Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Update on Mom (personal)

Thanks to all who offered their prayers and encouragement the last two months since my mother went into the hospital. It's possible she may yet be recommended for heart surgery, but she's now well enough that she is allowed to drive short distances again and today is moving back to her own home. I'm still not completely certain that will work out, but she really wants to try and has regained some of her strength, so I will let her try.

In case anyone is taking notes for when they will be letting their own parents move in, here are some things I would pass along:
  • New rules: As I mentioned before, we had to make some new rules to keep the peace. The ones that she needed reminding of most frequently: Do not send my children to fetch; also respect their privacy if they don't want to show you their homework or report cards.
  • Chores: More loads of laundry, more dishes, need to sweep sooner, mop sooner, vacuum sooner, take out the trash sooner
  • Errands: doctor's visits, trips to the pharmacy, little things needed from the store, different favorite foods to have in stock
  • The old home: Even though nobody is living there, there is still the matter of mail, bills, newspapers, and general upkeep, unless you're ready to sell the place. Mail forwarding orders were slower to implement, worked far less reliably than I expected, and didn't cover junk mail still delivered to the old mailbox. Mail carrier suggested a stop order might have been more effective; filed away for future reference.
  • Money: More groceries, more detergents, more gasoline for the additional errands, more water use, more electricity use
  • Household: Needed more plates, more silverware, more drinking cups, more sheets, more towels (unique colors to be sure there's no cross-contamination)
  • Air freshener!
  • Schedules: One more person's favorite TV shows to work into the routine; respect for children's bedtimes and when the TV has to be off
  • Take back the living room! Early on, Mom hadn't thoroughly learned to live with others and we found ourselves avoiding her. But she stayed all waking hours right in the middle of the living room, and everyone else was gravitating towards the bedrooms. So we staged a "take back the living room" campaign in which I insisted that we resume our normal habits and not be displaced, and work out whatever compromises needed to be worked out to make that happen.
  • Living space: if this had gone on any longer, we would have been glad for one more comfortable chair in the living room
  • Eating: special diets, and one more set of food likes and dislikes to figure into meal plans; a section of the refrigerator and counter space and pantry space for new foods; and at one point when my son and my mother both liked the same type of drink, I was putting colored inventory sticker dots on the cans so they could each have their own and be sure the other wasn't really drinking more than their share (red dots are Stephen's, yellow dots are Grandma's).
  • Like having another kid: Just like each of my children, my mother wanted and needed a little bit of my time to call her own each day, just someone to talk to and listen to how her day was
  • Unexpected extra help: Just when I would think it was all extra work, she'd turn around and do the dishes for me.
Speaking of living space, my brother put together a little "room" inside my room for my daughter to stay. My room isn't that big to start with, but he made a framework of PVC pipe and Becky picked some curtains for the sides so she could have some privacy or a view as she liked. It just fits her twin mattress plus 2 of my bookshelves (though it makes access to my closet difficult). Lately her patience has been worn out with the tiny room so we've been taking turns, one night she gets my bed and I get her mat in the curtained room, the next night we trade.

So as Mom gets ready to move out, I'm glad my daughter gets her room back. For all that, I'll be glad to have my own room back, and my old workload was enough already thanks. But -- oddly enough -- I'm going to miss my mom. We've never been exactly what you'd call close, but this is the closest we've been.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Grace and Election founded on Christ

Grace and election are at the root of many disagreements among Christians. One of the key question is this: what is the relationship of grace and election to Christ?

What is Grace?
Grace is a relationship with God, specifically a relationship of God's good favor or God's favorable disposition towards a person. According to the Scriptures, grace comes through Christ.

What is Election?
Election is the state of being a member of God's chosen people, which is a state of grace. As an action, election is becoming a member of God's chosen people and entering a state of grace. Election is a spiritual blessing received in Christ. Historically, God's "elect", or God's chosen people, have been those who carry the hope and promise of the redeemer.

Grace, Election, and Ordered Lists of Salvation
The Calvinist school of theology proposes an ordered list of salvation in which election is first and Christ is received second as a result of election. This view supposes that, in election, a sinner has found favor with God prior to Christ. This is important enough that it bears repeating: Calvinists maintain that a sinner has been given God's grace of election logically prior to being given Christ. This is necessary because they maintain that Christ is given only to the elect and died only for the elect; it is necessary to maintain their theological foundation of God's sovereignty. The problem is that this teaches grace apart from Christ.

When it is pointed out that Calvinists teach grace apart from Christ, Calvinists quickly object that Christ is the second step, and that Christ is added to God's election inseparably. But that does not change the fact that Christ is the second step added to some kind of grace already found elsewhere. The grace to receive Christ was not given through Christ, on the Calvinist view, and could not be given through Christ because a person would have to have Christ already to receive blessings through him. If election comes logically before Christ, then this election is a spiritual blessing which did not come through Christ, a state of grace which did not come through Christ. A Calvinist would say God elects people to have Christ. This choosing of people is a grace, and it comes logically before Christ and therefore logically was not contingent upon Christ. Instead Christ is said to be contingent upon this prior grace or favor of God which did not come through Christ. To be sure Christ was added to this previous grace, but was not the cause of this previous grace. In Calvinism, Christ himself accomplishes nothing for the sinner apart from a separate grace of election which brings people to Christ.

This is no minor teaching of the Calvinist school, but the one they proclaim most loudly, this grace prior to Christ, this "sovereign grace." It is often presented as the foundation of that theological worldview: grace prior to Christ, grace which leads to Christ but does not come through Christ. This grace of election cannot come through Christ because a person does not yet have Christ unless this other grace gives him Christ.

