The Briefing 06-18-14

The Briefing 06-18-14

The Briefing


June 18, 2014

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Wednesday, June 18, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Basis of theological authority cause of rifts now evident in Iraq

Monday’s edition of The New York Times had a headline that ran “Obama Pushes Iraqis to Mend Sectarian Rifts.” As was reported from Rancho Mirage, California, where the president then was:


As President Obama weighs airstrikes against marauding militants in Iraq, he has concluded that any American military action must be conditioned on a political plan to try to heal Iraq’s sectarian rifts, a senior administration official said on Sunday.


Now what makes that particularly interesting is this: many times when you look at the secular media covering even big geopolitical stories like this, what they miss is as interesting as what they get. And in this case, what they miss is the theological importance of this story; the theological or religious distinction that has led to the sectarian rifts that are referenced in this article. And by the way, when you look at the American political polarization that we talked about a few days ago resulting from this new report that came from the Pew Research Center, indicating that Americans are more polarized between Democrats and Republicans than at any point in recent history, just put that over against the fact that the two predominant groups of Muslims, the Sunnis and the Shiites, have been locked in a bloody conflict for 1,300 years.


When you look at the situation right now the Middle East and, in particular, when you look at the direct threat now posed by the group known as ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the group that right now is pushing back the Iraqi army and the group that is right now threatening to establish a radical extremist terrorist cell and the group that right now is threatening to establish an extremist Islamic state, indeed an Islamic caliphate, on behalf of international terrorism—what you’re looking at is a story that is inherently theological. In other words, it has to do with our worldview and for that reason we should look at it with particular care. The distinction between the Sunnis and the Shiites goes back to the death of Mohammed, recognized by both groups to be the prophet, and once Mohammed died, the big question was authority within Islam and who would represent that authority and who would choose the authority. The Sunnis, who have always been the vast majority of Muslims in the world, determined that the rightful authority in Islam should be someone who comes in the line of Mohammed, according to his teaching authority and way of life, but not necessarily someone from his tribe or, indeed, from his family. The Shia, more commonly known in the United States as Shiites, came to the opposite conclusion that the natural successor to Mohammed must be one of his own family members. This has led to a violent conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites that goes back for 1,300 years and has led to sectarian strife in virtually all Muslim lands at some point or another and in some places consistently for thirteen centuries.


So there’s something somewhat naïve about a headline that tells us that President Obama is now calling upon Iraqi Muslims to get over this sectarian difference. It’s like saying forget 1,300 years of incredibly bloody conflict and just decide that it never happened. What is happening in Iraq right now is a reminder that theology matters and it always matters, and theology matters even inside world religions such as Islam. The theological distinctions between the Sunnis and the Shiites are not over the Quran; they both accept the Quran as divine. It’s not over Mohammed; they both believe that Mohammed was the messenger. It’s not over the so-called five pillars of Islam that are the very hallmark of Islamic devotion. It’s over authority. And when you look at the history of Christianity, you’ll note that the most crucial distinctions in the Christian church have often also come over the issue of authority. That included the schism between the East and the West that took place right after the first millennium of Christianity and it was particularly clear in the great Reformation of the 16th century. It was clear in the conflict between Martin Luther and the papacy, and it is clear right now in terms of the differing understandings of authority that separate evangelicals from the Roman Catholic Church. The issue of papal authority and the evangelical insistence on the authority of Scripture alone demonstrates the depth and the breadth of that particular divide. But in Islam, the historic divide between the Sunnis and the Shia has often turned violent and that violence has perhaps even increased in recent years; increased because of the movement of populations in recent years, especially after the First World War in the 20th century, and the conflict that comes when you add ethnic and regional divisions on top of this basic sectarian strife between the Sunnis and the Shia.


But as you’re watching the news, there is a third group that often comes to the attention and that is the Kurds. The Kurds are not defined first of all religiously, but rather ethnically. They are an Iranian group and they’re a group that is religiously very diverse. But as the old Kurdish saying goes, compared to an unbeliever, every Kurd is a Muslim. In other words, the basic theological structure of the Kurds is Islamic and when it comes to Islam, they find themselves hated by both the Sunnis and the Shiites, largely because of their ethnic identity. Ever since the late 19th century, the Kurds have been struggling especially not only for the protection of their people but for the establishment of a Kurdish nationality, and right now that looms perhaps as a greater possibility than it has ever been before. The Kurds number about 30 to 40 million in population and almost half of them are found within Turkey. They are also found within Syria and Iraq and, to some degree, in Iran, from which the group originated. And every one of those nations has found at some point in its history the Kurds to be a particular challenge because the Kurds intend to be challenging until they have a homeland of their own. And, once again, the changes right now taking place in the Middle East may offer the best opportunity yet in terms of world history for the Kurds to have their own nationality.


