Sunday Meditations: What Are We Doing?

Last week was an interesting week in the world of Blogs I Read.

On the exact same day, Kirk Leavens asked the question, “Has Christianity outlived its usefulness?” and Andrew Perriman wrote, “If the Bible is history, what are we supposed to do?”  Andrew’s blog wasn’t written to answer Kirk’s question, but they have interesting and complementary thrusts.

Kirk points out that, as Christianity has lost the traction Christendom provided, he observes a certain increasing commitment to authoritarianism, tribalism, and defensiveness that isn’t doing anybody any good, but those are now our primary characteristics, especially as they latch on to things like nationalism/racism.  If these are our primary “contributions” to the world, why even bother existing when we’re just making everything worse for everyone?

This is an extremely valid question.  I can’t speak for other countries, but in the USA, this is a big issue, and our non-Christian friends have picked up on this with a vengeance.  Rightly so, they point out that you can tie Christian commitments to many negative social forces.  Granted, there may be a tendency to overlook or minimize the positive social forces, but as Christians, this should not be an acceptable state of affairs.  We want to offer more than, “We’re not any worse than anyone else on balance.”

Kirk points out that one of the contributing factors to this is a view of life and Christian mission that is entirely spiritual.  All this other stuff like righting wrongs, healing hurts, etc. are all nice things but not really what the Church should be all about (so the story goes).  In fact, some evangelical leaders worry that such works are a distraction from the actual work of the Church, which is to save souls.

I’ll give the “saving souls” mission credit: it’s easy to understand and applies all the time in all contexts.  It also has the side benefit of isolating us from the powerful forces of evil at work in the world.  If people are starving to death, racked with disease, or treated unfairly because of their skin color, those are all regrettable things, but we should focus on getting souls saved until God supernaturally fixes all of this one day.

However, I’ve come to question the origins of this “mission” and the weight it receives in the biblical story.

It’s a hard thing to analyze very objectively, because once you have this mission in your head, it’s easy to find it in the biblical text.  If you start out with the belief that Jesus’ primary concern is people going to Heaven when they die instead of Hell, you can find plenty of Scriptural infrastructure for that.  And, of course, when you share your faith with someone, this is the framework you pass on, so they come to the Bible with the same framework already in place.

But I’ve come to the conclusion (for now) that, although we do see things in the New Testament’s agenda like spiritual conversion and questions of what happens to the faithful who die, these are notes in a much larger symphony.

For the bulk of the New Testament, the focus is on what will become of God’s people at a time in history when it seems like all the promises have failed.  The children of Abraham worship under a corrupt Temple power structure.  They are dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and under pagan dominion.  Most live lives of terrific poverty while land that had once belonged to their families is now the property of some wealthy Senator or Sadducee.  Israel has little time to pay attention to her God because she’s trying to live under this order of things and has turned to the kinds of things we all turn to when life is hard and we feel abandoned.

And this situation doesn’t happen to them overnight – it’s been going on for some time by the time we get to the New Testament.

It’s into this situation that God determines to save His people from their condition and sends Jesus to do it.  The plan is to convince Israel to trust God again and repent of her current ways of life, restore Israel’s faith(fulness), and overthrow the powers that currently dominate her and replace them with the line of David.

This is the critical situation the New Testament addresses.  How is God going about this?  What are the ramifications?  What’s going to happen to us as a result?  How should we live?  What should we hope for?  How do we understand what’s happening to us when it doesn’t look like victory is on the horizon?

All the key elements the New Testament lays out – a coming judgement, repentance, salvation, Jesus’ death and resurrection and exaltation, the coming of the Spirit, the inclusion of Gentiles, the hope of the age to come – all of these are developments in the story I just described.  They are best understood in the context of the concrete situation of the people of God in the first century.

But you may have noticed that my list of questions up there is remarkably similar to questions we might have as Christians in the West – perhaps even more so now that the cultural (and political) dominance of Christianity is fading into the distance.

We find ourselves, once again, as a people who are losing our power and our cultural centrality and respect.  While there are some exceptional bright spots, many of our leaders embody the worst of us and want to take everyone else with them.  We are losing numbers, not growing to fill the world (granted, this trend is reversed in other parts of the world, but it remains to be seen if secularism will simply stop at national borders).  We, who are the children of Abraham’s faith, look around us and see that not only are we not growing to fill the world, but discouragingly, there are many who do not share our faith who are doing a much better job at blessing the nations than we are.

And maybe that’s what this is all about.  Maybe we’ve been poor stewards of the cultural dominance we used to have.  Maybe we could have used that position to perform great acts of love and justice for our fellow man that would have been a shining beacon that manifested the will of our Creator in the world, but instead we became oppressors.  And now that’s being taken away from us.

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the situation addressed by the New Testament is extremely relevant to us these days, not all in the same concrete ways, but in principle if nothing else.  We’re on the fringes, now.  We’re the ones making our way through the world either by compromise with the values of power or by keeping our heads down under it.  We’re the ones becoming a minority.  We’re the ones being dominated by another world system.

And we have the same discouragement.  And the same questions.

And this is where Andrew’s list is so helpful.  He may have left out some things you think should be on there, or maybe you would have stated something differently, but he took our present situation and place in the story and asked what it meant to be the people of God at this time in history and came up with, what I think, is a pretty good list worthy of meditation and discussion.

Maybe it’s time for us to repent of what our forefathers did with their power when they had it.  Maybe we’re supposed to lose it, at least for a time, for our own good and the good of the rest of the world.  Maybe the active ethics we see in our counterparts of other religions (and no religion at all) are meant to challenge us – to remind us of what we could have been and what we might yet be.  Maybe all these things around us are a catalyst for a reformation where our hearts turn back to God and we embrace, again, our calling in the world, which is not to be right or be powerful or win but to be a blessing to the nations.

I’m discouraged, too.  But I’m excited.

Sunday Meditations: The Bible and the Myth of Julius Caesar

Every so often, when I talk about the hurdles to understanding the Bible, I refer to the plays of William Shakespeare.

The reason for this is that we all acknowledge that, when it comes to Shakespeare, we usually need a little help.  Yes, someone can read Shakespeare’s plays without knowing anything about Shakespeare or the plays and get benefit from them, maybe even insight.  But we all agree that, if you really want to get the most out of a Shakespearean play, we usually need a little help understanding what’s going on.

Why is this?  Because the language is from the sixteenth century, which makes it a challenge even for English speakers.  Also, we are unfamiliar with many of the idioms, jokes, and references of the time.  We’re unfamiliar with the historical circumstances.  We may be unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s sources.  There are these large, contextual gaps between us and Shakespeare, and we’re talking about documents written four hundred years ago in English by an English man.

We all realize how much help we need to really get something out of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet we think an English translation of a collection of Hebrew and Greek documents written in the Near East 2000 – 2500 years ago is instantly intelligible to anyone who picks it up.

There are other ways the analogy of Shakespearean plays can help us understand the Bible, and one of these is the play “Julius Caesar.”

First of all, Shakespeare is not making all of this up, but he also was not present for the events he writes about.  He’s working from a source – Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (which is also working from sources).  While some of the biblical writings were written by people who were present for the events they describe, many were not.  The authors worked from stories, traditions, and other writings.

Second, Shakespeare does not stay strictly with the source material.  He dramatizes conversations.  He changes some details for effect.  He combines two Battles of Philippi into one.  He changes locations (once to avoid having to create another set).  He does these things because his goal is not to present a raw sequence of events as we might see them on videotape of what happened to Julius Caesar.  His goal is to produce a play.  It’s a story that is meant to communicate themes that Shakespeare wants the audience to encounter.

So, we do not accuse Shakespeare of fraud, here, or all the material in the play of being something he just made up.  It was never Shakespeare’s intent to produce a bio-pic.  Julius Caesar was a real person and the events in the play are essentially what happened to him, but there’s a degree of license taken with “the facts” for the purposes of communication.

Third, and this is the main point of this post, is that what Shakespeare has done is presented us with a myth.

I don’t mean “myth” in the careless sense we sometimes use it to mean “something wholly untrue.”  Disturbingly, we typically contrast “myth” and “fact,” where myth is a pervasive story or belief that is untrue versus fact which is what’s real.

I mean “myth” much closer to its ancient sense, which is a story that is more concerned with communicating a true meaning than reporting true facts.

In “Julius Caesar,” we are given insight into a much larger struggle in both the characters of Caesar and Brutus.

On the one hand, we have Caesar who has defeated the sons of Pompey.  Flush with victory over his political and military rival, he hungers for the crown of Rome, but even moreso, he hungers for the approval of the people and is enraged to discover they do not want him as their ruler.

On the other hand, we have Brutus, who could arguably be the main character.  Brutus is Caesar’s friend, but he fears Caesar may abuse his power, and the other conspirators (who are killing Caesar for financial and political gain) use this to lure him into the conspiracy.  He struggles powerfully between feelings of duty, love, patriotism, and loyalty.

Looming over all is the spectre of chaos as Rome’s leadership descends into a cauldron of violence and squabbling.

Shakespeare is not interested in creating a chronicle of the details of Caesar’s assassination.  Shakespeare wants the audience to experience what all this means.  By focusing on that level, by crafting a true myth of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare pulls his audience into the event.  We may not have been there for the assassination, but we very well may have observed these same powerful forces at work in our own leaders, or perhaps they have been at work in our own heart, and thus the play becomes both something we can identify with and a warning for us if we do not untangle these knots in our own situation.  The play becomes both powerful and useful for the people who read it, not just a presentation of facts.

And it is not unlikely that Shakespeare was thinking of England at exactly that time as an aging Queen Elizabeth had refused to name someone to take the crown.  Perhaps it is not just an accident of budget that Caesar is wearing an Elizabethan doublet in the play and not a toga.

It is not in spite of, but precisely because, Shakespeare has given us a myth of Julius Caesar that the play can continue to speak to our hearts and be useful to us as we contemplate ourselves and our leaders, today.  Yes, we have to reframe the meanings for our context.  The leaders of America are not Roman Caesars (right?) or English queens.  Their allies are not people who have received forged letters from Senators inspiring them to conspiracy (uh, right again?).  But what happened to Caesar as Shakespeare presents it to us can be used to understand and perhaps be of some help in our present situation, and this is the power of operating at the mythological level.

Perhaps the power of Scripture is lessened if we strip everything out to get at the “real history” behind it, as interesting as that might be to historical studies.  But perhaps the power of Scripture is also lessened if we treat it as though it is a factually perfect history book interested primarily in factual news reporting.

Perhaps the power of Scripture to pull us into its world, speak to our hearts, and provide us usefulness in our present situation and for generations to come, lay in its character as myth.

A true myth.

Sunday Meditations: Unbelievable

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read two books that share a title.  Each of these books was written by Christians, but they approach the subject in very different ways.

The first book is Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley, bearing the subtitle: Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.  The second is Unbelievable by Bishop John Shelby Spong, with a slightly different tack for the subtitle: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.

You can tell the influence of the Puritans on American theology by the fact that you have to cram your book’s entire thesis into the subtitle.

Justin Brierley is a brother in the UK who, for ten years, has been running a radio show (also called “Unbelievable?”) that pairs Christians and atheists to discuss various topics.  Not every show features a big, famous name, but whatever names you might recognize from Christian theologians and apologists or notable atheist authors and speakers that have produced works about Christianity, they have probably ended up on the show at some point.  (For you young folks out there, a radio is a device that detects audio transmitted via “radio waves” that are broadcast from large antennae.  Your “radio” device picks up these waves and translates them back into sound.)

I have to say, I love this project, and it’s available via podcast for those of you who don’t live in the UK and/or have no concept of what a radio is or how you might get hold of one.

One of my friends who is an atheist of the New variety used to hold a small gathering at his house that was very similar – a small group of Christians and a small group of atheists would assemble on his patio to talk about stuff.  It wasn’t topically structured or anything, but the conversations were still good and generally congenial.  So, I had a lot of warmth in my heart for Justin’s stories about his experiences facilitating these kinds of things in radio.  Honestly, if more thoughtful, kind Christians just spent time chatting with thoughtful, kind atheists, I think both parties would end up with a lot more thoughtful, kind regard for one another and their positions, and the world would be a better place.

The book is organized by topic: God, Jesus, Original Sin, Miracles, Resurrection, etc.  Each topic has some stories about how this topic played out in discussions on the radio show.  They also describe the points that have been most meaningful to Justin on that topic as well as the more common objections raised to those points and how Justin has thought through those.

I’m not sure this book would be an onslaught of unanswerable points for anyone, and the author says as much.  People who are looking for books to buy their atheist friends to convince them (BTW: If this is you, we need to talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish and why you think buying books is the way to do it.) may not find this to be the book.  I think about this book more along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  It’s more of a thoughtful, armchair articulation of the Christian view of various things in a defensible, thought-provoking way, but not with the rigor of thoroughgoing argumentation.

Personally, I enjoyed the stories about the radio show.  The author has a lot of warmth for both the atheist and Christian guests he’s talked with over the years, and you can tell he’s not gone unchanged from the conversations.  The book was inspirational to me on that point.  It affirmed what my own experience has borne out, that a lot of good conversation can happen within the context of mutual respect and people who believe walking away on friendly terms may be more important than rhetorically destroying the other person.  After all, Christians and atheists have to share a planet, and Christians in particular have a biblical mandate to be at peace with everyone and supply their reasons for hope with gentleness and respect.  Wouldn’t it be great if people could disagree and honestly and passionately express themselves without letting their brains treat the discussion as a threat to their survival?

It was also interesting to me some of the theological positions the author put forward, which I believe may have been influenced by his dialogues with atheists.  For example, he does not have a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis and, although he does not explicitly state this, seems to be operating from an evolutionary understanding of the development of life.  He obviously holds to a Big Bang view of beginnings and has some interesting things to say about how it was originally a theistic argument and was labelled the “Big Bang” by atheist detractors.  He does explicitly express that he is an annihilationist, and I appreciated this because – mostly due to getting more in touch with the first century world and early Jewish theology – I’m in that neighborhood, myself.

