F.A.Q. #8: Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage

I’ve been hesitant to address the topic of homosexuality for a few reasons. The first is simply that so contentious an issue should probably be discussed in person. I’m not sure something you read on the internet is going to change anyone’s mind, and there’s a good chance it will only lead to confusion or animosity. Second, it’s a remarkably complex issue. Okay, it’s really not, but things have become so muddled it’s difficult to get a consensus on any give interpretation of the pertinent passages of the Bible. In order to give a full view of what’s going on, I have to not only give you my own views, but also spend time addressing the common rebuttals. That means any post on the subject would not be short enough for a single post — or even a series of posts. For example, in my last ministry placement, I shelled out around twenty-three single-spaced pages of biblical and theological interpretation. That’s just too much information. Finally, I didn’t want my words to be misconstrued and be labeled as homophobic or hateful or something like that. I want to be very clear: God’s love extends to everyone equally, regardless of, well, anything. With that said, it’s also in God’s nature to be holy — and that means hating sin in any incarnation. It’s not judgmental to call sin what it is; indeed, it’s actually loving to point out — from the context of a loving relationship — the things which tear someone from God. I would hope my loved ones care enough about me to tell me I shouldn’t be doing such things. After all, that’s what love does: it offers correction, chastisement, not blind acceptance of evil. But love is often hard to express in the form of a written word from someone you will probably never meet, and so I didn’t want to run the risk of being misunderstood.

Recent events in my own life have made me reevaluate those reasons, and so I want to be clear on what both the Bible and two thousand years of church history actually say regarding the LGBTQ community. To that end, I want to make two statements.

First, I unequivocally believe both Scripture and sacred tradition maintain non-heterosexual orientations and actions to be sinful and to run counter to the will of God. I base this upon passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some of those texts are hotly debated, but once you cut through the specious arguments (a.k.a. “exegetical gymnastics,” as I like to think of them), there’s only one faithful way to read the whole of the Bible which eliminates conflicts and political/cultural agendas. I hate to state something in such absolute terms, but I fully believe that to be true.

The second statement is the full explanation of the first one. Below is a link to download a pdf version of my research. It’s dense, it’s technical, and it plows through a few different languages. And it may offer some corollaries you might not like. Regardless, this is what I believe to be truth, and I feel I stand in good company. (Later, should the full statement be too much information, I’ll return to the topic and make a TL;DR version.)

I invite you along on the journey, and as always, I welcome thoughtful dialogue (and forbid deliberately inflammatory comments).

Note: I wrote this statement before gay “marriage” was legalized in the United States. It’s possible that some of my statements are already dated, despite being two months old.

Gay Marriage

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F.A.Q. #7: What’s Up with All These Translations?

Christians have long been considered “the people of the Book.” While practically every religion has a sacred text of some sort (the Qur’an, Torah, the Bhagavad Gita), the Church of Christ seems to be especially dedicated to its scriptures. The Holy Bible is a constant across the faith; worship styles, church architecture, and other local traditions may come and go, but every believer experiences the normative (and life-giving) influence of the Bible. (Or at least we should.) This raises a fairly important question: which Bible? Do we believe things as they appear across translations, or do we establish dogma only on the Vulgate? The King James? Can we trust every translation and version to be faithful to the original manuscripts — or should we even care?

I think it’s important to understand the process of compiling a new version of the Bible. There are several different approaches, and each one has its own merits. Some translations seek to provide a literal, word-for-word version of the manuscript. If, for example, the Hebrew reads “his countenance fell,” then these versions also read “his countenance fell” instead of something like “he was saddened.” Literal translations have the advantage of extreme faithfulness to the verbiage of the manuscripts, but what they gain in fidelity, they can sometimes lose in readability. Take, for example, the first editions of the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The translators set out to make the most literal English translation in history, a feat which they accomplished — at the cost of sounding like Yoda. Preserving the word order of the source languages meant keeping some verbs at the end of the clause or verse, and so the finished product was a little hard to keep up with at times. (Unless, of course, you happened to be a small green Jedi master who lives in a swamp on Dagobah.)

On the flip side of the literal/word-for-word translation are “thought-for-thought” translations, the most extreme being paraphrase versions of the Bible. Thought-for-thought translations aren’t concerned necessarily with the words themselves; rather, they prefer to rephrase the meaning behind the words in a way the target readers would understand. In keeping with my original example, instead of a Hebrew verse reading “his countenance fell,” these would opt for “he was saddened” or something along similar lines. A more concrete example is the New Living Translation’s (NLT) John 3:16. Instead of the “only-begotten son” of the original Greek, it reads “one and only son.” Every translation does this on occasion (yes, even the beloved KJV exchanges “born from above” for “born again” earlier in John 3), but some versions use this as a standard mode of operation. The paraphrase editions such as The Message and The Voice give up on word-for-word translations altogether and instead use contemporary language exclusively (including modern slang and other colloquialisms which weren’t even invented at the time Scripture was being written).

