Abraham, Model of Faith? The Binding of Isaac

413px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_035One of the hardest stories in the Old Testament comes in Genesis 22. Here God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac – his beloved son of the promise. This passage is next up in our slow walk through Genesis.

Walter Moberly discusses this passage in Old Testament Theology: The Theology of the Book of Genesis in a chapter provocatively titled Abraham: Model or Monster? Although the history of both Jewish and Christian interpretation see Abraham’s response as a model for faith, and the incident as in no way validating child sacrifice, for many scholars today the passage is far more sinister. It is not uncommon for this passage to be raised as an example of “bronze age” or “iron age” religion as morally bankrupt and dangerous. Something we are best off leaving behind us. But this view arises from a flat out-of-context reading of the passage.

The story starts with the test.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.

He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

This is followed by an expansion and restatement of the covenant promise to make Abraham a great nation.

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Most sermons and Sunday School lessons don’t do justice to the shape or impact of this story. There are several important points to consider, but we will focus on two for this post.

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Why We Gather

640px-Farming_near_Klingerstown,_PennsylvaniaI had the privilege of attending a Celebration of Life (i.e. memorial service) earlier this summer for my uncle, ’54 MDiv Northern Seminary, for 35 years a bivocational pastor in rural Illinois. Growing up I knew him as my uncle the pastor, this is what shaped his identity. His work as a teacher and school counselor was secondary to his Christian vocation and calling. Retirement took him out of the pulpit and out of that small town, but not out of the church. Nor did it change his calling as a Christian. At the celebration he was remembered as a man constantly on ministry, searching out relationships. He was active in a few different churches in the 20+ years after retirement. One common remembrance was his willingness to strike up a conversation anywhere, another his regular coffee shop gatherings with people, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera. He was not a saint (and didn’t want to be portrayed as such), but he was heart and soul a Christian and a member of the church both global and local. This is what he asked that people, especially his children and grandchildren, focus on at the service.

If we listen to some Christian leaders today he was a failure. After all, he never had a church in the thousands (I am not sure of the size, a couple hundred at most), he had no staff and didn’t aspire to “success” as a Christian leader. A rural church wasn’t a stepping stone to bigger and better things. His goal wasn’t a bigger personal following, but making disciples of Christ. He followed his calling to be a pastor (i.e. a shepherd) to those around him. He raised a family, preached weekly, led a summer community VBS, delivered meals on wheels, visited with people, not only those in his own church (all points raised in the celebration). Those of us who knew him and the impact he had on others, know that he was no failure. As Christians we are not called to success as measured by the world, not even when it is baptized as “holy” because it involves church work.

N MN LakeAlong the same lines – I was on vacation earlier this month in the north woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, attending a different rural church each of the two Sundays. Neither is perfect (no church is) but both have energetic youngish pastors, relatively new on the job, who are eager to make a difference in their communities. Both churches do make a difference. Neither church will ever be more than a few hundred at best (one is located in a county nearly 2000 square miles with only ~16000 residents, i.e. ~8 or 9 permanent residents per square mile!), largest town under 2500. Both of these churches have larger attendance in the summer (lake cabins abound) than winter. One has an important ministry in the county jail. Poverty, drugs, alcohol and depression can be big problems in rural America. The other may as well. Although neither pastor is bivocational at least one of them has a wife whose employment as a teacher helps to support the family. It is not uncommon for rural pastors to be paid at a level making them eligible for SNAP (food stamps) or other such programs if dependent on one income for a family.

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Posted in Christian Life, Church, Pastoring | 1 Comment

A Story Carved In Stone


(Image from Wikipedia: credit)

Balance YECThe evidence for an ancient earth – far, far older than the <10,000 year timeline defended in young earth creationism – is abundant and independent of any hypothesis concerning the mechanism of biological evolution. There are only two reasons to doubt the great age of the earth: (1) an ignorance of the data or (2) a prior commitment to a young earth (usually from a specific approach to Genesis). In my experience, adamant defense of a young earth has always been tied to the bible. The necessary result of any investigation of geological features is thus predetermined. The data must fit this model. But, the data does not really fit the model.

