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Thursday, November 29, 2018

What's Your Take on T.U.L.I.P.?

QUESTION: Where do you align with the Calvinism T.U.L.I.P. points

RESPONSE:  Well, let me first say that this is a highly disputed and sometimes contentious area of debate for Christian for hundreds of years.  

AC3 doesn’t hold an official position between Calvinism and Armenianism.  This is appropriate since the Biblical data about divine power and human responsibility is so wide ranging.   Still, I do have opinions about T.U.L.I.P. and I’ll share them here.  I could say (somewhat coyly) that I agree with all 5 points if you define them a certain way.  Defined classically, however, I struggle with parts of all of them:

T – Total Depravity.  I agree that we are totally depraved, in that every part of our nature is affected by sin.  I believe there is no unfallen part of us.  But I do not believe that we are as evil as we can be or that our sin slavery means we are incapable of doing any good in our fallen state (Acts 10:4).  I also don't accept that being "dead in sin" means a person cannot reach out for God, since Paul told unregenerate pagans that God put them where they are to seek him and reach out for Him (Acts 17:27).  The idea that we will be held accountable for our behavior and be justly condemned because of our sin is straightforward enough.  However, if this point means that our sin brokenness makes us so depraved that we can't even reach out or even want salvation without God wanting it for us, and then to further believe that God condemns us for not wanting it or reaching out for it (the very thing we are unable to do), is, to me, tortured logically (not to mention morally) and biblically selective.  But I do believe with our sin brokenness God must help us see the light and to overcome self and satanic deception that would keep us blinded to his saving grace.  I believe God gives this help to everyone.

U – Unconditional Election.  I agree in unconditional election if we define good works as the condition of God's choice.  God elects without respect to our good deeds; there are no good works conditions on Grace.  But I don't accept that God elects the saved and damned without regard for the belief or faith of the individual.  This is so obvious Biblically it should go without saying (Rom 3:22).  How many verses are needed to make the case that there is clearly a condition on salvation – it's faith!  However, the "U" classically means that God elects without regard to works or faith, but instead for no reason at all, except God’s glory.  This is deemed as fair, because all are justly condemned anyhow - if God picks him and not her that doesn't make her condemnation less deserved.  True enough, but if a remedy is selectively applied without reason, the problem of God’s unfairness is still very real.  To see the problem you just have to imagine an accident scene where 4 drunks are dying in a car about to explode.  They all deserve their fate.  But when a Rescuer comes by, and he can save all 4 but chooses to save only 1 for no reason at all, is this Rescuer still just and fair and good?  No.  But the God revealed in Scripture is “the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” Deut 32:4 NIV.  Putting the condition of faith on Salvation, doesn’t diminish God or his glory (as some Calvinists would claim) or constitute a "work" on our part.  Rather, it exalts God's good character, by which he is bound, and only because of that can He be called faithful and true.

L – Limited Atonement.  I agree with limited atonement if by this we mean that the atonement will be limited in its effects.  All will not be atoned.  Yes.  I believe that universalism (the belief that all will eventually be saved) is a heresy.  Thus while God wants to reconcile ALL to himself, all will not be reconciled to him and some will be tragically shut off from God forever.  But I do not believe that Jesus died only for the elect – and again this seems to me, biblically explicit: 1 John 2:2 is clear enough.  On this point I take solace in knowing that even John Calvin wasn’t a “Calvinist,” classically speaking, since he admitted openly:
"Yet I approve of the common reading, that He alone bore the punishment of many, because the guilt of the whole world was laid upon Him. It is evident from other passages...that 'many' sometimes denotes 'all'...That, then, is how our Lord Jesus bore the sins and iniquities of many. But in fact, this word 'many' is often as good as equivalent to 'all'.  And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world. For it is not speaking of three or four when it says: 'God so loved the world, that He spared not His only Son.'...Let us not fear to come to Him in great numbers, and each one of us bring his neighbors, seeing that He is sufficient to save us all." Sermons on Isaiah 53, pp. 136, 141-4

I – Irresistible Grace. I can agree with irresistible grace if by this we mean euphemistically that God is “irresistible”; that He is a wooing, drawing God.  If this means that no one comes to God without His explicit wooing, I agree with that too, for no one can become a Christian based on their own idea alone – God must draw them (John 6:44).  But of course, this phrase means much more than that to Calvinists.  It means that if God woos you, you will be saved, period.  And if you are not saved, then God never wooed you and never had saving intent towards you in the first place (which fits nicely with "L").  This doctrine essentially sets up a complete determinism which takes human choice off the table.  When you say God marks a person for salvation, and that person can't resist, it implies not only irresistible GRACE but also irresistible WRATH, since everyone not so marked has been selected for damnation.  (Though different Calvinists do make a distinction on this point.)  The strong implication is that all of this, the saving and the damning, is unilateral.  This makes humans out to be puppets and the whole redemption drama to be a pre-scripted charade.  Attempts are made to retain free will in this system but the “I” always creates an unsolvable paradox - how can I be free in any real sense, if grace is irresistible? I would rather take the biblical data at face value rather than try to cram them into a theological system.  For example, take the fact that God is not willing for any to perish (2 Peter 3:9), coupled with the fact that some will in fact perish.  The simple conclusion is that God’s saving grace can be resisted!  Jesus said to the lost, “how I longed to gather you… but you would not!  That sounds like Jesus had a saving intent for Jerusalem that was actively and successfully resisted.  The Bible does not paint the human redemptive drama like a pre-scripted charade, but rather like a high stakes war.  The human story might have a certain final outcome, but in the meantime, options have been made available, sides are drawn, choices are made and that's how fates are sealed.  Not the other way around.