Of course, some translations try to straddle the fence and use a combination of both word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations. The most common of these is probably the New International Version (NIV), and this approach may account for the translation’s success in church circles worldwide. If you ever want a spectrum of translations mapping out which ones fall under what translation style, you can find a pretty good one in most Christian bookstores or online here and here.

Alright. We understand the basic options in putting together a new version from the source texts. But what sources do we use?

Modern translations are typically made from the Greek and Hebrew texts used by biblical scholars, which are themselves carefully compiled and edited to give a “best reading” from the original manuscripts. I have to say “best reading” because not every manuscript is identical. Thousands of scrolls exist, and some of them have been adapted or edited by the scribes for various reasons (for more info on this, see my earlier post here). For this reason, many Bibles have footnotes or other notations explaining how a word could be translated a different way or that a specific verse or passage doesn’t appear in other manuscripts. The New Testament of the King James Version, for example, was translated from the Textus Receptus (“Received Text”) and supplemented by earlier English translations (particularly for Revelation). Since its creation in 1611, other manuscripts have been uncovered which offer a new best reading or majority text which differs from the one used for the KJV, and these texts are used for newer translations. In other words, because we have more and better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts than we did 400 years ago, we understand that some verses probably aren’t authentic and are thus either removed entirely or annotated in newer, more accurate translations. (For the die-hard KJV-only crowd: I’m not saying your preferred version is bad; I’m just saying there are better ones on the market nowadays, both in terms of accuracy and readibility, even though they potentially drop some of your favorite verses. And I guess I’m also saying it’s kind of silly to say a single translation in a language spoken by a fraction of the world’s population for only a couple of hundred years is the definitive version/the only “real” Bible; I mean, Jesus didn’t sound like Shakespeare.)

The multitude of versions of the Bible shouldn’t necessarily be a source of concern for the Christian. Each one fills a niche in terms of readership. For example, I would be hard-pressed to find a middle school student who loved the beauty of the King James or felt up to the task of handling the NASB, but I just might be able to get a seventh grader to dive in to the NIV, NLT, or CEB. On the other hand, a scholar wanting to work with the English text will probably reach for an NASB, ESV, or RSV, but the same scholar might not consider The Message to even be a real Bible. Each one conveys gospel truth and the full body of our sacred writings; they merely package it differently so as to make it accessible to a wide range of readers — believers and nonbelievers alike.

And just because you asked (okay . . . you didn’t, but I know you really wanted to), I prefer either the English Standard Version (ESV) or the NASB for my own reading and devotions, and I find the NIV and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) useful for teaching and preaching. I just personally prefer a literal, word-for-word text (which is also why I use a Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament for all of the above — but that’s another thing altogether).

(Non)Violence

Yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States. Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, ages, genders, and faiths came together to celebrate the life of a man who served as a crucial voice in the civil rights movement, urging his fellow citizens to recognize all races as truly equal in the eyes of the law (and in the eyes of the beholder). He may not have been a popular figure in his own time, but without Rev. Dr. King’s work, I daresay we wouldn’t be nearly as far along our struggle to end racism as we are. But what truly made MLK stand out was his chosen mode of operation: nonviolent resistance.

King detested violence in any form for any purpose, even the purpose of gaining equal protection under the law. He believed violence would never be an appropriate response to anything: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Christians like Dr. King have long debated the uneasy relationship between Christianity and violence. (Already you’re saying, “What? Violence and Christianity have a relationship? Well, yeah.) Most people are quick to denounce overt violence carried out in the name of God; the Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades, and the Inquisition stand out as dark spots in a faith claiming to be founded by the one who said “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12). I know of a few people who will attempt to defend the Crusades, stating they halted the ingress of Islam into Europe (which, according to some scholars, is true) — but no one will condone the murder of other human beings on ideological grounds.

Or will they? There are three approaches to violence, two of which describe the majority of Christians: pacifism/nonviolence, just war theory, and the “no holds barred” ideology of stalwart jingoists and others. The first two, pacifism and just war, are adhered to by a majority of Christians. Certain strains of evangelicalism may stray towards a “violence can be necessary even if it doesn’t fit your criteria” mentality, but I find this view completely indefensible from a proper biblical ethic; as such, I’ll spend most of my time on pacifism and just war theory.

