Friday, April 30, 2010

To Be a Better Baptist

Through this blog, I hope to help Baptists become better Baptists, Methodists better Methodists, Presbyterians better Presbyterians, and non-denominationalists better non-denominationalists.

But already we hit a problem!

What does it mean to become a better Baptist?

To put it another way: How can Baptists become "better" if becoming better "Baptists" must ultimately mean rejecting something of what it means to be "Baptist" to begin with in order to replace it with something better?

Let me clarify: I'm not speaking about the person who is not following common Baptist mores--such the prohibition against consuming alcohol--by consuming an occasional beer; or a person who is not following Baptist beliefs by denying the trinity; or a person who is not following Baptist ritual by refusing to attend church every Sunday.  Such a person, according to the Baptist perspective, would need to become a better person by becoming more Baptist.

I'm talking about how can we improve the Baptist version of Christianity itself.  More importantly: how can we move Baptist Christianity forward/up rather than laterally/sideways?  Is it possible to conceive of making the Baptist faith "better" and not just "different?" 


It is difficult to conceive in today's Christian climate of bettering Baptists since measuring such a forward improvement assumes an objective, unchanging standard--some knowable goal--toward which Baptist Christianity is progressing.

For instance, if someone, somehow, knew which interpretations of the Bible and of sacred Christian Traditions were true and which were false, then such a person could conceive of the Baptist faith improving by keeping all the Baptist doctrines that are true and discarding those that are false.

If someone knew which elements of liturgical worship were taught by Jesus and the apostles, then we could improve Baptist liturgies by maintaining those elements that are necessary, discarding those that are forbidden (I'm not suggesting there are any), and including those elements that have been commanded.

If someone knew what moral teachings conform to the will of God--and conform the human will to God--then we could improve the Baptist moral code by reinforcing all the more strongly those prescripts that lead to holiness, discard those that unduly bind the conscience, and add certain moral laws that are not currently being taught or followed.


Catholic convert Scott Hahn is known for teaching that "God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to allow us to stay that way."

To return to the beginning: I hope that I can encourage Baptists in their faith by both encouraging them in those parts of their faith that are true, holy, and beautiful, while simultaneously helping them to become better Baptists by seeing clearly those parts that have to be discarded in order to move forward.

The good news of the Catholic faith for non-Catholics is this: it is possible to move forward.

Not every change to a denomination needs to result in more splitting, which historically is precisely what has happened.  If every denomination was able to move forward toward that which is objectively true and holy, then our changes would result in greater and greater unity!

But can we conceive it?  And do we want it?

Some people can not conceive it precisely because they do not want it!  The will, we can not forget, is the guardian of the mind.

The Catholic Church is different from every denomination that has split from her in that she remains, as she has since her inception, the objective standard.

Does this mean that the Catholic Church can not improve?  Absolutely not!  However, the Catholic Church always improves by becoming more true to itself.  It is the Catholic Faith that is the standard--the Catholic Faith that has been passed down in the form of authoritative teachings, a rich liturgical tradition, an unchanging moral code, etc.--and it is this standard that the church of every century must always dynamically work toward.

The ancient Catholic Christian faith is also the standard Jesus has established by which non-Catholic Christian faiths can be measured.  Only when non-Catholic versions of Christianity each begin measuring themselves by an objective standard will forward movement become not just possible, but conceivable.  The wonderful gift of infallibility, which Jesus has given as a gift to the apostles and their successors united with the chair of Peter, is the means by which our Lord has maintained an objective standard throughout the centuries.

April 30, 2010 Response to Pastor Witmer, Lighthouse Baptist Church

For any interested readers, Tobe Witmer, pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Newark, DE has briefly responded to my essay on his Bread of Life Sermon.  I encourage everyone to read my essay and his response, which can be found in the comments underneath.

First and foremost, I would like to thank Pastor Witmer for considering my commentary on his sermon.  As I have said elsewhere on this blog, achieving Christian unity will only occur if Christians talk to one another with respect, openness, love, and a Christ-like, zealous desire for the perfect unity that Jesus once prayed for (John 17) and St. Paul commanded.  We can not ignore differences, because to do so is to ignore the author of division, Satan himself.  We can not pretend differences do not exist, because to do so is to ignore a reality that is contrary to the Gospel.  And we can not accept differences ("I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe."), because such a philosophy is directly contrary to the mind of God (see John 17).

But we can pray for unity, we can join our hearts with Christ's, and we can be obedient to Christ and submit our wills to him, so that if he is calling us to change our beliefs, we will exhibit the humble "obedience of faith" (see Romans 1) and follow Him where He calls us.  Thy will, Lord, not mine be done!

And we can talk!  How rarely Christians who disagree about fundamental doctrines actually sit down and consider what each other really believes! 

When I read Pastor's response, a paragraph from a G.K. Chesterton's essay "Where All Roads Lead" came to mind.  The paragraph can be read here, and it begins with the words "Now, I have noted first this common consciousness..."

The basic idea on which Chesterton so eloquently remarks is that "new" ideas grow old quickly, but the truth stays ever-young.  Pastor Witmer's response speaks of an idea (a particular flavor of Christianity) that is 500 years old.  I am trying to share a Christianity with Pastor Witmer that is 2,000 years young.  One beautiful thing about Catholicism is that it grows fresher and more vibrant with every stale complaint made against it.  And how many times have we Catholics heard the same criticism summed up with the words "faith alone?"  Yet, does Pastor Witmer's response really answer or engage the teachings of that ancient church that I shared in my essay?  Pastor Witmer cited the context of his message as a reason he did not address all the verses of John 6 pertinent to his topic, but are we to believe that he would have interpreted "the Bread of Life" spoken of in John 6 any differently had he dwelt longer past v. 51?

