Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Straw men - Make Believe Arguments

Straw man arguments.
This is probably not one of my more interesting posts (no comments, please!), but I’m tired of seeing them when someone tries to build the correctness of their view.
Why do we create a caricature of someone’s position, attack that caricature, and think we’ve advanced our own view? We set up a story that doesn’t really represent the view of another, knock that view down, and think we’ve won. However, the logic in this is seriously flawed! It’s called a “straw man argument”. These show up everywhere – in personal arguments, in politics, everywhere. Sadly, this approach even pops up in Christian contexts. Here’s one example:
“If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll be in heaven already raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven”.
This author tries to make the point that his view of the kingdom and heaven is more biblical than the traditional view (which includes, “when I die, I will be in heaven”). Some people who don’t agree with his view might well believe that “it doesn’t really matter”, but I doubt that’s the main teaching of Bible-based Christianity. I, for one, believe that we enter heaven at the moment of death and I believe in a future rapture. However, between now and then, my stance is not “it doesn’t matter.” I believe we should be good stewards of God’s creation while we are here, for His glory, for my immediate benefit, and for benefit of generations to come. I like to see the mountains; I prefer blue skies to the brown skies I saw in Beijing. And the fact that I don’t get as excited about some issues (e.g., “global warming”) as other people has nothing to do with my views about heaven or the rapture. It comes from doubts about the soundness of the science behind the story (or other factors, depending on the issue!)
Here’s another example:
“We have been told all that is required is a one-time decision, maybe even mere intellectual assent to Jesus, but after that we need not worry about his commands, his standards, or his glory. We have a ticket to heaven, and we can live however we want on earth.  Our sin will be tolerated along the way.”
This particular author wants his readers to take a more biblical view of discipleship and to live accordingly (which I commend, by the way). He view is that the proper response to the gospel message should be “unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.” The problem with his argument, though, is his description of the response allegedly required by those who hold a different view than him. Again, a few may hold the view that “we can live however we want” and that “our sin will be tolerated.” But most within Bible-based Christianity do not; those who teach that the response should be belief in Jesus (“whosoever believes in Him… has eternal life”, John 3:16, et al), would never teach we can live like we want and tolerate sin (Romans 6:1-2).
It seems that the straw man approach only convinces two groups of people: (1) Those already in the arguer's camp, and (2) those not well-read enough to recognize that the description of the other position is not a sound description (This doesn't mean they aren't intelligent. They just aren't aware of the options related to the issue at hand). The rest who believe differently will see the straw man and not be convinced.
What should we do with this?
(1)    Watch for straw-men arguments. Don’t be swayed by them. The author may have some valid points, but make sure the logic he or she uses to support them is sound. Do options other than the straw man exist? What are they? By the way, even if the other option isn’t a caricature, there may still be other options. Presenting only two views when others exist is called a “false dichotomy”. Usually (but not always) more than two options exist to consider.

(2)    Avoid using straw men in our own argumentation. If we want to say something about someone else’s view, try to accurately reflect their view.
Okay. Not fascinating. But I got it off my chest. Read carefully - think carefully!
(By the way, if you know who the authors are who wrote these examples, please don’t mention their names. I’m not interested in criticizing them, but instead the logical problem of their approach).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Get Unfuzzy - Musings on the Gospel

What is “the gospel”?

We asked some African pastors the meaning of “the gospel”. They said, “The good news”. Technically, they were absolutely right. But we were more interested in hearing what they thought was required to receive eternal life. Then, in some recent reading, the topic of “the gospel” popped up repeatedly (as it should, I suspect, when reading “Christian” material!). David Platt, in his book Radical, says “We need to return with urgency to a biblical gospel”. The back cover of Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel, asks this: “Have we embraced the whole gospel?” Plus, the support team of well-known speaker, someone with some “interesting” ideas about the Holy Spirit, said his evangelistic campaign would simply be a “gospel” presentation. The term “gospel” shows up repeatedly.

