The 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference


English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Ten...

English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

550 scholars from throughout the nation and some from overseas participated in the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference at David Lipscomb University. This was the first CSC I attended. It was only two years ago that I discovered that those outside Churches of Christ could present papers and/or attend the conference. Since Lipscomb was my Alma mater, I could not pass up the opportunity.

Besides seeing old friends I had not seen in years, I was treated, as were the other conference attendees, to top-notch Christian scholarship. I learned something valuable at every session I attended. In the session in which I presented a paper on functional magnetic resonance imaging and mind-reading (I do not think fMRIs can read minds!), respondents gave me some names of people from the computer science field whom I need to read. That advice should strengthen the paper considerably as I try to get it into journal-submission shape.

The theme was reconciliation, but there were papers in many areas: religious studies, theology, Biblical studies, church history, pastoral theology, and philosophical theology. The strong interdisciplinary focus of the conference is one of its strengths.

The highlight of the conference for me was the talk by Immaculee Ilibagiza, a woman who hid in a small bathroom with seven other women during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Her entire family was killed. During her time hiding, she discovered faith in a God who acts, a God who requires forgiveness, and she was able to forgive those who murdered her family. Her willingness to forgive, the seriousness with which she takes her Christianity, her love for others, and her humility make her a saint of God. Her story put me to shame—and so many others who often refuse to forgive much less serious offenses than Ms. Immaculee Illigabiza suffered. What a fitting end to a splendid conference.

Having been outside Churches of Christ since 1986, and a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, one thing that surprised me was the openness of the members of the Church of Christ to those of other faith traditions. Another surprise was the higher liturgical religious services with litanies and responsive readings of the psalms. The participation of women in various parts of the service was also a big change from my days at Lipscomb. A big shock was that I was more conservative, both theologically and politically, than the majority of the conference participants. There were a number of papers covering issues of race, class, and gender, areas that, in my judgment, are too often abused by people on the left to further their particular agenda. There was a strong liberal political bias toward social democracy in the sense of the New Deal/Great Society model. There was also a strong sense that the Courts should override the power of the states for the sake of what is good. The difficulty with that strategy is that a Court that has the power to rule for the good also has the power to rule in favor of evil—and world history does not provide a particularly favorable picture of the use of government power. Those who assert such positions mean well and believe that they are practicing their Christianity by changing society for the better and by being “prophetic.” A friend of mine once said that a man at church who is tired after driving a truck for a living does not need a “prophetic sermon” on what a jerk he is for ignoring the concerns of (pick your favorite one or more of the liberals’ “favored groups”). What I hope is that the more liberal people at the conference realize that both liberals and conservatives are concerned for justice and for the poor, but they differ on strategy and on the role of government.

I am more concerned that theologically those questioning much of the tradition in which they were reared would be careful “not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” There are essential Christian beliefs which are stated by the Apostle’s and Nicene-Athanasian Creeds and by the early councils of the church. The bodily resurrection of Christ, the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully God, fully man, the virgin birth, the Holy Trinity—all are essential tenants of Christianity that cannot be jettisoned without destroying the faith. In addition, the traditional moral teachings of the Church, including traditions concerning sexual ethics, should be affirmed and lived. When people are unsure of the identity of their tradition, especially intelligent and sometimes brilliant academics, it is tempting to lose one’s way.

Another temptation is intellectual arrogance, that “we are better than all those ignorant people in the pulpit.” I have been down that road—and it is a road of sinful pride. Everyone should read Helmut Thielicke’s A LITTLE EXERCISE FOR YOUNG THEOLOGIANS.

All that being said, the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference was a splendid conference, and God willing, I hope to present a paper there next year.

Churches of Christ, Integrity, and Identity

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Although I am no longer a member of Churches of Christ, I have a deep love for my childhood church. The reason I left is that I could not agree with the Church of Christ’s central tenant of Restoration–the idea that they had “restored” the first century church. I did the honest thing and left–first, for the Disciple of Christ, which were theologically too liberal, and for the last seventeen years I have been a member of the Anglican Catholic Church.

The Churches of Christ separated from the Christian Churches beginning in the late nineteenth century over the issues of mechanical instruments of music in worship and the missionary society. The Christian Church accepted both; the Churches of Christ opposed them. Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches were recognized as separate churches in the 1906 U. S. religious census. Even after that date, there was quite a bit of fluidity, even over names–there are Disciples churches and Christian Churches that still have congregations called “Churches of Christ” today. As late as the 1920s, there was sporadic cooperation between the two churches. There was a third split, between the Disciples and the group later known as Christian Churches and Churches of Christ–de facto this occurred with the 1927 meeting of the North American Christian Convention in Memphis, and de jure after the 1968 centralized reorganization of the Disciples. The chief source of that dispute was the theological liberalism of the Disciples. The Disciples long ago renounced Restorationism. Both the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ and the noninstrumental Churches of Christ accept Restorationism, but differ on its application.

