Search This Blog


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Historical Criticism in the Restoration Movement: Liberalism, Realism, or Something Else?

In the early 19th century, Alexander Campbell wrote the following in his masterful The Christian System:

"The words and sentences of the Bible are to be translated, interpreted, and understood according to the same code of laws and principles of interpretation by which other ancient writings are translated and understood; for when God spoke to man in his own language, he spoke as one person converses with another, in fair, stipulated, and well established meaning of the terms. This is essential to its character as a revelation from God..."

Today, the historical critics have (mostly) taken Campbell at his word, leaving many in the Restoration Movement unhappy.

The Dictionary of the Bible defines historical criticism as "a modern and tested method of exploring [the]various origins [of the Old and New Testaments] and tracing their development and significance within their specific historical contexts."

This much is uncontroversial.

All reputable scholars and commentators past and present have attempted to understand and explain the biblical material by an appeal to its grammar and history (an approach aptly called the grammatical-historical approach).

However, the historical critical method of the 18th century went beyond the bounds of what many Christians from the beginning have thought appropriate, challenging the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of the Bible.

While most evangelical scholars of the Bible utilize the higher critical method without problem in their academic work, some run into conflict with the doctrinal statements of their universities or the doctrinal consensuses of their theological communities and are forced to retract statements or resign their posts (assuming they are not let go).

This has happened at least once at a Restoration Movement institution.

In 2012, Lincoln Christian University fired Dr. Anthony LeDonne, then assistant professor of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism at LCU, because supporters of the university were upset that, among other things, he denied any objective interpretation of history and, by extension, the Bible (see two separate takes on the situation here and here, as well as LeDonne's statement here).

 LeDonne took with him another sharp and rising scholar, who did his undergraduate work at a Stone-Campbell school (CCU) and who also taught New Testament at LCU, Chris Keith, who voluntarily left the institution for related reasons.
Anthony LeDonne

During the brouhaha, Peter Rasor, a Restoration Movement guy and currently a professor of theology at Grand Canyon University, reported how LeDonne in his book on the historical Jesus contended, "The historian who is intent to find ‘an objectively true picture’ of Jesus has simply misunderstood the historian’s task to account for varying and evolving social memories and explain their most plausible relationship", (76).

While the conclusions reached by LeDonne and the process by which he reached them are not academically controversial, they do fly in the face of what the average member of a Christian Church or Church of Christ believes about biblical interpretation.

To many, the idea that the past is irretrievable apart from layers upon layers of subjective interpretation and reinterpretation and that objective scrutiny is impossible sounds like we cannot really know what the Bible says.

Further, LeDonne states in the book "when dealing with sources for the life of Jesus, there are no ‘original’ documents to be found; there never were” (70).

Since most Christian Churches have in their statements of faith something about the "original copies" of the New Testament or the "autographs" and their inerrancy, this conclusion is disconcerting.

Indeed this is how higher criticism undermines the Bible's authority, according to its critics.

It is an unbounded approach that treats the Bible like any other document, meaning no questions or conclusions are off the table if you can argue for it.

This had led to countless conclusions that, if true, would radically alter the Christian faith or even render it untrue.

Furthermore, because historical criticism sees the Bible as merely human, it is implicitly biased against the supernatural and thus wherever necessary seeks to find naturalistic explanations for the plethora of the Bible's supernatural phenomena.

This is important to understand.

However, it is not the complete story.

Historical criticism has improved our understanding of the Scripture in its natural context and corrected many thoughtless impositions of later theological stances and concepts onto the inspired text.

Furthermore, it has enriched our understanding the human side of Scripture's authorship and the authors' roles in selecting, editing, and arranging their material.

In addition, while systematic theology can flatten out the rich variety of the biblical genres it its pursuit of continuity and coherence, historical criticism has marshalled against simplistic, prooftextual readings which fail to appreciate the individual perspectives of each book, its author(s), and the community it speaks to.

Of late, my own academic institution, Cincinnati Christian University, has been targeted by those who believe the approaches and conclusions of certain scholars in CCU's biblical studies department (I am not a biblical studies student by the way), are nothing more than rank "liberalism" in the Brotherhood.

Unsurprisingly, their concerns can be traced back to a fundamental worldview difference on the legitimacy of historical criticism of the Bible.

The response, of course, is that the critics of historical criticism are simply out of touch with anything more than a surface level reading of the Bible and fail to even entertain ideas that challenge established doctrinal beliefs, even if those beliefs are not as biblical as they appear from a "plain reading" of the text.

This fundamental divide is felt not only in the Christian Church world but in the larger Evangelical community (just Google "Michael Licona and Norman Geisler" for proof of that).

I have people I respect on both sides of this issue and am not afraid to disagree with anyone, even those whom I admire and esteem highly.

I believe that historical criticism of the Bible with its methodological naturalism (that is, assuming for the sake of argument that the world is absent of anything beyond nature) is unable to give us an accurate picture of the Bible to the extent that the Bible is the product of a divine mind (of course, not neglecting its human authors).