Christian pacifism has a long, storied history beginning within the pages of the New Testament itself. The adage “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” is a paraphrase of the words of Christ to Peter in Matthew 26:52: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Those who practice nonviolence in all things also point to scriptures such as Matthew 5:39 (“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”), Matthew 18:21-22 (“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times'”), and the examples of Stephen, Peter, Paul, and the other apostles in the book of Acts (being arrested and suffering torture and martyrdom instead of defending themselves using violence). The Bible makes it clear believers will suffer due to their faith (see especially 1 Peter), but not a single verse ever exhorts Christians to use violence to defend themselves or others. With this in mind, Christian pacifism was the only real view of violence from the time of Christ until the legalization of the faith by the emperor Constantine in 313.

With Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and theologians began their work anew in the area of violence. Now that they wouldn’t be defending a pagan government, for example, Christians reconsidered their previous refusal of military service. The Empire promised the ability to spread the religion by force if necessary; should Christians participate in a sort of “swordpoint evangelism”? Should a person of faith be ready to cast down pagan governments and enforce the true religion by any means necessary? And what about matters of human suffering? Are Christians to simply stand idly by while the forces of evil oppress and destroy that which is good?

Perhaps the greatest voice writing on this topic was St. Augustine. Inspired by Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Augustine saw governments as chosen by God to rule, and thus they were defensible by force where necessary. A Christian could thus serve in the military and defend his country as long as the campaign met several very specific criteria. Over time, these criteria were refined and nuanced, and today they constitute what is called just war theory. For violence to be acceptable, a war/act must satisfy the following:

  1. Just Cause/Right Intention — The war must begin only to bring about social justice and protect life; retribution, material gain, or conquest is excluded by default.
  2. Competent Authority — The party declaring war must be a legitimate political power (e.g., a oppressive dictator has no authority to order people to fight and die).
  3. Proportionality — The good to be gained through violence must outweigh or at least be proportional to the destruction it will cause. Collateral damage is to be minimized at all costs.
  4. Probability of Success — If the war is unwinnable, it has no reason to be fought.
  5. Last Resort — War is only an option when diplomacy in all its forms has completely failed. Violence is not a “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of enterprise.

To give an example, World War II would certainly be considered a just war: it was waged to stop a genocidal regime (just cause/right intention), declared by democratic powers (competent authority), ended as soon as the objective had been achieved and followed by a rebuilding of private properties (proportionality), won by those who had sufficient military strength to accomplish the objectives (probability of success), and entered only after diplomacy, including a bit of appeasement, had been completely exhausted (last resort). Deciding to “liberate” an unoppressed people to gain crude oil or combat an ideological opposite would fail to meet at least the first (and probably the last) criterion. In strict interpretations of just war theory, WWII was in fact the last so-called “just war” ever waged.

On the personal level, just war prevents us from shooting our neighbor when his music blares into the wee hours of the morning, and it precludes fighting someone who has impugned our honor or even committed a violent act against a family member (both of which would be retribution). Ethicists still debate the exact parameters around violence for the purpose of self-defense or defending a neighbor; the just war framework can be either flexible enough to allow it or unyielding enough to totally forbid it depending on one’s interpretation.

Most Christians rally around one of these two positions, and there many historical, biblical, and theological reasons for doing so. Ardent patriots and other jingoists who too often confuse Jesus for George Washington, however, will loudly assert we should fight any takers with an assault rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other. While liberating the legitimately oppressed may satisfy the just war criteria, it will only do so under very specific circumstances — and obviously a battle for any reason at all fails the nonviolence test altogether. The neoconservative agenda (think “Team America, World Police) has yet, to my way of thinking, to satisfy just war criteria.

And our commands to love our enemies as ourselves, to bless them and wish them well (Matthew 5:44, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:27, Ephesians 4:32, etc.) forbid us from any acts of vengeance, theft, or military action designed specifically to spread an ideology or claim resources by force. For that reason, I’m always incredibly uncomfortable when my brothers and sisters in Christ get too cozy with the weapons of war or stray down the path of xenophobia — or who advocate abortion or the death penalty, both of which seem to be more accepted forms of violence. (But those are topics for discussion in their own right.)

Ultimately, God will put an end to all violence, and I know it must break His heart as much as it does ours to see people needlessly destroying other people. I long for the day when God “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come.

F.A.Q. #5: What about Other Religions?

We live in a world of many faiths. A basic glance at a world religions textbook (or a night watching T.V.) reveals a plethora of different religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Sikhism are just a few of these. And each one has different sects, too. Islam is largely bifurcated into Shiite and Sunni camps; Conservative Jews worship differently than Messianic and Orthodox strains; and Christianity itself is fractured into some 3,000 separate denominations by some estimates. At the end of the day, what do we make of them all? At the end of the world, will everyone be saved equally — or is only one of us right?

