Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Orangutans in a Cornfield

I wish to clarify that some key members of the Memphis Declaration movement have distanced themselves from McKissic's actions. This post does not apply to any such person. See the comment log for more details.

One of the wisest things I ever heard James Dobson say: "Many parents of teenagers don't know what they want their teenager to do; they just know that they aren't doing it."

It seems to me that there are a great many people out there with their traps flapping these days who don't seem to know what they want the Southern Baptist Convention to do; they just know that they aren't doing it. If Jerry Sutton proposes revisiting the BF&M, he is lampooned because he is an "insider" with whom we're dissatisfied. If Dwight McKissic proposes exactly the same thing, he's a champion because he is not an "insider" and we suddenly like him. Do we want a stricter, more specific BF&M or not? Maybe we don't know. Maybe we don't care so long as whatever process we employ strikes down the people we want stricken and leaves us in charge.

I heard a missionary tell this tale when I was a little boy at summer camp. I have no real reason to believe that it accurately represents the nature of orangutans, because I've grown up enough since then to know that missionaries fabricate as many illustrations as do preachers here in the good old US of A. But it is a good story, so I repeat it with my disclaimer.

Apparently, one orangutan can destroy an entire cornfield for two ears of corn. To hear the missionary tell it, he enters a row of corn, reaches up with his right arm, and plucks an ear, placing it under his left armpit for safe keeping. But then he sees an ear of corn on his left, so he reaches up with his left arm (the first ear of corn, of course, drops to the ground in this process) and plucks the second ear of corn. But wait, there's another ear on the right! And so the process repeats until the orangutan leaves a hundred ears of corn to rot on the ground to walk out with one ear under each armpit. By casually taking whatever he can get, he leaves a wake of destruction behind him, destroying the hard-won labor of those who were there before he came.

As I have said, I have no real reason to believe that this story accurately portrays the nature of orangutans. The nature of orangutans is immaterial to the effectiveness of this story because we can all recognize immediately that it so aptly depicts the nature of human beings. We react so rapidly to charges that someone somewhere is abusing power that people all over the world can, with very little effort, incite rioters to burn down their own neighborhoods and then go home somehow convinced that they have dealt a blow to someone other than themselves.

It seems to me quite destructive to stir up an insurgency with no clear objectives other than change and vague diatribes. The conservative resurgence was easy to define and understand: Fill the institutions of the SBC with employees who affirm the inerrancy of the Bible and who discharge their duties according to that belief. What, exactly, is this new movement trying to accomplish? You won't find it in the amorphous platitudes of the Memphis Declaration—a document that belongs on the next episode of Oprah. Sometimes the objective appears to be the defense of Dr. Rankin. Sometimes it appears to be the reinstatement of CBF folks like Wade, Glazener, Vestal, etc. Or is it about speaking in tongues? I've been watching since this Spring, and I still can't put my finger on it.

Maybe there is no well-formed constructive objective. And in my opinon, that just might be the worst answer of all for the future of the SBC.

This Weekend

This weekend was wonderful. The Intercession Sunday was one of the best things we have ever done. Allow me to sketch out the day for you:

  1. We began with baptism—always a good start.
  2. We sang for a while, and John did a great job.
  3. Testimony: One of my foremost objectives for the day was to have a serious, hopeful service focused on the power of God to address our problems, but to do so in a way that was theologically honest. Two families in our church stood up together and gave a joint testimony to the power of God. Eleven years ago, the McGuires and the Jameses both discovered that their children had leukemia. Our church ministered to both families at precisely the same time. These two families kept up with each other on the phone and in person, praying with one another weekly. The McGuires' little girl was healed—full remission. Justin James died. These two families stood and glorified a God who is able to work powerfully both in situations where we get what we ask for and in situations where we do not. There was not a dry eye in the house.
  4. Sermon: My big mistake was in scheduling myself to speak immediately after that testimony. I was quite choked up in the early service. I preached from John 9 and 2 Corinthians 12. In both cases, people asked God for healing. The godliest, holiest, and most believing of the two was the one who wasn't healed. Yet the emphasis in both passages is upon the power of God. In the case of the man born blind, God demonstrated His power by healing the man. In Paul's case, God demonstrated His power by not healing him. Our prayer ought to be that God will show Himself powerful in our lives, however that might happen. Let us never throw in the towel and act as though our God is weak. Let us remember that God demonstrates His power in many ways.
  5. Prayer for the sick: We invited all of those who wanted prayer for any physical illness to remain seated while the congregation stood. I encouraged members who were standing to go to someone seated, ask them for what they wanted prayer, and to pray for them. This took about four minutes.
  6. Prayer for relational, emotional, financial, employment, etc., problems: We provided index cards throughout the pews. I invited all of those who had a problem in one of these areas or who knew someone who had a problem in one of these areas to write out the specifics on a card, bring it to the altar, and place it face down. I assured them that immediately after the service I was going to shred the cards without reading them. The floodgates opened. I saw some people bringing cards two or three separate times. After everyone had brought all of the cards that they wished to bring, I led us in prayer for the needs represented there.
  7. Prayer for spiritual healing: Using the same index cards, I invited people to bring cards for anyone they knew who was lost or in rebellion against God. I also invited them to come to the altar and pray for anyone they wished or for their own spiritual awakening. Also, our pastors stood at front to receive any who wished to make public commitments.
So far, it has been a thoroughly positive experience. It touched many people in our church to see how many needs there were. Our people felt closer to one another having prayed for one another's problems. Of course, we still await word of how God has answered the prayers we lifted up on Sunday. May He demonstrate Himself powerful and bring glory to His name!

