Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Baptist Identity" Influences in My Life

How did I come to be a "Baptist Identity" sort of Baptist? Did I happen upon golden plates in my back yard inscribed by J. R. Graves? Did I have some furtive meeting over beignets with Dr. Paige Patterson?

I would like to say that the Holy Spirit and the New Testament have been the influences that have driven me to my position, and indeed this is what I believe. Nevertheless, I can identify a seminal influence in my life who is the most responsible for my more vigorous embrace of our distinctive New Testament beliefs as Baptists. That influence was Dr. Karen Bullock.

It was in one of my earlier Ph.D. seminar meetings that Dr. Bullock made a statement about the number of Ph.D. students in a Southern Baptist seminary who, when asked what were the distinctive beliefs of Baptists, were perplexed by the question and unable to provide a satisfactory answer. It was she who thereby gave me the initial indication that Southern Baptists were in the process of selling our birthright by abandoning our key doctrinal convictions without ever troubling ourselves to learn what they are and why we have held them so tenaciously and for so long. In two years of seminars to follow, it was Dr. Bullock's love for the English and American Baptists that so encouraged me to read them carefully and to learn from them. It was her supportive encouragement during my dissertation process that refined my views and provided helpful and necessary feedback along the way.

At least as far as this adherent is concerned, Dr. Karen Bullock is something of the Mother of the Baptist Identity Movement.

I do not mean that she has reached every conclusion that I have reached; I know for certain that we are not clones of one another. I simply mean that God used her to bring me to where I presently am. I am thankful for her.

Aaron Weaver has authored something of a kindly critique of some comments by Dr. Bullock in Associated Baptist Press on the subject of baptism. Also quoted in the BP article is Dr. James Leo Garrett, another powerful influence upon me in this area of thought. I do not find Weaver's post to be persuasive, but neither do I find it to be inappropriate. It is through such exchanges that academia moves forward. I speak to the matter not to scold the Big Daddy, but simply to go on the record in support of Bullock and Garrett.

I also think that BDW's post gives us a moment to consider what the Baptist Identity movement is and where it stands in our present context. Bullock's remark in that seminar meeting long ago and her comments in the ABP article give us an astute perspective on where Southern Baptist life stands right now. A tepid evangelical ecumenism crouches outside the tent, and its desire is for us. We are told by some voices within and some without that our only hope for survival is to embrace it. To some degree because of the influence of Bullock and Garrett upon me, I believe that we must master it and turn it back. To embrace it is to destroy ourselves, I believe.

The evidence to support my viewpoint is out there, I believe. I began blogging at a time when "Baptist Identity" bloggers were mostly involved in parrying against the thrusts of Ben Cole's pen. Ben is far my superior in intellect, focus, and eloquence. Ben was the brain and the soul of "the other side" of Southern Baptist blogging.

Ben is now, reportedly, a Roman Catholic.

That fact doesn't make Ben a bad person, nor does it cause me to question his salvation. The RCIA cannot undo what the gospel has done. The present state of affairs simply adds several more items of disagreement to what was already a sizable list of theological points of difference between myself on the one hand and Ben on the other hand. I suspect that Ben might say much the same had he not moved far on from Baptist blogging (something I may do myself at some point).

But Ben's movement is significant in one sense to our present discussion. Ben was authoring motions and crafting strategy in an attempt to shape the future direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, and it wasn't that long ago that he was doing it. So here's the question: Should the future of the Southern Baptist Convention be placed into the hands of people who have so little commitment to its core beliefs and so little stake in its future? Shouldn't the people playing central roles in the shaping of the Southern Baptist Convention be people who are Baptists by conviction?

Well, at least I believe that they should be, and so do those other brethren who are generally called "Baptist Identity" believers. Those who use the phrase use it to try to insult us. It is a politically calculated phrase. But that's OK—so was the word "Baptist" to begin with. The fact that we are being treated in the same manner as were the earliest Baptists and then the earliest modern Baptists is simply a good indication of the stock from which we descend and the historical side on which we stand. It's a proud heritage, and one I readily embrace. I learned about it from people like Karen Bullock and James Leo Garrett. The ABP article, and Aaron Weaver's post, reveal clearly that people like Bullock and Garrett see some of the same problems that I see in the present life of our churches and our convention. Political calculations notwithstanding, clearly there are a lot of people—and a lot of really smart and insightful people—who share a lot of these views with folks like me.

If that's true, then the "Baptist Identity" position cannot be nearly so radically narrow and obscurantist as some would have you believe.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Age of Light

Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works

One interesting facet of the debate between Old-Earth Creationists and Young-Earth Creationists has to do with the age of light (not like "the Internet age" or "the Gilded Age," but like "What do you think is the age of that tree over there?"). Old-Earth Creationists point out that we see galaxies that are many millions of light-years away from the earth. Since a light-year is, by definition, the distance that a particle of light travels in the span of a year, the necessary implication is that events seen from many millions of light-years away must be events that happened many millions of years ago (which is when the journey of many millions of light-years must have been begun in order to be completed now).

