Converting the converted: The problem and transformation of evangelicalism

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May 17, 2020

I have mixed feeling about American evangelicals. On the one hand, it was among evangelicals where my faith was first brought forth and a deep appreciation and passion for Scripture was nourished. On the other hand, I look at evangelicalism and I am left wondering how it is that a people who so deeply respect the Scripture can turn out the way they do on so many social and political matters? Can we simply boil it down to a matter of how I interpret the Bible, which some might think was filled with “liberal” presuppositions and interpretations that would lead me astray?

However, another idea took hold of me today, as I was returning from a trip to a nearby commercially owned garden that I love to visit and walk in when I am in North Georgia. What if the problem with evangelicalism is that they convert but they never converted from their conversion? To be clear, I am not talking about de-converted from their faith in Jesus Chirst, but rather I am talking about the cognitive systems of meaning and understanding that gets generated when one first gets converted.

Whenever our meaning systems begin to go through a major transition, such as in religious conversion but can also happen with falling in love for the first time, the experience of deep trauma, etc. is that our new belief systems emerges from a combination of the new information, ideas, or experiences we are incorporating into our meaning systems and some of the old information, ideas, and memories. The emergence of new meaning systems is always a hybridization of old and new. In fact, it is the more entrenched and enduring parts of our older meaning systems that remain that allow us to draw inferences and further meaning from what is novel and emerging in our beliefs. When we first start learning something new, part of what is previously understood informs what it is we are not learning. When we incorporate new information into our meaning systems, we can only incorporate the new information in its “surface” form that we then use our already given beliefs to help give “depth” of understanding to the new information.

So, what happens with American evangelicalism is that when people “convert” to Christian faith, people begin to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit through the background of their experiences. For a complex set of reasons that we need not get into here to make my point, most of the conversions made in the United States to evangelicalism tend to be politically conservative, patriotic persons. The end consequence of this is that they begin to filter their understanding of God and Jesus through the lens of their cultural backgrounds, leading to beliefs such as God blesses America insofar as it will be a “Christian nation” (rather than God is blessing the world including the United States through the blessing of Abraham). Concerns about moral righteousness is as much about God making the United States great again as it is loving God and being a blessing to others, although clearly such concerns are readily pushed aside when other, pragmatic considerations are lead to be able to achieve the same goal. Seeking God’s will in your life essentially amounts to realizing the two staple forces of the present form of American capitalism: (1) what job you will have that brings in the money and (2) who you will have se…. I mean get married to.1 Even the evangelical reasons for understanding marriage that aren’t reduce to marriage being an excuse for having sex can get understood in terms of something distantly related to capitalism: the eventual creation of labor through reproduction. Furthermore, as whites are predominant in American society, evangelicalism as a predominately white brand of Christian faith largely sees the world in a way that does not recognize the complaints from minorities whom they do not spend as much time around, particularly African Americans. To be sure, some of this is more explicit in what people say and some of it is perhaps more implicit, operating simply at the level of desire and not formally expressed.

Now, much of this is not something radically new to the public discussion of religion in the United States. It has been a common complaint for a while. However, what isn’t as common or readily understood is the solution to the problem? For some critics, the solution essentially amounts to becoming politically progressive. However, some of what is prescribed in progressive politics comes into tension and sometimes outright contradiction with Scripture, to which many progressives have tried to change the way they view Scripture to reduce the dissonance. Certainly, evangelicals are selective in their reading of Scripture also, but one does not change people’s thinking by devaluing the way they use and value their sources of knowledge. Most epistemic practices are deeply rooted that you can not convert people by directly going after their epistemology. Progressive politics is, for better and worse, seen as an outside, foreign way of life and knowledge to evangelicals.

Perhaps another way to change the issue is some critique form within Christian faith, such as can be offered by some applications of Barthian and apocalyptic theologies. For instance, I engaged in a brief twitter conversation of a person who criticized white evangelical’s epistemology as essentially being the same as that of Christians in Nazi Germany. In place, he advocated for a Barthian perspective. The fundamental error of drawing from the inferences similarities between two distinct periods of times and cultures, however, is one’s epistemology does not unquestioning developed in certain stages. In other words, similarities of epistemology does not determine the future of American evangelicals, as epistemology is more so used to address the specific challenges are faced in that time period rather than simply leading to the thoughtless recapitulation of the past.

Also, Douglas Campbell in The Deliverance of God and also in his chapter “Apocalyptic Epistemology” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination is highly critical of epistemic foundationalism, which may be taking as a distant, indirect critique of evangelicalism through Campbell’s characterization and criticism of “Justification Theory.” While I share some sympathies with parts of Campbell’s project, I find most readings and understandings of Paul in light of “apocalyptic” to be woefully unwarranted, but largely rests of the evidential foundations of (1) the historical presupposition that Paul was Jewish, with the possibility implication that he shared some things in common with the patterns seen in apocalyptic literature and (2) some similarity of language and thenes that can also be seen in apocalyptic literature. While both (1) and (2) are merited, it does not warrant the idea that the interpretation and understanding of Paul should be primarily understanding around apocalyptic conventions, as Paul was neither only an “apocalyptic” Jew and much of the language Paul uses that is similar to apocalyptic literature language and themes are more wide-spread and not primarily exclusive to apocalyptic literature.

However, notwithstanding both of my methodological and historical critiques of the two options provided above, there is a reason these two options are insufficient option in response to evangelical theology, either in corrected it or as an alternative to it. Our epistemic praxis is not something we generally engage with and change directly through intellectualization about epistemology. Rather, we discover new epistemic practices. Transformation in the manner in which we learn are often accompanied by unplanned for epiphanies and discoveries of a new way of understanding and comprehending that challenge old epistemic practices, especially after our cognitive faculties have become fully developed.

Furthermore, and this is critical, there is no real overarching, systemic advocacy for specific epistemologies in the Scriptures, at least epistemologies in the traditional sense of epistemic sources and epistemic rationality. While the Apostle Paul provides a little bit in 1 Corinthians 8 in virtue of providing a contrast with Stoicism, who understood the field of logic to include thing we would now today call epistemology, it certainly is not extensive, particularly not extensive enough to prescribe some alternative epistemology. Based upon my research, I would say the two epistemic concepts that can be legitimately observed in Paul is the apocalyptically-inspired concept of epistemic resistance, where there is a subversion and tear down of previous bodies of knowledge and the practices that are used to construct them, and epistemic social dependence, which essentially describes the way we rely on specific people or God to teach and instruct us. These two concepts, while may be unfamiliar in analytic description would make intuitive sense to most evangelicals, as they both understanding being different from the culture and the idea of Jesus as a Teacher. However, beyond this, it would be rather hard to systematically and wholly engage with Americanism evangelicalism with deeply foreign epistemic practices, both explicit and implicit, to produce a change within evangelicalism, especially ones that can not be readily demonstrated to others in Scripture in a relatively common sense manner, but relies upon certain intellectual presuppositions and training to even be able to perceive them.

So, what then is the solution? I think the solution may be had in the problem: the concept of conversion. Within evangelicalism, conversion is portrayed and understood primarily as an event, something that happens in ones life that causes people to shift their allegiance from being on the outside to the inside. It is this event of conversion that is highly sought after. While certainly, continued discipleship and training is expected by many evangelicals, there is something implicit in the idea of Christian conversion that is expressed in John Newton’s famous line in Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” Put simply, once we become converted, we now have the right knowledge in virtue of faith in Jesus, that we now know the truth that we didn’t know prior. There is something momentous that often times happens when we come to our first understanding of Christian faith, especially for those who were not raised in an explicitly Christian home, and this dramatic change of belief can certainly feel like a sudden new insight, an epiphany in which everything now makes sense.

However, there is a problem with this: when we first come to faith, we do not necessarily understanding Jesus as the Father knows Jesus, but as Jesus makes sense to us from our flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 5.16), even if we have been taught by the Father previously. Even as God has accommodated to our old forms of understanding and knowledge and broken them open in calling us to Christ, we are still largely dependent on our prior understandings to make sense of the significance and purpose of Jesus. But, if in that moment, we begin to think we understand ourselves to have some new truth, some new fountain of knowledge and understanding, what will happen? We will grow highly confident, if not arrogant, in the understanding that emerges from our growth in faith, as we take the epiphany of faith in Christ to be a legitimation of all our Scriptural interpretations and theological understandings. The personal epiphany of Christ slowly grows into an epistemic ideology that increasingly and indiscriminately justifies the blending of old and new in the emerging development of faith. If at conversion one sees, often metaphorically referring to an accurate understanding, then one will grow exceedingly confident in the syncretistic combination between the American culture and Christ, even as this syncretism is overlaid with distinctly Christian language whose meanings are understood as they are significance to the traditional American life.

The solution then, is an epistemic conversion of sorts, of a converting of the converted. However, this conversion is not rooted in simply giving a new confidence of our understanding, but rather obliterating much of the understanding so that we can come to learn afresh about God and His purposes from Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. By helping people to understand that leaning not on our own understanding isn’t code for “all knowledge but your theological or exegetical knowledge,” but that one commits one’s ways of life and even one’s knowledge to the provision of wisdom and guidance from God across the journey of our lives. Rather than the calling being a time where we go from blind to seeing, it is a time where we move from blinders to really blurry lenses, where God’s calling becomes when we living in darkness unexpectedly see a brief flashing of light that shows us the way out of the darkness, but we must pursue and go towards that light without presuming we know exactly what the light is and where it leads. Literally understanding this metaphor, it means that we begin to know God through the face of Jesus Christ, but we can not fully understand Jesus Christ, what He teaches, and the way of life He calls us to through the cross until we follow and obey because we believe and trust He is God’s light.

