Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Intolerance of the "New Tolerance"

On the surface, the term "tolerance" seems to suggest a healthy dose of placidity. Most who hear it immediately think of a certain broad-mindedness, forebearance, and some would even go so far as to see this term as synonymous with benevolence and compassion. But for John Moeller, an evangelical follower of Jesus and chaplain for the Washington Nationals baseball franchise, the word "tolerance" is associated with a mor ominous concept: termination.

Last month, the the new D.C. based team suspended the volunteer chaplain, who is also employed as an FBI agent. Moeller was working under the auspices of Baseball Chapel, an evangelical group that provides unpaid Christian ministers to be available for spiritual guidance to professional baseball players. During the course of his service he found himself talking with outfielder Ryan Church about an ex-girlfriend who follows a religious faith that does not profess Jesus as Savior and Lord. Speaking of all non-Christians, Church wanted to know the truth...what did the Bible say happens to such people? "Are they doomed," he asked? His chaplain, backed by Scriptural teaching, merely gave an affirming nod.

A subsequent Washington Post article citing the above incident via an interview with Church was cause enough, in the mind of team president Tony Tavares, to suspend Moeller indefinitely and force an apology from his outfielder. It was a complaint by Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, leader of an Orthodox Jewish congregation in the nation's capital, that resulted in this action. Urging the Nationals to distance themselves from the chaplain, Rabbi Hertzfeld, in vitriolic fashion, charged that "the locker room of the Nationals is being used to preach hatred." Welcome to the "new tolerance"

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was actually an "old" tolerance. In this by-gone age, the term "tolerance" was understood to be the concept that kept adherents of competing faiths from seeking to harm each other, and it fostered mutual respect for each one's right to believe, preach, and worship as one chose. The American ideal that undergirded this old tolerance was the understanding that "forced conversion," in the end, was no conversion at all. Bible-believing Christians both accept and embrace such a view of tolerance. American soldiers have shed blood on battlefields all over the world to ensure that the Muslim has the right to be a Muslim, a Jew has a right to be a Jew, a Hindu has a right to be a Hindu, and a Christian a right to be a Christian. Belief in this kind of tolerance does not neccesitate believing that each of these respective faiths has equal validity. It simply requires believing in the free moral agency of human beings, and respecting the choices they make by ensuring that they can worship as they choose, free of persecution or aggression.

But this older understanding has been trumped by a new notion that no religious expression or idea should ever claim superiority over another. Not only should one respect his neighbors "right to be wrong" with regard to religious faith, but the very idea that one's neighbor could be wrong is seen as "intolerant," arrogant, and even dangerous! The end result of this kind of thinking is not good for followers of Jesus. Those who insist on believing and proclaiming an exclusive Jesus will discover quickly that the new tolerance isn't so tolerant after all!

Tim Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, is quick to point out that this new tolerance is in itself an incipient form of exclusivism that in the end is more intolerant than the Christian faith it seeks to discredit. Keller states that the common objection to the exclusivity of Jesus is that no one should insist that their "god" is any better than any other "god" because all religions are equally valid. Keller responds by stating that those who make such naive assumptions are "assuming a very particular view of God and you are pushing it as better than the rest . . .To say 'all religions are equally valid' is itself a very white, Western view based in the European Enlightenment's idea of knowlege and values. Why should that view be privileged over anyone else's?" Hmmmm, I bet Tony Tavares hasn't thought about that one!

Add to this that if the new tolerance is truly going to have room enough for Christ-followers, it must refuse to silence the voices of exclusivity. Commenting on Moeller's firing, Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, saliently observed that "the worst this chaplian could be convicted of is ascribing to orthodox Christian faith, which is what I think you would want from a Christian chaplain." Regrettably, not all denominational leaders feel this way. Christopher Leighton, a Presbyterian minister who heads Baltimore Maryland's Institute for Christian and Jewish studies, says that although one must admit that the dominant tradition of Christianity was marked by exclusivity, many churches "have moved toward the view that God has a 'continuing covenant' with the Jews. . .this [denouncing the chaplain] is the work that really belonged to other Christians, to say this is an unacceptable understanding of our faith."

