Friday, October 31, 2014

Perfection takes time, and God is patient

Some persons make the point that God seems a rather different fellow in the Old Testament than he does in the New Testament. YHWH and Jesus appear to not a few objectors as different as night and day. At one point I might have sympathized with this kind of objection, but I now think there is much to be said against it.

In the first place, the notion that Jesus is more loving and gracious than YHWH is simply mistaken, and betrays a poor reading of the Old Testament. My friend Derek recently posted on Facebook a perfect rejoinder to this objection. Reading through the Psalms, one finds that the most common complaint against God is not that he judges too harshly or too strictly, but rather that he defers judgment for too long! Recently I've been reading through 1 and 2 Kings, and it gets tiresome to read of a king that he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, just as his forefathers had done, and that he had caused the people of Israel to sin. And yet God does not destroy them but lets them live, all the while providing prophets and messengers to try to get them to turn from their evil ways!

The most vivid example of this is in 2 Kings 17.5ff., where the story of Israel's exile into Assyria is related. He puts up with generation after generation of heinous sin, including child sacrifice and rabid injustice and murder. We would not even tolerate such persons to live, but YHWH gives them chance after chance to repent. Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” They would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God (2 Kings 17.13-4). Some of us can hardly stand being publicly disrespected and ready to go to blows over an insult, and yet God puts up with generation after generation of sacrilege and evil and wickedness, all the while reminding them of the covenant and calling them to live differently.

YHWH in the Old Testament displays a patience beyond what is humanly possible. We are not as gracious as we think we are, and YHWH is not any less patience than Jesus is. The same patience that put up with generation after generation of wickedness and injustice is the patience that puts up with adultery, and says without casting any stones, Go and sin no more (John 8.11).

Other persons object that YHWH's moral laws seem not to live up to those of Jesus. How do we compare "Eye for an eye" with "Resist not the evildoer"? The truth of the matter, however, is that God wants the perfection of humanity, and this takes time. Humanity is stubborn and doesn't want to listen, doesn't want to be taught, doesn't want to change its ways. The people of Israel and Judah as recorded in 1 and 2 Kings are an ample demonstration of the fact. God realizes that this change takes place, and he tries to educate and train us within the limits of our weakness.

For instance, a friend on Facebook recently shared this picture:

Perhaps part of the reasoning behind the joke is this: between these two, slavery is obviously (to us) the greater evil; why doesn't God disallow that one, rather than the other?

The answer to the question is this: what is obvious to us now, after two thousand years of Christianization of the West, was not and is not obvious to persons without our background. We see slavery as an obvious evil because our moral intuitions have been trained by the teachings (believe it or not) of the Old and New Testament. The dignity of the individual, the creation of every person in the image and likeness of God, the freedom of the individual to determine his or her own destiny -- these are elements of Judaeo-Christian ethics. We come to these realizations, however, because the seeds of the insights were planted in the Old and New Testament. "Love thy neighbor," as I said, comes from Leviticus.

God knows that the perfection of humanity will take time, and so he deals with us as he finds us. He plants seeds of instruction and education in the teachings he gives us, and these seeds develop and eventually blossom. Slavery could not have been abolished so easily as making laws against it for the desert-wandering Hebrews; they didn't even listen to the laws he did give which do not appear so difficult to follow (e.g., worshiping other gods, sacrificing your children, etc.). But he does give them laws about the treatment of slaves that provide them with greater dignity and respect than was found in other societies (e.g. in ancient Rome and Greece, where slaves were unconditionally sexually available to their masters). 

God takes his time, and he does so because we hard of heart and hard of head. We don't listen to what he tells us, and at the same time we pretend to be justified arbiters and judges of what he does and commands. Thank God that he is patient and gracious!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The LORD is good to all

This morning I read what is among my favorite psalms, Ps 145. It is a long and enthusiastic celebration of God's utter goodness and benevolence to every creature and every person. In it we find the following:

The LORD is gracious and merciful,
  slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD is good to all,
  and his compassion is over all that he has made (Ps 145.8-9).

I enjoy reading this very much because it resonates deeply with me; it is a fine embodiment of my understanding of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. I believe that the cross of Jesus Christ, an atonement for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2), is the definitive demonstration of God's goodwill and love for the whole of the creation. This psalm here is even more so plausible and full of truth when we see it through the demonstration of God's love in Jesus.

Yet our experience often calls it into question! Is the LORD really gracious and merciful? Is he really good and compassionate to all? Is it really true that The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings (Ps 145.17)? How many people have to suffer every day and never find resolution for their problems, despite all their prayers! How many people lift up the prayer, Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low (Ps 142.6) and a response doesn't seem forthcoming!

Here we are brought face to face with God who acts and does things differently than we do. We want problems to be resolved here and now; God seems content to take his time in most cases. Rarely if ever are things hurried. Consider the story of Samuel searching for the new king of Israel. He wanted one of Jesse's older boys to be the king, since they were of age and strong and ready for the job. Instead God chose David, who was yet a boy and had to pass through many trials and tribulations first before becoming king. Samuel would have preferred a quick solution to the matter, but God chose the lengthier way.

Why things are like this, we may never know. The world isn't the way we would expect; God isn't like us in every respect, and here especially he seems strange and far off. What are we supposed to do? What else can we do, except what the Bible calls us to do from the very beginning to the very end: to trust God. This was Jesus' message: repent and believe in the good news that God's kingdom is near; trust that God is taking control of things and is leading them to a glorious restoration in the end.

This psalm is a good psalm to pray. Think of Christ on the cross for the sins of the whole world, think of the empty tomb and the power of God to bring resurrection out of crucifixion. Then you will say: The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings (Ps 145.17).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The true message of Genesis 1-3

Pope Francis has recently declared the truth of the Big Bang and evolution. Responses to this have been mixed, I suppose: some claim that the Pope contradicts Genesis and rejects the biblical teaching; others are glad to hear that the Church is progressing and modernizing. My impression is that this latter point of view is just ignorant; I thought the Catholic church affirmed both scientific theories for a while now. It was a Catholic priest who came up with the Big Bang in the first place! I think that the former point of view, however, is also ignorant.

Understood in the context of ancient near eastern creation mythology, my impression is that the purpose of the creation myth in Genesis 1 is not to give a strict chronology of creation. Thus I was taught in seminary, and thus -- so I am told -- is the opinion of many scholars. Rather, the creation myth is organized the way it is for the sake of giving a picture of the world, and of the relations between it, God, and humanity. There is nothing about the chronology of Gen 1 that is significant, except perhaps for the fact that it is modeled after the Sabbath practice (see Levenson's discussion in Creation and the Persistence of Evil).

What is important in the creation account of Genesis, however, is the picture that it gives of God's relation to the world and to humanity. This becomes especially clear when we compare it to the creation myths that neighboring societies had. Consider, for example, the creation of humanity as told in the Babylonian Atrahasis myth. In this story, there were two classes of gods, the laborers and the upper class. One day the laborers grow tired of doing all the hard work, so they start to riot and disrupt the peace and quiet of the other gods. In order to solve the problem and go back to bed in peace, the gods decide to create humanity from the blood of a sacrificed scapegoat god. They say: Let her create primeval man, so that he may bear the yoke . . . Let man bear the load of the gods! (tr. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, p. 14).

On this view of things, humanity has no special place in the heart of the gods. Humans are not created for any other purpose except to do hard work and engage in backbreaking menial labor that the gods themselves got tired of doing. The relation between the gods, furthermore, is intrinsically one of economics and pragmatics: if you sacrifice to them, do them a favor here or there, there may be friendly to you. They have no special commitment to you as such, however, and there is hardly a pride or care on their part as creators for the human race.

We can also see how this view of things affects the social sphere. Those upper classes of society, closer as they are to the gods and the representatives of the divine, are consequently within their rights to oppress the lower classes. The lower classes are made to do the menial and difficult slave work to which they have been condemned; the upper classes are like the gods in that they get the easy life to themselves, the jobs to be done having been delegated to others.