This epistemic conversion is comparable to falling in love with someone you feel deeply familiar with and yet is at the same time like a stranger , beckoning you to understand and know who they are in a way that is deeper beyond the surface of what one immediately sees and hears in them, but when they continue to be available and makes themselves known to you, you can come to understand who they are that helps us to comprehend what we see and hear, but only by paying attention to and listening to them. It can start off as starling and sudden and unexpected, much as I imagine Boaz felt when Ruth uncovered his feet, but then proceed to a life together in which one comes to share life with and come to know the other (excuse the attempt at humor as an inside joke if you don’t get it).

In the end, I would say that evangelicals need to converted from their conversion, which in the course of time can lead them to cast off all the old things that hinder them from living fully faithfully to God, so that they can become progressively open to the fullness of God, who is testified to in the Scriptures. Evangelicals need to go through what Paul seeks to bring about in the Corinthians, moving them from one mode of faith that largely leaves them reflecting their Greco-Roman culture, to another that leads people to a knowledge based upon love. On the surface, much of what happens may look like a deconversion or deconstruction at times, because such a liminal transition entails abandoning a lot of the false beliefs and dangerous ideas built upon the foundation of the old in order to build more on the foundation of Jesus Christ, but such “apparent deconversions” or “apparent deconstructions” are actually the movement towards a a surer way of coming to know the God testified to in the Scriptures and at work in our lives in a more secure, Trinitarian fashion. This is because going from lost to found isn’t about our epistemic understanding and certainty about God, as if we have securely found the knowledge about God, but about the God who knows us, so that the conversion of the convert may leads people to wander but they are not lost, even if they feel lost, if in their in their wandering they were called by God and seek to follow Jesus to His cross.

After all, didn’t the preacher of Hebrews, who talked about Jesus as the reflect and exact imprint of God and God and His glory and lauded Jesus as the pioneer of faith we follow say that every created thing will be shaken at the voice of God, which certainly includes our minds and its knowledge, so that what remains is what is unshaken? Ironic that my early faith which had been so developed by an evangelical fear of sin influencing my reading of Hebrews is now found to have been shaken by the voice of God in accordance with the way of knowing God through Jesus that the preacher of Hebrews commends.

Analytic thinking as truth-therapy

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May 15, 2020

There has been an implicit assumption within the intellectual tradition of the West that goes as far back, at least, to Socrates and maybe even in the pre-Socratics. It is an implicit assumption that is so pervasive, so fundmental to our way of thinking that when it began to be questioned by post-modernity, it lead to a lot of hostiltiy from various corners of the intellectual world. Unfortunately, in not being able to really see the pervasiveness of this assumption, the prevailing reponse to post-modernity by modernity was to continue to buttress this basic assumption, rather than come up witha new assumption that would simultaneously lift up some of the the value of the intellectual tradition of the West, particuarly the advances made in the Enlightenment as it came to science, while at the same time accept the critque of post-modernity in such a way that it the intellectual tradition could correct itself while also insulating itself from the corrosiveness of post-modernity.

What is this assumption? That critical thinking under its various names, such as reason, analytic thinking, etc., leads us to the truth. What is the assumption I would put forward instead? That analytic thinking is truth-therapy, healing us from a specific class of errors we are prone to make, but analytic thinking does not itself provide us epistemic access to truth. In so arguing, I am admitting a deep inspiration by Wittgenstein’s notion that philosophy is a form of therapy, but I am giving a broader account of human cognition in relationship to questions of truth that spans beyonds simply the specific practice/discipline of philosophy.

One area of philosophy that I think can nicely demonstrate the implicit idea of reasoning as therapeutic can be seen in the three well-known philosophies of science: (1) the view of the positivists that posited that scienitific knowledge is grounded upon the verification of theories, (2) the Popperian view that scientific knowledge are theories that have withstood falsification, and (3) the Kuhnian notion of scientific paradigms that provides answers to the questions and problems that scientiests are engaged in. 

A therapeutic view of reasoning aligns with Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, as scientific reasoning functions to challenge various errors that might be present in our scientific theories. According to Popper, we do not arrive as a confirmation of our theories as much as our theories have stood the test of various challenges to its veracity. While Popper’s account of science does not fully express a therapeutic view of reasoning, it does express one of the fundemntal features of analytic thinking: its ability to cast away errors from our thinking. However, if one were to morph Popper’s falsification into a broader, therapeutic understanding of scientific reasoning, it would provide the basis for explaining many of the reasons that undergird the acceptance of the positivists and the Kuhnian views of science.

On the one hand, by helping to correct us from errors, analytic thinking allows our minds to come to a place of cognitive openness to pay fresh attention to the focus of our questions by getting rid of previous confidences and assumptions we have challenge and rejected in virtue of analytic thinking, thereby allowing our thinking to be more attuned to our observations. In so doing, the therapeutic role of analytic thinking can seem to function to also verify truth in scientific reasoning. However, at the same time, science is contingent on the processes of attention and perception to progress towards truth, which are not cognitive processes that are analytic in nature but rather are increased because of analytic thinking. What seems to be “confirmation” is really the processes of attention and perception creating and consolidating our theoretical knowledge. Thus, insofar as science gives us true theories, it rest not in scientific reasoning itself, but the cognitive process of attention and perception that scientific reasoning then alters.

On the other hand, the Kuhnian understanding of science can fit under a therapeutic conception of analytic thinking. Insofar as as the shift in scientific paradigms are determined by the failure of previous paradigms to address specific problems and questions, the processes of scientific reasoning by scientific communities that leads to to shifts in paradigms can be understood as the truth-therapeutic functions of analytic thinking, challenging and dispelling the old paradigms and their errors with a new paradigm that has been enabled by the cognitive openness to new understandings that analytic thinking was instrumental inculcating.

This brief foray into the philosophy of science is meant to demonstrate the explanatory value of analytic thinking as truth-therapy, allowing us to incorporate some of the insights of the positivists, Popper, and Kuhn in a relatively coherent account, while whisking away some of the more problematic accounts of the positivists and Kuhn.

How then would analytic thinking as truth-therapy change our intellectual atmosphere? On the one hand, it would cast down the arrogance of Enlightenment and its child of modernity that suggested reason was a fountain of progress towards truth. While it certainly instrumental in coming to an account of truth, the skills of critical reasoning do not themselves ensure that we have the truth but that we can be receptive to what is true in virtue of analytic thinking. However, we still need to have epistemic access to the truth that happens independent of whether we are thinking analytically or not. On the other hand, it would cast down the high-octane skepticism of reason in post-modernity, recognizing that there is a real value to analytic thinking that is instrumental in providing truth, even as it does not provide truth directly.

Another benefit that comes in theologically is this: the acquisition of religious truth about God is conditioned upon God’s gracious intiative to make Himself know to us, although there is still a role for analytic thinking in Christian faith for healing our personal faith and theologies from the errors that otherwise hinder our recognition and comprehension of God. Human reason doesn’t lead us to directly know God, but it can help correct us of many of our own errors when God makes Himself known to us.

Reframing grace and freedom

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May 15, 2020

One of the key points of Wesleyan soteriology that defined it against Calvinism was John Wesley’s understand of prevenient grace and free will. For the Calvinists and Wesley, the effects of original sin was a total depravity in which the human was entirely void of the light of God until God’s grace restores it. As a consequence, humans do not even have a free will to believe in God and repent. This point of doctrine distinguishes themselves from the Catholic view where free will was weakened, rather than obliterated. However, where Wesley diverges from Calvinism is in the belief that God’s grace prior to salvation provides humans a free will that they can then use to repent and believe in Christ.1 In so doing, Wesley provides an account of God’s salvation that is legitimately offered to everyone, while at the same time recognizing the darkness of the human condition apart from the redemption in Christ.

It was this picture of free will that I found to deeply resonate in my heart in college, being part of the reason I grew to greatly appreciate Wesleyan theology. However, over the years, I have observed a lot of chinks in the Wesleyan armor. Firstly, I have trouble giving a Biblical account that closely matches Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace. Secondly, I also observed that mentions about free will in the Bible was relatively pauce. Then, there are the host of philosophical and metaphysical problems with simultaneously believing in a more expansive idea of free will while at the same time allowing for human behaviors to be caused by external forces to them and even internal physiological and neural processes that they had little control over. For me, free will had become an increasingly hard concept to really support and sustain in any sort of large, overarching, systematic account of human life and experience. While affirming the universality of salvation and not taking the road towards Calvinism, I found the Wesleyan account of free will to be on shaky grounds from an exegetical and philosophical point of view, even as I felt it made better theological sense of the Scriptures than Calvinism did.

This intellectual struggle had moved me to reframe how I engaged in the discussion from “free will” to “freedom,” as the latter has less metaphysical baggage than the former. To that end, I could affirm a form of freedom in which human faith and repentance or the lack thereof is not reduced to simply brought about due to God’s agency, but yet I would not make broad, overarching metaphysical assumptions about why people did or did not choose to believe in God. However, this also left me with a problem: what is it that God’s grace effectually does that human activity can not do? If my coming to faith is not simply reduced to God’s gracious activity, where then do I draw the line between God’s part and my part in salvation and redemption?

In the midst of this intellectual dillemma, I began to realize something. Why is it that we put the burden of our coming to faith upon having a free will? Why is that free will is considered the “hinge” point that can make possible our faith and repentance? Ultimately, this goes back to Augustine’s debate with Pelagius. Pelagius is reputed to have considered humans to have everything they needed to live righteously, which Augustine interpreted as a denial of the need of divine grace. Whatever the exact nature of the theological is hard to know because we don’t have an adequate, non-hostile presentation of Pelagius’ views, but free will was the critical hinge point in the discussion.

