Poem: “Nudge”

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February 26, 2021

I know
I know my future
I know what is good
*nudge*

No sense
It makes no sense
I know what is reasonable
*nudge*

What if
What if this happens
I know what is safe
*nudge*

I can’t
I can’t do it
I know my incapacity
*nudge*

I don’t know
I don’t know how to
I know what I don’t
*nudge*

It won’t
it won’t happen
I know what won’t happen
*nudge*

Yes
Yes, but
I know the difficulties
*nudge*

Your will
May your will be done
I now know what is good

Redefining traditional marriage

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February 17, 2021

As the United Methodist church likely reaches a point of separation of ways in the coming months, I have been left continuously reflecting off-and-on on the nature and understanding of marriage. Even as I am not presently serving as a pastor, not attending a United Methodist congregation (I am attending a Nazarene church for the time being), nor seeking ordination in the United Methodist denomination, the theological and ethical conflict still rings loud in my ears. It rings loudly because I identify myself broadly as Wesleyan and am open to joining with any traditional Wesleyan-Methodist movement in the future (although, my willingness will in part be predicated upon whether a conciliatory view towards the discussions of sexuality remains, even as the churches maintain an ecclesiology that retains a traditional view on marriage). However, it rings loudly in my ears because the discussion of marriage and sexuality is such a deeply personal topic that impacts various people. On the one hand, there are numerous voices from the LGBTQ camp that are shouting about the harm that is being done by many proponents of traditional sexuality, which is coming from even side-B celibate gays and lesbians who embrace traditional sexuality. Yet, there is a powerful voice in Scripture that lifts up marriage being between a man and a woman.

There are so many social and theological dynamics that are beyond my capacity to tease out and explain. Yet, I feel like much of the problems surrounding the question of sex and marriage roots around a conflict at a level that is much deeper than one’s views of the Scriptures. I think it is a case where there is conflicting hermeneutics between traditional and progressives that fundamentally shape how they view marriage, gender, righteousness, and sin. Yet, the conflict of hermeneutics isn’t as much on the more explicit level of what methodology people tend towards in interpreting the Scriptures, such as a preference for literal or non-literal modes of interpretation. I suggest it goes deeper than that, at the very fundamental level of how one draws theological and ethical inferancess from the Scripture to life. You might call this application, but the hermeneutical phenomenon I am pointing out is a much deeper pattern of interpretation that regularly manifests itself in the application of the Scriptures as a norm for Christian life and thinking. Upon recognition of this deeper pattern of hermeneutics, I would suggest there is an alternative style that has vast theological and ethical implications that diverge from the way many traditionalists think but still seeks to retain a traditional view of marriage within the Church.

Ultimately, what can be said to define the prevailing hermeneutics for traditional marriage is the implicit assumption that is expressed as follows: 1) the Bible gives a specific, normative model for sex and marriage and 2) deviation from this model for sex and marriage is sin. While this is assumption is relatively obvious upon first expressing it, it is not immediately apparent that this hermeneutic is entirely Scriptural. Yet, one may suggest that its basis is rooted in a *plausible* theological reading of the Scriptures in terms of creation and original sin: that God’s act of creation fully instituted a specific order within the world, which is manifest in the differentiation of the sexes, that later became broken with the fall of Adam. In this view, there is a completely realized, perfect order that was deviated from, both in terms of sin and death. Thus, the picture of Adam and Eve as a normative model for sex and marriage and labeling any deviation from it as sin is a logical outworking of this theological narrative. However, as I will seek to demonstrate, the apparent obviousness of this narrative was due to a combination of its (a) plausible reading of creation that the Western Christian tradition posited that (b) become inculcated in people in sermons, Sunday schools, etc. time and time again. As a result, this line of reasoning and interpretation is deeply intuitive, engrained deeply within the psyche of many traditionalists. Hermeneutical assumptions #1 and #2 are an intuitive outworking of this theological worldview.

Yet, what if there is an equally plausible, if not better, reading of creation and sin that does not necessarily lead to hermeneutical assumptions #1 and #2? What I would put forward is that the creation and fall narrative is not a narrative that describes a perfect order, any deviation from which is considered to be sin. Instead, I would put forward that creation itself was an ongoing, diachronic process of development towards a divine purpose that deviated from that line of development with the fall. In other words, we can understand God’s acts of creation teleologically in that God’s purpose is progressing through time.

We catch what is perhaps a hint of this in the six days of creation, where God considers what is created to be good until the creation of humans, which is very good. Sometimes taken to be a reference to perfection, the evaluation of God’s creation after humanity seems more so to designate an intensification of goodness that comes when creation begins to reach its purpose. Yet, there is still work to be done in creation that humanity is commissioned for. The goodness of the creation of humanity in God’s image is tied to their vocation to fulfill God’s commission to fill and subdue the earth. There isn’t perfection in the order, but an intensification of goodness, with an (implicit) movement towards an ideal purpose and goal. This becomes a bit more explicit in the New Testament, where creation has a specific teleological/eschatological purpose it is moving towards. For instance, Colossians 1.16 ascribes to Jesus the power of creation, saying “all things have been created through him and for him.” The last prepositional phrase (εἰς αὐτὸν) designates a purpose for creation, to be something for Jesus. This purpose becomes eschatologically realized as God purposes to reconcile all things in heaven and earth (an echo of the creation narrative!) to himself (Col. 1.20). Similarly, in Ephesians 2.10, Paul portrays God’s act of creating teleologically, as believers are created for the good works that God has designed beforehand for them to do. In other words, creation is understood as moving towards a purpose or goal in the Scriptures. We don’t catch a glimpse that God’s act of creation as being portrayed as the institution of perfect order. Rather, the intensification of goodness in the creation of humanity was tied to some greater development.

The fall of Adam and Eve was less about a dramatic change in the world order that is unalterable (sans the redemption in Christ) and more about a different trajectory in opposition to God’s purposes. In Genesis 3.22, God recognizes the humans eating of the tree of knowledge has lead to dreadful possibility: that they would continue to live forever from the tree of life in their present state. The problem God expressed is not that simply that they disobeyed, that is deviated, from His instruction, but that their disobedience had brought about an unacceptable state of affairs. Not only would sin be a possibility through the knowledge of evil, but they could retain life indefinitely in the midst of that state. God’s response is to prevent the unstated, dreaded outcome by separating them from the tree of life. Yet, as the narrative develops into Genesis 4-11, there is an escalation of violence leading to the flood and a clustering together to build the tower of Babel rather than filling the earth. When Cain murdered Abel, God protected Cain, which was then taken by Lamech as a sign he would be protected from murder others, leading to escalation of violence. After God sent the flood to sweep away the wickedness, He then institutes the lex talonis principle where those who murder shall be put to death. Yet, this leads to the clustering together at the Tower of Babel. Every action of God in response to sin leads to a different trajectory of human activity that diverged from God’s intentions in creation. What the fall inculcated was not so much a shift in the inherent order of the world as much as it changes the functioning of the world so that different trajectories of evil emerged. In other words, Genesis 3-11 is describing rapidly changing trajectories for the evil that God is constantly addressing and responding to. It is not a description of a fixed, ontological reality of sin.

In other words, creation and the fall is about human potential, both for good and evil, that would be realized in time. Whereas God created the heavens and the earth to develop towards one purpose, Adam and Eve’s disobedience marked a deviation towards a different trajectory that would be marked by increasing pain, futility, and evil. So, when understand God created humanity as male and female, it wasn’t so much about the institution of a specific, fixed order in the world, but rather the means by which the goodness that God purposed and designed for humanity would be realized. The pattern of sex and marriage in Genesis 1-2 is more about the highest good than it is describing the specific instituted order everything must fit within.

In the traditional creation and fall narrative, deviation from the pattern that God is deemed to have instituted is part of the pattern of sin. Sin is the deviance from the fixed, instituted order. In the model I described for understanding creation and fall, what is put forward in the maleness and femaleness of humanity and marriage is the good means by which God’s purposes will be realized. Marriage was not an ends to itself, however, but it served a greater purpose in humanity being fruitful and multiplying. Thus, deviance to a specific order/model is not the issue, but deviation that conflicts with and counters God’s greater purposes is the concern. Bringing this to bear on the nature of sex and marriage, the Christian witness should not be focused on labeling deviance from it as sin, but rather putting forward the union of husband and wife as a means by which God’s purposes can be instrumentally realized. Put simply, the model I put forward does not put the focus on labeling sin and what we stand against, but rather in pointing forward towards the way in which God’s good intentions and purposes can become realized in the world.

The outworking of this is that homosexuality isn’t automatically some sin. Beyond the fact that I think many of the Scripture passages that are taken to talk about homosexuality are actually referring to a married man sexually substituting another man in for his wife (that is, a sin that would be understood as a form of adultery in our era), the creation narrative should not be fit into the two hermeneutical assumptions I outlined above. A better reading of those narratives does not uphold the theology that undergirds those two hermeneutical assumptions. Instead, we can read the creation narrative as a description of how God seeks for creation to become further filled and worked upon through the marital relationships that lead to multiplication. Marriage is instrumental to God’s purposes, not the ends for which we are created. Not every individual human was created to get married to the opposite sex, even as that instinct throughout humanity is an important, but not sufficient, part for humanity to realize its creation-given purpose as being made in God’s image. If, for instance, we accept the legitimacy of celibacy in the Church, then we at one level recognize that the creation narrative is not a model for all individual people to participate in.

Of course, one might think I am making an argument against the traditional understanding of sex and marriage, but I am not. Simply because I do designate homosexuality a sin does not mean I believe the Church should celebrate sexualized relationships between people of the same sex. This is where progressive hermeneutics comes up.

In progressive hermeneutics, there is an assumption of the near-universal equality of human choice (to be clear here, I do not mean to suggest sexual orientation is a choice, but the choices one makes in one’s life). If a person chooses to be one thing, it should not be treated as better or worse than any other choice, insofar as it does not cause direct harm to persons. So, when coming to the question of marriage, they might affirm the creation narrative, but they might also deemphasize the importance of maleness and femaleness in the creation story. Marriage is itself an institution that people should feel the freedom to choose to use as they see fit. Or, they may interpret the heteronormativity of the Bible through the lens of oppression, appealing to the past ways that the Bible was used in support of slavery and the oppression of women as evidence of oppressive Scriptures. Whatever the specific way they read and apply the Scriptures, their readings are largely controlled by the assumption of a near-universal equality of human choice.