P – Perseverance of the Saints.  I agree with the "P" in that salvation is perfectly secure for all who trust in Christ; that God carries us to heaven by his grace and power and no one, not any trouble, not even our temporal sin can separate us from his love (Romans 8).  But I don't believe that trust in Christ eliminates your ability to later reject that same Christ.  If it does, then why was Hebrews written?  The whole letter is appealing to Christians to persevere.  If all saints persevere always, because of God's decree, then this whole letter is absurd.  Why warn those who are going to persevere in their faith (because God will make them persevere) of the need to persevere in their faith?  Why warn true believers (Heb 6:1-6 - these are not people who were "not real Christians in the first place") unless it's possible for some who claim Christ to later turn and reject him?  Why does Jesus tell the parable of the sower who sows some seeds that sprout and then die?  We must assume that some Christians just won't persevere, like two specifically named in the Bible, Hymenaus and Alexander, who Paul says, "shipwrecked their faith".  The Calvinist must claim that they could only fall away because they weren't really true believers.  But I believe it was John Wesley who said, "you can't wreck a ship you're not sailing on.”

The “P” in TULIP is the one point that many believers of any persuasion usually agree with because of its comforting appeal.  I don’t begrudge them their hope in God’s sustaining power - "my sheep know my voice - no one can snatch them out of my hand".  However, I note that whatever comfort is gained by “P” in this system, is often lost by “U”.  That is, how can I unerringly know that I’m one of the unconditionally chosen elect who always perseveres?  I cannot know since it's God's choice and none of my own.  I may think I believe, but maybe God didn’t pick me, and I’m self-deceived.  This anxiety marks some Calvinists I know.

But if you ever worry that you’re not one of the elect, this should be a self-correcting feeling.  No sooner have you felt it, than you have been assured that you are in fact, Elect, since you do believe in Christ, and his promise for those who believe is sure.  Only those never concerned with the question should worry about the question, since by their indifference to Christ they show they do not belong to Him.

I should repeat that I don't make a hard stand about TULIP at AC3, and we have plenty o’ Calvinists among us, and I have many who are close friends.  My concerns are less theoretical than they are practical, especially in more radical variety of TULIP believers (AKA hyper Calvinists) who:
  • Diminish the need for conversion (and accept infant baptism more readily)
  • Diminish the importance of evangelism
  • Experience copious amounts of anxiety about whether they are elect or not
  • Believe God elects people to hell and thus can’t believe that God is love.
  • Start to accept a might equals right mentality in life, church and politics because God’s Sovereignty and Power trump his Goodness.
  • See public invitations to faith or appeals to mind or conscience as at best useless and at worst, sinful.
  • Require a person show evidence of “regeneration/election” before you preach to them.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Why Don't Christians Honor The Sabbath?

QUESTION: I’m a Christian, but one of my big unanswered questions is this: why don’t we honor the Sabbath?  It’s a commandment and it’s NOT SUNDAY – Sunday is a Pagan holiday!

ANSWER: I actually agree that we should honor the Sabbath as an ongoing part of the moral law.  However, I think that the controversy about how we honor it and when, stems from the fact that Jesus said things that altered the believer’s relationship with the Sabbath.

For example, by the time of Jesus ministry, the Sabbath had turned into rules upon rules that forbade anything one might deem “work”.  So one Rabbi said (this is not a joke) that he wouldn’t eat an egg on the Sabbath because that meant a chicken had been working!  

Into this legalistic world Jesus disciples were walking along one day and ate some wheat they found at the edge of a field.  The Pharisees were stunned.  This violated the Sabbath because to them it constituted ‘threshing’.  Jesus responded in defense of his followers by pointing to two times in Scripture when ceremonial laws were violated with God’s specific permission, both times violations of Temple procedure. Then He says this shocking thing: 
Matt 12:6-8: “But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here! 7 If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

This is amazing on a couple levels.  One, it seems Jesus is preparing the ground for the Church to abandon the ceremonial laws of the Torah.  He does this on several other occasions, like when Mark says that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19) or when Jesus mentioned there were “weightier matters in the law” which related to its MORAL duties as opposed to its ceremonial duties (Matt 23:23).