However, we are left with a problem: there is barely any evidence that the doctrine of free will was a huge concern in the Bible. The closest we get to any real discussion on free will is in Romans 7, which is more owing to the specific philosophical point of contention Paul was addressing with 4 Maccabees’ affirmation that reason formed by Torah can overcome the passions, and maybe Paul’s allegorical interpretation of Abraham’s two sons in Galatians 4.21-5.1, if he is employing the use of allegory in a manner similar to Stoics did by highlighting pertinent philosophical ideas expressed in Homer and other pagan myths and freedom Christ brings represents the capacity to make a choice. Free will is just not a huge matter of concern in the Bible; certainly it isn’t to the degree that it became in Pelagian controversy.

This isn’t to suggest that we need to entirely rethink Augustine’s understanding of grace, as if it was somehow fatally flawed becasue of an “alien” discussion of free will. In fact, ths critique becomes a way of affirming Augustine over and against Pelagius in a broad sense, while being critical of the way Augustinian theology has caused us to begin to read the Bible against the backdrop of the idea of a lost free will that grace either strengthens or restores. It is my view that Augustine’s theology on grace and free will is a proxy for something important in the New Testament that render Pelagianism false, but that Augustine does not give a great representation of what is significant about grace, particular in the Pauline epistles that Augustine quotes from extensively. As a result, I think Augustinian theology about grace is correct in what is being rejected, but ultimately the theological traditions came to be in error in what it affirmed.

What is it that I think the Augustinian tradition got wrong? When Augustine appeals to Adam in the discussion about nature, grace, and free will, he does something with some wide-ranging theological consequences down the line: that the Fall materially effected and damaged human free will. Whether this view of the Fall is be expressed in the weakened form of Catholicism, the obliteration of free will in Calvinism, the obliteration and prevenient restoration of free will in Wesleyanism, etc., the overriding assumption has been to see some damage to the human capacity to reason and freely choose as a result of Adam’s sin. I would put forward that Augustinian theology has the wrong explanation for Augustine’s right answer in rejecting Pelagianism.

What do I think is the right answer for the problem of Adam and thus the problem of sin and unbelief? The widening separation between God and humanity from Adam onwards made it such that humans lived their lives in ignorance of God, habituating themselves and their desires into a way of life that placed much resistance to believe in the true God and the good way of life that God created and intended for us. What happens in Adam is not the effecting of human capacity in a direct manner, but the loss of the knowable divine presence and provision, being replaced instead with the visible reign of death and its partner sin.

In this state of affairs, God’s grace is not something that enables human ability to have a free will, but rather God’s grace in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the powerful presence of the Spirit provides humanity the epistemic capacity to come to recognie and know God, giving us the possibility to use our human freedom to believe and be able to successfully repent from the sins that has held spiritually hostage. God’s grace is His self-disclosure of His purposes and His provision to us through Christ and the Spirit that gives us the ability to use our already present capacity for human freedom to direct ourselves to God. Apart from God’s self-disclosure and provision, human freedom can not be exercised towards what we are utterly ignorant and entrenchingly resistant to.

The analytic distinction to make here is between the general capacity of human freedom and the actual experience of human freedom regarding specific choices. Almost all of us feel the experience of freedom and free choice throughout our daily lives. I experience the freedom of choice to either eat a apple or a candy bar for a snack, recognizing the value of the healthy option and the pleasure of the sweeter option. Similarly, I experience the choices between either choosing to watch videos on YouTube or making the choice to read a bit. I have a general capacity of freedom. However, I do not have the freedom to choose to do something that I do not have the option of doing. Even more so, I do not have the freedom to choose to do something that I am utterly ignorant of. If I had not access to YouTube or to a candy bar, I would not be able to make a free choice to use them. If I am ignorant of their existence, I wouldn’t even be able to conceive of the choice in the first place. Thus, we can think of the actual experience and exercise of human freedom entailing both (1) a basic knowledge about the choices and (2) the reality of the options.2

Furthermore, as knowledge is not a static, unchanging good, nor are our own inclination, habits and desires, our continued living in a world and society that does not clearly manifest the presence and provision of God has a way of drawing us away from God. This is not to mention the holiness of God leaves us always ignorant of God, even as we are aware of him. This circumstances leaves us in a continued need of divine grace in ever pereptual returned to the narrative of Jesus Christ and and the ongoing, indwelling and instruction of the Spirit to continue to resist the pull of the godlessness of the world while also progressing towards God’s redemptive purposes for our lives. Without God’s ongoing gracious activity through the ongoing testimony of Jesus Christ (mainly through the Scriptures) and the ever-working activity of the Holy Spirit, our actual experience of freedom to continue to seek God and be sanctified by Him would cease to be the case.

Thus, I would put forward that this way of understanding freedom in relation to grace is more so helpful for us to have a thoughtful way of addressing the question of free will vis-a-vis a theology rooted in Scripture, while avoiding having a simplistic conception of free will that we then (wrongly) regard the Scriptures as addressing. This simultaneously allows a way forward in rejecting the Pelagian anthropology, which diminished the need of divine grace, while freeing us to read the Scriptures a little more closely, without some of the cognitive baggage of the various anthropologies influenced by Augustine.

Pauline theology as (ancient) philosophy

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May 15, 2020

In his introduction to the New Testament, N.T. Wright (along with Michael Bird) begins his overview of the NT with at attempt to answer the question: What is the New Testament? Their answer, which is hinted at in the cover, is that it is history, literature, and theology. Any adequate understanding of the New Testament needs to account for the history it testifies to, the form the New Testament is written in, and what the New Testament says about God.

In regards to the last category of theology, Wright puts forward the following forward about New Testament theology:

To put it simply, New Testament theology is necessary to describe what it is about the New Testament that is authoritative and to define the activism that should characterize the church as a participant in God’s plan, namely the intention (as in Eph. 1.10) to sum up in the Messiah all things in heaven and on earth. Or, as Jesus himself put it, the intention that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done ‘on earth as in heaven’. God has promised to put the world to rights; the early Jesus-followers insisted that this project had been launched in Jesus himself, particularly in the events of his death, resurrection, and ascension; the New Testament, bearing witness to this intention and these events, thereby fuels and energizes the present stage of God’s ongoing plan and purpose.1

In observing closing this picture of New Testament theology, we can notice a few things that are implicit or in the background. Firstly, God’s agency and intentionality is central in this characterization of New Testament theology. Secondly, there is a concern the theological descent of heaven. Finally, there is a concern for narrative, both in the events of Jesus’ life and also the future of God’s work and purposes.

There is one point of agreement with this characterization of New Testament theology that I do find to be important: this is certainly the cognitive backbone/worldview of the discourse of the New Testament when it comes to how the early Christians understood God in Jesus Christ. If one pays attention to how the discourse and reasoning flows in the New Testament, one could certainly see importance and centrality of a theological emphasis on God’s agency and action to bring about His plan in history through the life of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, in affirming this, I also share another concern of Wright to recognize that the Bible needs to be understood theologically and not simply historically or literarily.

However, at this point, I would suggest that reading the New Testament as theology as it is presented above does not go far enough to make sense of some important features of the New Testament, which neither history nor literature can do either. For instance, if one were to read Romans 6-8, it is hard to really make coherent sense of this whole discourse by reference to history, literature, and, as outline above, theology. Paul’s focus on the believer’s union with Christ’s death and resurrection certainly implies the history of both the Exodus in the baptismal imagery and the recent events of Jesus death and resurrection. Likewise, the focus on Torah and the person’s struggles with sin in Romans 7 hearkens back, respectively, to Sinai and to Adam in a faint paradigmatic echo. Furthermore, one can understand Romans as, for instance, a piece of protreptic literature. Then, we can certainly see the way Romans 6-8 as a whole develops into a highlighting of God’s purposes in the resurrection and the redemption of creation. However, even with these three pieces in mind, there is something that is inadequately accounted for in what Paul writes: it is an account of human life in light of the narrative of Christ. It doesn’t just provide a descriptive and prescriptive account of human life under baptismal union with Christ and under Torah, but Romans 6-8 is absolutely, thoroughly, and entirely drenched in concerns about human life and experience.

In more modern categories, we would say that Romans 6-8 is a universal anthropology (distinguishing it from cultural anthropology). However, anthropology was not an available category in the ancient world. In the 1st century AD Roman Empire, the closest category for understanding Romans 6-8 would be as a piece of ancient philosophy. Ancient philosophy, especially the Stoics, aspired to concern itself with all things that exist on earth and the gods, being willing to move from what they understood the purposes of the gods to be towards understanding what type of creates humans were created to be. Yet, ancient philosophy was preoccupied with human life in the form of ethics: how is it that we as humans should responsibly and wisely live and how is it that we will be able to achieve this goal of wisdom? Especially when you see the comparisons and contrasts between Romans 7 and 4 Maccabees, a work of religious philosophy, one is left with the stark impression that Paul is doing something that looks a lot like ancient philosophy.

In the past couple of decades, Troels Engberg-Pedersen has written a series of monographs on the similarities and overlaps between the Pauline epistle and the Gospel of John with ancient philosophy, particularly the Stoics. Much of Engberg-Pedersen’s conclusions I can not abide by, as I feel he makes a regular mistake, especially in Paul and the Stoics, of seeing too much continuity between the thinking between Paul and Stoicism. For instance, in my research in 1 Corinthians, I am left with the conclusion that Paul share employed some shared vocabulary and concepts with the Stoics, but that you can not adequately make coherent sense of what Paul in light of ancient philosophy unless you emphasize the discontinuity between Paul and Stoicism. Nevertheless, what Engberg-Pedersen has brought to the table is the value of understanding the New Testament as it relates to the conventions of ancient philosophy.

