“The Boundary of a Christian Church”—Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian who died September 5, was one of the 20th century’s formative theological thinkers. When he rose to prominence in the 1960s, many theologians believed Christianity could only be accepted by faith but not studied or defended using rational thought. Pannenberg defied this trend by arguing that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was an objective fact that could be demonstrated with evidence. He likewise insisted that Christian truth by and large was rational and objective.[1] Pannenberg influenced many evangelical thinkers even though he did not believe all the miracle accounts in Scripture and dismissed the virgin birth as a myth. Despite his errors, he held the moral teaching of the Bible in high regard, and the results can be surprising to those who might associate his theological liberalism with ethical liberalism.

For instance, Pannenberg will long be appreciated by evangelicals for his defense of traditional sexual morality. He said a church that approves of homosexual acts ceases to be a true church. In 1997 he returned his Federal Order of Merit award to the German government after it bestowed the same honor on a lesbian activist.[2] In this article, he argued that homosexuality is “a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God” and said heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate channel for sexual expression.[3] Though Pannenberg appears to underestimate the sinfulness of homosexual inclinations (which dishonor God in themselves like all inclinations to sin), his overall emphasis is a timely caution to the Church.

The mere existence of homophile inclinations does not automatically lead to homosexual practice. Rather, these inclinations can be integrated into a life in which they are subordinated to the relationship with the opposite sex where, in fact, the subject of sexual activity should not be the all-determining center of human life and vocation. As the sociologist Helmut Schelsky has rightly pointed out, one of the primary achievements of marriage as an institution is its enrollment of human sexuality in the service of ulterior tasks and goals.

The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior. This is the real problem: and it is here that we must deal with the conclusion that homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife—in particular, adultery.

The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm.

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

[1] David Roach, “Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg Dies,” Baptist Press Website, September 8, 2014, http://www.bpnews.net/43317/theologian-wolfhart-pannenberg-dies (accessed September 15, 2014).

[2] Michael Root, “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg, First Things, March 2012, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/03/the-achievement-of-wolfhart-pannenberg (accessed September 15, 2014).

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Revelation and Homosexual Experience: What Wolfhart Pannenberg Says About this Debate in the Church,” Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/november11/6td035.html (accessed September 15, 2014).

Greatest Feats

GreatfeatsThe other day in a used book store, I came across a copy of a Greatest Feats: Sport’s Most Unforgettable Accomplishments. Turning through the pages, I was reminded of Bible characters who could fit the categories employed in the book:

1. Classic Performances: The authors listed Tom Dempsey’s first-ever 60-yard field goal; Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile; Pele’s staring role in Brazil’s first World Cup championship; and Jesse Owens’ stunning medal sweep at “Hitler’s Olympics.” On the Bible side, David’s defeat of Goliath, Elijah’s besting the prophets of Baal on Carmel, Esther’s rescue of her people, and Stephen’s convicting sermon and martyrdom stand out.

2. Spectacular Seasons: The book honored the Miami Dolphins’ perfect season, Babe Ruth’s 61-home-run summer, and Manchester United’s “treble” (Premier League; European Cup; F.A. Cup). In Scripture, the early reign of Solomon was dramatic, attracting admiration from around the region, prompting a visit from the Queen of Sheba; it was a season of prosperity and spiritual renewal, including construction of the Temple.

3. Legendary Streaks: In the sports realm, we think of UCLA’s string of national basketball championships, where John Wooden coached such luminaries as Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and Bill Walton. Then, looking to both the Old and New Testaments, we see literary streaks, such as the collection of Psalms David wrote and the sweep of Luke/Acts, penned by Dr. Luke. We might also think of David’s run of victories against the Philistine enemies of Israel, a record which embarrassed Saul and made him jealous.

4. A Lifetime of Excellence. Among the sports legends in this category are Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, Richard Petty, who was “King Richard” of the NASCAR track, Jack Nicklaus, whose record of major tournament wins still stands, and Rod Laver, who won two tennis Grand Slams (Wimbledon, US, French, Australian) seven years apart.

