Monday, March 17, 2008

Did the Bereans use Coliseumpedia?

I recently heard Tony Jones being interviewed on our local Christian radio station in the twin cities. I must say that prior to hearing this interview I had not read anything written by Tony Jones or heard him speak, I may have heard him referred to by others, but none of the specifics of any of these references ever managed to stick in my memory. The only thing that I knew going into listening to this interview was (a) his name, (b) his affiliation with Emergent Village, and (c) that he is, apparently, a big name in the emerging church movement.

There were many things about the interview that caused my blood pressure to rise and caused me to scratch my head, both at Tony Jones and at the apparent unpreparedness of the hosts who, for the most part, don’t seem to agree with much of what the emergent movement stands for. But before I get into the main concern that I have with this interview, I must make a few preliminary comments. Tony Jones seemed to use the same types of thought question evasion and debate tactics that I have heard before from Doug Pagitt, who is another emergent leader and happens to be a leader at Tony Jones’ church.

As a matter of fact, Tony Jones was asked basically the same question that Todd Friel (“Way of the Master Radio” host) asked Doug Pagitt, and it was this: can or will a Muslim go to heaven? Both Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt recoiled from answering this question by stating that they didn’t want to engage in a question regarding some hypothetical person. Jones went on to say that if he could have a conversation with this person and find that this person rejected Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, then he would be able to take a position stating that this person was going to hell. Even as frustrating as this kind of answer was to me, it was better than Pagitt’s response. Pagitt would not even truly engage the question on that level because he was reluctant to agree that heaven or hell were actual real places or states of existence in the afterlife as the Bible describes.

But getting back to Jones; why was his desire for personal conversational confirmation of what an individual Muslim may or may not believe about Christ to be frustrating for me? Simply put, if Tony Jones doesn’t understand that anyone who would consider themselves to be a Muslim therefore implicitly rejects the idea of the incarnation or of the Triune Godhead, then what in the world does he believe that Muslims believe about Jesus? I am not an expert on Islam, but I have never found any sect or any division of Muslims who would hold to an Islamic faith but also believe that Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Godhead.

I would even make the argument that anyone who would hold to something even close to the true nature of Christ would be associated with Christen-dom, even if only loosely. That being the case, even many groups inside of Christendom do not understand Christ rightly (I have argued in the past and I will continue to argue that believing in the wrong Jesus means that you are still in your sins). Historically speaking, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have always been considered to be cults, but now those lines, at least as far as the culture is concerned, are even being blurred to the point of no distinction. But even if we maintain the understanding that these false religions are not truly Christian, we still have to contend with false and heretical understandings of Jesus Christ inside of our ranks. Oneness Pentecostals reject the Trinity and believe that Jesus is the Father is the Holy Spirit with no eternal distinction in their persons. We can’t even get all who call themselves Christians to pass the Jesus test that Tony Jones wants to personally give to any and every Muslim before making any definitive statement about their eternal inheritance.

Furthermore, show me one religion or a group of people who believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal God, that He condescended to be incarnated as a man, that He claimed to be (and truly is) the only way of salvation and reconciliation with the one and only true God, and you will find a Christian.1 You will not find a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Baha’i, or anyone else. It may seem laughable that I even feel like I have to make this point, but this is an example of the knots that need to be untied when dealing with many people who would be in liberal (in interpretation, not necessarily in political affiliation), or emergent, Christianity. And this type of convolution or blurring the truth of Scripture is, in fact, possibly one of the largest problems with the emergent church.

And it is at this point that my absolute frustration because of the “same old, same old” from the emergent stream of thought turned into something more…focused. After hearing the entirety of the hour long interview, I can safely say that I was aghast by the way in which Tony Jones seems to view the substance of Scripture, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the way of interpreting Scripture. When Tony Jones was asked about what his ultimate authority is, he responded in this way,

“The ultimate authority is God as incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ and represented in the teachings of Scripture.”2

He then went on to clarify his statement by making the meaning of what he had just said more ambiguous that it previously was.
“At every one of those steps, there are multiple interpretive steps that need to be made. How was Jesus representative of God? Christians have been debating that for 2,000 years. How do you faithfully interpret scripture as the inspired word of God? Christians have been debating that for 2,000 years.”3