Three main view dominate the discussion about the veracity and accuracy of world religions. Exclusivism, probably the most prominent, states that only one religion is correct is any sense (generally the religion of the one espousing said opinion). Only those who follow Allah will gain Paradise, for example. Or those who follow Torah. Or the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths (although this one gets you to Nirvana). You get the idea. Generally speaking, Christianity is an exclusivist religion (notable exceptions to follow). Christians look at passages such as John 14:6 — “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — and Acts 4:12 — “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” — and declare the only path to eternal life with God is the salvation offered by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who do not personally know Christ as savior are damned. On the flip side of exclusivity is the problem of “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire.” If someone never hears about Christ, are they consigned to eternal punishment by default? Would God really deny them eternal life simply because they remained ignorant of the sacrifice of Jesus through no fault of their own? Difficult questions for the exclusivist to answer. With that said, this remains the dominant view (in my opinion) of most Christians and most persons of other theistic religions.

A bit more “lenient” mode of thought is inclusivism, which states that anyone of any faith will be granted entry into whichever concept of heaven turns out to be correct. If we say Christianity offers the true idea of eternal life, then the pluralist will say devout Christians as well as devout Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. will enter the Christian heaven after the end of the age. Christian faith per se isn’t necessary for salvation; all that’s needed is a dedication to some sort of faith. All faith is attributed to being faith in God/the true deity and thus rewarded. People without a religion or who only nominally adhere to any given faith still suffer from whichever schema of eternal damnation as might prove to be true (such as the Christian hell). Inclusivism thus retains the central notions of salvation and damnation, but it broadens the scope to allow anyone with faith to be rewarded appropriately. (A subset of inclusivism allows for multiple eternal destinies: Christians are saved to a Christian heaven, Jews to a Jewish heaven, Buddhists to Nirvana, etc.). Some Christian theologians have gone along with the Christian iteration of inclusivism. Perhaps the most well-known is C.S. Lewis. In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, Lewis saves all non-Narnians who still served their own religions well (all good deeds being attributed to faith in Aslan and not Tash, for example). Other theologians have followed suit.

The final main view of world religions is religious pluralism (not to be confused with the concept of pluralism which simply acknowledges the reality of a multiplicity of faiths). Pluralists, sometimes referred to as universalists, believe everyone regardless of faith — or the lack thereof — will ultimately be saved and granted eternal life/entry into paradise. A specific statement of faith or salvific experience is not necessary. As long as you’re alive, you’ll make it at the end. This school of thought has gained ground in some progressive/liberal theological circles, but it’s never been the dominant opinion of any theistic religion (that I know of).

I keep saying “theistic religion”; what does that mean? It means any religion which believes in a single god, whether it’s God/Yahweh or Allah. There are polytheistic religions containing a pantheon of gods (think Zeus and Apollo and that lot), and there are pantheistic religions (wherein everything is god — yes, even the lettuce in your salad, you deicidal maniac). Christianity is of course a theistic/monotheistic religion: we believe God is a single God who alone rules the cosmos.

As Christian theists, then, what do we do about other religions? Do we take the exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist stance? Which one most accurately reflects biblical truth?

My seminary philosophy professor summed it up well: we need to avoid denominational leanings and side with historical, ecumenical truth. In this instance, historical truth and interpretation reflects the exclusivist view. Scripture promises all will have a chance of salvation, and Paul speaks of creation itself as a general revelation of the existence and character of God. And even if the missionary gets a flat tire (in my own view), God will grant unreached peoples a chance of the salvation made possible through the cross of Christ. Other religions will ultimately fail and be exposed as false. In our contemporary society, this isn’t a particularly popular view, and many well-meaning Christians (and others) will attempt to remake God to suit their own convictions to allow for inclusivism or universalism. Historic orthodoxy, however, will continue to refute these claims, even if it means exclusivists are made out to be hateful, vengeful villains.

What makes other religions false, then? First of all, they fail to acknowledge the gospel of Christ. We live in a post-Incarnation age, and since Jesus has been born, dead, and resurrected, the Torah is insufficient for salvation. The Quran fails to recognize the true nature of God. (Allah would never condescend to have a son, for example. For this reason and others, I do not — and scholars of Islam agree — equate God/Yahweh with the Islamic Allah.) Since they do not mandate faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his offer of salvation through the Holy Spirit, other religions cannot save; they cannot be true. Speaking personally, a second reason other religions are false are because of their origin. I consider them all works of Satan, as he is the father of lies. Any deity set up over against the Judaeo-Christian God is a false god — and quite possibly a demonic entity trying to get people to worship it on the one hand and prevent them from worshiping God on the other. Nothing born of hell is beneficial to humanity.

