Archives For Theology

A couple of months ago I attended the BioLogos national conference in Houston. BioLogos are Christians who espouse evolutionary creationism, one of the positions on creation I know the least about – and not one I’ve held. I attended not because I think their viewpoint is the best but because I felt the need to learn from my Christian brothers and sisters, most of them scientists, who deeply love Jesus and his gospel and maintain there’s no real tension between science and faith as it relates to one of the most controversial and taboo topics in Christian circles: evolution. Needless to say, they’ve got a big hill to climb. But I appreciate them. They are asking questions I believe the church is going to have to answer sooner than we think (e.g., DNA editing, Genomic studies, embryonic medicine, and, not the least of which, what latest genetic studies claim about evolutionary theory).

As far as the conference went, I had nothing to share. I was just a fly on the wall. I wanted to learn, dialogue, and ask questions of them theologically and biblically. I discovered being with them the same thing I believe I would if they were the Intelligent Design, literal six-day, or some other camp – that they were sincere, winsome believers who genuinely wanted to live the truth of God in their lives as best as they understood Scripture and nature. It was moving for me to see their sincerity of faith, humility of spirit, and desire to honor God and his word. To be fair, I probably left with as many questions as answers, but that’s more than okay. One thing in which I did remain steadfast was the fact that there is no unanimous agreement on how believers understand the creation account of Genesis (even the BioLogos crew don’t agree amongst themselves).

All of it reminded me of a question I frequently get at CCCC: Yancey, what’s the church’s view of creation? It’s usually from members or leaders who’ve finally plucked up enough courage to ask their Teaching Pastor about how their beloved local church interprets Genesis 1-2 in the hopes CCCC’s view will match theirs. When they hear my answer, it almost always (not all the time) ends in relief. Let me explain.

Famous atheist and political commentator Bill Maher, on his television show Real Time with Bill Maher, questioned New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat as to if he agreed all religions are anti-intellectual. Douthat disagreed by way of an illustration. He said the assumption is critics like Maher look at religious history and assume all Christians have taken the Genesis account of creation literally. Then Douthat went the historical route, adding:

But the truth is the idea that you take Genesis literally, as like six literal days of creation is pretty much a modern invention. Fundamentalism starts in the late 19th century…if you go back and look at ancient Christian authorities, they look at Genesis [differently] saying, “Look, this obvious isn’t [literal]…If you actually look at the first few chapters of Genesis, whoever wrote the Bible clearly didn’t mean to say this is a scientific account of creation. And actually, serious Christians have known that all the way back to the 1st century A.D.1

He’s right, at least with the point that Church History is full of godly, earnest, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christian leaders who’ve held to different interpretations of Genesis 1-2.

For example, Church Father Augustine of Hippo, in his book The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, argued for an allegorical interpretation of the days of creation. His thoughts were ‘published’ in the early 5th century. Origen of Alexandria, an influential Christian thinker, taught Genesis should be interpreted symbolically. He lived all the way back in the 3rd century. This gives greater weight to the idea that it’s a modern invention to believe the church must have a uniform view of Genesis’ creation account in order to be considered ‘orthodox.’ Even in the 21st century, I can think of at least six different views current Christians hold concerning the creation account:

  • Literal six-day
  • Gap theory
  • Day-age theory
  • Literary framework
  • Intelligent Design
  • Evolutionary Creation

Each are attempts to best understand the creation account of Genesis in light of what is known about the universe today. Why so many? Well, the text isn’t so cut-and-dry as people may think. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are other questions: Do you believe in an Old Earth or Young Earth? Was the flood localized or global? Is Adam a singular person or could he be representational (or both)? Does the prehistory of Genesis 1-11 have the same kind of intent as Genesis 12-25 or is it different somehow? Did God speak via the Big Bang or not? These questions aren’t new. Actually, people have been asking questions like them for decades or even centuries.

That’s why at CCCC we are not dogmatic about one particular view over another. Personally, I’ve held most of the views listed. They all have pro’s and con’s. When I teach the doctrine of creation to our lay leaders in systematic theology I encourage them to wrestle with it themselves and ascribe to the position they believe best makes sense of the two books of God: nature and Scripture (Ps. 19). If you pick six literal days, great! If it’s Gap theory, good for you! If Intelligent Design is your choice, more power to ya! I try to emphasize that ultimately all these views at least agree on the critical truth that God created all things for his glory.

Frankly, I view the interpretations of the Bible’s beginning the same way I view interpretations of the Bible’s conclusion, namely, that since there are different, legitimate positions to which honest and earnest believers hold (e.g., amillennial, premillennial, postmillennial). CCCC does not have an official “end times” position either. We believe Christ’s return is personal, visible, and imminent. As to exactly what and how he will return, we’re not going to be dogmatic, just like the what and how God did creation.

It’s one more reason why CCCC doesn’t have an official position outside of this: We believe God created all things for his glory as expressed in Genesis 1-2. As to exactly how and what, well, now it’s your turn to do the hard work, learn, dialogue, ask questions, and choose…

In their blog this week The Gospel Coalition commemorated John Piper’s famous 2000 Passion Conference message “Don’t Waste Your Life” (aka, the “seashells” talk). It not only fixed Piper’s influence in the hearts of the 40,000 twenty-somethings gathered in Memphis on that afternoon in May but also became, as the blog notes, “formative for a generation.” For many, Dr. Piper’s words were prophetic, arresting, and spoke to them in the deepest of ways. I call that kind of a message a life message. It’s the kind of message that ruins you for all the right reasons and boldly changes the trajectory of your life.