Two, Jesus in this teaching is putting himself higher than the Temple!  And in so doing, declares that He is over the Law!  And he was clearly reserving the right to reinterpret the law and tell us what parts of Moses are being prepared to be laid aside.

As a result of Jesus, every Christian now believes that much of the Mosaic code is no longer in force for believers.  We do however, carry forward the moral demands of the Law as a guide for discipleship (even as we realize no one is saved by obeying the law, for no one is able to, Rom 3:20-21).

This leaves us with the critical question: is the Sabbath part of the ongoing moral demands of the Law, like do not murder, etc, or is it part of the ceremonial laws which Jesus clearly lifted?  This question is the heart of the controversy about the Sabbath.

Some believe that all obligation to Sabbath keeping is nullified in Jesus words.  John MacArthur just made a pretty strong case about that, if you want to check out his sermon online.  But I don’t agree totally with him.  I think that all 10 of the 10 commandments are the objective definition of loving behavior toward God and toward our fellow man.  If so, there must be an ethical/moral imperative that remains for Christians who are not saved by that Law, but who nevertheless are called to walk in love, which the Law defines.  I believe therefore, that the Sabbath command is part of the obligation we have to love God and love ourselves.

Jesus in fact would say love is the moral force behind the Sabbath when he said in Mark 2:27-28:
“The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

The Sabbath is for us!  We are not made to be slaves to Sabbath rules, rather the idea of rest is built into creation and moral law so that Sabbath serves us!

So if this is an ethical demand that carries forward and it is for us rather than us made to come under a bunch of Sabbath rules, this poses a new question:  does this mean we are free to change the means by which we obey the Sabbath?  Can we find and obey the ethical demand inside the commandment, even if the rigid rules around the Sabbath, which Jesus clearly rejected, are discarded?  I think the answer to that is yes!

I say this because already in the early church, you see them meeting on “the First day of the Week”.  That’s Sunday.  They were mostly all Jews, so that didn’t mean that they were not also observing the Sabbath on Saturday.  But it does mean that already within the first generation of Christians, the worship of God and the observance of rest and reflection was transferring Sabbath qualities onto a different day.

To add to this elasticity about the Sabbath, Paul asked Gentiles to be patient with Jews who considered some specific Days sacred, but Paul clearly was not critical of those who didn’t observe those special Sabbaths which Moses commanded (Rom 14:5).  So, already in the early church, Jesus' teaching on the Sabbath had lifted some of the specific requirements of Sabbath observance found in Moses.  I think therefore, that Christians have freedom to do Sabbath things (Rest, Reflect, Recreate) on different days and certainly not in subservience to the traditions of the Jews – Jesus made that abundantly clear.

What that means is that the ongoing moral content of the 4th commandment is that we must regularly, about once a week, and for a whole day, just rest.  Jesus modeled this rhythm of rest even as he pushed back hard against Sabbath regulations (Mark 6:31)  By the way, Sabbath doesn’t mean "Saturday" - it means, “pause”.  What’s important is not Saturday, what’s important is rest.

Looking at the creation narrative, rest is actually our default posture before God. When we were created, on the first day of Adam and Eve’s life, they entered into rest!  How awesome is that!  God made us in rest.  We work, yes, and we love productive labor, but rest is what we start in, spiritually and physically.  We launch out of rest into work, rather than see rest as the reward for work.  What a beautiful statement about grace!  Work does not save us.  Grace comes always comes before work.  Adam and Eve started in the grace of rest.

I think Christians who take Jesus teaching, “I am Lord of the Sabbath” to mean that we don’t need to feel a moral obligation to rest anymore are sadly mistaken.  Thankfully we are not saved by our perfect adherence to the moral law, but rather by grace.  Yet, on any of the moral commands that we fail to obey, we are failing to love, for Love summarizes all the law, including the 4th commandment.

However, to think that worshiping and resting on Sunday is to somehow honor a pagan holiday is mistaken as well.  Yes, the first day of the week is named after the Sun by pagans, but Thursday is named after Thor.  I don’t think I’m honoring Thor every time I write that day of the week on letters or emails!  If Paul said we are to have freedom regarding special days, then the day is what you make it.  

And the early Christians didn’t seem to care what the day was named, it happened to be the day that the Lord Jesus rose bodily from the dead!  If it was a "pagan day" before that, God had clearly robbed the gods of their right to that day and declared it His own, by honoring it with the Resurrection of His Son! 

Or do you think that it was for no reason that the “first day of the week” is mentioned so often in Scripture in this regard?  (Matt 28:1, Mark 16:9, Luke 24:1, John 20:1, Act 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2)  Scripture shows the early Christians were doing communion, taking offerings, and worshiping on that day, which means they were having sacred Christian gatherings - church services - on that day, already in 58 AD!

