Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is Jesus or the Bible first?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the relationship between Jesus and the Bible:

 Q:  Do Christians believe the Bible because it is endorsed by Jesus, or do Christians believe in Jesus because the Bible says so?  Which comes first?

It is important to begin by remembering that salvation and the faith which receives it are completely gifts of God through the Holy Spirit.  No person can claim to have received God’s forgiveness based on their own philosophical strivings or efforts at discovering truth.  Instead, sinners hear the message of God’s forgiveness through trusting in Jesus as their substitute, and they rely on that truth to save them. 

This might seem like a bit of a chicken-and-egg question at first, but it does have important implications.  For those who are already Christians, it can be important to learn why their trust in Jesus is reasonable and be equipped to defend this truth against those who would seek to undermine it.   These kind of considerations play a part in answering the objections of opponents of Christianity who reject the truth claims of the Bible based on inaccurate preconceptions or faulty scholarship. 

This discipline is called apologetics (meaning to explain the faith), and this question addressed here falls into a category called epistemology.  Epistemology is the study of truth—specifically, answering the question, “How do we know what we know?”  So here, we ask, “Do we rely on the events of Jesus’ life because the Bible says so, or do we rely on the Bible, because Jesus endorses its contents?” 

Christian teachers over the centuries have been split over the question of the logical priority of the personal revelation of Jesus and written revelation of the Bible.  Some have reasoned that the Bible is primary.  This is reflected in the words of the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”  According to this understanding, belief in Jesus is reasonable, because the Bible says so. 

This is true when it comes to the question of how people are initially saved.  Ordinarily, whenever a person trusts in Jesus, they do so because they have heard his story in the Bible or because a person has preached or described this story to them.  They begin with the Bible and move to Jesus.  The weakness of this approach, though, is that a book becomes the center of Christianity instead of a person (Jesus) and the relevant events of His life (particularly the resurrection). 

Consequently, under this approach, opponents are given the opportunity to challenge Christians’ reliance on Jesus by way of undermining the reliability of the Bible or by deceptively using the Bible against those who are not well-educated in its claims and teachings. 

Historically, the more common and more stable approach to this question has been to begin with the events of Jesus’ life, especially the Resurrection, and build from there.  If Jesus rose, then the rest of His teachings are then confirmed.  This is based on the criteria that Jesus, Himself set for believing in His truthfulness when He told his opponents to “tear down this temple, [His body] “and I will raise it up again on the third day.”  What this means is that if Jesus rises after being crucified, He is to be believed, including his endorsement of the Old Testament and of the Apostles’ who would write the New after His Ascension. 

This brings the entire question down to the Resurrection.  If Jesus stayed dead, the whole Bible is to be disregarded, and Christians should abandon their churches.  If Jesus was alive again on Sunday after His crucifixion on Friday.  Christians believe, based on the testimony of hundreds of witnesses, some of which are recorded in the Bible, that Jesus did rise; therefore they believe in both Jesus and the Scripture that He endorsed. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is Pacifism Christian?

My post from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Pacifism:

Q:  Is strict Pacifism a stance that Christians are required to take by the Bible?  If not, when is it acceptable for a Christian to use force—even lethal force—against another person?

The question of pacifism—if and when Christians may use violent resistance in defense of themselves or another has been debated throughout the history of Christianity.  On very rare occasions, small groups of Christians have claimed a case for strict pacifism:  that Christians ought not resort to force under any circumstances.  The majority of Christians throughout history, however, have maintained the propriety of the use of force by Christians in certain circumstances. 

There are very clear verses in Scripture which prohibit violent revenge, vigilantism, and rebellion against lawful government.  Beyond this, further clarity on the issue revolves around the meaning of certain passages such as Jesus’ admonitions to “Love your neighbor,” “turn the other cheek,” and that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” 

On the surface, these verses might appear to advocate that Christians passively suffer any violence and injustice brought against them, but there are others where Jesus Himself uses a whip to cleanse the temple of greedy merchants, and allows and instructs His disciples to carry swords (although on one occasion correcting Peter for his overzealous use of it).  Both Peter and John the Baptizer preside over the conversion of soldiers and centurions without instructing them to leave their vocations, which Jesus did instruct in the case of dishonest or immoral professions like prostitution and tax-collecting. 

So, if those words of Jesus demand strict pacifism, then the Bible contradicts itself.  On the other hand, when these passages are viewed within their context and when the reader takes the time to ensure he is not reading his personal biases into the text, we find that the Bible prohibits the use of force as a response to non-dangerous offenses (such as a slap on the cheek), as acts of revenge after danger has passed, or when the matter could be handled by the proper authorities.  On the other hand, it has nothing to say prohibiting the use of force in defense of oneself or others from immediate danger. 

In fact, even the strict Old Testament law excuses from punishment those who kill in defending against murder, rape, and robbery.  When ancient church fathers prohibited military service, it was because it required idolatry by worshipping and sacrificing to Caesar, not because it involved the use of force.  Later on, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and an assortment of popes all wrote affirming that Christians may be soldiers in good conscience and that not only may they use force in self-defense, but even that they have the duty to use force in the defense of their wives and children if it becomes necessary. 
The question then, is not whether one is to love one’s neighbor, but which neighbor they are to love.  Does a man who is confronted by another who seeks to harm his daughter “love” the attacker while allowing his daughter to be kidnapped, killed, or raped, or does he love his daughter precisely by the act of slaying the attacker?  Likewise, does a man love the thief who seeks to steal from him while his children starve and suffer, or does he love his children by dispatching the robber?  Does he allow himself to be beaten into disability so that his family loses their support, or does he love them by preserving through self-defense his ability to provide for them?  The same principle would apply similarly to Christian soldiers or police officers, whose authority flows from the Biblical command to obey father and mother. 

God desires that all people would live peaceably with one another.  He institutes government to punish those who would interfere with this intention, and warns Christians about the dangers of rebellion, revenge, and the offensive use of force.  But on occasions when these all break down, he authorizes the use of force in defense of self, wife, children, neighbors, or property, precisely as an act of love for those under our care and in keeping with the justice of His own character.