Tuesday, October 28, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels


My fiftieth blog entry...and man, it's a long one!

Readers of this column are overly aware of my recent visit to a local mega-church to see one “Dr.” Jack Van Impe deliver one of his trademarked sermons on the End Times (a.k.a. “now”). A half-dozen of us Reformed-minded young Christians were initially planning to go. But, through the evil machinations of the European Union, only me, my wife, and my buddy Bryan were able to attend. Oh, and my son Calvin. He was geeked about it.

So, for those of you who couldn't make it, we now join my comments already in progress:

4:45 PM
The event starts at six. Doors open at five. As such, we're all crammed into the outer ring of the doughnut-shaped building. Part of me is a little disappointed that I won't be able to brag about waiting in line out in the cold to see Jack Van Impe. Oh well.

The place is absolutely mobbed with people. I'm guessing they're well beyond capacity and probably beyond the fire marshall's limit for the building. I spy “overflow rooms” set up where the slow and the tardy can watch the unfoldings on a TV screen. (The event is being broadcast nationwide, so if you're going to watch it on TV, why not do it from the comfort of your own couch?)

The crowd is surprisingly young, surprisingly diverse, and surprisingly normal compared to what I expected a JVI event to draw. This could be the audience at a hockey game or PG movie. My Bible is the only one I see. I'm guessing that most of these people are members of the church, as they all seem at home, but a quick look at the parking lot confirms that quite a few vans and buses made the trip here, some at great length, to see JVI in action.

I actually like this church quite a bit, as far as mega-churches are concerned. They do good work and emphasize evangelism like crazy (and, yes, sometimes it is, like, crazy). But for all the cheesiness and over-production, I appreciate their passion and don't doubt their sincerity.

I'm getting a headache now from the overwhelming odor of old-lady perfume, mixed in with a little B.O. Calvin is getting annoyed with the situation. Maybe it's just the light-headedness, but I'm pretty sure I just saw Jack Chick's The Crusaders (age adjusted) in all their homo-erotic glory. Should I ask for their autographs?

5:05 PM
Score! We were escorted to the “VIP infant room” by an usher who suggested we “might be more comfortable there.” Translation: we don't want your baby in the sanctuary. No problem. As far as I'm concerned, this only means one thing: box seats! We have a decent view of the stage and mounted TVs provide close-ups. The sound is nice and loud, which should compensate for the dull roar of infant and toddler chatter.

Another sighting: I could swear I just saw Pat Robertson handing out bulletins.

What the world??? Five sheriff's deputies just came into this room, looked around for a while, and then gave each other the “all-clear” nod and left. What's the fuzz doing here? Has there been a threat on JVI's life? Either way, there's nothing to worry about. It says in the Bible that if people try to hurt JVI, fire will come out of his mouth and consume them. Still, what's with all the cops?! I also noticed several police cars by each exit. Does the church keep them on retainer? Or are they just regular cops who happen to be part of JVI's crew, a la Operation Chaos?

5:15 PM
The “pre-show” is in full swing. That means some videos (produced in-house), skits, and music. The first skit, about two guys stuck in an elevator, seems to be making fun of my church and others like it. Hymns and bulletins and ties—what squares. Makes me feel a little better about this blog entry in general.

I'm at a weird angle to the stage, but Bryan points out that the background is a giant clock, with the time at about two minutes before midnight. We both keep thinking that the minute hand is moving. But it's not.

Now a video promo for the church is playing. It's a parody of a http://www.freecreditreport.com/ commercial and it's bashing denominations and “doctrine.” We're encouraged to come here to worship, so we can avoid both. Ugh.

5:20 PM
The pastor is on stage now, thanking and recognizing long lists of Very Prophetic People that are present today.

One name sticks out to me: Carl Baugh. He's apparently on JVI's board of directors. The pastor calls him one of the “leading archaeologists in the world.” Actually, he's one of the most scoffed-at amateur “archaeologists” in the world, a man whose claims to have found human footprints intermingled with dinosaur footprints have drawn jeers from both secular and Christian academia...a man whose “Creation Evidence Museum” (housed in a double-wide trailer) purportedly misidentifies crocodile teeth as dinosaur claws and features a diorama of a dinosaur wearing a saddle. Bryan leans over and reminds me that it's a racing saddle. Heh.

Ten minutes have passed and names are still being dropped. Chuck Ohman's is accompanied by the comment, “the church has to be in heaven during the tribulation because somebody has to blow that trumpet. And I can think of no one better than Mr. Ohman!” What?!

