Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

What is Prophecy? Part One

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on June 3, 2012 at 4:21 am
Prophet Micha

Prophet Micha

A few days ago, I ended my post commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5 with the following paragraph:

(Paul) ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

In the Pentecostal / Charismatic churches that I grew up in, ‘prophecy’ went something like this: we’d be worshiping God as a group, sometimes through spiritual songs, sometimes just everyone lifting their hands up towards heaven, praying softly. In either event, the emotional level would be very high – some folks might be crying or so involved in prayer as to seem in a trance. There would be a sudden stillness in the group, as if everyone suddenly expected something to happen. The musicians might even ‘sense’ that they should stop playing.

Then, one of two things would happen; someone would speak in tongues, publicly, meant for all to hear, and we’d all wait for someone to interpret the ‘message’ that had been given, or someone would prophecy directly, in English. These spiritual utterances, if you will, were usually fairly general exhortations that made generous use of known scriptural verses. However, sometimes they would include more local or personal instructions, aimed at the group or an individual within the group. This was my understanding of what the New Testament writers meant when they spoke of prophecy – speaking the mind of God to others. Pentecostal / Charismatic folk feel this kind of practice is what occurred in the 1st century church, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 14 and other locations in the NT.

My concern has always been – even as a sincere believer – how Christians are to determine what is truly of God, and what comes from the spirit of the prophet. People can get excited, make mistakes, have a particular point of view they see things through, etc. How can we be sure that people are really speaking for God?

If you’ve been reading the comments on my site, you’ve seen that one sincere Christian, Lindsay Harold, feels she has a good system for separating good prophecy from bad. In short, she thinks good prophecies meet three important criteria:

  • they cannot contradict the scripture
  • they must be rational and sensible
  • they cannot contain new revelation

I think this is a fair summary of her main points – you can read her comments for yourself on my previous post. I said that I thought her answers were well presented and seemed to have some good thoughts behind them, but that her answers really only opened up more questions. My reply addressed her main points in the following way:

  1. Since there are thousands of Christian denominations, all preaching different interpretations of the scripture on Sunday morning, there is no true consensus on what the scripture says; therefore in can be difficult to determine what might contradict the scripture.
  2. The life of faith is not always rational and sensible. Religious people believe in things that cannot be perceived with the five senses or proven through empirical evidence. In the Bible, God has often asked people to do illogical things. He asked Abraham to kill his son, for example. He asked the leper, Namaan, to bathe in the River Jordan if as a cure for his leprosy.
  3. Stipulating that prophets could not reveal anything new about God than had already been revealed seemed to render the gift of prophecy useless – it equates prophecy with quoting scripture. In addition, it would seem to suggest that any denomination outside the Catholic church was in error, for all Protestant sects claim in one way or another that they have a new revelation from God that has been ignored by other denominations before them.

Notice I’m not saying she’s wrong – on the surface, I think any believer could agree with what she writes. I’m just saying there are problems that her answers do not address.

Lindsay responded with a lengthy explanation. I admire the fact that her positions are thoughtful – not like that woman I saw on CNN the other day. But I’m still not really persuaded by her arguments. Below is a ‘conversation’ of sorts about prophecy – her comments are in italics.

I believe you misunderstand what prophecy is. Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God.

I was a fervent believer for two decades. I taught the adult Sunday school class in my church, including the letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. I wouldn’t have had the audacity to tell another reflective believer that they misunderstood something in the New Testament; I would have acknowledged that we had a different understanding of God’s word, but I never would have said that they didn’t understand what they read.

This goes back to my original point, which I affirm to be a valid one – American Christianity is highly individualistic in nature. There are nearly as many interpretations of scripture as there are believers; certainly any honest Christian would have to admit that each individual congregation tends to worship God and interpret scripture in a slightly different way.

In the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets who were mouthpieces for God. They told the people what God was saying to them. In many cases, this was new revelation – new information about God’s expectations and commands for the people.

I don’t want to give too much veneration to Old Testament prophets. Let’s first of all assume that the OT is really God’s word – that is was written when it claims it was written, by whom it claims it was written by, etc. – all dubious claims in the light of modern scholarship. But for the sake of argument, lets assume it is what it says it is. There are a lot of ‘prophecies’ that involve murder, genocide, rape, bigamy, and other heinous crimes that would land a man in jail if he followed them. How can we call a man a prophet when he uses his supernatural connections to summon bears out of the woods to kill children – just because they taunted him by calling him ‘old baldy‘?

Lindsay’s post is lengthy – and thank God she differentiates NT from OT prophecy. Since it’s 4am – let me stop here for now and continue this conversation tomorrow or the day after.

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More North Carolina Nonsense

In Religion and Society on May 27, 2012 at 2:46 am

Here’s a video of one of Pastor Worley’s parishioners trying to defend what he said –

What do you think? Am I being unfair when I say she doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what she’s defending or why? Nor does she seem to know what the Bible indeed says about the matter. She seems angry at Anderson Cooper’s questions – am I wrong in thinking that they seem fair, earnest, and not at all accusatory? It seems she’s angry that anyone would question the authority of her pastor. It seems to me that he’s just asking honest, fair questions.