This hyper-liberal hermeneutics is a sharp antithesis to the traditional creation-and-fall narrative, which leads to diametrically opposed conclusions. Yet, this choice-hermeneutic is much less plausible within the Scriptural narrative. While we should not assume the Bible forbids anything related to personal freedom and choice because it isn’t explicit, it is a hermeneutic that does not provide a coherent reading of explicit Biblical passages. It is largely a cultural assumption. Nevertheless, if we value well-being and think it is rooted in the Scriptures, there are some solid empirical reasons to consider the way our choices and the way people treat us for our choices can influence our ethical reasoning. However, it doesn’t rise up to the level of providing a lens through which we should read the Scriptures.

Beyond that, from the model I provided above, the critique of this progressive hermeneutic is that it is not robust enough. While it avoids antinomianism by recognizing that harmful behaviors should not be deemed appropriate or equivalent to non-harmful behaviors, it lacks a robust consideration of the purposes for which we make our choices. Why do we choose to get married or not get married? Why do we choose to have sex or not have sex? The progressive worldview would suggest what makes the person happy, fulfilled, etc. is good enough reason. Yet, from the model I proposed, same-sex intercourse and marriage fundamentally fall short of the creation purpose that sex and marriage is to functionally serve. There is no functional equivalence between the two because opposite-sex intercourse and marriage fulfill God’s purposes in a way that same-sex intercourse and marriage can not. It doesn’t make it “sin,” but it doesn’t make it “good” in the sense that it serves the wider creation purposes either. Same-sex intercourse and marriage is principally about the happiness of the individuals, not also the greater good that God is bringing about through us.

This doesn’t mean, however, that this is an implicit way of calling homosexuality sin. It simply means that the Church should not regard all sexual couplings and marriages as being equal. How that is manifest within the ecclesial body would be up for discussion. I myself lean a strongly traditional manner though, as the Church’s primary vocation is to reflect the goodness and glory of God in this world. We do that in part by the way the Scriptures testify to God’s activity. Opposite-sex marriage is the way God made humanity in order to fulfill His purposes given to us. The testimony of the Church to God’s purposes within creation should be tied to this. Yet, within this, there is perhaps room to consider accommodation to others who can not happily choose to marry someone of the opposite sex or to remain celibate. To come into a committed relationship with someone of the same sex does not harm anyone else; to not do so for some people may in fact cause great harm. While in my mind, it should not be treated as equivalent in Church teaching and witness, if we don’t assume deviance is a sin and if the other Scriptures do not talk about homosexuality in general, perhaps it is something that is better understood through the lens of Romans 14.1-9. Everyone will be accountable to the Lord for their choice, so the question should be asked: are they seeking to serve Jesus Christ? If that is genuinely so and if a person can neither faithfully live in a traditional marriage nor can they healthily embrace a celibate lifestyle without deep harm, let them choose as they see fit and let God hold them accountable, because if they are genuinely seeking to serve Jesus Christ then they are still seeking to do the good word God desires within the world, even as circumstances lead them to deviate from the ideal.

I would suggest this is equivalent to how one can view divorce and remarriage. There are various instances where people can not stay in marriages without risks to their health. In such cases, we can consider them to be free to divorce. That doesn’t mean we celebrate a divorce, however. Similarly, remarriage after a divorce may be considered a personal choice, especially if a person left a previously abusive marriage or they spend much time maturing after dissolving a relationship they can not reconcile. The Church should not celebrate and advocate for remarriage, but in cases where emotional and spiritual well-being is at stake, it is best to let Jesus evaluate them and their circumstances. Divorce and remarriage deviate from the way God fashioned creation and us to realize our purposes, but we should take the realities of people’s life into consideration as to whether accommodation is something permissible to allow, even as it shouldn’t be celebrated. According to this logic, this is also the way marriages that do not intend to produce children may also be looked at: as something allowable, but not something the Church should celebrate.

In other words, perhaps there is a way to redefine the traditional understanding of marriage that is a) much more faithful to the Scriptures as a whole, b) is much more focused on the goodness that God is seeking to bring about, and c) is more merciful and compassionate rather than judgmental to those who lives and circumstances don’t readily fit the ideal of marriage in the creation narrative. It does leave a bit more ambiguity in various matters of affairs, but it does so in the service of love and grace, even as it stands committed to where there isn’t much ambiguity.

Rabbi Jesus vs. Ravi Zacharias

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February 13, 2021

With the recent news of the vast extent of Ravi Zacharias’ sexual abuse of women, evangelicalism has been dealt what amounts to one of the largest, if not largest, hit against it in recent memory. As I was skimming Twitter responses, there was one prominent female minister who RZ had treated respectively and therefore had vocally supported RZ when allegations first began to came out. Upon reflecting on her memory of RZ’s funeral, she expressed her own confusion and lament. As I scanned responses, there was one response that I stuck out to me. I will not link it nor directly reproduce it word-for-word, but it said something that can be restated as follows: “RZ sins are covered by the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ as much as my own sins. It is important to keep that in mind.”

As I read this, I feel a deep sense of ire. How can someone talk about the atonement, especially atonement for RZ, in the face of news of such evil? It stuck out to me as essentially minimizing what happened and suggested that Jesus’ death is a get-out-of-jail-free-card. As I had recently written a post on the atonement that went in the opposite direction of this person’s tweet, I decided to do a little bit of research into what RZ said about the atonement. In light of the littany of allegations against RZ are, what RZ said about the atonement is quite revealing about him as a person, even as it not that different from the standard evangelical account of the atonement. Here are a few RZ quotes from a youtube video.

Starting at the 8:13 mark:

While we all look for rich moral soil, while we all look for moral reasoning around us because that provides the soil from which nobility can sprout, the ultimate problem is really not that we are immoral. The ultimate problem is that we are spiritually dead. Jesus did not come into the world to make bad people good. He came into this world to make dead people live…

[Recount a question he asked at a forum on the problem of evil and suffering] With all the evil you see around you that troubles you, have you ever paused long enough to be trouble by the evil that is inside you? That’s where the real predicament is: the evil that is inside you. And what is the greatest provision that God has made? It is the provision that morality alone can not bring to the rescue. What God has provided is the atonement, the sacrifice, the death of Christ that brings about the possibility of redemption… the forgiveness that Jesus Christ offers is the only hope for the redemption and transformation of your heart and mine.”

When we look at this, we can see one of the classic marks that has come to define Protestant thought about salvation and justification: an antithesis between the spiritual life and forgiveness that comes with faith and the morality of works. Against this backdrop, the atonement of Jesus Christ is understood to be addressing a specific, fundamental problem: that of sin. Yet, the solution to sin is forgiveness for those sins. Salvation is ultimately taken to be grounded in forgiveness for sins and only then does the transformation of the heart come about. In other words: you get forgiven of your sin by God and then you become redeemed and transformed after that point. So, in RZ’s worldview moral evil is ultimately addressed by forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key hinge point where people can then proceed into redemption and transformation. To that end, RZ expressed the standard narrative of sanctification: first you get justified and forgiven of one’s sins and then one can proceed into moral transformation and holiness from there. So, RZ seemed to have taken moral evil seriously, pointing forward towards a moral transformation.

Additionally, he said something that is simultaneously a quite chilling account along with a : “have you ever paused long enough to be troubled by the evil that is inside you?” Beyond the veiled autobiographical description of himself is the expression of the standard evangelical doctrine of sin in an expression of total depravity: that people are by nature evil.

However, despite the moral seriousness that RZ expression. there is a particularly illustrative quote, that I repeat again to highlight, which demonstrates what reveals a deeper darkness:

And what is the greatest provision that God has made? It is the provision that morality alone can not bring to the rescue.

Note what RZ says here. He doesn’t say, “Morality along can not bring to the rescue and that God makes provision for us in that space.” He explicitly says that God’s Himself actively makes a provision: morality doesn’t bring to the rescue. Perhaps RZ misspoke, but taking him literally here suggests that God actively decided to make morality in isolation from anything else to be powerless. How utterly foreign to the Scriptures! Here is what the Psalmist confidently cries out in Psalm 34.15-18:

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their cry.
The face of the LORD is against evildoers,
to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears,
and rescues them from all their troubles.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.

Here, righteousness is the basis for God’s rescue. In the face of suffering and evil, those who are righteous receive God’s protection and salvation. Whereas RZ thinks that morality can not rescue, the Psalmist expresses a deep confidence that morality does come to the rescue.

The crux of RZ’s reasoning it this: he assumes the atonement is about forgiveness. He assumes that Jesus came into the world not to address moral evil, but to do something different that RZ labels as “making alive.” Life and righteousness are understood to be both distinct and disconnected from each other. This contrasts with the expression of the Preacher in Hebrews 10.14-18:

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Sanctification and forgiveness, righteousness and life are fused together in the offering of Jesus Christ. To put it simply, there is no justification apart from sanctification, there is no life without righteousness.

Furthermore, what does John express about the reason Jesus came into the world in 1 John 3.8?

Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.

John doesn’t say Jesus came into the world to give life in such a way that distinguishes it from morality. At the very heart of John’s confession about Jesus is that the sins that the devil does and teaches his “children” to do are becoming destroyed. The sickness of sin is being cured. In the end, the cross of Jesus Christ that revealed Him as the Son of God is about the moral transformation of humanity, not simply forgiveness. It is with this transformation, with this sanctification, with this harvest of righteousness that God’s salvation and rescue come about and He abundantly provides.

What is it that Jesus Himself says about his own ministry? In John 8.31-38:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

Speaking to many people who ‘believed’ in Jesus (many of whom later wanted to turn around and kill Jesus), he speaks of a truth that will make people morally free. Those who continue in the Rabbi Jesus’ word will come to know the truth and become free. Not a word here about finding forgiveness that then leads to transformation and sanctification. It is the words of Jesus’ teaching that provide freedom. Once we come to the recognition that the whole of Jesus’ moral instruction points towards and expresses the attitude of Jesus’ cruciform attitude and life, we can then begin to connect the atonement to discipleship to Jesus: continuing in Jesus’ word points and guides us into participation with Jesus’ cross (and resurrection). It is through this that we come to a new transformation of life.

How far apart RZ was from Jesus and the Scriptures! But in the end, while RZ is accountable for the abuse, harm, and evil he perpetuated and will answer to God, he isn’t necessarily responsible for what he had come to believe about the atonement. He, like many others, have been raised in a theological worldview that placed rejection and punishment from God as the central problem of sin such that the cross brings us near to God. To that end, he believe in an ultimately powerless “gospel,” that simply relied upon human motivation to moral transformation after the ‘salvation’ of forgiveness.

What if, however, the central problem that the cross address is that of the practice of evil and injustice, whereas rejection and judgment from God is simply the outworking of the reality of sin in people’s lives and actions? What if God sent His Son into the world to redeem people from the power of evil, from enslavement to sin? What if the atonement wasn’t about addressing some residual guilt and memory of sin that demands some form of necessary compensation, but to change the bodies and minds of people who commit sin, to tame the powers of sin and death in the flesh so that righteousness would become abundant?