5:35 PM
Oh boy, this is bigger than I thought. It's a “worldwide telecast” and there are buses here from Canadian churches!

The pastor is now announcing that they have a free gift for pastors in the audience. I'm kind of relieved that I'm in the “infant VIP area,” so I won't have the moral quandary of whether to accept one. Never mind, a guy came in here with a stack of gifts and asked if there were any pastors here. I accepted the gift-wrapped package. Turns out to be a book by the pastor and a book by Jack Van Impe. I have to admit that it's a nice gesture.

This place is completely packed. A trip to the bathroom (the long way around the whole doughnut) confirms that even the overflow rooms are overflowing. It makes me sad to think that Kim Riddlebarger's eschatology conferences will probably never be this well-attended.

6:00 PM
The program kicks off with an impressively animated opening credit sequence, identifying the program as a “60 Year Celebration Event,” entitled, “Are We the Generation?” (Spoiler alert: we are.)

The pastor of the church is back on stage, getting a standing ovation and informing us that it is now “midnight in Israel.”

Those of us who were hoping that the countdown would end with JVI's appearance are disappointed. A very bouncy “worship team” is now leading songs.

6:15 PM
The “worship team” is dragging on and on, leading me to wonder if JVI's chopper was delayed.

The pastor steps back to the mic and introduces a fifteen-minute video retrospective celebrating Jack Van Impe's life and accomplishments during “sixty years of effective ministry.” I was totally unaware of the milestone aspect of this evening's event.

I learn that JVI was instrumental in fighting racial segregation and discrimination in the church. That's pretty cool. Apparently, he did so with his book Heart Disease in Christ’s Body. I'm already familiar with the book, as it is the same volume that got JVI blacklisted by his former-fellow-fundies. Ironically, Van Impe was just pushing for a “Five Fundamentals” approach to identifying who is a Christian (a definition that would include Orthodox and Roman Catholics). My hat is off to him in this!

Throughout the video and now through even more comments and praise from the pastor, JVI is continually just referred to as “Doctor.” This is ironic, since, while he continually reminds the world that he has doctorates from “seventeen seminaries” (always left unnamed), as far as I know, they're all honorary. The guy just has a certificate from a Bible College. Certainly no legitimate higher degrees from accredited institutions. Why not just call him “Jack?”

6:40 PM
Jack and Rexella are on the stage (greeted by thunderous applause and another standing ovation), but we're still in the midst of continued intro. People are being thanked and recognized all over the place. When is this program actually going to start?

Jack's wife Rexella steps to the microphone. Or, sorry, I mean Doctor Rexella. She recently secured a doctorate in theology from Pacific International University, a school with no campus, no on-site classes, and no accreditation, where degrees are given out for lump-sum payments and a little correspondence work. Their friend, the aforementioned Carl Baugh, is the president of PIU, which is also on many, many lists of diploma mills to be avoided.

Even Rexella is calling Jack “Doctor.” Not “Dr. Van Impe” or even “the Doctor.” Just Doctor. Like, “I asked Doctor where in the Bible the rapture could be found...” Weird.

Jack has joined Rexella and the pastor at the microphone. I'm glad to see he’s back to sporting the Pompadour, instead of that Macauly Caulkin 'do he's worn of late.

Doctor addresses the pastor simply as Pastor. Doctor and Pastor take light-hearted pot-shots at each other for a while, followed by quite a bit of mutual back-slapping.

Then Pastor sits down and Jack and Rexella take some humorous shots at each other. It feels like a good old Jack Chick-style Haw Haw Haw would be the appropriate response. He jokes about Rexella's many cosmetic surgeries. Then about his own double-knee replacement, which causes his knees to click as he walks. JVI quips: “Now that I can catch her, she hears me coming!” An unwelcome mental picture of the chase flashes across my mind. I grimmace and die a little inside.

6:55 PM
Jack returns to his seat on the stage, allowing Rexella to sing his praises ad nauseum. We're predictably reminded that Jack has 15,000 verses memorized! I used to watch Jack Van Impe Presents religiously when I was about eleven. That was twenty years ago and he had 15,000 verses memorized back then. Although, to be fair, I suppose just maintaining that number of verses in memory would be very time-consuming. I know I couldn't do it.

Rexella makes the dubious claim that their program “goes into every single country every single day.” She declares that “Jack has a message for this mess age” and proclaims that there is “no one alive today more qualified to explain prophetic events in the order that they will happen.” Ummm, I beg to differ.

