A little primer. . .


Before you go diving into my blog, I want to share with you a little primer on how my blog works. Not that it’s too difficult or anything, but as with anyone’s blog, you’re going to find some pretty unusual things.

For starters, my posts tend to reside somewhere between layman-accessible and first-year-grad-student-accessible. Every so often I’ll write something much simpler, but that’s pretty rare. This blog has become something of an outlet for my desire to return to academia.

This blog is also a journey. This particular journey started when I left fundamentalism (think Bob Jones Univ., NBBC, and their ilk) and traveled through my fascination with the rock-and-roll church (think Andy Stanley, Craig Groeschel, and their ilk), into and out of “new-calvinism” (think Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and their ilk), through classical Arminianism, and now on to whatever new adventure God might bring me towards.

Thanks for coming along. But strap in. It might be a bumpy ride.

Right here, right now. . .

Christ is within us and in the spaces between us.

I’ve been traveling back and forth between a kind of agnosticism towards Christianity (thanks in no small part to an epistemological awakening of sorts) and a reflective contemplation of the teachings of Jesus. As I’ve navigated these uncertainties, I found that my desire to return to a sense of “knowing the truth” has decreased, and I am perfectly content to remain in the tension between the two ideologies.

On the one hand, there’s the intellectual draw of a kind of “Christian atheism,” one that looks critically at the historical Jesus event and analyzes retellings of the story through the lens of cold, distant archaeology. On the other hand, there’s the unavoidability of mysticism, a desire to know what lies beyond—but not “beyond,” in some vague sense of a “life after death.” Rather, the “beyond” of being truly present, truly here and now, beyond the misery of the past or the worries of the future.

Perhaps for me, that is where faith resides. After all, the great teacher Jesus himself taught that finding one’s self in this moment is that which is to be most highly treasured. That the kingdom of God is here in this moment. In our relationships, in our conversations, in our interactions with the planet.

Perhaps this is what St. John meant when he wrote, “God is love.” That God isn’t a transcendent, almighty being. But that God is being itself. The state of truly being present. Love.

We think in such dualistic, binary terms. It’s why concepts like good and evil, beautiful and ugly, smart and stupid are so easy for us to wrap our minds around. But when we try to conceptualize infinity, suffering, God, sexuality, Love, mystery, we are at a loss for words and ideas.

I hope that I can one day let go of this dualism. Cheap, fast-food Christianity thinks in such terms. It treats with such primacy the question of “Where will I go after I die?” as though Jesus cared about such things. It wants concrete answers, so it manufactures questions to arrive at its desired answers.

But Jesus wasn’t concerned with such things. He longed to introduce people to the present, to the moment. To show people that God is in the moment. Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote, “If we have abandoned ourselves to God, there is only one rule for us: the duty of the present moment.”

It is in our nature to not be present. It is in our nature to worry about or plan for the future. But God is not there. Jesus spoke of the future only once: to tell us to not worry about it. Worrying about the future forces us back into our egoic, dualistic minds.

It is in our nature to dwell on the past. But God is not there. Jesus taught us to forgive the past, not to atone for it. To release the past, not to agonize over it.

“God is Love,” but you cannot love if you are stuck in the past or the future. To love is to be fully present right here, right now. To love is to be present within yourself and in the space between you and those around you. But to occupy that space, you must find yourself in the present—away from the past, away from the future. Fully in the moment. Because God is in the moment. God is right here, right now.

Hell (part 1). . .

This post has been brewing for a while now. To be honest, I haven’t reached a comfortable landing point just yet, but I think I’m getting close. In fact, by the time I finish writing on this topic, I’ll probably reach a stance. I realize that I might end up receiving a decent amount of angry or frustrated responses to this post (and its follow-ups), so I’m going to maintain at least some irenicism and civility, but don’t be surprised if a bit of sarcasm peeks through (I’m from New Jersey, after all).

Hell. It’s an admittedly difficult topic to cover given the incredible lack of experience most people have on the subject (given the fact that most people who have offered any thoughts on the subject are either alive or were alive when they offered their thoughts).

If you’re at all familiar with Evangelical Christianity (a faction I’ve grown less convinced I’m even a part of anymore), you’ve probably heard of the concept of “eternal conscious torment” (henceforth, “ECT”), even if you might not realize it had a name. The idea of ECT is that the unrighteous will suffer unending punishment after they die in a non-figurative “Lake of Fire,” or colloquially, Hell.

In this post, I want to discuss the concept from an epistemological standpoint, addressing Scripture, history, and Christian philosophy. In a follow-up post (or maybe two), I’ll approach it from a spiritual perspective before finishing with some closing thoughts.

If you’ve followed my blog since at least 2011 (and I do apologize for my complete lack of writing the past couple years. Life took several major turns recently), you might recall that I alluded to an affirmation of the standard Evangelical view of the “doctrine of Hell,” as held by my former colleagues in the “Young, Restless, Reformed” camps. Since leaving that camp and its affiliated churches and organizations, I’ve come to a different place in my beliefs on Hell.

The first thing I want to mention is that the word Hell is an incredibly incomplete and insufficient word that doesn’t come close to describing what the Bible describes. It’s so insufficient that many scholars and theologians think it does more harm than good and that it should be wiped from theological language altogether.

There are, in fact, no fewer than nine words in the Bible that get turned into the English word hell. We’ll look at a few of them, but before we do, let’s examine the English word for a moment. The word hell actually derives from an ancient Proto-Germanic word that meant “to cover up.” According to most etymological studies, the word was a means by which Norse mythology regarding the afterlife/underworld entered Christian theology. To be honest, our evangelical concept of hell has more in common with the Norse idea of Niflheim, where Loki’s daughter ruled over the unrighteous dead, than it does with early Christian ideas about the afterlife. I tend to agree with the aforementioned biblical scholars. The word hell is unhelpful in its vagueness and is so connected to a pagan concept that it sheds almost no light on the biblical concepts whatsoever.