When thinking about the Sunnis and the Shiites, keep this in mind: the Shiites are a minority; probably between 10 and 15% of all Muslims worldwide. They are primarily found in Iraq and in Iran and in southern Lebanon. Elsewhere, almost all of the Muslims are Sunni. Something else to note is that when the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979 (that was by its very essence a Shiite revolution), Americans came to believe that the extremist and violent form of Islam was Shiites, and Shiites obviously sometimes can turn to violence. But the primary Islamic threat to the United States, the threat represented by al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and others is explicitly Sunni and, in particular, a branch of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism has led to the most extreme Muslim terrorism in the world today. You add that to the conflict with the Shiites and now to the conflict with the Kurds, you add that with the rise of ISIS, this Islamic state of Iran and Syria, and what you have is a recipe for absolute geopolitical disaster right there where America’s been so involved for so long. And to get to the bottom line, once again, this conflict like almost every major conflict is inherently theological, but you’re not going to know that if you gain everything you know from the national and international media.

2) Gallup poll on Bible reflects residue of cultural Christianity in America

Speaking of religious authority, the issue of the Bible and biblical authority came front and center last week in a major study released by the Gallup organization in Princeton, New Jersey. As Gallup revealed, 28% of Americans, they say, believe the Bible is the actual word of God and that it should be taken literally. They say that’s somewhat below the 38-40% seen in the late 1970s and near the all-time low of 27% reached in 2001 and 2009. But, they say, about half of Americans continue to say the Bible is the inspired word of God, not be taken literally, meaning a combined 75% believe the Bible is in some way connected to God. They go on to say in their summary:


About one in five Americans view the Bible in purely secular terms — as ancient fables, legends, history, and precepts written by man — which is up from 13% in 1976.


You know the old adage, “Ask a stupid question and get a stupid answer,” this is one of those polls that reveals more confusion about the poll than it does necessarily even about the people who were asked the questions. For instance, let’s take the three positions. Position one: the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. Statement number two: the Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally. Those are not two different positions when understood by anyone with even a little bit of theological understanding. For instance, the word literal here is literally a very bad word. As a matter of fact, just about anyone who has survived high school English classes has been told the word literally is literally taken out of context most of the literal time. When you see the word literal you have to understand that it probably represents more confusion than it does clarity, but there obviously is something here. Let’s go back to that first statement—the Bible is the actual word of God (that’s very good) and is to be taken literally, word for word. Now what is meant by the word literally there? In one sense, what literally refers to here in its common sense meaning is that it is in actual fact the word of God word for word, but that’s the use of the word literal that your English teacher would find a problem with. In other words, what we’re talking about here is the use of the word literal that is literally wrong, but nonetheless helps to communicate. But it also helps to obfuscate or to confuse. That is to say that when someone affirms the total truthfulness of the Bible, what includes the understanding of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, we believe that every word of the Bible is literally the word of God, but that doesn’t mean that every text of Scripture is to be interpreted literally if that means reducing everything in the Bible to one form of literature. That is absolute nonsense. That isn’t to honor the Scripture; that is to dishonor the Scripture.


That second statement read: The Bible is the inspired word of God (that’s also good), but not everything in it should be taken literally. Well let’s think about that for a moment. When the Bible says that God rescued Israel from captivity in Egypt by His outstretched arm and His mighty hand, does it mean that God actually has an arm and a hand? Of course not. The Bible says that God is a spirit and He does not have a physical body. So what does that mean? It means God condescended to use language we would understand in order to describe His own action. He acted without a hand and without an arm, but it’s totally true to say that He redeemed Israel by His outstretched arm and His mighty hand. In other words, He did it personally by His own unilateral, sovereign, divine action. Now that is not a literal interpretation of the phrase “outstretched arm and mighty hand,” but it is a truthful interpretation of that phrase meant to be interpreted exactly as the author of Scripture intended it to be understood. That’s the goal of true biblical interpretation; a goal of biblical interpretation that is subservient to the understanding that the Bible, every single word of it, is inspired of God and is inherent and infallible.


But if we try to infer what the people responding to this survey really meant, that’s where we get to something of genuine significance. What we have here is the evidence that approximately one quarter of all Americans are ready to say—a little bit more than that—are ready to say that the Bible, every single word of it, is God’s word. It’s literally God’s word in the sense that it is actually God’s word, and as God’s word, every single word of it is to be received as nothing less than God’s word. That is the position of the evangelical church throughout the centuries. That is the understanding of biblical authority and biblical inerrancy.


