The Woes Of Westminster

Several folks have emailed me regarding this article about Westminster Seminary.

Let me say first off that I have a lot of respect for Westminster Seminary and always have. It’s a rigorous place. The students are well trained and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the campus a number of times. The scholarship at Westminster is first rate and I’ve been blessed to know many fine graduates. That being said, I’m saddened by the way Pete Enns is being treated (and not just because he’s a fellow Messiah grad).

The book in question which has created the controversy is a very responsible piece of scholarship. I don’t know that I’d want to use the metaphor of Incarnation for understanding the Scriptures, but still I like the book. And at a place like Princeton Seminary, Pete would be in the conservative camp. He believes the Bible is the inspired Word of God. He trusts its authority. In his book he attempts, not to undermine biblical authority, but to help pious evangelicals who want to believe in the Bible’s reliability and authority but struggle with issues surrounding its origins and background. For this Professor Enns ought to be lauded, not tried.

The Pew Religious Landscape Survey

Anyone even mildly interested in religion ought to spend some time perusing the Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey. It’s full of all sorts of fascinating data. Here are some the highlights…

Mainline Protestants, once the dominant religionists in the 2oth century, now make up only 18.1% of the population. (Presbyterians edge out Episcopalians 1.9% to 1.4%. Evangelical Protestants make up the largest religious group in the United States, constituting 26.3% of the population. Catholics make up 23.1% of Americans. The fasting growing group, the “unaffiliated”, are at 16.1% and will certainly outnumber Mainline Protestants in the near future.

71% of Americans contend that their belief in God is “absolutely” certain, 17% hold belief in God with “fair” certainty, 4% are not to certain in their belief, while only 5% explicitly don’t believe. Pennsylvania on the whole mirrors the country almost exactly where these percentages are concerned. New Hampshire and Vermont on the other hand are a bit more skeptical, with only 54% claiming certain belief in God. These states also contain proportionately more professed unbelievers than the national average at 9%. Mississippians seem to find it easiest to believe than the rest of us, with 91% of them professing faith with absolute certainty. Only 1% of Mississippians are professed non-believers. It must be lonely being an atheist in the deep south.

Only 24% of Americans believe that their religion is the true faith that leads to eternal life. 70% of Americans believe that many religions can lead you to eternal bliss. The fact that more and more Americans are becoming religious relativists isn’t altogether shocking. But what did come as a major surprise to me was how the evangelicals polled in this regard. Evangelical Protestants, 59% of which hold that the Bible is literally true word for word, believe that many religions lead to salvation to the tune of 57%. That’s downright fascinating and certainly challenges the stereotype that conservative Christians think everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus goes to hell. Only 36% of evangelicals believe that. (The most pessimistic about the possibility of salvation outside their ranks are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 80% of whom believe you have to be on their team to be saved.)

When asked how important religion is in daily life Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to be the most devoted, with 86% claiming their faith is very important. Members of historically black churches come in second with 85% of their adherents making the same claim. Mormons (83%), evangelicals (79%) and Muslims (72%) come in third, fourth and fifth respectively. Only 52% of Mainline Protestants make the same claim.

Another surprise came when I looked at the political statistics. Only 38% of evangelicals identify as Republicans. Compare this to 31% of Mainline Protestants who claim to be G.O.P. members and the idea that the Evangelical Protestants churches are the background of the Republican party seems like it needs qualifying. If you’re unaffiliated with any religious tradition it doesn’t mean you’re lack religious or theological beliefs. It doesn’t even mean you don’t engage in religious practices. 41% of the unaffiliated population says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, 70% say they believe in God, and more than a quarter (27%) say they attend religious services at least a few times a year.

Americans are becoming increasingly less loyal to “brands” where religious choices are concerned. 28% of Americans have left the religion they were raised in for another tradition or for no tradition at all. If you count switching from one type of Protestantism (say Presbyterianism to Anglicanism), roughly 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

There’s much more that could be written about. The survey is full of fascinating data which you can cross reference and compare very easily on Pew’s website. I’d be remiss if I didn’t conclude this post with a few implications for churches like mine. First, it’s a competitive religious market and people will go where they feel their needs are being met. Loyalty to tradition is on the decline, and quickly. Churches have to be able to communicate who they are and why it matters in compelling ways because Americans are truly religious consumers. This isn’t an argument against tradition. Far from it. In fact the best most committed members turn out to be the ones that hold to more traditional understandings of their religious traditions. But communicating the tradition in fresh ways to people who might have to acquire an appreciation for its relevance and dynamism will be the challenge.

On a more encouraging note, evangelism is not a lost cause. 4% of Americans say that they went from being unaffiliated as children to religious affiliates as adults. The trend doesn’t only go one way. Alleluia…

The Bible In 90 Days: Solomon, there and back again…

In today’s reading we hit a climactic point in the Old Testament narrative. We have followed Israel out of Egypt and a later generation into the promised land. We’ve seen the taking of land in Joshua and Israel’s ambiguous tenure in it. At the end of Judges we see two disastrous signs: civil war and rape. Israel demands a king and gets one in Saul. Order and unity is brought to the nation, but this begins to unravel as Saul’s unrighteousness and short sightedness leads to his judgment, and with him Israel’s as well. Then comes David, who like Israel before him is driven into the wilderness. But unlike the first generation of Jacob’s children, David prevails in the wilderness overcoming numerous temptations. David eventually triumphs over Saul, inherits the throne and proves himself a lover of mercy like the LORD. But David’s unfaithfulness again brings judgment upon his house, and by 2nd Samuel civil war and rape rear their ugly heads again. But unlike Saul (and Pharaoh?) David’s heart is not hard. He repents of his sins subsequent to their committal and thus is the recipient not merely of God’s judgment but God’s mercy. Today we are left with Solomon on the throne, and we read of Israel’s state of blessing under him:

20The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy. 21And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomonís subjects all his life…29God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30Solomonís wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahiteówiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34From all nations people came to listen to Solomonís wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom. (1st Kings 4:20-21, 29-34)

God commands human beings to be fruitful and multiply before and after the flood. (Gen 1:28; Gen 9:2) When creation takes a downward turn in Genesis 11 God calls Abram and Sarai to be the new parents of a new humanity. Abram, who would become Abraham is promised that he will become a great nation, one through which all the earth’s people will be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). This barren couple will have numerous descendants, so many that they will be nearly uncountable (Gen 15:5).

The Old Testament tracks the ever increasing fulfillment of the blessing and the promise, despite sin and the curse. There is a pattern of sin, exile and restoration, with the restoration continually bringing greater blessings to the people of God despite persistent disobedience. Here the blessing begins to reach its widest scope. Israel takes full possession of the land promised to it and occupies it in peace. Abraham’s children are numerous as the sand, and the nations are blessed through this family become a nation. Solomon, a type of the Second Adam, takes to studying the creation, and through such study and understanding demonstrates his wisdom to the nations. Unlike Adam who attempts to procure the gift of wisdom apart from the giver, Solomon’s wisdom is requested and received from the LORD. King Solomon prefigures King Jesus who is the living embodiment of divine wisdom, and who would ultimately lead all the nations to repentance. (1 Cor 1:24).