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February 2020
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A Lesson from the “Oxford Comma”

Okay, I own up! The tag-line under the site title above—“A Blog About Theology, Thinking, Reading, Writing, and Teaching”—does have an “Oxford comma,” aka the “serial comma.”

The “Oxford comma” is the comma placed before the word “and” in a list of three or more items for the purpose of clarification. The “Grammarly Blog” offers this humorous example of its merit:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

As written, see, that sentence could be understood to say that “Lady Gaga” and “Humpty Dumpty” are the speaker’s parents! The meaning isn’t plain! But the simple insertion of an Oxford comma clears it up (unless, of course, the speaker’s parents really are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty):

I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

Ah! Better! However, much more than a humorous misunderstanding may be on the line. In 2018, a multi-million dollar lawsuit was actually won by employees against their company on the basis of an absent Oxford comma in Maine’s overtime law. So, missing punctuation may not only yield comical results, but lead to costly consequences.

So what am I arguing for here? Precision and clarity!

Take or leave the “Oxford comma” as you see fit as long as your message is precise and clear! The bane of much biblical-theological discussion and debate these days is pervasive imprecision and murkiness, generality and incoherence, and simply the fear of drawing lines because line-drawing is so unpopular.

When I was in seminary, I had Dr. Craig Blaising for a course in Advanced Systematic Theology. It was terrifying! It was also one of the best courses I had, because Dr. Blaising not only taught us theology (content) but how to do theology (method). And one of the core pieces of good theological method, he insisted, is precision and clarity—a point he demonstrated decisively over the course of the semester by using our lack of precision and clarity to drive each of us at last into one ancient heresy or another. So …

Define! Qualify! Divide! Compare and contrast! Expound! Illustrate! Draw lines—thick and heavy and hard—when needed! And, yes, even use an Oxford comma! Only be sure to do whatever it takes to be precise and clear in your own studies and especially as you teach, preach, and share the biblical gospel!

The Good Fight!

In the previous post, “Insensibly …”,  we were considering the dangers posed by “drift”—this all-too-easy business of inattention and indifference which can take us, oh so insensibly, into decline and fall before we know what’s happened. And we exhorted ourselves then to come to our senses, or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (Heb 2:1). Then we ended by asking, “How?” How do we come to our senses? How do we avoid the danger of insensibly drifting away into decline and ruin? How do we really fight “the good fight,” especially in such strange days as these?

Well, God’s Word speaks to the matter quite directly, in 2 Timothy 3. Paul says at 3:1 that “in the last days difficult times” will come. He uses an adjective here (χαλεποί) that carries the idea not only of hard, difficult, troublesome, but in some real sense ferocious, dangerous. And when Paul says “the last days,” he has in mind, quite broadly, this whole period from the completion of Christ’s work until the end, not just some short little period just before the Second Coming. We are now in “the last days” and these days, now, are just such peculiarly “perilous” times.

Look around! People are, as Paul says they will be, “lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . .” (2 Tim 3:2-4).  And what is particularly unsettling is that these are also religious folks—“holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (3:5). They have an outward form of religion, but know nothing of, in fact live in contradiction to, the power and reality of true Christianity. That truth explains why polls indicate that America is a “very religious” country, and at the same time the most corrupt and violent of any developed nation on the face of the planet.

So what are we to do? How do we stay on mission—avoid drift, fight the good fight—in the middle of such a mess as this? In the whole chapter of 2 Timothy 3, there are only three imperative verbs, three commands, that give us desperately needed direction.