That second position that is held by roughly half of Americans, they say the Bible is the inspired word of God, but they don’t mean that every single word is inspired. They say not everything in it should be taken literally. Well we’ve already explained why that’s not the best way to describe the position, but we do know what’s implied by the way that question is asked. There are people who claim to believe that the Bible is the word of God, but they try to find enough interpretive elasticity in the text of Scripture to say you don’t have to take it be literally true, not every passage.


Now this is the kind of position that we shouldn’t be surprised most Americans say they hold. Why do I say that? Because if the majority of Americans believed that the Bible, every single word of it, is the word of the one, true, and living God and is rightly to be understood as binding on us in every single word, Americans couldn’t believe the silly other things Americans believe nor could Americans behave the way Americans behave. That 50% demonstrated in this middle position reflects the residue of cultural Christianity, of those who say, “Yes, I’m Christian,” when they check off the box on the pollster’s question, and, “Do you believe the Bible is the word of God?” They have enough allegiance to the word of God to say, “Yes, I believe it’s God’s word,” but the other kind of evidence that demonstrates the superficiality of that position is when someone comes back to ask the question, “Okay, so you believe the Bible is the word of God, what’s in it?” The majority of Americans who say the Bible’s the word of God can’t tell you much of anything of what’s in the Scripture.


There’s another big issue that is certainly evident in this study and implied even in the narrative about it that comes down to this: most Americans still have lives, consciences, and moral understandings that are so pervasively and self-consciously shaped by Scripture that they can’t bring themselves to say anything less than that the Bible is the word of God. Even when it doesn’t lay claim upon their everyday life in terms of their understanding, even when they do not order their lives by it in terms of all the particulars, even when they fall short of the Bible’s own definition of its essence and inspiration and authority, they still live lives that are not free from the authority of Scripture in some way, to some degree. That tells us something about what America’s going to be like in the future. We should note that there is an age differentiation in this. Younger Americans know far less; older Americans feel far more allegiance to the Bible as the word of God even in this middle category. The disappearance of cultural Christianity in this country is happening fast. The velocity is shocking, and we should be surprised that the next time Gallup or some other organization asks this kind of question, the percentages of those who believe that the Bible is just an ancient book, that percentage is certain to rise. The percentage of those who believe that every single word of the Bible is indeed the inspired word of God, we can expect the fall, and that middle position, well it’s like every middle position, it doesn’t stay in the middle for long.


Christians operating out of a Christian worldview understand full well that there is no dimension of our lives that is not laid claim upon by our allegiance to Christ. Jesus is Lord of all means that He is Lord of every intellectual discipline. He’s Lord of every dimension of our life: economic life, political life, social life, entertainment—you name it. And that means that when it comes down to our economic lives, we will give an answer for every decision we make, ultimately for every purchase we make, for everything we do or fail to do in terms of our economic responsibility.


The Bible doesn’t set down a specific economic system, but it doesn’t set down principles; principles such as honoring private property, honoring labor and the rightful reward for labor, honoring entrepreneurship and invention, honoring investment and savings, honoring those who are generous, honoring frugality and frowning upon conspicuous consumption. All of those things are very clear in the Scripture, but there is no particular economic system mandated by Scripture. One of the hard decisions for people in modern economic life comes down to how we invest funds. Now there’s a moral dimension to everything we do in economics. There’s a moral dimension to every purchase or there’s a moral dimension even to the choices that we do not make. There are moral dimensions in employment, investment, savings, and all the rest, but in terms of investment, there are big questions.

3) Union Seminary divests endowment of fossil fuels to avoid participation in ‘sin’

That leads to an interesting story that appeared in TIME magazine this week. The headline is “Union [that is Union Theological Seminary in New York City] Becomes the World’s First Seminary to Divest From Fossil Fuels.” Well as a seminary president, I found this article very interesting. After all, seminaries don’t normally make TIME magazine, but Union Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship seminary of Protestant liberalism, made TIME magazine because they said, “We are divesting our endowment funds of anything having to do with fossil fuels.” Serene Jones, who is the president of Union Theological Seminary and also a professor there, said:


At Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, we have a particular call to live out our values in the world. In accordance with that call, our Board of Trustees voted unanimously today [that was on June 10th] to begin divesting the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels, becoming the first seminary in the world to take this dramatic step in the fight against global climate change.


