Campolo proposes gay marriage compromise

Tony CampoloTony Campolo has posted today offering A Possible Compromise on the Gay Marriage Controversy. Basically he makes the very sensible suggestion that marriage should continue to be understood as “a sacred institution”, and that

the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions.

This is what happens in many countries of continental Europe, in which legal marriage ceremonies are separate from religious ones. On this basis the government could allow civil unions between same-sex couples, if it chose to do so, without this having any religious implications. And each church or other religious grouping could perform whatever ceremonies it wished, and not perform those it did not wish, without government intervention.

It actually amazes me that this is not already the situation in the USA, where religion is supposed to be separate from the state. Even though there is not that same separation here in the UK, I think it would make a lot of sense to move British marriage and civil partnership practices in the same direction.

Instone-Brewer: Did Noah’s Ark actually happen?

Dr David Instone-BrewerAs part of a series “Embarrassing Bible Texts?” in Christianity magazine, David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House, Cambridge, asks, Did Noah’s Ark actually happen? Were six million land species really rescued in one boat? He concludes that there was a real flood, and a real ark in which “the precious animal stock – specially bred by generations of farmers” was rescued, but that this flood was not worldwide. Neither is he is quite saying that it was a local flood. Rather he links this with a flood attested by proper scientific observation:

Archaeologists in the 1930s found evidence of an amazingly widespread flood (or floods) which covered the whole plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – an area of 140,000 square miles – before 3000 BC. This wasn’t just a shallow flood; even the silt they found deposited by this water was eight feet deep! The whole country is flat, with just a few small hills, so this flood would have been utterly devastating; there is simply no high ground to run to for hundreds of miles. The area was the homeland of the ancient Middle Eastern world and the whole population living there must have been wiped out by this flood. It was a disaster on a scale never seen anywhere in the modern world.

So how can we reconcile this with the Bible passages which appear to teach a worldwide flood:

The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.

Genesis 7:18-20 (NIV 2011)

Instone-Brewer is certainly correct to point out that the Hebrew word eretz, here translated “earth”, can also mean “land”, as in eretz Yisrael which is the normal Hebrew for “the land of Israel”.

More problematic is the phrase “all the high mountains under the entire heavens”. Yes, the Hebrew for “mountain”, har, can also refer to quite a small hill, as in 1 Samuel 26:13. And perhaps “under heaven” can mean within the visible horizon, as Instone-Brewer suggests from Deuteronomy 2:25. But it seems unlikely that “all the high mountains” and “the entire heavens” can be understood in this way.

So how should we understand passages like this? Instone-Brewer seems to treat the Genesis story as a literal account of historical events, and then tries to argue that those historical events did not happen as commonly understood. I don’t think that quite works. It seems to me that if the account is literal, it is about a worldwide flood – one which scientists tell us could never have happened.

However, we need to consider what the authors’ intentions were in writing the accounts in the early part of Genesis, about the creation and the fall as well as the flood. They were not writing scientific papers but stories. And these stories are intended not so much to tell the past as to teach God’s ways – in the case of the flood story, as Instone-Brewer writes,

the message that God hates evil and is willing to take drastic steps to deal with it.

Didactic stories the world over use figures of speech such as hyperbole for dramatic effect. So it would hardly be surprising to find hyperbole in an account like that of the flood. A clear candidate for this kind of hyperbole is Genesis 7:19 quoted above, which turns a flood covering small hills in a local area into a worldwide one reaching above Himalayan peaks.

One might ask, how can one tell which statements in the Bible are hyperbolic, and so can be ignored as unhistorical? But that is the wrong question. If the story is not intended to teach history, one cannot expect to get any reliable historical information from it. That may be frustrating for modern scholars, but it is true. If one wants to know what happened in the past, didactic stories from the Bible or elsewhere may give useful indications, but they can never give the kind of reliable details one might obtain from inscriptions or archives intended as records of events.

In my recent post Harold Camping: once Reformed, now a heretic I suggested that that infamous preacher of the Rapture might have been led astray by his engineering background into

taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.