If you’re a Christian and you enjoy books like Mere Christianity, I think you’d enjoy this book as well.  Frankly, I think it’s worth a read if it helps Christians be more respectful and thoughtful about atheists and atheism.  If you’re an atheist, you might enjoy the book as well on similar grounds, and maybe Justin will point out a thing or two you haven’t run across, before, but again, this is not really a rigorous defense of Christianity.  You might find interesting the stories he tells of people who were atheists who found reasons to convert.

Bishop Spong’s book is organized very similarly to Bierley’s book – the chapters are topical and based on fundamental points of Christian doctrine.  In contrast to Bierley, Spong argues that each of these points simply are no longer viable for contemporary Christians to actually believe and, therefore, must be reformulated into more believable versions.

I was actually excited for this project.  People who know me or who have read this blog for a long time know that I’m not really a fan of most evangelical theological beliefs and formulations, although mostly on exegetical grounds.  I also have an avid interest in how Christians should act and speak in an increasingly secular West that actually does good, helps people, and is intelligible and winsome in that world.  I think that Spong is correct that the Church cannot simply state sixteenth century dogma in a world where empiricism and the scientific method have shown us so much truth about our world and has made at least a very highly-literalized way of understanding the Bible somewhat untenable.

But although I was warm to the project, I was fairly unimpressed with the execution.

Spong generally begins each section with the reasons a given Christian point of doctrine (again, organized into things like God, Jesus, the Virgin Birth, etc.) is “unbelievable” in its traditional form.

There is good information in there, and I don’t want to give the impression that everything about it is poorly thought through.  In fact, much of it is worthy of Christians who are trying to be intellectually honest to grapple with.  However, he also does two things that make me crazy when critiquing traditional Christian thought.

One is knowing enough history to make a criticism but not enough to get it right.  You only need to check out the plethora of New Atheist memes to see this phenomenon in action.  Jesus is a recycling of the Horus (or Baldur or Mithras or Ra) legends.  Jesus is a “dying and rising god” of which there are many.  Romans kept meticulous records and we don’t have a record of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Christians destroyed the library at Alexandria.  The Church killed cats in Europe and that contributed to the spread of the Plague.  And on and on.  All common critiques, all wrong.  That’s not to say Christianity doesn’t have its historically critique-able episodes – it absolutely does – but in the zeal to critique it, it’s easy to get the history wrong and subscribe to either a very shallow account of events or total fabrications.

For Spong’s part, especially given the thesis of the book, he depends some on the Conflict Thesis – the idea that the Church and science have historically been at odds with Christianity using its cultural and political power to actively suppress science until recently.  This is so wrong that atheists are calling out other atheists on it (as well they should, just as Christians interested in speaking the truth should call out other Christians when we misrepresent history and not leave it up to the atheists to do that job for us).  But it’s this sort of surface-y understanding of history that gets used at times to present why Christian doctrines are suspect.

The second thing that makes me crazy is closely related, and that’s being uncritical about critique.  If it calls a traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine into question, Spong will cite it as absolute truth.  Christianity does not get the benefit of a doubt, and the sources of the criticism do not get subjected to the same scrutiny.  This cropped up a number of times where “biblical scholarship” allegedly undid the viability of a doctrine, but that scholarship itself was highly debatable.

Another area where this happened was his marshaling of Judaism.  I am all about bringing the Jewish understanding of things to how we understand the Scriptures.  Spong has long had an active collaboration with the Jewish community, and I have no doubt he knows more about contemporary Jewish theology than I do.  However, he will tend to cite a contemporary (and usually more progressive) Jewish view on something as if that is how an author or original reader of Scripture would have understood that same concept, and then use that to demonstrate that our traditional readings are incorrect – as if the views of the rabbis that he knows were the views of an Old Testament writer or Second Temple Judaism.

For instance, Spong talks about how Jesus’ death shouldn’t be understood as an atonement for sin because Judaism did not understand sacrifice as an atonement for sin, but rather an offering to God of our full potential as human beings.  From my own readings of early rabbinical writings, I feel fairly confident this was not at all an early Jewish understanding of sacrifice.  It may very well be a strain of contemporary Jewish thought on the meaning of Old Testament sacrifices, but it would be inaccurate to take that contemporary Jewish theological outlook, project it back into the first century or beyond, and go, “See?  We’ve never understood this correctly.”

Not everything in the book suffers from those criticisms, but they are thoroughly marbled in with the material that does not.  So, you have to be sort of discerning when going through the critical portions of the book, and my fear is that people who perhaps do not know history, biblical scholarship, or the progression of Jewish theology very deeply will simply take his word for it and consider the state of Christian belief to be very dire, indeed, not realizing that a fair amount of the critique is suspect.

Then, each chapter moves on to Spong’s recommendations for the reformulation of the doctrine under examination.  This was at the same time the most thought-provoking part of the book as well as the least compelling.

For instance, Spong offers that we should stop thinking of God in traditionally theistic terms – an omniscient, omnipotent person – and instead think of God as the ground of existence, itself.  In other words, God is existence.  God is being.  When we look at a lion or a rock or another person, we should see God there because those things exist and that principle of being is God.

To some of you, that may sound silly, but not to me.  The fact is that anything existing at all is highly improbable, and yet, here we are.  There have been many religions and philosophies that have posited that God to some degree or another is embodied in the physical universe that exists.  It builds our respect for all created things and underscores our connection with them.  Further, by relieving God of actual personhood, we’ve just crossed off some of the greatest objections to the existence of God like the problem of evil.  Why does God allow suffering?  God doesn’t allow or disallow anything, because God is the ground of all that exists, not a being interacting with it.

Furthermore, this way of defining God makes sense to a secular West currently in a love affair with positivistic empiricism.  How do I know God exists?  Well, you exist, right?  Things exist, right?  There you go.  God is the fact of that existence.

And, honestly, I’m very sympathetic to thinking of that as an aspect of God.  All our understandings of God are analogies, anyway, and a lot of trouble comes from a concept of a God who is basically just like us except all-powerful, all-knowing, and gooder.

But to exhaustively define God this way seems to carry its own problems, not the least of which being that… there’s no particular reason to define God this way other than personal preference.  And this is my basic problem with most of Spong’s recommendations.  There’s nothing to recommend those recommendations except for the fact that Spong came up with them and they are more amenable to a secular worldview.

Virtually all the world’s religions testify to a concept of the divine that somehow has knowledge of the world and interacts with it in some way, even if it’s just thoughtful regard.  And these testimonies continue.  If Spong is correct, then I have to write off all that testimony as not just flawed or limited but actually completely fictional – every last account.  I’m not even just talking about the Bible, here, although obviously the Bible becomes completely incomprehensible if we think of the God who appears in those stories as the bare fact of existence.  At that point, I’m not exactly sure what value there is in even positing this as God at all.  Why not just say, “Isn’t it amazing that anything exists?  Existence is great, and I feel a strong kinship with everything that shares existence with me?”  That would make you a fine person who probably did many ethical and caring things for your fellow man and also an atheist – atheism, by the way, also circumvents many of the philosophical problems with God’s existence.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to redefine Christianity solely in terms that are amenable to a materialistic way of understanding the universe, and that redefinition is just coming from your own preferences, anyway, what are you getting out of that enterprise?  The dedication to Jesus’ social message?  You can do that, anyway.  The ability to claim that you’re a Christian and Christianity is now demonstrably correct?  I guess I just don’t care enough about claiming victory for that to be worthwhile.

So, anyway, I’m not sure what audience I’d recommend Spong’s book to.  Atheists will read it and go, “Well, yes, this is all stuff I agree with.  Not sure why I need to tie it to Christian categories,” and Christians will read it and either wonder similar things or, if they buy into the project, construct a Christianity that – at least to me – doesn’t seem to have a reason to be.  You can be a principled, caring atheist full of wonder at the universe and even acknowledge that there are mysterious aspects of human experience; there’s no need to dress materialism up as Christianity so you can continue to maintain that you’re a Christian.  I mean, why would you do that?

And that may be my failure as a reader.  Obviously, Spong is a smart man and a spiritual man and has his reasons, and the fact that I cannot divine them (no pun intended) may be an indication of my own prejudices.  I did enjoy the challenging ways of thinking about these topics and even found some thought-provoking points that made me think I ought to incorporate some of those insights into my own thoughts about these topics, but I didn’t find the overall mission of the book to be a compelling solution to the problem it was trying to solve.

Anyway, two books that both confronted the idea that Christian belief has become unbelievable in the contemporary world and took very different paths as a result.  Surprisingly, to myself, I found myself more impressed with the evangelical apologist.

Sunday Meditations: What to Do with Bible Knowledge

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I’d been thinking about our/my overestimation of the value of knowledge about the Bible and its contents.  Knowledge about the Bible’s contents, its historical context, the languages, exegesis, hermeneutics – these things are just not the big deal we tend to make them in the West.  There are several things the Bible itself holds up as more valuable than knowledge and even has its fair share of warnings that knowledge carries a serious – nearly inevitable – danger of producing pride.  Yes, pride: a top-tier sin in its own right that gives birth to innumerable others.

This has been an uncomfortable phase of my journey because I have a lot of identity, self-worth, and ego wrapped up in knowing and teaching stuff about the Bible.  For most of my life, it’s the main asset I’ve had to offer the church.  When I’d read Paul’s analogy of the church as a body, I’d think of myself as an eye or an ear, and I’d take care to make sure I wasn’t devaluing some “elbow” or “spleen” gift like encouragement or helping.

Well, joke’s on me.  Turns out that Paul doesn’t stop thanking saints who were an encouragement or helpers, but he never includes in his letters, “And give my thanks to Argus, who shared so many insightful facts about the Old Testament to so many of you.”  And if declaratory gifts are your thing, Paul holds out prophecy as a high gift to desire.

It turns out that doing the works the Father is doing is more important than knowing things about what the Father has done.

So, I’ve been thinking through this a lot, because knowing the Scriptures and being able to communicate that knowledge to others has value.  It may not be the peak of the mountain we’ve sometimes made it out to be, but it’s still part of helping the Church accomplish her mission.

This meditation is not about the value of personal Bible study or sermons; that’s a different topic.  Rather, I want to explore what it means for someone to be gifted in the study and teaching of the Bible and what benefits they can bring to the Church with that gift.

I should say at the outset that, like pretty much all of the Sunday Meditations (and probably everything on this blog), this is just me working through this issue.  I hope it’s useful to you.  You can probably think of things that I haven’t or even better things than I have, and I hope so.  If you know how to get in touch with me, I’d like to hear them and learn from you.

Making the Bible Strange Again

You know how easy it is to “peg” someone, right?

Let’s say you have a co-worker at your job as a bank teller – we’ll call him Joe (sorry, Joe).  You’ve worked in the booth next to Joe for a year, now, and the thing that stands out the most to you about Joe is that he has no patience with customers who aren’t ready to be helped.  If they have to fumble around to find their checkbook (people still use their checkbooks for things, right?  I feel like I’m losing control of this analogy) or don’t have their account number and ID ready when they get to his booth, he becomes very curt and snappy with them until they leave.  That’s Joe – the guy who get’s all crabby with people who delay him.

Because Joe is the “crabby with slow customers” guy, that framework you have in place for perceiving Joe makes it almost impossible for him not to be that guy.  Every time he’s crabby with a slow customer, you chalk that up as evidence that Joe is who you thought he was.  Every time he just deals normally with a slow customer, you won’t even see it.  It doesn’t register on your radar because it doesn’t get caught in your framework.  Maybe Joe is only crabby with 60% of slow customers.  Or 40%.  Or 10%!  But every instance where he is consistent with your expectations reinforces those expectations, and every instance where he is not tends to be dismissed.

If you are a Christian in the West, chances are you “knew” what the Bible “said” before you’d even read any of it.  If you grew up in the faith, then you were passed down child-sized stories and teachings (maybe even with Flannelgraph).  If you converted later in life, someone probably explained the Bible’s message to you.  In both cases, you were probably exposed to actual Scripture, but you weren’t exposed to it outside of someone’s summary of its teachings, which they passed along to you.  You had it pegged.

When you already know what the Bible says, it’s incredibly difficult to hear it.  Things that fit the framework add to it, strengthen it, and flesh out the details, but things that don’t fit the framework tend to slide on by.

Note, I’m not talking about having the “right” framework.  The issue of our interpretations being corrected is a different issue than what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is the ability to even hear something the Scriptures have to say because our existing familiarity with the Scriptures screens out the other stuff as irrelevant.

Take, for example, the book of Romans and the infamous Romans Road to Salvation.  You may notice that the Romans Road leaves out a passage or two from the book of Romans.  In fact, it leaves out virtually all of the book of Romans, instead constructing a theology from a half dozen verses.

Granted, part of this is due to the time constraints envisioned by someone sharing the gospel.  But I would also offer that part of this is that the vast majority of the book of Romans is irrelevant to a narrative about individual sin and reconciliation with God.  It’s not that those things aren’t in there, but saying the book of Romans is about how an individual gets right with God is like saying a symphony orchestra is about the woodwinds.  But, if you know what Romans is “about,” then Paul’s comments about Jews and Gentiles are just not relevant to anything really meaningful, and the examples involving Abraham are kind of weird, and so on.

I believe that Christians today have a hard time truly hearing God speak through the Scriptures because they already know what He has to say to them.  The Scriptures are familiar.  We don’t even have to crack a Bible open to tell you the gist.

People who know the Bible in-depth, though, know that this collection of writings is complex and strange.  Such people are in a position to shake up the pre-existing narrative – not for the purposes of destruction or looking smart, but for the purpose of helping people read with fresh eyes and listen with fresh ears.  You are in a position to gently, lovingly, cause people to second guess.  There are even new translations of the Bible that are being specifically written to use uncommon words and turns of phrase to provoke people into engaging the reading instead of being on autopilot.