Forgiveness alone doesn’t transform. Many experiences in life demonstrate this, where forgiven people continue in their ways. If forgiveness alone would have transformed, then the cross of Jesus Christ would have been entirely unnecessary, as the Levitical system of sacrifices provided forgiveness for sin. This is not to mention the multiple instances throughout the Old Testament where God forgiveness Israel. Yet, what happened with Isreal throughout the Scriptures? Even as God forgives them for their idolatry and sins, they fell back to sin and idolatry again and again. Leviticus and the prophets do not speak of this forgiveness as hypothetical. So, even as God forgave sin, sin prevailed.

Rather, it is love that transforms. It is the demonstration of God’s powerful love in the cross of Jesus Christ that calls forth love from us. It is this new love that binds our hearts to the word of God as the source of life; it is this new love that directs our actions to live by God’s word; it is this new love that leads us to continue in Jesus’ words.

It was this love that was absent with the crowd Jesus spoke to in John 8, who ultimately sought to kill Him, even as they believed in Him. Here is Jesus’ words to them in 8.43-47:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”

Not that Jesus said this to people who “believed” in Him, and yet they ultimately don’t believe the way Jesus says. These people, he says are like the devil, a murderer, and a liar. Those who believed in Jesus but didn’t believe in what Jesus says sought to kill him.

So too have some evangelicals symbolically sought to kill Jesus on the cross to get their way to heaven. They overlook Jesus’ actual words on many affairs, instead choosing to lop off and ignore many things that Jesus said about righteousness, freedom, and judgment. They believe in Jesus, but they don’t really believe what He says when it comes to righteousness and judgment. Then, perhaps even more revealing when you think about it: they treat the crucifixion as the only way for them to achieve God’s righteousness, as if God is incapable of forgiveness without putting someone to death. If they were alive back in Jesus’ day, their beliefs would have dictated that they join in with the religious leaders to put Jesus to death so that they could be saved. That the only way God could even forgive them for their sins is to send an innocent man to death. Perhaps the cross was the only way to save us from our sins, but not because God needed death to forgive, but because it is only in taking up our own cross to become morally transformed that we could be free from the sin that put Jesus upon the cross.

Murderer’s at heart and liars. RZ’s own life revealed the lie of “forgiveness leading to transformation” and while he may not have murdered anyone in the strictest, most literal sense of the term, all the allegations point forward to the fact that he destroyed many bodies and souls for satisfying his unholy, insatiable lusts. This was not a man who had a moment of weaknesses in the rush of the moment, but one who had become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Corresponding to that, he disconnected life and righteousness, sanctification and forgiveness.

To be clear, though, believing as RZ believes does not make one like RZ. It doesn’t mean you are a murderer at heart. It means one is mistaken. One can have a heart that loves, a heart that seek God’s will and yet fall into this prevalent error. This is true for many people, and yet God in His love continues to lead them and guide them even as they don’t fully understanding the truth of God’s righteousness. Yet, this theology can be expressed and advocated in such a way that is absolutely consistent with way of life that the children of the devil live in. This theology prevents discernment between the spirit of God and the spirit of the antichrist as it is a subtle, misleading mixture of God’s love and power with falsehood that clouds people’s judgment. It is almost as if the devil has distorted the way people understand God’s word into believing a misleading ‘truth,’ just like he did to Eve, getting them to believe “you will not die!” And it is true in one sense, they don’t immediately die when they partake of this sin, but yet it is misleading because they will die and not be raised to eternal life because of their enslavement to sin. Because of the prevalence of this misleading ‘truth’, we see an American (and even Western) Christianity that is left in absolute ruins and is in need of rebuilding by the true shalom-makers who, imperfect as they are, seek to live according to Jesus’ word in all truth.

Poem: I’m done…

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February 13, 2021

I’m done…

The Pharisees
The Scribes
Reincarnated
Building lofty idols
Called theology
All with the name of God

The word love is a facade
While lust rules the day
Sex, money, power

What if sheep
are surrounded by sharp teeth?

I know…

While God cares for the abused
Like Hagar in the desert
God will avenge
God will cast out those who cast out
God will destroy those who destroy
God abhors those who take life

If they weren’t sanctified into love
There is no other sacrifice
They spit in God’s face
They disregarded the blood
They insulted the Spirit

Their words are worth nothing
They are like a television
That only plays static
Only at full volume
The only option is to throw them out

I’m done…
Not with the Father
Not with Jesus
Not with the Holy Spirit
Not with faith
Not with hope
Not with love
Definitely not with love
Not even with the Church

I’m done…
With them
With their lies
With their theology
With their words

Jesus will say
“I never knew you”
To many who say “Lord, Lord”
Yet work iniquity and evil

Yet Jesus said
Continue in My word
You will know truth
It will set you free

You called me by name!
I’m following you, Jesus!

 

 

[Written in light of the recent news that came out about the extent of Ravi Zacharias’ sexual abuse of multiple women for a prolonged period of time.]

 

Why so skeptical? – Why Christian skepticism of science is ultimately a lack of trust in God

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February 6, 2021

Science and faith. Throughout Western culture, particularly in America, the two fields are often considered to be antithetical. There are often social pressures and expectations that push people into one camp or the other. On the one hand, within academia and arenas of intellectual inquiry, there is a stereotype that Christians, particularly of the evangelical sort, don’t do serious science and intellectual inquiry. As I will put forward, this is a stereotype that has some basis in truth, yet it overlooks the various devout believers who identify as evangelical and are engaging in serious scientific inquiry. Yet, on the other hand, there is a litany of conservative Christian teachers and leaders who prop up “intellectual” arguments about creation, science, and the Bible that ultimately lacks any critical reasoning, but is immersed into skepticism about science, with disastrous consequences down the line.

Now, if you were to ask many of these Christians today who were skeptical of science, many of them would say they are for science, but they think the prevailing science is somehow in deep errors or corrupted. Consider, for instance, young-earth “scientists” like that of Ken Ham. Ken Ham’s organization Answers in Genesis has a webpage dedicated to the idea of science and explicitly states, “Answers in Genesis (like other creationist groups) affirms and supports the teaching and use of scientific methodology, and we believe this supports the biblical account of origins.”1 Yet, Ken Ham and other creationists have expressed strong skepticism against the theory of evolution based upon a “literal” reading of Genesis.

AiG makes a distinction between two different “sciences,” 1) operational science which “uses observable, repeatable experiments to try to discover truth” and 2) origin science that “relies on relics from the past and historical records to try to discover truth.” By treating “origin science” as fundamentally different from “operational science,” they provide an apparently rational basis for treating the theory of evolution with skepticism. Yet, such a characterization of the theory of evolution as having a distinctly different methodology from other domains of science is such a gross oversimplification and mischaracterizes how the theory of evolution has many of the features of what they would label “operational science.” What they are ultimately rejected in scientific hermeneutics in how they interpret the relics of the past, but those evolutionary hermeneutics are ultimately derived from “operational science” as well as “operational science” being influenced by the relics of the past. However, by making such a distinction between operational and origin science, Ken Ham and AiG are able to give a “logical” reason for their skepticism of the theory of evolution that ultimately justifies accepting their “literal” interpretation of Genesis as the truth. Yet, it is a “logical” reason that is ultimately distorting.

Now, if you know the place that critical inquiry has in science to push the boundaries of knowledge and test various hypotheses, you might look at what AiG and other young-earth creationists are doing and think it is consistent with science. Yet, they are really fundamentally different. There is a difference between cautiously critical thinking in science that encourages being careful and not being too fast to draw conclusions without evidence and skeptically critical thinking that from the outset rejects specific conclusions based upon prior commitments to what the truth must necessarily be or not be.2 While they both may look similar in questioning hypotheses and theories from the outset, their differences are in the ways these questions occur. Scientific inquiry is not systematically prejudicial against specific hypotheses (although they may be prejudicial against beliefs that seem to lack evidence). While individual scientists may be more predisposed to certain hypotheses over others, ultimately the whole social enterprise is fairly critical of any hypothesis or theory that lacks empirical testing. On the other hand, skepticism is systematically prejudiced against hypotheses and theories that are not consistent with another specific theory or hypothesis simply in virtue of the conflict of ideas. When Ken Ham thinks the theory of evolution is antithetical to what the Bible says, he is being skeptical due to dissonance with his favored “theory.”

The net effect of skepticism is that it predisposes the skeptic to assume there is no reason to trust what others are saying when it conflicts with their notion of truth. Such distrust of others is resonant within some of the more conservative Christian views on sin, where the whole world in the present day is inherently and universally full of untrustworthy sinners who are actively disobedient to God and reject the truth. So, beyond the apparent “truth” of the “literal” reading of Genesis, young-earth creationists and other Christian skeptics of the prevailing science have an audience that will naturally buy into their mistrust and skepticism. In this mindset, the skepticism of science is often rationalized as trusting God over other humans.

However, the truth is that even though science is done by humans who make errors, who sin, who have their own agendas, who are not all open to the idea of a Creator, etc., science is ultimately answerable to what the studied part of creation/universe shows. The cautiously critical stance, or shall we say discernment, of science allows the truth of creation to “speak” and have a voice in determining what is true. If God is Creator of all there is, then this “voice” of the creation/universe is an echo God. Psalm 33.5 testifies “the earth is full of his unfailing love.” God’s creation is full of His wisdom and glory, and as such, to scientifically observe and meticulously study the creation is to hear faint echoes of God’s love, even if this love is not perceived and believed by all.

Meanwhile, even though “creation science” claims to trust in God through the Scripture, they ultimately place more trust in their own interpretation of the Bible and how they think to apply the Scriptures than they do the active, living God. As I will attempt to show in a moment, there are good reasons to reject the premise that Genesis 1.1-2.3 is referring to 7 24-hour periods of time and that it describes a chronological sequence of events that occurs on the earth. Even if this were not the case, however, “creation scientists” would still be guilty of trusting more in human reasoning and wisdom than in God’s, as they implicitly think the truth of God is obtained through their interpretive methodologies, most particularly what they designate as their “literal” hermeneutic. Their own Scriptural hermeneutic, which often goes untested, is what they ultimately place their trust in, from which they proceed to show skepticism to all those scientists who unknowingly ‘testify’ to an echo of God’s voice. They place their trust in humans, or more particularly, their own humanity, above the glory of God spread throughout the creation. This is ultimate because “creation scientists” are ultimately deductivists, who think they have unassailable, epistemic foundations for what must be true (a “literal” interpretation of the Bible) that they can use to determine all whether something else can necessarily be true or not. At its heart, deductive rationality as the final criteria for determining truth is trusting in the foundations of human thinking and reasoning above all else.