For our first biblical word, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word Sheol. The Christian Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, so it’s probably best to start there since the Christian faith is, at its foundation, a derivative of the Jewish faith. Sheol in Hebrew is a reference to “the grave,” and depending on the context, is often synonymous with death, destruction, the earth (as being buried), the sea (as being a deep, dark place), or the pit. To the ancient Jewish mindset, sheol is a dark, morbid word that connotes inactivity, stagnation, and a lack of memory and awareness. Click here for Scripture references to Sheol.

Second, the Greek word Hades. The Christian New Testament was written in Aramaic and Greek, and while we might look at Greek mythology as espousing pagan concepts, we can’t ignore the fact that a good chunk of the Bible was written in Greek to people who spoke Greek in a culture that believed Greek things about the universe. The idea of Hades was not foreign to St. Paul’s audience, so it’s not surprising that he, along with other New Testament writers, would use the word to convey an idea. The Greco-Roman concept of hades most closely resembles the ancient Hebrew concept of sheol, relating a very similar image of “the grave,” or a state of being dead. Very rarely does it portray the idea of punishment in the afterlife; it’s most commonly used in the previously mentioned context. Click here for Scripture references to Hades.

Third, the Greek word Geenna (Latin, Gehenna). King Jesus used the word Gehenna as a symbolic reference to the Valley of Hinnom, a region southwest of Jerusalem where, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the unrighteous kings of Judah sacrificed children to the pagan god Moloch. It’s also likely to be the location of a mythological event during the reign of King Hezekiah when the legendary Messenger of YHWH slaughtered 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in King Sennacherib’s army. See 2 Kings 19:35-37.

The Valley of Hinnom is also traditionally known as the place that the prophet Isaiah refers to in the final chapter of his book (“they that go out” is a reference to leaving Jerusalem and entering the valley). This place is where dead bodies were cremated by an all-consuming fire and undying worms. Ancient Aramaic translations of Isaiah’s book explicitly refer to the Valley of Hinnom, leading the majority of scholars to believe that Jesus confirms this traditional view of the Valley of Hinnom as a place filled with fire and maggots. Click here for Scripture passages referencing Gehenna***

As I mentioned, there are at least nine different terms throughout Scripture that end up translated as “hell” in English, but I won’t go into all of them here. Others such as Matthew Hartke, Benjamin L. Corey, and Mark Edward have done much more work and research than I could have done. I would encourage you to dig into this a bit deeper, particularly Edward’s works. And don’t forget to check out Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. (Really, anything by Tom Wright is vital for Christians to read. He is, after all, the C.S. Lewis of our generation.)

Let’s transition to a more philosophical approach to the subject matter. Over the 26 years or so that I’ve been a Christian, attended Christian day school, studied theology as part of my admittedly non-theological degree program at a “Bible-based” university, and worked both part-time and full-time as a minister in “Bible-teaching” churches (I mention this not to brag, but to address some who have sent me messages calling into question my knowledge of the Bible), I’ve observed a few key themes across the narrative of Scripture. The one I’ll touch on here is that of God’s work as reconciliatory/restorative rather than conciliatory/debt-cancelling.

Scripture’s overarching narrative paints God’s salvific work as restorative; in other words, God is mending the fractured relationship between himself and the world, which includes the work of mending the fractures in the world itself (between the world and the world).

If death (another word translated into hell) and hades are the two great enemies of God’s people and the antithesis of his restorative work, then the idea of ECT is actually detrimental to that work. We have a future where evil and the satan win and where God loses.

Track with me for a moment. God creates the world and says it’s good. Humanity’s choice to rebel against God releases the satan into the world along with all its evils, the most destructive of which are death and hades. But God still loves the world and all humanity in it, so he sets out to rescue them. He chooses a nation through which he will reveal himself to the world, but they fail him. He doesn’t give up on them, but he decides to take matters into his own hands and enters the world he loves as a human and as a Jew. He succumbs to the satan that has been destroying the world he loves and allows the enemy to overtake him in order to show the world just how much he loves her. But good will not be overcome by evil, and in a sudden twist of events, he delivers a blow to death by rising from the grave and then calls on humanity to announce and usher in the kingdom he has inaugurated.

But if humanity at large is defeated by death and hades as ECT unintentionally asserts, how can God be victorious?

As this post has gone on for quite some time now, I’m going to end here and continue these thoughts in part 2. For now, I want us to consider the implications of ECT and its compatibility (read: incompatibility) with a restorative view of God’s work. If God is by very nature love, how is the idea that the vast majority of people over the course of human history are experiencing torment consciously forever and ever compatible with that characterization of God? Did St. John use the wrong word when he wrote, “God is love”? Should he have written, “God is wrath,” instead?

Or, as the 19th-century author Thomas Allin put it in his book Christ Triumphant:

“God is not anger, though he can be angry; God is not vengeance, though he does avenge. These are attributes; love is essence. Therefore, God is unchangeably love. Therefore, in judgment he is love, in wrath he is love, in vengeance he is love — ‘love first, and last, and midst, and without end’.”

Stay tuned for more on this topic. I’m far from finished.

*** I completely forgot to include this paragraph when I initially published this post.

Just be. . .

I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of our relationship with God, and I’ve been fascinated by the way our theology should inform how we relate to God. The free-grace theists (Arminians, Open Theists, Pentecostals, etc.) have a theology that should lead them to treat the relationship with God as something of a dance or a two-way relationship. God makes a move and then we respond. The determinists (Calvinists, Puritans, Dutch Reformed, etc.) have a theology that should lead them to treat the relationship with God as purely one-sided. God does all the work; he makes a move towards us and then causes us to respond to him by putting the thought into our minds and the desire into our hearts long before we were ever conceived.