Young Earth Creationists uniformly take refuge in the idea that the photons only appear to be that old but are not actually that old (not that photons in any way exhibit signs of age internally, but that the relative paths of protons from the same apparent source give the appearance of their having come a certain distance which implies that they are of a certain age). Theories advanced to reconcile this phenomenon with a young earth include the highly imaginative C-Decay theory and the idea that God created light already in-transit from galaxies far, far away.

I favor the latter explanation. One difficulty asserted against my position is that of God's motivation for such a thing. Why, the Old-Earth Creationist asks (as, indeed, do the non-Creationist and the C-Decay Theorist as well), would God create a deliberately deceptive universe? After all, the light-on-the-way created by divine word does not consist solely of static points of light. This is not just a Lite-Brite set. The light en route to Earth is depicting events in the Cosmos—explosions and implosions and astrophysical activity—that, if the light-on-the-way theory is correct, never really happened. Is God pulling a prank on us? Did He, foreseeing the birth of atheistic scientists, decide to dupe them with a little divine legerdemain? That seems out of God's character does it not?

I believe that this objection is really not a strong one at all, for I find it quite simple to imagine God's motivation in creating the Universe as He did—Beauty. The purpose given in Genesis for the creation of the stars is to provide light and to give a marking for seasons. The constellations only accomplish their seasonal tasks by their projection of an astrophysical drama upon the Earth—fixed and immutable stars simply do not mark seasons very well. But beyond that utilitarian perspective, fixed and immutable shafts of light from stars also are not very compelling visually. Is it possible that God just didn't like the way that would look?

A brief perusal of the pictures showcased from the Hubble Space Telescope (see link in the photo caption above) evidences few close-ups of individual burning balls of gas. Our predilection is for dramatic pictures of stars in motion. In our stargazing we have a penchant for verbs rather than nouns, desiring to gaze upon actions rather than upon mere objects. Even our scientists, hardnosed data sifters that they ostensibly are, seem to recognize what is beautiful in the nightly heavens.

Theologians have a tendency to minimize the topic of aesthetics in our treatments of God. Creationists, it seems, are vulnerable to the same weakness. Paley's watchmaker notwithstanding, we must allow for a God who is as much artist as artisan. For artists, illusion is not at all a bad thing; it is, as a matter of course, the objective.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Jimmy Jackson for SBC President

The Alabama Baptist reports that Jimmy Jackson will be nominated this Summer for President of the Southern Baptist Convention. (HT: SBC Today)

I was going to mention that I serve with Dr. Jackson on the SWBTS Board of Trustees. Upon reconsidering, I realized that such a statement did not nearly embody all of my feelings on the matter. Dr. Jimmy Jackson is not merely a trustee colleague at SWBTS; he is the elder statesman of the SWBTS board. He's the E. F. Hutton of the entire body. With an informed appreciation of the past and a bold vision for the future, Dr. Jackson is precisely the sort of man we need for this hour in the SBC.

The story in the Alabama Baptist listed above goes into some detail about Dr. Jackson's storied and long tenured history of work at Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville, AL. He has demonstrated his leadership abilities in his state convention, where he has presided for the past two years. Jackson is a committed personal evangelist. His own story of conversion and service toward the Lord is inspirational. I hope that it will become a part of the ongoing dialogue as we near Orlando.

Speaking of his decision, Jackson said, "I've been encouraged to be a candidate for the Southern Baptist Convention president. "As we move forward as a state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention to reach the world for Jesus Christ, I would like to be a part of that. . . . As I've prayed about the opportunity, I have a peace about it and have consented to be nominated."

Needless to say, I am delighted to learn of his nomination. And for those of you who are too young to make heads or tails of my "E. F. Hutton" analogy above, I present the following cultural history lesson.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Throw-Away Babies

I serve the congregation of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, TX. Farmersville sits at the northern shores of Lake Lavon. Earlier this week, a maintenance crew in the area found beside a dirty pond near the lake the body of a six-year-old special needs boy. He was significantly decomposed. His body showed evidence that he had been fed with a feeding tube for some period of time. Forensic examiners found no obvious evidence of trauma. Apparently, he died and then somebody just dumped him out at the lake (or dumped him out and left him there to die).

Learn more about the story here.

Dr. Russell Moore has recently reminded us that our treatment of a dead body says something about our attitude toward that body. I agree in part and disagree in part with Dr. Moore (grist for the future blogging mill?), but he is absolutely correct in noting that the treatment of dead bodies is loaded with significance.