Thus, when historical Jesus scholars, for example, tell me that Jesus was this, that, and the other thing, but certainly not what the Church has always believed him to be, by looking at how they arrived at their conclusions, I can see we could never have arrived at the same conclusions due to fundamentally contrary hermeneutic approaches that flow from a difference of opinion about what the Bible is.

A number of fine scholars who are in no way anti-intellectual are also of this opinion, such as Robert Yarborough of Covenant, Thomas Howe of Southern Evangelical, Vern Poythress of Westminster, Gerhard Maier of Tübingen in Germany, and Scott Hahn of Franciscan University, among others.

At the same time, this is not to say historical criticism is anti-Bible or anti-Christian, or that it cannot be used without denying some essential tenet of the faith.

What is more, I believe that to retreat into an enclave of perceived doctrinal purity (which the above scholars would not advocate, but what some loud critics in the Restoration Movement seem to argue for) is nothing more than privileging tradition over an honest pursuit of Bible doctrine and refusing to treat the Bible with the maturity it deserves.

For myself, I was only introduced to historical criticism by way of Muslim apologetics against the divinity and trustworthiness of the Bible--a poor introduction indeed!

My faith survived, but the faith of many do not because instead of promoting understanding and free inquiry, certain critics of historical criticism decide the winners and loser beforehand based on nothing more than the assumption that their interpretations of certain biblical passages and concepts (like inspiration, for example) are correct.

This type of approach is repellent to critical thinkers and fails to do justice the intellectual integrity of Christian faith and discipleship.

So what then is the way forward?

First, let's clarify four things:

One, the "strong" doctrine of Scripture is true (ie., the Bible is exclusively authoritative, infallible, understandable, generally self-sufficient, internally consistency, has objective meaning, and is universally applicable [to borrow from Christian Smith's definition of "biblicism"]).

Two, to the extent that we approach the Bible with a denial of point one, it is impossible to get a coherent message out of the Bible in all its richness.

Three, when we apply the methods of historical criticism to the Bible which (normally) assume naturalism and view the Bible as merely a human book, with all the expected shortcomings of such human books, we expect to not get a coherent message out of the Bible, which can only be fully understood in the light of its divine aspects.

Four, it is generally accepted that beyond the grammatical-historical approach to biblical criticism (which looks simply at the grammar of the passages and seeks to place the passages in their historical context), the various methods of historical criticism (be it form, redaction, source, etc.), yield helpful insights into Bible truth and should not be abandoned wholesale, which would also be intellectual and academic suicide.

Thus, I propose evangelical scholars "play the game" of historical criticism, using it for expediency's sake, all the while judiciously noting the ways it fails and must fail to adequately capture the Bible for what it is, a divine-human text, and proposing better alternative views.

We should not attempt to prove the Bible errorless by appeals to historical criticism (a failed project) or pretend that evangelical or Restoration Movement convictions about the Bible can be fully can be integrated with or arrived at by the fundamental assumptions of historical criticism (i.e., the Bible is limited, fallible, errant, non-coherent, etc.).

Like in collegiate debate where participants must often debate for a subject they do not believe in, we should engage the larger academic world in the language of historical criticism, while, in reality, being prepared to explain why the historical critical approach stops short of the full story.

Understanding this, laypeople need to give grace in light of the challenges faced by Christian academics, we need to move beyond a Sunday School view of the Bible to a mature view, one that sees the Bible not as heavenly dictations, but a divine-human text; and be prepared to disagree with love and collegiality.

Also, can we stop kneecapping ourselves by chasing away the best and brightest of evangelical scholarship and instead assure our scholars (I'm talking about the Restoration Movement) that we have their backs?

I know I do not agree with some of the philosophical assumptions and specific beliefs about the Bible held by the Biblical Studies faculty at CCU (which is not a monolith).

However, every day I am enriched by their knowledge and learning, as well as encouraged by our common fellowship in Christ Jesus.

As the saying goes, " all things charity." 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Political Neutrality in Practice: The Pledge of Allegiance

Political neutrality is a negative position (in the sense of negating, not critical) taken towards governments and politics by Christians in which we...

1. do not lobby government, 
2. vote for, endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms;  
hold government office, 
participate in any action to change governments; 
3. allow our meeting places or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes, 
direct other Christians as to which candidate or party they should votes for; 
4. or attempt to direct or dictate government leaders or elections*. 

This position has several practical applications, which will be the subject of forthcoming blog posts. 

This first post deals with the Pledge of Allegiance and eight reasons why Christians should not say it:

Firstly, the Pledge of Allegiance for Christians--called strangers and foreigners to the world and it ways, and citizens of heaven (Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:11; Philip. 3:11)--confuses the relationship of Kingdom citizens to the worldly kingdoms in which they reside. 

It's as backward as a visiting South Korean pledging allegiance to the flag of North Korea on a diplomatic trip or a traveling Israeli to the flag of Palestine during a stop in East Jerusalem. 

Our true and lasting citizenship resides in God's Kingdom which is principally opposed to the Kingdoms of the world. 

