Monday, August 23, 2010

Waivering Wanda--My Review of Beth Moore's "Get Out of That Pit"

Beth Moore couples a profoundly deficient understanding, interpretation, and application of Scripture with her desire to assuage her audience’s feelings of loneliness and failure, thereby creating a landscape in which we are told that God will not help us out of our various pits, and we must save ourselves. Moore’s lack of theological certitude causes her to systematize a strange theological formula in which she seems to borrow from both the Calvinist and Arminian camps, creating a God who is far removed from us and our suffering, as God’s sovereignty is a constant basis of appeal for Moore, and an anthropology where man is not only able to save himself, but actually desires to do so. This flies in the face of Scripture’s teaching about man and the work of the Redeemer. In Moore’s schema, Jesus is no longer the all-sufficient Savior from sin, death, and the devil, but rather man’s help-meet, who soothes us in the midst of our mistakes. In short, Moore’s theology, as presented in this book, fails to proclaim God’s work on behalf of sinners, and has such has no basis from which to deliver on its subtitled promise of “straight talk about God’s deliverance.”

Moore defines a pit and its impact: “a pit is an early grave that Satan digs for you in hopes he can bury you alive. Should you fall into it, make no mistake; he cannot make you stay. Ironically, neither will God make you leave. Like it or not, some things are simply up to us.” This definition lays the groundwork for Moore, and it is not difficult to see how this would create a multiplicity of complications for the unsuspecting reader. Despite Moore’s various attempts to define a pit, or even how we can get out of the pit, the reader is left with little other than mystical language which is more than slightly nebulous. Granted, Moore does go on to further qualify by explaining how to recognize when one is stuck in a pit, but again she fails to do this without resorting to language which is entirely centered on the individual and his or her sense of reality. Moore tells us that one may recognize herself as a pit-dweller when one or several criteria are met.

Moore’s first indication that one is caught in a pit is that one feels stuck. She draws this conclusion from Isaiah 42:22, which, according to her paraphrase, describes a pit as a “place where you feel trapped.” The trouble is that this is not what God is telling us in Isaiah 42:22. Rather, God is describing the exile which Israel must endure as the result of her faithlessness. Oddly enough this verse is sandwiched between a plainly Christological description of God’s servant who will not break a bruised reed or quench a burning wick (Isaiah 42:3, ESV),who will “open the eyes that are blind, bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:7, ESV) and an on-going description of God as Israel’s deliverer in chapter 43. It is clear from the context that God was not describing a pit figuratively as an emotional place in which one feels stuck, but was literally describing the fruit of Israel’s faithlessness. God also goes on to say that He is Israel’s deliverer, He does not give them steps to climb out of a pit of emotional despair but promises a future servant in whom God’s “soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1) and furthermore promises deliverance from the turmoil that will soon seem to engulf them. Even if God was simply illustrating an emotional difficulty in one’s life, these chapters make it clear that escape from the pit is not at all left up to us, but is rather fomented by God’s direct intervention in humanity through His Son the Servant and Savior.

The second way we may know that we’re in a pit is when we “can’t stand up.” For this criterion Moore takes her cue from Psalm 69:2, where David laments his weariness in the face of seemingly insurmountable enemies. Interestingly enough, this very psalm looks to God as the deliverer. After pouring out his heart to God, David proclaims “But I am afflicted and in pain; let your salvation, O God, set me on high!” (Psalm 69:29, ESV) David expounds on this point further and concludes the psalm by rejoicing in the Lord’s salvation. David looks to God. Moore, however, seems to overlook this somewhat obvious point, and chastises her readers for failing to take the devil’s schemes more seriously:

"If you’re not already convinced, it’s time you accepted the biblical fact that your soul has a very real enemy, and he is not flesh and blood. We can’t keep on ignoring someone who is systematically trying to destroy our lives. The passivity has got to go. Ephesians 6:11 implores us, ‘Take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Your stand. No one can stand indefinitely for you. If you and I are going to be victorious people, we’ve got to stand with our own two feet on solid ground. Ephesians 6:13 exhorts, ‘Stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.’"

