All hearts were directed to Texas on Sunday as 26 people were shot and killed when a 26-year-old gunman dressed in black opened fire as a church service was underway at a Baptist church in a small town near San Antonio, Texas. As The New York Times reported:
'A gunman clad in all black, with a ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle in his hands, opened fire on parishioners at a Sunday service at a small Baptist church in rural Texas, killing at least 26 people and turning this tiny town east of San Antonio into the scene of the country's newest mass horror.'
At this point the investigation is in the earliest stages, but we already know this is an absolutely horrifying story. It is a tragedy that is only going to unfold in greater tragedy. This attack taking place as a small Baptist church in rural Texas was just beginning its worship service, it is a sign of something far deeper that has gone wrong in our society. The fact that many of the victims already have been identified as children, including the 14-year-old daughter of the church's pastor, underlines, once again, that so much of the evil in the world is simply beyond our understanding'-even our theological understanding. As is so often the case in our experience when headlines like this come at us, the facts themselves seem perplexing and overwhelming. Murder is hard enough for us to understand, mass murder just makes it all the more difficult to understand. But how can we possibly understand the intentional killing of a pregnant woman, little children, a 14-year-old, and of Christians gathered together in worship?
From a Christian worldview, we have to understand that the facts are important. It is not wrong to want to know what the dots are and then to try to connect them. God made us rational and moral creatures and this moral sense reaches out for some rational explanation of the horrifying evil of our world. But our first response should not be to try to understand the crime, but rather, to identify with the community in grief and experiencing heartbreak.
The Christian worldview dignifies the heartbroken. Heartbrokenness is a part of human existence; it will come to every single human being at some time. Jesus himself affirmed this in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:4, 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.'
This particular attack in Texas highlights the fact that Christians are not immune from this kind of heartbreak. We cannot understand exactly what that congregation in that community is experiencing, but we do understand heartbreak, and we know that heartbreak is at the very center of their experience at this moment.
The Christian worldview affirms the dignity of human life. According to Scripture, every single human life is of eternal value and inestimable worth. Murder is not, then, merely a crime, it is an assault on the dignity of the human being'-an attack upon the image of God.
In one very important dimension, this demonstrates why the Christian worldview is so utterly different than every other worldview. Atheism, for instance, must affirm that, at its base, human life is merely a series of accidents. There is no Creator, so there is no human being made in the Creator's image. Of course atheists would clearly classify this murderous attack in Sutherland Springs, Texas, as evil, but they have no real ability to understand or to embrace the notion of evil with any coherence. Evil is essentially a theological category. Without theism evil becomes simply the strongest word we have to describe something we wish hadn't happened.
Christians also have to acknowledge that our affirmation of an infinitely great and an infinitely good God requires us to answer some questions that atheists don't have to answer. The most urgent of these questions: How could an all-powerful and all-loving God, allow such evil to take place? There are those who have suggested perhaps it's an indication that God really isn't in control of the universe. For instance, Rabbi Harold Kushner famously argued in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People that God is simply doing the best he can with the circumstances'-and some circumstances are just too big for God to handle. This assertion, however, is a subversion of the biblical teaching concerning God. It is a repudiation of the God of the Bible. The Bible is clear: God is in control of the entire universe, there isn't one atom or a molecule outside of his control. If there is, then we are doomed.
Other arguments have been made, suggesting that perhaps we are to understand evil, including moral evil, as having an instrumental value; perhaps God allows this because there is some kind of experience he wants us to have in order to learn some lesson we otherwise would not learn. Yet, even as the Bible indicates that pain, suffering, and mourning are teachers, we have to be very careful about telling others what God is supposedly teaching them in the midst of heartbreak.
Others have suggested that pain, suffering, and evil do not exist; they are abstractions or illusions. That's the official teaching of the religion known as Christian Science, but in direct contradiction to Christian Science, biblical Christianity points to the fact that suffering and pain are real, that sorrow and heartbreak are real, and that, most importantly in terms of the biblical affirmation, death is all too real. It is an absolute insult, morally speaking, and it is a tremendous error, theologically speaking, to imagine addressing this community in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and telling them that death and evil are illusions and that their pain-and-suffering are not real.
Christians have learned that sometimes we have to wait for an answer, and sometimes that wait goes beyond any answer we can get in this life. Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century in London stated this beautifully: 'When we cannot trace God's hand, we are simply to trust his heart.'
As we're thinking about the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs we are reminded of the testimony of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4: 9, 'persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.'
This throws us back on the deepest resources of biblical Christianity. This pushes us back to understanding the attributes of God as revealed in Scripture, the attributes of his power and the attributes of his morality, his greatness and his goodness, his justice, his righteousness, and his mercy. We are also reminded of the fact that the only answer Christians have is the answer of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the only promise of making sense out of nonsense. The gospel is the only assurance of the victory of good over evil. The gospel of Christ is the only promise of meaning and significance and satisfaction, not only in this life, but in the life to come.
Finally, in the face of this horrific tragedy we must remember the words of the prophet Isaiah as he looked upon the sacrifice of the Messiah: 'surely he has borne our grief's and carried our sorrows . . . But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed' (Isa 53:4-5).
For Christians facing the honest immensity of this challenge of evil, this is really all we have to say. And here's our confidence. It is enough.
