Category Archives: Theology

Questions Do Not Indicate Doubt

PC: Joel Overbeck | Unsplash

The story of Lisa (and Michael) Gungor recently came to my attention (I’ve been kind of busy the past 6 years or so with seminary). There’s a lot that I suppose could be commented on regarding her story, but there was one aspect in particular that stood out to me: the shutting down of her questions: 

 
“We went to this very wild, charismatic church, and the church was exciting and the way of Jesus was revolutionary to me. And I had little questions, but you weren’t really allowed to ask them.”

Here’s the deal: questions don’t indicate doubt, they indicate curiosity and engagement. Questions, assuming they’re honest, come about as a result of being engaged in thinking about something. If you are teaching a topic and someone asks a question regarding it it means that they are engaged and care about what you are saying! It means that they have been following and processing what you are saying and are trying to understand it better. Perhaps something is completely new to them. Perhaps it conflicts (or seems to conflict) with what they already know. Perhaps they find the topic interesting or intriguing and want to know more about it. So for a child, who is growing up in church, to be asking questions about the faith is a good thing and something that should be welcomed!

Unfortunately though that’s not what happened in Lisa’s case. Questions were apparently viewed as doubt and doubt “was the opposition of faith.” The problem with this logic is, as I’ve tried to show above, that questions do not indicate doubt, but engagement and curiosity! When you are apathetic and not engaged by a topic is when you fail to be curious about it and do not ask questions regarding it. Questions are good, and should be asked. 

The results of their curiosity being shutdown were not good. The questions didn’t go away. They kept gnawing away at both of them until they found answers to them. That is after all the only way to get rid of a question: answer it.

I don’t know what their exact questions were since they don’t mention them specifically in the article. However, the “problem” of evil seems to have been one of them given the mentioning of their experience from their visit at Auschwitz and Lisa’s problem with reading the Old Testament. This is a very good question! In fact, this question is only a “problem” within the Judaeo-Christian worldview. After all, if God is good and created everything, then why does evil exist? Why the horrors of Auschwitz? Why modern day genocides? Why senseless murders? 

These are not new questions. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and so have these questions. The ultimate answer (because there is quite a bit to discuss regarding this issue) to the “problem” of evil is that God allows it and uses it to accomplish His purposes, one of which is to bring glory to Himself. Yes, I am quite sure that God could have accomplished His purposes and glorified Himself through some other means, but He didn’t and in the end we have to discuss what God actually did, not what He might have done or could have done.

Issues with the Old Testament are also not new. In fact they are so old that the New Testament even deals with some of them! Specifically, that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law because through their union with Christ they died to the Law because Christ did what the Law could not: free us from sin! (see Romans 6). In Galatians 3 also Paul argues that people have always been justified by faith, not by doing the Law. He goes on to say that the Law was just a tutor whose purpose was to lead us to Christ, but now that Christ has come there is no longer any need for a tutor.

Obviously there is much more that can (and should) be discussed regarding these two questions. My point here is simply to show that questions are not evidence of doubt or a lack of faith. Questions are evidence of curiosity. They are evidence that someone is thinking about the faith and wanting to learn more about it, or reconcile things that don’t make sense. Honest questions should be engaged with honesty and compassion. The goal of engaging these questions is not to win an argument or convince someone of our view of things, but to win the person. To communicate to them that we understand where the question is coming from and why it is an issue for them. To communicate to them that we love them and are concerned about them. They could be motivated by genuine curiosity, or they could be motivated by pain, but we will never know until we engage them.

But whatever you do, don’t shut questions down or consider them to be a lack of faith. Especially if they’re coming from children. The questions aren’t going to go away. The person asking them will eventually answer them, and part of that answer will be: “God doesn’t love me.” And nothing could be further from the truth. 

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Being Taught by Trees

PC: Imat Bagja Gumilar | Unsplash

I believe that God has created the world in such a way that we are constantly being taught about Him by it. Unfortunately these days we live in forests of concrete and steel, rather than of trees and plants and so I think we miss many of these opportunities for creation to teach us.