It got me thinking about my own life message. I heard a talk (also a conference message) that spoke to me in the deepest of ways. It was one of those rare moments when you read or hear something by someone who puts into words what you believed but couldn’t put into words yourself. You just can’t quite formulate it yet. It was like an essential code in the back of your mind (and the middle of your heart) always frustratingly suspended on the verge of being broken. But the second someone finally deciphered it and you beheld its long-awaited clarity in all its glory, it became the Aha! moment where you shouted, “That’s what I believe!”

My “seashells” message was given by Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This was before he had written his bestselling books or attained national notoriety. It was 2007. A friend of mine in NYC encouraged me to listen to “this Tim Keller guy” whenever I had the chance, so when I came across a video of his address to the newly minted Gospel Coalition in May of that same year with a message entitled, “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” I thought it something I needed to hear. I settled into my office, closed the door, and watched his 55-minute address.

I was spellbound almost from the word ‘go.’ Dr. Keller’s struggles in church paralleled mine. Yet his answer to those struggles was exactly what I’d thought but couldn’t put into words: a theology of gospel-centrality. My growing angst in ministry had finally found the answer. Indeed, as I heard him eloquently speak about not only what the gospel is but how it should intersect all ministry, especially the pulpit (as he also was a preaching pastor), I kept saying aloud, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Although his address wasn’t significantly animated or charismatic like John Piper’s message, I was continuously moved to tears throughout it.

Finally, I had the clarity I was looking for. The code was deciphered in my head and heart. It was such a “moment” for me I watched it again. Another 55 minutes of me nodding my head, dabbing tears from eyes, and saying in my heart, “This is what I believe!” In author Jared Wilson’s parlance, I was experiencing a gospel awakening.1

The grace in it all was Keller’s ability to not only put into words what I couldn’t about gospel-centered ministry but to provide a framework and paradigm for it as well. Now that I had it (or better yet, it had me), I was dangerous because I knew what this meant. I knew this would define me, my ministry, and the local church I served. There was no turning back. I wanted to know everything I could from those who sought to keep the gospel central to ministry. In short, I was ruined.

I read a lot, studied a ton, and even chose my doctoral work based on a seminary that would deepen me in gospel-centered ministry. I began to dialogue with those who were way ahead of me. I couldn’t get enough! I even called up Redeemer and asked for their discipleship materials, and our executive staff spent weeks working through them.2 Needless to say, gospel-centrality would be a defining mark of CCCC. Indeed, ten years later, it has. In a survey a few years ago of our staff and small group leadership, when asked what makes CCCC “CCCC,” at the very top of the list was our commitment to the centrality of the gospel in all things.

So, for all my Passion friends who were marked by God through Piper’s words, Keller’s did the same for me with this message3:

If I could give one piece of advice to spiritual seekers (or believers for that matter) who have nagging questions about Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity which keep them from embracing Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, I could summarize it in two words: work hard. If there are troubles, doubts, or a lack of clarity keeping you from a deeper engagement or commitment to knowing and following God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ then I would encourage you to be industrious about finding the answers. If you attend a local church you might utilize her leaders or journey along with a small group of believers for help. Furthermore, you could read books from the best and brightest biblical scholarship over the decades if not the centuries. You could also see if the Church Historical has already encountered and answered your questions (I mean, we’re talking roughly 2,000 years here). Regardless how you pursue the answers to your questions, the point is to actually pursue them.

Far too often when I hear of someone’s journey for answers it seems less a journey and more an extremely abbreviated stroll…to their computer to google a question. Unfortunately for many, the “search” amounts to finding within the first page or two of results an answer which merely serves to reaffirm biases and preconceived notions1, and that’s it, they’re done. Back to binge-watching on Netflix. Or maybe the journey abruptly concluded because of a Facebook fake news post blasting long-held truths of orthodox Christianity that the reader assumes is legitimate simply because it’s on a webpage. Hear me, both illustrations are examples of those who aren’t looking for answers as much as wanting to retain excuses for unbelief. Real searching takes real work. Frankly, how hard we work at our search tends to indicate how genuine our search really is. In other words, working hard can be a litmus test for what constitutes a real question we’re hung up on versus something we just tell people we struggle with because we don’t want to come across spiritually shallow or lazy.

The 1992 Academy Award-nominated Lorenzo’s Oil tells the true story of a family with a child, Lorenzo Odone, who begins to show neurological problems, such as loss of hearing, tantrums, etc. The boy is diagnosed as having adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), which is fatal within two years. Augusto, Lorenzo’s father, an economist who worked for the World Bank, couldn’t find a doctor to treat their son’s rare disease, so he took it upon himself to find a treatment to save his son’s life. In their quest, the Odones clash with doctors, scientists, and support groups, who are skeptical that anything could be done about ALD, much less by laypeople – remember, he’s an economist, not a doctor. But Augusto is undeterred. He sets up camp in medical libraries, reviewing animal experiments, enlists the aid of a professor, presses researchers, question top doctors all over the world, and even organized an international symposium about the disease. And yet, in spite of research dead-ends and the horror of watching his son’s health decline, Augusto persists until he finally discovers a therapy involving adding a certain kind of oil to their son’s diet. The movie ends with his son’s improvement and future brighter than when it began.2

Why all the work? Why all the blood, sweat, and tears to get the right answer? Well, for Odone family, getting the answer was literally a matter of life and death. But is our spiritual quest amidst questions and doubts any different? On the contrary, I would argue it’s even greater, for the stakes are infinite. The consequences being eternal life or eternal death (cf., Heb. 9:27). This is why each of us should do whatever it takes to reduce the doubts we have by working hard to get the correct answers, even if we don’t like the answers we find.

Don’t settle for living a life where your “doubts” are really excuses in disguise. Think deeply about the questions you have and work hard to find the answers. Run to the real “oil” of truth and be honest with what you find, even if you don’t like it. Doing so will aid you in your spiritual journey for the present and hopefully for the life to come.

Work hard.