More Reflections on Osteen

My purpose, in my several blogs on Joel Osteen, that were written over the past eleven days, was not to argue about Lutheran-Reformed hermeneutical frameworks. Nor was my purpose to deny the obvious point one reader made, namely that all of us use frameworks and thus hermeneutics is an extremely vital matter for reading and hearing the Bible correctly. That is precisely the point I tried to make, if I understand what I wrote.

What I am attempting to do is to get people who use a particular system to not do so with such confidence. I am hopeful that some will seriously reflect upon where they come from historically on these issues. If this small step is taken we can have an honest discussion and even profitable disagreement.

Let me suggest for those who have any interest in the point I have tried to make about certainty that they read Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995), by the late Reformed missional-theologian Lesslie Newbigin. If you want to understand what I mean about Horton’s sense of certainty, and why I believe it is rooted in the wrong place, then Newbigin will give you, in only 105 pages, an argument that I profoundly agree with. If you do not know Newbigin’s corpus of work I just did you the greatest favor of this day by encouraging you to discover his writing. It has been life changing stuff for me.

I have argued that Dr. Horton uses a particular framework (a strong law-gospel hermeneutic) by which he makes conclusions about modern ministries with which he disagrees. Horton’s framework employs this law-gospel distinction, even within a single verse alone. I see this use, and the conclusions it leads to, as very arbitrary at times. To cite one example, Horton has argued (at least he argued in the past) that Jesus did not preach the gospel to the rich young man in Luke’s Gospel, only the law. I understand his law-gospel framework here and why he says this but exegesis of the text reveals that Jesus did preach the gospel when he told the man to "follow me."

Not all who use this conservative Lutheran framework employ it in the same way Horton does with regard to Joel Osteen, but it is this sharp law-gospel distinction that partly led to Horton’s conclusions. (Please notice, I am not attacking Horton’s motives or faith. I have made that extremely clear in my posts.) My point is simple—rarely is it admitted that this particular framework comes from a very specific historical, and very human, context. Ordinary readers often begin to think that this human framework comes right out of the Bible itself, thus it should not be challenged. When someone like me challenges it then I am seen as denying something vital to the Christian faith. This is partially what leads to sharp public attacks on people like Osteen.

As an example in terms of turning the attack on me as well, does the writer of the comments about Stan Grenz seriously know me, and my published work, well enough to tell people that the late Stan Grenz somehow made me his disciple? While I knew Stan, and frankly miss him and his insightful thought, how do you know this about his influence upon me? While I have read some of Stan’s work, and like much it a great deal, I am certainly not a follower of Stan Grenz. I certainly did not arrive at my present thought by following Stan in any significant sense. Stan was much more of an Anabaptist than I, especially since I ceased formally being a Baptist long ago.

The idea that my criticism of a historical "framework" makes me fuzzy about the gospel is simply ludicrous. I openly affirm The Heidelberg Catechism, a sweet gospel statement, the sweetest I know. I believe the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed and confess them both almost every Sunday. What I am rejecting, and I will say it once more, is the way the particular framework is employed. The idea that people have frameworks is obvious.

My guess is that a charismatic, and mildly dispensational, framework is mixed deeply into Joel Osteen’s reading of Scripture. I doubt that this is even understood by Osteen himself. What I am appealing for, and I believe this would actually speed real reformation, is an honest admission about where all our thinking comes from, whether Osteen’s, Horton’s or my own. My primary desire is that we end this business of saying who is of God and who is not, especially with such strong assurance.

I have been asked about Galatians 2 and the dispute between Peter and Paul recounted there. Am I a Paul or a Peter? I say, "No, I am not with Paul in the way you ask, but then I not with Peter either. So how can I answer a question about who I identify with there?" It is almost like answering the famous trap question, "So, when did you stop beating your wife?" No answer works well because the question is simply the wrong question to start with. As I read the Scriptures, the question about Paul-Peter put to me does not grow out of a historical-contextual reading of the Epistle to the Galatians. It grows out of a systematic theology that flows directly from a pre-adopted set of conclusions about the gospel and about certain kinds of propositions associated with that understanding of the gospel. When one adopts this systematic approach they can be "sure" they know who does and does not preach the gospel right down to the very finest points. With this method you can be certain that you know Osteen does not preach the (true) gospel. I, on the other hand, hear the basic elements of the gospel in his message. I will say it again: In Joel Osteen I hear basic Christian truth coming through a simple message that God is using powerfully in many lives. The person of Jesus, and his saving love, is present in Osteen’s message. This is what I applauded in him, not his complete system (if he even has one), much less his soft theology, which I would love to see moved toward deeper reflection.

