Saturday, December 29, 2012

Four things children's ministry has taught me

For about eight months now I've been blessed (and challenged) with the opportunity to care for and teach two truly wonderful classes of preschoolers in Sunday School at my church. If this comes as a surprise to those of you who know me to be a generally quiet, serious, hyper-analytical INTJ type, know that I continue to be surprised by my love for children's ministry every week. Even though I am just about the only teacher with no formal education whatsoever in working with kids, even though I often feel like I have no idea what I'm doing, I always look forward to spending another Sunday morning with them.

This all reminds me of what Jesus had to say (that was recorded) about children in Mark 10:13-16:
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
 To simply read this passage and conclude something like, "Look how loving Jesus is, He welcomed and blessed the little children when his disciples were turning them away!" is insufficient. Jesus makes some really challenging (here italicized) statements. To such [those like little children] the kingdom of God belongs. And, in fact, only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child will attain it. Jesus seems to be saying that there is something about children that is worth taking note of and even imitating that is necessary for our life in Christ.

And here the idea of how the words of the Bible underdetermine its meaning comes into play. Jesus says that we have to be like children in our faith, but doesn't specify exactly how. What are we to make of His words, then? Of course He didn't mean we should be extremely selfish, throw tantrums whenever we don't get what we want, or be as simple as children in our thinking even in adulthood. We are told to have a childlike, not childish, faith. From my very limited ministry at Hope, here are some non-encompassing things I think kids "get" about life that adults tend to forget.

Kids know what they want.

This one sounds like a bit of a no-brainer. What I'm getting at is the common idea of kids being "innocent"--but of course, this isn't entirely true, as any parent (or maybe older sibling) can attest. What I mean is that kids (at least, the younger kids I work with) don't seem to have developed the complex web of hidden issues, conflicting desires, constraining obligations, or long-hidden afflictions that adults are so frequently burdened under. Everything is on (or near) the surface. If one of my students is having a bad day, they don't bury it or put on any masks; it shows in their faces, their actions, their reluctance to play with others. If he or she is happy and excited to be there, that is easy to tell as well. Kids are transparent with themselves and others in a way that adults are not, and I think that's just fantastic.

Kids know their limits. (And aren't afraid to ask for help)

This is probably especially true of younger kids, for whom there are still many things they can't do for themselves. What continues to make an impression on me is the candor they always have when asking for help.  For example, at ages 3 and 4, my students are still in various stages of learning to write their names. If they can write their name on whatever craft we're doing that day, they give it their best shot (and I always act impressed, because I always am). If they can't, they ask a teacher to do it--no shame or reluctance felt, or needed.

Our present culture places high values on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, to the point where asking for help becomes unthinkable. People (myself included) can spend years trying to deal with their problems without telling another soul, thinking they can "handle it". Knowing when to ask for help is an extremely valuable skill to have, and kids are real pros at it.

Kids know how to trust.

This is partly hearsay and partly what I've seen from kids getting dropped off and picked up, but I believe 3 to 4 is right around the age when children see their dads as supermen who are all the coolest dads ever, can do no wrong, and serve as great sources of security. (And if something happens to break this trust--like an abusive or absent father--the effects can last a lifetime) Of course, they grow out of this as they realize that dads, like the rest of us, are only human, that they aren't perfect or all-powerful or (in many cases) the coolest people ever. The transition from seeing your dad as this almost mythical figure to seeing him as a peer is one that I'm still navigating, to a degree.

But part of the good news of Christianity is that we have another Father, one who really is perfect, all-powerful, and completely worthy of the trust we placed in our human fathers as children. This is easy to forget because His parenting style is more extreme than anything we get in human relationships: sometimes far harder and more difficult than anything we experienced with our human father, sometimes softer and more loving than anything we ever dreamed. Donald Miller describes the challenge of this in his book Father Fiction:
Another thing I noticed in Jesus's [the Lord's] prayer is that he submitted to God: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven," Jesus says. And I don't think Jesus was saying God was a control freak, trying to make himself feel powerful. He could do that by smashing atoms together if he wanted; rather, in asking us to submit it seemed to me Jesus was saying, Look, you are going to want to do things your way, but your way isn't the best for you. Trust me, I know what you need. Jesus said this outright in his lead-in to the prayer: he said our Father in heaven knows what we need before we even ask him.
God our Father in Heaven isn't always the father we want, but always the one we need if we are willing to submit our wants and trust Him. I think this trust, when lived out, will look surprisingly like a child's total trust in their dad.

