Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stop the World!

Someone Needs to Get Off!

Full Disclosure: I used to write for World Magazine - mainly Soul Food columns. At one point I was told something along the lines of needing to step it up with my columns because a writer named Andree Seu was coming on strong. It was not long until my run as a columnist ended (the usual: editorial differences), and Mrs. Seu (now Peterson) became a permanent and highly valued member of the World team.

It was all for the best. There came a point at which I saw that the “taking every thought captive” world-and-life-view approach is not what Paul had in mind when he wrote those words and that the New Testament does not provide the “stuff” with which to construct a distinctly Christian approach to every sphere of life. To put it another way, I became convinced that the kingdom is the church and that the weapons by which the church wages warfare are the Word, the sacraments, and the prayers. All this is to say, that I do not share World’s philosophy, and World does not share mine.

But, I do appreciate World and much of its reporting, especially on Christian ministries.  I consider Joel Belz (to whom I am sort of related by marriage) and Marvin and Susan Olasky (whom I came to know when they attended a church where I was a staff member) to be friends. Joel, Marvin, and Susan are good folks.

Andree Seu Peterson
That said, Andree Seu Peterson frustrates the heck out of me. Or, I should say, her handling of the Bible causes me much distress. I have written of this before and had more or less decided "not to speak of this again." But what pushes me over the edge to write on this matter again ( did not make a vow), is her online column of March 25, another egregious example of mishandling the Scriptures.

She writes of her experience in a waiting room where a television was on. One of the commercials was “for salvation in Jesus Christ” and “proclaimed the full gospel.”
According to Mrs. Peterson, the presentation of the gospel was “loud and clear” like the bugle Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 14: 8: “And if a bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” Is Paul saying something that applies to the presentation of the gospel in TV commercials? Perhaps, but, if so, very indirectly. The point of the quotation is about speech being intelligible to the hearer. Paul’s direct concern is not with the proclamation of the gospel to non-believers but with the use of tongues-speaking in the congregation. The indistinct bugle sound is an illustration not of the need to be clear in the presentation of the gospel but of what happened in a worshiping assembly when someone spoke in an unknown tongue (or language) and no one was present who had the gift of interpreting the tongue.

She goes on to address the question posed by church young people of what will be the eternal destiny of  those who do not believe.

For Mrs. Peterson part of the answer is settled by Paul’s declaration that at the Second Coming “the Lord Jesus is (will be) revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God…” (emphasis hers).  

In this case Mrs. Peterson cuts off the quotation before Paul adds a phrase that could complicate her simple answer. Paul writes of judgment on those who “do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Are those who don’t know God and those who don’t obey the gospel of Jesus Christ two groups or does “those who do not obey the gospel” further describe those “who do not know God”? It is likely that the two phrases describe one group of people, the Jews and the rabble they stirred up when Paul proclaimed the gospel in Thessalonica (Acts 17: 1-8).

I am not arguing that those who had never heard the gospel will somehow be saved or annihilated rather than undergo judgment. I am saying that both the question and the text by which she answers the question are more complicated than she allows. What shows up, at least in the column, is an approach to hard questions that is over-simple and lacking in empathy and an approach to the Bible that lacks both nuance and precision.

She goes on to say that another part of the answer is that it is our fault if some fall into the category of “those who do not know God.”  She cites 1 Corinthians 15: 34 where Paul writes “...some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (emphasis hers) as though Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their failure to do evangelism. The problem is that she has lifted out a text that says nothing at all about evangelism. Paul is addressing the problem within the Corinthian church of the teaching and some believing that there is no future bodily resurrection of believers and the effect of this teaching on morals and conduct. What Paul writes is: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’ Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God.  I say this to your shame.” Those who do not know God are those in the congregation who deny the future resurrection of believers. This is of what the congregation should be ashamed.

The final part of the answer to the question about those who have never heard is that “the gospel of Jesus has (emphasis hers) gone out throughout the earth” and cites for proof Colossians 1: 5, 6: “...the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing (ESV: “growing”)...” 

This is a  “literal” reading of the text that distorts its meaning. Did Paul mean literally the “whole world”? Surely not if he means “the word of truth, the gospel” being proclaimed, for while the gospel had enjoyed remarkable spread in the 30 years since Christ’s commissioning of his church (Matthew 28: 18-20), it had not been preached to every country or “people group” unless…

Unless, as Mrs. Peterson says, “God is not restricted by ordinary means from revealing Jesus to people around world (sic).” She cites as an example a man from Tajikistan who in a dream heard Christ calling him. I am not sure whether Mrs. Peterson believes that all or some people who do not hear the gospel by ordinary means receive it by some extraordinary means. What is clear is that she believes the “whole world” means every place in the world and that at least in some cases the gospel comes to people, not by the means of baptizing and teaching that Jesus appointed in Matthew 28: 19, 20, but by some other means.

The question about Mrs. Peterson’s continuing misinterpretation and misuse of the Bible raises an issue concerning the relationship between the church and World. World’s mission is: “To report, interpret, and illustrate the news in a timely, enjoyable, and arresting fashion from a perspective of commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.” I get that - Christian news, or news from a Biblical perspective. I leave aside for now the question of reporting, interpreting, and illustrating the news "from the perspective of the inerrancy of the Bible” and the inescapable necessity of the editors and reporters determining what the Bible says in order to handle the news in this way.

But what is Mrs. Peterson doing? She is interpreting and teaching the Bible as a writer for World. There is no doubt that a person reading the March 25 column should take it as Mrs. Peterson’s summary of the answers to the question, “What of those who have never heard?” That is a very important question, and in World Mrs. Peterson has answered it. She has not only answered it but answered it by citing texts which she has interpreted and which she then uses to address the question. But we say that she has not rightly understood the texts and has put them to uses that St. Paul did not intend.

To whom is she accountable? Apparently to her editors and ultimately to World’s Board of Directors. What is happening is that World is functioning as the church and Mrs. Peterson as one of the church’s teachers. And we say, that World is not “the church of the living God, a ground and pillar of truth” and that Mrs. Peterson is not called by and overseen by the church as one of its teachers.

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