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But Did God Approve of That?

But Did God Approve of That?

Last night in my Tuesday night group we were discussing the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah 36 & 37, in which King Sennacherib of Assyria attacks Judah, and things get pretty dire. Following a sneering message from the Assyrian king, Hezekiah, at the beginning of chapter 37, tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and goes to the house of the Lord.

The first question we had was whether people liked this action. Here’s the king acting afraid, worried, and uncertain about this message. I found it pretty easy to discuss this from a sociological and political point of view. How is it that a king like Hezekiah, in a tiny kingdom such as Judah, manages to hold everything together when pretty much everything is in enemy hands except for three cities?

I’d suggest that part of the reasoning (ignoring God’s involvement for the moment) comes from the fact that unlike his father, King Ahaz (Isaiah 7), Hezekiah goes to the prophets. The prophets were a political force. We have more evidence for this from the northern kingdom than the southern one, but it seems a reasonable assumption to me.

Further, the priesthood of Jerusalem was another force in the nations politics, and Hezekiah was the one who centralized worship in Jerusalem. That would have endeared him to that group.

Thus I suspect Hezekiah had his political ducks in a row as far as powerful groups in the country were concerned. Which, of course, ignores the role of the God of Israel.

Someone in our group asked this: But was God pleased?

The background here is one of doubt. In a sense, both Hezekiah and his father Ahaz show doubt. Ahaz does this by ignoring the prophet, assuming that he has to do the necessary work to protect himself when Isaiah says God’s word is that the alliance against Ahaz will not prosper.

Hezekiah, rather than putting on the perfect performance of piety and trust in God, which might have involved getting up and dramatically announcing that the God of Israel was greater than all the gods of Assyria, tears his clothes.

This is one of the interesting—perhaps the most interesting—questions we can ask in reading a Bible story. The Bible, particular in the Hebrew scriptures, tells stories in a fairly sparse fashion and doesn’t spend a great deal of time explaining the details to us. We have to read the stories carefully and ask ourselves what moral lessons may apply. Sometimes our perspective can change over time.

In this case, I think I can answer quite definitively. I think God was very pleased with Hezekiah. I have a few reasons for that:

  • Hezekiah is honest. In the modern church we have a great deal of pretense, because we expect certain performance from our leaders. If the pastor expresses doubt, the foundations are shaken. This is an unrealistic expectation whether of a pastor or of a national leader. This is your Old Testament edition of 2 Corinthians 12:10 in two acts: Isaiah 7 has Ahaz strong, so God is, in effect, weak. In Isaiah 37 Hezekiah is weak, and God is strong!
  • God gets the glory. Because of Hezekiah’s honest, God gets the resulting glory. I back this up with the story in Isaiah 38 & 39. When Hezekiah is healed by divine action, messengers come to see him. He shows them everything. Now the story doesn’t say it directly, but it appears he shows them how strong he, Hezekiah, is, and neglects God’s glory.
  • Hezekiah seeks God immediately. While he is afraid, he nonetheless goes to God rather than seeking the answer himself.

These two stories in Isaiah 36-39 (I think some might make it three or even four stories, but I think of it as two parts, and effectively the acts completing what happened with Ahaz) open up a great deal of room for meditation and discussion on leadership, weakness, dependence on God, and action.

It’s said, however, that Hezekiah ends up on a very selfish note. In Isaiah 39:8 he tells himself everything is OK, because destruction and exile won’t come in his own lifetime.

Even the best of us, like Hezekiah, can fail!

(Featured image credit: Pixabay.)

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

A friend’s post on Facebook got me thinking about this verse:

I said to them, “If anyone has items made of gold, bring them. And they gave them to me, and I threw them in the fire, and out came this calf.”

(Exodus 32:24, my translation from the LXX)

I can’t help but think that Aaron is hoping that a claim of miraculous activity will somehow justify his action. Moses wasn’t buying it, as his actions show.

We laugh, but how often to we make Aaron’s appeal?

