Slippery Slopes

Slippery Slopes

There are a few terms that are quite true and yet misleading in many actual uses. I like to cite “Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven.” Precisely true, but in common use very likely an excuse for ordinary bad behavior. Whatever the intent, it ends up sounding like, “I’m a Christian, so I can do whatever I want to. If you question my actions, nobody’s perfect.” They’re not perfect; you’re not perfect. In this case, however, the true statement is being used as a bad excuse.

Or there’s the great “I’m an adult, so I’m not offended by your political views.” Just so! An adult will not be offended by the political views of others. Disagree, yes. Be offended, not so much. Though I’ll confess that some political (and religious, for that matter) views are quite offensive. But in practice this line is most frequently used by people who want to behave in an offensive manner. When someone objects, they have the passive-aggressive response. “Adults wouldn’t get offended.” So of course you’re not an adult because you get offended when they behave like toddlers. It’s true you shouldn’t get offended. What good does it do? But they’re really using it as an excuse, and as a way to manipulate you.

And then there are slipperly slopes. Slippery slopes are real. That’s because one idea leads to another. In fact, unless you start learning, you live your life on slippery slopes.

My particular brand of moderate, or passionate moderate as I like to call myself, celebrates being all across the slopes of various ideas. I like to identify the extremes on any particular idea or topic and then find all the ground between. Where is the best place to be? If the correct place to be is poised on the slippery slope, that’s where I want to be.

But “slippery slope” is more commonly used as a scare tactic against certain ideas. It is quite true, for example, some some people have gone from conservative Christianity, through moderate or mainline Christianity, then progressive Christianity, and then to atheism. It’s a slippery slope. Once you start thinking, it’s hard to be certain where you’ll go. It’s also true that many people have reacted badly to their conservative or fundamentalist upbringing and have then jumped straight to atheism.

Others have turned to Christian faith and then gotten narrower and narrower and harsher and harsher and ended up as dangerous cultists.

Yet others have turned to Jesus and slid right down the slippery slope to living a life of sacrifice and commitment to Jesus. Some of these have ended up doing mission work on the street.

I have named none of these, but there numbers are quite substantial.

You live in a world filled with slippery slopes. It’s not only likely you’ll make mistakes and find yourself sliding somewhere you don’t want to go. It’s likely someone else has taken a step similar to one you’ve just taken and then continued on to somewhere you don’t want to go.

My suggestion would be to always remember where you have been, and to always consider the foundations of what you believe. That will help you measure your movement and decide whether you really want the changes taking place or not.

Or, alternatively, you can anchor yourself where you are, and live in fear of the slippery slopes all around. It’s not all that likely you’ll be right or safe.

You might even avoid slipping into some beautiful new truths!

Beware of the fear of slippery slopes.

What’s Old about the Old Testament?

What’s Old about the Old Testament?

Many years ago, more years than I will admit to, I went into a Jewish book and supply store and requested a copy of the “Hebrew Old Testament.” I recall vividly the look on the store clerk’s face, and I apologized, but it’s not an error that you can recover from easily. To a Jew, of course, it’s the Bible, not the first part of it that must be finished with another text in another language.

Many Christians are unaware, or only vaguely aware of how their faith relates to the Hebrew scriptures, and thus it is very easy to be offensive in one’s language without intending to. Unfortunately, there are those who will be intentionally offensive.

Over the years I changed my terminology. I didn’t actually abandon the term “old testament,” but I took up a somewhat complicated usage, one I have to explain regularly. That doesn’t bother me, as I believe that in explaining it, I invite my Christian audiences to think about things they may not have considered before.

My Terminology

That’s what I’m going to do here. First, the terms.

  • Old Testament – I use this when, and only when, I’m referring to these books as part of Christian scripture. For reasons I will expand on below, I believe that a sacred text differs according to the way it is used, and only fully functions as part of a faith community.
  • Jewish Bible – I use this term less frequently, and largely when I’m going to quote actual Jewish scholars expressing their views. I have found that studying the Jewish Bible using commentaries and other tools produced by Jewish scholars of various branches of Judaism is powerful and very helpful to me, but I prefer not to have people think I am expressing the Jewish point of view in other than a limited sense.
  • Hebrew Scriptures – Though I didn’t know it, this was what I set out to study when I chose to major in biblical languages. By Hebrew scriptures I refer to these same books as Ancient Near Eastern literature and look to read them as such literature, looking for their historical setting and meaning. Some assume that one can simply read ancient texts and move directly to their applicability to a modern setting, but that is precisely what requires a community of faith and a hermeneutic process. A hermeneutic process cannot be validated, in my view, apart from a community of faith. I use this term when I do not intend application to the present but rather to discuss how the text was used and understood at a time in history.