Martin Luther's great moment of theological clarification came at the climax of a command performance. Facing the threat of martyrdom and execution, Luther appeared on trial at the Diet of Worms before the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Asked on what authority he dared to defy the Pope and the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther famously replied:
'Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.'
To those words were added: 'Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.'
The Diet of Worms was held in 1521. At the conclusion of his defense, Luther simply said, 'I am finished.' There was good reason to believe that he was quite finished. He would be excommunicated from the church and he would live with the threat of martyrdom for the rest of his life. But now, 500 years after Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the faith of the Reformation is still very much alive.
That moment of exquisite clarification came when Luther had nowhere to stand but on the authority of Scripture alone. Standing on biblical authority would not have been controversial, but the addition of that little sola changed everything. There is an infinite chasm between the authority of Scripture and the authority of Scripture alone.
The same is true of each of the Solas now formally associated with the Reformation. Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, and to the Glory of God alone.
Now, 500 years after the Reformation was begun, Evangelical Christians rightly celebrate this anniversary of our Reformation faith. But commemoration isn't enough.
Today's evangelicals do not stand on trial before the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but we do stand on trial before a world that is increasingly secular, and hostile to biblical Christianity. The Modern Age is marked by an alienation of secular elites from historic Christianity. In many cases, that alienation takes the form of outright opposition. And the alienation is no longer limited to the cultural elites.
The most visible evidence of this transformation is the vast revolution in morality '" especially sexual morality '" that has redefined even the most basic of all human relationships and ethical expectations. There is also the tragic witness of empty churches and the emergence of a post-Christian culture, particularly in much of Europe.
Meanwhile, within institutional Christianity, theological reform looks ever more necessary. Across the larger theological landscape, evangelicals see the desert of theological liberalism and the debris of doctrinal compromise. The so-called 'mainline' Protestant churches '" the most direct institutional heirs of the Reformation '" abandoned the faith. Then their members abandoned the churches.
A look across the landscape of American popular religion is equally disheartening. Prosperity theology and a false gospel devoid of Christ and his cross spread like an infection. The great American heresy '" pragmatism '" is always close at hand.
First, we stand for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This means that we do not date our faith to 1517, but to Christ and the Apostles. We stand in that faith that Christ taught his Church, and continues to teach through the Holy Scriptures. This is the faith that the true church has believed, confessed, and taught from the time of the New Testament until today.
Second, we stand for the faith reaffirmed in the Reformation. The Solas are central to this reaffirmation. Each was controversial in the sixteenth century '" controversial enough to divide Christendom '" and each is even more controversial today.
Faith alone puts the lie to every pretense of the sinner's contribution to the salvation achieved and accomplished by Christ.
Grace alone reminds the church that the mercy of God is the solitary explanation for the salvation of even a single sinner.
Christ alone points to the atonement accomplished through the singular and sufficient obedience of Christ in his sinless life, his substitutionary death on the cross, and his resurrection by the Father on the third day. We are saved by the merits of Christ, alone.
Scripture alone affirms the sole, final authority of the written Word of God. As B. B. Warfield would explain a century ago, this means embracing the 'Church Doctrine of Scripture,' including all of its perfections. We take our stand on the plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible, it's infallibility, inerrancy, sufficiency, and final authority. The Bible is central to our entire curriculum.
To the glory of God alone means that the church seeks no glory for itself, but exults in the infinite glory of God alone. The very 'theology of glory' that Luther warned against is what millions of people see in any church that seeks to display its own glory.
Third, we stand on preaching as the first mark of the church. On this the Reformers were completely agreed. The first mark of the true church is the preaching of the Word of God. Where the Word of God is not rightly preached, there is no church. It's just that simple.
This means that our first responsibility is to teach those who will preach the Word of God to local churches. That is incredibly clarifying. We don't have to wake up every morning trying to remember what we are supposed to do, or why Southern Seminary exists. While so many other seminaries are redefining their purpose away from the pastorate, we maintain that first priority of grounding preachers in the Bible and in theological studies in order that they will be faithful preachers and pastors of the flock of God.
Fourth, we stand on confessional fidelity as our hallmark. The Reformers understood what the church has learned through centuries of preaching and teaching, praying and singing: The faith once delivered to the saints must be expressed and defined and defended in confessional form. The necessity of creeds and confessions is learned anew, often painfully, by every generation of Christians. We must define what we believe and what we teach, and what we expect any professor at Southern Seminary and Boyce College to teach. Every professor must gladly agree to teach 'in accordance with and not contrary to' the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith and Message. We have learned over the last three decades just how important this commitment truly is. That is a lesson that must never be lost.
Fifth, we stand for the totality of the Christian worldview. At Boyce College and Southern Seminary, we affirm what the Reformers also affirmed '" that the Bible presents a comprehensive view of the world. The Reformers would not have known the word worldview, but they taught it nonetheless. The Reformation would give birth to revolutions in politics, science, and culture and would influence the development of every arena of human knowledge and civilization. This is no accident. Nor is it accidental that this school seeks to equip a rising generation with the most crucial skills in worldview analysis and thinking.
Sixth, we stand on the Great Commission. This is the mandate to make Christ known among the nations. To know Christ is to obey his commandments, and this means taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Christ alone reminds us of the truth that the gospel of Christ is the only saving message, and it is our responsibility to preach the gospel to the nations. There are now more students preparing for missions through Southern Seminary and Boyce College than in any previous generation.