Compare this with the story we find in Gen 1-3, where God creates -- not out of any need, not out of any desire to find someone else to do his work for him, but simply out of the power of his word and out of love. He creates everything with its proper place in which it can flourish and be happy: the fish in the waters, the birds in the air, the animals on the solid ground, the vegetation in its various places, etc. What is more, he creates humanity in his own image so that humanity can care for and tend to the created order. God loves humanity especially, and confers on it this great gift and responsibility: the call to become like God and to care for the world given it as a gift.

On this view of things, the relation between God and humanity is one of unconditional respect and benevolence. Human persons are all like sons in the image and likeness of God their Father. They were created to be like him and to enjoy his work. Here the dominant metaphor is not one of master-slave or employer-employee; it is familial: God is the Father and humans are his children, made in his image to be like him. This means, too, that God creates humanity for our own sake, not to get anything out of us. Indeed he needs nothings, since his power is so great that he can bring anything into being merely by speaking it!

You can see how this would affect the political sphere as well. Rulers, because their position of authority is one modeled after God's authority over all creation, are called to be like God. This doesn't mean they get all the gifts and honor and glory while not doing anything; this doesn't mean they get to oppress them in the lower classes while they live an easy life of relaxation and parties. On the contrary, they are to provide for each person and to ensure that they have their needs met.

Here, then, is one of the important messages of Gen 1-3. It has nothing to do with the age of the earth or anything of that sort, but it does have everything to do with how we see ourselves in relation to the world, to each other, and to God. God is not in competition with us, he is not against us, he does not relate to us on fundamentally economic terms. On the contrary, he relates to us as a Father, and he has given us this gift: to be like him in caring for one another and for the creation at large. He cares for our good and he created us for own sake, not for some gain he might get out of us.  And when we are in the image and likeness of God, when we are acting as we were created to act, we embody this same goodness and unconditional benevolence.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

God the philanthrope

Eusebius describes Jesus Christ as ὁ τῶν ὅλων σωτήρ, ὁ φιλάνθρωπος -- the savior of all together, lover of humanity (Ramelli 2013, p. 320). Likewise Athanasius says on a number of occasions that God's salvific act in Christ is motivated by his love for his creation and for humanity:  He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us. . .; and The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men. . . (De Incarnatione 8, 15)

This is a particularly powerful notion: that God loves humanity, and this is what motivated him to save us in Jesus Christ. It is telling to note that I rarely hear this sort of talk among those in Reformed theological circles. We hear talk about God's glory, about his desire to glorify himself in bringing many to salvation, and so on. Rarely do we hear -- or at least, rarely had I heard -- the notion that God acted to save because he loves human beings.

There are exceptions to this, of course. T.F. Torrance writes that the cross tells us that God loves us more than he loves himself (A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry, p. 14) because God, like Abraham, is willing to give up his Son. But Torrance is one who has drawn deep from the patristic wells and whose theology is very much informed by them. His theology is more patristic than a lot of the contemporary Reformed persons to whom I am referring.

Why don't they speak like this? It seems to me obvious: because they don't believe in it. They don't believe that God loves humanity as such, and in fact they cannot consistently believe this. Their doctrine of election and predestination doesn't permit it. It doesn't sound plausible to hear that God loves humanity but decides not to save a portion of it though he could have. That hardly sounds like love to me! So these persons limit themselves to mentions of God's love for the elect, or else of God's concern for his glory, etc.

None of this sits well with the Bible, however, which does affirm God's love for humanity as such. After all, God has created all human beings in the image  and likeness of God! All human beings as such are created to embody the divine image and to be little icons of God on the earth; he has created every human being in such a way that they are intrinsically oriented to a relationship with him. And the Bible teaches that God loved the world and provided salvation for all persons (e.g., John 3.16, 4.42 cf. 1 John 4.14; 1 Tim 2.4-6, 4.10). Paul says to Titus that the appearance of Christ for our salvation was out of God's φιλανθρωπία, his love for humanity (Tit 3.4).

We can say, happily, that God is a philanthrope! He loves humanity and wants to save everyone. He shows us this in Jesus Christ, who was revealed as the savior of the world, as John writes (1 John 4.14).

Friday, October 24, 2014

God's grace in God's wrath

I was reading the following passage:

Now King Hazael of Aram oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion on them; he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them; nor has he banished them from his presence until now (2 Kings 13.22-3).

I was impressed to read the depiction of God's grace and goodness in this passage. Notice that it said that God was gracious and compassionate to the Israelites, and did not destroy them. This implies that he had motive to do so, and yet opted not to do it. Indeed this is what we read earlier in the chapter, where we learn that Jehoahaz was a sinful king who brought Israel into sin:

He [Jehoahaz] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin; he did not depart from them. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, so that he gave them repeatedly into the hand of King Hazael of Aram (13.2-3).

The people of Israel were living in sin along with their king. This had angered the LORD and as a punishment for this, he permitted that the Aramean king Hazael would oppress them and take cities from their control. Yet in spite of all this, we see that God's mercy was active and working even in his wrath, since he did not allow the Israelites to be destroyed, nor did he banish them from his presence.

It is a testimony to God's goodness that, as John Calvin says somewhere, he loves us even when he hates us. Even in moments of righteous anger for the sin of the world, God's grace and compassion is active and does not allow us to be destroyed even as we are being punished. Now why does he do this?

This text teaches us that God was mindful of the covenant he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He made a promise to the patriarchs that their offspring would be vast and they would inherit a land promised to them. Because God is faithful to his promises and he does not forget them, he had compassion even on a sinful Israel, even as they were being punished and called back from their sins, even as they would not listen and heed the message.

This is a fine bit of news to all of us; though we are not a part of the nation of Israel, yet the covenant concerns us too. After all God promised that in Abraham's offspring all the nations and families of the world would be blessed; and if we are baptized into Christ Jesus, we are Abraham's offspring and heirs of the promise (Gal 3.27-9). God is faithful to that promise! Even in his anger, he is merciful to us and good to us.

Here we find, I think, a further confirmation of something that has seemed true to me for a while now. Though the Bible speaks of various divine qualities and dispositions, yet goodness is a more basic and true one than anything else. God is wrathful and angry at sinners, but beneath the wrath and anger, inextricably prior to them, qualifying them at all times is his goodness, demonstrated in his covenant. He made a covenant to Abraham that in his offspring the whole world would be blessed. His promise concerns the restoration of all things (Acts 3.21). His certain faithfulness to this covenant, to my mind, cannot be compromised by any threat of wrath or hell or punishment or judgment -- though these things certainly will come.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The honor due the LORD

The prophet Malachi received the following in his oracle from the LORD:

A son honors his father, and servants their master. If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despite my name (Mal 1.6).

One of the more impressive points of Christian theology is that it teaches everyone to pray to God as Father. Thus we were taught by Jesus to pray: Our Father who art in heaven (Mt 6.9-13). This is important because it means we are not left as orphans in the world; we have a heavenly Father who cares for us and takes care of our needs, to whom we are taught to pray every day for our bodily needs. The doctrine of the Fatherhood of God is also a comfort to us when we sin, because we know that God, as our Father, forgives us.

At the same time, it seems that this paternal relationship can be abused. Some persons take advantage of their parents, assuming goodwill to the point of disregarding the parent as a person with rights and dignity of her own. Evidently this had been happening among the people of God, because he has to remind them of basic social norms vis-a-vis the relation of children to parents. Children respect and honor parents; that is what parents expect, and that is what God commands them as well (Exod 20.12). How much more, then, ought we to respect and honor God, who is a father to us beyond what any earthly father can be?

Likewise with the master-servant relation. In a more contemporary vernacular, those in positions of authority expect to be respected by those who are under them, especially from employees. A boss expects that his employees will respect him, and if you want to keep your job for some amount of time, you will respect your boss. How much more should we respect God whom we call "the LORD"? If he is a LORD, he ought to be respected as such. Otherwise our divine titles are empty phrases.