Maybe they don’t know what the Bible is saying, here, or at least shouldn’t assume that.  Maybe the Greek doesn’t lend itself well to the standard way of reading a text.  Maybe the historical circumstances around a text make it unlikely an author is talking about what we see when we read it.  Maybe this obscure, weird little passage actually throws the whole chapter into a different light.  When you take away the safety of the familiar (again, slowly with love and gentleness), people have to reengage these Scriptures and are actually in a position to hear them.  It generally takes someone with a good degree of Bible knowledge to facilitate this.

Making the Bible Familiar Again

Being a Jew in the first century was no guarantee that you’d understand Jesus.  We sometimes talk about knowledge of Second Temple Judaism as if it’s the Rosetta Stone for finally understanding Jesus rightly.  But the narratives of the Gospels and Acts demonstrate for us that this is not the case.  A listener had to approach Jesus in humble faith, and God would open their eyes and ears to understand.  A fisherman might understand a great mystery about Jesus that eluded the Torah scholars of the day.

At the same time, it can’t be stressed enough how much foundational influence the historical context of a writing has on its contents.  Jesus’ disciples spoke the same language, traveled together through the same towns, attended the same religious services, had the same day to day elements of life, lived under the same government, experienced the same newsworthy events, small talked about the same circumstantial and environmental kinds of things that we talk about with our co-workers, and generally shared all the same foundations for communication and understanding.

We, as an audience, are very distant from all of those things, but all those things form the basis for understanding the way people of a time talked to each other.

Consider the plays of William Shakespeare.  When the audiences of his time saw his plays, they understood the turns of phrase.  They understood the people and things he was parodying.  While there may have been some wit or some particularly poetic expression that a common audience might have trouble with, everyone who saw one of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have trouble for the most part knowing what was being said and what was going on.  Why?  Because that was the way they also talked.  The people and institutions Shakespeare parodied were people and institutions they were familiar with.  His way of communicating via drama was conditioned by and for 16th-17th century England.

By contrast, we often have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s plays without any help.  If you just grabbed some random people and took them to see “Hamlet,” they might pick up the gist, but a lot of the communication would pass them by.  The language seems arcane to us.  The historical people and places back of Shakespeare’s critiques are not part of our day to day world.  It would be like people in the year 2500 watching a “Saturday Night Live” skit about Sean Spicer; what meaning would such a thing have to them without any explanation?

Shakespeare’s plays are documents that were produced only four hundred years ago by an Englishman for England.  I’m an American, and Americans, today, still need a lot of help understanding those texts.  How much more so, then, do we need help understanding documents produced in the Near East millennia ago?  How is it that Shakespeare or Sartre or Freud are difficult texts to work with, but the Bible is a straightfoward, simple collection of documents that can be understood just like reading the newspaper?

People with Bible knowledge can help bridge this communication gap.  It doesn’t mean we can dictate that communication, but it does mean we can help communication be possible.

For example, in the first act of “Hamlet,” two guards meet each other.  One of them challenges, “Who’s there?” and the other responds, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”

If you didn’t know anything about older versions of English or Shakespeare’s world, the second guard’s response probably seems very weird.  He makes the same sound a horse makes, and then he tells the other guard to “unfold” himself like a contortionist.  If that’s all I had to go on, I’d probably come up with a very unique interpretation of that line.

But someone who was more familiar with the forms of communication in Shakespeare’s day could explain that “Nay” means “no” and “unfold yourself” was a phrase meaning “reveal yourself.”  She might also explain that guards did not have walkie-talkies or IDs, so if visibility were poor, this sort of situation might easily take place where two guards did not recognize each other at first and had to figure out if there was a threat.  And, sure enough, subsequent lines of text show that it’s late at night.

Now, that information does not dictate to me all the things I might glean out of that passage, but now communication is possible.  Now I know what I need to know to be able to read those lines closer to the original audience and get a better grasp on what Shakespeare was trying to do, there.

I think Bible scholars are in a position to help the Church come further across that bridge.  It’s not the same thing as telling someone what they can and can’t get out of a passage, and it’s not the same thing as telling someone their view is wrong, but it clarifies important contextual information and clues that can help an ancient passage communicate to us – information that is available through knowledge of the time.  This is an obstacle the earliest believing communities only had to leap for Old Testament writings, and even then, they still had some cultural continuity with the original authors.  We have to leap it for everything, and depending on who you are, you may have exactly zero cultural continuity with the original authors.

Bible scholars can help light the path for us.  We still have to walk it ourselves and make it our own journey, and we may even decide to hack our way through some bushes instead of going down the paved road, but the illumination is helpful.

Bringing Knowledge of the Way

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

 

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)

 

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:10-17 (NRSV)

I love that Nehemiah 8 passage.  For all the times I’ve seen “the joy of the Lord is your strength,” quoted, I’ve never seen it quoted in reference to the grief or fear one feels when they realize how far short they fall of God’s requirements, which is exactly what happens in the original context.

Nehemiah and Ezra are helping Israel understand the Law.  As a result, the Israelites are grieved at how disobedient they’ve been.  These Torah scholars tell these people, in essence, “Hey, what are you upset about?  Now you understand how to live in a way that pleases God!  This is a day of celebration!”  These scholars help the people understand, not just the content of the Scriptures, but also give them some healthy perspective.  The people had interpreted the Law as simply pointing out how terrible they were, but Nehemiah and Ezra helped them see that this information was actually a reason to rejoice in what their lives could look like going forward instead of wallowing in the past.

The Scriptures say of themselves that they are useful for teaching and reproof and correction and training in righteousness for the end purpose that all the people of God would have what they need to do good works.  In 2 Timothy, Timothy is the guy facilitating that.

Timothy is supposed to know and understand information about what Jesus has done so that he might guide his congregation into a proper way of life – a way of life that is defined and incarnated by Jesus our King.

On the one hand, Paul is very clear that the Spirit is who gets us where we need to go, ethically.  This is the crux of Paul’s message to the Galatians – why would you turn to the Torah to keep its obligations that will only curse you when you have the Spirit who will lead you in the ways of the life of the ages to come?

On the other hand, Paul knows by practical experience that the Spirit doesn’t force someone into right behavior, and for all kinds of reasons, people will still pursue a way of life suited to their fleshly desires and even construct doctrine to help them do it.

People need the freedom to be led by the Spirit, but they also need help in being brought back to center when they start pursuing the paths of their desires and ego, and being brought back to center is really about bring them back to Jesus – the living Word.  The Scriptures are a way to do this.

Does this mean Bible teaching is only about ethics?  Well, no.  If all of this was about the list of things we should do and the list of things we should avoid, that could have probably been done in a single writing.  No, the biblical writings bring us the story of God’s relationship with His people through history, and this story is a fully-orbed, incarnate story that describes the creation and re-creation of worlds and worlds within worlds in which Jesus is a watershed moment.  We don’t just figure out what we’re supposed to do, but we learn things about who God is and what His intentions are for the world and how we fit into that.  We learn about what values are important, what our thoughts should be, the disposition of our heart, and, yes, our practice and how all of that is derived from and pointing to what God Himself is doing, displayed for us in widescreen surround-sound by Jesus Christ.

But the sticking point is that the goal of all this is not to possess and affirm correct information.  Demons possess and affirm correct information.  The goal of this information is to be useful in producing a people that God wants who is instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that God wants – to wit, a divine and earthly family where the true God is known by all and our unity and love with one another is a reflection of the unity and love we enjoy with the Father.

This is action.  This is being.  You do not love if you are not doing loving things.  The knowledge we acquire equips us for the purpose of doing the Father’s work in the world.  There is a connection between knowing rightly and acting rightly, but the knowledge is in service to producing a people who are what God wants doing the things God wants done.

This knowledge that equips comes from our special stories of the past.  Historically, the things that the Bible describes are, for the most part, events that have long gone by.  But they are revelatory of the things we need to know and they form a trajectory that keeps us moving in the right direction – ultimately a trajectory that leads us to and is defined by Jesus Christ, who should be the point of exaltation of any spiritual pronouncement.

This is, perhaps, what it means for a scribe trained for the kingdom to bring new treasures out of old.  Not that we are to slavishly confine ourselves to what has gone before in every jot and tittle, but that we use that knowledge to understand who we are, how we got here, and where we need to be going.  The Scriptures should not blind us to what God is doing in our day, but rather help us understand it and take part in it.  They should help us understand our world.  Their events should become our events, and we should find ourselves in those stories even as we bring those stories forward into our present circumstances.

This sort of thing, I think, is a noble and valuable goal for those who have been gifted with knowledge of the Bible.

Sunday Meditations: On Interpretation and Being Smart in General

Imagine with me an elderly widow of a Christian congregation.  Every morning, she meets with other widows for a cup of tea and prayer over the sufferings of the people they know and shared by others in the world.  She volunteers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to help take care of children at an orphanage.  Although she lives in a small apartment, she invites students over on holidays who have nowhere else to go and cooks a meal for them.  She has a small sofa that folds out into a bed that she frequently offers to people who need a place to stay due to some traumatic experience, and that bed has held everyone from foster children needing short-term care to visiting preachers to families evicted from their apartments.

She has never gotten any awards for any of this.  Her name has never been announced from the pulpit, nor does it appear as the head of any committees or in the bulletin or newsletter, anywhere.  She just quietly serves with what she has.

Now, imagine that same woman being lectured in Sunday School by a young man about how grossly she has misinterpreted a Bible verse about “humility.”

As ironic as such a thing sounds, that scene and scenes very much like it play out in churches all over America.  I have no doubt that, especially in my youth, I have taken center stage in such scenes.

The irony is, of course, that this woman understands humility.  She literally embodies it.  She gives humility skin and bones.  She is a walking sermon in humility and her life is a program of instruction – an intensive series of courses on walking humbly.  The young man who “knows the Bible” needs to learn from her what humility means.  Whatever skill or knowledge he might possess in exegesis or the context of texts has done nothing but make him proud and blind to the fact that, for all the hours he spent on the Greek morphology of the text, he might have invested in a friendship with this widow and learned more of godliness than he ever could have in his own reading – godliness that is etched on that lady’s bones.

One of the more uncomfortable realizations I have had over the last few years is how little value “Bible knowledge” has both to me as an individual and in the consistent life and witness of the Church.  That is not to say such knowledge is not valuable, but rather that its actual value is often far out of proportion to the value we place on it in the American church.

This realization is very uncomfortable for me because it’s one of the few aspects of faith that I’m any good at and largely defines what I have to offer a body of believers.  It’s very uncomfortable to sign up for the pot luck with grand thoughts of dishes that will make everyone “ooh” and “aah” and then realize that you’re the one bringing the bags of ice.  Yes, everyone can use the ice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the centerpiece you thought it was.  And, funny thing, if you failed to bring the ice, somehow people would still benefit from the host who was providing the water.

On the way to worship this morning, it occurred to me that I may possess the least of all spiritual gifts – the spiritual gift of knowing stuff.  If you read the New Testament for any length of time, you will discover that the spiritual gift of knowing stuff is not held in very high regard – at least the type of knowing stuff that comes from study and intellectual rigor.

The New Testament is not against study or intellectual rigor and, in fact, illustrates the place for this among the Church.  We might think of Paul, for instance, and his knowledge of the Old Testament, the Greek classics, plays, politics, and philosophy – and how his ability to be conversant in those topics helped him address different audiences, be conversant with various groups, and open up the Old Testament for those who were struggling to reconcile it with what was happening in those first decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But however useful these things were to Paul, they were not why God called him to be an apostle.

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Paul wasn’t called to service because of his education (although God used that); he was called to service because he was initially a terrible person.  The terriblest, to hear him tell it.  The fact that he received mercy and not judgement from the Christ he persecuted was intended to be an example to everyone.

And when you think about Paul’s persuasive power in the early church, or even to this day, what do you think of – some particularly clever argument or insight into an Old Testament passage?  Or the fact that someone who thought they were on a mission from God when he imprisoned and killed those early Christians ultimately poured out his life so that Christianity might grow and flourish?  Which one of those things indicates that Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord?  Which one of those things testifies most powerfully that Jesus is alive and is the Lord?  Paul’s insightful teachings or his life?

Paul, well-educated rhetorician that he is, also offers us this little gem in the midst of a practical and theological controversy about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols:

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 (NRSV)

And this is easily the most intellectual of Jesus’ followers we read about in the New Testament.  Apollos is probably in there, too, and he almost managed to cause a church split because he was so brilliant.  Maybe bringing up the end of the “educated” pack is Matthew, a tax collector, who was making money off the oppression of his own people.  Most of Jesus’ disciples were uneducated peasants who couldn’t read the Old Testament if you glued it to their faces.

But Paul’s education and sharp mind were used in the Church, as were Apollos’ and Matthew’s (probably)!  As you say, but it was not these things that brought the living presence and power of Christ to the Church:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (NRSV)

But Paul, you might respond, is talking about worldly wisdom and philosophies.  Surely he doesn’t mean the truths found in the Bible.

Well, the thing is, understanding the Bible in a way that makes a difference doesn’t really come from fancy book learnin’, neither.

In Jesus’ day, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests – these people all knew the Scriptures better than any of Jesus’ disciples.  Easily.  They could out-Hebrew, out-Greek, out-commentary, out-original-context, out-historical-studies, out-exegete any of Jesus’ disciples with one hand tied behind their back.  There were no teachers of the Bible greater than these people.

But what did that gain them, in the end?

In a passage where a group of people at a Jewish festival refuse to help a sick man because it was the Sabbath, Jesus issues diatribe against them including:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.

John 5:39-41 (NRSV)

All that Bible knowledge did was provide them a nice buffer between themselves and the actual Jesus, not to mention the things that God actually wanted them to be doing.  The fisherman who helped carry an injured Israelite to where he needed to go was so much closer to “understanding the Bible” than the people who actually understood the Bible, because God was in him and not simply an object of study.

The picture we get in the New Testament is that God has to open our eyes to the Scriptures to see in them the mysteries of the kingdom, and this is not something that comes from greater study but an actual encounter – an etching of God’s truth on pages of the heart that leads to a life of humble and faithful obedience.