I do want to note, however, that I’m not saying they cannot possibly hold truth. They can, and that truth comes from God. But they then veer from or pervert said truth, creating a false religion. Or a cult. Or both.

Ultimately, how you choose to view other religions is up to you. And we should always be open to dialogue between faiths, sharing truth across religious boundaries to better serve the one True God. In all things, we show the love of God towards those of other faiths, respectfully inviting them into a relationship with the only personal Savior on the market.

Save the Baby Humans

I recently put my first bumper sticker on my car. Prior to this, I’d always had a sort of mindset which rebelled against using my vehicle (and thus myself) as free advertising for anyone, regardless of my feelings toward said entity or cause. (“I can’t let people know whom I supported in the election! If people want my opinions on things, they can ask!”) A few weeks ago, however, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse: a rather cute-looking cartoon member of an endangered species with a sign reading, “Save the baby humans!” And it was free! (I guess you get these kinds of offers after you sign so many petitions or join enough mailing lists.) So I got one and slapped in on the back of my car below my ichthus (Jesus always get free advertising space). Now my car boldly invites everyone to join the pro-life cause.

It’s a biblical cause, to be sure. To borrow some scare tactics language, legalized at-will abortion is nothing sort of a legitimatized genocide. Countless lives have been thrown away on a whim, simply because they were unwanted or inconvenient. Yes, the unborn are still alive in a very literal sense, even if our language says otherwise. Think about it: we rarely call a fetus a baby; no one would call a man a father before the birth of the child; and we count age beginning at the date of birth, not the (generally fuzzier) date of conception. For all linguistic purposes, we use a completely different vocabulary when discussing an unborn human being. And so they have no right to live.

Scripture tells us a different story. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, prophets and poets alike acknowledge the reality that life begins at conception. Job 31:15 speaks of God as “the one who made me in the womb,” acknowledging God’s hand in the creation of a new human being, a creative act carried out in the womb. It also implies God’s knowledge of the unborn as a distinct individual. Likewise Psalm 139:13-16 says, “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. 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.” God’s knowledge of an individual life and his recognition of personhood clearly begins in utero, long before birth. Each person is known to God fully in the womb, and He considers them His creation from the time of conception.

Isaiah 44:2 and Jeremiah 1:5 are also standard passages in the discussion of personhood and abortion. Each acknowledges God’s hand at making them in the womb, but Jeremiah goes a step further. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” he writes, “and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). Again, we are known to God before birth as distinct persons capable of being granted gifts and callings.

But the New Testament also tells us more than that. God knows us at conception — and we are capable of knowing him as well. The beautiful meeting between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-56 makes this abundantly clear. Verses 39-41 read: “Now at this time [immediately after the conception of Jesus] Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” The unborn John the Baptist recognizes the unborn son of Mary as the Son of God in fetal form. There can be no mistaking this passage as meaning something else. Life begins at conception.

If life begins at conception, as it clearly does from a biblical viewpoint, we’re left with dealing with the ending of that life. The easy place to begin is the Decalogue. Exodus 20:13 gives us the relevant commandment: “You shall not murder.” (I know, I know; the King James says “kill,” but there are half a dozen words in Hebrew for killing. This one, ratsach, is the one for murder or slaughter.) That in and of itself should be enough, but let’s keep going. A chapter later in Exodus 21, the Torah lists the killing of an unborn child still being carried by his/her mother (or the causation of a premature birth so that the infant dies) as a grave offense (vv. 22-25). Not only is all life protected by the law of Moses, then, but also specifically the life of the unborn.

It seems fairly obvious that abortion constitutes the willful killing of a living human being. There remains debate in some Christian circles, however, about abortion in certain circumstances (such as a child of rape or a birth which would endanger the life of the mother). All I can do here is state my own opinions, as this isn’t going to be an issue resolved by someone’s blog (try though we may). I hold the belief that abortion in any situation is still murder. In the latter case, it’s a horrifying decision whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Either way, someone is going to die, and either way, that death is going to come as a result of a conscious decision. I personally feel I would place both lives in God’s hands and pray for His miraculous intervention. (You’re thinking that this makes me a horrible person, I know: to gamble the life of my wife and unborn child on a literal miracle. And you’re also right: it’s not only my decision to make, and I haven’t been put in that position in the first place. You’re also thinking Christian ethics has long held it is permissible to lie and take a life to save a life under special circumstances. Your criticisms are all valid.) In the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, it’s another horrific situation. A new life has been created because a woman was violated by a man she might not even know. How could we possibly expect her to give birth to and care for that child? Because it’s still a human life. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not something anyone would ever want to have to do. But it’s still a human life, and that’s worth something — even death on a cross.

