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Monday, October 24, 2011

God, Time, and the unknowable future?

Theologically astute blog reader Bruce flattered me by asking my opinion on Open Theism. One of the advantages of being on sabbatical is I have both the time and the inclination to dig into questions like that.

Before I say ANYTHING about this debate. let me say first off that both sides of this debate (if you're not aware of the debate, it's got a couple major voices from the Twin Cities area, namely Greg Boyd on the Open Theism side and John Piper on the Classic Theism side) have been defended and articulated by people who are way smarter and more articulate than I am. I do not presume to settle the debate on this blog. However, I do think it's worth saying a couple things that may pull us back to a good place for the average Jesus-follower to stand. That is my goal, at any rate.

First, a couple basic (if simplistic) definitions. Classic theism states that God exists outside of or beyond time. God is classically defined by several "omni-" words --

Omnipresent means God is everywhere present.
Omniscient means God knows all things, including the future.
Omnipotent means God can do anything, is literally "all powerful."

Classic theism teaches that God is immutable, meaning unchanging, and impassible, meaning God can not suffer. Some classic theists say the cross is remarkable precisely because in the cross, the impassible God suffers; others say God the Father retains his impassibility but the Son suffers on behalf of the entire godhead. Entire books have been written about this, so don't think I'm accurately summing up all the arguments here.

Note that none of these bold words are used in the Bible to describe God. These words come from Greek philosophical thought rather than from biblical study. Each of these words has become a shorthand way to refer to an entire teaching about the nature of God. Each of these words has received a firm place within the traditional teachings of Christianity.

Open theism is a little harder to get hold of. This article on Wikipedia (I know, I know) does a fair job of summing it up and giving some sense of the variety and intensity of the debate. Open theism basically teaches that God has not predetermined the future, or perhaps that God does not know which of many possible futures will actually come to pass. God is thus more open to influence (via prayer, for example) than in classic theism. Open theism strives to take the idea of relationship with God seriously. If we can't influence God in any way, it's tough to have a relationship with God, say open theists. If everything is predetermined by God's will, it is pretty difficult to believe our prayers could have any effect.

Greg Boyd spins open theism slightly differently, saying it's more about the nature of time and reality than about the nature of God. Simply put, the future does not yet exist to be known by anyone, including God.

Enough summary. Time for a story.

When I was in seminary, I asked two profs a question that had been troubling me for a long time. "I've heard," I said, "that the Bible presents truth in a Hebrew way of thinking. How long after the New Testament documents does Greek thinking creep into Christian teaching? How quickly was the church's way of thinking about Jesus polluted by Greek philosophy?" You see, I was frustrated that so often in our Enlightenment, rationalistic ways of thinking we separate fact from fiction, truth from lie, in a sense that we dissect a dead cat. We think by knowing the cat in this way that we understand it. However, the truth of a cat is also about the warm fuzzy independent creature that bats at a moth or curls up in a sunbeam or jumps up on the counter to lick the tuna can. Dissection is at best part of the truth. I wanted to know Jesus in the way that the biblical writers understood him, without the patina of Greek philosophy that made me misunderstand so much of who Jesus was and is, what his death and resurrection meant, and how his parables even begin to make sense. I blamed Greek philosophy for this way of approaching truth, and I believed Hebrew thought recognized Jesus as the Way, the Truth, the Life, in a way Greek thought couldn't understand.

The professors looked at each other and one, a New Testament scholar, said, "Greek thought is integral to the New Testament." The other, a teacher of Greek linguistics, chimed in. "The New Testament is written exactly at the intersection of Greek and Hebrew thought. Take Paul, for example -- he is educated in Hebrew school, studying to be a Pharisee, but he also knows the Greek poets and philosophers." The first one nodded. "The New Testament is both Hebrew and Greek. You could probably argue that Jesus is more Hebrew than Greek, but even there I don't know that you could make a convincing argument. The more we learn about first century Palestine, the more we realize that even in Galilee, the people were deeply influenced by Greek language, culture, and thought."

So much for easy answers.

The open theism debate takes mutually exclusive ideas and tries to argue for one side or another. One side says the future is an open question, full of freedom and possibility, even though God is, in some sense, sovereign. The other side says God is without doubt or question sovereign, and our freedom is debatable.

My problem is that while both sides use biblical texts to back up their arguments (see the Wikipedia article), both are, at their core, arguing a philosophical position rather than a biblical one.