Kids know how to accept grace.

Getting back to what I said about kids knowing their limits: our culture of self-sufficiency and responsibility also makes it very difficult to accept grace; that is, favor that we didn't earn and can't claim responsibility for in any way. Of course, it being the Christmas season, you might think that everyone just loves gifts, but even behind Christmas there can be a lot of obligation, of trying to "prove" to people that you love them by spending money on them. Our sense of guilt when we get a great gift from someone we didn't buy anything for or, on the flip side, the entitlement of convincing ourselves that we "deserved" that gift somehow and were right to receive it, both go to show the real difficulty we have in accepting true grace.

You get the pattern; I think dealing with grace is something we tend to forget how to do as we get older. Of course kids are susceptible to entitlement (becoming "spoiled"), but I don't think that's where they start off. Kids are used to being provided for simply because they can't provide for themselves. Now that I'm an adult I always feel a bit awkward when I go out to eat with my parents and they pick up the bill, but when I was younger this was just business as usual. When we realize that there are things we can never provide or earn for ourselves--like justification of our lives before God--the correct response is childlike faith, not shame at not being able to earn them or attempting to justify our receiving them. No matter how mature, rich, or powerful we become in life, we are always going to be like needy children before Almighty God.

One last thing I've been learning that doesn't fit into the "Kids know _____" rubric is the difficulty of trusting God with the spiritual development of others. When I look back at my own life, I see how no one person, not even my parents, could have steered me onto the path God has led me down to knowing Him. While this does take some of the pressure off teaching Sunday school, it's also humbling to know how little a difference I can make on my own, and believing that God can make something real and powerful out of my meager contributions to these kids' lives has helped build my own trust in Him.

At this point I'm a bit pessimistic about asking for comments and discussions on my posts, but of course my picture of "receiving the kingdom of God like a child" is far from complete. So I simply leave you with the question; what does "childlike faith" mean to you?

Friday, December 28, 2012


As of today, I have officially been accepted to the Center for Graduate Studies at Northwestern College to pursue a MATS (Master of Arts in Theological Studies) with an emphasis in biblical studies! Starting next summer, God willing, I will be taking classes in spiritual formation, biblical hermeneutics, and studying the scriptures in the original Greek and Hebrew! Needless to say, I am unbelievably excited about this opportunity and see it as an answer to a lot of prayer and heretofore unfulfilled desire for depth in my theology. (As opposed to the breadth in my Old Testament survey class that focused on the "30,000 foot view") To explain more of my reasons for applying to this program, here is one of the essays I wrote while applying, minus the paragraph about why I chose Northwestern in particular.

The idea of pursuing a graduate degree in theology came to me very suddenly one day at work, and I knew it was worth following up on because I felt even more excited about it than I had been about getting my current job at Seagate. I had previously only considered graduate school in a similar field to my undergraduate degree (computer science), but as I thought about a master's degree in theology it made even more sense than these options. I simply feel called to pursue it in a way that I have never felt called before.

In addition, I am learning that I have a passion for deeply studying scripture and growing in understanding of the things of God. Attending a secular university, I pursued this interest largely through my blog, where I practiced my writing skills by investigating various topics of theology and scripture. More recently I have been taking a survey course on the Old Testament at my church, which, while satisfying, only highlighted my need to understand and apply God's word more deeply. I can think of no more thorough way to do this than a graduate degree. There is plenty of free Christian training and instruction out there, but I don't just want to be taught the Bible, I want to be able to study it myself and teach it to benefit others.

Less clear than my calling to pursue this degree is what I would do with it. I currently have no specific plans to use it in my career, but I do have some dreams for how I want to use the gifts God has entrusted to me to serve the church. I want to help people who struggle with doubt as I do and have. I want to make more of a difference in my small group and in the Sunday school class I teach. Most of all, I want to learn and demonstrate how to use the Bible to draw together the body of Christ rather than divide it, as the Bible is unfortunately used to do. Wherever God takes my life from here, I know that having the solid foundation provided by these studies will be good and beneficial. Since I have no specific career aspirations using a MATS, the process of studying the Bible and theology more deeply is more important to me than the destination.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christocentric Hermeneutic/The Fulfillment of Scripture

A few weeks ago a friend shared this video about how the whole Bible is "basically about" Jesus, and it got me thinking. The narration appears to be excerpts from a Tim Keller sermon with the ultimate conclusion that the Bible isn't about you and your problems, but about Jesus and how He is the culmination of God's written history.