Secondly, the POA is for us a redundancy because by virtue of our allegiance to Christ and his Kingdom, we promise to act in a God-honoring way toward our nations (Romans 13:1-7).

Thirdly, the POA is nationalistic while God's Kingdom is anti-nationalist. 

Our primary loyalty is to our brothers and sisters (Eph 3:28; Gal. 6:10), who reside around the world, not to "the republic." 

Fourthly, the phrase "under God" is a lie. 

Our nation is not "under God" in any meaningful sense. 

We do not consider God in our laws, in our decision making, or in any of the essential or non-essential functions our our republic. 

Being "under God", but not acknowledging God is like saying "Lord, Lord", but not doing what the Lord says.

Fifthly, the phrase "under God" is idolatrous. 

The Supreme Court has only allowed the such phrases found in our money, pledges, anthems, etc. because it is empty of religious meaning, instead representing "ceremonial deism", much less any reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Jesus.

Sixth, the phrase "with liberty and justice for all" is a lie. 

Those words in the POA saw the worst of this nation's post-slavery treatment of blacks, as well as the oppression of other racial and sexual minorities. 

Furthermore, as long as abortion remains legal, this phrase is a trite nothing.

Seventh, pledging allegiance to the flag contradicts the biblical teaching against making oaths/swearing (Matt. 5:34-37; Jas 5;12) because a pledge is an oath of allegiance to the country.

Eighth the earliest Christians refused to swear any oaths at all until this tradition was completely reversed with the Constantine Corruption of the Church. 

Surely, more reasons exist for why we should not pledge our allegiance to the flag or to the republic for which it stands, but find other biblically appropriate ways of honoring our country,  

*(This definition is a modified form of this stance taken by the LDS and JW fellowships).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A People Not Yet Created: A Theological Case for Extraterrestrial Life.

For some inexplicable reason, maybe over a decade ago, my mother allowed me to watch some spooky documentary-like paranormal movie with my sister and a couple of friends.

Its effect on me was not negligible and that night I removed my analog clock  from my room (for you Generation Yers, analog is the one with the pointy things sticking out from the center) because the ticking of the hands was terrifying me.

Not exactly anyone's vision of a super fun movie night.

However, I walked away from that evening's experience with something else, something other than fear: a firm belief in extraterrestrial life.

In fact, in the hey-day of my belief, I started the “Extraterrestrial Prayer Ministry (EPM)” which was “committed to praying for our brother and sisters in other galaxies” or something like that (hey, cut me some slack; once I go all in, I go all in).

Now, before you write me off as having gone off the deep end, I don't actually believe there exists physical evidence for aliens.

All such proof, including that presented in the documentary, is easier and better explained by something other than intergalactic visitors who couldn't find anything more interesting to do than mess with a few cows, abduct a person here or there, or craft designs in an Iowa cornfield.

In fact, I don't even stop by that section at the bookstore, conveniently located between the Tarot cards and the ghost hunter biographies (I mean how's that for instilling confidence?).

Upon maturer reflection, I believe the case for alien life is most properly a theological question, not a paranormal, scientific, or biblical one.

What do I mean by that?

Well, the alien question is not a paranormal question because alein existence doesn't rise or fall on hypotheses related to unexplained phenomena that supposedly lie beyond the capacities of nature.

It could. But it doesn't.

More controversial, I would say it's not practically a scientific question, only in the sense that scientists have little reason to expect scientific confirmation of intelligent life comparable to our own (sorry, SETI!) and yet that still doesn't mean such life is nonexistent.

One such hurdle to scientific confirmation of aliens is the standard “life evolved from the perfect marriage of chemicals, proteins, warmth, moisture, and energy” explanation of the genesis of carbon based life.

That this happened once is so infinitesimal as to almost be zero and is something trained professionals in labs have been utterly unable to achieve (and not for lack of trying).

The idea that it happened twice, even multiple times, is incredible.

Secondly, our ability to broadcast and receive radio waves to and from our hypothetical intergalactic neighbors is severely limited by the vastness of the universe and the current inadequacy of even our best technology to pierce the darkness.

The graphic below shows how far (or not so far) we have been able to broadcast radio waves into just our galaxy much less the other 100 billion projected galaxies in the universe (look for the arrow).

So not only does it seem highly unlikely that aliens could have evolved from a protein-rich primordial soup (as some assume we did), if they managed that feat, the likelihood we would be able to contact each other is slim to none.

In fairness, these odds are technically not insurmountable and do not truly place the aliens outside of the realm of scientific inquiry, but as far as validating or invalidating the alien question, the tools of the scientific trade need quite a bit of updating.

Finally and maybe most surprisingly, I don't think this is a biblical question.

The Bible is book, divine in origin, given to human beings (as opposed to angels or animals, ect.) for their total edification.

It is not a science textbook or an exhaustive encyclopedia of all knowledge, so we should not be surprised it does not even broach the question of aliens, the conditions of life on other planets, or other related issues.

All attempts to read aliens into every fantastic vision in the Bible or description of a strange creature are unconvincing and find better explanations in the literary, historical, and socio-cultural settings of the passages in question.