Some persons may ask the question: why does God care so much about being honored? He seems kind of needy. I think this objection is immature, however. Honor is an important part of being a healthy, balanced person. It means recognizing value and respecting it, properly orienting yourself to what is good without expecting anything in return. It is a way of escaping the economics of our ordinary relations -- do ut des, you scratch my back, etc. -- and recognizing that the world is bigger and greater than what it can do for me. There are things to which I must stand under and submit and honor; it is a way of recognizing that I am not the center of the universe.

This evidently was an especially important lesson for priests to learn. Here I think we have some fine points of teaching for those such as myself who are interested in ministry. The priest, as a sort of representative of God to the people and of the people to God, ought especially to embody the proper respect and honor for God. The LORD said through Malachi that these priests "despised his name" or his reputation; this means that they didn't take care to approach God with the proper respect due to him and with a proper attention to his reputation.

I've said in other contexts that we as Christians inevitably become representatives and ambassadors of God to the non-Christian world. This is doubly true for those in positions of authority and ministry, such as pastors and priests. They have to pay special attention to themselves and the ways they represent God to others. This is why stories of sex scandals involving pastors or priests are so troubling; the very persons whom we expect to be near to God and to have dedicated their lives to God go off and do things even "ordinary" persons would never do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Practical consequences of not believing in the Trinity

My friend Bill recently addressed the question: "What practical difference does a belief or non-belief in the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity make?"

Bill's answer seems to be: not much, since Christianity is primarily about loving God and neighbor, while belief in the Trinity, especially if overzealous to the point of motivating anathemas, not only does not help but may even inhibit doing both of these things.

There is much that is wrong with Bill's answer, I think. The first problem with what Bill says is that he evaluates things from a highly moralist conception of Christianity that is more at home in 19th century European liberalism than in the historic Christian tradition. Certainly the bishops gathered at Nicaea thought more was at stake in the questions revolving around the Trinity than Bill seems willing to grant; but of these two groups, who is a better judge of what counts as Christian?

The ancient thinking on this matter was something like this. Our union with Christ through baptism and the Eucharist is supposed to divinize us, as is the Holy Spirit. But Christ and the Holy Spirit cannot deify us if they are not divine. Consequently they are divine. But they are named separately and treated as (to some extent) separate entities, for example in the baptismal formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Therefore they are not the same. Of course there is one God but this one God exists in three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to be faithful to what God has revealed to us about himself through the scriptures and the apostolic teaching. We affirm one God, but grant a distinction of persons. We don't claim to understand how this can be, but at the same time, there is no reason to assume that we can understand everything that's true anyway. What we cannot do is simply throw out divine revelation because it does not mesh nicely with our modes of understanding.

Of course, much more could be said, but I think at least the following counts as a practical consequence of refusing to believe the doctrine of the Trinity: you are refusing what God has revealed about himself and the authority granted to the church to make authoritative statements of dogma. Both of these refusals are made, furthermore, on the basis of the judgments of one's own reason, which is a fine if you are a Kantian, but Christianity is not Kantianism.

Bill accuses theologians who love their pet explanations of dogma too much of being high-level idolaters. But the charge may be put the other way: the person who refuses to submit himself to the church's teaching and God's self-revelation in scripture because he does not understand it is an idolater, worshiping his own reason and understanding as ultimately authoritative. Bill's treatment of the matter assumes that the doctrine of the Trinity is not revealed, and that the church is not an authoritative body through which God can provide these revelations. This begs a major question, since the vast, vast majority of Christians do not accept Bill's Kantian conception of Christianity.

The apostles and the oral tradition

Sometimes you hear an argument like this against the reliability of the New Testament documents as sources of information about Jesus Christ: These documents contain material gathered from oral traditions, and we all know how unreliable that is. Word got passed around and eventually disfigured, so we can have no assurance that what we find in the gospels is what Jesus actually thought and taught.

This sort of argument betrays radical misunderstandings about the manner in which early Christian oral tradition was transmitted, and it is worth taking a moment to refute. It doesn't take more than a moment to do so, however, because (i) there is no evidence that early Christian oral tradition was transmitted in this anarchic, uncontrolled manner; and (ii) the evidence we do have indicates the exact opposite state of affairs was actually the case.

Consider this brief passage from the Acts of the Apostles:

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda (Acts 9.31-2).

Notice what we find here: Peter, the leader of the apostles who had stayed in Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus, goes and visits the churches throughout Palestine. This is important for a number of reasons, insofar as it is gives us a way of understanding how the Christian oral tradition was transmitted and preserved. The apostles and leaders of the church went and visited the various Christian bodies throughout different places of the Roman empire. They were thus capable of correcting mistakes, offering further teaching and elaboration on Christian doctrines, refuting false teaching and teachers, etc. Furthermore it is evident that the apostles and disciples of Jesus stayed in regular contact with one another, since many of them were located in Jerusalem and would go to the Temple together for the prayer hours (cf. Acts 3.1). This means that they could confer with one another, refer to each other's understanding for verification and especially in resolving theological difficulties. The example par excellence of this is the Council of Jerusalem, which is related in Acts 15.

We further understand that the apostles and disciples of Jesus were special authorities in the earliest Christian communities. The word of Jesus was accepted on their authority, since they were eyewitnesses of everything that had happened (Acts 10.39). Thus the earliest generation of Christian converts devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching (Acts 2.42). Not just anyone could teach. The apostles, because they were Jesus' disciples during his earthly ministry and because they were with him from the beginning (cf. Acts 1.21-2), were the ones doing the transmitting and teaching of the oral traditions and the teachings about Jesus.

This hierarchy and pecking order was present in Christianity from the beginning. The letter to the Ephesians tells us that this is the order Jesus himself established, since he gave the apostles, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, and so on (Eph 4.11). Not just anyone was teaching or transmitting tradition, not just anyone took the authority to pass on Christian dogma, but those who had special calling from Jesus Christ and the approval of the apostles. Note that Paul himself goes to the apostles in Jerusalem and seeks their approval and approbation about his evangelizing (Gal 2.1-9). Even Paul himself considered that all his evangelizing and preaching would have been in vain (Gal 2.2) if he did not have the approval of the Jerusalem apostles, especially Peter and James and John. Everything comes back to the apostles as the authoritative body in the church with regards to teaching and tradition, and this because they were with Jesus himself.

So we have adequate evidence that the transmission of Christian oral tradition in the early years before the writing of any of the gospels was not done anarchically, in an uncontrolled manner as the objection considered here assumes. There is no evidence whatsoever that Christian tradition was transmitted in that way, and certainly when I hear that objection, there is never any evidence brought forth for consideration. The consideration of the evidence we do have, however, suggests the exact opposite picture. So this objection is no good.

When we stop and think about it, however, it makes sense that things would have been that way, that is, that there would have been controls and authority structures in the earliest Christian movement. People in the ancient world were not stupid; it is only the illiterati who haven't read much ancient literature that think so, and in so thinking they show their own stupidity and ignorance. The average person would not have accepted groundless tradition about a would-be Christ; but they would have accepted it if it came from persons who were intimately involved with Jesus himself. The followers of Jesus were known in Jerusalem, since they were seen with him after the Triumphal Entry and in the Temple, etc (see the story of Peter's denial of Jesus in Mark 14.66-72; Mt 26.69-75; Luke 22.54-62; John 18.15-18, 25-27). Thus people accepted the authority of the apostles and their teaching because they were with Jesus; others who were not with Jesus were doubted and not received. This is why Paul has to claim both that Jesus appeared to him and taught him the gospel, and also that the apostles in Jerusalem accepted his teaching and evangelistic calling (Gal 1.11-2.10).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Morning by morning he wakens me

In one of the Servant passages in Isaiah, we find the following words:

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens -- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught (Isa 50.4).

