Thursday, May 30, 2013

Analogies of Faith

In which St. Patrick, trying to explain the Trinity to some simple Irish peasants, runs into difficulty:

In case you're like me and don't like pausing your music to watch videos: St. Patrick presents multiple analogies to describe the doctrine of the Trinity, each of which is promptly shot down for being tantamount to  heresy.
  • The Trinity is like the three different phases of water, which are all the same substance: Modalism (Sabellianism); God is all three persons simultaneously.
  • The Trinity is like the Sun, a star that also produces light and heat: Arianism; it makes the Son and Spirit out to be creations of God.
  • The Trinity is like the leaves of a clover: Partialism (tritheism); the persons of the Trinity are not three parts of a whole.
  • The Trinity is like a man who is a husband, father, and employee: Modalism again.
  • The Trinity is like an apple with three layers: Partialism again.
Finally, exasperated, St. Patrick breaks out a highly technical and theological definition of the Trinity, which satisfies the peasants. The video highlights a difficulty I see in discussing theology, especially pertaining to loftier subjects like the Trinity: our language just doesn't seem up to the task. We can speak in terms of human analogies or we can define/import more abstract, technical terms like "procession" (more on that below), perichoresis and hypostasis to try to get our point across better.

But neither of these options is quite suitable. As the video aptly shows, human analogies for spiritual realities always seem to carry baggage that can make them inaccurate and misleading. I don't think this is just because we need better analogies: rather, it's because we're attempting to describe something metaphysical (meta, the Greek prefix meaning "beyond") by analogy with something physical. This is no small task. Could it be that something like the Trinity is so other to our own physical reality that every analogy we make inevitably falls short of describing it in some way?

Using more technical "theobabble" doesn't work much better. We can describe the Trinity as "a hypostatic union in perichoresis" and clarify that "the Son is begotten of the Father while the Spirit proceeds from Him", but what on earth (or in heaven) does that mean for anyone who hasn't been through seminary? It's more confusing than trying to wrap my head around group theory! Even if these terms are based on Biblical language, it becomes hard to believe that we're recapturing the original meaning of the Bible by using them and not constructing something new.

The Trinity highlights the fact that the connection made by words between our understanding and concepts is not always clear or simple. There seems to be a wide gulf between our ability to understand and the true nature of God that words cannot bridge for us. Either we define them on our side and make analogy after analogy only to have them all fall short, or we define them on the far side and make doctrinally "true" statements about God while struggling to understand (much less apply) what they mean. This gap in understanding is, I think, what is meant in theology by a "mystery". Not a wall beyond which we aren't allowed to ask questions or follow implications, or where what seems wrong to our most sanctified understanding is actually right to God, but simply the limitations of our own capacity to understand.

The Filioque

For a more concrete example of this dilemma, I'll use the debate over the Filioque as a case study of sorts. For those unaware, the Filioque is a short clause in the Nicene Creed stating that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. It may sound innocuous, but believe it or not, this phrase is one of the primary causes of the division between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. I'll try to (greatly) simplify the history of the conflict.

In more detail, the conflict has to do with the translation of the Nicene Creed from Greek to Latin. The original Greek creed stated at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 simply ended with Καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, "and in the Holy Spirit". The second council at Constantinople in 381 confirmed the Nicene Creed, but changed the ending to speak of the Holy Spirit as ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, "from the Father proceeding". This has scriptural support in John 15:26 which speaks of the Holy Spirit as "the Helper...the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father". The third council at Ephesus in 431 quoted the 325 version of the creed and declared anathema anyone who tried to change it. Nonetheless, the 381 creed was adopted into the liturgy of the eastern church, and later a Latin variant into the western church. The fourth council at Chalcedon in 451 quoted the 381 creed and treated both versions as valid, and despite being anathematized, the 381 version became the standard throughout the church.

That is all background. Over time, councils and church fathers began to write about the Spirit as proceeding from the Son as well as from the Father, or from the Father through the Son. So Tertullian, at the beginning of the third century, writes of the Trinity:
As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
This is a prime example of what I mean by abstract theological speech: the members of the Trinity are said to be three in degree, form, and aspect, but one in substance, condition, and power It is far from clear what this is supposed to mean, or how these words are supposed to be contrasted with each other when, say, form, aspect, and substance are normally considered to be near-synonyms. And, in more length, he describes the Spirit as emanating from the Father through the Son like the fruit from the roots through the tree:
This will be the prolation, taught by the truth, the guardian of the Unity, wherein we declare that the Son is a prolation from the Father, without being separated from Him.  For God sent forth the Word, as the Paraclete also declares, just as the root puts forth the tree, and the fountain the river, and the sun the ray. For these are προβολαίor emanations, of the substances from which they proceed. I should not hesitate, indeed, to call the tree the son or offspring of the root, and the river of the fountain, and the ray of the sun; because every original source is a parent, and everything which issues from the origin is an offspring.  Much more is (this true of) the Word of God, who has actually received as His own peculiar designation the name of Son. But still the tree is not severed from the root, nor the river from the fountain, nor the ray from the sun; nor, indeed, is the Word separated from God.  Following, therefore, the form of these analogies, I confess that I call God and His Word—the Father and His Son—two. For the root and the tree are distinctly two things, but correlatively joined; the fountain and the river are also two forms, but indivisible; so likewise the sun and the ray are two forms, but coherent ones. Everything which proceeds from something else must needs be second to that from which it proceeds, without being on that account separated.  Where, however, there is a second, there must be two; and where there is a third, there must be three. Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties.  In like manner the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy whilst it at the same time guards the state of the Economy.
Gregory Nazianzen clarifies (if that word is here appropriate) that the Son is generated from the Father while the Spirit proceeds from the Father:
The Father is Father, and is Unoriginate, for He is of no one; the Son is Son, and is not unoriginate, for He is of the Father. But if you take the word Origin in a temporal sense, He too is Unoriginate, for He is the Maker of Time, and is not subject to Time. The Holy Ghost is truly Spirit, coming forth from the Father indeed, but not after the manner of the Son, for it is not by Generation but by Procession (since I must coin a word for the sake of clearness); for neither did the Father cease to be Unbegotten because of His begetting something, nor the Son to be begotten because He is of the Unbegotten (how could that be?), nor is the Spirit changed into Father or Son because He proceeds, or because He is God—though the ungodly do not believe it.
Over time, this generated tension between the western and eastern churches. This was underscored by the different implications of the Latin verb procedere and the Greek εκπορευεσθαι in their respective versions of the Nicene Creed. Both translate to "to proceed", but the Greek verb had come to mean the Spirit's unique form of being immediately from the Father while the Latin verb had no such connotations. This controversy came somewhat to a head around 860 when Patriarch Photius declared that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, which was a new statement at the time. Nonetheless, the eastern church rallied around this statement, while the western church held that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and or through the Son.

The disagreement continues to this day; the Roman Catholic church holds that "The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is God, one and equal with the Father and the Son, of the same substance and also of the same nature... Yet he is not called the Spirit of the Father alone,... but the Spirit of both the Father and the Son." (Catechism 245) It accommodates the eastern view by explaining that "By confessing the Spirit as he 'who proceeds from the Father', it affirms that he comes from the Father through the Son...for the eternal order of the divine persons in their consubstantial communion implies that the Father, as "the principle without principle", is the first origin of the Spirit, but also that as Father of the only Son, he is, with the Son, the single principle from which the Holy Spirit proceeds." (Catechism 248)

Meanwhile, the Orthodox church is split between rigorists who continue to hold to Photius' strict statement that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, and more liberal theologians who are open to the Spirit proceeding at least from the Father through the Son. The doctrine of the OCA states that "The Son is born from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father—both in the same timeless and eternal action of the Father’s own being."