If we're looking for a “this saith the Lord” in regards to aliens, we are bound to come up short.

However, I do think the Bible is key here, rendering the alien question first a question of theology.

Theology proper is the study of God (Himself), but is used to describe the study of the things of God, too.

Since I believe in alien existence, not on explicit biblical grounds, but based on a broad principle(s) taken from the Bible and applied to this question, this is properly considered theological speculation.

What is this principle?

The love of God.

That God chose to create is a stunning and marvelous fact because God had nothing to gain from creation.

If you are God, your ultimate and complete satisfaction comes not from outside Yourself, but from, well, being God.

This has led careful students of the Bible to conclude that the “good” of creation was our good.

The Bible says God loves the world. (John 3:16)
That He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. (Ezekiel 33:11)
That He died for everyone. (1 John 2:2 )
That He wants everyone to come to knowledge of the truth. (1 John 2:2)

This love has no limit and manifested itself, not only in creation, but in God's sharing of Himself, the greatest gift He could give to us (The Bible says the end of all God's children is to “be with the Lord forever”, 1 Thessalonians 4:17).

The argument is simple: if God's love moved Him to create and if God's love is limitless, God's creative impulses of the same kind that brought about human beings about in the first place are also limitless, meaning they did not terminate in us but continue to extend to other creations of God yet unknown to us.

It follows from this, we are not alone in the universe (or at least the created order), but that God is involved in the most beautiful project of endless self-giving love with all kinds of sentient creatures, not just humans.

This may be on an intergalactic basis, as I suspect based on the sheer vastness of creation, or in other created dimensions, but it's happening, it's amazing,  and it's exactly what we would suspect from a God who has already purchased for Himself men from every tribe, tongue, and nation here on earth.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Answering Popular Objections to Christianity: What about Religious Violence?

I briefly contemplated calling this series (running concurrently with my series on Catholicism) "Bad Objections to Christianity" because I judged the objections I planned to cover as, well, bad.

However, because it's not my intention to insult those, Christian or otherwise, who find themselves taken by these objections, I opted for the descriptor "popular" in place of bad, to communicate the common, perhaps less sophisticated nature of these objections in comparison to more scholarly, academic ones.

Also, this gives me the opportunity to answer a wider array of objections, including those that are popular, but not necessarily poorly thought out.

In fact, we start with just such an objection which alleges that religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular, cannot be true or should be rejected because of the copious amounts of violence and wars they produce.

Let me outline 5 rebuttals to this objection.

1. Abuses Do Not Negate Uses. 

Any worldview, belief system, or ideological principle can be abused by self-promoting individuals to further their wicked agendas.

Thus, even if someone uses religion as a justification for a violent act, unless we can draw a clear line between the act and the specific precepts of the religion in question which could conceivably allow for or otherwise justify such violence, we cannot simply assume such a religion does in fact justify the violent act and is not simply being taken advantage of by the perpetrator.

Such an abuse could not be used to disqualify the specific religion or all religions in any sense.

2.  The Diversity of Religious Belief.

Religion can be understood as a set of beliefs or practices centered around the divine or sacred.

It is unnecessary and indeed impossible to capture here the world's staggering amount of religious diversity, past and present, and the various relationships these religions have to violence.

Thus, from the onset, it is far too simplistic to blame "religion", broadly, for wars and violence as though religion were (1.) homogeneous (which it is not) or (2.) had some inherent violent-producing properties (which it does not).

This rebuttal is in keeping with the study "Five Key Questions Answered on the Link between Peace and Religion”, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, published in 2014, which looked at thirty-five major conflicts waged in 2013 concluded no "general causal relationship" existed between these conflicts and religion.

In fact, while no shortage of speculation and theories exist, no such relationship has ever been demonstrated in any way.

3. The Absence of Historical Evidence

From the Christian Answers and Research Ministry.

Most glaringly, it is also not the case that historically religion, of any stripe, has been the cause of most wars.

The massive Encyclopedia of Wars, published in 2008, documented a whopping 1,763 wars fought throughout human history and judged that not quite 7% or 123 wars, to be exact, were  ‘religious in nature’.
Far and away most wars have been fought for socio-economic and political reasons, not religion.

4. The Bloody History of Atheistic Regimes

Furthermore, when we look at atheist revolutionaries like Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Josip Broz Tito, Kim Il Sung, Vladimir Lenin, and others of the 20th century, the tens of millions of people killed surrounding their violent activities far outstrips those killed in wars fought for religious reasons (which account for 2 percent of all such fatalities, according to the Encyclopedia of Wars).

Indeed, if you take the 20 million (a very low number) people Stalin alone killed and stack that against the 1.7 million killed in the Crusades and the 3000 executed during the Inquisition, you don't reach even 20% of this one evil dictator.

And to the extent one argues that other factors like Communism played a role in one or more of the atrocities wrought by these irreligious men, which is undeniable, we ask that the same attention to detail and nuance be given to the socio-political nature of the so-called religious conflicts for which believers have been taken to task (such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, unrest in Northern Ireland, etc.).

