Snake-Handling Preacher Dies from Snake Bite

May 31, 2012

A friend brought to my attention a story coming out of West Virginia yesterday. Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford, a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher, has died from a poisonous timber rattlesnake bite.

You can read the ABC report here.

Wolford was profiled just 6 months ago in an article by the Washington Post. He’d been bitten several times before and survived. As Discovery News explains, it’s impossible to predict whether a snake will deliver “a harmless ‘dry bite,’ or a deadly injection of toxins that can kill a full-grown human within hours.”

No doubt, these past brushes with serpents emboldened Wolford to believe that he owed his survival, not to the lack of venom in those bites, but to the power of God:

“Anybody can do it that believes it,” he says. “Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.” … “I know it’s real; it is the power of God,” Wolford says. “If I didn’t do it, if I’d never gotten back involved, it’d be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real.”

The sad irony is that, at the age of 15, Wolford watched his father, also a snake-handling preacher, die from a snake bite. In what has to be one of the most mind-boggling rationalizations I’ve ever read, Wolford said of his father’s death, “I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.” Given that what his father “believed in” was that he could be bitten by snakes and not die, it’s hard to understand how death by snakebite amounts to dying “for what you believe in.” Seems more likely dying to disprove what you believe in.

The other sad irony is that Mark 16:17-18, the passage on which Pentecostal snake-handlers stake their lives, is part of the longer ending of Mark that scholars have long recognized as inauthentic. Death from lack of textual criticism. Tragic, really. Perhaps the King James Bible should come with a warning label.


What if God Threw a Flood and No One Came?

March 24, 2012

The folks over at Answers in Genesis recently tackled the question, “When exactly was the Flood?”. After consulting his Bible and with a little help from Bishop James Ussher, David Wright of AiG provides the answer:

Using the Bible, well-documented historical events, and some math, we find that the Flood began approximately 4,359 years ago in the year 1656 AM [anno mundi] or 2348 BC.

So there you have it. Only 8 people left alive on the planet in 2348 BC.

That got me thinking. What other “well-documented historical events” might have been going on in the 24th century BC? Let’s take a look …



Sargon the Great

Sargon the Great

It must have come as a real shock to Noah and his children when, in 2334 BC – only 14 years after the flood – Sargon the Great began establishing the powerful Akkadian empire. This task involved defeating in battle a variety of Sumerian city states, some of which had populations in excess of 100,000 inhabitants (e.g. Lagash and Uruk). By the end of his reign (2279 BC), Sargon’s vast empire stretched from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf – basically the entire Fertile Crescent.

Such an empire only 69 years after the Flood is a feat indeed. But the real credit has to go to the four women on Noah’s ark. “Barefoot and pregnant” doesn’t begin to describe the work involved in repopulating the planet at the pace necessary to give Sargon armies to fight and people to rule.



Down in Egypt, the United Kingdom established by Menes circa. 3000 BC was humming along nicely. By the time of Noah’s flood, the Egyptians were just wrapping up their 5th dynasty. Pharaoh Unas was, no doubt, quite perturbed to see his empire underwater, especially since he was in the middle of building a pyramid complex at Saqqara, which you can visit to this day.

inside Teti's pyramid

inside Teti's pyramid

Undeterred, the now soggy Egyptians moved seamlessly into the 6th dynasty with Pharaoh Teti at the helm. Teti built himself a nice pyramid complex too. Given that Teti came to power only 3 years after the global population was reduced to 8, you might have thought cheap labor for pyramid building would be hard to come by. Nonetheless, even Teti’s high court officials were building themselves massive funerary monuments during his reign.


Indus Valley

ruins of a bath in the Harappan city of Mohenjo-daro

ruins of a bath in the Harappan city of Mohenjo-daro

By the time of the Flood, the vast Indus Valley Civilization had been in existence for about a millennium. It was now at its zenith in the period known as the Mature Harappan Period (beginning in 2600 BC). We don’t know as much about the Harappan culture because we still haven’t interpreted their script. But the archaeological record evidences large cities, hundreds of settlements, impressive architecture, and a rich material culture.

What we can say with confidence is that the Harappan were excellent swimmers. Their population managed to tread water for the entire year of Noah’s flood, allowing their civilization to continue uninterrupted for another 4 centuries before a gradual decline from 1900 to 1700 BC.


I could go on. In fact, it’s hard to pick a spot on the globe that didn’t have some form of continuous civilization both before and after 2348 BC.

The problem gets even worse for AiG because they take the Tower of Babel story as literal history as well, which forces them to push the beginning of all civilizations another 100+ years into the future to 2200 BC.

I’m not sure if it’s hilarious or just plain sad to see them teaching good Christian folk that Egypt was founded in 2188 BC. For reference, this date falls at the tail end of the 6th dynasty, after the entire Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods. That’s 1000 years of Egyptian history swept under the rug. 2188 BC is also 3-400 years after construction of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza. I guess they were built by aliens after all.