So, there's a report from the weekend. Regular blogging will resume later this week, once this week's service is safely planned well.

Speaking of regular blogging, I find that I'm a much, much better pastor the past few days since I'm not blogging. I'm not giving it up, but I'm seriously considering expanding the number of contributors to Praisegod Barebones. That would keep the site consistently running but would prevent any one person from being overburdened. First Baptist Church of Farmersville runs about 330 in Sunday School and has three pastors. That's big enough to keep me really busy but not quite big enough to have the luxury of delegating out a whole lot of stuff. God called me to preach, not to blog, so I'm looking for a way to remain faithful to my calling while continuing to pursue this little avocation that I have come to enjoy so much. I have a couple of people in mind already...folks who do not already have a blog but ought to. I'll let everyone know what I come up with.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why Am I So Doggoned Busy Right Now?

I've pretty rudely dropped some conversations recently. I promise to return. In the meantime, I thought I'd drop a quick couple-of-paragraphs explanation of what is going on. We're doing something out of the ordinary every week of this month. Extra-special services require extra-special attention to make them come out.

For example, this Sunday we're trying something I've never done before. We're having what I've called Intercession Sunday. Tongue-in-cheek I've called it the Southern Baptist version of a faith healing service. No, we'll not be throwing any wheelchairs off the platform into the crowd. But we are encouraging people who are sick or troubled to come to the service, which will be themed around the importance and power of intercessory prayer. We're going to pray individually for everyone who comes with an illness and wishes for prayer. We've concocted a discrete way for people to submit more personal needs of a financial, emotional, or relational nature. We're praying for spiritual needs on that day as well. There will be powerful testimonies of people who've faced similar needs.

I'm 80% excited about this, and 20% scared to death (never having done anything remotely like this). There is still much to be done to be ready. That's why I'm not reading blogs, commenting on blogs, or doing much of anything "extra" right now. And we've got another special service in September and one coming up in October at the beginning of the month. I hope you'll forgive me for disengaging for a little while as I try to keep up with my calling.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Romans 12:18

If possible, so far as it depends upon you, be at peace with all men. (Romans 12:18, NASB)
People who consistently live out this verse impress me. I find these days that I am frequently rising to defend people whom I greatly respect and love. Yet I note that they do not rise in defense of themselves. In contexts that afford honest, open, and thoughtful dialogue, they are first in line to enter the conversation. But in contentious, agenda-laden settings, they are quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

Their gentle and Christ-honoring spirit makes me love them all the more and wish to defend them all the more.

But I wonder sometimes whether, rather than defending them, I ought to do more learning from them.

[Update: Lest I falsely encourage or discourage anyone, allow me to clarify the following. I hold precisely the same viewpoint that I have held all along regarding who is right, who is wrong, and my ideas about the issues. The question I'm addressing is which is the best way to respond to the bellicose. Maybe different ways in different contexts. May God give me the wisdom to know.]

Friday, September 8, 2006

What's Wrong with a Little Sectarianism?

sec•tar•i•an [sek' ter ē ən] (If you had a real computer, the phonetic spelling would look really nice.)
Rigidly following the doctrines of a sect or other group.
I am unapologetically a Baptist sectarian. As such, I am "one untimely born." This is not the age of sectarianism—not by any system of interpretation. Sectarian is a dirty word today. If someone calls you a sectarian, they generally do not intend to compliment you.

I write today in the hope of redeeming the concept of sectarianism from its present low estate. I believe that Baptist sectarianism has something to offer the body of Christ. I hope you'll read along (which always takes some level of commitment with things that I post).

Defining Baptist Sectarianism

Slightly modifying our definition above, we arrive at:
Baptist sectarian
Rigidly following the Baptist distinctives
The first step in defining Baptist sectarianism is to define the Baptist distinctives.

Many have systematized this list in different ways, but these different schemas reflect more the grouping of the same concepts into different clusters than any actual significant difference over what the Baptist distinctives are. As for me, I recognize the following as distinctives of the Baptist faith:
  1. An Authoritative Bible. Baptists have traditionally held that searches for proper Christian faith and practice must withstand review in the final court of appeals, the inerrant text of the Bible. The sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries constitute perhaps the most Bible-conscious age of Christian history, and it was this epoch that gave birth to the Baptist movement. Baptists belong within the biblical wing of the radical reformation. Baptists have tended to believe in something akin to the perspicacity perspicuity of scripture, and have therefore supported the idea of an accessible, well read, and well discussed Bible within the Baptist churches.

  2. A New Testament Church. Baptists believe that the church was established in the New Testament and that the pattern for the church is found exclusively therein. The Massachusetts Pilgrims, like many Reformation churches, believed that some pattern of church organization and practice was contained in the Old Testament. Thus, the Massachusetts church saw its task as the construction of a new Christian Israel in the New World. Williams differed, asserting that "the state of the land of Israel, the kings and people thereof, in peace and war, [are] figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow." (A Plea for Religious Liberty) The doctrine of the relationship between the two testaments is perhaps one of the least appreciated but most influential planks in a person's theological platform. Much of what underlies Baptist ecclesiology and makes it consistent is this idea of a New Testament church.

  3. An Evangelical Church. I mean "evangelical" as used, for example, in the phrase "Evangelical Revival" denoting the eighteenth-century awakening in England, a movement that paralleled the First Great Awakening in America. In other words, I am indicating that Baptists are conversionists—we believe that the gospel is a call to a conversion experience. We are not sacramentalists and we do not believe in sacerdotalism. A person must respond to the gospel by personally undergoing conversion. Furthermore, we (most of us, that is) believe that the calling of people to conversion is the mission of the church given in the Great Commission.