Ironically though, one of the things I’ve noticed in both free-grace theists and determinists is that their praxis is inconsistent with their theology. I’ve noticed it in my own life, and while it was much more pronounced when I was a determinist, it still shows up now that I’m a free-grace theist. It’s the constant grind to work on my relationship with God and to view him as wholly “other.” In other words, I’m here doing all this work to make sure that my relationship with God is solid (or perhaps more accurately, that it feels solid), and God is out there somewhere saying, “I told you how to please me. I wrote it in that book you carry around with you. Now, quit screwing around and make me happy.”

So I slave away. I abstain from this activity, I stay away from those people, I refrain from drinking that drink.

But what if our relationship with God is more dynamic than that? What if he’s not out there somewhere issuing commands? What if he’s right here, holding my hand, whispering in my ear, writing me letters? What if he’s telling me to stop worrying about the relationship so much and just enjoy the fact that I’m in one with him?

What if all this concern I have about damaging my relationship with God is just me stressing out about nothing? Somehow I get the feeling that if I were to start pulling away from God, he would start pulling me closer to him. If I begin to drift, he’ll do his part to let me know that I’m drifting and, if it’s in my power to go back to him, he’ll provide me a way to return. If it’s not, he’ll step in and pull me back anyway.

Not that I won’t play my part in the relationship, but not for the sake of the relationship but simply because I want to get to know God more, I want to hear his voice, experience his presence, enjoy his laughter.

But I need to stop working so hard. I need to just be.

An emotional God. . .

Bob Enyart, in a debate with James White, discussed the attributes of God. You may have heard of them: impassibility, immutability, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. These are some of the most common character traits attributed to God. However, I don’t think any of these attributes have true scriptural backing, and actually create dissonance with God’s self-revelatory act of incarnation.

These attributes are known as the “Omnis” and the “Ims.” These statements about God are quantitative and answer questions about “How much?” or “How little?” (“How much power?” “How little change?”) Let’s start by looking at each “Omni” and “Im.”

Omniscience: God knows everything. Why not get things started with a bang? I believe that God knows everything that can be known, but as the future is not among that which can be known, God doesn’t know it.

I realize this is a strong and controversial assertion; however, it invites some analysis. My first reason for this belief is that King Jesus himself makes a statement that seems odd if he indeed knew the future: “Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son.”

The second reason is God’s love. Love is responsive. It evolves, grows, and changes based on the interaction between the lover and the object loved. While the interests, plans, and goals remain the same, the “how” changes and shifts. I believe that God’s foreknowledge operates in a similar way. He knows the endgame and is working towards that end. The endgame is a world that is reconciled. How he gets it to that point can shift and change.

In Jeremiah 18, God tells the prophet to visit a potter and watch him in action. The point of this image is often lost in theological studies. God is not saying that the potter has complete authoritative control over the clay and that the clay must submit to the potter.

If you’ve ever taken a pottery class, you’ll know that clay is a stubborn thing and you often end up with something quite different from your original vision. If you set out to make a vase, you’ll get a vase, but getting the clay to that point requires you to be patient and willing to allow the clay to force you to change your approach multiple times as you mold it.

Which brings me to the next attribute.

Immutability: God never changes. I understand that this brings comfort, but it flies in the face of so much that we see in the Bible. How many times have we seen God repent, change his mind, promise to change his mind about something, etc.? In one scene God says that his creation is good. A few chapters later, God decides to wipe out humanity because he regrets creating them.

God is about to destroy the nation of Israel when Moses speaks up and asks God to stay his hand. God tells Assyria that he is going to destroy them unless they change their ways, in which case he won’t bring about the destruction he has planned.

One example after another of God changing. And then the ultimate change—he became a man named Jesus.

You might wonder how you can trust a God who is as capricious as this. The Bible doesn’t say that all those revelations of God are the final authority on who God is. That’s Jesus, and last I checked, he’s pretty trustworthy.

Omnipresence: God is everywhere. Fair enough. But I would rather interpret this as God’s presence is in all places felt. As C. S. Lewis posits, hell is the absence of God’s presence, which is what people who end up there wanted to begin with: to be away from God’s presence.

This is an example of where these ontological statements don’t contradict scripture. However, I want to take a quick moment and say that we should be careful in our approach to scripture. Taking a statement about God’s ontology and then imposing that on the Bible isn’t a good practice. For example, if we say that God is immutable, and then come across verses that contradict that statement, we end up either tossing those verses or, as is a common practice, reinterpreting those verses to fit immutability. In other words, we might say that a verse is using that image of God changing as a way to describe something else because it couldn’t possibly mean that God changes.

Omnipotence: God is all-powerful. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”

Bonhoeffer’s statement seems ridiculous, contradictory even. How could God be powerless? Wouldn’t that make him “un-God”? The thing about God is that he is constantly running up against our preconceived notions of him. His kingdom is one that is contrary to what the world’s system looks like, and what we might expect of God will likely be quite the opposite of what God actually is.

After all, he died on a cross. Could there be anything more ungodlike than that?

Impassibility: God does not experience any emotions. I’m sorry, what? Didn’t Jesus weep when he saw the people around him mourning Lazarus’s death? Didn’t God grieve over Israel’s rebellion? If these are mere anthropomorphisms, how can we trust any description of God in the Bible? Didn’t the psalmist write about God’s laughter?

Why is emotion so important? Because for God to be relatable, he would have to experience what we experience. How can we expect to relate to a God who has no concept of what we feel?

* * *
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t deny that any of these statements about God can ring true at various points. But I just don’t believe they’re attributive or ontological. They might be descriptive of how he could function in certain scenarios, but these quantitative statements put God into a box (while, ironically, intending to keep him out of a box).

But I believe God is dynamic. While he can certainly possess all knowledge, perhaps he chooses not to. He is clearly quite powerful, but maybe he sets that power aside. He may not be governed by emotions, but what if he chooses to experience them just as we do?