While I affirm the focus of the video on shifting the focus of religion from self to Jesus, it also strikes a nerve I have been thinking about lately. Keller, for all the amazing work he's done in spreading and living the gospel in New York, makes a serious false dichotomy when he asks, "Is the Bible basically about you...or about Jesus?", as if he's already eliminated all the other possibilities. In fact, if I didn't know it was Tim Keller saying everything in the Old Testament is about Jesus, I would question whether the speaker had actually read the whole Old Testament. Having just finished doing exactly that while taking an Old Testament survey course, I'm about as qualified to comment on this matter as I'll ever be.

Perhaps Keller is using a very different definition of "about" than I am, but from what I have read I would say that Jesus is not the subject of most of the Old Testament. Yes, it's true that it serves to build up an expectation of Jesus' coming and show the need for Him, but saying it is basically about Him is like saying that The Hobbit is basically about the fate of the One Ring of power. I worry that by thinking of everything in the Old Testament as "types and shadows" of Christ, by fitting them all into the same mold, we risk missing out on the uniqueness of these people and stories, and what else they may say about God rather than just reaffirming the gospel. It is because of this danger, along with some of the logical/semantic leaps and twists it has to go through to fit some stories to Christ, that I dislike the study of typology.

Christ and the cross alone make for a confining lens through which to view the entirety of Scripture (and it's a sign of the culture I'm coming from that I feel like a heretic just for saying that). But really, the Person of the Trinity who is by far the most active and visible in the Old Testament is, of course, God the Father, not Jesus. By trying to make everything about Jesus, we ignore or rush past this lesson to connect everything to the gospel. If I had continued thinking of the Mosaic Law as simply a "shadow of the reality" of Christ, I might never have been brought to the fuller understanding of the nature of the Law and sin I now have or learned any of the applications that came with this. The two probably aren't incompatible, but my previous way of thinking led to a lot of chronological snobbery, "Those poor, poor Israelites only got the shadow instead of the infinitely better reality we now enjoy", which later got turned on its head

But of course Christ, though largely not seen in the Old Testament, does play an important role backstage which I'm not going to deny. While looking into this, I had a related question: "What does it really mean for scripture to be fulfilled?" Jesus is, of course, said to fulfill dozens of verses from the Old Testament, which is one of the main reasons people say the whole Old Testament is about Jesus. My old view on this was simply that Jesus fulfilling scripture meant that someone made a prediction or prophecy of Him at some point in the past that came true in His life. The big problem with this view of fulfillment is, as Matt Chandler says, the Bible.

For example, in the gospels Jesus is said to "fulfill" parts of the Old Testament that are originally about someone else (Hosea 11:1, fulfilled in Matthew 2:15), parts that are not prophetic in nature at all (Psalm 22:18, fulfilled in John 19:24), or even obscure clauses in the Law (Numbers 9:12, fulfilled in John 19:36). None of these examples fit into a prediction-coming true model of "fulfillment" at all. How can Jesus fulfill verses that weren't predictions about Him at all?

I did a word study on "πληροω" (pleroo), the Greek word that translates to "fulfill". Besides its meaning of fulfilling scripture, it is also used to mean being filled with qualities like joy (Acts 2:28), wisdom (Luke 2:40), or sin (Matthew 23:32); completeness (e.g. the common phrase "So that your joy may be complete); or even the passage of time. A related word is also used in Paul's somewhat mysterious utterance in Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions" Overall it has a strong sense of fullness/filling, completion, or abundance. Yet even if it can mean filling or completion, it doesn't seem to carry the implication that the thing being filled was somehow empty or incomplete before, as Christ's afflictions were certainly not incomplete in their power or scope.

What they yet lacked was imitation or reflection in the lives of we who are being made into "little Christs". In light of this, I am coming to view fulfillment in a scriptural context as more of a realization or affirmation of the truth, power, and authority of scripture by living it, or "making it real". Not that Psalm 22:18 was any less real or true before Jesus fulfilled it, and God wouldn't be a liar if He hadn't, but I think He did it to show that God still reigned in power even during the crucifixion, and because, in a sense, Jesus was the very Word that He was fulfilling (John 1:1).