  4. Symbolic Believer's Immersion. For a recent review of Baptist beliefs about baptism, see Dr. Thomas White's recent paper here.

  5. A Visible, Local, Gathered, Regenerate Church. Although Baptists have held a wide variety of viewpoints about the invisible church or the universal church, every variety of Baptist theology has given primacy of place to what distinguishes every variety of Baptist theology is the particular emphasis that we place upon the doctrine of the visible, local church—a single local congregation. Baptists affirm that each of these churches is autonomous. The churches cooperate as peers, and not in subservience to one another. There is no hint in the New Testament of secondary congregations enslaved to primary ones. Baptists believe that these local churches are gathered churches. In other words, the Lord gathers into a particular congregation whom He wills, and no earthly authority assigns individuals to the "parish church" that they must attend. The concept of a regenerate church deserves special attention, as it is perhaps the foundational Baptist distinctive. Baptists believe that these local autonomous gathered churches must do all that they can to limit the membership of the local congregation to those who are actually Christians—who have actually been "regenerated" through valid conversion. The regenerate church is all about church membership, and church membership is all about the regenerate church. Those who will reject the idea of church membership are rejecting the idea of the regenerate church. Regenerate church membership involves excluding from the church all whose status as a believer comes grossly into question. We either exclude them immediately when they seek to enter the local church (through careful admission of members) or we exclude them along with believers persistent in unrepentant public sin, all through sound, effective church discipline. Our belief in a regenerate church is a presupposition that fuels our stance on baptism, on church polity, on evangelism, and on believer's soul competency. Our belief in a regenerate church is built upon our belief in an authoritative Bible and our belief in a New Testament church. It is no mystery to me that (formerly?) Baptist churches are wandering away from so many of the Baptist distinctives when we have lost sight of the vision of the regenerate church.

  6. Believer's Soul Competency. Baptists did not come to articulate this distinctive in quite this way until relatively late. Also, many have stated this distinctive in terms that many Baptists could not affirm—in terms that seem to negate some of the other Baptist distinctives (or even the idea that other distinctives may exist). Nevertheless, it is a foundational concept among Baptists (related perhaps to our doctrine of scripture...to the idea of perspicacity perspicuity?) that God makes every believer competent to conduct a relationship with God unmediated (although not necessarily unencouraged or unaided) by anyone other than Christ. Related to this doctrine is the scriptural concept of the priesthood of all believers: the fact that all of us collectively are charged by God to perform priestly acts of spiritual service before Him, a responsibility that will devolve upon each of us. Congregational church polity is related to this cluster, as this biblical doctrine asserts the responsibility of the congregation to seek the will of God.

  7. Religious Liberty. Baptists have historically been champions of the idea that governmental authority does not reach into matters of religious conscience. Roger Williams's concept of the two tables of the law is instructive here. The first four of the ten commandments deal with a person's relationship with God. In these matters, the state has no jurisdiction. These are the jurisdiction of the church, which must not call upon the state to wield the civil sword in such matters. The last six of the ten commandments deal with interpersonal issues. These are the rightful jurisdiction of the state, which has the authority to enforce compliance with its dictates on such earthly matters. Williams's views are representative of the Baptist position.
I rigidly follow these tenets of our faith. I will not compromise them, nor will I do anything to undermine any of them. That makes me a Baptist sectarian.

Advocating Baptist Sectarianism

Now, why am I a Baptist sectarian? Because I believe that these ideas are biblical and that they will help any church that rightly embraces them. My Baptist sectarianism does not make me a Baptist bigot, nor is it a manifestation of denominational pride. If anything, it is a cause for denominational shame, because many of our own "Baptist" churches have given a very poor showing to the Baptist distinctives. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton (admittedly against his will), the Baptist distinctives have not been tried and found wanting, they have been found difficult and left untried. However, where practiced faithfully, I believe that the Baptist distinctives will provide to any church the rewards always associated with fidelity to biblical teachings.

I acknowledge that, although I believe these distinctives to be biblical teachings, these are not the only areas in which the Bible has anything to say. There have been other areas in which Baptists have differed. There have been a few areas in which Baptists have enjoyed(?) substantial unity around positions that have been contrary to the truth. When I speak of myself as a Baptist sectarian, I am not by that affirmation commiting myself to a position on any of those issues. I may have opinions on those issues, and if I do I will probably eventually articulate those opinions if I have not already done so :-), but when I speak of myself as a Baptist sectarian, I am referring particularly to the ideas articulated above.

About those ideas I am excited and zealous. When I wish them for my Presbyterian, Methodist, or Episcopalian brethren, I am not wishing them ill. I do not wish to browbeat them or terrorize them out of existence. I wish to enhance their ministries and give them the great present of adherence to a set of biblical doctrines. Because religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive, they can rest assured that I will never do anything to prevent a Nazarene from being a Nazarene, etc. I am no threat to them, but I will seek to champion these ideas to them.

I will not spend a penny to subvert these concepts. I will only work to plant churches that embody these ideals. I will not work to unplant anyone else's churches, but I will not be a party to the establishment of churches that violate what I believe to be clear and important biblical principles.

See...I told you I was a Baptist sectarian. And I don't see anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Great News

Stories like this represent my hope for what God is working in the Middle East in these tumultuous days.

Monday, September 4, 2006

On the Funding of Baptist Universities

Recently the New York Times published an article using recent tensions between Georgetown College and the Kentucky Baptist Convention as a springboard to discuss the overall state of Baptist undergraduate education. The article was entitled "Feeling Strains, Baptist Colleges Cut Church Ties". Baptist Press soon responded with this article by Dr. David Dockery of Union University.

