Sex, Resurrection, & Rereading Genesis

Both Matthew & Mark record Jesus as saying “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”, in response to a kind of trick-question posed by the Sadducees. The Sadduccees were a first-century Jewish sect that denied the belief among some Jews that there would be a “resurrection of the dead” at the end of the cosmos. In their skepticism, they had asked Jesus who an eight-times-widdowed woman would be married to in this “resurrection”. Jesus gives the above reply and clearly states that the Jewish belief in a resurrection was correct.

In his reply, the statement about being “like the angels in heaven” has been taken to mean that humanity will transcend sex, as in transcend having binary biological sexes, and simply be asexual. Of course, this interpretation trades heavily on the notion that angels are asexual. While the Old Testament does not refer to angels as female, using either neuter or male pronouns, it is difficult to assume too much from this, since this could reflect the sociological preference of the writers in the absence of having a clear way to distinguish what it would mean for such creatures to be sexed. So, instead, it seems likely that Jesus is just saying that there will not be marriage, and so the Sadduccees’ hypothetical question is moot.

All well and good. This also (assuming the sexual ethics that Jesus would definitively have assumed) implies that there will be no sexual intercourse in “the age to come”. But, why?

Christian theology should opt for a reason that avoids a demeaning view of sex since it seems to be inherently good part of the creation in the narrative of Genesis. The most readily available reply for why is something like what Dr. Dennis Hollinger proposes: “If sex is a yearning for connection and intimacy, it will no longer be significant when we are fully and ultimately connected and intimate with our Creator”. The dissemination of marriage analogies for the end of this present age throughout the New Testament lends this interpretation some weight, and it preserves that ethical position on the inherent good of sex. This, however, reverberates several implications back into Genesis.

If such a connection would make sex superfluous, we are implying that this connection was not present for the first humans, since, obviously, they had sex. Not only was sex an inherent good, it was the solution that God proposed for the fact that Adam was  “alone”. But, if loneliness was the problem, why not give Himself to Adam in the way that we are proposing will be the case in the resurrection? If the only thing preventing us from such a connection now is sin, as some propose, and the narrative is placed in a “pre-sinful” state, the question is looming.

We should, because of all this, affirm that God did not create humanity with an ideal relationship with Himself. That is, a theological reading of the narrative arc in scripture must include the fact that there was from the beginning an available, but not given, relation to God more intense than the one the first humans enjoyed. This does not easily square with the idea that reconciliation with God through Christ is simply a restoration to a previously satisfactory connection with Him, one that we “lost” because of human rebellion. It seems to strongly suggest that there was work to be done, and, without going into it here, a reason for the Incarnation of Christ apart from the Fall.

Granted, Genesis does give us an “idealistic” picture. Adam walks with God, and the ability to hear and respond to divine communication are portrayed as natural. Without overturning the fact that such an awareness was present in a way that no longer is the case for us, we are still lead to say that humanity was created with a goal to strive for, and this because of how we are seeing the relation between sex and the eschaton that Jesus makes clear (and, more particularly, the rationale we are giving for it). This is less of a problem if we place all of scripture within the context of an “evolutionary” framework (and I use that word loosely), as opposed to an “Eden-Fallen-Restored” schematization. It also fits very well with other thoughts I’ve come across and written about on Genesis and theodicy.

All of this to say: Two decisions, one on the absence of sex after the resurrection and the second on why, will have huge ramifications for our view of the Christian story. To me, this lends the narrative more profundity. Instead of being the center of the story, humanity is swept up into a cosmic narrative, where emergence of our species is part-and-parcel of the unfolding mission of God to be “all in all”. It is, I think, more meaningful, more hopeful, and makes the nature of sex more beautiful.

The Need for an Anabaptist Political Theology

After reading this piece in Christianity today, a few things stuck out to me.

One is that I have a serious and deep suspicion that many fellow disciples are lacking a coherent set of principles guiding their decisions about how to engage with society. That is, if I were a betting man, I would place an inordinate sum of money on the wager that I could predict a Christian’s political views without knowing anything about their particular beliefs about Scripture. Why? Because we do a sloppy job of thinking through this issue in general, and because, as the article above shows, only 1% of theologically conservative Protestant Pastors have preached at least one sermon on a public policy issue in 2016. I don’t know if I would fall into that class if I were a pastor, but I certainly know plenty of pastors who would. How is that statistic possible when, at this particular juncture, almost all American Christians are going to be getting hammered with political opinion on issues that are not simply about “elections”, but about the intimate details of their daily lives from their workplace, schools, family, and culture at large? The answer, I think, is the lack of a political theology.