So we have three different views on the origin of the Spirit: the western view that He proceeds "from the Father and the Son", the accommodation to the eastern view that He proceeds "from the Father through the Son", and the rigorist eastern view that He proceeds "from the Father alone". Each of these statements is speaking of a spiritual reality (the origin of the Holy Spirit) through a spatial analogy, which I have brilliantly represented below:
In literal spatial terms (think plumbing), these three modes of being are obviously incompatible. Of course, the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit is not directly analogous to plumbing setups. But no matter how much we insist on a precise, technical meaning for "proceeds" in this case that actualizes this distinction, the fact remains that its meaning is conceptually very hard to grasp in the mind, so our cognition about the relationship of the Trinity often slips back into the analogical thinking connoted by words like "through", "alone", and "proceeds". There seems to be no escape from analogy in theological thinking to some greener pasture beyond where we are able to directly speak and think about spiritual truths like physical objects, at least not in a subject as lofty as the Trinity.

For an example, let me use my imagination to give another direction in which the Filioque debate could (feasibly, I think) have gone. Suppose the Catholic church further split on the question of whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son together, or separately. Again, each of these possibilities translates analogically into a simple flow chart:

I don't think this distinction is unreasonably finer than some of the ones made in the church father quotes above. And yet it is quite a wall-banger: what on earth (or in heaven) does it really mean for the Spirit to proceed from the Father and Son together or separately? And what difference does it make for Christian faith and practice? The fact that each of these possibilities is based on a simple, easily distinguished spatial analogy belies the fact that they are conceptually very hard to grasp and distinguish clearly--this last example especially, but also the three real positions regarding the Filioque. By trying to look beyond the analogies to the "real nature of things" being signified, they lead us ultimately to places our minds are unable to follow and our minds, needing to latch onto something to reason about, fall back to thinking in terms of the spatial analogy.

I am growing increasingly suspicious of attempts to "peer behind the curtain" of the mystery of the Trinity--again, not to access understanding that is forbidden for some reason, but understanding of the spiritual nature of God that is simply beyond us. We cannot define or analogize our way into this understanding. Let me propose something that may be radical or obvious: despite being inspired by the Spirit while writing it, John did not have some kind of amazingly precise, transcendent understanding of the origin of that Spirit while he was writing John 15:26. In other words, he was in the same boat that we find ourselves in, trying to grasp at sublime things of heaven with earthly analogies that always seem to fall somewhat short. His statement was true, but incomplete.

If this is the case, we don't need to discern the exact, technical theological meaning of ἐκπορεύεται; we instead simply believe that John was speaking about the Spirit analogically using the everyday speech of his time. Does this mean our best bet for practically understanding, say, the Trinity is heretical analogies like the ones St. Patrick tried? I think so, as long as you realize the limitations of the analogy--what it does and does not connote. The water analogy is accurate in its depiction of the Trinity as three manifestations of the same basic substance, but falls short in that they aren't simultaneous. The Sun analogy is accurate in its depiction of the Father as (in some mysterious way) the source of the Son and Spirit, but falls short in that He did not "create" them. And so on. Better an imperfect/incomplete analogy that gives us some understanding than attempts to speak precisely that give us none.


In a helpful AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on r/Christianity, I learned that the reason for the church split over the filioque was not so much a matter Trinitarian theology as of ecclesiology. The clause was added to the Latin version of the Nicene Creed without an ecumenical council, which the eastern churches refused to accept. The western churches retorted that the Pope did have the authority to do it, and papal supremacy remains one of the biggest disagreements between the churches today.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

New Testament Final Paper

The following is the final paper for the New Testament class I took at my church, in which I write about four things I've learned from studying the whole New Testament this semester.

Having arrived at the end of a survey of the entire Bible, I can look back with genuine amazement at all that God has done in me this past year. I wouldn't have expected my first school year out of school to be the most influential to my thinking! He has used my reading, study, and discussion to transform my view of Him and His word. Where I was drowning in questions before, now my questions either have found answers or faded away into relative unimportance. I have learned to treasure the Bible as the story of God as told by His people rather than merely the foundation for a theological system. Praise God for being my teacher throughout  this year (and for giving me some great human discussion leaders as well)!

The most basic way my Biblical understanding has changed was a consequence of starting to do the weekly reading in Greek with John. This turned out to be surprisingly doable, despite my never having studied Greek before, due to picking up the alphabet as a former math major, knowing words from English roots and Greek word studies in books and sermons, and having the word-for-word ESV translation in parallel. Still, though I could make quite a bit of sense of the Greek text, it was painstakingly slow progress. Because of this, I realized I'd been reading the Bible too fast for nearly my whole life. Having to stumble through every word rather than flying over sentences I thought I "knew" forced me to focus on the text intensely and has really turned reading the New Testament (especially the writings on John) into a joy again.

For example, in John 7 I was struck by the prideful motivations of the Pharisees in dismissing Jesus as a "sinner" for healing the man born blind on the Sabbath and realized how easy it is for us to be like the Pharisees even without being legalists where salvation is concerned. Or in John 6, where Jesus delivers an increasingly bizarre sermon, I found myself following the mood of the incredulous crowd asking, "Jesus, what are you saying?" I also realized how much reflection and thought John had put into his gospel. It is much less of a "slice of Jesus' life" perspective than any of the synoptics. John's recollections of Jesus, filtered through a lifetime changed by love, are colored by his intimate love for his Savior and friend. He structures everything to make his point about Jesus' divinity as the Son of God and Son of Man, and intersperses plenty of his own comments and explanations. It's analogous to how I hear a new richness to old music when I listen with better headphones.

And besides all this, reading the Bible in Greek has also had the expected effect of allowing me to peer "behind the curtain" of translation to get at the original text. Even with my knowledge fuzzy as it is, I can start to pick up on things that get lost in translation. For example, Greek has multiple words for concepts English has only a single word for, like "time", "know", or "love". Given how much our language affects and shapes our thinking, I can't help but wonder how much of our confusing "knowing Jesus" as a purely intellectual venture or "loving Jesus" as a purely emotional feel-good experience is a result of the language we have at our disposal. The everyday language ("Koine" means "common") also reminds me that terms like "faith", "love", or "life" are not supposed to be technical or ultra-spiritual terms; they mean just what we would intuitively expect them to mean.

Perhaps the biggest change God has done in me this past year is in how I view and think about scripture. The difference in this regard between now and last September is like night and day. As I started studying the Old Testament, I held a view of the Bible that mirrored my highly intellectual, logical nature. I saw it roughly as a testimony from God to us about who He is, what His plan for the world is, and how we can know Him. The nature of this testimony was very propositional; i.e. it could be broken down into basic truths that were then combined into the edifice of truth I knew as "theology". I expected this edifice to perfectly mirror the nature of God in that it could have no tensions or contradictions in it, and every verse in the Bible (even the difficult ones) had to fit into it like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. I saw imperfect theology as an attempt to assemble this puzzle that didn't use all the pieces. The catchphrase "scripture interprets scripture" became roughly synonymous with allowing each verse to speak for itself (using scripture to clarify, not subjugate, other scripture) in its factual contribution to the completed puzzle.

The only problem with this view of the Bible is, as Matt Chandler would say, the Bible. During my survey of the Old Testament my scriptural paradigm developed fractures that turned into gaping cracks, and eventually it broke apart entirely. I grew increasingly suspicious of how I had to keep twisting the plain words of scripture to get this verse or that to fit in. And on a higher level, the tension I saw between the Testaments was becoming undeniable. Finally I admitted that God's word did seem to have tensions, even contradictions in it. My paradigm of scripture was so bound up with my view of God that, for a while, admitting this seemed tantamount to losing my faith. In reality, by waiting for God to reveal Himself in the ruins of the systems I'd built to try to understand Him, I was learning what faith is really about. This semester, I've been putting the pieces back together in a new way that ditches the puzzle metaphor altogether.