5. Important But Besides The Point Of Truth

 Finally, even to the degree that religious conflicts do exist, and they do, this has no bearing on the general meaningfulness of religion as a way of looking at and describing reality or the truth of Christianity, particular.

"Religion causes wars" is not logically opposite "God exists", "Jesus Christ rose from the dead", or "the Bible is divinely authoritative", truths upon which the Christian commitment to following God rests. 


We have see that abuses do not negate uses relative to the abuse of religion by violent individuals, that religion is a diverse body of thought with no inherently violent or violent-producing properties, that 97% of history's wars were not religious in nature, that atheist regimes of the 20th century were responsible for the most loss of life in violent conflict, and that the objection itself does not even touch on the truth of religion as a way of looking at the world.

With this objection out of the way, I hope we can consider more carefully the nature of the wars fought in the Bible, for example, the mnistry of peace prophesied in the coming Messiah, and the way the peace teachings of Jesus work to make those prophecies a reality in view of his Second Coming to put an end to violence once and or all. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

It's Not You; It's Me: Why Are Police Officers Killing Black Men?

Wading through the mountain of studies assessing police use of force (without a firearm), fatal and non-fatal police shootings, and the possibility of racial bias in each case is no easy task, but is important in understanding why we are seeing such violent clashes between police and black Americans.

To begin, we have to start with the raw data.

For one, the Washington Post is operating a real-time database to track fatal police shootings.

In 2015, they logged 990 fatal police shootings, of which 494 of the slain were white and 258 were black.

This year, 518 people have been killed by police (a six percent increase from the first 6 months of last year), 239 of those killed being white and 126 being black (a nine percent increase from the first 6 months of 2015).

Are more white people being killed by police than black people? Yes.

However, when you take population into consideration, as any responsible analysis of the data must, black people, making up 13 percent of the population, make up 24 percent of the fatal shootings, meaning, generally speaking,  black Americans are more 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police.

When you adjust for unarmed victims "black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed", when taking into account the 2015 data alone.

After the data for 2015 and 2016 is compiled, "U.S. police officers have shot and killed the exact same number of unarmed white people as they have unarmed black people: 50 each. But because the white population is approximately five times as great as the black population, that means unarmed black Americans were five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer."

So while higher numbers of white people (and Hispanics) are killed by police than black people, black people, armed or unarmed, are killed a rate higher than their white counterparts.

There are two prevailing theories for why this is: the racial bias theory and the crime-produced disparity theory (which states that disproportionate levels of crime in the black community drives police use of force).

The racial bias theory makes a lot out of the above disparities and there is indeed evidence on the books showing racial bias against blacks in terms of police dealings.

Most recently, a study published by National Bureau of Economic Research found "[o]n non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police."

Importantly, the study controls for things like context and civilian behavior finding it "reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities."

This makes the data difficult to dismiss by those who hold the crime-produced theory as a explanation for these police conflicts.

Furthermore, mitigating against the crime-produced theory is 2015 study coming from a researcher at the University of California's Anthropology Department.

The study an ,"Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States", found the the following:

 "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates."

Even when controlling for violent criminality on the part of the person shot,  a Center for Policing Equity report released this year found, "[g]iven the rarity of Part I violent crimes [violent and property crimes] and a lack of evidence that arrests for violent crime significantly increase the likelihood of police use of force, these findings suggest that crime rates are an insufficient explanation for disparities in the application of police force."

In other words, the crime-produced disparity theory is whittled down as studies consistently show that arrests for violent crime and local crime rates are not enough to explain the disproportionate killing of black individuals.

This is bad news for people like Heather McDonald, fellow at the Manhattan Institute,  who claimed in her popular "The Danger of Black Lives Matter" speech,  "[t]he black violent crime rate would actually predict that more than 26 percent of police victims would be black. Officer use of force will occur where the police interact most often with violent criminals, armed suspects, and those resisting arrest, and that is in black neighborhoods."

In other words, while Ms. McDonald is absolutely correct that black people commit violent crime at rates not in keeping with their size relative to the overall population, the conclusion (given without sources) she draws from that directly contradicts years of historical data compiled and evaluated in the CPE report.

Furthermore, her implication that the disparity at which cops are in danger of being killed by black people more than any other racial demographic helps explain the racial disparity in cop killings fares no better without any support from the published data.

This does not mean the racial bias theory wins the day, however.

The theory recently hit a major snag with a new report that shows "on the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account."

This is the same National Bureau of Economic Research study that found racial bias in police use of non-lethal force.

German Lopez, a staff writer for Vox, criticized the report for using voluntary data (which may be negatively affected by selection bias), which is not an immaterial point.

However, in the same article, he then admittedly used voluntary police data from the FBI to prove the opposite point, justifying his inconsistency by stating the FBI numbers are "more comprehensive".

This is true, but the comprehensiveness of a report does not mitigate against possible selection bias.

Also, the NBER study cannot be invalidated by the FBI statistics Lopex cites because the FBI numbers are not incident-based (see here) and so can say nothing about the controls in the NBER study that show a lack of racial bias.