Insistence on a literal global deluge is a cardinal doctrine among most young earth creationists (YECs). YEC claims are regularly challenged on scientific grounds. This is to be expected when your theory defies modern geology, biology, paleontology, physics, astronomy, and genetics. Less frequently do we hear YEC claims held up for comparison against history. But there too, the YEC must continually dismiss the conclusions of professional historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, choosing instead to construct yet another alternate version of reality.


Hellbound? the Documentary

March 21, 2012

Now this looks interesting …

The release date is September 2012. Until then, you can learn more about the movie at http://www.hellboundthemovie.com.

HT: Randal Rauser


Does Matthew Gild the Lily?

March 17, 2012
Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Last week, James McGrath posted a link to a fascinating article by Zeba Crook. Crook, a professor at Carleton University, argues for the need for a secular Bible translation (i.e. a translation that does not concern itself with upholding the theological commitments of a faith community). In the course of doing so, Crook described a translation issue that was new to me – one involving the circumstances of Judas’s death.

Most readers will already be aware of the two quite different versions of the story found in Acts and Matthew. In Acts 1:18-19, Judas takes the money he receives for betraying Jesus (no amount is ever specified; see Luke 22:3-6) and buys some land. While on his newly-acquired property, Judas falls, spills his guts (literally), and folks take to calling the place “Field of Blood” as a result.

Matthew’s Judas, on the other hand, is not in the market for real estate. Rather, in Matthew 27:3-10, Judas is so overcome with remorse that he throws his ill-gotten 30 pieces of silver into the temple, runs off and hangs himself. Matthew doesn’t tell us where. The chief priests collect the coins and decide to use the money to buy “the potter’s field”. In Matthew’s account, the field comes to be known as the Field of Blood, not because it was the location of Judas’s death, but because it was bought with “blood money”.

If you’re familiar with evangelical apologetics, you’ll have heard the creative harmonization in which Judas is said to have first hung himself and then, after a bit of decomposing, had his intestines spill out. Voila! No contradiction! … Except for the two completely different stories about what happened to the money, who actually bought the field, and why it was called the Field of Blood. It’s enough to keep an inerrantist awake at night.

But the Acts/Matthew conflict is a topic for another day. The translation issue described by Crook involves Matthew’s claim that the circumstances of Judas’s death fulfilled prophecy. In verses 9-10, the author of Matthew writes as follows:

Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.

Matthew’s reference to Jeremiah appears to be a mistake. Most would acknowledge that the author actually has in mind this passage in Zechariah 11:12-13:

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the LORD.

Comparing the two passages, we find these elements in common:

  • Someone being valued at a price of 30 pieces of silver.
  • The throwing of coins in the temple.
  • Something about a potter.

Matthew’s story of Judas’s final hours has all of these elements, allowing him to contend that the event was a fulfillment of Scripture.

But are these details historical? Note that the version of Judas’s death in Luke/Acts has none of these elements. Did Matthew get a little creative with the historical details in order to make the “prophecy” work? To borrow the language of John Dominic Crossan, is this “history remembered” or “prophecy historicized”?

This is where Crook’s article comes in. It turns out that the Hebrew word translated “potter” in Zechariah is more properly translated “treasury”. Zechariah is throwing his money into the temple treasury, not to a potter. If you read Zechariah 11, you’ll see that the reference to a potter comes completely out of the blue. Why exactly is there a potter in the temple? Why is he getting the money? It makes WAY more sense for Zechariah to throw money into the treasury in the temple than to throw money to some random potter in the temple. Crook’s complaint is that translators refuse to correct the errant translation in Zechariah because they don’t want to embarrass Matthew.

The problem for Matthew is magnified by his claim in Matt. 27:6-7:

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

In Matthew, the temple treasury is the one place the money cannot go!

Was Matthew actually aware of a tradition in which the blood money was used to buy a “potter’s field” or did he misread the reference to the treasury in Zechariah 11 as a reference to a potter and decide to add the potter detail to his Judas story?

If this were an isolated incident, I’d be more inclined to give Matthew the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time Matthew appears to have stumbled in attempting to fit his narrative to an OT passage. All four gospels record the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Matthew declares that this act was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which reads:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! 
   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! 
See, your king comes to you, 
   righteous and victorious, 
lowly and riding on a donkey, 
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Perhaps this was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 – perhaps even a deliberate fulfillment on Jesus’ part. The problem is that Matthew appears to misread the OT passage. He reads Zechariah as referring to two separate animals – a donkey AND a colt. In reality, the passage in Zechariah is simply employing Hebrew synonymous parallelism, wherein the same object (a donkey) is described twice using different language.

Mark, Luke, and John all describe Jesus riding a single donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew is the only author to add a second animal:

They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. (Matt. 21:7)

The bizzare spectacle of Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt into Jerusalem appears to have its explanation in Matthew’s overzealous attempt to match the details of his Jesus narrative to what he believed to be the OT text under fulfillment.

Here, I think, Matthew is caught red-handed. It would seem that Matthew was willing to change the details of an event to make it line up with an OT passage in which he believed he had identified a messianic prophecy.

