More on generosity

Following my post on being generous to fundamentalists and not so generous with others, I’ve had some interesting conversations about its implications. A good friend asked me whether my suggested attitude towards non-evangelicals of ‘supping with a long spoon’ meant that certain authors should not be read. Should we have a book burning in the Moore College courtyard? And would my friend be a heretic by association if, for example, he found reading Karl Barth a stimulating and a positive experience, even though he disagreed with Barth at a number of points?

Another friend had questions about the extent of ‘generosity’ towards fundamentalist brothers. For example, if someone with a high view of Scripture were to read the Bible badly and end up with a distorted gospel, should we still smile and give him a free pass?

This is the problem with having friends who are smart.

The more I think about it, the more I think the problem is the abstract and contextless nature of the discussion. I had a particular kind of person in mind as I wrote that post—the kind of person who is somewhat dazzled by the world of theological enquiry, who favours the ‘big tent’, and who finds himself bending over backwards to be gracious to the liberal and quasi-evangelical sophisticates, while looking down his nose at good evangelical brothers who differ on secondaries.

However, I freely acknowledge that a different person with different tendencies may require different advice. So just as the latte-drinking sophisticate who loves dabbling with the latest trendy theologians may need to be encouraged to re-focus on the central truths of evangelicalism, so the hide-bound Reformed dogmatician who thinks that nothing of value was written after 1559 probably needs to go and read some challenging contemporary theology to expand his mind. Likewise, I wouldn’t be recommending Barth to Bible study leaders at church (and so I wouldn’t quote him approvingly in sermons), but if someone was in third year at theological college and had never read a scrap of Barth, I might suggest that he dip his toe in.

This is the nature of nearly all ethical discernments. There is only one truth and one demand from God—that we love and obey him, and love our neighbours as ourselves. However, I do not love my neighbour in abstract and in principle, but in the form in which he presents himself to me at one o’clock in the morning, asking for help with a burst pipe. Every situation I confront requires me to look carefully at what is front of me, to discern what the Bible-shaped good is that I should seek, and then to take faithful action. The apostle Paul was no relativist, and he would have been appalled at ‘situational ethics‘, but that didn’t stop him being all things to all men that he might save some.

It reminds me of one of my favourite pairs of Proverbs. It concerns what one should do when confronted with a prating fool:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
    lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    lest he be wise in his own eyes.

(Prov 26:4-5)

So what should we do—answer the fool, or not answer the fool? It seems there is a reason and a time for both.

9 thoughts on “More on generosity

  1. Tony, a typically fair and balanced post, so naturally I have a problem with it.

    I didn’t read much Karl Barth until I did a Masters subject on it in fourth year of theological college, and then I wrote quite a lot. It was a great read; cunning, clever and sophisticated, and ultimately poisonous. It was all the more dangerous to me because I was seduced by a certain style of thinking within Barth that sidetracked me for several years, or at least, threatened to.

    Now like you I don’t have a lot of time for bone-headed fundamentalists who want to make 6 day creationism the touchstone of orthodoxy and protest outside the funerals of homosexuals. So that is also a path worth avoiding.

    But given the choice between the intellectual sophisticate who is able to tangle with words and questions and so tie up believers in clever enquiry, and the sliced-white-bread personality who keeps insisting at me that “the Bible says the world was created in 6 24 hour days”, I know who I would rather work alongside in gospel endeavour.

    Having read bits of Barth, Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin, Jurgen Moltmann and other smarty pants theological thinkers, I reckon I would suggest to the 3rd year theolog who hadn’t read this stuff—well hey, why start now? There’s no sin in knowing about these characters, sure. But by the same token, you might as well go out for a run or watch a bit of telly with your wife. The Bible college students I know personally are too busy anyway.

  2. Hi Gordo,

    Couple of questions. Did you know you would find Barth poisonous before you started reading him or only after you read him? How would you have responded to someone telling you you shouldn’t read him?

    My question more generally would be then, who creates the list of authorized and unauthorized opinions? We can’t say, “never read any of what he says but I know it’s rubbish”. That just doesn’t make sense.

    As I read the New Testament, it is the pastor/teachers who are responsible for refuting false teaching. But you can’t refute it without reading it and knowing what it says. I for one am all for people at college reading broadly. It’s the only way I know of working out truth and error. In fact, if they haven’t read any, I would say they should start now.


  3. <i>How would you have responded to someone telling you you shouldn’t read him?</i>

    Not sure, Grimmmo, but I hope it’s clear that this is not my view. All I’m suggesting is that there are plenty of other, good, worthwhile activities for Bible college students to immerse themselves in (as usual, I chose the examples I used with care).