So, to say that those who die outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ spend eternity separated from God is now an "unacceptable understanding" of our faith?! Such a suggestion means that Jesus demonstrated a colossal ignorance of the faith He Himself founded! And what of the Apostle Paul, who in Acts 13 after being rejected in the synagogue said to his Jewish brothers "Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold we are turning to the Gentiles." (13:46 ESV) So Paul taught that if you reject Jesus, you don't have eternal life, even if you are a Jew worshipping in a synagogue? If he had only heeded the wisdom of Christopher Leighton! Had he only understood that such teaching was "unacceptable."

Contrary to what Leighton and others like Rabbi Hurtzfeld I'm sure would contend, such belief rightly applied does not lead to "hatred." As an Evangelical, I understand the Hebraic roots of my faith. I would not have a Savior were it not for the descendants of Abraham! At the same time, my Bible teaches me that they who literally delivered my Messiah into the world themselves have no Messiah. And it is love, not hate, that compels me to tell them about Him, and to pray for the hastening of the mass-conversion of Jewish people that I believe the Bible predicts will come at the end of the age!

Not long ago, someone asked me "do you believe that because I'm ______ (the particular faith doesn' t matter) that I am doomed to an eternity of God's wrath?" But in the end, it really is irrelevant what I think about this individual, or what he thinks about me. The crucial issue is whether our respective beliefs are consistent with the revealed truth of God. So to those of you reading who would be tempted to accuse me of "intolerance" or a "judgemental attitude," let me lay your minds to rest by reminding you that ultimately, it isn't up to me who gets into heaven. But if we want to get there, and if we want to take others with us, we had better jettison this nonsensical notion of "tolerance" and pay close attention to the One who does decide such things!

John Hick, an avowed "pluralist," actually frames this debate properly. In his essay on salvation in a pluralistic world, he describes his own pilgrammage from exclusivism to pluralism. This road, he claims, had many stops in which key Christian doctrines, from the inerrancy of the Bible to the virgin birth to the atonement to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, were systematically rejected. Hick openly admits that in order to arrive at a view consistent with the "new tolerance," you must effectively gut the Apostolic witness of all its major pillars. On the other hand, Hick to this day continues to admit the following:

"For if Jesus was literally God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, so that the Christian religion was founded by a God-on-earth person, it is then very hard to escape from the fact that all mankind must be converted to the Christian faith."

This was a conclusion that, thankfully, John Moeller could not escape. And for that matter, neither can I!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

From Stare Decisis to Sola Scriptura: How to Implement Belief in Textual Authority

For newly installed Chief Justice John G. Roberts, liberal concern in the Senate centered around his views on abortion and the right to privacy. Conservative concerns about newest Bush nominee Harriet Miers involve the opposite side of those same issues, among others. But what both groups fail to realize is this: If both new justices execute their respective offices within consitutional parameters, their personal views are irrelevant. What really matters is the authorial intent of the constitution itself. Similarly, Evangelical Christians who desire to avoid similar internal power struggles must put into practice what we have long professed in our confessions: That the heart of the matter is the authorial intent of the Bible, not the most popular understanding at the time.

But this view presupposes a particular view of texts like the Bible and the constitution: namely, that the authority lies within the text itself, not with the interpreters of the text! Unfortunately, the postmodern hermaneutical shift from "text" to "interpretation" has turned this view on its head, and even worse, the scope of this shift in our culture is not limited to politics. From the Constitution to the Bible, it has found its way into the interprative views of even the most conservative churches! And the consequences of such ideology are always the jettisoning of any real final authority and the subsequent advent of raw power struggles. Such a move tenders terrible results in a nation, and even more devastating consequences in God's church!