  1.  Realize that such times will come (v. 1)
    “Realize, understand, know”1 that there will come violent, fierce, terrible times. “Take note of this and be assured of it,”2 Paul says. And such an understanding starts with a biblical worldview. If we ignore the Fall and its consequences, we set ourselves up for disastrous disappointment and unexpected distress. When it comes to our view of life and the world, we must have something better in place than an idealistic, pie-in-the-sky, Enlightenment notion of humanity that thinks all people are basically good. Without the biblical take on humanity’s situation, when things turn out so much more badly than a wrongheaded kind of worldview ever thought it would, we’ll despair, and get depressed, and worry, and become utterly useless in the good fight and its mission to the world! So, first thing: “Realize such times will come.” Understand that we’re in for a fight if we mean to be faithful. Then …
  2. Separate ourselves from such influence (v. 5)
    That is, don’t get caught up in the spirit of the age. “Turn away from, or shun”3 such people—not personally, of course, because we’re on mission to them, but shun their influence, their pressure, their pull. And do this as a matter of habit. The idea here is not a one-time, break-off of all relations thing, but a constant, moment-by-moment rejection of the assimilating power of the world, moment-by-moment resistance to the acculturating magnetism of the age. And the only hope we have of accomplishing these two objectives—knowing what to expect and successfully resisting it—is to …
  3. Give ourselves to the Word (v. 14ff)
    “Continue4 in the things you have learned and become convinced of …” (3:14). There’s no quick fix, no handy gimmick, no switch to flip. Paul says simply, “Abide in these things, remain faithful to what you have learned, go on steadily, stand on the Truth, keep to the teaching! Continue in what you have learned and become convinced of!” And by that he means continue in the Word of God! See, because of what it is, the “God-breathed” Word of God, it alone is useful in this warfare, because it alone can benefit us by teaching us, convicting us, correcting us, and training us in righteousness. There’s no other way for us to be profitably equipped for every good work (vv. 16-17).

Nothing fancy here, really. Just expect hard times and know that means a fight; resist getting pulled to the dark side; and do both those things by continuing in the Word of God, abiding there, living there, taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5), being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2).

“Too quickly,” James White notes, “and often without a struggle, we trade making history for making money, substitute building a life with building a career and sacrifice living for God” to “living for the weekend. We forgo permanent significance for the sake of petty success and pursue the superficialities of title and degree, house and car, rank and portfolio over a life lived large and well.”5 That’s the way and the end of insensible drift!

May it not be so with us!

Everything is at stake here: heaven or hell, paradise or suffering, forgiveness or judgment. In the fullness of time, everything gets put to the final test. Everything! This is no time for toy soldiers.

So, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:11-12).

  1.  Grk., γίνωσκε, present active imperative.
  2.  Respectively, the renderings of The Emphasized New Testament: A New Translation by J. B. Rotherham and The New Testament in Modern Speech by Richard Francis Weymouth.
  3.  Grk., ἀποτρέπου, present middle imperative.
  4. Grk., μένε.
  5.  James Emery White, Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 12.

“Insensibly …”

The past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit on reading! James Sire’s little treatise entitled How to Read Slowly: Reading for 12__Reading_young_manComprehension1 is a tasty treat, as is Gene Veith’s Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature2. The book I’m reading now is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction3 which I’m finding both charming and challenging!

At one point in his larger case, speaking to the trouble of trying to “read noninstrumental texts in an instrumental way,”4 Jacobs points out how the best features of artful writing—i.e. language that’s “unusually vivid or lovely, or if its presentation of ideas or images is subtle and surprising”—can just be missed by our reading too quickly with the wrong goals in view. And as an example he points to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

A striking feature of this multivolume tome,5 he says, is Gibbon’s penchant for the adverb “insensibly.”6  Then, after providing a few examples, Jacobs writes:

Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course.7

Wow! Besides recognizing that here is something “vital” and not “trivial” in the story of Rome’s decline and fall, I was soberly reminded that this is something Scripture itself warns us of in every age, and it’s a truth we’re more likely now, in Our Time, to miss than not because of the “hurry” we’re in all the time. We miss the lessons of Scripture and of history in our mad rush from one big thing to another, in our frantic pursuit of the next excitement, in our agitated aversion to slowness, in our restless inability to sit quietly and listen to learn, in our paralyzing addiction to endless distraction. And in the process, we all but consign ourselves, oh so insensibly, to decline and fall at last!

And while I think this is certainly at work in Western civilization at large, it’s also particularly a danger now affecting the church itself in the West.

  • Insensibly, the church as a whole in our culture has largely lost the very concept of Truth (with a capital T).
  • Insensibly, the church has forfeited much of its sense of God’s weightiness in its life.
  • Insensibly, the church has failed to grasp much of the nature of the local church and what it means to be a member in it.
  • Insensibly, the church has lost its ground in the authoritative revelation of Scripture.
  • Insensibly, the church has surrendered its prophetic/moral voice in Our Time.
  • Insensibly, the church has been largely assimilated by the spirit of the age.
  • Insensibly, the church has too often too easily minimized its missional/evangelistic work in the world.

