Luther on the Power of Questions

In my church history class last week, we discussed Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Toward the end, I was struck once again by the powerful way that he used questions to drive home a point. Like any good communicator, he knew how to use questions as an effective rhetorical tool.

As, for example, Luther was not just asking questions when he put forth the following:

Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.

Or, my personal favorite:

Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?

And, just for the fun of it, here are a couple more.

What does the pope remit or dispense to people who, by their perfect repentance, have a right to plenary remission or dispensation?

What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?

I’m relatively certain that Luther knew he was not just asking questions. And, I bet the pope got the hint as well.

At the same time, I’m reminded of a more recent debate. One of the more commonly offered comments in response to the promo video for Rob Bell‘s forthcoming book is that “He was only asking questions.” No, in a context like that, you are never just asking questions.

Now, as with many rhetorical devices, it’s often an interesting task to try and discern exactly what someone is doing with questions. But, let’s all agree that sometimes a question is not just a question.

Sometimes we need to sound like universalists

In an interesting post this morning, Scot McKnight argues that sometimes we need to sound like universalists because that how the Bible sounds at times.

I will put it this way: there are passages that sound univeralistic, that sound like somehow God will reconcile all things in the End, and that if we don’t occasionally sound universalistic we are not being as biblical as God — and as Jesus and Paul. Yes, these passages are not the only ones to consider, but — let this be said — neither are they cushioned or cautioned or cornered off by Jesus and Paul so they don’t give the wrong impression. What the Bible is talking about here is that God’s grace will win. God will make all things right. I’m not a universalist but I want this language to be the way I talk about these topics.

I think this is a very helpful way of framing the discussion. The Bible does press the language of God’s grace and sovereignty at times in such a way that it sounds like universalism is the only possible conclusion.

My only concern is that we not sound this theme without also allowing the rest of the biblical picture to come out.  So, I appreciated McKnight’s balanced conclusion at the end of his post:

To talk about wrath apart from this depiction of the grace-consuming God is to put forward a view of God that is not only unbiblical but potentially monstrous. And, to put forward a view of God that is absent of final judgment, yes of wrath, yes of eternal judgment, is to offer a caricature of the Bible’s God.

Along the way, he also offered a stern and timely rebuke for those who seem to delight primarily in being right (on both sides of this discussion), losing sight of the true immensity of this difficult subject.

It’s a good post that is worth checking out.

Mind over Medicine – an interesting video on the placebo effect

Here’s a short video that does an outstanding job explaining the power of the placebo effect and the amazing ability that our minds have to trick us in ways that can actually impact bodily functions. One of these days I’m going to come up with a way of giving myself placebos so that I can trick myself into being healthier and smarter than I actually am. Or something like that.


iPad 2 versus other tablets (iPad, Xoom, Touchpad)

I still haven’t purchased a new laptop. If you haven’t been following this blog for very long, this may not be terribly surprising. The rest of you know that I’ve been in the market for a new laptop for a while now. But, I just haven’t been able to pull the trigger. Technically, I’ve pulled the trigger several times and then stuffed the bullet back in. I’m now on my fourth laptop in the last six months and I’m still not happy. (I keep returning them.) So, the hunt continues.

And now Apple comes out with the second generation of iPads. So, although I’d written off the iPad a while back because I wasn’t happy with its limitations, I have to check it out again. Thanks Apple.

So, since I’m doing some homework, I think I’d pass along some of the results. Here’s an interesting link showing the iPad 2 from all angles.  And, here’s the most helpful infographic I’ve seen so far comparing the iPad2 to its major competitors: the original iPad, the Motorola Xoom, and the HP Touchpad.

Saturday morning humor – soundtrack for living

People actually can be generous

What do you think would happen if an artist told the audience just to pay what they thought the performance was worth? Apparently the answer is, quite a bit. Here’s the story from Boing Boing.

Performance artist Mike Daisey’s show at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, “The Last Cargo Cult,” started with the attendees being handed US currency (notes ranging from $1 to $100) as they came into the theatre. As Daisey’s show drew to a close, he revealed that the money the audience had been given was the entire sum that the theatre was paying him to perform that night. He then asked the audience to give back some or all of the money based on their impression of the show — and if they liked it enough, they were invited to give even more money back. At the end of the show, Daisey had not only made back all the money he’d given away, he’d also cleared $1,169.005 (yes, someone gave him half a penny!).