JVI apparently didn't know that all this stuff was going to be happening (the 60th Anniversery video, etc.) and seems a little bit embarrassed by it.

7:10 PM
JVI finally takes the stage to preach. He is pissed about the mic situation. Doctor tells Pastor that he's not used to handheld mics and would much prefer a hands-free model. This exchange happens with the mic held down at waste level, but we all hear it anyway. Jack recovers, explaining that, he'll preach with the handheld wireless mic, but won't be able to “lift my Bible up as much.”

We've now been warned to prepare for a “prophetic journey,” but JVI's still thanking people, going through lists of individuals without whom he “wouldn't be where he is today.” In the midst of this, he says of a particular preacher: “This black brother can preach up a storm, but he still has the habit of saying, ax you a question.” I cringe. I might be the only one who does.

7:20 PM
JVI is finally preaching his sermon! He proclaims with absolute certainty that “we are the generation of Christ's return!” If Jack's generation is the one, then Jesus better hurry up. The guy is 77 (whoa, that's a good eschatological age to be). How much longer will “his generation” be around? He answers my question: Jesus will return by 2012! He's certain of that as well. Incan prophecies, the Mayan calender, and Nostradamus seem to play a larger role in this certainty than Scripture plays. Of course, Jack has set dates before. But no one ever held him (or any of the other hysteria hacks) accountable after their Y2K predictions proved absolutely false

Jack now lays out the order of end times events:

  • The rapture is first (which should not be confused with the Second Coming). As evidence of the “rapture,” JVI recites 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. Of course, neither of these say anything about a “secret rapture” that pre-dates the Second Coming by seven years, but that doesn't phase Jack. When one of your presuppositions is that you have no presuppositions apart from the Bible, well then hey...you're bulletproof.
  • During the seven years after the “rapture,” twenty-one judgments will be poured out on the world. (Someone needs to help JVI understand the progressive parallelism present in Revelation). These twenty-one judgments won't touch us. We know this because Jesus told the Church in Philadelphia that he would “keep them from the hour of trial” (Rev 3:10). Yep. And that means we'll all be “raptured.” Since we're all part of the First Century church in Philadelphia. And the only way to keep people from the “hour of trial" is to beam them up out of the world.
  • What horrible things will happen once the church is “raptured?” JVI suggests that the north and south poles might switch, causing a huge (unspecified) disaster. He also goes on for a while about NASA's plans for the year 2012 and the Large Hadron Collider. I can't tell if he knows that the collider has already been fired up. He follows all this up with several long and dizzying chains of unrelated verse segments by way of proof-texting, providing his own interpretations in place of context.
  • Seven years after the rapture comes the real Second Coming. And we'll be coming with Jesus then. After seven years in heaven, we “come back to get our bodies.” We won't have needed them “to have a good time in heaven.” But we will need them so that the “billions of people living on earth” will be able to see us when we reign with Christ for 1,000 years on this planet (which, I guess wasn't destroyed by the particle collider after all). So, while no one knows the day or hour of the “rapture,” anyone can know the day of the Second Coming. Just count seven years from the Rapture. Ta DA!
Jack's main proof text for the “rapture” (which he brings up again and again) is Revelation 4:1,

“After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said,Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.” (KJV)

So, because John was caught up into heaven to see a vision, we'll all be called up into heaven seven years before the Second Coming of Jesus? Yeah, that follows!

The Seven Signs
The rest of the sermon was dedicated to the seven signs that must precede the Second Coming. This list requires one to add at least three dispensational presuppositions for every verse of Scripture in the mix. Most of these signs will apparently happen after we've all been raptured, so I'm not so sure why he devotes such a large chunk of time to laying it out.