This leads to a fundamental question in the abortion debate: is this an issue of women’s rights? Is this a woman exercising her right to control what happens to her physical body, or is it something different? I will be the first to say a woman has every right whatsoever to make decisions about her body. No other person, male or female, has that right. Period. The problem arises when we realize, however, that in pondering abortion, she’s making a decision about another human being and another body. Is that human being inside her own and relying upon her for life itself? Yes. But it’s still an error to say it’s exclusively a matter of her own body; another human being is in the equation. And since that human being cannot speak for itself, someone else needs to.

I realize these are poorly-worded and probably unpopular opinions; I considered not voicing them at all and instead opt to explain myself in-person to those who ask, as it would be much easier to communicate tone and nuance that way. Regardless, the matter deserves the full treatment, even if it’s coming from a single white male who will never have the honor of being pregnant.

At the very least, we should all agree on this: while we lobby — and rightly so — to save the trees and the baby whales, we should be doing something to save the baby humans, too. And it might start with getting a bumper sticker.

A Trinitarian Perspective on the Family

Any discussion of the theology of the family must begin with and proceed from a Trinitarian perspective. The pre-existent Trinity exemplifies the family system, consisting as the godhead does of three persons united as one by unconditional love. Human beings, created in the image of this triune God, possess inherently a relational aspect. The relationship between the creation and the Creator, as typified by covenants, extends into the relationships between members of a family – and, indeed, to those between states. Finally, it should be recognized that the family is the primary social unit, making it the crucible of Christian discipleship and the first means of fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.

First, the Trinity models agape, true unilateral, unconditional love. Even though the godhead is comprised of the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three form a cohesive unity (Deuteronomy 6:4). This bond evidences itself in the way all three persons have equal status within the Trinity, regardless of their respective roles. For example, the Son is obedient to the Father not out of a filial obsequiousness based in a sense of inferiority, but rather because the Son loves the Father irrespective of any external factor. Unconditional love provides the conduit for the relationships between each of the three persons. It is insufficient, however, to say that the three become one because of loving relationships; it is necessary to say that the Three-in-One is love itself, and the innate nature of that love is what provides for the relationality of the Trinity.

This relational nature is evidenced in humanity being created in the imago Dei. Even though many debate the exact meaning of being made in the image of God, perhaps the strongest contender is that humans are designed for relationships. Just as the Trinity exists in a state of relationship, so, too, must people be in a relationship. Since human beings are born of a mother and conceived by a father, it logically follows that even procreation is designed to create new life in the context of a relationship: the family. God then establishes His own relationship with the family and the individual by means of covenant. This covenant, for Christians, is the means by which redemption and reconciliation is achieved: imperfect people relate to a perfect God through a covenant achieved initially by the atonement of Christ and that is lived by ascribing to the rules and relationship mandated by God.

Covenant plays a large role in family dynamics. A covenant grounded in unconditional love is, in the West, the basis for Christian marriage. The two spouses covenant together to create a new family while vowing to remain faithful to each other to the exclusion of all other possible partners, and the vows are durable throughout any negative life events. The covenant provides a basis for the governing of the relationship. It may be extended to delineating roles and navigating other potential sources of conflicts such as money, in-laws, sex, and time management. As long as the covenant conditions are fulfilled, all will run smoothly. Thus the covenant relationship between God and humanity serves as a model for other relational covenants such as those between family and state or family and church.

This foundational relational – and foundationally human – social system functions as the first means of disciple-making. As children are born into a family, they enter a covenant community of unconditional love geared for a relationship. It is necessary for the family to teach those children their religious beliefs in order to aid them in attaining a relationship with the Trinitarian God. The earthly, nuclear family of the child is under special obligation to see to it that the child receives instruction in the faith. Discipleship begins in the home when parents begin the indoctrination of their children. It is true that the church plays a critical role in disciple-making, and children receive age-appropriate discipleship instruction from the church through various programs such as Sunday school and youth programs. If these lessons are not reinforced in the home, however, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that church teachings will fall by the wayside. Children learn by observation; if the parents do not exhibit a behavior in the home, then their children are less likely to exhibit it themselves. The family who displays Christian virtues and the unconditional love of the Trinity will raise children of similar beliefs and behaviors.