Some would suggest either that Jewish or Christian interpreters have the right process of interpretation and application, while the other fails. Now it’s likely that various of us are wrong about some things and right about things, and I believe in objective truth, but it is difficult to call things right or wrong without also considering the community of faith that’s involved. We would have to talk about whether a whole community was right or wrong, and that’s even more difficult!

Some Christians may be wondering at this point whether I believe in evangelism and disciple making. I do. I just don’t believe that those things are about intellectual persuasion. Rather, conversion is an act of God, not an act of persuasion. Saul on the road to Damascus did not encounter an intellectual argument. He had a powerful encounter with the one he would call Lord and Savior. Other experiences may take more time and be more subtle, but I think no less an act of God.

A key note here: Christian witness must come from Christian community. This is a major problem for the church today. In fact, the community of faith is central to interpretation, application, and therefore to witness.

Reading as Ancient Near Eastern Literature

When I started my studies in biblical languages and literature, it was my expectation that I would learn the history, determine the historical context of any verse or story, and the intended lesson, which would allow me to correctly and objectively apply that lesson to my time and situation. The reality? Not so much!

As an example, I often use two texts from Leviticus in teaching about hermeneutics to lay audiences. The are:

  • “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
  • “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV)

The results are often interesting with current American audiences. I’ve been using these two verses for years and I have seen no real change, other than differences based on the demographics of the audience I use it on. There will be people who are willing to accept both, but there are only a few of those. There are many who want Leviticus 18:22 to be applicable but not Leviticus 19:33-34, and those who want 19:33-34 to be applicable but not 18:22. Those who have thought through that application and provided a hermeneutic that can be consistently applied to texts are few and far between.

Doubtless among my readers there are those who have thought these verses through and can explain their use of one, both, or neither in determining modern theology. If you have done so, you are engaging in hermeneutics, and you most certainly have been influenced by your faith community.

For example, many Christians will claim that Jesus or other New Testament authors have reaffirmed one text or the other. Others may feel that one fits with Christian values better. Others may try to discuss cultural applicability.

Yet others will say, “The Bible says it, and I believe it.” That, of course, is problematic in Leviticus, especially for Christians. We don’t do most of what Leviticus tells us to do. If you doubt me on that, read Leviticus 11 & 13. There are many more examples, but that one will do. In this case, though different filters are used, Jews don’t expect gentiles to keep all of those rules. They have a very limited set that come from outside this portion of the Torah that would apply to us. Christians have a different filter. The key here is that we both have a filter.

Thus my goal was not realistic. The process of study was, however, quite useful. There is a value in historical study. It just doesn’t convert without difficulty into application.

Reading as the Jewish Bible

So working in reverse, I look at the term Jewish Bible.

The key element here is Judaism as a community of faith. I don’t mean that we try to tell just what is correct Judaism. I have found great value in works from quite different branches of Judaism. I continue now, many years after I did the study, to consider studying Leviticus with Jacob Milgrom’s commentary in the Anchor Bible Series as the most profound spiritual experience of my life. But I have benefited from discussions with Reform and Orthodox scholars and from reading their books. Nahum Sarna’s works, and particularly the JPS Torah commentary series which he edited is another extremely valuable source. (You can find many of these titles and others in the Energion retail store page on Torah.)

We need to read the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish book because …

  • It is a book given to Israel and preserved by them. Paul makes the Christian affirmation of this in Romans 3:1-2 and elsewhere.
  • We might learn to understand the text better. Because the books of Hebrew scripture have been borrowed and reused we have the benefit of seeing it from different perspectives. This is an advantage no matter what one is trying to do. One of the great features of Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus is that he looks at the history of interpretation including Christian and secular looks at the text.
  • If we are to affirm the Jews as God’s chosen people, then at a minimum we should have some idea who they are and what they believe.
  • It’s a great joy to do it!

Reading as Christian Scripture

There are a couple of fundamental points we need to keep in mind in studying the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament of Christian scripture. First, we need the other views. It is impossible to understand where people were in the first century as Christianity came into being without looking at how those people would have seen it. Second, because our scripture is so seriously rooted in Hebrew scripture—even the term “New Testament” comes from the Old—we need to understand these roots.

Regarding the first point, I am often annoyed by Christians who make remarks such as, “Jesus is so clearly taught in the Old Testament! How can the Jews not see this?” And yes, the Apostle Paul can get on my nerves. He should remember that he had to be pretty much struck by lightning to change his mind. He shows the zeal of a convert on this point. But those of us who have not been struck by lightning should be aware of the interpretive problems, and also of what Jewish interpretations are. Besides the Jewish commentaries I use, I keep a copy of the Jewish Study Bible from Oxford University Press at hand for quick reference.

