Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

I have often annoyed people by saying both that I believe in substitutionary atonement, though I prefer not to use “penal substitutionary atonement,” and also do not believe it is the sole reason for, view of, or metaphor to describe what God did in the atonement.

So it’s nice to link to Roger Olson, who may be a bit less critical of substitutionary views than I am, but yet explains both the positive in this theory of the atonement and also some of the misunderstandings. If nothing else, this may help us discuss serious presentations. Well worth reading.

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom and Responsibility

I posted an extract from Dave Black’s blog on The Jesus Paradigm today. (I do this because you can’t link to a specific post on Dave’s blog, and I have his permission.) Dave is talking about Galatians 5:13-15, and what freedom means.

Rather than commenting on this passage myself, I want to put a quote from one of my other authors alongside Dave’s. I like to do this both in terms of seeing where we disagree, but also to note where we might come from different denominations and/or tradition streams, and nonetheless agree.

This is from Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly:

We are called to freedom, Paul proclaims. Many people believe that freedom means doing exactly what they want without regard to its impact on others. In individualistic North America, we hear the following cries of freedom: “It’s my money and I can do whatever I want with it,” “It’s a woman’s choice,” “It’s my property and I will use it as I please,” “Don’t infringe on my right to gun ownership,” “It’s not hurting anyone, I can do what I want in my private life.” Paul sees Christian freedom from a very different perspective.

Freedom finds its fullest expression in loving relationships that take into consideration the needs of others. Christian freedom is not coercive, it is invitational, and it invites us to let go of our individualistic possessiveness and live in light of God’s grace and generosity, manifest in our willingness to sacrifice some aspects of our freedom for the well-being of others and the communities of which we are a part.

“Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (5:13). Freedom involves responsibilities as well as rights. In fact, in Christian community, Paul asserts that freedom involves sacrifice for the greater good of those around me. Paul’s understanding of freedom within the Christian community is captured in his Letter to the Romans: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:14-15). True freedom goes beyond self-interest to embrace the best interests of those with whom we interact.

Epperly, Galatians, 57-58

I find that a critical element of my Bible study is to consult a variety of sources, not just different theological positions, but also different approaches. In my current study of Romans, for example, I follow a theological commentary, an exegetical commentary (from a different perspective), and a linguistic/technical commentary.

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

There have been a number of articles recently discussing Ayn Rand and her Christian supporters and (supposed) followers. One of these is by Sheila Kennedy, who doesn’t do all that bad, though I still see things differently.

Key Questions which I Might not Answer

The key issues I encounter are:

  • How can a Christian enjoy or appreciate Ayn Rand, who is very vigorously atheist?
  • Can Ayn Rand’s philosophy be reconciled with a Christian worldview and way of life?
  • Why do so many young Christians and other conservatives get so excited by Rand’s writing?
  • Is Rand a good writer, enjoyable apart from her philosophy?
  • Rand was not tolerant of any form of disagreement. It was all or nothing. Can one appreciate her writing while rejecting some or even most of her philosophical conclusions?

My Experience

First, for full disclosure, I went through almost all of the views of Rand that I’ve ever heard over the course of some years. I first rejected the very notion of reading her when an undergraduate professor suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness. After some time, I read her novels, starting with Atlas Shrugged, and as I was searching for a place to be at the time, attempted being a follower. This didn’t work either, though I spent some time at it, so I set her aside. Then I found a different form of appreciation that was not entirely approval, that comes from me as an editor and publisher.

Thus my question becomes why people do like her, and how to understand and discuss the related issues.

I’m not going to structure this according to my list of questions, but I’m going to try to answer these questions in the course of my response.

Is Ayn Rand a Good Writer?

My first issue is with those who say that Ayn Rand is a bad writer. The label “bad writer” is always problematic. As a publisher, I can use it occasionally, such as for the individual who wanted me to publish his novel which he had hand written on lined paper in a scribble I could not read. I think I can safely refer to that as bad writing.