While I can only present this premise forward here as a possibility, with no hope of being able to decisively verify this conclusion here, I would put forward a couple forms of evidence which, if available, would validate the importance of ancient philosophical conventions for understanding the New Testament. Firstly, the higher the degree of shared vocabulary and concepts would be suggestive of the New Testament being understood philosophically. To be clear, such a shared vocabulary does not equate to shared meaning, as the systems of meaning for the early Christians were developed with the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center, whereas the meaning that Greek philosophy pulled from was the worldviews expressed in the mythological narratives of ancient paganism. Nor, would a share vocabulary necessarily entail some sort of highly syncretistic blend of ancient philosophy and Judaism as we see in 4 Maccabees or Philo of Alexandria. Nevertheless, even as the underlying meanings could diverge between the most ancient philosophies and the New Testament, the social and relational expectations of philosophical discourse would remain, in which is reputedly wise teacher would give an account of the states of affairs of life and the world and they would give general ethical prescriptions, both to help people know what is wise to do and to help people to understand how they can be the type of people to be able to realize this wisdom in their lives. The extent to which there is a shared vocabulary of important philosophical concepts, is the extent to which we can consider the documents fo the New Testament to fit within the social conventions of ancient philosopher. 

This leads to a second piece of evidence that could be offered in favor of this philosophical thesis that is decidedly focused on Paul: the more Paul’s letters can be understood rhetorically against the backdrop of philosophical forms of instructions, such proleptic discourse, the more confident we can be that Paul’s letters are to some degree written with the social and communicative conventions of ancient philosophy in mind. Most rhetorical criticism of the New Testament and Paul have focused on the three traditional, Aristotelian species of rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. If, however, Paul’s discourse can be shown to fit better with the philosophical discourse of protreptic rhetoric, which I think good arguments can be made for both Romans and 1 Corinthians, then we have a good reason to consider reading the Pauline letters, at least, as a form of ancient philosophy.

If all this is the case, this leads to a specific conclusion of vital interpretive importance: Pauline theology expressed in His epistles is a form of ancient philosophy. Or, perhaps more precisely stated, Paul’s epistolary theology is actually best understood as theological philosophy in which the narrative backbone of God’s faithfulness to His promises through the death and resurrection of Jesus provides the given, axiomatic assumptions by which human life lived in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be then rationally expounded upon and understood. Paul’s letters as a whole are theological as this narrative backbone is crucial to understanding them, but in terms of the entire content of his discourse, they are better understood to be philosophical.

Granted, I have yet to find anything like Paul’s exposition on Abraham in Romans 4 in 1st century Stoics like Epictetus or Seneca. Paul was working with the narratives of Israel’s scriptures in the way that you might only find the Stoics doing if they were explicitly trying to connect their philosophy to ancient myth and rituals, such as Cornutus’ Compendium of Greek Theology. This doesn’t undermine the philosophical thesis, however, but only points to the importance of cultural hybridity. Paul’s letters may be construed as a hybridization of what we might expect to be a more traditional Jewish exposition on the Scriptures and the pattern of reasoning and ethical instruction from ancient philosophy. While not casting a hybrid between the worlds views of Greek philosophy and the Jewish way of life, Paul’s letters can be understood as a hybridization of Jewish and Hellenistic styles of instruction and discourse.

Theologically speaking, this should not be problematic for one reason: the Incarnation. In fact, the shape of Paul’s Christology that *emphasizes* Jesus humanity more than His divinity, even as does have a high Christology when one looks closely, almost necessitates a focus on the human element. The primary focus on the human element in traditional Judaism would have come through exposition and application of the Torah and its commandments, which is not an option for a Paul, who minimizes, but not entirely abandons, the Torah as a source of ethical reflection. Thus, the best way to present a direct inferential connection between Jesus and he faith and life of believers is through the discursive patterns and conventions of ancient philosophy.

However, because Paul’s letters are not the presentation of the Gospel about Jesus Christ itself, but rather an exposition on various circumstances and issues raised among the churches with the Gospel narrative and way of life in the background, we do not need to make the mistake of thinking a theological philosophy is at the heart of Paul’s own faith in Jesus, or is the center of what the proclaimed Gospel is. Rather, on the narrative backbone of the Gospel as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures that his various audiences have accepted to various degrees, Paul engages in discourses of theological philosophy.

This does not mean that all of Paul’s epistles must be reductively treated as theological philosophy, but only that in order to understand the discourse of the Pauline epistles, we need to take seriously this philosophical element to make coherent sense of much of Paul’s discourse.

I would also put forward in my briefer studies in the Gospel of John that this philosophical thesis may also be applicable to that Gospel (although this is in a very early form) in which Jesus can be understood as the perfect “perception”/light of God2 who epistemically makes known God’s (covenant) love for the world and the love that is thus to be shared for each other. This is all too hypothetical and tentative to be put forward as anything reliable at this present juncture, but if this case can be made, then we may have grounds to consider the a significant portion of the New Testament through the lens of a (theological) philosophy.

Nevertheless, if all this is to be the case, it will be important to understand the philosophy of the New Testament with NT Wright’s portrayal of theology provided above, lest we assume too much of a continuity between other ancient philosophies and the New Testament that would be at the risk of understanding the New Testament against the backdrop of pagan worldviews and values. It is one thing to suggest that the byproducts of Hellenism influenced the early Christians through the social and communicative conventions of ancient philosophical discourse, but it is a much more astounding thesis in need of similarly astounding evidence to suggest that the hybridity between Hellenism and Judaism went beyond communicative, discursive forms to the content of meaning and understanding about God, the world, and human life. This is a type of evidence that is, to much knowledge, just not present anywhere in the New Testament, even among Paul, the most Hellenistic and Roman of the New Testament authors.

The fear of the Lord as vulnerability

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May 12, 2020

There is something I have observed with myself and others when we start talking about the fear of God. We have this immediate impulse to try to clarify that this fear is not a feeling of terror or dread of God, and for good reason, as the whole scope of the Bible testifies to the loving kindness, mercy, and patience of God, even as there are episodes of judgement and wrath interspersed through it. For instance, in my last post on Psalm 2, I interpreted the description of fearing God in Psalm 2.10 to be some sort of awe-inspired reverence. I recently saw post elsewhere that distinguishes between the terror of God of those who do not know God’s nature and the fear of God that I do think is on the right track. We have this good and necessary impulse to make sure that the fear of God is not interpreted as some sort of slavish fear that haunts us the rest of our lives. To that end, I affirm that impulse both in myself and others.

However, I have been left thinking the past couple days: are we really getting to the root of what the fear of God is? By trying to distinguish it from dread, are we hindering our ability to make sense of the whole Biblical narrative together, of both God’s love, grace, and mercy and God’s judgment and wrath. We employ some sort of implicit binary logic that distinguishes the “fear of God” as entirely different from dread and terror before God.

Upon further reflection, I have come to this tentative conclusion: the way we think about our emotions in the present day world where we understand our emotions more so in terms of what we actively experientially feel in the emotions, then we are are the right track to make a distinction between the fear of God and the terror/dread of God. However, when it comes to understanding the Biblical narratives and expositions, they do not think of emotions in terms of an internal experience, but more so in terms of (1) how one acts and behaves with specific emotions and (2) what in the world, or from God, evokes emotions. In other words, emotions are understood externally, not internally.

How does this help us to make sense of the fear of God? When we see the first discussion of the fear of God in Exodus 20.18-20, we see these two types of ways of understanding emotions being manifest. After witnessing and hearing the thunder, lightening, a trumpet, and a smoking mountain, the Israelites are brought into a fear of God that was understood behaviorally: “the people were afraid, trembled, and stood from a distance” (Exo. 20.18). The two verbs (וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ) that followed the verb for fear (וַיַּ֤רְא) can be understood as expounded upon the nature of this fear. Something stirred within them that made them act in a way that they were visibly shaken and kept their distance. However, Moses tells them to not fear and that God has put the fear of him upon them (Exo. 20.20). Here, we see the other way that emotions were understood, by the perception and recognition of things that evoke those emotions. By God acting is such a grand, powerful manner, the Israelites would not begin to recognize the nature of God and their vulnerability before Him. The effect of what Moses is telling the Israelites is that they should not fear that God was going to harm them, but that they needed to understand that they are vulnerable to God.

Put differently, to have the fear of God put in you is not to enter into a specific emotional state of feeling terror, awe, etc. towards God, but it is more so to recognize something about God, that God is a powerful being before whose presence we are vulnerable. It is the recognition about what God can do.

In having the fear of God, the Israelites were being called to recognize the power of God that they are vulnerable to. This is instrumental in their not sinning, as recognizing their vulnerability to God would hold back any sense of rebellion against God, particularly in the form of idolatry and false worship, which Moses then discusses with them in the following verses. These were a people who were being taught about who God is and what a relationship with God will be like, although they have not yet become committed to this covenant relationship, as they do not commit until Exodus 24. God was, in a sense, showing His hand to them so that the Israelites knew the relationship they were being ask to commit themselves to.

Vulnerability is one of those feelings that, at least in my experience, has been hard to really define and understand. Part of the reason for this, however, is that vulnerability is not an isolated feeling by itself, but that vulnerability is conjoined to another feeling directed towards those people or things that make us feeling vulnerable: do we trust them? When we trust those whom we are vulnerable to, we do not experience a dread or terror. However, when we do not trust those whom we are vulnerable to, we are inclined to experience such dread and terror.

Imagine the stereotypical wonderful good guy, super hero like Superman. Most people in the fictional universe would have a sense of vulnerability before him in that they would not believe they would be any match with Superman if they were to get into a fight with him. However, because Superman had demonstrated His character by saving rather than harming, this sense of vulnerability with trust does not beget terror or dread. Nevertheless, this feeling of vulnerability would motivate people to not try to test or fight against Superman either.

For a real world example, most of us have a fear of moving cars built into us. When we see a car on the road, we have this deep sense of respect for the car and the damage it can do to the human body if someone steps in front of it. At the same time, most of us don’t actively live in fear of cars if we have some distance between us and the road, as we have a strong trust in the drivers that they will not veer entirely off the road to hit us. Nevertheless, this vulnerability to moving cars keeps most of us away from getting into the road when we see an oncoming automobile.