Appeal to Blessings and Curses

In fact, I think we do this from both directions. If someone is blessed, we often say they must be following God’s will because look at all the blessings! On the other hand, if someone is suffering hardship, we say, “They must be doing God’s work, otherwise the devil wouldn’t be after them that way!”

Depending on how we feel about the people, we might just reverse those things. “Look at how their worldly behavior is resulting in increased worldly good! Must not be very spiritual with all that money!” Or, “If you were truly doing God’s will, you wouldn’t be having all those hardships.”

The Bible story presents many examples that stand in opposition, no matter which of these options you take. In preparing for my Sunday School lesson tomorrow, I read Isaiah 53, which is one of background passages:

He was despised, rejected by humanity,
Beaten, experiencing disease.
We turned and looked away from him,
We despised him and accounted him nothing.

Isaiah 53:3 (my translation)

Whether you apply this to Israel as God’s servant, or to the remnant of exiled Israel whom God would restore, or to Jesus as the suffering servant, it still refers to someone who is suffering, even though they are in the process of carrying out God’s plan.

In Philippians (chapter 2 was the reading, but I refer back to chapter 1 as well), we find Paul in prison. He is suffering. There are those who proclaim the gospel in a way intended to give him pain. It’s possible these were people who thought their view and presentation of the gospel was superior to Paul’s, and were using his suffering as a basis for asserting that superiority. Surely God would free Paul if his teaching was so good!

Yet in the key reading for today’s lesson, we have the note that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or hung onto (Philippians 2:6), yet clearly it is not Paul’s intent to suggest Jesus, in giving up everything, was not following God’s plan.

The Case of Prophecy

In discussing prophecy, many make frequent reference to Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a prophet makes a prediction and that word does not come true, God has not spoken. This test of a prophet is both simple and deadly.

Consider Jonah. He made a prediction, and that prediction did not come true. He was really annoyed, because he wanted Nineveh destroyed. I’m sure he was also annoyed, because now he was a false prophet.

Turn that around and think of the Ninevites. Suppose they have their version of Deuteronomy 18:21-22. They say, “Well, if he’s a true prophet, the city will be destroyed in 40 days and we can be certain.”

I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you’ve completed your test and made a determination, you’re likely dead. Not an optimum strategy, I would say. Of course, if you’re not dead, find that prophet and a pile of rocks.

Too bad for Jonah.

Another Example: 1 Kings 22

In 1 Kings 22 we have a lovely story in which Jehoshaphat of Judah, by all accounts a good king, is visiting the king of Israel. While there, they get the idea to go to war. Jehoshaphat, good king that he was, wanted to consult the LORD. The king of Israel gets 400 prophets who tell the two kings to do what they want to do.

Jehoshaphat is not satisfied and looks for one more prophet. Micaiah is brought in, and he prophesies something quite different. The day isn’t going to go well. (You can get out your Bible and read the details.)

So if you’re one of the two kings, how do you make a decision? If Micaiah is prophesying falsely, you can ignore him, but by the time you know that, you will also have lost the battle. Not so helpful!

The Other Test

Deuteronomy has another test, however, and it’s an important one.

If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (NRSV)

In this case your test is one that can be done immediately. Is this person telling us to worship other gods? I wonder if that was not the reason Jehoshaphat doubted the word of the 400 prophets. Unfortunately, even though he was wise enough to ask for one more prophet, he was apparently unwilling to go with the advice of the prophet he requested.

The Case of Gifts

I’ve seen this used in connection with spiritual gifts. People look for a manifestation of miraculous gifts, sometimes a specific gift, or one off of a list Paul provides. But Paul is never intending to provide exhaustive lists of the spiritual gifts. That’s why his lists don’t match. He’s just giving us examples. In each case, he’s providing a different test, not one that appeals to miraculous (or at least obviously miraculous) activity.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we are given a view of the real test in verses 4-7, as the example list is introduced. There are varieties of gifts, but one Spirit, one Lord, one God. It is by looking at the One in whose service the gifts are used that we can discern their nature.