In the near future, I will revisit my essay and Pastor Witmer's response and try to draw out what seem to be the areas of explicit agreement, the areas of hidden agreement (areas that Pastor Witmer thinks contradict the principle of salvation by grace alone), and areas of real disagreement.  I believe I will be able to show that there are some very real agreements between Baptists and Catholics that seem, through the lens of what Baptists are usually taught about Catholicism, to be areas of profound disagreement.

The question for our hearts always remains:  are we ready to rejoice in these unities and dissolve the false divisions that we have allowed Satan to sow in Christ's mystical body?

Are we ready to open our minds and hearts to really understand what each other believe, or will we remain content to live with the straw men of our long-standing prejudices?

Again, I thank Pastor Witmer for showing a willingness to respond and begin a conversation, and I invite Pastor Witmer to respond to some of the very real arguments I made in my own essay for the Real Presence of Jesus Christ - Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity - in the most Holy Eucharist.  I especially invite Pastor Witmer to address my remarks regarding the dichotomies on which his interpretation of John 6 seems to rest.

May the Holy Spirit blow anew on Christians and bring about perfect unity, true doctrine, and a vibrant faith!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Response to Joshua Harris (Covenant Life Church) Interview on Dug Down Deep

I recently sent the following letter to Joshua Harris, pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD.  After sending the letter, I did some more research on Pastor Harris only to discover that he is the author of a book that made the rounds during my college years: I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  Harris's new book, Dug Down Deep, explores the relationship of doctrinal truth to our relationship with Christ.  Harris points out that one can't separate doctrinal truth from devotion to and relationship with Christ; indeed, you can't have one without the other.  My letter below, as the interested reader will learn, picks up on this notion of truth.  If truth is both objective and critically important, as Pastor Harris and I agree, then how do we come to a correct knowledge of the truth, especially considering that there are a number of "truths" about which Pastor Harris and I disagree?

That, my friends, is the question...


Hi Pastor Joshua,

I just stumbled across your interview about Dug Down Deep through a link on Denny Burk's website. At Burk’s website, I listened to your talk at SBTS, and my ears were piqued when I realized you preach right around the corner from where I live. So I did some poking around and found this interview:

The interview brings up the following questions in my mind:

If "we can't know him [Jesus] and relate to him in the right way without doctrine," then what provisions did Jesus leave his Church so that they would know correct doctrine? Many good, honest Christians pray for the Holy Spirit to guide their interpretation of Scripture, yet still believe in different doctrines. Doctrines, as you correctly note, basically constitute a person's or church’s interpretation of Scriptural teaching.

Yet, if not knowing correct doctrine is tantamount to not knowing Jesus (at least in as full a way as he wants to be known by us), then how can a Christians ever really be sure they know Jesus fully? To repeat: what provisions did Jesus put in place so that if ever there were competing ideas about what doctrines (i.e. interpretations of Scripture) were true, Jesus’s followers would know for sure which ones should be believed?

Your interview speaks about truth in a number of different contexts:

"building your life on the truth about God;"

truth doesn't cater to culture (it doesn't "speak their language") but rather should be given "straight up" so that it can accomplish "God's work;"

"your life interpreted by God's truth;"

"truth and theology [can't be separated] from devotion and relationship. You can't have one without the other;"

"I think we all struggle with [getting the truth from our head to our heart];"

"Getting truth into our heart starts with meditating on truth;"

"Expository preaching of God's word will deepen your grasp of biblical truth;"

and "We need both the truth of Jesus and the compassion of Jesus if we would rightly represent him to a lost world."

All of these statements seem to treat truth as something objective, solid, and unchanging. It doesn’t get swept along with culture. It is solid such that we can build our life on it and interpret our life by it. The truth of the Gospel is something that was just as true in 200 AD as it is in 2000 AD. (It might give your readers pause to know that the vast majority of Christian pastors preaching the Gospel in 200 AD—those who had learned the Gospel from the students of the apostles themselves—taught truths that are quite different from some of the ones taught at CCL.)

Yet, very few of your statements about truth give your readers any idea of where they can find this truth. In other words, getting truth into our hearts really begins with knowing how to get truth into our minds, and into our ears, since “faith comes by hearing.”

If truth is objective such that we can measure ourselves by it, then how can we know if the truths we believe didn’t really begin as the reflection of ourselves, of our own individual readings of scripture, of our own weaknesses in Scriptural understanding, etc.? After all, the Bible is a book written in languages that could not be more different from our own, to a culture that could hardly be more different from our own, etc. The average reader of the Bible does not know the expressions, the assumptions, and the traditions of the Jewish culture within which the New Testament was written and received. Yet, many evangelical Christians today reject the teachings of those earliest fathers of the Church who DID read the Bible in this historical context, and who did learn the Gospel message even from the apostles themselves. (Ignatius of Antioch’s teaching on the Eucharist as being the body and blood of Christ is just one example among many. Many Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John.)

I agree with you completely that "truth and theology [can't be separated] from devotion and relationship. You can't have one without the other."

But what is the pillar and foundation of truth?

At the same time that I applaud you and encourage you in your work in spreading the gospel and for connecting how our relationship with Christ relates to the Truth who is Christ, I wonder if I might challenge you to articulate more clearly exactly how it is that you believe Christians can know with certainty this Truth. Also, please forgive me if you address these questions in your book. Just point me in the right direction, and I’ll read your book asap!

Thank you for your time and for all the work you have done for God! May you and your loved ones experience a blessed Holy Week, and may the peace of Christ be with you!

Let us join our prayer this week with Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17: “that they may be one.” Sanctify us, oh God, and teach us the fullness of the truth that was “delivered once to the saints” (Jude 3). Give us hearts that are open and obedient to following the truth wherever it leads us!

Your brother in Christ,