As little as five years ago (think the 2000 election), the dichotomy between the belief in "textual authority" vs. belief in "interpretive authority" was seen in much clearer contrast. One presidential candidate promised to appoint judges whose judicial philosophy was "strict constructionism." This school of thought believes that the final legal authority of the United States is vested in the text of the constitution itself (what a novel idea!) and therefore the judicial role is to arrive at a correct interpretation by seeking out the original intent of the document as expressed by the authors. This view was contrasted with Al Gore's vision of the constitution as a "living, breathing document," meaning that in the end, the actual words of the text mean nothing until meaning is injected into them by the Supreme Court, therefore giving carte blanche judicial authority to the justices who interpret the text, rather than the text itself. The result of this philosophy is expressed in the popular phrase "legislating from the bench." The constructionist view believed that a change in the constitution was the responsibility of the legislative branch. The latter view argued that change can come from the declaration of a majority of nine justices without the consent of the people for whom the constitution was written. As Justice Antonin Scalia eloquently stated at a Chapman University address early this fall, "Now the Senate is looking for moderate judges, mainstream judges. What in the world is a "moderate" interpretation of a constitutional text? Halfway between what it says and what we'd like it to say?" In short, the argument five years ago was over whether the final authority belonged to text, or interpreter.

Since the 2000 election, these two interpretive understandings have, regrettably, become less clear, as both conservatives and liberals simply struggle for control of what has become recognized as possibly the least accountable branch of our government. Liberals want justices who will rule in favor of the sound constitutionality of homosexual marriage, despite the fact that the constitution as written guarantees no such right. They also want justices to continue to pretend that the right of a mother to murder her unborn child is somehow protected in the Bill of Rights. Likewise, conservatives want justices who will take the Bill of Rights seriously . . . . that is, until our safety is on the line, in which case, they want conservative justices to bend those rights via their approval of the Patriot Act, forgetting Benjamin Franklin's warning that "those who desire safety more than freedom deserve neither safety nor freedom." And the end result of this struggle is, well, more struggle! Our divided nation is now seeing the results of "interpretive authority." If the text's authority is subservient to those who interpret it, then the final authority is never determined by actual law, but rather, by who has the most power! Where there is a vaccum of textual authority, that vaccum will be filled by a raw struggle for power!

But this political dynamic has a parallel in church life. For years, even in "conservative" churches, Bible studies have been held which centered around the question "What does this text mean to you?" Subconsciously, Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptists in particular have usurped the authority of the Scriptural text with the artificially imposed authority of the interpreter. The result, regrettably, is that the "correct" interpretation is now recognized as that held by the most powerful, or the most charismatic, rather than which most accurately represents the authorial intent of the text. At the denominational level, I think it is safe to say that recent denominational debates over Calvinism, Ecclesiology, Evangelism, Worship, Eschatology, and even the newest debate over the consumption of beverage alcohol have been guided less by the appeal to Scriptural authority and more by the wielding of denominational power and charismatic personality. And what makes this observation even more saddening is that this kind of "power struggle" comes on the heels of the "conservative resurgence" that was intended to take us "back to the Bible" for everything.

That battle, by the way, was absolutely neccesary as far as I am concerned! Prior to conservative efforts toward a "sharp right turn," Southern Baptists were headed for a fate much like that which other mainline denominations are now seeing in their own ranks. Our reticence years ago to speak directly from the Scriptural text to address issues like abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family issues, and the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ sent an "unclear sound" to the culture God had called us to reach. For those who desired clarity and conviction, the "inerrancy" banner provided a theological framework wherein we could preach and teach with the conviction that the words upon which we expounded were those of God Himself! My mentors in ministry taught me that Biblical inerrancy, in the end, meant that when I opened up my Bible to address God's people, I could do so with absolute confidence that God had spoken. For me (and I suspect, for many other Southern Baptists) inerrancy was not a political term used to gain control of the SBC "machine." It was, and is, a theological term which forms the basis, not only for what I believe, but for how I interpret the text in which I place my belief. Unfortunately, this term has been used politically, and may still be used in this way to accomplish political denominational ends. In the end, inerrancy (along with its hermaneutical cousin, the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation) was intended to point readers back to the text as the final authority (can you say "strict constructionism"?). Yet what has resulted is much akin to the above-described Supreme Court fiasco, and a subsequent struggle for power.