No Simple Answer

Scripture doesn’t provide us with a single, simple answer. It leaves us with the task of discernment. Are your troubles due to the devil trying to stop your carrying out of God’s work, or are they God closing doors? Is your wealth God’s blessing in response to your following God’s will, or is it the devil rewarding a servant?

You find this out through prayer, thinking, discernment, study, and good counsel. The result may be miraculous!

(Theme image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

I encountered a question recently that I’d like to explore a bit. The question comes in three parts, or perhaps with three perspectives.

  • When God commanded the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, was God commanding idolatry?
  • Why would God give this command?
  • Was this a good command?

It’s easy to dismiss the question by simply saying that it is God’s command, therefore good, and further cannot be a command to sin. But if we consider that, as Paul says, “these things are examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6), perhaps we might want to explore just why God would command such a thing.

Idolatry

Let me first note that idolatry is rather easy to fall into. We are very much idol-making people. I often use Paul Tillich’s vocabulary in this, that idolatry is making something that is not ultimate your ultimate concern. We can take a book, such as the Bible, from which we get God’s Word, and make the book, the thing, into the object of worship.

An example of this would be using the Bible as a sort of magical talisman. I have seen people who expect the possession and use of the physical book to accomplish miracles. Not so! The power of scripture is in revealing God who is the one who takes action. It is not minimizing or dismissing the book to realize that it is what conveys to us God’s will rather than being magical or an object of worship.

An unopened Bible sitting on the shelf in your home in a prominent place might well become your idol. You believe you are closer to God because of the object. A picture of Jesus might function in a similar way. It displays to others your faith. The question is, are you in Christ and Christ in you? That same picture on the wall might either be a reminder or it might be an idol.

I have three crosses over the door to my office. If I treat them as an object of worship, and forget what they symbolize, they could easily become an idol.

Some Objects and Commands

The ark of the covenant became a problem in this very way in scripture. It was commanded by God and built according to God’s instructions. It was supposed to be there in the temple. There was some critical symbolism involved in that under those cherubim, where there would have been an image of a god in a temple of another religion, there was empty space. Empty, at least, to human sight.

This was part of the ritual of Israel’s worship. It played a key role. But when the sons of Eli decided to take it from the tabernacle and to war, something else happened. Idolatry broke out! In 1 Samuel 4 we have the story, as Israel gives this triumphant shout, the Philistines hear it and decide that the gods have come into the camp of Israel.

Israel’s actions were idolatrous. They thought that God was confined to the thing. Now the thing was good. It was commanded by God, but it was being used in a way that was inappropriate. Idolatry is dangerous, because it disconnects us from God and connects us to, and limits us by, our own power.

As a public event, this idolatry also provided a false witness to the Philistines, who believed that God was again limited to the object.

So the question becomes, why did God want the ark built if it could be so misused?

In this case, we have considerable evidence to suggest why this should be. The ark provided an important symbol in Israel’s worship, and even an antidote to idolatry in what it symbolized.

At the same time we see one of the key sources of idolatry: We really like to have something to take hold of, something we can see, and a course of action that will let us take control. When Eli’s sons took the ark, they were trying to force God’s hand. If God wouldn’t save them from a distance, they’d bring God to where God could do what they wanted done.

We combine that with liking to repeat the action. If it works once, let’s do it again.

The Command to Worship

We have many rituals commanded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet the prophets tend to downplay these to some extent. I think a good place to look at this is Psalm 51. Here we have a prayer of repentance, which says that God doesn’t want sacrifice (v. 16), but then says that burnt offerings will be acceptable (v. 19). What’s the difference? Repentance!

The point of the sacrifice is a ritual that works with, reminds us of, and reinforces the actions that we need to take. It is a good ritual in that sense. But if we replace repentance with a ritual of repentance, the action itself becomes idolatry. It suggests that some action I take can box God in. “Oh well,” it says to God, “I may have sinned, but I offered a sacrifice so now you’re stuck with forgiving me.”