Beyond that, the issue becomes a bit more difficult. I don’t like reading Dostoevsky, but he is very well-liked and read, and in fact produces quite a number of quotable items. My dislike for reading that particular style does not make it bad literature. It just makes it literature I don’t like. I use someone that literati tend to believe must be appreciated in order to emphasize my point.

Then there are elements of popular literature that many of the literary elite, taking elite here in a positive sense, do not appreciate. I’ve encountered this attitude toward science fiction. It’s not really literature. You need to read something serious, like Dostoevsky! So here we have literature which is read by many, but is not as much appreciated in academia. I think graphic novels and superhero literature would qualify as well. The academic says it’s not good, but the public consumes it with delight.

One of my top five favorite authors in science fiction is David Weber. He can illustrate both sides. There are actually things I don’t like about Weber’s writing, such as his tendency to rehash history, rather than allow his readers to either fill in the blanks or go back and read previous books in the series. He can hammer a theme to death, and then beat on it for some time afterward. Each element is, however, good writing in itself, and Weber is popular in science fiction. Does the critic/editor in me win out, or the relaxed reader? Definitely the latter.

I take a non-prescriptivist approach to literature as I do in linguistics. A word’s (or expression’s) meaning is derived from its usage. A book’s value is determined by readers. Not a particular set of readers! Those readers who are influencers of the specific reader. You may argue, even correctly, that one book is of more value than another, but those arguments become part of your effort to influence.

Note that I refer here to fiction. A non-fiction book can be judged on more objective, agreed standards, such as the accuracy and referencing of information, the clarity of the presentation, and so forth. Even here, however, the audience’s appreciation is a key. I’ve seen reviewers criticize a short book for not covering more ground. For example, books in my company’s Topical Line Drives series, in which the authors are limited to 44 pages, or a bit less than 13,000 words. Various reviewers have commented that the author should have covered some aspect of the topic. Well, blame the publisher — me!

So I don’t see the question of whether Ayn Rand is a good writer or not as terribly relevant. The complaint amounts to “I don’t like her style.” There are a number of elements of it that I don’t like. That didn’t prevent me from reading her books, and I doubt it will dent her popularity.

Rand and Her Christian Followers

Let’s look at her Christian followers. Is there a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Christianity? I would say there is not. What one can do is take certain aspects of her philosophy, and her political and economic views, and reconcile them with certain versions of Christianity.

Therein lies the problem. There is no single Christianity to which one can compare Rand’s philosophy. My own view of Christianity and of what it means to follow Jesus is not compatible. But I am not the only person wearing the label “Christian.” It’s worthwhile to note that Rand is not the only person wearing the label “atheist” either. I’d hope that was obvious. I know a few atheists who despise Rand in a way few others can.

It might be better to ask whether one can extract ideas of value from her writing without also accepting her strident atheism; indeed, her strident everything. Yes, one can. I did.

My problem with what I did was simply that I found that the things I extracted were available from other sources. During this same period I read Ludwig von Mises, especially his book Human Action. Pretty much everything I found of value in terms of economic and political ideas in Rand was derived from von Mises, and is much better explained in his works. (Note here the value judgment, in my opinion, von Mises does the better job of presentation.)

A Note on Economics

I can’t leave this subject without noting an issue regarding current economic controversies. Conservatives of my acquaintance are opposed to government efforts at caring for the poor, or of income redistribution (as they see it). Liberals of my acquaintance consider this opposition heartless. As I talk to these two groups, and the wide spectrum of views around them, I rarely hear someone who truly does not care. Doubtless there are some such. The issue for most is how do you accomplish the goal of making life better for people?

What I see is that we have people primarily concerned with production and others primarily concerned with distribution. To truly help the most people and make lives better, we need to bring these two elements together. How can we be more productive, and how can more people benefit? Wealth is not actually static. It can be produced. Distribution doesn’t always occur in an effective manner, despite capitalist claims to the contrary. (This is partially because nobody is immune from seeking control, so capitalists try to arrange the government not according to capitalist principles of supply and demand, success and failure, but rather to make the playing field better for them.)

