Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Snap: Charles Roesel's "It's A God Thing"

It’s a God Thing is not, strictly speaking, an apologetics book. But I want to highlight it because it mirrors an important point I’ve been making for a while. Before we begin, though, some disclosure.

Charles Roesel, the author, is the father of my local ministry partner, Carey Roesel. He is also pastor emeritus of First Baptist Leesburg (FL), a prominent church in the mostly rural county to my west.  But I’d write this review as I do even if none of that were true. I’ve said a few times that if the church as a whole were doing its job, we wouldn’t need things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. FBC-L under Pastor Roesel was (and still is, under the new pastor) one of the few churches I know of that is actually fulfilling its mission properly. It’s a God Thing is a sort of manifesto for “ministry evangelism,” which is the phrase Roesel uses to describe the mission.

How is that mission fulfilled? At FBC-L it is fulfilled with a wide variety of ministries associated with the church. You’ll find everything there from a ministry for homeless men to counseling to a thrift store to services at nursing homes. The campus of FBC-L is filled with buildings dedicated to ministry. One of these is a local motel that was purchased to house the homeless.

In an age when so many of our churches are engaged in frivolous pursuits like building swimming pools, this is a refreshing difference. Roesel knows that the Gospel comes with responsibilities. Like me, and like Carey, Charles Roesel sees that the church is losing members, and he knows why: We’re not doing our job. To answer the obvious question: Yes, he also thinks we need more in the way of apologetics as a ministry, too, though in the book this would be under the rubric of discipleship and education (as I agree it should be). He and I have talked in person, of course, so I know how he feels about it.

At about 84 pages, this book is an easy read which you can pick up to give you an idea how those responsibilities can be fulfilled. I wish there were more pastors like Charles Roesel around – even though if there were too many, I’d be out of a job!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A. W. Tozer's Devotional Dozers

From the March 2011 E-Block.
I have little enough to say about A. W. Tozer, reputedly a self-taught Bible teacher who has become a beloved devotional author. I checked out these three titles:

Man: The Dwelling Place of God [MDP]

Root of the Righteous [RR]

The Pursuit of God [PG]

The mystery for me remains why authors like Tozer become popular, though I use the word “mystery” facetiously. Tozer, like Spurgeon in our last entry, is spiritual comfort food, but where Spurgeon was macaroni and cheese, Tozer is a cup of hot (but thin) soup that can put you to sleep if you’re not careful. I have no reports of Tozer misusing Scripture – because in these books he only rarely quoted it, and never performed anything that remotely resembled an exegesis. 

Instead, Tozer is simply one devotional exhortation after another – in which Scripture may make an allusive appearance, if anything at all.

There is to be sure much good in Tozer. Among the more heartening emphases I found:
  • A sad but strong denunciation of the use of entertainment to fill churches.
  • A stress on obedience and devotion.
  • An excellent exposition on prayer as something done for the same of communication, not to ask for stuff. At one point, the image is used of Christ as “Aladdin’s Lamp” (as seen by those who think prayer is for the latter purpose).
  • An early (and very accurate) assessment of deficiencies in “no lordship” salvation.
  • A discussion of the need to follow up evangelism with discipleship.
  • Calls for better discrimination.
  • Indications of discipleship as work (eg, “there is no short cut to sanctity”) and not merely fun.
These are all well and good. But there were also a number of disturbing elements. In these, I perceive Tozer to have been innocent of wrongdoing, but it is disheartening to think that his devotional readers will take the following to heart:

  • “I believe that we find the Bible difficult because we try to read it as we would any other book, and it is not the same as any other book.” Tozer thinks this is because the Bible was “directed to a chosen few” who would understand it, but there is no reason to think this, given that, for example, even atheists can arrive at correct understandings after study. The real cause for the difficulty is that the Bible was written in a high-context society.
  • “Faith based upon reason is faith of a kind…but it is not the character of Bible faith” which rather “asks no further proof than the moral perfections of the One who cannot lie. “ This of course is an incorrect definition of faith – one that says, “God said it, that settles it”. Elsewhere Tozer proposes that the new reader of the Bible would conclude that “faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God” and “a redirecting of our sight, a getting out of the focus of our own vision and getting God into focus.” He has captured to some extent the loyalty aspect of faith, but not the full nature of its object (based on evidence).
  • Several statements offer what amount to disturbing rejections of apologetics: “To dig among rocks or to search under the sea for evidence to support the Scriptures is to insult the One who wrote them.” And: “God needs no defense” – from there, Tozer speaks of judging the Word instead of letting the Word judge you. These are standard riposte from those who reject apologetics or scholarship as an exercise. The truth is there is no “insult” to God in seeking evidence; it rather brings glory to Him. It is not so much that God “needs” defense but that arguments against God need defeat.
  • There is the usual overemphasis on “relationship”, as in: “The Bible assumes as a self-evident fact that men can know God with at least the same degree of immediacy as they know any other person or thing that comes within their field of experience.” (But does Tozer know that in the Biblical world, people didn’t “know” each other with that much intimacy?) And: “We are turning out from the Bible schools of this country year after year young men and women who know the theory of Spirit-filled life but do not enjoy the experience. These go out into churches to create in turn a generation of Christians who have never felt the power of the Spirit and who know nothing personally about the inner fire.” I am reminded here of the person who told me that apologetics was unnecessary because all people lacked today was “joy” in God. But what is this “experience” is merely manufactured? Does it not concern Tozer that Mormons, for example, speak just as readily of “inner fire”?
Actually, it probably would not. In Tozer I would suspect we have someone who would say that we just need to witness to those Mormons and not bother with apologetics – never mind that apologetics is the only way he would have known they needed to be witnessed to in the first place. Tozer was an earnest and sincere Bible teacher who clearly cared deeply for God and for his brothers and sisters in Christ, and had he stuck to nothing other than devotional commentary, all would be well with him. But like many popular teachers, he allowed his care to compel him to overextend his authority now and then.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Old Camping Grounds

From the March 2011 E-Block.
Harold Camping could qualify as a ghost of both end times past and present – and is about to become recognized as a failure in both eras. Well known for predicting an imminent end to the world this coming May, Camping played this game before, in 1994 – and lost. He didn’t learn his lesson? Yes, that is so; but there’s a good reason why, as I found in reading both his 1994 and his latest book, Time Has an End [THE].

I’ll begin with a note about Camping apart from his eschatology. I have never read or heard Camping before, except for a few static-filled minutes on a radio during a California vacation 10 years ago . I knew of him earlier when Edmund Cohen, a Skeptic, referred to him in his book The Mind of the Bible Believer. In my review of that book I said:

Beyond that, he considers Harold Camping to be "the most intellectually competent and honest Bible expositor" [370] he knows of -- which, with due respect to Camping, frankly tells us little other than that Cohen's scholarship level leaves much to be desired.

…Finally: "The believer prays more, turns Family Radio up louder to drown out the doubts, goes to a church service to get peer reassurance, reads the Bible to reinforce the allegorical suggestions of separation of the realms, etc." [359]

In retrospect, I gave Camping far too much credit. After reading these two books, Cohen’s comments take on a new light. I wouldn’t call Camping a cult leader...yet. But he comes very close. Examples of some of his stranger views include:
  • Using birth control is “re-writing God’s law” because it means disobeying three passages in the Psalms (!) that praise fruitfulness, and violates other passages like Is. 42:5 indicating that God creates the baby in the womb. Those who use birth control fail to “trust that God knows exactly what size every family ought to be.” [1994, 146-7]
  • Satan himself is the antichrist. [1994, 190]
  • Camping employs homiletics that are strange and imaginative by any standard: For example, Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27 “typifies Satan’s attack on the church.” [1994: 227] How? Example: “the ship was destroyed even as the era of the New Testament church will end with the final tribulation period.” Later [1994:446], the 2000 cubit space between the ark and the people in Josh. 3:3-4 is taken to be a picture of the 2000 years between Jesus’ lifetime and the modern age. This is all strictly contrived and without any textual, historical, or exegetical basis.
Oddly enough, though posed as eschatological manifestos, the bulk of both of these books are not about eschatology. Most of them go towards validating a complex yet contrived thesis of Camping’s that significant events in the Bible are separated from significant eschatological events in our future by spans that equal large, round numbers of years (2000, 3000) or otherwise are attended by certain significant numbers. The “bulk” of these books -- and by this I mean size, not content – make for an imposing presentation to those unfriendly with mathematics, as I am. I am, however, more friendly with statistics, and from that perspective, find that Camping makes too much of too little.