We have an idolatry of action, by placing the action in place of God. Only God forgives. Leviticus and Numbers are worded carefully to not suggest that forgiveness is accomplished by the sacrifice. Rather, forgiveness comes from God. The sacrifice is God’s command, and becomes a means of bringing us to repentance and keeping us there.

So here’s another command of God that can be abused, and in much the same way as the ark of the covenant was abused by Eli’s sons.

A Means of Healing

When Naaman comes to Elisha for healing he’s told to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times (2 Kings 5). Is there something particularly efficacious about the water of the Jordan river? Not at all! This is something God is commanding Naaman to do. The action doesn’t heal. God heals. God asks for that act of obedience before God heals.

Now we could make a cult out of Jordan river water, saying that it has special healing powers. Come to think of it, we do make quite a thing out of Jordan river water, being baptized in it, bringing back bottles of it from trips to Israel.

Now don’t get me wrong. Enjoying an experience isn’t idolatry. But if you for one moment think that being baptized in the Jordan river is better than being baptized elsewhere, that the water of that particular river has more power to cleanse from sin, you have fallen into idolatry.

The Idolatry of Places

When Jesus is transfigured, Peter wants to set up camp. It’s a sacred place. It’s a natural response (Matthew 17, see especially verse 4 for Peter’s response).

That response was also natural in both Jews and Samaritans. It’s better to worship on Mt. Gerizim. It’s better to worship in Jerusalem. All of which depends on what God has commanded. It is not the place that does it, though a place can help us. I like to pray in the church sanctuary. Is this idolatry? Only if I believe that it’s the only place God can reach me.

Jesus said that those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and not based on place (John 4:23).

Again, it’s easy to see how the command works. Gathering in a place is part of the human process of building community, so God commands a place. Making the place more sacred than God is our desire to bring things under our own control. A good command becomes an idolatry of the particular place.

About that Snake!

In the case of the snake on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Here we have a simple command of God that the Israelites are to look to the serpent and they will be healed.

Before I go to our three related questions, let’s look at two other scriptural points of reference. The first is 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah is reforming the land and destroying idols. He destroys the very serpent referenced in Numbers 21:4-9 at the time. Why? Because people were burning incense to the serpent and had even named it. This is idolatry. What God had once commanded and used for God has been turned to another purpose.

This is one of the best illustrations of the process of idolatry. We find something good, something that God commands or approves, and there are good results. Instead of realizing that it is God’s power in action, we make that set of actions, circumstances, things, or the very location the means of our receiving good. We are then worshiping the creature, rather than the creator (Romans 1:25).

In this case we have another scriptural reference point:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him can have eternal life.

John 3:14-15 (my translation)

Here we have a symbol by analogy, so again the serpent, destroyed by Hezekiah, serves God’s purpose. Never underestimate God’s power to redeem, whether that redemption is of a symbol or of a person!

A key here, as back in Numbers, is that the person looks up to the serpent but is healed by God, and there’s a fulfillment in a person looking up to Jesus and seeing God. The lesser symbol points to the greater/greatest.

The Questions

Is God commanding idolatry? No. God’s command is to look at, not to worship the snake. The healing comes from God. Idolatry would be to assume that the snake healed. But the text doesn’t say that.

Why does God command people to look at the snake? This one is harder. I don’t really know. By analogy, I assume it has something to do with teaching them other lessons. I can also look forward to the lifting up of Jesus. But how this act connected for the people I don’t know. I understand, however, that making a place of worship, providing an ark, and providing sacrifices each had an impact on the people, and I assume this did as well.

Was it a good command? God’s word doesn’t return empty. Just because I don’t know the reasoning, which is lost in history, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know. My guess is that Moses and the people understood this in a way I can’t, that it made sense in the situation. I have heard numerous explanations, and I can’t claim any one as definite. The fact that someone turned it into idolatry down the road doesn’t indicate that the command itself was bad. We are idol making machines. We make idols.