So how do I now see the Bible? It's more like I don't see it--or I consider it a window through which to see God, especially through Jesus. By trying to rationalize and systematize the truths of scripture I was making an idol out of God's words while forsaking the true Word that came into the world. Seeing as the early church was preserved not by the gospel-as-scripture (which hadn't been written or collected into canon yet), but by the gospel-as-knowledge-of-Jesus, I have concluded that the purpose of the Bible is not simply to teach Christians what to believe but to allow us to continue to experience and know (personally) Jesus even two thousand years later. This is what John states as the purpose of his gospel in John 20:31: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

This has led me to a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the Bible. I see it less as a repository of unformed systematic theology and more as a story about God breaking into the world, a book that, like Jesus, is fully divine and fully human at the same time. This means I read it expecting divine truth clothed in human culture and context (as it must be to be impactful for us), not existing in an abstract spiritual vacuum. I appreciate Biblical theology's emphasis on narrative and progression of revelation over propositional truths. I see scriptural tensions and apparent contradictions not as reasons to fear that Christianity is irrational but as evidence that it transcends the bounds of mere rationality and my own limited perspective of things.

And, most amazingly, I find that I no longer have doubts about the Bible, not because God has answered them all but because He has revealed Himself as the ultimate answer. The only way to truly get rid of my doubts was to accept them and allow God to lead me through them. As an INTP, I've realized the need to arrive at a "big picture" of the Gospel that really resonates with me rather than just being handed to me, that I can connect practically with every situation I face in life. I truly feel called to help other people to see God through questions and doubts the way He has helped me and I hope that the Master of Arts on theology I'm about to pursue will help me do to so.

This new, more holistic perspective of scripture has all kinds of applications. If we view the Bible not as nothing but pure spiritual truth and universal instructions but as originating from specific contexts, the question of how to apply it to our lives becomes less simple. Yes, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), but no Christian today thinks Paul's command to bring his cloak and scrolls (4:13) applies to us as it did to Timothy. Yet John Piper, preaching a sermon on the end of 2 Timothy, has still managed to learn something of the warmth of Paul and Timothy's relationship from this verse.

That is an extremely simple example of the role of context in Biblical hermeneutics, where it's obvious that our application of a verse is context-sensitive. Or consider Paul's instructions for churches to "greet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). Again, no one has a problem believing this directive is culturally contextualized, that a kiss means something very different today than in the first century, and that we can now take from it that we should greet others in the church warmly, perhaps with a holy handshake or fist-bump.

But dealing with cultural context in the New Testament is not always so easy. Consider some of the more controversial of Paul's instructions regarding men and women in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,  or 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. These have been the source of much contention regarding the rights of women in church as the question continues to be debated: just how much do these verses apply to the modern, American church? Paul doesn't make the original context of these commands or whatever rationale he may have had clear, and so we are left to guess at the context. His support of his points with the creation order indicates that there may be more universal principles behind them.

Or consider a different example, Paul's tirade about the Corinthians' abuse of the Lord's supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. As I learned when we preached through 1 Corinthians, the big issue was that the administration of communion, which was supposed to be a time for the church to come together in love and to remember the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus, had instead become a time of class segregation and elitism, as "one person remains hungry and another gets drunk." (11:21) I used to think that because Hope doesn't practice communion as a full meal, these verses simply didn't apply to my situation at all, and took his later command in verses 27 and 28 to examine oneself as meaning you had to pray and confess your sins before taking communion, as I still tend to do.

But if we look at the situation behind Paul's instructions and stop interpreting them in such a specific way, we see Paul's desire for the Corinthian church to be the kind of egalitarian community seen in Acts 4:32-35 where the categories people use to place themselves over others become irrelevant, or the strength of the symbolism he sees in the bread and the wine and his desire to fight for it to be reflected in the believers' conduct. Behind the specific misconduct of the Corinthians, these principles are just as applicable today as they were in the first century.

This context-sensitive way of looking at scripture can be confusing if you're accustomed to interpreting Biblical commands more literally. Where is the line, you may ask? What's to stop us from using context to apply the Bible in whatever way we want? I would ask, what is the rationale behind Paul's reprimand of the Corinthians' communion practices, or teachings on the role of men and women in the church? Orderly, loving worship, or more generally, the health of the body of Christ, the Church. The ultimate motive in my interpretation of scripture is (hopefully) not my own theological whims or even adherence to a "correct" method but my desire to be conformed to the image of Christ.

One interesting change in my thinking has been in how I treat concepts like salvation, love, grace, glory, wrath, or sin. I think in our western culture we're used to thinking of these things as abstract things or even numerical quantities that somehow have substance independent of God or us and that can be created, destroyed, and transacted almost like money. And many verses allow this kind of reading: God gives us love (1 John 3:1), we deserve to receive wrath but instead receive mercy (Romans 11:30), when we believe we obtain salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9), by our disobedience we store up sin and wrath (Romans 2:5) for ourselves, an abundance of grace and peace are ours (2 Peter 1:2), the atonement exchanges our sin for Jesus' righteousness, God strengthens us out of His glorious riches (Ephesians 3:16), or trying to get the maximum amount of glory possible for God (the glory of God is never referred to in this quantitative fashion). I refer to this kind of thinking as "spiritual objects".

But though this is what the (English) wording of the Bible sounds like to us, I don't think this is the picture it paints of love, grace, sin, or anything else, but rather a preconception we bring into our reading. My support for this point is not a convenient verse that clears up all our modern philosophical confusion but the mere fact that I see the glory of God's plan of redemption more clearly by reading the Bible in this way. I'm learning to see God's love not as an invisible quantity that He amasses in some kind of spiritual storehouse and gives us but as something He does, or is, or creates in us. The accumulation of sin is not like the increase of a monetary debt but increasing disunion and dissimilarity between us and God, the tragic breaking of intimacy.

This small shift in my reading has already had surprisingly wide effects on my faith. Instead of praying to receive intangible spiritual abstractions and feeling frustrated, I'm learning to see how God "shows up" in and through my life. Things I do like teach Sunday School stop seeming like merely something I enjoy doing and hope it "counts" toward an abstract notion of God's glory; instead I'm able to see my love for my kids as an (imperfect) reflection of His love for me that He is nonetheless pleased with, just as I'm genuinely pleased with my kids' less-than-perfect attempts to write their names. Adopting more tangible, personal definitions of love, mercy, grace, etc. has allowed me to joyfully see God better through these things and better connect the Gospel to my everyday life.

Finally, I have realized not only the truth but both the sheer scope of the Gospel. In evangelical Christianity I often see the Gospel being presented in a very individualistic, personal way, as in the KGP (Knowing God Personally) booklet used by Cru. The message is, "God loves you, has a wonderful plan for your life, and wants a personal relationship with you." True, but in our emphasis on God's loving and personal nature let's not forget His majesty and sovereignty over all creation. At the same time, the Bible tells us, we have been selected by God to know and be known by Him (Ephesians 1:4), and yet he invites us into a plan no smaller than the total renewal of all created things (Romans 8:21). The personal side of the Gospel invites us closer to relationship with our loving Father, and the grandiose side draws our eyes further to the amazing plan He has for all of us. I know of no better part of scripture that describes the scale of Gospel redemption than Revelation 21:1-5:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

There is the personal part, the promise of God coming to live with us of which God in the flesh, Emmanuel, "God with us" was as much a preview as the Mosaic covenant was of Jesus: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." But along with that comes a new heaven and a new earth, as God says, "Behold, I am making all things new." I don't believe this means God is going to destroy the heavens and the earth and then create new ones, which would call into question the point of doing so much in them to begin with. My favorite Christian blogger Morgan Guyton points out that in verse 24 "the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it", when according to a literal interpretation all of the kings of the earth have been destroyed by this point, along with the earth itself, several times over. If God is going to hit the reset button on the entire universe, our task of being good stewards over creation is pointless.