Seventh, we stand on the centrality of the local church in the purposes of God. Our great privilege is to serve the church '" and that means local churches. We hold the highest academic accreditations known to higher education in America, but our ultimate accreditation comes from the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, as is affirmed in the confidence that those congregations place in us and in our graduates.
Eighth, we stand for a continuing reformation. Christ's church will remain in need of a continuing reformation until He comes. But here we must be very careful. More liberal churches claim to embrace the Reformation call of Semper Reformanda '" as the church always being reformed. This can open the door to doctrinal revisionism and liberalism in the name of reformation. The true churches of the Reformation, however, understood that the right call was for a church always reformed by the Word of God.
That is the Reformation we celebrate, and that is the continuing reformation we seek and serve. Here, we take our stand. We cannot do otherwise. God help us.
Today, most Americans awoke to news from Las Vegas that is nothing less than horrific. For so many in Las Vegas, Sunday night must have seemed like the night that would never end.
In the face of such overwhelming news, we naturally seek after facts. We want to know what happened, and when. We want to know who did it. By mid-morning the facts were staggering. More than fifty people are dead and hundreds wounded after a lone gunman opened fire on a music festival from a perch in a hotel room 32 floors above. The attack was deadly, diabolical, and premeditated.
The shooting is already described as the worst in American history. The gunman, believed to be Stephen Paddock, killed himself as police prepared to storm his hotel room, from which he had aimed his deadly gunfire. The facts emerged slowly, and are still emerging. Paddock had no notable criminal record. He had worked for a defense contractor, owned two private aircraft, and was known to own guns. He was reported to like Las Vegas for its gambling and entertainment. No one seems to have considered him a threat. His brother, contacted after the massacre, said that the family was beyond shock, as if "crushed by an asteroid."
In Las Vegas and beyond, hundreds of families are crushed by grief and concern. More than fifty human beings, very much alive just hours ago, are now dead, seemingly murdered by random order.
The facts will continue to come as investigations continue. We need facts in order to steady our minds and grapple with understanding. We must have facts, and yet we can be easily overwhelmed by them. Some "facts" will not be facts at all. National Public Radio helpfully and honestly ended its news coverage of the massacre with these words: "This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities. We will update as the situation develops." I count that as both helpful and honest.
But the facts of who and what and where and how, still unfolding, point to the even more difficult question - why?
Why would anyone kill a fellow human being? Why launch an ambush massacre upon concertgoers listening to country music? Why premeditate a mass killing?
Was he driven by some obsession, fueled by some grievance? Was he sending a signal or political message as an act of terrorism? Is the answer psychiatric or pharmacological? Our minds crave an answer.
Why do we ask why?
We cannot help but ask why because, made in God's image, we are moral creatures who cannot grasp or understand the world around us without moral categories. We are moral creatures inhabiting a moral universe and our moral sense of meaning is the faculty most perplexed when overwhelmed by horror and grief.
The terror group known as ISIS or the Islamic State claimed that Stephen Paddock was a "lone wolf" attacker who had recently converted to Islam. Law enforcement authorities said there is no evidence of anything related to ISIS or Islam.
Clark County (NV) Sheriff Joe Lombardo told reporters that he was not sure if the massacre was sending a message as a terror attack: "We have to establish what his motivation is first. And there's motivating factors associated with terrorism other than a distraught person just intending to cause mass casualties."
So far as we now know, Paddock left no note and communicated no clear message. The gunfire tells some story, but we do not yet know what the story is. We may never know.
That troubles us, and so it should. Knowing the story and determining the motivation would add rationality to our understanding, but we will never really understand.
A massacre by a lone gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. Another killed 27, mostly children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Yet another killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. We really do not fully understand any of these attacks, nor countless other outbreaks of evil around the world.
One of the main theological insights about evil is that it is so often absurd. It is ultimately inexplicable, unfathomable, and cannot be resolved by human means.
President Trump has demonstrated little interest in academic disputes over moral philosophy so he probably did not intend to wade into deep theoretical waters when he called the massacre "an act of pure evil." But he called it right, and he expanded on his judgment. "In times such as these I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness." He went on to say: "The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope."
That is exactly how a president should speak, and underlining the "act of pure evil" as evil is exactly how a morally sane person should think. The judgment of evil here, real evil, should be beyond dispute.
Evil is a fact, too. And evil is a theological category. The secular worldview cannot use the word with coherence or sense. The acknowledgement of evil requires the affirmation of a moral judgment and a moral reality above human judgment. If we are just accidental beings in an accidental universe, nothing can really be evil. Evil points to a necessary moral judgment made by a moral authority greater than we are - a transcendent and supernatural moral authority: God.
College professors tell us that moral relativism has produced a generation of Americans who resist calling anything evil, and even deny the existence of moral facts. Justin P. McBrayer, who teaches at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, wrote in The New York Times that "many college-aged students don't believe in moral facts."
That's truly frightening, but McBrayer argues that by the time students arrive at college, they have already been told over and over again that there are no moral facts - that nothing is objectively right or wrong.
Only the Christian worldview, based in the Bible, can explain why moral facts exist, and how we can know them. Only the biblical worldview explains why sinful humanity commits such horrible moral wrongs. The Christian worldview also promises that God will bring about a final act of moral judgment that will be the final word on right and wrong - as facts, not merely speculation. The Gospel of Christ points us to the only way of rescue from the fact of our own evil and guilt.