Ancient people however were very much in contact with the natural world that God created and were thus able to be taught by it. I suspect then that the reason agrarian imagery is used frequently in the Bible is not only because society at the time was agrarian and such images would have been easily understood, but also because it is accurate.

Think about it for a minute. When you plant something either it prospers and grows and produces something good, or it doesn’t grow or produces something rotten; there is no intermediate state. This is really the truth illustrated by the parable of the four soils: in the first three the seed, the word of God, doesn’t really produce anything, but it does in the fourth because they understood and believed the word of God. So, either we are growing spiritually, or we are dying spiritually; there is no intermediate state.

Another agrarian image frequently used to illustrate the spiritual condition of people are trees. If a tree is producing good fruit, or leaves or flowers you know that the tree is healthy and growing. But if a tree is producing bad fruit, or no leaves or no flowers you know that the tree is unhealthy and dying. So I don’t think it is surprising then that Jesus used tree imagery to describe people:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

— Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV)

But what is good fruit? And what is bad fruit? In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we find out that what is good fruit and what is bad fruit are the types of actions and attitudes in our lives. The bad fruit produced by someone who is spiritually diseased or unhealthy is:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

— Galatians 5:19–21 (ESV)

But the good fruit produced by someone who is spiritually healthy is:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

— Galatians 5:22–23 (ESV)

The good fruit comes because:

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

— Galatians 5:24 (ESV)

Regardless of where someone is spiritually, whether they are healthy and producing good fruit or diseased and producing bad fruit, both need to be nourished by the living waters found in Christ:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

— John 7:37–39 (ESV)

The spiritually diseased person becomes healthy and begins to grow and produce good fruit. And the spiritually healthy person continues to be healthy and grow and produce good fruit. Those who are nourished by the living waters in Christ will endure whatever trials or hardships come their way:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

— Jeremiah 17:7–8 (ESV)

So next time you see a healthy tree (the bigger the better) perhaps take the time to say a quick prayer and ask God to make you like it, rather than simply passing on by. Just as many animals benefit from a healthy tree, either by finding food, shelter, or whatever, so will many people benefit from you being spiritually healthy. They will benefit from your love for others; your peace in the midst of hardships; your patience with their faults. We need to produce this sort of fruit in our lives. Not for our own personal benefit, but for the benefit of others.

Icon of St. Augustine of Hippo

Healing the Wounds of Sin

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,

Ps 103:1–3 [ESV]

I’ve had the opportunity this semester to read several of Jonathan Edwards’ works. One of the things that has stood out to me regarding his theology is an emphasis on the sinfulness of humanity and the punishment we deserve as a result of it. While I by no means disagree with this, I do feel that is unbalanced; Sin is not just an act we commit that deserves punishment, it is also a disease inherent to human nature that must cured. This imbalance, in my opinion, seems to have continued in much of American theology to the present day.

Commenting on Psalm 103.3 Augustine says,

Icon of St. Augustine of HippoBehold His rewards. What, save punishment, was due unto the sinner? What was due to the blasphemer, but the hell of burning fire? He gave not these rewards: that thou mayest not shudder with dread: and without love fear Him.… But thou art a sinner. Turn again, and receive these His rewards: He “forgiveth all thy sin.” … Yet even after remission of sins the soul herself is shaken by certain passions; still is she amid the dangers of temptation, still is she pleased with certain suggestions; with some she is not pleased, and sometimes she consenteth unto some of those with which she is pleased: she is taken. This is infirmity: but He “healeth all thine infirmities.” All thine infirmities shall be healed: fear not. They are great, thou wilt say: but the Physician is greater. No infirmity cometh before the Almighty Physician as incurable: only suffer thou thyself to be healed: repel not His hands; He knoweth how to deal with thee. Be not only pleased when He cherisheth thee, but also bear with Him when He useth the knife: bear the pain of the remedy, reflecting on thy future health.… Thou dost not endure in uncertainty: He who promised thee health, cannot be deceived. The physician is often deceived: and promiseth health in the human body. Why is he deceived? Because he is not healing his own creature. God made thy body, God made thy soul. He knoweth how to restore what He hath made, He knoweth how to fashion again what He hath already fashioned: do thou only be patient beneath the Physician’s hands: for He hateth one who rejects His hands.

— Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.8, Ps 103.4

I believe that humanity lives in 1 of 2 states: either they are in Christ and have remission [released from the penalty] of sin or they are not in Christ [i.e. they are in Sin] and do not have remission of sin. No one is naturally in Christ, and so they must be redeemed from Sin by Christ after which they are then in Christ [Rom 3.24]. Once in Christ they are no longer subject to the punishment their sin deserves, but their soul is still just as wounded, sick, and evil as it was before. Or as Augustine put it above it is still, “shaken by certain passions; still is she amid the dangers of temptation…” Or to put it still another way, the only change that has taken place is a legal one, the moral character of the person is still the same as it was before.

It is the healing part that comes from being in Christ, which is the most difficult part of the Christian life, that I believe is not emphasized enough these days. While there are certainly times in this process where “He cherisheth” us, there are also times where we have to “bear with Him when He useth the knife” and also “bear the pain of the remedy.” Unlike the legal change described above, which takes place in an instant, this healing process takes place over the course of our entire lives and is never finished during them.

I believe that by failing to properly recognize the healing that comes from being in Christ our faith becomes primarily about deliverance from eternal damnation, which is not the goal of our faith. Our faith is primarily concerned about becoming like Christ, or as Athanasius would say, “He [God] became man that we might be made God.” God did not redeem us from Sin simply to save us from eternal damnation; He redeemed us from Sin to make us like Christ, to make us like God. It is in the pursuit of Christ-likeness that we are healed from the wounds that Sin has inflicted upon us.

Recognizing the essentials

A recent post at Credo House mentioned the importance of being able to separate the essentials of the Christian faith from the non-essentials, especially when sharing the Gospel, and it reminded me of some experiences I had while finishing my undergrad. These experiences were challenging to my faith, I believe, because at that time my faith was resting on some things that were not essential. So by illuminating this it helped me to recognize those things that were essential and to rest my faith on them.

At the time my faith was overly dependent on Inerrancy (and not only this, but at the time I didn’t even have a correct understanding of what Inerrancy actually was, which made things even worse). Well one of the courses I took during my undergrad was Bible as Literature, and in this course the professor advocated for the Documentary Hypothesis (DH, or JEDP theory) for the composition of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament). The basic idea behind the DH is that the Torah was originally 4 independent sources that were later combined, probably during the Babylonian Exile, into the Torah that we know today. In the end the Torah and the rest of the OT were presented as just another human book with nothing unique or Divine about it. At the time I was woefully unprepared to refute such arguments, but I did ultimately reject his argument because in the end it was highly complex and therefore highly unlikely in my view (as a consequence of this I have come to value simple theories).

However in the intervening period between first hearing about the DH and rejecting it there was a definite shaking of my faith because it was a direct attack on the main support for my faith. On the one hand his arguments seemed logical and made the Bible look like an all too human book, and thus the Christian faith as but one valid choice among many other valid choices. However on the other hand I had my experience of God, and denying this experience would be rather difficult. Who had I been praying to all these years if not the Christian God? Who had been answering my prayers? Who had I felt guiding me and with me through the tough and lonely periods of my life?

As I wrestled with this problem I began to realize that in the end Christianity didn’t rest on a book, but on the historical reality of God becoming incarnate, uniting human nature to His divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ, who redeemed us from our sin through his death and resurrection. Even the Bible itself says this:

“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” 1 Corinthians 15:13–14.

At the time this was a revolutionary shift in my thinking because it showed me that in the end Christianity stood or fell on a historical reality, not on some particular view of the composition of the Bible. And looking back on this 6 or so years later this shift has been one of the most beneficial things I have done because it has given me a certain freedom to operate in my thinking because my faith is based on an event rather than a theory.

Theories are easily disproven because they describe or define something about reality and there is much about reality that we don’t know or can’t know. Events however are the reality, and while they can be disbelieved, they cannot be disproven. The resurrection is the event, the reality, on which Christianity stands or falls and is what separates it from all other religions. A faith that is built or rested on something other than the resurrection is on unstable ground and will easily be shaken or destroyed.  