Here’s the problem I have: in a number of Churches of Christ, ministers and some elders openly oppose Restorationism. In Churches of Christ institutions, this is even more common. Now personally I agree with them, but what is bothersome is their attempt to “reform” Churches of Christ in a way that destroys their identity while remaining members of the Church. If these leaders had integrity, they would leave Churches of Christ for some other church. I am Anglican Catholic; if I ever disagreed with one of that church’s fundamental teachings (such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper),  I would leave the ACC. That is the honest thing to do. I remember Tom Holland at David Lipscomb University saying that it is hypocritical for a teacher there to oppose what the founders of the university wished the identity of the school to be–and I agree. I know many well=meaning revisionists in the Churches of Christ would disagree. However, I find it hypocritical to remain in a church and try to subvert its principle doctrines. Better to guide individual members who agree to a different church body or leave oneself.

The same problem exists in Catholicism–Roman Catholics who deny the essential theological and moral teachings of the church should leave instead of trying to subvert it from within. Thus Roman Catholic politicians openly support abortion and homosexuality, and Roman Catholic scholars deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. This, too, is hypocritical. If you don’t agree, leave. Otherwise, shut up and stop sneaking around to destroy an institution’s identity.

The Warren-Flew Debate: Thirty-Five Years Later


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The Warren-Flew debate on the existence of God took place from September 20-23, 1976, on the campus of North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. Affirming the existence of God was Dr. Thomas B. Warren of the Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee. Denying the existence of God was Dr. Antony G. N. Flew of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Both men have passed on now, but to this day that debate has influenced me–and is one of the main reasons I am a philosopher today.

Even as a child I was tormented by doubts about my Christian faith, doubts that continue to haunt me today. In junior high and in high school I wanted to defend the existence of God against atheists, at the time focusing on science. Although I do not agree with my position then, I fell in love with the young earth creationism of Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and the members of the Institute for Creation Research in California. I wanted to get a degree in one of the sciences–my childhood dream was to do what Hugo Ross is doing today–get a Ph.D. in astronomy and defend the Christian faith. Thank God I later recognized that young earth creationism is false–but by then I had an alternative field–philosophy. And it was the book on the Warren-Flew debate that led me into the field.

Memory fails me regarding when I received the book–perhaps it was a Christmas present. I was in the middle of the ninth grade. The first thing that impressed me about the book was its dedication by the publishers–“To all who love truth and are willing to make the search to find it.” It was truth I had always sought–what was and is important is that God exists in truth, in extramental reality. As I read on, I believed (and still do) that Dr. Warren got the better of Dr. Flew in the debate. Perhaps Dr. Flew was not ready for an American style of all-out debate rather than a quiet discussion of the issues. In any case, I admired Warren’s chart of “Chinese Boxes,” each of which Flew had to know to know that God does not exist.  The idea of consciousness arising from that which has no consciousness or intelligence from the non-intelligent still seems fantastic to me today.

This is not to say that Dr. Warren did not equivocate–many of his arguments are vulnerable to attack. Warren’s pseudo-dilemma about which came first, a human mother or a human baby, and how it is impossible for a nonhuman mother to bear a human baby misses the point of evolution. Flew noted this weakness but did not do an adequate job of refuting Warren’s point. Later, Wallace Matson in his debate with Warren offered an effective argument from an analogy with language: “When did Latin become French.” Just as it is impossible to say at what exact point Vulgar Latin ended and Old French began, so it may not be possible to determine when an ape-like primate ended and a human being was born. Despite these flaws, I admire Dr. Warren’s use of logic, his consistent evidential apologetic position, and his willingness to stick to his guns and debate the leading atheists of his day. Reading that book first gave me a love for philosophy that remained in the back of my mind and finally came to fruition when I took some philosophy classes at David Lipscomb University (although my major was Biblical languages) and especially when I took Dr. Harold Hazelip’s classes in the philosophy of religion at Harding Graduate School of Religion, Dr. Warren’s old school. By the time I entered Vanderbilt University for an M.A. in Religion, most of my courses were in philosophy as well as my thesis. By then the course was set, and I thought of Dr. Warren and his debate the day I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from The University of Georgia.