Here's the thing. The Bible is an incredibly rich, variegated set of texts. The way Genesis speaks about God, for example, is in many ways slightly different than the way Luke or Romans speaks about God. Not only that, but the way Genesis 1 speaks about God seems quite different in some ways from the way Genesis 2-3 speaks about God. These nuances exist throughout the Bible. God is one moment passionate and weeping for his estranged people, and at another moment holding all the universe in his hands and making sure the stars spin on schedule. God gets furiously angry with the Israelites and says he's sorry he ever chose them, and then he says to Israel, "I have loved you with an everlasting love."

So Jesus shows up and settles things, right? The Old Testament is just freaky sometimes, but Jesus makes it okay.

Not so fast. Jesus says he has come not to condemn the world but rather so that the world might be saved; but then he spends dozens of verses condemning the Jewish leadership, repeating the phrase, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" over and over again. He compares them to whitewashed tombs, full of dead men's bones. Jesus takes time to braid a whip out of cords (John 2) and brutally drives people and animals out of the temple grounds. Then he turns around when they're nailing him to the cross and says, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." Possibly the best example is that in one place in Luke's gospel Jesus says to his disciples, "Anyone who is not against us is for us." A couple chapters later, Jesus says to them, "Anyone who is not for you is against you."

Reading the Bible beyond the most surface level is an incredibly rich, incredibly frustrating, life-changing pursuit. It's like marriage in many ways. It will not leave you unchanged. Probably it will not leave you unscarred. It will stir your deepest passions and expose your deepest faults. And, God willing, it will make you holy.

The Bible was written over roughly fifteen hundred years, in three different languages, in what today would be ten separate countries, by at least forty different human authors, addressing uncounted different historical contexts. It is an incredibly complex book.

Perhaps the miracle in all this is how consistent the Bible is. From the beginning to the end, the Bible speaks of a recognizable, personal God with whom you can have a dependable relationship. This God acts consistently, though not always predictably. Throughout the Bible, certain behaviors and attitudes -- idolatry, for example -- will get you in trouble with God. Other behaviors and attitudes -- repentance, for example -- without exception bring on God's mercy and forgiveness. God is consistently sovereign throughout the Bible, consistently jealous for the hearts of his people, consistently angry with those who teach falsehood as truth, consistently merciful to those who are beaten down, consistently vengeful to those who set themselves up as lords in their own right.

Not to say that good guys always win and bad guys always lose. The Bible is a book about reality, and so evil is part of it. The innocent suffer. The self-centered sometimes prosper in the short term. Disasters and famines and wars maraud over the land and people get hurt. But in all of it, a recognizable, consistent God is there, in the mix, yearning for his people to return to him.

The trouble comes when we try to take this incredibly complex text, this incredibly complex relationship, and reduce it down to a "systematic theology" -- a system in which we can say that Truth looks like this, God is always like this, evil is always like this, human beings are always like this. Cut the cat open and examine its organs and you will understand it.

If you have ever been in love, let alone married, you know relationships don't work like that. My wife is wonderfully consistent, but heaven help me if I ever begin to think she's predictable. The problem with both classic theism and open theism is that they're both trying to systematize God's relationship with the future, with our freedom, with his own sovereignty, with time. They are trying to define truth using one set of biblical texts to make sense of something that might just be beyond human reason. (Be honest -- have you ever thought maybe love itself was beyond human reason?) Each of these sides emphasizes one set of biblical texts at the expense of other biblical texts. Like with most theological debates, if you choose one side you alienate yourself, not only from the other theologians, but also from the Bible verses they prefer. As a classic theist, you'll be tempted not to read Exodus 32 much. As an open theist, you'll be tempted to ignore Isaiah 46. And the list of texts goes on and on.

Some theologians are wired in such a way that they just have to systematize God. They cannot rest until they have figured out a rational answer to the questions. I believe they are created this way for a reason, and that God is using their intellectual pursuits to help people come to know him. But don't make the mistake of pitching your tent in their camp. Read what they say, if you like, and let it spur your own thinking. But better yet, pursue the God who reveals himself in the Bible, in all his richness and complexity and frustrating personality. Realize that in the Bible, truth is often paradoxical. You will most often find the truth by being, not at one end of the spectrum or the other, but at both ends at the same time.

(An example: Is God sovereign over matters of people being saved? Or do we need to evangelize all nations? The answer, of course, is "Yes.")