Instead, the story I see is God's redemption extending to every corner of creation (except those people and angels who tragically exclude themselves from it), so broadly and fully that the result of its completion can be described as "a new heaven and a new earth". It's like the book A New Husband by Friday, which claims to be not a guide to rapid divorce and remarriage but to changing your husband so he's like a new man within a week. (Whether this is possible is beyond the scope of this paper) This has had the effect of driving me to seek a view of God that makes sense of my whole life and makes visible the broken nature and hope for restoration of everything in it. Relating to the previous point, it's another step away from a purely abstract spirituality towards one that is just as grounded in the everyday things of life as Jesus Himself was.

This semester has been a time of a huge amount of change and growth in my relationship with God and the scripture, and looking back I'm honestly amazed at all He's done. It's a reminder to me of the power and importance of regularly confronting myself with scripture, not simply as part of a routine or "discipline" (which often means a routine) but because I feel a need to be filled that it is able to meet, just like needing to eat every day. "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4) As I start studying theology and Biblical Greek, I hope to continue increasing my love for the word of God and the Word of God behind it.

Speaking the truth in love after tragedies

As you're probably aware, a particularly nasty tornado hit near Oklahoma City on Monday. About tragedies like this, I would rather say nothing than something insensitive or canned, which unfortunately means I end up saying nothing. Depending on the circles you run in, you may also be aware that John Piper, did decide to say something, which has raised a rather disheartening commotion among some bloggers I greatly respect like Morgan Guyton and Rachel Held Evans. (Both posts and their subsequent follow-ups are still well worth a read) I'm going to speak like a fool for now (biblical precedent--2 Corinthians 11) and do some pontificating of my own on the situation.

Bloggers like the aforementioned two have used this incident as an occasion to question Piper's theology (knowledge of God) as cold, impersonal, and unloving to us wrath-deserving humans. Besides the fact that this instance actually doesn't point toward such a theology (Piper tweeted Job 1:19-20 which, while arguably insensitive, implies that the disaster was meant to inspire awe and fear in a God who is incomprehensibly larger than we, not that it was a manifestation of His wrath for sins), I'm not sure that theology as we usually think of it is the problem here.

Guyton in his post concludes that it is commendable and beneficial to try to see God's purposes in tragedies. However, we can't make others see for them, and trying to do so, as Piper does, can be cruel and damaging. "As a pastor, I do not give myself the authority to tell others how to interpret their tragedies. I can point them to the rich resources of God’s poetry in the Bible so that God can breathe into them the poem that fits." In other words, the main problem is not that commentators who are quick to ascribe divine purpose to tragedies are being insensitive, it is that they are appointing themselves as the mouthpiece of the Spirit and expecting Him to speak to listeners through their words. Obviously this is something a pastor should desire and pray for, but not something you can assume, especially in tragedies.

It's especially tricky when your words are a Bible verse, i.e. from "God's word". I can understand Piper's belief that a Bible verse would be an appropriate response for any situation, given that God's word is said to be a light for our feet and a lamp for our path (Psalm 119:105) and that all scripture is "breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). And yet, God's words can and have been misused to great harm after tragedies. Does this mean God's word has failed in these situations?
Remember the "truth trinity" I developed while thinking about what truth is (Jesus), and the follow-up exploration of the purpose of scripture (to encounter and know Christ as the apostles did). I think that for the Bible to truly function as "God's word", it isn't enough to just quote it, study it, or argue it. Isaiah 29:13 sets a precedent for this: "And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men." In other words, it isn't enough to merely throw scripture around no matter how "correct" or "appropriate" it is. Our hearts also need to be in the right place--in fellowship with the living God, being reshaped to the likeness of Christ. Jesus may have promised that the world will hate us, but that is no excuse to misuse scripture.

This is what the Christian aphorism "speak the truth in love" (from Ephesians 4:15) comes from. This is often distorted to mean something like "We most fully love people by speaking the truth of the gospel to them", which can be used to justify an overspiritualized gospel that elevates teaching right doctrine over and against all other needs (see James 2:14-17), insensitive tweets after disasters, or even (I hesitate to go there) the deplorable speech of the Westboro Baptist Church. Paul's point is that speaking truth (even a Bible verse) is not automatically loving and does not mean that God is definitely using you as His mouthpiece. A mother who lost her son to a tornado probably doesn't want to know about how it was all part of God's sovereign plan; she would prefer some empathy, or even a punching bag. This preference is not simply dismissable as "sin blinding us to God's truth". It is human emotion, and trampling it with a singular focus on "bringing truth" is callous. Sometimes the most "Biblical" response to tragedy is to say nothing and instead simply mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)

The medium itself also matters. There is an enormous difference between working through Hebrews 12:9-11 while counseling someone one-on-one to work through their anger at God about the death of a loved one, and tweeting it after a much-publicized tragedy. The difference is that one is highly personal, the other is highly impersonal. I don't think exploring and applying God's truth is supposed to be isolated from modeling the love of Christ through relationships, which is kind of unavoidable in a tweet. This is also why I don't like internet arguments. Without any relationship to preserve, there are just endlessly clashing viewpoints and wounded pride.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Irony in Spain

This has nothing to do with theology. Apparently the region of Almeria in southern Spain has been experiencing a "reverse greenhouse effect", a decrease in average temperature of 0.3° C per decade, due to--wait for it--greenhouses.

No, those aren't just unusually white-colored fields.
So many rudimentary plastic greenhouses have been erected to grow fruits and vegetables that the albedo (reflectivity) of the region has increased by 9%, reflecting enough sunlight back into space to decrease the temperature.

Just wanted to share.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Orthodoxy as a Process

Is it better to ask questions or find answers? This beautiful and thought-provoking comic about this question is work a read. Seriously, read it.

Scott McKnight recently wrote a nice new post on his blog titled, "Orthodoxy was a Process". In it he describes the development of thought about Christ's divinity in the early church, which underscores the fact that Christians haven't always believed the fully developed "orthodox" doctrine of the Trinity. His thesis is roughly this:
All theology, in the sense of orthodoxy or dogmatics or systematics, is a process. It’s an experimental expression to put into words what one thinks the Bible teaches in words that make sense in a new context. This also means no articulation is infallible or absolute or final. Which is not to say theology isn’t true, but it’s not final truth.
A risk of seeking "orthodoxy" in the church is that once a doctrine is declared orthodox by the Pope, reformers, leading theologians of the denomination, or what have you, it can often be considered (especially by people unaware of how it was arrived at in the first place) to be a complete, final articulation of spiritual truth that exactly captures how it really is "up there". Seeking greater understanding of this area of theology beyond the orthodox doctrine thus becomes discouraged, or even forbidden as heresy; the focus shifts to passing on the orthodox belief and proclaiming the message.

I see this a lot in many circles of evangelical Christianity. The "gospel" has been clearly articulated in four easy points; we know what it is, and our responsibility now is go "go and make disciples" (Matthew 28:19), passing on the truth we have learned to others who will be able to continue proclaiming it (2 Timothy 2:2). (Wow, I just used the key verses of Cru and Navigators in a single sentence) Not that exploring the wider meaning and implications of the gospel is really discouraged, but presenting the gospel in such a distilled, "this is what the Bible says about salvation" way risks disconnecting hearers from the process by which the doctrine was developed and by which they must develop an internal understanding of the gospel.
Analogy time: this helpful video explains how the standard PEMDAS rule order of operations is an overly simplified and even misleading representation of how mathematics works: "Focusing on the order of operations can lead to ambiguity and obscures the real, underlying, and often beautiful mathematics." Blindly following the rule you were taught in school not only hides the beauty and complexity of the mathematical operations, it can lead you to incorrect answers on problems like  6 - 3 + 1. It concludes that "while the order of operations isn't technically wrong, because most of the time it'll give you the standard answer, it's morally wrong, because it turns humans into robots."
A similar danger exists in theology. When we teach the doctrine of, say, the trinity as a Biblical argument in support of a diagram like the one above, we are teaching people to accept and believe a paradox (or mystery) that seems counterintuitive but is supposed to describe the very nature of God. By distilling the beautifully complex nature of God to bare, propositional facts and ignoring all the tension in the Bible and in church history about the trinity, we get theological robots who are able to effortlessly rattle off how the Father is not the Son is not the Spirit but all three are one God and the references to back it up, but are unable to draw any further conclusions or connect this doctrine meaningfully to their lives because it's a paradox/mystery beyond our comprehension, after all, and besides, you don't question orthodoxy, you just believe it because it's The Truth.