I also suggested that this approach might be typical of creationists. This is seen also in the reading of the Noah’s Ark story as an engineer’s literal report of the height of the water. I suggested in a Facebook comment on the Camping post that

engineers, and physical scientists like myself, tend to be rather literal minded and so to prefer a more fundamentalist approach to the Bible, whereas those trained in the humanities tend to be more liberal theologically.

Well, in this case “those trained in the humanities” (and I am also that) are likely to be better qualified than engineers to understand the implications of the literary genre of the text. If their conclusions seem liberal rather fundamentalist, that doesn’t make them less valid.

English earthquakes caused by "fracking"?

Blackpool TowerOn 1st April I reported here that Blackpool, not far from me in north west England, had been shaken by an earthquake. I made rather more of it than was warranted because of the date, and my suggestion that it might be a fulfilment of Mark Stibbe’s prophecy was intended as an April Fool.

Slightly to my surprise this rather small earthquake is back in the news again today, with a suggestion that it was an act not of God but of human beings. The BBC reports that another small earthquake in almost the same place has led to the suspension of test drilling for shale gas in the area. It turns out that the quakes were happening in the same place as the drilling.

This drilling was a pilot project for what is known as “fracking”:

Shale gas drilling, known as “fracking” involves creating tiny explosions to shatter hard shale rocks and release gas underground.

It has proved a controversial process in the US with environmentalists alleging that shale gas leaking into their drinking supply causes tap water to ignite.

I guess it is hardly surprising that setting off small explosions underground can trigger the larger releases of energy known as earthquakes. Presumably they can also set off unpredictable releases of natural gas, like the ones that are said to have contaminated water supplies in the USA. It would certainly be unfortunate if methane were released and ignited on Blackpool beach. And in the town the results could be disastrous.

Clearly the drilling company didn’t really know what they were doing here. It is good that they have stopped drilling until they get proper geological advice.

Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity? 2

This post (sorry it took so long) continues from part 1, in which I discussed the Church Mouse’s suggestion that evangelistic strategies should be based more on the Bible text.

As I concluded in part 1, I stand with the doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture, in other words, that ordinary people can and should be able to understand the basic meaning of the biblical text without having to depend on outside authorities, and without requiring special education. Obscure parts can be understood by comparison with simpler parts. This is not to say that every nuance of doctrine can be understood in this way, or that untaught readers can claim to understand the Bible better than scholars. The point is that people can understand the core meaning of every part of it, which includes understanding enough to be saved.

This argument that ordinary people can understand the Bible is not intended to undermine the church as a community. For fuller comprehension readers should compare their impressions with those of others. However, it may undermine the church as a hierarchical institution, as the Reformation did, by denying its monopoly on interpreting the Bible.

Of course this does depend on a good Bible translation being available in the language of those ordinary people, and this is the theme that has been promoted at Better Bibles Blog by many of us on that blog’s team. But this begs a number of questions that I will attempt to answer.

In my published paper Holy Communicative? (published in Translation and Religion: Holy Untranslatable? (Topics in Translation), Lynne Long (ed.), Multilingual Matters, 2005, pp. 89-101; a draft is downloadable as a zipped Word document) I discussed three barriers to understanding the text of the Bible. For an accompanying PowerPoint presentation I showed these barriers as piles of rubble, not separate walls, as the factors are not completely separable, and the barriers are not insurmountable:

Piles of rubble obstructing our understandingIn fact I would suggest that there are not three but six barriers to complete understanding of the Bible text.

Only the first three were relevant to the purposes of my 2005 paper: the linguistic, contextual and cultural barriers. A good Bible translation should overcome the linguistic barrier. Contextual issues, where readers lack important background knowledge, can also be overcome in a translation by making some implicit information explicit, and footnotes may also be helpful here. There is more controversy over whether the cultural barrier, caused by the historical and cultural remoteness of the text, should be overcome within the text: not many people accept the kind of updating of the historical setting found for example in the Cotton Patch New Testament. But for educated westerners this is probably the least serious of the barriers.