Our hearts break for the families and communities now grieving, and we pray for them and for those even now fighting for life.
It is both telling and reassuring that secular people, faced with moral horror as we see now in Las Vegas, can still speak of evil as a moral fact - even if they continue to deny moral facts in the classrooms and courtrooms. No one can deny that the horror in Las Vegas came about by an act that was evil, pure evil, and evil as a fact.
I think of the Prophet Isaiah's words: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter." [Isaiah 5:20, ESV]
And how will they hear without a preacher? Romans 10:14
Has preaching fallen on hard times? An open debate is now being waged over the character and centrality of preaching in the church. At stake is nothing less than the integrity of Christian worship and proclamation.
How did this happen? Given the central place of preaching in the New Testament church, it would seem that the priority of biblical preaching should be uncontested. After all, as John A. Broadus-one of Southern Seminary's founding faculty-famously remarked, "Preaching is characteristic of Christianity. No other religion has made the regular and frequent assembling of groups of people, to hear religious instruction and exhortation, an integral part of Christian worship."
Yet, numerous influential voices within evangelicalism suggest that the age of the expository sermon is now past. In its place, some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations-messages which avoid preaching a biblical text, and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with biblical truth.
A subtle shift visible at the onset of the twentieth century has become a great divide as the century ends. The shift from expository preaching to more topical and human-centered approaches has grown into a debate over the place of Scripture in preaching, and the nature of preaching itself.
Two famous statements about preaching illustrate this growing divide. Reflecting poetically on the urgency and centrality of preaching, the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once remarked, "I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." With vivid expression and a sense of gospel gravity, Baxter understood that preaching is literally a life or death affair. Eternity hangs in the balance as the preacher proclaims the Word.
Contrast that statement to the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) preacher of this century's early decades. Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, provides an instructive contrast to the venerable Baxter. "Preaching," he explained, "is personal counseling on a group basis."
These two statements about preaching reveal the contours of the contemporary debate. For Baxter, the promise of heaven and the horrors of hell frame the preacher's consuming burden. For Fosdick, the preacher is a kindly counselor offering helpful advice and encouragement.
The current debate over preaching is most commonly explained as a argument about the focus and shape of the sermon. Should the preacher seek to preach a biblical text through an expository sermon? Or, should the preacher direct the sermon to the "felt needs" and perceived concerns of the hearers?
Clearly, many evangelicals now favor the second approach. Urged on by devotees of "needs-based preaching," many evangelicals have abandoned the text without recognizing that they have done so. These preachers may eventually get to the text in the course of the sermon, but the text does not set the agenda or establish the shape of the message.
Focusing on so-called "perceived needs" and allowing these needs to set the preaching agenda inevitably leads to a loss of biblical authority and biblical content in the sermon. Yet, this pattern is increasingly the norm in many evangelical pulpits. Fosdick must be smiling from the grave.
Earlier evangelicals recognized Fosdick's approach as a rejection of biblical preaching. An out-of-the-closet theological liberal, Fosdick paraded his rejection of biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility-and rejected other doctrines central to the Christian faith. Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became liberal Protestantism's happy pulpit therapist. The goal of his preaching was well captured by the title of one of his many books, On Being a Real Person.
Shockingly, this is now the approach evident in many evangelical pulpits. The sacred desk has become an advice center and the pew has become the therapist's couch. Psychological and practical concerns have displaced theological exegesis and the preacher directs his sermon to the congregation's perceived needs.
The problem is, of course, that the sinner does not know what his most urgent need is. She is blind to her need for redemption and reconciliation with God, and focuses on potentially real but temporal needs such as personal fulfillment, financial security, family peace, and career advancement. Too many sermons settle for answering these expressed needs and concerns, and fail to proclaim the Word of Truth.
Without doubt, few preachers following this popular trend intend to depart from the Bible. But under the guise of an intention to reach modern secular men and women "where they are," the sermon has been transformed into a success seminar. Some verses of Scripture may be added to the mix, but for a sermon to be genuinely biblical, the text must set the agenda as the foundation of the message-not as an authority cited for spiritual footnoting.
Charles Spurgeon confronted the very same pattern of wavering pulpits in his own day. Some of the most fashionable and well-attended London churches featured pulpiteers who were the precursors to modern needs-based preachers. Spurgeon-who managed to draw a few hearers despite his insistence on biblical preaching-confessed that "The true ambassador for Christ feels that he himself stands before God and has to deal with souls in God's stead as God's servant, and stands in a solemn place-a place in which unfaithfulness is inhumanity to man as well as treason to God."
Spurgeon and Baxter understood the dangerous mandate of the preacher, and were therefore driven to the Bible as their only authority and message. They left their pulpits trembling with urgent concern for the souls of their hearers and fully aware of their accountability to God for preaching His Word, and His Word alone. Their sermons were measured by power; Fosdick's by popularity.
The current debate over preaching may well shake congregations, denominations, and the evangelical movement. But know this: The recovery and renewal of the church in this generation will come only when from pulpit to pulpit the herald preaches as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.
As I write, I am looking at the modern city of Berlin on a beautiful Sunday. The parks and streets are filled with people, the churches far less so. Berlin is now a hyper-modern metropolis, with relatively few older buildings in the central city. Modernity is celebrated here, and Berlin is now the capital of a united and democratic Germany.