So I think you can be at peace about the specific day Christians honor the Sabbath, but do continue to honor the regular, weekly rhythm of rest as part of your duty to love God and love your neighbor as yourself – for Jesus said, God made the rule of rest, for us!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Is It Wrong To Have Images of God in Mind When We Pray?

QUESTION:  When I’m praying, I wish I could get this image I have of God and of Jesus out of my mind. You know the long hair and perfect face with an awesomely groomed beard?  I don't think that's what he looked like at all but that's the image that pops in my mind when I pray. Or a body with a sun for a head that's too bright to look at. I wonder if it’s wrong to have these images on your mind when you pray to God.

RESPONSE: Don’t be too hard on yourself when you pray with images in your mind that you know are inaccurate or even, dare I say it, somewhat idolatrous!!

Please understand, I don’t mean idolatry is ever good, but I think we must acknowledge that if idolatry is to worship something LESS than God, then we're all guilty of it.  Who could ever say they have a perfectly right image of God at all times?  If we don’t, and can't, then every imagining of God we can muster will be inaccurate in some way, and less than God’s perfect Self.  

This kind of "idolatry" is not intentional and it really can’t be helped – we are physical creatures after all, and every way we have of understanding something is in relation to some physical thing we know or see.  So how can we know how to accurately imagine a God we can’t ever fully know or see?

You see this dilemma playing out in the great vision of God that Ezekiel had.  Listen to his language the closer he gets to seeing the actual presence of God himself.  Language utterly fails him.  He says things like “the image of the likeness of the appearance of the Lord”.  !!  He’s using all these things he knows to describe what he’s experiencing, like animal heads and geometric shapes, but while doing it. he KNOWS it’s inaccurate, this is the "appearance" only.  It’s just these words are the closest he can get in his human mind to conveying what is completely beyond description.

So the best thing we can do, is to follow the example of Israel which was the only ancient people whose Temple was empty!!  That’s kinda funny when you think about it, and profound.  Every other nation had temples full of images.  The Jews had this amazing Temple… full of nothing!  Well, not exactly nothing, the ark of the covenant, a  couple of angel images, but definitely no image of Yahweh.  It wasn’t allowed, because any set image reduces God.

So we can tell ourselves that no image we have of God is adequate and then try to keep the Temple in our minds as empty as possible… but like Ezekiel, when pushed, we will grab for metaphors for God’s likeness that are not accurately God, but convey something about his true nature to our souls.  

For example, this Zeus thing we all have in mind, big guy, white beard, is not accurate, but it does convey something about wisdom or power or authority or personhood.  The idea of a throne of light, is also not exactly what God is, but it conveys perfection, truth, purity.  You see?  

It’s OK that we let many of these images pass through our minds in prayer to convey something about God that is true to our spirits, even if the image itself is not.  Just don’t settle on any one image.

Ironically, both the Mormons and the Muslims settled so hard on that Zeus-like thing, that they do in fact imagine that God is corporeal, with a real human face and body.  Needless to say, this reduces God’s majesty to imagine that God is no more than what we are.

However, having said that, we Christians must never forget that God did in fact, become a man.  And so if we see a man, Jesus, in our minds when we pray, this cannot be idolatrous, since the early church prayed to “the Lord” and it was Jesus they had in mind (Acts 1:24).  So God is not different than we find in this man, Jesus, for God revealed himself in the Son.  

And maybe, part of the reason for the incarnation was that, in the fullness of time, we really did need to see and touch and feel God.  He gave us an image to worship, since our hearts through all ages did crave that exact thing…  So now we have Jesus to imagine when we need an image of God, and this cannot be idolatry because all the fullness of the Godhead was present in him (Col 2:9).  

The incarnation is God condescending to our need, for a Savior certainly, but also to see the object of our worship!  In past ages, the Jews knew, anyone who sees God will die.  But in Jesus, God veiled himself in flesh, and by mercy made us right, so that we fallen sinners could see God, and live!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Does 501c3 Status Make Churches Obey Government Over God?

QUESTION: Just wondering if Allen Creek is a 501c3 church w/the IRS. I've been doing interesting research and I am curious your thought on that. Specifically it seems to be that being under contract to the gov/irs means not being obedient to God.

RESPONSE: Thanks for your question.  I've been asked this quite often, from folks concerned that any church that registers with the gov't gives the gov't control over the church's operations and message.

The elders of AC3 have decided that for now, we will continue to be a 501c3 organization because concerns about the gov't’s control are relatively minor, and that those controls which we submit to by coming into such a contract, we agree with in principle.  

So, for example, our status with the gov't disallows the church from officially endorsing any candidate or party for political office.  We actually have no problem with this restriction, since we have no interest in tying the message of Jesus to a political party or candidate.  The Kingdom of God should be ideologically unchained and independent from the Kingdom of the World and nothing ruins that independence faster than the church becoming an implicit promotional wing of a given political party.