TIME magazine published her entire statement. In it she says that it’s clear that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is death-dealing. As Christians would say, she describes it as profoundly sinful. She says:


This concerns us deeply, and we are actively committed to finding new ways to participate in healing our wounded creation. We believe that the divestment of our endowment from fossil fuel companies is one small step in this direction.


In one very strategic paragraph in her statement, she wrote:


I hope our decision to divest encourages other seminaries and universities to recognize that there are things we can do as a country and as a people to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions. For Christians, sin is the word that describes anything that prevents us from having a faithful relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with creation.


We have sinned, and we see this divestment as an act of repentance for Union. All of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat. As stewards of God’s creation, we simply must act to stop this sin.


Reporting on this decision, Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service writes:


Union, which bills itself as the flagship of American progressive Protestant theology [that in other words, by the way, is Protestant liberalism] and was home to luminaries such as Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, will host a conference ahead of the United Nations’ Climate Summit in September called Religions for the Earth.


As far back as the late 19th century, Union Theological Seminary was already denying the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. By the time you get to the midpoint in the 20th century, that seminary was already openly embracing universalism and the oneness basically of all religions, and now having redefined sin and salvation and virtually every doctrine of the Christian faith, they’ve come back to say they are divesting of all investments in fossil fuels because to remain in those investments is sin. It’s a very interesting statement. It’s either true or false. There is, of course, a stewardship of the earth that is our Christian responsibility. There is an economic responsibility in terms of how we invest our funds. Any wise Christian investor is careful about where those investments are made, but that same wise steward investor also understands that investing in particular stocks or the decision not to invest in particular equities is one that makes sense only if you also in other dimensions of your life do not participate in the same services or products. What makes this decision so insane is that everyone who voted for this divestment got into some vehicle that was dependent upon some kind of fossil fuel—and yes, that means even the electric vehicles because something had to produce that electricity—and they found themselves going home feeling very self-satisfied that they had taken a great moral action, and they no doubt woke up the next morning and went right back to using all of the fossil fuels that provided the air conditioning in their homes the very night they slept so soundly for having made this decision.


There’s something inherently consistent about a Christian who says I’m not going to invest in anything that sexually explicit, any form of pornography. I don’t want to be involved in any stock in any company that would involve itself in those materials, but that consistency would require that that individual also not be a user of pornography. It makes no sense to divest yourselves of fossil fuels and then crank up the car and go home satisfied with your decision. But we also need to recognize that a certain amount of intellectual dishonesty is in play here. It is probably true, indeed, it’s almost certainly true, that the use of fossil fuels impacts the amount of carbon emissions that end up in the atmosphere and that that contributes in some way to climate change and it is certainly true that we should be concerned about that. But, at the same time, in terms of the current world, there is no other energy technology that drives our industry, our lives; not only provides air conditioning in cars and everything else that we use, but is fueling the local hospital and everything else we consider important. To divest from fossil fuels is to say we want those businesses to disappear, but that would consign the world to look like something far more like the dark ages than anything we might contemplate. There simply is no current alternative. We can hope and pray that such alternatives will appear and we should encourage, in terms of our economy and political life, real alternatives that could lead to an independence from the use of fossil fuels or our current dependence on it. But this is one of those actions which in retrospect isn’t much of an action at all. It’s intellectually incoherent and it is ethically inconsistent, but this is not just to throw stones at Union Theological Seminary. Because the reality is, whether on the left or the right, part of what it means to be a sinner is to involve ourselves, if we are not careful, in just this kind of hypocrisy, of intellectual dishonesty, and of ethical inconsistency. It is a reminder to evangelical Christians of how dependent we are upon the Bible and how dependent we are upon the church, in terms of a reasoning community under the authority of the Bible, to come to terms with what our responsibility is in every dimension of life, including our economic lives. But we do know this: divesting your endowment of fossil fuels will get you much celebrated within the pages of TIME magazine.


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Podcast Transcript

1) Basis of theological authority cause of rifts now evident in Iraq

Obama Pushes Iraqis to Mend Sectarian Rifts, New York Times (Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon)

The Origins Of The Shiite-Sunni Split, NPR (Mike Shuster)

2) Gallup poll on Bible reflects residue of cultural Christianity in America

Three in Four in U.S. Still See the Bible as Word of God, Gallup (Lydia Saad)

3) Union Seminary divests endowment of fossil fuels to avoid participation in ‘sin’

Union Becomes the World’s First Seminary to Divest from Fossil Fuels, TIME (Serene Jones)

Union Seminary pulls investments from the ‘sin’ of fossil fuels, Religion News Service (Sarah Pulliam Bailey)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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