    I would say to a third year theolog, sure, read Barth if you want to. I would be very surprised if there would be people in even well-taught congregations who had heard much about him, let alone read him. So it may be that in terms of immediate pastoral concern, John Piper, Mark Driscoll and NT Wright might be better theologians to study.

    I have a great quote about how the best theologians are often found in the pew and have read nothing but their Bibles, well and deeply. It’s from JI Packer and it’s in his classic Knowing God, but as it’s sitting there in the offices at Matthias Media and not here at home, you’re going to have to look it up yourself, buddy. wink

  4. Hi Gordo, or should I say ‘@ Gordo’, whatever that means. Maybe it’s a metaphysical statement that you’re the persona currently residing @ the bag of flesh and bones called ‘Gordo’.

    Anyway, before I start sounding like a smarty-pants theologian, 3 quick responses to your responses:

    1. With regard to reading broadly in theological college—whether that’s bad guys or quasi-bad guys or just surprisingly different guys—it now seems we don’t really disagree. You read broadly (including the opponents and quasi-opponents) to strengthen and deepen and clarify your own position, and to be equipped to deal with false teaching pastorally when you confront it.  As for whether Barth (or anyone else in particular) is on that reading list is a matter of discussion and judgement. He might be; he might not be. Depends on your situation. Personally, I’d say that reading deeply and broadly in historical theology is really valuable, because the same errors have a habit of re-appearing. 

    2. I thoroughly agree with your point about working with other people in gospel endeavour. If I had the choice of doing a joint mission with the church on my left (run by a chardonnay evangelical who seemed to spend all his time questioning evangelical theology), or the church on my right (run by a straight-shooting, checked-shirt, six-day-creation evangelical who preached an unembarrassed gospel), there’s no question which one I’d choose (the same one you’d choose).

    3. All of which is to say that I really agree with my own original point—that working out how to respond to dodgy theology and quasi-liberal authors is a matter of context. It’s the same assessment theologically of where (for example) Barth stands on various issues, but what you do with that assessment, and how you act in response to it, depends on what’s in front of you. 


  5. (Division 1 of 2)
    In response to Tony Payne and Gordon Cheng’s mention of the young earth six day creation view:

    Anyone with a motivation to uphold scriptural authority and not put ideas of scholars above scriptural authority ought to have high regard for the young earth/six day creation position, for scriptural evidence supporting this belief is not dismissed without great difficulty:

    •  When `day’ is first defined (Genesis 1:5) it is clearly bounded by evening and morning. It is real. It is not an abstract notion.

    •  Subsequent days are mentioned with numbers and the words `evening’ and `morning’. Wherever this qualification occurs in scripture the word for `day’ refers to the period of time which we experience as a 24 hour day.

    •  If in reading Genesis1, we read `day’ (yom)as `indefinite period of time’, then it logically follows that we have equal liberty in reading other words, so might read Genesis 1:1 thus:

    `in the beginning’ (bere’shith)    as   `A very long time ago’
              `created’ (bara)    as   `remoulded’
    `God’ (Elohim)    as   `lifeforce’
    `the heaven’ (hasshamayim)    as   `multiplicity of universes’

      The resulting translation: `A very long time ago the lifeforce remoulded (itself) into the multiplicity of universes’

    This translation looses:
    1. The triune God, in the word `Elohim’.
    2. Ex-nihilo creation.
    3. The basis for possibility of creation by the word.
    4. The basis for worship of the Creator.
    5. The basis for possibility of God becoming man.

    This translation introduces:
    1.  A pantheistic god.
    2.  Determinism (`All things continuing as from the beginning’).
    3.  A basis for a relativistic philosophy in the plurality of universes (and allowing belief in extraterrestrial civilization).
    4.  A basis for worship of the creation itself.
    5. A basis for necessity of man becoming god.
    This obviously blasphemous reading results from merely making a step from not accepting the plain historical reading, and instead identifying a broader concept in the text, then imposing human ideas to fill out that conceptual form. This is exactly what is going on when `day’ in Genesis 1 is read as anything other than a standard 24 hour day. 

    •  Genesis1.27 is the only instance of poetic form in chapter 1, yet being poetry it is also real history. There is no reason why the two genres cannot coexist. 

    •  Several different (Hebrew) words are used throughout scripture to mention indistinct periods of time. These are not used for the creation days.

    •  In Exodus 20:9-11 no differentiation is made between the Sabbath day and the Seventh creation day; the same word for `day’ is used for the first Sabbath and the weekly Sabbath. The basis for specific behaviour on the Sabbath is a specific event in space and time; not a broad generalisation.

    •  2 Peter 2:5 mentions an `ancient world’. Humans dwelt in this world. 2 Peter 3:6 refers again to `the world than then existed’. This indicates some difference from then to now. Details in Genesis before and after the flood agree with this, such as human ages, eating of meat and the sign of the rainbow. 2 Peter 2:5 mentions Noah’s family as a real characters of history, there is no textual evidence in the account of Noah indicating that it is to be read as anything but real history.