These two articles represent two different visions for Baptist universities. One might think that the two articles have nothing in common. The New York Times article suggests that now is the time for Baptist universities (or at least those who have not done so already) to sever their ties with the denominations that support them. The Baptist Press article counters that now is the time for Baptist universities to strengthen those ties and pursue some renewal of spiritual depth in the academic task. One article is secular; the other is deeply informed by faith. Yet these two articles do have at least one thing in common.

Both of them address the issue from the vantage point of the university: What ought the university to do? What best meets the university's needs?

Might I be the one to ask the rather scandalous question: How do the churches' needs fit into this whole discussion? Does the funding of Baptist universities really represent any compelling agenda item in the Great Commission (or in any other biblical purpose statement you might identify for the church)? It seems to me that the phenomenon referenced in the New York Times—a phenomenon we have all watched at school after school since Baylor University unilaterally mutilated its historical relationship with the BGCT in 1991—brings into specific relief three undeniable issues that confront the relationship between state Baptist conventions and their universities today:

  1. Baptist Universities, the vast majority of them, really have no pressing need for Cooperative Program funding. Without a doubt, Baptist money was critically needed in the early funding of these institutions, but like a church start that has grown into maturity, most of these universities no longer need the subsidies that they received to get them going. They charge tuition. They have raised endowments—some of them massive endowments. My church doesn't charge tuition. We don't have massive endowments. Tell me again why they need money from us? Universities are the ones choosing to leave behind their historic connections with state conventions, and this fact alone clearly indicates that they are not worried about living without the funding that they receive from the state conventions.

  2. A great many Baptist universities regard their church connections as an obstacle to the accomplishment of their mission, not as an integral part of that mission. And it isn't the "Baptist" part of the whole idea that makes them uncomfortable. At Baylor University under Robert Sloan, some elements of the faculty went into full-fledged mutiny just at the suggestion that all areas of the university might have some sort of a religious component to their mission. Professors at Baptist universities advance in their careers by gaining the esteem of the colleagues in their respective fields. It matters much more to their futures how the professors at the big state university up the highway regard their work than it matters how the folks at the Baptist church across town regard their work. Baptist professors may have some personal motivation to incorporate their faith into their teaching, but in most fields there is very little professional reason to do so. The recent (1991 to present) hysteria of Baptist universities moving heaven and earth to make certain that state conventions cannot direct the actions of the universities is ample evidence that many Baptist universities regard the churches as more of a potential hindrance than help to their operations. Is that really the kind of partnership that my church wants to pursue?

  3. In light of the very high risk that Baptist universities will continue to distance themselves organizationally from the churches, monetary investments in Baptist universities must be considered as very high risk investments. Given the success of legal maneuvers like that foisted upon Texas Baptists by Herb Reynolds et al, churches have very little real protection for their investments. In a climate where the university has the ability to take the money and run whenever it suits them, what assurance do churches have that money is taken in a good faith intention to continue the relationship? Why ought my church to give missions money to build up educational institutions until they are strong enough to dump us and go it alone?
People affiliated with state conventions or with Baptist universities are likely to be disturbed if they read these questions. Perhaps they will label me as anti-education (a guy who has, at last accounting, over $80,000 invested in academic degrees). Perhaps they will label me as anti-cooperation (as though churches were the ones bolting out of these cooperative relationships rather than the universities). But perhaps...just maybe...they will acknowledge that it is OK to ask these questions and they will pose some good answers. [Statement added to clarify tone] I hope that they will, because these are just the people who are in the best position to know the answers, and it might do us all some good if they would restate some strong case for the involvement of local churches in the mission of these Baptist universities.

I do think that there are some answers that might be attempted. I'll list a few and give some thoughts about them:
  1. One might point out the need to transmit a thinking faith to the generations that follow us. In which case I entirely agree. I think that this is the underlying thought behind Dockery's article. But I must ask someone to help us all understand why our Baptist universities are the right place to address this task. Aren't our seminaries addressing this need for us? After all, seminaries have the luxury of focusing exclusively upon the faith; universities are caught up in football programs and electron microscopes and computer information systems and business administration classes. The multifaceted nature of the university necessarily means that a great deal of its resources are dedicated to something other than thinking about the faith. Seminaries are much more efficient organisms for us to think about the faith and transmit a thinking faith, in my opinion.

  2. One might counter that not only preachers need to think about the faith—that there is a need for businessmen and computer geeks and biologists and yes, even football players who are able to pursue their vocations and avocations as Christians. Again, I agree completely. But I'm not so sure that our Baptist universities are accomplishing this task that well. And this is not uniquely the weakness of Baptist universities. Very few universities of any stripe are actually doing much to challenge the vast majority of their students to do any serious, deep thinking. Much of university life today, in my opinion, resembles trade school. How does that kind of education accomplish anything that the churches really need to accomplish? I know that there are exceptions. I know that a certain percentage of university students absorb worldview changing ideas in the classroom. I'm not saying that Baptist universities don't ever accomplish this task at all. I'm merely asking questions about how well and how often they accomplish the task. I might also ask how different the worldview is that students find in many of our supposedly Baptist universities from the worldview that they might find in any state-run university classroom. It is a reasonable question to ask how distinctive that worldview needs to be and how good the university ought to be at presenting that worldview in order to merit a percentage of the money that we consecrate to God when we receive the offering each Sunday.