McKnight's post is a nice reminder of how previous generations of Christians have wrestled with understanding the nature of God. Justin Martyr articulated a Christian attempt to resolve the Platonic concept of logos with the God of the Bible; he thus portrayed Jesus as the divine logos, subordinate to the Father, by which the world was created. The result was largely a two-God theology depicting a a transcendent  immaterial Father and a subordinate logos involved in the earthy matter of creation. Certainly this is incompatible with how we understand the trinity today, and yet "logos Christology was never considered heresy; it was considered inadequate."

All theology (knowledge of, not just about, God) is incomplete; some of it is bad. Because we now know God only in part (1 Corinthians 13:12), all theology falls into one of these two camps. There is no complete, perfect theology to be found among people who are incomplete and imperfect at their best. In his letters Paul writes incomplete theology and warns against bad theology; he definitely considered his own knowledge of Christ to be a work in continual progress:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14)
An application of this idea of orthodoxy-as-process is in the ever-continuing debate over the nature of predestination and salvation, which I see most clearly between Calvinism and Arminianism. I think the line where healthy discussion becomes unhealthy division over this issue is when either side presents its view as "the" complete teaching of scripture, the final word on the matter, the conclusion of the search for the mind of God in predestination, and all opposing views as therefore unbiblical. (This is probably my bias showing, but I see this especially being done by Calvinists who speak as though Romans 9 or some other Pauline text is absolutely conclusive)

When I first started my series on providence to tackle this debate, as much as I might have denied it I really was of this mindset. I dreamed of finding the One True Soteriology that brilliantly explained all the Biblical evidence marshaled by both sides and ended the debate by silencing them in mute agreement. But if this orthodoxy-as-a-process idea is to be believed, then this dream was the epitome of hubris. Maybe we should expect the conversation to continue and no final conclusion to be reached this side of heaven. Of course we will (and should) reach conclusions when we do theology, but these conclusions are only outcroppings and resting points on the mountains of God (or of Aslan in C.S. Lewis' metaphor); we should not presume to have reached the peak itself.

On this blog, I've found that I tend to look back on all my posts from more than about a year ago (like the providence series) and think, "How naive and foolish I was then!" Maybe in another year or two I'll think so about this post. This comes with the adventure of an ever-changing, ever-growing theology. And just as we ought to be humble and encouraging to people at different points on this journey, I'm learning to accept my old posts as looks back at where I was in the past and reminders of where God has brought me.

Monday, May 20, 2013

In the day that you eat of it...

A quick note on a Genesis question I have had and that you might not even know you had. Genesis 2:17-18 reads:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
You know the story: Adam and Eve do eat the fruit, and then...don't die that day? Does this mean God lied to them, and the serpent was only guilty of correcting His lie? I've heard (and used) a number of responses. Some commentators focus on His mercy in letting them live--but this basically says of the lie, "it's no big deal, God can lie as long as He's merciful about it". Others, eager to fit the narrative into the evangelical narrative of salvation by grace through faith, interpret it as meaning spiritual death as separation from fellowship with God--nevermind that this dimension of death is not clearly seen until the New Testament. (And that it seems very likely that Genesis was supposed to explain the phenomenon of physical death) But there is a better way.

The Hebrew word translating to "in the day" is yowm, the same word used to give the "days" of creation in Genesis 1, which takes a variety of other temporal meanings throughout the OT including by not limited to a general "age" or period of time. (e.g. the "day of the Lord", which is really a new era of history) Because no two languages correspond exactly in their lexicons, yowm, while most often translated "day", should not be assumed to always have the same meaning as our English word "day"; we need to allow for a more flexible definition to account for the translational ambiguity.

Of course, lest you think Hebrew is just a sloppy language, the relationship can go the other way; for instance, Greek has two main words for "time", chronos, meaning a more specific length of time or specific point of occurrence and kairos, meaning an age or season similar to yowm. Now imagine a fictional first-century Greek person somehow listening to "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds (nevermind that it it itself based on Ecclesiastes translated from Hebrew), assuming every instance of "time" meant chronos, and doing an intensive study to determine what the exact times to be born, die, plant, reap, etc. the song is talking about are. This person would be missing the point.

Or, of course, Biblical Greek has two words for "love": agape, meaning selfless love in the pattern of God's love for us, and philos, meaning love between friends, both contrasted with eros, meaning romantic love. I think a lot of the modern evangelical confusion with overly emotional spirituality and "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs comes from the fact that these three drastically different concepts are translated to the same word in English. Suppose a Greek individual, reading an English translation of 1 Corinthians 13, insisted on reading "love" only as eros love.

So, in this understanding, Adam's eating the fruit can be seen as inaugurating a new era in history in which people die. While I no longer believe this is literally/historically true (see my posts on the Fall), I think it's exactly what the text is saying in context--no trickery or double speech on God's part.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Metatheology, Part III: A Theology of Diversity

Other questions:
What is truth?
What is the purpose of the Bible?

In this final part of the series, I ask the question that gave rise to the previous two:

How do we, as Christians, "do" theology lovingly and truthfully in the midst of significant theological disagreement?

Let me unpack what I mean by this question, which has been a burden weighing on my heart and my mind. Regardless of who is right, the simple fact is that God-loving Christians throughout the world and the ages, earnestly seeking to teach the truth and correctly understand scripture, have come to significantly differing theological conclusions on myriad subjects, and these differences have led to a great deal of the strife and division which has scarred this history of the church. This is the problem that Christian Smith in his book The Bible Made Impossible calls "pervasive interpretive pluralism". As Christians we affirm that God's will is for the church to be united in "mind and thought" (John 17:21, 1 Corinthians 1:10), yet we are also told to guard our doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16) and rejoice in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).

It seems like seeking the truth and being united in Christ should be complementary goals, but nothing about the church is as it really should be. Today we see these goals more often working against each other as churches and denominations clash and divide over points of doctrine. One of the primary issues of the "Great Schism" that divided the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches was the "filioque" clause in the Nicene Creed and the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or just the Father. More closely to my own background, the main driving force behind the increasing number of Protestant churches and denominations is doctrinal disputes causing previously whole groups to splinter over baptistic theology, the nature of the bread and wine Jesus said to take "in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and more practical things informed by the Bible like church leadership and worship styles.

And these divisions are not merely institutional in nature. Even today I see Arminians denounced by Calvinists for being semi-Pelagian, baptismal regenerationists as legalists, questioners of the historicity of Adam and Eve as revisionists, and liberal Christians as postmodern, all because their views are considered to be false (along with their faith) according to the sound doctrine of the Bible. This book review espouses the pursuit of sound doctrine as essential for church unity and the antidote to divisions: "If bitterness, gossip, and slander are tearing your church apart, sound doctrine is one of the most necessary tools for sewing it back together. If rivalries and divisions are suffocating the church’s love, it needs to breathe anew the rich air of sound doctrine." Yet all too often, it is the quest for sound doctrine that is the source of these divisions. How can the desire to know and obey God's word be so damaging to the church? But how can we give it up as we are reminded that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching (2 Timothy 3:16)?