  1. 1. Israel must be a nation: This happened in 1948, so “that generation” cannot die before Christ comes back. It used to be taught that a generation was twenty years, so Jesus must come back before 1968. Then they increased it to forty years. Now Jack seems to mean that the people who were born in 1948 can't all die before Jesus comes back. Certainly a safe claim to make, since Jack was born before 1948. As long as he's still alive, he hasn't been proven wrong!
  2. 2. The Jews take possession of Jerusalem: In 1967, the modern nation of Israel did this. That's good enough for Jack. He doesn't give Scriptural proof for this “sign,” but he doesn't need to. It comes from reading the Bible backwards, the Old Testament interpreting the New.
  3. 3. The European Union: Yep. It's in the Bible! For some reason, he makes a big deal about Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg being the first nations (in 1981). Then it had ten nations for a brief time, which must be the ten nations of Rev 13:1 (since no numbers in Revelation are symbolic!) But the union now has way more than ten members. Jack's answer to that? It has become the Empire predicted in the Book of Revelation. But exactly how long did it have ten members? It had three longer than ten. And I'm pretty sure it had sixteen longer than it had ten. So why would the Bible prophesy about the brief period when it had ten?
  4. 4. The Mark of the Beast: JVI lowers his voice and looks this way and that before assuring us that “Sarkozy of France is trying to get the European Union, along with the US and Canada, to make everyone get a '666 ID number.'” He explains that the 666 part may just be a prefix. (Why would everyone have the same prefix? Is it part of some larger intergalactic numbering system?) Apparently, we were supposed to have the 666 system in place on May 12, 2008, but enough of us called our senators to get it postponed a year. Take that, Jesus with your so-called “sovereign plan!” The do-nothing Congress has foiled you!
  5. 5. A Powerful Russia: Here JVI realizes that his worldwide telecast is almost out of time and then spends a bunch of his precious remaining time lamenting about how he wishes he had more time. Here's a crazy idea: you could have taken an extra hour from the huge JVI-attaboy-fest that preceded the sermon. He quickly makes the usual claims about the Hebrew word Rosh, making it clear that Jack don't know Jack about Hebrew. Ezekiel 38:8-17 supposedly predicts Russia invading Israel.
  6. 6. A Powerful China: Jack pretty much skims over this one.
  7. 7. A Powerful Iran: Apparently, Jesus wants to come back right now, but he's waiting on Ahmadinejad to try and blow up Israel first.

What Else Did JVI Say?
Here are a few more gems:

  • “Jesus only mentioned his church three times. He mentions his coming Kingdom 129 times! A ratio of 43:1! The church is not the important thing; it's only intermediary.” Yikes. This is everything that's wrong with dispensationalism. How did we get here?!
  • “We [the church] will live in the holy city above.” He doesn't say it outright, but I'm pretty sure JVI is of the standard school of pop dispensationalism that believes the Jews will live below the heavenly city, on the new earth (as they're his “earthly people.”) Eternal racial segregation... And amillennials are supposedly the anti-semitic ones?!
  • With a completely straight face, JVI tells us that the “kings of the European Union” are mentioned explicitly in Scripture. He's referring to Daniel 2:41-44. This is what happens when you try to interpret the New Testament via the Old, rather then letting Jesus and the Apostles (and the Holy Spirit) unseal and reveal the true meaning of the Old Testament texts.
  • “Throw that nonsense of no millennium out of your church! Thank God your pastor preaches the truth!” Uh, yeah. Thank God.
  • Jack uses Ecclesiastes 1:4 as a proof text that “this world will last forever.” Hermeneutics? What's that?! What good are 15,000 memory verses if you have no clue about genre and context?
  • We're told that anyone who says we're living in the millennium now “has a loop hole between his two ears.” I'm not sure if I should be offended, since I don't think the insult really makes any sense. A loop hole? Really?
  • “Replacement theology is the greatest disgrace in the history of the church.” Okay, first of all, I don't know anyone who actually holds to “replacement theology.” Also, don't you think the inaction of the German Christian church during the Holocaust might have been a greater disgrace? Or the Spanish Inquisition? Or the rise of Modern Liberalism?
  • To hear JVI tell it, the Early Church Fathers all taught classical dispensationalism until “Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine” got together and purposely invented new doctrines, motivated, of course, by their anti-semitism. By following Jesus and the Apostles in their understanding of the terms “Jerusalem” and “Israel” in the New Testament, they “manipulated 3,600 verses of the Bible.” I can't contain my laughter. Several people glare at me.
  • JVI tells us how “sick he is” of people who quote the verse, “No one knows the day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” He smugly tells us that the most reliable Greek manuscripts don't have the phrase “nor the son.” A quick look at Metzger's textual commentary on my Palm confirms that, while there are quite a few copies of Matthew lacking this phrase, Mark (who probably wrote first) certainly included it from the beginning. So it's in Scripture either way. JVI either doesn’t know how to do textual criticism or he’s intentionally misleading people.

We bugged out early, wanting to avoid the crush of cars waiting to get out of the parking lot (been through that before at this church). As we round the doughnut on the way out, I again hear a reference to the Mayan calendar and the year 2012. That's the saddest thing to me. The Bible, Nostradamus, some History Channel show about the “end of days,” and pre-Christian Jewish rabbis are all basically given equal authority.