Study, I can tell you both from the Bible and from personal experience, has a devastating tendency to create pride and self-satisfaction and turn you from the very path of lived-out suffering and redemption that you need to walk to have God’s words written on your heart.

You will never learn to fish until you fish.  You can read every book about fishing.  You can learn the history of fishing.  You can learn everything about the equipment.  You can learn about great fishermen through history.  All of that could possibly help you in fishing or increase your enjoyment of it.  You might even glean a helpful thing or two from it.  And that knowledge would certainly be useful if someone were going around teaching about those topics and was full of crap and needed correction.

But none of that – NONE OF THAT – is fishing, and you will never be a good or even passable fisherman unless you are fishing.  And the funny bit is someone who doesn’t know the first academic fact about fishing can be an awesome fisherman.  There is no correlation between how much you know about fishing, and how much you know fishing.

When I look at the history of the Church in the world, it’s hard to come away from that believing that God’s primary concern is that everyone understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way.  And if you believe there was a time when everyone did understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way and we’ve gradually drifted from that, or if you believe we’re getting closer and closer to that ideal – well, you’re both wrong.

It may very well be that God’s desire is not increased knowledge of a book, but that He is known and His people look like Him and the world look like He intended – one that runs off the engine of love because God is love.  Insofar as biblical knowledge helps that project, that knowledge is good and useful.  But the life of the ages is not found in the Scriptures; that life is found in Jesus and the Scriptures testify to him.

None of this should be taken as a rant against the intellect or a greater understanding of the Bible.  Like I said, this is kind of a lot of what I’ve got and I don’t want to waste it, and I regularly think about how I could help bring God’s great vision for the world to pass by using it.

But, people of God, we were not called out of the world to increase Bible study.  “Biblical teaching” is not what your congregation was designed to produce in your community.  You were designed to produce embodied acts of love and forgiveness, examples that Christ can save sinners and is still saving them, calling them from one world into another one that exists in its very midst in the here and now.  Calling them with your voice.  Healing them with your hands and prayers.  Alleviating their poverty with your money and your time.  Setting them free from self-destructive lives with your example and, yes, your teaching – pointing them to the one who will ultimately set all things to rights and is setting them to rights as we speak.

Maybe the answer to being the people we need to be has more to do with emulating the people who are those things and less to do with reading more books about those things.

Sunday Meditations: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I wouldn’t say I’ve been meditating on this, per se, but I’ve been recently in conversation on this topic with my friend, Matthew.  What follows comes mostly from email, but I’ve adapted it somewhat to fit as a blog post and included a little additional stuff.  Still, this isn’t a comprehensive overview of the issue.  I don’t really dig into the textual references or deal with objections or anything like that.

For those of you who aren’t up on your fancy theological terms, the penal subtitutionary theory of the Atonement (PSA) as it’s held to by Christians, today, looks something like this:

  1. Every individual has sinned.  It should be noted that there is also a theology of original sin that has all human beings inheriting the penalties of the sin of Adam.  Either way, you as an individual have sinned.
  2. When an individual sins, they incur the death penalty from God whose justice demands both their physical death and eternal torment in Hell.
  3. Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell to some extent, thus taking the penalty for sin that you deserve onto himself.
  4. Because Jesus paid the penalty for your sins, himself, anyone who believes in this receives the benefits of it, which are the rewards Jesus received for His obedience – eternal life in the presence of the Father.

This form of PSA is relatively modern, although some of the ideas back of this were present in the early church fathers.  Anselm in the 11th century made a version of it that described mankind’s lack of giving the obedience that God is due as a “debt” that needed to be paid.  The Reformers made the point that this debt was more specific – it was disobedience to the Law.  John Calvin sharpened this point very thoroughly, and this is probably where we get some of the ambiguity between words like “debt” and “trespass” when we talk about sin.  We possibly owe the development of theology in America for the radical individual orientation of these ideas.

Anyway, PSA is one of those things that I don’t think is right, but I don’t think is totally wrong, either.  The death of Jesus is substitutionary for sins, but I don’t think it’s according to the calculus that PSA lays out.  On the other hand, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to jettison all those concepts back of PSA and replace them with modern sensibilities, which is my perennial problem with the way some might do progressive theology – there’s a danger of not correcting old ideas with better exegesis or reasoning, but rather simply discarding those ideas in favor of a view of God or man that fits our preferences and concerns.

At the heart of PSA is the notion that God hates sin so much that, when someone sins, someone has to die to make restitution for it.  The redemptive problem, then, with the Old Testament sacrificial system is that they aren’t able to kill enough to meet the demands of God’s justice.  All those animals just sort of mollified Him for a while until the death of Jesus could finally pay the whole tab and exhaust the penalties that God had to incur.

There’s a certain simple, mathematical elegance to this story, and that’s what I think accounts for its persuasive power.  It offers an explanation that is syllogistically tight and explains a lot of data.  Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of biblical data that doesn’t fit the model.

For example, there are instances in the Old Testament where atonement is given for the sacrifice of things that are not alive (Lev. 5:11-13, Exodus 30:14-15, Numbers 31:30, Numbers 16:46-50, Isaiah 6:6-7) as well as instances where forgiveness of sins was given without any sacrifice of any kind, such as with Nineveh when Jonah preached to them.  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance of their ways (accompanied by a national period of fasting) was enough for God to forgive them.  So, given that we have instances that God doesn’t need something or someone to die in order to forgive sins, that seems to undermine a key term in the PSA equation.

It appears that God’s forgiveness ultimately comes down to His decision to forgive, which is exactly what happens in the parable of the indebted servants in Matthew 18:21-35.  The forgiving king isn’t paid off by someone else – that’s arguably not forgiveness of the debt at all; he just decides to forgive the debt.

When I was a little more Westminstery than I am, today, a teenager in my church was very grieved over the idea that God would send someone to Hell for any offense.  What I explained to him was that God did not make a choice to do this, but rather God was forced to act out of His nature, which was both holy and just.  You wouldn’t morally critique a hungry lion for killing a person because the lion isn’t making a choice; they are doing what lions do out of their nature.  So it is with God and sin.

There are a number of issues, today, that I see with this explanation, although there are some truths there, as well.  But one of the problems is that we see instances of a God who chooses to forgive, and He can do so without someone paying for it with death.

Personally, I think the Old Testament sacrifices for atonement are best explained by giving up something of value.  Taking something that is valuable to you and offering it to God shows how much you want that relationship restored.  This is a rabbinical understanding of sacrifice and also makes sense of a lot of the data, not the least of which is Paul’s command to present our bodies as living sacrifices – an image that is difficult to understand if “sacrifice” means “something you kill because God’s justice demands it for satisfaction of His wrath.”  If the center of gravity changes to “something valuable you offer to God to demonstrate your commitment to restoring a right relationship,” that makes more sense of Paul’s imagery.

In addition, we have to keep in mind that God’s wrath against sin in the Old Testament was at a national level by and large.  He gave commandments to the people and punished them as a people.  Individuals brought sacrifices, so there is this idea of individuals atoning for their sins or families atoning for their sins, but this was all under the larger umbrella of the people.  God did not prosecute His wrath individually; when the nation broke the covenant, they invoked the penalties of the covenant, and that is the form God’s wrath against sin took.

It’s important, I think, for both conservatives and progressives to view categories like “God’s wrath” the way the Bible presents them.  When we think of wrath, we think of someone driven by absolute rage.  We think of someone taking retribution because of their great anger.  This is, indeed, a very fearsome way to think about God because, if PSA is correct, this is how God is about anything that anyone could possibly do, no matter how big or how small.  In this picture, any sin throws God into an all-consuming rage that won’t abate until someone dies.

But in the Bible, “God’s wrath” describes the concrete, historical, political outcomes of a people and, in virtually all cases, it results in the liberation of another group of people who are suffering under the sinful behavior of the first group.  Both the Old and New Testaments present God’s wrath as a correction (granted, a destructive one) to the state of affairs that national sins have produced in the world, and we lose all of that if we boil away all the historical particulars of Scripture and end up with a picture of a God who is filled with eternal-torment-style rage if someone cusses at their parents.

Even with the individual penalties in the Law, only some of those are the death penalty.  The Old Testament perspective does not seem to be that every sin merits the death penalty, which is another key presupposition in PSA.  You commit a sin and God has to kill you.  If this is so, then why does the Torah explicitly illustrate that some sins are worthy of death while others are not?  All sins require restitution, which is designed not just to restore a right relationship with God but also with the neighbor who was hurt by your actions.  But they don’t all require your life as restitution.

At the same time, we do have God’s displeasure with sin and a system by which individuals can make things right by offering up something they’ve got to demonstrate their contrition.  This is an issue I have with some folks who criticize PSA; they find the idea of the seriousness of sin or God’s wrath against sin to be distasteful concepts, period.  But they are biblical ones, and I think our theology has to make room for them.  I would encourage people who may be struggling with the idea of how a loving or Christlike God could also demonstrate wrath to forget the way you and I might use the words and look at how, historically, the biblical writings present these concepts to us.  I think you might find that Jesus also displays this concept of “wrath,” but he is obviously a long way from a rage-fueled demander of vengeance.

The problems I have with PSA are not the concepts of sin and wrath per se, but rather the ideas that:

  1. Any individual sin invokes the death penalty from a just God.
  2. God’s anger toward individual sins is placated as long as something or someone gets killed for it.

The biblical data does not seem to bear that out.  Furthermore (although this isn’t the last word on whether something is true or not), it does paint God in a very unflattering color.  Under this way of looking at things, concepts like “grace” and “mercy” look less like unmerited forgiveness out of love and more like, “God will kill something or someone else instead of you.”

Well, if God doesn’t -need- someone to die to forgive sins, then what does Jesus’ death accomplish?  In my opinion, the answer lay in leaving the mathematical abstractions behind and looking at the concrete history.

In Jesus’ day, Israel was under the curse of the Law.  Because of a very long spiral of national disobedience (toward both God and her own people) through which God patiently sent warning after warning, she ended up defeated by a pagan empire (i.e. the wrath of God) ruling her in her own land.  This conquering nation even installed their own High Priest in the Temple.  Israelites sharecropped land that used to belong to them and lived lives of poverty and servitude under this foreign empire.  They were all but destroyed as a nation.

In an interesting parallel, one of the rulers over Israel before Rome was Antiochus Epiphanes – a tyrant who regularly perpetrated institutional blasphemies and persecutions against the Jews.  The book 4 Maccabees reflects on this time via a story of seven righteous sons who are being tortured to death by Antiochus, and one of the themes you see are some of the brothers asking God to accept their martyrdom as an atonement sacrifice for Israel so that He will put his wrath (i.e. life under this tyrant) aside and deliver Israel.

I think this gives us insight into the death of Jesus.  These brothers are not saying that their deaths pay for some death penalty everyone has accrued.  They’re being killed as a indirect result of the curse God has brought upon disobedient Israel, but they themselves are righteous.  They don’t deserve to be killed by the curse because they have been faithful this whole time, and they want their deaths to move God’s heart.  They want God to see their faithful, obedient lives that they have lived even unto death by this tyrant, and they hope God will decide that things have gone on long enough.  Because of the willing offerings of these righteous servants, they want God to accept them as sacrifices, forgive Israel of her sins, and save her from her situation.

So, these sons are not “paying” for Israel’s sins in the sense that Israel’s sins incurred the death penalty and these sons are offering to die in everyone else’s place to satisfy God’s wrath.  Instead, they are hoping that their faithful deaths will make a plea to God to forgive.  They are offering up the most valuable things they have – their own faithful lives – to move God to restore His relationship with Israel.  To make atonement for Israel’s transgressions.  To make things right again.

In this way, their deaths are a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they want their sufferings and death to avert the penalties Israel is experiencing, but they are not a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they think their deaths will satisfy God’s just requirement to kill someone if they sin, and once the sacrifice is made, He’s obligated to let the people they died for go free.

I think this very Jewish theology is behind the death of Jesus.

If Jesus’ death is a substitutionary payment for the sin of all mankind, then it doesn’t matter when he shows up in history.  He could have come immediately after Adam’s sin and accomplished exactly the same thing.  But Jesus comes when he comes because of what Israel is experiencing, and with his faithful death, his sacrifice is an appeal to God to forgive the sins of His people and save them from the penalties their sins have brought about.

God is absolutely convinced by this.  He accepts the sacrifice of Jesus, raising him from the dead, thus demonstrating (among other things) that He will forgive Israel’s sins and save her.  Although, it should be noted, this appears to have been God’s intent the whole time, because Jesus was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of Israel before he was crucified.

So, Jesus’ death is substitutionary for sins in the sense of him offering himself as an atonement sacrifice.  He’s trying to make things right between God and Israel and motivate God to save her.  But I don’t think his death satisfies a need or demand in in God to kill someone because of their sins.

Now, so far, all of that is very Israel-centric.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a Gentile.  What’s more, the New Testament seems to indicate that Jesus’ death was necessary to save the Gentiles from God’s wrath as well, so how does that work?

Well, one of the things the death and resurrection of Jesus means is that Torah-compliance no longer determines who the faithful people of God are; faith in what God has done in Jesus is.  Gentiles can have this faith as well and, by doing so, become part of the people of God.  Part of this, too, means repenting of our past ways of life and embracing a new life of faithfulness defined by following the path of Jesus.  In this way, God not only saves Gentiles from their sins, but He saves Israel, too.  By forming a new people out of the two where righteousness is defined by faith and not Torah, believing Israel is freed from her condemnation under the Law and Gentiles are redeemed from their fruitless ways of living to which they were enslaved into a priestly service to God.

Additionally, God’s faithful remnant who might otherwise have been snuffed out as time went on suddenly received a massive influx in membership.

God’s judgement expanded to the nations as well, and those who had faith in Jesus were saved.  And we see that there will be a final judgment on the distant horizon, too.