Tony Jones seemed to clarify his statement of what the ultimate authority by referring some of the debates that have gone on inside of Christendom throughout its history. However, by design, he refrained from making a clear statement about which views inside of the history of the debates of the church correctly understand Christ and the teachings of Scripture. Is the Gnostic understanding of Christ and the Scriptures just as valid and true as the Judaizers or of the Biblical teachings contained in the Pauline letters? Is it just as valid to follow the interpretive methods of Athanasius as it would be to follow in the steps of Pelagius or Arius? As inclusive and intelligent as this type of position appears on the surface, after any quick examining of its substance, it is nothing more than a hollow nothingness of a statement. It lacks any clarity at all. He might as well as said that the ultimate authority is whatever you want it to be. Because, at the end of the day, that is what it ends up being with this perspective.

And when Mr. Jones was asked whether he agreed with a specific statement affirming the inerrancy of the Bible in its original autographs, he did not agree. Furthermore, he dismissed the very idea of affirming something intangible as being ridiculous. Regarding the autographs (the original writings of the Bible), Tony Jones stated that since neither he, nor no one else in the modern world, has ever seen the original writings of the Bible, how could he make a statement affirming what they said?
“I would not affirm a statement about something that no one has and no one has ever seen. It’s a purely hypothetical statement.”4

Again, this may seem to be intelligent and a good position for a Christian to take, but this further compounds the problems with Tony’s ultimate authority. He can’t affirm anything about the inerrancy of the Bible; therefore its role as ultimate authority is compromised. And furthermore, if the question that needs to be asked to a Muslim relates to the person of Jesus Christ, how in the world could you ever say that the Muslim has a view that is wrong if what the Bible itself says about Christ is possibly wrong?

And finally, Mr. Jones went from a vague statement of authority, to questioning the reliability of the only real source (both the autographs that we don’t have and the manuscripts that we do have) of that authority, to then having a complete mob-rule mentality when it comes to communicating the truth of Scripture.

He builds his case for a non-authoritative model for preaching by stating that heresies and cults don’t come from a discussion group atmosphere. According to Mr. Jones, cults and heresies come from figures like David Koresh or Jim Jones.
“I know that when David Koresh got to the end of a sermon, he never was like, ‘Ok, what do you all think about that?’ Jim Jones didn’t open it up for discussion time. He said, ‘ This is it, I preach to you with absolute certainty. I am the messiah. That’s how cults start, that’s how heresies start. When conversation is closed off and there is a single person or an oligarchy, the ruling few of an elite class, who say, ‘we have the Spirit, you don’t. We’re the only ones who get to interpret Scripture. All of you sinners out there, all of you people out there who are struggling with whatever you’re struggling with, you don’t get to. That’s the problem.”5

I have two major problems with what Tony Jones stated. First of all, how does he “know” what David Koresh or Jim Jones did or didn’t do at the end of every one of their sermons? Why should I believe him? What source material is he using for his conclusions? And since I have never seen all of David Koresh’s sermons and I wasn’t there in the Wako compound, how can I know for sure what he did or didn’t say or do? The second problem is Tony Jones’ mixing of the heresies and cults. I think that he is right about the formation of cults, but heresies do not always begin from a singular authoritative figure. They may be first promoted by one man or a small group of people, but they eventually become popular with the masses who, individually, may or may not necessarily be directly associated with the initial purveyor of the ideas. This is fairly a specific distinction, but it is supremely important because we should never be so foolish as to think that heresies only (or even primarily) come into play because of the presence of one dictator-like church boss.

And in an answer to the problems with having any type of authority or authoritative interpretation or communication of what the Bible does say about anything that he had attempted to bring out, Tony Jones puts forward his own idea of how the truth of the Bible should be communicated in sermons.
The sermon [at Solomon’s Porch] is written, is developed, by a group of people on a Tuesday night called the Bible Discussion group, and anyone in the church is able to come – gay, straight, ya’ know…gambling addict, glutton, you name it – they can all come. And they, for two-and-a-half or three-hours, talk about this passage of Scripture that we’re going to be preaching about on Sunday. And it really is an open-source, wikipedia, kind of way to come up with a sermon. And then whoever is charged that week, most often it’s Doug [Pagitt], the “pastor”…they take that and they kind of boil it down to about 30 minutes. And then, at the end of that 30 minutes on Sunday evening, it’s opened up to everyone in the congregation.