I get that ancient authors didn’t feel the need to conform to our modern standards of objective history writing. I get that the gospels contain theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus, not just flat biographical accounts. But it sure makes a mess out of apologetic claims that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies when, in some instances at least, the NT author is fudging the facts to make the events of Jesus’ life appear to match OT passages.

If Matthew is willing to do this, what then should we make of his account of Joseph & Mary fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus? Is this a bit of creative storytelling in service of Matthew’s aim of portraying Jesus as the new Moses? I’m tempted to think so.

What should we do with Matthew’s claim (in Matt. 1:22-23) that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14? Isaiah 7:14 actually refers only to a “young woman” giving birth, not a “virgin”, as Matthew claims (relying, presumably, on the mistranslation in the Septuagint). In the case of the virgin birth, I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that Matthew invented this detail, given that Luke provides the same information independently.

Still, it makes you wonder.

I’m certainly not suggesting that there isn’t a historical core underlying Matthew’s narrative in most instances. I don’t suppose, for instance, that the entire Passion narrative is just a pastiche of OT prophecies stitched together into a fictitious whole (à la Crossan). But those instances where Matthew’s misreading of an OT passage allow us to catch him in the act of adding prophetic flourishes to his narrative do make me a little uneasy about accepting his history at face value.

There was a day, not so long ago, when an issue like this would have had my little fundamentalist self all tied up in knots. Today, I’m okay with it. Because I’m learning, as Rachel Held Evans puts it, to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be.


My Sister & the Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan

March 2, 2012

My sister in Yida on Valentines Day

Today, I am pleased to feature a guest post written by my sister, who has a Masters in Public Health from the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This, apparently, qualifies her to live in thatch huts, contract malaria semi-regularly, and kill snakes in her bedroom.

My sister has spent the past two months working in Yida, a refugee camp in South Sudan where tens of thousands of Nuban people have sought refuge from the atrocities being committed by Sudanese government forces. The situation is grim. The Nuban people are the victims of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. Close to half a million have been displaced. Many are on the verge of starvation.

My sister’s small team has been working to provide the Yida community with food, healthcare and other essential services, like water and sanitation. [For security reasons, I won’t mention her name or the organization with which she works.] My sister’s focus is on maternal and child health, particularly nutrition.

Also, my sister is my hero. I can think of no truer expression of the Kingdom mission than the work that she is doing. She binds up the broken, feeds the hungry, and (as you’re about to read) is risking her life to rescue the oppressed.

Here is her story:

I live and work in the Yida refugee camp, located a few miles south of the border between Sudan and the world’s newest nation, South Sudan.

I received a phone call from human resources about an hour after accepting the position. “I’m just calling to tell you that I am taking out a war insurance policy in your name,” she said.

“Okay,” I replied.

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into,” she said.

“I do,” I reassured her.

But I didn’t.

Yesterday morning I was awakened by the sound of explosions. Another battle had broken out in a town along the border. The shelling and bombing lasted for hours.

This morning we were all at the food distribution site when an Antonov bomber appeared, circling low above the camp. They fly over all the time and no one bats an eyelash, but this time something was different. Everyone started running for cover, sure that the plane was going to bomb us. As a large group of people, we were a clear target. We all hit the dirt until the plane left (my foxhole of choice was a partially-dug latrine), then jumped in our pickup and raced back to the compound.

Then the bombing began. It wasn’t in the camp, but it was close enough to make the ground shake and send everyone rushing for cover. Suddenly the Antonov was back again, right above us. I sat cowering in my foxhole, looking straight up at the belly of an Antonov bomber as it droned slowly over our camp. We sat, deathly quiet, waiting to see if a bomb would fall. I kept saying to myself, “You are going to be bombed. It is going to be okay.” And I prayed a lot, “God, please protect our camp!”

After repeated low altitude passes over the camp, the Antonov disappeared. We weren’t bombed. Two months before my arrival, the camp wasn’t so lucky. A UNHCR report describes that incident:

…[O]n November 10, another Antonov bomber came. The plane made three turns around Yida before it released its payload. People scattered in every direction. Two of the bombs landed on the runway next to the camp’s perimetre. Two others fell further away. But one bomb landed in the middle of a temporary school. The children had been evacuated but Zahara remembers the fear everyone shared. “People ran into the market and into the forest,” she says. “Some of us stayed in the bush for hours.” In fact some 600 pupils and students ran away after the bombing and some are still missing.

I have never experienced war. Conflict has always been an ocean away, not right above me. I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I’ve no experience with the kind of hatred and greed that prompts one group to try to destroy another. But this is what is happening in Sudan.

During the protracted Sudanese civil war, the people of Nuba sided with the south. However, when the nation split in two last summer, the Nuba found themselves part of the north and the target of a relentless military campaign. The government of Sudan claims that they are supressing a rebellion in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, but the indiscriminate arial bombardments and militia style ground attacks have brutalized the civilian population, reducing the people to living in caves in the mountains and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to safety in refugee camps in South Sudan — camps like Yida.

