Thursday, November 29, 2012

Theology word clouds: "Of The Eternal Election (etc)" in Calvin's Institutes

Looking at word clouds of systematic theology, I wanted to do something parallel to the previous New Advent article on predestination. So our next stop will be Calvin's Institutes, also available on-line. The section that is on the same general topic is "Of the eternal election, by which God has predestinated some to salvation, and others to destruction". As most of my readers will know, Calvin's teachings on this subject are considered incorrect by most Christians; that is not the point of linking them here. This word cloud summarizes that part of Calvin's Institutes (top 100 words):

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As Calvin explains his thoughts on this topic, we see that "God", "election", and "predestination" are foremost in his mind. "Rejection" and "destruction" both make the top 100 words list. "Augustine" is well-represented (roughly as much as "Paul"). While "Augustine" and "Paul" are well-represented, we see that "Christ" does not make the 100-most-used words list; neither does "Jesus". If a word cloud allows us to see a writer's emphasis, here we can start to get an objective measure whether a writing really has the same emphasis as the Bible. Again, this is not written to pick on the Calvinists; we saw similar patterns in the Roman Catholic article on the same topic, even if they do condemn several of Calvin's teachings. Despite that, the general trend remained: when the groups were talking about predestination, they generally lost sight of Christ.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Theology word clouds: "Predestination" in the Catholic Encyclopedia

New Advent has a hugely helpful resource: the text of the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Just because I'm not Roman Catholic, that doesn't mean I'm ungrateful for the work and the resource, or won't give credit where it is due.) A few years back I did a "word cloud" project of the New Testament and its books. Part of the long-range goal of that project was to compare systematic theologies to the Bible at the summary level. Here is my first preview of the kinds of things that will become apparent. This word cloud is for the entry on Predestination in the Catholic Encyclopedia. -->
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We see some trends we might have predicted from the source being Roman Catholic: it mentions "merit" more than "justification", and "works" more than "faith". I was a little surprised to see "Augustine" mentioned more than "Christ". But that's the kind of thing that all kinds of groups do, when they discuss predestination: there is a tendency to look at Augustine and to lose sight of Christ. This is not meant to pick on the church of Rome; I hope to build a full set of these for all kinds of systematic theologies before I am done. But I was reading the handy article on predestination recently, and thought it would be a good place to start.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

On predicting the exact date of doomsday

The end of 2012 is near -- and for decades now, 2012 has been predicted by some as the end of the world. We all know that world will end one day, whether many ages from now when the sun goes dark, or next month as some have predicted. But as for those who claim to know the day, I'd ask Christians to consider not just the well-known quote, but some of its implications:
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Mark 13:32)
Now, consider this: Jesus knew some remarkable things. He understood the Scriptures more fully than anyone before or since. He opened other peoples' minds to understand the Scriptures. He could trace all the references and all the nuances of Moses and the Psalms and the prophets. If the information about the day or the hour was hidden somewhere in the prophets, he would have known it. And if he didn't know it, then it is not there in the Scriptures, and no amount of searching them will truly discover what is not there. All the searching supposes that an answer is there, carefully concealed. But I think the answer is not concealed there at all: it's simply not there.

And for those who take literally, as I do, that Jesus is the Word of God made incarnate -- then everything that God has spoken to us, everything that God has revealed to us, everything that God has made known of his mind, is made known to us in Christ and through Christ. If the Father had revealed it, Christ would have known it. And if Christ didn't know it, it was because the Father hasn't revealed it. Again, no amount of searching or pondering will truly discover something that is not there. Again, I do not think it is a matter of being brilliant enough or godly enough or diligent enough or finding the right clue. I think the answer is simply not given, and the information needed to find the answer has not been made known. The answer is not there. That is why not even the Word of God knows the day or the hour.

When Jesus told us that the day and hour are unknown, he told us the point of this: that we should watch, and not grow lazy or careless. (Why would it be an issue with growing lazy or careless, except that the time would be longer than we would expect?) While the people naming doomsday dates are an embarrassment -- constantly exposing Christians to ridicule as the doomsday predictions fail time and again, and leading people astray, and weakening peoples' faith who actually believed their predictions -- while all these things are true against them, they do at least remind us to watch. And so as the next doomsday prediction rolls around, I'd encourage us all to do more than shake our heads at the failure of this prediction, or the next one -- I'd encourage us to go back to Jesus' words, and be ready because we do not know the day or the hour -- and to watch.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof

Over at Meta's blog, he has been discussing "extraordinary claims". The idea of "extraordinary proof" is a thing I haven't discussed for a good few years.

