January 24, 2017

The liberal ‘gevaar’

In many evangelical circles, and certainly amongst most fundamentalists, the world ‘liberal’ carries with it a definite emotional and theological charge.

Liberals are seen as threatening the Faith and undermining true Christian theology. Liberals have a nefarious agenda; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and so on. Liberal theologians, on the other hand, are concerned at what they observe as a lack of love and compassion for the human condition among fundamentalists. They also take exception to what they perceive as the naïve and uncritical spiritualisation of evangelicals. Some, like bishop Spong for instance, even contend that unless they save Christianity from unscientific supernaturalism it will become first irrelevant and then extinct.

So what is theological liberalism?  I would describe liberals as people who hold the following theological beliefs:  Concerning the Bible, they generally believe that the scriptures are no more inspired than other important literary works. As a result, they subject the Bible to rigorous ‘higher’ criticism and discount much of its historic reliability and factual accuracy. Concerning salvation, they understand regeneration as a reprogramming of the individual mind and the transformation of the structures of society. Liberal theology is both humanistic and anti-supernatural. On the positive side, this results in a focus on compassion for people and consideration for the human habitat. On the negative side, it strips Christianity and the Bible of everything that cannot be logically explained. Angels have never been scientifically evaluated therefore they cannot exist. A miracle is merely the mythological name given to a natural process we do not yet fully understand. Rebirth is actually just a way of describing the process of intellectual and moral transformation. The virgin birth is superfluous… and so on. I need to note though that there is a continuum from old fashioned liberalism on the one end, through neo-liberalism, evangelical orthodoxy, to fundamentalism on the other end. Some fundamentalists regard the average evangelical as somewhat liberal, and many liberals see little difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists.

As an evangelical, I have very real problems with most that goes under the heading of theological liberalism. I accept that the Bible has a human aspect to it, but I do not accept that it is anything other than divinely inspired and authoritative. If, as many liberals contend, most of the New Testament is simply a record of the philosophy of Paul of Tarsus, then it provides only limited help in the 21st century and no certainty for an eternal future. If the Gospels record the embellished mythology of overzealous first century Christ-followers, then perhaps Jesus did not do what they say He did and His teaching is no more definitive than that of any other wise man of His day. If man is essentially good, then sin is just a religious word for social dysfunction. If right and wrong, morality and immorality are genetically or culturally determined, then homosexuality is just a matter of personal preference or predisposition, and abortion on demand a societal convenience.

If science stands above scripture as the yardstick of truth, then tomorrow’s truth will not be the same as today’s truth and both will be uncertain.
If God is an archaic name for cosmic group consciousness, then the possibility of a personal relationship with him, her, or it is an absurd idea. If Jesus was just a radical Jewish teacher and activist then I am without a saviour and my only hope for the future is my own effort, the success of my particular race or society, and a lot of luck. If this is what the Christian Faith truly is then it isn’t worth saving.

I see no point to a liberal Faith of the kind I have described. However, a note of sober caution is in order. Liberalism is not the only aberration within the greater body of the Church. In my opinion, extreme fundamentalism, on the other side of the continuum, with its harsh separatism and exclusive definitions of biblical inerrancy, creationism and so on, is an ill-conceived over-reaction to liberalism. In its own way it does just as much damage to the credibility and vitality of the Christian Faith.  Naive and slavish literalism denigrates the rational aspect of biblical faith; fixation on non-fundamental doctrines fragments the church; separatist pride and lovelessness opens the chasm between church and world even wider than it already is.

Another caution is that we should recognise the liberalism in our own views and practices. When we focus on societal change as the Faith priority, then we are comfortably in line with the liberal agenda. When we practice our Faith as an essentially private matter, largely unconfined by the demands and restraints of church life and doctrine, then we are being distinctly liberal. When we respond accommodatingly to unbiblical societal norms with the mantra, ‘different strokes for different folks’, then we are surely liberals at heart. So perhaps, rather than being as concerned as we often appear to be with only  the liberalism we identify in the institutions of the church, we ought also to examine the insidious incursion of it into our own lives and thinking.

I can’t speak for you, but I actually don’t want religion of any type, liberal or other; I want a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as illuminated by the Holy Spirit … so help me Father God.

