Archive for September, 2011

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Rob Bell leaving Mars Hill

September 24, 2011

Mars Hill church has announced that Rob Bell is moving on:

Feeling the call from God to pursue a growing number of strategic opportunities, our founding pastor Rob Bell, has decided to leave Mars Hill in order to devote his full energy to sharing the message of God’s love with a broader audience.

Read the full announcement here.

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The Whore of Babylon Identified

September 20, 2011

Ever wonder who or what the author of Revelation had in mind when he penned these verses:

1 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. 2 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. 5 The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

BABYLON THE GREAT

THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES

AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

(Revelation 17:1-6)

Well wonder no longer. Damon Thompson has heard from God and it turns out the whore of Babylon is Rob Bell!

Who knew?


Okay, so the whore of Babylon isn’t Rob Bell himself. According to Thompson, the whore of Babylon is “the universalist church”, but if you’re reading Rob Bell, you are flirting with said whore.

Rob Bell, probably praying to the Beast

It’s about time someone pointed out how “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people” those universalists are. Why, just this week a Reformed church in my neighborhood was firebombed by a mob of universalists wearing TOMS and chanting slogans about the reconciliation of all things. Those bastards!

What I found particularly helpful was Thompson’s insight that Gehenna can’t be a reference to the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. Why not? Because worms die in the Valley of Hinnom. Hell, on the other hand, is located in “the bowels of the earth” and has no shortage of worms capable of tolerating the 4000+ kelvin temperatures in the earth’s core for all eternity. Game, set and match, you inclusivist Babylonian hookers.

So in case you got lost, here’s a recap: When the Bible describes the place of the dead as being under the earth, that’s literal. When it mentions immortal worms eating the dead, that’s literal. When it describes a prostitute with the name “Babylon the Great” on her forehead, that’s a metaphoric reference to Christians who believe God intends to reconcile all people to himself.

Exegesis is so much easier when stuff just means what you want it to mean.

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Corporate vs. Individual Election

September 18, 2011

In my last post, I questioned whether Paul’s potter/clay analogy in Romans 9 is capable of supporting the meaning that Justin Taylor (and Calvinists generally) ascribe to it, namely, that God predestines some individuals to eternal damnation.

Having answered that question in the negative, it behooves me, I suppose, to offer a plausible alternative reading. I don’t pretend to have the definitive interpretation of this passage. But I am persuaded that a more accurate reading can be had by rooting the analysis in Paul’s first-century Judean context.

The setting of Romans 9, as seen in its opening verses as well as the chapter that follows, is Paul’s concern for the Jewish nation. It is with respect to Israel (not individuals) that Paul conceives of God’s election. But there was a problem for this chosen people. Paul had an expectation of coming judgment on both Israel and the pagan world. Only a remnant of Israel would be spared (Romans 9:27). Paul seems to anticipate the challenge that a catastrophic judgment on Israel would be contrary to the Abrahamic covenant. He argues otherwise, beginning at verse 6, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”

In the verses that follow, Paul sets out an OT basis for the idea that it is God’s prerogative to define the parameters of his mercy as he sees fit. Paul is trying to explain why some who might assume themselves to be included in chosen Israel (Jews by descent) will come to destruction, while some who might appear excluded (i.e. gentiles) will be spared, having gained entrance to the reconstituted elect group through faith. God has the right to save a chosen people on the basis of faith rather than descent.

Because the exclusion (and impending destruction) of a substantial part of Israel might seem contrary to the Jews’ understanding of their deal with God, Paul spends some time insisting that God has the right to define the terms of the deal as he chooses. Thus, the references to Jacob, Esau and Pharaoh. God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy.  The covenant does not oblige God to spare all of Israel. He is entitled to take from that “same lump of clay” (i.e. Israel) some for salvation and some for destruction.

The key to understanding the passage is to realize that Paul is talking about corporate election, not individual salvation. On such a reading, Paul’s whole point in Romans 9 is almost the opposite of what Calvinists glean from the passage. Rather than asserting that God has picked a select club and if you aren’t in it, you’re screwed, Paul is actually trying to explain that God has now made access to the club possible for all. He contends that it falls within God’s prerogative to make faith (or faithfulness) the basis for membership in the club — great news for faithful gentiles who would otherwise have been excluded; not so great news for faithless Jews who were banking on their Abrahamic descent.

Having laid this groundwork, Paul can go on to say this in the very next chapter:

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:12-13)

Doesn’t sound much like the Calvinist notion of double predestination, does it?

I readily admit that I cannot do justice to this argument. I further admit that my thinking is heavily indebted to Andrew Perriman, who may or may not wish to be associated with my treatment of the subject. With that caveat, I will close by pointing you to Perriman’s excellent discussion of Romans 9. He’ll straighten you out.