If Dr. Warren were alive today, he would be disappointed in me–he was an old-fashioned believer in the New Testament as a constitution-like document with a set pattern for doctrine and practice that he believed was only fulfilled in the present day through Churches of Christ. In 1983 the paper The Firm Foundation published Warren’s article, “The Only Christians” that argued that the only Christians were members of the Churches of Christ. The article contained a great deal of equivocation on the term “Church of Christ.” Sadly, Dr. Warren would think, if he were still living, that I am on the road to hell. He was man consistent with his convictions to the end of his life, and I admire that. But I believe that it was proper to offer a tribute to Dr. Warren for being, unknowingly, a major inspiration for my decision to go into the field of philosophy–and I thank him.

Signs you were Reared in the Churches of Christ


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Having grown up in Churches of Christ (although I’m a conservative Anglican now), there are certain phrases that were often used, at least when I was young. I realize that some Churches of Christ have changed quite a bit since then. These are not meant to insult or hurt anyone’s feelings–they do represent an accurate version of my experiences–maybe they do for you, especially if you’re over 40 and was reared in the Churches of Christ. I may add more parts to this thread later.

If you were reared in Churches of Christ, the following phrases may be familiar to you:

1. “Guard-guide-and-direct us”

2. “In the end, if we have been found faithful, give us a home with Thee in Heaven”

3. “Holy Father, we thank Thee for this bread, which to us represents the broken body of thy Son Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cruel cross. May those who partake of it partake in a manner well-pleasing in Thy sight.”

4. “Holy Father, we thank Thee for this cup, the fruit of the vine, which represents Christ’s shed blood on the Cross of Calvary” [Repeat the “May those” phrase from 3]

5. “Please sing the first, second, and fourth verses only”

6. “Here, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized into Christ for the remission of your sins”

7. “Separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper, we now will have the contribution”

8. “the New Testament pattern”

9. “The Church of Christ was founded in A.D. 33 on the Day of Pentecost

10. “There is a God…. He is alive…. In Him we live…. and we survive”

11. “Social drinking is sinful”

12. “Dancing is a form of lasciviousness”

13. “Acts 2:38”

14. “If you are an alien sinner, come forward and be baptized for the remission of your sins. If you a Christian who has fallen away, come forward and confess your sins. Whatever your need is, won’t you come forward as we stand and sing.”

15. “We pray for all the sick and afflicted, especially those of Thy household”

16. “The Lord’s Church”

17. At a funeral: “Was she a member of the Church?”

18. At a funeral: “Was he a Christian?” “No, he was a Baptist” [or Methodist or Catholic or…..] “Oh, that’s a shame”

19. “God commanded Noah to build an ark out of gopher wood, not out of oak or cedar. In the same way God commanded us to sing, not to use an instrument of music in the worship service.”

20. “A man called me once who had put off baptism. He was 60-years-old. On his way to church, he was killed in a car accident. Lost, lost forever for putting off what he knew he had to do to be saved.”

21. “Sad, sad that bitter wail…. almost, but lost”

22. Question: “God commands us to work, but how do we know when we’ve done enough work to be saved”

23. “Command, example, necessary inference”

24. “Don’t pollute the temple of the Holy Ghost by committing fornication”

25. “Denomationalists say…. but the New Testament says….”

26. “People don’t understand the Bible alike because the substitute the commandments of man for the pure and simple teaching of the New Testament.”

27. “Imagine baseball was forgotten and someone two hundred years later discovers a baseball rule book. That rule book contains the pattern for baseball. In the same way, the New Testament is the pattern for doctrine and practice today.”

28. “Matters of faith….” “Matters of opinion….”

29. “John’s a brother in Christ” “Susan’s a sister in Christ”

30. “You can’t be saved in a denomination”

31. From an actual sermon: “Imagine your hand is placed on a red-hot stove eye. Hold it down, listen to it sizzle. Now turn your hand around and place that side on the stove eye. Listen to it sizzle. That’s not a fraction of the pain you would feel if you went to Hell.”

32. From an actual sermon: “Jesus will either reward you forever in Heaven or torture you forever in Hell. I tell it like it is.”

33. From an actual sermon about Noah’s flood: “The water’s up to their waists–no hope! It’s up to their shoulders–no hope! It’s covering their heads–no hope! No hope! No hope! No hope! No hope! No hope!”