The more this deductive rationality and skepticism take root in some conservative evangelical circles, the less the people become rooted in love as it foments distrust. Believing the world is going to hell in a handbasket and find the prevailing science to be utterly bereft, they should perhaps reflect on the Apostle Paul’s words, “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not trust, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” (Titus 1.15-16). These words from Paul speak close to the heart of skepticism, endlessly viewing the prevailing science with skepticism, thinking it leads people away from God. How much, in fact, does it reflect the corruption of their own mind, that they can not believe in and trust God unless God fits according to their own understanding? If one thinks that the “theory of evolution” necessarily leads to atheism and godlessness, then that may a reflection of what is true for them and how weak their faith ultimately is, but is certainly not true for the numerous faithful believers who accept the theory of evolution without serious harm to their faith.

For instance, the more I have learned about evolution in the Biology class I am presently in, the more I am finding awe of God’s work in creation and the great complexity of the principles that undergird life. While there may be some legitimate concerns that science can sometimes be practiced with a materialistic metaphysics that attempts excludes God from the world and even existence itself, science itself doesn’t preclude faith in an actively involved Creator. While there have been concerns in the past about how the theory of evolution was ultimately appropriated for the evils of eugenics and social Darwinism, this is more owing to various metaphysical and social systems trying to make scientific theories fit their own twisted and warped fantasies. While I accept the influences of natural selection of the diversity of species that we witness in the earth, I also believe and accept the possibility of divine selection in which the mind of God was actively influenced affairs on the earth in conjunction with natural selection, including in making humanity unique to the extent that we should be understood as qualitatively unique from our evolutionary ancestors (that is, theologically, we are made in the image of God and cognitively, we are capable of complex set of symbolic and social adaptations that are highly unique for how we adapt to our environment). While such a theological premise can not be tested scientifically, it can be held without questioning the validity of natural selection as one of the most prominent, natural determinants in the emergence of species. I choose not to be skeptical of the prevailing science, the scientists, and the various science textbooks, but to be open to learn, while I still hold to the virtue of cautious thinking.

This concern is not simply merely intellectual and theological. It is a concern about righteousness, doing well to others. Such scientific skepticism has become a source of great harm and evil that goes beyond simply questioning theories about origins. For instance, witness what has happened with coronavirus this past year. How many of the people who resisted basic cautions about safety, such as masks and not having large gatherings, came from those who label themselves as Christians who were entirely untrusting? How much did conspiracy theories propagate among Christians in all of this? The scientific skepticism of young-earth creationism did not stay within its narrow confines, but it spread its poison. Yet, I don’t blame the people as a whole, but I do point the finger at the teachers who trust more in themselves than God for spreading this poison of unrighteousness.

All because of an interpretation that has flimsy evidence, but ultimately relies upon a hermeneutics that is anthropocentric and geocentric. In the end, the mistake in reading Genesis 1.1-2.3 is to assume it is all about the earth and us. Yes, the earth figures prominently in the creation and humanity comes at the climax at the narrative. That doesn’t mean, however, when the narrative talks about creation, particularly the passage of evening and morning, it is referring to the passage of time on the earth. In fact, the passage of time is about God’s activity, not the time on earth. The cycle of evening and morning is better understood as not describing the cycle of day and night on the earth, but as a symbolic description of God’s refraining from activity, much as humans in the ancient world refrained from work in the evening until the morning the next day. If God rests on the seventh day, then we can also draw the conclusion that God rests from activity in the evening until the morning. Time is assessed by the period of God’s activity, not the 24-hour cycles of the sun, which is not even mentioned until the third day.

Furthermore, the creation narrative is highlighting God’s activity as a builder or architect, not all the on-goings on the earth in a specific chronology. Genesis 1.1 says that God created (בָּרָ֣א). While בָּרָ֣א is used exclusively of God in the Old Testament, in other languages it relates to the act of building. When the psalms speak of God laying the foundations of the earth (Psa. 102.25, 104.5), they are understanding God like a master-builder or architect. The image of a formless and void earth would cast an image of a chaotic, untouched wilderness that God proceeds to bring order to (although this wilderness is of the chaotic waters, which God has power over in a way that human architects do not). God is a builder and what is described in the six “days” is God’s planning for creation.

Yet, just because God was making plans on each ‘day’ doesn’t mean what is described as happening on earth happens only on the ‘days’ it is mentioned under. It is also feasible that each day describes when God’s activity to create and make something began, not both began and ended. We need not assume that the description of events in Genesis 1.1-2.3 is when each part of God’s work was finished. For instance, the making of the animals on day six certainly didn’t end on day six, as we all recognize that animals have reproduced according to their own kinds throughout time through reproduction. The effect of this is that we need not think that Genesis 1 gives us the exact chronological order of what happens on earth, but that we are seeing a narrative that is describing God’s intentions for forming the heavens and earth and its unfolding.

Even if my interpretation is not correct, it is a perfectly feasible interpretation that has good evidence in favor of it that throws out they utter confidence young-earth creationists can have in a 7-24-hour-periods interpretation. It also employs a “literal” hermeneutic in which the natural usage of the term in context determines its meaning, but it simply applies the words describing the passage of time to God, not the earth itself. At this point, I can simultaneously embrace Genesis 1.1-2.3 as inspired by God in some fashion, yet at the same time accept evolution. Because I don’t place my trust in a specific human interpretation that I determine must necessarily be right, I can place my trust in the God who both the Scriptures and creation echo. My trust is ultimately in God, and by implication, I don’t feel like I have to be inherently skeptical and mistrustful of human science, which is formed and guided by the echoes of God in creation. Even as I see reasons for caution in science, I see it with pure eyes and a pure heart.

May those who are so utterly skeptical repent of veiled godlessness and come to know the God to whom the creation repeatedly echoes!

Redeemed from the power of death, not the punishment for sin

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February 5, 2021

Psalm 49.5-9, 13-15:

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on forever
and never see the grave.

Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of thosed who are pleased with their lot. Selah
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
Death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,
and their form shall waste away;
Sheol shall be their home.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me.

In the past few years, I have developed a particular distaste for various theories of atonement. I am sympathetic with people’s desires to try to rationally explain and understand the atonement, but various attempts to explain the atonement do not pay much attention to the way the Scriptures actually speak about atonement, but instead, find what ultimately amounts to metaphors to explain the atonement and redemption found in the cross of Jesus Christ.

A common consequence of this need to explain the atonement is to fashion an idol that mediates between God and humanity. By idol, to be clear, I don’t mean something we necessarily worship, but some being or power other than God that we must please or appease in order for the being or power to either bless us or to not hurt us. What explains the atonement is given the power of the atonement in our minds, at least in part, to determines the fates and futures of our lives. Whatever is brought up to other than God and *His own choice to redeem* amounts to idolatry, including abstracting and hypostatizing specifically qualities of God that are necessary for God to successfully act to redeem humans.

One of the cases of idolatry in the atonement is that of punishment. Sin must be punished, so God must satisfy the need for punishment of our sins to redeem, often with the idea that this necessity comes from God’s own nature. The net effect of this is to raise up punishment as the lens through which the world is understood. The proponents of his view of atonement readily look at the “world,” that is everyone who doesn’t embrace their definition of Christianity, as disobedient, godless individuals who God will eventually judge and punish. The only way to escape the grasp of this idol is to “believe” in Jesus’ sacrifice for your sins. Amidst all of this, the concern about sin evident in this is not the actual harm that sin creates, but a concern that one adheres to the “truth” of God. In other words, there is a body of “truths” that one must adhere to, deviance from these truths is sin, and this means one is deserving of punishment. Even when this understanding of the world is mediated with talk of love and grace, underneath this is anthropology that looks at people through the lens of conformity and punishment.

A similar type of idolatry seems to be happening in Psalm 49. This psalm is a psalm that ultimately talks about the folly of trust in wealth and riches, which in my mind likely instructed Jesus about the idol of wealth. At the end of the psalm, the psalmist labels those who have wealth but no understanding as beasts that perish (Psa. 49.20). Most likely, this zoomorphic metaphor is used to describe the way people who trust in their wealth think. The psalm begins with a call to listen to the word of wisdom (Psa. 49.1-4), foregrounding the importance of human understanding and thinking in the rest of the psalm. So, in calling the ignorant wealthy as beasts, most likely he is attributing the lack of intelligence of beasts to them.

So, when we come to verses 7-9, we are most likely looking at a correction of the way those who trust in riches think. In their idolizing wealth, they have attributed to it power over their lives, a power that they think assures their well-being and greatness. In such a mindset, it may have been the temptation to think that one’s wealth could even atone for a person’s sins. After all, if sacrifice an animal for one’s sins was part of the Levitical system of atonement, so the wealthy may have been inclined to think the significance of that act is that God wants their money and wealth. In favor of this is that the psalmist uses the atonement term כָּפְרֽ (cf. כַפֵּ֥ר in Lev. 1.4, 10.17, 14.21, 29), likely indicating that the wealthy associated money with atonement. Hence, the Psalmist states forthrightly that no price can redeem a man from death and appeals (Psa 49.7-9) to the readily recognizable of the death of the wise and wealthy as evidence that wealth does not atone (Psa. 47.10-11).

What has seemed to occur among the wealth is what I would term a wealth-anthropology, a way of thinking that designates the value, significance, purpose, and well-being of humans to the wealth that they or do not possess. Wealth has become a powerful idol that they project onto God. Yet, the Psalmist entirely subverts this anthropology of the wealthy that exalts themselves at the top, calling them beasts and implying they are ignorant.

In a similar way, a punishment-anthropology can be a reflection of those who think themselves at the top of righteousness and truth. They view human life through the lens of what they deem they are superior at, at least implicitly, and thereby see human life through the lens of punishment. Granted, they accept in theory that even they could not atone for themselves, but in practicality, by thinking that atonement for punishment occurs by having the right belief, and they think they have a full handle on the truth, they believe that they have received atonement for their sins through their beliefs. Hence, they see themselves at the top of this punishment-anthropology that sees people through the lens of conformity to specific patterns of “righteousness” and “truth” that they understand with great confidence.

Yet, what does the psalmist say about atonement? God doesn’t redeem life from the punishment of sin, but the power of Sheol, the reality of death. The concern for the psalmist is the ongoing nature of life that he (and others like him) will experience because he trusts in God and does not abide by the seductive power of riches. In correcting the wealth-anthropology of the wealthy, the psalmist reminds others that it is God Himself who redeems. There is nothing that can be offered up to ransom one’s life other than the simple fact that God will receive them (Psalm 49.15). God’s willful agency to redeem from death those who He chooses to accept, and nothing else, is at the heart of the ransoming from death.