We are not however currently required to refrain from speaking out on moral or social issues that relate to public policy or laws or political positions (like abortion for example).  Also, officers of the church can personally endorse parties or platforms as long as they maintain this as their personal position and not the official position of the church.  We rarely get that deep into partisanship at AC3, so these restrictions are not a burden to us.

In the meantime, the contract instills a benefit to donors to our ministry, by allowing them to deduct their donations from taxable income, reducing their tax burden if they choose.  For most donors this benefit is negligible, so the concern that registering engenders greed is overblown.

The reason for this arrangement has deep roots in American history, but mostly is an attempt in the tax code to incentivise charity, which can and does reduce the burden on gov't services.  Also, this status means the church pays no taxes on property which provides another benefit.  So the gov't, realizing that a thriving faith community reduces strains on criminal justice, public services etc., makes giving to established charities tax-deductible and makes the churches exempt from taxation.  The registration with the gov't is required to ensure that qualifying non-profits conduct activities that are truly charitable in nature.  Again, we do not consider this an unreasonable or restrictive burden.

The question may arise, do we see a time when the gov't may impose much greater restrictions on our activities and message through our affiliation with it?  The answer to that is yes.  Gov'ts around the world that ask churches to register with them, do often restrict the freedoms of those churches.  This is true in China and across the Muslim world and to a lesser degree in Europe where churches are sometimes funded by the gov't (Norway).  So it may certainly be the case that in the future, the American gov't may "crack down" by revoking the non-profit status of churches that refuse to promote publicly taught views on gender and sexuality, for example.  To this date, "exemption clauses" make Churches immune to discrimination laws on these particular issues because of our history of religious freedom.  So historic Christian teaching on sexual morality is not yet directed by state morality.

These exemption clauses do not feel stable to me at all.   They are, if one were to be honest, "bigotry clauses".  This is because, in the public view, Christian teaching on sex is not "just another way" in our pluralistic society which we tolerate, but rather is explicitly an immoral way.  Therefore, ask yourself how long any society gives safe haven to groups and views that the majority considers to be offenders of common decency.  Not long.  

So it may be that we can see a future where the gov't provides increasing pressure on churches to conform to public views on controversial issues (this year, the gov't of Canada refused any public funds to hiring organizations - including churches - who did not subscribe to its view on unlimited abortion access).

But our fears about such a day when our 501c3 is used to club us into submission are yet future.  And I lose no sleep over it.  It doesn't concern me because on the day that our teaching of historic Christian doctrine means the removal of non-profit status, that is the day we will gladly surrender the benefits of being a non-profit!  

Our message is the same one Christians have always had:  Jesus is Lord.  If that message means donations to churches no longer have personal/corporate benefits, because the gov't no longer considers Christian charity to be beneficial to society, well, so be it.  We will simply deregister with the gov't.  And if that earns us other penalties, we'll accept those as well.  Compared to the cost our brothers and sisters around the world and through history have paid to say, "Jesus - not Caesar - is Lord," ours would be a mere trifle.

But, I can think of no good reason to not enjoy benefits which enhance our mission until such a time that our freedom to conduct that mission is infringed upon.  And I can report, despite any suspicion that there's a secret, undetectable hand behind the 501c3 status that we should be afraid of, that no sermon, no word of doctrine, no part of our operation as Jesus people has ever been impinged by our gov't.  So far.

We move forward then, innocent as doves, shrewd as snakes.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Why Does God Send an Evil Spirit on Saul?

QUESTION:  In 1 Samuel 19:9, an evil spirit is said to come from the Lord.  One translation says, "of the Lord".  How can a good God have or send an evil spirit?  Or is the Message translation right in calling this a "bad mood" from God?

RESPONSE:  No, the most natural reading is that Saul is tormented by an outside spiritual agent.  And this agent is evil - a demonic spirit.  So the problem as you noted, is this impression that God is seeming to act in demonic or evil ways.

1 Sam 19:9 is not the only time the writer of Samuel uses language that seems to indicate God is a source of evil.  Also, in 1 Sam 16:14 another time an evil spirit "from the Lord" came on Saul.  And in 2 Sam 24:1 it says that God’s anger was incited against Israel and caused David to sin in the census he took.

I want to focus on that last event because it'll help us understand the others.  Interestingly, there's a parallel account of the census in 1 Chron 21:1, and there, the author explicitly notes that it was Satan – not God – that incited David to sin.  And that dichotomy looks like it creates a whole new problem of a contradictory account.  But actually it helps us understand how the ancient Bible authors looked at causation.  And the way they looked at it, was very fluidly through the lens of the supremacy of Yahweh.

When it comes to causes, we know at least three kinds:  necessary, conditional and contributory.  A necessary cause is required for a certain effect, like the temperature being below 32 degrees is NECESSARY to cause water to freeze.  A conditional cause is needed, but not absolutely, like sex is a needed CONDITION to cause pregnancy, but other conditions are needed too, like ovulation etc.  Contributory causes may CONTRIBUTE to an effect, but alone they do not cause it, like not smoking is not a cause of long life, but may contribute to it.

