Friday, December 30, 2005

Twenty Years On

It just occurred to me that January 16, 2006, will mark the twentieth anniversary of Herbert W. Armstrong's death. I remember that day quite clearly. I was a sophomore at Ambassador College in Pasadena, California, and employed by Church Administration to assist the office in various functions (in the vernacular, I was a "gofer"). When I reported for work that morning at 8, there was a palpable feeling that something big had taken place, and it took me all of three seconds to find out that Mr. Armstrong had died earlier that morning.

His death was not unexpected, it being common knowledge that his health was rapidly declining. Joseph Tkach, the new Pastor General, quickly put a transition team into action, and plans were put into motion for announcing Mr. Armstrong's death to the church and the press, arranging his funeral, developing a tribute telecast, informing the students and employees on campus, making legal adjustments for the smooth operation of the church, and doing a host of other activities. Condolences began pouring into Pasadena from all over the world by telex and fax and phone; I remember being handed a thick stack of them and being impressed by all the "big names," both foreign and domestic, who took the trouble to relay their sympathy.

The next few days and weeks were, to me, a blur of activity, highlighted by specific events that loomed large at the time: Mr. Armstrong's funeral, the huge response figures for the tribute World Tomorrow program, the introduction of the new World Tomorrow presenters, the move "upstairs" by Joseph Tkach, the inaugural church visits around the country and the world (on one of which, to Chicago, I was permitted to go), the "We Are Family" campaign, etc. Those were heady days. The church appeared to have transitioned peacefully and prosperously to the new regime.

It did not take long for those exhilarating days to end.

Most people are unaware that the doctrinal changes began to be enacted almost immediately. It began with "little things" slipped into a Pastor General's Report or implemented without much fanfare as counsel in individual cases. The first may have been backpedaling on teaching that married women, especially those with children, should be homemakers. There were flip-flops on applauding special music and the wearing of makeup. Many of Herbert Armstrong's booklets were edited, demoted, or retired and replaced altogether. The church's teaching found in The United States and Britain in Prophecy was questioned, ridiculed, and subsequently dropped.

The first core doctrinal change—concerning faith, Christ's sacrifice, and healing—occurred in early 1987. Elements of this change were theologically correct, for instance, that sin is sin, no matter whether it is physical or spiritual in nature. However, the practical effect of the change was to remove faith from healing—and really, from anything else—to such an extent as to make it negligible. Once this major tenet of the church's teaching fell, others, like dominoes, were doomed also to fall. Soon, certain Sabbath teachings were loosened, hints of Trinitarianism began to bubble out of headquarters, and the gospel of the Kingdom of God was downgraded in favor of "the gospel of grace" and "the gospel of Jesus." All of this took place before 1992 began, and many more changes would follow.

In a relatively few years, then, the work of Herbert Armstrong, which had taken about sixty years to build, was dismantled. Certainly, a decade after his death, the Worldwide Church of God was essentially unrecognizable as the church God had raised up through him. Twenty years on, it is seeking not even to be called the "Worldwide Church of God" any longer because, in the words of Joseph Tkach, Jr., "Our current name does not properly represent us." He is right. His organization does not deserve the name!

Notwithstanding such praise, Herbert Armstrong was a fallible man, and some would argue that he made many mistakes. He was not always right, even on doctrine. His fixation on preaching the gospel, while commendable, blinded him to other areas that should have received his attention, particularly to many church members' desperate need of strong, deep instruction in God's way of life. In addition, his authoritarianism is legendary, but it was effective in promoting and accomplishing his vision of God's work on earth. A person cannot head a global evangelistic organization without these traits.

It is too bad that, for many people, his negatives overshadow his positives. He was a wonderful teacher, due in many respects to his advertising skills. He could bore right to the heart of an issue, collect what was necessary for understanding it, and explain it in simple terms so that a person of average intelligence could grasp it. Unlike many in these "nuanced" times, he was at times painfully, even offensively direct, but there was never any doubt where he stood on an issue. He was also doggedly stubborn, refusing to change a doctrine until he was absolutely convinced that the change was biblically correct. These qualities, combined with the sheer force of his charisma, kept the church's teaching relatively stable for many decades, which produced much good fruit.

William Shakespeare wrote, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." The skein of Herbert Armstrong's life contained more good yarn than ill, and for that, we can praise God that He weaves the lives of such servants into ours. Would there were more of his fiber!