In the second data set used in the NBER study, the researchers were given access to cases in which lethal force could have been used but was not, to look for potential bias.

And while Lopez claims this data set is "built on police reports of what police claim are arrests in which lethal force was warranted" and that "given the video evidence we’ve seen in the past couple of years, there’s good reason to not take police at their word", he ignores the fact that, as the New York Times reported, it was the lead researcher, Roland G. Fryer Jr., who set the parameters of such cases, not the police.

While some might bandy the idea that the police are lying in these reports,  this is intuitively difficult to assent to because these are cases where lethal force was not used, eliminating any apparent reason for dishonesty.

And arguing the officers lied on the reports to make themselves look better in the off-chance someone would care that they could have used lethal force but didn't is just too clever by half.

Perhaps most important, as Mr. Fryer himself explains, "what we actually found was that there were no racial differences in the basic differences analysis. It didn't matter whether we took context--as captured by police reports--into account or not; there was no racial bias in either analysis."

The NBER study is not comprehensive and thus cannot be applied to the nation as a whole, but it is something in the way of rebutting the racial bias narrative.

One the other hand, while some may use the study as proof that minorities are generally handled rougher in the hands of the police, as mentioned earlier, the lack of comprehensiveness cuts this way as well.

Some have suggested that the more frequent stopping of black people by police leads to more violent confrontations.

While this would make sense, unfortunately that just pushes the question back a step and we are left to ask why police stopping are black people more often and the entire debate about racial bias vs crime-produced disparity begins anew (with very sparse data in this case).

Thus, it seems both proponents of the crime-produced disparity theory and the racial bias theory need to go back to the drawing board, and the rest of us should avoid making sweeping judgments apart from what individual cases tell us.

I have already argued elsewhere that the best approach is to not commit crimes, resist arrest, or evade arrest (this solution is, of course, not unique to me).

This is a variation of the crime-produced disparity theory, but argues that in initial police confrontations, not later police violence, of a lethal variety are mostly generated by crime, which all the evidence supports (one can check the WP database).

In addition, it also can accommodate theories of racial bias and thus functions as a way of keeping people safe and keeping officers accountable.

While I now believe this would apply to 99% of all the "hashtag cases" cases of police violence, it does not seem to be the case in the Philando Castile case, where an innocent man was mistaken for a criminal and lost his life at the hands of a scared police officer.

This, however, is not the norm, by any honest reading of the data, and affects the solution negligibly.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Catholic Distinctives in the Light of the New Testament: Clerical Titles.

The Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have been blessed to receive in our community many former and disaffected Catholics who might have otherwise simply washed their hands of Christ and his Church altogether.

Despite this and despite faithful national and foreign CC/CoC missionaries ministering in Catholic majority countries, from Mexico to the Philippines and beyond, the teaching in our fellowship on Catholicism is often undeveloped or too influenced by a casual ecumenism, on the one hand, or a casual anti-Catholicism, on the other.

Finding this terribly unfortunate, I am devoting a blog series to the question of Catholic distinctives in light of the New Testament as a corollary to my own contemporaneous study of the subject, which might be of interest to the CC/CoC and broader Evangelical Protestant community as we seek to better appreciate how we differ from Roman Catholics.

What will become apparent in this series is many of the distinctives judged unbiblical are not strictly distinctive to Catholicism but pop up in other Protestant traditions, as well, and in the CC/CoC.

Still, what makes these shared doctrinal errors important to know is that all of them (at least all those planned for discussion in this series) are covered under the Catholic mantle of infallibility, meaning the impact of exposing those errors in regards to discussing Scripture with our Catholic friends and neighbors is heightened dramatically.

No sacred cows should stand before the written Word of God.

Christian or Catholic, when we approach Scripture we ought to do so with an ear to hear and a heart ready to be changed by the very oracles of God speaking to our hearts, removing the clouds of error from our eyes by its truth.

Unfortunately, among the greatest barriers to seeing the truth of Scripture is man's pride, which relates directly to our first doctrinal distinctive: the use of clerical titles or special honorific titles for those engaged in Christian ministry.

The Catholic Church has a litany of such titles, and in an article republished on the Catholic Education Resource Center website, William Saunders, parish priest of a congregation in Potomac Falls, Virginia and dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College explains what titles go with which persons.

For example, we all know diocesan priests are referred to as "Father", not uncommonly in conjunction with a first or last name, but following Mr. Saunders, who himself has the title "Father", the Pope, also a priest, is referred to as "Your Holiness," "Most Holy Father," or "Holy Father."

Furthermore, a Cardinal (from the Latin “cardo” or "hinge")  is greeted as "Your Eminence" or "Your Lordship".

In addition, either in written or in verbal communication, each of these offices carries with it the title "reverend".

(You can see any official Catholic Directory for official approbation of these titles).

Understanding this, how do we make biblical sense of these titles?

From a Scriptural perspective, such monikers are extremely troubling and are, in principle, antithetical to an idea of leadership and ministry informed by the New Testament.