What’s Left?

So what’s left for me of Rand is the story of the constructive cultural rebel who is not impressed by the standards of those around him, but who makes his or her own choices according to what seems best by his or her own standards. Note here that I like The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged.

But what makes people like these novels, works that deride the values of the faith they claim? If nothing else, one must accept that Ayn Rand’s atheism is contrary to any form of Christianity, and this atheism is pervasive, vigorous, and unyielding.

I believe the core of this liking is the same as the reason people like Star Wars in the modern era and liked apocalyptic literature in ancient times. In the story, you get to be one of the beleaguered good guys clearly differentiated from the bad guys, with extremely clear moral standards. Gray is eliminated. It must choose one side or the other. It’s very easy to identify with the good guys.

In the way this sort of literature progresses, one is constantly pressured to see that there is no good on the other side, and thus any tendency to compromise is suppressed. There will be a battle. Either good or evil will win. In the biblical book of Revelation, either God or Satan will win. One goes in the lake of fire; the other rules forever. There is no thought that there might be a compromise solution.

Many of us are attracted to this. We’re tired of working in gray areas, and we’d like to always know precisely what is right and what is wrong. The more that has gone into a project, the less likely we are to accept that it might not be pristine.

The more people who die in a war, the harder it is to get people to admit that the war might have been ambiguous at the start. People will divide into supporters of one side or the other, or at least into vigorous supporters vs. vigorous opponents of a side. “We presided over the death of thousands for an ambiguous goal,” doesn’t sit that well.

God and Satan

Rand, like Revelation, presents us with a god and satan scenario. She’s an atheist, yet she has “God the producer” as the ultimate good guy, the one to whom undivided loyalty is due. Idolatry is giving anything to the non-producers. On the other hand there is Satan the Moocher, who must die in the death the producer creates by withdrawing his producing power. It’s a powerful metaphor that tends to draw the reader onto the good side, produce hate for the bad side, draw a sharp distinction, and eliminate the grays.

Is this type of literature good or bad? In this question we come full circle. I’m not going to decide whether literature is good or bad. I’m not certain things would be much different of Rand didn’t exist. I think the tendency is there in the human heart, and it’s going to find it’s justification. Certainty attracts, even when wrong. The morally clear and certain is always going to find a following, no matter how flawed the line of division is.

For I too believe that good will win and evil will fail. But for me good encompasses a very broad spectrum, that the good involves the ability to respect and appreciate differences and ambiguity, and to use them to learn and to grow. And that happens, in my view, only with God.

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)

A Challenge to See

A Challenge to See

This past Sunday I was invited to preach in my home church, Chumuckla Community Church. It’s a real privilege to speak on the last Sunday of the year, hopefully rounding up where we have been and presenting a challenge for the future.

I was offered the epiphany scriptures, and used Matthew 2:1-12. I’m not going to summarize the sermon. My message was simple: We need to learn to see Jesus in people and respond accordingly. I contrasted the “god made manifest” of an Antiochus Ephiphanes, as opposed to the baby in Bethlehem. Where is it that you see Jesus?

Even further, how to you pursue the mission of Jesus? Is it according to the power-seeking ways of human politics, or is it in the giving ways of the Bethlehem story? Do you see God working when the powerful make power plays, or when servants serve?

I referred to Matthew 25:31-46. There are many debates about this passage. Years ago I read it as a performance based righteousness, and as identifying the specific type of righteous performance required. (I still think it identifies righteousness for a follower of Jesus.) I later realized that nobody who thought they were going to heaven actually were doing so, and those who were, didn’t realize it. (I understand the varying views of just what is involved in this judgment. I’m not concerned with that difference at the moment. The good guys don’t realize they’re good; the bad guys think they’re good.)