61xIR2NE7+L._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been reading a new book that uses the geology of the Grand Canyon region to outline the evidence for an ancient earth, The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? This book contains abundant pictures and diagrams to educate the reader about geology and the shortcomings of flood geology. Most of the authors are Christian and all are experts in the science contained in their respective chapters. Interestingly, I once shared a shuttle with two of them from Boston airport to Gordon College. Despite the fact that four Christian science professors (a geologist, a paleontologist, a chemist and a biologist) were in the van, the driver shared that he was convinced that science disproved Christianity, with evolution and the age of the earth at the top of his reasons.

My first post on this book (A Grand Canyon) looked at Part 1: Two Views, a comparison of the time frames of flood geology and modern geology. Today we turn to Part 2: How Geology Works. This chapter is a brief primer on the basics of geology and dating. Three chapters explore the structure and formation of different types of sedimentary rock, three chapters explore the methods used to date the different layers of rock observed in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere and the final two chapters provide an introduction to plate tectonics and the evidence for the motion of plates left in the rock layers at the Grand Canyon and elsewhere around the world. If you have little or no scientific training, and have wondered how geology works and why the overwhelming majority of Christian geologists have little patience with Flood Geology this section is for you. It is informative and easy to read accompanied by great illustrations and pictures. In what follows I will focus in one one or two points from each of the three subsections.

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Posted in Creation, Problems for Faith, Science and Faith | Tagged ,

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our … Politics?

ChurchDespite the title this isn’t a post about the current US presidential election – although I hope it gets people thinking about how they frame their position, whatever that may be. In fact, the title may distract from the theme of the post. But it is an attention grabber.

“They,” that is the non-Christians in our increasingly diverse and secular culture, will not know we are Christians by our political affiliation. They will not know we are Christians by the logic of our words, by our fancy buildings, popular orators, rules, or philosophical arguments.

They will know we are Christians by the way we live. Christianity will also be defined (in their minds at least) by the way we live. Try asking people some time “What is the first word that comes to mind when I say Christian?”

It goes beyond this though. They will know that Christianity is true (or not) by the way Christians live.

One of the commenters on Tuesday’s post Testable Faith made a point worth a good deal of consideration.

Should our views be verifiable or at the very least subject to falsification on matters of faith?

I think yes. And can give you some examples of how that could work.

If the claims of Scripture are true, we should see a qualitative difference between Christians filled with the spirit and non-Christians in the “world.” We should see “fruits” of the spirit. Light and salt. In a way that is striking by way of comparison. And this should be even more pronounced the more devout one is in their faith. In a way that does not compare with how devout one is in another non-Christian faith.

Subjectively, one ought be able to say something qualitatively more compelling in their Christian “testimony” than the sincere “testimonies” of those from other faiths.

We should see greater wisdom and discernment in devout Christian communities than those of other faiths or non-faith.

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Posted in Christian Life, Problems for Faith

Testable Truth

apollo08_earthriseAll of us have some kind of worldview or philosophy of life. It may be a carefully reasoned position, or an organic entity that we grew into (or up in). In any event it can be helpful to examine the elements of our worldview and put them to the test. Truth should survive the test.

I recently picked up a book by Kenneth Samples A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test. Kenneth Samples is a senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB) and lectures in the MA program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. He is a philosopher and theologian by training – with an MA in Theological Studies from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola.