In most of these debates I like to read until my head starts to hurt just a little, then I retreat to one of my favorite biblical texts. At the end of a life in which the Bible says he knew God better than anyone, as one friend speaks to another, Moses made the following observation:

"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29).

If you're going to focus your energy on anything about God, focus not on the things that are hidden from us, barely visible along the horizon of our deepest thoughts. Instead, focus on the things God has clearly revealed. His name is Jesus. The Gospel of John is a great place to start.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Being saved by Jesus vs. teaching about Jesus

I recently listened to a fascinating conversation between two Ph.D.'s -- one a Christian and one a Mormon (understanding that the labels are always difficult, but these get the idea across) -- who genuinely like each other and talked at length about how their traditions view Jesus. It was an excellent conversation that surprised me in many ways. (You can hear the conversation here -- scroll down to the bottom of the page and look for Gerald McDermott and Robert Millet.)

One of the things that took me by surprise was Millet's (he's the LDS guy, teaches at Brigham Young University) passion for Jesus. He talked about his personal faith in Jesus and I am convinced after this conversation that if I am saved by my relationship with Jesus, so is Robert Millet. He has as much passion for and trust in Jesus as I do.

It struck me then that it is totally different to know Jesus than it is to teach about him. Millet obviously knows Jesus in the sense that he has what is sometimes called a "saving faith" in Jesus. But he teaches inaccurately about him because he bases part of his teaching on sources Mormons accept but Christians do not -- the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price -- in addition to the New Testament. So while his faith in Jesus is admirable, he teaches his students things that cannot be reconciled with the biblical witness about who Jesus is.

The New Testament itself recognizes the responsibility that comes with teaching. James 3 includes the warning that not many people should become teachers, specifically because we who teach will be judged more strictly. In Matthew 18 Jesus warns that those who cause others to sin -- and I think inaccurate teaching certainly falls into this category -- will be judged severely.

The fact is, Jesus casts a pretty wide net for those he comes to save. Read the gospels, and you see Jesus dragging in everyone who doesn't out and out reject him. Tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, even a few religious professionals are welcomed into his circle. The book of Acts likewise shows people who have inaccurate knowledge about Jesus being welcomed into the fellowship of the church and gently corrected.

There is a great responsibility, though, for those who teach about Jesus to know what they are teaching, to examine their sources, and to teach the truth. There are so many errors out there today about Jesus and what it means to follow him. Many of the classic heresies have gotten all dressed up and come to the party here in the 21st century. We have also inherited some serious errors from our own Christian tradition as it has been filtered through the Enlightenment and our modern sensibilities. I am certainly not arrogant enough to think that my teaching is without error -- as one wag put it, I'm sure that one third of what I teach you is wrong. I just don't know which third that is. But we need to strive to teach in accordance with the biblical witness about Jesus without rationalizing or compromising it.

In the coming elections, it's clear that Mormonism will be a debating point for some. I am not worried about the personal faith of any candidate -- I'm more concerned about their competence to be in executive power in this country. I don't want any candidate, Christian or otherwise, to set up a religious state. God forbid. It encourages me in the discussion above to hear Millet express his passion for Jesus. That passion tells me that many within Mormonism may have a knowledge of Jesus by which they might be brought into a saving relationship with God. However, I don't want people to start thinking that Mormonism, with its dubious origins, is an orthodox form of Christianity. As teachers, we need to be clear and careful about the legitimacy of our source material.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Church stuff

One of the strangest things about being on sabbatical is that I don't get to gather with my church very often. It's a little like fasting that way. This week I've had more connection with people from Central than at any other time during this sabbatical. It's been refreshing, and fun. I have missed these people.

Yesterday I got to do quite a lot of church stuff. Now, maybe you're thinking that means I preached or led worship, did a baptism, filled out some certificates, and that kind of thing. I did none of that. As readers know, I have been listening to a lot of N.T. Wright lately, and he makes the point quite often that the mission of the church is to be in prayer and action at the place where the world is in pain. So here are a few examples of what I got to do yesterday.