 

Propaganda Disguised as “Scholarship”

Recently Newsweek ran a rather lengthy article entitled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” which claims to be an exploration, “of the Bible’s history and meaning” and “is not intended to advance a particular theology…” but this is simply not true. That a particular theology is not being advanced is blatantly obvious in light of the fact that rather lengthy sections are devoted to attempts to counter the claim that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. Sorry, whether or not something is or isn’t taught in the Bible is a theological claim.

Secondly, the article isn’t really even an exploration, it’s a propaganda piece. There is no mention or discussion or even an attempt at the articulation of the actual beliefs of the “Evangelicals” that are the target of the author’s rant. An actual exploration of the religious text of any community should include an unbiased and fair investigation into the beliefs of that community and an accurate articulation given as to what that community has to say about their own religious text. Once such beliefs are understood and articulated then counter perspectives and arguments can be given.

So since such a perspective never made it into the article, probably because it would have made the article boring and far less controversial, I offer the following Evangelical responses to it, none of whom I know to, “wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals.”

Dr. Dan Wallace (biography and credentials): Predictable Christmas fare: Newsweek’s Tirade against the Bible

Dr. Darrell Bock is responding in parts, thus far two parts have been published:
Responding To Newsweek’s Take on the Bible, Part 1 On the Base Biblical Text- Do We Really Know What We Have?

Responding to Newsweek’s Take on the Bible, Part 2 Translation Issues and Constantine

Responding to Newsweek’s Take on the Bible, Part 3 On Three Kings and Claims about Differences and Contradictions

Responding to Newsweek’s Take on the Bible, Part 4 More Claims of Contradictions and Conclusion

His blog (where future response will show up), along with his biography and credentials is: Bock’s Blog

Dr. Ben Witherington (biography and credentials): News Weak—- The Problems with Mr. Eichenwald’s Article

Father Lawrence Farley is an Eastern Orthodox priest who serves in Canada. While not the recognized scholar that the other authors are, his response is no less valuable because of it. He touches briefly on all the points the article makes. And for clarity’s sake, he probably wouldn’t label himself an Evangelical, but nonetheless he at least is in agreement with Evangelicals on this issue. Newsweek Nonsense: an Expanded Response

Commentaries. One of the articles refers the reader to commentaries, thus I will offer two quality ones that are available for free online so that they may be used by those interested for reference and investigative purposes.

Dr. Constable’s Expository (Bible Study) Notes

Bible Study Resources by David Guzik

I feel at this point these responses are a representative and a fairly complete Evangelical response to the Newsweek article, so I don’t think I will be adding any more at this point. If however I happen to run across one I will be sure to add it to the list.

Christianity is Not a Contract!

Diablo 3 - Tyrael

Tyrael of Diablo fame.

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” — C.S. Lewis

A fairly common question I see asked regarding Christianity is, “Is it okay to do _________?” I recently saw such a question posed again and I thought to myself, “Why is this question even being asked? What theological framework allows for such a question to even be asked in the first place?” As I thought about the answer to these questions I realized that to ask if a certain behavior is “okay” is to approach Christianity with the assumption that it is a contract entered into between a person and God, an assumption I believe is invalid.

In a contract two parties agree to fulfill certain responsibilities and it remains in effect as long as the terms of the contract are not breached. Such an approach sets up the expectation that as long as we do not breach the “contract” God will still fulfill His side of the deal and give us a place in heaven. And since we are by nature sinful and evil beings we then try to seek out what the bounds of this contract are; we ask ourselves, “How far can I go? What sort of loopholes can I find that will allow me to do what I want and fulfill my desires without breaching this contract?” It is this mindset I believe that leads to the question, “Is it okay for a Christian to do _________?”

Such a mindset is, I believe, taught nowhere in Scripture. We are taught that we were created by God, in His image, and were commanded to multiply and fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1.26-28). In order to sustain us He gave us the plants and the trees and their fruits (Gen. 1.29) and of the trees the only prohibition was from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and if we did so we would die (Gen. 2.17). So we see that one tree leads to death, while all the others (including the tree of life [Gen. 3.22]) lead to life. Thus we had two ways set before us, one of life and another of death, and we had to walk in one or the other, there were no alternatives. For if we ate of the trees that were allowed, we would live and fill the earth and subdue it; and if we ate of the tree of which eating was prohibited, we would die; and if we had tried to be “neutral” and not eaten of any of the trees we also would have died as we require sustenance by our nature.