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The hope of glory

When I was ten my parents decided to give my older sister piano lessons. I asked them why I too could not be taught to play the piano, but they dismissed the idea out of hand. This really upset me! My parents were often out in the evenings for business or church functions and so every time they went out I executed a cunning plan. One of their favourite LP’s was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto number one, and so each time I was alone I put this record onto the turntable, sat at the piano, and laboriously learned to play two minutes of the first movement. One evening after supper I asked if I could play something on the piano. They smiled indulgently at each other but their smiles turned into open mouthed surprise when I flamboyantly played the first few bars.

Now the truth is that I was no child prodigy, just a brat with a good ear and perseverance. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my parents had mistakenly believed that I was a master musician in the making, and insisted on three lessons a week and endless hours of practice. How frustrating and heart-breaking that would have been for everyone.  No matter how many hours I practiced I could never be like Tchaikovsky; it just isn’t in me.

I suspect that many Christians feel frustrated and defeated by constantly trying to be LIKE Jesus and failing time and again to imitate Him.
They never say so out loud, but inside they often say; “I just can never be like Jesus! I try and try but I keep falling short and it’s frustrating me terribly. I love Jesus and its breaking my heart that I can’t be like Him as He expects me to.” Some people give up when this realisation dawns on them and become closet-Christians, or they lapse into living the Faith life in guilty failure. To make matters worse, these folk often have to endure a regular Sunday dose of moralistic preaching which just serves to make them feel even worse about themselves.

Len Sweet and Frank Viola write the following in Jesus Manifesto; ‘the “good news” is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be “like” Him. He wants to share His resurrection life with us. He doesn’t want us to imitate Him; instead, Christ, the Unspeakable Gift, wants to live in and through us. The gospel is not the imitation of Christ; it is the implantation and impartation of Christ. We are called to do more than mediate truth. We are called to manifest Jesus’ presence. That “we” means you’ (http://www.thejesusmanifesto.com). Are they right? Actually, they are not alone in proclaiming this message. Dr Jim Fowler writes in one of his essays that ‘the Christian life works by the out-working of the life of Jesus Christ. Christians must give up trying to make the Christian life work by their own efforts and orientations, and allow the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through them.’ (http://www.christinyou.net)

Instead of examining the theology of this, I want rather, in this short article, to touch on some practical implications. If we are oriented to imitating Jesus then will we not end up practicing just another form of works-oriented religion?  It sounds a noble idea to imitate Jesus in our daily lives but success will surely depend largely on how well WE can do this. However, if we understand that it is Christ within who seeks to manifest His life through our lives, then the criteria for success will be His initiative and our yielded cooperation. Instead of putting on our faith life from without, we manifest it from within. This is closer to what Jesus himself taught, modelled and prayed for (see John 17:20-23). It seems that we are not called to perfectly imitate Jesus Christ, but to manifest His life through our lives – not imitation but incarnation.

Jesus’ life is loving and kind, and so to manifest His life is to be loving and kind. His life is holy, and so to manifest His life to be holy. Jesus’ life is anointed and miraculous, and so to manifest His life is to live in the anointed miraculous. His life is a life of giving and sacrifice, so to manifest His life is to live a life of giving and joyful self-sacrifice.

For the last 30 years I have taught that the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to become like Him, and to help others to do likewise. It is time I amended it to read;

‘the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to manifest His life through our lives, and to help others to do likewise’.  Know Him and show Him.
 

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The great creation debate

Over the last several years there has been quite a lot of Christian media coverage given to the evolution versus divine creation debate. The subject is not a new one, but of late the Young Earth Creationist camp has been making its views known fairly clearly and dogmatically and this has sparked responses from Christians who hold other views on creation.

I am not a trained scientist and so I am not competent to comment significantly on the scientific aspects of the debate. I also do not claim to be a theological ‘expert’ on the subject. Despite both of these limitations I do feel able to make some cautionary comments on the subject. Job 38:4 records God’s challenge when He asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” I believe this applies equally to both scientists and theologians. Human beings were not present when God created the heavens and the earth. Scientists were not present at the creation to observe and analyse. They develop their hypotheses from the geological record and logical assumptions. Theologians were not there either and we develop our doctrines from a logical understanding of the scriptures. So an essential requirement in the evolution/creation debate, on both sides, is humility.