I do have to give JVI credit for always presenting the Gospel and doing it with urgency. But when the source of that urgency is the fact that the Rapture will have happened by 2012...well, what happens to those new converts in 2013? I'll tell you what: they say, “Man, I feel dumb that the TV preacher with the slick hair and clicking knees duped me into all this Jesus stuff. Won't fall for that again.”

As the doors close behind me on the way out to the car, the last words I hear from JVI are, “We've got to be careful who we listen to!”

I couldn't agree more.

Monday, October 27, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

BOOM Goes the Dunamis!

Most of us have seen the above video of a tongue-tied, frustrated young college student trying to give a sports update on campus TV. If you haven't seen it, give it a click.

If you have a conscience, you laugh at the poor guy, but feel bad for him at the same time. Yeah, that's what we call "ha-ha sad." Most of us can relate to the deer-in-the-headlights terror, compounded by the fact that just walking out is not an option and you have to try and "power through" (as Michael Bluth puts it) and finish the presentation, even while every garbled sentence that squirms out of your mouth is more malformed than the last. There's a malignant self-perpetuation in these moments.

Well, that was me yesterday. I barely slept Saturday night, felt awful Sunday morning, and couldn't stop thinking about how--if I weren't the pastor--this is a day I'd just stay home and make fun of Joel Osteen. But alas, I couldn't do it. On with the show (yes, on a day like that, you've got no choice but to approach it as a show.) On my way into the church (about an hour later than I usually arrive), I was accosted by one of our seniors, full of wrath about how long I "went over" last week (I didn't "go over," though, since nowhere is it written what time church is "supposed" to get done).

At any rate, the sermon was dismal and included at least three moments reminiscent of that poor college newscaster (his name is Brian Collins, by the way). But, like Brian, I had no choice but to push ahead and complete the job. It's funny; I've preached hundreds of sermons, but when one turns out to be a wash, I feel like I'm utterly unfit to preach. My high marks in the subject, my ordination, and the awards I've won for preaching just seem to remind me that I used to be good at it. The fact that I've botched things before and always bounced back is also no consolation.

But what cheered me up this time around was learning about where Brian Collins is now. Check it out: Bio of Brian Collins. Hey, if Brian can bounce back from being the punchline of a viral video, anyone can put anything behind them.

The worst part, however, was that I was preaching on the return of Christ and the signs that precede it. Bombing a sermon on that topic did take some of the fun out of our trip to gawk at Jack Van Impe. I mean, who am I to critique another preacher's take on the End Times when I can barely follow a train of thought in my own preaching on the topic?

Then I remembered what I've got going for me: my theology wasn't dreamed up by a British Lawyer 150 years ago.

I'll give you a full report on the Van Impe event tomorrow. I need a full day to..uh..process it.
Monday, October 20, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

You might be Emergent...

As a little bonus for those who haven't gotten enough Wittmer in my last two posts, here is his list of "Top 10 Signs You Might Be Emergent..."

10. You have never read Left Behind, never said the prayer of Jabez, and never led The Forty Days of Purpose.
9. You think you saw a mega church on VH1’s “I love the 80’s.”
8. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Gandhi in heaven, but you would be floored to find Jerry Falwell.
7. In a debate with Jack Van Impe, you’d likely argue that the bear is America and the antichrist is Pat Robertson.
6. Your preacher just swore, and it seemed appropriate.
5. You honored your pastor with a box of fine cigars and beers on the house.
4. Your cool hair resembles a Midwestern version of Ryan Seacrest.
3. You use the word “groove” as a verb—and don’t sound like a dork.
2. You purchase church supplies from the Buddhist Bookstore.
1. Your favorite Carson is Johnny.

Sunday, October 19, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Interview with Michael Wittmer (pt. 2)

Here is the conclusion of my interview with Dr. Michael Wittmer. Don't forget to pre-buy his new book, Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough.

(Click here for pt. 1 of the interview).

ZB: Who was more of an influence on the content of this book: Barth or Machen?

MW: Neither directly, though after I finished surveying the present theological landscape I found that Machen had encountered similar issues in the early twentieth century. So I included him in my last chapter, showing that what some are saying today sounds uncomfortably close to what Machen said his liberal opponents were saying in 1923. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

ZB: You are careful in this book to show the strengths of postmodernism in the church as well as its weaknesses. What do you think is the greatest good that can come from postmodern influence in the church? How can that strength become a danger?