But these camps are not safe. There are over 28,000 people registered in the camp and many more unregistered. Due in part to our proximity to the border, we have not been classified as a “refugee camp”. Instead, the UN considers this a “transit site”. This means that even though people have been living here for months, they have never been given a full food ration. A family might receive one or two weeks worth of food and nothing more within a calendar month. Malnutrition rates are alarming. Relief agencies are prohibited from doing anything “permanent” like constructing buildings or assisting in organizing schooling for the children. This is incredibly frustrating for the people in the camp. Additionally, the government of Sudan has proved willing to follow the people of Nuba into South Sudan. Our camp was bombed three months ago, and this morning everyone thought we were being attacked again. It was terrifying, and sadly, for the people of Nuba, it is old hat.

If you have followed the situation in Sudan at all over the last few years you will remember the crisis in Darfur. The actions of Omar al-Bashir (the president of Sudan) during this conflict earned him a warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court on counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. He has never been prosecuted, of course, and many say that the crisis in Nuba is tragically reminiscent of Darfur. Bashir and his government are doing the same thing all over again, and any and all alarm bells being rung by watchful observers in the international community are being ignored.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) visits Yida

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) visits Yida

When US Congressman Frank Wolf visited the camp several weeks ago he was greeted by a crowd of Nubans, some of whom held homemade signs pleading for people like Obama and Ban Ki-moon to pay attention and protect their rights.

This blog post is my handmade sign. Please pay attention to Nuba. Please pay attention to the actions of the government of Khartoum. I’m no military strategist or humanitarian expert, but there are people with the knowledge and power to intervene wisely in this situation. You can let them know that they themselves need to pay attention.

We were so thankful to have Nicholas Kristof (co-author of Half the Sky) and Ann Curry of the Today Show (NBC) with us in Yida. Watch their stories and learn. And then act. All it takes is a letter or a phone call to your MP, congressman or senator. If we can rally the political will, action will come.


A preview of Curry’s piece is here:

For Curry’s full report, follow this link to her February 29th segment on Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Kristof’s excellent piece is here [you’ll have to click through to Youtube]:

You can also follow this link to listen to Halima Kaga, a 32-year old Nuban woman living in the Yida refugee camp, describe her experiences and plead for justice.

It’s easy to feel utterly helpless when watching an international crisis unfold on the opposite side of the globe. I have sat on my hands more times than I care to admit. But my sister is right. We can do something. The story of the Nuba people and this growing humanitarian disaster is largely unknown. Please help get the word out. Reblog it. Tweet it. Learn more about the conflictPhone or write your elected officials [for Canada, click here; for the US, click here]. Urge them to pressure the international community to intervene before the story of the Nuba becomes the unthinkable sequel to Darfur.

And to my sister. Thank you for sharing this. May God indeed protect your camp.

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday.

-Isaiah 58:10


Piper: When God Goes a-Slaughterin’

February 10, 2012

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.

– John Piper

I’ve checked and I’m sorry to report that Piper’s online merchandise catalogue does not yet have the above slogan available on T-shirts.

This probably shouldn’t surprise me, coming from the man who called the Japan earthquake a “great gift” from God. But somehow I’m still stunned. The above quotation comes from a Christian Post article that appeared this week in which Piper was asked, “Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?”

The word “slaughter” generally refers to indiscriminate killing. You might think that although God has the right to take a life, he would at least do so on a principled basis. Not according to Piper.

Piper maintains that a slaughtering God is a-okay because God gives us life and it’s basically his prerogative when and how to take it.

God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.

There is plenty that could be said about the idea that God wills every death. It’s one thing for God to will that great grandma should die peacefully in her sleep at the ripe old age of 90. It’s another thing for God to will the torture and murder of children at the hands of Syrian authorities. But in Piper’s world, God is behind it all, silently nodding his approval. [For more on that point, see Zack Hunt’s critique over at The American Jesus.]

At the heart of Piper’s justification of divine genocide is the notion of a God who is entitled to end a life any way he wants simply because he can.

If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.

God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.

One has to wonder what sort of relationship Piper envisions between God and his creations such that his treatment of them is explained by the maxim, “God doesn’t owe you anything.” God sounds an awful lot like a pre-teen boy who has just received his mail order Sea Monkey kit. He may enjoy his little creatures for a while. But when he gets tired of the little shrimp, he’ll flush them down the toilet. He might even pull a few legs off first. He brought them into this world and he can take them out. He doesn’t owe them anything.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (see Justin Taylor & Scarlett Johansson’s Liver), I do not agree that a God who creates sentient beings capable of feeling emotion and pain owes them nothing. But even if God did owe his creatures nothing, Piper has missed the point of the question. The question is not about God’s rights; it’s about his goodness.

Behind Piper’s logic is the assumption that an omnipotent creator is unconstrained in what he can do to his creations. But even an omnipotent creator will be constrained by his own character. And that is precisely why the genocidal passages of the OT are problematic. They are incongruent with the dominant biblical portrayal of the character of God. God is not a pubescent boy frying ants with a magnifying glass in the driveway. The Bible (especially the OT) repeatedly describes God as a loving father or devoted husband.