So, what is the gospel? Does it always mean the same thing?
I suspect when we hear or read the word, the first idea that pops in our head connects “gospel” with “what must I believe or do to receive eternal life”. I’ve concluded “gospel” is one of those words we often use, but we aren’t always clear about what we mean. And so we’re unintentionally fuzzy in our conversations about the gospel. Let’s get “unfuzzy”.[1]

The basic meaning of “gospel” is, as the African pastors responded, “good news”.[2] However, this “good news” often speaks of more than what we must believe for eternal life. True, it sometimes is a technical term with this meaning. But, in its broadest sense, the “gospel” refers to the full story of the person and work of Christ. Just as “salvation” has past, present, and future aspects, so too has “gospel”. It includes the past, present, and future aspects of our relationship with Him, based on His work on our behalf, and the past, present, and future work of God. The context must tell us whether the author is referring to the whole story or some part of the story.
Romans serves as one example where “gospel” means more than what I must believe to receive eternal life. In Romans 1:6-8 and 1:12-13, Paul calls his readers “called, beloved of God, saints, brethren”; he thanks God that their faith is being spoken of by others; and he says he longs to see them and be encouraged “each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine” (some translations use the words “mutual faith”).  It seems clear in the introduction that Paul views the Roman readers as believers. It is to this believing audience that he says he is “eager to preach the gospel”! To believers??? He then goes on, in his magnum opus, to lay out the core truth of justification by faith alone, but so much more (just read Romans 6-8!). Thus, at least in this passage in Romans, “gospel” is much broader than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus or the requirements for justification.  (Want a few more examples? Look at Mark 1:1, 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 2 Tim. 1:10, and 2 Tim. 2:8.)

Sometimes, then, “gospel” is much broader than the requirements for eternal life. When we read the New Testament, and we come across the word “gospel”, we need to think “the good news about Jesus Christ”. But we need to let the context tell us whether it refers to the whole story or some specific aspect of the gospel.
The “gospel of the kingdom” is one such specific aspect. The phrase itself occurs only four times (Matt. 4:23, 9:15, 24:14, and Luke 16:16), although other passages infer the idea (for example, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, Matt. 3:2). Both Jesus and John the Baptist declared to Israel that the promised King they were waiting for had arrived. Had Israel, as a whole, received Jesus as King, this promised form of the kingdom would have appeared. But she didn’t, she rejected Jesus (John 1:11), and the kingdom offer was deferred (Acts 1:6). Matthew 24 implies this “gospel of the kingdom” reappears at the end of the age, just prior to the physical return of Jesus. There is a yet-future kingdom on earth over which Jesus will reign, whether the new heavens and new earth (as some hold) or a kingdom on this earth before the new earth (as others, like me, hold). This message is still part of the gospel, the good news, but the “gospel of the kingdom” looks at a particular aspect of the gospel, pointing to some future time when Jesus returns. (On a side note – someone commented on another post that doctrine is a “hot topic” and is often divisive. However, we can’t avoid it. How one understands the doctrine of the kingdom influences how one understands this aspect of the gospel!)

The “gospel of your salvation” is another specific aspect:
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph. 1:13)
This is the aspect of the gospel most frequently thought of when we simply say “the gospel”. This is the message “for by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8-9) or “whosoever believes in Me shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This aspect of the gospel is necessary for someone to receive eternal life now, to enter into a relationship with Jesus, to be “justified” (declared “not guilty”, Rom. 5:1), to be ensured of an eternity in heaven (“and these whom He justified, He also glorified”, Romans 8:30b). This aspect of the gospel says, simply, we are “saved” by faith alone in Christ alone. Anything else is, as Paul calls it, a “different” (false) gospel!
So, what is the gospel? It depends! It is good news. It is good news about Jesus. If we mean, “what is the gospel that results in justification”, it is “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” If we mean, “what is the gospel as it relates to my life as a believer”, it might mean that Jesus ascended into heaven and gave each of us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to say “no” to sin, or it might mean that in Him we have the ability to be salt and light (in word and deed) in the world. If we mean, “what is the gospel related to the afterlife”, it is that we are guaranteed entrance into heaven because of Jesus’ completed work. If we mean “what is the gospel as it relates to the final outcome of this world”, it is that Jesus will one day physically reign on earth as prophesied in the Old Testament (the “gospel of the kingdom”) and that Satan will be bound. When we (or Paul, or…) preach “the gospel”, the message could well include the entire story, or we could limit ourselves to just part of the story. So, whenever we see the word “gospel”, think “good news”, but ask, “What part of the good news? Let’s get “unfuzzy” in our thinking!