This is what I would liken to the fear of God to: a recognition of one’s vulnerability before God. It isn’t the belief that God is ready to smite you for the slightest infraction, but rather that God is not someone you want to try to rebel against. It is this basic sense of vulnerability that would prevent one from sinning in egregious ways. However, at the same time, coming to know God as a trustworthy, merciful, patient God, we join this sense of vulnerability to God with the trust of God, meaning that we, essentially, fear living in defiant sin rather than fear we are going to be crushed for the slightest offense if we aren’t careful.

We can distinguish this form of vulnerability and obedience from the feelings of vulnerability and conformity that are created by the direct threats of punishment. If someone readily threatens you with severe consequences if you do something they deem wrong and you feel vulnerable to them, this creates a psychological state of conformity. Here, the sense of vulnerability leads to readily experiencing terror and dread at the mere thought of crossing that people, which keeps people in line. However, this form of vulnerability doesn’t allow for trust to build, but it creates a bond of subservience.

There is, of course, “middle ground” between an obedient vulnerability and a conforming vulnerability that we see throughout the world. For instance, imagine an employer who keeps discussing with one of his employees a problematic behavior that they have and after various conversations with no direct threat to their career, they finally say “You need to stop or you may be fired.” Eventually, a threat of punishment is given, but it has not been brought to the table for the vast majority of the time. To most employees, a sense of “occupational fear” of the employer would have them willing to address the issue without coming into an immediate terror at the fear of being fired. However, for those who did not have a healthy fear of the employer, it is only towards the end where they come to realize they need to shape up or ship out. Both experiences of vulnerability are connected to the same thing, the potential loss of a job, but in the healthy version of vulnerability, it is a very distant thing that the employee needs not fear, which prevents them from coming into the direct fear of losing their job. This “middle ground,” however, is one where the the threat of punishment is a last, not a first, resort. This image is closer to what we see of God in the Bible and how fear is to be understood. It isn’t that there is never any place for punishment or wrath with God, but it is to be a distant, sparing thing among the lives of His people.

Contrast this with an employer who is inclined to exaggerate their employees behavior and quick to warn about consequences if they don’t get things correct. The employees do not live under a health occupational vulnerability to their employer, but they experience an immediate fear of being fired that can make them simply conform to the wishes of their employer. This is the image of God that gets often put out their under versions of Christian faith that have a “gospel” of behavior management through the fear of hell to keep you from sinning.

To that end, when we try to understanding the Biblical language about fear, it may be helpful for us to think about it in terms of vulnerability and trust. The fear of God is a trusting vulnerability that simultaneously recognizes that (1) we are vulnerable to God, who can and will act powerfully against real evil and (2) we can trust God, who actively seeks to bring and build life rather than to tear it down when evil and utter defiance is not afoot. It is this type of fear that simultaneously keeps us from sin but yet allows us to bind our lives with God’s purposes in love, rather that conforming in terror or dread.

Faith and discernment

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May 12, 2020

Christianity has a credibility gap today. On the one hand, Christians lay claim to the most powerful narrative that has ever been told of God’s patient, enduring, suffering love for His people. On the other hand, the amount of other narratives that Christians also tell, particularly about conspiracy theories and what not as we are witnessing in the present coronavirus crisis, which often substitutes any credibility we would have in telling the Gospel narrative of Jesus to others with an automatic disbelief that will not give a serious hearing.

Why is it that Christians, especially in the West, seem so prone to conspiracy? The answer is complex, with no single explanation. One part of the explanation, to be honest, is probably the way that many people who call themselves Christian and maybe even believe themselves to be devoted to their faith have not really any life of following Jesus to impact the way they think about the other narratives that get told. Secondly, there may be some stereotyping going on, in which people are more willing to see the flaws about Christians than they are of other people, thereby remembering and exaggerating the conspiracy theories among Christians more than others.

I think both of those are partial explanations, but there is a third explanation that I think is important. Whether we realize it or not, we Christians have often come to equate faith in God with the intuition through various means. Belief is some you feel in the heart, and God leads us through the voice in our hearts. I do not doubt the truth of these things, but there is often an implicit belief that emerges from this: God is discovered and known in and through the intuition. Then, with this implicit belief in tow, it is a half-step away from the next belief: my intuition is a reliable source of truth.

Before explain why this is the problem, I want to point out the theological problem here: the often implicit belief we have that God is discovered in our intuition. The problem here is not the belief that we often hear God’s leading to us in our intuitions, but that we somehow have the belief that I can go to find God in the heart, in my intuition. Forgetting the words of Jeremiah 17.9, Christians are often lead to believe that they can discover the presence and truth of God through their hearts and intuitions. However, it is God who make Himself known to us, not our intuitions who discover God. While we believe that God is faithful to make Himself known to us when we seek Him, He is not bound to make Himself known in a particular way or at a particular time. Even as God is committed to us, God is also free to realize His commitment to us in ways we can not control. Without this understanding of God’s freedom, we risk turn our intuitions as not simply a place where we may hear the voice of God, but treat our own intuitions and our heart themselves as themselves the voice that leads us to truth.

This leads to a problem then: conspiracy theories are deeply rooted in our intuitions about people, power, and morality. If you were to look at a bevy of conspiracy theories, you will discover a pattern: most conspiracy theories rely on people amassing a plethora of “evidence” that do not directly point to any harm or evil done, but they explain all the evidence together by a basic intuition they have of some veiled, malicious and criminal plot. To the one buying into the conspiracy theory, the veiled malice is so obvious and clear; their intuition just rings out loud and clear “There is evil afoot.” Often, however, believing conspiracy theories is the result of people who, for whatever reason, can not accept that things are not going according to their values and plans and they intuitively impute malicious motives due to the experienced threat to their values. It is the indirect and often symbolic threat that the surface narrative represents that motivates the intuitive construction and acceptance of the alternative, conspiracy narratives, although more directly experience threats can stem believes in conspiracies also.1

Now, our intuitions are not automatically wrong or evil. Often times, our intuitions point out something to us that we would otherwise overlook or never picked up on. Our intuitions should not just be ignored. But intuitions alone don’t get you truth. There is something more than is needed to prevent our intuitions from giving birth to the ‘naive’ acceptance of conspiracy narratives: analytical thinking.2 When we engage in analytic thinking, we are putting various beliefs, include our own intuitions, to the test to see how well it coheres with everything else that there is.

Roughly speaking, analytic thinking is the cognitive ability to try to determine what type of information one needs to verify something, processing that information, and understand the key points that are relevant for the topic at hand. Alternatively put, analytic thinking puts specific beliefs to a test through seeking to determine what is important to determine the belief’s veracity, actively being open to that information, and then carefully processing that information.

Intuitions are lot like a seedbed in a garden: you will reap and find enjoyment from them as you put the time time to sow and care for them. If you put in a lot of dedicated, careful attention to plant, fertilize, water, pull weeds, etc., you may grow a beautiful garden. If, however, you just throw some seeds down and let nature take care of the rest, you will likely find a weed-infested garden. The point is that our intuitions are places where the treasure troves of understanding and insight may come to flourish, or they can be a place where error and darkness come to take root. Our ability to think analytically can help us to put the care and time to tend the seedbed of our intuitions.

However, in order to have a robust analytic perspective, there are a few prerequisites that are necessary. We don’t just come out or even naturally learn how to think analytically. We have to learn to do it, but before we can put our minds in the place to do it, we have to have a heart that is prepared to think analytically.

Firstly, a person must be able to distance themselves from the cognitive confidence in the veracity of the beliefs they hold to. This is not the same thing as distancing oneself from the belief and its important to one’s life. The former is confidence about the truth-status of the belief, whereas the later is the pragmatic confidence that the believe has. While these two can be related to each other, they are not the exact same thing.

For instance, I believe that in the existence of a God who created and sustains all the world that we see and even things that we don’t see. This believe also defines my life as it impacts my sense of vocation, my way of life, the type of books I read, my willingness to date someone, etc., etc. in an ever increasing, overarching sense. Both in my mind and in my way of life, my believe in God is important. However, when I start to think philosophically about God, theology, etc., I will often engage in an analytic thinking about the belief in God along the lines of something like, “On what grounds do I believe in God and which of those grounds, if lost, would I lose my believe in God?” The purpose of this question is not to negate the belief, but to explore my own thinking and put it to the test. By being able to distance myself from my confidence in its veracity, I am able to put forward various question that can allow me to more robustly understand why it is that I believe.

Today, I would not say that I believe in God because I simply take the Bible as the evidence of its truth, though the Bible is the most important source for understanding God. This is the case even though the cultural background I grew up in unthinkingly treated the Bible itself as evidence of God such that people should listen to someone quote the Bible, as if the words of the Bible are themselves direct evidence of the truth. In my earliest days as a Christian, I might have put forward the Bible itself as evidence of Christian faith, even though upon present day reflection on my past, that wasn’t what lead me to believe. Through my analytic thinking on the question of God and on what grounds I do believe and would not believe, I have discovered that the Bible are witnesses whose testimony I have considered to have veracity for other reasons, including personal experiences, historical study of the account of the resurrection, etc. My ability to distance myself from the basic intuitions I had about faith allowed me to come to a deeper and more thoughtful account for my faith by.

Far from the skepticism of analytic thinking ultimately tearing apart any faith, when my skepticism was healthy, it built my faith up over time, even as there were periods where my faith and analytic skepticism about it created tumultuous periods because of other experiences in my life. However, for many people, such a way of thinking is considered tantamout to not trusting or believing in God, even though my faith in how I lived my life was being increasingly defined by my trust in God, even as I could analyze and distance myself from the confidence I had in the real existence of God. When the Bible talks about faith, it is talking more about the pragmatic faith where one’s believe and trust God impacts how one lives one’s life, not as a system of meta-cognitive confidence about specific beliefs.