Of course we know that the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah is fulfilled by Christ; he is a chosen messenger of God's word to a wayward and afflicted Hebrew people. These descriptions, though certainly they found fulfillment in the experience of their author, were nevertheless more fully fulfilled and applied to Christ, as understood by his apostles. In some ways it is impossible not to see Christ in the figure of the Suffering Servant; certainly they provided Christ with a way of understanding his own mission and call by God, as the reading in the Nazareth synagogue shows (Luke 4.14-21).

In this particular passage, we find something that is very critical. God awakens the servant in the morning to teach him; he speaks into his ear, and thereby gives him words by which he can sustain the weary. He arises early in the morning, as if God were nudging him out of bed, so that he can provide him with strength and wisdom for the coming day.

This is something we see in Christ, too. We read that Jesus would get up very early in the morning, while it was still dark out, so that he could go out and pray alone on a mountain (Mark 1.35). Other times he would go up on the mountainside during the day time or towards evening (Mt 14.23; Mark 6.46). Luke says that Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5.16). John's gospel relates numerous statements of Jesus to the effect that he teaches what he learned in the presence of the Father (e.g., John 8.40).

In all these ways, we see how Jesus would pray, would withdraw from the crowds and the hustle and bustle, and would be taught by the Father. These moments of solitude and private prayer in the late or early hours of the night would be moments of revelation and insight. In moments such as these, he received the teaching with which he would approach the coming day.

Insofar as our own ministry as pastors and ministers of various sorts are but a participation in the ministry of Christ, we should understand ourselves at least to need the same things Christ did. If Christ would get away and spend time by himself to be taught by the Father and to "recharge," then certainly we need these things too. If Christ had to set time apart to spend in the presence of God the Father in order to receive the insight needed for the coming day, then certainly we need to do the same things. We can hardly consider ourselves to be spiritual supermen, able to get along without the things that provided strength for Christ in his own ministry.

This is a point my seminary professors have repeated many times; the burnout so many pastors experience comes at least in part because they do not spend time in the presence of God, seeking spiritual strength in a posture of prayerful vulnerability and openness. For someone such as myself, who want to live a life of ministry when I finish my schooling, this is a very important lesson to learn!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The goodness of Christians

I have been reading from Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? and came across this wonderful citation from Seneca, On Clemency, II.3.3 about the Stoic philosophers:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for mankind or is more devoted to the common good. The goal it assigns for us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care not only of ourselves but of everyone in general and of each person in particular.

It is wonderful to think that there existed at some point in time a group of people who could earn such a description, a body of human persons so dedicated to the common good that they merited these words of praise from one of the most important wise men of the past. But it is a tragedy of tragedies that typically, this description would not apply to Christians in the present day.

Things weren't always like this, of course. Many of us probably know this citation from Julian the Apostate about the Christians: These impious Galileans . . . not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them to their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes (quoted in Charles Schmidt, The Social Results of Early Christianity, p. 328). Irenaeus says somewhere that people become Christians because they feed the hungry and heal the sick, take in abandoned children and display goodness and kindness to everyone.

Very few people are convinced that these would be adequate descriptions of Christianity these days, however, and such a thing is to be lamented. But it is possible to bring this perception back, if we dedicate ourselves to doing good. It is perfectly within our power to begin to be the sorts of unconditionally good persons Christ has shown us by his example to be. The Theologia Germanica contains this fine passage describing God's goodness, when it comments on Jesus' calling Judas "friend" as he approaches him to betray:

As though God in human nature were saying: “I am pure, simple Goodness, and therefore I cannot will, or desire, or rejoice in, or do or give anything but goodness. If I am to reward thee for thy evil and wickedness, I must do it with goodness, for I am and have nothing else.” Hence therefore God, in a man who is “made partaker of His nature,” desireth and taketh no revenge for all the wrong that is or can be done unto Him. This we see in Christ, when He said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (TG 33).

This same love and goodness ought to be in every person who wishes to be made perfect, which means nothing else than being made like God: . . . in a truly Godlike man, his love is pure and unmixed, and full of kindness, insomuch that he cannot but love in sincerity all men and things, and wish well, and do good to them, and rejoice in their welfare (ibid).

Yet I think it is within our power to do this, or at least take small steps towards it. It requires confronting yourself, confronting your impulses to return evil for evil, to exclude those with whom you disagree or whom you find unpalatable, Lord knows I have a lot of work to do in this respect.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Being told you are wrong

I reading through Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? in preparation for an informative speech to be delivered for my communications course in a couple of weeks. Regarding Socrates, it was regularly said that those who engaged with him in dialog quickly found themselves under analysis, and they were called upon to answer for their way of life. Plato writes this in one of the dialogues:

Don't you know that whoever approaches Socrates closely and begins a dialogue with him, even if he begins by talking about something entirely different, nevertheless finds himself forcibly carried around in a circle by this discourse, until he gets to the point of having to give an account of himself -- as much with regard to the way he is living now, as to the way he has lived his past existence. When that point is reached, Socrates doesn't let you leave until he has submitted all that to the test of his control, well and thoroughly . . . It is a pleasure for me to keep company with him. I see no harm in being reminded that I have acted or am acting in a way that is not good. He who does not run away from this will necessarily be more prudent in the rest of his life (Nicias in Plato, Laches 197e6, cited in Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, p. 28).

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jewish and pagan perspectives on divine-human relations

One of the ways in which Jewish (and Christian) religion stands out from differing perspectives is the way it conceives of divine-human relations, the relations that obtain between humanity and God. In this uniqueness, I think, can be found a fine argument in favor of the conclusion that they are revealed religions: they are unlike what so many other human groups have in common.

Consider the creation mythology. As I've noted before on my blog, the Israelites' creation mythology in Gen 1-2 stands out when compared to that of, say, their Babylonian neighbors. For instance, in the Atrahasis myth of Babylonia, humanity is created because there is an uprising among the different classes of the gods. The laborer gods get tired of doing hard work for the divinities of the bourgeoisie, so they create man to do all the hard work for them. In Genesis, on the other hand, mankind and everything else is created -- not out of any need on God's part, but simply out of God's goodness, to enjoy life and the creation he has made. God likewise creates humanity in his image so that he can take care of the world and enjoy fellowship with each other as well as with God.

In the case of the Babylonian mythology, the divine-human relations are merely economic. The humans are means used to accomplish the gods' own ends. They are not considered in themselves, but are merely a commodity for resolving labor disputes among different classes of gods. But in Genesis humanity and the creation as a whole is an end in itself, and God cares for it for its own sake. He doesn't need anything from humanity or the creation, since he creates everything ex nihilo. Because he doesn't need anything, his relation to the creation is not based on economic terms, but simply on the basis of his love for what he has made.

Consider also the question of death. Just today, Michael Gilleland posted this fascinating citation about Greek and Indian mythology:

For instance, in one of the poems of the Greek Epic Cycle, the Cypria, it was related that once upon a time Earth was oppressed by the excessive numbers of people milling about on top of her. Zeus took pity on her and conceived the plan of lightening the burden by means of the Trojan War. A similar myth is found in the Mahābhārata. The earth once complained to Brahmā of the ever-increasing weight of mankind, and Brahmā created death to alleviate the problem (M.L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 23).

Compare this with the Jewish-Christian story: humans die, not because of some service to a struggling earth, but because they sinned against God and are thus punished; death is a product of guilt and brokenness, not divine concern for impersonal creation. The difference here couldn't be more stark. From a Jewish-Christian perspective, these mythological explanations of the source of death share a common disregard for humanity and exaggerated regard for the creation; they are practices in subtle idolatry, and perhaps even an attempt to avoid recognition of guilt before God.

This uniqueness should not be understated. The notion that God considers the world and humanity as ends in themselves and not as means goes against our tendencies to see everything in terms of reciprocity and payoff. We treat each other as commodities, for the most part, and our relations with one another rarely escape the level of do ut des. The Jewish-Christian theology, however, insists that this is not true with respect to God, and since human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, neither should it be so with us. But what could be more difficult for us than to set aside all calculation and economics in our dealings with each other?! It is hard for us to forgive even small offenses unconditionally; imagine structuring all of our interactions around unconditional benevolence!