Kenneth Collins in his book “Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism” expresses this lack of a deeply integrated worldview for Christians in the present when compared with Christians in prior eras:

…traditional societies, medieval Christendom in Europe for example, were held together by the common ties of a carefully articulated political theology, with its robust belief in God, as well as by a philosophy of history that went back at least to the time of Augustine in his City of God….

Now, I strongly side with the Anabaptists of the 16th century, so I would unquestionably reject the medieval synthesis (as well as Collins’ own positions on this matter, though his book and analysis are excellent in many respects!), but what is to replace this? Catholicism has maintained its’ theological heritage on a synthesis of church, sword, and state (and has, to my knowledge, never taken an outrightly pacifist ethic) that, in my opinion, makes it untenable for the needs of the 21st century. Its’ ecclesiology is also still a far cry from the reforms called for from the dawn of Protestantism. Still, at least they have an idea of what they’re going for! What options do Protestant Christians, let’s say particularly in America today, have before them?

One option I see frequently expressed and say strongly “Not enough!”, is that Christians in a democratic state are free to engage with the political process, but they should not think that any particular way of ordering the society is better than any other. I might think we should help the poor by a just redistribution of taxes and government programs to alleviate fallen conditions of our society, and you think that our current structures of governance make it impossible to address the root causes of poverty and think that a laissez-faire market (one that is truly free, not the modern capitalist accommodation) would more quickly alleviate such issues. But, neither option is more “Christian”, because Christ never gave us a way of making these decisions. Yet, are we really supposed to think that Scripture-at-large has nothing to say about this question?

If there is no answer to this question, what makes it “unanswerable”? Take for example the more general question: “How can we best serve the poor?” Does scripture give us no ability to answer that? The two opinions I expressed above are possible answers to that question for any Christian. So, if scripture gives us any light on this, then it offers answers to questions which all the world would give”political” answers to, and so it is that scripture inevitably inserts itself into the social dimensions of earthly life, the “political” dimensions.

All of this is to say that the glib pronouncement of an “agreement to disagree” between Christians of all political persuasions will not move the Church further into its’ God-given kingdom mission. It will not stop laymen and laywomen from engaging, or not engaging, and it will not help them live more faithfully. What is needed is a deeper, consistent, radical call to a political theology informed by the New Testament. I have found this nowhere better expressed than by the Radical Reformers, and it is why I consider the writings of many 16th century Anabaptists to be a treasure trove for our modern predicament. In the next few months I hope to write more specifically on issues that are pressing in my particular, American, context, but thought that this general beginning is necessary to understand what kind of questions I’m thinking about.

…as Christ our Head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through Him, so that there be no division in the body, through which it would be destroyed. Since then Christ is as is written of Him, so must His members also be the same, so that His body may remain whole and unified for its own advancement and upbuilding. For any kingdom which is divided within itself will be destroyed.
Schleitheim Confession, 1527

Christians & Muslims Worshipping the Same God

The suspension of a professor from Wheaton College for wearing a hijab, and stating online that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God”, generated a lot of news a few days ago, and, being my typical slow-to-read-the-news self, I’m just getting around to seeing exactly what is being said. So, I want to just offer one or two things that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and will provide a few links for others to read the full arguments I address here. But first, a quick caveat, since this whole conversation has been fused together with discussion of the politics of the “Christian Right”.

As a Christian, I believe that we are called to love our enemies. Further, my understanding of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ makes it impossible to justify violence against any human being, for any reason, even (or especially, considering the cross) self-defense (sorry, not the place for me to nuance this). Politically, I’m neither liberal, nor conservative, and, being totally transparent, I probably fit in better with the politics of the Amish than any other social group (ok, slight exaggeration, but explaining this would be a whole other post!). So, this being said, my interest here has more to do with the theology being tossed around.

The big question being asked is whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Professor Larycia Hawkins, in the post which resulted in her suspension, linked people to this article on Christianity Today where Theologian Miroslav Volf discusses his work on just this question. In that article, many years old now, Dr. Volf actually explicitly says that “all Christians don’t worship the same God, and all Muslims don’t worship the same God”, but rather “Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.” What exactly this means is well elaborated on by Benjamin Corey on his blog:

describing an object differently doesn’t mean that two people are describing two totally different objects. For example, let’s say Jane and Henry both work for a guy named Jeff. Jane says that Jeff is a decent boss who treats people fairly. Henry on the other hand, describes Jeff as being lazy and unavailable. The two people may be describing Jeff differently, and one or both of them might be wrong in their understanding of Jeff, but they’re still attempting to describe the same object.