In short I am calling for a "generous orthodoxy." What I am seeking to defend here is not appreciated by the kind of folks who are deeply convinced about all their assumptions. (I suppose some critics will now assume that I am following Brian Mclaren since I use a term, "generous orthodoxy," which he has popularized in a book title by that name. My reflections on Brian, whom I also know and respect very deeply, will appear along with Brian’s careful invited response, in a future issue of the Reformation & Revival Journal, to be out in the late summer of 2005.)

The tendency, also seen clearly in some comments on my Osteen blogs, is to throw caution to the wind and rest in one’s assurance that you know with utter and complete certainty who is right and who is wrong in these debates. (Again, read Newbigin!) There is far too much epistemological hubris in these assumptions.

Can we really know a truly false gospel when we hear it? Yes, for sure. Mormonism preaches a false gospel. So do Jehovah’s Witnesses when they come to your door. Seventh Day Adventists, on the other hand, have some pretty quirky ideas about divine revelation and the law, especially in its application to the believer’s conscience, but Seventh Day Adventists are not preaching another gospel.

Roman Catholicism is more difficult when the issues are carefully weighed. The Catholic Church officially affirms doctrinal matters that I see in direct opposition to the New Testament’s message. I have repeatedly said so, even though critics again write otherwise. But in the midst of this Roman mixture the historic creeds are resolutely affirmed and the truth of Christ crucified, raised, and coming again is very present. (By the way, almost every Reformed denomination in existence accepts Catholic baptism as Christian baptism, demonstrating they do not see Catholicism in the same vein as Mormonism!)

Many Catholics I meet know that they will be saved by Christ alone, and that on the basis of nothing they do to earn salvation. Others are completely confused at this basic point. But so are loads of Protestants who I meet in almost every church I visit as an evangelist week-by-week. Let’s be honest, no church is pure! No church is utterly faithful to the gospel. Reformation, in my view, is for every church and every Christian, thus it remains semper reformanda.

Are there people within various church groups that do not understand the gospel? Of course. Probably even in large numbers. But no one is saved by knowing propositions correctly. We are saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ as he is offered to us in a message of grace applied to us by the Holy Spirit. We may be saved by Christ alone and by grace alone, and through faith alone, but understanding these truths clearly is not the same thing as trusting Christ. You can know much about Christ and not know him. And you can know him and not know all the right things about him. The church understood this long before, and especially since, the Reformation. Many today seem to have forgotten it, or not known it.

One final word about several comments posted over the last two or three days. I did not expect this to degenerate into a discussion about me and my personal past or future direction. I am happy to respond to these concerns in the right forum. My work is very public, as is my life. Both can and should be judged by the church. I will not respond however, comment-to-comment, on my blog site. There are three reasons.

1. I do not have the time to specifically answer every comment posted. I have chosen to edit no one, so far. (This medium is new to me and I am learning day-by-day so I may need to edit in time, though I hope not.) I do not spend all day on the Internet. As much as I understand the protocol of blogging it is not necessary for me to answer every single question from every single reader. Think about it. Are single comments so important that I am obliged to answer every one? Are my blogs, for that matter, so important that I expect every reader to invest time reading them all? Of course not. If you want a blog spot that works this way you can find one I feel sure. You can even start one. I write for my friends, and for those new readers who want to think further about missional-theology without seeking to discern personal motives. Using my blog spot to tell me how you think I have gone bad over the last ten years is not productive of these goals. I am comforted, in the whole process, to know "I stand or fall to my own Master" and not to human opinions.

2. I am an evangelist by gifting, thus I am seeking to help people think about the Christian mission in our modern world. I intend to use my blog spot to stir up real evangelism, mission, and apologetics, not fight battles with the conservative Reformed folks who like to struggle with fellow reformers, or lapsed reformers as some now regard me. Again, there are scores of places to fight out there kinds of battles but this is not one.

3. I believe in basic civility and kindness. I read the comments posted at my site with real care. In my judgment some have already crossed the line into incivilty by attempting to bait me and to tell others about me via my own blogspot. These attack my motives, not my ideas. I will deliberately choose to not answer these comments beyond general notations like those above. I intend to remain civil and kind if at all possible. The Apostle Paul’s words reflect my design (and prayer): "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth" (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).

Finally, what I am really doing here, in terms of my personal reflections, is openly repenting for having read the Scripture in a narrow and harsh way for ten years. The result was that I became critical of most popular preachers in America. (The list is so long it burdens me some days. I am seeking to take various steps to apologize wherever possible.) This is a very sad thing to admit, but this approach sapped my spiritual vitality, made me continually critical of others (including folks who were my friends), and filled me with myself way too often.

To my critics I say, "At least give me the ground upon which to repent of my own sins. (I do this in public precisely because the sins I have committed were very public sins.) Even if you disagree with the way I have come to this repentance rejoice that I am filled with joy and peace in Christ alone."

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