Granted, a skepticism for its own’ sake that demanded indefeasible proof for God in order to believe would tear apart at that deeper, pragmatic trust and faith. Yet, this isn’t the problem of analytic thinking and question, but rather a problem of what type of evidence one is expected in the first place. In fact, such a high-octane skepticism is often a poor facsimile of analytic thinking in that it seems to demands and look critical at evidence, but it does so in a very superficial way that doesn’t gives thought to whether such a high standard of evidence is even needed in the first place. In fact, high-octane skepticism is often a “naivete in reverse.”  Such high-octane skepticism is regularly driven by an unexamined intuition about the standards of evidence.

Now, I might have seemed to rambled off topic, but I really haven’t. There is a reason that some people consider analytic thinking about faith and God to be an affront to faith and belief: because their picture of critical, analytic thinking about God is like that of the high-octane skeptic. When people think intuitions are the source of truth, then when they think of critical, analytic thinking about God, they are prone to think of such thinking as if it is a high-octane skepticism about God, or that is ultimately leads to it. By being slaves to one’s intuitions about God, they have trouble imaging analytic thinking as being a tool in service of faith.

There is a reason such a practice of faith through the intuitions has been planted in the hearts of Christians in the West. The Enlightenment and the later scientific revolution appeared to “monopolize” reason, leaving Christian faith to be the domain of other parts of human life but not really lived out in critical thinking. This lead to the pervasive belief that rational people didn’t really believe in God, or if they do, it is to be the respectable “mainline” type belief, where they have a respectable faith that doesn’t really challenge other social and political commitments. Society had a way of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that Christians were not rational, reasonable people, thereby culturally fashioning Christians to be the type that understood and experienced their faith through their intuitions. Put simply, if you expect people to act a certain way, you will often reinforce their behavior to act that way and that is what Western society has done to Christians, particularly of the evangelical or charismatic sort.

The end result is that Christians have been reinforced by society to let their intuitions determine the scope and nature of their faith. The end result is that such an uncritical acceptance of the intuition as the center of the discovery of truth has also inculcated the susceptibility to conspiratorial type thinking. The conspiratorial thinking of Christians is the evidence of the intellectual ‘oppression’ of the Enlightenment, ultimately internalizing the voices of the people who were against the Christian narrative about God as our own truth. The pervasive, ideological power about who reasons and has knowledge that the Enlightenment and Scientific revolution inculcated has cast it shadows over Western Christianity, to which there is one way to break the chains of the intellectual oppression: to make churches the gardens of analytic thinking about God.

The way Paul would have labeled this is as the discernment of the spirits. When Paul talked about discernment in 1 Corinthians, however, he wasn’t talking about some fuzzy, mysterious, esoteric intuitions about truth. He was talking about people seriously thinking and consideration of what other believer’s brought forward in the belief that the Spirit of God was inspiring them. However, Paul’s language of discernment (διάκρισις and διάκρινω) is pulled from the language of philosophy in talking about making differentiations. I won’t push this too far here, except to say that the corporate worship of the believers was to incorporate a reflective discerning about what was said and done that amounted to an alternative way of life and thinking from the conventional, Greco-Roman philosophies, but not the abandonment of careful thinking.

A recovery of this heritage would go a long way to bringing people who claim allegiance to the most powerful narrative in the world to being the type of whose thinking and proclamation would be more credible, as we learn how the critically and analytically test the spirits of the conspiracy in our midst and become people who can increasingly speak with a voice that others will want to listen to. But to do this, we must break the chains of our Enlightenment oppression, but not by abandoning reasoning and analytic thinking because it is “dangerous,” but, through being in Christ, redeeming and transforming it as a tool used in service of divine truth, love, justice, and peace. This won’t happen simply by people getting on twitter and lament about how Christians don’t do this as this is a common complaint already, but it will come by people creating the opportunities to meld Christian faith in God with analytic thinking for the wider laity, combined with preachers learning and themselves extolling the virtues of this. Whether that will happen or not is up for grabs, but let us not look lightly on the power for revival that comes from such a way of Christian life, as the Wesleyan renewal and revival was fueled by a man who himself fought the shackles of the Enlightenment and its stranglehold on religious life and practice.

Psalm 2.7-9, the Beatitude of the peacemakers, and the sons of God

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May 10, 2020

The title son of God was not a common phrase in the Jewish Scriptures, at least like it has become in the New Testament. While the title son of God has been used to refer to Jesus as the unique Son of God and to refer to believers as adopted sons/children of God, it did not have such a prominent usage in the Old Testament. In the Exodus, Israel as a nation was referred to as God’s son in Exodus 4.22, which is then picked up in Jeremiah 31.9 and Hosea 11.1, but the overwhelming usage of the sonship language was to refer to the anointed king of Israel in the David lineage. For instance, Psalm 2.7 and 89.27 make reference to the king of Israel as a son and a firstborn. It is this language that is picked up both when Jesus is called the Son of God, but also for believers as there was the eschatological expectation that the saints would be judges in the eschaton (cf. 1 Cor 6.3). However, the reason this language is used in regards to Jesus is because it is kingdom language, spoken of in the context of renew hopes in Judea for Israel’s future national autonomy and return to political glory from the Maccabean era.

Of course, many people are familiar with the idea that Jesus was expected to be a king, but He refused to fill that role the way it was expected. What I want to suggest, however, is that as soon as in the Beatitudes, we begin to get a brief glimpse of the alternative way that Jesus understood God’s Kingdom and the role of Him and His disciples within it. In Matthew 5.9, Jesus utters the now familiar Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” While many translations with a gender-inclusive concern will render the last phrase “children of God,” I would say such a translation masks the potential royal significance of this language where I think it is intended to be conveyed.1 I want to suggest that Psalm 2.7-9 is specifically in view here, where the Psalmist describes God’s promise to the anointed king as His Son.

First, in Psalm 2.7 you have a portrayal of God actively calling someone His son as Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5.9. While other texts will *identify* Israel or the king as son or a firstborn, it is in Psalm 2.7 where you see God described as personally calling someone a son of God. Second, the son of God is said to obtain the nations and the earth as their inheritance and their possession in Psalm 2.8, whereas just beforehand in the Beatitudes, Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5.5).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, in distinction to the Masoretic Hebrew, the Septuagint translation in 2.9 can be interpreted as describing a ruler who is cast more like a peacemaker. There is a question as to what Psalm 2.9a originally read as. In the Masoretic Hebrew, it reads as: “You will break (תְּ֭רֹעֵם) them with a rod of iron.” However, the Septuagint reads differently: “You will shepherd (ποιμανεῖς) them with a rod of iron.” Why the difference? Because the Hebrew word for to shepherd (רעה) is similar to the word for to break (רעע). One possibility is that the original Hebrew Vorlage from which the LXX Psalms was produced originally read shepherd, but because 2.9b referred to smashing pots, somewhere along the way the verb was unintentionally altered to break in the Hebrew. This possibility would plausible as it is much more likely to think of a king who uses power against his enemies, rather than to liken a king to a shepherd, even though that was king David’s origins.

If this is the case, then 2.9 was mean to metaphorically compare the actions of the anointed king with the utensils of two occupations: the shepherd’s rod and the potter’s pots. Furthermore, the two lines can be seen as offering a contrast with each other, as the shepherd uses the rod to keep and guide sheep together, whereas the breaking of a pot signifies a scattering of  pieces. The two images together describe the way the king oversees and manages the people, both in leading them and also in having to put an end to revolts set against him. These two images of the son of God is offered in response to the revolt of kings and rulers plot against God and His anointed, where they consider the rule of God to be chains and ropes that control them. The king will have two responses to such plots: to act a gentle shepherd of the nations but with strength, represented by the iron staff, and to break up such rebellions, represented by the shattered pot. Put simply, the image of the son of God is one who makes and maintains peace among His people. This portrayal has the son of God acting as a peacemaker. This offers an explanation of two possibilities laid before the kings and rulers planning a revolt in 2.10-11, where they can can either live in awe-inspired respect of God (which would dissuade a revolt) or God will destroy them: the son of God is God’s agent who will act to break their revolt if they continue with their plans, but he can also be like a gentle shepherd to them. God is making peace with the powers of the world through the son of God as His agent.

By contrast, the alternative portrayal with “break” in the Masoretic texts in 2.9a casts the son of God as a destroying conqueror, who obtains victory over his foes. Such an image could have been appealing against the backdrop of Maccabean history, where the Maccabees were leaders and warriors whose strength and strategy gave them ability to struggle for the liberation of Israel through conquering the foreign occupiers. Any image of a son of God, any image of a king from this stream would be a revolutionary and ruler who could violently conquer the nations as foes and take the world by force. Then, 2.10-11 would be cast as the servile submission of the kings of the world to God by the conquering power of the son of God.

Two different images, both of which would have been available to 1st century Jews, as the differences in the Masoretic Hebrew and the Septuagint were present then. If Psalm 2.7ff is in the background of the mention of the sons of God in Matthew 5.9, then Jesus is presenting a conscious choice to cast God’s agents in the world to be a peacemaker who can be like a shepherds but then put tangle with serious threats, rather than like marauding conquerors. Is it any coincidence that Jesus uses the image of shepherds and sheep throughout his teaching, such as calling Himself the good shepherd who gives his live to protect the sheep and discussing wolves in sheep clothing who destroy? My hypothesis is that Jesus understanding of His own vocation as the Son of God as a protective shepherd stems from the “shepherd” reading in Psalm 2.7, consciously distinguishing Himself from a conquering warrior.

However, of course, the Beatitudes is not about describing a singular figure, but about a group of people. There are multiple peacemakers who are called sons of God. If the speculation that Psalm 2.7 is in the background for Matthew 5.9 and is also the source for Jesus’ own understanding of His purpose and role is correct, then this strongly suggests that title son of God is not taken in the Gospels, strictly speaking, to be an identifier of the divinity of Jesus, but rather of those who resemble God’s character and purposes and act as His peace-making agents in the world. In favor of this, we can see in Matthew 5.48 the call to be complete as the Heavenly Father is complete.