So far, so good. The issue, which I think Scot McKnight defines more clearly, is that Volf in his book does contend that Christians and Muslims actually do worship the same God, by way of the premise that “our worship reveals our God”, and that “to the extent that God’s commands express God’s character, Muslims and Christians worship the same God”. Volf lists six points of agreement and concludes that “When Christians and Muslims agree on the above six claims about God, then in their worship of God they refer to the same object” Those six points are:

1. There is only one God.
2. God is creator.
3. God is radically different.
4. God is good.
5. God commands we love God.
6. God commands we love others.

My additions to this discussion is relatively short, but I think poignant.

First, Volf’s entire purpose, much of his life’s work as a theologian, is done with a drive to promote peace and inter-religious dialogue, and to do that as a Christ-follower. By finding mutual ground, he hopes to discourage the kind of revengeful spirit in which Christians all too often reflect the values of our culture, and help Christians live faithfully in an age where religious pluralism is a fact of life. In this endeavor, he is to be commended. Yet, in the claim that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”, what may be sensed as lacking is that Christianity is not just worship, it is union with God. “Worship”, as it is being used in this discussion, is a human activity, and implies nothing about God’s responsiveness or attitude towards it.

To be a Christian is not simply to believe certain propositions about God, and then to conduct certain rituals to honor that God, and to live in a certain way.  As a “Neo-Anabaptist”, I certainly believe that it necessarily involves this. But, we do not rest on the degree to which we are theologically accurate; Christianity is thoroughly existential and relational, it presupposes that this God acts in the world, and towards individuals in such a way as to transform the inner life any who has put their trust in Him. This only happens by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we receive the Holy Spirit only by faith in Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be in a dynamic relationship with the Trinity.

So, while I essentially agree with Volf’s purpose, and even the contours of his argument, what I would add is that this does not remove the need for evangelistic zeal, or the need for apologetic debate with Muslims. Nor does it imply that Jews and Muslims are in a saving relationship with the God of the universe. Some may be, but this blog post is already longer than anticipated so soteriology is not the direction I want to go right now. Perhaps that is what many in this discussion are also trying to correct, the misconception that Christians must necessarily believe that every individual since 33 AD who has followed Jesus Christ as Lord is destined for damnation. If so, I think there more theologically honest ways of clearing that up than the broad statement that all monotheists worship the “same” God.

Does God Suffer, pt. 2: Insight From Early Christian Martyrs

The next few posts on this topic will take a look at the Christian “Apologists” of the 2nd century, and their heirs. Did the early Church (specifically in the first three centuries after Christi) speak of God’s ability or inability, to suffer, and if so, what did they have to say about it?

In our earliest accounts of Christian martyrs, Christ is said to suffer with the martyr, and “gives the power to withstand torture”[1] Paul Gavrilyuk contrasts this with Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s description of God as a “fellow-sufferer who understands”, saying that Whitehead’s description is of a God who merely suffers with-us, but is powerless to do anything about this suffering. While this is a somewhat accurate implication of Whitehead’s philosophy, there is a synthesis of these two points that I think is worth spelling out. There is a Trinitarian involvement with the suffering of believers. As several passages in scripture point out, we are recipients of Christ’s resurrection as a corollary of our participation in his sufferings and death.[2] We experience unity with Christ in this process. The Holy Spirit fills us with power to endure, and one can imagine the strength experienced by martyrs, such as Felicitas, as the Father’s response to the suffering of one of his children.

Felicitas was a second century Christian martyred for her faith in what is now France during a local persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Before her gruesome death she is recorded as making the bold assertion: “another will be in me who will suffer for me”. Gavrilyuk, representing a more classical understanding that God does not suffer, interprets Felictas assertion this way:

“the early Christian theology of martyrdom offers the insight that Christ’s suffering (in the qualified sense of providing power to endure persecution to those who suffer for his sake) extends beyond…the incarnation…”[3](emphasis mine)

Howeer, that caveat in parentheses does not seem to do full justice to that bold assertion of Felicitas, or the testimony of the Sanctus, another early Christian martyr at Lyons, who claimed that “Christ, suffering in him, manifested his glory, delivering him from his adversary” (emphasis mine).[4] To suffer almost in no way naturally implies to provide power, unless we are flatly re-defining suffering. It seems more likely that these early Christians simply believed that Christ would take-on their suffering, and that He was able to do this without being overcome by it.