[1] My apologies to Darby Conly, the artist and author of the comic strip “Get Fuzzy”
[2] Our word “gospel” comes from two Greek words, euangelion (euaggelion) and euangelizo (euaggelizw). The first, a noun, means, “good news” and the second, a verb, means “to communicate good news about something”. Roughly half the time, this verb is translated simply with some form of “to preach”; the other half, it includes the phrase “good news” or “gospel”, as in “preach the gospel”. The two words show up 130 times in the Greek, and the word “gospel” shows up about 100 times in the English, depending on the translation. The word “gospel”, often has a descriptor attached to it, such as the gospel: of the kingdom, of Christ, of Jesus Christ, of our Lord Jesus Christ, of His Son, of the glory of Christ, of God, of the blessed God, of the grace of God, of your salvation, of peace, etc. It most frequently stands alone (about 60% of the time).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Danger Will Robinson!

The old - and cheesy - TV show "Lost in Space" featured a robot who waved his arms, saying "Danger Will Robinson" whenever he sensed a problem.

I think the warning applies to us. "Danger Will Robinson!". One of my great concerns for Christianity, especially American Christianity, is that we do not know God’s Word. We do not think theologically. We do not evaluate life through the eyes of Scripture. We do not take advantage of opportunities to learn God’s Word. We don’t actively and seriously pursue growing and living in Christ or helping others to grow in Him (discipleship).
What do these problems I sense look like? A few examples - and I know some of you will disagree, but that's okay. It's my blog :-)
(1)    From a popular book: “If there is no sign of caring for the poor in our lives, then there is reason to at least question whether Jesus is in our hearts... Caring for the poor is a necessary evidence of Christ in our hearts." (Really? Is that the basis for our justification?).

(2)    “We need more Jesus and less Paul” (Really? Are the words of Jesus in Scripture more inspired than the words of Paul?)

(3)    Making statements that seem to be pulled from thin air, not from the text, such as: “Hip hop music is bad. In fact, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk is the dance demons do in hell.” (Yep, I really heard this from a pulpit, somehow connected to Romans 8:1).

(4)    Arguing from emotions and passion instead of wrestling with the text to first see what it says. (Really? We start with passions and then move to truth?) Emotions and passions are good, but we must start with truth. I’ve had multiple discussions over the years about the death penalty. Inevitably, those opposed argue from statistics, flaws in the system, and emotions rather than wrestling with passages like Genesis 9:6, the many references to “they shall be put to death” in Leviticus 20, and Romans 13:4. My point here isn’t to argue for or against the death penalty; it is that we must start with Scripture (whatever the issue) and then look at issues, not the other way around.

(5)    Focusing on one issue at the expense of others. This feels like “if you don’t have the same passion as I do for this issue, then you are wrong” (Really? Can’t someone be equally passionate about another biblical issue?). When we turn a single issue into the litmus test for one’s spirituality, we are wrong, even if the issue is legitimate (see #1 above!).

(6)    Downplaying the importance of doctrine vs. “practical” teaching. (Really? How can we practice truth without knowing truth?) We’ve turned “doctrine” into some kind of dirty word. Granted, if we stop with doctrine, we can become dry in living out God’s truth, and, granted, some doctrines are more important than others. But the bedrock of doctrinal truth must support the practical application of God’s Word. And doctrine, correctly taught, is immensely practical!
There’s more, but you get the point.
What do we do about these problems?
The solution is simple… we need to learn the Scriptures. See what the text says, understand what the author intended, and then figure out what it looks like in our world (observation, interpretation, application). Read in context – to help ensure the verse says what we think it says.
And we need to make a priority of sitting under solid teaching. But I am concerned we choose to stay at home when we have opportunities to learn. Be careful – not every teacher on “Christian” radio or TV provides solid teaching, and not every book in the “Christian” bookstore is worthy reading. Regardless, we must put ourselves in places to learn God’s Word so we can live God’s Word for our good and His glory!
Let’s avoid the dangers. Let’s “long for the pure milk of the Word” (2 Pet. 2:2) and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).