But if, as the Scriptures say, grace comes through Christ, then the supposed grace prior to Christ is an illusion. It is a logical construct without reality. The foundation of Calvinist theology is God's sovereignty, particularly an election which does not depend on Christ. It supposes a separate grace of election which comes to a sinner prior to Christ, a separate grace of election without which Christ is of no avail. This is a false foundation, since no other foundation can be laid apart from Christ.

A Word about the Arminians
Arminians are traditional rivals of the Calvinists. But, strangely enough, they stumble at the same point, though in the opposite direction. Where a Calvinist supposes that grace comes prior to Christ based on God's will, the Arminian supposes that grace comes apart from Christ based on man's will. Likewise, Arminians do not allow that it is Christ himself who brings the grace sufficient to receive him. The Arminians around the internet do not present themselves as such a target as the Calvinists, being short on ordered lists and catchy acronyms, and also in popular forums are relatively slow to deny the salvation, education, or reasoning ability of those who spot flaws with their theories. Yet they over-estimate man, or under-estimate the depth of our problems in our current state. And they, too, under-estimate Christ.

Without Calvinism and Arminianism, what is left?
I have met a number of people who are so conditioned by the Calvinist/Arminian debates that they really have no idea that there are other views out there, views that have at least as strong a claim to mainstream status as those two. One camp wonders: If it is not God's eternal decree, a sovereign grace of election that brings people irresistibly to Christ, then what does? Some wonder: If it is not man's will that effects our salvation, then what does? The answer is Christ. If that answer bewilders someone, if someone thinks that Christ is not a sufficient answer for grace and salvation, I would encourage them to think a little longer about Christ. Consider that grace comes through Christ, that Christ is God's Word made flesh, that Christ is the mediator between God and man, that God has chosen Christ and his weakness and foolishness to effect our salvation. When John the Apostle expressed his own "equation" of salvation, he said that God has given us life, and the life is in his Son, so that he who has the son has life, and he who does not have the son does not have life. Someone who looks at Christ but then runs to look elsewhere for his answers about the cause of salvation -- this person has already missed the point by looking for these answers somewhere other than Christ. The answer will not be found elsewhere.

For those already familiar with the ideas here, I'm aware the repetition must be tedious. But because the ideas here are unfamiliar to some, I'll let the reptition stand, even at the risk of being tedious.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

God's Eternal Decrees: The Missing Decree

Theologica has been running a series on ordered lists of salvation. Theologica is theoretically a group blog with diverse views, but heavily Calvinist in its actual contents, so the "ordered lists of salvation" series has emphasized Calvinist views. The Calvinist views have the advantage of not being Arminian views, but I have these things against them:
  • They assume that grace (God's good favor) comes before Christ, while Scripture specifies that grace comes through Christ;
  • They turn election into a gift that comes before Christ, while Scripture specifies that election is likewise a gift in Christ;
  • They turn God into the mediator between man and Christ, whereas Scripture says that Christ is the intermediary between God and man;
  • They turn Christ's work into a transaction in which we benefit by decree, whereas Scripture says we are also transformed by our participation in Christ's death and resurrection;
  • They turn predestination into a gift which comes before Christ, where again Scripture specifies that predestination is a gift in Christ;
  • They respect God's power and strength, but ignore the fact that in Christ God chose the weak things to shame the strong.
In other words, their Christology is weak and their disrespect for anything but power leads to a caricature of God's sovereignty, one which in practice overlooks that God has chosen to create a world in which we have stewardship and lordship, our own God-given power by His decree.

Before I get to the missing decree, I would like to point out that there is one way in which Calvinist "ordered lists" acknowledge implicitly, if not explicitly, that God has chosen to give mankind the power to turn away from God and reject God. The Calvinist ordered lists of salvation tend to include this: that God permitted the fall of man, by which they mean the original fall of all mankind from grace into a state of depravity. Some Calvinists allow that mankind could have either fallen or not based on man's own disposition, while others maintain that God decreed even the fall. Note that the most simple change required for Calvinists to move beyond the popular "sola sovereignty" view of God is the simple recognition that God's decree is in continuing effect: that God's permission for the fall, for rejecting him, is not limited only to ancient history, but is a continuing part of God's design of the world. That one change alone, the recognition that that decree continues, permits recognition of so many Scriptures that Calvinists typically deny: that people really do fall away from faith, that God really does love the whole world, that Christ really did die for all, that there really is more to the cross of Christ than a transaction, that Christ is the mediator between God and man and not vice versa, and so forth. And it permits understanding the foolishness of God: that God chose what is weak and what is foolish to shame our distorted views of wisdom and power.

But most of all, it allows the insertion into the "ordered decrees" something conspicuously missing from the Calvinist lists: that God's hidden purpose was to head up all things in Christ. This is the missing decree from Calvinist lists, one whose absence shapes each list and is felt deeply throughout all of popular Calvinist polemics. God's decree to head up all things in Christ preceeds the fall of man; it preceeds the creation of the world. This one decree restores Christ to his rightful place as the foundation of theology, the foundation of our salvation, and the one who effects both our creation and our salvation.
And he made known the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment: to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

Friday, March 24, 2006

A godly life is not hectic: An encouragement to rest

The worries of the age and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. -- Jesus, explanation of the parable of sower
Most of the people that I know have overcrowded schedules. We hardly know what to do with rest, peace, and quiet. We insist on doing too much. In the process we lose our potency and vigor, becoming restless and listless, harrassed by our own schedules. Our overcrowded lives are poor ground for God's word to grow. We would serve this way, we would serve that way, if only we had time. But we continue to schedule things so that we do not have time. An overcrowded life is a hindrance to serving God and growing in his word. In the parable of the sower, an overcrowded life is right behind the devil and apostasy on the list of things that keep the seed from bearing fruit (now that's a scary thought); it chokes the growth of God's word. I've heard pastors preach on the deceitfulness of wealth, but rarely on the life-choking multitude of worries and cares.