While I do not live under threat of death for my faith, there are large numbers of Christians in the world who do. The volatile embodiment of Islam in ISIS has reminded many Christians that religious toleration is not a permanent situation across the globe, and that organization’s attacks on modern democracies in Europe are clearly stoking fear (not altogether irrational) that we will soon be on the receiving end of this networks violence if our government does not act. I think a proper theology of God’s ability to suffer without being overcome can provide strength and courage for this country’s Christians. In the crucifixion, we are provided with the framework for understanding that the Son’s suffering will result in victory; and our own suffering for his name will do the same. The early martyrs seem to have an underlying assumption that while Christ called his disciples to take up their cross, it is only if He Himself carried the suffering that they would endure without recanting their faith.

[1] Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God, 73

[2] ibid., 71, footnote 27. Specifically Phil. 3:10, 2 Cor. 4:10

[3] ibid., 73

[4] Martyrs of Lyons. Coakley and Sterk, 26

Does God Suffer? (pt. 1)

The brutality and sheer demonic magnitude of suffering in this world (self, other, or nature-inflicted) has become inescapably visible, and it is vital for Christians to meet this reality with the spiritual strength of the monastics, the evangelistic apologetic of the Apologists, and the theological rigor of our 4th century forerunners. That last aspect is what these posts are about. While in the pews and on the corners no one will get into a technical debate on suffering like I’ll do here, these debates eventually trickle down into our day-in day-out conversations on faith. So, while this is definitely a technical kind of post, it’s still down to earth enough to follow along with, and I try to at least mention how it relates in the world of flesh-and-blood.

The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (click for image source)
The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (click for image source)

There are two general positions with regards to God’s own ability to suffer.  The first is Divine Impassibility, which means that God does not suffer in his own being (and there are differences of opinion on what exactly this means of course). This does not mean that God does not love, or have any kind of “emotions” (though what these emotions mean when we ascribe them to God is up for debate), it just means that suffering specifically, cannot be ascribed to God in-Himself, for reasons we’ll explore below. Of course, the human nature of Jesus suffered, but this experience does not transfer over into God. The second position is Divine Passibility, which means just the opposite (again, with a range of different opinions on the meaning of “God suffers”).

In the book The Suffering of the Impassible God, Paul Gavrilyuk notes that belief in Divine Passibility has achieved the status of a “new orthodoxy” and has caused a revived discussion of the issue for several decades now. Prominent Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Weinandy, among many others, has opposed this movement in theology with his book Does God Suffer?, and has stated elsewhere that “the truth that God does not suffer is at the heart of the gospel” (1). He also agrees that addressing this issue “is pressingly pertinent to the Church’s most important public task: communicating the gospel, and doing so in a culture whose dominant virtues are compassion, empathy”. My own undergraduate writing, and interim years since, have moved me to be more open to passibilism as a result of other shifts in my beliefs about theodicy, the nature of God’s providence, and salvation. This research has forced me to think more deeply about the issue, and at least understand the “classical” position much more. Still, the reasons for that position remain unconvincing to me. So, I’ll outline what it means for us to affirm that “God suffers” by interacting with 5 points that Gavrilyuk makes in the introduction to his book.

Gavrilyuk draws a boundary against the most “radical” forms of passibilism by way of five points. They are: 1) Ascribing any and all emotions to God would negate his Goodness by ascribing emotions which are “unworthy of him”, 2) for God to suffer like a human, he must become human, 3) God must suffer voluntarily, not involuntarily, or else all the classical attributes of God are at risk, 4) God’s voluntary suffering must have a purpose, and 5) if 4) is true, then God’s compassion must result in redemptive action, and thus God’s compassion does not necessarily require that He “suffer-with” us, but rather simply that He act to redeem (2). Even if compassion required suffering-with, it would also require that God be impassible in the sense that He not be “overpowered by our suffering”. (3)

With regards to the 1), almost all theologians are in full-agreement, as am I. But, my own perspective has been increasingly influenced by what is being dubbed “cruciform hermeneutics”: doing theology, or reading and interpreting scripture, with an understanding of the Crucifixion as a presuppostion. There are many scriptural passages invoked to justify this view as the New Testament’s own, but I will make one observation that I have not encountered elsewhere. The “καταπέτασμα”, the curtain to the holy of holies in the Temple, was torn as Christ dies on the cross, implying that our access to the very glory of God is through Christ’s flesh, crucified (4). Thus, not by strict logical necessity but by implication, it seems that the deepest communion with God is to be had through the Son’s death, and it seems reasonable that knowledge of God must begin with knowledge and understanding of the Son’s crucifixion, and then proceed to other things.