There is also a big opportunity here. The fact that Jesus "fulfilled" verses that weren't specifically about Him means, I think, that there is no reason why we can't also imitate Him by doing likewise. It's a new way to think about "living biblically", as if we're somehow bringing its words to life in our lives. Of course, the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary to keep us from simply picking and choosing scripture or twisting it to suit our own desires, which is worse than simply ignoring it. (For example, fulfilling Proverbs 20:30 on anyone I disagree with) For example, in Acts 1:15-26, Peter and the other apostles pick a new apostle to replace Judas by lot because of a need to fulfill two seemingly arbitrary, even mistranslated verses in two of David's imprecatory psalms. I would hope there was some kind of urging by the Holy Spirit behind this, or it would set a precedent for doing pretty much whatever we want with the Bible.

So, back to Keller's fundamental question: "What is the Bible basically about?" In too many words, I would say: "The character, nature, acts, and glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the context of human affairs and the created world". The persons of the Trinity get varying amounts of screen time, but of course all three are of equal importance. And the context is also important: of course the Bible isn't about us, but it is almost entirely written about the lives and affairs of people, always in light of who God is. God's presence in this context ranges from immediate and direct (Exodus or the gospels) to invisible, unmentioned, and indirect (Esther). We do get a few hints about God outside the context of ourselves, like Isaiah and John's glimpses of heaven, but they are indistinct and few.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Interpreting the Second Amendment

Following up my post from two days ago on gun ownership and violence, this article is an interesting look at the drafting and interpretive history of the second amendment. It reminds me of the kind of analysis I try to do on the Bible--which is cool, but also a little troubling that a legal document would be examined in the same way and treated with the same reverence.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Yet Another Response to Mass Shootings

In the wake of yesterday's horrific mass shooting in a Connecticut school, there has been no shortage of  well-intentioned expressions of sorrow, sympathy, faith, and outrage. This post is not exactly one of those. There have been plenty of calls for increased gun control and availability of health for people with mental health disorders. This post is not exactly one of those, either. But another thing of which there is never a shortage after a mass shooting is data on gun violence, which this post will be making use of.

As these tragedies seem to keep happening with increasing frequency, it's understandable to call for something--anything--to be done to prevent another. Strong calls for increased gun control are made and debated. Somewhat less frequently do people ask, "Why does this keep happening?", and fewer still do they seriously seek an answer. Answers are what I will be attempting, in my capacity, to move towards.

As this data on gun violence from 2007 [1] shows, the U.S. is far and away the number-one country in the world by gun ownership per capita, with almost one civilian-owned gun for every single person. In fact, with just 5% of the world's population, the U.S. has 35-50% of its civilian-owned guns.

If you are among those calling for increased gun control in light of the Sandy Hook shootings, you may point out statistics like these as evidence that American gun control laws need to be tighter to prevent future shootings. Underlying these arguments, I think, is an assumption that if we can just keep guns in the hands of the "right people" (those who aren't going to go on rampages) and out of the hands of the "wrong people" (those who could), the problem will go away or be massively assuaged. To which I would respond with three reminders:
  1. It's impossible to fully, reliably identify the "right people" in advance. Shooters like Adam Lanza had no criminal record and it's safe to say that no one could have predicted with any certainty what they would do.
  2. Let me repeat the above statistic: the U.S. has 35-50% of the world's civilian-owned guns, an estimated 270 million. Even if we start tightly regulating firearm sales now, these weapons are still out there and potentially available to those who would use them for harm.
  3. On top of this, there is every evidence that guns will soon be 3-D printable. Recently a 3-D printed gun was able to fire six shots before breaking, and the technology will only improve with time. If and when reliable firearms become 3-D printable, keeping them out of just about anyone's hands will be nearly impossible. Update: Another good article on this.
Not, of course, that I don't think increased gun control legislation would help prevent future shootings. Point 9 of this list of facts [2] shows that negative correlations have been found between different gun control laws and firearm deaths. However, to make a need for increased gun control your only response to mass shootings--to rely on it to solve the problem--is to treat it as a kind of "silver bullet"; more laws and the killings will cease. For the above reasons, I am not convinced that this is the case.

These calls also conceal an almost chilling indifference for the shooters themselves--as if it's fine to have an unknown number of people mentally willing and able to carry out mass shootings in the country, as long as they are prevented from actually doing so (with guns). Of course, there have also been calls to make help for people with mental problems (which have been a factor in quite a few of the shootings in past years--see this map [3]) more available, which is a step in the right direction. But it also carries another danger--of simply writing shooters off as "mentally ill" and their actions as "senseless", impenetrable to further analysis or explanation. The implication is that people like mass shooters have always been with us, and mass shootings are simply a result of making firearms available to them and not doing more to treat them psychiatrically.