Imagine a man who works for a kind and generous employer. The man has three children at home and a very pregnant wife. Without this job, the man’s family would be destitute. His employer knows all of this. One day the man gets the call that his wife has gone into labor. He rushes into his boss’ office and informs the boss of the good news. Before he can leave to make his way to the hospital, the boss informs him that he is fired. “Why?” he asks. Now, is it any answer at all for the boss to reply, “Because I’m your boss. I hired you; I can fire you.” The employee knows that. He has always known that he worked at the pleasure of his employer. He isn’t questioning his boss’ right to fire him. He is asking why his employer, whom he knows to be a kind and loving man, would choose to exercise his authority in so brutal a fashion.

That is why it is perfectly legitimate to ask why a loving father-like God would order the slaughter of women and children. To defend the extermination of an entire people by pointing to God’s supreme authority over life is to demonstrate that you haven’t understood the weight of the question.

Even more problematic is the implicit justification that Piper offers for the OT genocide. He doesn’t simply stick to his guns and say, “Yes, God indiscriminately massacred every man, woman and child in the Promised Land, but that’s cool because he’s God and that’s his prerogative.” Perhaps demonstrating that even he recognizes the appeal to God’s sovereignty to be unsatisfying, Piper reminds us that God had a reason for this purge:

With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.

So I would vindicate Joshua by saying that in that setting, with that relationship between God and his people, it was right for Joshua to do what God told him to do, which was to annihilate the people.

Image by Jim Lepage at jimlepage.com

Any time an apologist goes to bat for the justifiability of the Canaanite genocide, they invariably tell us how wickedly evil the Canaanite people were. There are a variety of problems with this move (eg. the lack of moral culpability of babies, the evidence that Israel itself engaged in child sacrifice, the hypocrisy of killing babies to punish a people for killing babies), but Piper has a special problem of his own.

Piper cannot even blame the Canaanites for their wickedness because, in his theological paradigm, their wickedness is God’s doing as well. Consider Piper’s discussion of how temptation works in an article from his website entitled, “The Sovereignty of God and the Sin of the Believer”:

Given the natural condition of man apart from the Holy Spirit, he will yield to sin invariably; he is the slave of sin (Rom. 6:17,20; 8:3-8). Therefore every instance of turning from sin to righteousness is due to the irresistible work of God, who transforms the mind and heart so that the believer prefers righteousness over sin. I conclude, therefore, that no Christian determines ultimately whether he will overcome a temptation to sin. God determines that.

It follows that when a believer gives in to temptation, desiring sin more than God, it is because God has allowed sin or the flesh to gain the ascendancy for the moment. He does not cause the sin in the same way that he causes the obedience. The obedience he brings about by a positive influence of renewal because he delights in holiness for its own sake. Sin comes about in the believer’s life only by God’s permitting man’s natural tendencies to reassert themselves temporarily. And he does this not out of any delight in sin but out of a delight in the greater end which will be achieved.

Let me summarize. Man in his natural state is a slave to sin and cannot do otherwise. He escapes temptation only by the irresistible work of God. Sometimes God chooses to influence man irresistibly towards obedience. At other times he does not. The key point is this: it is entirely up to God whether man sins or obeys.

What, then, was going on in the 400 years that the sins of the Amorites were accumulating? In Piper’s view, God was deliberately withholding the grace that was necessary for them to avoid sinning. Like watching a toddler drown in a pool, God sat back, watched the Amorites flail their arms helplessly, and eventually stepped in to hold their heads under water as punishment for not being able to swim.

There is a superficial appeal in the teaching of neo-Reformed preachers like Piper and Driscoll. We are encouraged to delight in the tremendous unmerited grace extended to us when God chose to reach in and pluck us out of the pool. Sounds so good. Lucky us. Until you start asking those awkward questions about the plight of the other kids who were intentionally left to drown.


The Phat Father on Jesus & Religion

January 21, 2012

At present, the video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus by Jeff Bethke is closing in on 16 million views on Youtube.

There have been numerous video responses, but this one by Fr. Pontifex is one of the better ones:

HT: Ryan Mahoney

It’s worth noting that, following this critique by Kevin DeYoung, Bethke now seems to agree that some of his “words and delivery were chosen poorly”. In the immortal words of Ali G, “Respect.”


Driscoll & Brierley on Women in Leadership

January 15, 2012

Justin Brierley, the unfailingly polite host of the British radio program, Unbelievable, recently podcast the entirety of his hour-long interview with Mark Driscoll.

Things did not go well.

There are many moments in this interview that could provide fodder for discussion. For example, Christians in the UK may be rather nonplussed by Driscoll impugning their entire country for not having, well, Mark Driscoll:

Driscoll: I go too far sometimes. Almost every other pastor I know doesn’t go far enough and that’s okay ’cause the church tends to be led by people who are timid and fearful of going too far. I mean, let’s just say this. … Right now, name for me the one young good Bible teacher that’s known across Great Britain.

Brierley: Hmm …

Driscoll: You don’t have one. That is a problem. There’s a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.

Brierley: So you think that the Bible teaches …

Driscoll: You don’t have one. You don’t have one young guy who can preach the Bible that anybody’s listening to on the whole earth.