If you look at the argument "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof", the problem is that it creates an endless chain of proof which it makes it literally impossible to satisfy. Let's say we start with a claim that someone calls an "extraordinary" claim, and so they reserve the right to demand "extraordinary" proof. Let's say someone does then bring that extraordinary proof to our arguer. The problem is that the proof itself is "extraordinary" -- it had to be extraordinary. It was part of the conditions to satisfy the arguer that it must be extraordinary. But now, because that proof is extraordinary, the arguer says the proof that they demanded can't be believed either: it's an extraordinary claim. Watch how it works: Someone demands that the proof must be "extraordinary", and reserves the right to throw out that proof precisely because it was extraordinary, precisely because it met the conditions they set. So if you do bring extraordinary proof, it is thrown out unless it has its own proof, and that proof was also extraordinary. And if that next proof was extraordinary, the same cycle repeats all over again. That proof would also be thrown out as an extraordinary claim, as something that requires extraordinary proof of its own. The cycle continues as long as the arguer cares to play, with no way for the responder to satisfy the demands. The demands for proving the next thing would never end. If an argument sets out terms that can never be met, if it lays out conditions that can never be satisfied, it is worthless. For example:

An atheist may say "The existence of God" is extraordinary, and requires extraordinary proof. Ok, let's say God offers up extraordinary proof of his existence: like raising someone from the dead. The burden of extraordinary proof has been met. But wait, the atheist can just say he does not accept the extraordinary proof -- and he rejects it because it's extraordinary, so now he requires extraordinary proof that there really was extraordinary proof. It is a demand which is impossible to satisfy.

Now, for my own part, I don't think the existence of God is an extraordinary claim. But for all that, Jesus had an extraordinary life, and extraordinary teachings. He's all the proof I need: if he says God exists, I'll take his word for it. And if someone wants me to take their word that there isn't a God, they have to top Jesus. If they can't, then Jesus' word is the word I'll be taking for that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Funeral Service - Preparing in advance

At my age, with good luck, it may be decades before I have need of a funeral service for myself. But this past weekend after being among the mourners for a long-time member of our congregation, it occurred to me: I don't necessarily want somebody else picking the readings or hymns for the inevitable day. So, that much said:

  • For All The Saints
    Because of the beautiful picture of those of us leaving this world taking our place in heaven, and the grand finale of the Last Day. (The verses about the struggle of the current world could be omitted.)
  • Amazing Grace
    Because to many people, no Christian funeral is complete without this hymn
  • Go, My Children, With My Blessing
    Because religion is established in this world as a channel for God to bless people. The ancient priestly blessing was a sign of that purpose. And because Jaroslav Vajda could sure write a good hymn.

  • From I Kings 19: the still small voice, and the passing of the mantle to the successor
  • From I Corinthians 1: God chose the weak and foolish
  • From Matthew 5: Beatitudes (without the 'persecution' verse, unless it happened to apply to those times or my own death for some reason)

Psalm 100: "Enter into his gates with thanksgiving" -- since that's what I hope to be doing about that time.

Sermon: I'd really prefer there to be no sermon. I think simply the readings, psalm, and hymns should suffice.I may at some point write a few short comments about why I chose the readings, and I would rather it was left alone after that.

If there is any eulogy -- which may be left to the preference of the family -- let it start with Paul's comments on Christians being letters from God (2 Cor 3:3), and end with "if anyone boasts, let him boast in the Lord" (1 Cor 1:31, 2 Cor 10:17).

I may yet put together a proper order of service for the day, rather than just a few notes on the readings and songs. 

I hope this isn't too morbid for anyone. I'd be glad to hear anyone's thoughts about any uplifting funeral or memorial they had attended.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Salt of the earth: Why "seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" can backfire

"Seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" are buzzwords. They are favorite phrases used to promote changes to the church. These changes are supposed to bring in more people who are unchurched. I know that "seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" can mean different things to different people. Speaking for myself, what I usually see from "seeker-sensitive" churches is "salt that has lost its savor". If a church makes a conscious effort to be like the world, and comfortable to those in the world, and unchallenging to those in the world, then it is no different than the rest of the world. There is no barrier, now, to those who would want to come -- and there is also no point in coming.

Think about sitting down to eat, and you reach for the salt shaker. If the salt tasted just like your food already tastes, would you bother with the salt? The reason we reach for the salt shaker is because it is different from what our food already tastes like. If the salt were the same flavor as the food, it would have no value to us. (Because some people delight in picking nits, I should mention: I'm not encouraging you to over-do the salt at meals; a healthy diet requires some measure of salt.)