In his September 26 weblog, Tom Ascol notes that when SBC leadership draft policies, resolutions, or statements, there is an unspoken expectation that anyone who is "conservative" will be "lock-in-step" behind such actions. And if anyone questions or expresses doubt, the response is not to look to the text of Scripture, but rather to paint someone as less than conservative, or to suggest that any objectors do not "trust" SBC leadership, or that objectors are being "arrogant" in their principled opposition to a given policy. Says Ascol, "Now that conservatives are in charge, the theological commitments have changed, but the method of operating seems interchangeable with the previous regime. "

Ascol speaks here from experience. I remember vividly his objection to a change in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which dealt with the SBC view of Sunday. Was it the Lord's Day, or was it to be observed as the "Christian Sabbath?" Ascol's view was closer to the latter, and as a result, he objected to the proposed change in the statement which moved Southern Baptists confessionally toward a "Lord's Day" view of Sunday. I on the other hand, agreed in principal with the SBC decision on the view of Sunday, yet still recognized and respected Ascol's view, as well as his right to object. But some denominational leadership apparently did not take his criticism well. Ascol credits such offense to bureaucratic arrogance, in which any objection "is met with an almost incredulous disappointment that the actions of 'conservatives' would be questioned at all. 'We are inerrantists! You can trust us. We have 'Empowering Kingdom Growth.' We are good guys. Why are you questioning us?'"

The issue at hand then, is how to get past the Bureaucracy so that the practical outcome of Biblical inerrancy can be realized. It isn't conservative theology that stifles wholesome debate and honest and open dissagreement and dialogue. Rather, it is denominational bureaucracy that is neither liberal nor conservative, but simply seeks to retain power. But as Timothy George has saliently observed, "The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another doth not a reformation make."

So then, if the above suspicions are true, how will such stifling bureaucracy be overcome? And the answer lies in the worthy, two-decade long battle that conservatives fought and won. When moderates controlled the SBC, the Bible was still inerrant. Conservative political victory did not make the Bible inerrant, but simply brought our denomination into conformity with the metaphysical reality of such a doctrine. Ultimately, the resurgence was about asserting what was already reality: that the final authority in all matters of faith and practice is indeed the Word of God. And that fact doesn't change, regardless of who is in power!

Speaking at a recent forum at American University, Justice Scalia suggested the following: "I think it is up to the judge to say what the Constitution provided, even if what it provided is not the best answer, even if you think it should be ammended. If that's what it says, that's what it says." Following his advice here results in the end of the struggle for power, and the beginning of a common dedication toward discovering the intended meaning of the Constitutional text. Similarly, the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, when "fleshed out," leads to the same conclusion. The meaning of the Bible is not dependent on what the most charismatic or powerful SBC leader has to say about it, but rather what the text actually says, whether or not we are comfortable with it. This is not to say that there won't be honest disagreements about whether good Southern Baptists can drink socially, or whether the rapture occurs prior to or subsequent to the tribulation. It does however, mean that such honest dissagreements can be discussed as both sides humbly submit to the text of God's Word rather than one side seeking to seize power over the other. When this happens, we will have realized the practical outcome of Inerrancy: My personal opinions are irrelevant, as are those of every other pastor, missionary and theologian in Southern Baptist life. What really matters is the authorial intent of the text.

The bottom-line question that must be asked: Was the "conservative resurgence" really about the Bible, or was it merely about power? At present, I refuse to believe the latter, and pray that the future direction of the SBC will prove me right!