  3. One might further stipulate that some valuable things at a university take place outside the classroom. Perhaps Baptist universities are valuable to churches because of the atmosphere they provide for students to learn alongside other Baptist students and to have Christian fellowship with their peers. But I think that this is more an argument for Baptist Student Ministries than for Baptist universities. FBC Farmersville has sent students in the past few years to Baylor, East Texas Baptist University, Hardin-Simmons, Texas A&M, University of Texas, and University of Oklahoma. We've had strong Christian students and not-as-strong Christian students go through these various universities. I think that we've had a pretty strong presence both at ETBU and at OU. To tell you the truth, I can't say that the ETBU experience has been any better at spiritual formation than the OU experience has. Our OU students are solid for the Lord (as are our ETBU students). I hear that the largest Baptist Student Union in the world is at Texas A&M. I've seen some pretty solid folks emerge out of that environment. And then there was the guy I knew in leadership at Baylor's BSU while I was there who was bedding every coed he could catch. The most important factor in college student spiritual formation and fellowship that I can measure has nothing to do with whether you attend a Baptist university or a secular university—it is the level and quality of local church involvement that a student has during the college years. Maybe our Cooperative Program dollars would be a lot better spent if they were diverted away from universities and invested instead in planting more solid, conservative churches in university towns.
So, I think these are the questions that maybe a lot of people are afraid to ask—afraid of being branded as disloyal to the convention or afraid of being blackballed as a troublemaker. I think these are good questions, and I'm not afraid to ask them.

But they are questions. I'm open to hearing some answers. I have to admit, it is hard for me to imagine our denomination without some Baptist universities. Maybe we just need some new ones. I don't know. But I do think that we must remember one thing: There is only so much money. Every dollar that goes to a Baptist university is a dollar that does not make it to a mission field somewhere or a seminary classroom. Not only must your answers demonstrate the value of education (which I affirm with my words and with my actions), but they must also demonstrate why that value is higher than the return we could get by investing the funds elsewhere in the work of the Great Commission.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

So What's With the Name of This Blog?

Praisegod Barebones is, believe it or not, the name of a real historical person.

Praisegod Barebones sold leather to keep meat on the table, but in his heart he was a Dissenting preacher. His connection with the early Baptists has been disputed somewhat down through the years. Some have said that he was a Baptist, others have (successfully in my view) suggested that he was not a Baptist. He was definitely connected with the famous "JLJ" church that gave birth to the Particular Baptists in England.

Barebones led a congregation from his house on Fleet Street. He apparently lived in the same neighborhood as the young Samuel Pepys in the 1640s. By all accounts he was a boisterous preacher given to vocal advocacy of strong (and sometimes radical) views.

I've chosen Praisegod Barebones as the namesake of my blog for two reasons:

First, it is just a cool name. Praisegod really got the better end of the deal. He had two brothers who suffered under much more lengthy names. One brother was named "Christ-Came-Into-The-World-To-Save Barebones." The other was "If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebones." Apparently, the latter's friends simply referred to him as "Damned Barebones." Aren't you glad I didn't name the blog after him? Suddenly "Ima Hogg" of Texas fame doesn't sound quite so bad!

But Praisegod Barebones is a great name. It includes a little doxology of sorts right there in the saying of it. And I thought it was a great name for entitling a blog.

Second, Praisegod Barebones exemplified the overlap of religion and politics. Since my dissertation is basically about the overlap of religion and politics, and since I am an avid follower of both spheres, the name seemed especially apropos for my blog.

Oliver Cromwell appointed Praisegod to the Parliament in July 1653. In fact, all of the members of this Parliament were Cromwell appointees to replace the Rump Parliament. History has adjudged them an inept legislature, and their contemporaries mocked them by referring to them as the "Barebones Parliament." Praisegod Barebones probably didn't do much to make the Parliament operate so poorly, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time with a very memorable name, and the rest is history.

Praisegod Barebones has been connected with the radical Fifth Monarchy movement. He vehemently opposed the restoration of Charles II. In the later years of his life he kept his tongue in order to keep his head, but he continued to follow politics and religion until his death.

So much has been going on in Southern Baptist life that I really haven't had much opportunity to blog on the whole religious-political idea. But sooner or later things will quiet down. When that time comes, in order to live up to the name of the blog, I'll have to post some more political things.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

A Posteriori Cessationism

I am an a posteriori cessationist.

Someone somewhere will complain that I am not employing the terms "a priori" and "a posteriori" correctly, and they will be right. I realize that I have co-opted these terms into a context other than their strict usage in epistemology, but they work well here and suit my purposes. I am clearly defining what I mean by them, so I don't think there will be much in the way of confusion.

An a priori cessationist (which I am not) I am defining as someone who believes that the Bible teaches us that certain of the spiritual gifts were to cease at the close of the apostolic age. This is the view typically indicated by the use of the term cessationism. Although I do see a New Testament statement that tongues will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8), I tie this event with the occasion when we no longer "see through a mirror darkly, but then face to face." I connect it with that time when "I will know fully just as I also have been fully known." In other words, I think that this prophecy is connected to our eternity in heaven. I remain unconvinced by a priori arguments in favor of cessationism, although I love and respect greatly many who seem to hold this view.

An a posteriori cessationist (which I am) I am defining as someone who, if he were to encounter something resembling the biblical gift of tongues, would acknowledge it as such, but who sees no evidence of that gift in operation in present-day Christianity. The standard terminology refers to this as the "open but cautious" perspective. So, I find myself in the position of saying, basically, "There may be a gift of tongues in operation today, but you certainly aren't exercising it." Guess how popular that makes me?