Put simply, the sons/children of God are people who act as God’s agents in the world *because* they are peacemakers. There are other agents of God who accomplish his purposes. For instance, King Cyrus of Persia was someone who would carry out God’s purposes, described as a shepherd and anointed to fight the nations (Isaiah 44.28-45.1). However, he was called by his name (45.3-4), but not called a son of God. King Cyrus would be instrumental in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple by conquering the nations, but ultimately, he serves this role through his military strength. The sons of God are people who are God’s agents in the world precisely because they themselves reflect God’s love and peace-making character in the world.

Naturally, there is still an important distinction between Jesus as THE Son of God and His followers as sons of God, as the Gospel of John explicitly identifies Jesus not simply as the Son of God but as the only-begotten (μονογενής) in John 1.14, 1.18, 3.16, and 3.18. However, this differences serves to highlight the high-fidelity, fully exact representation and understanding of the Father that is found in Jesus as the μονογενής, whereas the children of God more broadly do not have the fullest degree of fidelity and understanding. This is why that even as Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples after a long time instructing them, He says He will send them a Helper in the Holy Spirit in John 14-16: the disciples will need to continuously remember and live according to what they saw and knew in Jesus through the Spirit who Jesus gives so that their love for one another can come to reflect Jesus’s love for them, which is the full representation of God’s love.

In summary, then, I put forward that Jesus’ own understanding of His own vocation and also the vocation of His disciples and followers would be in part determined by the reading of Psalm 2 that is reflected in the Septuagint. As a consequence, rather than seeing Psalm 2 as a simply Messianic psalm that describes the anointed of a singular king, Jesus takes it as paradigmatic of God’s people who are to be agents of God’s kingdom through acting like gentle peacemakers.

Skepticism, faith, healing, and Proverbs 3.5-8

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May 6, 2020

Skepticism is a powerful cognitive tool in human life. We are constantly inundated with messages about ourselves, others, and the world that are fashioned more out of self-interest that misleads us about the truth of things. A healthy skepticism has the ability to peer behind the veil of our discourses and ask “Is that really the case?” With these questions in tow, it can motivate us to look and examine something more clearly. This can at times make one a target of anger, frustration, and even derision from others who wish you would you would just accept what they say, but the journey of learning often has us having to endure such judgments.

Yet, at the same time, skepticism has a few potential downfalls. It succumbs to the law of diminishing returns. A little bit of skepticism, which may also be referred to as epistemic caution, can provide huge benefits in learning. However, skepticism makes this type of learning possible by creating an openness to investigate and learn, but it doesn’t actually make learning happen. In fact, too much skepticism may make one increasingly unsure of any and all foundations to be able to learn in the first place. As such, the heightening of skepticism can lead to the evaporation of understanding. Pushed too far, and it can actually erode the heart down, as we are not made to live in perpetual, high-octane skepticism.

Being able to make a distinction between a cautious skepticism and a high-octane skepticism is important for the Christian’s journey of learning wisdom. We see in Proverbs 3.5-8 an expression trusting in the Lord that is associated with a form of skepticism. Literally, vs. 5b calls for the hearer to not “lean” (אַל־תִּשָּׁעֵֽן) on their own understanding. Then, a similar sentiment is expressed in 7a in not perceiving oneself to be wise.

Having my earliest years of faith being experienced in a rather conservative, nearly fundamentalist, expression of Christian faith, I remember Proverbs 3.5-8 being lifted up as a way of castigating “scientists” for their knowledge. By them, Proverbs 3.5-8 was treated as a proof-text legitimating a high-octane skepticism of science, particularly when scientists said something that the quasi-, if not outright, fundamentalists thought were in contradiction with their beliefs about God from their interpretation of the Bible. They made the assumption that their beliefs about God from the Scriptures were the same thing as trusting in God, and treating anything else with a high-octane skepticism.

However, it is important to note is that the teacher of wisdom here is talking about the perceptions and reliance upon one’s own knowledge, not a skepticism of other people’s knowledge. We certainly see such a skepticism towards the knowledge of society expressed in the later concerns about wisdom in Jewish apocalyptic literature, but that is not what is being expressed in Proverbs. Rather, what Proverbs 3.5-8 is describing in terms of a ‘self-skepticism’ is close to how Socrates came to understand why the Oracle of Delphi thought him wisest man in Athens: because Socrates did not think himself wise.

Now, to be clear, Proverbs and Socrates are not saying the exact same thing. Besides the glaring difference between the God of Israel and the Greek god of the Temple of Delphi, Apollo, there is also a distinctive difference between the purposes of such self-skepticism. For Socrates, it essentially functioned as a way that he would be like an annoying gadfly to the Athenians; Socrates self-skepticism lead to a skepticism others, directed towards a political skepticism of the Athenians. For the teacher of wisdom in Proverbs, also, there is a different purpose: an appropriate self-skepticism enables a trust in God that then leads to the well-being of life.

Why is this case? The teacher of wisdom doesn’t explain, but through my experiences, I have come to a tentative answer.

So much of what we think, what we feel, what we believe we know is motivated by fear. Not simply the active feelings of fear that cause us to panic and act rashly, but the way fear unconsciously directs how we live in the world so that we can avoid threats to our well-being. For instance, if you are standing on the side walk, wanting to cross the street, and you see a car coming, the unconscious power of fear will make it so that you don’t consider stepping out in the street. Of course, this is when fear is acting appropriately. However, fear can have a way of triggering at mere hints of danger, even if there is in reality nothing to fear, depending on how vigilant a person is and people’s past experiences. Then, when this fear gets directed towards people, whether realistically or not, it can also lead to the emergence of anger, which then determines how we understand other people and our world. As a consequence, our ‘knowledge’ becomes highly formed based upon our conscious feelings of fear and anger in addition to the more unconscious ways the encoded memories and imaginations evoke the potential for fear and anger.

Now, fear and anger in and of themselves are not wrong or unhealthy. They are necessary emotions at times for us to address short-term threats to our survival. When they are healthy and realistically addressed towards real challenges and threats, they allow us to protect ourselves from those threats, preventing long-term harm. Healthy expressions of fear and anger are beneficial in the long-term. However, fear and anger also take a toll on the body, both directly through the way the physiological experiences of them can put inordinate stress on the body and indirectly through the way the persistent expressions of these emotions towards other people impacts our relationships. Fear and anger are designed to protect us in the short-run, but over the long-run they can cost us. Anyone who has experienced deep social traumas and the havoc they can wreck on your emotions, and thus also on your body, can tell you about it.

However, here is the thing about ‘knowledge.’ Our ‘knowledge’ is instrumental in allows us to avoid the experiences that would evoke these feelings of fear and anger along with giving us insights as to how to address them in the future. As such, ‘knowledge’ can be instrumental in our long-term health by enabling us to preventing both experiencing the direct threats to our well-being and, when effective, not have to deal with the persistent emotional experiences of fear and anger. Our ‘knowledge’ can function as sort of a compromise between short-term survival and long-term well being. However, as if often the case, short-term survival is favored more than long-term well being, as we often get caught in ruminations and memories about threats and harms done. When that is the case, our ‘knowledge’ functions as an echo-chamber, reinforcing those feelings and emotions rather than challenging then, making us more act based upon short-term survival at the case of long-term well-being. Then, when we are highly confident in our knowledge such that we are willing to entirely depending upon it for our well-being, the echo chamber of ‘knowledge’ becomes even stronger.

So, a healthy self-skepticism has the effect of saying that I will not treat what I ‘know’ as absolute, as law, as unquestionable. In so doing, it can help to break the self-perpetuating cycle that knowledge and the emotions of fear and anger can created.

However, even that isn’t enough by itself. One does not heal emotionally by simply not getting harmed again. One must have experiences of the opposite. Those who have lived in great pain need to experience some pleasure to learn that not everything is pain. Those who have felt discarded need to experience love. There is part of us that is “programmed” to try to find what is good to compensate for what has been lost.

Yet, we are also notoriously bad at finding what brings a lasting good, often times taking immediate short-term pleasures at the cost of long-term well-being. In our hearts is laid the desire for progressing towards the good, but we are unreliable in our ability to find it. Our ‘knowledge’ has been built more upon the negatives that we fear and are angry about that they don’t give oneself a clear, reliable sense of what is truly good to experience; our ‘knowledge’ works on opposites, thinking the opposite of what we experienced as bad must be good, but this often is not the case, as running to one extreme to avoid another extreme also takes it toll on us.

This is where a healthy self-skepticism needs something more to heal: one who is wise about what is good to teach and direct. This is what the teacher of wisdom speaks of: an epistemic dependence and reverence for the Lord who can direct one’s paths as one acknowledges Him in all one’s journeys. The synonyms of דְּרָכֶ֥יךָ and אֹֽרְחֹתֶֽיךָ in Proverbs 3.6 functions to portray a synergistic relationship influencing the direction of a person’s life, produced by the actions of human dependence and trust in God and God’s action to provide and direct a straight path. The person who does not “lean” on their understanding is not told to simply wait until God gives a specific direction, as if they should be utterly skeptical about their ‘knowledge,’ but rather the person recognizes that the path they are taking should be a reflection of their depending upon God, which creates a willingness to allow God to create a straight path for them, as they revere God and will turn away from the pathway of little worth (v. 7: וְס֣וּר מֵרָֽע). God gives directions to discover and experience what is truly good, what is truly life-giving as one is given the discernment to avoid life directions that would cause serious harm. Through a healthy self-skepticism combined with a trust in God, this leads to one to take the paths in life that bring healing and refreshment to the body (v. 8).