The pat evangelical answer to doctrinal disputes is that sin blinds us from correctly discerning the plain and simple word of God (Psalm 19:7) and prevents us from loving our neighbor as we should, so such divisions are sad but unsurprising to the Christian. In other words, "sin" becomes a blanket excuse to just keep trying what we've been doing, because if and when we fail it's sin's fault. (With the implied hope that this time, with this theology book or doctrinal statement or blog post we'll finally get it right and everyone will agree and join us and there will be no more disunity) Well, is holding to a definition of "truth" that is primarily propositional rather than Christological (as I tried to show in the first post) and expects to find one exactly right answer a sin or isn't it?

Morgan Guyton points out this tendency much more skillfully than I can in a lengthy post, "Communion or Correctness? The Underlying Question". He debunks an idea of correctness held by Christians which he defines as "a way of thinking about behavior and opinions in which there is one right answer and the goal is absolute uniformity." In other words, believing that there is one correct way of thinking about God that we're supposed to uncover through the Bible just as there is one correct way to do math. (Though my one and a half years as a math major have lead me to question whether this is true either) With this definition, he somewhat conflates theological correctness and perfect moral performance, but it's still an amazing piece of writing. Some favorite quotes:
God’s holiness comes to mean His pickiness about our imperfection rather than God’s willingness to “cause his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God’s righteousness becomes God’s demand for perfect correctness that is canceled out by the cross, rather than God’s willingness to bear our sins through His Son on the cross (Romans 3:25) and pay for our mistakes unilaterally in order to “reconcile the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God’s justice becomes the damnation that we deserve and get rescued from rather than the moment for which those who are oppressed and cheated and slandered have longed (Revelation 6:10) all of their lives: when “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13) 
The task of the theologian under this orthodoxy [of perfect correctness] is to find the one correct way of interpreting the Bible and write an exhaustive systematic theology that dispels all the so-called “mystery” once and for all so that every Christian will be able to read their Bibles correctly and thus ensure that they have indeed accepted Christ into their hearts correctly so that God will accept their acceptable acceptance (which somehow isn’t justification by works even though people have to work very hard to convince themselves that they have the fruits of regeneration). 
I believe that a certain threshold of correctness is important for the sake of establishing communion between God’s people, but if correctness means chasing after an elusive goal of absolute ideological conformity, then it is a source of schism in the body of Christ and as such a heretical pursuit.
That last quote absolutely nails it. While obviously there are true things that God wants us to believe about Him, the more we try to pin down in fine detail what those things are, one of two things must happen. Our disagreements and even differences of opinion between us and our brothers and sisters may be magnified and blown up as implicit threats to the sacrosanct correctness of your own beliefs (and, by implication, the authenticity of your faith) until they tear us apart. Or some kind of a centralized authority must exert more and more influence to answer the disagreements and define what is "correct" to short-circuit this process, as in the Catholic and Orthodox church (and, arguably, certain more conservative parts of Protestantism with a clearly defined range of "orthodox" beliefs). And as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23) and the Truth we are after in the first place (John 14:6), I don't think this is the solution.

Consider someone who has just become a Christian. Do we expect him to hold the "right" view on predestination, or baptismal theology, or atonement theories, or eschatology? Hopefully not. We're fine with Christians being ignorant of what we believe scripture teaches about certain things (though we have trouble defining exactly what those things are). This indicates that we're not so concerned with doctrinal correctness as we are with a lack of error (which, I would argue, is a mistaken idea of perfection to hold). This could indicate at least as much of a fear of bad doctrine as a desire for good doctrine at work.

As I said last time, one of the main ways we evaluate churches and individual as authentically Christian is whether they hold beliefs consistent with the "authority of scripture" to tell us how to believe and live. So we look for "Bible-believing" churches to attend or warn about X liberal theologian as "unbiblical" in his doctrine. But hear this: if we make doctrinal correctness our definition of authentic Christianity, then irreconcilable differences in doctrine inevitably lead to irreconcilable divisions--and if church history has taught us anything, it's that irreconcilable differences can happen, and have already happened.

Does this mean that the "true church" has been lost, the body of Christ broken into fragments, never to repair unless we can somehow merge all the denominations and factions back into one whole like the early church? No--because love, not doctrinal correctness is the definition of authentic Christianity, as Jesus says: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35) If we know and are known by God through the atoning sacrifice of Christ love our neighbors, and especially our brothers and sisters of any denomination and creed, as Christ did, then we are part of the body of Christ, the church He started and that has continued unbroken to this day.

Of course this doesn't mean that theological disagreements should all just be ignored or that seeking to know Truth rationally doesn't matter. What I am saying is that correct doctrinal belief need not be, cannot be, the foundation for our religion or our churches. It must proceed from a deep and abiding love for God, the Truth; and for one another, not the other way round. For it is love, not orthodoxy, that is absolutely crucial for binding together human diversity into the unity God has called the church to have. I'll leave you with Paul's instructions to the Christians in Colossae, verses 3:1-17 (emphasis added):
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The Meaning of Synergism and the Glory of God

The following is an abridged version of a response I made to a Redditor who accused my semi-Arminian theology of being semi-Pelagian, and asked whether the lessons I'd drawn from my struggle with doubt are really focused on the glory of God:

There is no tension but unity between God's grace and our "willful cooperation" in our salvation. The Bible indeed affirms that faith is a gift from God (Romans 12:3, Hebrews 12:2), as is repentance (Acts 5:31, 11:18, 2 Timothy 2:25), but referring to them in this way is only a piece of the picture it paints. Much more often faith (Matthew 8:10, Mark 4:40, Romans 9:30-32, 1 Corinthians 16:13, 2 Timothy 2:22) and repentance (Matthew 3:2, Matthew 21:32, Acts 2:38, Acts 8:22, Revelation 2:5) are presented as things are are responsible for, in such a way that it is very difficult to read them as having nothing to do with our own agency without seriously twisting the words of the passage. An especially strong example is Luke 7:50, where Jesus says to a prostitute, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." No mention of God giving her this faith or even granting salvation because of the condition of faith, but "your faith has saved you." Was Jesus speaking to her in Romans-code, or did He literally mean what He said?

How can this be? How does God actively involving us in our having faith not amount to salvation by works? Because synergism does not mean God doing some of the work and leaving the rest to us, His junior partners-in-salvation. It means God working in us, through our will, our decisions, and our actions to accomplish His purposes. (Philippians 2:12-13) God's actions in us need not be discrete from our own; our believing His promises in faith is how He grants us faith and brings us to life. To assume otherwise is to incorporate the dualistic notion that God's spiritual work in us is wholly incompatible with our mundane thoughts and actions. Who is Christ if not a total union of the heavenly and the mundane?

The Greek word for "perfect", teleios, is based on the root telos, meaning end, goal, purpose, or plan, and is contrasted not with impurity or stain but with the state of being a part (1 Corinthians 13:10) or lacking something (James 1:4). It is essentially synonymous with "complete". The perfection for which we are saved and for which we strive is not a total cleansing from toxic works that taint and destroy the grace of God in us, but a completion of both our faith and the works that spring from it (James 2:22)--the image of God being completely and fully manifested in our flesh, in a reflection of Christ.

Neither is there any tension between God's ultimate goal/telos (His glory, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 2 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:11, Revelation 21:23) and more immediate things that serve this end. How can salvation be about God glorifying Himself and not be about His loving me and me loving others likewise, when love is God's very essence (1 John 4:16) and we bear His image as we are completed in love?