So, why dump the standard terminology? Because I think maybe there is an awful lot of territory indicated within "open but cautious," and I'm trying to indicate where in that territory I am. "Open and cautious" could, theoretically, mean, "Hey, I found a little bit of genuine speaking in tongues over here in this church, but they are the exception rather than the rule." But that's not me. I wind up drawing basically the same conclusion as the cessationists—that God just doesn't give this gift out today—but I arrive at that conclusion by defining the practice from the Bible; looking around to see whether I can locate any modern-day phenomena that match that description; and then, having found none at all, concluding that God is not giving people the gift of tongues today. The difference between myself and standard cessationists lies not, as far as I can tell, in where we wind up, but in how we get there. They get there a priori (before we even look at specific instances, we know from the Bible what we believe about the continuation of tongues); I get there a posteriori (I had come to no conclusion until examining the specific instances and drawing conclusions from them).

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to recommend highly Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. Anderson grew up as a Pentecostal, and as such he offers one of the most interesting analyses that I have ever read regarding the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. Many will find his work very enlightening. It is one of the only places you can turn to find an exploration of phrases like "cryptomnesic xenoglossy," a phrase that doesn't even generate a single hit on Google (until I post this blog entry, that is). UPDATE: Dr. Malcolm Yarnell has just published an excellent white paper on this subject that you can read here.

So, I'll certainly have to defend myself on this one (perhaps from both sides), won't I?

The Holy Spirit in the Twenty-First Century

One reason I'll have to defend it so vigorously is that the whole concept of a posteriori cessationism calls into question the central assumption of the current doctrine of the Holy Spirit. What is that assumption?
The Present-Day Assumption: If I tell you that the Holy Spirit has done something in my life, you are under obligation to accept that it was the Holy Spirit who did it.
In other words, it is considered by many to be presumptuous and rude to evaluate or challenge whether claimed works of the Holy Spirit are indeed works of the Holy Spirit.

But the basic assumption of a posteriori cessationism is that such evaluations can and ought to be performed. And indeed, this is a basic assumption in the New Testament, which tells us to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). Since the Bible is willing to apply this testing to the highest of gifts (1 Corinthians 14:32), I think it is safe to say that we are authorized to apply it to all of the gifts.

But what is the biblical standard against which these phenomena ought to be measured? Dr. Yarnell's paper came to twelve conclusions about the biblical nature of glossolalia, all of which I affirm (thank you, sir, for saving me a great deal of typing on a Saturday). I will emphasize three central points, which I will state in my own phraseology. First, tongues-speaking in the Bible involved communication. A tongue is a language, not the utterance of random sounds. Somebody somewhere will understand it. Second, all genuine tongues-speaking in the Bible was capable of interpretation. This is related to the first point, but goes further. It assumes that the sounds given are coherent, but further assumes that there is such a thing as the gift of interpretation. Third, in every sanctioned glossolalia event in the New Testament, somebody did indeed understand or interpret what was said. In the three occasions in Acts, it was possible for Luke to record the generic nature of what was said while people were speaking in tongues.

So the question is, do the modern cases that people claim for speaking in tongues measure up to the biblical definition?

The Retreat from Verification

Anderson's book (cited above) records the early Holiness experimentation with present-day tongue-speaking. Here's the most interesting thing I learned from his book: The earliest practitioners believed, as I do, that biblical tongue-speaking meant the speaking of human languages that one has never studied. This phenomenon has a name: xenoglossy. At the birth of this phenomenon, the first present-day tongue-speakers believed that the recovery of tongue-speaking would save untold dollars spent to try to teach, for example, the Chinese languages to missionaries. When they first started babbling, they were convinced that they were speaking some language somewhere. But then, they started sending missionaries overseas and discovering that they weren't speaking Chinese after all. When subjected to verification, their claims that the Holy Spirit was supernaturally enabling them to speak foreign languages were proven false.

So, tongue-speakers took a step back, claiming that they were supernaturally speaking in the "tongues of angels" rather than those "of men." Thus, it made perfect sense that nobody knew what they were saying, because nobody but the enlightened few could identify these special languages. And this solution worked for those who had to make it work—those whose very denominational existence and legitimacy depended upon the notion of second, third, and so on, "blessings."

But this solution did not facilitate the spread of present-day tongue-speaking very far beyond those denominations. Why? Because most of those who were not bound by denominational allegiance to affirm tongue-speaking could recognize the wide separation between the actual practice and the regulations in 1 Corinthians placed upon speaking in tongues. Contemporary practice involved masses of people tongue-speaking at the same time and without any effort at interpretation. But the Bible, in unmistakeable terms, absolutely forbade speaking in tongues in that format. The "one at a time" restriction is not so cumbersome, but the requirement to have an interpreter once again posed the dilemma of verification.

For Person B to be able to interpret Person A's ecstatic utterances—to be able to give the meaning of the utterance in terms that people could understand—it is necessary that Person A's utterances actually have some meaning to interpret. There is nothing miraculous about somebody babbling. Toddlers do it all the time. The true evidence of a miraculous happening is when somebody says something intelligible in a language that they do not know in such a way that someone else is able to verify the message and give its meaning. But this miracle just isn't happening today. As Anderson's research has shown clearly, present-day tongues-speaking is nonlinguistic—it contains no discernible grammatical units and nobody has ever objectively documented a successful case of tongues-speaking and interpretation. The events in Acts were easy to verify; present-day tongue-speaking is easy to expose as false.

This new challenge of verification posed no serious hurdle to the vast majority of tongue-speakers, who simply continued to ignore the Corinthian regulations. But as hinted at above, those who would try to bring tongue-speaking into Baptist life found the Corinthian regulations to pose a serious hurdle. But eventually, they found a way once again to lead present-day tongue-speaking into a retreat from the challenge of verification.

