Is the Bible the Only Tool in the Toolbox?

Today we are going to look at a controversy that has been playing out at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary over the past couple of weeks.  A Christianity Today article entitled “Has Christian Psychology Lost Its Place at Southern Seminary?” reports on the firing (very thinly disguised as an early retirement) of Dr. Eric Johnson, a longtime professor of counseling at SBTS.  The Wartburg Watch has a summary which you can read here and here.  Dustin Messner at Kuyperian Commentary gives his commentary here.

Here is the TL:DR version:  Johnson was fired essentially because his vision of what Christian psychology ought to be is substantially different from that of Al Mohler and SBTS.  Some observers blame the firing on Heath Lambert, another professor of counseling at SBTS and the executive director of an organization called the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.  There is belief that Lambert leveraged his organization, the ACBC, against SBTS, threatening to steer students away from SBTS if Johnson remained.  (SBTS is one of five Reformed seminaries among the ACBC’s certified training centers.)  There is a video clip on Youtube in which Lambert reads from Johnson’s work and calls his approach to counseling “dangerous”, “slander”, “corrupt”, and “a mockery of God’s word”.  Mohler denies all of this, and Lambert has since apologized to Johnson.  Mohler and SBTS are not offering anything at this time in the way of clarification or explanation for Johnson’s departure.

Now I am a blogger, and as such it is part and parcel of my life’s vocation and calling to offer my unsolicited opinion on subjects about which I know nothing and am unqualified to speak.  But it is not my intention today to opine on internal politics and hiring/firing decisions at SBTS.  Instead I will comment on a couple of larger themes that I believe are in play here with this story.

The first is what I believe to be one of conservative evangelicalism’s worst tendencies:  to take the approach that we are the faithful side, the Christian side and the other side is the faithless, godless side and every issue is a fight to the death between the forces of light (us) and the forces of darkness.  There is a lengthy essay by John Frame entitled “Machen’s Warrior Children” in which Frame argues that conservative Reformed evangelicals have continued the fighting spirit shown by J. Gresham Machen in resisting the incursions of liberal theology in his day, taking it into every political/cultural/theological dispute thereafter, no matter how trivial.  The most recent presidential election cycle is an example of this par excellence.

The second is a view of biblical inspiration which is pervasive in evangelicalism and, I believe, far more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything even remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  This is at the heart of the issue as to why Johnson was forced out at SBTS.  Johnson believes that the wisdom of Scripture combined with insights from the science of psychology ought to form the basis of one’s approach to counseling.  Mohler, Lambert, and the rest of SBTS believe that the science of psychology has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of counseling, that the Bible is the only tool in the toolbox and to believe otherwise is to denigrate the sufficiency of Scripture.

As Christians we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.  But sufficient for what?  To lead us into a growing and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ?  Okay.  Much of evangelicalism is unwilling to stop there and, instead, insists on making the Bible into the final authoritative word on subjects about which the ancient writers knew absolutely nothing.  Such a view turns the Bible into a “magic book” and is squarely in line with the idea of the Koran dictated to Mohammed by an angel while he was in a trance, or the Book of Mormon inscribed on golden tablets brought to Joseph Smith by an angel.

Such a view, when applied to the discipline of counseling, leads to the idea that there is no behavioral/psychological problem so severe that it cannot be solved by just throwing some Bible verses at it.  You and I both know that is simply not the case.  Insisting on the Bible as the only tool in the toolbox and closing one’s ears to anything whatsoever that secular science might have to say does people a grave disservice.

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A Tale of Two Religions

Given what we have looked at in the previous two posts, I feel it necessary today to return to an old Michael Spencer post entitled “The Face of the Gracious God“.  Go ahead and read it; it will set the tone for where I want to go today.

Religion #1 is a version of Christianity in which God is angry on a very fundamental level.  Our disobedience has corrupted us and made us completely loathsome to Him, so much so that he wants to destroy us and then hold us in a state of eternal conscious torment, and would be perfectly righteous in doing so.  Anything less than that is an act of supreme mercy on His part.  Luckily for us, Jesus stepped in on our behalf and calmed God down and He decided (reluctantly) to be gracious to us.  But don’t do anything to mess that up.  Peace is fragile around here.

Religion #2 is a version of Christianity in which God is gracious and loving, more so than anyone could imagine.  He is grieved and saddened that our disobedience has separated us from Him and enslaved us to a whole host of unsavory things, and is determined to repair the breach at all possible cost.  Through Jesus, He shows us what kind of God He is and what His love looks like, and that He will stop at nothing–not even the most violent and horrific death imaginable–to restore the joy and love that should belong to the children of such a Father.  True to His promises, He will bless all people and restore the world through Jesus.  You can’t do anything to mess that up.