In this way, Jesus’ death brought about a very different situation for both Jews and Gentiles and changed the trajectory of history such that Israel’s God became Lord over all the nations.  Jesus’ death was not only necessary for all this, but it had to happen -at the time that it happened-.

What we see, I would argue, is a much richer drama around Jesus’ death that is far more relational and covenant-oriented than PSA has to offer.

Sunday Meditations: Jesus and Politics

Several years ago, I was an elder at a small but dedicated Reformed church.  Given the size of the congregation, it might not seem like being an elder there was a lot of work, but the body of elders was also very small at least some of those times, and there were a lot of big ups and downs during that time, so it really was like having a second, albeit part-time, job.

During that time, a congregation member had called me to vent.  He was angry and thinking about leaving the church.  Those are awkward times in the life of an elder, because you want the other person to be able to pour out their pain.  Sometimes, people just want to be heard even if they don’t want you to do something about it.

On the other hand, people can say some really unfair things during those times, and while you don’t want to get into a debate (anecdotally, I’d say that 90% of people who say they’re “thinking of leaving the church” in your conversation have already made up their minds to do so), it’s also not always healthy to let them say whatever they want about whomever they want without some gentle nudging back to a more fair and charitable way of talking about them.

In this particular case, this man was upset at, among other things, the pastor not preaching things he felt were indispensable.  As an example of this, he pointed to a recent sermon and said, “He said that Jesus wasn’t political, but Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.”

Like I said, those aren’t times for a careful discussion, but I am almost totally positive that, if I’d asked, “What do you mean by Jesus being political?” I would not have gotten a cogent answer back.  Someone he had complete exegetical trust in had told him Jesus was political, and even though he didn’t understand that, himself, he knew that anyone who said otherwise had to be wrong.

The pastor being critiqued is someone whose impact on my life overall is inestimable, and I remember the sermon where he said that Jesus wasn’t political.  I also remember the phone conversation where someone countered that notion with a somewhat odd way of putting it: Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.

As mid-term elections draw nigh (I already voted – get the whole nasty business over with), I’ve been thinking about Jesus and politics, and depending on what you mean, I think some could make the statement, “Jesus was not political,” and be right or the statement, “Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny,” and also be right – and not because of the funny part.

Jesus Was Not Political

Jesus was not political in the sense of how evangelicals have viewed American politics of the last several decades.  Jesus did not try to get influence with public officials, nor did he encourage others to do so (with the possible exception of Luke 16:9).  He did not participate in the various groups vying for the political destiny of Jerusalem in true Game of Thrones style, nor did he endorse any of them.  In short, Jesus did not view his mission in terms of using existing political mechanisms to bring about his agenda or accomplish his mission.

This is something of a contrast as to how conservative evangelicals have approached the American political sphere where using existing political mechanisms to bring about your agenda or mission is seen as vital.  At an evangelical church, you are likely to have a Voters’ Guide thrust upon you at some point.  It’s not uncommon to hear this or that political party or specific politician elevated or decried from the pulpit.  It’s also not uncommon to hear the outcomes of elections or referenda as incredibly high stakes events for the Church where the results mark major watersheds in God’s plan for America.  Oh yeah, in this way of thinking, God has a special relationship with America that is, more or less, the relationship He had with Old Testament Israel.

When we compare that view of spirituality and politics with the activity of Jesus, we do see some pretty large differences.  In that sense, which is the sense the Rev. Smith was using in his sermon, Jesus was not political.  Jesus was about the coming Kingdom of God, and that kingdom had a trajectory and destiny that began with calling faithful Israel out of the present world structures and into the coming kingdom.  To plant the seed of this kingdom, Jesus spent his time reclaiming the lost sheep of Israel – body and soul.

As we look at the early church continuing this mission, they continued this perspective.  The early church forbade their members to be politicians or soldiers (or actors, for some reason).  This is obviously a stark contrast to the fervent political activism and veneration of the military that are defining marks of much of the American evangelical church, today.  The idea for the early church is that those were institutions that propped up the powers of the age – the very powers that God was in the act of overturning.  A convert to Christianity who became a soldier or a Senator for his career was like a Jew becoming a pork distributor; you were not just joining “the rest of the world,” you were actively propping it up.

It’s from this standpoint that the sentence, “Jesus was not political” has meaning.  If we think about all the money American Christians have spent to get their favored candidate elected or what have you and transferred that money to programs that work against poverty and hunger, or that feed and clothe orphans, or that help prisoners get their lives back in society, it’s staggering to think of the good that might be accomplished.  From that standpoint, Christians in America could stand to reevaluate the example and commands of the Lord Jesus to see if our priorities and resources are directed along the same lines that Jesus’ were.

But Jesus Was Political

In American Christianity, you also have a group that contends that Jesus was solely interested in the spiritual condition of individuals, and this should be the Church’s priority.  What’s weird about this is that there is a significant overlap between the “Let’s Burn the World to Get Our Candidate Elected” crowd and the “Jesus Only Cared About People’s Souls” crowd.  I don’t get it, either, but there you go.

Unfortunately, you can’t talk about the Kingdom of God without talking about politics – specifically, how do the people of God exist in the world in the midst of other nations who are typically hostile or at least far more powerful, and what does this mean for the futures of both God’s people and the surrounding nations?

This concern weaves throughout the Old Testament, obviously.  The Old Testament writings do not give us a story of people’s individual spiritual well-being, but rather they give us the story of Israel and her God in the world.  It isn’t too uncommon to read the Old Testament in an individualistic way, especially in sermons.  The different characters become examples of our own individual spiritual journeys rather than pivotal figures in the ongoing story of Israel and her God among the nations.  I think, sometimes, we’re just not sure what to do with the Old Testament, so this is the route some choose to make it relevant.

But you have to cut out a rather lot of the Old Testament to make the Old Testament a collection of positive and negative examples of individual spirituality.  The Old Testament is about the fate of nations with Israel at the center.  When God saves His people, He saves the nation.  When Israel’s sins get her in trouble, they are national sins like idolatry or the priesthood only using lame and diseased animals for offerings or rampant injustice toward the poor and defenseless or dishonest business practices to make a profit.  Israel’s leadership stands as a proxy for the nation such that all it takes is an unfaithful king or obsequious prophets to get the whole nation in trouble.

And as Israel comes into contact with other nations, they are drawn into the scope of this story.  God saves Israel from other nations.  God invokes the penalties of the Law on Israel with other nations.  God takes and restores Israel’s land with other nations.  On the whole, messing with Israel is a sure means to God removing you from the world scene at some point.

It is this trajectory into which the Son of God is sent.  Israel’s land is occupied by a larger, more powerful pagan empire.  Many Jews can still live in their land and Jerusalem is still the center of their religious and political life, but this is a shadow of what it once meant.  Many Jews are dispersed throughout the empire and don’t live in their ancestral lands at all.  Roman law, not Torah, is the highest ethical and political authority in Judea.  Roman officials, not Jewish officials, have the final say in what goes on in the land.  Even the High Priest becomes a position filled by Roman appointment.

When Jesus arrives, his goal is to save Israel from their sins.  He is going to turn this situation around.  This will involve calling the lost to repentance of their ways of life into the ways of love of God and neighbor.  This will involve instilling a new piety in Israel and reminding her that God has not abandoned her, loves her, remembers His promises, and is for her.  In this sense, the disposition of the heart is very important to what Jesus is trying to accomplish.

But this is also political.  This all happens in the context that the Kingdom of God has come with Jesus.  He forgives sins, heals the sick, and casts out evil spirits not just to be a good dude but because the Kingdom of God has come and Jesus is the king of it.  He is out to restore everything that was broken and lost.  He is liberating his people from the curse of the law.  He is creating a counter-kingdom that runs off a very different engine than the world powers at the time – a kingdom where the Law is love, and no matter how much damage you may have done in your past, if you are willing to put that life aside and begin anew in God’s kingdom with Jesus as your king, there is no limit to how much you will be forgiven and what God will restore to you.  It is, in fact, Jesus’ claim to leading a rival kingdom that finds him executed by the Romans for insurrection.

Furthermore, there is a coming calamity on Jerusalem that will shatter the power of Israel’s leaders and redefine her place in the world.  Jesus wills that as much of Israel that can be spared this fate should be spared, and he labors powerfully to make that happen.  Many believe his warnings and are saved, but the powers of that age reject Jesus and crucify him, and God does not prevent the Roman onslaught when Jerusalem falls and the Temple is destroyed.  These consequences are not merely personal and spiritual; they are highly political.  The landscape of God’s people in the world would never be the same after that.

But it doesn’t stop there.  The Kingdom grows like a giant tree from the smallest of all seeds, and this does not escape the notice of the Empire.  While it would be a mistake to portray Christians as under constant and fiery Imperial persecution, they nevertheless experienced those seasons as the disposition of emperors toward Christianity would vacillate from seeing them as “distasteful religious sect not worth the bother” to “threat to Imperial stability.”

And one of the reasons for these changing dispositions was – to the shock of everyone – the fact that Romans themselves were hearing about Jesus and what God had done and believed it.  They believed and wanted to be part of this kingdom, too, eventually in even greater numbers than Jesus would have among his own people.  These people, too, were forgiven and healed and displayed the same Spirit that Israel’s God had poured out upon faithful Israel.

It was this trajectory of the kingdom that eventually caused Constantine to declare Jesus Christ the Lord of the Roman Empire and paint the Chi Rho on his shields, removing all who persecuted Christians decisively from power.

This is not to say everything Constantine did was good or even very Jesus-like.  But the political impact of the spread of the Kingdom cannot be denied, here, and the change it made on the political landscape for the people of God.

What About Now?

We’re in a situation for which there is little analogy in the Bible, unfortunately.  While we can and should turn to the written word for guidance, the Church must be especially attentive to the living Word because we are in a very different place than the Bible addresses as far as politics are concerned.

  1. Believing Jews and Gentiles have been made into one people of God.  In the Bible, this opened the scope from “the land promised to Israel” to “the nations,” which essentially meant the Roman Empire, and now we see the people of God distributed throughout the entire world, effectively decentralizing God’s people into all lands in general and no lands in particular, including America and what we now refer to as the modern nation-state of Israel.
  2. There is no centralized world power or dominant empire.  We talk about military super powers, but there is no Empire in the same sense as we find in the outlook of the New Testament.  In the New Testament writings, Rome is as big as you can get and they rule everything.  They were “global power” from the first century perspective.  Now, this perspective no longer serves in a direct sense.  We might look at the influence different nations have on the global community, but there is no longer a single, centralized Empire to define ourselves against.
  3. Christendom has come and pretty much gone.  In America, we have a strong fundamentalist streak that has slowed the disappearance of Christian elements prevailing in culture and government, and maybe there’s even a baseline under which it simply will not dip, but the idea of a government run basically by Jesus is gone and is unlikely to return anytime soon, if ever.  The images of a world where all nations proclaimed Jesus as lord has, from the standpoint of the New Testament, had its run, and now we’re kind of on the other side of that.  That doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen in the future, but where we are now, we are post-nations-proclaiming-Jesus-as-Lord, not experiencing it.
  4. America is a Republic informed by democratic principles.  The people elect representatives to government to speak and vote on our behalf.  So, there is a sense in which Americans (including American Christians) are the government and wield its power.  We are not helplessly at the mercy of a monarch or an emperor (however much it might feel that way from time to time), and this one factor alone puts us in a very different situation than Jesus or the early church.  Turns out that the principalities and powers of our age are, to a large degree, us.

This is why trying to drop the examples of the New Testament directly on top of our situation without further thought are bound to take us in weird directions.  Even in the Torah itself, we see God’s commandments changing to reflect the changing circumstances of Israel.  For example, the laws about sacrifices while Israel is wandering in the wilderness undergo some serious revision once they have an established Temple in Jerusalem.  It would be absurd to think that, politically speaking, the people of God in 21st century America are basically in the same situation as Jesus or the Apostles.  There are countries in the world, today, where Christians face an extremely similar situation to the first century Church, but America is not one of those places.

At the same time, Jesus is still Lord and we are not free to replace him with people or values we might prefer or who might better embody our cultural sensibilities.  What was important to Jesus?  Who was he helping?  Who received his critique and who received his compassion?  What principles and values do his commandments reveal to us such that we can still find ways to act in accordance with those principles and values?

The power of a vote or a political voice is a resource given to you just like your money or your time.  It belongs to Jesus and was given to you for stewardship.  How will you use it and what outcome do you hope to see from that?  Is it the sort of outcome that our Lord has shown us best represents his own priorities?  Are we shaping a world with MORE healing?  MORE forgiveness?  MORE lives being put back together?  MORE compassion?  MORE care for those who cannot care for themselves?  What did Jesus spend his time doing?  Who received his critiques, and why?

Is the Law love or isn’t it?  Is Jesus’ highest concern that we protect ourselves and our stuff?  Did Jesus value his own prosperity at the expense of others, or the prosperity of those he loved at his own expense?

And at any time, did Jesus ever use the complexities or ambiguities of a situation as a reason to do nothing?

 

Sunday Meditations: What’s the Word?

What is the Word of God?

In the Old Testament, the Word of God is something that comes to you.  It shares something with you.  In many instances, what the Word shared with the receiver was meant to be passed on to Israel.

Take, for example, Jeremiah’s account of his calling to be a prophet:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah 1:4-5 (NRSV)

This is very common prophetic language in the Old Testament.  The word of the Lord is something that comes to you and says things to you.  This is tricky for us to envision because words are what is said, and therefore it is easy to conflate the two, and I would argue that the Hebrew intends for the distinction to be somewhat porous.

Nevertheless, the idea is that the word of the Lord is something living that tells you things.  Those words could also be thought of as “the word of the Lord,” but in a derivative sense.  They are the words the prophet received from the Word.

This is an idea we should keep in mind as we read Old Testament passages that talk about God’s Word.  They aren’t talking about the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist yet.