In the last couple of weeks, however, I became aware of a tragedy in the story. I’m not in any way presenting this as an interpretation of the parable. The blessing of a story, however, is that it can convey many things. The tragedy I see is that nobody at all was aware of the fact that they were seeing Jesus as they looked into the faces of people they either helped or didn’t. Not one recognized what they were seeing. This isn’t a question of salvation, but rather of the joy of living this life.

We can argue that we should help the homeless, as an example, on the basis that we ought to do good things. We ought to help those less fortunate. Unfortunately, this can result in condescension. We look at the person as a way to punch our “good person” ticket. Or, perhaps, we perform whatever act we do out of a sense of duty. “It sure is annoying, but I suppose Jesus wants me to help this person.” This leads, for example (and I’m guilty!) to looking the other way when we don’t have cash, or don’t intend to give to a particular person.

I’m not arguing that we need to give money to each and every person who asks. There is stewardship. There is the need to actually help. But what we do need to do is treat every person first as a human being, as one Jesus came to save, as bearing God’s image, and as a way in which we can see the face of Jesus. Hopefully, the other person will have the opportunity to see Jesus in us at the same time.

This is not a New Year’s resolution. I expect to fail at it many times. But my challenge to myself, and to you, is to see Jesus much more frequently, and not turn away from the faces in which he is trying to show himself to me.

And yes, you may see Jesus in the face of someone in need, someone that society might consider less than you. But you also might see Jesus in the face of one of the world’s elites. They also have a need to be treated as people.

As I asked the congregation of Chumuckla Community Church: Did you see Him? Will you?

Link: Linguistics and Gospel Origins

Link: Linguistics and Gospel Origins

Dave Black had some interesting notes on this subject today, which I posted to The Jesus Paradigm. There is a constant debate on what is “correct” usage. We have this with regard to modern usage. I’ll have authors cite some manual against their editor, usually on optional items.

So why do we expect all usage to be equal in Koine Greek?

Here’s Dave’s money quote, I think:

Lately it’s become clear to me that the question concerning correctness and incorrectness in language is not so much a linguistic one but a sociolinguistic one. In other words, it is people who determine what is correct and incorrect in language, not textbooks. In a sense, then, if everybody says “It’s me,” then this construction is correct. 

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

I’ve appreciated the work of Brevard Childs since I first encountered him via his Isaiah volume in the Old Testament Library series.I just finished with the first section in his Exodus volume (see below), and I have to say that I find it even better. Childs takes note of source and redactional issues, but subordinates them to hearing the text as a part of the canon.

Sections view the text in its Old Testament/Hebrew Bible context, its New Testament use, history of exegesis and finally theological reflections.

Admittedly, many pastors would find it difficult to follow all the material, but the time taken to think both broadly and deeply about a passage will produce a reward in understanding and the ability to share one’s reflections with others.

I may review this book when I have read it through, but the start was so rewarding that I wanted to comment immediately.

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

After interviewing Allan R. Bevere a few days ago I discovered another video. First, here’s my interview with Allan. We were talking about the United Methodist Church General Conference in 2019 looking for a way forward as a denomination with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.

The new video is from the Adventist News Network (HT Spectrum Magazine), which is an official project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long time readers of this blog will know I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, but am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. Here it is:

The issues in the two denominations are different. While United Methodists discuss homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Seventh-day Adventists are discussing ordination of women. In many discussions, I have heard the arguments against women’s ordination expressed in terms of the danger of a slippery slope toward accepting homosexuality. The claim is that the same arguments might be, and have been, used for both.

In the process of discussing these issues, however, we see a number of things:

  • Money becomes a key. In the United Methodist Church it becomes a question of how much power our brethren in the global south should have over the church seeing as they are financially supported by the American church. In the SDA Church the issue of tithe has now been raised, as the North American Division wants to reduce the percentage of its tithe sent to other divisions.
  • People are accused based simply on their viewpoint. I understand how this happens. Sincerity does not mean one is right. One can be passionately and sincerely wrong, even when rightly motivated. (I should know! I’ve been there and might be now!) But one can be firm on one’s convictions and still be respectful.
  • Each side accuses the other of bringing disunity. This is a choice that comes to all. When a “Martin Luther” moment comes is it an act of disunity or an act of conscience?
  • One’s opponents may be seen as guilty of putting a stop to the gospel message, such as the implication in the Adventist News Network video that those who support women’s ordination are holding back the work of the gospel and preparation for the coming of Jesus.
  • Conformity is seen as unity.
  • Everyone starts looking at the legal ownership of church property (see the first point)!