Such a word is an important word to be reminded of in modern discussions on atonement. How readily do people unwittingly lift up idols that end up doing more than just simply explaining the atonement, but subtly but powerfully forming the way we see and understand people. When one’s atonement is centered around the idea of punishment for deviance, is it any wonder that religious traditions that embrace this view are often consumed with all the “sins” and “lies” of those who do not adhere to their system of religion and piety? People’s value, significance, and value is reduced down to how they fit within the pattern about sin and falsehood that the ardent teachers of this view have constructed out of their minds, with the Scripture becoming only a loose inspiration, finding their own images and thoughts reflected in the ambiguity of the words of Scripture that should otherwise invite careful and humble reflection and meditation.

The Scriptures, both Old and New, testify to God’s power over death, not power over punishment. May we learn to increasingly distance ourselves from punishment anthropologies and discover a new anthropology that comes to fruition when we trust in God’s power over death through the cross. God chooses to restore from the power of death those who accept Christ’s cross as teaching them to become a living sacrifice themselves. God doesn’t have to satisfy some other need or power, including a hypostatized necessity to punish sin, but He has compassion on whom He chooses to simply because He chooses to have compassion.

The problem with interpreting “children of wrath” in Ephesians 2.3

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February 5, 2021

Ephesians 2.3-7:

All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were children of wrath by instinct, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Exodus 34.6-7:

The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.

Psalm 30.5a:

For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.

James 1.19-20:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of a male does not produce God’s righteousness

There are a few passages over the Bible that over the years I have had to look how I and others have read the passages over the years and I have had to ask the question “What in the world were we thinking?” (As you see what I mean by this, you will realize that this is a little bit censored version of the question).

Take, for instance, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How has this passage been taken in many Christian circles? As the story of what God does to gay people. Why is that what stands out to people reading that story? Why isn’t it that the people trying to force their way into Lot’s house to sexually overcome the visitors? Why has this narrative been interpreted to be about homosexuality and not what the story actually describes, the story of community-wide rape and abuse? While newer readers of the Bible who were taught to read it one way can certainly be excused, it makes you wonder why so many people who have studied the Bible have never realized the injustice of Sodom is rape. Is it because people are that callous to abuse and rape?

If that were the only passage I had observed that for, it would be one thing. But in these past few weeks, I have come upon another passage that makes me think “What were people thinking?” It is in Ephesians 2.3. There, Paul describes his fellows Jews (“all of us”; although Paul does say they were like everyone else in this) as “children of wrath by instinct” (τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς). How does this passage usually get interpreted? That before faith in Christ people were deserving of God’s wrath due to their sins. For instance, Andrew Lincoln observes: “The children of wrath, then, are those who are doomed to God’s wrath because through their condition of sinful rebellion, they deserve his righteous judgment.”1 Klyne Snodgrass thinks it refers to the future encounter with God’s wrath.2

Yet, let us follow through with what this image implies. This means that the phrase “of wrath” describes how others should treat the metaphorical children. That children… CHILDREN should be subject to wrath. If Paul had used the language of “sons” as in Ephesians 2.1 (υἱοῖς), that would be one thing. But Paul chooses the term that is used to designate little ones. Does anyone recognize the potentially abusive imagery of that interpretation? Does anyone think that Paul is talking about the idea of children being subject to consuming, punishing wrath from God? As I will demonstrate in a minute, this is actually a grievously wrong interpretation, but why is that it people could so readily interpret Paul’s language in this way?

Allow me to put forward one possible reason for this. The Bible talks about God’s wrath, certainly. Yet, the nature of God’s wrath has often been overstated in reading the Bible, largely due to the common evangelistic narrative that all people were doomed to hell for their sins until Jesus comes to the scene. The common, (stereotyped) portrayal of God within some conservative circles has been that of a god who is in all actuality quick to anger over sin. If you commit a sin, a single sin of any type of severity (and remember, all sin is equal), you are deserving of hell, so the line of thinking goes. “Fortunately,” however, this quick to wrath god is so “loving” that he doesn’t give you want you deserve, you little worm, for telling that white lie. You really deserved to be punished, but this god in his anger takes it out on his son. Is it any wonder that those who worship a quick-to-anger god who has to take his anger out on someone would read the phrase “children of wrath” in a way that becomes evocative of an image of punishment of children?

Allow me to put forward where this theological narrative so fundamentally falls apart, entirely throwing into question the whole basis for this theology. The Scriptures outright affirms again and again that God is slow to anger, most notably in Exodus 34.6-7. Or, even when God gets angry, consider Psalm 30.5 where it says “his anger last only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” Is it any wonder, then, that James calls people to be slow to anger and reminds them that male anger (this is what it reads in Greek) does not achieve God’s righteousness? Any portrayal of a quick-to-anger god and any person who acts with quick-trigger anger and justifies and minimizes it (thereby thinking they are right to be angry as they get) is someone who doesn’t understand God and His righteousness. Anger isn’t wrong in many circumstances, but being quick to act on anger is far from God’s character and can lead to great evil.

Allow me to give a few reasons why this quick-to-wrath god needs to be forgotten when reading Ephesians 2.3. Upon reading these points, I hope it will give you a reason to pause and think about how it is that you think about God, and by implication, how you relate to your own anger.

First, “children of wrath” is an example of a figurative way of describing the characteristics of a person. Take what Paul says just previously in Ephesians 2.2 about the “sons of disobedience.” How many people would read that and think “That refers to people who others will disobey?” Yet, that is exactly the type of reading that people have when they read “children of wrath” as referring to those who are to be recipients of God’s wrath. What is much more natural with the phrase “sons of disobedience” and makes more sense in context is that it refers to people who are characterized as disobedient. They disobey. The phrase “son of…” and “child of…” are metaphorical figures that characterize people by whatever trait is there, as if they were born to and raised by that trait as a parent. It is a more vivid way of describing people’s character than simply say “they were disobedient” or “we were angry,” which can be interpreted to refer to a state and not an enduring trait. While it is technically for “children of wrath” to describe what will come to define their lives after God’s judgment, discursive consistency would strongly suggest the phrase should be interpreted as people whose anger defines them.

Secondly, this reading is consistent with what Paul is concerned about for the audience. He prays that they may be “rooted and grounded in love” so as to understand the vastness of Christ’s love and be filled with the fullness of God. (Eph. 3.17-19) He later exhorts them in Ephesians 4.26-27, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” The concern with their anger behavior continues when he tells them “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that is may benefit those who listen.” (Eph. 4.29) Then, just two verses later, he says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to each another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4.31-32). Throughout the letter, Paul is deeply concerned that the Ephesians no longer live in anger and instead learn to love and love deeply. With that in mind, it makes much more sense to read the “children of wrath” as describing a characteristic that his fellow Jews and also Gentiles had a problem with: extreme anger.

On top of that, thirdly, what does Paul say about God in Ephesians 2.4-7? That God is merciful. That God makes alive in Christ, which is the opposite of what wrathful people seek to do. That God wants to shows his riches of grace for others’ benefit, which isn’t what angry people want to do. That God is kind in Jesus Christ. Paul’s explicit portrayal of God there is the exact antithesis of wrath.

Paul says not one word about God’s wrath in Ephesians. The closest Paul gets to divine judgment is denying that immoral characters have any inheritance in God’s kingdom (Eph. 5.5). Yet, he speaks plenty about God’s love and kindness. By contrast, he speaks much about human anger. This is not to be taken as the denial of any and all wrath in God. But God is not quick to anger. Even when He has more than temporary, momentary anger, He directs it towards those who show an utter disregard for other people’s life and well-being that instead tear down, destroy, and kill others (Psa. 5.5-6, Rom. 1.28-32, 2.8-9). God’s wrath against Sodom and Gomorrah was against a type of people who were so unjust that they would rape visitors, a type of judgment which Paul probably echoes elsewhere in one of his letters (1 Th. 4.6-7).

So, let us be people who move away from this conception of an angry god, to the God of love and mercy, and in so doing, start reading the Bible well for the first time and ourselves become deeply rooted in love. The era of anger-filled Christianity is coming to a conclusion. Its fruit has been people who speak of love, forgiveness, and grace but yet lurking underneath the peaceful rhetoric is quickly-triggered anger that can harm and maim. It has left the Christian landscape in ruins. It will be the followers of Christ who leave that false wrath behind and learn to love deeply who will be those who help to testify to the true God of love, who powerfully demonstrated His love to us in Jesus Christ and has poured out His love upon in through His Holy Spirit. It will be those who learn the depth of God’s love and live into it that will be blessed peacemakers and children of God who fulfill the words of Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61.1-4)

May God’s Word of love, which lasts longer than his vengeance, drown out all the words of anger and get them to shut their wrathful mouths up!

God’s gift in Ephesians 2.8-9 as Incarnation

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February 3, 2021

Ephesians 2.8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

As a Protestant, I have a deep appreciation for what our tradition brings forward that Catholic and Orthodox traditions do not. Yet, I am deep ambivalence about my own tradition. This is not an ambivalence that points me to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, but in fact, it is an ambivalence that points in the reverse. What I feel best expresses the vital center of the Protestant Reformation wasn’t the doctrines of justification by faith and the five Solas, but more so the spiritual reality that they pointed to. Ultimately, the Christian life is rooted in one’s relationship to Messiah through the Spirit, not a magisterium or to a collection of ethical and theological traditions. While the fellowship of those genuinely led by God’s Holy Spirit would through time come to a common understanding that would resemble and affirm the traditions of orthodoxy Christianity, at the heart of the Christian faith is, I would say, a dynamic relationship with the living God who teaches and directs us by His Spirit to be conformed to Christ, which we received through our faith. I feel the strong conviction that the Protestant Reformation pointed to this spiritual dynamic and reality, even if it was not fully understood and explicated upon, in a way that the Catholic tradition did direct its adherents towards.

Yet, at the same time, I think there is a dissonance between some of the theological formulations of Protestant theology and this vital Pneumatological and Christological dynamic of the Christian life. The doctrine of justification by faith is one of those places. In designating salvation as a result of faith rather than human attempts to obey God, it set up an antithesis between human effort and God’s work that treating salvation as a passive process. With this in tow, it becomes a logical outworking of this soteriology to move towards a more Reformed/Calvinistic conception of faith, as salvation against the binary division between God’s agency and human agency. Yet, as a Wesleyan, I have a strong appreciation for the union of divine and human agency, but it always stood in antithesis to the traditional Protestant concept of justification. The solution within Wesleyan circles was to emphasize the two-stage nature of salvation, with it starting with justification as a pure gift of God’s agency and then moving towards sanctification as the place where human agency cooperates with divine agency.

