Theological Malpractice

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While Bible study, reading books and listening to videos of other great apologists is a good place to learn about apologetics, sometimes hitting the streets is a better way to learn about it through encounters with real people and their ideas. One of the great advantages of being out on the street is that you get to hear the more outlandish arguments and ideas held to by people. My recent trip out for First Fridays allowed me the encounter with a strange combination of theological assertions proposed by an individual. It was a blessing to be able to use the Greek text in my cell phone as well as the Hebrew text to confront him with the Scriptures in their original language and expose some of the fallacies he was expounding.

He made the assertion that since the phrase “tree of life” was used in Genesis and Revelation, Genesis was purely apocalyptic and not a literal historical account of the creation. This rather strange and foolish argument is predicated on certain false understandings related to the Scripture. Because the phrase is used in two different books under two different circumstances does not necessarily mean that the phrase means exactly the same thing both times. This is an important rule of thumb because the passages immediate context has a great deal of bearing on what a phrase means. The second foolish assertion that the gentleman had was that the genre of apocalyptic writing precludes anything within that writing from being actual fact and that all references within the writing must be symbolic. It is not necessarily true that everything in a piece of apocalyptic literature is not actual. Third, just because someone has done a little theological research or has a knowledge of the original languages that consists only of being able to read a few articles on a few words and try to make whole cases out of them makes an argument correct. It is always good to use commentaries and lexicons but oversimplification was at the heart of the fallacy of this gentleman’s reasoning.

Let’s discuss some counters to this gentleman’s rather outlandish way of looking at Genesis. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are Hebrew narrative this is indicated by the formal grammar of the passage. An analysis of the genre based on grammar is terribly important. There is a feature often translated “and” based on a Hebrew prefix which is indicative of Hebrew historical narrative and this specific feature appears throughout Genesis chapters one through eleven. The testimony of the Pentateuch itself we see Moses talking in chapters one through eleven. Since the testimony of the rest of the Pentateuch considers the creation story literal it cannot be regarded as apocalyptic because immediately surrounding this specific section of the Scriptures testimony is given that it is not to be treated as apocalyptic.

The gentleman’s counter accusation is while I understood Hebrew and Greek; I was guilty of putting a North American church gloss on my understanding of the Scriptures. As a Jewish person who came to faith through the Hebrew Scriptures, this charge was utterly ridiculous and was not even a good example of an ad hominem argument. Finally, in a fit of temper, he started stating that if God rested on the 7th day my God was a weak God. However, Jesus believed that God rested on the 7th day and took the creation story literally. Furthermore, the fact that God rested does not indicate that his ceasing from creating new things was related to any sort of physical tiredness at all but rather a voluntary choice. The voluntary choice of ceasing to create does not indicate any sort of weakness on God’s part at all but a choice the sovereign God made.

In short, this gentleman is an example of so much of what I see on the streets and in our society. I call it soundbite theology or individuals piece together parts of Scripture to create their own theology without regard to the proper method of interpretation and sound scholarship. Part of this ridiculousness is due to postmodern thinking that language and grammar are not grounded in objective truth. Our age also demonstrates a certain disdain for logic and scholarship which certainly will result in people being led to ridiculous positions and absurd theology. The Internet can teach us much, but we cannot piece together various Internet videos alone without a framework and decide that we are an expert in that field. The background is important, so is disciplined study and it behooves us to take the time to study the Scriptures and make ourselves accountable to sound individuals who may point out our missteps.

The Necessity of Listening in Evangelism

I have a unique privilege to spend time out and about witnessing to people in public venues. While I want to be careful with my words, I think it is important for us who would be apprentices of Jesus to deal with certain topics in balance. I recently had a blessed time doing outreach at a home game for the Arizona baseball team known as the Diamondbacks. I want to be perfectly clear that I enjoy very much working with some of the dear brothers and sisters who go out to share the good news of Messiah and believe them to be good and faithful warriors for God’s kingdom on the whole. I am not certain whether reformed theology and Calvinism are responsible for some of the things I see when we are out there. I see a tendency to feel that simply stridently and rudely ignoring the objections and opinions of those to whom they are witnessing is a complete, effective, and loving proclamation of the gospel. In other words, that winning the argument and bringing someone to faith involves riding roughshod over their concerns and objections related to the truth of the gospel being shared. I contend that this is neither biblical nor wise.

One of my favorite apologists, Ravi Zacharias, has often observed that the Christian apologist is to conduct oneself as a lady or gentleman. Often the very people who will ignore the opinions of others and not address them in a kind way are the very ones who proclaim on a street corner how much they love the individuals they’re trying to reach. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love is kind, so unkindness by its very nature is not love. Ignoring and not allowing people to tell their story and give their objections (to a limited level) diminishes their dignity and dishonors their creator.

Let’s demonstrate this from the word of God:

“Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands (Acts 17:22–24, NKJV).’”