Moore is correct inasmuch that the devil is indeed the enemy of our souls. Scripture tells us that we do not wage war against flesh and blood. However, Moore’s broader assertion is far more troubling, especially when placed in its correct Scriptural context: first Moore puts the weight of deliverance upon us, and claims that Scripture does the same. This is so far from the truth it is astonishing. Moore claims she is quoting Ephesians 6:11 when she is actually only providing a summary of the verse, and a profoundly misleading summary at that. The verse, according to the English Standard Version, actually states: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” But what is even more telling is that the verse which precedes this tells us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Moore tells her readers to stand under their own strength when these verses tell us explicitly not to do this but rather we are to stand against Satan in the Lord’s might, not our own, protected by the gifts the Lord has given to His children.

Lastly, Moore states that we can recognize we are in a pit when we have “lost vision.” It is difficult to discern what exactly it is Moore means when she uses this phrase, as she speaks of it in terms of an “endless echo of self-absorption” and also a failure to “overflow with an effervescent life, stirring and spilling with God-given vision.” Her descriptions here are starkly mystical, and as such it is unsurprising that even given her somewhat unscrupulous use of Scripture, she is unable to find one to support her case here. This simply is an assertion which is entirely without Scriptural warrant: even Scripture put to rather creative uses.

From her description of a pit, Moore goes on to explain three different means of arriving in a pit, and our various means of escape. One may find herself in a pit when she is thrown into it by life circumstances, by slipping into it by neglecting the things of God, or by jumping into it by committing willful sin. The distinctions Moore makes between these pits are essentially the result of Moore’s anthropology. She spends many pages discussing the devil’s schemes, but never addresses man’s sinful condition, and his ensuing war against his own flesh. Thus, a pit is always Satan’s trap, which we fail to avoid through our own lack of commitment and earnestness in our Christian walks.

Of the three descents into a pit that Moore describes, the most troubling is her description of the pit into which we fall. She uses as an example Joseph’s slavery in Egypt, but not only as an example of an event in a biblical character’s life, and also as a rubric for recognizing and conquering one’s pit. What is of particular concern is the theological perspective she brings to the pit that some of us may have been thrown into as victims of abuse or misfortune. Moore approaches the theodical question from the basis of God’s sovereignty rather than grounding the question of God’s goodness in the face of suffering in the cross of Christ. Moore attempts to comfort her readers with the knowledge of a sovereign God who orchestrates difficult events in their lives to ultimately bring a better end. Superficially, it may seem that Moore has a biblical case; however, she is delving deeply into the hidden will of God. We know that God can take all pain and suffering and bring good out of it--the cross itself is proof of this. However, there is a profound difference between God bringing good from the intentions of the evil one, and God actively orchestrating evil events in our lives. The truth is we cannot always know the specifics of why a terrible ordeal was suffered by one person and not another. We can know, however, of the God who comes to save sinners, who takes all our infirmities upon Himself. We can know that God loves us and we can comfort people with this knowledge by pointing to Christ. We cannot point to God’s sovereignty in an attempt to comfort hurting people; and this is not how God would have us comfort others. The God of Christendom is a God who steps down to humanity in His incarnation, and continues to meet humanity in His Word and the sacraments. As He promises, He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). An appeal to God’s sovereignty in the midst of suffering leaves room for one to despair of God’s love. Moore makes God’s love into an abstraction when God Himself illustrates His love on Golgotha.