Those who want to make the church "seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" by watering down Jesus' teachings are possibly well-meaning, but are taking the exact opposite direction from what would help. The world is full of hurt and cynicism. It lacks a clear direction. It lacks a sense of right and wrong. It lacks a sense of the holy. If we want people to reach for us when they want a change from the world, we have to be unapologetically different from that world. We have to be what Christ called us to be: nothing more, nothing less.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

When I pray for patience (not the usual joke)

I found myself praying for patience again this week. It seems I need a lot of it, or don't have as much as I need. It occurred to me that what I'm really praying for is love. Patience comes from somewhere; Christian patience comes from love. If we love someone, we are patient with them. "Love is patient, love is kind ...". If I love someone, I am patient. So when I pray for patience, I am praying for love.

On the chance that somebody hasn't heard the usual joke about praying for patience, I'll include it here too. It pokes fun at our shallow and self-centered thoughts about building virtue: "Lord, I want patience, and I want it now!"

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Election 2012: May the country be blessed

Election 2012: May the country be blessed with good leadership, renewed trust, renewed hope, and compassion with responsibility. May the finger-pointing and blamesmanship cease, and healing begin. May the leader of the nation respect the people of the opposition, for their humanity, for their citizenship, even for their different perspective. May we be slow to think ill of each other, and slower to speak it; may we put away bearing false witness against each other. May we work together to rebuild our nation.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The sheep and the goats: Where have we heard that before?

In recent posts I have looked at times when Jesus quoted Old Testament passages about the LORD in reference to himself. Here is another one that deserves consideration: 
As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.’ (Ezekiel 34:17). 
Compare this to what Jesus taught about the last day, referring to himself here, as at other times, as "the Son of Man": 
When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And all nations shall be gathered before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates his sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31-32)
Ezekiel’s prophecy is lengthy; it is well worth reading all of Ezekiel 34 in this context. It ends with “David” (King Messiah) ruling over the people. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, "David" the Messiah may simply be God's right hand: when God says “I do this”, the Messiah is actually the one through whom God works. The distinction is not always clear between God's actions and the Messiah's.

Here again, when Jesus refers back to that prophecy, he places himself as the judge -- and as the only one in all of human history in that position.Plainly enough, Jesus' claim to be the one who, at the end of history, will judge the world is a claim to uniqueness. But it goes beyond mere uniqueness. In the passage Jesus refers to as background -- a passage which would have been known to those who originally heard him -- it is the LORD -- God himself -- who is said to be the judge. Again, to say the least, the distinction is not always clear between God's actions and the Messiah's.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

"The LORD" in the era of the internet: what's with ALL CAPS

I discovered something that needed explaining to my Sunday school class. When the Bible says LORD in all caps, the "all caps" does not stand for shouting. That is what they have known basically their whole lives: WHEN YOU TYPE IN ALL CAPS IT MEANS YOU ARE SHOUTING. Just a note of things that need explaining, to people who grew up in the internet era. Back before "all caps" meant "shouting", LORD (in all caps) meant that God's actual name was used, but was considered too holy to write or pronounce. Not shouting.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

"You are my witnesses": Old Testament allusions, and the trials of life

But you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you: and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, even to the uttermost part of the earth. (Jesus, Acts 1:8)

Many of the things Jesus said contained allusions to the earlier writings of the Old Testament.
You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom  I have chosen: that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. (Isaiah 43:10)

I have declared, and have saved, and I have shown, when there was no strange god among you: therefore you are my witnesses, says the LORD, that I am God. (Isaiah 43:12)

Do not fear, neither be afraid: Have I not told you from that time, and declared it? You are my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? There is no other God; I know not any. (Isaiah 44:8)
Are there other references in the Bible to being witnesses? Sure; they generally involve legal matters or transactions. The clearest parallel to what Jesus said are the passages from Isaiah quoted above. Jesus' apostles, all Jewish, were likely to have caught the references. Once again, Jesus is recorded as saying something that parallels what God himself has said, reprising one of God's sayings in a way that makes Jesus' role parallel to God's own role.

One other point bears mentioning: God chose the language of "witnesses" for us. In this world, sometimes God is on trial, either in the court of public opinion or in an individual's mind and life. People want to know whether God is true, whether God is kind, whether God is trustworthy. They want to know whether he cares. When we notice that God is on trial, or God is accused, it is worth remembering that we are his witnesses.