In chapter 2 of his book Samples suggests a series of nine tests that can be used to critically consider the elements of one’s worldview. (pp. 33-37)

  1. Coherence Test: Is a particular worldview logically consistent.

Truth will always be wholly consistent within itself, displaying internal logical harmony. The coherence test stresses the crucial unity and relatedness of all truth. Therefore any logical inconsistency in the basic elements of a worldview is a mark of essential error. …

Incoherence shows that a worldview must be false; coherence shows that a worldview may be true. As important as coherence is, more is needed for a worldview to pass the ultimate truth test. (p. 33)

  1. Balance Test: Is the worldview properly balanced between simplicity and complexity?

All things being equal, the simplest worldview that does justice to all aspects of reality deserves preference (p. 33)

A credible interpretation of reality will be neither overly simple nor unnecessarily complex. In short, the simplest, fully orbed worldview possesses superior explanatory power. (p. 34)

  1. Explanatory Power and Scope Test: How well does a worldview explain the facts of reality (“power”), and how wide is the range of its explanation (“scope”)?

A viable worldview explains the phenomena of the material realm and life in sufficient detail. This description should account for what can be observed external to humanity (the physical universe) as well as internal to the same (hopes, desires, aspirations, and so on). (p. 34)

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Posted in Christian Life, Knowledge, Resources for Discussion

A Literal Reading, Please

A common question raised any time the question of creation and evolution comes up is the impact of this discussion on our understanding of scripture. After all, if we can’t take Genesis 1 literally why take any other part of the Bible literally? This is one of the three common questions Tim Keller reports from his 35 years of pastoral experience, it is a question I’ve gotten in church and one we have come up against in comments time and time again on this blog. Most arguments against an old earth are framed in terms of the authority and reliability of Scripture. Ken Ham’s debate with Bill Nye is an excellent case in point. Ham’s tag line was a simple “I have a book.”

wright and enns dsClearly our understanding of the bible is an important question, one we must think through carefully. I think we believe in the bible as the Word of God because we believe in God and his work in the World. When we make the bible the foundation we have it backwards. This means that we need to look to scripture itself to understand what it means for scripture to be the Word of God. We cannot impose criteria from the outside.

A video conversation between Peter Enns and N. T. Wright on the literal reading of scripture addresses the question in a useful fashion.

In this excerpt from the video conversation between Pete Enns and Tom Wright the discussion centers around the meaning of the word literal – as in the literal reading of scripture.

The word literal is not synonymous with concrete, physical, or historical. Wright suggests that the literal meaning of a text can be concrete, physical, or historical; but it can also be something abstract – an idea or a fundamental truth. We have to look at a text in a broader context to determine the meaning of the text. When we ask if Genesis can be taken literally, that doesn’t settle the question of its meaning and intent. We have to ask deeper questions – what does the text refer to and how does it intend to refer to it? At time a literal reading points to a concrete event – like the crucifixion of Jesus. At other times the literal reading points to an abstraction or a metaphor—though it may have a concrete application.

At times a literal reading can even point to concrete events having primarily abstract or metaphorical meanings. I’d put Matthew’s reference to Hosea to interpret the sojourn of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Israel in this category.  A literal reading of Matthew 2:15 (“And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.“) and his use of Hosea 11:1 (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.“)  should leave us appreciating the significance of Jesus as the true and faithful Israel – a theme that runs through Matthew. We should not be marveling in a “prediction” which a careful look tells us isn’t anywhere in the intent of Hosea.

In context Genesis 1 is about God making heavens and the Earth as the place he wants to dwell and placing humans into that construct as a way of reflecting his own love into the world and drawing out the praise and glory from the world back to himself. “That is the literal meaning of Genesis,” says Wright, “and the question of the formal structure has to sit around that as best it can.”

But this is not first and foremost a science question. It is a Bible question. Even if we assume a young earth, six day creation, Adam, Eve, and a snake we will run into problems with a rigid “literal” view of scripture as history. A number of years ago Pete Enns put up a series of four posts on the books of Chronicles (Introduction – you can find the whole series through the sidebar on this link). In these posts Pete outlines some of the problems reconciling the historical accounts in Samuel/Kings with the historical account in Chronicles. He notes that all of these books claim to be histories. We are not mixing genre – comparing poetry and history for example. Yet there are fundamental differences. Differences that are best understood if we consider how the Chronicler is using the history of Israel to convey a message for Israel after the exile.

