Thursday, March 28, 2013

Martin Luther and "Evangelical Calvinism"

Christianity Today published my Letter to the Editor in their April issue:

Unfortunately, you have to be a subscriber to see enough of the article for mine to be visible, so I've also included the text below:

The Way to Election
In "Election is for Everyone" [January/February], Roger Olson describes Martin Luther as being one of the "early reformers" whose understanding of election closely resembled the one commonly associated with Calvin.  I find this a serious mischaracterization.  Luther acknowledged God's receiving sole credit for salvation, but rejected the idea of God's electing to condemnation.  His view much more closely (although not quite identically) resembled the "third way" Olson identifies as evangelical Calvinism.  In truth, confessional Lutherans were the "third way" between Arminianism and Calvinism before either of them was even formulated.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Christian Food Laws

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Food Laws for Christians:

Q:  Do Christians have any food laws similar to the other religions of the world?

Across the religious spectrum, food seems to be a distinguishing characteristic.  The Hindu religion, among others, requires vegetarianism.  Buddhism encourages the same, but without making it absolutely mandatory.  Islam and Judaism both have regulations regarding animals from which their meat, milk, and eggs may be eaten and from which they may not. 

To give the clearest pictures of food laws in Christianity, it is necessary first to review the beginning of the story.  In the beginning, we can conclude that all of creation was vegetarian, because there was no death.  Some have concluded that this means God’s will is for humans to be forever vegetarian, but this is a very rare stance for Christians to take. 

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and brought sin into the world, that sin also brought death, and God Himself clothed them with the skins of animals to cover their shame.  At the end of the flood, God explicitly permits Noah and his descendants to have “every living thing that moves” as food.  This continues through the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel through their slavery in Egypt. 

After rescuing them from slavery to the Egyptians, God establishes a ritual separation between His people and the other nations of the world, and a part of that separation is the food laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which declared certain animals, their milk, and eggs, “clean” or “unclean.”  In addition to ritual separation, these laws, which parallel sacrificial standards, also point forward to Jesus as their fulfillment and serve to preserve His ancestral line from being assimilated into idolatrous nations. 

These laws are still followed by the Jewish people today, as well as by a very small minority of Christians who have taken about re-establishing these laws among themselves, either for ethical reasons (because they believe God desires Christians to follow them) or for practical reasons (because they see them as good practical advice, even though not morally required). 

Throughout the Old Testament, God confirmed these laws as a condition of the Israelites’ privilege of inhabiting their Promised Land, and criticized the Israelites when they failed to keep them.  Even though the Prophets criticize the Gentiles for their immorality and idolatry, they do not criticize them for their failure to keep these ritual standards; that they reserve only for Israel. 

As Mark (Ch. 7) records the events of Jesus life in his Gospel, he includes Jesus saying, “Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him…what comes out of a person is what defiles him,” then explains that by this saying, Jesus “declared all foods clean.” 

In Acts 10, Peter is given a vision by God of a sheet coming down from heaven with “every kind of animal” on it, which God invites Peter to “Get up, kill, and eat.”  When Peter objects that he may not eat “unclean” creatures, God responds, “Do not call unclean what God has made clean.” 

In the book of Galatians, Paul describes the laws of Israel as being like a temporary guardian or schoolmaster set in place for Israel that is now unnecessary after the coming of Jesus, therefore returning Christians to the moral standards in place at the time of Abraham and Noah, rather than the additional civil and ceremonial standards set in place by the law of Moses. 

 Acts 15 records a council where the Apostles meet to resolve certain issues about the observance of the Old Testament law by Gentiles.  At this council, James advises Gentiles to refrain from sexual immorality, things polluted by idols, meat that has been strangled, and blood (taking for granted that they observe the Ten Commandments and other moral laws affirmed elsewhere in the New Testament). 

The three restrictions on food in this proclamation, however, are not a binding declaration for Christians of all times, but rather a compromise by the apostles to keep peace between the Jewish and Gentile Christians of that time and place.  We understand this because we see Paul giving both the Romans and the Corinthians more permissive advice regarding these things in his letters.

Ultimately, we see that arguments of food, drink, holidays, and such are completely foreign to the Spirit of Christianity, which emphasizes God’s forgiveness of our failure to keep His law and the free Grace delivered by the Holy Spirit to all who trust in Jesus, who on the Last Day will usher in an eternal feast of fine wine and meat without death (Isaiah 25).

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Natural/Organic Foods

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Natural/Organic foods:

Q:  Is there a moral obligation for Christians to follow natural, organic, or other recently-popular food production methods which avoid the use of modern advancements to enhance yield/growth or protect crops/animals? 

This is a topic I have heard an increasing degree of advocacy for recently in Christian circles.  The reasoning typically follows the line that people ought to raise plants and animals in as close a state to the way God created them as possible. 

Some advocate this out of a belief that pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on crops or antibiotics and hormones in animals are harmful to humans.  Others believe that alterations to the genetic composition of plants or enhancing the growth or immunity of animals is too close to “playing god.” 

Others do not object to the morality of these things, but feel that such practices are unwise for a wide array of reasons, from the sustainability of the practice to the long-term impact on the various species under these practices.  Another variation stems from the belief that humans ought to provide the most desirable and natural environment possible for animals during their lives out of respect for the fact that their death will eventually result in our being fed. 

Theologically, some of these reasons are lacking, however, because they fail to recognize the impact of sin on the world.  Human sin has impacted not only our actions, feelings, and emotions, but it has even broken creation.  Because of this, all of nature no longer works as it should.  Disease and adverse conditions threaten both crops and animals.  Our breaking of the world by sin even results in animals whose natural instincts fail them, sometimes to the point that they may turn on one another or even their own offspring apart from human intervention. 

Certainly all people would agree that abuse, neglect, or mistreatment of animals, whether they are raised for food or not, is unacceptable, but it can be argued that present-day practices serve to protect them from disease and the elements, which is likely more vital than what we perceive their emotional needs might be. 

Likewise, it would be broadly accepted that we ought not place hazardous chemicals in dangerous quantities into our bodies, but it has also been noted that all chemicals used in the production of food undergo extensive testing regarding the extent of their absorption into the plant and its fruit and the quantities at which they become hazardous in the event they would be consumed. 

Additionally, it is important to note that, even though the idea of making alterations to nature might seem unsavory to some, God has given us the intelligence to make the advances to feed a growing population.  The person who discovers safe methods to increase yields or protect from pests and disease is using their God-given ability to help their neighbor.  Some would propose that without the kind of advances that have been made in agriculture, the loss would be more than income or comfort, but that he lack of these methods would come at the expense of lives, as the present population could not possibly be fed with nineteenth century levels of production. 

The Apostle Paul writes on several occasions in his epistles about matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden by the God.  In such things, he instructs the believers that they should follow their own conscience, but not impose their conscience-driven position on their neighbor who believes differently.  This question is one of those matters. 

Those who are convinced it is more wise to raise crops and animals without these advancements should follow their conscience in doing so or buying from those who do so.  At the same time, those who are convinced otherwise should not feel any guilt because they benefit from these advancements. 

Both those who make use of these innovations and those who refrain should understand that their actions are neither more nor less righteous because of this choice, but that they are following their own conscience and using their own God-given wisdom to make the best choice on a matter that has not been addressed in Scripture.