Was This a Good Question?

Perhaps I could word that differently. Should we ask this kind of question of God’s actions? Should we not just assume that God’s command is good?

I would suggest that this is an excellent question. If you don’t ask this kind of question of a story in scripture, you can’t really learn from it. Simply appending a moral that says, “God said it, so it’s good,” doesn’t involve much learning.

There are commands in scripture that are much more troubling, I think, and we need to be prepared to examine and see what we can learn.

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.

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.

 

Preparing to Teach Romans Tonight: Quote

Preparing to Teach Romans Tonight: Quote

From Meditations on the Letters of Paul, by Herold Weiss:

Jesus’ faith in God is what gives life to sinners. This point is made in another famous Pauline confession: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This text says it best, but again attention must be paid to the original Greek, which reads: “but what I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith, that of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” As a Christian Paul lives in two locations: “in the flesh” and “in the faith;” that is, Paul is crucified with Christ, and as a consequence the faith of the Son of God is active in Paul. Christians live “in Christ,” as Paul does not tire to say. Paul does not have faith in Jesus. He has the faith of Jesus because he is “found in him.” Jesus had faith in the effective power of God; likewise, Paul has the faith of Jesus in the power of God to raise the dead. In passing, it is also to be noted that in this very personal confession Paul gives specific credit to Christ saying that the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me.” It is not just that God loved the sinners, sent forth His Son, and pours out the Spirit on human hearts. It is also the case that the Son loves humanity and gave himself for all humans. (pp. 67-68)

 

From My Reading: Isaiah 10:1-4a

From My Reading: Isaiah 10:1-4a

Woe to the enacters of unjust enactments,
to the writers of harmful laws,
who separate the poor from judgment,
so they can rob my needy people of right,
so widows can become your loot,
and orphans your plunder!

What will you do on the day of accounting,
when calamity comes from afar?
Where will you flee for rescue,
where will you stash your wealth,
lest you cower among the prisoners,
or fall among the corpses of the slain?

— Isaiah 10:1-4a (My own translation with slight poetic paraphrasing.)

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Reading, Studying, Discussing, Teaching, and Proclaiming but not Practicing

Reading, Studying, Discussing, Teaching, and Proclaiming but not Practicing

I was struck by Dave Black’s note on Hebrews 4:14-16 from Wednesday on his blog. I extracted it to jesusparadigm.com, as Dave’s blog is a journal that doesn’t offer links to individual posts. (I have his permission.)

I highly recommend his post. It struck me because Hebrews is such a central part of my reading and study. There are those who claim I can’t get through an hour of study, no matter what the subject, without referring to the book of Hebrews. Within Hebrews, 4:14-16 has to be one of my most quoted passages in the book.

Dave talks about not going to our great High Priest first. That really struck me, because I think I don’t either. The other day I woke up in a cold sweat because I had dreamed about something critical going wrong. Now I’m working through quite a number of things that can justify worry, in a normal sense. I was telling Jody about my “awakening” and she just said, “Next time you wake up in a cold sweat, just remind yourself that Jesus has it all under control.” Jesus says, “Can anxious thought add a single day to your life?” (Matthew 6:27 REB).

I don’t intend to do less. But I’d also like to worry less. None of the problems I’m facing have been alleviated by my worry. Not one.

On John Wesley and Total Depravity

On John Wesley and Total Depravity

I’ve drawn some questions and produced some amusement (from Calivinist friends) by using the term “total depravity.” Listeners were surprised to hear a Wesleyan use that particular term. “Sinners,” “sinful,” and similar terms, OK, but total depravity? I have previously heard people remark that total depravity isn’t Wesleyan, so as United Methodists we don’t believe that. (Oh, the many things we modern Methodists don’t believe that Wesley did!)