  • I had a long conversation with a friend who has been hit hard by the economic downturn. This was not a counseling session but lunch between friends, what Martin Luther called "the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints."
  • I dropped off my wife and daughter as they headed out to spend a week caring for children at the Manuelito Project in Honduras. We got their luggage and supplies loaded in the van and I had the privilege of praying over the group before they left.
  • I attended my daughter Erica's concert at Bethel University last night, and invited a young couple who just moved to the Twin Cities to join me. On the drive there, we had some interesting conversation about different churches and what they believe and what they have in common -- namely Jesus.
  • Once we got to the concert, I ran into Erica's roommates and got to give hugs and ask about how they're doing. (If you've ever been a lonely college student, you know it can mean a lot to have a surrogate parent who cares about you around from time to time.)
There were a few other details yesterday as well -- spending some time keeping a promise to my younger daughter by laying carpet and fixing windows on her old duck shed that is rapidly becoming an outdoor hangout now that the ducks are gone, spending some time reading my Bible and doing some theological studying -- but you get the idea. You might well be reading that list saying, "So what?" No big churchy things there. Aside from one semi-public prayer, no real mission-of-the-church activities.


The mission of the church is to be in prayer and action at the place where the world is in pain. A little bit of reaching out in love, a little bit of supporting other Jesus-followers who are doing mission work, a little bit of prayer, a little bit of mutual conversation about the goodness of God in difficult times ... these are the mission of the church. There is more, of course, and occasionally we do big important world-changing stuff that looks significant. Most days, though, we would do well to remember that the little important world changing stuff that looks insignificant is what we are really called to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The presence of God

Christians generally live in this really weird tension about where God is present. We claim and teach God's "omnipresence" -- meaning he's pretty much everywhere, like mosquitoes in Minnesota in June. We teach omnipresence like it's a fact, like gravity. Can't see it, can't detect it, but it's there. Just try jumping to the moon and you'll know.

On the other hand, we act and think like God is more present some places than others. This is especially true of church buildings and sanctuaries. How many times have you heard someone refer to the church as "God's house"? Parents with little kids get all freaked out when their children decide to play around on the altar platform after worship. We scowl at people who wear racy clothes or use profanity in the church sanctuary. So in effect, we think that God is more present in the sanctuary than he is in the broom closet at work, for instance.

What does the Bible say about the presence of God? The Bible never uses the word "omnipresent." That's a Greek idea projected backward onto the Bible. A useful concept, but not a biblical one. The Bible does seem to teach something like omnipresence, especially in places like Psalm 139. But overall, the idea of God being present everywhere is not very helpful and not, in fact, the way the Bible itself talks about God's presence.

Think about the sweep of the Bible's story. Let's pick out a few highlights:

In the garden of Eden, God came walking in the garden in the cool of the day. (Genesis 3:8)

For the Israelites coming out of Egypt, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle or a tent where God's presence would live among his people. (Exodus 25:8)

When David proposed building the temple, God spoke through the prophet Nathan to put a stop to the idea. God said some very specific things about not wanting a temple, and preferring to move around among his people in a tent. (2 Samuel 7:1-17) Now granted, God does say that David's heir will "build a house for my name" -- but all indications are that God is talking here about a heritage, as the Israelite people as a house in which he dwells, rather than as a temple.

However, when Solomon builds the temple, God honors it by inhabiting it with his glory (1 Kings 8:10-11). Solomon's prayer of dedication, immediately following this, acknowledges that the temple is wholly inadequate to provide a location for God.

Interestingly enough, when the temple is destroyed in 586 BC, and then about seventy years later Ezra rebuilds it, there is no mention of God's glory inhabiting the temple. Instead, when the foundation of the second temple is laid (Ezra 3:10-13) many of the people weep because it was so diminished from the glory of Solomon's temple. When Ezra dedicates it, there is no indication that God's glory comes to inhabit it again (Ezra 6:13-22).

After the building of the second temple, there are a few straggler prophets, but the word of God --and any sense of his presence among his people -- dwindles. The last four hundred years before John the Baptist are sometimes called "the silent years" because there are no prophets, though there is still a dynamic history being lived out among the Jews.

Then John the Baptist comes to prepare the way, and Jesus shows up. Jesus is called, among other things, "Immanuel" which means "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). Jesus is to be the way in which God dwells among his people. There are many other references to this, both obvious and less so. Jesus repeatedly refers to himself usurping the place of the temple, by the way. See John 2 and Jesus' cleansing the temple for one example. Many of the statements about Jesus and who he will be focus on the fact that in Jesus, God once again visits his people (see Luke 1:68 for example).

It is not enough, though, to say that now Jesus is the way God is present. Jesus transforms the way God is present among his people. For one thing, Jesus says that God is present where his followers gather together (see Matthew 18:20). There's something about the corporate gathering of God's people that intensifies the presence of God.