The promise of God related by Nathan to David is one such example – discussed in this  installment. In 2 Samuel 7:16 Nathan says to David: “Your house and your king will endure forever before me. Your throne will be established forever.” In 1 Chronicles 17:14 Nathan conveys a message “I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” The word change, Pete suggests, is significant.

In the next  installment Pete describes more completely the depth of the differences. The Chronicler is reshaping Israel’s history to convey his message. David and Solomon become great kings, their failing are ignored. The story of the succession from David to Solomon is whitewashed.

Again, these two accounts of Solomon’s succession are not two complimentary angles on one story, but two versions. The transition of power is utterly different. The two accounts are incompatible if we approach the Bible expecting historical accounts to provide no more or less than literal accuracy. “Literalism” cannot explain why these two accounts are so different.

Chronicles, although undeniably written as an account of history, is not a journalistic, objective, blow-by-blow account so his readers can know what happened back then. And he is certainly not writing to distort the past by white-washing it. The Chronicler is presenting an ideal David and Solomon to cast a vision for the future.

But, and this is the main point, none of this undermines scripture as the inspired Word of God. Rather the message conveyed in Chronicles is the inspired message from God. Pete concludes where I conclude:

Chronicles is no less the word of God because of its reshaping of history to make this theological, pastoral, point. Rather, reshaping the past to speak to the present is precisely what this author was inspired to do.

The Bible is the inspired Word of God – and we must let scripture itself tell us what this means. The differences between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles are not a problem to be resolved, but point to lessons we are to learn.

What do you mean by literal as you look at interpretation of Scripture?

When is the ‘literal’ reading a useful filter for understanding the truth conveyed in scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

You may also comment on A Literal Reading, Please at Jesus Creed

This is an edited repost from a number of years ago as I wrap up my vacation and prepare for the new (academic) year.

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Rules of Engagement

IMG_3792How can we hold a reasonable conversation on a controversial issue?

There are many issues on which reasonable, dedicated, and devout Christians disagree. The form and intent of the Lord’s Supper (communion or Eucharist), the appropriate age for baptism, the mode of baptism, appropriate roles for women in the church, politics, economics, the age of the earth, evolution, and much more. In some cases there may be clear “better” answers, in other cases the biblical evidence is entirely ambiguous. Some questions are probably better ignored than engaged (in most cases I’d put politics in a category that churches are better off ignoring),but others should be engaged. I am particularly concerned with the last two – the manner in which the church can engage in a profitable discussion of the issues at the interface of modern science and the Christian faith. These are questions that shouldn’t be ignored, at least not in a church where the questions are active in the community – as in the University community where we worship.

I suggest the following rules of engagement for discussion of origins.

  1. The question of origins is one on which reasonable, devout Christians disagree.

All Christians agree that God is creator, but there are genuine disagreements over young earth, old earth progressive creation, and old earth evolutionary creation. To put names to some general positions, Ken Ham, Hugh Ross, and Francis Collins are all genuine devout Christians. It is not appropriate to impugn the motives or devotion of fellow Christians even while arguing for the truth of a different view on the question of origins.

It is seldom helpful to describe Christian thought on origins in terms of discrete positions. There are a continuum of views held by Christians (and non-Christians) when it comes to origins. We need to appreciated the continuum and the uncertainty.

  1. Ad hominem arguments are to be avoided at all costs.

Arguments emphasizing persons and personalities simply drag the argument into the mud and give Christians everywhere a dirty name. It is never appropriate to accuse a Christian scientist arguing for an old earth and/or evolutionary creation of bowing to the pressure of colleagues in order to get ahead Nor is it appropriate to accuse a biblical scholar of bowing to the pressure of either liberal colleagues or conservative colleagues, donors, or pastors. Respect the intellectual integrity of others and argue the issues. Continue reading

Posted in Conversation, Evangelicalism, Problems for Faith