As its citizens will proudly tell you, Berlin's federal buildings advertise modernity and openness. Even the old Reichstag building, now home to the Bundestag, Germany's elected parliament, features a giant glass dome, glistening in its modern lines. The message is clear - this is a new Germany.
The destruction of World War II explains the relative lack of older buildings in Berlin. Much of the city was flattened by Allied bombing raids once Nazi Germany made clear that no surrender would come until the city was taken. The relatively few buildings in central Berlin that survived the Allied bombs had to face Soviet tanks. The evidence can still be seen.
Berlin is a city of ghosts. Outside my window now I see the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; its famous steeple tower left broken and merely the ruins of the massive church remaining. There is a new modernist church building there now, sitting alongside the ruins of the old. There has been no king or emperor in Germany since Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated at the end of World War I, bringing an end to the Hohenzollern dynasty, but the ghosts of Prussian militarism still haunt the German memory.
Nazi ghosts also haunt the city, and will so long as human beings retain memory. This was the city of Nazi parades, thousands upon thousands of Nazi flags, Nazi salutes and the idolatrous ideologies of genocide and national destiny.
Most infamously, this was the city of Adolf Hitler and his demonic dreams. This city was to be the eternal capital of the Third Reich, with Hitler's architect drawing plans for Welthauptstadt Germania, featuring a Volkshalle that was to be crowned by a dome sixteen times the size of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Instead, Berlin has done everything possible to sweep Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime from its visible memory. This is not done dishonestly. The motivation is to prevent any possible celebration of Hitler or Naziism. Just last week, some foreign tourists were arrested for posing in a Nazi salute in Berlin. This is a city that advertises its tolerance of just about any lifestyle. But for the Nazi salute - no tolerance. Berlin is determined that the ghosts of the Nazis do not reappear in neo-Nazis.
Imagine, then, how the news from Charlottesville, Virginia breaks in Berlin. A demonstration billed as an effort to "Unite the Right" leads to counter protests and violence. Among those who attended the demonstration on Friday night were self-identified neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Photos quickly appeared in Berlin, showing protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia - in the United States of America - offering the raised arm of the Nazi salute.
Germany is all too aware of where claims of racial superiority lead. Just today, in the service of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, a martyr of the Confessing Church was remembered. Pastor Werner Sylton was a Lutheran pastor, but he was from a Jewish family. He is believed to have saved more than 1,000 Jewish converts to Christianity by helping them escape to other nations. He was arrested by the Gestapo, sent to Dachau, and eventually murdered by gas in 1942.
As Berlin awoke this morning to photos of Hitler salutes in Virginia, there was news of a car driven into a crowd protesting against white supremacy, of one woman killed in the attack, and of two law enforcement officers killed in a helicopter crash. This is America?
America has its own ghosts. The ghosts of American claims of racial superiority-specifically of white superiority-reach all the way to Berlin. Adolf Hitler and his race theorist, Alfred Rosenberg, took part of their inspiration from British and American race theorists. The American eugenicists, including those now celebrated by groups such as Planned Parenthood, offered ideological cover for the Nazi doctrines of racial superiority.
Those claims of racial superiority led straight to the extermination camps. Just days ago I passed the shores of beautiful Wannsee Lake outside of Berlin. It was at an estate there on the shores of this peaceful lake that the Nazi regime committed itself to the "Final Solution of the Jewish Problem" on January 20, 1942. Millions of human beings, the vast majority of them Jews, would vanish into the gas chambers and crematoria of the death camps.
Just remember names like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. The list goes on. The ghosts of history are never far. It was belief in racial superiority-the superiority of an Aryan race-that drove the Nazis to adopt the "Final Solution." Just ask a resident of today's Berlin. They know. They cannot not know.
Even a secular observer can see the lessons of history from Berlin. The evidence is pervasive, irrefutable, terrifying, and still visible.
But Christians must see much more than the lessons of history, though we dare not miss them. We must see claims of racial superiority-and mainly that means claims of white superiority-as heresy.
That is not a word we use casually. Heresy leads to a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the eclipse of the living God as revealed in the Bible. A claim of white superiority is not merely wrong, and not merely deadly. It is a denial of the glory of God in creating humanity-every single human being-in his own image. It is a rejection of God's glory in creating a humanity of different skin pigmentation. It is a misconstrual of God's judgment and glory in creating different ethnicities.
Most urgently, it is a rejection of the gospel of Christ-the great good news of God's saving purpose in the atonement accomplished by Christ. A claim of racial superiority denies our common humanity, our common sinfulness, our common salvation through faith in Christ, and God's purpose to create a common new humanity in Christ.
You cannot preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and hold to any notion of racial superiority. It is impossible.
Berlin is filled with its ghosts. Just 56 years ago today-today-the Berlin Wall went up. The broken tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church stares me in the face. The lessons of history are everywhere.
America has yet to deal with the lessons of our own history. We have never been utterly conquered so that we had to. The lessons of slavery and Jim Crow segregation-all predicated on claims of white supremacy-have yet to be fully learned or even fully acknowledged. Our walls are not made of concrete and barbed wire, but they remain walls. Our churches have sometimes defended those walls, to our everlasting shame.
American Christians are fully accountable to the lessons of history, and we have our own hard reckoning to do. But we are far more accountable to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:13-15, Paul tells us: "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostilityby abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace."