Anderson raises a lot of the same issue that I mentioned in my post – 1200 strong congregation in support of this guy means he’s not someone on the radical fringe, why is homosexuality worse than adultery or other sins a literal following of Leviticus would lead us to some unpleasant conclusions, etc. – and brings up a few others. Yet this woman seems to think that the ‘mainstream media’ is making something out of nothing.

My main point here is not that homosexuality is right or that marriage should be re-defined. My main point is that there a lot of Christians who don’t have a clue as to what their Bible really says. They follow the priests and prophets blindly. This isn’t good for Christianity – and it’s definitely not good for democracy.

What do you think of this woman’s defense? If you agree with her – can you make a better defense of her ideas than she does? Would love to read your posts.

Good Reasons for “Believing” in God

In New Atheism on May 22, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Do you believe in God? Why or why not?

I’ve always imagined that this would be the kind of essay question you’d receive from St. Peter when you arrived at the pearly gates. He’d give you one of those little blue essay booklets from your college days, a couple of No. 2 pencils, give you about an hour to write a thousand words – and all of eternity would depend upon your answer.

Like most people, you may think there are really only two ways to answer this question; either ‘yes’ and support your beliefs with information from the Bible, church history, and the like (much easier to do if you were actually sitting at those gates), or ‘no’ and appeal to science, philosophy, empirical evidence, etc.

Dan Dennett has discovered yet a third way to answer – belief in belief. In a lecture given at an Atheist Alliance International conference, Dennett discusses some of the reasons why some may continue to attend church and worship God, even though they may not believe that God exists, or disagree that he exists in such a way as the church believes and teaches.

He begins by saying that there are, of course, many good people in the US and around the world today who believe what the priests and preachers tell them. Their religion and worldview fit together rather nicely, their world seems to be working out fine just the way it is, and there’s little reason to go upsetting apple carts. These are the people who have bumper stickers on their car that proclaim, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” They are too busy with the everyday affairs of their lives to question the system of beliefs that has held sway in the West for the last couple of centuries.

However, he thinks that there are many people sitting in the pews on Sunday who can’t really be described this way. They are what he calls ‘reflective’ Christians, meaning that they do take the time to think about the claims that the priests and preachers make. These folks often find that they have a problem – but they probably don’t confess as much to their religious brethren.  Reflective Christians realize that the Bible seems to have some errors and inconsistencies.  They may doubt that the words attributed to Jesus were actually said by him. They may have problems believing that miracles every occurred. Some may have decided that the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other events critical to Christian dogma simply never happened.

Yet these Christians still go to church every Sunday, still actively participate in church, still ‘believe’.  Why? Dennett examines several possible reasons – reasons to believe in God, even if you’re not 100 percent sure.

First of all, of course, is fear. Most Christians can tell you that fear is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t matter how convincing Richard Dawkins might be, you’d better continue worshiping God – just in case. If God is really as vengeful as he’s described in the Old Testament, you’d be a fool not to hedge your bets.

This line of reasoning was popularized by Blaise Pascal, and is often called Pascal’s Wager. It’s only a good wager, by the way, if the God of the next life is indeed our Judeo-Christian one; if he’s Muslim or one of any of the hundreds of others cultures around the world have believed in, then too bad – so sad. People who worship God for this reason aren’t actually making one single bet; they are actually doubling down on that gambit a number of times – wagering that God exists, that this God is the one our particular culture believes in, that the Bible is indeed the blueprint for how to worship him, and finally, that he’d not be angry with people who were fearful bet-hedgers, not true believers.

Others aren’t worried about facing a vengeful God so much as they fear what Dennett calls a ‘catastrophic collapse of consensus.’ This is perhaps part of what’s driving religious interference in politics. People who fear this may have a nostalgia for what they remember as a simpler time, when it seemed being American meant the same thing to everyone, that it included being Christian, middle class, trusting of government, etc. There is a some validity to this fear. We can see a number of failed states in the world today – Afghanistan, Somalia, and others – and part of what contributed to the un-winding of these states, as it were, was a sharp division in religious belief. People who think this way may not even want to discuss religious issues with non-believers, as that in itself undermines consensus. I don’t agree with the proposed remedy – that we need to get God back in the schools and in the halls of government, but I do see the driving force behind the fear.

Love is another reason to continue believing, even when you have serious doubts. Who wants to hurt their parents, friends and family by admitting that they no longer – or never did – believe? Some have suggested that Charles Darwin postponed the publication of his Origin of Species for many years, so that he would not aggrieve his wife. We might follow our hearts to places our heads advise us against. While I personally could never serve God out of fear of punishment alone, I see love as a valid reason, on several levels. I continued going to church services long after I got anything out of them at all because I didn’t want to hurt my friends and family. And while I think that we as Americans need to build a consensus that isn’t a Christian consensus, I too am terrified of some of the trends I see in this country.

I haven’t mentioned all of the reasons Dennett talks about – including the Concorde Fallacy; I have to leave you some reason to click on the video below and watch for yourself!

What do you think of Dennett’s ideas? And, going back to our original question, do you believe? Or do you believe in belief? I’d love to read your comments.