Friday, December 23, 2005

A Sanitary Christmas

The winter solstice has just passed, beginning the coldest three months of the year, and this means that Christmas is only days away. It used to be that the solstice and Christmas coincided—a remarkable coincidence (wink, wink)—but because of the inexactitude of our calendar, the solstice has crept forward a few days over the past few centuries. If we were to stick around long enough, we could witness Christmas celebrated in springtime! Come to think of it, a hefty percentage of the world's population already celebrates it as the heat of summer arrives—but for reasons altogether different!

Lately, Christmas-keeping Christians have been forced to stand up for Christmas. Atheists, agnostics, and the ACLU-crowd have been clamoring for the removal of religion from Christmas celebrations. They want advertisers to market the season without reference to "Christmas," instead using the innocuous "Holiday" moniker. They want businesses to ditch playing traditional Christmas carols over their in-store audio systems in favor of "winter music"—in other words, to play "Sleigh Bells" instead of "Away in a Manger." Countless courts have weighed in—some on one side, some on the other—concerning Christmas crèches on public property. Christian groups have had to file lawsuits to force school systems to allow their students to sing "Silent Night"—and not some wintry parody—during winter concerts!

This is all extremely ironic—even hilarious at times. Christmas-celebrating Christians rush to the barricades to defend this most sacred holiday from the godless hordes, all the while totally missing the fact that they are defending the indefensible! Where is their authority to keep the day in the first place? Rome? Probably. Jerusalem? Nope. Bethlehem? Hardly. The Bible. Not a chance!

In reality, by its materialism and syncretism, this world's Christianity has helped the modern, secular world sanitize—not Santa-ize—Christmas. This supposedly Christian holiday has been systematically disinfected of its biblical "taint" simply because it is fundamentally unbiblical! Its only scriptural basis is the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, and they prove that the traditional Christmas teaching sits on foundation of sand.

The Nativity—a fancy word for "birth"—of Jesus Christ is found in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Try as one might, a birth date for our Savior cannot be found in either, and in fact, honest, objective scholars and theologians admit that a winter date is perhaps the least likely time. December, as any biblical geographer will attest, is the beginning of the rainy season in Palestine, and shepherds would have stopped leaving their flocks in the fields at night a good month or two before then. Majority opinion places Jesus' birth in the autumn, probably on or near the fall festivals of Trumpets or Tabernacles.

Other aspects of the traditional nativity also fail the test of biblical authenticity. For instance, the Gospels do not say that there were three wise men, nor are their names anywhere recorded in history. In this case, the number three has its source in the number of gifts the wise men gave to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is certainly possible that He received other gifts from them, but Matthew decided to highlight these particular three for symbolic reasons.

Many of the manger scenes even get details wrong, like the fact that when the wise men showed up, Jesus was no longer a newborn lying in a manger, but as Matthew writes, a "young Child" living in "a house" (Matthew 2:11). Traditional Christmas crèches also tend to combine Luke's account of the shepherds' arrival almost immediately after His birth with the coming of the wise men, which evidently occurred perhaps weeks or months later (see verse 16: Some contend that it could have been as long as two years later!). And, of course, none of the Nativity participants wore halos!

These few scenes are the extent of the Bible's information about Christ's birth. Neither Mark nor John saw fit to add to what Matthew and Luke had already written. Both Mark and John begin their narratives about the time of Jesus' baptism three decades later. Why? In the grand scheme of Jesus' life, His birth is of less importance than His ministry, death, and resurrection. Certainly, it was a wonderful day when God-in-the-flesh appeared among us, but it pales in meaning to what He taught, what He sacrificed for us, and what He now does for us as our living High Priest. Why dwell on His past, helpless infancy when we can rejoice in His present, powerful advocacy?

The Christmas controversy does not hinge on whether it is politically correct to wish someone "Merry Christmas!" but on a factor that is far more significant: truth. Is Christmas true? The biblical facts shout a resounding, "NO!" Then why celebrate a lie? Falsehood is never good, never beneficial, never right. Keeping a false holiday in dedication to Jesus is still a lie. Do we really think He feels honored by a lie, which is sin (check Exodus 20:16 and Revelation 21:8; 22:15)? He receives much more honor when we, instead, keep His commandments (John 14:15; 15:10).

We can only hope that today's swirl over this holiday wakes Christians up—not just to America's eroding Christian values, but to the sad fact that what most assume to be ever-so-Christian is nothing of the sort.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Biblical Canonicity

A trip to the local Christian bookstore to buy a new Bible often turns into a dizzying experience once dozens of different translations confront the shopper. From the venerable King James Version and its successor, the New King James Version, to the helpful Amplified Bible to newcomers like the English Standard Version and the Holman Christian Standard Bible, it can make for a difficult choice. Beyond these, the shelves contain many more modern-language Bibles that are far less literal than these, such as The Living Bible, the Contemporary English Version, the Good News Bible, Today’s English Version, etc. It is enough to make one’s head spin! (See “Which Bible Translation Is Best?”)