Paul does not merely admit this to be true-that God is creating "one new man" as a new humanity in Christ-he celebrates this truth as central to Christ's gospel. If we do not celebrate this truth, we have not tasted the salvation accomplished by Christ.
Seen from Berlin, the news from Charlottesville is alarming. Seen as a Christian, the images are heartbreaking. The ideology of racial superiority is an evil anti-gospel that leads to eternal death.
The lessons of history are warning enough. The lessons of heresy are even more pressing. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we dare not miss the lessons of history and heresy. God will judge us. This we know.
The medal ceremony at the Olympics is a moment of rare pomp and ceremony in this informal age. The ceremonies represent both climax and catharsis, with athletes awarded the coveted gold, silver, and bronze medals placed around their necks.
It was not always so.
When Eric Liddell, "the Flying Scot," won the 400 meter race and the gold medal at the 1924 games in Paris, there was no awards ceremony. Back then, the medals were engraved after the games and mailed in a simple package to the victors. But, even without the medal ceremony, there was glory. Liddell instantly became a hero to the entire United Kingdom and was recognized as one of the greatest athletes of his age.
Americans of my generation remember Eric Liddell largely because of Chariots of Fire, the 1981 British film written by Colin Welland, produced by David Puttnam, and directed by Hugh Hudson. The film was a surprising success in both Britain and the United States, winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture. The musical score for the film by Vangelis won another of the Oscars, and its theme is still instantly recognizable to those who have seen the movie.
To its credit, Chariots of Fire recognized Eric Liddell's Christian faith and testimony. His story is inseparable from the drama of his refusal to compete on Sunday, believing it to be a breaking of God's commandment. Though this determination was well-known before the 1924 Olympics, it became internationally famous when heats for Liddell's best race, 100 meters, were scheduled for Sunday.
The dramatic plot of Chariots of Fire presented a personal competition between Liddell and Harold Abrahams, another top runner who had experienced the agonies of anti-Semitism as a student at Cambridge. When Liddell withdrew from the 100 meter event, Abrahams won, bringing Britain glory. Liddell had become a figure of ridicule, with everyone from athletic officials to British leaders unable to persuade him to sacrifice his moral convictions for the Olympic glory he was promised.
Liddell was left to run the 400 meter race, an event for which he was not favored and to which he knew he brought liabilities in terms of his racing form. But run he did, and he ran right into the history books, winning the gold medal with a personal story that shocked the world, even in the 1920s. His intensity of Christian conviction was already out of style and often ridiculed, but Eric Liddell became one of the most famous men in the British Empire and the larger world of athletics.
Those who have seen Chariots of Fire well remember how it ends, with the magnificent and sentimental music of Sir Hubert Parry's anthem "Jerusalem" and William Blake's famous words: "Bring me my Bow of burning gold; Bring me my Arrows of desire: Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my Chariot of fire!"
Then the screen fills with these words in text: "Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned."
But in those few words was the real story of Eric Liddell. Yes, he was one of the most famous athletes of modern times and the Olympic glory of Scotland. He was also a Christian who refused to compete on Sunday and refused to compromise. Unquestionably, Eric Liddell was made to run. And yet, more than anything else, Eric Liddell believed that "God made me for China."
Many Christians are proud to quote Liddell's most famous lines from Chariots of Fire: "God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure." God did make Eric Liddell fast, and he ran for God's glory, but those words were not actually from Liddell. They were written by Colin Welland and put in the voice of Liddell, as played by actor Ian Charleson.
What Liddell did say, and more than once, was that God made him for China. This is what the viewers of the movie never learned. Liddell was born in Tientsin, China to missionary parents in 1902. James and Mary Liddell were in China under the commission of the London Missionary Society. As Duncan Hamilton, author of a very fine new biography of Liddell explains, as a young boy Eric Liddell simply considered himself to be Chinese.
Later, Eric and his brother would be sent to boarding school near London and would know their parents only through correspondence and brief visits. But China was always on Liddell's heart. As a student at the University of Edinburgh, Liddell became very well known as both a runner and a preacher. He was especially powerful as a preacher to young men. Liddell spoke passionately but conversationally, explaining that the best preaching to young men took the form of a simple talk, in Duncan Hamilton's words, "as if chatting over a picket fence." But Liddell's clear biblical and evangelical message came through, and powerfully.
He preached before, during, and after his Olympic glory. He returned to graduate from the University and Edinburgh shortly after the 1924 Paris games and made preparation to go to China as a missionary, also under the direction of the London Missionary Society.
He taught school, preached, and eventually found a wife, Florence. With her he had three daughters, though he was never to see the third. After decades of internal warfare and turmoil, China was thrown into the horrors of Japanese occupation during World War II.
Those horrors are still unknown to many Americans, but much of China was submitted to massive rape and murder by the occupying Imperial Japanese forces. Liddell eventually sent Florence, then pregnant with their third child, and their two daughters to Canada for safety. It was just in time.
Along with members of the China Inland Mission and many others, Christians and non-Christians alike, Eric Liddell was forced into a foretaste of hell itself in the Weihsien Internment Camp. He would die there shortly before the end of the war. In the concentration camp, Liddell became legendary and his witness for Christ astounded even many of his fellow Christians.