Those who use Paul’s writings in an antisemitic sense should both be aware of his own attitude at the time and also of the difference between our time and his. That is also hermeneutics. “Paul did it, so I can,” is not a safe statement in a world that has changed. Paul spoke to a group that had not truly separated from Judaism at the time. We speak to a world in which persecution of the Jews has been rampant and vicious. What might he say regarding his “brothers and sisters, his fellow countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3)? Or how might Jesus address descendants of the Pharisees in the light of what his self-proclaimed followers have done in the meantime?

At the same time, I read the whole Christian Bible, including both testaments as Christian scripture and as the core of my faith. As one of my Energion authors, Edward Vick noted, (see Creation: The Christian Doctrine), the key to something being a Christian doctrine is that it centers in Christ. He makes that statement even clearer in his book Seventh-day Adventists and the Bible when he said:

God’s decisive revelation is in the events the Bible records and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All Christian revelation has Jesus Christ as its point of reference, since God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is the event from which Christians interpret all history and all experience. The problem for the Seventh-day Adventist church is to make Jesus Christ central and primary in this way in its doctrine. The problem for the theologian and for the framers of church doctrine is to interpret the Bible, life, practice, doctrine, so that the centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ comes decisively and clearly to view…. (p. 5)

He is addressing his own denomination, but the point applies to any Christian group, I believe.

Thus I read the Bible unabashedly Christocentrically as a Christian. My doctrine forms around the person, mission, and teachings of Jesus. At the same time, I have no need to deride other approaches, nor should I be unable to discuss those other elements from a compatible point of view. Someone who does not accept Christ, as I do, is unlikely to be interested in the “centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ.” Yet we can discuss the text.

Failure to recognize differences in our approach to hermeneutics is at the root of many of our most fierce and least constructive discussions.

A Note about Certainty

At this point, I need to make a note regarding thinking people are wrong. Any time one thinks one is right, one necessarily thinks those who disagree are wrong. We get into problems because we then look down on those who disagree with us, holding positions contrary to our obvious truth. I think this sort of behavior is both unnecessary and does not indicate confidence, but uncertainty.

In all areas of life, I think there are two goals: 1) We must seek truth in some sense, and 2) We must be able to maintain community (faith, local, national, and world) while still disagreeing. I think it is unfortunate when we feel we have to smooth over our differences in order to get along. We should instead celebrate our differences and dialogue about them so that we can improve.

I consider efforts to force change to be counterproductive. The best way of constructively changing anyone’s view on anything is respectful dialogue. Being respectful doesn’t mean abandoning your principles. It means listening attentively and courteously and clearly explaining your viewpoint. Contrary to popular option, it is not the noisiest who are firmest in their convictions. Only one who is confident in what he or she believes, including sufficient confidence to recognize and admit the unknown, can get the most out of dialogue.

So How Old Is It?

The problem with the word “old” is that we tend to see it in negative terms such as out of date, obsolete, and requiring replacement. That is whenever we’re not fantasizing about a golden age that never actually existed. In the case of the Old Testament, Christian theology works against making it a golden age. Why would we have a new testament if the old one was a golden age?

I’ve discussed this extensively with reference to the book of Hebrews, which has the statement, rather unfortunate when taken out of context (as it usually is), that “what is becoming old is soon to disappear” (8:13) is sometimes used to suggest that the Old Testament is no longer applicable and in some cases hardly worth studying. If it’s obsolete, why red it?

I’m not going to go into a study of Hebrews, but let me simply say that if the author of Hebrews thinks the Old Testament (as a collections of books) is obsolete, he has cut the limb off behind him, as he bases all his arguments on texts from that same Old Testament. He has other concerns.

And that is my first problem with the term “Old Testament.” The books of the Hebrew scriptures do not constitute a covenant or testament. They contain more than one such covenant. So if Hebrews, or any other passage of the New Testament refers to the passing of the “old covenant,” they aren’t referring to all the books of Hebrew scripture.

The division of the Christian Bible into Old and New Testaments tends to create some errors. I should note that it also presents an important division. What did we borrow from someone else and what did we add? That’s a good distinction. It might be more accurately presented in other ways.

It would help if Christians recognized the Jewish divisions, Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The covenant with Israel is stated in the Torah, and a great deal of the rest is dedicated to discussing how to keep that covenant, or proposing God’s new covenant (yes, I mean new). “New covenant” (or testament) is not a New Testament idea. Jeremiah 31:31-34. This proposed new covenant differs from the old one largely in the enabling grace given to people to keep it. The main problem with the old one, a problem that might be seen to make it obsolete, is the failure of Israel to keep it.