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Justin Taylor & Scarlett Johansson’s Liver

September 13, 2011

You have to give Justin Taylor credit for wading into unfriendly waters when he agreed to answer questions about Calvinism on Rachel Held Evan’s blog last week (to be clear, Rachel is very friendly; it’s just that her blog isn’t exactly home turf for a Calvinist). If you missed the post, here it is.

One of Taylor’s answers caught my attention. A reader named Charissa asked:

The idea of God pre-destining someone to hell with no POSSIBLE way of anything other than that happening is repulsive to me and offends my sense of justice. …  So my question is this: How does that logic not make our understandings of right and wrong completely arbitrary and meaningless? What does it make of our God-given sense of right, wrong, justice, and mercy?

In my view, Taylor’s response danced around the question without directly answering it. Understandably so, I suppose. It’s not easy to explain how a just, loving and merciful God would create whole swaths of humanity with the intention of damning them to hell, irrespective of any action or choice on their part.

Taylor points to Romans 9 and says, in essence, that we have to submit to what the Bible says, whether we like it or not. In like fashion, the message of Romans 9, as Taylor construes it, is that God can do as he pleases with his creation and we shouldn’t question him:

Paul goes on to explain that God has compassion and mercy on whomever he wills, not dependent upon human will or effort (vv. 15-18). Paul once again knows what all of his readers must be thinking: “Why does [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” Paul goes on to explain that God is God and we are not.

I don’t disagree that Paul is arguing here for a divine prerogative of sorts. But I do disagree that Paul is suggesting that God arbitrarily picks and chooses individuals for salvation or damnation.

In my view, the argument Paul makes in Romans 9 is wholly inadequate for supporting the meaning Taylor assigns to the passage. In verses 19-21, Paul writes:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? 

If this is an analogy to justify the predestination of individuals to eternal conscious torment, it is an incredibly poor one. The reason it seems absurd for pottery to complain about its lowly purpose is that pottery is an inanimate object. Few of us have sympathy for the lowly chamber pot. It’s just mud.

But if we adjust the analogy to bring it closer to the Calvinist understanding of the passage, the weakness in the analogy becomes glaring. Replace the pottery with humans — self-conscious beings capable of feeling love and joy, pain and suffering. Does the argument still work?


I cannot help but think of the 2005 movie, The Island. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson discover that, although real human beings, they have been manufactured by the profiteering Dr. Merrick for the sole purpose of being harvested for their organs should their “sponsor” in the real world require a transplant.

The movie’s plot only works because it is self-evident that these characters do indeed have a right to question the justice of being made for such a purpose. When you’re talking about sentient beings who have emotions and feel pain, it becomes a lot harder to say, “I can make you for whatever purpose I want. Don’t question your maker.” That, frankly, sounds like something Dr. Merrick, the movie’s villain, might say.

At least in The Island the clones were kept in pleasant conditions until their organs were required. But if we’re going to make the analogy truly apposite to Taylor’s Calvinism, we need to add the element of eternal conscious torment. Even Hollywood thought it a bit much to portray the clones as living in a state of perpetual torture. Yet, according to Taylor, this is the fate that awaits those whom God has preordained will receive no mercy.

This is why Taylor’s Romans 9 argument is unsatisfying. It’s not sufficient simply to assert that God is sovereign. If he uses his sovereign prerogative to do unjust, morally abominable things, then we’ve got a problem. This is what lies at the heart of Charissa’s question. This is what makes the notion of predestination to hell repugnant. And that is the issue Taylor fails to address.

When your hermeneutic results in a God too monstrous even for Hollywood villain standards, it’s time to rethink your hermeneutic.

In my next post, I will get in way over my head offer some thoughts in Paul’s defence. I don’t think Paul means what Taylor thinks he means.

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Nothing Says Fun Like Dead Egyptians!

September 6, 2011

Last week, Randal Rauser published a post entitled, “Are cataclysmic natural disasters appropriate for the children’s choir?” in which he questioned the wisdom of entertaining children with macabre Bible stories (sanitized or otherwise) simply because they’re found in the Bible.

Most readers will be familiar with the proposed Answers in Genesis theme park, Ark Encounter, down in Kentucky. Apparently, the folks at AiG believe that the Noah story isn’t the only biblical account of mass death suitable for children’s entertainment. Turns out they also have plans to develop a Ten Plagues ride.

Check out this short video by the ride’s designer:

It’s hard to imagine which part of the ride the kids will like best. Will it be the river of blood? Maybe the room of incurable boils. Or who could forget the final stop on the ride: the pile of firstborn Egyptian corpses. Yippee!!