I think, in our desire to keep God awe-inspiring, we actually make him unattainable. The narrative of the Bible, however, is the story of a God who desires to be known.

Enyart posits a different set of attributes to describe God: living, personal, relational, good, and loving. Not only are these attributes more in line with who God reveals himself to be in Scripture, but they serve to draw us toward him and paint a picture of a God who is truly worthy of our praise, love, and trust.

If King Jesus is indeed the final and complete revelation of who God is, I am far less inclined to describe him as possessing the “omnis” and the “ims,” and I am far more inclined to call him, as St. John did, the God who is love.

Reflections on Good Friday. . .

Behold the triumph of the cross. . .

Good Friday. Churches across the globe spent the evening commemorating the death of our Savior in their own uniquely meaningful ways.

I have to say though that some celebrations are bothering me a bit. It’s somewhat traditional to have a somber gathering on Good Friday in order to set it against the bright Easter celebrations.

But what bothers me is that some churches have taken somber and turned it into morbid and, in a few cases, frightening.

Yes, the death of Jesus was a dark, bloody, violent event. And I think we should acknowledge that fact. But I wonder if we’ve missed the point of Good Friday.

There’s a song that’s become something of a Good Friday staple among some churches this year. Here’s the lyric:

Oh my soul, Oh my Jesus.
Judas sold you for thirty,
I’d have done it for less.

Oh my soul, Oh my Savior.
Peter denied you three times,
I have denied you more.

As the nails went in,
I was standing right there,
as you breathed your last,
I shook my head and I cried.

Oh my God, what have we done,
we have destroyed your Son.

And, depending on the church, you might see scenes from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ or other similarly violent depictions of crucifixion.

But why must we revel in such guilt? Wasn’t the fact that King Jesus died enough to absolve us of this shame?

I’m speculating here, but perhaps it’s because, as can be seen in the lyric above, we need to remind ourselves of the guilt that we bear in his death. The bloodier and more disturbing the reminder, the more vividly we will sense the sting of guilt. Lest we ever forget just how sinful we are.

But is that the point of Good Friday? King Jesus died, not at our hands, but at the hands of that which destroys all of us: sin. The enemy isn’t you or me, but the sin in us that lashes out and attempts to destroy any good that it encounters, especially the greatest good—Jesus himself.

The point of Good Friday is that Jesus had had enough of what sin was doing to us, and since we didn’t have the capacity or even the knowledge to figure out the plight that we were in—let alone the ability to escape from it—he stepped in and, in an act of incredible and irrational love, let sin destroy him.

What is Good Friday about?

It’s about love. As Jesus himself said, “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”

Jesus loved so powerfully, so vastly, so deeply, that he was willing to die than to see his friends (and that includes you and me) remain enslaved by the destructive power of sin.

I know Good Friday was yesterday, but as we’re still in the midst of reflecting on Jesus’s death, let’s focus not on the bloody spectacle, but on the love that motivated him to go to the cross.

Love conquers all. In the cross we see love in its most unfiltered expression. That is the triumph of the cross. Good Friday is a celebration because it reminds us that love will not be stopped, not even by death. Good Friday serves to remind us of our King’s love, not of our guilt. He doesn’t want us to feel guilty. He wants us to love him back.

Because Cross=Love.

Acknowledging interpretive lenses. . .

One of the foundational elements of theological musing, study, and debate is the acknowledgement of interpretive lenses. I’ve mentioned before in my post on biblicism that one of the problems with so much of Christendom’s application of Scripture is that of interpretive pluralism.

Lately I’ve been engaging in conversations where the trump card of “Scripture says this” has been thrown onto the table. I understand the sentiment, and I applaud its appeal to a higher authority than one’s own, but I would like to caution those of you who use it. Scripture alone in itself cannot be appealed to as support for your argument about the nature of God. I’ve mentioned time and time again that the Bible was not written to us (though it certainly can have been written for us and for our benefit). We cannot assume that the people to whom (and by whom) the Bible was written experienced life circumstances the way that we do. Of course, they were human just as we are human, and there are certainly many aspects of the human experience that ring just as true today as they did several thousand years ago.

However, there have been several major events in humanity’s history that have drastically altered our perspective on life. The point of this post is not to delve into all those events, but I’ll describe just a few.

First, Greek philosophy.

The earliest Christians were slow to develop any kind of philosophy of Christianity. Much of the faith was based on Judaism, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that were it not for the harsh Jewish reaction towards the “Followers of the Way” (as Christians were known back then), our faith might look incredibly different from how it looks today.

However, that’s not what happened, and Christianity developed along a much different course. Due to the spread of Christianity within the Greco-Roman world, many of the more influential converts to this new faith weren’t converting from Jewish society, but were instead coming from Greco-Roman society. This slowly led to Christianity adopting a sort of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The first of this new school of Christian philosophy was Titus Flavius Clemens (aka Clement of Alexandria). The Platonic influence continued from Clement to his student Origen. Almost a century following Clement and Origen, Augustine continued to evolve Neo-Platonic philosophy within Christianity. Following Augustine, philosophers like Boethius and Dionysius brought Neo-Platonic thought deeper into the heart of Christian philosophy. Erigena, Peter Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and others carried on the pseudo-Dionysian theme.

How does Platonic philosophy influence Christianity? There are numerous ways, but one major impact that this Greek-influenced theology had on Christian thought was in the way God is portrayed. To the Platonist, God is an impersonal being, wholly detached from the goings on of human life. Rather than a God that exists in and among human interaction, as Jewish theology often proposes, God exists apart from the world. This led to Christians viewing God’s throne as being “somewhere up there,” and not making his dwelling among us.