First, Paul the Jew, who has an absolute natural hatred for idolatry, complements these men by stating that they are very religious. He does not state that the reason for their objects of worship is their total depravity. Second, while he makes use of the truth of the Word, he does not proof text them with a whole bunch of verses. In fact, he does not directly use Scripture at all. Third, he relates the altar to “the unknown god” to the one true God and states that their problem is ignorance, not a willful, knowledgeable rejection of God.

The apostle Paul is careful to distinguish between a deliberate, conscious, knowledgeable rejection of Jesus and an ignorant or unconscious rejection of God. He bears witness that his own kinsmen have a zeal for the one true God but are darkened in their understanding of him, having rejected the method of righteousness which God has prescribed. Concerning the Jews, he says, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:1–2, NKJVK).” He does not believe for one moment that they are consciously and deliberately attempting not to worship the God of the universe. Nor does he assume that they cannot respond to some knowledge of God on some level.

We do not know people’s reason for rejecting Jesus if we do not give them the opportunity to explain their story and tell us their reasons, then we are not giving God a chance to get around their roadblocks. It is the height of unloving behavior to assume things about a person without seeking to lovingly communicate with that person. Yes, human beings do resist God. However, this in no way means that all human beings resist everything about God to the same extent in the same way, or that they cannot respond to what they know about God on some limited and non-saving level. Furthermore, God uses the responses of unsaved people, though in themselves non-saving, as part of His Providence to lead them to His Son.

We must be careful to balance the truth of man’s sinfulness with the equal truth of them being made in the image of God and thus having an ability to respond, however ineffectually, to the overtures of God. We must also acknowledge that God uses these imperfect responses as part of His plan in saving an individual. We must conduct ourselves in a way that is respectful and loving, not simply by stating we love people but by listening to their hearts and looking for the way God wants to reach them as we preach the gospel in outreach.

“My little children let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18, NKJV).”


The Apologetics cycle

I had the opportunity this week to present the idea of an apologetics training and outreach group to my adult Sunday school class. In preparing to do so and while presenting the idea to them, some interesting cognitive dissonances were brought to the forefront of my consciousness. Many in the class agreed that the training would be good but far less were willing to commit themselves to go out and interact with people about spiritual things. I heard that they already do that regularly in their lives, and while I was happy to hear that and am grateful for every opportunity they get to share the gospel, I also heard some things that disturbed me slightly. I heard that we shouldn’t dispute with people. Well, I agree with that statement, but do believe we should strongly reason with people.

Now, how is strongly reasoning different than disputing? I’m not sure that everybody in the room understood the difference between the two. I think Christians often have a desire to avoid uncomfortable situations and manage to do so by simply saying they “got training that said we shouldn’t really argue.” However, one can honestly disagree and present one’s case strongly without necessarily engaging in disputing. This exchange of ideas is called conversation. You had better be sure that Muslims have no trouble getting in people’s faces and encouraging them to embrace Islam, particularly in countries with a high Islamic population. Yet, the average North American Christian does not want to face opposition to his or her presentation of the gospel and will back away from confrontation thinking that they are following Jesus’s directions to wipe the dust off their feet when they leave the conversation. I contend that Jesus did not intend for us to be so milquetoast.

What struck me like a Mack Truck was the total disconnect between the need for training and the need to go out and use that training. In other words, folks say, “I think the training would be great, but don’t ask me to go out and use it.” I was struck by the disconnect in what I would call the apologetic circle, which I will present with a little diagram:

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Training is the beginning of the cycle but is not the end of our activity. The next step is often neglected. Many of the comments I heard indicated that because people engaged in life evangelism and friendship evangelism, they had met their quota. Now, it’s true that not everyone is called to go out and do street outreach and that people who are living their lives and raising their families do have limited time. But it doesn’t mean that regular, intentional opportunities shouldn’t be offered, and that individuals from all walks of life should not participate in those activities in engagement with the local church. Intentional opportunities lead to actual encounters with human beings who may not necessarily interact with Christians under any other circumstances.

When it comes to spiritual interactions, many North American Christians will opt out at the first sign of objections without considering the reason the Lord allows them to experience those objections. Often, the Lord allows objections as an opportunity for the believer to sharpen his or her knowledge of what they believe and why. After learning those answers, they are then able to use them in further encounters for the kingdom’s sake. Of course, the objections will come. Every unbeliever alive has an objection to Christ. Every believer needs be able to give some preliminary answers to the best of his or her ability which allows the believer to articulate what they understand and to uncover what they don’t yet understand and therefore must learn. The cycle repeats itself as the believer gets further training to better handle future encounters. This ongoing cycle with training and opportunity also gives more experienced apologists a chance to sharpen their skills as they help train less experienced believers and allows them to be used in the body of Christ in an ongoing way, either in the resources they create or in the direct training of believers. Please consider where you fit in the cycle of evangelism and apologetics.