A second preliminary consideration concerns who the parties are in the debate. On the one hand Christians are engaged with atheist or agnostic sceptics like Richard Dawkins, but it seems to me that the more heated debate is occurring between Christians. Evangelicals are taking issue with Liberals, but bible-believing Christians are also fighting with other bible-believing evangelicals. I say ‘fighting’ because some of the debate is beyond robust.

The main ‘camps’ in the Christian debate over evolution and creation are the Young Earth Creationism camp, The Progressive Creationism camp, the Intelligent Design camp, and the Theistic Evolution camp. Bruce Waltke has written a paper on ‘Barriers to accepting the possibility of creation by means of an evolutionary process’ (http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Waltke_scholarly_essay.pdf) and as an appendix he attaches the findings of four surveys administered to Pentecostal seminary faculties between 2004 and 2009. The last of these surveys revealed that only 23% of the respondents were Young Earth Creationists and 19% were evolutionary creationists. So we need to note that neither of these positions enjoys majority support even among Pentecostals.

I recently read comments by a scientist who described himself as a Christian Theistic Evolutionist claiming that a prominent Young Earth Creationist was implying that those Christians who do not agree with his views do not therefore believe in a real Adam or an actual fall. He then points out that as a Theistic Evolutionist he does believe in a real Adam and Eve, a Garden of Eden, a real Fall, and in the authority of the Bible. So we all need to be careful how we classify and characterise other sincere Christians.

I believe that, instead of fighting each other over the ‘how’ of creation, Christian scholars with a particular interest in this area of study should engage each other in a non-confrontational way on some of the underlying issues in the debate. For instance, we need to discuss what the various views say or imply concerning the character of God, the trustworthiness of the scriptures, and key doctrines such as sin and salvation. As an example, the idea that God created the earth some 6,000 years ago with the appearance of great age says something about God’s integrity and transparency. Disbelief in an actual Adam and original sin seriously affects the evangelical understanding of salvation in and through the last Adam (1 COR 15:45), the Lord Jesus Christ, and so on. These, and other serious doctrinal and faith issues, should be resolved through considerate and careful debate. I for one would certainly appreciate more of this kind of exchange and less polemic dogmatism in Christian magazines and journals.

My appeal to both scholars and editors is to air the underlying faith issues in the debate rather than the endless ideas on how God might have created, or when He created. As a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ I am far more interested in, and impacted by, what the creation issue has to say about God’s character, the trustworthiness of the Bible, and the key doctrines of the evangelical faith.

So my appeal is that we make the subject of creation a great debate rather than a great ‘barney’.

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Nothing new under the sun

In the first few years of our Christian life my wife and I were part of a small Methodist church in Port Elizabeth. Our congregation did not have our own resident minister and so we relied a lot on visiting lay preachers to take our Sunday services. One particular Sunday one of these men visited us and preached from Ecclesiastes 1:9-10; ‘what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? The sermon lived up to its title and really was quite forgettable. The preacher himself must have thought so too because a few months later he again preached at our church and started his sermon with the words, “The title of my sermon today is ‘There is nothing new under the sun’.  He then proceeded to repeat his earlier message word for word!

This is the season when we usually make plans for the year that lies ahead. If we are particularly conscientious we also produce a budget to give us some idea of what our plans and aspirations are going to cost. Some people are boldly imaginative and plan new and different things, but for most folk the process of planning and budgeting is more an exercise in extrapolation. We infer the unknown from the known. We use the past as the pattern for the future. We might stretch ourselves a little, but in the main our plans and budgets look much like last years plus a little extra for inflation – ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again’.

I have had several conversations with investment consultants who point to the past growth of equities as the evidence of their suitability as a future investment. Ok, but what if everything changes? What if something happens in the world or in our country that changes the rules of the investment game? How well will equities perform then? It is a disturbing thought to many, but we are now living in an age where the past is no longer the best predictor of the future. “Look! This is something new” is a phrase that constantly rings in our 21st century ears. So, scenario planning is now in vogue. The new way of planning is to identify a number of possible future scenarios, allocate each a probability, and then to plan accordingly.