On Being Reared in the Churches of Christ

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How would you react if you left the only home you had known, found a new home, knew it was better, yet part of you longed to go back? Those are my thoughts as I look back on being reared in the Churches of Christ. This church came out of the nineteenth century Restoration Movement, a Christian movement that spawned three churches: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), of which I was a member three years after leaving Churches of Christ; the Independent Christian Churches, and the Churches of Christ. Churches of Christ are noted for their belief in believer’s baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, the Lord’s Supper being celebrated every Sunday, and not using instrumental music in worship. None of these beliefs are unique in the Christian community. Primitive Baptists sing a capella, as do some Reformed Churches and some Eastern Orthodox Churches. Believer’s baptism is shared with Baptists, Anabaptists, and with the Independent Christian churches. Baptism for the remission of sins and having the Lord’s Supper every Sunday is shared with the Independent Christian Churches, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and some Anglicans. Lutherans and some high church Calvinists also have the Lord’s supper every Sunday.

What is different about Churches of Christ is their belief (at least in the majority of churches today and in almost all when I was a child) that they are the restored New Testament Church. They considered the New Testament to be a pattern to follow as a rulebook for doctrine and practice. Since they believed that obedience to the precepts of the New Testament was necessary for salvation, and since they included the beliefs mentioned above (including a capella music in worship), they held that all churches who did not accept the entire “New Testament pattern” were lost. Although if you asked a preacher to his face if he thought Baptists, Methodists, and all other “denominational” people were going to hell, he would say, “Well, you realize God is the ultimate judge,” which really means, “Yes.” When my Grandpa Potts, who was Southern Baptist, died in 1977, I was afraid he would go to hell. I prayed God would make an exception..

“The Church,” as many members called it (at funerals Church of Christ members might ask one another about the deceased, “Was he a member of the Church?”) believed that works play a role in salvation and not faith alone. I have no problem with this as long as it is understood that works are not works of merit and we do not earn our salvation. But Churches of Christ tended to be so legalistic that I wondered if I had done enough works, and I agonized over my many sins (“many” is true–I may have been a goody-goody for the most part in school, but at home I had a tongue like a sailor and still do sometimes). When I was twelve I thought I’d committed the unpardonable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and I was going to hell. As a teenager I tried to be more traditional than the traditionalists and was totally rigid in my legalistic output. It was not a spiritually healthy situation.

After three years at David Lipscomb College (now University) and three years at Harding Graduate School of Religion, I was convinced that pattern theology was incorrect. I found that my beliefs did not square with  Churches of Christ, and I was too honest to remain in them. So I joined the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). After three years there, I found them way too theologically liberal, and I have been a member of the Anglican Catholic Church since 1989. Ironically, the ACC believes in both baptism for the remission of sins (although they also believe in infant baptism) and in having the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist) every Sunday. Thus, if I argue with Baptists over the nature of baptism, I use the old arguments I learned in the Churches of Christ in favor of baptism being for the remission of sins. I have had fundamentalist Baptists tell me I am going to hell for believing that.

The Churches of Christ have changed a great deal, at least among large urban churches. Between the bubble-headed “praise and worship” services they have adopted and the traces of theological liberalism among some Churches of Christ scholars, I prefer the old-fashioned Churches of Christ, legalism and all. I love singing the old gospel hymns, even if they are about our feelings about God rather than about God. I love the simplicity of the service which has its own kind of beauty. I love the logical reasoning preachers use which was a refreshing difference from the emotional Baptists and Pentecostals. Churches of Christ may have begun with the wrong premisses, but their rationalism is part of me to this day. It is one reason I am a philosopher. Churches of Christ accept the key teaching of Christianity such as the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the Virgin Birth. They are also sharply anti-Calvinistic, which I believe is a good thing. To this day, not only do I believe Calvinism to be theologically wrong, but I believe its conception of God to be evil. It is a system I personally loathe, and I believe part of that loathing came from my background in the Churches of Christ.

I am not bitter toward the Churches of Christ. I visit my aunt’s church in Tennessee when I return there to visit my parents. I believe that members of the Churches of Christ who are faithful to Christ will go to heaven–they might just be surprised at whom else they see.

The Lost Beauty of Christian Worship

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West Heath Mass

One of the worst trends in contemporary Christianity is the destruction of the historic liturgies of the Christian Church. The Roman Catholic Church is slowing returning to a more traditional liturgy, but in most places the post-Vatican II degraded English translations of the Latin Mass live on. I have a St. Andrew’s Missal from the 1950s that contains, along with the Latin Mass, wonderful English translations of the liturgy in King James style English.  It reminds me of the beauty of the pre-1979 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Not only has the language been bastardized, the beauty of ceremonial has been suppressed in many churches. But even churches with very little ceremonial have taken good order out of their worship services.  The Churches of Christ in which I grew up had a certain beauty in the simplicity and good order of the worship service. Now they are trying to copy the Evangelical’s poor taste, with bad 1970s-style songs projected on a screen along with a free flow of emotion inconsistent with things done “decently and in order,” as St. Paul put it.