Likewise Jewish-Christian theology is unique in that it ascribes so much significance to human moral wrongdoing. Nobody wants to hear this; nobody wants to go around feeling guilty all the time. That is one of the complaints I so often hear against Christianity: it's just a bunch of feeling bad for what you've done all the time. Don Draper says in the pilot episode of Mad Men that there's nothing people want more than to be told that everything is okay with them, that their lives are just fine. Jewish-Christian theology goes squarely against this by blaming death -- the biggest tragedy of all -- on human sin. It doesn't even entertain the nice notion that death was instituted for the sake of the earth, so that at least we can feel good about dying, about easing the burden of the planet. No, not at all: death is a reminder that you're sinful and that you've done wrong against God and against neighbor.

Jewish-Christian theology and mythology go against the human grain; they stand out among religions precisely for this reason. And for precisely this reason, they are that much more likely to be true and revealed, and not inventions.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Living in unity

I really enjoy this brief little psalm:

How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
    life forevermore (Ps 133).

This is a sentiment that is perfectly at home in the Christian scriptures; it is something that goes all the way back to the beginning. Recently around Facebook I saw this quote circulating:

Then when G-d asks [Cain], ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ he arrogantly responds, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ In essence, the entire Bible is written as an affirmative response to this question. (Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy)

The citation here from the psalms is just one piece of that long, affirmative answer to Cain's question. Brothers living together in unity is like the place where the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore. Indeed we may say that life forevermore will consist in at least this -- brothers and sisters living together in unity.

When considered in this light, it is amazing to me that disunity and discord can be such a ubiquitous reality in our churches. Insofar as it separates us from the Lord's blessing of life evermore, we can say that fraternal discord is from Satan himself, and it is a little presence of hell among us. The Bible speaks everywhere, everywhere of unity, love, and maintaining bonds between the people of God. More often than not, however, we seem to do the exact opposite: we provoke fights, spread rumors, talk bad about others; indeed, some persons seem to live and be empowered by conflict and discord.

How to deal with it? I don't know. Do you exclude trouble-making brothers for a time, till they learn their lesson? Do you try to encourage people to ignore them until they have no effect on the church body? Do you put up with them and let them stick around? Try to speak with them? It's hard to tell. I've experienced some persons in the church context who can't seem to get along with anyone, and don't mind it, either. Thankfully I am not yet in the position to deal with those persons.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

God and Truth: reflections

Today I had the opportunity to participate in the conference at Glendale Community College titled "God and Truth II." The conference was basically a series of presentations by speakers with four different worldviews (deism, atheism, Christianity, and Islam), followed by questions and answers from the audience. The presentations were lively, and it certainly helped that the presenters on the atheist and deist side were my friends, Peter Lupu and Mike Valle. Bill Vallicella also made an appearance. We all went for dinner afterwards, and much fun was had.

I was hoping there would be inter-panelist discussion but time did not permit, so after the presentations we went straight to audience Q&A. Some of the questions were good and insightful, whereas others were less so. In general I really enjoyed myself. I got great positive feedback on my presentation, which you may read here: "The Gospel According to The X-Files."

Because there was no inter-panelist discussion, I thought I would take some time to record here what would have been objections to my interlocutors.

Contra Mike Valle (deism):

Mike made the point that he is not convinced there is enough evidence for the occurrence of the miraculous, though it remains an a priori possibility given the existence and omnipotence of God. I think there is more than adequate evidence, actually. I would here refer to Craig Keener, Miracles (Baker, 2011) who addresses (and demolishes) David Hume's argument against the possibility of miracles, in addition to adducing much (and I mean much) evidence in favor of the occurrence of miracles even into the present day. I think if one wants to maintain a purely deist position, he ought to deal with Keener's very important and well argued book.

Contra M. Zudhi Jasser (Islam):

Jasser brought a few of the Muslim arguments in the Quran about the Trinity, the impossibility of God's having a son, and so on. I think these arguments showed confusion about the precise way in which the claims of the Trinity and of the Incarnation ought to be made. A fuller discussion of this will have to wait for another day, however, because they offered very quickly and not in much detail; I don't remember everything he said.

My argument against Islam is that it is superfluous at best. The New Testament makes the point again and again that in Jesus Christ, all that pertains to salvation is available and offered to all. There is no need for another prophet, no need for another savior, no need for anything else. If you have Christ, you have it all.

Contra Peter Lupu (atheism):

Peter's presentation obviously had appeal to many in the audience, and he is a charming speaker, but I thought many of his claims were easily refuted and demonstrably false.

For instance, he accused me of arguing for the fact of the resurrection by presupposing the New Testament is the Word of God and therefore revelation. That is not what I was doing; I was treating the New Testament and especially the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, which is what they are. They need not be scripture to be reliable sources of information regarding the claims made by Jesus' followers, especially regarding the resurrection appearances.

Peter likewise claimed that the oral tradition which led to the writing of the gospels (which took place much later than the events themselves) is obviously unreliable. This betrays a very poor misunderstanding of the nature of early Christian oral tradition, as well as of the nature of the gospels themselves. The oral tradition did not circulate independently and wildly without control measures. The apostles and Jesus' disciples went about preaching the good news of his resurrection, as well as all the things he did and taught, and they established churches and stayed with those whom they taught for much time as figures of authority. They obviously could have corrected misunderstandings if they circulated, and they had contact with one another, as the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates, so they could even speak with one another about this or that issue as it came up. The apostles and disciples were not immediately translated into heaven after Jesus' ascension; they stayed and preached a word that was theirs, and accepted on their authority, because they were eyewitnesses to it all. Moreover the gospels were written just before or just after the death of the apostles and disciples, so that their testimony would be preserved for later generations. Moreover they were written either by the apostle/disciple himself (Matthew, John) or else by persons closely associated with them and who followed them around as they preached all the time (Mark, Luke). Let me make a further point: the fact that the author wrote the respective gospel at some particular point in history (say, 70 C.E.) does not entail that all the materials going into the gospel were invented or remembered on the spot. Much more likely is that written materials were preserved all the time, all through the apostolic ministry, but were finally combined and preserved in a single gospel at some later point. This removes the so often intimidating "time gap" between the events and their recording. So the bit about oral tradition is just false and mistaken.

Finally Peter said that the canon was only decided in 325 C.E. at the behest of Constantine, and there were a number of personal interests involved in its formation. Actually there was an established New Testament canon far earlier than that, as second century debates with gnostics and Marcionites show: one of the arguments against these groups was that the texts they propose as canonical were not a part of the existing liturgical tradition, which involved reading from Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John every Sunday during worship.

I want to conclude by offering a list of suggested readings:

On the possibility of miracles, see Craig Keener, Miracles (2011).

On the eyewitness reports of the gospels, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008).

On the formation of the canon and the nature of the gospels, see Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (2000).

On the existence of God, see Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics (2014) and Aquinas (2009). For advanced readers, William F. Vallicella, A Paradigm Theory of Existence (2002).

On general Christian theology, see T.F. Torrance, Atonement and Incarnation (2009), The Trinitarian Faith (2000); Dumitru Stăniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 3 (2011); Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (2013); Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.

The upwardly call of God in Christ Jesus

Paul writes something fascinating in Phil 3.14:

κατὰ σκοπὸν διώκω εἰς τὸ βραβεῖον τῆς ἄνω κλήσεως τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.

I run forth towards the goal, towards the prize of the upwardly call of God in Christ Jesus.

One of the first things to note about this passage is the verb Paul uses. He is using an athletic metaphor: like a sprinter seeking to be the first across the finish line, Paul is running towards a goal, towards a definite end. The significance of the athletic metaphor should not be overlooked. To speak of the Christian life as a race towards a goal, an athletic endeavor, is to give it a certain nature and essence. The Christian life is not only rest and relaxation and a break from all you worries; it also demands real exertion, real effort, real discipline, real training. Paul writes to Timothy: Train yourself in godliness (1 Tim 4.7).