Unsurprisingly, Moore solves the problem of life’s various pits with an unhealthy dose of watered-down law. Rather than dealing with biblical categories of sin, repentance, faith, and forgiveness, she deals almost exclusively in the categories of mistakes, mishaps, misdeeds, our human decisions, and our relationship with Christ. Moore sees a stronger relationship with Christ as the answer to all life’s ills, but fails to give the reader tools to understand how this relationship is fashioned. One would not expect a Southern Baptist to be sacramental in her counsel to despairing sinners, but one can expect her to at least demonstrate a clear grasp of the gospel. Moore does not demonstrate this, but rather tells a struggling sinner to get her act together by deciding to put her trust in Christ. She imagines it is comforting to be told “He’s all yours if you want Him [Christ].” She tells us that the way out of the pit is to make the decision to give Jesus our whole heart, mind and soul: when we have done these things we can know we are out of the pit. It seems obvious, however, that if we could keep the first commandment, which is all Moore is really asking of her readers, then we really would not need a savior.

Moore simply does not grasp that she is speaking to sinners with a bound will who do not naturally seek the things of God. Because Moore does not understand the fallen human condition, she fails to understand and communicate the all-encompassing work of Christ. Without pure, unfettered gospel there is simply no means to deliver Christ to despairing sinners. Moore approaches sinners in despair, and tells them how to feel forgiven without really proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness. This is where her confusion of law and gospel becomes the most apparent—and the most disastrous. Because Moore seeks to make sinners feel better, she does not allow the law to condemn to its full extent, but rather softens the effect. She also does not communicate unconditional gospel promises, but rather restricts the gospel’s promise with words like “all you have to do is…” This structure, and this confusion of law and gospel, has one of two likely outcomes: the despairing sinner could be lead further down the road to despair as she realizes her inability to clean up her own mess. Or, perhaps even worse, she could imagine she has cleaned up her act, and in terms of the law, is managing very adequately. This places the weight of one’s deliverance and salvation upon one’s own good works rather than on Christ’s perfect work. For this reason one has to conclude that Moore’s theology is nothing less than toxic.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why I Became a Lutheran

I was introduced to Luther, and by extension Lutheranism, by a professor of mine at an Evangelical seminary I attended. I thought I was a pretty convinced Southern Baptist until I realized that Luther nailed me and my pietism on too many things.

The summer after my first year at seminary I started attending a Lutheran church off and on and discovered the irrelevance of Lutheran worship and Lutheran preaching. Why irrelevant? Not once did I walk out of that church with steps to improve my love life, my bank account balance, my job prospects, or my social skills. In fact I don't think I ever walked out with steps to improve anything, because all I ever heard about was my sin and my Savior.

Two back-to-back Sundays during this summer stick in my mind. The first Sunday I attended my regular Baptist church. I don't remember the sermon title, or much of anything about the sermon as a matter of fact, despite the power point and my careful note-taking. I do recall, however, the pastor suggesting that if we wanted to grow in our Christian lives we should take advantage of all the great resources available to us today. If we had financial problems there were books on that, if we had marital problems there were books on that, if we wanted to improve in just about any area we were just about guaranteed that someone had written the book for that struggle which would detail how to be a good, virtuous Christian. The following Sunday I attended the Lutheran church, and received a very different answer to the exact same question-- Jesus. And not just some abstract Jesus who gives me a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart sometimes, but a Jesus who died for my sins, vividly portrayed by the crucifix in front of the church. The pastor didn't tell what to do, but he told me what had already been done. For me.

In the view of pop-Evangelicalism it doesn't get more irrelvant than vestments, lectionaries, prayer books, hymns, or chanting. It doesn't get more irrelevant than preaching the same gospel to forgiven sinners week after week and month after month. It doesn't get more irrelevant than God's Word combined with water or the very body and blood of Jesus given for the forgiveness of sins. It doesn't get more irrelevant than the Church which desires to know nothing but Christ crucified for sinners.

It doesn't get more irrelevant than the Church being the Church.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I Blame Christian Radio

“It doesn’t really matter what anyone really believes, as long as we all love Jesus. Right?”

“Doctrine is divisive. Jesus prayed that we would all be one, so why can’t we just quit arguing over these secondary issues, and get on doing the work of the Kingdom?”