Platonic philosophy brought about a dichotomy between the “physical” and the “spiritual” planes of existence, putting God squarely in the “spiritual” plane and humanity in the “physical” plane, with Jesus supernaturally occupying both and bridging the gap between God and Man.

God’s interaction with the physical realm is therefore limited to certain events. Calvinists might say that God resides outside the physical realm but maintains absolute control over it, orchestrating every detail according to his will. Some Arminians might say that God remains in charge of the physical realm and exercises control over it when he has a particular plan that he wants to set in motion (i.e. the redemption of humanity). In both cases, God occupies a different realm from humanity.

Second, the Edict of Milan.

Prior to Constantine’s rise as the Roman Emperor, Christianity had to exist as an underground community due to widespread and pervasive hatred of their religion. There had been several points throughout the Roman Empire’s history where Christians were tolerated, but by and large they were mistreated throughout most of the Empire’s and Christianity’s coinciding existence.

That all changed with the Edict of Milan. Constantine the Great went several steps beyond simply tolerating Christians; he actually made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, ushering in an era in the Western world known as “Christendom,” an era of Christian domination of the West that would last from the 4th century to the first decade of the 21st century.

So how did this particular event shape Christianity? I won’t go into very much detail here as I’ve covered that in a post I wrote several years ago. But basically what it did was drastically alter the praxis of the Church. Christianity became less a lifestyle and more a religion. Practicing Christianity, which had been marked by caring for the homeless, feeding the poor, and developing communal lifestyles, instead became known by attending established gatherings or services, sacramental practices, and paying indulgences to the Church.

Third, the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was an era of discovery and, while not specifically or intentionally an attack on Christianity, became one due to many notable conflicts between Enlightenment ideologies and the Church’s theology. The Enlightenment influenced Christianity in a few ways, and it is incredibly difficult to separate Christianity from its Enlightenment influence.

The Enlightenment challenged Christianity, causing the Church to react poorly to it. Due to new scientific discovery, much of Christianity was being questioned. An example of this would be the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun. The Church held that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth. The Church held the power of excommunication and wielded it against men like Galileo, who challenged the way Christendom approached new scientific discovery. These types of challenges exist even today, though the focus has shifted quite a bit.

On the other hand, however, Christianity adopted the Enlightenment’s approach to discovery. Everything must be verifiable and rooted in fact. In order for the truth to be the truth, it had to adhere to this new definition of “truth” that included fact checking, evidence analysis, and story corroborating. Christians began to define truth in the same way, view Scripture through this lens, and interpret it based on those findings.

These (among other things) have had a profound impact on the evolution of Christianity throughout the centuries.

*   *   *

Now, I’m not saying these are necessary good or bad influences, but I point them out because I want us to be aware that there are all sorts of things that change the way we view Scripture, our faith, and even our history as Christians.

Whenever I hear someone say something to the effect of, “The plain reading of Scripture yields such and such a conclusion,” I immediately stop listening. (I know, that’s a response I need to work on, but it’s so difficult for me to refrain.) Why? Because there is no such thing as a plain reading of Scripture.

Here’s an example.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

Within traditional Evangelical circles there are no fewer than two commonly held interpretations of this passage. Let’s start with the less common (though most controversial and most voiced by popular theologians like James Montgomery Boice, John Piper, and James White). This interpretation holds that God predetermined before the foundation of the world each individual who would be saved. In other words, from “predestination” to “justification to “glorification” and everywhere in between, God determined and performed everything related to our salvation. “All those ‘predestined’ will also be ‘called.’ All those ‘called’ will also be ‘justified.’ All
those ‘justified’ will also be ‘glorified.’ None of those ‘predestined’ will fail to
be ‘glorified’ in the end. Therefore, man’s will and response to God cannot be a
determining factor regarding his salvation” (Tim Warner, PFRS Commentary on Romans 8:28-30).

The more commonly held interpretation is that God determined that the the destiny of those who follow his Son Jesus would be conformation “to the image of his Son.” In other words, predestination means that God determined those people’s destiny ahead of time. Those whose destiny it was to be conformed to King Jesus’s image were called by God; if they meet those qualifications, then God justified them and finally glorified them.

Another interpretation that’s gaining some modicum of popularity (and that is also compatible with the second) goes beyond just this particular passage and analyzes St. Paul’s entire message on the unnecessary dichotomy between Israel and the Gentile believers. In other words, St. Paul is immensely concerned that the Jewish believers accept the Gentile believers and that the Gentile believers understand that they are full citizens in God’s Kingdom of Israel).

So here’s the point I’m trying to make. We have to acknowledge our interpretive lenses. We all look at Scripture through different lenses and that vastly influences how we handle the Bible, and by extension, how we view God.

Calvinists have their interpretive lenses. Classical Arminians have theirs as well. Wesleyan Arminians have their own set of interpretive lenses, as do Open Theists.

Pentecostals view the Bible very differently from Baptists, yet they’re both Evangelical denominations.

Protestants don’t come to the same conclusions as Anabaptists about most of what’s in Scripture, and in much the same way the Roman Catholic Church differs greatly in its handling of the Bible than does the Eastern Orthodox Church.

So when someone says, “Here’s what the Bible says, and if you disagree, then you’re wrong,” I generally conclude two things about that person. First, he/she is unwilling to acknowledge that there are innumerable interpretations of the passage he/she is using. Second, he/she is unable to see that his/her own handling of Scripture is itself one interpretation in a myriad of other acceptable interpretations.

I realize I’m venting a bit in this post, but I write this because I believe that honest, friendly debate can and does happen, but it only occurs when people are willing to acknowledge the fact that they have a lens through which they are reading Scripture. Without that acknowledgement, we’re doomed to angry, vitriolic arguments where strawmen and ad hominem fallacies run rampant throughout.

Let’s all try to be less dismissive. . .

Christianity is my environment. It’s how I was raised, it serves as a lens through which I see the world and as a home I can rest in when the world makes little sense.