To throw away the body of a child is to reveal one's heart in an incontrovertible way. To whoever dumped that body, that child was about as valuable as a broken-down washing machine. Each year, of course, millions of babies' bodies are thrown away into the trash, and the collective statement made by that fact is deafening and eloquent.

By the way, not only does our treatment of throw-away babies say something about us, but the something that it says about us it further says to God. Cain's blood cried out to God from the ground. From the medical incinerators and landfills and from a stagnant pond near Lake Lavon, a message rises to God that drowns out our formulaic prayers at official functions and our self-indulgent appeals to Heaven for materialistic largesse. Indeed, we ought to be ashamed, but we also ought to be fearful.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The One-Woman Man in the New Testament

Slowly, after much careful deliberation, I have begun to lean toward a new understanding of the phrase "one-woman man" (often translated "husband of one wife") in the New Testament. I am under no illusions that this position will ever gain any widespread acceptance among my peers, but I will not be reviewing my life with my peers when it is over.

I am coming to conclude that the phrase means to indicate a man who is married to no more than one women throughout his entire lifetime, no matter what may happen in that lifetime. To state it less technically, but perhaps more understandably, I have come to believe that the New Testament precludes the remarried widower from serving as a pastor (as well, of course, as precluding the divorcé and the polygamist).

I have come nowhere near the level of certainty with regard to this conclusion that I would lead our church to change our official applications of the biblical qualifications for pastors and deacons—that destination is not even within sight. . . not even on the map. But my personal uncertainty about the matter is strong enough that I think I would either remain unmarried or leave the pastorate if (Lord, please forbid it) I found myself facing the disastrous situation of losing my precious wife.

Doctrinal struggles sure do have personal consequences, don't they? And knowing that many of my readers will feel the personal implications of this question in their own lives, I'm obligated to make my case carefully.

It all boils down to this: It seems increasingly clear to me that the relevant passages are appropriating into the pastoral qualifications by the use of the phrase "one-woman man" a Christian male adaptation of the Roman phenomenon known as the univirae ("one-man woman"). This Roman concept explicitly referred to a woman who was never married a second time for any reason whatsoever. The phenomenon is very well documented in classical studies. There are a great many aspects of the univira concept that connect well with the particular subject matter of these Christian letters.

  1. Being a univira qualified a woman for certain ministry positions in pagan Roman temples. Thus, we see that the phrase "one-man woman" invoked an explicit concept in the Roman mind of the avoidance of second marriages as a qualification for religious service.

  2. The precise time when the concept of the univira was gaining its most widespread popularity was the time when Paul and other apostles were being inspired by the Holy Spirit to author the New Testament.

    Marjorie Lightman and William Zeisel's article "Univira: Continuity and Change in Roman Society" outlined the movement of the "univira" from its initial exclusive setting among the elite families of Rome proper to a widespread adaptation and adoption throughout the Roman Empire and among all classes of Roman society. The environment out of which the Holy Spirit brought forth the New Testament was precisely this environment in which the concept of the univira had attained widespread distribution.

  3. Although univira is a Latin phrase, the corresponding Greek phrase ("monandros") is strikingly similar to the phrase of the opposite gender, "mias gunaikos," that serves as the "one-woman" in "one-woman man." Even more similar is the wording of "one-woman man" in 1 Timothy 3:2 to the wording of "one-man woman" (henos andros gune) in 1 Timothy 5:9. In turn, the phrase for "one-man woman" in 1 Timothy 5:9 is strikingly similar to language on tombstone inscriptions from the period that extolled the virtue of women identified as univirae.

  4. To summarize these points in a conclusion, at precisely a time when the entire Roman world was extolling the virtues of "one-man women" who remained devoted to one spouse for a lifetime, and who consequently were qualified (at least in that respect) to serve in certain restricted religious capacities in Roman religion, the Holy Spirit led the Apostle Paul to identify being a "one-woman man" as a qualification for service in a certain restricted religious capacity in Christianity.

    That's a pretty tight parallel, in my estimation.

In addition to these thoughts, I point out that there is no Old Testament snippet of language or marital concept that seems to serve as the source of Paul's wording of "one-woman man." Paul does not seem to be alluding to any teaching of Jesus expressed in the gospels. What other compelling candidate is there to compete with univira as a source for Paul's wording?

I also note that this interpretation of "one-woman man" goes back at least to within 160 years of the life of Jesus. Tertullian held this view, for example, as did a great many others who lived far closer to the New Testament age than do we. The evidence of the Church Fathers alone does not compel us. Indeed, for quite some time, aware of these opinions, I wrote them off as the biased interpretations of people unhealthily obsessed with celibacy. As the exegetical considerations above have gained force in my reasoning, I have had to reconsider whether it was Tertullian who was biased against remarriage, or me who was biased against Tertullian.