In certain passages, they may be referring to the Law.  For example, there’s the famous passage in Psalm 119:105 where the psalmist writes, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” and the rest of the psalm indicates this is talking about the law.  God’s commandments show the psalmist how to navigate.

Although, even in this psalm, it’s unclear that the psalmist is referring to the written record of these commandments, which were often lost for generations on end in Israel’s history only to be rediscovered later.  They were passed along (when they were passed along) through oral tradition, and Psalm 119 has various references in it that the “word” the psalmist is thinking about is a little bit more organic than the Torah.

Blessed are you, O Lord;
    teach me your statutes.

Psalm 119:12 (NRSV)

Here, the psalmist is asking for God to teach him His statutes.  In other words, God’s commandments are something God has to communicate to the psalmist.  This plea for God to teach the psalmist is repeated several times throughout Psalm 119.

The psalmist goes on to say that God’s word will revive him from the edge of death.  God’s word will bring him salvation.  God’s word is something in which the psalmist places his hope.

And then we get to this gem:

 The Lord exists forever;
your word is firmly fixed in heaven.
Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
By your appointment they stand today,
for all things are your servants.

Psalm 119:89-91 (NRSV)

Here, we get the idea that God’s word is not simply the commandments that the psalmist observes but is also something established forever in heaven.  It existed before the earth and governs not only the workings of heaven but the workings of all creation.

This concept is part of a strong wisdom tradition in Judaism that crops up in a number of different literary sources, but one of my favorite examples is in Proverbs:

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.

Proverbs 3:19-20 (NRSV)

and in a long passage where Wisdom as a person appeals to the reader:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
    then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.

Proverbs 8:22-31 (NRSV)

Once more, we have the idea that God’s wisdom is not to be equated with the words of the Proverbs, but rather a “being” who was with God before anything was created who assisted Him in creation.  It is from this “being” – this elemental law and logic that existed before creation and underlies all creation – that the words of wisdom in Proverbs proceed.  By acting in accordance with the wisdom of the Proverbs, you are acting in accordance with the fundamental structure of created reality that precedes it.

The Hellenistic version of this is Logos (also translated “word”).  The concept of “logos” is the same – the universe has law at the core of it, and this is logos.  It is the underlying structure that everything obeys and how it naturally works.  It’s not only where we get the word “logic” from, describing the way reason is supposed to work, but also why all of our disciplines of study end in “-logy.”  We are uncovering these underlying laws of whatever we happen to be studying, so biology is uncovering the underlying laws of life, geology is uncovering the underlying laws of earth, etc.

It’s the idea of the logos that John turns to in the opening chapter:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 

John 1:1-3 (NRSV)

Ok, so far so good.  This actually seems to be commensurate with both Jewish and Hellenistic thought at the time.  But then:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14 (NRSV)

In John’s gospel, this preexisting Word-of-God-being that we’ve been talking about became enfleshed, and of course he means Jesus Christ.

Of course, early Christian theology had a certain level of diversity as to exactly how this came about.  On one side of the spectrum were certain forms of adoptionism where Jesus was just a regular guy who ended up becoming this thing.  On the other side of the spectrum as something resembling Nicean trinitarianism where the man Jesus was God incarnate.  And you had all kinds of positions somewhere in between, like Arianism.

But the one thing they all agreed on was that Jesus embodied (literally) this Logos.  Jesus, as a human being, displayed this eternal Word of God.  He was a person, not a book.  But like the Word of the Lord in the Old Testament, he said things to people.  But he didn’t just say things, he did things.  And he didn’t just do things, he loved, served, wept, laughed, and sacrificed himself.

Behold, the inner logic of God.  The fundamental laws of all creation.

The Word of God is Jesus.  If you want to more deeply know and walk according to the Word of God, you have to more deeply know and walk with Jesus.

How does this happen?

Well, the Bible is one way.  Both testaments have things to teach us about Jesus, and we can find him there.  But like the words given to the prophets, these words are derivative products.  We can say they are the words of God, but we have to keep in mind that they are Gods words in a secondary, mediated sense.  The Word of God is a person, not a book.  He is a being, not words on a page.

It is the holistic, spiritual encounter with this living Word that we discover in the New Testament:

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7 (NRSV)

No doubt, this spread of the “word of God” involved apostolic teaching (although, once again, keep in mind none of these people had Bibles).  It also involved selling your goods to take care of the poor.  It involved healing.  It involved visions.  It involved discernment.  It involved, not just the spread of verbalized words, but the spread of certain kinds of behavior, values, spiritual realignment, and even miracles.

Does this sound like anybody you know?  By the power of the Spirit, these early communities embodied Jesus and carried his presence to each other and the world around them.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV)

Books are not living and active.  But the Word of God is.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3 (NRSV)

If you’re looking for the secret epistle written by Jesus Christ in a handwritten scroll, you are looking in the wrong place.  The Scripture that Jesus wrote, he wrote with the Spirit dwelling inside his followers.

How do you get to know this Word?

True, the Bible presents him to you.  I am not in any sense trying to take that away.

The mysteries of the Lord’s Supper and baptism present him to you as well.  As the Bible brings you Jesus through written words, the Supper brings you Jesus in bread and wine.  Baptism brings you Jesus in the going through and emerging from water.

The communion of the saints present Jesus to you.  They are his temple and the flesh that carries his presence.  His words come to you through them.  His love for you and service to you comes through them.  They bring the Word of God to you, and you, if you have the Spirit, are part of the project of bringing the Word of God to them in the same way.

And of course, there is your personal experience of the Spirit.  The godly wisdom the book of your life has written, the fellowship with Jesus in prayer and the voice you hear tugging at your heart.  The prodding of your conscience.  The wind that blows you in this or that direction.

In these things, we hear, see, touch, and even taste this Word.

Sunday Meditations: Salvation and Relationship

Imagine buying your first house.  Or, if you’ve already bought your first house, try to remember that experience.  Most of what I remember about it was looking at what felt like three dozen houses whose features all ran together into an indistinguishable blur.

As you’re buying that first house, and as you’re thinking about why you want that house and what sort of life you’ll live in that house, do you ever pause to think about what a great place that house will be to store all your stuff?

It’s a legitimate thing to think about, right?  Many Americans have lots of stuff, and we need a place to put it.  A house solves that need.  Certainly, that’s what happens in a house.  In fact, most of the experience of moving in is getting all your stuff into the house.  If you visit other people’s houses, you’ll note that all their stuff is in it.

Yet, if you were going to talk about your thoughts behind home ownership, most people would probably not cite “stuff storage” as the main reason they’re doing it.  Sure, they might talk about storage space as an issue when comparing houses.  Also, they most assuredly will move their stuff into the house when they buy it, and they probably spend a fair amount of time planning where all the stuff is going to go.  Despite all that, “storage” is just not what buying a house is all about.

When you imagine buying a house, the picture is much bigger, much fuller than a structure in which to store your property.  You’re thinking of a place to live – a place of your very own – perhaps to share with a spouse or children.  You’re thinking of all aspects of your life as it plays out inside your house.  Storage is a part of it, sure, but it’s a facet of a much larger gem.  In fact, buying your house affects your life so holistically that it seems almost comical to imagine a young couple buying their first house so they can finally have a place to keep their stuff.  If you were considering a specific house, and the real estate agent kept going on and on about what a great place to store your stuff it was, you might start to wonder what they were trying to pull.

At the same time, the house is a place to store your stuff.  It’s a great benefit that comes with home ownership, it’s kind of a big deal, and if the real estate agent told you that she had a great house for you but you couldn’t keep any of your stuff in it, you’d probably look elsewhere.

So, on the one hand, we want to maintain that storage is a feature of owning a house, and it’s an important one – one we don’t want to do without – and one that plays a big role in our experience of that house.

On the other hand, we acknowledge that storage is just one facet of home ownership.  The whole picture is much bigger than that, and if you narrowly focus on the house as storage space, someone will probably point out to you that you could, in fact, live in the house, use it, and enjoy it much more thoroughly than your narrow lens was allowing.

That’s all!  Thanks for reading.  This blog has been brought to you by the Realtors Association of….

No, this long, rambling prologue is meant to serve as a (very) loose analogy.  Making “storage space” the entire point of a house is similar to how I feel when people make “having a personal relationship with God” the entire point of the biblical story, or God’s acts in history, or the apex of all God’s desires.

Like storage space in a house, the “personal relationship” aspect of what God is doing and has done in the world is there.  It’s a thing, and it’s a big deal.  Without that aspect of things, joining a priestly people called to serve God would lack some essential benefits, much in the same way you wouldn’t move into a house that you couldn’t store your stuff in.

Further, America (where I live, and also where all my stuff is) is a country that simultaneously exalts the individual and can be a very disconnected, alienating place for people who crave community.  It’s extremely easy to slip through the cracks in a country that has made individualism and self-reliance national virtues.  In this climate, just knowing there is a God who cares about and reaches out to you as an individual person can be life changing, especially to those who have been mistreated and/or isolated.

As a matter of personal disclosure, the individual mystical aspect of my Christian faith is very important to me.  I have had several individual experiences of God that I’d be happy to share with you and they often changed the trajectory of my life in significant ways.  The ongoing emotional connection and spiritual feelings of the presence of God is a big part of my life and, when I’m not feeling those things, the effect is large.

What’s more, some of the more profound and moving effects of my contemplation of God have happened when thinking of God’s love for me.  God’s attention to me.  These things are demonstrated in big and small ways and not the least of which has been my inclusion in the great works that God has done in Jesus Christ.

So, I want to be clear that I am not at all trying to take that from anyone or criticize it as a powerful force in someone’s life.  My own life is a testimony to that power, and you sure aren’t prying it away from me.  Much less would I intend to do so for someone else.

At the same time, I often find myself getting a little wearied with books or sermons or comments from other Christians that essentially boil down to, “What God wants most is to have a personal relationship with you.”  I get wearied of singing song after song about this.  Me, and God loves me, and God wants me, and God can’t imagine life without me, and everything God has done He’s done for me, and the whole reason Jesus died was me, and the whole Bible was written for me, and there’s just nothing God wouldn’t do if it helped me in some way.

The reason I get fed up (almost literally fed up, actually) with this sentiment has nothing to do with “correct doctrine.”  I’m too old in Christ and too skeptical of myself to get hot and bothered about incorrect doctrine for its own sake these days.  It’s also not simply because it makes me the center of the universe and actually taps into the idolization of the individual, although that’s also a real problem and, all told, may be the worst thing about it.

But the reason I get fed up is that it all just seems so small to me compared to what we could be talking or singing about.  Yes, let’s talk about it and let’s sing about it – it’s an important piece to the whole thing – but it’s only a facet on the gem.  I find myself wondering if this is really all the Christian story has become for people – a conveyance for my personal experiences with God and how we feel about each other.  I feel like the entirety of God in history has boiled down to something I’d read in a Hallmark card except someone had to die in the process.  I don’t know; maybe that happens in Hallmark card production, too.

The Bible is primarily a story about Israel’s existence in the world, particularly as she exists side by side with other nations, the vast majority of whom are stronger than she is and worship other gods.  Old Testament, New Testament, this is the riverbed through which the river of Scripture flows.

I know many people might balk at that statement, and that’s fine, but if that summary is distasteful, let me encourage you to sit down and read the entirety of the Bible, letting each writing speak for itself and without projecting the text into a theology, insofar as you can.  I would offer that what you will find is a great deal of story and reflection on what is happening to Israel and the nations.

What you will not find is that the Bible is mostly theological truths about God, nor about man, nor about the human condition.  You will not find most of the writings discuss heaven or hell, nor do they provide instructions about getting to one and avoiding the other.  You will also not find the bulk of the writings asserting God’s ultimate desire to have a personal relationship with individuals.

Some of those things, we might find in the biblical writings, but it’s like the storage space aspect of a house.  It’s there, it’s important, but there’s a much bigger narrative in the works, and that narrative is the story of Israel as she exists with her God in the midst of the nations.  The Bible in our heads might make some of those other things the primary topics of conversation, but the actual Bible does not.

Because of this, all our categories for what we find in the Bible have a character that is defined by the life of Israel in the world over a very long span of time.  “Salvation” is what happens when God saves Israel from something.  “Relationship” is covenant, which God sometimes does make with individuals, but it’s on behalf a people.

The great stories of those great characters you remember – Abraham, Moses, Samson, Deborah, Gideon, David, and so on – are not there to provide examples of God’s desire for personal relationship (if God is dealing with you the way He dealt with Moses, you should probably say something to someone about it).  They are there because these people are pivotal to the preservation and prosperity of Israel.

And so it goes with salvation.

In Exodus 14, Moses says, “Behold the salvation of the Lord,” when they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea.  A very similar passage occurs in 2 Chronicles 20 when Jerusalem is about to be besieged by an alliance of Moabites and Ammonites.  In Isaiah 52, the famous “how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” passage is about Israel being rescued from the Exile to Babylon.

“Salvation” is God saving Israel from whatever she needed saving from.  As we get into the prophets, that includes her own leadership.

“Well, ok,” says my imaginary reader, “But everyone is probably ok with that.  Sure, sometimes we misread Old Testament passages to be talking about a spiritual understanding of salvation the way we understand it, but surely you can see that these are all pointing forward to Jesus’ work of setting people free from sin, death, and Hell?”

First of all, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that the horrors that Israel and her neighbors experienced were all part of a very elaborate allegory.  It’s all very well and good to sit in your armchair and declare that being killed or imprisoned by Babylonians would give people centuries later a typological allegory of being in spiritual bondage or what have you, but I think an Israelite mother who saw her husband impaled on the end of a Babylonian spear might rather just have gotten a pamphlet.  I doubt, as she saw her little boys taken away from her to be raised in Babylon to ensure the people did not revolt, that she thought, “You know, all this is a really great metaphor for how we’re all in spiritual bondage.  Well, I hope when the Messiah shows up, he sets us free from what’s REALLY important.”

Second, I think Israel / the Bible’s ongoing concern with the welfare of Israel in the world does not get traded for the spiritual realities of all humanity in the New Testament.