But Christianity makes little sense as well and has become as much a complex and difficult puzzle as it has a respite from a complicated world.

I grew up in the branch of Christianity known as Protestantism. Within Protestantism, I was part of a camp that would best be categorized as Evangelical. And beyond that I was part of a subsection of Evangelicalism known as Fundamentalism. (Both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists would likely take issue with my lumping them together, but if you look at the groups sociologically, they are compatible. One could hold to all of Evangelicalism’s “non-negotiables” and be quite at home within Fundamentalism. The differences lie in the additional “non-negotiables” in Fundamentalism and how the groups practice their beliefs.)

Side note: Interestingly, Evangelicalism as we know it today began as a response to Fundamentalism because, as Edward J. Carnell put it, Fundamentalism was “orthodoxy gone cultic.” But for the sake of this blog post, I’ll be treating Evangelicalism as the broader category that encompasses Fundamentalism, a decision I’ve based on the identifiers of the movements, not on which was formed first.

Fundamentalism in particular, along with the broader world of Evangelicalism and even, to some extent, the other branches of Protestantism, tends to assert “rightness” and “wrongness” as unmovable categories and often assumes that any disagreements between them and other branches of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy) are due to those other branches’ “wrongness.”

One of the problems I have with this attitude is that it’s counterproductive. Protestantism, and especially Evangelicalism, is based on a conversion system. These groups attempt to convert people to their way of thinking, often pointing out what they perceive is incorrect about another groups’ beliefs. An example of this is the fire that Evangelicals often hurl at Roman Catholicism. They are quick to point out the faults in the Catholic Church’s theology, never once taking a look at the fact that they’re so concerned with the correctness of their doctrines, they’ve neglected simple commands in the Bible to love our enemies, care for the widow and orphan, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry.

All the branches of Christianity believe that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated by King Jesus, and that we are his ambassadors, charged with heralding the news that the Kingdom of God is here. But instead of working towards that end, we’re busy calling other Christians heretics.

Another problem I have with this attitude is that it’s arrogant and dismissive of other people. And if there’s one thing that doesn’t belong in Christianity, it’s arrogance and a lack of care for others’ thoughts.

In the long history of Christianity (and by long, I mean ~1,950+ years long), the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church occupy around 960 years (or approximately 50% of Christianity’s history). The Anglican Communion occupies 481 years (approximately 25% of Christianity’s history). Protestantism occupies just 367 years (approximately 19% of Christianity’s history). Methodism occupies only 245 years (approximately 13% of Christianity’s history). Organized Fundamentalism occupies a mere 95 years (approximately 5% of Christianity’s history). Modern Evangelicalism occupies just 68 years (approximately 3% of Christianity’s history). For Fundamentalism to call Anglicanism wrong about something is brash and arrogant. They may or may not be correct, but that’s not the point. The older branches of Christianity didn’t come to their theological conclusions lightly; many of their schools of thought spent centuries studying theology and drawing up theses, creeds, and statements of faith.lazyhistory

I’m not advocating that all the various branches of Christianity set aside their differences and work together. That’s an impossible proposition, and the diversity and plurality within Christendom just shows me that God is so much bigger than we are, and no one person or group has him figured out.

What I am suggesting is that we humbly acknowledge that though we believe something, we might not be right in that belief. God is mysterious, and much of what we think we know about him could be completely different in reality. It would be foolish of us to dismiss someone else’s belief about God on the grounds that their belief contradicts ours.

In other words, the “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” ideology needs to go. Let’s try to be a little less arrogant and dismissive, shall we? I’ll work on that too. And when we talk about our disagreements with other Christians, it might be best to avoid calling them a heretic, no matter how different their beliefs might be from our own. (which leads me down a path towards another blog post entirely).

Above all else, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

Beautiful theology. . .

“They’re not going to embrace your theology unless it makes their hearts sing.”
~ John Piper

I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve heard from some credible sources that the deeper someone gets to know their spouse, the more beautiful that spouse becomes. I’ve witnessed it in many couples that I admire and have learned from (and it runs much deeper than the anniversary Facebook or Twitter post).

I think the same can be said for theology. The deeper one goes into studying the intricacies of God’s interaction with us, the more beautiful those interactions become.

Or at least, they should become more beautiful.

I discovered, however, that the deeper I went into theology as a Calvinist, the uglier things got. It wasn’t even the “Bible cherry-picking” running rampant in Calvinism that made theology ugly. It was God himself (viewed through Calvinism’s lens) that grew frightening, unloving, and even—dare I say—evil.

Take this quote from Mark R. Talbot, a leading Calvinist philosopher:

“[God] brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child . . .”

(from Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor [Wheaton: Crossway, 2006])

Now, some might argue (my former Calvinist self included) that the beauty in such a theology is the comfort that comes with knowing God is in control of every aspect of life. Nothing escapes God’s control, and so we can rest in that truth.

But here’s the question that springs to mind: How can anyone trust a God who brings about such atrocities according to his will?

Perhaps one might respond with a reminder of God’s greater purpose in bringing glory to himself. But I shudder to imagine the kind of being that would receive glory from the sexual abuse of a young child.

“But Nate, God’s ways are not our ways, and his will is hidden from us. His ways are higher than our ways, so who are we to question what he does?”

Okay, perhaps you’re right. But if, in fact, God has chosen to reveal himself to us as love (1 John 4), senseless killings, sexual abuse, genocide. . . these things cannot, and should not, be attributed to a God who calls himself Love. If they are his doing, how can we call him Love?

Is this beautiful? Does this “make your heart sing”?

Let me speculate a little bit now.

What if, instead of God being in control, he were in charge? What if all the evil in the world were actually contrary to what God is trying to accomplish?

What if God were just as brokenhearted over such events as the murder of a Japanese journalist or the abuse of a small child as we are?