I see another version of this in many well-intentioned Christian responses to mass shootings (deliberately no examples here), which would be almost as appropriate as responses to natural disasters. The attitude seems to be one of faithful trust in Christ in the midst of this unavoidable situation--if there is any attempt to explain shootings, it generally comes down to "America needs Jesus"--which while, of course, true, is true of virtually any other problem we face and not specific or particularly effective at changing anything. We as Christians are not simply standing apart from the rest of the world and trying to bring people with us--we are called to be God's hands and feet restoring shalom and acting in the world for good.

But enough running my mouth--back to the data for something else interesting I saw. I tried looking at the above data [1] in another way, combining the homicides-by-firearm and gun ownership statistics to find the number of gun homicides per 1,000 firearms--in other words, asking, "No matter how many firearms America or other countries have, how deadly are they? How much are they actually used?"

For its leading rate of gun ownership, America was only 64th in this statistic, with just 0.033 firearm homicides per 1,000 firearms--behind countries like Ireland, Belgium, and (surprising to me) Singapore. The following countries had a score of greater than 1, i.e. at least 30 times that of the United States, while at the same time ranking relatively low in gun ownership.
  1. Trinidad and Tobago (17.069)
  2. Honduras (11.037)
  3. Ecuador (9.792)
  4. El Salvador (6.879)
  5. Jamaica (4.864)
  6. Colombia (4.592)
  7. Sierra Leone (3.800)
  8. Venezuela (3.642)
  9. Dominican Republic (3.196)
  10. Bahamas (2.900)
  11. Guatemala (2.657)
  12. Brazil (2.263)
  13. Bangladesh (2.240)
  14. Belize (2.182)
  15. Philippines (1.900)
  16. South Africa (1.341)
  17. Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.114)
  18. Kazakhstan (1.031)
Meanwhile Norway, the country with the lowest rate aside from countries with no homicides or no data (admittedly, this data is from before the massacre at Oslo and Utøya), was about 1/20th the U.S. rate with 0.0016. In terms of simple gun homicides per capita, the U.S. also ranks just 28th.

What this means is that there are substantial (four orders of magnitude) differences in the deadliness of civilian firearms between countries. A given firearm is more than ten thousand times as likely to kill someone in Trinidad and Tobago as in Norway, at least in 2007.

The U.S., however, is by far in the lead for mass shootings, with nearly as many school killings from 2000 to 2010 as 36 other sampled countries put together [4], and 11 of the 20 worst mass shootings in the past 50 years [2, point 3]. And even though the vast majority of people killed by firearms in the U.S. did not die in mass shootings, the almost mythical level of publicity these shootings--these unnecessary deaths over all others--get makes them one of the main driving forces for the American gun control debate.

It is about these facts that I sincerely ask, "Why?" With all the data available on the internet, anyone can try to point out this problem as I have done, but actually understanding why Adam Lanza did what he did, much less why America is such a world leader in mass shootings, is not a task to be undertaken lightly. But I think it is one that we cannot continue to sidestep.

Finally, I highly recommend this article explaining the difficulties in debating data on gun control, why consensus on this issue is to hard to come by (point 12 of [2] indicates that mass shootings don't significantly change peoples' views on gun control, they just fire up the debate anew), and the importance of sincere dialogue.

Update: This is the kind of analysis I think we need.

Friday, December 14, 2012

"You keep saying that word..."

Somewhat in a similar vein to my comment on "Christianese", last Sunday I was treated to a video, "Shoot Christians Say", which will likely either make you laugh for its entire duration or make no sense whatsoever. It's a brilliant bit of fun-poking at the evangelical Christian subculture which I arguably still have one foot (or a few toes) in. Sadly, it seems to have been removed, but luckily I typed most of the idomatic words and phrases and, as anyone in my situation would do, categorized them into three groups:

1. Often-vague allusions to Biblical language:
  • "Fruit"
  • "Blessed"
  • "In the world, not of it"
  • "Brings/teaches the word"
  • "Guard her heart"
  • "Testimony"
  • "Saved"
  • "Released"
  • "Fellowship"
  • "Accountable"
  • "Believer"
2. Ambiguous words behind which much of significance can be hidden:
  • "Backsliding"
  • "Struggling/Wrestling"
  • "Pursue"
  • "God thing"
  • "Purpose-driven"
  • "Passion"
  • "Witness"
  • "Intentional"
  • "Secular"
  • "Words guy"
  • "Relevant"
  • "Brought the word"
  • "Watered down"
3. Christian "memes" that aren't necessarily ambiguous, but are highly idiosyncratic and may have a different meaning within a Christian context than without:
  • "Bless his heart"
  • "Slippery slope"
  • "How's your heart?"
  • "Safe for the family"
  • "Unspokens"
  • "Echo"
  • "Small"/"D-"/"cell"/"community"/"access"/"accountability"/"Acts 27 group" (note: Acts 27 is the chapter in which Paul is shipwrecked on Malta)
  • "Seeker"
  • "Non-denom"
  • "Bounce your eyes"
This all got me thinking: what does it mean when you say a word or phrase has been used so much that it has  "lost all meaning"? Perhaps we've said this of so many things that the expression has...well, you know. Obviously these terms don't simply have no meaning like nonsensical gibberish. People use them in real conversation, more often than not to get a point across. Here is my theory.

I see two extremes when thinking about language. On one hand, you can see a perfect, one-to-one mapping between words (in your language) and underlying meaning. This view holds that when used properly, language is clear and unmistakable, to the point where you can think of meaning as being inherent to the words, On the other, you can think that words have no real meaning and language is whatever you make of it. Having set up that dichotomy, I, of course, think the answer is somewhere in between. Words are imperfect tools for accessing the world of real meaning, and the linkage between them can be complex and subject to change over time. Words come into and out of fashion or shift to take on unexpected new meanings.

In the case of "Christianese" words like in the video, I think there are two trends at work. One, terms like "in the world, not of it" or "relevant", due to their relative trendiness, are being used extensively so that their meaning becomes broader and broader until, on their own, they only give a fuzzy, "feel-good" sense of the speaker's original meaning. So the powerful, radical, razor-sharp intent of Christ when saying He and His disciples were not of this world (John 17:16) is replaced by a vague, blunted sense of detachment or "being different" that can mean different things to just about everyone: spending 15 minutes every morning in devotions and prayer,  spending an hour a week starting spiritual conversations with people in the street, listening to "Christian" music instead of "secular" music...the list goes on. In another sense, the term, while it may be continually repeated verbatim and straight from scripture, becomes detached from its original meaning and replaced with whatever it means to the speaker at that moment or what they want it to mean.

And two, terms like "seeker" and "servant", while they may be better-defined in Christian circles, have taken on meanings that may be completely unrelated to their common usage in the English language at large. (A comment on the post by my pastor linked at the beginning of this post has a story about this clash of meanings for "servant") This is an extension of and contributing force to the tendency of American evangelicalism to form "parallel institutions" that resemble those of the world, only separate and "Christian". To authentically connect as Christians to the world at large, it's essential to speak the language of those you are trying to reach (a fact that was powerfully, miraculously, and literally demonstrated at Pentecost).

I worry that Christianity in America is doing increasingly poorly at this. On the one hand, many people still connect Christianity with arcane, KJV-esque "thee and thou" language or dense theological terms like "propitiation" or "supralapsarianism". On the other, as the video showed, there is a whole new set of counter-jargon associated with "hip" Christianity which I even see to a limited degree at my church, which strongly desires to reach young people who may encounter barriers to faith at other churches but can end up being just as confusing.

I've pretty much given up on making this old blog a hub for dynamic conversation, but I recommend checking out and possibly contributing to the discussion on my pastor Cor's blog above.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Providence, Part VIII: Application to the Five Points

This is part 8 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
The providence series continues! A bit of restructuring: I have decided to axe post 10--not, of course, because there are no difficulties with my position, but because I think I covered the important ones when discussing the problems with Calvinism and Arminianism (some of which my view shares) or in my other posts that arose from my struggles with doubt in the past months. Anyway, after all of that study of God's providence and sovereignty over us, I am now ready to summarize my current view on soteriology, which I overhastily rushed into in my previous attempts.

Total Depravity

Like Calvinism and Arminianism's versions of the doctrine of total depravity, mine is distinct largely because of the concept of free will on which it is based. Like the honest Calvinist, I would say that total depravity is not so much the bondage of the will as it is about the bondage of our natures. This is why I think free will is largely a red herring in discussions of total depravity; it's just not what "total depravity" or the parts of scripture backing it up refer to. We shouldn't expect it to be so philosophical. I am free to do what I consider to be good, to try to be good, even to try to know God, but my own efforts do nothing to change the fact that I am a sinful person and I am by nature separated from God. I've experienced the seeming paradox of wanting to love God more, but being unable to make myself. This is the essence of total depravity: we are by nature alienated from God and unable to make any move in our selves toward Him; I'm willing to believe we can't even truly desire to do so without His hand on our hearts.