There is a current line of reasoning in educational circles which holds that we need to be teaching our children to think imaginatively. The idea is to prepare them to face a rapidly changing world with a nimble mind and a set of creative and critical thinking skills. Just having a head full of facts derived from past reality is just not good enough anymore.

Having said all this, here is another scripture to consider; Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) The world is changing like a chameleon on steroids, but God is ahead of the game and He wants us to see what He is doing so we can get into line with His plans and purposes. If we listen carefully to the Holy Spirit, and keep alert to what He is causing to ‘spring up’, then we will not be swamped by the storm of change that is flooding the world. With God, planning can be an exhilarating visionary experience and not a futile extrapolation of the past. We don’t need to be frustrated by the failure of our traditional planning techniques, and nor do we need to be afraid of the uncertainty of the age. Rather, what we need to do is to align ourselves as best we can with the greatest change-agent of all, Almighty God, and to step boldly with Him into an exhilarating future.

Yesterday, today, forever,
Jesus is the same,
All may change, but Jesus never!
Glory to His name,
Glory to His name,
Glory to His name;
All may change, but Jesus never!
Glory to His name.

 

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Hope-full

The three greatest qualities of a Christian are faith, hope and love and they are also the three greatest needs in the world today.

Love, unconditional self-giving, is the opposite of the self-serving greed that dominates most of modern society. Faith, complete trust and confidence in God, has been replaced by qualified faith in science, wealth and power structures. Hope, the expectation of future good, has in the main become a whimsical wish for some light in a dark future.

I am writing this article in the first week of 2012 and I want to focus on the light of hope that we as Christians are called upon to shine into the gloom of our current national and global circumstances. Paul’s benediction to the church in Rome is, ‘may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15:13).

Our God is the God of hope, the source of real hope, and the basis for that hope. But what is the nature of our hope in God?
Firstly, it is the hope of eternal life. In Titus 3:4-8 Paul writes; ‘When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.’ Our hope of eternity with God is not based on anything we have done or could do, but upon His mercy and grace. It is therefore a real and unconditional hope.

Secondly, our hope is focused on the here and now (1 Timothy 6:17-18) and this present hope also has its source and substance in God. Jesus’ promise to his disciples, and therefore to us, is that He will never leave us but will be with us until the very end (Matthew 28:20). Because of His constant presence with all who are born of the Spirit we can be assured that in all things He will work for our good (Romans 8:28-29). This is the basis for our hope for tomorrow – Jesus is with us and He seeks to work through all the circumstances of our lives towards our highest good. Because of this hope we can have the joy and peace of which Paul writes, both now and eternally.

This hope which we as believers have is not supposed to be restricted to our own lives or even the lives of other believers. We are called to hold up the light of hope to the people around us who do not yet know Jesus as Saviour and Lord. ‘In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15-16). Our nation, and indeed the world, needs the light of hope that only we can offer for Ephesians 2:12 describes the condition of unbelievers as ‘without hope and without God in the world.’

The 23rd December, 2011 edition of one of the local community newspapers carried an article titled ‘Psychic makes 2012 prediction’. These prognostications included cripplingly high fuel costs; dire shortages of electricity, food, and water; disruptions to all forms of transport; the breakdown of communication systems, computers and cell-phones; and the collapse of economic structures leading to bartering systems! But, hey, the good news is that the manual typewriter will come back into fashion and we will have some really cool family times because of the lack of television, computers and cell-phones. Now I put no store at all in psychic predictions but they do say something about how people are thinking about the future – dark and without hope.

Our societies need our light. Jesus said that we are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). Why is this? We are the light of hope because we are the ones who know the source of light and hope, Jesus Christ, and our mandate is to overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. The substance of the hope which we offer is that through Jesus all who believe can be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit into a living relationship with Almighty God. Because of this, all who are saved by His grace can enjoy His constant presence in their lives and know with certainty that He works in all circumstances towards their highest good. Finally, when their journey together with Him on this planet comes to an end they have the sure hope that their lives will continue with Him into eternity.

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.