We are very fond of work, just as we are very fond of money. But work can be deceitful too. Money deceives us into thinking it's worth more than it really is; work deceives us into thinking the world depends on our unceasing efforts. That's one of the lessons of the Sabbath: the world really does go on if we take a little time off; it really was complete and self-sustaining at creation. Our excessive work doesn't accomplish nearly as much as we imagine it does. A good shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures; he leads us beside quiet waters. He restores our soul.

As for us, I'm sure we look harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. An overcrowded life is a hindrance to experiencing God's blessings of peace and rest.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

St. Paul to the factions in the church

I wonder how much the church in Corinth was like the church today. Fractured. Divided. Some followed this leader and some followed that leader. What is most important: is it speaking in tongues, or knowledge, or giving to the poor? It was like he was looking ahead to our own day.
If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
I think he's talking to all of us.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Open Letter to Mexico: About That Fence

"TexMex flag" LoneStar on Green with Aguila
I've lived in Texas nearly all my life. I'm proud of our TexMex heritage. I love seeing the Aguila flying alongside the Lone Star and the Stars and Stripes at businesses as I drive down the road. I'm used to people who don't speak English; it's ok, my Spanish will get me along.

I hear that there are people who want a fence along our southern border for reasons I find sad. I hear that there are people who want a fence because they think badly of Mexicans, or because they think other languages have no place in our country. Is it possible that some people may slam Mexican culture before going to their favorite TexMex place for dinner and a margarita while Selena is playing in the background? It's possible. And when a hungry immigrant turns up on our streets -- it happens all the time -- I wish him the best finding a job.

But I have a complaint: the nation of Mexico is taking advantage of us by not taking care of its own people, by sending them somewhere else for help at someone else's expense. Mexico looks down its nose at the U.S.A. -- and we have our faults; hey, nobody's perfect. But Mexico's jobs program is "have people go north and send money back". Mexico's education program is "have people go north and go to school, they'll educate you." Mexico's health program is "have people go north for the doctors". You say there are health, education, and jobs programs in Mexico. It's true but they aren't working; that's why the people keep coming north.

And so I have to say this: I support building the fence along our border. The only traffic it stops is illegal traffic. All the bridges and legal crossings are still open. It's not too much to ask that people enter legally. I don't think it's too much to ask that Mexico contribute towards the cost of health and education for its citizens in our country. And most of all, I don't think it's too much to ask for Mexico to make a serious effort to take care of her citizens.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

VA Weekly: The Atonement

Over at Vox Apologia, the question of the week begins,
In my book I argue that there is no coherent understanding of the atonement. Here are some questions for those who accept the penal substitutionary view ...
In the first part he reminds me of Michael Martin, an atheist philosopher whom I answered at length on the atonement1. With the current piece, there are a few problems right off the bat: First, a great many Christians (myself included) believe that the penal substitutionary view shortchanges the Biblical view of atonement. If he's holding out for a coherent view of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement in particular, I will leave that to people who subscribe to it, hoping that the skeptic is not merely using it as a gift straw man.2 Then the skeptic takes a Webster's definition of forgiveness instead one native to the sacrificial system which the Bible understands, with the intrinsic relationship between sin and death, and the sinner's participation in the sacrifice by putting to death the sin inside himself. The questions also draw no distinction between forgiveness and overlooking sin, or between justice and revenge. There seems to be no appreciation that giving evil a free pass is a bad thing, and that God's forgiveness cannot be a license for evil.

But I'd like to focus within the questions presented on what seems to be the biggest misunderstanding of Christian theories of atonement: the skeptic does not seem to grasp that Christ's being one with God has any effect on whether God is "retaliating" or taking "sweet revenge" on "someone else". God is, in fact, doing very much the opposite: he is the one suffering, he is the one dying, he is the one taking the punishment of the law and the viciousness of human hatred. The charge that he is being unfair to someone else overlooks the entire doctrine of the incarnation, the person and nature of Christ. Here is an example: if a man ran a red light and totalled my car, and he paid his own traffic ticket, that is simple justice by our current laws. If he could not pay his own ticket and some kind stranger paid on his behalf, that would be benevolence. If I paid the traffic ticket for the man who totalled my car, that is a mind-boggling level of mercy; it closer to what God does for us.

