Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Is God Too Big for One Religion? A Response.

Years ago I learned two principles which I have never forgotten. First, ideas have consequences. I first understood this as I read Richard Weaver's book by the same title. In brief, his motive was an attempted prescription for the perceived decline of western civilization. A second principle, like the first, is that often times actions (and ideas) have unintended consequences. In fact, some label this the law of unintended consequences. At times, in pursuit of one objective, a result is attained that is both unexpected and counter-productive.

These two principles jumped into my mind when I read Joe Phelps' essay, "God too big for one religion," published by the Associated Baptist Press (Phelps is the pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, KY which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).

The essay begins with Phelps' personal story of a grade-school friend, Mindy, who was Jewish. By his description she was a wonderful person. He then relates his personal dilemma because he had been taught that without Jesus, all people, including Mindy, were lost.

This dilemma was rectified, he relates, when "a quiet voice rose in my heart that responded: 'Mindy is my child and I love her as much as I do you. Let me worry about Mindy.'" He then goes on to affirm his own conviction that "exclusivity" is a bad thing. He explains, "when one approaches faith with a presupposition of exclusion it is easy to find passages to justify this position." He goes on to argue that "the heart of God is inclusive and gracious." His conclusion is that "we (practitioners of all faiths) are all on the same team. Our understandings of God may differ, but ultimately, there is one Sacred Center toward which all faiths move when practiced in humility and reverence." He closes by quoting Michael Franti's "God is too big for just one religion."

So, how do you respond to an argument like this?

His "idea" is based on his boyhood feeling, "a quiet voice...in his heart." The idea, simply put, is his belief that all who practice some kind of faith are acceptable to God. How does he know? He had a feeling. Here, his emotion has displaced Scripture as the norm of what is to be believed.

By what he says and does not say, Phelps is arguing that Christianity is one valid religion among many valid religions. Of more critical importance is his refusal to believe that Jesus is the exclusive way to Heaven. If what Phelps believes is what he says, Jesus is optional.

So what are the consequences of his ideas? If people are lost without a Savior, and that is the unequivocal message of the Bible, then he in his "I am OK, you are OK" argument, gives his readers and listeners assurance of a salvation without a Savior. And if a person actually believes that they are "good enough," or that "all religious roads lead to Heaven," then they need not turn to Christ which is in effect what he was communicating concerning his friend, Mindy.

The unintended consequence, in his attempt to make Mindy feel safe, is that he has unintentionally locked her into her lostness. I only wish he had embraced the prayer of Paul, "my heart's desire and prayer to God for them (including Mindy) is that they might be saved" (Rom. 10:1).

Flannery O'Conner, the great American writer, stated, "the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." For Phelps, it certainly appears that truth for him is optional, if truth is indeed to be measured by Scripture.

Pastor Phelps has the right to believe whatever he wants. He does not have the right to parade it as orthodox Christianity. Neither does it give him the right to give people without Christ an assurance of Heaven. I wish a quiet voice would rise up in his heart and say," this is one you need to reconsider."

Saturday, May 4, 2013

In Honor of Great Men: A Reflection on the Legacy of Leon McBeth

During my academic training, I had the privilege of studying under three great church historians, William Estep, Leon McBeth, and Tom Nettles. Each was outstanding in their fields of expertise. I had the honor of studying under the best scholars in America at the time. Dr. Estep passed away in 2000. Today is the funeral service honoring the life of Dr. Leon McBeth who passed away this past Monday, April 29, 2013.

   Although Dr. McBeth and I had different presuppositions, I had a profound appreciation for his learning and ability. These are some things I learned from him.

   My first memory was in his Introduction to Church History class. He had the ability to make the subject matter come alive. As he walked us through the Patristic period, I recall his assignment to go to the library and read so many pages from the Early Church Fathers which I did. His assignment's intention was to expose us to the primary sources. From this beginning I gained an incredible appreciation for the history of the church. Listening to him lecture was like getting a guided tour through the annals of Christian history. I never got over this guided tour.

  During my PhD work, I took Dr. McBeth (he preferred to be called Professor McBeth) for three year-long seminars: American Christianity, Baptist History, and Research and Teaching.

   One thing I noticed about Dr. McBeth was that he read with incredible speed and almost perfect comprehension. The summer before we started the American Christianity seminar, he had us read ahead of time, Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People as preparation for his seminar. He taught us to read much. 
   When it came to researching, he required us to be meticulous in our documentation. He taught us as we prepared our notes to write on only one side of a sheet of paper. To violate this was to misplace valuable information. He was tremendously well organized. When he prepared a manuscript, he literally had shoeboxes of notecards in order of source citations from start to finish. He demanded that we do our research well before we ever began to write. I have tried to live by that.

   I recall a discussion we had one day when he pointed out that in our research papers each student had selected a subject that carried self-interest. In fact, he taught us to write about subjects that we cared about. Do not waste your time writing on matters that you do not care about seemed to be his motto. That was good advice. Write in your area of passion. His, particularly, was Baptist history and he conveyed that love to us who studied under him.

  I do remember that he cared about his students as individuals. His attitude was not that he taught history, but that he taught his students about church history. His passion was that we would cherish the heritage that we had been given and bequeath it to others.

  When a student said or wrote something which he knew to be inaccurate, instead of belittling the student, he would ask questions that would lead the student to clarify his thinking. I always appreciated his tact and this approach to teaching.  I have tried to model that as best I can in the classroom.

  The last time I talked with Dr. McBeth was a chance encounter at the campus bookstore at Southwestern years ago. As a Baptist academician he was conflicted over the conservative resurgence. He knew that it was necessary especially at addressing the unchecked extremes. But it left a bitter taste in his mouth. As a Baptist historian he was witnessing the passing of an old order and it was an incredibly difficult adjustment. One of life's most difficult lessons is coming to grips with the reality that life goes on, and sometimes it is without us.

  Romans 13:7 instructs believers to "give honor to whom honor is due." Professor McBeth was a man to whom honor is due. He was a great professor, a great researcher, a great writer, and a great role model for aspiring academicians. May he rest in peace!