So when it comes to God, the authors had no problem smashing together all these kinds of causes.  The reason is that they looked at the Lord's permission as the conditional cause for any effect.  If something happens, Yahweh must have permitted it – even if other conditions are needed too.  Now, if they were to explain all causes, they’d say that nothing happens without God, but some effects, like evil effects, must have other conditions in order to come about.  Why?  Because the Bible writers are absolutely unbending on the idea that God is completely righteous (Judg 5:11; Ezra 9:15; Ps 7:9; Rev 16:5), hates evil (Zech 8:17), and never does anything unjust (Rom 9:14).

However, the authors don’t take time to tease out all this theology in every narrative.  Thus, their very high view of the Lord's power as a conditional cause  for everything, meant that their language could slip into God seeming to do everything, including evil things, like in 2 Sam 24:1, causing David to sin. 

But as we see, another inspired author (of Chronicles) looks at the same event and knows that God’s permission was only a conditional cause, the actual cause of the sin was Satan, for they knew that “God tempts no man” (James 1:13).  Of course, even Satan, technically is only a conditional cause, for the final or necessary cause of sin, requires an actual sinner!  David.  Sin can’t be sin, unless you have one who commits it freely, even if other causes are needed conditions.  In this case, David is the necessary cause of the sin, not God.

So, back to Saul and the evil spirit “sent by the LORD”.  Here, the author distances God’s causation of Saul’s torment one step, in that he makes clear God is not the one actually causing the torment.  Who is?  The evil spirit is.  The question then is this: is God being unrighteous if he sends an evil spirit to accomplish some task?  Only, if the task itself, which God has permitted, is unrighteous.  But is it wrong for God to use an evil spirit to achieve a good end?  No.

Saul had lived a life of chronic disobedience to God, and therefore had opened himself to demonic oppression.  That was Saul’s choice.  And it was God’s just punishment, because of Saul’s disobedience, to torment him, using a spirit’s free choice to do so.  So three wills are choosing freely in this scenario:  God is choosing freely to discipline a wayward King, an evil spirit is choosing freely to torment a human (God is not forcing the spirit to do that - it's an evil spirit after all), and Saul is choosing freely to be wayward.

But just because this is true, doesn’t mean that God’s end is punishment alone.  We know that Paul “hands people over to Satan” for the ultimate end that disobedient teachers or believers are “taught not to blaspheme” and to be “saved” (1 Tim 1:20; 1 Cor 5:5).  So we can rightly surmise that God’s ultimate design in using that evil spirit (doing what it wanted to do) was to drive Saul to repentance.

The evil spirit does not know it’s being used for a good end.  We humans also can freely do evil, which God uses without our knowledge for some good end (Gen 50:20).  Evil spirits are no different than humans, as far as that goes.  God is not doing the evil, but he is taking the freely chosen evils and in his grand design, orchestrating or using them for good.  He’s that awesome.

So the spirit is a dog on a chain doing what dogs do, bite.  And God is at the end of the leash, doing what God does, orchestrating good ends.  God himself doesn’t “bite” (that is, sin), but in a fallen world, God uses sin he doesn't necessarily cause for redemptive purposes.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Should I Read Genesis as Fact or Poem?

QUESTION:  With all the evidence for the Big Bang, the moon coming from the earth or some other planet, humans evolving from an early ape-like ancestors, etc, how should I view Genesis?  The bible says nothing about God making dinosaurs or other planets, it seems to portray Earth as the center of the universe. It says that humans all came from two humans that had no earthly parents or ancestors, and a lot of other things.  Noah’s Ark was also nearly an impossible event with a lot of “plot holes,” as well as the tower of babel and several other events.  It seems one can't see them as fact, so should I look at these as merely stories or epic poems, like Jesus’s metaphorical stories and hyperbole?

RESPONSE:  You're choosing between fact or poem, but this leaves out a third way to see a story: myth.  Myth can be both poetical and factual without it also being in all places literally true.  It's important to define "myth" properly, because in our vernacular, myth often means “fictitious tale” and even more strongly we sometimes mean, “a lie”.  Like when we say, the “myth of a flat earth” or the “myth of Bigfoot”.  We mean, something opposite of the truth. 

But in literature there are many cases where myth is actually pointing at truth.  In two ways:  First, myth could be like the parables of Jesus, which you mentioned.  These are non-historical stories which nevertheless reveal a “spiritual” truth.   These stories didn’t happen, they were non-historical events made up out of Jesus head, but they convey divine truths.  

If you look at Genesis this way, you are at least showing some respect for the text, but you wind up vacating it of any historical veracity at all, and (as I'll explain below) that runs into problems for the veracity of the global Christian story.