As an example of the revelatory climax in the Crucifixion, Moltmann notes the strange confession of the centurion in Mark: “surely this man was the Son of God”, made immediately after Christ has cried that He is forsaken by God (5). Yet this is not strange at all in this perspective. For Paul to remind the Colossians that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, and I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling”, and then go on to say that he came to them with “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” also implies that clinging to Christ crucified is the well-spring of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. By Paul’s own sequence in this passage, it is only after this that we have access to “the deep things of God” (6). So, if there is anything that would require illumination of the Spirit, it is an understanding of the attributes of God. What we would call “unworthy” of God must be guided by what is undeniable on the cross and this puts the burden on those overly concerned with God’s reputation. We should ask: “What is undeniably true about Christ’s sufferings on the cross?” and then “What does this mean about God’s ability to suffer?” The development of early Patristic theology itself seemed to move in this sequence, even though their philosophical framework prevented a move toward passibilism.

To point 2), again I am in agreement. However, Gavrilyuk later goes further than that simple point and says: “the presupposition that the divine nature could itself suffer renders the assumption of humanity superfluous. If God could suffer as humans do without assuming humanity, the incarnation would be unnecessary” (7). While some passibilists may minimize God’s saving work in Jesus Christ to the point that all that we receive from God is a “fellow- sufferer who understands”, I am not in this camp. The possibility of God’s passibility is not a substitute for the Atonement, but a belief regarding His nature that is grounded in the self-revelation of Christ and Scripture. Point 2) affirms the need for the Incarnation, but it does not restrict God’s ability to suffer outside of the Incarnation, only God’s ability to suffer as a human.

Point 3) directs us to the larger theological web of “classical theism”, and is where I depart from Gavrilyuk a bit more (8).  On the one hand, I agree with point 3), but would say that just by the very act of creating a world with free creatures God has willingly entered into relationships that can cause Him to “suffer” (I’ll elaborate on what that means in a further post).  As an evangelical, I affirm that all of the scriptural titles of “eternal”, “almighty”, “all-powerful”, “ruler of all”, or that God “knows all things”, are to be believed and the source for theological reflection. The question in theology is “What other things can we say about God based on these?” In relation to suffering, we could ask: “What do those scriptural passages mean about God’s ability, but apparent refusal, to prevent suffering?”

Gavrilyuk’s final two considerations are fair, but seem to be responses to philosophical objections that, in my opinion, are not compelling in the first place. The statement, “Many compassionate actions do not require emotional identification with the sufferer” is true, but does not fully answer the scope of questions raised by asserting that “God’s compassion is simply His action”, or, what is more difficult to believe and not addressed, that “God’s love does not correlate to His ability to suffer when those He loves (in this case humans) are suffering”. One is again compelled to look at the scriptural testimony in texts like Jeremiah 8:21 “Because of the crushing of the daughter of my people I am crushed”, and here the suffering of the people has been brought about by their own disobedience!

Gavrilyuk’s conclusion to all of this is modest: “Divine compassion may or may not require divine suffering. At any rate, it certainly entails a measure of impassibility, which in this case means God’s ability to vanquish our misery” (emphasis mine). However, the implication Gavrilyuk draws from this that “…there is no prima facie case for the concept of an emotional and suffering God over against that of an unemotional and non-suffering God”, is, in my opinion not true (9). The arguments he presents are helpful qualifiers of impassibility, but it would seem to me that the Crucifixion decisively puts Christian theology in a position where we must work our way out of complete passibility, and that it as an a priori assumption for us that God suffers, somehow, someway.

1 Weinandy, Thomas. Does God Suffer? <http://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/11/does-god-suffer&gt;
2 Even though it derives from the Latin for “suffering-with”. Gavrilyuk references a passage in Against Praxeas that I will address below
3 Gavrilyuk, Paul L. The Suffering of the Impassible God. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 6-7.
4 Heb. 9:12, 6:19, 10:20, all scripture quotations are taken from the New English Translation at netbible.org
5 Moltmann, The Crucified God. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 193-194.
6 1 Cor. 2:10
7 Gavrilyuk, 159
8 ibid, 6. “..in human experience we distinguish between suffering that comes against our will and that which is accepted voluntarily….the admission of such ‘accidents’ in divine life would be equivalent to denying that God is omnipotent and omniscient. This would lead, in turn, to a thoroughgoing revision of classical theism.” “Accidents” as used here is a technical term which means something like “contingency” or “non-essential attributes” of God’s nature.