Do you see what I see? Probably not.

Why can’t you see it? It’s so obvious. You’re just being obstinate and refusing to see what’s right in front of your face.

I was leading a theology class the other day, and I could almost see  some of these thoughts leaking from the ears of two of my students. We were dealing with one of the many contentious issues in theology, and they were visibly frustrated that the other student just wasn’t understanding what was so obvious to them. Why couldn’t they get it?

Clearly there’s something wrong with the way they think.

That’s probably true. Because apparently there’s something wrong with the way that we all think. In a recent survey, 52% of Oregon adults said that they think crime is on the rise. The problem is that it’s just not true. According to a recent article in the Oregonian,

From 2008 to 2009, violent crime fell 2.1 percent, putting the state’s rate at 38th nationally. Oregon’s property crime rate ranked 23rd in the nation in 2009, and that year the rate was the lowest since 1966 (emphasis added).

And, people expressed this skewed understanding of crime rates despite the fact that their own experience was significantly different. Only 25% of people said that they thought the crime rate in their neighborhood had gone up.

So, although their personal experience was that crime had decreased and the actual data indicates that crime had decreased, just over half of people still though that crime had increased overall.

When both experience and data suggest one thing, why do we persist in believing something else?

A recent article in the British Medical Journal suggests that the problem comes from cognitive bias, the ways in which we are cognitively predisposed to form certain judgments. For example, “There is considerable evidence that people presented with balanced arguments place weight on those they already agree with, exhibiting what is termed confirmation bias.” In one interesting study,

subjects were initially categorised on a conservative-liberal scale and then exposed to factually incorrect stories on the effect of US tax cuts and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq followed by an authoritative correction. If they sympathised with the initial message the correction either failed to change their misperception or actually reinforced it.

Another study noted that subjects were far more likely to recognize contradictory statements when they were made by someone they disagreed with politically than when made by someone with whom they were sympathetic.

So, we’re predisposed to believing that certain things are true, often despite significant evidence to the contrary.

The implications of this for theology and theological argumentation should be obvious. When you encounter a contrary theological perspective, is it really as obviously false as you think it is? Or, is that your cognitive bias playing tricks on you? Take a closer look. It might be like one of those optical illusions where the woman turns into a musician or the black square turns out to be a picture of three monkeys playing soccer with overripe watermelon. How can you tell if you’re seeing things correctly? You probably can’t. That’s why you need someone to look at the picture with you. They might see it differently. And, then you can talk about it. (And, while you’re at it, you can mock the other person for being so stupid and not being able to see the picture the way you do. That’s part of the fun.)

None of us think all that well. That’s why we keep doing stupid stuff. I’m not sure that thinking in groups is likely to make us all that much smarter, but at least we’ll have people to point out that there are a whole variety of ways to think badly about something. That has to be some kind of improvement. Doesn’t it?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for pointing out these two articles and the interesting overlap between them.)


Vampires are lame, but they’re good for understanding blood

I was trying to get through this entire book without mentioning vampires, but apparently I’m not going to make it. (It’s important to realize that although zombies are cool, vampires are lame; there’s a big difference.) But vampires actually do a really good job of illustrating an important point: without blood, there’s no life.

The life of a vampire is really pretty simple: sleep all day, come out night to seduce innocent women, drink blood, avoid impaling yourself on sharp pieces of wood, go back to bed. That doesn’t sound terribly difficult—boring maybe, but not hard.

The key piece in the equation, of course, is the blood, the source of the vampire’s life. Without blood, the vampire has no power, no life, no existence. So, on a regular basis, the vampire must locate a victim – piercing the tender skin and drinking in the life-giving liquid.

Blood is life.

That’s true for the victim as well, though from a very different perspective. The same act that sustains the life of the vampire also brings death to the victim. As the vampire draws forth nourishment, its victim grows weak, pale, and listless—life itself seeping out through two small holes in the flesh.

Blood is death.

One substance, two very different results. Life and death. Twin moons circling the same planet.

That’s how the Bible views blood as well. On the one hand, blood is what keeps us alive and allows us to carry on our tasks in the world. God made blood to course through our veins and sustain life in every part of our being. In Eden, God created blood, and it was good. But, on the other hand, once shalom shattered and shoah entered the world, blood came to mean something else. Still the source of life, it also became the symbol of death. When blood is shed, the power of death lurks close by. So, in the Bible, blood represents both the power of life that God gave to all creatures at creation and the awesome destructiveness of death that descended on us east of Eden.