But that is still addressed to a transaction theory of atonement. A fuller understanding of atonement requires recognition that our being transformed from enemies of God to children of God requires something far more profound than a transaction.3

1 - Though Martin's favorite "orthodox" view of atonement was Origen's ransom theory, which Martin used as a gift straw man to discuss atonement.
2 - Those who hold the penal substitutionary view will know best whether he represents their views correctly. But if he does, that still does not mean he represents Christian theology correctly.
3 - For full length treatments of the atonement, I'd recommend Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word of God and, more recently, Gerhard O. Forde's Where God Meets Man. For those who would rather have a blog-length linked piece I've done a short round-up of some of my own with the understanding that the reader beware; I'm an amateur. The list excludes some already linked in the main response above. They are at least freebies:

Sin, Ignorance, and Judgment
Sin, Repentance, and Forgiveness
Forgiveness, Sacrifice, and Christ
Forgiveness and Sacrifices Offered for the Unaware
Condemnation and the Ancient Gentiles
The Unfairness of Heaven? (on the justification of Judgment Day)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The deceitfulness of wealth

Many of us Christians live either unproductive Christian lives or minimally productive Christian lives. In speaking of a productive Christian life, I am speaking of living in devotion to God and neighbor, keeping our treasures in heaven, in accord with Jesus' teachings. In the parable of the sower, Jesus cites one reason for this unproductive lifestyle as "the deceitfulness of wealth." The deceitfulness of wealth, of course, is not only for the wealthy; we don't have to have money to be deceived by it.

Of all the temptations Jesus warned us about, one of the most prominent was wealth. Many destructive temptations -- lying, drunkenness, sexual immorality -- are at least in some measure disrespectable. But wealth has so many good possibilities that we even respect the open pursuit of it. It is possible to get wealth honestly; that is not too unusual. It is possible to use it benevolently and generously, though that is a little more unusual. I've been intrigued for awhile with Jesus' mention of wealth's deceitfulness, and have started to mull over ways in which wealth is deceitful.

Wealth has set itself up as a major idol of our culture. So pervasive is its hold that few of its seekers question if they are on the right path, and its finders tend to be startled and disillusioned that happiness does not come with wealth. Few other pursuits in life are accepted as unquestioningly as the pursuit of wealth, while most other quests in life are held suspect. It becomes the focus of our lives, the center of our hopes, the bedrock of our security. In all these things, it usurps the place of God. The pursuit of wealth distracts us from the question whether our goal is wealth or service. As Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters" when he was discussing God and riches. Do we put riches above God? Does that cause us to put our job or our boss above God as well?

Empty Promises
Wealth makes promises it cannot keep. It promises security, but can be lost. It promises happiness, but cannot deliver lasting satisfaction. It promises that it will serve us in whatever we want, but instead becomes what we want and makes us forget the other things we once wanted as we spend our time seeking it. It tells us that if we become rich we will want to give away that money to serve others, though it insists we avoid serving them until becoming rich. This means that we love the money better than the people that we postponed serving for its sake and who, we must know, we will never serve by much of that wealth. It promises that we can attain our financial goal, but it tempts us to increase that goal so that we remain in its pursuit. We imagine that we can master it, only to find ourselves seduced by it. It promises leisure but prevents us from other uses of our time. It becomes a mirage that we are always pursuing but never obtaining. We spend all our time in that pursuit, which we suppose excuses us from other pursuits. As it has been said, "How well I know temptation came because I wanted it." The easiest lie to believe is the one we want to believe.

Procrastinated Service to God
If we insist on reaching financial goals before we even begin our service, then we postpone our service to God. How many procrastinated projects are never finished because they are never started?

Conditional Service to God
If we say, "I will serve God when my finances are better", does that not mean, "I will not serve God unless my finances are better"? Have we added a condition to our service of God? Do we insist on prosperity first? An extreme example of this may be the "lottery ministry": praying to win the lottery so we can start our dream ministry, and reasoning that, if God really wanted us to do it, we would win the lottery. Our chances of serving God in a devoted way are then roughly 1 in 10,000,000. Based on the prevalence of Mother Theresa's compared to the lukewarm crowd, that sounds about right. Mother Theresa had a secret: she didn't have to win the lottery to serve God. Maybe God wants us to learn how to serve him with what we have before he entrusts us with more. Maybe we have enough, or more than enough, already.

Substitute for Involvement
I hope no one imagines that using money for a good purpose is a bad thing. But I am considering wealth's deceitfulness, how even that can be turned to bad effect. Working excessive overtime and avoiding the family can be passed off as doing something for the family. For husbands and wives, parents and children, financial support can be used as a substitute for love; but love is not an optional exercise that can be skipped. With parents and children, this is not just a temptation for absentee parents with a situation of child support after a divorce. It is also a temptation for those whose patience is sorely tried by parenting, or whose time is overcommitted, or who are emotionally unfocused on their families. "Spoiling" the child materially can be used as a compensation for neglecting the child personally; after all, if the child is spoiled she can't be neglected ... can she? Of course she can, and the money spent becomes a smokescreen hiding a broken family life.

Outside the home, contributions to charitable causes can seem a substitute for love of the lost and broken; it is a safe way of helping people which does not call for any devotion of our lives, tempts us to use it as a buyoff to excuse us from direct personal involvement. We deaden our conscience when we send money to a missionary but duck the question a neighbor or coworker asks about our faith, or send money to some program but overlook the people we know.

Deceiving Ourselves and Others
When we want the good things in life, wealth tempts us to look at it for solutions. We deceive ourselves if we imagine that something expensive will satisfy us. It is even more tragic if someone spends irresponsibly to get some material thing to cheer him, only to find that the irresponsibility -- and finding that the material thing was empty and could not satisfy -- made him feel worse instead of better. Credit cards give the temptation to imagine our means are greater than they are, or to pretend they are until it catches up. Money can be used to give an air of success, to gain respect, admiration, and praise. But such respect is only available from those who measure success in terms of money. It is not even the wealthy person that they admire, but the wealth.