This time, that retreat took the form of something called "private prayer language." In other words, taking the Corinthian regulations to apply only to public tongue-speaking, some charismatics within Baptist life began to postulate a sort of private-only kind of tongue-speaking, ostensibly outside of the jurisdiction of 1 Corinthians. Thus, by pulling tongue-speaking entirely out of the realm of corporate Christian activity and relegating it entirely to private practice, pro-tongue-speakers believe that they have eluded the grasp of biblical verification yet again. And this they must do, for if present-day practice is ever subjected to any kind of verification, it immediately becomes evident that it is false.

Listen to me, I do not make that claim lightly. If the present-day practice of speaking in tongues were a genuine occurance of the biblical gift, then I would be guilty of a serious offront against the Holy Spirit to decry it as false. Yet knowing the stakes here I am willing to make the claim anyway. That is how strong the evidence is, in my opinion.

Private Prayer Language?

The concept of a "private prayer language", let alone the phrase itself, is absent from the New Testament. The New Testament only knows of "speaking in tongues" which one might apply to spoken prayers as well as to other public utterances.

While the regulations placed upon speaking in tongues might be different for some private practice of that sort (if such a private practice indeed were called for in the Bible or made any sense whatsoever), one cannot argue that the nature of a so-called "private prayer language" is any different than the nature of public speaking in tongues, at least not if one hopes to suggest that the Bible offers any sort of a foundation for this practice. Speaking in tongues is speaking in tongues is speaking in tongues. And, as the Bible clearly demonstrates, speaking in tongues (in the genuine spiritual gift) is linguistic and capable of being interpreted. But the present-day phenomenon is nonlinguistic and inscrutable to interpretation. The nature of the two phenomena are entirely different. But if there is such a thing as a "private prayer language," for it to be a genuine biblical phenomenon it must be something that one could legitimately bring out into corporate worship with an interpreter.

And indeed, without the public exercise of speaking in tongues, the spiritual gift cannot accomplish its purposes. The Bible describes the gift of speaking in tongues as a phenomenon that accomplishes two goals: First, it communicates either the gospel as in Acts or at least something edifying to the church as in Corinthians. Like all human discourse, it exists in order to communicate something and the only good reason to engage in the practice is when you have something to say and someone to hear. Second, it serves as a sign as promised in Mark, demonstrated in Acts, and reasserted in 1 Corinthians.

But a so-called "private prayer language" is a listenerless communication and a hidden sign. Before anyone accuses me of denying that God is listening in prayer, let me challenge anyone to produce a single hint in the New Testament that speaking in tongues takes place for God's listening benefit? Every sanctioned occasion of speaking in tongues in the New Testament had a human audience present. And how, again, is this "sign for unbelievers" supposed to work when no unbelievers (or believers, for that matter) are able to see or hear the sign? Biblical speaking in tongues, whether in proclamation or in prayer, requires a human audience in order to be effectual, to accomplish the stated goals given for this phenomenon in the New Testament.

So, if they will claim biblical authority for what they are doing, those who advocate "private prayer language" must also advocate public speaking in tongues. But those who advocate public speaking in tongues while holding any serious regard for the Bible will then face the test of verification that the interpretation requirement presents. They cannot do that, because the test will invalidate their practice. So, there is a dilemma.

The Gift We Really Ought To Be Talking About

And the root cause of this dilemma is the cessation of the gift of interpretation. Recovery of something purporting to be the biblical gift of tongues is easy: "ajlgheipihgbjdlsad" and you've got it. But recovery of the gift of interpretation requires something on the order of an actual miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, interpretation could be faked. But the Southern Baptist people we're talking about, although they may have deluded themselves, are not interested in deceiving others. They are not charlatans. Not having subjected their practice to vigorous biblical verification, they may sincerely believe that their babbling is from the Holy Spirit. I choose not to believe that they would deliberately fake an interpretation.

So, those who would not fake an interpretation are left with the dilemma of wondering why the gift of interpretation has ceased—why you can't hop up on Sunday morning and say, "Shablyblabla" and count on Fred in the next pew to hop up and say, "He just said, 'The pot luck luncheon has been moved to next week'" (and, of course, for the church to have some assurance that Fred's interpretation is indeed what the ecstatic utterance meant). Or even better, to conform to the examples in Acts, why can't you count on a dozen Fred's all to stand up and give identical reports of what the babbling meant? Why doesn't that happen?

And I don't know. That's precisely what seemed to have happened in the New Testament. I believe that God is just as capable of doing it today as He was then. Some might allege that we are just so carnal that God refuses to bless us with the gift of tongues. But why, then, is He still clearly blessing with other gifts that the Bible clearly regards as far superior to the gift of tongues? Are we worthy of prophecy but not of tongues? Does that make sense?

Maybe it is a simple as this: Maybe God no longer wishes or needs to use the gifts of tongues as He did then? Someday we'll get a chance to ask, assuming that we still regard the question as important then.

Until then, here I am. I'm looking for a genuine, verifiable instance of someone exercising the biblical gift of speaking in tongues. When and if it comes, it will be linguistic and verifiable. And then I'll acknowledge it as the real deal, no matter whom it offends.

But until then, I remain an a posteriori cessationist.

Friday, September 1, 2006

I Want to Be McCareful Here

Dwight McKissic was one of the speakers at a Paul-Timothy Conference that I attended with SBTC. I enjoyed his comments and his wisdom. Bro. McKissic has taken an active role in the SBTC, and I have appreciated his leadership. I doubt that he would remember me, but I remember him, and I have been thankful for specific ways that his comments have contributed to my ministry and my thinking. But I want to differ with him on a couple of specifics from this week.