As Hamilton writes: "Liddell can sound too virtuous and too honorable to be true, as if those who knew him were either misrepresenting or consciously mythologizing. Not so. The evidence is too overwhelming to be dismissed as easily as that. Amid the myriad moral dilemmas in Weihsien, Liddell's forbearance was remarkable." He became the moral and spiritual leader of the horrifying reality with that camp.
Chariots of Fire was released when I was a seminary student. Like so many other young Christians, I saw the movie and was greatly moved by it. But, even then, I wondered if Liddell could really have been what so many others claimed of him.
Not long thereafter, a professor assigned me to read Shantung Compound by theologian Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Gilkey was in many ways the opposite to Liddell. Gilkey was a theological liberal whose father, famously liberal, had been the first dean of the chapel at the University of Chicago. Langdon Gilkey had gone to China to teach English after graduating from Harvard. He found himself interred with Eric Liddell.
In Shantung Compound, Gilkey analyzed what happens when men and women are put under extraordinary pressure. He argued that the worst moral dilemmas in Weihsien came not from their Japanese captors, but from the prisoners themselves. His point was that, for many if not most of the captured, the experience brought out the worst in them, rather than the best. He changed the names of those inside the camp when he told their stories.
There were a few moral exceptions. Gilkey wrote of one exceptional individual, a missionary he named "Eric Ridley." Gilkey wrote: "It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known." Gilkey described how Liddell had largely single-handedly resolved the crisis of a breakout of teenage sexual activity in the camp. In the midst of a moral breakdown, with no societal structures to restrain behavior, few even seemed to want to help.
Gilkey made this observation: "There was a quality seemingly unique to the missionary group, namely, naturally and without pretense to respond to a need which everyone else recognized only to turn aside. Much of this went unnoticed, but our camp could scarcely have survived as well as it did without it. If there were any evidences of the grace of God observable on the surface of our camp existence, they were to be found here."
Gilkey had renamed individuals as he wrote about them, but he described "Eric Ridley" as having won the 400 meter race at the Olympics for England before going to China as a missionary. Eric Ridley was Eric Liddell, and Langdon Gilkey was writing of a man he has observed so closely as a living saint. I realized that Langdon Gilkey had told the most important part of Eric Liddell's story long before Chariots of Fire.
Gilkey closed his words about Erid Liddell with these: "Shortly before the camp ended, he was stricken with a brain tumor and died the same day. The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric's death had left."
Liddell indeed died of a brain tumor, suddenly and unexpectedly. The cause of his death only became clear after an autopsy. Eric Liddell died in the nation where he had been born. Indeed, he has sometimes been listed as China's first Olympic medalist. He never saw his third daughter.
"God made me for China." Eric Liddell lived his life in answer to that calling and commission. As Duncan Hamilton explains, Liddell "considered athletics as an addendum to his life rather than his sole reason for living it."
Eric Liddell ran for God's glory, but he was made for China. He desperately wanted the nation he loved to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believe. David J. Michell, director for Canada Overseas Missionary Fellowship, would introduce Liddell's collected devotional writings, The Disciplines of the Christian Life, by stating simply that "Eric Liddell's desire was to know God more deeply, and as a missionary, to make him known more fully."
Christians must remember that Olympic glory will eventually fade. There will be medalists for all to celebrate. But, will there be another Eric Liddell? At the very least, his story needs to be told again. The most important part of his story came long after his gold medal arrived by mail.
Was he against it, before he was for it? Is he really against it now?
The ordeal experienced last week by popular author Eugene Peterson was agonizing to observe, largely self-inflicted, and virtually inevitable. You should pay close attention to it, for you might very well be next.
The ordeal began with Peterson, one of the most influential authors among evangelical pastors, responding to two straightforward questions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service referenced homosexuality and same-sex marriage and then asked Peterson if his view on the morality of same-sex relationships had changed. Peterson was pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland for 29 years, before retiring in 1991. In his answer, however, Peterson said, "I haven't had a lot of experience with it." An earlier congregation where he served as associate pastor, included "several women who were lesbians," but didn't "make a big deal about it." The congregation he served as pastor was much the same: "I don't think we ever really made a big deal of it."
They had a gay musician, but, "nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician." His answer was convoluted, but he concluded, "it's not a right or wrong thing as far as I'm concerned."
Peterson was then asked, "If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?" Peterson answered simply, "Yes."
That "yes" blew up the evangelical world like a signal flare. The RNS headline on the interview stated that Peterson had changed his mind on the question. A significant number of evangelicals responded with immediate shock and disappointment at Peterson's answer. The largest Christian bookstore chain said that it was considering whether to continue selling Peterson's many books, including The Message, his best-selling paraphrase of the Bible.
But, almost as quickly as his "yes" appeared, it was retracted.
The very next day, Peterson released a long statement, published in full at The Washington Post. He retracted his "yes" and said that he would actually not perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. "That's not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such as couple as their pastor."
He also stated: "To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything."
So, within 48 hours of the original interview, Eugene Peterson had issued a statement retracting his "yes" to a same-sex wedding ceremony. He now affirms marriage as "one man to one woman."
The brushfire then switched directions. Now, folks displeased with Peterson's RNS interview were at least partly comforted by his retraction, while those who had been comforted by his "yes" were hurt and infuriated by his subsequent "no."