Ironically, Answers in Genesis is also convinced that kids should steer clear of Halloween. As their “What about Halloween” webpage cautions, “Death is a terrible reality for all of us—not something to celebrate or treat as fun.”

Unless, of course, the people dying are godless Egyptians. In which case, you sell tickets and open a gift shop.

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The Bible’s Most Overlooked But Really, Really Important Guy

September 1, 2011

The recent NPR story on the historicity of Adam & Eve has managed to propel the issue into the spotlight again. Last week, Al Mohler devoted some more ink to the controversy.

To make the case that those who question the historicity of A&E are playing with theological fire, Mohler repeatedly alleges that the link between Adam and Christ is critical to the biblical narrative:

Furthermore, it is clear that the historical character of [Genesis ch. 1-3] is crucial to understanding the Bible’s central message — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The fall of the human race in Adam sets the stage for the salvation of sinful humanity by Jesus Christ. 

[I]f these arguments hold sway, we will have to come up with an entirely new understanding of the Gospel metanarrative and the Bible’s storyline.

The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity and the solitary first human pair severs the link between Adam and Christ which is so crucial to the Gospel.

If we do not know how the story of the Gospel begins, then we do not know what that story means. Make no mistake: a false start to the story produces a false grasp of the Gospel.

Mohler couldn’t be more clear: Adam’s fall is such an indispensable part of the gospel metanarrative that the latter cannot be understood without the former.

I can think of one group of people who clearly have not understood this fundamental truth – one obtuse bunch of men who didn’t get the memo. Unfortunately, Mohler will not be able to bring them up to speed because they’re all dead. You know them as the authors of the Bible. If the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be understood without the story of Adam, nobody bothered to tell them.

In the OT, Adam gets only a passing mention outside of Genesis. Of the four men who wrote biographies of Christ, not one of them thought to draw upon Adam in telling the Jesus story. Matthew thought Christ’s story was best told through the lens of Moses. Luke saw parallels in Elijah. But no one dredged up that old Adam story.

Consider the first sermons ever preached. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, told Christ’s story through the words of Joel and David. No Adam. Stephen gave a lengthy history lesson before being stoned. Where did he start the story? With Abraham, not Adam. In Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) he, too, attempted to set the story of Jesus in its context. Who gets a nod? Moses, Samuel, Saul, David, John the Baptist and Abraham. No Adam. The authors of the Petrine epistles didn’t consider Adam worthy of mention. Neither did the author of the Johannine epistles, nor the author of Hebrews, who seemed to be going out of his way to draw relevant OT connections (eg. Melchizedek who?).

Just because you make the odd cameo doesn’t mean the story is about you.

I could go on, but you get the point. The best evidence we have is that the earliest Christians, including the Apostles and other NT authors, routinely expressed the gospel of Jesus Christ without any reference to the fall of Adam. He just didn’t enter into the story. Even Paul, in all of his letters, mentions Adam only twice (Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15)*.

So why is Mohler so concerned? What’s really going on here is not that Adam is crucial to an “understanding of the Gospel metanarrative and the Bible’s storyline.” Rather, Adam is crucial to the modern Western evangelical version of the gospel that is all about individual salvation from an individual sin debt. In that story, with its notion of original sin, the fall of Adam plays a prominent role.

But the real story of Jesus is the fulfilled story of covenant Israel.  That’s why the biblical preachers/NT writers told the gospel by going back to Abraham, to Moses, to David.  The central problem, as they saw it, wasn’t that Adam had sinned, thereby rendering all people guilty due to an inherited sin nature from which they required individual justification.  The problem was that God had entered into a covenant with a chosen people, but his people had broken that covenant. As a result, they found themselves in exile (first in Bablyon and now in Roman-ruled Judea) and judgment of both Israel and her oppressors was imminent.

Jesus was the answer for fallen Israel, not fallen Adam.

This is the true metanarrative of the Bible. In fact, some have suggested (persuasively, I think) that the story of Eden/the Fall/the expulsion from Paradise is itself a metaphor for the overarching narrative of Promised Land/unfaithful Israel/exile. The gospel story is the story of God’s redemptive plan for a nation that had lost its way – a nation into which God would ultimately graft all of humanity.

If modern genetics casts doubt on the historicity of Adam (and it does), rather than undermine the gospel, this realization may actually help the church to recover the authentic gospel, properly conceived (as Scot McKnight has recently put it), “as the completion of the Story of Israel in the saving Story of Jesus.”

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*I have not included 1 Timothy 2 in the count as most scholars do not consider the Pastoral epistles to be authentically Pauline. Plus, the topic of 1 Timothy 2 is the role of women, not the gospel per se.