“I don’t know what justification is, or how I got it, but I know it’s a good thing.”

“I don’t need to go to church; I can pray anywhere, read my Bible anywhere, and I can always listen to a great sermon in my living room.”

While I am quoting comments from some of my friends and acquaintances, I think most of us sense this soft, squishy center at the heart of American Christianity. There’s this basic sentiment that Christianity should be grounded upon a feeling, clothed in mystical cloud, and wrapped in a soft blanket of know-nothingness. From this gooey center flows the firm knowledge that we cannot ever be too certain about doctrine or practice: doctrine shifts, the flowers fade, but one’s feelings last forever. This is what Jesus prayed for in the Garden, right?

The unity in this soft, squishy core of American Christianity is frankly a bizarre pietistic grab at ecumenism. Jesus wanted us to be one, so we’ll ignore our differences and worship together. Or worse, there’s a cultural battle going on, and if we don’t quit arguing over things like the Lord’s Supper, we’ll never win the battle! There’s nothing worse, or nothing as pathetic, as the Church-- the Body of the Risen Lord, who stands victorious over sin, death, and the devil-- allowing the world, which is by nature a slave to sin and satan, to dictate the terms upon which the Church should conduct herself. Suddenly the Church is no longer a body united around a common confession of Christ, but rather a common confession of social issues. In this schema the church is no longer defined by the Gospel she proclaims, but rather the position she takes on abortion, gay marriage, immigration, the war on terror, and the list goes on. I know I am not the first to make this observation, and I am certain that I will not be the last, but the criticism still stands.

The “church” in America has allowed itself to be shaped by cultural trends, both in terms of the message it proclaims and in the way it chooses to worship the Triune God. Quite simply, I think American Christianity is just more comfortable in the left-hand kingdom than in the right-hand kingdom: sin is so much more simple there; Law and Gospel distinctions are unnecessary as the law should win the day. If you speed, you should get a ticket. There’s no measure of grace or mercy, because that’s not the function of the sword. American Christianity seems comfortable declaring that if everyone would just behave we could have our own utopia. The Gospel muddies these waters. What is one to do with a sinner who is condemned by a righteous and holy God, who is addicted to sin, and who, even worse, reminds you that you are in the exact same boat. He is powerless to save himself, powerless to quit sinning, and he, like you, stands before God as nothing but a beggar. One could offer him absolution, but wouldn’t that just encourage him to sin some more? It might. But is the church really about behavior modification? Is that really, ultimately, the point? No, the point is to declare the all sufficient work of the Savior on behalf of sinners. He dies for sinners, He doesn’t die for the righteous. American Christianity seems increasingly more uncomfortable with this message. The left hand kingdom is, indeed, far more comfortable. There are no sinners there, just the moral and the immoral.

The reasons for this trend in the “church” are multitudinous, and many of written much more and with much greater clarity and research on this topic than me. However, I find myself laying the blame more and more firmly upon Christian radio. What? Yes, you read that right, I blame Christian radio. Why? Here’s my most basic reason: Christian radio is the strangest mish-mash of what passes for preaching and theology that I have ever seen. Even if one turns on a Christian television station, there is at least consistency. There are nuns talking about the rosary on the Roman Catholic channel, and there’s Benny Hinn “healing” people and Pat Robertson saying something dumb on TBN. But Christian radio is thoroughly inconsistent.