Calvinists, however, often go a bit too far (with, I believe, the best of intentions) in defining total depravity, particularly in the metaphor of "deadness". An example of this kind of thinking: is found from a sermon preached by Mark Driscoll on predestination:
That being said, God’s heart is love. God’s invitation is Jesus. Our rejection is our own responsibility. And the reason why we reject and refuse Jesus Christ is because we are wicked. We do evil continually. We are slaves to sin. We do not seek God. We do not do good. We do not fear God. Our thinking is hostile to God. We are unable to understand the greatness of Jesus. We are children of wrath who are spiritually dead. Dead, dead, dead! Physically alive, spiritually dead.
Now at this point, some will ask, “What about free will? Can’t we choose God?” My answer is simply, “Dead people don’t make any decision..."
 And later:
Lazarus didn't call out, “Jesus, help me. I’m dead.” He didn’t pursue Jesus. He didn’t cry out to Jesus. He didn’t stick a hand out of the grave, begging for Jesus. He was dead, as Ephesians and Colossians say that we are spiritually dead. And what did Jesus do? Jesus came to him, as Jesus comes to us. And Jesus called for him, as Jesus calls for us. And Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth.” And Lazarus, through a miracle of Jesus, was given life from death. And exactly as Lazarus was brought forth from physical death, so the children of God are brought forth from spiritual death.
Notice the progression of logic here: he starts from the sinful nature: "We are wicked." From there he moves to the language of Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 of spiritual deadness. After making a clear distinction between our physical nature (alive) and spiritual nature (dead), he then draws some parallels between spiritual deadness and physical deadness that I don't think are warranted--starting with a total lack of agency. And then the story of Lazarus, which I don't think was ever intended to be a metaphor for total depravity.

Like all metaphors, the metaphor of spiritual deadness needs to be handled carefully and not abused or taken beyond its meaning in the text. If spiritual deadness meant a total lack of spiritual agency in the same way physical deadness means a total lack of physical agency, then we would be just as unable to decide evil as good. We would be unable to accept or reject God; we would simply have no spiritual dimension and would be completely materialistic beings, totally ignorant and apathetic of God. But this is not the case. In fact, everyone, from the fundamentalist to the atheist, is, in some sense, a worshipper of something; people all undeniably have spiritual agency. Therefore I conclude that such a close parallel between spiritual and physical deadness is unjustified. With the Calvinist misconception of total depravity as this kind of spiritual deadness, it's easy to see how salvation can be viewed as entirely God's doing with humans as passive beneficiaries of the process.

So, if we do have some kind of spiritual agency, what does it mean that we are dead in our sins without Christ? I think it means that this agency, by which we are able to enslave ourselves to the myriad pleasures of the world, is powerless to bring our hearts any closer to a perfect God. We are cut off from, unable to reach the true Life. We may like the idea of God, outwardly identify as Christians, and try to seek Him in some sense, but unless God makes a move and comes to us (and we respond with faith) we will never find Him or come the slightest bit closer to freeing ourselves from sin. By way of a preview, I am contemplating doing a post or series of posts on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, and I think the phrasing of the first one, "poor in spirit", is apt here--we are, in a sense, morally and spiritually bankrupt, with no reserves of our own to draw on, totally dependent on God to be good.

The Condition of Election?

To be brief, my position on conditional/unconditional election is more of a lack thereof. I think both the Calvinist and Arminian views go beyond what can be known for sure from the text and should be treated as sanctified speculation on the same subject, not as established doctrine (and certainly not as a basis for division).

Both conditional and unconditional election are, at heart, attempts to get into the mind of God--to answer the question, "Why does God elect those whom He does?". Without a direct word from God on the matter, such attempts are ultimately doomed (Romans 11:33-34). Do we try to make such simple rules to explain others of God's decisions? In fact both views try to constrain God--conditional election makes our foreseen faith the sole determining factor in our election, and unconditional election rules out anything about us from God's decision. Is God not free to show mercy to whomever He pleases for whatever reason He knows is best? Yes--God is not obligated by anyone or anything outside Himself, but only by His own word and promises to us.