Is This the Best Possible World?

If the classical formulation of the Divine Attributes as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas or, in a less systematic way, Augustine is true, and God is indeed immutable and atemporal, then the following statement must be true:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

Does it have to happen that way?
               Does it have to happen that way?

We can argue for this fairly simply. Christian scripture states that God had a purpose for creating the universe. If that purpose could have been achieved by creating a world with less suffering and evil than the one which actually exists, that would mean that God chose to create a universe with more suffering and evil than was necessary to achieve His purposes. One cannot respond to this that “He must have had a reason that we don’t know about”, because whatever that reason is, the same question could be asked: “Could there have been a universe with less suffering which fulfilled that reason?”

Eventually, if we hold this view, we must come to say that there was no possible way that there could have been less suffering & evil in the universe. Because if there was, and God did not create this other possible universe, then it would mean that God intentionally created a universe with more evil & suffering than was necessary, for no reason whatsoever.

Now, Scripture reveals some sweeping claims about the purpose of the universe:

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.” Romans 11:36.

Ultimately, the universe is made for God’s glory and His pleasure, some add that God’s sharing the divine love is the central plan of creation. Taking either or both of these, what I have said above is still unacceptable.

Do we really believe, despite all the language of scripture indicating that the world is in disorder and in many ways plainly against God’s character and goodness61, that God could not have created a world where less evil happened and where His purposes were still accomplished? Well, if we believe that God foreknows, or foreordains all things, we really have no other choice. He saw every single detail of it coming (or “sees it eternally”), and had (or “eternally has”) total control over the path that He set in motion.

These are the conclusions.

Two fixed points for Christians should be that 1. God’s love is prima facie equal towards all humans he has created, and 2. God truly wants for every single human being to enter into a restored relationship with Him. I’m not just repeating the “God hates the sin but loves the sinner” mantra. I don’t even know if that’s always true without qualification. But, I believe that the scriptural witness stands clearly in favor of Christ’s death on the cross as being a redemptive act for all people. Here is a sample of the witness in favor of those fixed points.

“34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him.” Acts 10:34

“17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, 18 who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing. 19 So you must love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19

“7 Respect the Lord and make careful decisions, for the Lord our God disapproves of injustice, partiality, and bribery.” 2 Chronicles 19:7

“16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:16-17

“21 But if the wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed and observes all my statutes and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. 22 None of the sins he has committed will be held against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he will live. 23 Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked, declares the sovereign Lord? Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live? …

31Throw away all your sins you have committed and fashion yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why should you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” Ezekiel 18:21-23, 31-32

“10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you have said: “Our rebellious acts and our sins have caught up with us, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” 11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’ Ezekiel 33:10-11

“1 First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people… 3 Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, 4 since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.” 1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6

“8 For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” 9 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. 10 In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers.” I Timothy 4:8-10

“3 Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised return? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation…8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

“1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world” 1 John 2:1-2

These verses attest unilaterally that God does not desire the eternal death of any human being. How, in light of these passages, is that earlier conclusion tenable?

What I have seen keeping us from taking these statements of scripture as unqualified and univocal, as would be most natural, are one of two things. One is simply a theological commitment to something like atemporality and immutability, which imply that God must know all human choices “before” (or eternally) they occur in time, and thus obviously God cannot really desire things which He has “decreed” or “eternally foreknown” would not happen. Rather, this interpretation would say, those passages above are general valuations of things that God would see as good, but that He’s chosen not to accomplish. I think that this explanation is in the end totally unwarranted, unnecessary, and ultimately casts doubt on our view of God. I am using my language here of course, but to believe that God did not decide to do something (e.g. save all humans), or things, which not only we see as good, but that He Himself has said He wants (e.g. Ez. 33:11, and others above) is to believe that God’s character is not one of complete goodness. To avoid this conclusion, again we would have to resort to the one earlier:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

The second hindrance to Christians taking the verses above as “univocal”, or literal, when they use the pronouns “all”,  “none”, “the whole world”, etc., are other scriptures that seem to indicate that God has in fact decided which individuals will be saved and who will not, so the scriptures that describe God’s desire for all to be saved “cannot” be univocal. This sort of foresight also seems to extend to the crucifixion of Christ, as though God had planned for Adam to sin and thus planned that Christ would have to come and die, and that all sins which have occurred, must have occurred. If we recall, this would also imply that the way the world is, though it’s not “the way it’s supposed to be” in a moral sense, actually is “the way it’s supposed to be”, in the sense that God created the world with full-inerrant knowledge that this is the way the world would play out. Though I cannot treat all of these verses in depth, I want to offer some different ways of looking at the most frequently cited passages for this belief in the next post.