Even though we chose the way leading to death, the way to life was not thereby made unavailable to us, for we were prevented from eating from the tree of life, which would have resulted in us living forever in our fallen state (Gen. 3.22). Thus God cast us out of the Garden in order to work the ground from which we were taken (Gen. 3.23-24) in order that we might learn that the way of life was now through repentance and trust (Isa. 30.15).

The Commandments given through Moses were given in order that we might know more clearly which way leads to life and which leads to death. For at the beginning of the list of blessings for following the commandments it is written, “Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28.1. Or in other words, they would subdue the earth. But concerning the curses it is written, “So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the LORD your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you.” – Deuteronomy 28.45. Or in other words they would die.

The New Testament also presents two ways, one of death and another of life, and these two ways are opposed to each other. Representative of this are the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians 5.16-26:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Thus Scripture does not present us with a contract, but with a choice, a choice between two ways, one which leads to life and another which leads to death. In Advent we are called to recognize our sinfulness and repent as we await the coming of our Lord. Let us do this so that when He comes we will be found working as the wise servant and serving others (Matt. 24.45-47) and not as the unwise one and be found exploiting and beating them (Μatt. 24.48-51). Let us continue on the way of life. Let our prayer throughout this Advent season truly be:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

 

What’s At Stake in Creation

There was a debate recently between Bill Nye and Ken Ham regarding creation. I didn’t watch it. I have no plans to. Because frankly I just don’t care what either one has to say. However this debate will probably generate discussion amongst people, so I figured I would at the very least contribute my thoughts on the matter of origins as a Christian.

Everything you need to know regarding the Christian position on origins can be found in the first verse of the first book of the Bible:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
(Genesis 1.1 ESV)

Specifically it’s the words “God created” that are the position. They tell us two important things, 1) the universe was created and had a beginning, and 2) God brought about the beginning. If you put this in the form of a doctrinal statement it would look something like, “We believe that all things were created and God is the creator.”

As far as Christians are concerned there isn’t much dispute over what I’ve said so far. Where things start getting testy are the verses that follow after Genesis 1.1. Some hold the position that the “days” described are literal 24 hour days (this is Ham’s position). Others hold that the “days” described are long periods of time, more like ages than 24 hour days. Still others hold that the rest of chapter 1 is simply praising God for His creative work in creation and that the “days” are simply serving a literary or poetic function.

At first glance it seems as though there could be no real issue here since they all affirm “God created,” even though they have different understandings as to how “God created.” Issues arise though when details are so focused on and disputed that sight is lost of the big picture. This is, I think, what has happened regarding the origins question in Christianity. Certain Christian groups (most of the time it seems to be the literal 24-hour day types based on my experience) have so forced their particular view of creation that they have caused people to believe that their view is the only valid view and unless you agree with them you are deceived or a heretic.

There’s been such a focus on the details of creation that we’ve forgotten how they fit into the big picture and so instead have made the details the big picture. This mindset of making the details the big picture is not only problematic for the creation debate, but also for all of Western Christianity. We need to begin to recognize again the big picture that unites all of us as Christians, not just in regards to origins, but in other areas of doctrine as well.

As Christians we need to clearly recognize that the only thing at stake in the creation debate is whether or not God created. We should only be arguing with those who say God did not create, and even then we should only be arguing for “God created,” not how “God created.”

Additionally, John H. Walton has a rather interesting perspective on interpreting Genesis 1 in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. The book is written at the popular level and anyone should be able to understand his basic argument. I have not read the second part where he discusses science education in schools, but the first was quite interesting and thought provoking. Anyone interested in what the Bible says about origins would do well to seriously consider his argument, I think. And just to be clear, I am not endorsing Walton’s view, just saying that it was interesting, thought provoking, and bears consideration.

There is certainly much more that could be said regarding origins. However I will stop here for now as I have made my point.