I intend to run a similar post in the future on the worries of this world, the other major thing Jesus mentioned in the parable of the sower that keeps long-term Christians from being productive Christians.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Why the true "systematic theology" must be Christ

For some time popular systematic theology has been dominated by an approach that presents our knowledge of God in terms of facts and propositions. In these propositional systems, statements are made about God which can be evaluated for truth value. Knowing the right propositions and being able to demonstrate their truth is sometimes considered to be the core of theological knowledge. "Systematic theology" is often taken to mean "abstracted theology" or "propositional theology".

The most basic problem with this approach is that God is a person, not merely a concept. God's divine personhood goes so far beyond our human personhood that we have trouble understanding it; but still God is not simply a mindless force but a person with mind and will, with love and desire. Given that God is not a mere concept, knowing God must extend beyond knowing the truth value of propositions. Limiting ourselves to propositions -- even propositions about God's personhood -- is an affront to the reality of that personhood. Would any of us imagine that someone could make a set of propositions about us as a person which could substitute for meeting and knowing us? But we have often made this mistake with God, and then theology becomes a means by which we keep God at a safe distance rather than coming to know him. God will not be a mere object of study. Given that God is a person, knowing God must include interacting with him as a person and knowing him as a person. God did not present himself to us as a set of propositions to be studied. He presented himself to us in Christ, the divine word coming to us not as a proposition but as a human person, Jesus Christ. These are the terms on which God would have us know him; beginning our systematic theology anywhere else but Christ is an affront to God's self-revelation.

The cornerstone of systematic theology

If knowing God is the aim of theology, then what is the right basis for knowing God? What is the cornerstone of our knowledge?

Some people, in casual conversations, say that their theologies are based on logic. I am very fond of logic but have to mention that it is not a foundation. It is a process and tool for building on an existing foundation, but it must have a foundation on which to build. It cannot give you the premises you use as your first starting point. The only way to get good results with logic is to already have the truth at the outset. It can lead you to good conclusions only if you start with good premises. Logic can sometimes detect false premises, but it cannot give you the right premises to begin with.

Some say their theologies are based on the Scriptures. They are a large and rich tapestry. Some say the Scriptures are too large, too rich, too diverse to ever come to a consensus about their main message. If this is the case, then each will take different premises from the Scriptures, apply logic to those premises, and reach different conclusions. Given that the Scriptures are large and rich, how do we determine the right premises with which to begin? One person starts with a premise that all must be interpreted in terms of God's absolute and unshared sovereignty; another starts with a premise that all must be related to God's absolute and unrivalled love; another starts with a premise that continuing revelation is the key to opening the Scriptures; examples could be multiplied. How do we determine the correct starting point?

Here's an interesting question: do the Scriptures themselves ever say what their own central point is? It happens that they do, in several places. Christ's answer on the point is recorded for us:
You search the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
According to Christ, Scripture is primarily about himself. The point of knowing, studying, and searching the Scriptures is not to know the Scriptures or to build our own systems; it is that, through them, we know Christ. Christ is the central point of Scripture and is our way of knowing God. If Christ is not the foundation of our theology, is not the touchstone by which we interpret Scriptures, our theologies have missed the mark.

Is Scripture as a whole really about Christ?
I've heard some object that all Scripture cannot really be about Christ. What about the Hebrew Bible? First, the Jewish sages of the Talmud openly discussed that the Scriptures were understood rightly with reference to the Messiah. Messiah and the Messianic age were the interpretive key to understanding Scripture. This is no innovation of the followers of Jesus, but the ancient Jewish understanding.

Here is another instance of Jesus explaining the true meaning of the Scriptures:
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." (Luke 24:45-47)
Jesus' summary of what was written before centers on himself. Have you heard it said that people must have their minds opened by God to understand the Scriptures? This passage that teaches that peoples' minds must be opened and that, when Christ opened their minds, he explained that the Scriptures were about Himself. Understanding the Scriptures means understanding that they are about Christ.

At the risk of being tedious, here are some further points for those who dispute that Scripture is rightly understood with Christ as the touchstone:
  • The New Testament reviews how the Temple sacrifices and all of the ceremonial law were shadows that pointed ahead to Christ
  • Paul reviews how the law humbles us before God and drives us to Christ
  • The writers of the New Testament reviewed how the prophets foretold Christ
  • The New Testament begins with four documents witnessing to the life of Christ
  • The book of Acts retells the apostles spreading the message of Christ
  • The evangelistic speeches of the Apostles, as recorded in Acts, focus on Christ's death and resurrection
  • The majority of the letters in the New Testament focus explicitly on Christ and how to live new lives in Christ
  • Revelation tells of Christ and his church, with the climax of history being the final return of Christ.
Now none of this is to say that every Scripture must or should speak explicitly or implicitly about Christ. There is no objection to Paul asking for his cloak or discussing how to treat a runaway slave, no objection to wisdom literature focusing on godly living, or a message addressed directly to a select group of people saying something specific to their situation. It is just to say that all of these are secondary instead of primary, things built on the foundation and not the foundation itself.

The apostles' witness
Peter explained the centrality of Christ, quoting the prophets of old:
See, I lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. (2 Peter 2:6)
Paul explained about Christ's role in our teachings as follows:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (I Cor 3:10-11)
Some would say that Christ is not a proposition and therefore cannot be the start of a systematic theology. Christ overturns this, our missing the point, when he says of himself, "I am the truth". It seems foolish to us, but Paul continues,
Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this world, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. (I Cor 3:18-19)
Paul was so confident that Christ is the cornerstone of Christian teaching that he went so far as to say,
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (I Cor 2:2)
and again
My message and preaching to you were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (I Cor 2:4-5)
And what, does he say, is God's wisdom and God's power? Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Cor 1:22). Here is where Paul teaches us that God's "foolishness" is wiser than our wisdom, and God's "weakness" is stronger than our strength, that God chose what is weak and despised and foolish to overturn and humble the things of this world that puff themselves up (I Cor 1:20-31).