MW: By far the greatest strength is this younger generation’s focus on social justice. They care about others and the world in big ways that my generation did not consider when we were their age. The danger is that sometimes they may so emphasize our need to love and embrace the other that they neglect a corresponding emphasis on truth, or our need to hold orthodox Christian doctrines. Some say that everyone is in the family of God regardless of what they believe. Such thinking secularizes the church, for it reduces God’s people to a gathering of good people who ask good questions and do good things. I can’t think of a quicker way to lose our faith.

ZB: I understand you really went to bat for the subtitle "Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough." As David Livermore would say, "unpack that for me."

MW: My Barth class helped me fine tune it. We needed a subtitle that was provocative and captured the heart of the book. Its main point is that while I like what I hear from postmodern innovators about following Jesus and loving as he did, I seldom hear a corresponding emphasis on the need to believe in him. Indeed, many use living in the way of Jesus as an alternative to actually believing in him, and I thought that someone should call them out on that.

My publisher suggested the subtitle “How to think and act like Jesus.” I think that they were targeting thirty something mothers who listen to Christian radio, which is not my target demographic. After I told them that my book has nothing in it about thinking like Jesus and only a bit here or there that might help one act like Jesus, they relented and went with my suggestion. Whew!

ZB: Are we ever going to see that follow-up to Heaven Is a Place On Earth?

Maybe, if I can think of an '80s song title. How about Almost Paradise? Right now I’m interested in researching a history of how Plato came to influence the church. I’d like to demonstrate historically how we came to adopt his dualism and then explain how to fix things. My working title is Separate Lives (Phil Collins), but I may be trying too hard to keep my '80s theme going.

ZB: Why should the dozens (heh) of people reading this blog buy your book right this minute?

MW: Because the first printing has a couple of typos (not put in by me) which will make it a collector’s item someday. If I were you, I’d buy as many of those as I can and then wait for me to become famous. It can’t be a worse investment than the stock market!

Seriously, if someone is wondering about the big issues of our day, such as other religions, hell, homosexuality, truth, Scripture, original sin, universalism and inclusivism, the atonement, whether one can belong to a church before she believes, and why belief in Jesus is necessary and why some say it isn’t, this book lays it out in an easy to read, humorous take that explains what the church has historically believed and why.

Those who are attracted to Brian McLaren on the left or John MacArthur on the right would benefit from reading this book.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Interview with Michael Wittmer (pt. 1)

What follows is Part 1 of my interview with Dr. Michael Wittmer. If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Wittmer, I highly recommend that you check out his first book, Heaven Is a Place on Earth, an engaging and entertaining work with the potential to change the way you view the world. Seriously--I'm not over-selling it. But you should be over-buying it. Click here to do so.

Dr. Wittmer is a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, a former missionary to China, a preacher, lecturer, theologian, and philosopher. Plus he's cool. He's like Indiana Jones, but without the violence, promiscuity, and little annoying sidekick. But if he ever decides to acquire one, I'm throwing my hat in ("Dr. Jones, hold on to your potatoes!")

All the great men in history--whether they be artists, musicians, scientists, or generals--have had great mentors that helped them develop the skills, knowledge, &c that made them the legends they are. Luke Skywalker had Yoda. Ritschl had Schleiermacher. Timothy had Paul. Tony Bennet had Duke Ellington. But each of these great mentors undoubtedly had dozens of less-than-spectacular protégés as well.
I understand that, long before Luke or Obi-Wan ever came on the scene, there was a Jedi named Lloyd who studied under Yoda. He didn't defeat the empire or change the course of history, but Lloyd learned a lot about handling a light saber and using the force from old Yoda.

So, what I'm saying is: Wittmer is the Yoda to my Lloyd.

Sometime soon (Zondervan's website says December, but I hear it may be sooner), Dr. Wittmer has a new book coming out; it's called Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough. In it, Wittmer critiques both his own conservative evangelical background and the ever-growing innovative, postmodern (read: emergent) church. I got a chance to read this book in its early stages (apparently my name is even hiding in an endnote somewhere) and, believe me, you don't want to miss this one. It's funny, insightful, and--unlike a lot of material on this subject--very much pastoral and gracious toward both sides of the conversation as Wittmer lays out a biblical third way.

Anyway, enjoy. I'll post the rest of the interview when I get back into town at the end of the week. If you want to pre-order the book, you can get it at a significant discount from Amazon.com.

There's a lot of talk lately about doing away with “foundationalism.” Can you briefly describe what this means and give me the quick version of your take on this issue?