I’ll leave it to the Brits to decide whether their churches suffer from a glut of cowards and a want of controversial celebrity preachers.

Much of the interview revolved around Driscoll’s views on women and their role in marriage and the church. When Brierley confessed that his own wife is, in fact, the pastor of his church, things got incredibly awkward:

Driscoll: I’m not shocked by the answer, by the questions you ask. I love you, but you’re annoying. ‘Cause you’re picking on all the same issues that those who are classically evangelical, kind of liberal, kind of feminist do.

Brierley: I think it’s because those are the issues here that people are thinking about. … [Brierley says he’s impressed by much of what Mars Hill Church is doing].

Driscoll: Kay, let me ask you a few hard questions.

Brierley: Go ahead, go ahead.

Driscoll: So, in the church that your wife pastors, how many young men have come to Christ in the last year?

[It’s clear from the tone of Driscoll’s question that this is not a bona fide inquiry about the souls in Brierley’s church. It’s a veiled criticism. Driscoll is going to prove that women pastors can’t get the job done (i.e. attracting men to the church) and he’s going to belittle Brierley’s wife & church to do it.]

Brierley: Well we’re not a huge church, unlike yours, but I’d say there’s two or three probably in the last year who certainly, yah, I’d say have come to Christ in a pretty meaningful way.

Driscoll: Okay and in the church, what percentage is young men, single men?

Brierley: It’s difficult to say off the top of my head, but I’ll freely say it’s certainly not a big percentage, no.

Driscoll: Kay, and are you okay with that? Do you think that’s the best way to go?

Brierley: No, but can it be so easily put down to the fact that the church is being run by a woman? I mean, is that …

Driscoll: Yup. Yup. You look at your results, you look at my results, and you look at the variable that’s most obvious.

[Yes, he did just say that. His results are better than hers. And it’s because he’s a man and she’s a woman.]

Brierley: Well, in our case, the …

Driscoll: This is where the excuses come, not the verses. This is where the excuses come, not the verses.

Brierley: … Up to the point my wife took over, it had been run by men. Since she’s come, lots of new families, lots of younger people, both men and women, have come. I wouldn’t say the balance is right perfect yet by any means. But it’s certainly a lot better than it ever was. And so I don’t necessarily see quite the same situation that you paint there in terms of men not relating. I see more men in the church since she’s been there than before she was there, in a way.

Driscoll: What kind of men? Strong men?

[The implication here is obvious. Only weak, limp-wristed mama’s boys would be attracted to a church with a female leader, right? Tough men like Driscoll certainly wouldn’t be. Brierley seems genuinely baffled by such a stupid question.]

Brierley: Well, men. I mean, men come in different shapes and sizes. I mean, yah, both really. Men who are very masculine, men who are, I guess, on a spectrum, more effeminate. But I couldn’t say that there’s been a sort of dearth of men in the church since she’s arrived. I mean, Mark, I don’t want to get into a sort of argument.

Driscoll: No, no, you don’t want to sit in my seat, I understand. So does your wife do counseling with men? Sexual counseling? Does she talk about masturbation, pornography, the stuff that I do?

Brierley: Well no, she doesn’t.

Driscoll: Well, who does talk to the men about those things, especially the young men?

Brierley: Well there are other people that she can pass them on to. We have male elders in our church who, you know, would be able to tackle those kinds of questions. I mean, but would you speak with those kinds of issues to a female in your church?

Driscoll: Uh no. If they’re a married couple we might meet with them as a couple. But if it’s a woman, we would have women leaders meet with them.

Brierley: Sure, well it’s the same scenario in our church really.

Driscoll: Well except for who’s in charge.

[This part is almost comical. Driscoll seems to think he’s got a real zinger. If a woman is pastor, who’s going to do all that important sex counseling that Driscoll seems so obsessed with? Faced with the rather obvious explanation that it’s the same in Brierley’s church as in his own (men counsel men and women counsel women) Driscoll insists that it’s still not as good because the men aren’t “in charge”.]

Brierley: Well what’s wrong with… I mean, I agree, obviously theologically we’re not on the same page here Mark in terms of…

Driscoll: Do you believe in a conscious literal eternal torment of hell?

Brierley: What has that got to do with the issue of women in leadership, if you don’t mind me asking?

Driscoll: It does. It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone? Or is he like a father who also protects, and defends, and disciplines? If you won’t answer the question, I think I know the answer.

Driscoll goes on to grill Brierley about whether he believes in penal substitution. When Brierley replies that it’s a valid way of understanding the meaning of the cross, Driscoll isn’t satisfied, calls him a “coward”, and eventually tells him to stop “drinking decaf” and get “more courage”.

It’s clear that Driscoll’s male supremacy vibe has implications for all of his theology. Eternal conscious torment is a tough, manly doctrine and, therefore, superior to weak womanly ideas that don’t involve a literal fiery hell. Real men, brave men espouse a penal substitution theory of atonement without reservation. Those who prefer a more nuanced understanding are effeminate cowards.