So I think you should open up to another kind of myth genre for some parts of Genesis.  Namely, 'a true event that really happened, or refers to people who really existed, but the facts are conveyed using non-literal settings or incomplete data or using exaggerated language'.   If taken literally such stories would be inaccurate, but if taken in its proper context or genre (like exaggeration, or metaphor, or poetry, or dream) is conveying actual facts.

Speaking of lenses, it is not a test of Christian orthodoxy to look at Genesis through the lens of strict, 6 day, young earth creationism.  And I concede this, not because of the pressures of modern scientific discoveries.  The Church Fathers Augustine and Origen both thought that the days of Genesis were non-literal.  IE: not 24 hour solar days.  Writing in the 300’s they were obviously not influenced by modern geology or astronomy!

Augustine’s view was affected by philosophy and by the text.  He believed God to be timeless, so, he asked, why are there any days of creation at all?  These must reflect some kind of creative potencies inside of God himself, he thought, and not convey actual time passing.  Also he noted the text itself suggested that the “days” were non-literal.  He noticed, as all Bible students do in a surface reading of Genesis one, that the sun shows up on day 4.  How can one have 3 solar days before there’s even a sun? 

Other reasons the text suggests a non-literal understanding of Genesis 1:  the text says, “let the earth bring forth fruit/seeds” and the original audience would understand that plants take many days and months, sometimes years to produce their seeds and fruit.  This can’t be a literal day, even to the first readers.

Also “let the land bring forth…” sounds strangely like some kind of natural development is happening without God directly bringing things into existence out of nothing.  Ironically, if you take this very literally, it looks like vegetation somehow comes out of the land by an ability God infused into the land.  There are serious Christians who are theistic evolutionists who take note of this.  There are biblical literalists who here might say, but everyone knows that God is bringing forth these creations instantly.  Do we?  That's not what it LITERALLY says.  So even a young earth perspective does not view the text literally at every turn.

Once Genesis is unhinged from strict literalism for good reasons that Christians have cited for literally millennia, we’re free to follow the evidence wherever it leads.  If we find out the universe is old, can Genesis accommodate that?  Yes.  Could God have imbued nature with some creative properties?  Genesis can accommodate that too.  Ironically, I think there are more serious scientific problems with thinking that inert matter can do all the work of making the complex bio-diversity of planet earth, than there are theological problems because of Genesis 1.

God could have used the natural processes and laws which he built into creation at the outset (the fine tuning of which powerfully suggests design), or he could have interfered in creative acts by infusing new information into the system over time.  These creative epochs, could be what’s meant by the creation days where each one is set apart with:  “Then God said…”

Here, I would just caution against thinking that because Genesis 1 may be non-literal it must therefore be a “mere story”.  Even if non-literal, Christians believe Genesis is communicating enormous truths – and not merely theological truths:

For example, Big Bang cosmology is a massive confirmation of Genesis cosmology.  Think about it:  for centuries ancient pagans believed in an eternal universe, that the primal titans were forces of nature that preexisted everything else including the gods and men.  In other words, matter came first, mind came second.  Modern atheistic thinking repeated this model with steady state theories of eternal universes without beginning or end.  But when the universe was found to be expanding, suddenly Moses, a Bronze Age nomad turns out to be the only ancient who got his cosmology right:  “in the beginning”.

In fact, here are five truths that come out of the creation “myth” of Genesis One if you look beyond the “literal” level.  Each of these revelations disagreed with pagan mythology and modern cosmology until Einstein, and yet now are all considered unchallengeable facts:
  1. The universe has not always existed but began at a finite point in time. 
  2. The universe began in an explosion of light
  3. The universe evolved from chaos, emptiness and formlessness to order, filling, and form. 
  4. The unfolding of creation did not happen all at once, but gradually over time
  5. Youngest of all creatures on earth is mankind who is made, not out of nothing, but out of preexisting material, all of which can be found in the earth itself (dust).

This is uncanny!  Mythical?  Sure.  Untrue?  Nope.

Then we get to Adam and Eve.  Here again, the fact that they are made “from the dust” can be an open door to harmonize the evolutionary picture with Genesis if we think that’s where the evidence points.  How exactly did God “form” them from the dust?  Genesis doesn’t say, so we’re free to investigate that problem and suggest theories.  Christians are deeply divided as to the “how”.  Some will insist we need two persons made without preexisting forms.  Some suggest Adam and Eve (literally "man" and "mother") could be titles for a group of individuals set apart somehow from the rest of the animal kingdom.  If we turn to science, the idea of a two person “bottle neck” in human history is debated based on modern genetics, but science hasn't ruled it out either..

But why even bother to try to prove Adam and Eve might be historically plausible?  What’s really at stake in the Adam and Eve story?  Well, there is at least a couple of very important things theologically at stake that matters for the whole Christian story, without which Jesus' work on the cross just doesn’t make sense.  So what are those indispensable parts of this story to Christianity and therefore to you if you become a Christian?

