When His word becomes an idol

In man’s tendency to religiosity, we are capable of making anything an idol.  Worship music, for example, is wonderful insofar as it points us to God and facilitates worship in all its diversity, but becomes a barrier when it draws our attention to it, the music, rather than Him, our God.

So it is, somewhat controversially, with scripture. It worries me when a church seems to have as its first article of faith the infallibility and inerrancy of the bible. Because, for all its remarkable properties, the role of scripture is to point us to God, His character, works and in particular, to the person of Jesus. Inerrancy and infallibility are not essential properties of the bible to do that, just as perfect church leaders and perfect worship leaders are not necessary to bring people to Christ (thankfully!). A priori declarations of this sort establish the bible as an idol, ultimately hindering us in seeking to do His will and serving as faithful and credible witnesses to the resurrection life offered through union with Christ.

It is reasonable, however, to attempt to establish such an article of faith on an a posteriori basis – what is the evidence for the inerrancy of scripture? As Christians, we accept the truth of who Jesus is and His teaching, and certainly Jesus had high regard for scripture – indeed, we see Jesus respond to questions by quoting scripture or by asking His questioner what scripture says. Historically, the gospels and scripture generally have a good record in terms of accuracy and modern scholarship of previously “devastating” critiques of biblical historical accuracy from ages past persistently finds in the favour of the bible. For anyone who has seen the bible at work in their own and other people’s lives, it has remarkable powers of healing, conviction and transformation, mediated through the Holy Spirit.

But for all these remarkable properties, it still seems to me to be far from establishing the inerrancy of scripture – that is a leap of faith that seems entirely unwarranted.

The fear of abandoning the claim to the infallibility of the bible is that we have to give up also our claims for Jesus. But this is a non sequitur – the bible doesn’t need to be literally true in every respect to establish the truth of the gospel narrative. Yes, we lose an uncritical shortcut to that truth, but those gospel documents stand up to a more rigorous scrutiny and still yield the same conclusions. Christianity has nothing to fear from detailed historical, literary and scientific analysis of its claims for Christ. We don’t need to bias the rules of engagement and we lose credibility by attempting to do so.

What we do lose is the ability to quote the bible uncritically to support our own prejudices – but that can only be a good thing. “The bible says … so that’s the end of the matter” is no longer a valid argument, and I for one welcome that.

Gender equality in the church

I belong to an evangelical church with a fairly conservative tradition. Recently the Senior Leadership Team have been deliberating over the role of women in the church. At present, women are permitted to lead parts of the service, such as prayer, worship (music), the children’s slot, junior church, but they do so “under the authority” of the man who is leading the service itself. Women are not permitted to preach, lead communion or be a service leader.

As I understand the theological debate, the present position is based essentially on the Pauline doctrine espoused in 1 Timothy 2:12 “I allow no woman to teach or have authority over men”, but it seems that any argument from insistence on the literal interpretation of scripture falls to the charge of hypocrisy when one reads the second half of that same verse: “she is to remain in quietness and keep silence in religious assemblies”.

Whilst I concur that the bible is the inspired word of God, I would argue that it has to be substantially reinterpreted in recognition of the differences between the cultures in the first and twenty-first centuries AD.  In his evangelism of the Roman empire and in light of the considerable Jewish heritage and makeup of the early Christian church, I can see perfectly well how Paul’s ever-practical approach ensured credibility in a hostile culture that equated women in ministry with temple prostitution. But do we really contend that those social norms hold today?

So, ultimately it comes down to a matter of interpretation – where you draw the line. But surely, the only correct response to the question “Where should we draw the line on gender discrimination?” is that we should not be drawing a line at all.

When I were a lad …

Many of my fellow Christians seem to believe that the nation is suffering from moral decline and that Britain is no longer a Christian country.  So my question is simply this:

When exactly was the golden age of Christian morality?

Britain has a pretty bloody imperial history and significant wealth came from its slave trade, so presumably we have to rule out any time before the 19th century.  The Victorian era wasn’t exactly a great advert for Christian morality with swathes of the population in crippling poverty, the workhouses and child labour.  Of course, the first half of the 20th century is scarred by two world wars and up until at least the 1980s, society wasn’t exactly a bastion of gender, racial, religious or sexual equality (and to be fair we’ve still got a long way to go with these issues).  But then, presumably the last 30 years of rampant consumerism, wars over oil and political dishonesty form part of what the critics deplore as unChristian behaviour.

I’d appreciate your thoughts and comments.

Does nature abhor a miracle?

One of the strongest objections to the Christian faith is that it must be legendary because the events it celebrates are unscientific. In particular, the bible records many miracles throughout its Old and New Testaments, most notably the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.

Crucially, such an objection is based on a false premise. Science and the scientific method can never tell us what is and is not possible. All that science can tell us is what things might typically happen in a given situation and hopefully why. That’s because the scientific method is based on experimentation and observation, so anything that is not a common enough occurrence to be observed is unlikely to make it into the model.

Now, by their very nature, miracles are exceedingly rare and seem to defy the natural order – we wouldn’t bother calling them miracles if they didn’t! Even in the bible, which claims to be a record of God’s relationship with the Jews, miracles are not commonplace. Of course, they feature prominently because they are the sort of things worth recording when they happen, but they provoked the same sense of awe and reverence as they would today precisely because they were totally unexpected.

In fact, most scientists would agree that science cannot possibly predict everything. Indeed, one of the central tenets of certain interpretations of quantum mechanics is that everything is possible, it’s just that once you’ve done the calculations most events have a practically zero probability of being observed.

It is right that we should exhibit an informed scepticism about events that seem contrary to our own experiences and seem to defy scientific principles. But as science can never tell us what happened at any given time and place, we need to use historical methods, which include studying writings about the events and examining any archaeological evidence that might be available.

So with all this in mind, I urge you to take a fresh look at those miracles you thought could not have possibly happened and with all the historical and archaeological evidence available to you, reexamine your conclusions. I’m not asking that you agree with me, just that you try to get as complete a picture as the evidence will allow.

Happy hunting!

An Easter riddle

As another Easter passes and Christians around the world remember the events that form the bedrock of our faith, I am reminded again that everything hangs or falls on the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

My challenge to you therefore is simply this: what happened on that first Easter Sunday, that turned a bunch of cowardly followers of the crucified Jesus into zealous evangelists who would proclaim Jesus as the Son of God across the Western world and would all (save one) go to horrific martyrs’ deaths for their faith?

May God bless you and your families this Easter!

Hume’s argument for atheism

David Hume proposed the following argument against the existence of God:

Suffering exists in the world.
If God exists then He is both omnipotent and loving.
If God cannot eliminate suffering then He is not omnipotent.
If God will not eliminate suffering then He is not loving.
Hence, God does not exist.

What do you think of Hume’s argument?  Are the inferences Hume makes valid?  (Note that whether or not you agree with the conclusion has no bearing on the validity, or otherwise, of the argument!)

Feel free to share further arguments for or against the existence of God.

Science vs Christianity

As Christians, we have to be able to answer the question: “Why Christianity, as oppose to any other religion or non-religious belief?”.  For me, it is not a question of choosing a system of beliefs or a theology with which I feel comfortable – that would be putting the cart before the horse.

Christianity is first and foremost an evidence-based faith – the historical evidence points to the existence of a man, whom the Greek-speaking world named Jesus, who claimed to be the son of God, performed miracles, taught about God and heaven, and was raised from the dead precisely as he claimed he would be.  The challenge is to construct a world-view that fits with these facts, which is the challenge that the writers of the New Testament and the early church took on.

However, there is a continual challenge that all of us who wish Christianity to retain that privileged status must face – in light of continuing developments in our understanding of scientific, historical and literary evidence we must continue to re-evaluate the evidence for our faith and, where necessary, adapt our theology to fit the facts rather than denying the facts to suit our theology.

The consequence of failure to engage with this challenge is that Christianity becomes just another religion ….

Debates

This category is to discuss and debate issues about Christianity, including historical evidence, theology, ethics and daily Christian life.  I would be delighted to see some genuine debate here, but we can do this whilst being respectful of each others’ views!

One obvious rule springs to mind: any argument that could be used equally validly by either side of the debate probably contributes nothing and so should be avoided.  I am thinking in particular of arguments that run “if you disagree with me then you either haven’t looked at the facts or are in denial”.  For debate to have any meaning whatsoever we need to allow that people can review the same data and draw different conclusions!