A Devout Atheist & Suffering

I just attended a forum with guest speaker Vanessa Zoltan, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, where she spoke about her “devout atheism”. The forum was jam-packed with Christian seminarians interested in hearing and learning from someone who was willing to come talk openly about her Atheism, what it means, and what it does not mean.

Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum
Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum “Devout Atheists: A Closer Look at the Non-Religious Experience”

Vanessa’s story was fascinating, and I’ll mention one thing that struck me before moving onto the most moving point.

The first thing of interest was her position towards “the Sacred”. Vanessa has a well-developed sense of how humans can take things and treat them as “sacred”, and how we then learn from them just by taking that posture. As opposed to a Christian’s assumption that the reason that, say, the Bible inspires them and challenges them is that God is working in them or through it, Vanessa sees this possibility inherent in any sufficiently complex piece of writing, and stemming more from the human potential for these things which only needs the instigator. In her own experience, she took the book Jane Eyre and for months treated it as a sacred text, learning and growing into a better person through it. I find it fascinating that this term “the sacred”, which is now used rampantly among Christians, is so flexible and broad that an atheist can apply it to her own experiences. It reminded me of the analysis that Allan Bloom made of the term in The Closing of the American Mind and how its’ roots are solidly in Nietzche and the atheistic German school of philosophy. In this culture, despite the reduction of our attentions to only value 140 character quips, we talk too much,  in language whose meaning we do not explore, and thus, we talk about we know not what.

The second thing that struck me was her emphasis on suffering. Vanessa was raised Jewish and growing up she literally did not know one-single elderly person who was not a Holocaust survivor. For her, belief in God was absolutely impossible in the face of what her grandparents and all of their friends suffered. She relayed how she visited Jewish Temple still, but how the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” was offensive to her, not because of what it said, but because this was often the prayer that the Jews would make right before they were gassed to death. As she put it during our Q & A “Either God was not looking, or there is no God.”

This moved me profoundly because my own theology has undergone dramatic shifts which sometimes, it seems to me, only atheists, or those who do not believe in God, seem to grasp fully. Most of those shifts revolve around suffering.

In the “Classical” tradition of theology, which most Catholics and Protestants have inherited, God’s “essence” or “being” does not suffer. Suffering, it is assumed, means that one is not in control, because if one could avoid suffering, why wouldn’t they? Thus, it is impossible for God, who is the most powerful being, to be impacted and suffer from anything that happens in his created order. Obviously, this seems to fly in the face of the revelation of God in Christ, but theology has its’ ways (and I appreciate them, even though I disagree with most). In addition, the Classical statements of the divine attributes, which imply that God foreknows (Arminian) or “foreordains (Calvinist) all things which will occur, ever, implies this fact:

“Either this is best possible world, or God deliberately created a world with more evil in it that was absolutely necessary”.

I’ll argue for that point in my next post, but assuming that is true, we can easily see how it flies offensively in the face of anyone who not only has suffered, but who empathically suffers. This is more than just suffering yourself. If you find yourself deeply affected by the suffering of others, as I suspect Vanessa has, it is not only your own experience which you must find a worldview to explain, but the suffering of your friends, of people who have been murdered and never found, violated and never consoled, people whom you have never met, but are able to mourn for at the thought of these disturbing realities. What Vanessa’s talk helped me realize was this:

While many branches of the Christian tradition are not yet ready to even touch the inherited understandings of God as immutable, impassible, and atemporal, there is a whole world of hungry lost souls waiting to hear that, possibly, God did not create the world with depression, suicide and rape as just a necessary part of what some would call “his incomprehensibly deep and beautiful design”; that, perhaps, God is not just “outside” of the universe, in his timeless, spaceless, impassible, moment-less “perfection”; but rather, as I think is clearly revealed by Jesus Christ on the cross, that He has fully entered our suffering, and is calling us to step into His kingdom as He finishes the war on death, suffering, and all that causes the Vanessa’s of the world to turn their face from Him. This invitation, and the image of God we’re given through Christ, is what I live for.