You see, if you have doctrinal differences with Mark Driscoll, you don’t just disagree with him; you are inferior to him. And he’s got the church-growth results to prove it.

There’s so much more that could be said, but I’ll leave that to others. Besides, given that I don’t share Driscoll’s doctrinal stances, I’ve probably got to go paint my nails or tease my hair or something.


[Edit: Based on a few of the comments I’ve received on this post, I want to add some clarification. I would be the first to agree that by no means is Driscoll this abrasive throughout the entire interview. Most of the time, he and Brierley got along fine (although I think the mood soured a bit at around the 17 minute mark when Driscoll called Brierley “immature” for asking what I thought was a perfectly legitimate question).

Some have wondered whether these quotes are taking Driscoll out of context. The first quote about the “cowards” in UK churches (28 minute mark) came in the context of Driscoll being asked if he regretted his Facebook comment that encouraged people to share stories about “effeminate anatomically male worship leaders”. He agreed that he had gone too far but then said what you see transcribed above. Seems beset with regret, doesn’t he?

The transcribed portion of the interview about women takes you from 49:40 through 53:30. Everything is there (except a few lines by Brierley about admiring Mars Hill, which I summarized for brevity). My square bracketed interjections do not represent missing context. What you read above is the entire 4 minute exchange. Yes, there is context before and context after. But I fail to see how that minimizes the legitimate concerns about what he said in the middle. I can understand a one-liner being “taken out of context”. It’s hard to take 4 solid minutes of conversation out of context. You can listen to the full interview here.]


Exegesis: You’re Doing it Wrong

December 31, 2011

When it comes to mishandling Scripture, few people can match the death-defying logical leaps of biblical daredevil Joseph Prince. Pastor of Singapore megachurch New Creation Church, Prince has been invited to speak at various Hillsongs conferences and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. His television show, Destined to Reign, reaches millions daily.

What makes a pastor such a coveted international speaker? Sound, grammatical-historical biblical interpretation, you say? No. That would be boring. What people really want is an approach to Scripture that makes the Bible seem like a puzzle book with “Jabez Prayer”-like secrets waiting to be unlocked by the newest hermeneutical Evel Knievel.

Here’s an excerpt from one of this week’s devotional gems at JosephPrinceonline.com:

“And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” Luke 2:40

The verse says that the grace of God was upon Jesus. The Bible also says that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. (Romans 5:20) And when you put the two together, you may find yourself asking, “If the grace of God was upon Jesus, does it mean that He sinned?”

No, Jesus did not sin. (2 Corinthians 5:21) So there must be another explanation as to why God’s grace was upon Jesus. There must be another explanation as to why someone can abound in God’s grace even when he has not sinned.

Let’s look at the word “grace” when it is first mentioned in the Bible. Genesis 6:8 says that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”. Noah’s name means “rest”. So the verse is telling us that rest found grace. In other words, when you rest, you find grace!

So grace was upon Jesus because His life was a life of rest and trust in His Father.

Let’s watch that again in slow motion.

Noah’s name means rest.

Noah found grace.

Therefore, rest found grace.

Therefore, if we rest, we will find grace.

See how easy that was? No need for those expensive Bible commentaries and long hours studying Hebrew. All you need is a Hebrew name book. Let’s try some ourselves.

Esau means hairy.

In Malachi 1, God says, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated…”

Therefore, God hates hairy people.

Let’s try a Noah one.

Noah means rest.

After the flood, Noah got drunk and exposed himself.

Therefore, when we rest, we should get drunk and … hmm … perhaps this is one of those “don’t try this at home” interpretive stunts.

Good exegesis is hard. It requires lots of study and knowledge of the original languages, culture and context. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Joseph Prince, the author of Destined to Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness and Victorious Living, prefers an easier hermeneutical approach.

Effortless indeed.

Charisma magazine profiled Prince last year. It would seem that Prince’s interpretive approach lends itself to a word-of-faith type message. The article quotes Prince’s book, Unmerited Favor:

Because of the cross, we can today expect good, we can expect success, we can expect promotion, increase and the abundant life. It is all because of our wonderful Lord Jesus. If we have Him, we have everything and more, and can be a blessing to others.

His message is, predictably, popular in the U.S., where his televised services are broadcast on TBN, ABC Family Channel and several other networks. Charisma quotes one enthused viewer:

Linda Lee Bingham of New Jersey said understanding grace has enabled her to better trust and rest in God. “Good things are popping into my life faster than I can imagine,” she says. “I started a new business project a few months ago and already have 10 employees. The work is finished on the cross, and I’m just enjoying the ride.”

That’s right Linda Lee. Jesus bled on the cross so that you could get your Amway business off the ground. PTL!

To get a real flavor for the interpretive stylings of Joseph Prince, check out the video below. Skip ahead to the 9:00 minute mark to learn:

  • that Luke 21:25-26 contains a prediction of the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and nuclear crisis;
  • that ouranos [misspelled uranos by Prince] is the ancient Greek word for uranium [an element first discovered in 1789 AD]; and
  • that taking communion will neutralize the radiation in your body from the Japanese nuclear leak.