Another barrier that must be considered is the availability of the text in a form which the ordinary person can use. For people who read well, that implies clear print in the orthography they are used to. For those who cannot read or do not find it easy, it is necessary to present the text with suitable audio or video media. This is a large topic which I don’t want to go into further now.

The fifth potential barrier to understanding is the conceptual one. There are of course conceptual difficulties in understanding some of the deeper theological implications of some parts of the Bible. But I would hold that the basic concepts in the Bible can be understood by untrained people of ordinary intelligence, if presented to them in clear language – and as long as there is no spiritual barrier to understanding.

Yes, the final barrier to ordinary people understanding the Bible is a spiritual one. As the Apostle Paul wrote,

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

2 Corinthians 4:4 (NIV 2011)

A few verses earlier Paul described this barrier as a veil, but he also wrote that

whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

2 Corinthians 3:16 (NIV 2011)

So this should not be a factor for true Christian believers. But it is of course important when the Bible is being used to promote the Christian faith to outsiders. How can this barrier be overcome? Only through prayer, I would suggest.

There are many stories going around, including some from personal friends of mine, of people in Muslim majority countries who have become Christians because they saw Jesus in a dream and then started to read the Bible. In some such countries Bibles are quite widely distributed, through unofficial channels, where expatriate Christians are not welcome. But Christians have been praying for those countries for a very long time, and these prayers are being answered as some people’s blind eyes are being opened to the light of the gospel.

But this discussion as started by the Church Mouse was about evangelism in Britain. In countries like this, with a fairly large Christian population and few restrictions on sharing one’s faith, there is no need for God to rely on miraculous intervention such as in dreams. The cultural barriers to the gospel can be broken down if we Christians are prepared to befriend our unbelieving neighbours, colleagues etc. The spiritual barriers will start to come down as we pray for these people. Then as we share the gospel message with them, from the Bible and in an appropriate way, there should be no remaining barriers to them accepting it.

Some may say this doesn’t work. Of course it is not an infallible formula. And I can’t say that I have proved that this works, largely because I have not really tried it and persisted with it.  But how many of those naysayers have tried it more than me?

So let’s use the Bible to promote Christianity, but not as a weapon to bash people with, rather as something we use within relationships of genuine Christian love.

The Rapture and the Spirit of the Antichrist

Joseph MatteraRobert Ricciardelli has posted an important article Identifying the Antichrist by Joseph Mattera. This seems to have been copied from Mattera’s own blog. Mattera is Overseeing Bishop of Resurrection Church in New York.

Mattera starts by clarifying the biblical definition of the antichrist, along the same lines that I took three years ago in my post Antichrists, Beasts, and the Man of Lawlessness (but Mattera might disagree with me about the Man of Lawlessness). Mattera rightly concludes that

The antichrist is a false spirit that brings false doctrine into the church; it is not a single person.

He identifies that false doctrine as Gnosticism, which he describes as

a heretical cult that did much damage to the church in the first few centuries, believed that the flesh was evil and that only the spiritual world was good. They even taught that the god of the Old Testament was evil (the god of the flesh who created the natural world and needed animal sacrifices to be appeased), and that the god of the New Testament was good; that true Christianity was really about attempting to get free from the flesh and to live in the spirit.

This is important because Mattera also argues that

A new kind of Gnosticism has crept into the church during the past 120 years. …

The ironic thing is, those preachers and authors focusing on the “last days,” identifying one man as the antichrist, the rapture, and the mark of the beast, have actually fallen prey to the spirit of antichrist because they take the practical application of the cross of Christ away from the realm of the flesh. … their teaching implies that the cross wasn’t for the reconciliation of the natural created order but just for our eternal spiritual life in heaven.

Mattera even manages to quote Jesus as praying against the Rapture!:

Best-selling books like the Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye are taking kingdom focus off the earth and into the next world, something totally foreign to the teachings of the apostles and Jesus, who actually prayed in John 17:15: “I pray not that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one.” Thus, praying against the rapture mentality!

In this article Mattera doesn’t mention the Harold Camping non-rapture debacle. He had given his view of this in an earlier article, before Camping’s date. But the new article is very timely. I’m sure many Christians are reconsidering the doctrine of the Rapture at the moment. This article offers a strong argument that it is fundamentally non-biblical, anti-Christian and wrong.

The Calvin Gene? Harold Camping and I don't have it

Archdruid Eileen writes an interesting, but as usual not too serious, post Calvin Shrine Genes, in which she speculates about genes which might predispose people to belief in God. John CalvinShe marks today as the anniversary of John Calvin’s death by writing:

if your genes decide whether you believe or not – then Calvin was right. And it is down to God whether or not you believe in God. And that strikes me as a bit unfair, although I’m sure Calvinists would be able to explain to me why it’s not. Some argument along the lines of “God’s gaff, God’s rules”, I would have thought.

I can’t help wondering if there is a gene which predisposes people to Calvinism. I suppose people who carried this gene would have a seriously compromised free will, but they would be predestined to believe in the God of Calvin and the other Reformers and so to be saved. Meanwhile the rest of us with an intact free will would be able to decide freely whether to accept or reject the gospel message of salvation.

This Calvin gene would seem to be especially common among certain ethnic groups such as the Dutch, and so their ethnic churches are strongly Calvinistic. But this leads to problems for members of those churches who do not have the gene. Among them, very likely, is Harold Camping, who was once an elder in a Reformed church which, according to Robert Godfrey, “was almost entirely Dutch in background”, but then exercised his free will to go off the theological rails, and very likely to lose his salvation.

Well, I too have left the more or less Calvinistic fold in which I was first established as an evangelical Christian. Probably some of my brothers and sisters from those days, as well as some of my blogging friends today, would say that I too have gone off the theological rails. After all, I have dared to criticise on this blog such giants as John Piper and Wayne Grudem. But through the Holy Spirit I have assurance of my salvation from the only direction that matters.

I’m glad I don’t have the Calvin gene.

Did Jesus accept one each of gay and lesbian couples?

Bible-Thumping Liberal Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, most people say. But Ron Goetz, the Bible-Thumping Liberal, doesn’t quite agree, in a post Luke’s Gay Apocalypse: “Two Men in One Bed”:

Well, technically, he didn’t, at least not as an abstract category. But he did mention four gays and lesbians–flesh and blood, living, breathing homosexuals.

Thanks to John Meunier for the link. But is there any substance in this apparently improbable claim? Here is the passage in which Goetz finds this mention:

I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.

Luke 17:34-35 (NIV 2011)

And I’m sorry to say that this translation already shows the weakness of Goetz’s argument. He quotes the verses from KJV, which reads “two men” where the updated NIV has “two people”, and misunderstands “men” as implying that these two people are male. Unfortunately there is nothing in the Greek text to suggest that they are. So, if we reject as Goetz does the argument that in ancient times men who were not sexual partners, and perhaps whole families, often shared beds, we end up with the conclusion that these two in one bed are what they most commonly are, at least in our culture: a married couple.

Now some might want to argue differently from the Greek text, noting that the words translated “one” and “the other” are both masculine in verse 34 (but feminine in verse 35). But that is easily explained. Jesus clearly didn’t want to specify either that the man was taken and the woman left or vice versa. So, in the Greek version of his words, the appropriate grammatical gender was used for people of unknown sex, and that is the masculine.

Sadly Goetz has been led astray in the same way as Wayne Grudem, although in a different direction. Both were brought up in the 1960s reading Bible versions, like KJV and RSV, in which the word “man” was often intended to be understood in its older gender generic sense. But both misunderstood some of these passages according to the male only sense of “man” which has dominated in English at least since those 1960s. And sadly they read their misunderstandings back into the original language Bible text, and allowed them to reinforce their very different cultural presuppositions.

Goetz does better in looking at the context, to answer the objection that his interpretation goes against it. He finds the mention of Sodom in verses 28-29, and writes:

I don’t believe the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. But there are many today who believe that it was, and I think most of the Jewish believers in Luke’s audience may have believed it as well.