Which leads to another Christian problem. We often look at the experience of Israel with disdain. How could they be so unfaithful? Why didn’t they just keep the covenant God had given them? Why turn to other gods? We do all of this while we turn away from God and ignore what God has commanded ourselves. We would be well advised to heed Paul’s command in Romans 11:20, “put away your pride and be on your guard,” which he gives precisely in reference to this attitude of superiority.

My next problem is simply with the view of “old” that we often hold, as though God’s later acts are better than his former acts. People and circumstances change, but I believe that God’s aims stay pretty much the same. The covenant with Israel expresses accurately God’s desire for his chosen people, Israel. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, but we should remember who it was addressed to. I would suggest that one of the key elements of that covenant was to establish an identity for Israel, an identity that was necessary to allow them to carry out their mission. I would suggest that goal was carried out with great success. More than 3000 years later we hear the echo of this in Tevye’s remark in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” The Jews have a very strong identity.

While we may not be subject to the same regulations, we still need an identity as God’s people. There is a history here that we need to learn. The covenant is, in a sense, as old as the hills and as new as tomorrow, because God is still looking for ways to get his message out to the world.

So the Old Testament needs to be seen not as a single entity that has become obsolete or been replaced, but as the witness to God’s activity which has been continued in other ways. If we pay attention to this, we may be able to better understand some of the goals of the New Testament.

But even further, the New Testament itself doesn’t come in a single package. It is also a collection of books that looks at the witness of Jesus, the witness to Jesus, and the vision of the future of God’s world. Without understanding this background, we are unlikely to understand what New Testament writers were up to, because we don’t know where they are coming from.

Conclusion

Despite my wordiness, I have left much untouched.

How old is the Old Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.

How old is the New Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.

Both are rooted in and lead to eternity.

We ought not to discard either.

 

Free Will and Hardening Hearts (Romans 9:14-24)

Free Will and Hardening Hearts (Romans 9:14-24)

This is a follow-up to my last Wednesday night’s (November, 2018) discussion from Romans 9 at Chumuckla Community Church. The passage cited is not my suggestion of a good division of the material in Romans 9, but rather is just where we started and ended up. I did have to look back to verse 13 “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” to lay the foundation.

Background

Wesleyans frequently don’t spend much time preaching from these passages, I suspect because they’re not as much fun from our point of view as some other passages. But, as I try to remember and point out often, you can ignore the passage, but it’s still there. In setting the scene I would note that I have already said that I don’t think predestination and election as such, particularly as part of soteriology (study of salvation), are primarily what Paul wants to talk about. There are certainly some statements with a substantial impact on soteriology, but they come under the larger heading of “What About Israel?”

Introduction

Romans 8 ends with a powerful affirmation of God’s presence and faithfulness. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. I think that statement can be read broadly and applied both individually and in community. It does not mean that we will not have trouble, but rather that God will be faithful to be present with us through what trouble comes.

Having made that statement, Paul is left with a problem, one foreshadowed by his discussion of Jews and Gentiles in the first two (or three) chapters. If God is faithful, and if Israel was (is?) God’s child, and the bearer of the promises (Romans 9:4), how is it possible that the apparent separation is occurring with Gentiles constituting more and more of the church, and the church taking on so much of the mission? But even more, the question for Paul is why so few of his own people accept what he now affirms and proclaims, that Jesus is Messiah and Lord?

Contrary to those who see chapters 9-11 as a kind of parenthetical remark or even an insertion from some other source (a position proposed, but not broadly accepted), I see it as precisely the point to which Paul has been driving. God is a God of grace who wished to bless the entire world. God is faithful and is carrying out that mission, bring blessing to everyone. That blessing is mediated through Israel. But how can a faithful God abandon one set of people just as the blessing carried forward through them for millenia is being delivered to the rest of the world?

For Paul, this is impossible, and his message would be a failure if it were so. God cannot faithlessly abandon one group of people and expect to be viewed as faithful by another. I compared this in class to a new foster child coming to a family which then immediately kicks a previous foster child out of the house. Right after they do that, the foster parents tell the new child that they are faithful and will stick with him come what may. The second child may feel a bit uncertain of this sort of “faithfulness.”

