Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

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Piper: When God Goes a-Slaughterin’

February 10, 2012


It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.

– John Piper

I’ve checked and I’m sorry to report that Piper’s online merchandise catalogue does not yet have the above slogan available on T-shirts.

This probably shouldn’t surprise me, coming from the man who called the Japan earthquake a “great gift” from God. But somehow I’m still stunned. The above quotation comes from a Christian Post article that appeared this week in which Piper was asked, “Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?”

The word “slaughter” generally refers to indiscriminate killing. You might think that although God has the right to take a life, he would at least do so on a principled basis. Not according to Piper.

Piper maintains that a slaughtering God is a-okay because God gives us life and it’s basically his prerogative when and how to take it.

God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.

There is plenty that could be said about the idea that God wills every death. It’s one thing for God to will that great grandma should die peacefully in her sleep at the ripe old age of 90. It’s another thing for God to will the torture and murder of children at the hands of Syrian authorities. But in Piper’s world, God is behind it all, silently nodding his approval. [For more on that point, see Zack Hunt’s critique over at The American Jesus.]

At the heart of Piper’s justification of divine genocide is the notion of a God who is entitled to end a life any way he wants simply because he can.

If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.

God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.

One has to wonder what sort of relationship Piper envisions between God and his creations such that his treatment of them is explained by the maxim, “God doesn’t owe you anything.” God sounds an awful lot like a pre-teen boy who has just received his mail order Sea Monkey kit. He may enjoy his little creatures for a while. But when he gets tired of the little shrimp, he’ll flush them down the toilet. He might even pull a few legs off first. He brought them into this world and he can take them out. He doesn’t owe them anything.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (see Justin Taylor & Scarlett Johansson’s Liver), I do not agree that a God who creates sentient beings capable of feeling emotion and pain owes them nothing. But even if God did owe his creatures nothing, Piper has missed the point of the question. The question is not about God’s rights; it’s about his goodness.

Behind Piper’s logic is the assumption that an omnipotent creator is unconstrained in what he can do to his creations. But even an omnipotent creator will be constrained by his own character. And that is precisely why the genocidal passages of the OT are problematic. They are incongruent with the dominant biblical portrayal of the character of God. God is not a pubescent boy frying ants with a magnifying glass in the driveway. The Bible (especially the OT) repeatedly describes God as a loving father or devoted husband.

Imagine a man who works for a kind and generous employer. The man has three children at home and a very pregnant wife. Without this job, the man’s family would be destitute. His employer knows all of this. One day the man gets the call that his wife has gone into labor. He rushes into his boss’ office and informs the boss of the good news. Before he can leave to make his way to the hospital, the boss informs him that he is fired. “Why?” he asks. Now, is it any answer at all for the boss to reply, “Because I’m your boss. I hired you; I can fire you.” The employee knows that. He has always known that he worked at the pleasure of his employer. He isn’t questioning his boss’ right to fire him. He is asking why his employer, whom he knows to be a kind and loving man, would choose to exercise his authority in so brutal a fashion.

That is why it is perfectly legitimate to ask why a loving father-like God would order the slaughter of women and children. To defend the extermination of an entire people by pointing to God’s supreme authority over life is to demonstrate that you haven’t understood the weight of the question.

Even more problematic is the implicit justification that Piper offers for the OT genocide. He doesn’t simply stick to his guns and say, “Yes, God indiscriminately massacred every man, woman and child in the Promised Land, but that’s cool because he’s God and that’s his prerogative.” Perhaps demonstrating that even he recognizes the appeal to God’s sovereignty to be unsatisfying, Piper reminds us that God had a reason for this purge:

With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.

So I would vindicate Joshua by saying that in that setting, with that relationship between God and his people, it was right for Joshua to do what God told him to do, which was to annihilate the people.

Image by Jim Lepage at jimlepage.com

Any time an apologist goes to bat for the justifiability of the Canaanite genocide, they invariably tell us how wickedly evil the Canaanite people were. There are a variety of problems with this move (eg. the lack of moral culpability of babies, the evidence that Israel itself engaged in child sacrifice, the hypocrisy of killing babies to punish a people for killing babies), but Piper has a special problem of his own.

Piper cannot even blame the Canaanites for their wickedness because, in his theological paradigm, their wickedness is God’s doing as well. Consider Piper’s discussion of how temptation works in an article from his website entitled, “The Sovereignty of God and the Sin of the Believer”:

Given the natural condition of man apart from the Holy Spirit, he will yield to sin invariably; he is the slave of sin (Rom. 6:17,20; 8:3-8). Therefore every instance of turning from sin to righteousness is due to the irresistible work of God, who transforms the mind and heart so that the believer prefers righteousness over sin. I conclude, therefore, that no Christian determines ultimately whether he will overcome a temptation to sin. God determines that.