Jonathan Merritt ran a story at RNS within hours of Peterson's retraction, noting that in 2014 Peterson had already told a conference in which he indicated his evolution on LGBTQ issues and looking back on his tenure as pastor, he said "I started to change my mind." He also spoke of talking to parents whose children had come out as gay saying, "they've finally accepted that this is not a bad thing, that this can be a good thing. This can be a flourishing thing."
What is really going on here? What does Eugene Peterson really believe about LGBT relationships and behaviors or about same-sex marriage? We really don't know. We will probably never really know.
His retraction allows his books to be sold, but the ordeal has done massive damage to his reputation. One of the best-selling authors in the evangelical world is now, in effect, a giant Rorschach test. You can read him as fully open to LGBT relationships, but forced by political and economic pressure to act as if he isn't. Or you can read him as basically a traditionalist on the question, who felt under pressure to affirm same-sex marriage and succumbed to the pressure, only to regret and retract quickly. Those do not exhaust the possibilities.
I have enjoyed many of Eugene Peterson's writings. He is an elegant literary stylist, and he seems never to forget a pithy quote-saved just for the right paragraph. He also knows how to deploy the English language with powerful simplicity. Just consider these sentences from his pastoral memoir, The Pastor: 'I was astonished to learn in one of these best-selling books (on church life) that the size of my church parking lot had far more to do with how things fared in my congregation than my choice of texts in preaching. I was being lied to and I knew it.'
He even pulled off what might be the greatest (and shortest) literary achievement of my lifetime, using a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, no less, to redefine Christian discipleship as "a long obedience in the same direction." His turning of the words of Nietzsche into a definition of what it means to follow Christ was brilliant, clarifying, and unforgettable.
Thus, Eugene Peterson understands the stewardship of words. In another of his books, he stated: "We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.' Indeed.
Several thoughtful evangelicals expressed concern and discouragement that Peterson had basically "shrugged" or "sighed" in his answers, concealing more than he revealed - and about an issue that really did require a yes or no answer.
But there should have been no surprise. Eugene Peterson has never been very clear about controversial questions, or on many crucial biblical and theological questions. His writings were categorized as "pastoral theology," and there is little explicit doctrine in his books. His background was Pentecostal as a boy, and according to his memoir, he basically became a Presbyterian by accident. "I was not aware of choosing to become a Presbyterian. I didn't go over the options available to me, study them, interview representative men and women, assess the pros and cons, pray for discernment, and then apply for membership. The Presbyterians needed a coach for their basketball team. I knew how to do that and I did it. . . . I was never self-consciously a Presbyterian. I am still not."
That says a lot about Eugene Peterson, but it probably says more about the denomination of which he is a minister, the liberal Presbyterians known as the PCUSA. One of that Presbyterian denomination's most famous pastors says he was never even "self-consciously a Presbyterian." That just about says it all.
In The Message, Peterson's best-selling paraphrase of the Bible, he avoided dealing with same-sex behaviors or relationships directly , even when addressing texts like Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, where he translates same-sex behaviors simply as promiscuity in general.
Peterson has made his reputation as someone who does not deal with controversial questions. He also seems to be incapable of a clear answer on this question, even now. His "retraction" was devoid of any engagement with the Bible. His concern, he said, was for his congregation and the "historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage." There was really nothing about the morality of LGBT behaviors and relationships at all. Would anyone really be surprised that Eugene Peterson holds to the PCUSA's LGBTQ-affirming positions on these issues? If so, why?
Matthew Vines, a prominent LGBTQ activist and author, is absolutely right, by the way, when he argued that Peterson's answer on the question of same-sex marriage is far less significant than his position on normative morality: "The main dividing line in the church is not whether Christians support same-sex marriages. It is over the more basic question of whether they believe all same-sex relationships are sinful in the first place."
But Eugene Peterson is also 84 years old. The interview with RNS was actually a valedictory event, of a sort. He announced that he would not be doing any more public speaking or teaching. Peterson had every reason to expect that he would conclude his public ministry without having to answer these questions.
Until that final interview...
Most of his generational colleagues are either dead or safely retired. Peterson's longevity is a testament to his continued literary production and power. He almost made it home without answering the question, but then it happened.
Consider these lessons from Eugene Peterson's ordeal.
First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author - even every believer - will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage. The question is about whether or not the believer is willing to declare and defend God's revealed plan for human sexuality and gender as clearly revealed in the Bible.
Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.
Third, if you will stand for the Bible's clear teachings on sexuality and gender, you had better be ready to answer the same way over and over and over again. The question will come back again and again, in hopes that you have finally decided to "get on the right side of history." Faithfulness requires consistency - that "long obedience in the same direction."
That is what it means to be a disciple of Christ, as Eugene Peterson has now taught us-in more ways than one.
David McCullough once told of Teddy Roosevelt during his time in the Dakota Territory and before his arrival on the world scene. Two thieves who had been on something of a crime spree in the territory had stolen Roosevelt's rowboat, and he was determined to chase them down and arrest them. He chased the thieves for 40 miles of rough landscape, through deep snow and in constant danger of attack, and indeed brought them to justice. McCullough then tells the reader: "But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven't time to read."
Theodore Roosevelt was a very determined man and a (clearly) determined reader. Anyone who reads Tolstoy in the midst of a foot chase after robbers in the Badlands gets my vote for gold medalist in the reading competition. With the arrival of warm weather, most of us are able to turn to a stack of books that had to wait for summer. The following is my list of ten recommended books for summer