The question first came up as I used the term right after reading Romans 3:9-18, which is a somewhat depressing passage, largely made up of snippets from the Old Testament. Paul is completing his dissertation on all being sinful, Jew and Gentile alike, and in need of God’s grace. That need is total, In verse 20, he will ask: “What room then is left for human pride?” and answer, “It is excluded.”

The doctrine of total depravity does not maintain that we have all committed some list of specific sins. Rather, it claims that we are all, without God, completely and utterly lost. I find this easy to believe, because as a theist I believe that without God, I am not. Period. The specifically Wesleyan difference on this, however, is that everyone has access to God’s grace. That’s the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. It provides the universal answer (potential) to a universal problem. The differences thus arise in the doctrine of election.

I think it’s important to note also that this same passage suggests that those who don’t know the message that Israel and then the church has carried may, in fact, be doing God’s will. One might perhaps do better to let God do the judging of persons, and realize that where good is done, God is present, even if not in ways we understand.

Here’s John Wesley on this topic, from Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions, Sermon #74, “Of the Church.”

“21. We are called to walk, First, “with all lowliness:” to have that mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus; not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; to be little, and poor, and mean, and vile in our own eyes; to know ourselves as also we are known by Him to whom all hearts are open; to be deeply sensible of our own unworthiness, of the universal depravity of our nature, (in which dwelleth no good thing,) — prone to all evil, averse to all good; insomuch that we are not only sick, but dead in trespasses and sins, till God breathes upon the dry bones, and creates life by the fruit of his lips. And suppose this is done, — suppose he has now quickened us, infusing life into our dead souls; yet how much of the carnal mind remains! How prone is our heart still to depart from the living God! What a tendency to sin remains in our heart, although we know our past sins are forgiven!

“And how much sin, in spite of all our endeavours, cleaves both to our words and actions! Who can be duly sensible how much remains in him of his natural enmity to God, or how far he is still alienated from God by the ignorance that is in him?

“22. Yea, suppose God has now thoroughly cleansed our heart, and scattered the last remains of sin; yet how can we be sensible enough of our own helplessness, our utter inability to all good, unless we are every hour, yea, every moment, endued with power from on high? Who is able to think one good thought, or to form one good desire, unless by that Almighty power which worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure? We have need even in this state of grace, to be thoroughly and continually penetrated with a sense of this. Otherwise we shall be in perpetual danger of robbing God of his honour, by glorying in something we have received, as though we had not received it.”

Wesley is often calumniated by descendants (spiritually) who do not actually know what he taught.

Beware CNN Bearing Bible Verses

Beware CNN Bearing Bible Verses

Mom’s Grave Marker

When my mother passed away in April, my brother and sisters and I chose a text for her grave marker: “I will content with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children” (Isaiah 49:25, KJV). It was one of mother’s favorite texts, and her concept of “children” was broad. She was a nurse and a teacher and was involved in the lives of many.

There was, however, a period in her life when she was deprived of her favorite text. Someone with scholarly credentials told her that the text didn’t mean what she thought it meant, and that she could not claim this as a promise for herself that God would save her children.

She confided this to me in the car one day. She was deeply saddened not to have this text, but she didn’t want to use it if she was misusing it.

Now if one looks at the context of the passage, both literary and historical, it is not talking about spiritual salvation of the descendants of a modern American mother, or of keeping them safe from all danger. It’s talking about the exiles of Judah who are to be brought back to their homeland. In that sense, anyone outside of the time frame of 2nd Isaiah cannot claim the passage for themselves, as it isn’t talking about them. It’s addressed narrowly and specifically.

So are quite a large number of Bible verses.

So here’s how I responded. I told her that yes, indeed, the historical context was different, but that I saw in that passage something about the character of God, portrayed in this passage. God is a God of redemption and works to redeem. God is interested in the generations to come. (It might not surprise you in this context to learn that Psalm 78:1-8 is my theme text for my teaching ministry. God cares about the generations to follow.) I could certainly find many other texts to indicate this as well, but Isaiah 49:25 encapsulates it very well, while placing it in the context of God’s negative judgment as well. This suggests in turn that God’s judgment is intended to result eventually in redemption.