In the language of Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible, precisely why God elects those whom He does is "underdetermined" by the Bible, at least in the level of detail Calvinists and Arminians seek. The only condition given for election is "foreknowledge" (Romans 8:29), which is vague enough to be interpreted either way--either God foreknowing those who are eternally His, or God foreknowing the elect as those who will have faith in Him, or something else entirely. In his book in Arminian theology, even Forlines admits that conditional election cannot be directly read out of scripture, but is inferred by the fact that salvation is conditional.

I don't think that the Bible has a conclusive answer to the question at hand, as is commonly expected of it. The Bible doesn't have all the answers we want, but the answers we need--the good news of God and His kingdom come to earth. The direct lines of causation drawn from election to faith and salvation, or vice versa, are both simplifications--they could be true, but are certainly not beyond reasonable doubt. As I argued in post 6.5, God's pursuit of and love for us are unconditional, and His hardening, wrath, and rejection are conditional--but how these are related to His eternal "plan" and our election are far from crystal clear.

Unlimited Atonement

I mostly agree with Arminius on the third point. You could say that Christ died "for" everyone, but "especially for" the elect, those who would believe. The gospel is only truly the gospel ("good news") if it comes with a real chance to be saved which can be accepted or rejected, which is hard to reconcile with the idea of definite atonement. Also, I would direct suspicion to the meaning of "for" in this point, which can have all sorts of different connotations and is the source of most of the confusion--the question is not merely one of quantity; there are alternatives beyond Christ simply dying "for" everyone or "for" only some, which the turn-of-phrase "Christ's death was sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect" is getting at.

Resistible Grace and Our Spiritual Agency

I think that Acts 7:51 is sufficient evidence that God's work through the Holy Spirit can be resisted. You may say, "Acts 7:51 is not talking about the irresistible work of God in actually bestowing salvation on sinners, but some other work", which I would say that in the Calvinistic view the whole process of salvation (of which turning from rejecting prophets and the Son of God is part) is supposed to be irresistible. If one part is resistible, it all is.

The elect are simply those who (by their choice and God's determination, not causation overriding their desires) do not resist the Spirit. Similarly, the reprobate are not so against their will, but because of it (Romans 9:32). God gives the real offer of salvation by faith to everyone; the elect are all those who accept it. But I don't think the Calvinist and Arminian views on this point have to be terribly different. God influencing someone and fully foreknowing what their response will be is essentially different to, though functionally identical to, Him causing their response.

To put it another way, consider again our aforementioned "spiritual agency". If, by the Calvinist view, we have none, no ability to accept or reject God, it's easy to see how grace can be irresistible. But, of course, we do have spiritual agency, and though it cannot get us any nearer to God, it can (sadly) move us away from Him. We are able to slow or undo God's work of salvation in us, but not hasten or effect it but only let Him do so.

Perseverence: A Present Promise Based on a Future Reality

Hebrews 3:14 tells us how to know we belong to God: "We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." Unpacking that: "We have come..." (past and present tense) "to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end..." (present and future tense) "the confidence we had at first." In other words, our faith is only real if it lasts.

This (and Philippians 1:6) seems like convincing evidence for the Calvinist point of perseverance of the saints on top of all the verses cited for it, but I think the message can go both ways. If we are truly in Christ, part of God's elect, then He will preserve our faith like He promised, but at the same time the perseverance of our faith is how we know we are elect. Once again, our status as elect (determined by God) is not the cause or source of our salvation; we are not saved "because" we are elect, but because we have faith.

Similar to the process of sanctification (with which it is inextricably bound), our assurance of salvation is conditional both on our faith and on God's preservation. This makes faith seem like a work we do to remain saved, except that faith is specifically contrasted with works, and the work of Christ in us makes it entirely possible to remain in faith whereas salvation by works is always impossible. Once we are in Christ, I would say that rejecting Him is more of a work than remaining is. Either way, it makes little practical difference: if anyone is in Christ, he has eternal life; if not, then he does not. Anything beyond that is semantics.

Again, my point here is to allow you to disregard all my thinking in previous posts and simply let you go back to thinking in terms of five points with a new perspective. The question of how God predestines and saves people is much deeper than that and without a firm, Biblical foundation for the philosophy underlying the debate your position will likely be whatever interpretation of the relevant passages sounds the best to you. The question of predestination has never been as simple as two sets of five points; don't think you have to choose either.