Romans 9-11 and Anti-Semitism (An Aside)

As an aside, let me note that some of Paul’s statements have been taken as antisemitic and as justifying negative attitudes toward the Jews. This is inappropriate in a number of ways, not the least of them being God’s own commands regarding how we are to treat others. But beyond that, we should remember that Paul is a Jew, that he is here presenting how God will not abandon the Jews, and that he expresses in this the extreme gratefulness Gentiles should feel in being invited to faith in, and to receive grace from, Israel’s God. Chapter 11 makes it clear that Gentiles, having received this grace (grafting into the tree), should not boast or place themselves above the previous branches. Whatever a gentile Christian thinks about the Jews or even what Jews may think about Christian doctrine, we Christians are heavily indebted to the Jews.

Further, what a Jew in Paul’s time (thus Paul himself) can say to his fellow Jews over what was still a doctrinal dispute rather than a developed new religion cannot possibly justify racial or religious prejudiced by Christians against Jews. From a theological point of view, anti-semitism or anti-Judaism both constitute a form of sawing the limb you’re sitting on off on the trunk side. Differ in beliefs, but don’t do any looking down, much less despising.

So watch the proof-texting you do from a passage in which Paul intends to affirm God’s faithfulness to his (Paul’s) own people.

God’s Hardening

This is all as background. The question I wanted to explore further, both for those left with questions (as I would expect!), and for those who were unable to attend the class for various reasons, is the idea of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. We started by tying this back to 9:13, which quotes Malachi 1:2-3, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

However we translate, we have selection and rejection. I would maintain that the selection is as people of the promise, those who would carry forward the blessing promised to Abraham. This says nothing about ultimate salvation, but rather about mission. This is, of course, a mission that Paul has affirmed both in this chapter and back in chapter 3 as a blessing. So Jacob is getting a blessing for which Esau is rejected. (Genesis makes it a pretty dramatic thing!)

So now in Romans 9:17, we have the affirmation that not only did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, but he raised him up for that purpose (quoting Exodus 9:16). Note that translation can alter the full impact of that passage, but this is where we were in the class. While you can alter the full impact, you really can’t get away from the idea here that God purposefully put Pharaoh in this position in order to use him as the foil (or revelational straight man) for what he intended to do as Israel.

In Exodus, however, we have different expressions: Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (Exodus 8:19 and many others), I (God) hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart (Exodus 10:1, 11:1, etc.), and Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 8:15, 8:32, etc.). Thus arises the question, “Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Was it God hardening it, or did Pharaoh harden his own heart?”

To which I firmly and decisively answer, “Yes!”

And to which people promptly ask, “How does that work?”

To which I answer, “We don’t know, but …”

From a Wesleyan-Arminian position, one wants to emphasize the choice. Pharaoh chose to disobey and to harden his heart. It would be nice to weaken the other affirmation. Calvinists look at it the other way. After all, if you can affirm that “[b]y the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death,” one king put in position and hardened to as to display God’s glory in putting that person in his place is relatively minor.

Let me look at some of the elements before giving my view.

Free Will

I would suggest using a search engine and find one of the many web sites that have copies of the Westminster Confession of faith in which you will find affirmation of both predestination and free will, which are somehow made to work together so that human beings are still to be held responsible, and God is also not the author of sin. This manages to affirm all the scriptural points, but doesn’t make them work together and doesn’t claim to. I’m not here trying to affirm or challenge the Westminster Confession of Faith, but I have found that relatively few Wesleyans are aware that the Confession affirms free will.

The problem with free will is that it’s not really free. Even with my belief in actual free will, a belief that’s incompatible in my view with absolute predestination or determinism, I believe that God does have responsibility for what happens in God’s universe. I’d go with Isaiah 45:7 as opposed to various confessions.

We tend to debate free will as though it was somehow absolute, that I have a full menu of choices and can choose any one of them. But in reality I have both inherited DNA and the environmental factors that have brought me to this day. My choices are limited by my background and my current environment. We should really be talking not about whether the will is totally free, which it clearly is not, but whether there is any freedom. If there is no freedom at all, we would have determinism. With cause and effect working without any real randomness, everything would be entirely predetermined. In the famous thought experiment, used in Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life, of winding back the movie of life to a previous point, it would always proceed precisely as it did. And I mean precisely.

If one believes in God in such a universe, everything was determined from the moment of the big bang, or whatever event one sees as the beginning. One might see God interfering, but nobody else, since those in the universe would have every thought and action determined by preceding physical causes. Many people find this “extreme” position hard to accept or even imagine, but it’s a quite logical whole. In this universe, any idea of free will is an illusion, and predestination would be true, and true in its most extreme expressions.