Part of Paul's maturity (cf. Phil 3.15) lies in the realization that he has not yet obtained the prize or been perfected (v. 12). He realizes that there is still work to be done, still a race to be run. He doesn't think he's got it all, or that he's finished with all his work. More than that, he tells us that the mature among us ought to think in this way as well (v. 15).

Now what is the prize towards which he runs? He is talking about the prize of the "upwardly call of God." Certainly he is talking at least about resurrection, since that is what he mentions in vv. 10-1. But there is something to be understood by the interesting adverb he uses. He uses an adverb to describe a noun: τῆς ἄνω κλήσεως τοῦ θεοῦ, the upwardly call of God. What does this mean?

I take this as a reference to theosis. The call of God is to bring a person up, up to heaven, where God is. This is not gnostic escapism from earth; I am talking about the deification of the earthly creature Man, not the escape from the material realm. The upward motion is not spatial but metaphysical; it is ascending the ontological ladder up to God. It is a bringing-down of God to Man, and yet it is simultaneously a lifting-up of Man to God; God's descent is the ascent of Man. The call of God in Christ Jesus, then, is to go up, ever up, to the level of Christ Jesus, who represents perfected humanity.

But for this end there is work to be done. There is a race to be run, labors to be had, efforts to be exerted. So fight on! Keep on running! Keep up the race!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Grammatico-historical interpretive method as the death of scripture

Justo Gonzalez (Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes) writes about the toxic effect of the grammatico-historical method of biblical interpretation on readers of the bible:

Then I went to seminary (still in Cuba), and immediately new vistas opened before me. I was introduced to the historico-critical method of Bible study. I learned to distinguish among different levels of redaction, and to place texts in their historical setting. It was a fascinating experience, for now I understood much in the Bible that I did not understand before. For a time, I was so fascinated with the new methods and vistas, that I was convinced that, by simply following these methods, the Bible would become much more relevant for my life and for the church.

The result, however, was not as I expected. By a process so subtle and so slow that I was not aware of it until long after it had taken place, I came to a point where I could understand the Bible much better than before, but no longer had any idea what to do with it. To teach the Bible became synonymous with explaining the historical setting of the texts, and the process by which they had been redacted and transmitted. I remember a series of Bible studies on 1 Corinthians that I led in the church where I was working as a senior in seminary. It was an excellent course on the composition of the epistle, on where Paul was when he wrote it, and on its relationship to the rest of the Corinthian correspondence. I was able to impart much information, but was able to draw little wisdom from the epistle itself. Also, my Bible study lacked the engagement I had experienced in our Bible studies years earlier, when we read Paul, not primarily to learn about the life of the church in Corinth, but to learn what it  meant to be the church in our own day. Even more tragically, I came to realize that my Bible study, far from making the Bible more accessible to the people, made it more distant, for now they could do nothing with it unless a more learned person told them all there was to know on issues of dating, authorship, and composition (p. 23).

I think the problem is this. The method of the grammatico-historical method is naturalistic: it searches for natural causes for the phenomenon of the text, natural explanations for this or that of its features. This methodological predisposition closes oneself off to divine causation, divine inspiration, and the divine capacity to speak through the text here and now as it is being read. It naturalizes the scriptures and in this way negates their nature as scripture, as divine text.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

What is Christianity?

My church is going to be having a baptism soon, so the last time I preached, I touched upon the subject of baptism as it is developed in Romans 6. There I saw that the reality of baptism includes a mysterious, mystical union with Christ, a union by virtue of which the baptized person dies to sin and comes alive to God in Jesus Christ. Just as Christ had incarnated and taken upon himself a human nature such as ours, and yet through his death and resurrection the power of sin within that nature was destroyed and defeated, so also we are united to Christ in baptism and experience to some extent that same victory over sin within us.

Now certainly there is the mystical element of baptism that Paul discusses in Rom 6. There is further the changes in identity which come along with baptism as it is discussed briefly in Gal 3.24-9. But perhaps for those to be baptized it is important to ask a more basic question: what is Christianity? If we are going to be baptizing persons to become Christians, we ought to have some kind of answer to the question of what this Christianity is into which they are being initiated through baptism.

If you listen to some persons talk, you might get the impression that Christianity is a set of rules to be obeyed until death so that you can win for yourself a favorable afterlife. You don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't chew, you don't go with girls that do, and you keep these and a number of other rules as best as you can. Then, when you die, if you were good enough, you will be allowed to enter into heaven and enjoy the rest of eternity in bliss and happiness.

Other persons talk about Christianity as if it were a system of beliefs and doctrines to be affirmed with rigid, immutable fidelity. If you are a Christian, you believe x, y, and z, and you reject as dangerously heretical everyone who denies these things. There is no room for discussion, no room for disagreement -- either you believe and you are saved, or you are not. Moreover, you cannot put too great an emphasis on what people do in order to be saved, because people can't be good anyway; the point is to believe.

I think both of these groups -- caricatures, I admit -- are mistaken. I think Christianity ought to be understood differently. I myself have a different understanding of Christianity. Furthermore I think all persons who are seeking baptism should be careful to understand Christianity properly, since the baptismal step they are taking is an important one. They are, by their own admittance, renouncing their former life and the deceits of the devil; they had better be doing this out of sincerity, less the event of their public baptism have been done in vain and become a spectacle. How do I understand Christianity, then?

Now I have been in seminary for a year now, and I have really been enjoying it. One of the things I've particularly enjoyed about my seminary education is the connection that I have with the other students. I did my undergraduate degree at Arizona State University studying philosophy, and one of the difficulties of that was the very arid, secular environment of the philosophy department. I was among the very few who were Christians, and most of the time I found I had very little in common with my fellow students. There was little to talk about with them, since we disagreed on more or less everything I thought was important. Our worldviews were wildly divergent. At Fuller, however, I am surrounded by persons who love Jesus Christ and who want to serve him, and this has proven to be a refreshment for my weary soul. I can talk about the important things with my fellow students, I can become real friends with them, we can pray for each other, and so on.

As I listen to the other students in the seminary tell about their lives and the course they took to arrive at Fuller, I find an important common denominator among many of them. They might have lived their entire lives as Christians, or else they might have been raised in thoroughly secular households only to become Christians later in life. Some of them went through periods of deep worldliness, promiscuity, drug abuse, generally irresponsible living, alcoholism, and the rest. Nevertheless they determined to go to seminary and wish to serve Jesus because they had a moment in which they realized: God loves me! Even me! They came to the realization that in spite of their past, in spite of the mistakes they had made when they were younger, in spite of troubling events which had previously disposed them to atheism (e.g., the early death of parents), and even in spite of their present failings, God loves them more than they can imagine, more than they love themselves.

To my mind this is precisely Christianity: the realization that God loves you, in spite of everything which has happened to you and everything you've done, and that this love finds its most complete expression in what God accomplished in Jesus Christ. There is no Christianity apart from the message -- both its expression and its acceptance on the part of the believer -- that God loves you, and that Jesus Christ shows you what this love looks like.

The Bible describes this love of Christ in many different ways. Consider the example of Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost: he tells his listeners that they put Jesus Christ to death (Acts 2.22-3), but they may repent and be baptized and receive the promised Holy Spirit (vv. 36-9). Now imagine what that means! God loves these persons so much: they kill Christ, the Son of God, and Peter nevertheless informs them that the promise of the Holy Spirit was for them; they, the deicidal who looked God square in the face in Jesus Christ and decided to kill him, they are promised the Holy Spirit of God who lives in their heart and deifies them! God takes the deicidal and deifies them even through their act of deicide -- that is the deep love of God!