As worship becomes bastardized, so does one’s view of God. God is no longer the transcendent (yet immanent) being who created the universe and who inspires awe; God becomes just another beer buddy (without the beer in many Protestant Churches). If any of us saw God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit face to face, we would fall to the ground in awe. Yes, God is our friend, but not a friend in the sense of a buddy who watches football with the guys around a big screen television. Traditional worship, including the traditional King James style language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, lets us know that God is not man, that God is Holy, set apart from sinful man, even redeemed sinful man. The beauty of order in worship reminds us that “God is not the author of confusion”; He created the world in good form and order. Ceremonial and incense lifts our bodies and souls beyond the ordinary to the Holy. Most contemporary worship does not lift our souls and bodies any more than a large rock on the ground.

Clergy reply, “But we have to keep our young people!” Yet why are traditional Latin masses in the Roman Catholic Church filled with young people? In its bid to become “relevant” in worship, the church has not only lost the dimension of the transcendent; it is not even “relevant.” I think it was Peter Kreeft who said something like “Satan didn’t see a need to give the church atheists, so he gave it liturgists.” I tend to agree.

Christianity and Other Religions

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Are people who are not Christians going to hell? Is there truth in non-Christian religions? Can Christians learn something valuable about their own faith from non-Christian religions? These questions concern at least those Christians who are orthodox with a small “o,” those who believe the doctrines of the Incarnation of God in Christ as fully God, fully man, and who believe that his life, death, and resurrection brings hope of eternal life and freedom from sin.

Many Christian Fundamentalists and even some Evangelicals believe that non-Christians are going to hell. Forget euphemisms such as “they are lost;” let this believe stand out in its full starkness. As a child in the Churches of Christ, I attended a “gospel meeting” in which a preacher said if non-Christians are not lost, why send missionaries to convert them. This was sloppy argumentation on his part, and I believe the Fundamentalists to be incorrect.

As an orthodox Christian, I believe that all who go to Heaven do so through Christ, whether they recognize that during this life or not. One can affirm the uniqueness of Christianity and the unique truth of Christianity without damning those who have either not heard about Christianity or do not seriously consider it due to the depth of the faith in which they were reared. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner referred to “anonymous Christians,” good non-Christians whom God would save, would send to Heaven. C. S. Lewis, in the last volume of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, has a follower of the false god Tash, a good man, saved by Aslan the Lion (a Christ figure) because, as Aslan puts it, “You thought you were worshiping Tash while all the time you were worshiping me.”

To the argument that there is no need to send missionaries, my reply is, “Isn’t Christianity good news. Isn’t it a good thing to spread the message of Christ? Maybe that message will turn the lives of people around who would not be open to any grace in their own religion. And if Christianity is ultimate truth, isn’t it a good thing to spread it without presuming that those to whom you’re preaching are going to hell?”

As far as Christians learning from other religions, why not? God can spread His revelation to whom He wills, and other religions may contain partial truths without containing the fullness of Christian faith. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, multis gentilium facta fuit revelatio, “to many nations revelation has been made.” From the Hindus Christians can learn more about the immanence of God (without accepting pantheism). From the Buddhists Christians can learn about letting go of desires that get in the way of God (without accepting the atheism of Theravada Buddhism). From Taoism Christians can enrich their sense of the unity and mystery of God (again without accepting pantheism). From some Native American religions Christians can gain a sense of God’s closeness to the natural world and that His love extends to plants and animals, not just man–and one could go on.

This is not to say that all religions make the same claims, as the philosopher John Hick believes. He thinks that all religions are about calling people to a high moral life–but one does not have to be religious to believe this. Plus, religions make contradictory claims about reality; Sankara’s pantheism is not the same as Christian theism, and atheistic Theravada Buddhism which denies any individual self or soul is the opposite of Christianity on those two points. The Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said that “If all Jesus said was for us to be nice to each other, why the h… did they crucify him?”

Christianity, I believe is ultimately true–not just true for me, but true for everyone at all times. But as a Christian, I can still learn about my faith from studying other religions–and I can admit that Christ can save whom He wills, including non-Christians of good will and who accept God’s grace–which may be something that occurs postmortem. Finally, Christians should present the gospel as the good news of what Christ has done for mankind and not just a means for avoiding hell.