We’ve got people at Solomon’s Porch who’ll sit there with their laptop open on their lap…talk about keeping you honest when you’re preaching, their googling what you’re preaching about and looking it up on Bible web sites, wikipedia, and everything else. And people will say, ‘Hey I found this, what do you think about that?’ or, ‘that reminds me of this verse, let me read it to you…”.6

So, both in preparation and in presentation, wikipedia and potentially any other web site or author, has as much influence on the message as the Bible does. And anticipating a question about his wikipedia hermeneutic that wasn’t asked by the interviewers, he said,
"There are people who are still going to want to go to the encyclopedia Britannica because it’s some dude who’s got a Ph. D. from Oxford who’s going to write the definitive entry on Jesus Christ, or the Viet Nam war, or what have you. There are others of us, and I count myself among this group, who I trust the crowd at wikipedia where there are thousands of people editing the entry for Jesus Christ, or the Viet Nam war. I trust the crowd more than I trust the one guy with the Ph. D. from Oxford."7

Perhaps the best commentary that I can give to the main thrust of his above thought is to quote someone else.
"Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information."8

The first quote was from Tony Jones, a seemingly intelligent and spiritually mature member and leader of the emergent church movement, and it was said with seemingly a straight face communicating what he really believes. The second quote was from the NBC sitcom “The Office” as stated by the fictional bumbling buffoon, socially inept, and otherwise disaster of a boss named Michael Scott. He also made his comment in utter sincerity, but it was done so in the context of the program to show the utter foolishness of someone using wikipedia for the very reason that Tony Jones lauds its virtue. Whereas that makes the comment on “The Office” funny, it makes Tony Jones’ comments very tragic.

Finally, Mr. Jones’ statement, “I trust the crowd more than I trust the one guy with the Ph. D. from Oxford” was very tragically revealing. It was the wisdom of the crowd, rather than the God ordained authority, that led Aaron to make the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was the wisdom of the crowd that led ten brothers to abduct their brother, sell him into slavery, and lie to their father for decades stating that their brother was dead. It was the pressure from the crowd, not an individual, that led Peter to act hypocritically around gentile believers in the young church. It was the judgment and fury of the crowd that called for the execution of the innocent Son of God.

Church leaders are never above question. We must be Bereans when it comes to anything that anyone says about God. Did the Bereans use coliseumpedia or the writings of Plato or Aristotle to test find out if what Paul was saying was true? No, they used the Scriptures. We should use the Scriptures, for they are inspired by God for all things concerning doctrine, life, and godliness (cf. 1 Peter 1:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:15,16). Modern scientific theory does not trump the Scriptures nor does it guide our interpretation. The Scriptures help us in understanding the natural world as well as our place in it. Psychology does not trump the Scriptures, nor do the theories of any psychological school of thought guide their interpretation. The Scriptures help us to understand the inner workings of the mind, knowing the inner workings of the mind does not give us a better insight as to what the Scriptures mean. Scripture interprets Scripture. We just need to be humble enough to see its clarity and teachable enough to change our minds lest we profess to be wise, but truly be fools.

1 And notice that I did not make any statements about man’s sinful nature, the substitutionary atoning work of Christ on the cross, of salvation by grace alone through faith, or any number of other key Biblical truths. Because, if I did, they would become the focus of discussion other than my main point – anyone who affirms Jesus, His deity, and His claims falls into the category of Christendom, if not Christian.

2 Tony Jones interviewed on KKMS Live with Jeff and Lee, 3/10/08 (hour 3).

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.



tony said...

I'm glad that the interview caused you to think! Good post.

terriergal said...

Hey did he say something about walking his daughter to the bus and repeating some catholic something or other every morning?

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