This is a point that Christians have appreciated throughout the long history of Christianity. It has made its way into their literature. Consider Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, in which a Portugese priest under persecution XVII century Japan is forced to make a difficult choice: Japanese peasants will undergo extreme torture unto death unless he agrees to renounce his priestly work and 'apostatize' by placing his foot upon a wooden icon of the crucified Christ. He is not asked to renounce any beliefs, only to go through the motion of placing his foot on the icon and to cease his work as a priest. The struggles and tortures of the peasants audible, he lifts his foot over the icon and just at that moment, Christ speaks to him from the icon: "Trample! Trample! That's what I came into the world for, to be trampled upon by men."

This is the deep love of God in Jesus Christ. It is willing to be trampled and put to death so that you, a miserable sinner, can enjoy eternal life and fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Apart from this act of intervention and vicarious suffering, there would be no hope for you or for anyone; but because Christ has died for our sins, we can have life with God and escape the destruction of death. This is all because God loves us, as T.F. Torrance said, he loves us more than he loves himself, and he is willing to undergo loss for himself in order that we can gain everything.

Becoming a Christian is realizing that God loves you, and that this love is most completely expressed in what Jesus Christ accomplished for us. But if God loves us like this, what can be expected of us in return except to love God and other people with the same love? If God loved you so dearly, how can you be baptized apart from loving God so dearly as to be willing to die and be trampled upon for him? And if God loves the person next to you so dearly, how can you love God and hate the person whom God has made your brother or your sister?

Christianity, to my mind, is about love and love alone -- the love that God has for us, the love that transforms us and makes us love God and everyone else. When you are baptized, you are uniting yourself to that Jesus Christ who loved you so dearly, and you are simultaneously announcing to the world that you intend to love others in the same way. It means dying; it means being trampled; but it is what God demands, because that is what his nature is, to love.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Encounter with Jesus

I am taking a basic communications course this quarter in seminary. The first speech I had to deliver was one on an encounter of mine with Jesus. Here is a first manuscript of the speech. I did not deliver it exactly like this, but it was substantially the same.


Having attended Pentecostal churches my entire life, the notion of an experience with Jesus is hardly something foreign or strange to my ears. Countless Sunday mornings, the pastor would tell the congregation before his sermon, “I know that Christ is present here; we can all feel him here with us.” At the same time I am not sure I have particularly many experiences with Jesus of the sort that might impress my Pentecostal brethren; if I have, they don’t come to mind whenever I consider the question of experiences of Jesus. On the other hand, the shape that my understanding has been taking over the last year or two has begun to open me up to a different sort of experience with Jesus.

My time here at Fuller has been fascinating. I find my theological understanding to be developing and growing in ways that I might never have predicted before I began. Certainly a few years ago, while I was studying philosophy at Arizona State University, I would not have recognized myself as I am now, at least not in some important respects. One element of my understanding of God, Christ, and the church which has changed in recent times and which has become particularly important for me now concerns the nature of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.

At my Pentecostal church, and throughout my youth, I had heard and believed that what we do on the first Sunday of every month when we take participate in the Lord’s Supper is that we are reminding ourselves of his death for us. It’s a memorial. He is not present in any way in the elements set out before us; the bread stays bread, and the wine—or rather, the grape juice—stays as it is. All the magic is happening in our minds, if it is happening at all, as we are reminded of what Christ did for us. Moreover, we do it once a month because to do it too often makes it rote and ordinary and banal; it becomes a dry and dead ritual, rather than the life-giving experience it can be.

That was my understanding for a long time, but in recent history my mind has been changed. Don’t misunderstand: I am not quite a Roman Catholic; I don’t affirm that the bread and the wine are completely transubstantiated, but I do affirm that Christ is, in some mysterious way, present in the elements of the Eucharist. Paul says in 1 Cor 11.27 that “Whoever . . . eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” And earlier he says that the cup and bread we share are fellowship in the blood and body of Christ (10.16). There is the bread and the wine, but there is also the body and blood of Christ which are given for us.

This change in my understanding has had at least the following effect on me: every Sunday becomes a real, tangible encounter with Jesus. I know that this is not the answer you were expecting me to give to the speech prompt, but it is one that fits me. Every Sunday in which we partake of the Lord’s Supper is, as I understand it, a Sunday in which Christ has presented himself to us. And this presentation is a powerful one.

In some respect, I think of this encounter with Jesus as a particularly powerful and impressive one, because it involves all the senses. When you see the bread broken at the Fraction, you are reminded that Christ’s body was broken and split open by the whips, the reed with which they him over the head, the nails that pierced his hands and legs. When you see the wine poured out, you are reminded of his blood which was shed, which left his body and found its way to the earth. When you take the bread or the wafer into your mouth and you grind it with your teeth, you are reminded of the vulnerability of Christ and the breaking of his body. And in swallowing you take it in, you internalize this.

There is something to be said for the experience of Christ’s speaking into your heart a message straight from him; I think there is something to be said for those experiences. But for me, what has become particularly important is the reminder of Christ’s grace that I get at the beginning of every week. I am reminded of the tragedy that my sin brought, that Christ the Son of God should have to die, but also of the celebration of his goodness, because he gladly gives himself for me that I may live. And he presents himself to me every week to remind me of this – this is my encounter with Jesus.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Receiving the abundance of grace

One of the most explicit evidences of the doctrine of universal salvation in the bible is found in Paul's letter to the Romans, more specifically 5.18-9:

Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

It is clear that Paul's use of "the many" through the section spanning 5:12-21 is not intended to be understood exclusively, as if it meant "many but not all." The Greek phrase is οἱ πολλοί, hoi polloi, which we all know is a general way of referring to the masses of humanity. More specifically Paul intends to underscore the contrast between the actions of a single person ("the one") and their consequences for the rest of humanity ("the many"). Paul's language in these two particular verses, moreover, seems plainly to affirm that the universal deleterious effects of Adam's sin will be undone by a universally salutary act of obedience by Christ; hence universal salvation.

Now in research for a paper I will be writing for my New Testament Exegesis course, I came across a recent commentary on the letter to the Romans written by Colin G. Kruse (2012). In commenting upon this text he says:

Paul statement that ‘just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people’ would appear on first reading to imply that just as Adam’s trespass affected all people without exception, so also Christ’s righteous act likewise affects all people without exception, and in fact there are those who argue that this is what Paul intends.76 But this would be a misreading of the apostle, for already he has said that it is ‘those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness’ who will ‘reign in life’ (5:17, italics added). The ‘all people’ of the latter part of the phrase is best understood to mean all who receive the gift of grace, whether they are Jews or Gentiles (Kruse, Paul's Letter to the Romans, p. 251).

Kruse's escape, then, is that Paul implicitly qualifies his universal statements with the use of the word "receive" (λαμβάνοντες). Because this grace must be 'received,' consequently he does not mean that literally all persons will be saved.

This is a very weak counterargument, however, for which there are a number of compelling responses. In the first place, we may simply infer in the other direction that Paul means to imply that all persons will eventually receive this grace, rather than that some persons not receiving will not be transformed. On the other hand, I would also argue that this involves a misinterpretation of the word λαμβάνω as Paul uses it here. He is referring not to accepting but to receiving, to being given salvation rather than to taking a salvation offered.

Paul's emphasis here is on the passivity of humanity in the process of salvation. In the apostle's understanding, humanity -- while retaining a responsibility and culpability for its own sins -- is in an important way a victim of the mistake of Adam, the first man. His sin brought condemnation and death for the rest of them who came after him. In this condition of sin and death humanity can hardly be considered capable of accepting a salvation offered to it, especially one which contradicts the very tendencies typical of humanity's sinfulness. Humanity receives a deliverance that comes from without it, and it must be this way because of its incapacitated position. Paul speaks of humanity receiving because it is passive in this exchange.