So while the text was not addressed to Myrtle Neufeld in the 20th century (which was when the conversation occurred), and did not specifically speak of her children and what would happen to them, it did express God’s nature and desire for those children. My mother was never naive enough to believe that, despite any choices made, God would make everything right. What she did believe was that God was working to save her children at all times and in all circumstances.

Mom decided that she could use the text after all. Mission accomplished.

So today I read this article from CNN. What struck me in this was not the debate about Romans 13. I have definite opinions on that, but at the moment I will only note that people I respect deeply, who are both sincere and well qualified, disagree with my definite opinions on Romans 13. Well, I should acknowledge that many agree as well! I’ll get to the matter of disagreeing on the meaning of texts in a moment.

The passage that struck me was Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Or let me quote a bit more in context:

10 It is a great joy to me in the Lord that after so long your care for me has now revived. I know you always cared; it was opportunity you lacked. 11 Not that I am speaking of want, for I have learned to be self-sufficient whatever my circumstances. 12 I know what it is to have nothing, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have been thoroughly initiated into fullness and hunger, plenty and poverty. 13 I am able to face anything through him who gives me strength. 14 All the same, it was kind of you to share the burden of my troubles.

The Revised English Bible. (1996). (Php 4:10–14). Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press.

You know something? Here’s the comment from the article:

When the Apostle Paul wrote that line, he was referring to a Christian’s ability to withstand suffering. It wasn’t about winning; it was about enduring loss. Paul wasn’t taking a victory lap; he was in prison contemplating his execution, says Van Voorst, a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan.

Um, true. Paul didn’t play basketball. But he wasn’t just talking about a Christian’s ability to withstand suffering. He was talking about being able to handle whatever life throws at you. If you’re a basketball player, what life throws at you might be a career-ending injury or it might be an opportunity to make a couple of free throws to end the game victoriously. Yes, it is quite possible to apply this verse in ways that are not appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to win, for example.

Neither does Romans 8:28ff. The passage goes on to say that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. It’s a powerful passage about spiritual things, about our ultimate salvation. But it’s also a powerful passage about God being with us at all times. It doesn’t mean things will happen the way I want them to. It does mean that, in the end, what God works out will be good. And yes, that good may come in the next life.

I have two major problems with what goes on in this article, though first I must note that many things noted there about abused texts are quite correct. It’s certainly possible to misuse a text. It’s also possible to disagree quite rationally about the meaning of a text or to rob that text of all applicability.

  1. My first problem is this: Biblical scholars can suck the lifeblood from Scripture. With enough historical study, one can assure that nothing in Scripture applies to anything in anyone’s life. Scripture is understood in community, and how it applies to the present grows out of the community and its understanding. It is important to use historical scholarship as an anchor. It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the history. But for those who believe that God is still God, it’s quite possible to think that God might act again in ways God has acted before. If you don’t believe God is still God, your argument is on that point, not in the understanding of Scripture.I would hope that scholars would encourage, inform, and edify the members of the community, not nit-pick them into abandoning a personal reading and application of Scripture.
  2. My second problem is simply this: If we understand that there are multiple possibilities for ways to understand and apply Scripture, we should also expect that a news article from CNN that quotes a couple of scholars cannot settle the issue of meaning for multiple Scriptures. This is why I prefer “I disagree with that view” to “That view is wrong.” There are some really bad interpretations out there, but some of those are held by highly qualified people, and a response should include careful argumentation. “There’s another way to view this” will accomplish more, I think, than “Your view of this is stupid.”

Most obviously, I might suggest that a short article is hardly going to set the record straight on multiple Scripture passages. I found places I agreed and places I didn’t. I know of serious commentators who would agree and some who wouldn’t.

As a life-giving, spiritually invigorating support, a text can be wonderful. As a club to beat up your neighbor? Not so much.