The apostle John, in Eastern Orthodox circles, is called Saint John the Theologian because he writes much of theology. He approaches some of the topics traditionally studied in systematic theology in his first letter:
"And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life." (I John 5:11)
Some would hesitate to call this a systematic theology because the critical point is not an abstract principle but is Christ himself. I would say the abstractions are false abstractions, things separated from Christ which cannot rightly be separated from Christ, and that the point is Christ himself.

What is the foundation of your theology?
"I resolved to know nothing but _______________."
If someone brought a given Scripture to you, how would you interpret it? What is your interpretive touchstone? How do you fill in the blank?

If Christ has the rightful place as the foundation of our knowledge of God, the starting point on which we build, this means that a great many systematic theologies have missed the mark. Many systematic theologies have been launched on the assumption that the apostles left us no systematic theology. I submit to you that they did, and we have not recognized it. To be sure they did not give us a neat outline, but they did cover the material. A well-organized outline does not make a true systematic theology. We were looking for abstractions instead of Christ. They gave us Christ.

To be continued in showing the systematic theology that the apostles handed down to us in Scripture, based on Christ as the cornerstone.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Understanding Scripture: basic standards of interpretation

When I look at the state of theology discussions on the internet, it seems that some basic groundwork has not been laid to make progress possible in our discussions. For this reason I'd like to go over some things that seem to be neglected, things so basic that it's possible that some readers will be offended by their simplicity. But the level of Scriptural discussion around the internet makes it necessary to mention the minimum standards which I would expect as a basis to legitimately agree or disagree with an interpretation of Scripture. This shows my own interpretive framework; it allows me to hold my work accountable to these standards and allow others to hold me likewise accountable. This may also serve as a basis on which I can explain my disagreement with other views, or that may explain to others why I cannot hold to their interpretations.

The genre "plain exposition"
There are various kinds of writing in Scripture. For example, prophecy is notoriously hard to interpret, and the Scriptures contain cautions about whether people can really understand prophecy without guidance. But significant parts of the Scripture are plain exposition: they are meant to explain things, and the words are meant to be taken at their plain value. Of course this entails understanding the background, having a good translation, knowing when the author is tackling more complex material, and so forth. Taking things at their plain meaning does not remove the need for study, but instead focuses the study on the things most likely to bring the words to light as the author intended. That much said, for parts of the Scripture that are plain exposition, the plain speech is the rule of interpretation.

It is disturbing that people claim to have trouble understanding passages which are controversial or distasteful. Where it would be more honest to say we dislike what it says or even disagree, some instead call such passages unclear, though probably for the reason of not wanting to contradict the Scriptures. Our human unwillingness to see something in God's word has often blinded us to what it plainly says; our human confusion about what is right is often projected onto the Scriptures, and obscurity is sometimes imagined in the Scriptures when the darkness is actually in our own minds.

Resolving Tensions in Scripture
No passage of Scripture is allowed to overturn another passage. One passage may define the scope of another -- for example, the covenant of circumcision is not given to Gentiles -- but it does not deny the validity of the other. Someone who must overturn any Scripture in order to build a systematic theology has put the system above the Scriptures; the resulting theology is no longer fully Scriptural.

For an illustration, I'd like to quickly review one well-known case of tension within the Scriptures. I hope the faith/works tension is familiar enough for an example, though I will be brief because its over-familiarity may try the patience. When we read James, "A man is justified by works, not by faith alone," and Paul, "Justified by faith, apart from works of the law," taking them from their own settings and pitting them against each other, there seems to be a problem. The tempting solution is to take one passage out of context and use it to overrule the other. But which passage should overrule the other? If someone puts "works, not faith alone" at the top, works-righteousness and a denigration of faith are the frequent outcome, being the inherent temptation of such a view. If someone puts "faith, apart from works of the law" at the top, dead faith and a denigration of works are a frequent outcome, again being the inherent temptation of such a view. Note that the situation is made worse, not better, by putting one view over against the other or by allowing one passage to override the other. If we have any confidence at all in the trustworthiness of the books in the Scriptures, we will see that doing violence to the text of the passage will always have the result of making things worse, not better. Such a move damages the integrity of the Scriptures, all in the name of preserving their integrity. This move is based on a doubt whether the Scriptures have sufficient integrity and harmony of themselves as received, if the interpreter decides that one passage needs to overturn another and it could not be let to stand on its own.

True resolution does not use one passage to override the other, but trusts each author to say what needs to be said. James, on a fair reading, does not denigrate faith; his original point was "I will show you my faith by what I do." Paul, on a fair reading, never allows that faith could possibly be fruitless and without works. Using one passage out of context to overturn the other aggravates the tension. Allowing each passage to speak for itself in its own context shows harmony; it also does no violence to the text. To restate, using one passage of Scripture to overturn another is a sign of disrespect for the Scriptures as received and distrust that they already speak a cohesive message in context as received, without our added efforts.