My great objection to this interpretation, of course, is that I don't like it at all. If I were widowed at this age and with my children at their present ages, I would likely want to remarry. Indeed, I'm not saying that I wouldn't remarry; I'm just saying that I think I would need to leave the pastoral ministry in order to do so. I find that restriction quite onerous. I don't LIKE embracing this understanding of the text.

But my job is not to interpret the Bible according to my liking; my job is to love the Bible correctly interpreted, as an aspect of loving the Author of the Bible. Perhaps the true measure of our obedience as disciples is found in our doing of the things that we don't (at first) like but are nonetheless commanded to do.

Nevertheless, this much is certain—more than ever before, I'll be delighted for you to demonstrate to me where I'm wrong.

In conclusion, I would like to identify some of the interesting implications of this interpretation:

  1. The explicit and jarring transformation of an always-female-applied phrase to a made-up-for-this-instance male-applied phrase strengthens the already overwhelming case that the New Testament qualifications for elders and deacons are explicitly written to be applicable to men and not to women. Surely the female phrase would do quite nicely unless females are not at all in view here. Because Paul had to have a male phrase to apply to a male category, he had to go to the extraordinary lengths of creating his own male adaptation of this female phrase.
  2. The general Roman concept was quite the double-standard, with the "one-man woman" being praised and extolled while men were entirely within the bounds of respectable behavior to avail themselves of prostitutes and to marry a second time upon the death of a wife. The New Testament's application of this concept to men, therefore, represents a subjection of men to a binding commitment to their wives—to their wives having authority over their bodies—in a "turnabout is fair play" manner that was foreign to Roman culture.
  3. One need not go so far as to suggest that remarriage of widows or widowers is at all immoral (unlike divorce, which is always immoral on the part of at least one party). Indeed, 1 Timothy 5:14 mandates remarriage of at least one category of widows. In view here is not what is moral or immoral, but rather what qualifies one for service as an elder or deacon.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Steely Backbone of the School of Jerry Falwell

I have a confession to make.

In my late preteen years, when forced to tag along on my mother's grocery shopping trips, I (an avid reader) used to kill time at the magazine rack. Here's the confession part: On those occasions I used to read Mad Magazine.

In 1982 I distinctly recall picking up an episode of Mad Magazine that contained a satirical "interview" with Jerry Falwell. The interview was not as bad as Hustler's infamous counterpart that portrayed Falwell as confessing to furtive erotic fixations upon his mother. It was nevertheless trash...absolute trash, and I knew as much even as a twelve-year-old. I confess that I laughed anyway, and I continued to read the magazine.

I'm thankful that God has granted me the gift of maturing spiritually somewhat (although not nearly as much as I would like) in the intervening years since I was twelve. No longer am I at all inclined to fill my mind with such garbage. I find it repugnant.

I think I would have found it repugnant in 1982 if somehow, at that tender age, I had possessed the slightest inkling of how difficult it must have been to withstand the continual assault directed toward Jerry Falwell by those who made themselves his foes. Everything that could be attacked about the man was attacked. People questioned his motives, lampooned his convictions, and dedicated their lives to his destruction.

Not that it all was entirely the fault of his accusers. We all have feet of clay, don't we? I can recall several times when Falwell wound up retracting, at least partially, something that he had said. He made several public apologies. He apologized when he called South African Bishop Desmond Tutu a "phony" (see here). He apologized for his remarks immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks (see here). Down through the years he issued many clarifications and many apologies. None of these trivialities blunted the force of his overall message, nor did his supporters, his organization, or his family ever allow these distractions to draw their attention away from the things that mattered in his ministry.

Considering all of this, I find it comical to observe bloggers thinking that, by turning up a little blogging heat upon Dr. Ergun Caner, they are going to be able to unseat him from his position at the helm of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. I'm not going to name the bloggers and I'm not going to link to their posts, because I have no desire to be responsible for driving any traffic in that direction. But it appears to me that, just because Ergun has apologized and clarified a thing or two and because they are so ravenously going after him, they think that school of Jerry Falwell is going to cower under their attacks and boot Ergun out the door. The school that Jerry built? The people who weathered the onslaught of vicious attacks from the entire leftish establishment of media and government for more than 30 years? These people are going to bow to the pressure of bloggers in bathrobes? I'm just not seeing it. They may get a few hits every day, but these bloggers have neither the writing skills that Alfred E Newman had nor the audience that Tinky-Winky had.

So, like a seasoned palm tree in the Florida keys, the school that Jerry built will sway with the howling winds that blow from people who are never going to be a friend to Liberty under any circumstances, and in the end the school's steely backbone will hold intact as it always has, and the truth will continue to sound forth from Lynchburg.