Is “Let Us” in Genesis 1:26 a Reference to the Trinity? Tom Schreiner on Authorial Intent and Canonical Reading

Jan 27, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Here is an interesting answer to the question of whether the “Let us” of Genesis 1:26 is referring to the Trinity. In The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker, 2013), New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner (Southern Seminary) argues that (1) it is doubtful that the author of Genesis was specifically thinking about the Trinity when he used this expression, (2) it is doubtful that the earliest Israelites read it this way, but (3) it should still be understood as a reference to the Trinity when it is read as part of the whole canon of Scripture.

Here is his explanation:

Recent developments in hermeneutics, however, have rightly corrected an overemphasis on authorial intent. Interpreters of sacred Scripture must also consider the canonical shape of the Scriptures as whole, which is to say that we must also take into account the divine author of Scripture. Nor does appeal to a divine author open the door to arbitrariness or subjectivity, for the meaning of the divine author is communicated through the words and canon of Scripture. It is not the product of human creativity but is textually located and circumscribed.

A canonical approach supports a trinitarian reading, which is suggested by the actual words of the text and confirmed by the entire canon. The Spirit’s role in creation is signified by his “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). Psalm 33:6 . . . probably alludes to the work of the Spirit, for the word “breath” is the word used for “Spirit” (rûaḥ), and hence here the writer attributes the creation of the world to the Spirit.

In light of the NT revelation on the divinity of the Spirit, it is warranted to see the Spirit as creator. The Son’s role as creator is even clearer from a canonical perspective. John’s Gospel commences, “In the beginning” (John 1:1), an unmistakable allusion to Gen. 1:1. Another allusion to Genesis immediately surfaces, for John 1:3 speaks of the role of the “Word” in the beginning, claiming that “all things were made” by the one who is the “Word.” Hence, the “Word” that spoke creation into existence (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26) is identified as the Son of God—Jesus the Christ (John 1:14).

Hence, from a canonical perspective, the “let us” in Gen. 1:26 should be understood as a reference to the Trinity.

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Conversations with Christian Leaders: 3 New Podcasts

Jan 23, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Am I Called

Dave Harvey interviews key Christian leaders on pastoral calling in particular and pastoral leadership in general. You can listen to all the episodes on iTunes, or you can listen to them here.

In the Room

Pastor Ryan Huguley talks with Christian leaders a couple of times a month about life and pastoral ministry. Listen to it or subscribe on iTunes.

The Way Home

Dan Darling interviews key Christian leaders on church, community,  and culture. Podcast is available in iTunes, Stitcher, and Tune-in and via RSS.

Other podcasts in a similar vein worth knowing about include:

Any you would add to this list as particularly informative and edifying?


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3 Types of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals After 1956

Jan 23, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Yesterday I linked to an address by David Dockery on the state of evangelicalism in the 21st century.

On Twitter, I highlighted the somewhat tongue-in-cheek definitions from Dr. Dockery:

In its most simple terms,

an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham;
a liberal is someone who thinks Billy Graham is a fundamentalist; and
a fundamentalist is someone who thinks Billy Graham is apostate.

This is a riff on the statements by George Marsden that “A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something,” and that during the 1950s and 1960s, “the simplest, although very loose definition of an evangelical in the broad sense was ‘anyone who likes Billy Graham.'” (Fundamentalists had their own clever definitions. Bob Jones Sr. once defined an evangelical as someone who says to a liberal, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.”)

These are basically aphorisms, of course, and can’t be used as airtight definitions. Marsden’s first one is not entirely fair (though it points to something all-too-often true), but his second one gets at an important factor: how conservative Protestants viewed Billy Graham was usually a pretty good indicator of how they saw themselves and interpreted the virtues and vices of others in the church, especially after Graham’s 1957 crusade in Madison Square Garden, in which fundamentalists were dismayed at his partnership with modernists.

In my opinion, the two best introductions to fundamentalism—indispensable treatments, really—are George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (though I disagree with some of his analysis on the Princetonians and inerrancy) and Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again: the Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. Marsden focuses upon 1870-1925 and Carpenter focuses upon 1925-1950.

For an excellent analysis of mid-century fundamentalism up until the rise of the Religious Right (with special attention on the Baptist South), see Nathan Finn’s currently unpublished doctoral dissertation, “The Development of Baptist Fundamentalism in the South, 1940-1980.”

Finn shows that one common mistake in analyzing fundamentalism and evangelicalism is the assumption that they are simple, monolithic categories. In reality, there are subcultures within both, containing different visions and suspicions, even if united in some significant ways.

Using Finn’s analysis, we can map the three varieties of conservative Protestants after 1956 in the following way:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 4.44.11 PM

Fundamentalism is a fascinating subject of study, still under-explored when it comes to its relationship to evangelicalism. But hopefully the introductory analysis above helps us begin to avoid the reflex to assume we are only talking about one unitary thing when we employ these labels.

Update: For those who want a helpful overview article before reading a whole book on this subject, see John Fea’s “Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition,” TrinJ 15:2 (Fall 1994): 181-99, who identifies four phases:

  1. irenic (1893-1919), which had more continuity with 19th century evangelicalism than 20th century militant fundamentalism
  2. militant (1920-1936), including the fundamentalist-modernist controversies
  3. divisive (1941-1960), which saw the intramural fragmentation into evangelical and separatist factions
  4. separatist (1960-present).

Fea’s concluding three points of application are spot on and should be taken to heart:

First, such a methodological treatment of fundamentalism should have some effect on how American religious historians understand the movement. Very few historians of American fundamentalism are aware of the subtle changes that fundamentalism has undergone through this century. Many historians tend to define a fundamentalist by certain doctrinal distinctives such as a belief in biblical inerrancy or dispensational eschatology. To interpret American fundamentalism solely through a doctrinal grid is to miss some of the social and ecclesiastical issues (separation, social concern, etc.) that have shaped the movement. While most fundamentalists and evangelicals have been united on certain creedal convictions, disagreements over minor doctrinal issues and the social and ecclesiastical implications of the Christian faith have historically created a great deal of diversity.

Second, such an interpretation of American fundamentalism has implications for religious pundits and observers, whether in the media or the academy, who tend to clump all religious conservatives under the banner of fundamentalism. It is clear that historically not all conservative Protestants desired the fundamentalist label. If religious observers were to examine the history of this popular and often pejorative label, they would find that many of the groups they label as fundamentalist have long traditions of opposing this descriptive religious term. Many such pundits may be surprised to find that only a small percentage of American Protestants use this label to describe themselves because of both the past and present implications surrounding the term.