For instance, John the Baptist announces to Israel to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  This is also Jesus’ message, you’ll note.  When Pharisees and Sadducees show up, John demands, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Whatever you think this “wrath to come” is, I hope we can all agree it’s not what would happen to each individual standing there as they eventually all passed away from old age.  The “wrath to come” is not “Hell when you die” to John the Baptist.  It’s something imminent that’s about to sweep through Judea and will clear all the corruption out of it.  Faithful Israel needs to be saved from this.  She needs to be saved from her oppressors, and she needs to be saved from the mechanism that will clear them out – not unlike the tenth plague of Egypt.

But as you can see, the people who will be saved are those who repent and believe.  This is the new twist.  In the Old Testament, you were saved by God by being Israelite.  In the first century, Israelites are both the oppressor and the oppressed.  A new line is being drawn, and as Jesus continues his ministry, we find that he, too, announces that the kingdom of God has come near, but this also means a coming judgement and the need to be saved from it, and the people who will be saved are the people who, quite literally, believe him.

In his warnings, Jesus offers advice like, “Flee to the mountains,” and “Pray that your flight will not occur in winter or on the Sabbath,” which is really unhelpful advice for escaping Hell.  Or the end of the world, really.

Even in the context of the Gospels, God is saving His people from something in the world they needed saving from.  In this case, Israel’s oppressors are immediately other Israelites, and ultimately the pagan nation that rules them.

“Ok, hold on.  Isn’t Jesus called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins?”

Yes.  His people are Jews, and saving them from their sins means rescuing them from the state of affairs that has come about because of their sins.  It does not mean that he will get them to stop sinning, anymore than you have stopped sinning.

When Peter delivers his sermon in Acts 2, the audience is cut to the heart and they ask the Spirit-filled believers (who are all Jews), “Brothers (because the audience is all Jews), what shall we do?”  And Peter tells them to repent and be baptized so that their sins will be forgiven and they will receive the Spirit.

What is this message that causes everyone to be cut to the heart and cry out asking what they need to do?  Is it that they’ll go to Hell when they die?  Is it that the world will end?

It’s this:

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.

Acts 2:36 (NRSV)

There you go.  You know that guy you killed?  God has made him Lord and Christ.

This terrifies the audience and they beg to know what they need to do in light of the fact that God has just exalted the man they had handed over to Rome for execution.

There’s nothing in that sermon about mankind’s sinful condition or estrangement from God.  There’s nothing about how God’s holiness demands the death penalty for sin in general.  There’s nothing about how God, desiring a personal relationship with them, sent Jesus to die to satisfy God’s wrath for their sins.

It’s just this:

“Why are all you guys stumbling around talking in languages we don’t understand?  Are you drunk?”

“No.  This is the Holy Spirit promised of old that would fall in the last days before the great and terrible day of the Lord.  You remember Jesus?  That guy you had crucified?  God raised him from the dead.  He made him Lord and Christ.  That guy you had crucified.”

“WHAT?  WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?”

“Repent and be baptized and be forgiven of your sins.  And you will receive the Spirit.”

God will save His people Israel in history in the world.  Even the inclusion of Gentiles, as Romans 11 tells us, is part of the plan to save Israel.  If you are a Gentile and you have faith in Jesus Christ, then you have been brought into the people of God so that Israel might be saved, and the wonder is that God has made one people out of the two, so that you are heirs of the promises to the patriarchs, and you, as well, are the Israel of God.

Above and beyond what salvation has looked like in my own, personal life and what my personal relationship with God looks like is God’s covenant with His people and His commitment to save them in the world when they need saving as they go from age to age.

Yes, the Bible tells us a (very) little bit about a final judgement and a new heavens and earth, and in that sense, that day may very well mark the telos of God’s saving works.  But the Bible has very little to say about that and, instead, tells a story of a people in a world among other people.  What happens to them, what do they need saving from, how does that happen, and how do they live as a distinctly holy and faithful people in their present historical circumstances?

Those questions are just as applicable today as they were to Israel, although we have to acknowledge that a lot has changed both on the world stage and for the identity of the people of God, which is no longer predominantly Jewish and is dispersed throughout all nations.  Still, to answer those questions involves reaching into our past for guidance, listening in our present for God’s voice and obeying it, and hoping for a future that may contradict our present circumstances but is grounded in God’s demonstrable historical faithfulness.

Those kinds of songs, books, devotions, sermons, and conversations would not be very small or boring, I think.

Sunday Meditations: God’s Behavior

A quick word of warning, this post is particularly long.  Not only that, the first big stretch is me talking about some doubts regarding God and the problem of evil and how many traditional positions have failed me.  If you are not interested in this or you are currently in a state where reading through those kinds of things might do you more harm than good right now, you might want to just read the next two paragraphs and then jump down to the first bolded subheading.  It’s “This World Has a Price.”

One of my biggest puzzles theologically is how to account for God and His intervention or lack thereof.

It turns out I’m not alone in this struggle; the history of theology even before Christianity is replete with people trying to work through this issue.  If you believe you’ve got this issue completely sorted, you might contemplate why this has been a mystery for literally millennia and still confounds many of our best sense-making abilities.  There’s a reason they call it “the problem of evil” and not “the brief question that’s easily solved of evil.”

The issue is that we want to maintain a list of things that appear inconsistent with our experience of the world:

  • God is always good.
  • God is all-powerful.
  • God intervenes in history to accomplish His purposes.

At the same time, we look around in the world and see things that don’t seem to square with all of those propositions.  There is suffering in the world.  There’s injustice.  There are tragedies that befall the innocent while prosperity comes to the wicked.  Some people are spared adversity while others aren’t.  It’s very difficult to come up with a philosophy or theology that harmonizes those experiences with the propositions about God.

Perhaps the most popular way to explain things is to appeal to human free will.  God wants humans to have free will so that their choices have meaning and value, including their choice to serve Him, and the price for this is that some will use their free will to do evil.

That might cover some scenarios, but there are still significant issues with it.

First of all, many suffering scenarios don’t involve free will.  When an infant is born with a terminal condition or a natural disaster kills and maims people and animals, the free will defense doesn’t really help us out of those.  Those are scenarios where people could have been saved and nobody’s free will would have been violated.

Second, this assumes that violating free will is the worst thing you can do to someone.  Perhaps from God’s perspective this is so, but it certainly isn’t from ours.  While there are plenty of times we allow people to experience the consequences of their actions, we have our limits.

Parents violate the free will of their children all the time for their own safety.  Don’t play in the street.  Don’t stay out past seven.  Don’t get into vans with strangers.  Parents will also physically intervene to prevent a child from doing something dangerous.

Even with adults, where we often do let consequences run their course for other adults, we still have limits.  If you visit a loved one and they’re lying on the bed surrounded by pills, breathing shallowly, with a suicide note on the table, you’re probably calling the hospital.  You’re probably not sitting there sadly regretting their decision but unwilling to go against their wishes.

Third, I’m not sure the picture of God we get from the Bible is a God who is unwilling to ever use coercion.  Granted, most scenarios I can think of still place the responsibility on the individual or nation to make the choice that’s in their best interest, but it’s still a consistency problem for the Free Will Defense.  God does not put an angel with a flaming sword in front of every rapist or strike every tyrant with insanity or supernatural death.

Even when it comes to the decision making process within the human heart, there are stories in the Bible that would indicate that at least the author thought God was at work in that process as well.  Exodus 7:3 comes to mind.  The Exodus narrative switches between Pharaoh hardening his heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, so we get the idea that Pharaoh is not some automaton being driven around by God, but at the same time, God is somehow involved in perpetuating Pharaoh’s unwillingness to release the Israelites.

Finally, as Christians, I think we have a hard time being consistent with a Free Will Defense.  If God will not intervene to violate human free will, that does mean we can’t blame Him for the evil that people do.  But it also means we can’t “blame” Him for the good things people do, either.  What sense does it make to thank God for a new job or an influx of donations to a charitable work if that was simply the outcome of human free will – something He refuses to violate?

Have you ever prayed specifically for the salvation of a loved one?  What is it that you’re expecting God to do that He isn’t already doing?

I realize these are painful questions, and I’m not suggesting that anyone stop thanking God for good things or asking Him to intervene in bad situations where free will is a factor.  What I’m saying is that the issue of God and His relationship to the good and evil in the world and His action or lack thereof is a very complicated issue and “free will” can’t be our bromide that smooths over all the tensions.

I do believe that free will and the price necessary to have free will are in the mix, here, but they don’t solve all our problems.

On the other side of the theological fence (not counting Deism) is the Reformed/Calvinistic view that, while God is not a primary cause of everything that happens, He foreordains everything that happens.

From the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

WCF Chapter III Section I

I have a grudging admiration for the Westminster Divines as they attempted to resolve the difficulties by fiat.  God unchangeably ordains everything that happens, but He’s also not the author of sin nor does He violate the will of creatures.  There you go, all done, nothing to see here, drop the mic.

Similarly:

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

WCF Chapter V Section II

There are some things I like about this view of God and history.

One thing I like is that it does try to encompass the breadth of the biblical pictures we have for God and His acts or lack thereof.  In one story, we have God actively making things happen.  In another, He’s sort of sitting back and observing.  In another, He seems to be directly responsible for the good things that happen.  In others, He seems to be responsible in some way for the bad things that happen.  In one passage, the author tries to distance God from any kind of causal relationship to evil in the world, and then in other passages, the evil in the world is under God’s direction.

The statements in the Westminster Confession try to reckon with this diversity, which I appreciate, but they say little about the tensions between them.  There is no acknowledgement that it is a mystery how these things can all be true.  The WCF is pretty devoid of any sense of mystery about anything, even in the chapter on the Trinity.  “We’re not sure how this works,” is a phrase you probably didn’t hear a lot at the Westminster Assembly.

The challenge, of course, is that if God is in some sense the deliberate origin of all that comes to pass, then He is in that same sense responsible for it.  Like the problem with the Free Will Defense, it makes little sense to glorify God for the good things He’s ordained and then try to work it out so that He’s not in any sense responsible for the bad things He’s ordained.  We’ve freed God from being the direct cause of everything, but now everything is part of His plan.  I will say, in fairness, that there are voices in the Bible that seem to say exactly that.

Many Christians, however, sense an existential difficulty, here.  Who wants to look at some horrible crime or devastation and ascribe it to God’s plan?  Who wants to take a child who was sexually assaulted or an infant who was crippled for life by a neurological problem and say that God in some sense somehow decided that those things should happen?

So, then we get into some more contemporary variants.

One very popular one right now is the idea that bad things are not God’s will or part of God’s plan, but God is with us as we suffer through them and is at work to bring good things out of them.

This view has a number of advantages, not the least of which is that there is an extremely common motif in both Old and New Testaments of God doing exactly this sort of thing.  Someone does something that is intended for evil or some tragedy happens, and God does something that flips the script.  We also experience this sort of thing fairly regularly in our lives, that good comes out of something that seems bad at first.

But now we have the challenge that we’ve basically written off huge swaths of reality to happening outside of God’s control.  If we acknowledge that God could act to control or stop these events, then why doesn’t He?  We end up with similar problems with the Free Will Defense except, I’d argue, even greater in scope, because now we’ve got an entire world running amok with God reacting to it.  While I like that this emphasizes that God is in the boat with us, it does still challenge us with whether or God is capable of controlling or stopping things and, if so, why He opts not to do that.

Further, this tactic does not seem very consistently applied.  Why are some missionaries miraculously saved from a hostile government while others die in prison?  Why do some families come safely through a hurricane while others perish?

The most virulent form of this view is one I’ve seen crop up in premillennial dispensationalist circles and, oddly, Pentecostals.  In this view, Satan actually runs the world.  The reason why things seem so bad are all Satan’s fault, not God’s.  Why doesn’t God put a stop to all this?  He will, but the time isn’t right, yet.  More people need to be saved.  We should expect things to get worse and worse and worse for everyone until, finally, God has enough and takes believers to heaven and destroys everything else.

I cannot begin to describe what a massive failure both exegetically and theologically this view is for the Church.  What’s more, I’m very surprised at the Pentecostals who hold this view (#NotAllPentecostals) because I’m not sure how you reconcile a belief in exorcism in Jesus’ name with a belief that Satan controls the world.  Who’s in charge, here?

I’m not going to go into a detailed critique of this view because it is horrific, but I will say that it does succeed in freeing God from responsibility to a point.  I guess the larger issue would be what it would say about God that He would let such a situation go on for so long, and what does it say about the hope of God’s people when they are basically condemned to the Terrordrome for thousands of years.

This consistency vulnerability is an obvious point of exploitation for atheism.  When we look at the world with so much suffering and injustice in it, and that suffering and joy seem almost randomly allocated with no apparent rhyme or reason to it, isn’t that what we’d expect from a world without a God who intervenes in it?  Deists might be able to skate by, here, but not the rest of us.

For both atheism and deism, what we observe in the world is simply the running along of the various forces that propel events: sociological, economic, physical, etc.  Sometimes the combinations and timing play out one way for this person, other times they play out another way for that person.  This is more or less what we observe in the world and, when theism struggles to come up with a cohesive narrative that both explains these experiences and maintains a good, powerful God, then we have an obvious problem on our hands.

Because at that point, the issue isn’t just a belief in a non-empirical aspect of reality; the issue is a non-empirical aspect of reality that in some sense wishes reality were different and has the power to enact those wishes but apparently does not.  Christianity does not believe in the existence of -a- God, but rather the God who is described in the Bible, revealed in Jesus, and we contend is the actual God.

If you’ve stayed with me this long, I congratulate and appreciate you.  I have some thoughts on how these challenges might not be as crippling as they seem.

The World Comes with a Price

When God makes the universe the way it is, He imports in conditions and constraints in order for that universe to work.

For example, in our universe with our space-time features, God cannot create a square circle.  If you beat me in a chess match, God cannot make it so that I actually beat you after those same events occurred.  These are not limitations of God’s power so much as they are constraints of the universe in which He works.