My belief based on scripture’s affirmations about humanity, is that we do have a true creative ability, so that we can, in fact contribute to reality through our choices. This “free” will is very much constrained, however, by the reality in which we live. I am impacted by the choices of everyone who came before me, even the creatures who come earlier. So while I have a creative contribution, my free will is more a matter of wiggling than it is of profound course changes. I will respond to events around me according to my background. I can change, but it is difficult, and limited by physical, mental, and spiritual circumstances.

Sovereignty

The debate here is not about God’s sovereignty, and I find it disingenuous for people to suggest that it is. God does not become less sovereign when he decrees something, even if that decree is the creation of a person who has the power to do things that are in opposition to God’s will. Why? Because God is really sovereign. Unlike human powers he doesn’t have ego problems or an inferiority complex. He can handle decreeing that someone else will have some power within His universe.

Whatever will one has is the result of God’s decree. Whatever choice one makes is the result of God’s decree. This is why I like the Wesleyan term “prevenient grace” so much. God makes it possible for us to have a choice. We get to make that choice.

In response some will wonder how that is not a work of righteousness by which we earn God’s favor? I would respond that all of this occurs, as it must, inside God’s will. It is no more just us if we have a choice than it is just us if God decrees what the choice will be. In either case, we have precisely what God gives us and God has set the boundaries of his response. This is why, I believe, we can talk both about election, and also about choice.

Foreknowledge

One of the great issues with either view of the choice for salvation is foreknowledge. There are those who feel that God having foreknowledge means that, in effect, the decision is pre-made. It is known before I make it, so how is it possible that I make it. There are alternative ways of looking at this such as open theism or process theology. (William Lane Craig has written a good deal on this point, see Time and Eternity.)

I don’t believe we know how God relates to time, though I enjoy reading all of these options. I would like to add here that if God is outside of time, God would not see our actions as a sequence. It’s hard to get an analogy to work, but supposing I create a computer program with random events generated, at least from a perspective inside the program, which creates a complete picture in what seems to me the blink of an eye. From the internal perspective, my random number generator creates these things and the result is not known until the decision is made. From my perspective outside the program, the picture appears instantaneously (or seems to).

Now imagine, insofar as you can, that my perspective is infinitely expanded, while the program maintains its finite perspective. This would be my imagined relationship of God to the world. God sees all at once the things at appear to take much time.

As another aside, this is how I see the whole issue of soul sleep. I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, understanding death as a sleep until Jesus returns. Many Christians believe one goes to heaven when one dies. I view these two positions as equally viable depending on one’s perspective. To us, there is a delay. To the person who dies, there is none. They do not become infinite, but they live in infinity. So one can imagine one’s loved ones who have died looking down, because from eternity, all of the history of the universe appears as a point in time. The two views make no real difference whatsoever.

So the common Wesleyan-Arminian view that God elects or predestines the ones he knew would make the right choice would fit right in. God sees at once that which we choose over what appears to us to be a long time.

The Perspective of the Story

We also need to consider the perspective of the story. In Genesis 18 we have the story of Abraham receiving three visitors. Eventually the text (18:17) presents YHWH as the narrator, and YHWH says that he is going to go down to Sodom and see if the outcry of their evil is as justified (verse 21). This is not the perspective of foreknowledge. Yet we have to read the story in that fashion to hear Abraham’s bargaining properly.

The key here is this: In a story, a statement may have a perspective that is related to that story. In order to understand the story, one must work from the story’s perspective. There is no current theological view that I know of which would require God to go visit a city to discover what was going on there. This isn’t a matter of foreknowledge even, but just of a reasonable amount of ordinary knowledge for a deity. Yet the story will read very strangely if you don’t allow it that perspective.

Back to Pharaoh

Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, or did Pharaoh harden his own heart? Put aside any view of foreknowledge and look at the story itself. Pharaoh is who he is. He has demonstrated this over time. God clearly knows Pharaoh. Unless God is to choose to either free his people by some sort of physical transportation miracle, or to do it at some other time, Pharaoh will have to be pressured to let them go. The story teller does not imagine God magically transporting people, so that’s not really on our menu of options. God has clearly decided to liberate God’s people, so that option is left out. Not impossible, but excluded by God’s plan and will.

So God, knowing that Pharaoh is not one to bend to this kind of pressure nonetheless puts that pressure on Pharaoh. God knows that pressure on Pharaoh will result in Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. So God hardens Pharaoh’s heart by proceeding with God’s plans, while Pharaoh hardens his own heart in accordance with Pharaoh’s nature.

Conclusion

We can still discuss the fairness of all of this. I don’t think this answers all questions. Why doesn’t God care enough about Pharaoh to reorder the plan in order to make it more possible for him to make a better choice? I don’t know. I make the assumption that God knows, but I don’t even have a proposed solution to that other than my expectation that God works things out.