Third, such an interpretation of fundamentalism should have implications for church leaders in American evangelicalism. Pastors, missionaries, educators, and religious leaders of all kinds should be aware that fundamentalists of the separatist variety do exist and have made up an important part of the “born-again” heritage in American culture. Most of their religious convictions stem from historical evangelical concerns such as personal holiness, revivalism, and the authority of Scripture. While there is a tendency to treat fundamentalists as extremists or ecclesiastical outcasts, for the most part they make up a unique part of the American evangelical tradition and should be understood in that light.

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David Dockery on the State of Evangelicalism and Its Future

Jan 22, 2015 | Justin Taylor

David Dockery (president of Trinity International University) delivered the following lecture on January 14, 2015, at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary:

After his lecture, Jason Allen (president of Midwestern) hosted a panel discussion with David Dockery, Jason Duesing, and John Mark Yeats on issues related to evangelicalism:

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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: 9 Months in 4 Minutes

Jan 22, 2015 | Justin Taylor

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.1
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

—Psalm 139:16-19

In January of 1973 the Supreme Court decision of Roe v Wade (taken in conjunction with its companion decision, Doe v Bolton) effectively permitted the legal destruction of the life you see above at any point in the pregnancy, from conception until birth.

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.

—Proverbs 24:11

Richard John Neuhaus:

We contend, and we contend relentlessly, for the dignity of the human person, of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, destined from eternity for eternity—every human person, no matter how weak or how strong, no matter how young or how old, no matter how productive or how burdensome, no matter how welcome or how inconvenient. Nobody is a nobody; nobody is unwanted. All are wanted by God, and therefore to be respected, protected, and cherished by us.

We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until all the elderly who have run life’s course are protected against despair and abandonment, protected by the rule of law and the bonds of love. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every young woman is given the help she needs to recognize the problem of pregnancy as the gift of life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person—of every human person.

Against the encroaching shadows of the culture of death, against forces commanding immense power and wealth, against the perverse doctrine that a woman’s dignity depends upon her right to destroy her child, against what St. Paul calls the principalities and powers of the present time, this convention renews our resolve that we shall not weary, we shall not rest, until the culture of life is reflected in the rule of law and lived in the law of love.

If you need help or someone to talk to, call 1-800-712-HELP.

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5 Scientific Problems with Current Theories of Biological and Chemical Evolution

Jan 21, 2015 | Justin Taylor

The Discovery Institute identifies five areas of science that pose serious problems for neo-Darwinianism:

1. Genetics

MutationMutations cause harm and do not build complexity.

Darwinian evolution relies on random mutations that are selected by a blind, unguided process of natural selection that has no goals.  Such a random and undirected process tends to harm organisms and does not improve them or build complexity.  As National Academy of Sciences biologist Lynn Margulis has said, “new mutations don’t create new species; they create offspring that are impaired.” Similarly, past president of the French Academy of Sciences, Pierre-Paul Grasse, contended that “[m]utations have a very limited ‘constructive capacity'” because “[n]o matter how numerous they may be, mutations do not produce any kind of evolution.”

2. Biochemistry

behe-cellUnguided and random processes cannot produce cellular complexity.

Our cells contain incredible complexity, like miniature factories using machine technology but dwarfing the complexity and efficiency of anything produced by humans. Cells use miniature circuits, motors, feedback loops, encoded language, and even error-checking machinery to decode and repair our DNA.  Darwinian evolution struggles to build this type of integrated complexity.  As biochemist Franklin Harold admits: “there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”

 3. Paleontology

cambrianThe fossil record lacks intermediate fossils. 

The fossil record’s overall pattern is one of abrupt explosions of new biological forms, and possible candidates for evolutionary transitions are the exception, not the rule.  This has been recognized by many paleontologists such as Ernst Mayr who explained in 2000 that “[n]ew species usually appear in the fossil record suddenly, not connected with their ancestors by a series of intermediates.” Similarly, a zoology textbook observed that “Many species remain virtually unchanged for millions of years, then suddenly disappear to be replaced by a quite different, but related, form. Moreover, most major groups of animals appear abruptly in the fossil record, fully formed, and with no fossils yet discovered that form a transition from their parent group.”

4. Taxonomy

darwin_evolution_treeBiologists have failed to construct Darwin’s “Tree of Life.”

Biologists hoped that DNA evidence would reveal a grand tree of life where all organisms are clearly related. It hasn’t. Trees describing the alleged ancestral relationships between organisms based upon one gene or biological characteristic very commonly conflict with trees based upon a different gene or characteristic.  As the journal New Scientist put it, “different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories.” The eminent microbiologist Carl Woese explained that such “[p]hylogenetic” conflicts “can be seen everywhere in the universal tree, form its root to the major branchings within and among the various taxa to the makeup of the primary groupings themselves.” This implies a breakdown in common descent, the hypothesis that all organisms share a common ancestor.

5. Chemistry

primoThe chemical origin of life remains an unsolved mystery.

The mystery of the origin of life is unsolved and all existing theories of chemical evolution face major problems. Basic deficiencies in chemical evolution include a lack of explanation for how a primordial soup could arise on the early earth’s hostile environment, or how the information required for life could be generated by blind chemical reactions. As evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci has admitted, “we really don’t have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means.”

For competent books making the case for design and showing scientific problems with neo-Darwinianism, see Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (2009) and Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (2013).

For an introduction, Kenneth Keathley and Mark Rooker’s 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (2014) now looks like the best entryway into this debate as it relates to biblical authority and interpretation.

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How Should We Respond to Reports that a Fragment of Mark Dates to the First Century?

Jan 20, 2015 | Justin Taylor

An Egyptian mask made from papyri and linen. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, Creative Commons.

An Egyptian mask made from papyri and linen. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, Creative Commons.

It was reported yesterday that a three-dozen member team of scientists and scholars—apparently including the well-respected New Testament historian Craig Evans—is working on a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark, discovered as part of an ancient Egyptian funeral mask.

Due to the expense of securing clean papyri sheets in the ancient world, the papier-mâché of these masks was made from recycled papyri that already contained writing. Evans explains, “We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters.”