Do these ideas make God any less powerful? Perhaps. I won’t deny that a God who’s not in control of everything is a God who appears less powerful than a God who is in control of all things. But let me ask this: why does God need to be all-controlling? Does that make him any more glorious than if he weren’t?

I suppose that would depend on where you think God gets his glory. If God gets his glory from his power, then yes, God must be all-controlling in order to be completely glorious. However, if God gets his glory from his love and self sacrifice (Philippians 2), then complete control wouldn’t factor into his glory at all. In fact, it would probably detract from it.

Let’s go back to the spouse analogy we opened with. If your spouse orchestrated painful—even evil—events in your life citing some kind of “hidden will” that would ultimately bring more “glory” to him/herself, how trusting would you be of your spouse? How beautiful would your spouse be in your eyes?

If, on the other hand, those painful and evil events were out of your spouse’s control, but he/she were actively working against those events—protecting and shielding you, comforting and encouraging you (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34)—how trusting would you be of your spouse then? How beautiful would your spouse be?

Does theology necessarily need to be beautiful? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. I won’t pretend to know. But I would like it to be. And I think almost everyone would.

But if theology is going to make your “heart sing,” it had better be beautiful.

What do I believe?. . .

I think I’ve come to a fairly stable landing on my theological journey. That’s not to say I won’t change, evolve, or grow at some point soon, but what this means is that I’ve come to a point where I feel comfortable making a statement about my beliefs on certain major theological topics. So for those of you who are curious about what I currently believe, here’s a list.

  • Concerning Soteriological Constructs: I haven’t completely landed yet. A few years ago I held to monergism and the five points of TULIP as accepted by most Calvinists. Currently I hold to some form of synergism, but whether classical Arminian or Open Theist, I’m not sure yet. I’m traveling somewhere in between, but I think I’m heading towards Open Theism.

    Thomas Oden, Roger Olson and Greg Boyd are my current influences here.

  • Concerning Presentism: Maybe? I’ll probably land wherever my aforementioned journey lands.
  • Concerning Denomination Affiliation: I grew up in an “Independent Baptist” Fundamentalist church and attended a fundamentalist university. After a brief exploration in Buddhism, I joined the non-denominational bandwagon for a while. During those years, I went from working for an “Andy Stanley” style non-denominational church for one year to working for a “Mark Driscoll” Acts-29-affiliated church for four years (to give you an idea of where I might’ve identified in those years). My years working for that A29-affiliated church drove me into—and eventually out of—my adherence to Calvinism. I currently exist within Hillsong NYC, so I probably affiliate with a very “progressive” Pentecostalism. If I were ever to plant my own church, I might lean towards building a progressive Anglican church.
  • Concerning Scripture: I believe the Bible is authoritative simply because God asserts his authority through it. It possesses no authority itself apart from God.

    N. T. Wright’s books Surprised by Scripture and Scripture and the Authority of God are my primary influences. I also turn to Peter Enns on this topic.

  • Concerning Origins: I hold to a form of Evolutionary Creationism.

    Francis Collins, Deb and Loren Haarsma, and N. T. Wright are my influences here.

  • Concerning Hell: I’m still not sure where I land on this. I used to hold to eternal conscious torment, particularly in the aftermath of the “Love Wins” controversy (and upon reading Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell), but I feel very uncomfortable with that belief now. I probably lean towards a “conditional purgatorial” theory of some kind.

    C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, and Rob Bell are currently informing me on this topic.

  • Concerning Dispensational vs. Covenant Theology: Neither. I probably hold to a sort of “Christian fulfillment” theory. The resource I’m currently turning to is N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. 
  • Concerning Eschatology: I hold to a sort of “reconciliation” philosophy. God is reconciling this world to himself; he’s not planning on “rapturing” the Church away and then throwing the world into the trash bin. N. T. Wright is my primary influence here. Though Tim LaHaye definitely played a part. 😉
  • Concerning Atonement Theory: I don’t hold to any singular one, though at one point I held exclusively to Penal Substitution Theory. I’ve heard it said that “Denying Penal Substitutionary Atonement is akin to denying the Gospel.” Clearly I think that statement is categorically false.My current theory takes most of its cues from the Christus Victor Theory, but there are other theories I like to cherry pick themes and ideas from. I believe that no singular theory is completely true, but no singular theory is completely false either. They all contribute something to understanding the atonement.

    Greg Boyd and my blogging friend Ryan Miller have heavily influenced me in this category.

  • Concerning Other Hot-Button Topics (aka “Gospel Issues” for John Piper): I’m egalitarian. I’ve seen too many gifted women in my life to limit their leadership to just teaching kids and teaching women. Some of the most powerful sermons I’ve heard in my lifetime were from women. Regarding homosexuality, I’ll simply say this: why does that topic receive more fire from Christians than greed, oppression, murder, slander, and violence?

So there you have it. That’s what I currently believe. As it has over the past several years, it will likely undergo some change over time. But like I said at the start of this post, I’m quite comfortable with posting this as a sort of “Statement of Faith” for my blog. Those of you who are non-Calvinist theology nerds will likely see that I’ve gone very far from my supralapsarian days. Those of you who are Calvinist theology nerds will likely call me a heretic. 😉

Austin Fischer posted today on the importance of beauty in theology. I think discussing that topic might be a worthy follow-up post to this one, so I might write about that in an upcoming post. But until then, stay savvy, friends!

How should I read the Bible? . . .

I realize that, given the way I described Scripture in my last post, I’ve probably created more questions than answers. One of those questions is likely something along the lines of, “If I shouldn’t read the Bible in the ways described by Christian Smith in his book, The Bible Made Impossible, how then should I read the Bible? How can Scripture help to cultivate a robust faith if I can’t get some simple spiritual truths out of each passage I read?”

Rather than offer a step-by-step process or a particular hermeneutic, let me start with sharing what the Bible self-evidently is over and against what it clearly is not.