You can see this most clearly in the biblical sacrifices. If you stop and think about it for a moment, sacrifices are a very weird thing. Imagine that you’re an Israelite and you’ve just sinned against God. What should you do? Why, go lop the head off some poor, innocent ram, of course. That’s a great system. At least it is for the human; I’m sure the ram sees things very differently.

The point of the sacrifice, though, wasn’t to take out Israel’s problems on some innocent animal. That would be weird indeed. The sacrifices were given to show the devastating connection between sin and death, as the animal’s lifeblood was spilled in response to our failures. With clocklike regularity, the Israelites brought their animals to the priests and shed blood as a reminder of the fact that they lived east of Eden, in the brokenness of shoah, in bondage to death. As Paul says later, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 3:23). And, every time the Israelites brought forward their sin sacrifices, they reminded themselves of this truth.

At the same time, though, the blood brought a promise of life. Israel always knew that somehow it was only through the shedding of blood that forgiveness and life would be restored to God’s people. Throughout the Law, God promised he would forgive his people when they brought their sacrifices to him (see esp. Lev. 4-5). And, the author of Hebrews makes the connection even clearer when he says, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22).

So, throughout the Old Testament, two truths stand out: (1) Sin brings death and the shedding of blood; (2) through the shedding of blood comes forgiveness and life.

But why? What is the connection between the death of animals and the promise of forgiveness and life? The Old Testament never says. The Israelites just take it on faith that God will be faithful and will do what he promises.

Then Jesus came.

And, we killed him, shedding his blood on the cross.

And the truth became clear.

We can still see the dark side of blood. Just read the story of Jesus’ death. How can you miss the horror of shoah? The betrayals, beatings, mockery, loneliness, pain, blood, and death. Could there be a clearer picture? “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn. 3:19). Blood shed, the Messiah died.

And, he died as one of us. The eternal Son of God became fully human, even to the extent of entering into our brokenness and subjecting himself to the terrifying reality of death: “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8). The light of the world subjected to the brutality of death, all so that he could be one of us.

But the blood of Christ means so much more than just this. Jesus shared in our humanity so that he might break the power of death (Heb. 2:14). His death was not the pointless sacrifice of a tragic Shakespearean hero. No, it had purpose. Though we were enslaved to the power of sin and destruction, Jesus died so that we might be reborn as those who have the gift of life (Rom. 6:23; 8:2).

The blood of Christ signifies both the death that comes as the necessary consequence of living in a broken world, and the life that comes to those who belong to the Messiah (John 6:53-54).

We killed the king, but life flourished anyway.

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.]


Just because…zombie tweet of the day

Put the theology book down and do something that matters

[This following is the opening devotional that I presented at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last weekend.]

What are we doing here?

I’m sure we could walk out this building and, within five minutes, find any number of hurting people desperately in need of care and attention, longing for a meaningful conversation, needing to hear the Gospel. People who are cold, hungry, lonely, and lost — forgotten, neglected, and abused by a sin-fractured world.

Yet here we sit, ready to spend an entire day presenting papers, hearing arguments, and discussing abstract ideas apparently far removed from the real needs of everyday people. How does discussing epistemology, hamartiology, ecclesiology, or the intricate details of ancient historiography really help people come to Jesus and begin healing their broken bodies and souls?

What are we doing here?

Didn’t Jesus tell us that when the Son of Man comes in all his glory he will say to his faithful servants, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and so forth? I don’t recall him saying anything like, “I was confused about the doctrine of imputation, and you explained to me its properly judicial context,” or “I hungered for a solid epistemology and you fed me with the truth of a chastened critical realism.”

Are we the goats who failed to care for the real needs of God’s creatures so that we could stay in our academic bomb shelters, safe from the harsh realities of life?

Have we gathered here to play the role of Nero, fiddling while the world burns?

What are we doing here?


Almost 1700 years ago, a group of pastors gathered for a conference of their own. And, these were men who knew all about harsh realities. They had lived through some of the most brutal persecutions the church had ever faced. As they entered the conference, many still bore on their bodies the scars of their faithful endurance. They knew what it was like to be the “other” in society, the ones on whom society casts blame when things go wrong. They had experienced poverty, hunger, and the uncertainty of a future in a brutal world. These were not men who stayed safe in academic bomb shelters; these were men on whom the bombs had already dropped.

But, instead of staying home with their families, ministering to their congregations, and taking care of the poor and hungry, they spent months traveling to and attending a theology conference at a little town called Nicea. Why would they do that?

Why would these men who understood so well the desperate needs of the people around them waste their time on the seemingly abstract and unnecessary questions of academic theology?


I don’t know about you, but I face those kinds of questions all the time. Pretty much every time someone asks me what I did my doctoral work on or what book I’m currently reading, I brace myself for “the look.” You know the one, the looks that says, “Really? You’re wasting your time on that? When are you going to get your feet on the ground and do something that really matters?”

Something that really matters?

Unfortunately, they rarely say it out loud, so I never have the chance to respond. But, theology matters. And, it matters at the very least because we have a God who cares what we think about him.

I don’t want to be mean, but I don’t really care what some people think about me. When I shopping on and I click the button to buy a book, I know that someone has to do the work of actually filling that order. And, I care deeply that they do what they’re supposed to. I want my book. But, I don’t really care what they think about me. We don’t have that kind of relationship. As long as they do their job, I’m happy.

God could have done that with us. If he was only concerned with making sure that we did all the right things, he could have treated us just like the person from He could have given us our instructions, pointed us in the right direction, and said “get to work.” He wouldn’t have even needed to talk to us that way. He could have just sent an email.

He could have done that. But he didn’t.

God created us to know him. He made Adam and Eve in the Garden, and he revealed himself to them, walked with them, developed a relationship with them. Although he was very concerned about what they did, he wanted more. He wanted them.

And that didn’t change after sin entered the picture. Even then God didn’t stop revealing himself to his people, pursuing them, calling them to himself. Indeed, the entire Old Testament can be read as a story of God revealing himself over and over again to his people. Why? Because he cares about what his people think of him.

And, of course, when we reach the New Testament, what does he do? He reveals himself even more. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14) And, “He who has seen me has seen the father” (Jn 14:9).

And, what is our hope at the end of the story – that we would know him fully: “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

God wants us to know him. That’s what this has all been about. In the end, some will come to Jesus and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name?” And then Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Mt. 7:22-23). There’s nothing wrong with doing any of these things. But God wants more.

Theology matters because God cares what we think about him.


So, what are we doing here? As we read these academic papers, ask our questions, and participate in these discussions, what kind of task are we involved in?

If theology is all about recognizing that God wants us to know him and cares what we think about him, taking time out of our busy lives to orient our thoughts toward God and reflect carefully on him in all his glory, then theology is a very particular kind of task.

It is worship.

We’ve gathered this morning to think carefully about who God is as he has revealed himself to us and the difference this must make in understanding who we are and how we conduct ourselves as the people of God in the world. That is worship. It may not come with the warm fuzzies and emotional afterglow that we usually associate with worship. Instead, it may come with a headache and the frustration of finding more questions than answers. But it’s still worship.

And it must be worship, or we’re not really doing theology.

Karl Barth compared the theological task to being inside a room. In that room are many interesting questions, fascinating investigations, and compelling discussions. But, as long as we remain locked inside that room, it is stuffy and stilted. So, the room also has windows that open out into the realm outside the room so that the theologian can engage the needs and concerns of the church and the surrounding world. And, that is good and necessary. The work that we do today cannot remain an in-house effort, isolated from the everyday needs and concerns of God’s people. But, Barth argued, even that is not enough. The room must also have a skylight through which the bright rays of heaven flow, illuminating the room and drawing the theologian into the worship of God himself. (Evangelical Theology, p. 161)

I think that’s why Paul routinely broke out in worship and adoration as he did theology. Just read his letters. In Ephesians 3, Paul lays out his prayer for the people in Ephesus: “for this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (vv. 14-19). His prayer is that the Ephesians might be empowered for good theology. And, then he immediately flows right into worship: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (vv. 20-21).

Paul knew what theology was all about. He knew that theology involved asking hard questions and trying to understand really difficult ideas. That’s why he prayed for the Ephesians to be strengthened in the task. And, I think Paul enjoyed the process. He strikes me as the kind of person who could get wrapped up in the pleasures of an intricate argument or a good discussion.

But, Paul never forgot what theology was really about. He made sure that he constantly kept his eyes on the skylight so that his room never grew stuffy or stale.

Paul knew that theology is worship.

What are we doing here?

We’re worshipping. And, worship is never a waste of time.