There are way too many people out there, especially in evangelicalism, who are attempting to sell you on Religion #1.  John Piper’s prayer that I quoted in the previous post is an example of this par excellence.  It arises out of a religion in which we have grievously offended an all-powerful God and deserve nothing but calamity and distress, that such distress comes directly from Him as His “wise and needed work”, and that the only proper response is one of abject submission before His just and sovereign power.

There are way too few people out there who are overwhelmed at the goodness of a gracious God.  Evangelicals talk a great game about the grace and graciousness of God, but listen to us for any significant length of time and that good news soon gets buried under all the footnotes, codicils, and fine print that we have added to the Good News.  Sure it’s all about grace, but what really moves the needle around here is perfect submission and obedience, believing all the right things and living it out under the direction and watchful eye of those leaders whom God has appointed to instruct you in His truth and who will give an accounting of you before Him.

The Nashville Statement is an example of this par excellence.  It is an attempt to take the blessing which God intends to pour out on all people and say that a certain class of people are excluded until and unless they conform themselves to our standard of belief.  Slacktivist goes so far as to call it an “ugly ingratitude”, and I am with him 100 percent.  It reeks of an ingratitude for the grace which God has so lavishly showered upon us, to the point of attempting to exclude gay Christians and their supporters until and unless they come around to our way of seeing things.  It is just like the servant in Jesus’ parable who was forgiven a massive debt and then went off and imprisoned a fellow servant who owed him a mere pittance.

The reality is that in Jesus we discover just how good and gracious our God really is.  We see him reaching out to all but especially to those who were excluded by the religious and cultural system of the day.  We see him scandalizing all the religious power brokers through his free acceptance of and association with those whom they considered unclean.  We see him repeatedly assuring his followers that when they see him they are looking at the Father.

Would that we could have a faith that begins not with the sovereignty or the power of God but with the love of God.  Would that we could look to Jesus and see him as the true picture of what God is really like.

Confession time:  I find myself drawn way too often to the God of Religion #1.  When things are tough, I find it way too easy to imagine that God has brought these things upon me because He is fundamentally angry and I am disappointing to Him on a fundamental level, that the way I did not take is the way God wanted me to take but I was too stubborn and hellbent on my own way to see it, that I deserve nothing better than this distress, and that my only proper response is to submit and prostrate myself before His just and sovereign power and let it do its wise and needed work in my life.

I need help to believe–to move past the level of knowing and on to actual lived, heartfelt belief–that the Jesus we read about in the Gospels is the truth of who God really is and how He really feels toward us, and that this love is truly for all people, including me.

Not Signing the Nashville Statement

If there is one thing we evangelicals have down to an art, it is producing definitive statements of belief on some doctrine or another.

ICYMI (and you probably did miss it with all the news about Harvey):  The Nashville Statement dropped last week.  It comes to us courtesy of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical think tank whose mission is to promote the complementarian way of looking at things and an ultra-conservative view of gender roles and gender issues.  The list of signers reads like a who’s who of all the big names in conservative, complementarian evangelicalism.  (Many of these are big names in the Neo-Calvinist world and no doubt their views are informed and influenced by the Neo-Calvinist perspective.  But I digress.)

My name is not on that list.  Nor will it be at any time in the foreseeable future.  But if you’ve been tracking with me for any significant length of time, you probably suspected as much.

By this point the Nashville Statement has been picked apart by the Christian blogosphere.  I leave the specific, article-by-article analysis to others such as Scot McKnight, Preston Sprinkle, and more, and will limit myself to addressing the global, overarching themes.

The first question:  Why now?  Why at this specific moment in history?  The signers’ decision to release this statement at a time when all the eyes of the nation were on Houston was questionable at best, but I’m not here to nit-pick that aspect of things.  The larger question is this:  Why now, in an age when cultural sensitivity to and acceptance of same-sex and transgender issues is on the rise?  Why now, in an age when it seems that the evangelical message to the culture at large on gender is increasingly falling on deaf ears?  This has the feel of doubling down, screaming ever louder and more defiantly in the face of a culture that we fear is slipping away from us.

For the most part, the Nashville Statement affirms what the Church has always taught with regard to human sexuality, marriage, and gender.  Not all of the differences between male and female are cultural; some are inextricably linked to our biology with the result that male and female are significantly different ways of being human and it takes a great deal of empathetic imagination for one to understand the other.  Christians who deny this are at odds with some basic elements of a Christian worldview.  God’s design for marriage is male and female, whenever the Bible speaks of marriage it always speaks of male and female, whenever it speaks of same-sex relations it does not speak favorably.  The Church has, throughout its history, affirmed this view of things, and the Nashville Statement lines up with this.  I do have concerns with the language in some places, but I leave that to those who have already parsed this thing through and through.  My concerns are the same as theirs.