As for biblical characters, some stood out as exemplary from beginning to end—the long-suffering prophet Jeremiah and the apostles John and Paul. Some biblical figures shown bright, but, unlike Paul, they stumbled dramatically (e.g., David and Bathsheba; Peter and the Judaizers).

While a few of the sports greats covered in this book gave God credit for their talents and performance (e.g., Nolan Ryan), the vast majority didn’t (e.g., Cal Ripken), though, of course, God was the ultimate source of all their accomplishments. In contrast, the heroes and heroines of the Bible were keenly aware of God’s provision and claim on their lives.  Facing the giant Goliath, David shouted,  “You come against me with a dagger, spear, and sword, but I come against you in the name of Yahweh of Hosts, the God of Israel’s armies”—and then predicted victory, because “the battle [was] the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:45-47).

While we can celebrate the athletic achievements of sports heroes, whose accomplishments are far beyond our ability, we can study the lives of the saints in Scripture, confident that the same God who empowered them for the daunting tasks before them is our God as well. Of course, we can admire the “classic performances” of Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea and Luther at the church door in Wittenberg, and the “lifetime achievements” of William Wilberforce and Billy Graham. But we should also celebrate the Christian businessman who models integrity and shows genuine love for his employees, the doctor who leaves his comfortable practice to bring healing to a region rife with Ebola, and a high school senior who remains chaste and sober in the face of enormous peer pressure. These too are great feats, though the bulk of the applause may come from heaven.

When the Government Spoke of Pure, Sacred, and Noble Sexuality

As the lights dimmed in the local YMCA, a few last nervous giggles could be heard in the hall as a hush fell on the assembly of teenaged boys. The director switched on the projection “lantern” and the 50-slide show began. Though the program bore the title “Keeping Fit,” the boys had heard that it dealt with more than calisthenics and nutrition. It also spoke of sex.

Bride2It was the 1920s, and the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) was fighting the devastating spread of venereal disease, much of it traceable to American soldiers returning from war in Europe. Of course, the USPHS sought cures and wider distribution of the treatments already available, but the agency was convinced that the education of as yet uninfected adolescents was crucial. So the government published a series of pamphlets and booklets to discourage promiscuity.

Unlike most sex education today, the material was ethical and even religious. Though the USPHS addressed medical issues (and even flirted with eugenics, talking about the vitality of the “stock”), they were not at all embarrassed to mention God and chastity and honor. While contemporary sex educators are all too eager to trumpet the “virtues” of “safe sex,” these 1920s writers urged “no sex until marriage.”  It was a different time, but one well-worth admiring.

BrideBack to that slide show in the YMCA: The boys have seen slides on the importance of team sports and of labor at home (e.g., chopping wood and shoveling snow) and have read inspiring quotes from Robert E. Lee and Woodrow Wilson. But then the image of a bride appears, and they are asked whether they have the right to expect pre-marital celibacy from her when they are not themselves celibate.1 Though in the present era it seems quaint to speak this way, the government was not at all reluctant to talk of higher things when the topic was sex. Here are three themes common in the 1920s:

Bride31. Purity: Another slide insisted that a man show the same regard for a woman that he would wish a stranger show for his sister.2 Such was the standard that Keeping Fit presented the youth, a standard expressed in the words “purity” and “keeping clean.”

2. Sacredness: In those days, the government spoke freely of God, as in this “birds and bees” pamphlet for children. They had no problem with belief in “intelligent design”:

 [U]nless God had given all living things this power to reproduce, plants and animals and men would long ago have disappeared from the earth. That is why we say this story is not only beautiful and wonderful; it is sacred. . . . When a man and woman love one another very much, and each thinks the other the dearest and most wonderful being in the world, they get married and live together. Then, if they have followed God’s laws, they may some day make their home happy with loving children.3

3. Nobility: Literature teachers were encouraged to lift up examples of sexual nobility (e.g., the chivalrous example of Ivanhoe) and draw out the lessons of negative examples (e.g., Reverend Dimmesdale’s adultery and cowardice in The Scarlet Letter).4

This was not the confusion of Church and State but the appropriation of pertinent truth to fight a national scourge. In those days, the government was not yet required by the courts to wear absurd moral and religious blinders,5 so agencies could speak more sanely of pure, sacred, and noble sexuality. And in reviewing this record, nostalgia may well give way to indignation as Americans consider what they have lost.