Jesus begins toward the end of his ministry to focus more and more on the coming of the Holy Spirit, which was predicted by Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Isaiah among other prophets. For centuries God had been promising that he would transform the way he was present among his people. Jesus points to the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of this promise. In John 14:15-31, John 16:4-15, Acts 1:6-11, and many other passages, Jesus gives us some sense that the Spirit is coming and will transform the way God is present among his people. (John 7:38-39 is another fascinating passage in this regard.)

So after Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Spirit shows up, the entire New Testament takes a radical new turn about the presence of God. Now the Spirit is given not only to a singular prophet here and there, but rather to all those who follow Jesus. Now when Jesus' followers gather, God is present among them. In fact, the New Testament has the audacity to call the gathering of Jesus' followers "the body of Christ" -- meaning that in the church, Jesus is truly present.

From Pentecost forward, the Bible talks about God's presence being not that of a disembodied spirit wafting over creation, but rather as a Spirit embodied among those who follow Jesus. All the practices of the church, from worship to communion to prayer to mission, are corporate. Together. Multiple. And every one, without exception, is effective if and because the Spirit of God is flowing in and through the activity, making it powerful for the kingdom of God.

So it's not that God is just present everywhere like gravity; it's that God has chosen to inhabit his people, to flow through their hands, mouths, hearts and eyes. Certainly God is free to be outside these boundaries working in places where you and I are not; but ask yourself where God has promised to be. I will never leave you or forsake you. I am with you always, to the close of the age. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will be my witnesses. On and on it goes.

God is present by his Spirit in your heart, your life, your love, your work. That's where he has chosen to be. You are the location of God's presence on earth.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

New Page

For those of you who desire a longer read, I've been writing a bit of my reflections after listening to N.T. Wright's stuff. It's listed in the page menu at the right as "Options" or you can simply click here to access it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Deeper into Scripture

Sorry I've been offline for what feels like many days now. I spent almost a week in a remote setting in far northern Minnesota, sometimes alone, sometimes with my brother Les and sometimes with my good friend and hunting partner Jason. The shack pictured here has been my family's getaway spot since before I was born. It's fifteen miles from the nearest paved road, ten miles from the nearest permanent neighbor, and lies along a dead end road through the peat bog. It is the site of many of my fondest childhood and adult memories, and a place of refuge and renewal for me. The interior includes a cast iron pump, four squeaky bunks, an uneven floor, an oil stove that is singularly ineffective at heating the place on cold nights, and a bevy of well-used mouse traps. (Score last week was five to nothing -- in my favor.) The trip turned out to be some much needed decompression time -- time to play (I have the scars and several ruffed grouse breasts in the freezer and one significant deer tick bite to prove it) and time to reflect.

The play time involved walking on average about ten miles each day on remote forest trails, hunting and exploring and tracking and climbing trees. I spent a lot of hours just thinking back to good memories of my Dad, who loved this place and started coming here with his "gang" of hunting buddies back in the 1950's. He brought his kids up here for a weekend or two each summer to play in the woods, and sometimes to drive out to Upper Red Lake and fish for walleyes.

The reflection was mostly journaling and scripture and listening. The listening involved a lot of just listening to the silence, but also listening to some excellent biblical teaching by Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, one of the premiere evangelical teachers of our time. If you're interested, you can access the stuff I've been listening to at the Unofficial N. T. Wright page. There's a ton of material here, but there are some excellent talks -- especially the ones delivered at the InterVarsity Press Conference right at the beginning of the audio section. I've listened to several of these talks three and four times, and get something new out of them each time. I so appreciate Wright's earnestness about taking the Bible seriously for what it really says, not what we assume it says. That can be a real challenge. I don't think he always reaches the right conclusions, but I think he's right (no pun intended) more often than not. He talks a great deal about the world of the first century and what Jesus' words and actions might have meant to his original hearers. Unlike so many "historical Jesus" scholars (e.g. the whole Jesus Seminar crowd) Wright takes the Bible seriously as the historical source for what Jesus actually said and did. By taking this approach, Wright helps us get beyond our formulas and our preconceptions about Jesus and really to begin to take his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection seriously.

I have found this listening an amazing way to deepen and broaden my biblical study and reflection -- I encourage you to check it out!

This coming week I should be around a little more full-time and hopefully will have a chance to post more often. Thanks for checking back!