This has implications on how families view the social order. The family as basic social unit also comprises the basic Christian unit. Indeed, the family serves as a ready metaphor for the Church: all believers are brothers and sisters and share a common Father, God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. Ideally, this relationship between Christians is patterned after the pre-Fall intent of Creation: a world free of conflict that is defined by healthy sexuality, mutual empowerment, and Trinitarian relationship. All of these aspects were damaged by the Fall. Human sexuality has been twisted to become, in popular opinion, little more than a means of personal gratification; families are marked by power plays made by parents and children alike; and love is always contingent upon what someone can do for someone else. The role of the family, in both the church and the world, is to model the pre-Fall creational intent in order to remind society and the community of believers of the Trinity’s plan for the world.

The doctrine of the Trinity, then, has many implications for the family in society. Its model of relationship and unconditional love serves as the first example of how families are to conduct themselves. It also speaks to how family life should be grounded in covenant and how parenting is also a means of disciple-making. The Trinity shows us the pre-Fall intent of Creation, and this state is the true objective of the contemporary church in society, accomplished by espousing the values and relationality of the creational intent.

F.A.Q: Can We Trust the Bible?

One of the foundational principles — perhaps the foundational principle — of Christianity is that our book, the Holy Bible, is reliable. It is a true record of historical events, poetry, and prophecy which should be treated as authentic and authoritative. Its truths are absolute, not relative. The information contained within its pages serves as the final word on matters of faith, and any practice which contradicts Scripture should be reformed or abandoned. All of this is based on the premise the Bible is accurate and inspired by God. So . . . is it? Can we trust the Bible?

Most common claims against the reliability of the Bible seem to center on its composition. After all, the people who are said to have written most books were probably illiterate, and at the very least, the stories had to survive many, many years as oral history before being finally written down as a manuscript. Then one has to consider how those manuscripts have changed across millennia. Didn’t they break down like a game of Telephone? One guy writes down something, another guy copies it but makes a mistake or a change, the next guy does the same thing, someone else didn’t like what it said and so rewrote it according to a private agenda, and on and on throughout the centuries?

Well, no. That’s exactly what did not happen. I personally believe most of those questions are based on a really arrogant view that we, modern women and men, are inherently intellectually superior to anyone who came before us. We wouldn’t make those mistakes, but the poor benighted souls in ages past just weren’t so bright, bless their hearts, and so they made mistakes. Rubbish — as we shall see.

Let’s begin with oral history. It’s true that the New Testament wasn’t completely finished until the 90s AD (most date Revelation around 96, and it was the last book to be completed/written down). Most were probably codified between 60-80, with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) finished before 70. Even so, detractors say, that’s still at least a thirty-ish year gap between the death of Christ and written history about his life. (Let’s not even talk about the Old Testament with its books written across a span of around a thousand years by some estimates.) Could people have accurately told and retold the story of Christ and his church for decades before anyone (also accurately) wrote it down? Yes, they could have. It was common practice among ancient philosophers and historians to assess their students via recitation. You were not said to have truly learned from your teacher if you could not repeat what you had been taught verbatim. Some stories have the great Pythagoras (of theorem fame) not allowing his students out of bed until they could recite, word-for-word, everything learned the previous day. The rabbinic tradition of NT times did much the same thing: a disciple would be forced to memorize his lessons as spoken by his master. This included scripture, too; the Torah would have been completely memorized verbatim by age thirteen (at the latest). Memorization of orally-learned material was essential for the knowledge of the day to survive. (Similar methods are used among oral cultures even today.) It’s entirely possible — even highly likely — that the events recorded in Scripture happened exactly as they’re given to us.

What do we do, then, when we have seemingly conflicting reports? Not even the synoptics tell every story exactly the same way. Sometimes one leper is healed, sometimes ten; sometimes the tree cursed by Jesus on the way into Jerusalem withers immediately, and sometimes it happens much later. Can we reconcile these different accounts, or is this obvious evidence not even the authors can get their stories straight? Two considerations to take into account here are genre and private agendas. The gospels are ancient biographies, and they’re written as such. That is, they focus on the adult life of the main personage (Jesus Christ) with special attention to his death, outstanding circumstances surrounding his birth, and his teachings (especially when the main character can outsmart other teachers). Ancient biographies aren’t in chronological order; instead, they’re arranged either more topically or in the way that best presents the narratives. This is one reason, for example, the synoptics have the cleansing of the Temple just before the crucifixion, thus presenting it as a proximate cause, but John’s gospel places it at the beginning of the book, thus showing the zeal and authority of the Son of God. Agendas of the authors play into this, too. In my last example, John sets out to prove the divinity of Christ, so he highlights events showing exactly that: cleansing the Temple, the miracles/signs, the “I am” statements, etc. Luke is a historian/physician concerned with the plight of the poor and marginalized, so he includes the story of the Good Samaritan and other sayings of Christ featuring our duty to care for our neighbors. Matthew is a Jewish author writing to a Jewish audience, and so he focuses on the continuities between the covenants and how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah (the reason his book is first in the NT and thus closest to the OT, as a matter of fact). This isn’t to say that the texts are so agendized they destroy the truths they contain. Nothing is distorted or falsified; it’s simply presented in such a way as to promote a specific point or highlight a specific facet of Jesus’ life (or the life of Moses, or the Israelite monarchy).