Yet, many people ask an even more fundamental question: How do we know that the 66 books included in most Bibles are truly authorized as part of the canon, the authoritative collection of inspired Scripture? How can we be sure that we have the complete Word of God?

It is a good question. Most people believe that the early Catholic Church decided which books were authentic, and we have just received the results of its decision. This, however, is not true. The Catholic Church did not authorize the biblical canon—it only accepted it. The Bible has its own internal authorization protocols that the Catholic Church merely followed, and subsequently, most others also accepted. It is evident from the agreement of the 5,000 extant, ancient copies of the New Testament that the canon was already set before the Catholic Church put its stamp of approval on it.

Actually, only a few books now regarded as Scripture ever raised any questions regarding canonicity: James, Jude, II Peter, and II and III John (all disputed due to questions of authorship). All of them are attested in early writings as authoritative. In fact, it has been shown that the “early church fathers” quoted from the canonical books so much that, if the Bible somehow ceased to exist, it could be reassembled in full, minus just a handful of verses, using only their writings. Officially, by ad 140, the visible church (we could call it the proto-Catholic Church) recognized all fourteen of Paul's letters plus all four gospels. The first historical list of all 27 New Testament books dates to ad 367. The Catholic Church did not officially ratify them (by papal decree) until ad 405.

As mentioned above, the Bible contains internal authorization protocols. The most esoteric may be the prophecy in Isaiah 8:16: "Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.” The early church understood this to mean that the canon would be "bound," that is, finished and authorized, by the time the original twelve apostles had died. The apostle John was the last of the original Twelve to die (around ad 100), and it is supposed that he gathered the present 27 New Testament books together and authorized their use in the churches.

The Bible itself provides a clue that Peter had already begun some of this canonization many years earlier (as early as the mid-ad 60s). II Peter 3:15-16 suggests that Paul's epistles had already attained the status of Scripture by that time (see another hint of a collecting of Paul’s epistles by Paul himself in II Timothy 4:13). It is easy to assume that this may also embrace Luke's Gospel and Acts (Luke was Paul’s longtime assistant). If Peter had indeed begun the canonization process, both of his epistles and the gospel of Mark (understood to be written under Peter's direction) can also be included. This now makes nineteen authorized books. Later, John would include his Gospel, Revelation, and three epistles, making a total of 24 books.

The only questionable books, then, would be Matthew's Gospel, James, and Jude—and there are no legitimate, canonical problems with them, as all three were written by apostles (two of them Jesus’ half-brothers!). This brings up another of the protocols for canonicity: The authorship of a book must be apostolic (exceptions are made for the writings of Luke and Mark, as they were considered to be written under Paul’s and Peter’s direct supervision).

Perhaps the most important protocol for canonicity, though, is what is termed “internal unity,” sometimes called conformity to the "rule of faith." It is evident that the New Testament books agree on doctrine, Christian living, history, and prophecy. They contain internal unity; they are a whole in 27 parts. Other books or epistles—for instance, the Gospel of Thomas or the Epistles of Clement, which have been suggested as canonical—disturb this unity. Many books have been written to show that the canonical Bible does not contradict itself, particularly in areas of doctrine.

A final rule of canonicity is general acceptance by the church. While there were differences among the congregations about which books were to be read in the churches, they all agreed on these 27 books. Eventually, the others were found wanting, and the present 27 were authorized. Again, we should note that all this took place before the rise of the organized Catholic Church in the second century.

The 39 books of the Old Testament have undergone similar tests of canonicity. A few books, such as Esther and parts of Daniel, have been questioned, but in the end, their reliability has been universally recognized. Though some churches accept the Apocrypha—the books of Maccabees, Esdras, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Bel and the Dragon, etc.—even a quick perusal of their texts proves them to be of lesser quality and worth than the accepted books. In addition, the biblical books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls attest to the precision of their transmission through the ages. Thus, scholarly debate on Old Testament canonicity has largely subsided to minor disputes on peripheral matters.

There is no valid reason to doubt the authoritative nature of the 66 books of the Bible. What has come down to us is God’s “prophetic word made more sure” (II Peter 1:19), “given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16). We can absolutely trust what is written in it to guide us along the narrow way to the Kingdom of God.