However, what if Paul’s doctrine of salvation and justification by faith isn’t about the contrast between God’s agency and human agency, but a contrast between God’s pedagogy and human pedagogy? Let’s look at Abraham, the prototype of Paul’s doctrine of justification. What if Abraham’s faith wasn’t about some exchange for being forgiven by God, but about his reception of God’s word and promise to him that directed his own life? Faith here is about Abraham’s willingness to live in accordance with God’s word because he trusting God’s word to be true and will come to fruition. Faith thus represented the fundamental way in which Abraham was open to the direction of God, thereby making him a righteous sort of person who lives faithfully to the God who calls him. In this way of reading the Abrahamic narrative, God may be compared to a teacher, giving direction to Abraham and even asking Abraham to fulfill a difficult task (offering up Isaac) all with the purpose of leading Abraham to receive the promise and to be in an entirely open relationship to God.

Yet, the roadblock to such a reading might be found in the word “gift” that Paul uses in Ephesians 2.8. The logic that is often explicated is you don’t do something to receive a gift. True enough, but it is often assumed that salvation itself is the gift, with the implication that nothing a person does impact their salvation. Thus, going back to the Abrahamic narrative, this would suggest that how Abraham responds to God isn’t instrumental in Abraham’s righteousness, but that Abraham’s justification is seductively attributed to simply the act of faith in God, over and against human agency, as the condition for obtaining the gift of salvation. Yet, perhaps this is not what Paul meant in Ephesians.

Ephesians 2.8 reads as follows in Greek:

τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως· καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον

The demonstrative τοῦτο is crucial to understanding what the gift (τὸ δῶρον) is. It is a neuter demonstrative pronoun (“this”), which means it does not refer to any of the nouns in the previous sentence (χάριτί or πίστεως). That means that it most likely refers to the verbal action of the sentence, that is the state of being saved (c σεσῳσμένοι; “you are saved”).

It is here, at this point, however, that we may overlook some of the nuances of the Greek grammar. We might be inclined to read salvation as the gift itself here, that God bestows salvation as a specific entity to the person as a gift. Yet, the periphrastic combination of ἐστε of (“you are”) with the perfect participle σεσῳσμένοι (“saved”) highlights not the act of salvation, but rather that the audience has achieved this state. Strictly speaking, the grammar of Ephesians 2.8 does not describe God “saving” people. That is, rather, an interpretive gloss that we assume is implied, and for good reason, as God is portrayed throughout the Scriptures as saving people. However, there is no necessary grammatical reason to *directly* associate the status of being saved with the gift of God, as the gift is referring to salvation itself. One could just as easily fill in the grammatical gaps and that salvation is a consequence of a gift, with Paul referring to something, or rather someone, as the gift that then leads to salvation. Simply put, there is no need to identify salvation as the gift.

In fact, it is most likely Paul is referring to a chain of causality in Ephesians 2.8-9, in which case Paul would be describing the gift as something that leads to salvation. Gift is semantically associated with grace (τῇ χάριτί). τῇ χάριτί is a dative noun in relation to the verbs, suggesting that grace is the means or instrument of salvation as is a common use for the dative. In other words, the grammar is more consistent with grace and gift and salvation being casually linked, thereby reinforcing that the gift is not to be identified with salvation.

What is that causal link? It depends on what specifically Paul has in mind by grace and gift. Most likely it is a reference to the union with Christ mentioned in Ephesians 2.5-6, which is where Paul first uses the phrase “by grace you are saved.” In fact, in the Greek, the phrase seems to be an amplification of συνεζωοποίησεν τῷ Χριστῷ (“made alive together with Christ”), which would coordinate salvation with being made alive together and grace with Christ. Thus, the gift is the person of Jesus, through whom we can then be said to be made alive, raised, and seated with Christ in heaven. In other words, Jesus is the source and cause of spiritual blessings that can be said to typify salvation.

This provides a basis for considering a different reading of Ephesians 2.8-9. Paul isn’t saying that salvation is the gift we do nothing to receive, but that salvation comes from the gift of the person and presence of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 1.3-14, Paul repeatedly emphasizes the spiritual blessings are “in Christ.” Then Paul refers to the presence of God in Christ, whose body contains the fullness of God (Eph. 1.22-23), highlight that God is present in Christ. Paul later describes believers as being built together as part of the holy temple that is located in Christ and that inhabited by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2.21-22). Paul prays that Christ would dwell in the Ephesians’ hearts (Eph. 3.17). Then, Paul describes the work of God through various offices appointed by Christ to guide people into maturity in Christ so that they will reach the fullness of Christ, in whom the fullness of God resides (Eph. 4.11-3). The Incarnation as God’s presence in Jesus Christ is demonstrably a central theme in Ephesians. Thus, for Paul. the grace and gift of God is best understood as the Incarnation. As Jesus was crucified and resurrected, by being joined to Christ believers themselves are being brought into a new life. Jesus, His bodily life, His bodily death, His bodily resurrection, and even His bodily ascension contains the fullness of God that believers are being united to so that the fullness of God may come to dwell within us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. So, it makes sense for Paul’s discourse about grace and gift to be identified as God’s gifting of Himself in Jesus.

The upshot of this is that salvation is something that emerges from our relation and response to this grace of God in Jesus. Hence, Paul says people are saved through faith. Nothing suggests that Paul was intending to give a minimalist, bare-bones description of what one has to do to be saved. Rather, it seems more likely that Paul is describing the attitude with a person receives grace so that salvation becomes realized in their life. Yet, such an attitude of trust in God who has demonstrated in power in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1.19-21) would entail that we would learn from Christ that leads us to a new way of life (Eph. 4.20-24). There are things that Jesus calls us to do and that the Holy Spirit leads us to do that we need to do to experience the spiritual blessings of salvation.

What Paul is rejecting is that salvation is found in anything that was taught within the Greco-Roman world and Jewish ethical reflection. The Ephesians’ allegiance to Zeus as the highest God, who could be said to have power over the air (Eph. 2.2), did not provide a mind that could perceive and live out God’s truth. Likewise, Israelites who were defined by their anger and wrath towards their Gentile ‘overlords’ (Eph. 2.3: τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς; “children of wrath by instinct”) just like the rest of the world. Thus, they were just as imprisoned to passions of the flesh, which they judged Gentiles for. Neither of them had understood, received, and lived the life and righteousness and truth of God. All that was taught by the priests, philosophers, and teachers of their cultures, including the Jewish tradition of the elders that prescribe a series of works, could not save them.

So, Jesus as the gift is how God brings forth understanding and insight to a world blinded, who were living with a paltry version of life that could only be described as being dead in one’s sins. New life and true righteousness are revealed and demonstrated in Jesus Christ. In that way, Jesus is celebrated much as the gift of God’s instruction/Torah was celebrated as the words that give life (Psalm 119, especially vs. 97-112). Torah was a gift to lead the people of Israel and now Jesus is the gift from God to form Jews and Gentiles together as one, unified humanity who alike have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2.14-18).

To give an analogy, Valentine’s day is right around the corner. A a man may admire and love a woman from a distance and may choose to buy her a gift of flowers. The flowers as a gift are an expression of the man’s heart and are not something that is earned, but they are given with the hope that she may feel similarly and respond. The gift doesn’t make the relationship, but the flowers are a demonstration of the man’s love. A relationship forms and deepens when she accepts and receives the gift as an expression of love. She learns of the man’s love and responses to the love symbolized in the gift. The love is not earned, but any relationship will take work to build by the man and woman being attentive and responsive to each other. However, if the woman doesn’t pay attention to the way the man expresses his love, but instead thinks love only looks like what she has seen on television, movies, and in other relationships, she may overlook the specific character of his own love for her. His love is a love that may not look exactly like the way the rest of the world loves, so she would need to be attuned to the way he expresses and acts on his love.

Similarly, Jesus is the gift of God’s grace and love, but it will take our response to God, where because we trust God we are attentive to how He makes Himself known in Jesus and the Holy Spirit to bring us into the spiritual blessings of salvation. However, so often times, we instead try to fit God’s love into what our culture teaches us about God, righteousness, life, etc., as if we know something about God independent of how God demonstrates His love. Here, we may make the Christian life about following a bunch of rules and expectations that are more a reflection of our culture and not the actual Word of God.

Thus, I would put forward the point of Ephesians 2.8-9 isn’t to say human agency has no place in salvation. Rather, the point is that salvation only comes when we come to know God and experience His blessings through the specific way He has demonstrated His love, power and righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ, that is to learn a new way of life by Christ (Eph. 4.20-24). Greco-Roman culture and Jewish ethical instruction didn’t lead people to the spiritual, heavenly blessings and life; both actually pushed them further towards disobedience and deep anger. Yet, in mercy, God showed the nature of His grace and love, so to be saved one needs to receive and respond in faith to what God has made known of Himself in the gift of Jesus. Human agency and action is indeed part of the process of salvation, but human agency saves us only insofar as it is done in following the word and example of Jesus and the leading of the Spirit. Just as Abraham trusted God and (imperfectly) lived with God’s direction and promises in mind to obtain the promises, so too does the spiritual blessings of salvation come through the way believers in faith allow the gift of God in the Incarnation to direct their lives while providing the promise of resurrection. 

To that end, the Protestant Reformation pointed towards the vital relationship that believers have with Christ. While certainly this learning in Christ is in part realized through the apostles, prophets, teachers, and pastors that Christ has called to bring people to maturity, it is ultimately the believer’s relationship to God Incarnate, not to human teachers and leaders, that allows salvation to come to a person in the first place. Hence, even as I critique the specific theology of the Protestant Reformation and push back against the way it strong predilection to treats works to be about any and all human agency, I am bound to the deeper logic of the Protestant Reformation. What the early Protestants discovered they did not fully understand, and so they distinguished themselves from Roman Catholicism in a way I would not, but they were on the right track in my mind.

How do we acquire a spirit of wisdom and revelation?

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February 1, 2021

Ephesians 1.17-23:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation by recognizing him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

This weekend on the Seedbed Daily Text, JD Walt has provided a series of devotionals on Ephesians 1.17-19, encouraging people to seek after and pursue revelation and epiphanies from God. Calling us to prayer for revelation, it is an important reminder that we as Christians are seeking God’s active leading to form our understanding.

In the midst of reflection, I came to this question: how is it that we receive this “spirit of wisdom and revelation?” Certainly, we should pray for God’s provision in this matter, but how we come about to receive this revelation? In asking this question, this isn’t trying to turn our role into some effort to acquiring revelation, but more so the attitude and mindset in which we receive and comprehend God’s wisdom and revelation as God makes His will known.