Jesus knew that by recounting key details of Sodom’s destruction, his audience would have man-on-man sex on its mind.  Jesus intended for us to understand that the “two men in one bed” were gay. It is no accident that for more than a hundred years every minister preaching on the rapture from Luke 17 has had to disavow the sexual content of verse 34.

The problem here is that Goetz seems to be extrapolating this understanding of the sin of Sodom back from “today” and “for more than a hundred years” to nearly 2000 years ago, at first tentatively with “most … may have believed” and then as an unqualified assertion “Jesus knew”. But, as Joel quoted only a few days ago from Jennifer Wright Knust’s words in the New York Times,

“Sodomy” as a term for gay male sex began to be commonly used only in the 11th century and would have surprised early religious commentators. They attributed Sodom’s problems with God to many different causes, including idolatry, threats toward strangers and general lack of compassion for the downtrodden.

So I’m afraid Goetz’s case from the context looks very weak – and ironically the arguments against it come from his fellow liberal Bible scholars like Knust.

Goetz is more convincing in his follow-up posts on “Two Women Grinding Together,” part 1 and part 2, when he argues that in verse 35 the word “grind” is being used as a metaphor for lesbian sexual activity. Unfortunately he ruins his argument towards the end of part 2, when he tries to connect the Greek verb Luke uses, aletho “grind”, with letho “be unseen” and aletheia “truth”. His suggestion that aletho can be split up as a-letho and so originally meant “not be unseen” looks to me like a folk etymology. The 19th century Greek scholars Liddell and Scott were far more likely correct to see aletho as a variant of aleo, the verb for “grind” used by Plutarch as a euphemism for lesbianism.

So did Luke intend these verses to be about homosexuality? I don’t think we can rule this out completely. It seems to me unlikely that it was his main intention. But I would accept that there might have been some deliberate innuendo in his wording, to leave open the possibility that even in same-sex couples one might be taken and the other left behind. And, as I discussed concerning the parallel passage in Matthew in the first of my recent posts on the Rapture, in this case the one who is taken goes not to heaven but to God’s judgment.

That parallel in Matthew, 24:40-41, is interesting because in it there is almost no possibility of a reference to homosexuality. It is daytime, and the first two people are working together in a field, whereas, as Goetz also discusses, the two women are explicitly grinding at a mill, not Blake’s “dark satanic” variety but a hand-mill. Now I am usually rather sceptical about using source criticism in exegesis. But in the case of such a parallel between Matthew and Luke I think most source critics would hold that Matthew’s version is closer to the original version of the saying. That implies that it is closer to what Jesus really said.

So it seems highly improbable that in this saying Jesus was at all talking about homosexuals. His message is not that only one of each gay couple and one of each lesbian couple will be taken away to be judged, and the other will escape by being left behind. Rather it is to all of us, irrespective of sexual orientation. We will not escape just because our partner, at work or in the sexual sense, does, but each of us individually will face God’s judgment. And it will come at a time that

no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, [nor even Harold Camping!,] but only the Father.

Matthew 24:36 (NIV 2011)

Barack's Beast: will Obama pay London charge?

Mr Obama's limousine, dubbed The Beast, was asked to pay the £10-a-day congestion chargeThe BBC reports that

The US government has been sent a London congestion charge bill for Barack Obama’s convoy, including his limousine, nicknamed The Beast. …

Transport for London has confirmed that the Presidential convoy was charged but the bill has not been paid.

In fact there is an ongoing dispute here:

Several embassies refuse to pay the £10-a-day charge for driving in central London, claiming they are exempted from local taxes.

The total bill stands at £51m and the US, Russia and Japan are the top three in the list of non-payers.

The US embassy owes more than £5m (probably about $8m), an amount which must be rising quickly as each vehicle in Obama’s motorcade racks up the charge. As the Mayor of London has argued, this is

not a tax but a charge for services.

It is mean and wrong for foreign embassies not to pay what the rest of us have to pay for use of the capital’s roads. And I can’t help wondering, are British and other foreign diplomats in the USA exempted from the tolls on US freeways and bridges? If not, they are not only mean but hypocritical.