You say, "But those are merely means to the end, not the end itself," which is compatible with this, and yet you call me out for appealing to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 rather than directly to the glory of God. Do you mean that because God's glory is our ultimate end, we must then hold it consciously in mind as our motivation at all times? I disagree. It is entirely possible to glorify God without consciously thinking, "Here is how I am going to bring glory to God in this situation?" When I study God's word, or encourage a brother or sister, or play with my kids in Sunday School, I am not worried about whether I am glorifying God in this moment; my focus is in the moment, and like a child I trust my heavenly Father to work His goals as only He knows how to do through my simple expressions of faith. God's desire for us is for us to glorify Him not through our conscious pursuit of an abstract spiritual goal but in our very natures, by being the kind of "little Christs" He has made us to be.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Metatheology, Part II: Biography, not Textbook

Previously I explored the fundamental question, "What is truth?" and concluded that, rather mysteriously, God as most fully revealed in Jesus Christ is both the Word of God and the truth. I hope to keep working out more implications of these bare conclusions for years. For now, though, this provides a somewhat-stable base from which to consider the next question:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Again, this is an utterly basic question for anyone wishing to "do" theology in a Christian context. The expectations we bring to a book will shape how we experience it. If we read an advanced algebra text expecting it to be a gripping page-turner, we will (most likely) be disappointed.  If we read Twilight hoping to learn something and have our perception of the world shaken, we will probably pick up some terribly shallow values. If we approach Moby Dick as a book on human hubris, or the tragedy of monomaniacal obsession, or high-seas adventure, or 19th-century whaling practices, we will come away from it with correspondingly different conclusions. As the book becomes less straightforward, the expectations we bring into it become more and more influential to the conclusions we draw from it. There is no better example of this than the Bible.

A popular view of the Bible in America, which Christian Smith's book The Bible Made Impossible critiques, is that the Bible is the straightforward, unique transmission from God to us made to instruct and guide us through life--a divine handbook for all of life's difficulties, questions, and uncertainties. Smith gives dozens of examples of slogans and mission statements that treat the Bible as a sort of instruction manual for life and "Biblical" guides to everything from stress management to gardening. Smith pretty well shows how silly and me-centered this view of the Bible is, so I won't deal with it further.

A more mature, but not unrelated purpose of the Bible with a much stronger theological grounding is that the Bible is the written Word of God given through human authors to teach Christians how and what to believe, especially concerning the salvation we have through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Or, in a nutshell, the purpose of the Bible is to teach correct belief about and in God, or to set the standard of what Christians must believe; to disbelieve scripture is to disbelieve God. Just as we learn about math in a math textbook, in the Bible and the Bible alone we learn about who God is, how He reveals Himself to us, and what His will for us is. This article describes the Bible as settings the boundaries for belief and experience of God which faithful Christians must not cross; "the Scriptures are our final authority because the Scriptures are what God says."

For me, this looked like viewing the Bible as our only fully trustworthy source for a complete, coherent theology (view of God) and for the truth in which I, as a Christian, believed. My goal was to assemble all of the "raw data" of scripture into a structured, contradiction-free body of knowledge about God. The Bible as a source of true belief does not make reading it a purely inward or theoretical venture, because the Christian life is supposed to be founded on true belief in God. Since I will spend much more time on this view and it may not closely resemble your own belief on the purpose of the Bible, let me give some examples of how I see it.

A common way in which we discern whether people and churches are really "Christian" is if they believe the words of the Bible, and especially the main point of the Bible, also known as the "Gospel". We speak of submission to the "authority of scripture"; that is, authority as the Word of God to tell us how to believe and live. If someone does not submit to this authority and disbelieves or disputes the words of the Bible, no matter how "Christian" their life seems, we rest assured that their profession of faith is hollow and view them as "nonbelievers". If we hear a Christian teaching we consider to be false, we call it "unbiblical"--the Bible is our litmus test for discerning true belief from false. "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)

Another common term in Protestantism is the terms "open-hand" and "closed-hand" to separate differences of doctrine that will be tolerated among the attendance of a church or between churches or denominations. Open-handed issues are those about which the Bible's teaching is sufficiently open that multiple views are allowed and considered equally biblical. Closed-hand issues are those which the Bible teaches unambiguously, and differences of doctrine about them are considered to be a rejection of the truth taught in scripture worth dividing over in order to protect the truth. (Of course, various denominations disagree on the answers to many of these issues or which issues are closed-hand) If someone deliberately disagrees with a closed-hand issue, they are thought of (if not branded) as unorthodox or a heretic and seen as not only wrong or misinformed, but dangerous because of their refusal to believe the Bible. Again, in this view the function of the Bible is to teach God's truth and inspire correct belief, and disagreement with what it teaches is treated as a rejection of what God has to say.

Or consider the whole discipline of systematic theology. In his well-known book of the same name, Wayne Grudem defines it as "any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?' on any given topic." Through systematic theology we can arrive at doctrine, which is "what the whole Bible teaches us today about some particular topic." He says "the emphasis of systematic theology is on what God wants us to believe and know" which is in a symbiotic relationship with more practical disciplines like Christian ethics where the emphasis is on attitudes and doing. So in this model, the Bible shows us what to value, what attitudes to take, and ultimately how to live by being correctly interpreted into sound belief through the lens of theology.

I don't like making totalizing statements, but I must here: I suspect that your own view of the purpose of the Bible comes down to something similar to this: that it is to inspire right belief (orthodoxy) in the person of God and the truth of the Gospel, which is the basis for the Christian life of faith. Don't be too quick to conclude that your take on the Bible is nothing like this. If it really does differ significantly, I'd love to hear what it is in a comment.

The Bible itself does not offer any kind of totalizing mission statement to hand us its purpose on a silver platter. So if you take nothing else from this post, please hear this: your belief about the purpose of the Bible is not a necessary truth read out of the Bible, but an (unavoidable) assumption taken into it, open to revision by the Bible itself, at least. The remainder of this post is to describe what this revision looks like for me.

Warning Signs

I would hope that all evangelicals at least feel a bit uneasy dividing with other professing Christians over doctrinal matters, but they have little trouble feeling justified in doing so because of the Biblical precedent for doing so. There are repeated calls to guard your doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16) against false teachings and beware of false teachers (Galatians 1:6-10, 1 Timothy 1:3-7, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 3:1-9, Titus 3:9-11, 2 Peter 2, 1 John 2:18-27, 2 John 7-11, Jude 3-23), with specific instructions to:
  • "Let him be eternally condemned!" (Galatians 1:8,10) In other words, tell false teachers to go to Hell!
  • Command them not to teach false doctrines any longer (1 Timothy 1:3)
  • Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, arguments and quarrels about the law (Titus 3:9); warn a divisive person twice and, if he doesn't listen, "have nothing to do with him". (v10)
  • No specific commands in 2 Peter 2, but i can almost picture him frothing at the mouth while delivering this rant against false teachers.
  • "See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you" (1 John 2:24)
  • "Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for" (2 John 8); do not welcome anyone who does not profess the teaching of Christ or allow him into your house (v10)
  • "And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh." (Jude 23-24)
These verses seem pretty stern about false teachers who make their way into the fellowship of the church and teach false doctrine, up to and including suspending the command of love toward them (which John talks about extensively in his first epistle) and telling them to go to Hell for the protection of doctrine. Shouldn't we be just as concerned for the truth of the Bible today?

Well, there is one small detail that should affect our understanding of these passages: there was no Bible to defend when these letters were written. Not the New Testament, at least. Early Christian churches would have been lucky to have a subset of the gospels and epistles by the end of the first century as they had just begun to be circulated and copied, and they weren't compiled into anything resembling a New Testament canon until hundreds of years later. What, then, was the basis of the doctrine Paul was so emphatic about guarding? Why were the Judaizers wrong to teach that early Christians had to obey the Mosaic law to be saved, when all the scripture available at the time (the Old Testament) supported their teaching? With no New Testament, what was the litmus test for deciding whom to throw out of the church as a false teacher? Heck, no New Testament books at all were written for two decades after Christ's resurrection; did the churches preach only from the Old Testament until then and ignore everything Jesus had said and done because it wasn't yet within the bounds of scripture?