The motivation behind this question is that I have witnessed and heard of people who have talked of having received “revelation,” but yet have gone down some tangent that dovetails far from what we know of God in Jesus Christ and what the Scriptures testify to. I am reminded of an instance where a person privately telling me they had revelation began to make bold claims about theological and spiritual matters that seem to contrast with Scripture and engaged in multiple manipulative behaviors as this came to light. On the one hand, I want to be cautious about such “revelations.” Yet, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, being open to revelation as it comes, having myself been the recipients in my life of what I took to be wisdom and revelation.

The answer to this question can begin to emerge when we compare Ephesians 1.17-19 with a similar prayer of Paul in Colossians 1.9-10:

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the recognition of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

There are similar and synonymous words that appear in both prayers. ἐπίγνωσις (recognition/knowledge), σοφία (wisdom), and πνευματικός (spirit/spiritual). Furthermore, the verbs δίδωμι (Eph. 1.17: receive) and πληρόω (Col 1.9: filled) can be considered to be different words to refer to the same epistemic reality, with the former describing the relation to God’s giving and the latter describing the outcome of reception. Additionally, both the phrase “spirit of wisdom and revelation” and “spiritual wisdom and understanding” echo LXX Isaiah 11.1-2:

And a rod will emerge from the root of Jesse, and a flower will come up from the root. God’s spirit will rest on him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and piety.

Altogether, it seems that Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 1.17-19 and Colossians 1.9-10 are Paul asking for the same thing for his audiences. The prayer has different “pragmatic” purposes in that Paul wants the Ephesians (and likely, as a circular letter, various churches) to come to a deeper understanding of the inheritance God has given to them as Gentiles (cf. Eph. 3.6), whereas he expresses the desire that the Colossians move towards a spiritual growth in which they become fruitful and fully pleasing to God.

This slight difference in purpose may explain why Paul switches the verbal object and the object of the prepositions between recognition/knowledge and the spirit of/spiritual wisdom and revelation/understanding. In 1 Corinthians 2.6-16, God’s wisdom and revelation is ultimately connected to the comprehension of the eschatological future made known in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15), aligning with the Ephesians’ prayer to give insight into the riches that God is bringing for the Gentiles to inherit. Meanwhile, in emphasizing being filled with knowledge to the Colossians, Paul highlights the moral understanding and insight that enables their living their life pleasing to God. In 1 Corinthians 3.1-4, Paul highlights that the lack of moral control by living in the flesh inhibits the ability to understand God’s wisdom, thereby putting the moral transformation that recognition/knowledge of God’s will provides as a prerequisite for receiving God’s wisdom and revelation described in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16.

So, we are left with an approximate sequence of spiritual development: recognition of God and His will is the spiritual prerequisite for wisdom, revelation, and understanding. Unfortunately, some translations of Ephesians 1.17 obscure this relation by how they translate the prepositional phrase ἐν ἐπιγνώσει αὐτοῦ. The NRSV reads “as you come to know him, while the NIV reads “so that you may know him better,” both of which seem to suggest wisdom and revelation is either concurrent with coming to know God or the cause of knowing God. The NET treats ἐπιγνώσει as a deepening knowledge, making it also seem to treat knowledge as a consequence of wisdom and revelation.

Yet, the problem is that none of these options makes the best sense of the lexical data. The function of the preposition ἐν is not generally used to describe a purpose or outcome. A better translation of it should be consistent with the verbal action that Paul mentions of reception. It makes better sense to take the prepositional phrase to describe either the cause or means of receiving the spirit of wisdom and revelation, not the purpose. Furthermore, Paul does not use ἐπίγνωσις in his epistles to describe a deeper form of knowledge. Its cognate ἐπιγινώσκω is principally used to refer to the mental phenomenons of awareness and recognition. Overall, it would seem better to understand the prepositional phrase to describe the recognition of God as the cause/means by which people may come to receive the spirit of wisdom and revelation.

This is consistent with the order Paul presents of spiritual maturity in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3.4. Coming to faith in God’s power (2.1-5) is to lead to a moral transformation (3.1-4) which prepares people to receive God’s wisdom (2.6-16). When one recognizes and trusts God’s power, one is in the place where they an understand deeper understanding about God’s wisdom and purposes. It is analogous to learning calculus. One has to understand the basics of arithmetic and algebra so that they can recognize these mathematic algorithms before they can comprehend calculus. Yet, if you want to understand the basics of mathematics, calculus will never make sense to you. Similarly, you have to be motivated to learn calculus to actually learn. If you think math is useless and boring, then you won’t progress much further, even if you understand the basics of mathematics.

Similarly, one does not comprehend God’s wisdom until one learns to recognize the power and purposes of God. You have to get the basics of who God is and what God desires before you can understand what this God is bringing about. As such, it is necessary to also be motivated to receive this eschatological wisdom, which is evident when one’s own life conforms to God’s purposes. As one learns to love as God loves, one can understand and will be motivated to understand what God’s love is bringing about.

At this point, we can begin to recognize that God’s revelation is something that is consistent with what God has made known about Himself. For instance, you don’t come to recognize God’s powerful love that is transforming us from our old way of life and then get a “revelation” that one should not be concerned about one’s moral life (this is a piece of what the previously mentioned person’s “revelation” was pointing towards). Similarly, you wouldn’t come to know of God’s faithfulness and then come to a deeper “revelation” that God has rejected those whom He is being faithful to. Some people practically believe that God gave Israel a false way of works of salvation and that the Church has supplanted and replaced Israel, thereby contradicting God’s faithfulness. God’s wisdom and revelation is consistent with what God has made known about Himself.

Now, you might have heard something similar to this in Christian circles. For instance, Scripture interprets Scripture, further revelation should be interpreted in light of Scripture, etc. Yet, we don’t get the picture from Paul that the Scripture texts are the foundation of knowing God. While Scripture is necessary to our understanding of God, the New Testament nowhere puts forward the idea that Scripture is the foundation for knowing God. Rather, Paul points to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus in Ephesians 1.20 as the basis for coming to a deeper comprehension of God’s power mentioned in 1.19. Those who believe in the working out of God’s power in the resurrection can then come to understand the deeper, immeasurable greatness of God’s power. The person of Jesus and the power of God demonstrated through the cross is the foundation for recognizing God and His power that can then allow those who believe to a deeper understanding of what God’s power is bringing forth. Jesus, not the Scriptures in and of themselves, is the foundation of knowing God.

Certainly, we come to know Jesus through the Scriptures. Just as the apostles testifying to the ministry and cross of Jesus, so too do the Gospels serve that purpose today. Just as the apostles made clear God’s purposes in Jesus Christ is attested to in (Old Testament) Scriptures, so too does the Old Testament serve to clarify our understanding of who Jesus is. Furthermore, just as the apostles themselves would help people to understand Jesus’ purposes through their teaching, so to do the NT epistles serve that purpose. Then, as various people in the early church would receive revelations from God, so we have a revelation/apocalypse of John. The Scriptures as we have them function in the way that the Old Testament, the apostles, and prophets would have functioned in the early Church.

Yet, we need to understand, it isn’t the Scriptures in and of themselves, but Jesus who is the fountain of wisdom and insight. Only in knowing the person of Jesus do we come to recognize God and His will. One can know the Bible inside and out, but yet one can miss the entire point of it (cf. John 5.39). One can read the Bible as a source of rules we use to direct, if not control, people with. One can read the Bible as a source of abstract, theological knowledge one can use to build a theological system. One can read the Bible to figure out how one gets to go to heaven. One can accumulate a series of ideas and “knowledges” that the Bible apparently seem to speak to. Yet, one can miss the very One through whom God has shown and demonstrated Himself. When our reading of the Scriptures is coherent with the Gospel witness to Jesus, the Scriptures clarify our understanding of God. However, when we try to build systems of knowledge from the Bible, ethical and theological, that cohere around specific abstract ideas, specific moral ideals and goals, we don’t come to grow in our recognition of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, the Scriptures are inspired to testify to God’s purposes known in Jesus Christ. While this will entail theological, ethical, and eschatological understandings, it isn’t our knowledge of those things themselves that serve as the foundation for receiving God’s wisdom and revelation, but our understanding of Jesus Christ.

However, the way we sometimes approach knowing God is much like using a textbook in algebra to teach us about something other than algebra itself. If you were to look in an algebra textbook, you might find various examples of algebra in real-world applications and problems that use hypothetical, real-world circumstances to test people’s knowledge of algebra. Yet, the purpose of the algebra textbook is to learn algebra, which will then enable someone to understand other fields of math like calculus. But if you scour an algebra textbook for understanding things other than algebra, you might get a bit of information here or there, but you won’t comprehend the intended subject matter in such a way that one can then learn calculus. Similarly, if one reads the Scriptures to understand something other than knowing God Himself as He has made Himself clearly known in Jesus, you won’t be prepared to comprehend God’s wisdom and revelation.

The point of this is this: to receive a spirit of wisdom and insight, we have to understand the foundations for such understanding. This means that we have to look to Jesus and understand Him as a person and what God did in and through Him, rather than look to Him as a means to some other ends, such as eternal, ethical knowledge, theological knowledge, etc. Jesus is THE way, the truth, and the life, not simply someone who delivers to us some knowledge about the way, the truth, and life through. Yet, the temptation is so often for us to divert our focus to these other forms of knowledge because they serve the purposes and goals we have in mind.

This doesn’t mean we are somehow obtaining wisdom and revelation by ourselves by our learning about Jesus. Knowledge of the basic principles of algebra are not sufficient in and of themselves to acquire a knowledge of calculus (at least for those of us who aren’t math super-geniuses like Isaac Newton). We have to rely on someone who knows calculus to teach us calculus, even as we need algebra to comprehend what they teach. Similarly for God’s wisdom and revelation: we have to recognize God and His will in order to be able to comprehend the depths of wisdom and revelation, but we can only learn this as God who teaches us through His Spirit, both directly to us and indirectly through others. Wisdom and revelation remain a gift given to us out of God’s gracious initiative and purposes. Yet, we have to do the prerequisite learning about God as He has made Himself known to learn further about Him.

Put simply, it is those who are seeking to know God in Jesus Christ who can receive the spirit of wisdom and revelation from God. When we recognize the powerful love of God manifest and revealed in Jesus, we can comprehend God’s further revelation of His love for us. Yet, what we learn in this further revelation is coherent and consistent with what the Triune God has revealed of Himself and His will. It is perhaps more appropriate to think of further revelation as analogous to the change from an HD televsion to a 4K television. We have a higher definition comprehension of God’s love as powerfully demonstrated through the cross, yet we have the same basic understanding of God’s love. So, in this way, we have a basis to discern between various claims of revelation, much like Paul and John takes the basic confessions about Jesus to be a basis to discern what spirit a person is speaking by (1 Cor. 12.1-3; 1 John 4.1-3).