Now precisely because humanity is in part a victim, even granting the responsibility it has for its own sins, it does not make sense to make autonomous acceptance of grace a condition of salvation. The condition from which this "autonomous" choice must be made is a sinful, fallen, corrupted one; that makes the choice in itself anomalous and an extreme rarity, if not an impossibility. Yet it would make no sense of Paul's earlier repeated phrase, "how much more", if not all those who inherit Adam's cursed condition are subsequently saved by Christ. Grace will not have abounded "that much more" unto life and justification and the rest if there remain some outside the domain of grace's effective saving operation.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The LORD our God, the LORD

From what I know, this is the most basic prayer of the Hebrew religion:

Hear o Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone (Deut 6.4).

If you are a Jew, this is the first thing you say when you get up at sunrise. (If you're a Christian, perhaps you recite this and then, crossing yourself, you say, "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever, amen.") This is what you say at night as you go to bed. The point is that this is a message you have got to get in your head; it's got to remain deeply embedded in your thinking about yourself and about the world. The LORD alone is your God: YHWH and no one else.

Of course, part of the reason why this has become such an important prayer is because the people of Israel, as the scriptures show us, were prone to go off in worship of other gods. This may not be so meaningful to us because we don't exactly feel the temptation to worship Baal or Molech -- at least, not in any explicit way. Truth be told, however, we tend to worship the old gods under a sanitized, secularized facade: pornography, money, sex, stuff, power, influence, and so on. These are all the old gods, though their temples are a bit differently constructed now.

I have read here and there that emphasis in the Hebrew language is accomplished through repetition. Consequently the point of repeating "the LORD" here is to single him out as the only God of Israel with emphasis. The LORD and no other; YHWH with no competitors; only and only the LORD is the God of Israel, and every other god be forgotten and dead! That is the point of the repetition.

I think it be a good practice for me to begin praying this one more often. I am not specially immune to idolatry any more than the next guy; if anything I am specially predisposed thereunto. In moments of temptation to sin of various sorts, when your eye is caught by something out of bounds, when you doubt and are confronted by struggles and travails, simply repeat: the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Gay Christians and celibacy

This article is particularly fascinating to me: "I'm a Gay Mormon Who's Been Happily Married for 10 Years." As you might imagine given its title, it is the confession of a gay man who has been in a straight marriage for ten years. He has children and his life together with his wife, including their sex life, has been happy. He is a therapist who has done graduate-level research on sexuality, and he interprets his own experience in light of his studies.

The author, Josh Weed, a family therapist, says that he is gay, which he explains thus:

I am sexually attracted to men. I am not sexually attracted to women. It is very simple. I have many, many years of experience which confirm this to be true, but it's really as simple as what a girl asked me in junior high—and I'm sorry if this is a little blunt, but I've never found a question that cuts to the heart of the matter more effectively—"so, if everyone in this room took off their clothes, would you be turned on by the girls or the guys?" My answer, which I didn't say out loud, was unquestionably the guys. And it was unquestionably not the girls. And that still is my answer.

Yet he is happily married to a woman, with whom he has fathered children, and whose relationship together has been a happy and healthy one. In fact he says that their sexual relationship is a happier one than many straight couples he knows. How can it be, though? How can he, being sexually attracted to males and unattracted to females, have a happy sexual relationship with his wife?

His answer is that sex at its best transcends physical attraction:

I didn't fully understand the answer to this question until I was doing research on sexuality in grad school even though I had been happily married for almost five years at that point. I knew that I was gay, and I also knew that sex with my wife was enjoyable. But I didn't understand how that was happening. Here is the basic reality that I actually think many people could use a lesson in: sex is about more than just visual attraction and lust and it is about more than just passion and infatuation. I won't get into the boring details of the research here, but basically when sex is done right, at its deepest level it is about intimacy…. the circumstances of our marriage allowed us to build a sexual relationship that is based on everything partners should want in their sex-life: intimacy, communication, genuine love and affection. This has resulted in us having a better sex life than most people I personally know. Most of whom are straight. Go fig.

So despite the lack of physical attraction to his wife, he has a happy life of intimacy with her because they love one another, they communicate with one another, they are share intimacy, and so on. These are the building blocks of a healthy marital relationship, in his experience, and they are what allow him, as a gay man, to live and love happily with his wife.

This article is particularly interesting for me because of its relevance to the contemporary discussion about gays in Christianity. On the liberal side, you have an affirmation of gay sexuality as accepted and approved by God, granted that it is sought within the right and proper circumstances of love and self-sacrifice and so on. On the conservative side, however, you have a rejection of gay sexuality as sinful, along with the recommendation that the gay person remain celibate. The story of Josh Weed, however, gives us an alternative: the gay person may be recommended a loving, straight relationship.

For myself, I affirm the conservative position that gay sexuality is sinful and inappropriate. At other times in the past I may have been more sympathetic to the liberal position but I don't think it is convincing any longer. On the other hand, in light of Josh Weed's testimony and example, I don't think it is necessary. If a gay person finds herself desirous of a loving and sexual relationship, same as any other human being would be, perhaps she ought to seek a relationship with the qualities of Josh Weed's relationship: one that is loving, intimate, affectionate, open (in terms of communication), and so on.

Of course, this sort of set-up perhaps requires a bit more work on the part of the partners than normal. At least in the case of the gay partner, there is no physical attraction to the other partner to motivate her to stay with this particular partner or to make the relationship desirable. Instead, she actually has to love the partner with whom she will be spending her life and sharing her bed -- a shock, I know. At the same time I wonder whether or not a relationship of this sort might not be substantially stronger than one obtaining among two straight partners, precisely for the fact that it is a deeper love than lust which is motivating them to be together.

A life of celibacy is a difficult thing, indeed. The Bible speaks about it as a gift that only some persons have. However, granting that the Bible does speak against gay sexuality, we need not understand, for that reason, that gay persons are condemned to involuntary celibacy. Josh Weed's story suggest that gay persons can live in happy, healthy sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex -- if their relationship is grounded in honesty with one another, love, affection, communication, and so on; in other words, if their relationship is a healthy one that goes beyond lust.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Participation in Christ: the cup and the baptism

When James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask him that they be seated at his right and left in his kingdom, his response is to question them: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? (Mark 10.38). They respond, of course, that they can. So he tells them: The cup that I drink you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized (v. 39).

Jesus is speaking about his sufferings, the 'cup' and 'baptism' of his crucifixion and sufferings. What he tells James and John, who were so eager to occupy positions of glory in Christ's kingdom, is that they are going to pass through sufferings and trials of this sort as well. They have their eyes on a seat of power and influence and glory, but Jesus warns them that what is coming is grave suffering and misery. As he said to the disciples on an earlier occasion, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" (v. 24); those who enter the kingdom receive houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions (v. 30).

Perhaps one of the most important metaphors for the process of Christian salvation is union with and participation in Christ; we are united with Christ and begin to participate in his recapitulation of human life. For instance, in baptism we are united to him in his death to sin and resurrection to life to God (Rom 6.5-11). But this union with Christ comes with good stuff and bad stuff, too, if I may put it that way. Union with Christ means union with the suffering Christ, who told us that entry into the kingdom of God is a difficult matter indeed: For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible (Mark 10.27).

Paul tells us in the letter to the Romans: When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness without our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ -- if, in fact, we suffer with him s that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8.15-7). Just as Christ first suffered and then inherited glory, so also Christians must first suffer in order to be welcomed into glory on the other side. Likewise Peter says to rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's suffering, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you (1 Pet 4.13-4).

If union with Christ and participation in Christ means suffering with Christ, then we should not be surprised when it happens to us. Of course, not all suffering is suffering with Christ; sometimes we suffer because we have done wrong (cf. 1 Pet 4.15), other times because we are stupid, and so suffer deservedly. But we should not have the illusion that the Christian life does not involve any suffering whatsoever, or that a Christian might not suffer even gravely, deeply, feeling as Christ did on the cross that God has abandoned him. The answer is to trust God in suffering just as Christ did:

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. . . . Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God's will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good. (1 Pet 2.23, 4.19)