Alright, so the original manuscripts were alright. What about how they’ve changed since then? For the continued accuracy of the manuscripts, we thank the Irish. Irish monks during the so-called Dark Ages worked tirelessly to preserve any documents they could find; they truly saved the bulk of human knowledge from being utterly lost. They also kept copies of biblical manuscripts, preserving them verbatim. There are differences, of course, in some manuscripts. The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8 doesn’t appear in most of the earliest copies of the gospel, for example. Do we chuck it out? No, even if a monk somewhere down the line thought, “You know, people should know about this, and since it’s in this copy, I’ll put it in that one, too.” Most of the differences/changes are discussed in the comments on the margins of the copied texts (marginalia). Marginalia, incidentally, is hilarious. You can read comments from copyists complaining about their bosses, how hard their chairs are, how bad their hands are cramping, and just about anything else (in addition to “added vv. 3-7 because of inclusion in MS P35” and the like).

So we see the original texts were solid, and the copies passed down through history are pretty legitimate, too. But how do we know we have the books we needed? Wasn’t the Bible decided by popular vote, anyway?

Nope! This is probably the greatest urban legend regarding how the canon became the canon. Rumor has it that the first Council of Nicaea (called by Emperor Constantine in 325) set out to establish what writings would and would not be included in the Bible. They didn’t. What they did do was affirm what had already been selected. The worshiping church until that time used only certain of the texts floating around based on a few rather strict criteria: the Jewish Tanakh became our Old Testament, and New Testament books had to be written by an apostle, suitable for preaching/use in worship, and it had to agree with the regula fidei (the rule of faith — that is, it couldn’t contradict known doctrine or practices as handed down by the apostles). Even so, different people came up with different lists of what they thought should be included. The church father Irenaeus came up with the first real listing in ~180: the OT according to the Greek translation (the Septuagint, a.k.a. LXX), four gospels, and the letters of Paul. Origen (~250) and Eusebius (~325) omitted some of the epistles. The Muratorian Canon was the first list widely circulated (in ~200). Nicaea then affirmed the books already in use, and some years later (367), the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athanasius gave us the listing we have today. Thirty years later, the Council of Carthage officially closed the canon in its current form.

Since then, the canon has changed for Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church still count as canonical the Apocrypha, other books or parts of books originally included in the Tanakh. The Jews largely abandoned the use of those bits in 90A.D., and, building upon that fact as well as legitimate questions regarding content and authorship, Martin Luther moved them to reside between the testaments in the Bible. Luther also wanted to chuck other books from the NT, but he refrained. In any event, in the 1700s, a revision of the King James Bible removed the Apocrypha completely, leaving Protestants with the now-standard sixty-six books we have today.

The composition of the Bible is solid from start to finish, regardless of how many centuries it spanned in order to come to us in its present form. Modern scholarship is certainly up to the task of making new translations in any number of languages, each as accurate to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic as the earliest translations were (or even more so [sorry Vulgate fans]). The last real question of reliability, then, is whether we treat the Bible as inerrant (totally free from error in the original manuscripts in any fashion) or infallible (totally free from error in matters of faith and morals/dogma). The inerrancy debate has raged for centuries, and I’m not going to even attempt to solve it here. To me, it comes from whether we treat Scripture completely as literal history or if we take into consideration matters of genre. I doubt, for example, every event mentioned in poetry is 110% historically accurate, and the book of Revelation has so many different ways to read it most people give it a miss entirely. Regardless of one’s stance on if every Israelite king truly reigned during the given timeframes, we can all readily affirm the Bible lacks any error whatsoever when it teaches us the story of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the story of the church, and all manner of Christian doctrine as the church has understood it, always and everywhere.

I realize this doesn’t deal with what is, to most post-Enlightenment readers, the impossible: miracles, spiritual warfare, etc. But that’s another post for another day. This one is already long enough, but I hope it demonstrates to you the reliability and authenticity of the Holy Bible, God’s inspired word.