Our local Christian radio station, which has a fairly broad listenership in this area, claims to espouse basic Evangelical theology. Yet, for example, on Sunday morning one can wake up to “Front Page Jerusalem” then meander into “Turning Point” with David Jeremiah which flows nicely into “Hour of Decision” with Franklin Graham, which buttressed by “The Lutheran Hour.” Weekdays are even better, as one can get a nice ecumenical diet of everyone from RC Sproul to Joyce Meyer, to Chuck Missler, to John MacArthur, to Focus on the Family. What’s wrong with this? It’s clear to me that Christian radio has tried to be all things to all people, and in doing so has failed to call heresy heresy. Yeah, I just dropped the “H” bomb. Joyce Meyer spouts off theology that would make Pelagius blush, but sure, we’ll give her a slot because people like her. Danger! Will Robinson, Danger! Danger! The trouble is that the listeners are formed by this sickening mosaic of false teaching, and are smart enough to figure out that Joyce Meyer and RC Sproul probably disagree on a few things. How do they reconcile these differences? Probably by concluding that they both love Jesus, so it really can’t be a significant difference.

Though false teaching is always dangerous, I see a bigger danger in thinking that there really is no such thing as a false teacher: as long as we’re all pro-life, what’s the difference, right?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why virtue to grace?

The Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde remarked that the Christian life is not an exodus from vice to virtue, but rather from virtue to grace. But why not from vice to grace? Doesn't this seem much more logical? We're saved from being bad people, from our bad habits, and brought into the fold of God's grace. Aren't we? Sort of. The trouble is that we need to be saved from our "good works" as much as we need to be saved from our vices. In short we need to be saved from ourselves; our trespasses are not restricted to obvious vices, but also extend to our most pious good works. Why? Because we imagine that they are, indeed, good works that just might improve our standing before God. Our piety can actually stand between us and the Savior. No one says "I'm too good to go to heaven" but how many people, even those who should know better, think "I'm fine, at least I'm not like that tax collector over there." God's grace, His divine decree that we are righteous, not only forgives our sinfulness but also reveals the depth of our sin. This is the strange paradox in which Christians live. We are simultaneously righteous and sinner. This is does not mean we're trapped in some kind of ebb and flow in which we have days where we are righteous, and other days where we are sinners. No, we're both. All the time. Unfortunately much of Christian teaching today sees the Christian life almost exclusively as a movement from vice to virtue. How many of us have heard people share their testimonies when ran along the lines of "I used to be a [insert particularly egregious sin here which probably involved sex and alcohol and probably drugs too] but then Jesus saved me and now I'm [insert list of virtues here]? What's the problem with this paradigm? If we're so virtuous, then why do we need a Savior?

When Luther wanted to talk about any sort of progress in the Christian life under the imputation of justification unconditionally, he grasped at formulations which stand usual understandings right on their head. The simul iustus et peccator makes it impossible to talk of some sort of moral progress in which one moves from one stage to another achieving a sort of perfection, and where every stage is the platform for the next leap. If that were the case, justification as an imputed, unconditional gift would make little sense. The higher one gets, the less grace one would need, until at last one could get along without it altogether. Justification by faith would be something like a temporary loan to cover the debtor until the debt was actually paid. Then the justification would not longer be needed. "Sanctification" and "good works" would be a matter of progressively paying off the debt, perhaps according to the popular slogan, "Become what you are!" where all the stress is usually on the become (you had better, or else!).

The simul makes all such schemes of progress impossible. The justification given is a total state, a complete, unconditional gift. From that point of view true sanctification is simply to "shut up and listen!" For there can be no more sanctification than where every knee bends and every mouth is silent before God, the only Holy One. And God is revered as the Holy One only where the sinner, the real sinner, stands still at the place where God enters the scene and speaks. That is the place where the sinner must realize that his or her way is at an end. Only those who are so grasped that they stand still here and confess to sin and give God the glory, only they are "sanctified." And there can be no more sanctification than that! ...

The "progress" of the Christian, therefore, is the progress of one who has constantly to get used to the fact that we are justified totally by faith, constantly has somehow to "recover," so to speak, from that death blow to pride and presumption--or better, is constantly being raise from the tomb of all pious ambition to something quite new. The believer has to be renewed daily in that. The Old Being is to be daily drowned in repentance and raised in faith. The progress of the Christian life is not our movement toward the goal; it is the movement of the goal in upon us. --Gerhard Forde Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life