And the consequences for this are dire! Oh, God’s purposes of redemption in the history of the world will go on, yes! “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” says the Lord. “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:10-11). But we are profoundly mistaken if we think that cannot happen without us, however insensibly we live!

We must come to our senses!

The same thing—this insensible decline and fall— can also happen in our individual lives. Right? The Bible vividly captures the trickery and treachery of this numb condition in its sharp warning against drift. “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Heb 2:1). The way he puts it all there is so very strong, something like “It’s necessary to, we must (δεῖ), in a greater degree, all the more earnestly, more exceedingly (περισσοτέρως) attend to, give heed to (προσέχειν) holding the course on and securing our anchor in what we’ve heard, i.e. in everything God’s telling us in his word.”

Why? Because there really is this terrible danger at hand of drifting away! Drifting is one of the great sins of Our Time! And it happens insensibly! No resistance to speak of, no notice of departure and movement, no sense of any shift in direction, too busy with the deck chairs to take a reading, the moorings slip and the rudder pivots just so slightly, and—unsuspectingly caught in the strong undertow of this present evil age—off you go … away!

No one actively has to  betray Jesus, or openly reject the faith. All that’s needed is inattention—put your Bible down; stop gathering with other believers, pray less and less, read all kinds of other stuff (novels, magazines, articles, Facebook, etc.) uncritically; just watch TV  (sitcoms, movies, all these “reality” shows, these ruthless competitions, etc.) mindlessly; just drink in the unspoken assumptions of your workplace; become preoccupied with the sights and sounds, the offers and applause, the values and priorities of this present age—in other words, just live insensibly and you will drift, off and out, until you are swept away!

Oh, we must come to our senses!

But How? Look for the next post, The Good Fight!

“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

  1. Shaw Books, 2nd ed., 2000, 192 pp.
  2. Crossway, redesign ed., 2013, 256 pp.
  3. Oxford University Press, 2011, 176 pp.
  4. That is, for example, trying “to read fiction or poetry or history or theology or even what the bookstores call ‘current events’ as quickly as possible and with the goal of accurate transference of data.” Pp. 73-74.
  5. The annotated edition is just shy of 5,000 pages long in six volumes.
  6. This piqued my curiosity. So I downloaded the full text of Gibbon’s work and searched for the word. He uses “insensibly” 419 times along with the adjective “insensible” another 116 times. This is clearly thematic!
  7. P. 75.

Big “T” / Little “t”

Folks who know me—especially at the church or in my college/university classes—know that I talk often (and often, passionately) about the difference between big-“T” truth1 and little-“t” truth.

Little-“t” truth is subjective and/or contextual. You may, e.g., say about a movie you’ve watched, “It made me sad!” That is a little-“t” true statement concerning the emotion/feeling the movie stirred in you. No one can deny the reality of your response. Others, though, may offer a different little-“t” true statement—”That movie really encouraged me!”—based on their feelings, a view that disagrees with yours but still is undeniable. Being subjective/contextual means two little-“t” truths may conflict with one another and yet both still be discretely “true.”

But if you say, “It’s a sad movie!” then, technically, you’ve made a Big-“T” truth claim—one that is universal, comprehensive, and enduring about the objective nature of the film. In this case, when others disagree with you, perhaps intensely, they do so on the conviction that you are wrong and their differing belief is right. The proper response, then, on each side is to set forth the case. Possibly, both are wrong, but both cannot be right. It’s a Big-“T” truth issue.

The distinction here is absolutely crucial. Confusing these categories of truth statements (Big-“T” and little-“t”), or collapsing one into the other, leads down disastrous avenues of speculation, inference, assumption, conclusion, belief, and practice. Remember…

Ideas have consequences … always!

This is where “the postmodern turn” has taken us—to a strange land where little-“t” truth has now “eaten up” Big-“T” truth. The reigning consensus, at least in matters philosophical/spiritual/religious/ethical, is that everyone has his or her own truth. And all such truth is little-“t” truth. It’s private, personal preference, individual value, belief that’s “true for you”! Just don’t call it knowledge or fact, as something rational and verifiable, that speaks with public authority and is true for everyone, everywhere, all the time. Don’t call it Big-“T” Truth! Dies ist verboten—the postmodern version of blasphemy!