1 U.S. Public Health Service, Keeping Fit: An Exhibit for Older Boys and Young Men (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1919), 10.

2 Ibid.

3 United States Public Health Service, The Wonderful Story of Life: A Parent’s Talks with Children Regarding Life and Its Reproduction (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1940), 2-3, 16.

4 United States Public Health Service, High Schools and Sex Education: A Manual of Suggestions on Education Related to Sex, ed. Benjamin C. Gruenberg (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922), 72-79. The Project Gutenberg Website offers, for free, the complete texts of Ivanhoe (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/82) and The Scarlet Letter (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/33) (accessed March 20, 2008). Brief summaries are available, respectively, at Spark Notes Website (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ivanhoe/summary.html) and Cliffs Notes Website, (http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/The-Scarlet-Letter-About-the-Novel-A-Brief-Synopsis.id-167,pageNum-5.html) (accessed March 20, 2008).

5 Blinders are patches sewn onto horses’ halters preventing them from looking to the right or left, forcing to look straight ahead. This is a metaphor for artificial restrictions on understanding.

The Invention of Manners

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Proverbs 15:1 (ESV)

Sixties radical Abbie Hoffman played a major role in fomenting street turmoil during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. For his efforts, Hoffman, along with the other members of the Chicago Seven, were charged with conspiring to incite a riot and with contempt of court.1 Over a decade later, Hoffman was still urging his admirers to be rude in their dealings with authority: “Remember that manners were invented by kings to maintain power. The determination to interrupt business as usual is often misunderstood as ill-mannered. Don’t let the ‘king’ define your behavior.”2

He was right in suggesting that there is a time to “interrupt business as usual.” The biblical prophets showed this. But Hoffman was wrong about the invention of manners. God invented them, as His Word demonstrates.

mannersProverbs 15:1 instructs the reader in wise decorum, with both benefit and risk. If one’s speech is conciliatory and self-effacing, then the conversation will more likely continue to a fruitful conclusion. If, instead, one leads with insult or menace, communication will probably break down, and the backlash can be fierce. Of course, in handling proverbs such as this one, it is important to use words such as “likely” and “probably,” for this book offers rules of thumb rather than hard-and-fast predictions or promises. Occasionally, a soft answer will do nothing to cool the other’s temper, and caustic speech may simply demoralize the hearer. But, as a general rule, this proverb is true.

Proverbs 15:1 is not cast in the language of absolute morality. It does not say that tender speech is by definition godly or that hard words are an abomination to the Lord. If so, then the strident John the Baptist was reprobate, not deserving the high praise Jesus gave him in Matthew 11:11. But if one understands this proverb as a matter of prudence for those engaged in the workaday affairs of life, then it fits perfectly.3

Examples spring readily to mind – at the store, in the post office, at the driver’s license center, in a ticket queue, on a crowded walkway, in a parking lot, at a sporting event, or in the neighborhood. And the principle applies equally to all parties involved, whether clerk or customer, coach or player, bicyclist or pedestrian. And in each setting, Christians should take the lead in gracious speech, disarming conflict and advancing cooperation by precept and example.

Of course, one need not enter the marketplace to use this maxim. It serves quite well in the home and church, where a lot of senseless strife could be avoided with its employment. Again, this is not to say that all speech in these sectors must be quiet and even bland to please God. There are certainly occasions for sharp rebuke and stern pronouncements. But these cannot be the norm, for they would lose their effectiveness in a general atmosphere of bitterness. And if Christians are to be salt and light in the world, they must cultivate the ways of grace along with their zeal for truth.



1 Some of the convictions and charges were later overruled on account of procedural irregularities in the original trial.

2 Abbie Hoffman, “How to Fight City Hall,” The Best of Abbie Hoffman (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1989), 373. This article was originally written for Parade magazine in 1984.

3 It is doubtful that Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, was the king Hoffman had in mind. But even if he was, Proverbs comes by the inspiration of God, not the imperious heart of an earthly monarch.


The Bible and Sixteenth-Century Culture

Andrew Pettegree is a history professor at the University of St. Andrews and founder of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. In a recent work entitled Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion, he reflects on the profound cultural impact of the Christian Scriptures in sixteenth-century Europe. In particular, the work addresses the means of persuasion: how it was that people became committed to distinctively Christian living. The primary means of this persuasion was the distribution of the Bible.


[I]t is hard in any survey to do real justice to [the Bible’s] primacy and influence. But this was a remarkable and many-faceted book, a success in so many of the categories of print that sixteenth-century readers found so fascinating. It was a travelogue and a work of history; a work of literature and poetry; it provided the model for much of the most successful drama of the age; it was a work of prophecy in an age obsessed by prophecy; it was a treasure trove for botanists, grammarians and etymologists, and a foundation text for students of the ancient languages; it was a work of jurisprudence, perhaps the sixteenth century’s most influential legal text; it was certainly the century’s most influential work of political thought. It provided role models for rulers and priests, for fathers and mothers, for soldiers and martyrs.

In this book the print culture of the sixteenth century was displayed in all its technical sophistication. It could be a handy pocket-sized book in tiny print, or a gloriously illustrated folio. The narrative illustrations in the Old Testament brought to life some of the greatest stories of the Christian tradition; even in the austere purged editions of the later Protestant tradition the text often came accompanied by maps, technical drawings, and ingenious diagrams of belief and unbelief. It is not too much to say that in this one volume is epitomized much of what sixteenth-century book culture had to offer.

The sixteenth century placed this compendious and many-sided work directly in the hands of unprecedented numbers of people. Throughout the century and in all European vernaculars there were published at least 5,000 whole or partial editions of the Bible, a total of at least 5 million copies.1



1 Andrew Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 191.

Biblical Insight: She Conceived and . . . Killed?

BabyInside“He slept with Hagar, and she conceived . . . So Hagar bore Abram a son.”
“She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son . . .”
“Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son . . .”
“She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son . . .”
“Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son . . .”
“Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son . . .”
“So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son . . .”
“She conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters . . .”
“The woman conceived and sent word to David . . . she became his wife and bore him a son . . .”
“I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son . . .”
“So he married Gomer . . . and she conceived and bore him a son.”
“Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter.”

Genesis 16:4, etc. (NIV)

Human life is created at conception. When a baby is conceived, God intends the child to be born. For a baby to die between conception and birth is unnatural, aberrant, and a wrenching departure from God’s created order.

The word “conceived” is used some 18 times in the NIV Bible to refer to the conception of a child. In every instance, the conceived child is finally born. According to the biblical narrative, this is the proper pattern—conception results in birth.

God intended the womb to be a sanctuary where human life might be wonderfully and secretly fashioned by His hand (cf., Psalm 139:13-16). He never meant it to be a place of death. In fact, the Bible pictures conception without birth as a sign of divine judgment. Consider Hosea 9:14—“Give them, O LORD—what will you give them? Give them wombs that miscarry . . .” Even Hosea’s prophetic voice fails as he tries to think of a judgment terrible enough to repay the sin of the Ephraimites. Flushed with anger, he finally prays that God would cause their children to die in their mother’s wombs.

It would, of course, be wrong to tell a couple suffering miscarriage that the cause was God’s judgment upon them. Terrible things happen to innocents in this broken world. The point of this Scripture is that such loss is mournful, something they know full well. More than anyone, they understand how abominable it is to kill an unborn child; it is high-handed rebellion against the glory and creative authority of God.

Modern society has carved a moral chasm between conception and live birth. Legal maneuvering in America has led to the declaration of unborn children as categorically different from those actually born. In essence, all legal rights to life are rendered void in the period between conception and birth. The freedom to kill the unborn at will is defined as a parental right. Scripture allows no such right, and the Church must fiercely oppose it wherever it exists in the world.