At this point, however, I can read Romans 9 with a view both of election and of free will. I could be wrong. The scriptures do not make the relationship clear. But this is how I read it.

 

Why Christians Should Embrace Science

Why Christians Should Embrace Science


First, of course, we should ask why anyone should embrace science*.

It’s not because:

  1. Science is perfect
  2. Scientists are without biases and always produce objective truth
  3. The results of science are never in error
  4. Science can decide everything for us

I’m reminded of the quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Frequently people object to science on the basis that it isn’t perfect. A history of discovery of new things can also be portrayed as a history of error. Obviously, if you discover something a new, better theory, it means that something you believed before was wrong. The interesting thing, the critical thing, is that it is science that corrects the errors of previous science.

So the reason I suggest for embracing science is this: It works.

You are reading this on an electronic device that is the result of applying scientific theories. Those scientific theories replaced other, less robust theories, and thereby enabled the invention of new technology. Life expectancy is increasing because, however often medical science may be in error, it’s much better today than it has ever been before.

I was interviewing my 98-year-old mother two years ago regarding her experiences as a nurse. She graduated from nursing school early in World War II. When we discussed vaccinations she got very emotional. “How could anyone want to go back to the time before these vaccinations were invented/discovered?” she asked. I tell this because we have people who think that science has made errors in the formation of vaccinations that have caused very negative side effects. I actually believe these ideas are wrong, and that vaccinations are safe, but even if there were problems, we would still be far ahead because of those vaccinations. People simply have no concept of what things were like before.

But this also illustrates a simple issue with science. If a scientific theory is wrong, it is more scientific study that will demonstrate the problems and potentially point the way to better solutions. That’s how progress has been made over the years. Unfortunately when people perceive problems with the scientific consensus, even imaginary problems, they often decide that since science isn’t perfect, as far as they can tell, they might as well go for something else—anything else—that might promise a solution.

These solutions are invariably more dangerous than the status quo. Unless, of course, they are generated and tested by valid scientific study. Science is not perfect, but it is the best means of finding better solutions than it has already found.

If you don’t believe that, simply ask yourself if, arriving at an airport, you were given the opportunity to fly on an aircraft designed according to the consensus of the best aircraft design, or one designed by someone who rejected aeronautical science, and which had not been tested by methods standard in the industry.

Even a test pilot would definitely want an explanation of why he should expect the second aircraft to fly.

Yet we choose the second option in many cases regarding our health and also regarding public policy.

Now I’m not proposing that we stick with consensus science despite the evidence. There’s a good way to challenge a scientific theory, and that is to gather good data and challenge it. Yes, scientists are people like the rest of us and may resist change to a cherished or simply comfortable position, but unlike theologians (sort of like me), they do have a history of moving en masse to a new position based on the evidence.

As an aside, there is the great illustration of a philosopher (or metaphysician, etc, see this) who is like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. The punch line? Under the same circumstances, the theologian will locate the cat. Science demands the actual cat, as it should.

And that’s why we should embrace it. Science is good at studying actual black cats and determining when they aren’t there.

But what does this have to do specifically with Christians embracing science? Well, I could again say, “It works!” That’s a good reason. If you want to live a long time, you should pay attention to science and its results.

Speaking from the perspective of theology, though my field is biblical studies, we have the simple and repeated statements of scripture, such as Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8: 3-4, Psalm 19:1-6, and Psalm 33:6-9. These form a foundation of much of scripture. The idea that God is the creator underlies pretty much all theology. How creation was accomplished is much more a subject of debate, though I actually think it is not something for theologians to debate based on the Bible (or other sacred texts) and religious tradition. Rather, how creation occurs is a scientific question and should be investigated as such.

Why do I say this? One of the principles I try to teach regarding studying the Bible (or any text, for that matter) is that if you ask it questions it is not trying to address you will likely get skewed answers, if not totally false ones. How far your question is separated from the intention of the text is going to determine how far you are from understanding what the text conveys.

Let’s take the Samuel-Kings books (2 of each), for example. There’s a rather simple historiography behind these books. If you obey God you will be blessed while if you rebel, you will fail. So the story of these kings, while it contains a variety of additional data, is focused generally on displaying this theme. Occasionally the history gets in the way of the theme, such as in 2 Kings 14:23-29, where Jeroboam II is described as one who did evil, yet the author must explain the upswing in Israel’s fortunes during his reign.

Modern historians are very interested in precise chronology, but other than general lengths of reigns, the author lacks this perspective. Many efforts have been made to work out the chronology based on the numbers provided, but efforts have somewhat questionable results. The reason is simple. It’s not that the writer is careless in general; it’s that this isn’t his main concern.

To get a bit further off track, let’s consider 1 Kings 7:23, in which the “bronze sea” is described as having a diameter of 10 cubits but a circumference of 30 cubits. This would result in a value for Π (pi) of 3.0. Now we all know it’s 3.1416. Well, not so much. I just punched it into Google and I got 3.14159. So far as I know, nobody has calculated an exact value for pi. You just round it somewhere that works. Lots of arguments have resulted from 1 Kings 7:23. How could God make such a mistake? Well, God didn’t. The author of Kings, collecting his data from various sources, used a very loose round figure. He had no intention of passing on the value of pi.

For a Bible student, this is only a problem if you’re expecting the text to tell you things that the authors didn’t know and didn’t particularly intend to convey. There’s another lesson, however. The Bible isn’t a mathematics text. If you want to know the value of pi, you go where the knowledge is, and that’s the physical universe. I recall being instructed in math class to measure some circles with a flexible measuring tape and calculate the relationships. I didn’t get it right, but I got it close enough for the purpose. The value of pi is not a revelation needed in scripture; it’s there in the physical world.

Theologians refer to this as “general revelation” as opposed to “special revelation,” such as what we get in scripture. Christians often tend to think of special revelation, the Bible, as somehow more reliable. But the fact is that we have many interpretive steps between the text and the resulting doctrine, and this difference has resulted in many different denominations and even different faiths. Yet I hear Christians complain about medical science not getting its act together and agreeing on the details of healthful living in all cases (though they’re very good, we want to demand perfect), while at the same time being totally comfortable with the massive variety of Christian doctrine, all claiming to be based in the same scripture.

But special revelation, scripture, suggests that God breathed both it and also the physical world. The scientist studies God’s word as truly (or even more so) as does the theologian or biblical scholar. If we don’t believe that, we don’t really believe the scriptures. The real issue is not which is better but what each variety of revelation actually is intended to do.

So, if you want the value of pi, please measure some circles, or just go to a math text. If you want to meditate on God’s activities in human lives, read scripture. And/or take the time to encounter some of God’s creations we call people.



* I use “science” throughout as a general term for the study of the natural world with an intention to produce repeatable and objective results.

Voting Tomorrow

Voting Tomorrow

Let me first warn you that this post contains nothing whatsoever that’s exciting. 🙂 Well other than the three interviews I conducted with Energion authors about the election.

Tomorrow I will go to my polling place and cast my vote. I’m a traditionalist. I go to the polls on election day. I’m happy that there are other methods that help those who might have more difficulty going to the polls. The first election after I turned 18, I not only went to my polling place and voted, I was an official poll watcher for a political campaign (Reagan in 1976 for what it’s worth).

I believe in voting whenever it’s possible, and have a hard time understanding people who don’t show up for midterms or for local elections that don’t line up with presidential years. The president gets blamed for many things he couldn’t control (whichever president), and also gets credit for many things he could not control. Your school board members, council members, state representatives, and many others have a large amount of influence on your life. You should show up to vote.

I do understand a principled stand not to vote. What I do not understand is not showing up due to apathy. It’s worth going out of your way to do.

A few notes:

  1. I have not read a single social media post that influenced me on an issue.
  2. I have not seen a single political ad on TV that influenced me favorably with regard to the sponsor. I saw a number, even for people I will vote for tomorrow, that gave me second thoughts.
  3. I didn’t even read the vast majority of the direct mail. What I did read demonstrated that the mailouts haven’t improved.
  4. I found that most candidates had uninformative web sites. I appreciate those who had a good summary of experience and political positions. Neither “conservative” nor “liberal” attract me unless I see specifics. I have encountered nuts under every label.
  5. Actually discovering useful information about candidates took much, much more time than it will to vote. Much more.
  6. Most decisions between candidates were difficult, not because there is no difference. There definitely is a difference. Rather, the problem is that so many candidates have positions or have done things that I would normally say disqualify them for my vote. There are a few candidates that I will vote for with satisfaction. I don’t agree with them entirely.
  7. Character is now, and always has been, central to my voting decision.

I’m not going to share my vote. I don’t think that would actually have any more influence on me than yours would on me. I don’t think it should.

Oh, and I really dislike the way elections have been taken over by political consultants. Here’s a near future science fiction story I wrote about it in 2012.

Argument Test

Argument Test

Whether you’re using an argument against someone’s position, or dealing with application of a text, try it out against yourself. As in X said A contradicting Y who said B. Response: “X has been known to lie/be wrong.” Would you accept  “Y has been known to lie/be wrong” if you held position B?