In the above referenced item on Paul’s shipwreck, for example, Camping is impressed by the use of the number 276 as the number of survivors of the ship wreck. 276 is designated as an “extra special number” [1994:229]. Why?

Because it can be figured as 12 times 23, or 1 + 2 +3 +4…..+21 + 22 +23 = 276. Or, as 2 x 2 x 3 x 23. Or as 4 x 3 x23.

Yes, I know: So what? Well, we are assured that the number 2 “signifies the body of believers,” 3 represents “the purpose of God,” and 4 “universality,” and 12, “the fullness of whatever is in view in the context.” Do they? No, not really. All Camping has done here is play a familiar game. Here’s an example of how.
In some instances in the Bible, twelve does represent a fullness – of Israel, because there were twelve tribes. And some Biblical “twelves” (like the Apostles, or the cakes of Lev. 24:5) are derivative of that same tribal accounting. But because they are all derivative from that original “twelve” they really count as only one signifying instance of the number, statistically speaking.

Other “twelves” have no bearing on this and do not represent fullness in any sense. But in the examples Camping does give, he “force fits” the description of an event into his theme for the number by adding explanations until it fits. An example (not one he uses here) would be taking the woman with the 12-year issue of blood (Luke 8:43) as a fulfillment of the theme by saying the 12 represented her “fullness” in being healed. Once this is seen, Camping’s mathematical gerrymandering can be plainly seen for the statistical playground that it is.

I mentioned earlier that there is a reason why Camping did not learn from his 1994 error. The answer to this is that he had already set it up in his 1994 book that 2011 would also be a significant year. He had targeted it [1994:494] as being exactly 7000 years after the Flood, so under his scheme that round, large numbers signify events, it was already in his mind that 2011 would mean something. All he did was re-arrange the events attached to the years in question.

Thus it is that in THE, Camping now says that 1994 was the year “Christ came a second time to begin the completion the evangelization of His true people.” [xv] If that sounds familiar, it should: It’s essentially the Jehovah’s Witnesses all over again, an “invisible” coming contrived to controvert the error. (Camping is ready for another shift if he also proves wrong this time: We’re told that if the world does not end in 2011, “we surely will receive correction from the Bible” – e.g., he’ll realign the pattern to suit the evidence again.)

As part of this adjustment, we are now told that we are presently in the “Great Tribulation” – which will end in 2011; Satan is ruling in many local church congregations, and “true believers” have been cast out of them. It is not made quite clear who these “true believers” are, but it doesn’t take a stretch to suppose that Camping counts himself among them, and that those who follow his teachings are also included.

So is this “over the edge” into cultism? Some ministries think so. I find it fairly close, but am less concerned with the term than with the error and the results on May 22, 2011. I also frankly think that apart from mathematics, Camping is not brilliant enough to be leading a cult, or to understand why his exegetical routines are sheer folly. But that does not lessen the danger or disappointment his teachings cause, and they stand s yet another object lesson with respect to why the church needs to better educate believers: If we do not, well – the next Harold Camping might be in the next pew, ready to say the end is coming in 2045.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Geisler Challenge (Revisited)

Norman Geisler is at it again, laying it on thick, so we decided to use this post to remind everyone that he's been ignoring our challenge for a long time.

Also, although the TWeb thread we had on it is lost, you can still see it archived here.