Harold Camping: once Reformed, now a heretic

Harold Camping: an old photoHarold Camping may be old news, at least until 21st October. But Matthew Malcolm has posted links to an interesting series about his background, written by Robert Godfrey:

There is a series of very enlightening posts about Harold Camping on the blog of Westminster Seminary California, written by someone who first met him (and churched with him) in the 1950s. The posts offer some insight into his background, education, and rather self-contradictory hermeneutical methods. Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five.

According to part 1, in the 1950s Camping

was a conservative, traditional adherent of the Christian Reformed Church and would remain so for many years. … The CRC was also still strictly Reformed, interpreting the Bible in light of the church’s confessional standards: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Camping strongly embraced and taught the doctrine and piety of the CRC in which he had been raised.

In other words, Camping started off as a Reformed Calvinist with a strong and “sound” basis of biblical teaching. Even after he started Family Radio he was

a most effective and influential promoter of Reformed theology and won many listeners to the Reformed cause.

So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been with his education, as an engineer rather than a Bible teacher:

He knew no Greek or Hebrew. He was not formally introduced to the study of theology. His reading of the Bible, as it evolved over the decades, reflected his training in engineering. He reads the Bible like a mathematical or scientific textbook.

… his study of the Bible was undertaken in isolation from other Christians and theologians. He adopted a proud individualism. He did not really learn from Bible scholars. He studied the Bible in isolation from the church and the consensus of the faithful. As a result his understanding of the Bible became more and more idiosyncratic.

Reading on into part 2:

Camping’s literalism shows itself in his taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.

I see this as a key issue problem with all fundamentalist and many more broadly conservative or “Reformed” readings of the Bible. The approach of many creationists is similar in principle to Camping’s, in that they take Bible verses as teaching scientific truths which could never have been what their authors intended to teach. It is perhaps not coincidental that creationism also often appeals to those with an engineering background.

However, Camping did not always take the Bible literally:

While often taking a literalistic approach to numbers, he also takes a very allegorical approach to many texts. This approach seems to have developed gradually, driven in part by his eagerness to refute Pentecostals. … By turning everything literal into symbols, Camping can make the Bible say almost anything.

Part 3 discusses how Camping left the CRC and set up his own schismatic church. Then in part 4 we read that

Camping’s calculations and allegorical readings eventually led him to a truly heretical conclusion: that the age of the church was over and that all Christians were required to separate themselves from all churches. … Camping concluded that the organized church had become faithless and that individual Christians must leave the church and fellowship informally with other true believers.

Now on this issue I do not fully agree with Robert Godfrey in condemning Camping. There is no guarantee that any one denomination will remain faithful. There have been times, and may still be, when true believers are right to separate from apostate churches and set up their own fellowships. The Reformation was one such time. But Camping was wrong to declare all existing churches apostate and imply that his own informal fellowship was the only true one.

However, I am with Godfrey again in part 5, where he points out that Camping

seems also to have deserted Christ and his Gospel. …

The saddest and most distressing element of Camping’s latest theological statement is that it is Christless. He does not write about Christ’s return, but about judgment day. … Notice also that there is no mention of the cross and Christ’s saving work for sinners. …

Camping’s presentation of God’s mercy is from beginning to end unbiblical and unchristian. He has no Trinity, no cross, no faith alone in Jesus alone, and no assurance. His vision of God and mercy is more Muslim than Christian.

So what can we conclude from this? Here we have a man who could boast of his sound Reformed faith and doctrine, of whom others would no doubt say that he was surely one of the elect, but who then went so far astray in his faith that a writer like Godfrey can imply that now he is not a Christian at all:

Let us pray that Harold Camping and his followers will come to embrace the Gospel as Peter did.

So, it seems, being an elder in a sound Reformed church offers no assurance of salvation.

And the reason why he started on this path? I see two: his unscholarly and fundamentalist way of reading the Bible; and his apparent opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit amongst Pentecostals. Sadly both of these attitudes are still strong today among a generation much younger than 89-year-old Camping.

One more lesson for all of us, from the Bible:

if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV 2011)