For example, in the Gospel of Matthew 23:9, Jesus flatly condemns the use of "father" as an honorific religious title among his disciples.

Of the half a dozen or so articles I read by Catholics defending calling priests “father”, none are persuasive or convincing.

For example, Catholic Answers frames the issue in the context ofwhether we should call our earthly fathers "father", one article reading, "If a Catholic is wrong in calling his priest "father," then everyone who refers to his own natural father as "father" is also in the wrong. Both usages would be prohibited by a literal interpretation of Jesus' words".

Another article says, “it would rob the address "Father" of its meaning when applied to God, for there would no longer be any earthly counterpart for the analogy of divine Fatherhood. The concept of God’s role as Father would be meaningless if we obliterated the concept of earthly fatherhood.“

This rebuttal ignores the fact that Jesus was speaking of religious honorific titles, not early parentage and whether we can call our dads "father".

For example, sandwiched between Jesus' invocation to "call no man Father" he condemns the use of "rabbi" and "teacher", religious titles also deemed improper as forms of address in the disciple community.

While the term father in reference to one's own father is a description of a biological, legal, or contextual reality, the use of father for any man in a religious context is not a description of a spiritual reality because, in this sense, we "have one Father and he is in heaven."

In this way, the disciples would have clearly understood the difference between acknowledging their biological fathers or fathers in the faith (Luke 16:24, Romans 9:10) and calling certain among them "Father" as a title of religious distinction.

Some also claim that to be consistent, Protestants should eschew the titles "Doctor" or "Mister" which are forms of teacher and master, respectively, both titles condemned by Jesus in Matthew 23.

However, again, these are not religious honorifics used to set one disciple of Christ apart from another, but one is an academic honorific and the other is no more than a social formality, neither of which have anything to do with what Jesus is talking about.

If my pastor insisted I call him "Mr." or "Dr." as a term of special religious distinction or honor, Jesus' words here would surely apply and I would refuse.

The Catholic usage of "Father" as religious honorific for priests is not only without biblical support, but directly violates Jesus' express teaching.

What about the title "Holy Father" for the Pope?

This is another case of a title reserved for God being applied to a man, for Jesus says:

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. -- John 17:11

One could be forgiven for judging this an open and shut case in which the title Holy Father is only ever used for God and could only be applied to man with presumption.

Yet, the use of this title for the Pope persists and the scarcity of Catholic apologetics as to the appropriatenesss of this appellation is telling.

Again from Catholic Answers:

"Catholics call the pope "Holy Father" not as an acknowledgement of his personal state of soul but as an expression of respect for his office as successor to Peter and head of the Church on earth. His is a holy office."

No mention is made of John 17:11, the singular use of Holy Father in reference to God, or any biblical connection between the office of the pope and this name for God.

Unsurprisingly, the only Holy Father the Bible knows of is the same one Jesus says is alone is worthy to be given the distinction of Father: God.

What about "your Lordship"?

For this we go to Matthew 20:25-28:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Furthermore, we read in 1 Peter 5:2-3:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

New Testament leadership is not lordship, whether the legitimate lordship exercised by God-ordained rulers like those of Jesus' day or of domineerance, but servant leadership.

Thus, to call any minister of God "Your Lordship" is wholly inappropriate.

As the Scripture says, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5) and...

For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live (1 Cor. 8:5-6).

The only one who merits to be called Lord in the community of faith and is Jesus Christ (if not God the Father!).

Having arrived at the title "reverend", by now you get the pattern.

The scriptural use of this title is in the King James Version of the Bible (among a few others lesser known and used) in which Psalm 111:9 reads, "He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name."

Primitive church advocate Robert Sandeman put it best when he wrote the in 1757, “the [shabbiest] preacher, in the poorest dissenting congregation, still affects to be called The Reverend; from the same principle which leads the first clergyman in Europe to take the title of His Holiness. The bulk of the Christian leaders, from the highest to the lowest, have showed an inclination to share more or less of the worship due to Him whom we praise, saying, Holy and reverend is his name.”

What we have seen is that the honorific titles so common to Catholicism are unable to be sustained by Bible data and are contradicted by explicit Bible testimony.

However, the principle Jesus establishes in Matthew 23 is enough to do away with all clerical titles regardless of what they are and the denomination from which they originate. He says:

But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. -- Matthew 23:8-11

In this chapter of Scripture, Jesus condemns the hypocritical religious leaders who made a show of their positions with fancy dress, titles, and seats of honor.

But hypocrisy is not the only problem; exalting oneself over others through these means is too condemned.

So when various religious titles are given or assumed by disciples of Christ, we wonder what is the biblical impetus, or otherwise, for setting one Christian over another or exalting one believer over another by such a title?

The Bible says there is none because the greatest among the disciples is a servant and all are servants.

Ironically, one of the terms for the pope is "servant of servants", but this is no better, despite its admirable attempt at humility.

When the Bible calls Jesus “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” this does not mean he is just one king among many or one lord among many, but that among the lords he is Lord of all and that among the kings he is King of all.