The Bible is a collection of books written by myriad authors over a long period of time. It’s not a singular book, so we can’t expect the Bible to be perfectly cohesive and inerrant. A common response to this assertion would go something like this: “But wouldn’t the fact that God was the one behind it provide perfect coherence and inerrancy?” The problem with this line of thought is that it assumes that God was trying to communicate with us as opposed to communicating with the pre- and post-exilic nation of Israel. As Peter Enns asserts in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, we, as twenty-first-century, post-enlightenment westerners have extremely different notions of truth, and we value completely different things in our documentation of historic and current events. We can’t assume that, just because we think things should match up nicely, the ancient Israelites wanted that too. They likely didn’t, as evidenced by the lack of coherence found in the accounts of Israel’s history in the books of Samuel-Kings and the books of the Chronicles.

The Bible is Israel’s story, not ours. While there’s certainly plenty of evidence that Israel’s story is universal, it’s still Israel’s story, and the Bible must be viewed in light of Jewish tradition and through Jewish interpretive lenses. King Jesus, while often wrongly viewed and interpreted outside his context, was completely a part of first-century Jewish culture. We often think of Jesus as someone who overturned the Jewish law (and, by extension, mistakenly believe that Judaism was/is a religion of legalism and that Jesus came to introduce a system of grace over and against the previous system of Jewish law), but by his own admission, King Jesus did not “come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”

This is evidenced by his handling of Jewish customs. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark tell a story of King Jesus healing a leper (St. Luke records a similar story that differs in several notable ways, but the detail I’m referring to here remains the same). In both accounts King Jesus tells the leper to present himself to the priest and offer a gift “as Moses commanded.” He remains faithful to Jewish tradition and law.

In other cases, King Jesus blatantly challenges the law with statements like, “the Son of Man is lord over the Sabbath.” And in yet more instances, King Jesus takes the law and makes it even more strict: “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”

The sorts of interpretive methods that King Jesus employed were not uncommon for Jewish teachers of his day. Yet they’re completely out of place in today’s world. Simply put, King Jesus was very much a first-century Jew. A noteworthy and rascally one, no doubt, but a first-century Jew nonetheless.

After the stories of Israel’s national heritage as described by the pre- and post-exilic Israelites and climax of that story as told to us by the four Evangelists (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John), we have yet another section of the Bible to contend with: the letters. I like to think of these as analyses of Israel’s story in light its culmination in King Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. St. Paul spent much of his time giving his thoughts on the matter. Bear in mind that his primary concern was how the story of King Jesus changed the trajectory of Israel’s story from insular to cosmic. Essentially, in the eyes of St. Paul, what King Jesus did was invite the other nations into Israel’s national story. When read through this lens, St. Paul’s writings take on a whole new meaning. Instead of a discourse on personal salvation (which is how most Evangelicals tend to read St. Paul) which would give off an air of exclusivity (some are saved, others are not), St. Paul’s letters become a treatise on national identity which then becomes invitational (you’re a part of this kingdom, now let’s do kingdom stuff).

So, how then should I read the Bible? Before I go there, let me quickly address one way to not to read the Bible. Don’t read the Bible as a manual for a good Christian life. You’ll probably fall into one of two categories. The first: extremely confused and frustrated about all the various contradictions. (Check out this post for an incredible, nearly exhaustive, tool for finding the various contradictions in Scripture. It’s mind-blowing!) The second: ignorant (whether willfully or otherwise) of these contradictions and adherent to some things in the Bible at the direct expense of others.

Okay, finally, to answer the question: how should I read the Bible?

Think of the Bible as a collection of books that tells a story. Each book (or section of books) has a theme within that story that it’s trying to address. The Christian Old Testament tells the story of Israel’s national origins. The Pentateuch (Jewish Torah) shows us what Israel is supposed to look like. The books of Samuel-Kings tell the story of Israel’s incorporation from the perspective of a nation in exile asking the questions, “What happened to us? I thought God promised to be with us no matter what, and now we’ve been dragged out of our homeland and are stuck in Babylon! What gives? What did we do to deserve this?” The books of the Chronicles tell the same story, but from a different perspective. The Chronicles were written around 200 years after Samuel-Kings and are meant to address the questions, “Where is God? After all these years, are we still his people? Will God ever fix this mess we’ve gotten into?”

Let’s skip ahead a bit to the next major plot point. The four accounts of the Gospel.

Here we have the culmination of Israel’s story. The big finish, if you will. Everything reaches its completion in the story of King Jesus (which is probably why there are four books to tell the tale). I won’t go into why these four books have such glaring discrepancies between them, but suffice it to say that there are four unique intentions, audiences, and goals that the Evangelists each have in crafting their stories of Israel’s Messiah.

Finally, we have the letters. Mostly written by St. Paul, the letters look back on Israel’s story and analyze it given the massive event that had just taken place: the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. This analysis led St. Paul to believe that Israel’s story was a universal one, and he spent much of his time inviting non-Israelites (called Gentiles in the Bible) into Israel’s story and then writing to them about how and why they were now a part of said story.

So what does this mean for my devotions? It means that as you read the Bible, keep these things in mind. Ask yourself some of these questions. What part of the story am I reading? Is it inviting me into the story? Is it describing to me what a messy life of faith might look like?

One final thought: The Bible never shows us the ideal life of faith (probably because there isn’t one). It doesn’t tell us how to live a good “biblical” lifestyle. Instead, I believe it describes to us just how broken and inconsistent a life of faith can be. It shows us how Noah got drunk and fell into depression. It shows us how Abraham lied his way through tough spots. It shows us how David gave into his baser desires and lost control of his family.

And it shows us that despite all of this, God still loved them, and they (however brokenly or imperfectly) returned that love in some way, shape, or form.

That’s how I would read the Bible.