The problem of "problem passages"
If a theological opinion runs up against a passage of Scripture which is incompatible with it, then that opinion is not fully Scriptural. We can discuss whether that passage is translated correctly or understood correctly; we can discuss whether a certain passage applies in the current setting. What we cannot do is discount it on the grounds that it would invalidate our own theory or view and therefore it cannot mean what, on the face of it, it seems to mean. If even one passage of Scripture plainly contradicts a particular view, then that view is not fully Scriptural. Such a theological view needs development or full reconstruction to be better informed by all of Scripture. "Problem passages" are particularly tempting grounds for creative exposition or the dueling prooftexts method which attacks the integrity of Scripture; but once careful study has been made how a passage speaks within its own context, that meaning must be let to stand if the results are to be Scriptural.

I know there are many other principles of interpretation which could be mentioned. Still, these few principles are so basic, and are violated with such regularity, that I single them out as the ones of which we most need reminding. I have seen a few theological debates on the internet which could not have been resolved by staying with these basic principles, a few debates in which more subtle principles would be brought into play or in which sometimes different opinions are possible. But the majority of internet theological debates I have seen would have been over quickly if people had honestly stuck to the plain meanings of passages, not tried to annul one passage by pressing another out of context to annul it, and had acknowledged that a plain passage against a certain view ought to require the refinement of the theory, not of the Scriptures. I have met people, to be sure, who say that the Scriptures do not have enough integrity to make a systematic theology without bending a few verses here and there. Call such a view what you like, but it is not fully Scriptural. Once some passages are allowed to override others, the view is weighted more on what the interpreter supposes than on what the books of Scripture say.

The next question for those who respect the integrity of the Scriptures is the extent to which it is possible to interpret Scriptures on their own terms instead of according to our presuppositions. (To be continued.)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Note: References Added to Islam Article

I have added references to the controversial items in the Islam article recently posted on this site. Readers will now be able to check the Muslim sources for themselves. I have removed my editorial comments from that section of the post, which has now become more of a reference. I've also removed any details that could not be directly verified (e.g. in Aisha's account of Mohammed's night journey, I removed the reference to a "tent" since, while Aisha said Mohammed had remained physically in place all night, she did not specifically mention a tent). The post remains substantially as originally entered.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The stumbling block of the average systematic theology

Systematic theology aims to organize the truth. The Bible's truth is cleaned of all extraneous matter and distilled into definitions and propositions. These definitions and propositions are then the building blocks of systematic theologies, often rigorously and logically defined.

Logic is a good thing, but the logical process does not necessarily lead to truth. If you do not start with the right premises, you do not get the right conclusion, logically enough. "Garbage in, garbage out" as they say in my line of work. If you want your logical results to be true, your starting point must be true.
"I am the truth." -- Jesus
Jesus' saying does not compute in most syllogisms about knowing God. In fact, it is opposed to our natural way of thinking about truth. The truth is the sum total of what can be known, the highest transcendent perception of reality. The truth is where all decent thinking must begin and towards which all decent thinking must aim.

Jesus challenges us to understand God through him, to begin our systematic theologies with him, to start with him as our premise and end with him as our aim. Our natural thinking hardly knows where to begin with a venture like that. So we take an easier road -- but that road is not the way we were meant to travel.

In our reasoning about the things of God, if the first premise is not Jesus, the last conclusion will not be fully Christian. Jesus is our foundation, and we build from there.

I am not against systematic theology. But if we assume that Christ is the truth, then the best theology would begin and end with Christ; the best theology would center around Christ. The best "systematic theology" might very well be a biography. In the Bible, God has given us the right kind of book. Our systematic theologies are like a child's notebook, where we copy down pieces we do not yet fully understand. The more fully we understand, the more closely our systematic theologies resemble the Bible.

Christ's role in every spiritual blessing

Western Christianity has a long history of missing the point of Ephesians 1, particularly the section about spiritual blessings (as opposed to worldly blessings). How do we know what an author's point is? We know the author's point by what the author says, of course. Sometimes a writer's work has sections that just beg to be set into a traditional outline format because they are so tightly organized as a statement of the main topic and detailed supporting points. Such is the case with the opening section of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, particularly 1:3-14.

I'll spare you the actual outline, but watch Paul frame the following points around this main point: that Christ has the central role in every spiritual blessing, since every spiritual blessing is received only in or through Christ. First, Paul's own statement of his own topic from the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
So plainly enough, this is about being blessed through Christ, and about how God is praiseworthy on account of blessing us through Christ. How can we be sure that this is really Paul's topic? Notice how Paul spends the follow-up section by listing spiritual blessings and showing Christ's role in each and every spiritual blessing that we receive:
  • 1:4 "in him" (Christ) we are chosen;
  • 1:5 God's predestination that we are adopted as Sons of God comes through Jesus Christ;
  • 1:6 God's glorious grace is given us in "the One he loves" (Christ);
  • 1:7 "in him" (Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins;
  • 1:8-10 he has made known the mysteries of his will for the fulfillment of time: to head up all things in Christ, whether things on heaven or on earth;
  • 1:11-12 in him (Christ) we are chosen as God's inheritance, as he predestines for the praise of his glory those who have placed their hope in Christ;
  • 1:13-14 believing in Christ, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit guaranteeing our inheritance.
Now, after Paul has thoroughly tied each and every spiritual blessing -- whether forgiveness or being among God's chosen people -- to Christ, what have Christians made of this?

The mistakes go back at least to Aquinas, who when discussing predestination, quotes Ephesians like this:
inasmuch as God gratuitously and not from merits predestines or elects some; for it is written (Ephesians 1:5): "He hath predestinated us into the adoption of children ... unto the praise of the glory of His grace."
Notice the "..." ellipsis mark, which J.R.R. Tolkien aptly called the trail of the passing editor. What has been edited out is the reference to Christ's role in this.

Many have followed the same footsteps, missing Paul's point about Christ's role in every spiritual blessing. I've discussed Ephesians 1 with a number of people who consistently mentally read "he chose us before the creation of the world ... he predestined us to be adopted as his sons ... were were also chosen, having been predestined" (etc.), having become accustomed to mentally deleting all references to Christ while reading that passage. On-line, there's CARM's on-line dictionary which takes the classic Calvinist/hyperCalvinist view of "elect, election" in that it quotes this passage of Ephesians but deletes the reference to Christ's role in the spiritual blessing of election:
The elect are those called by God to salvation. This election occurs before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and is according to God's will not man's (Rom. 8:29-30; 9:6-23) because God is sovereign (Rom. 9:11-16). The view of election is especially held by Calvinists who also hold to the doctrine of predestination.
Just a note: when an interpretation systematically deletes the references to Christ from a passage, it's not going to be the right interpretation. Paul's point is how all these blessings -- including predestination to adoption and being in God's chosen people, being forgiven and redeemed, and receiving the Holy Spirit -- are granted through Christ. You cannot understand predestination apart from Christ, or being included in God's chosen people apart from Christ, any more than you can understand redemption and forgiveness apart from Christ. Christ is how we are predestined and how we are chosen just as surely as he is how we are forgiven; none of these things can be productively, Scripturally discussed apart from Christ. This, as Paul reminds us, is God's eternal purpose, his once-hidden mysterious will which has now been made known.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

VA Weekly: Why Jesus' Death is a Sacrifice

Vox Apologia is trying a weekly series where apologists field questions from skeptics. The first one up for March 6 is about what constitutes a sacrifice. This week's skeptic takes the line that Jesus, being God and knowing he would be raised again, would not be as affected as other people by being tortured to death. This is a basic misunderstanding of what constitutes a sacrifice. The animals in the Old Testament sacrificial system did not suffer much at all; they simply died. Sacrifice does not necessarily involve pain; it involves death. As I've discussed elsewhere, Jesus' suffering is redemptive. But suffering is not necessary for something to be classified as a sacrifice.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The "don't judge" dodge

"Judge not, lest you be judged; for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." -- Jesus

In my experience, this saying of Jesus is misused more than many others. Every defiant sinner takes up "Judge not" on his or her lips as a shield against criticism. When Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, he kept coming back to the point of mercy and humility towards each other. It's a lesson we all need. Mercy is, in its way, a shield against the Law. But it is a shield against its condemnation, not against its rightness. "Judge not" should keep the one who points out wrong away from hypocrisy or pride or setting himself up as a judge; it should not excuse the wrongdoer or obscure whether a thing is right or wrong.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sacrifice: death and redemption

"People are saved by faith, not by whether someone made a sacrifice for them."
"Why is sacrifice necessary? Doesn't God simply forgive whom he pleases?"

Those are thoughts about how we are redeemed that I have heard often enough. I think we as Christians have not given much thought to sacrifice in the ancient sense of the word, the sense in which something is killed as part of a religious ritual. We might mention that type of sacrifice in order to point out that we don't do that anymore. After all, how much thought should we give the old Temple sacrificial system when the Temple no longer stands and the final sacrifice -- God's own sacrifice, once, for all has been made. I have also heard the old sacrificial system denigrated as a barbaric scheme meant to appease a vengeful, bloodthirsty God. Because the topic can be embarrassing or awkward (though I think that it does not deserve to be), we do not often take a deep and steady look at it. The reason I pursue it is that it helps us understand Christ's sacrifice and our sacrifice.

In the ancient sacrifices, a man's sin might be atoned for by the death of an animal. If you picture this as only a transaction or an exchange, it makes little sense. As an exchange it is not only unfair to the victim, it also does nothing for the wrongdoer except some would say in a legal sense, if the laws were set up in such a way, but that is an artificial and arbitrary connection.

The sacrifices were a graphic reminder that sin necessarily brings death. Destruction and corruption are a basic part of what sin is, and death necessarily follows. We know that it is not the sacrificial victim but we ourselves who have deserved death. The sinner has no part in a sacrifice if the victim dies but the sinner remains hard-hearted and unchanged. We have a part in a sacrifice when we desire that our sin should die. We participate in the sacrifice by putting to death the part of ourselves that deserves to die, putting to death the wrong thoughts and desires, the corruption in our lives. The revulsion we feel towards the blood and death of the sacrfice, this revulsion is rightly directed to the sin. We die with the sacrifice; we participate by dying to sin ourselves. When we participate in the sacrifice in this way, it transforms us and purifies us. Forgiveness alone does not make us fit to be in the presence of God. The sin in us must die.

We remember Christ's sacrifice for us, the victim in our place. We also put to death our own sins and die with him. Death, then, is turned upside down; in Christ's death and resurrection, its destruction of evil restores us to newness of life.
Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him. (2 Timothy 2:11)
More is planned for a future post about how we are united with Christ's sacrifice not only in his death, but also in his resurrection.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Why forty days of Lent?

Those who recount the history of Lent say that it has not always been for 40 days, though the symbolic number seems fitting. Interestingly, the Talmud records that there was a long-standing plot on the part of Jewish leaders to take Jesus’ life:
For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! – Sanhedrin 43a
The Talmud mentions that the public declarations of intent to kill Jesus began forty days beforehand – the traditional length of time for which Christians now observe the Lenten Fast. Or as the records of Jesus' followers mention,
But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. (Luke 19:47; there are others like it)
This is the traditional time of year to focus on Christ's death and our own joining our death to his by dying to sin now.