But why?  Why the need to issue a lengthy, dogmatic pronouncement on an issue which, though the Bible speaks clearly on it, it devotes a very small amount of text in comparison to the whole and to the volume of text devoted to other issues?  This has been my objection all along to the complementarian camp on this issue:  Though the Biblical text is clearly on their side, the volume of text is minuscule compared to the length of the Bible in its entirety, and compared to the volume of text addressing other issues.

Article 10 (I lied when I said I wouldn’t get down into the nitty-gritty of this thing) clearly shows the signers’ intention to raise this issue to which so little Scriptural ink is devoted to the level of essential Christian belief.  It claims that acceptance of homosexuality and/or transgenderism is “an essential departure” from Christian faithfulness.  A departure?  Sure.  An essential departure?  I don’t think so.  No Christian creed, from 1 Corinthians 15 to the Reformers, has ever made one’s view on homosexuality/transgenderism an essential of the Christian faith.  As such, it is nothing less than the Judaizing heresy of Christ-plus-X that Paul battled in Galatia.  In Paul’s day it was circumcision, today it is homosexuality.  Slactivist goes off on this point, going so far as to call it “ugly ingratitude” because all Christians have benefited from Paul’s push against the Judaizing powers-that-be in Galatia to include all believers including uncircumcised Gentiles, yet now we want to turn around and claim that another class of people (LGBT) are unwelcome unless they conform themselves to our way of looking at things.

The statement also represents a massive failure of pastoral sensitivity toward a class of people for whom Christ died and whom Christ commands us to love.  All the way through it speaks of LGBT’s as “they”, a subtle cue indicating that it sees LGBT’s and their Christian sympathizers as a separate class who must be pulled out and addressed separately from all the rest of Christianity.  It reduces complex issues of gender, sexuality, and self-identity which some go through excruciating pain in attempting to sort out, to easy and simple answers which ought to be self-evident to anyone.  It preaches, screams, to LGBT’s and to the culture at large, eschewing the posture of Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet–a slave’s task–and commanded all of us to do the same.

Though the Nashville Statement is consistent with orthodox Christian belief, it reeks of insensitivity in this cultural moment.  It has the feel of doubling down, as if its promoters are desperately lashing out in order to hold on to a cultural power that is slipping away.  It raises an issue on which the Bible wastes precious little ink to the level of essential Christian belief.  It is blind to the complexities of gender, sexuality, and self-identity issues and insensitive to those who have experienced and are experiencing extreme pain in attempting to sort these out.

Evangelicalism has a long record of dehumanizing gays, and in this decade that is costing us tremendous influence in the gay community and in culture at large.  An ever-increasing number of young people are turned off to evangelicalism and to Christianity itself because of evangelicalism’s track record with the gay community.  The Nashville Statement just dumped several truckloads of nitroglycerine on that grease fire.

No Room for Real People or Basic Love: Eugene Peterson on Homosexuality

Today we are going to talk about Eugene Peterson.

ICYMI:  Eugene Peterson has been in some hot water lately.  About a week ago he gave an interview in which he was pressed for his views on same-sex issues and offered what some took to be an endorsement of gay marriage.  Needless to say, this landed him on conservative evangelicalism’s shit list.  He later issued a retraction/clarification via his publisher which landed him on the shit list of progressives who took his prior comments as an endorsement of gay marriage.  So at this point it’s safe to say that Eugene Peterson is on everybody’s shit list.

That is where we are in evangelicalism and in Christianity at large.  Just like our nation’s current political climate, we have lots of ideological camps and special interests which all demand 100% adherence to every point of their respective agendas, and if you fail to comply you will experience the consequences.  Conservative evangelicalism is rife with those who demand unquestioning adherence to their way of looking at things with respect to abortion, gay marriage, and women in church leadership.  On the other side of the aisle there are groups which demand unquestioning adherence to their way of looking at things on gay marriage, women’s rights, racism, climate change, etc.

In this climate there is no room for those whose thinking on an issue such as gay marriage is marked by nuance and complexity and motivated by basic human kindness and love of neighbor.  If Peterson says yes to whether he would in some circumstances officiate a gay wedding, it cannot be taken as an expression of basic human love or pastoral concern for the people standing directly in front of him but must instead be taken as a sweeping endorsement of gay marriage.  Let him feel the wrath of those who oppose gay marriage in the name of biblical truth.  Should he then seek to clarify his remarks and/or offer some nuance to his views, let him feel the wrath of those who support gay marriage and now count themselves abandoned by the celebrity whom they deemed an ally.t