Simply this: Man, as God made him, was completely good and completely happy, but he disobeyed God and became what we now see.  A creature in need of redemption, forgiveness, and restoration back to his creation design.  That is a bare minimum of what we must believe to be true about Genesis or else Jesus is out of a job.

Now, many people think even that simple premise is proved false by modern science.  They take Darwinism to imply that a “Fall” is the opposite of what science allows.  That rather than fall from a primeval state of virtue and happiness, people have slowly risen from brutality and savagery.

At this point, I would simply point you to CS Lewis' Problem of Pain where he offers up a very convincing harmony between Darwin’s account of the rise of mankind, and the Bible’s account of the fall of mankind.  Significantly, what he rejects about Darwin is Darwin's "unguided" philosophical underlay.  Common ancestry, change over time, preexisting hominid forms?  To Lewis, none of those things refuted the fact of creation, or the discontinuity of people with the rest of the animal kingdom, nor an actual, historical fall from harmony into sin.

I'll include a link where you can read this below.  Start reading the chapter “The Fall” on page 41, but jump to his Creation Myth on page 46.  He begins with: “For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself…”

I think his is a legit way Christians can read Genesis in view of natural history, a true creation myth.  Along with Lewis, I invite you to read the two books of the Word and the World honestly, with the assumption the same Author has written both.  If they seem to be in conflict, it's not because one is telling us lies, it's because we are reading one or both of them wrongly. 

Regarding the Bible and Geocentrism, yes, there are suggestions of this in the Bible, like the language about the sun rising and setting, and about the earth being “laid upon unmovable foundations”.  No Christian today thinks this language contradicts modern astronomy – because no Christian takes those passages literally.  Just as we never took “God will hide you under his wings” to mean that God actually has literal wings (Ps 17:8). 

Obviously at the time of Copernicus, those verses were cited as proof texts of geocentrism.  But the irony is that the Church believed it not so much because the Bible overtly teaches it, but because Greek philosophers – whom they admired – did!  Ironically, while finding passages to confirm the science of the time, they completely ignored several prescient passages that suggested heliocentrism:  Isa 40:22 and Job 26:7.

This old controversy speaks volumes to us about how to handle the new controversy about the days of creation.  It’s OK that natural science gives us insight to modify how to understand certain Bible passages – provided we understand that science’s readings are provisional and also subject to philosophical bias.   So just as we should avoid knee jerk rejections of the Bible based on provisional scientific theories, we should also avoid tying the Bible’s statements about creation too strongly to any scientific theory (which would include Flood Geology and Darwin's insistence that biology develops solely by mutation/selection).

Finally how to read Noah’s ark… For Christians to reject this as in any way historical puts severe strains on the reliability and authority of any part of the Old Testament which Jesus endorsed.  So I think we have to approach it as historical by default, since it is clearly not meant to be mythical in the “it’s just a story” sense.  And it's also not offered as a parable or symbol of anything.  

However, its language can be understood to be hyperbolic.  The Bible often uses "the whole earth" to mean, "alot, but not necessarily the whole."  So we don’t have to believe that the flood was global.  There is evidence against a global flood that makes the story hard to accept.  But, there is actually key evidence that would lend credence to a formative, catastrophic flood event in the Ancient Near East, which may have seeded the flood legends carried literally around the world.  Also, at roughly the right time-frame, there’s geological evidence for a great Mesopotamian flood.  

So, good bible study allows us to identify hyperbole and metaphor, and then we don't have to be resistant to legit scientific insights.  But also, we don't have to reject the fundamental truth claims either, which are critical to the Christian worldview being coherent and being true.

Did Eve Have to Leave The Garden with Adam Or Could She Stay?

QUESTION: Did Eve have to leave the garden when Adam was kicked out? Did she have the option to stay? Or did God spell out that she would go with her husband because her desire would be for him?  Also the question has come up....was she only deceived by the serpent (Satan)? Or did Adam play a part in deceiving her as well?

RESPONSE:  It's clear that Eve left the Garden with Adam. The very next verse after the banishment, they are together forming a family (4:1). The Bible never says Eve was forced out, but it's reasonable that they are both included in the banishment.  There's no good reason to think she either had the opportunity to stay or wasn't indicated in the same banishment verses with Adam (Gen 3:22&24).
This is made clear from the fact that both Adam and Eve are cursed for sin and God makes them both skin coverings (- they both carry shame which God covers by sacrifice, presaging the grace of the cross). So she goes with him, not because she freely chooses to go with him, but because she shares equally with Adam in the guilt that forced them from Paradise.
Adam never decieved Eve.  However, much has been made of the fact that in Genesis 3:6 she gives fruit to Adam who "was with her". If he was right there, why isn't he protecting her? Why is he not clarifying God's command for her? This is a real failure of his role as one-flesh mate, and his role to be her source as "head", but it's not active deception.