These are not necessary constraints.  You can have a universe where time flows backwards or not at all.  You can have a universe where spatial relations are wildly different than Euclidean geometry.  But these are features of this universe, and God has to work with those materials unless He fundamentally revises the nature of the universe.

In order for this world to be what it is and work the way it does, things we think of as bad must be a part of it or at least potentially be a part of it.

The most obvious example is free will.  If you want a being freely capable of consciously choosing good, it has to be equally capable of consciously choosing evil.  Whether that being will choose one or the other is an entirely different story, but that potential has to be there.  If you create a being without the capacity to choose evil, that’s fine and good, but they don’t have free will.

But this is also true in terms of the mechanics of the universe as we know it.

For example, our cells can divide and mutate.  This allows us to grow and heal.  This allows a species to better adapt to the environment as the environment changes.  This also allows cancer.

You don’t get to have it both ways.  If cells are capable of reproducing and producing mutation, then they are also capable of producing cancer.  Hopefully, the day will come when we can spot cancer early, treat it with more success, and maybe even prevent it in practice.  But we will never be able to eliminate the very possibility of cancer without fundamentally restructuring the way cells work.  In fact, if we truly eliminated all capability of cells to produce cancer, we would doom our race to extinction, because that same capability is what enables healing and survival.

Even death – and I hate death.  This is not some philosophical statement for me.  I loathe death.  It has hurt me, taken from me, and plagues me almost daily in some form or fashion.  And it has hurt the people I love most very deeply.  But even death is necessary the way the world works right now.  Death is necessary for new life to spring up.  Death frees up resources and provides new ones.

In order for your children to live, and your children’s children, and your children’s children’s children, you have to die.  If people didn’t die, you probably wouldn’t be here, because the population would have to level out at a number commensurate with available resources (whatever that meant in a world where people didn’t die).  In order for new generations of people to be born, find God, experience Him, love and be loved, and return to Him, people have to die.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t have an Earth full of everyone God has come to know and love and not have people die.  You could have a world of immortals with fewer people and generations, but you can’t have this world.

We have a longing for a better world in our hearts, as we should.  That longing is God’s longing.  It’s difficult to explain why we would have this longing if it were not the case that things were wrong and could be different.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that often these bad things are corruptions or negative side effects of the same things that introduce great good into the universe, and the absence of those things (or more accurately, a world where those things were totally impossible) might very well result in a very different world that we might not approve of at all.

A world where everyone is biologically incapable of being a jackass is the stuff of our dystopian stories.  A world where the Sun is incapable of going cold is a world where the Sun cannot generate heat.  A world where there is no friction is a world where you can’t walk.  While we can (and should) work to counter the things in the world that cause human suffering, we don’t really know what kind of world we would have if even their theoretical possibility was removed.  This is a good segue into the next consideration.

We Don’t Know How the World Should Be or How God Should Behave in It

The Tao Te Ching tells us that we should not label anything good or bad because we don’t know everything that gave rise to an event or what the total effects of it will be.

A man stubs his toe on a rock, and it hurts so bad that he has to sit down for a few minutes until the pain subsides.  Is that good or bad?

What if this delays him five minutes, and five minutes ago, a drunk driver was careening wildly across the very road that man would cross?  Was stubbing his toe good or bad?

(A somewhat less somber portrayal of the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching is the song “Oh, That’s Good / No, That’s Bad” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.)

While it’s easy for us to consider that, in the situation of the man stubbing his toe, the stubbed toe saved the man’s life, also consider that the man in the story has no idea his life was just saved.  The only point of reference he has is the stubbed toe, and it really hurt.  He might go on to have a pretty crappy day, all because of the stubbed toe that, unbeknownst to him, was the best thing that could have happened to him.

We can scale out this microcosm many times over.  As smart as we are individually and collectively, and as much as we know about natural and social forces, we really do not know all the factors that brought an event into being, nor do we know all the effects that event will have today, tomorrow, or years down the road.

We can readily acknowledge the bad effects of something or someone in the terms we can observe.  That’s all we can do, and that’s what we’re called to do.  We don’t allow murderers to go free because, hey, maybe that murder was the best thing that could have happened in the world!

But even as we acknowledge our obligation to judge in the present circumstances, we also have to admit that we are totally unqualified to pass judgement over whether or not, in the ultimate scheme of things with horizons far beyond our own, this event didn’t serve a purpose that, if we had known, we would agree that it was necessary.

Once again, I’m not being coldly philosophical.  I’m thinking right now of events in my own life that I’m pretty sure I could not tell you what possible benefit could justify those events happening.  Those events hurt, and every benefit I can think of pales in comparison to the suffering and trauma of those events on me and everyone in their orbit, to say nothing of all the suffering and evils that go on in the world that I haven’t experienced.

But that’s exactly the point.  The fact that I can’t see the factors that unspooled from those events or all the things that happened that resulted in those events is precisely the point.  I can’t.  You can’t.  We can’t.  On occasion we can, but often we can’t.

So, I ask you, why is it that we are so confident that we can accurately predict, prescribe, and judge what a good and powerful and loving God ought to do in the world?

Not only are we confident that we can chart out what such a God would/should do, we are so confident that it is actually more likely to us that God doesn’t exist than that we might be wrong about what omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness might look like.

Think about that for a moment.  When I doubt that God is loving or powerful or that He exists altogether because of the problem of evil, I’m assuming that my ability to judge an event and all its possibilities, variables, and effects on everything for all time is so cohesive, accurate, and absolute – that a contradiction of that judgement is a reason to believe God is not good, powerful, or doesn’t exist.

That position is mind-blowing in the sheer scale of its abandonment of perspective.

The story in the Bible that comes to mind, here, is the book of Job.  If you’ve not read Job, it opens with God and Israel’s accuser having a debate that God provokes.  God praises the faithfulness of His follower, Job, and the accuser responds that Job is only faithful because his life is prosperous.  In response, God allows the accuser to torment Job, removing everything Job has that makes life worth living.  Throughout the story, Job remains faithful despite everyone else telling him that he is either a grievous sinner or else terribly wronged by God.  Job, for his part, insists on both his faithfulness and God’s trustworthiness, but in his grief and confusion, he still wishes to bring his case before God.

It’s also interesting that Job explores other problems of evil, such as the wicked prospering on the earth.  It’s almost as if the story of Job was explicitly written to offer some kind of perspective on God and evil and suffering in the world.

When Job finally speaks with God, God does not explain His actions, nor pawn them off on the accuser (“I’m really not the secondary cause, here, Job”), nor offer either the Free Will nor the Calvinistic defense.  Even though the reader is actually told the reason for Job’s suffering at the beginning of the book, God Himself does not tell that to Job.  Instead, God questions Job’s ability to pass judgement on Him:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Job 38:1-7 (NRSV)

This goes on for literally two chapters.  God brings up an overwhelming multitude of scenarios about creation and the way the world works and the flow of history.

It ends with:

And the Lord said to Job:

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
    Anyone who argues with God must respond.”

Job 40:1-2

Job says, basically, “I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”

And then God takes off again, going into all these things that God has done and all the things that happen in nature in the world.  For two more chapters.  At the end of this, Job responds:

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job 42:1-6 (NRSV)

I mean, this is God’s defense.  “You have no idea how the universe is supposed to work, but yet you have the gumption to call Me into question.”

At the end of the story, God restores Job’s fortunes and condemns his friends.  Interestingly, God says of them, “For you have not spoken of Me rightly as my servant Job has done.”  But Job didn’t offer a defense for God.  Job made his case and then acknowledged that he wasn’t in a position to be able to pass judgement on God’s actions.  Job spoke rightly about God by having completely justified complaints about God and ultimately acknowledging he didn’t know what he needed to know in order to actually pass judgement.

Job is quite possibly the oldest Scripture in the Old Testament.  It’s a long book, too.  It’s easy to summarize the story, but there are so many issues raised by Job and his friends throughout the book about evil, suffering, justice, love, and God.  These issues are as old as the Levant, and this perspective on the issues served the Jewish people through exile, tyranny, dispersion, and prophecies and promises from God that seemed to have failed at the time.

The story of Job is a story of God’s people in the world, and at the end of it, God’s people are to say, “We have many complaints that are justified, but in the end, we don’t know everything that needs to happen.  You do.  We trust You.”

This would be a good segue into my conclusion, but I want to make a quick stop before we get there.

Scripture’s Portrayal of God’s Acts Are Multivocal, Complex, and Usually Look a Lot Like the Real World

There is a reason that the Free Will Defense, the God Ordains Everything perspective, the “God doesn’t want this and is with you and will turn this around” perspective, and others come into our discourse.  All these views are present in various places in Scripture.

Sometimes, they even collide.

One of the most fascinating passages of Scripture, to me, is Isaiah 10.  In it, God talks about how the leadership of Israel has oppressed her.  In response, God will send Assyria to conquer Israel.

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger—
    the club in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
    and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
    and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

Isaiah 10:5-6 (NRSV)

The perspective is that God is doing this, somehow.  Assyria’s conquest is an expression of God’s anger against oppressors.  The club in their hands in my fury.  Against a godless nation I send him.

But what’s this?

But this is not what he intends,
    nor does he have this in mind;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
    and to cut off nations not a few.
For he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
    Is not Hamath like Arpad?
    Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols
    whose images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
    what I have done to Samaria and her images?”

Isaiah 10:7-11 (NRSV)

Whoa, hold on.  You just said You were sending Assyria.  But now You say that Assyria just up and decided on their own to conquer Israel?  Conquerors gon’ conquer?  Jerusalem is just another city to them, and they’re just doing what they’d normally do?

So which is it?  Is God sending Assyria against Israel, or is Assyria just doing what they’d normally do without respect to God whatsoever?

Isaiah 10 seems to indicate that both are the case.

Then, it gets into some very deep free will / sovereignty / responsibility waters:

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride.

Isaiah 10:12 (NRSV)

So, to recap, God is sending Assyria to conquer Jerusalem.  Assyria, however, is conquering Jerusalem just because they want to conquer lands.  After this is done, God will punish Assyria because of this.

Catch that: God will punish Assyria because Assyria did what God planned for them to do in the first place.

Well, you know, Free Will Defense!

Ok, but read further:

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,
    or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?
As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up,
    or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!

Isaiah 10:15 (NRSV)

Here, God compares Assyria to an ax thinking that it’s greater than the person swinging the ax (God) or a staff trying to raise the person who is raising it.  This isn’t just God observing things human beings are choosing to do: God is swinging the ax and raising the staff, here.

And then, God will actually punish Assyria by… the liberation of Israel.

Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: O my people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. The Lord of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.

Isaiah 10:24-27 (NRSV)

So, which is it?  Is God in some sense in control of everything that’s happening?  Is Assyria just acting naturally doing the same thing they’d do if God didn’t exist?  Is Assyria morally culpable for this?  Will God turn this evil situation around for the good of His people?

Isaiah 10 portrays of all these as being somehow true and doesn’t bat an eye.

I use this text just because it pulls many different perspectives together, but obviously we find different portions of these perspectives emphasized throughout Scripture depending on the situation.

We also get a dash of this from Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts:

You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

Acts 2:22-24 (NRSV)

So, the crucifixion of Jesus.  Was it an evil that Peter’s audience is accountable for?  Yes.  Was it part of the definitive plan of God?  Yes.  Did God overturn the result for good?  Yes.

I hope that clears it up for everyone.

Even in our keystone story, Job, we get some of the ambiguity:

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job 2:9-10 (NRSV)

Ancient near eastern misogyny aside, Job affirms that both good and bad events come from God.  At the same time, the reader knows that God is doing none of these things but has given the accuser liberties to do so.

God having a plan, God being in control, God being sometimes active and sometimes passive, people acting freely out of their own desires, and nature running according to natural law are all different layers that describe the same reality from the perspective of the biblical texts.

God is at work bringing everything to what’s best, and sometimes ancient Assyria is a jerk and conquers someone, and sometimes dead branches break off of trees when their structure degrades and someone happens to be under them when it happens, and sometimes things happen that God really hates.  Sometimes Jesus cries when his friends die.

This is hard for us to reconcile, because we can only envision our plans coming to fruition through control.  We are creatures and we exert our will on other creatures.  Even if I’m the most cunning, Games of Thrones manipulator on the planet, I still have to do things to make my plan happen.  The idea that I might have a purpose for an event to fulfill and that event coming amount solely through chance, freedom, and mechanistic naturalism would be absurd, but that’s because manipulation and force is the best I can do.

Somehow, in some way, God who created the universe with all its starting parameters running its courses, and this God who permeates and fills every subatomic particle, is both behind our reality, non-coercive in its execution, and an actor within it as He sees fit.  All these facets have their biblical data.  Is it any wonder we struggle to make a cohesive picture out of all of this that makes sense to us?

In a sense, this is what the Westminster Confession is trying to pull together for us, but we are forced to acknowledge that this is a portrayal of meta-reality that we cannot understand.  It is mystery.  And this is why all philosophical and theological constructs that try to put everything in a nice neat package will eventually fail us, the same way that an explanation for how something (anything) can exist eternally before everything else will fail us.

This is why I think that coming to a place of being able to live with the problem of evil is more about acknowledging our limitations than comprehending God.

Do We Trust God?

This is what it comes down to, doesn’t it?

Is God there?  And if so, is He good?  Is He powerful?  Does He have our best interests at heart?  Is He trustworthy?  If I pray, will He answer?  If He doesn’t, was He still doing what was ultimately best?

How much do I trust my own capacity for truly understanding an event in a cosmic context?  When I see evil or chaos, does my inability to see a good reason for it mean that there isn’t one?  If there is a God who has suffused all time and space and made them the way they are, should I expect that He will consistently behave exactly as I believe such a being ought?  Has God told us there are things we will not understand, and has He shown us things about Himself on which we can depend?

Everyone is going to have to answer those questions for themselves.  As for me, I have seen enough to believe that there is a God who can be known and can be trusted.

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him

Job 13:15a (KJV)