First, let us consider the issue justly raised by McKissic and summarized by Wade Burleson here about "public statements that contained charges never communicated privately and personally." I think it is a good and biblical observation. I wish Dr. Patterson had mentioned to Dr. McKissic, "Your sermon criticized a sister agency, and we can't put that on our web site. And I disagree with you about your interpretation of the text." I think that is only fair, and Dr. Patterson should have extended that courtesy to a brother in Christ.

But that's a road that runs both ways. McKissic knew about the present controversy. He knew about Dr. Patterson's position. He was preparing a sermon to criticize the IMB and Dr. Patterson publicly at the seminary while Dr. Patterson was sitting on the platform. Now, I ask you, what would be the courteous and Christian and biblical thing to do? Did McKissic communicate with Patterson "privately and personally" about the ambush that he was setting? I doubt it.

And if not, I lay the fault at the feet of McKissic, because he did what he did with forethought and deliberation. Dr. Patterson, on the other hand, had to respond on the spur of the moment. I would have been in shock. I wouldn't have known what to say over lunch, much less at the conclusion of the message. And for setting this trap, McKissic ought to apologize publicly to Patterson.

By the way, this first point illustrates well what I've been saying about a double standard. Because others who would criticize Patterson for failing to communicate privately before publicly will conspicuously refrain from any criticism of McKissic for a more egregious act of the same character. And I don't even know that they do so consciously. But the double standard is obviously there, nonetheless.

Second, let us consider race. Seriously, why play the race card here? I've searched the New Testament over, and I cannot for the life of me find a racial connection to the debate over speaking in tongues. I find it highly inappropriate that McKissic resorted to a sort of racial ultimatum. Let this issue rise and fall on the merits of the New Testament, not as a ransom paid to racial blackmail.

Dr. McKissic and I are not friends, but I hope that we will be someday (our paths just haven't crossed one-on-one yet). We are not friends, but we are brothers in Christ. I regret that a critical exchange will come so early in our acquaintance, but I have written what I believe to be the truth. I've tried to be careful and precise, and now I am anxious to be quiet and hear what you all have to say.

We Played the Flute for You…

<Satire Alert>
Dear Dr. Patterson:

We are sick to death of dealing with you. Things have changed in the SBC. It is time for you to acknowledge that we won 1 out of 20 votes at the Greensboro annual meeting, and therefore we are the rulers of the SBC. As rulers, of course we get to set the rules. So why do you keep disobeying the rules? There's a new sheriff in town, bucko, and if you don't step in line, we're going to remove the rather large stick from Kevin Bussey's eye and come after you with it.

But we want to be longsuffering and patient. Perhaps you have forgotten the rules. We know that, once people get older than 40, life is pretty much over and you can't remember anything any longer. So, for one last time, we're going to review the rules with you:

  1. You may not have an opinion about how anyone does anything anywhere—especially regarding anything that happens in the Southern Baptist Convention. Above all, you and the seminary may never ever seek to communicate behind-the-scenes any opinions about how other agencies ought to run. Other agencies will refine their theology without the input of theologians, thank you very much. To seek to communicate privately with other agencies will be considered smoke-filled-room collusion and WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
  2. However, if another agency is doing something with which WE DISAGREE, then the previous rule will be considered null-and-void. But beyond that, not only will private communication be OK, but anything less than your full efforts to disseminate such criticism of other agencies will be considered DICTATORIAL INSUBORDINATION. We warn you, sir, that we will not stand idly by while you use your bully pulpit to remain silent. To seek not to criticize other agencies publicly will be considered censorship and WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
  3. However, the previous rule will not apply to public information that we have not approved. It we're talking about....oh, I don't know....someone's dissertation, then under no circumstances can you allow anyone to have access to that material. You go get one of those elephant guns out of your safari room and YOU PERSONALLY STAND GUARD OVER AT THAT LIBRARY. Remember, public sermons that criticize other agencies, but with our approval, you are under obligation to promote, but suppression of dissertations or other material that might tend to embarrass us will not be considered censorship; in fact, you are under personal obligation to suppress such material.
  4. You must return our telephone calls IMMEDIATELY. No matter what else may be going on. Even on days when every press organ within 500 miles is calling. WE ARE IMPORTANT NOW!!!!!!!!!! When we say "Jump!" we expect you to ask "How high?" and to do so within no more than twenty minutes. And we're not talking about some staff flunkie. By golly, you pick up that phone and you call us and you get your instructions and YOU DO IT RIGHT AWAY.
  5. No matter what you do, we are going to criticize you. After all, hatred of you is the only thing that binds together our rather diverse coalition. So please understand, that it isn't personal. We have commented publicly that we respect you and consider you a brother. It isn't personal; it is business. Our political movement can only keep going forward if, periodically, we trot you out and use you to remind people how much we all hate you because we think you once-upon-a-time trotted out people to use them politically. Especially if one of us has recently said something embarrassing from which we need to divert attention, we will be using you politically.
  6. Remember, we have unanimously elected you the only person in Southern Baptist life who must be labelled, must never get the benefit of the doubt...we will carp and criticize every move you make until the day that you die (and Lord, may it come quickly). But don't forget, it is all in an effort to teach you to be less critical and more gracious and tolerant.
  7. And we fully support everything that you and others did to make the conservative resurgence take place, but we just wish you hadn't done any of it. We are solid conservatives, and we will not tolerate anyone who is not conservative teaching in our seminaries, but we don't want you firing anybody. NO FIRING IN OUR SEMINARIES. If you don't obey us on this point, you're fired.
I hope this helps to set things straight. We realize that this is a time of difficult adjustment for you. It is a new day in the SBC. We're leaving politics behind forever, and we're getting organized for San Antonio to make certain that it happens.

Sincerely,
(You know who we are)