    •  People have been on earth since the very beginning. In Mark 10:6, Luke 11:50-51 and Romans 1:20, the phrases “the beginning of creation”, “the foundation of the world” and “the creation of the world” are used in reference to human activity.

    •  Luke 11:50-51 associates Abel with the “foundation of the world”. This indicates that the genealogies go back to a point in time which was in near proximity to the creation events. 

    •  The genealogies of Luke 3 and Genesis 5 both list Adam as the first real person in history who was made by God, without human father. The literal history of the first man through whom sin and consequent death came to all, is essential to the work of Christ (Romans 5:12-20). If this history is abandoned, the connection from sin to death is severed, as death and suffering would have been before sin. As such the physical creation would have injustice designed into it.

    •  Some will say that Genesis is not concerned with `how’ but rather `why’ the earth was made and `who’ made it. This view might seem to be supported by Romans 1:18-32 which sets out that a denial of knowledge of God’s invisible qualities leads to a perversion of behaviour. However 2 Peter 3:5 uses the same line of reasoning as Romans 1:18-23, yet also gives us the `how’ of creation (out of water and through water by the word of God, Genesis 1:9)

  6. (Division 2 of 2)

    •    2 Peter3: 3-13 warns against forgetting how the earth was made and forgetting that the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished (Genesis 6:17). 2 Peter 3:5 and 6 can only carry meaning in reference to specific historical events, in the same way we can only say that 2 Peter 3:7 is speaking of a real event in time and space, and we can only claim that there is a real threat from real scoffers if Genesis1:9 is also real history in time and space.

    •  In reference to real physical elements, 2 Peter 3:10 tells us `how’ the Lord will return. Clearly if we want to hold to a consistent doctrine of Christ’s return we must also hold to a doctrine of creation which in no way disregards how creation happened.

    •  There is a significant connection between the elements of creation and the authority of the word of God in salvation (Water: 2 Peter 3, John 3:5. Light: John 1:1-10).  This is brought out clearly in 1Peter 3:18-21. We are baptized into Christ’s death. The significance of baptism originates in the global flood which reversed the creation event of Genesis 1:9 and brought death. (It is not the water that saves, but the baptism, i.e. the death of self in Christ, and rising anew in Christ). 

    •  Genesis 2.4 includes direct evidence that we are to read the creation account as history in the word `tholedhoth’. This word can be correctly translated as `history’. Genesis 37:2 uses the same word and in backward reference to Jacobs life, not forward to that of Joseph. Since Genesis 2.4 mentions the big picture of heaven and earth, it is also best understood as a backward reference to Genesis 1. In contrast Genesis 2 moves into details about the world and does not give details about the heaven. 

    YHWH has told us how to read this text; as history! The nature of history is that there is only one true reality. To the young/earth creationist, the creation account is an historical account. So any other reading cannot be true and must be placing the human authority over the word of God.

    A fair conclusion in light of such evidence, is that rejection of the young earth/six day creation view is a rejection of scriptural authority in this area. And that rejecting the `how’ of creation leaves a person in peril of listening to the scoffers message “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). By forgetting the `how’ of creation they end up rejecting the word of God and so reject the God of creation, even though these scoffers are not necessarily atheists. 

    When rightly defended from scripture, the young earth/six day creation view fully agrees with the evangelical goal to “refute any view that diminishes the Bible’s authority, such as those who place the bible under the authority of church or scholarship” (the BRIEFING, Issue 367, p 14) Hence the burden of proof lies with those who wish to be `evangelical’ and not hold to a young/earth creationist view, as to how they could be consistent in upholding biblical authority in this area, and as to why they are not actually compromising the theology of creation with uniformitarian philosophies.

    Here are some questions which a young earth/six day creationist evangelical would need thoroughly answered by a non-young earth/six day creation evangelical to ensure scriptural authority was not being undermined and that neither person was guilty of “boneheaded” thinking:

    1. What scriptural evidence do you see that is so clear and compelling as to necessitate rejection of the young earth/six day creation view?

    2. How does this evidence prove that scriptural authority is disregarded by young earth/six day creation position, or at least that it is an example of reading the bible badly?

    3. How are passages which provide immediate support to the young earth/six day creation to be understood in consideration of evidence against the young earth position, without diminishing scriptural authority in any way?

    4. How can a non-young earth/six day creation view account for death, pain and suffering without integrating it with original design (and so implicate the Creator)?

    5. How can the non-young earth/six day creation view honestly dismiss the abundance of extra-biblical historical evidence and scientific discovery which completely accords with a young earth/six day creation view?

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