It is not entirely clear from the report whether Evans himself is part of the research team (although it leaves that impression). It could be, however, that he is speaking with more of an editorial use of “we.” Evans explained the discovery ten months ago at the 2014 Apologetics Canada Conference (Northview Church in Abbotsford, BC and Willingdon Church in Vancouver, BC Canada) on March 7-8. In the video below, he dates the fragment to the AD 80s, though the report from yesterday refers to it as being from the AD 90s:

The Gospel of Mark fragment under discussion here seems to be the same one that Daniel B. Wallace surprisingly referenced in his February 2012 debate with Bart Ehrman.

If the dating of this is accurate, this would be the oldest New Testament manuscript fragment discovered and a substantial discovery, since no one has yet found a first-century fragment. (The oldest fragment we know of is from the Gospel of John, called P52 [Papyrus 52—pictured to the right], discovered in 1934 and dated to the first half of the second century.)

John Rylands Library Papyrus P52, recto [Gospel of John, c. AD 100-150]

John Rylands Library Papyrus P52, recto [Gospel of John, c. AD 100-150]

Some caution is in order, however.

There are at least four methods for determining the dates of ancient manuscripts:

  1. radiocarbon (carbon-14) testing of the manuscript
  2. palaeography (handwriting analysis) of the manuscript
  3. analysis of the archaeological context surrounding the manuscript
  4. comparison of the manuscript with associated writings

As Peter Williams points out, 1-2 will not help researchers reach a date as precise as AD 80 or 90. That leaves 3-4.

But even this makes it difficult to reach a certain conclusion. Williams explains a best-case scenario:

If for convenience we suppose that [1] other manuscripts in the mask are ones with dates that survive (remembering that for a majority of texts no date survives) and [2] that the mask luckily enough contains four texts with firm date formulae (which would be really nice, but quite unlikely) and that these date formulae show manuscripts from the years 50, 60, 70 and 80, [then] that would still not mean that they could not be put together with a manuscript from considerably later than the year 90 to make a mummy mask.

The double negative in the last clause is a little confusing. Williams means that even if conditions were ideal, it still wouldn’t preclude the fragment itself from being later than the other fragments surrounding it. The other possibility, of course, is that somehow the archaeological context itself would date the mummy mask to a specific decade, though this would be unusual.

How should we respond to something like this? I think it’s appropriate to be hopeful. As an evangelical, I believe the best historical evidence points to the New Testament gospels composed in the first century: Mark (mid- to late 50s), Matthew (50s or 60s), Luke (c.  58-60), John (mid- or late 80s or early 90s). If this discovery doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t affect our dating of the gospels because the dating of the autographs (the originals) is not dependent upon the dating of manuscripts (the copies). If it does pan out—especially if it can be dated with confidence to the 80s—it would be a major discovery, because the oldest of anything is always noteworthy.

As Christians, we should take a “wait and see” approach. It’s tempting to be either naïve (of course this is true!) or cynical (of course this isn’t true!). One of the unfortunate things about announcing a discovery apart from a published peer-reviewed process is that the church and the culture simply have to take the scholars’ word for it. Amateur sensationalistic archaeology (which this does not appear to be) follows a predictable script that almost never involves peer-review publication first. So I think the cause of truth—whatever that may be in these cases—is best served when there is rigorous scholar vetting before popular announcements and debates.

Let’s think critically and wait to see the published results. Until then, debating the details won’t get us very far.

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Matt Chandler on Abortion

Jan 19, 2015 | Justin Taylor

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An Interview with David Dockery

Jan 16, 2015 | Justin Taylor

There are few people I respect and admire more than Dr. David S. Dockery, the 15th president of Trinity International University. He is the subject of a recent Festschrift, Convictional Civility: Engaging the Culture in the 21st Century, Essays in Honor of David S. Dockery (B&H, 2015)

We recently sat down for a conversation about the state of Christian higher education, the series he edits for Crossway, and his advice for future leaders.

Here are the books in the RCIT series published so far:

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4 Differences Between the Telephone Game and the Transmission of the New Testament Manuscripts

Jan 15, 2015 | Justin Taylor


Dan Wallace—New Testament scholar, textual critic, and founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (which seeks to digitize all known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament)—identifies four differences between the Telephone Game and the ancient transmission of New Testament manuscripts.

I’ve turned Wallace’s summary into a little chart, which may make it easier to process at a glance and to pass along to others:

 The Telephone GameNew Testament Manuscripts
Goal of transmissionto see how badly the story can get misrepresentedmainly to produce very careful, accurate copies of the original
Lines of transmissiononly onemultiple
Means of transmissionoral (recited once in another person's ear)written (copied by a faithful scribe who then would check his or her work or have someone else do it)
Checking the transmissiononly the wording of the last person in the line can be checkedNew Testament textual critics have access to many of the earlier texts; even the ancient scribes had access to earlier texts, and would often check their work against a manuscript that was many generations older than their immediate ancestor
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Why and How to Be Self-Critical When You Write

Jan 15, 2015 | Justin Taylor

John Frame identifies a key to mature writing. It may not turn as many heads (or garner as many clicks), but the result will be work that is more honoring to the Lord and should last longer:

Before and during your writing, anticipate objections. If you are criticizing Barth, imagine Barth looking over your shoulder, reading your manuscript, giving his reactions. This point is crucial.

A truly self-critical attitude can save you from unclarity and unsound arguments.

It will also keep you from arrogance and unwarranted dogmatism—faults common to all theology (liberal as well as conservative). Don’t hesitate to say “probably” or even “I don’t know” when the circumstances warrant.

Self-criticism will also make you more “profound.” For often—perhaps usually—it is objections that force us to rethink our positions, to get beyond our superficial ideas, to wrestle with the really deep theological issues. As you anticipate objections to your replies to objections to your replies, and so forth, you will find yourself being pushed irresistibly into the realm of the “difficult questions,” the theological profundities.

In self-criticism the creative use of the theological imagination is tremendously important.

Keep asking such questions as these.

(a) Can I take my source’s idea in a more favorable sense? A less favorable one?

(b) Does my idea provide the only escape from the difficulty, or are there others?

(c) In trying to escape from one bad extreme, am I in danger of falling into a different evil on the other side?

(d) Can I think of some counter-examples to my generalizations?

(e) Must I clarify my concepts, lest they be misunderstood?

(f) Will my conclusion be controversial and thus require more argument than I had planned?

You can read Frame’s whole piece on good theological writing.

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Darrell Bock Responds to Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek Article on the Bible

Jan 14, 2015 | Justin Taylor


The following is a guest post by Dr. Darrell L. Bock. Dr. Bock serves as the Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and is the author of a two-volume commentary on Luke, a commentary on the book of Acts, along with books on The Da Vinci Code, challenges to the historical Jesus, and the claims of Bart Ehrman.


I let a week pass before deciding to write about Newsweek‘s latest take on the Bible, an article called “The Bible So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” by Kurt Eichenwald, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times. I have been asked about it by email. I have decided to go one section at a time through the article, so this will start a series of responses with four parts.

Now one thing not to do is be angry about it, treat it as a screed (since it clearly has a bias as it makes its “case”), and miss the fact that what is written here is how many are told the Bible works and what many who engage with the Bible today think about it. Since this is a national news magazine, a calm response of substance is needed.

Having said this, I do have to note that of my many experiences with national media, it has been consistently the case that Newsweek has been among the least responsible in handling issues tied to the Christian faith. The one exception to this was Jon Meachum, the former editor, whose articles did seek to raise issues with some sense of balance and respect for the complexities of doing work in ancient sources. My own Breaking the Da Vinci Code was written because of my frustration with a multiple-hour interview with the magazine’s reporters (two of them on separate occasions) where I pointed out well-known flaws with the novel’s alleged historical background claims that never got even a sentence’s mention. My story in this case was not isolated. They also interviewed my Catholic friend, Francis Moloney, Dean of the Catholic University at the time, who made the same points I did in interviews that ran an equal length. They did not print a word of what he said either. A series of witnesses to an opposite point of view apparently is not worth reporting.

Part of what we are seeing is not only the annual Christmas and Easter articles saying what Christianity has taught is not what “scholarly” history shows nor is it in the least bit credible, but it is done with a kind of tribalism in reporting that engages in complete silence about any counter perspective. In noting this, I am pointing to a trend that exists on all sides of these kinds of debates. The tribalism approach on all sides is part of what contributes to the historical and biblical illiteracy the article complains about in its opening. This problem runs across the idealogical spectrum of discussion on these issues. Unfortunately the article’s approach to this discussion is no antidote to that problem. In fact, it reinforces it.


1.1. On Manuscripts

NSWKSo let’s go through this piece one issue at a time. Let’s start with what is said about the actual text we have. For this I could just cite the response of my colleague, Dan Wallace, who has spent his life investigating and photographing the very manuscript evidence this article raises as so untrustworthy. Dan correctly opens up saying the issue is not the fact that Eichenwald asks hard questions. The Bible makes such important claims, so such questions should be asked. It is the way he answers them that is the problem. Dan also shows how the nature of the issues Eichenwald makes about our manuscripts does not lead to Eichenwald’s conclusions. I leave the Textual Criticism side of the argument to Dan’s piece.

Eichenwald’s way in is to cite Bart Ehrman, whom he calls a ground-breaking New Testament scholar. Now Bart himself has said that what he writes is a reflection of current discussion that has been around a long time. He and I have debated over the radiom where he made this statement to me as something I was well aware of, something I also affirmed at the time. The views presented (including the appeal to the telephone game as Erhman’s illustration for how poorly copies were passed on) are but one take on these issues that are argued pro and con in the public scholarly square. This hardly makes him a ground-breaking source. Ehrman is a spokesperson, a very competent one, for one take on all of this. But the article even uses his material extremely selectively. Here is another quotation Ehrman makes on this topic: “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” What this means is that people on all sides recognize that what we have in the Bible, in terms of the core things it teaches, is a reflection of what made up these books originally. The caricature by Eichenwald that what we have in our hands has no resemblance to what was originally produced is misleading in the extreme, even considering the source the journalist uses to make his point.

1.2. On Supposed Problematic Texts: Luke 3:16

But there is more. This section of the article got my attention by an example it raised from Luke 3:16, a book in which I have spent my entire academic life. Eichenwald complains that the text has a literary problem in that John answers a question that the text never raises. He argues that the effort by later copyists in the fifth century to fix this conceptual problem in the text led some to attribute to John the Baptist an ability to read his audience’s mind that was not in the original. This example betrays two problems.

(1) If we cannot know what the original was, then how can we complain about the variant? How do we even know it is a variant? I say this somewhat facetiously, but it does raise an issue inherent in the discussion. Unless we have some sense of what the original is likely to have been (something all textual critics believe is something that can be pursued), we cannot even raise questions of assessment.

(2) Even more problematic is the literary insensitivity the objection has. In Luke 3:15 the crowd is speculating as a group that John the Baptist might be the Christ. There is a public-square question on the table. When the text says succinctly, John “answered,” it is not a specific question he is responding to (which is what Eichenwald thinks is required) but to the general and expressed speculation: a publicly raised question that opens the door for a reply. There is nothing at all problematic about the text as it stands.

1.3. On the Issues Tied to Orality: Is It the Telephone Game?

The area of discussion this section also raises has to do with how accounts were passed on in the ancient world when manuscript writing was rare and orality was the norm, in part because when it came to events, the accounts were rooted in those who were alive and could testify to what took place was valued in ancient culture, something Papias tells us in the second century.

The telephone game analogy (where such reports can go anywhere) has been countered by two other models: one rabbinic and the other community based. The rabbinic model shows that when a community cares about the content, it can pass it on and recall it with a high degree of accuracy. This passing on is overseen in a way that protects its core content from deviation. Although this is the main model put forward by some, it also has a problem in that the parallel accounts of what we have in Scripture when the same story is being told has enough variation in it that the exact standards this model implies are placed under some pressure.

This leads us to the second approach: the community model. The argument here is that accounts people care about are passed on in such a way that the core or gist is passed on but allowance is given for some variation of detail. The most revealing illustration of this is how Luke retells Jesus’ appearing to Saul on the Damascus Road in Acts 9, 22 and 26. We know this is the same author, yet he retells the same story with a touch of variation that keeps the story somewhat fresh and not merely a repeated, boring, retell. This shows, culturally and at a literary level, how such passing on of accounts works. Now either of these other examples point to the fact that the telephone game example is flawed in terms of ancient culture when discussing accounts about which ancients have an interest in passing something on.

1.4. On the Claim of a 400-Year Gap

Another problem is the claim that the gap we are discussing in terms of canonical recognition is a 400 year one. This is another, quite misleading, representation of what our ancient sources tells us. We know from Ireneaus in the late second century that the bulk of the New Testament was being used and recognized as central texts by the end of the second century. This is a full 250 years before the line Eichenwald draws. These central texts included the four gospels, Acts, the Pauline collection, as well as 1 Peter and 1 John. Even more important is that what Irenaeus was reporting on was something already in place when he was writing, so the actual gathering of these core texts is older than this. This emphasis is confirmed by Tatian’s Diatessaron, which is a harmony of the gospels called “through the Four” (which is what Diatessaron means). This work from the 170-180’s tells us what Irenaeus is saying about the establishment of the gospels as the core sources for Jesus by that time.

1.5. On Large Disputed Texts Like John 7:53-8:12

Now some of the points Eichenwald makes are a reflection of current discussion, but there still are features that need attention. In the examples even where he is right to raise the points he does, Eichenwald is not able to sustain the point he tries to make from those facts. An example of this, from this first section of his article, is the treatment of John 7:53-8:12. This issue is not exactly a revelation. Any work on textual criticism will use this example as one of several such situations in our manuscript record (the other famous one, he correctly notes, is Mark 16:9-20). I have written on both of these examples in my Jesus According to the Scriptures. Interestingly, almost any good Bible translation today will note these texts with sigla in the main text and a note. It is hardly the case that the “bad” translations Eichenwald says we have in our hands today have led us astray on the issues tied to the texts he notes.

What about John 7:53-8:12? It does seem likely that wherever the account of the woman caught in adultery came from, it was not originally in this spot in John’s gospel. What is fascinating about this example is how it is assessed. Bruce Metzger, probably the best-known American textual critic of the last century and Bart Ehrman’s mentor, says these two things about this text in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament (1971, pp. 219, 220). First he says, “The evidence of the non-Johannine origin of the pericope is overwhelming” (p. 219). Two paragraphs later he goes on to say this, “At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (p. 220). He points out that the fact that the account has shown up in various locations in our gospel manuscripts points to its wide and early circulation. None of this reflection appears in Eichenwald’s handling of this text. It severely undercuts the point he is trying to make from this material.

Conclusion on Part 1

That brings us to the end of the first section of the Newsweek piece. It does not bode well for the study as a whole. The fact is that the base text we have for our Bible, especially in the New Testament, is by far the best-attested ancient text we possess anywhere in the study of ancient sources. There ARE debates in spots, even many locations. Most good translations that have marginal notes point these out to readers of the Bible, so even the student of Scripture is made aware of these spots. None of those differences impact the overall teaching of the major doctrines of Scripture as a whole. What is impacted is how many texts make a point in support of a teaching or discussion over certain kinds of details in less central areas of teaching. Careful Bible students, whether conservatives or liberals, are aware of this and discuss those texts.

In the next three parts, we will take a look at the article one section at a time. So next I will address his handling of translation issues. On that topic I will speak as one who has worked on several translations of the Bible.


We now tackle the next section in Eichenwald’s article on Translation Issues and Constantine’s impact.

2.1 On Translation Differences

The reasons translations differ is not because Koine, as Eichenwald claims, can’t be expressed in English, but because (1) one has choices to make about some terms, (2) Greek order is more flexible than English (for NT), and (3) there are often a variety of ways to express the same idea (as translators often have good choices between synonyms). Beyond this, sometimes there is a real question on (4) how to best translate a term to get the contextual meaning and (5) there can be differences in the manuscripts that make a difference. There are cases where theological choices are made that have an influence, but this is not as common as Eichenwald suggests, nor even the main reason for most differences we see.

2.2 On the KJV

Eichenwald is right that the manuscript base for the KJV was not the best (based on what we now know). But this is another misleading direction. The translations we now have do a better job of getting us to that more original text (which I remind readers Eichenwald questions that we have access to but has to have some idea what it is to make his assessment of the KJV). More than that, even these differences have little impact on the major themes the Bible teaches.

2.3. On Philippians 2

Eichenwald engages in a selective use of the context to appeal to the idea the only issue in Philippians 2:6-11 is rendering “form” as image of God versus God. In fact, in context we have “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” and the structure of the whole passage is a reverse parabola. These contextual features are what a translator considers as he or she decides between possible rendering options, looking for the best specifically appropriate renderings for the given context. This is not manipulation for doctrinal reasons. It is reading the text with literary sensitivity.

2.4. On the Trinity

Eichenwald asks, “Where is there one text that points to it?” Matthew 28:20 has baptism—a sacred rite—in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Remember that Christianity grew out of a Jewish movement that held to one God. Matthew, the writer of this gospel, was a Jew. To attribute a religious rite in this manner is to point to divine authority and authorized action. The three persons bear equal authority here for the divine act.

2.5. On Massacres, Other Gospel Texts, and Constantine

This is another distorted presentation. Yes, Christians did battle to the death with those they regarded as heretics at certain points of history (though not in the earliest centuries) and sometimes it was over theology. Other times it was politics and ethnicity that was the issue, as is common today in contexts where religion is not in play. This is a regrettable feature of the church’s history. Eichenwald is correct to point it out.

2.6. Those Other Gospels

The suggestion that there were lots of texts out there kind of randomly chosen to make up the canon is another misleading discussion. The groups alluded to did exist and they did appeal to other texts, but these texts had less of a claim to be rooted in the origin of the movement than those in the canon. These groups were mostly in a minority and often represented a kind of syncretism (as was the case with Gnostics) that those who defended what became the canon felt was a severe distortion of the original faith.

Now it also is true that Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity did solidify the Christian movement and that power was wielded at times ruthlessly. Ruling in the ancient world was brutal business (as life in parts of the Middle East or Eastern Europe or parts of Africa or Asia are today). Its world is not our world. But Constantine had nothing to do with which books were accepted into the canon. The council of Niceae, the one Constantine called, did not even discuss the contents of the New Testament! This false presentation of history has continued to make the public rounds since The Da Vinci Code. It is best dropped as a historical claim. All such claims about the canon of the Bible and Constantine also ignore the evidence from Irenaeus that shows most books in our New Testament were being used and recognized 125 years before Constantine. This list includes the four gospels, Act, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, and 1 John.

2.7. On the Arian Dispute and the Trinity

This is a well-known doctrinal dispute of the fourth century. As with many theological disputes, each side often can assemble texts to claim support for its views. However, the question is which view among the proposed options has the most widespread textual support. In the case of this dispute, the Christian idea emerging out of a monotheistic Judaism in the earliest Christian texts carried the weight. This included the ideas that (1) one could sit with God in heaven (as Jesus claimed), (2) share his divine authority in executing salvation (as Jesus claimed) and (3) be on the creator side of creator-creation discussions (see John 1:1-3; 1 Cor 8:4-6; the phrase “first born” in some texts speaks of rank, not biology, as the first born becomes king in a family dynasty, see Psalm 89:27).

These very early teachings led the council to opt for Jesus as God and not a creature. It was these texts Arians struggled to explain, causing them to lose the deliberations at the council. Eichenwald again selectively cites 1 Cor 8, noting God is called the Father and Jesus the Lord but ignores that this is a rewriting of the sacred Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4, which is the creedal statement of monotheistic Judaism and where both the idea of God and Lord are attached to the one Creator God.

Conclusion on Part 2

Eichenwald’s half statements run through the entire piece and leave a misimpression that his biblical evidence is strong. The key is found in the rest of the story Eichenwald fails to tell. Other places, such as the claim the doctrine relies on bad translation from John’s gospel, do not even state the objection to the orthodox view correctly. It is 1 John 5:7 with an explicit trinitarian remark that many question (probably appropriately) as not authentic. However, clear texts from the gospel of John with no dispute about manuscript readings or bad translations led to the affirmation of the doctrine as what Scripture teaches, as well as the themes noted already.

So this second section also yields little that can be sustained in terms of persuasive argumentation. It fails to appreciate how translations work and poorly reads the early history of the church. The one thing that is worth noting is that the violence tied to some events in the early church is something to be recognized, faced up to, and avoided.

Part 3:

We now turn to the third section of the Newsweek article that makes various claims about contradictions in the New Testament.

3.1. On the Nativity

Yes, there are two stories of Jesus’s birth. These are not contradictions, as is claimed, but two perspectives on one event. Again, sensitive literary reading helps. Matthew is told from Joseph’s angle, while Luke is told from Mary’s. If you ask almost any couple how they came together, each will have their own take on what took place and select their own details with some overlap and some difference in the selection. One can play the stories against each other (Eichenwald’s take) or one can ask how they complement each other (our take). Now it is true that the traditional depiction of the Christmas story where we see shepherds and magi side by side is not likely what took place. Remember that when the magi showed up, Herod slew children two years and under. It is unlikely they showed up at the manger on the same night as the shepherds. The difference in the time frame produces the difference in detail. That is no contradiction.

3.2. On the Genealogies

The genealogies are another issue long discussed, going back to the second century. Yes, they differ and there are a variety of options noted. However, none of this connects to the objection about Jesus not being in the family of David, nor does it deal with the fact that Matthew makes clear as he tells the story that only Mary is biologically connected to the birth (through a clear Greek, textually undisputed feminine relative clause), as does Luke by speaking of supposed sonship to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23).

3.3. On Jesus’s Examination before Pilate

Literary insensitivity reappears again when Eichenwald compares Mark and John on Jesus’ examination by Pilate. The choice by one author (John) to provide more detail is presented as if it is a contradiction versus being a simple literary choice. His claim that the Romans are let off of the hook in the presentation as time moves along ignores that in John (the latter of the two sources) a judge (Pilate) who says the defendant is innocent still executes him. What kind of favorable portrayal of justice is that? Is that a favorable portrayal of the Romans and their style of rule?

3.4. On the Women Who Went to Anoint Jesus

Eichenwald works with a common formula among skeptics: difference equals contradiction. The trouble is that this ignores both literary choice and the depth that events possess in terms of what one can note. So Eichenwald observes that the lists of who went to anoint Jesus on the day he rose differ, without considering whether principal figures were named selectively in terms of the principals involved versus the option to give a fuller list.

3.5. On the Location of the Disciples after the Resurrection

In another example, Eichenwald asks us to choose between disciples in Galilee after the resurrection (with Matthew and John) versus their staying in Jerusalem alone (Luke). This claim ignores an important observation about the disciples’ original intent in going to Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified: they had come to Jersualem only to celebrate the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, planning to return after the 8 days of celebration. A decision to settle in Judea, which Luke affirms, required returning to Galilee (the disciples’ home) to make the move and prepare for more than an eight-day stay. Again, none of this real-life background to these accounts shows up in the flat, one-dimensional reading Eichenwald gives to these accounts. These details, embedded in the social, cultural, and historical background of the event, are the rest of the story Eichenwald’s collection of so-called contradictions ignores.

3.6. On Jesus Speaking about Hating Family

Here is another detail where the cultural background explains the remark. The public ministry of Jesus was dividing families pro and con. Some opposed him because they thought he was making excessive claims. If one wanted family approval, then in many instances that would lead to a decision not to follow Jesus. If one chose Jesus, he or she might lose relationships within the family. Jesus is alluding to this in his remarks, as well as making the point that ultimate loyalty lies with God. This point is made vividly and rhetorically by referring to hate. Jesus has other texts where he rebukes the Pharisees for using oaths not to care for family needs, showing his rhetorical intent in these remarks about hate.

3.7. On the Timing of the End

Once again Eichenwald builds a misleading presentation by only noting part of the evidence. Yes, Jesus did speak of this generation being involved in events tied to the end (while in part alluding to events that included the destruction of Jerusalem that did happen in 70, not forty years away). He also spoke of a tension within this hope. He taught that the time was near and yet being far enough away that some would not believe when the Son of Man returned (Luke 18:8). He also noted he did not know the time and said this timing was the Father’s business (Mark 13:32; Acts 1:6-7). So is this a contradiction as Eichenwald claims? Might it rather be a tension Jesus purposely introduces to argue the end is certain, with some things tied to it coming soon, and others long enough away that some will doubt because no one knows exactly when it will be? When difference (automatically) means contradiction, then you read this in the former way. But it is not the only option. Being aware of what these other texts teach on the same theme points to a different picture, unless you throw those texts out as not counting (in which case one can argue for just about anything when I can pick and choose what counts for evidence).

Conclusion to Part 3

On one thing in this area we agree with Eichenwald. These kinds of texts need to be discussed (and have been for a long time). Little of what he raises is new in terms of issues tied to discussion about what the Bible teaches. We also agree that pointing to these differences is not something that should make one angry with the person who raises questions about what is going on. The problem comes when only one solution is put forward when others clearly exist.

In the area of supposed contradictions, one needs to recognize what a difference of perspective can mean. One also needs to be sure not to operate with the formula that difference equals contradiction. On a theme like the end times, one needs to work with the many references in the Scripture and the fullness of texts that address a topic, not just proof text a passage on its own. Also one should be aware many of these differences have been discussed for a long time. Appreciate rhetorical expression and how it works. When all these literary factors are put in place, the texts make sense.

Part 4

We now come to the fourth and final part of my assessment of the Newsweek article on the Bible. It deals with more claims of contradictions, the role of women in Scripture, and homosexuality.

4.1. On Differing Creation Stories and the JE Theory

Again we see here the general skeptical formula difference equals contradiction is applied. It is not the only option. Genesis 1 is an overview account, as seen in its symmetry. Genesis 2 has more detail. This contention is an old one that prefers critical source theory to a sensitive literary reading that sees distinct ways of summarizing dependent on the form being literarily applied. Only a hyper-literal reading injects issues into this reading of the material.

4.2. On Wrestling with Dragons

Similar concerns about a lack of literary sensitivity has to do with the issue of wrestling with dragons. Biblical passages on God wrestling with dragons, where Scripture is responding to mythic images from the wider culture with its images of Leviathan, do appear in Scripture. This imagery portrays the cosmic, behind-the-scenes battle between God and the forces of evil that portray spiritual realities extending beyond our five senses. These are realities most of the world recognizes, even as many secular Westerners question their existence. Here is a worldview issue that is at the core of much debate on the Bible. Are spiritual forces real? Does God speak and act in the creation? Is there real good and evil in our world that is beyond our sensory perception? Important questions whose answers dictate how one also will see and assess the Bible.

4.3. Homosexuality

The discussion about the background of the Greek term again ignores historical and cultural background and is a kind of linguistic waving of a magic wand. According to the recognized Greek lexicon (p. 135) the term arsenokoitēs means “a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex.” The Greek term is not even cited correctly in the Newsweek article, lacking a final sigma. In 1 Timothy 1:10 it is arsenokoitais. The word “homosexual” was an English word coined to say this in a more compact way. Yet this is what the term means. Add to this the Hebrew Scripture of what constituted acts that defiled as part of the background to its use here, then the term as having this force is accurate and contextually secure. Judaism of the time did not accept such practice.

We have been so critical of this article, it is important to note agreement with one key point made by Eichenwald on this issue. It is that the Bible does not rank sins. The 1 Timothy text has a list of many sins that are the subject of rebuke (so does Romans 1:29-31). Its claim is that we all sin and all need the forgiveness God offers. No one is immune from this need (Romans 3:9-31). Everyone needs God’s grace according to the Bible. All qualify for forgiveness being supplied by someone other than the one who has sinned. One of the tragic results of our culture’s turn against the Bible is its turning more of a blind eye to the need we all have to be humble before God and exercise care about the character we display, losing our sense of need for why God needs to graciously supply forgiveness to those who recognize they need what he supplies.

4.4. On the Role of Women in the Public Square: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Claims of Inconsistency

As for Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, no reading is more thin than the one Eichenwald offers here in saying if these Christian women believed the Bible, then these women should not speak on political issues. No text prohibits a woman from speaking out in terms of politics. The limits on women’s roles Scripture raises only discuss church contexts. The Bible has women who function as prophets and sources of commentary on events (Miriam, Hannah, Mary, Priscilla, and the four daughters of Philip come to mind).

However, Eichenwald is right that Romans 13 does teach us to pray for our leaders. This does not mean that leaders are immune from criticism (see Paul in 1 Cor 2), but it does mean one should engage in political discourse with more respect than some often show. Here is another relational point Eichenwald makes that is worthy of reflection.

4.5. On Law in Matthew, James, and Paul

As the list of issues with Scripture continues, Eichenwald turns his attention to the question whether the law should be followed or not. Here he argues Matthew (with James) does not agree with Paul. He argues that Matthew is for the continued use of the law, while Paul is against it. Again the citation of a verse without looking at the literary context makes the case look stronger than it is. The article needs to move beyond the kind of proof texting it also is complaining about among Bible believers. There is something different going on than the claim of contradiction.

What follows in the “fulfill the law” citation from Matthew is what is called the six antitheses, where Jesus makes the point that it is not the surface letter of the law that matters but the heart issue it raises. This heart focus is what one should pursue. So it is not murder but anger that is to be shunned. It is not adultery but lust that the law is encouraging us to avoid. It is not the making an oath to assure another of our truthfulness but being truthful. So Jesus is talking about fulfilling the law at that level, just as Paul also argues in Galatians 5. They actually agree with each other when we engage in a more comprehensive reading of these texts. Paul’s argument in Galatians (again only partially stated by Eichenwald) is not only that Jesus is the answer for fulfilling the law, but that this kind of newness of life and character concern is where Jesus and the Spirit work to take you in fulfillment of what the law was always about. Again a literarily sensitive reading yields a different conclusion than Eichenwald makes.

Especially misleading is the choice Eichenwald has that must one either follow the law or ignore it. Once again he has read the text one dimensionally. He has limited the options, and in the process ignored other possible configurations of how to deal with all of these texts. What one sees when one works with all of Scripture is a need we all have for God and the way he offers forgiveness. This way of pursuing God gives us access to something we cannot supply for ourselves. We agree with Eichenwald’s warning about the risk of being hypocrites, if we see ourselves as being inherently better than others. The Bible does warn about this, but the New Testament teaches one should care about how he or she lives, be aware we are all accountable to the Creator God who will render judgment one day, and claims the solution is found for all in the same person of messianic promise God has sent to tell us about forgiveness and life. It is here where what Jesus uniquely offers us in terms of forgiveness and life enters into the New Testament message of Scripture.

4.6. On Prayer as Performance

Eichenwald is both right and wrong in his claim that public prayer is to be avoided according to Jesus. What Jesus challenged was praying in public in a way that drew attention to the one who prayed. “My public prayer shows how pious I am” is the attitude Jesus challenges. Prayer that is prideful and self-serving is what Jesus is against.

But Jesus did pray in public when he fed the multitudes, as Eichenwald also observes. The Bible is full of accounts where the people of God gather to pray, even for national concerns. One can think of David’s call to national prayer in 1 Chronicle 16, Solomon’s dedication of the temple or the prayers of Nehemiah. Most of the Psalms are nothing but public prayers! 1 Timothy 2:1-8 speaks of prayer in every place for all people, calling such prayer good and welcome before God our Savior, including prayer for kings and emperors. Again to pick and choose which texts we use and which we ignore distorts what the Bible teaches, an important lack of balance in an article written to Americans about how they should think about the Bible.

Conclusion to Part 4 and the Whole Article: On Not Judging Both People and Scripture

The final exhortation in the article is to read the Bible and do so carefully. We could not agree more. That means not cherry picking out of it. That means reading all of it. That means appreciating the cultural and historical background as we have shown. It means reading it with literary sensitivity and rejecting an approach that too quickly says difference simply equals contradiction. It means reading Scripture as a whole carefully and accepting the way it challenges the way all of us live. The Bible often leads us into a spiritual self critique where God’s words can challenge us about how we live and lead us into living distinctly, humbly, lovingly in a pursuit of holiness that is as selfless as Jesus’ own offering of himself for our sin (Titus 2:11-14).

Our desire is to quickly say, as Eichenwald does, that we should be slow to judge another as Jesus taught. Yet here again the exhortation needs qualification in light of what Jesus actually taught. A closer look at that text says we should be serious about seeing the plank in our own eye before worrying about the speck in the eye of another. Jesus goes on to say do engage the brother after an honest self-examination. So Jesus’s point is not to avoid judging all together, but to do so with an awareness of one’s own need as well. What is needed by all is a conversation where we all recognize our shortcomings and need for God.

Maybe we should add that one should not be too quick to judge the Bible as well, a point Jesus also taught. The one who commanded love your neighbor as yourself also commanded love for God with all of your heart as a part of the greatest commandment. That means respecting God’s word and recognizing God’s right to make judgments about how we (should) live. It means letting the Scripture tell the story from an array of angles that should not be cancelled out by premature claims of contradiction. It means reading with a literary sensitivity that sees the scope of what a passage addresses and wrestles with the array of proposed options for how to read the text. This is how we understand the Bible and read it well so as not to sin.

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The Remorse of Abortion and the Healing of the Gospel: A Conversation with Lecrae, John Piper, and John Ensor

Jan 14, 2015 | Justin Taylor

This 37-minute conversation is worth your time. Lecrae sits down with John Piper and John Ensor (president of PassionLife, a gospel-centered pregnancy help ministry).

Lecrae shares about the time he drove his girlfriend to an abortion clinic in order to abort their child and what it was like to reveal this later to his wife and mother.

The three also talk about abortion in urban America, the charge that pro-lifers only care about marching and not actually helping women, and the connection between sanctify of human life and racial reconciliation.

You can purchase Lecrae’s song “Good, Bad, Ugly” here.

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Why Can’t We All Get Along? (Answer: A Conflict of Ideological Visions)

Jan 14, 2015 | Justin Taylor

a_conflict_of_visionsThomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (2002) helps us think through worldview clashes and political partisanship. Sowell himself is an ideological partisan who writes to persuade readers of his vision. But this is an even-handed book—not written for purposes of advocacy, and not written from an explicitly Christian perspective, but written to help us understand some of the main contours of why there tend to be roughly two visions of the world when it comes to freedom, power, equality, justice, knowledge, and man.

Sowell explains the big idea in the first paragraph of the book:

One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot.

A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises—often implicit—are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works.

Why, at the end of the day, do we have such a hard time understanding one another across the political divide? Why can’t we find middle ground?

People now tend to look back and smile at Rodney King’s question in May of 1992, “Can we all just get along?” But it’s a serious question, and the reasons why we can’t are often very complex. But Sowell identifies a key part of the problem:

Whatever one’s vision, other visions are easily misunderstood—not only because of caricatures produced by polemics but also because the very words used (“equality,” “freedom,” “justice,” “power”) mean entirely different things in the context of different presuppositions. It is not mere misunderstanding but the inherent logic of each vision which leads to these semantic differences, as well as to substantively different conclusions across a wide spectrum of issues. Visions are inherently in conflict, quite aside form the misunderstandings, hostilities, or intransigence generated in the course of polemics. (pp. 245-246)

Sowell recognizes that there is a continuum of social visions—that sense of how the world works and the foundation upon which our theories are built. But for convenience, he identifies two broad and irreconcilable categories: the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. Sowell identifies their basic difference as stemming from a different conception of the nature of man. So in successive chapters he looks at

  • the constrained vs. unconstrained vision of the nature of man,
  • the constrained vs. unconstrained vision of the nature of knowledge, and
  • the constrained vs. unconstrained vision of the nature of social processes.

Let’s look at an example. The way in which the unconstrained vision thinks about “results” determines the ways in which its advocates define and analyze key concepts like freedom, power, and equality. If results can be directly prescribed, and if basic concepts are expressed in terms of results, then we get something like the following:

The degree of freedom is . . . the degree to which one’s desires can be realized, without regard to whether the obstacles to full realization be the deliberately imposed restrictions of government or the lack of circumstantial prerequisites.

Power is likewise defined by results: If A can cause B to do what A wants done, then A has power over B, regardless of whether A‘s inducements to B are positive (rewards) or negative (penalties).

Equality too is a result, the degree of equality or inequality being a direct observable fact. (pp. 246-247)

All these basic terms are defined in profoundly different ways under the assumptions of the constrained vision. In that vision, man cannot directly create social results, but he can create social processes. Therefore, for the constrained visions basic concepts like freedom, justice, power, and equality get their significance and character from processes, whereas the unconstrained vision (as we saw) thinks of them mainly in terms of results. For example, in the constrained vision:

A social process has freedom to the extent that it refrains from interfering with the choices of individuals—whether or not the circumstances of those individuals provide them with many options or few.

A social process has justice to the extent that its rules are just, regardless of the variety of outcomes resulting from the application of those rules.

Power is exerted in social processes, by individuals or by institutions, to the extent that someone’s existing set of options is reduced—but is not an exertion of power to offer a quid pro quo that adds to his existing options.

Equality as a process characteristic means application of the same rules to all, without regard to individual antecedent conditions or subsequent results. (p. 247)

Sowell wisely writes:

The clash between the two visions is not over the actual or desirable degree of freedom, justice, power, or equality—or over the fact that that there can only be degrees and not absolutes—but rather over what these things consist of, in whatever degree they occur.

Sowell is one of the most eloquent advocates today for the constrained vision, but in this book he plays it straight, choosing to explain rather than to persuade. As such, it is not a Christian book per se, analyzing the various options in light of God’s word written. But I would still submit that it may be one of the most important books a Christian can read to understand what is going on in today’s culture when it comes to political struggles.

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Porn: Human Trafficking at Your Finger Tips

Jan 09, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Jeff Bethke:

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