Can you imagine, then, the conceit implied in allowing yourself to be called the greatest servant among the servants (Cf. Gen 9:25)!

In commenting on Jesus words in Matthew 23, biblical scholar Craig Blomberg writes:

“But one wonders how often these titles are used without implying unbiblical ideas about a greater worth or value of the individuals to whom they are assigned. One similarly wonders for how long the recipients of such forms of address can resist an unbiblical pride from all the plaudits.

It is probably best to abolish most uses of such titles and look for equalizing terms that show that we are all related as family to one Heavenly Father (God) and one teacher (Christ)... In American Christian circles perhaps the best goal is to strive for the intimacy that simply makes addressing one another on a first-name basis natural” (The New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 [Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992] p.343).

The Catholic Church claims to be the church of the first century which Jesus founded, but the first century church leaders in and outside of the Bible avoided religious honorifics in favor of familial address like "brother" and "sister" which abound in the New Testament.

To recap some of the unbiblical titles assumed and given...

The Catholic Church calls its priests “Father”. Whereas the Bible says..."call no man have one Father and he is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9)

The Catholic Church calls its pope “Holy Father”. Whereas the Bible says..."Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name..."(John 17:11)

The Catholic Church calls its Cardinals “Your Lordship”. Whereas the Bible says..."and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came..." (1 Cor. 8:6)

The Catholic Church calls its ministers “Reverend”. Whereas the Bible says..."He sent redemption unto his people ...holy and reverend is his name..." (Psalm 111:9)

Sadly, we see many a "Pastor Smith", Bishop Greg", and "Reverend Joe" among
evangelical Protestants today, with some Pentecostals going above and beyond by affixing apostle, evangelist, and even prophet before their names (I myself have fallen into the trap as using "pastor" as an honorific).

Peter, believed by Catholics to be the first pope, wrote in 2 Peter 3:15...

Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.

While honor should be given to whom honor is due, we would all do well to return to the apostolic practice of calling each other brother and sister and refusing to set ourselves apart by religious honorifics like the Lord Jesus commands us in Scripture.

Monday, July 4, 2016

God Save the King: Why the American Revolution was Flatly Unbiblical.

I distinctly remember listening to the decidedly conservative video teacher for my highschool homeschool history curriculum carefully explain to his eager history students how the American Revolution was not unbiblical.

Being religiously conservative myself, we agreed on much, but this time I found myself utterly perplexed as he tried to settle the issue with a broad appeal to the corrupt British government.

Well, okay, I thought, but if corrupt government is grounds for revolution, what does it mean that all governments are corrupt, to some extent?

Also, wasn't the government which Paul lived under when he wrote "be subject to those in authority" corrupt too?

At the time, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on with my life, not knowing I would revisit this question and a host of others about the intersect between my faith and politics in the years to come.

In one sense, what I am writing matters little because the American Revolution was over 200 years ago.

At the same time, the principles that make the revolution contrary to the call of Christians as articulated in the Bible, are for all times and people and thus distinctly relevant for us today.

One of the three of those principles is found in Romans 13:1-5:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do
right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This passage does not teach absolute obedience, due only to God, but means unless the government commands you to do something you cannot do without violating God's commands, you are not justified in disobeying the government, which is exactly what the Colonists did.

In fact, no justification is ever given for the act of revolution, even when the government is telling you to do something which you can rightly disobey.

The government of Rome in Paul's day was surely as corrupt as the English government and, yet, he still issued and followed this command, under the direction of the Spirit.

The second principle is found in Romans 12:17-21, one chapter prior:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Replete with instructions and examples of how Christians should treat their enemies and resolve conflict, the New Testament is silent about the justifiableness of Christians going to war.

Indeed, filling the New Testament's silence on any Christian just war ethic is a deafening call for non-violence and peacemaking.

In place of violently overthrowing the government and subsequently killing the "enemy" in defense of ourselves, we are told to not repay evil with evil, to do what is right (which we saw previously involves obedience to government),to live at peace (the opposite of going to war), to not take revenge, to trust in God's justice, and to treat our enemies well.

None of these values or practices aligns with the sanguinary and peaceless American Revolution.

Thirdly and finally, we return to Romans 12, picking up where we left off with verses 6-7:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

One of the Colonists' most notable grievances against King George and the British Monarchy was taxation without representation.

However, echoing Jesus' words to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's", Paul makes the argument for why Christians should pay their taxes.

Rather than complain, vandalize, rebel, or refuse to pay, even if the system of taxation is unfair--as it was both for the Colonists and early Christians, neither of whom were properly represented by their government and who were often burdened by undue taxation--we obey, not of deference for an unjust government, but out of reverence for a just God who uses government for His purposes.

Recognizing this, understand that the reason fighting the American Revolution was unscriptural, was because it replaced the Colonists' responsibilities to their God with the sacrifice of human life on the altar of war in worship of the false gods of liberty, freedom, and self-government.

This is not something any follower of Christ should celebrate.

(But that doesn't necessarily mean we cannot enjoy the fireworks!)