Christmas and Easter the major newsweeklies are prone to run feature articles about the historical Jesus, often written by prominent liberal scholars who claim to know what really happened 2,000 years ago. This year is no exception, and in the current issue of Newsweek we are treated to an article by Dr. Bart D. Ehrman entitled "The Myths of Jesus." Dr. Ehrman is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several best-selling books. At one time he was an evangelical Christian. We understand that he currently considers himself to be an agnostic.
    Dr. Ehrman begins his article by mentioning several stories about the birth of Jesus that are not in the Bible, but then goes on to question the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives themselves. He discusses two alleged discrepancies in particular.
    The first surrounds the genealogy of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke contain a geneaology; the problem is that the two genealogies are different from each other. According to Matthew, "Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ" (Matt. 1:16). Luke, on the other hand, says that Jesus was "(as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli" (Luke 3:23). So, then, who was Joseph's father, Jacob or Heli?
    Dr. Ehrman tries to tell us that neither Matthew nor Luke "has access to the kind of reliable data they need for the task. So they have provided genealogies that have been invented for the purpose and that, as a result, are necessarily at odds with each other."
    But how does Dr. Ehrman know this? The fact of the matter is that the ancient Jews kept meticulous genealogies. Josephus, for example, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian, could trace his own lineage, and he pointed out that the Jews were especially careful to document the lineage of the priests. The reason was obvious. The priesthood was a hereditary office; it was of critical importance to know who had the proper lineage. This would have been no less true for those who of the royal lineage of David.
    Why, then, do we have two different genealogies for Jesus? The answer should be readily apparent to a biblical scholar of Dr. Ehrman's caliber. There was undoubtedly a "levirate" marriage involved. Under Jewish law if a man died childless, leaving no heirs, a close male relative was expected to take the widow and father a child by her. The child thus conceived would be considered the heir of the deceased husband (Deut. 25:5-10). In this particular case we have it on the authority of an ancient church historian, Julius Africanus, that is what actually happened. To make a long story short, Jacob was Joseph's biological father, while Heli was the previously deceased legal father. Both genealogies are, in fact, correct.
Caesar Augustus
       The other issue that Dr. Ehrman discusses is a bit more difficult to resolve. This involves the census under Caesar Augustus. In the familiar words of Luke 2:1-3: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city." There problem here is that we have no record, outside of Luke's account, of this "census" or "register" (for that is what the Greek word actually means). Dr. Ehrman says that "we have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire."
    This is a considerable overstatement on Dr. Ehrman's part. The archives of ancient Rome have not survived the ravages of time, and as for ancient Roman historians, " . . . in the history of Dio Cassius there is a gap from 747-757 [7 B.C.-A.D. 3], -- the very period in which Luke states this taxing to have been held. Suetonius is very brief, as also Tacitus . . . It has often been remarked how little attention historians of that time gave to the most important measures of civil administration in comparison with military affairs, and even in comparison with things of a momentary popular interest, as games, public buildings, and the like" (Samuel J. Andrews, The Life of our Lord upon the Earth, Part I). It should be noted that Suetonius and Tacitus both lived in the 2nd Century, after Luke, and that Dio Cassius lived even later, in the 3rd Century. Luke, on the other hand, lived in the 1st Century, and is believed to have originally come from Antioch, the capital of the Roman province of Syria. Thus Luke has an even better claim to be a primary source than the others.
    Dr. Ehrman has given us, in effect, an argument from silence. Because the records do not exist, the event did not happen. While it is certainly true that no surviving record of such a census has come down to us, there is nothing implausible in Luke's account. We know that Augustus was an energetic ruler who took matters firmly into hand. Like any good ruler he looked for the most efficient ways to raise revenue. We are also faced with the fact that both Matthew and Luke state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, even though Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. Why would Joseph have taken his pregnant wife on a hazardous trip to Bethlehem if there was no compelling necessity? Dr. Ehrman tells us that "it is a narrative designed to show how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem – whence the Messiah was to come – when everyone knew in fact that he came from Nazareth." But could Mary have forgotten where she had given birth to her famous son? Could both Matthew and Luke have fabricated the story? What we have here is a classic example of a modern scholar making a bold assertion on the flimsiest of evidence.
    Dr. Ehrman concludes by saying "Conundrums such as these have been debated for many years, of course, with some Christian scholars and their lay followers finding ingenious solutions to them and more critical historians insisting that in fact they are bona fide problems that show that these Gospel sources, whatever else they are, are not historically reliable descriptions of what really happened when Jesus was born." We beg to differ with Dr. Ehrman. Matthew and Luke were in a far better position to know what happened in 1st Century Palestine than the 19th and 20th Century critics in Germany and America. Whom should we believe?

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Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?