God’s Word and Life

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January 23, 2021

John 1:3-4:

All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Who is God, ultimately? Throughout the Scriptures, we see many different identities and traits attributed to God through both literal and metaphorical discourse. God is love, God is a rock, God is a warrior, etc. All of these words say something about God, but that doesn’t mean each of these things represents the deepest, most intrinsic character of God. God is a warrior, but he doesn’t have a thirst for blood and would be more inclined to offer His life than to take life. God can be our Rock, but sometimes God leads us into the uncertain, shaky grounds of life where He allows us to face the turbulence of life. God is very loving, but the Psalms occasionally make reference to God’s hatred for those who love violence and deceit.

There is one thing Scripture says in such a way that it is taken to be always true of God. “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1.5) Yet, unless we want to insist that God is the packets of energy that allow us to see the environment around us (which means that God created Himself), then we need to see this attribution as a metaphor. Consequently, this metaphor of God being light doesn’t tell us who God is ultimately in a direct way but rather describes what happens to us when we have fellowship with God: we begin to see, understand, and perceive as God gives us light. God enlightens us.

Unfortunately, the idea of enlightenment has been taken in a subtly Gnostic direction throughout the history of the Church, including even today. We may think to be enlightened is to have come to some sudden knowledge, some particular insight, some specific truth that we take and go out to others to accept. It is taken that enlightenment gives people access to some specific truth or knowledge that is then their mission to declare to the world to believe and accept.

It is this implicit understanding of enlightenment that seems to undergird much evangelism today. We believe in Jesus and are forgiven by Him because we believe in Him, so it is our job to then go tell others that Jesus died for their sins so that they can then believe the same thing we came to believe. The central mechanism of salvation in this soteriology and evangelistic model is that of people coming to be enlightened to a particular belief that is declared to them. Yet, this is ultimately a subtly Gnostic form of evangelism.

Undergirding the portrayal of God in this model of enlightenment is that God is the ultimate fact of the universe and our lives and that we need to accept this fact in our lives, particularly with Jesus and His death as the fact of God. Why should we accept this fact? Because God is going to punish us for our sins, but if we accept this fact, then God will forgive us of our sins. Ultimately, this model of enlightenment is motivated and maintained by the belief that God is a punitive God who demands to be recognized. A slightly different version of this portrayal would suggest that God is going to punish us for our sins unless we decide to change the direction of our lives, so we need to accept the truth of God in order to right the ship of our lives.

We need a new model of evangelism and enlightenment, and ultimately a new portrayal of God. It is a subtly Gnostic vision of salvation and faith that is maintained by relying upon the wrath and anger of God as the motivating factor. Even if the message of wrath and judgment is not explicitly expressed, this idea can often be implicit by both the preacher’s and even the audience, given what they have heard throughout the years from Christians.

A new model can begin by paying attention to the Scripture, looking for a different type of light. What does Jesus tell His disciples after the resurrection at the end of the Gospel of Matthew?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28.19-20)

Jesus does not instruct His disciples to get others to “believe” in Jesus. He doesn’t call for a program of enlightening people through the acquisition of knowledge, truth, etc. Rather, he calls them to get other people “to obey everything that I commanded you.” The disciples are invited to pass along what they have learned from Jesus and call people to endorse Jesus’ words in their life. Certainly, a belief in Jesus is implicit in this, but a belief that Jesus is someone we should listen to, that He has the words of life according to the Gospel of John. So, the model of evangelism, and thus soteriology, that is built on the foundation of epistemic enlightenment that relies upon declaring the truth to others is ultimately misguided. Perhaps the enlightenment that comes from God comes from having God’s Word, God’s instruction.

Psalm 119:93-107:

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to your word

Here, we see a different picture of enlightenment. God’s Word, God’s instruction doesn’t lead the Psalmist to accept a particular truth, idea, or knowledge that they accept as true. Certainly, there are particular truths they would implicitly accept, such as God exist, God gave this word, etc., but that are simply precursors that make them accept the word and instruction of God. Instead of giving light to the mind of the Psalmist, the word of God gives light to His feet and the path that he is walking. This is a metaphor, as 1 John 1.5, that points towards how the Psalmist directs their actions. God’s word directs the way the Psalmist life, which culminates with the plea that God gives the person life through the word.

If we were to create a model of enlightenment here, it would perhaps be as follows: acceptance of God’s word and instruction -> obedience in course of one’s actions -> The emergence of life. At first blush, this might look like what Protestant has sought to reject: justification by works. Yet, beyond perhaps a misreading of Paul’s understanding of faith and salvation, there is another potential misreading here. Life is not about avoiding God’s judgment and the penalty of death for his sin. Nor is life about the mere continuation of biological activity. Life is about the emergence of well-being for the Psalmist, away from the painful struggles and afflictions they are facing. Perhaps, God’s word is light that when accepted and obeyed leads to a life of well-being, not simply as a reward from the outside for doing the right thing, but as something that happens internally to the Psalmist as He learns and experiences a new way to live in the world through accepting and putting into practice God’s Word.

What if God’s light is the light of life, that directs people to experience new life? What if God’s Word is Life, as the Gospel of John speaks of? What if at the heart of God’s Word is a desire to see the well-being of life amongst His creation?

This is where I think we can say what is ultimately true about God. God is ultimately the Giver of life, with all the dynamic activity that comes with life and the experiences that come along with it. God loves and values life, which is the expression of God’s creation. This is why Jesus came: to give life, not simply at some distant point in time with the continuation of life after we die in the future, but the abundance of well-being emerges in present with the abundance of life. When we are truly enlightened by God, we ourselves begin to discover this ourselves: God loves life, including our lives, and so we should too. God takes pleasure in our well-being, so we should then learn to take pleasure in the well-being of life, ourselves, and others.

Yet, the truth is that so many people do not value life in its fullest sense. Certainly, they may value their own life. They may value the lives of those that are most important to them. But they don’t value life for life’s sake. They don’t see life as beautiful, as something that should be experienced as something to be cherished. As a result, they do not love as God loves. Instead, in seeking for the benefit of themselves and those that make them happy, they become unconcerned about the well-being of others who don’t make them happy or who they feel may be in conflict with them. Perhaps they go so far as to find other people as something to exploit for their own advantage and well-being. In these attitudes, they drain and take away the life of others all to fatten themselves.

Because God loves life, He hates any and all who destroys what He loves. God may certainly love the world as a whole, but there are those people who show such a callous lack of concern for love, life, and well-being of others and thus work against God’s will and take away God’s pleasure, that God’s judgment and wrath will come upon them.

To be clear, God still loves and wants life for those of us who are ignorant, those who fall short, those who mess up from time to time, those who don’t have all their life together. We may occasionally hurt others, and we may occasionally go astray from God’s word. While one may not be experiencing the fullness of life, while one may not have followed and obeyed God’s Word diligently, while one may not have even believed in Jesus, God still loves you and wants you to walk in newness of life. The God who loves life has no intention to eternally take away life and well-being from people because they may occasionally act against God’s life-giving and life-sustaining intentions. God’s wrath is focused upon those whose hearts are so hardened to other’s life and well-being, who find people’s weakness, vulnerability, and ignorance as something to exploit and take advantage of rather than a time to care, nourish, and protect.

Unless you are completely hardened to life so that you could care less about the harm you cause and have no concern for the life that God loves, God’s eternal wrath is not directed at you. God may get angry at you in a moment, but it is short-lived anger that isn’t about hell but about the present and what have done to hurt others and to even reject God. If your heart has room for God’s type of love, for life as it should be for yourself and for others, God has not rejected you. God is wanting you to discover something better, to discover the fullest, truest well-being of life. Because God loves life, he is not a God filled with wrath, but a God of grace who wants to gift you in such a way that you can experience the type of well-being that brings life to others around you in addition to yourself. This sometimes means we have to change our notions of what is good and what about life we find to be our source of joys and happiness, but God wants your abundant joy alongside the joy of others.

Jesus as the Word has come to enlighten our perceptions about life so that in the specific moments, in concrete experiences, our hearts and minds are directed towards the actions that sustain and nourish life and well-being for both ourselves and others. Yet, this enlightenment doesn’t come by accepting a specific idea, but you can only see, perceived, and understand the true goodness of life when you listen and accept Jesus’ words and put them into practice with faith. You must practice the goodness of life expressed in God’s Word for you to deeply understand and see the fullness of life for yourselves.

There are many people, including Christian teachers, who will tell you what good is. They will espouse all sorts of ideas and recommendations to improve your life and bring about deeper happiness. There may be some truth in what you are hearing, but these words come from people who do not understand human life like the Creator and Giver of life does. God’s Word is ‘designed’ to bring about life in you. The instruction and prescriptions from other teachers are not gifts that save us from the darkness and pain of sin and death that rules in the present age and world, but it is God’s gift of Jesus Christ that enlightens us as to the good, life-giving works to put into practice in order to bring into the life that comes from right relationships with God, other people, and the world around us. Whatever value, much or little, is to be found in the words of other teachers, our Heavenly Father who teaches us in His Son gives us the Words that allows us to discern the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God for life and peace/shalom.

Additionally, your teachers may know a bit about you as a person, or they may know next to nothing about you, but they can never understand you fully because our knowledge of what brings blessing to others is limited by the degree of our love, the time we can dedicate to knowing others, and the ignorance of all the ways your own genetic nature blended with your past experiences to bring you to where you are today. Consequently, the efficacy of what they may prescribe and suggest for you will be limited, especially if they lack love for life and specific love for your specific life and well-being. Yet, God your Teacher who loves you and knows you and your heart with great detail can lead you by His Holy Spirit to discover the blessings of life for you as an individual when you follow His leading by putting to death all the things you do that actively hinder if not harm life for yourself and others.

God loves life, hence He sent His Son Jesus to die on our behalf so that in Him we can discover the newness of life through His resurrection. That means, however, that we have to bear our cross in following Jesus and die to the present way we try to maintain our own life so that we can be open to the active, living love of God whose Spirit is bringing about the new life of new creation in accordance to the pattern of the Word, His Son Jesus Christ.

All those who value and love life as God’s values and loves life will perceive the goodness of this. May we all wake up from dreams of the mind where we are simply thinking about what we believe and become alert and see the goodness of life around us that God seeks to abundantly provide us in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit.