Thursday, November 29, 2007

How can the Omnipresent be more present at some times?

In our recent conversation about real presence and omnipresence, we could hardly help coming up against this question a few times: how can the omnipresent God be "more present" at some times and places than others? I've been pondering that and have some tentative thoughts.

Some of God's appearances are a glorious presence: the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire, the revelations to Moses, the cloud and glory filling the Tabernacle and the Temple. One thing setting these apart from omnipresence is that God chooses to make his presence known to the people. Omnipresence is hidden from our senses. But in these cases God makes his presence visible, directly available to our senses. He does this so that we will see him. He makes sure that we know he is there. He also tends to have a special purpose when he makes himself known. When he appeared in the bush it was to call Moses. When he appeared in the pillar of cloud and fire it was to lead the people. In appearing to Moses he gave the Torah to the people through him.

The Tabernacle and the Temple are two special cases. Here God displays long-lasting presences, persistent or recurring presences. God's presence here is not bound to a particular person or a particular event. Here God's visible presence itself is the main message: he is with his people. His purpose seems to be that his people should understand that he is with them.

Then there are times when God appears without visible glory, sometimes even in human form. When he saw Adam and Eve naked, he clothed them. He visited Abraham when he was recuperating at Mamre, from which the ancients derived the principle that it is godly to visit the sick. I suspect that if we were to trace it through, all the acts of compassion which Jesus described in Matthew 25 are probably things God has been known to do for his people. (I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me ...)

So all that is background to the things we had discussed about God's presence. What I see is that God's special presences are for us and for our benefit, and in each one of them there is some sort of blessing God gives his people. He may not be "more present" but he's certainly more known, more self-revealing. His visible presence lets us know where to go for his blessing, for his compassion and his forgiveness. Whenever he shows himself in this way, he shows himself as being for us and with us.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Luther's odd argument for real presence

For Martin Luther, the question of theology was ultimately the question of God's grace -- particularly Christ and him crucified. Luther was no stranger to the debating circles of his day, no amateur at driving home his point. So it always struck me as odd, more than odd, a serious mis-step in his arguments when he made an argument for Christ's real presence in communion based on ubiquity -- that is, based on omnipresence. That seemed to be a backwards argument. Luther had made plain and strong arguments on Christ's real presence from Scripture, which was his strong suit. So why take up an argument that starts by assuming that the bread and wine are nothing special?

But as time goes on, and the more conversations I have with people from non-sacramental churches, the more I come to understand that Luther was going for the heart of the problem after all. To paraphrase the thrust of his argument: Is Christ God? Isn't he omnipresent? Isn't it in him that we live and move and have our being? Isn't he the fullness of him who fills all things? Then how can you say that one who is omnipresent is not in the bread and wine? How can you say that one who is omnipresent is present everywhere in the universe except in the elements he singled out and said, "This is my body, this is my blood"?

You cannot say that Christ is not really present at all in the bread and the wine without saying that omnipresence isn't real presence; that is, without saying that omnipresence isn't real. Or without saying that Christ isn't really the fullness of him who fills all things, that Christ isn't omnipresent; that is, that Christ isn't God.

The more I speak with non-sacramental Christians, the clearer it becomes to me that many such Christians see a world where God is not omnipresent, where omnipresence is not a living reality even though it is confessed with the lips, even though as a point of doctrine it will always have their mental assent not because they give it any thought but because the Bible says it. A recent book I read on Christian spirituality speaks of meditation and "making God present." Nobody talks like that who genuinely believes in omnipresence. There is no such thing as "making God present." There is welcoming God's presence or not welcoming God's presence, but there is no changing the fact of God's presence. There is no "practicing the presence of God"; there is only practicing being aware of the Presence which is already there. Those who do not see God in the tavern or the bar, who do not know God's presence in their kitchens, if God is not with them doing rush-hour karaoke in their cars, if they have not looked at the homeless fellow under the bridge and seen Christ, then what hope is there that they will recognize Christ in bread and wine?

Zwingli's famous argument against the real presence is very telling: "The finite cannot contain the infinite." If someone genuinely believes that the finite cannot contain the infinite, then the finite Jesus of Nazareth was not the infinite God. If someone firmly believes that the finite cannot contain the infinite, then has God's real presence ever been known on earth? If not, then omnipresence is not real presence. Luther attacked the heart of the problem after all, the "worldview" as we would now say, when he challenged for the reality of omnipresence. In a world where God is really present, it is a natural thing to believe Christ can truly be present in the bread and wine. In a world where Christ is not even in the bread and wine, where then is he?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Return of the JW's

Saturday night the neighborhood JW's came to visit as scheduled. They are a sweet and friendly couple. (Unlike the last JW's who came by years ago, but that is another story.) Because they are so obviously sincere in their desire to serve God, I have always been as kind to them as I know how. So Saturday night I had cookies waiting when they stopped by. (Chocolate chip. Yes, with milk.)

And as much as I was ready to talk to them about who Christ is, I had determined to let them choose which topics we discussed since they had scheduled the visit, and to make sure that they could see that they are actual real human beings to me, not just debate opponents.

They got off to a very slow start. First, they let me know that they expected the world to end very soon, and that the beginning of the end was the year 1914. We went back and forth on the prophecies, especially on the question of immediacy. I was skeptical that 1914 had been such a special year, and while I would not be surprised to see Christ return now I would also not be surprised to see him wait for millenia more to come.

Next they wanted to explain that in hell there is no eternal torment, but that the condemned are eventually annihilated. I don't give annihilationists a hard time on general principles, since that's the most straightforward reading of some (but not all) of the texts dealing with what happens to those who are condemned.

They wanted to set up some Bible studies with me. I figured I owed it to them as human beings to mention that I'm a poor prospect for conversion. (I haven't yet been able to gauge whether they are good prospects for conversion to Christianity.) They said they would still like to schedule some Bible studies, and I said I would be willing to study the Bible with them.

From a debate standpoint the visit was very anticlimactic. The night mostly served to put the conversation on a more human level, leaving us in more productive conversation mode rather than adversarial debate mode..

I expect that everyone's tips and advice will come in handy ... as soon as they are ready to discuss something meatier than whether we are in the final days.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Righteous by faith: imputation and God's righteousness

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:3, among other places)
There is a theory of our righteousness before God that is called "imputed righteousness." That terminology comes from Romans 4 in the AV (King James) translation, where God "imputeth righteousness without works" (Romans 6:6 AV). How exactly we should understand that has become a matter of some discussion over the ages, and currently again in the latest round of atonement debates.

Peter Kirk recently wrote,
Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. (Emphasis added. H/T Henry Neufeld.)
"Imputed righteousness" is often described as -- or thought of as -- a legal fiction. The weight of the argument is sometimes even rested on the word "imputed" as if that word meant an inaccurate accounting, a bookkeeping entry without basis in fact. However, a study of that word shows that the normal meaning is making an accurate accounting, not an inaccurate accounting.

I wouldn't for a moment dispute that, on the bookkeeping analogy, God does some very generous bookkeeping in our favor. "Forgive us our debts" presents itself to my mind as the most obvious example. Still, it is not quite a perfect analogy for a view that imputation is a legal fiction, because forgiving our debts is not a legal fiction; once the debts are off the books they are gone for all intents and purposes.

The question becomes, then, when we are counted righteous by faith, whether this is a legal fiction (imputing against reality) or whether there is any reality to being righteous by faith, any real righteousness involved. A number of questions arise in light of Paul's teachings in Romans 4 and in light of some of the subsequent debates on the topic:
  • Is faith righteous?
  • Is being accounted righteous by faith a gift? Is it gracious?
  • Is being counted righteous by faith merited or unmerited?
  • Do we merit the attainment of eternal life?
  • Are we righteous in and of ourselves?
The following are my thoughts on this.

There is no such thing as being righteous "in and of ourselves." That is the mistake of Eden, seeking a right status in and of ourselves instead of with God. Righteousness then primarily means being right with God. As I mentioned in a previous post, the pivotal event in humanity's fall from grace was distrusting God. Righteousness before God is trusting God, and from trusting God it follows that we will trust his ways and keep his word.

So I would argue that faith is righteous, not by legal fiction but by the inherent nature of things. This leads straight to the question of whether faith should be credited to us as if it were merit on our part. If we take this same view of faith -- not changing to another view of faith but maintaining the same view of faith as trusting God to keep his word -- then such faith is not any credit to us, since we do not create such faith. Neither can anything create this kind of faith in God except for the knowledge of God's faithfulness. That is to say that God is faithful, and when we realize this it is called by the name "faith." Here "faith" cannot mean mere belief in the existence of God, which is a faith no greater than the demons possess. But we mean knowing God as trustworthy and faithful, as the one who keeps his promises and fulfills his covenant.

From this it follows that while faith merits nothing, it is still genuinely righteous. Through that faith we are again put right with God, not because faith was meritorious, but because God had reconciled the world to himself through Christ, not counting our sins against us, and we were implored to be reconciled to God. Faith is the human side of reconciliation with God: a confession of faith is a confession of God's faithfulness. Those who are genuinely righteous, then, are not preoccupied with merit of their own, since they trust God who justifies sinners. Instead, by faith, they seek after the things of God: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.

On this view, faith is genuinely righteous. But it is a misunderstanding of both faith and righteousness to think of faith as our faith as if it did not depend wholly on God's faithfulness, or to think of the righteousness of faith as our righteousness as if it consisted of something other than trust in God, the recognition of God's righteousness, God's mercy, and God's love.

We do not, then, merit the attainment of eternal life as if it were by works (however assisted) or as if it were an obligation of God's to us based on our works, that he must award eternal life simply to satisfy justice. Eternal life is a gift, one whose source is the overflowing generosity and joyful charity of God towards his children. No human act could ever earn eternal life. Nothing within our power could obligate God as a matter of justice to grant us an eternal reward. It is his faithfulness and love, it is his grace, which says to us that he will raise us from the dead. It is his everlasting love which is the source of his promise of everlasting life. It is his great mercy which speaks to us of the forgiveness of our sins, which are many and great.

Abraham was fully persuaded that what God promised, God was able to do. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Most uplifting post I've read this week ...

Most uplifting post I've read this week. And my favorite takeaway passage:
A cup of coffee is more valuable than anything heaven has to offer. You see, a cup of coffee takes time, and we've only 70 years down here to do everything in our hearts. Every second I share with a saint is a second that he is the most valuable thing in my life, and that investment returns forever. If we wait until heaven to sit down with the saints, we lose all that interest. Heaven has unlimited time, so there's no sacrifice in sitting down with a brother in heaven. Time on Earth is brutally precious, so every minute shared is precious.
Anybody up for a cup of coffee? (Yah, I know, I don't touch the stuff, but the coffee shop will humor me with some lemonade, no doubt.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fallen by unbelief; Justified by faith

The atonement debates seem to be heating up again. Much of the ground has been thoroughly covered, but perhaps a few comments might be productive.

First, what is the nature of the fall? It is first of all a loss of faith in God, and the rest follows. The serpent is portrayed as preaching doubt in God: distrust of God's honesty, distrust of God's motives, distrust of God's word. The fall happens when we say in our doubt, "That's right; I can't trust God. He doesn't have our best interests at heart. He's trying to keep us down. He's trying to keep exaltation for himself." It is precisely a loss of faith -- a loss of trust in God -- that is the key moment of humanity's fall from grace. Grace, again, is a good relationship with God. When our actions advertise a distrust of God, when we say with our actions "God is not trustworthy", implicitly accusing God either of duplicity and treachery or of a lack of wisdom -- this inherently and by its very nature destroys the relationship of grace.

If the fall is a loss of faith -- loss of trust in God -- then is righteousness anything other than faith? Is righteousness anything other than confessing, "God is trustworthy"? Is a return to our right minds any more complicated than that realization that God is trustworthy, that he is for us and that his word can be trusted? God's faithfulness is the bedrock on which our faith stands. And our trust is not a blind leap or an irrational one, but a reliance on the reality of God's trustworthiness.

Abraham and the ancients were reckoned righteous by faith, because they considered that God who made the promise was faithful.

What about our faith? As guilty people, we dare not trust the judge. Does God have our best interests at heart? That question becomes, in our bad consciences, whether the judge has at heart the best interests of the guilty. We dare not risk it, so we hurry to accuse the judge of unfairness, to create a cosmic mistrial, to get ourselves acquitted not by innocence but by counter-accusations. That is unbelief. Notice how atheism -- supposedly a belief that there is no God -- actually in practice is much more preoccupied with accusing the judge of unfairness. The driving force of atheism is the variety of unbelief spoken of in the fall -- unbelief in God's fairness -- rather than unbelief in God's existence. The innocent may go before a judge boldly, but not the guilty.

Here is one place where Christ speaks plainly and clearly to us. It is in Christ that God has proved his faithfulness to us. In Christ, God has shown the world that he has our best interests at heart, even as guilty as we are. It is in seeing Christ and hearing the message of Christ that we trust God again.

And as we trust God again, we find that this is righteousness. This is faith; it comes through hearing the message of Christ. As we trust God again, we find that we are in a right relationship with him again, and that this is grace; it comes through Christ. The day of accusing God to justify ourselves is over.

The J.W'.s Part 2

Thanks to all who have given their advice on the upcoming visit from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Just from taking their pamphlets for all these months, I think if I were going to be dismissive I should have started that from the beginning, so I'm going to see the conversation through even if it does turn out to be a clunker. And as you all have said, any argument which is over their heads is one they're likely to take back to their supervisor rather than ponder themselves.

So I'm thinking I may start with what they do acknowledge. It seems that their usual script covers retranslating "the Word was God" into "the Word was a god" and expecting the Christian (Nicene) to drop it there, rather than run with it. If they translate the beginning of John as "the Word was a god", I think I could ask them exactly how many gods there are, and whether it's ok to worship this god. I'll also see if they have any understanding at all of what the Word of God becoming flesh really means and why it's big news for who Christ is. If they bite, I might even explain how Christ replaced the Temple ...

Comments and advice are welcome. So are prayers.

Thank you much for the comments and advice. It's been helpful in putting together my thoughts.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Jehovah's Witnesses Are Coming ...

The Jehovah's Witnesses are coming ... this next weekend, to be exact. A sweet JW couple has been dropping off pamphlets at my door for some time, and out of respect for their earnestness I've received their pamphlets and most recently a little booklet about what the Bible "really" teaches. They've asked if they can make a visit this next weekend -- presumably to talk me out of the error of my ways. Now, I think I can answer for my beliefs well enough, but I'd like some tips if anyone has personal experience: what is the part of the gospel -- the good news of Christ -- which J.W.'s get most badly wrong? I could google it, but I'm curious if anyone here has personal experience. I plan on evangelizing while they're here ...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Religious ambition as idolatry

Consider the people who built the tower of Babel. They might, to modern eyes, seem very religious. Didn't they accomplish great things? Didn't they seek with all their might to get to heaven? They had goals, they had dreams, they sought better for themselves. They were organized, they planned, they achieved, they accomplished. Isn't this commendable? But what they sought was not what God had asked of them, what they accomplished was not worth the trouble they put into it, though they would have denied this to the end. They sought to become great, to make a name for themselves. The goal of their religion, the pinnacle at the top of their tower, was their own glorified selves instead of God.

Sometimes we also think of climbing up to heaven by works and effort and continual improvement. But does God ever ask us to climb up to heaven? Have we forgotten that, in the beginning, God used to walk on earth; that he only withdrew his direct presence from this world after our sin? Even if at Babel they had succeeded in building their tower, they still would not have gotten to heaven that way. Not only was heaven not at the top of the tower, but they were seeking their own glory instead of God's. The kingdom of heaven is where God is glorified, not just a place that happens to be up high. And we too can work very hard at seeking a higher ground and being better, but if our greatest goal is our own betterment, then we are self-worshipers and idolaters.

And if we strive, the purpose of striving cannot really be to reach God, since He is already here with us. As Paul says, "do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend to heaven?' that is, to bring Christ down, or 'Who will descend into the deep?" that is, to bring Christ up from the dead. But what does it say? 'The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart." Where God meets man is here on earth. The word is not far from us. It does not have to be chased or pursued. As Christ says, "I will never leave you or forsake you." God is not at the top of a ladder that we climb; he is God-with-us, he is Immanuel. God meets us in His word, and He meets us in Christ, here on earth. He meets us in our humility. How often, trying to seek him, have we forgotten that God is already with us, and have instead left the sheep-pen? Have we thought that God was not in such a humble place as we have, or in such a humble life and service?

And when we remember our works and our striving -- for what writer in the Bible does not ask us to remember them? -- let us remember what God says works are for: "that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." When we come down to earth and humbly feed the poor, visit the sick, look after widows and orphans in their distress, then people glorify God. And we discover what Christ has told us all along, that he was already among us: "I was hungry and you fed me. You did it for me." That is true religion.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Google Meme

Dr. Platypus has an interesting meme.
I’d like to suggest a meme, where the premise is that you will attempt to find 5 statements, which if you were to type into google (preferably, but we’ll take the other country specific ones if need be), you’ll find that you are returned with your blog as the number one hit.

Here are my results from November 4, 2007:
  1. crucified God patristic examples
  2. Christian reconciliation carnival
  3. essential visits for theologians
  4. Talmud messianic prophecy
  5. Tolkien Lothlorien visions paradise

Of course, those are the things I'm somewhat pleased return this blog. There are other things that return this blog that are probably just plain goofy ("pet peeves homosexuality debate" also returned me as the top hit). Then there are ones where I just am not on Google's radar, and it's probably a reflection of my poor priorities. For example, when it comes to "Christ-centered systematic theology", Google never heard of me. "Forgiveness of sins through Christ"? Google never heard of me. "Love of God in action"? Likewise.

The Christian blogger's prayer: may my words reflect your Word and all glory be yours only.

Anyone else want to play?