It struck me just how pervasive this thinking has become, even among people raised in church, as I read remarks professing Christians had made about the Christian claim to know Big-“T” Truth. For example, they said things like this:

  • “There are many different religions in the world and many ways to get to know them. Yes, it is not fair for Christians to be able to say that they have the best religion …”
  • “No religion should put down other religions simply due to differences in opinion.”
  • “Simply because we as Christians believe that Christianity is the most ‘valid option’ does not mean that it is true of those who believe in other religions or worship other gods. I personally do not think that it is right for Christians to put down other religions by saying that we have the best faith or the one and only true faith.”
  • “Christians should not claim to have the best faith or the only true faith, as all major religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, are equally valid and basically teach the same thing about certain aspects.”
  • “Each religion or faith is one of many equally valid paths to God and ways to live in the world.”
  • “God tells us to love our neighbors and many religions are extremely similar to Christianity and those who are putting down others because of their beliefs are not showing the true love of God.”
  • “As a Christian, I believe Christianity to be the one true faith for me personally; however, other people have different opinions …”

Can you hear the unspoken assumption running through all of this? It’s the notion that all philosophical/religious/spiritual/ethical claims are little-“t” truths, and there’s no such thing as Big-“T” Truth!

We live in a diverse time and place (that’s called factual pluralism), and we ascribe to others (or we should) the right to legal and social tolerance—the right to practice whatever faith they choose and be treated as persons with dignity and respect. But it’s another thing altogether to believe that all ideas are equal and equally valid. That’s called philosophical/religious pluralism, and at its heart is the loss of Truth! Tolerance, then, is no longer respect for the person, expressed in gentleness and patience, even while disagreeing with his or her ideas. Now, tolerance is ascribing validity to all ideas, and the most intolerant thing one can do is claim to know Big-“T” Truth—Truth that invalidates anything that contradicts it.

So, given where we are in Our Time, what is the way ahead for the Church? How should we now live?

Well, first, there are some things we cannot do:

  • We cannot ignore the challenges of Our Time. True Christianity never sticks its head in the sand and pretends the world is not there in all of its fallenness. We won’t be salt and light if we ignore the reality of the decay and darkness.
  • We cannot accommodate to the culture of Our Time. This is the mistake the old-line liberal theologians made in the face of modernism (surrendering  the supernatural/miraculous elements of the Truth), the mistake neo-orthodox theologians made in the face of existentialism (surrendering the historical realities of the Truth), and the mistake Emergent churches are making now in the face of postmodernism (surrendering certainty in the knowledge of the Truth). We won’t ever gain a standing if we give away precious and powerful ground.
  • We cannot compromise with the worldviews of Our Time. If we begin with the assumptions and operate within the conceptual framework of the spirit of the age, then we inevitably, however unintentionally, undermine the claims of biblical Truth and too easily slip our gospel moorings and drift aimlessly off into heterodoxy, and even heresy. Church history abounds with this sad lesson.
  • And we cannot simply shout at Our Time. The answer to the clamoring and confusing voices that fill the culture is not simply to yell louder, as if volume and attention alone is all that’s needed to make a difference.

Instead, here are some clear and biblical things we must do:

  • We must become informed about the challenges of Our Time. And this has at least two aspects to it:
    1. This, first, requires exposition of the Word. Being informed about the challenges of Our Time requires some means for discerning just what is and what is not a problem. As we read, study, and learn God’s Word, the Truth does the remarkable work of renewing our minds—tearing down all “speculations” and “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God,” and taking “every thought captive to obey Christ”—so that we are able to “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” (Rom 12:1-2; 2 Cor 10:1-5; 1 Thess 5:21). “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psa 119:130). And so, one of the great needs in our churches is for “shepherds” after God’s own heart, “who will feed” God’s people “with knowledge and understanding” (Jer 3:15), as Ezra did in Nehemiah’s day: “They read from the book of God’s law, explaining it and imparting insight. Thus the people gained understanding from what was read” (Neh 8:8).
    2. Second, it then requires exposition of the World in light of the Word. We must become like the leaders of the tribe of Issachar in David’s time, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel (and in our case, the Church) ought to do” (1 Chron 12:32). If we mean truly to be useful in our generation, then we have to understand the times in which we live and know what these times in particular require of us. An older pastor under whom I learned much as a young man used to say about certain issues, “The blood has dried on that sword!” meaning, “That issue is not the fight now; that question is a distraction from the real battle now!” Luther was getting at this very thing when he wrote:

      “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

  • We must also be willing and content to be different. In many cases, this means foregoing popular acceptance for the sake of making a permanent impact. It means surrendering the desire to be fashionable, trendy, cool!2 It means the hard work of putting to death selfish ambition in all of its expressions (fame, fortune, popularity, power, etc.) and embracing the place of faithful presence—loving the Lord and our neighbor, for the glory of God and our neighbor’s good—wherever we are. That is stunningly counter-cultural!
  • And we must confront the worldviews of Our Time. Confrontation is an uncomfortable idea for lots of Christians who have come to think that Christian love is little more than a soft sort of sentimentalism that never draws lines. This, of course, is quite untrue. God is the God of order, of design, of legislation, the Lord of “the way things really are,” who is true even if the whole world is proved false (Rom 3:4). Our gospel work in the world is, inevitably, a matter of worldviews in conflict. Paul’s Areopagus address in Acts 17:16-31 is a pointed study in evangelistically and missionally critiquing and confronting a pagan and pluralistic worldview (just such as dominates Our Time) from a full-orbed biblical worldview.
  • But we must also do all we do humblyWe are, after all, what we are by the grace of God alone (1 Cor 15:10). And we are against the world only for the sake of the world! As far as it depends on us, we “live peaceably with all,” yes! And though we must also speak the truth, we do it “in love” and we give an answer for our hope “with gentleness and respect” (Eph 4:15; 1 Pet 3:15; Rom 12:18).

We confess and proclaim—with power and proportion and compassion, but without apology—that Christianity is not just relatively true, but is absolutely, universally, and exclusively true—the bright and shining gospel light of Big-“T” Truth for people dwelling and despairing in the little-“t” land of darkness!

  1. Which I also refer to at times as “Capital-T Truth.”
  2. As Matt Chandler said in a recent message, “… the incessant need to be seen as cool and relevant must die.”

Truth Matters! Really!

The Christian faith has, at its core, cognitive content.

When that reality crashed in on my understanding some 40 years ago, it changed my whole life.

How had I missed this? I had been raised in church. At the time, I was caught up in the influence of the Jesus movement, and the budding contemporary Christian music scene, and the excited anticipation of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth apocalypticism. And though I knew some of what the Bible said, I realized that I knew next to nothing about what the Bible taught. And so, confronted with my ignorance, I started reading Scripture again with new focus. And verse after startling verse, all related to this growing awareness of the gospel’s truth content, passed before my wondering mind with new and burning clarity:

  • “You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth …” (John 5:33).
  • “If you abide in my word (or, continue to follow my teaching), you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
  • “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth …” (John 17:8).
  • “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
  • “… those who are perishing, … refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Th 2:10).
  • “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Th 2:13)
  • “… God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3–4).
  • “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
  • “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth …” (2 Tim 2:25).
  • “… always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7).
  • “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth …” (James 1:18).
  • There is “… the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).

I suddenly grasped that the gospel being God’s news means that it has propositional substance. “News” is, first and fundamentally, information about important things. It’s communication of particulars about who, what, where, when, why, and how. I saw the fact that there being such a thing as “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6), “a gospel contrary to the one you received” (v. 9), means that God’s gospel is comprised of specific, recognizable, explainable truth claims and anything that deviates from that body of truth is false.

There can be no false gospel unless there is a definable true gospel.

That was the beginning of a lifelong adventure of reading, wrestling with, praying through, being rebuked and corrected and trained by, and loving more and more the Word of God.

So, I’m inviting you to walk with me some on this journey into the Truth—into the wonder of its beauty, the marvel of its wisdom, the joy of its liberty, the richness of its grace, the clarity of its light, and the glory of its fullness in the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).

Truth matters! It really does!