C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books & Theology

Unknown C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius: “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, at that the amateurs should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Plato the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read “Symposium”…The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers fact to face…But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism… This mistaken preference for modern books and shyness of the old ones is nowhere more prevalent than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are not studying St. Luke, or St. Paul, or Augustine, or Aquinas… Now this seems to me topsy-turvy…If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said… Every age has its’ own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristics mistakes of our own period…None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… Not, of, course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us… To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

Church Fathers & Greek Philosophy

Last Fall I took an intro course on Church History called, “The Church to the Reformation“.  Two questions I was asking throughout that course were:

1) “How much did Greek philosophical concepts actually affect the theology of the Church?”
and
2) “How much of that was a good or bad thing?”

Currently I’m in a different course on the “Christological and Trinitarian Controversies”, reading lots of the primary sources where the Church Fathers hammered out what they believed about Jesus and the Trinity. My answers will probably become more nuanced as I study, but, given that course last Fall and what I’ve read up to now, my answers to the two questions above are something like this:

1) Greek philosophy (particularly Platonism), created a framework in the minds of many of the Church fathers about the nature of God, a framework which they built much of their theology on, and thus a framework we have inherited.

2) It was not all bad, but some of the influences which were least supported by scripture are still considered “primary” in Christian theology today.

Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)
Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)

Here are some excerpts from the introduction to the texts, and they give good examples of those two points:

…the Apologists of the second century, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian, and Theophilus of Antioch…shared a common concern to present Christianity to the Greco-Roman culture of their day in such a way as to defend Christianity against the charge of atheism. To the educated classes of the Greco-Roman world, they insisted that the truth of Christianity is that to which the pagan philosophers pointed…A special debt was owed to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who taught that the divine Logos had spoken through the prophets and had been the subject of the theophanies of the Old Testament….(emphasis mine)

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 3). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

So, there this idea of “general revelation” that some of the Church’s earliest theologians held. They thought that, in some senses, Greek philosophy had been discovering truths which pointed to the one true God. While I don’t think they are necessarily wrong, the question is which things pointed to the one true God? On the other hand, which things pointed away from Him?

This identification of Christ with the Logos allowed the Apologists to insist that Christianity was faith in him to whom the Old Testament witnessed and to whom the pagan philosophers indistinctly pointed. It also offered an explanation of how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

The Apologists utilized a picture of a man putting forth his thought and spirit in external activity. This representation allowed them to recognize, although dimly, the eternal plurality in the Godhead and to show how the Word and the Spirit, truly manifested in space and time, could also be within the being of the Father… The Apologists set the future course for trinitarian theology and enabled Christianity to take seriously the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 5). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Those excerpts illustrate one example of how I think the Apologists imported ideas which were unbiblical. The question of “how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world” is only a serious problem if you assume certain “presuppositions of Greek philosophy”. Those presuppositions could be true, they could be false. The God of the Old Testament already showed He was intimately involved with his creation, and the biblical idea that God is “changeless” applied not to the metaphysics of his being, but his character, or his overarching will (for more on this check out a great short post at the Reknew blog).

Another example would be the difficulty the early church had in understanding how Jesus could have suffered, and yet still be the divine “Logos”. Platonic metaphysics are notoriously hierarchical, and thus to think that God would actually “suffer” or experience the things of human life required some serious theological acrobatics. In this sense, the Church inherited some theological problems which only arose because of the underlying Greek metaphysics, typically Platonic. Since the apologists were trying to relate Christ TO their culture, it seems like some of them conformed their explanations of God to the dominant system of thought. We can’t necessarily blame them for it either, because we often do the same today, to our peril!

I’m excited to explore these early controversies, but I think it’s worth remembering that we should look to scripture for our understanding of God, even while we may use language, or even ideas, which are not directly from scripture. It’s also good for me to remember that despite differences of theology, the fate of the early church fathers was frequently that depicted in the mosaic of Justin Martyr above, and we should never enthrone our understanding of scripture, to the place of scripture, as the church so often does.

They make a desolation & call it peace

 “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” -Tacitus

I ran across this quote and thought it was a good description of how the leaders of modern nations act (including ours). A quick bit of digging through a wiki article (relax! not writing a research paper here) reminded me of how deceptive the Roman Empire was. It inscribed on its’ military’s medals “peace to the world“. How easy it is to be tricked into thinking that any military can achieve peace!

The irony of the quote is that it was given by another general, Calgacus, who lead a Scottish army into battle against the Roman Empire in the first century. This just highlights the deceptiveness of violence. It is so, so, appealing to us to think that some violence is justified, usually ours. Few stop to see from the bird’s-eye view of history: it all revolves, endlessly, as it has for millennia.

I thought the quote merited its’ own post. I’ll end it with another quote that reminds me of how following Jesus is a challenge to the claim empires make that they are the peacemakers of the world.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:19-20