Can’t get enough Prince? In this next video, Prince explains how the book of Deuteronomy and the cartoonish map in the back of his Bible enabled him to predict the discovery of an offshore natural gas deposit near (actually, nowhere near) Haifa.

Kind of makes Harold Camping look like a top-notch biblical scholar, doesn’t he?


Who Needs a Savior? [Wright vs. Comfort]

December 18, 2011

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. -Matthew 5:21

If you’ve spent any time in evangelical circles, you’ll be familiar with certain guilt-inducing analogies about evangelism. Not telling your neighbor about Jesus is like not throwing a life preserver to a drowning man. Not sharing the gospel with your school chum is like having the cure for cancer and not sharing it with a cancer-stricken friend.

These analogies are bound to make the timid evangelist feel like a cad. I’ve long thought the analogies were unfair. The drowning man knows he needs saving. The cancer patient is keenly aware of his need for a cure. Not so the unsaved friend. The drowning man is not going to swim away from the life preserver and give you the cold shoulder for bothering him about it. But the unsaved friend who isn’t keen on being proselytized might do just that. Christianity was a hard sell because we were trying to convince people of a solution to a problem most people didn’t believe they had.

Several years ago I was introduced to a soap-box preacher who seemed to have a solution to this dilemma. His name was Ray Comfort and he had a sure-fire way of convincing people of their sinfulness before offering Jesus as the solution. If you’ve seen Comfort’s approach, you’ll know that he rarely deviates from it. He runs through the 10 Commandments, asking people if they’ve ever lied, stolen or taken God’s name in vain. He even gets people to admit that they’re murderers and adulterers by employing Christ’s expansive “You have heard it said” definitions in Matthew 5.

Comfort eventually gets his interviewees to admit that they are guilty of breaking God’s law. He then asks whether God will send them to heaven or hell as a consequence of such guilt. People tend to divide down the line on this one. Some say “hell”, though often with a laugh, suggesting that they don’t really believe this to be their fate. Others insist that they will still go to heaven because they aren’t bad people. This is when it gets interesting. Comfort must then persuade these people that they are deserving of eternal torment, often on the basis of their having admitted to little more than telling lies and “looking at a women with lust.”

I can remember, even then, that although I was on Comfort’s side, I felt the weight of the objections. Why exactly were the fires of hell an appropriate punishment for offences that seemed an inescapable part of being human? Comfort’s whole strategy was to confront people with the law so that they would recognize their personal guilt and cry out for a personal savior. Yet few people seemed to walk away from their encounter with Comfort buckling under the weight of condemnation. Probably because he had done little more than demonstrate that they were typical human beings.

I was reminded of Comfort this week while watching N.T. Wright’s recent talks at Moody Bible Institute. Wright spent a good deal of time sketching the framework for a proper narrative understanding of the gospel in its first century Jewish context. Christ “saving his people from their sins,” he maintains, is primarily about Christ’s role as Savior of the Jewish people from exile (i.e. from the consequences of their corporate sin). For the New Testament authors, “salvation” was about God rescuing his people. It meant the restoration of the Jewish nation – indeed, all of creation – and of individuals as part of that corporate restoration.

The interviewer, seemingly concerned about the lack of emphasis on personal salvation, questioned Wright about what he would say to an unbeliever who sought his counsel because of a personal sense of guilt and alienation from God. Wright replied, in part, as follows:

Actually, I have to say, within western post-modernity, most human beings I meet are not walking around saying, “I feel terribly guilty. How can I get rid of this?” That’s simply not the way they’re asking the question. And I don’t believe it is necessarily part of the task of either the apologist or the evangelist first to make them feel a guilt which they didn’t feel and then to show Jesus as the answer to that. It feels like a con trick.

I’m not saying that we go soft on sin – far from it. I’m saying that all people are aware of a major problem at some point. They may blame everyone else for it. They may blame the politicians, the economists, whatever. But to be able to say, “Actually, the whole world is in a mess and we share that messiness, that brokenness, that sinfulness. And God has dealt with the whole cosmic problem and he’s dealt with your problem in the middle of it.”

We’ve got to do both. And I have a sense that people … there’s a sort of sigh of relief when they realize that the church isn’t just interested in them as an individual, as maybe another scalp to be yanked in. But actually that we in the church are concerned with the whole creation, the whole world, with, to be sure, every single last human being as part of that…

I wonder if Ray Comfort would meet with more success if, instead of trying to persuade people of a personal guilt problem, he sought first to persuade them of a corporate guilt problem. I wonder if my neighbors’ consciences aren’t more attuned to the world’s need for a savior than to their own need for a savior.

I’m increasingly persuaded that the evangelical emphasis on embracing Jesus as a “personal Lord and Savior” represents an impoverished understanding of the kind of savior Christ was meant to be.

Perhaps spreading the euangelion (good news) is not so much about throwing life preservers to individuals who have fallen overboard as it is about enlisting our fellow deckhands into the captain’s plan for righting our listing ship.


[Click here to watch the 4 sessions from Wright’s visit to Moody. The above quotation is from the final video.]