In conclusion, a healthy self-skepticism is instrumental to one’s long-term well-being. A related attitude to a healthy self-skepticism is repentance, where we are willing to recognize that we have been taking and rationalizing the wrong paths in our life. However, with a healthy self-skepticism and repentance needs to be joined a learning of what is good and life-giving in order for it to bring life, joy, and peace, which we must learn from another who knows before we can find it ourselves. Hence, trust, and more particularly a trust in God, is need to be joined with a healthy self-skepticism and repentance to realize the life-giving purposes that God has for our lives.

Discomfort with ambivalence and chaos

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May 5, 2020

For most people, ambivalence is a very uncomfortable feeling to experience in life. Whether it be an ambivalence very commonly experienced in our emotions and moods, sometimes experienced in our attitudes, and only in rare occasions in our life values, we are not comfortable with feeling both positive and negative feelings at the same time. Ambivalence creates a feeling of cognitive tension and dissonance between the two poles of affect that motivates us to resolve that feeling by trying to either affirm the good or the bad and to minimize and forget the other part.

Some people are more comfortable with ambivalence than others. When people are increasingly uncomfortable with feelings of ambivalence, they tend to react in a strong emotional reaction. In some people, this can lead to the phenomenon of splitting, where they vacillate back and forth between idealization and devaluation. For them, dealing with the back-and-forth in life is often a key element in their recovery, such as what dialectical behavioral therapy attempts to accomplish, particularly for people with borderline personality disorder. However, most people do not push so far as to split regularly, but rather they develop various other strategies to address feelings of ambivalence, such as avoidance, rationalizing away, etc. These are much more effective strategies for dealing with our ambivalence in the short run than strategies like splitting.

However, when people who are attempting to resolve the dissonance that comes from ambivalence, their motivations to address this dissonance leads them to not pay as much attention to what they think, say, or do to resolve it, as their primary goal is internal relief. As a result, we become increasingly careless and not watchful of what we are doing. This has an unfortunate consequence when it comes to social relationships: it can lead us to dump our problems with our own feelings onto other people, without concern for or understanding how our words or actions affect the other person. This isn’t a major problem when people consistently resolve their ambivalence in the same way, but when people are chaotic, going to and fro, back and forth, in and out, again and again and again without any concern to either help other people to understanding or to recognize one’s own chaos, it has a pernicious side effect: it forces a form of double-minded-ness on the emotional scapegoat if they are unable to escape from it, and they will most likely try to escape.

So, I leave this with a word for those hearing: we all have our inconsistencies, our uncertainties, our experiences of ambiguities, and even our experiences of ambivalence. To prevent these from being something that causes problems for others, be the type of person who reflects on your own inconsistencies, are willing to address them, and are willing to allow other people to point them out. Spiritually, this is part of the life of repentance and self-examination, which is enabled by recognizing that God does not just condemn us because we sin and messed up here or there. We can also learn to help encourage this in others by our preference for showing grace over judgment (this is messy in our own lives too). Life is complex and so are we and because of it, we all can be inconsistent time to time, but this alone will not cause be harm to others, as we all have varying buffers for dealing with ambiguities and ambivalence. However, be open to seeing your own inconsistences, because it is only through that that you can grow. Not everyone has enough of a buffer to endure the slightest of inconsistencies, ambiguities, and ambivalence, which correlates to their difficulty with dealing with ambivalence, and that is okay, but seek to be someone who is willing to deal with our own ambivalence in healthier ways so that we don’t make others an emotional scapegoat for our chaos.

The will of God and providence

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May 4, 2020

I remember when I was in college, trying to discern God’s will for our life was a big theme among the campus ministry I was a part of, both formally through a small group study and informally in students conversations. If you go to a bookstore and find the Christian section, you will see many books that are about helping people to discern God’s will in their life. For those of us who believe and even follow Jesus Christ, there is a real importance we place on being able to try to figure out where God’s will intersects with our future.

Why does it place such an important emphasis? Certainly, piety may be one answer, but there is another answer that probably gives it a much greater focus: anxiety about an unpredictable world and life. Living in a society where there is no clear telos or purpose to our lives that is given to us, we are essentially left to discern our purposes for our own lives. This anxiety is only heightened for college students, as they reach the point in their life where their decisions will have a dramatic influence on  the remaining years of their lives. So, in seeking to make sense of the plurality of possibilities and potentialities set before us, we as Christians feel drawn to seek the will of God for our life. What will be my career? Who will I marry? Should I as a minister move to a new church? Where should I go to school to further my education? The anxieties created by the diversity with no real definite guidance has made the will of God a veritable commercial industry in publishing.

To be sure, the Bible does talk about God’s will. Romans 12.1-2 talks about people being transformed through their worship so that they can discern the will of God. James 4.13-18 urges people to keep their ambitions in check by recognizing the place of God’s will. However, in neither of those places do we see the will of God being directed towards our future life circumstances. Paul’s purpose in Romans is about Jewish Christians in Rome living faithfully before God under the weight of imperial power without giving into the Maccabean-like zeal that was taking over. James doesn’t suggest that God’s will is about the achievement of people’s specific ambitions, as if their success and failure is evidence of God’s will, as much as recognizing our ambitions should not outshine God’s will, lest people because boastful and fail to do the right thing that God seeks.

When we see the will of God being discussed in the Bible, it is not talking about a particular form of providence in which the circumstances of our life determine that this is or isn’t God’s will. This is sort of providence that shares much in common with ancient Stoicism, seeing the present order of things as evidence of God’s will and order for society. Rather, it is the expression of different sort of providence: the will of God to bring to fruition His life-giving purposes through us, His people.

Let’s take the prophet Jeremiah as an example. In Jeremiah 1.4-10, Jeremiah was called from the womb to be an prophet to the nations as part of God’s work to both tear down and build up the kingdoms and nations. Certainly, with such power involved, it was going to be a difficult task, and indeed it was. In Jeremiah 12.1-4, Jeremiah expresses his exasperation to God, wondering why God, who said he was going to use Jeremiah to plant (Jer. 1.10) is seeing that God seems to be planting people whose hearts are far from the worship they give to God with their lips. God doesn’t give a direct answer to Jeremiah’s complaints. Instead in Jeremiah 12.5-8, God gives an answer that in words of Dr. Michael Voights, professor of spiritual formation at Asbury Seminary, commenting on this text, amounts to the Western Texas phrase “Toughen up, buttercup.” I loved that way of putting it. Jeremiah was someone called to a grand purpose by God to impact the world, and so getting down and despairing over the prospering of unjust and insincere worshippers of God would mean that he doesn’t fulfill God’s on him. Jeremiah would need to be able to metaphorically outrun the horses if he wanted to be able to outlast the human resistance to God’s purposes.

And that he did, as Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, among many things, came to express God’s heart for a coming new covenant in Jeremiah 31.31-34, which went on to define the way the Church understands the ministry of Jesus. Through Jeremiah’s long-suffering prophetic ministry that during his lifetime never seemed to bear any sustained fruit, he gave expression to God’s Will for Israel and the world that would lead believers from all nations and kingdoms to recognizing Jesus as the one in whom God’s new covenant was inaugurated. Would the person who despaired in Jeremiah 12.1-4 have come to give expression to an important, world-changing vision of hope in Jeremiah 31.31-34 if he hadn’t learn to overcome the frustrations, the anger, and turmoil that came form the injustice he saw?

What happened then in Jeremiah’s early experiences of prophetic ministry and God’s word in response to his complaint? God was providing to him the particular word and experiences necessary to lead Jeremiah to fulfill his purposes that he was called to fulfill. While the will of God did place a particular call on Jeremiah, God’s will was working towards His life-giving purposes that would ultimately become known in, expressed to, received by the people of world through Jesus Christ. God had a particular providence to a particular person for God’s overarching life-giving purposes.

This vision of God’s providential guiding differs from the Stoic conception of providence on one significant point. Stoic-like providence is about rationalizing the present order of things as God’s will. When Jeremiah suggests that God is planting the insincere worshippers of God, Jeremiah is actually thinking along the lines of this sort of providence. If it happens, it is God’s will, so you better learn to live with. However, as Jeremiah grows and matures through his ministry, he begins to see a different vision of God, one in which God is working towards doing something new. Rather than the persent order and state of affairs of the world as being God’s will, God’s will is discerned through the change that God is bringing about.

We see this vision of God’s providence expressed in 1 Corinthians. When Paul, having to engage with a Stoicized vision of Christian faith in Corinth, says in 1 Corinthians 7.31 that the pattern of life in the present state affairs for the world is passing away, he pushes against the Stoic sense of providence with another vision of God’s will. In this case, Paul is addressing the question of marriage, celibacy, and how one can serve the Lord in the midst of a societal upheaval that is coming. Rather than saying something about marriage is about of the created order, therefore one should pursue marriage, Paul gives different advice: look at where things are going and make a decision that allows you to effectively serve God through the coming changes. Paul doesn’t give an answer as to what the will of God is about marriage and celibacy so much as he helps the Corinthian believers to disconnect themselves from a Stoic-like conception of providence, ethics, and way of life to one that has a vision for being concerned about God’s affairs while he is changing the fabric of the Roman society and its wisdom.

At the heart of our understanding of the will of God and providence is this: what is it we are seeking of God’s will? Are we seeking specific life circumstances, careers, decisions we should make, etc.? While, certainly, God can direct and call us to specific life circumstances, as most any of the prophets of the Old Testament can attest to, God’s will is about the emergence of new creation and how we participants in the life-giving purposes of new creation: both in our own transformation and in the ways we witness and testify to God’s will of new creation to others through the way we do our jobs, the way we live together in our marriages and families, etc. etc. A Stoic-like providence has us looking at our circumstances and thinking where we are is God’s lot for our lives. A Stoic-like providence can often amount to “know your place.” A creative providence, on the other hand, is one where we seek and accept God’s transforming work in our lives towards the telos of world-healing and human-thriving that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which then colors how we study, work, marry, raise our families, etc. A Christ-patterned providence amounts more to “come to realize God’s future.”