MW: Way to start off with an easy one! In their important book, Beyond Foundationalism, Stan Grenz and John Franke say that we need to stop being foundationalists and follow the thinking of Alvin Plantinga. This is confusing, for Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology is widely known to be a form of foundationalism called “weak foundationalism.” So what Grenz and Franke are really against is not foundationalism per se but just the strong variety.

Both weak and strong foundationalists think that our beliefs are logically constructed like a house, with our more basic beliefs, or presuppositions, supplying the foundation upon which the others rest. The difference is that strong foundationalists think that our foundational beliefs can be irrefutably proven (modernity) while weak foundationalists think that we are entitled to hold unproven beliefs so long as they have not been disproved (an optimistic version of postmodernity).

Recently I asked Franke how he could be against all forms of foundationalism and still approve of Plantinga’s epistemology. He told me that I was right, that he and Grenz are really against strong foundationalism rather than foundationalism in all its forms. But then he added that he did prefer to think of our beliefs as an inter-related web, where no belief is more foundational then another, rather than the house paradigm of foundationalism. So I’m not sure where he stands on the issue.

Personally, I am fully committed to weak foundationalism, which allows me to hold without indubitable proof belief in God’s existence and his revelation in Scripture. Everything I know is logically dependent on these prior beliefs, for God’s existence grounds the deliverances of reason and Scripture grounds the deliverances of revelation (see chapter 10). And I’m not a fideist, for Romans 1 says that everyone knows that God exists and Calvin rightly reminds us that Scripture is self-authenticating.

ZB: Postmodern innovators, as you call them, are quick to condemn anything that smacks of modernism in the church. Should we be concerned about our churches having become too entrenched in modernism and, if so, how should we (and how shouldn't we) deal with this?

MW: Thanks for using my term. See, it’s catching on already! Every culture presents new opportunities for communicating the gospel but also new dangers that threaten to compromise it. Every culture has good elements which present new insights into Scripture, but every culture is also fallen, which means that it may also capture the gospel.

The modern world is no exception. An overly modern church may treat the Bible like a scientist studies a specimen (inductive Bible study methods), emphasize knowledge and believing the right things rather than actions or living in the right way, think that it can prove the articles of faith to any rational, honest person, and—here is a big one—spend very little time in prayer. Most moderns pray very little, both individually and corporately, because we think that there is nothing that we cannot solve on our own.

The best way to combat the pitfalls of modernity is not to uncritically embrace all things postmodern, but rather to expand our peer group. If we read the Bible with people who are only like us then we will only ever see what we have always seen. But if we read Scripture with people who are different from us, both in the present and especially with the church of the past, then we will inoculate ourselves against being blindly captured by our present cultural moment. If we read the great theologians, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, then we will more easily spot and correct our compromises today.

ZB: How did you feel when Brian McLaren tearfully declared to the “What's Emerging?” conference that no Calvinist had ever treated him as kindly as you treated him?

MW: I don’t remember the tears, but I suppose that it made me feel kind of good. The world needs more compassionate Calvinists!

(editor's note: I'm pretty sure I remember the wiping away of a tear. Plus, I think I can hear a little cracked-voice emotion as well. Then again, to me, McLaren
always sounds like he's trying not to cry. Listen to the audio and you be the judge. -Z)

How did you feel at the same conference when, immediately following your “Calvinist Response” to the Emergent movement, I told you that I thought I loved you?

MW: I remember being put off by the uncertainty of it, and yet strangely that quasi-loving statement changed my life in ways that I am just now beginning to understand (some of them good).

ZB: It seems to me that the pendulum image is at the heart of your book (i.e. avoiding shortfalls of both conservative and postmodern Christianity.) Would you call yourself theologically moderate? If not, please explain why/how you have staked out the central real estate in each of these pendulum diagrams.

MW: Moderate sounds too tepid for me. I would call myself a theologically conservative Calvinist who is attempting to reach out and find common ground with those who I think are committing serious theological mistakes. At first I thought that I was staking out middle ground between fundamentalists on the right and Emergent on the left, but upon further reflection I concluded that I am really calling for both/and. Rather than fall off the edge on either side, we need to embrace both beliefs and ethics, the importance of this life and the next, both personal and public morality, both sexual purity and compassion for practicing homosexuals, etc. My prayers will be answered if Emergent Christians recognize this as the third way they are after and theological conservatives, while rightly critiquing the other side, also realize that we have blind spots of our own that need fixing.