A Different Kind of Knowledge

This reasoning led me to realize that the early church got along just fine (and is still used as an example today) despite having no New Testament canon. Which leads me to believe that the Bible can't be as central to Christian doctrine as it is made out to be. What I think served as the focal point of their doctrine was the thing that made the apostles unique: not the ability to write scripture (their letters wouldn't become scripture until later), but direct, revelatory knowledge (personal, not factual) of Jesus, which they were able to pass on. If, as I pontificated last time, Jesus really is the Word of God and the Truth (even if the churches didn't yet have the gospel of John to tell them so), this is so unsurprising as to be almost predictable--if anything about the "truth-trinity" as I'm going to call it is predictable.

But direct personal experience dies with the holders of its memory, which I think is why the New Testament had to be written to effectively crystallize the knowledge of the apostles and other early church leaders. Several posts ago, I hypothesized that "maybe the purpose of the Bible is to allow future generations of Christians to have that same experience of the cross on which all of history turns." This theory was incredibly compelling when I first arrived at it and I have become even more convinced of it since.

So, a bit more clearly, I would now say that the purpose of scripture is not primarily to tell Christians what to believe, but to allow them to encounter Christ. This is very similar to the "Christocentric hermeneutic" I was so skeptical about at first. I am not saying that the Bible has nothing to do with correct belief--only that it has a deeper and greater purpose: the knowledge of the Truth. This knowledge, not the scripture itself, is the center for our doctrine, just as it was for the first-century church.

Correct belief is an outworking of this knowledge, not the goal we actively pursue in studying scripture. The Bible-as-doctrine view mistakes a penultimate purpose of the Bible (orthodoxy) for the "whole show" (conformity to Christ's image). In his new book Prototype, Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church asks, "What if the ultimate goal of everything Jesus said and did was not just to get us to believe certain things about Him, but to become like Him?" I would add that Jesus probably wanted us to do more than cling to His exact words (as we have received them), seek to live according to them as closely as possible, and refuse to venture beyond them, which was much more like what the Pharisees were doing with the Law and the Prophets and which was what ultimately blinded them to who He was. I think it's equally possible for an excessive focus on the scripture can blind us to Jesus showing up today.

I see this as a great relief. If the purpose of the Bible is to transmit correct belief, then in light of what Christian Smith calls "pervasive interpretive pluralism"--all the myriad conclusions God-loving Christians have come to from reading the same book with no goal other than to understand it--it has failed miserably. And indeed, if theological correctness were its purpose, God's method for giving it to us through human authors in a distant cultural context and countless of fallible scribes and translators over three thousand years makes no sense. Why not dictate it in every language necessary, Muhammad-style, or reveal it all through visions or divine skywriting? Why not give it all at once? The only source for our knowledge of God seems a bit too important to entrust to so many human hands (we're still not totally sure what the original Greek New Testament said)!

At the risk of becoming just as much a mouthpiece for John's theology as others are for Paul's, he explicitly confirms this purpose for his own gospel, at least: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31) We must rule out the possibility that the purpose of God's word has failed because of pervasive interpretive pluralism; more on that next post. Belief in Jesus and life in His name--that's something that transcends denominational lines and doctrinal divisions!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Metatheology, Part I: A Second Trinity

This year has been a huge one for the relationship between my intellect and my faith. Last Fall, through a process of increasingly deep and intense questioning I dismantled some wrong and harmful expectations I had of the Bible that had been eating at my faith. This Spring I've been picking up the pieces of my view of God and reassembling them into something new, a process that has coincided roughly coincided with the recent renaissance of this blog where I've been doing a post every two or three days, if not more often.

I consider these recent posts some of my best work ever (on a blog that's always learning and growing, the most recent work is always the best ever). These posts have been on some pretty important subjects to modern Christianity: the doctrine of the Fall, the relationship of science and scripture, the tension between Old and New Testaments, and Hell, among other things. But lately I've been kicking around some even bigger questions that are not just important outworkings of theology but are foundational to the very pursuit of theology. Seeing as how I'm about to begin a Master of Arts in theology in the Fall, now seems like a great time to ask them. The first is this:

What is Truth?

As far as questions go, "what is truth?" is one of the most basic. Your answer to this question affects how you will answer any other question, and indeed how you handle the very answer to the question itself. Everyone already has some kind of an answer to this question, because an answer is necessary in order to believe anything at all. This answer may range from straightforward to the postmodern "there is no single 'truth'", the statement of which actually presupposes a different nature of truth than the one it gives.

For years and years, I would have answered, "that which agrees with reality". I can't precisely remember where I picked this definition up, but it seemed perfectly reasonable so I stuck with it. I think many Christians, especially those of a more intellectual disposition like mine, would give a similar answer. Others might recognize that "truth" should not be some external standard that God merely conforms to, but that our view of truth should be based on our view of God, so whatever God says (as revealed in the Bible) is the very standard of truth by which we are to judge everything else.

It so happens that this very question crops up in the Bible. In John 18:38, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor overseeing Jesus' trial at the hands of the Jews, asks it of Jesus after questioning Him. This is it: Jesus' chance to clear up the governor's surprisingly postmodern confusion and make this man of power and influence into His devoted follower! But he doesn't tell Pilate, "Truth is that which agrees with reality", or even "truth is the words of God as revealed in the scriptures". His actual response is much more challenging:

He says nothing.

Now, this could have been because Pilate was asking a rhetorical question that Jesus didn't feel like answering, or because he left the room too quickly for an answer, but for me, Jesus' silence here is deafening. I have a working theory for why He remained silent at this question: He was about to demonstrate the answer to Pilate and to the whole world in an answer infinitely more satisfying than a mere definition. Truth is not simply the body of all correct statements or even all the words of God: truth has a center, and that center is the capital-W Word of God who became a man, lived among us, and was crucified and resurrected for us.

Note: If you read the title and are concerned I've embraced heresy, this is what I was referring to by "second trinity", so scroll to here

This is another observation from my read through John in Greek. In John, Jesus (and the narrator) makes three powerful statements:
  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1) Later this Word is revealed to be Jesus. (1:14)
  • Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) In context, Thomas just asked Jesus, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Answer: "the way" Jesus is going is not a separate piece of information they have to find; Jesus Himself is the way they must follow.
  • [Jesus prayed,] "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17)
Jesus is the Word is truth is Jesus. It's hard to understand from a modernist perspective on truth like I used to hold. The resemblance to the doctrine of the Trinity is so strong here that I couldn't resist making a similar diagram to show it. (And if you combine the two, you get that this trinity also applies to God the Father and the Spirit)
The objection next question is, "What does this mean?" What does it mean that the ultimate revelation of God's Word and truth is a person--and that this person is also God? I think this is a great example of a Christian "mystery"--not at all meaning that drawing conclusions from it is impossible, but that they are inexhaustible; we can never fully understand it any more than we can drink an ocean. For starters (and this is a big tie-in to the other big questions), it means that truth is a lot more than correct statements about theology, the world, or anything else, no matter who makes them.

This makes much sense of the quote frequently misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words." The closest real quote to it this is: one another, as the Lord says: "This is My commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you." And let them show their love by the works they do for each other, according as the Apostle says: "let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth."
1 John 3:18, which Francis cites, is another crucial look at what truth is: John specifically contrasts "word or talk" with "deed and truth". So "truth" can be demonstrated in a show of love in imitation of Christ (as in 3:16) just as much as it can be in speaking the truth, if not more so. Of course words and talk are not devoid of truth--if they were, why would John be writing a letter?--but if all they represent is the transmission of correct information, I think John would say they are devoid of truth.

The Christians I know have a general sense of the need for truth-as-words to be pervaded by love, as in Ephesians 4:15, which gives us the language of "speaking the truth in love" and how we need both. But John does one better by pointing out that true actions can speak louder than true words, and if correct words are spoken without love, they are no truth at all and we would be better off saying nothing (see also 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).