I have made my opinion on women in ministry clear, so I can’t stand back and play facilitator to a discussion. I believe that those God has gifted in any way should serve in that way, and I do believe women can be and are gifted for ministry. I believe God equips those he calls and the equipping is quite enough evidence. On homosexuality I’ve tried to stand back. A very good friend who passed away recently said to me once: “Henry, it’s very hard to be both a prophet and a facilitator.” He was very right. So I’ve refrained from any pulpit pounding type statements on homosexuality. It doesn’t mean I have no opinions; just that I’m going to let others do the discussion, and there’s no lack of those ready and waiting to engage.

But let me turn to two other issues on which I’ll make something of a statement. I’m a firm believer on the one hand that we should have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and especially charity in all things. (Note the interesting and difficult history of the saying I paraphrase.) On the other hand I believe in keeping your essentials to a minimum, as reflected in the doctrinal statement I use for my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’ve discussed this before, and will link to my post Not All Doctrines Are Equal, which links to several others.)

For my first issue I’m opposed to just about any form of prosperity theology, or even letting finance drive the train. Financial management is necessary, but it’s generally the first thing to get in the way of good moral decision making. We simply don’t take the time to find a way to do things that is financially responsible and yet morally right.

In the case of the controversies I’m mentioning, this comes up in wanting to diminish the influence of some people over finance. Money is the presenting issue, but behind it is the fact that someone does not like the viewpoint of the other person. Whether I agree with someone or not, I believe as a Christian that I must respect that person. The believer in Africa, South America, or Asia is not diminished before God because I don’t like the way he or she will vote in a conference. Financial status should not change the nature of our relationships in the family of God. In this case, I think it would be better to lose a vote than to in any diminish another person.

Of course, this must include not diminishing the person who is on the other side, or who is being argued about. Whether we are talking about the level of a person’s financial contributions, their sexuality, or simply their gender, it can be (usually is) paternalistic and diminishing when the person with the power discusses whether to share that power with the person who does not. In the kingdoms of the world it may be necessary. I think Jesus calls us to better behavior. (Not that I know how to always do it right.)

Money comes up in terms of church property as well. Allan Bevere noted that the one thing that may connect us soon is our pensions (speaking as a pastor). One of the things that will likely cause controversy is those congregations who, no matter what happens, may want to withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Then we face the specter of people claiming the name of Jesus fighting it out in secular court due to church property. Quoth Paul, “Why would it not be better to be wronged? Why would it not be better to be defrauded?”

Second, however, is the issue of hierarchy. All of these issues become issues of power. Who gets to tell who else what they should and shouldn’t do, and who gets to enforce the result. Again, after noting how the rulers of the nations behaved, Jesus told his disciples it was not to be that way with them. The greatest should be a servant. (Mark 10:41-45) I wonder how the debate would change if we saw it as a question of serving rather than having power over. (In fact, I have a problem with the whole idea of a separated class of ordained clergy, but that is a different debate.)

I hope and pray that both my former and my present denominations will find a Christ-like way through their divisions. I don’t actually feel very hopeful. Perhaps it’s “Oh me of little faith!” Still it doesn’t look that good, no matter which direction the wind blows on the various doctrines. There is likely a right and wrong answer.  I tend to believe in moral absolutes while doubting our ability to come very close to them. But we must not violate much clearer moral values, such as the way we treat one another, in the pursuit of those truths.

When we pursue absolutes at the expense of other absolutes, the resulting mess is absolute.