That should whet your appetites. Check back soon for the rest...
(Click here for part 2.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Eschatological On-Ramp

So a bunch of global banking bigwigs got together today and agreed to cut interest rates. Our own fed chair ironed this out with his counterparts in England, China, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and some Czar from the European Central Bank. (It hasn't worked yet; the decision to cut the federal funds rate to 1.5% rallied the market for a short time, but the DJI still closed out considerably down. )

That was this morning. Tonight, I taught my Wednesday night Bible class. We've been going through Revelation for a little less than a year. I've been doing my best to slowly, brick by brick, knock down any vestige of Left Behind Rapture cult nonsense that my people may have absorbed and, in its place, teach them the Historic Protestant understanding of the end times.

There are some major differences. Case in point: your average Left Behinder would have jumped into the study of Revelation, using the day's headlines as an interpretive grid. Van Impe makes a living doing this (see yesterday's post). Whether it's 1985 or 2008, we can find prophecy in the headlines. Mikhail Gorbachev is clearly the Antichrist. No, wait! It's Saddam Hussein!... Y2K will mark the beginning of the Great Tribulation! Er...The European Union is clearly the Beast; it has SEVEN STATES after all. Crud, now it has twenty-seven...

The frustrating thing is that these guys never go back and retract what they said about last year's headlines. They plow ahead without a care in the world, effecting as confident a tone and demeanor as they can muster.

Were I a Left Behinder, I'd have spent a good deal of time tonight outlining what had taken place when those seven (oooohhh) nations got together and started acting all one-world-governmenty. One step closer to a world currency. One step closer to the microchip that the Bible predicts! (Greek: pentiumos intelos).

But I didn't do that. I caution students of the Bible against using the Old Testament to interpret the new (it should be vice versa), let alone using the Associated Press to interpret Holy Scripture.

Now, global headlines can almost always be used to illustrate the truths of Revelation, because Revelation is an apocalypic vision which tells seven times (from seven different "angles") the story of the entire period between Christ's first and second comings. But they can't be treated as the "secret key" to understanding the prophecy. Remember: Daniel was told to "seal up prophecy" until the end, while John shows us the breaking of the seals and the revelation of Jesus Christ.

In Revelation 18, we read about Babylon the Great going up in smoke. From a great distance, the kings, merchants, and sailors whose whole lives are wrapped up in that corrupt world system watch the whole thing implode. As they watch, they weep, wail, and lament. The real connection between the events of this morning and the book of Revelation is not some future conspiratorial entity, but a very real danger in your life right now. If you've put all your eggs in the "world's system" basket, you're going to--at some point--be weeping, wailing, and lamenting its downfall.

Am I trying my hand at doomsaying? Nah. Get some perspective. 98% of the five year periods in the stock market's history have made money. 100% of the ten year periods have made money. Yes, that's right. All of them. Your hysteria is not going to help the problem, so breathe. Unless you retired yesterday, your 401K and your IRAs will almost certaily heal as they have in the past (heck, the market ended 1987 higher than it started).

However, there will ultimatley be a great crash to the whole thing. And I mean the whole thing. I'm preaching on the Rich Fool in Luke 12 this week. For him, the great market crash was his death, when he found out that he'd been putting all his eggs in the wrong basket and all of his investments in the wrong fund. And that fund didn't pay dividends in the afterlife.

When all is said and done, whether the market is up or down, there's only one place to put your trust that won't crash and burn in the end: in Jesus Christ. If your trust is in Him and you're living for Him, your investments are secure for all of eternity.

That's not quite as sexy as smoke-filled back rooms where one-world currencies are born or tanks rolling into Jerusalem or microchips being injected into people's foreheads. But it's a heck of lot more comforting. And it's actually based in reality and the truths of Scripture.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Just one question...

I haven't posted my usual weekly ramblings yet. Not sure when that will happen, but here are a couple of upcoming items that have me quite giddy:

  1. My buddy/mentor/nemesis Dr. Michael Wittmer will be answering some questions I sent him by way of an interview. This is in anticipation of the imminent release of his new book Don't Stop Belieiving: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough. He's going to answer my questions a couple at a time, and I'll post them as they arrive. Wittmer is awesome. This will be great.
  2. I had been very, very bummed out to realize that a colleague's installation service was scheduled for the same night as "Dr." Jack Van Impe's public appearance at a church here in Lansing. Today, however, I learned that the installation has been rescheduled, leaving me free to attend the prophecy crazy-fest! I shall observe, take meticulous notes, and report back to you. Oh, how I hope there is a Q&A opportunity. But that brings up a quandry: if I could get in line and ask just ONE question of the mascot of dispensational hysteria, what would it be? I will entertain your suggestions in the comments section below.