It follows that when a believer gives in to temptation, desiring sin more than God, it is because God has allowed sin or the flesh to gain the ascendancy for the moment. He does not cause the sin in the same way that he causes the obedience. The obedience he brings about by a positive influence of renewal because he delights in holiness for its own sake. Sin comes about in the believer’s life only by God’s permitting man’s natural tendencies to reassert themselves temporarily. And he does this not out of any delight in sin but out of a delight in the greater end which will be achieved.

Let me summarize. Man in his natural state is a slave to sin and cannot do otherwise. He escapes temptation only by the irresistible work of God. Sometimes God chooses to influence man irresistibly towards obedience. At other times he does not. The key point is this: it is entirely up to God whether man sins or obeys.

What, then, was going on in the 400 years that the sins of the Amorites were accumulating? In Piper’s view, God was deliberately withholding the grace that was necessary for them to avoid sinning. Like watching a toddler drown in a pool, God sat back, watched the Amorites flail their arms helplessly, and eventually stepped in to hold their heads under water as punishment for not being able to swim.

There is a superficial appeal in the teaching of neo-Reformed preachers like Piper and Driscoll. We are encouraged to delight in the tremendous unmerited grace extended to us when God chose to reach in and pluck us out of the pool. Sounds so good. Lucky us. Until you start asking those awkward questions about the plight of the other kids who were intentionally left to drown.

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Who Needs a Savior? [Wright vs. Comfort]

December 18, 2011

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. -Matthew 5:21

If you’ve spent any time in evangelical circles, you’ll be familiar with certain guilt-inducing analogies about evangelism. Not telling your neighbor about Jesus is like not throwing a life preserver to a drowning man. Not sharing the gospel with your school chum is like having the cure for cancer and not sharing it with a cancer-stricken friend.

These analogies are bound to make the timid evangelist feel like a cad. I’ve long thought the analogies were unfair. The drowning man knows he needs saving. The cancer patient is keenly aware of his need for a cure. Not so the unsaved friend. The drowning man is not going to swim away from the life preserver and give you the cold shoulder for bothering him about it. But the unsaved friend who isn’t keen on being proselytized might do just that. Christianity was a hard sell because we were trying to convince people of a solution to a problem most people didn’t believe they had.

Several years ago I was introduced to a soap-box preacher who seemed to have a solution to this dilemma. His name was Ray Comfort and he had a sure-fire way of convincing people of their sinfulness before offering Jesus as the solution. If you’ve seen Comfort’s approach, you’ll know that he rarely deviates from it. He runs through the 10 Commandments, asking people if they’ve ever lied, stolen or taken God’s name in vain. He even gets people to admit that they’re murderers and adulterers by employing Christ’s expansive “You have heard it said” definitions in Matthew 5.

Comfort eventually gets his interviewees to admit that they are guilty of breaking God’s law. He then asks whether God will send them to heaven or hell as a consequence of such guilt. People tend to divide down the line on this one. Some say “hell”, though often with a laugh, suggesting that they don’t really believe this to be their fate. Others insist that they will still go to heaven because they aren’t bad people. This is when it gets interesting. Comfort must then persuade these people that they are deserving of eternal torment, often on the basis of their having admitted to little more than telling lies and “looking at a women with lust.”

I can remember, even then, that although I was on Comfort’s side, I felt the weight of the objections. Why exactly were the fires of hell an appropriate punishment for offences that seemed an inescapable part of being human? Comfort’s whole strategy was to confront people with the law so that they would recognize their personal guilt and cry out for a personal savior. Yet few people seemed to walk away from their encounter with Comfort buckling under the weight of condemnation. Probably because he had done little more than demonstrate that they were typical human beings.

I was reminded of Comfort this week while watching N.T. Wright’s recent talks at Moody Bible Institute. Wright spent a good deal of time sketching the framework for a proper narrative understanding of the gospel in its first century Jewish context. Christ “saving his people from their sins,” he maintains, is primarily about Christ’s role as Savior of the Jewish people from exile (i.e. from the consequences of their corporate sin). For the New Testament authors, “salvation” was about God rescuing his people. It meant the restoration of the Jewish nation – indeed, all of creation – and of individuals as part of that corporate restoration.

The interviewer, seemingly concerned about the lack of emphasis on personal salvation, questioned Wright about what he would say to an unbeliever who sought his counsel because of a personal sense of guilt and alienation from God. Wright replied, in part, as follows:

Actually, I have to say, within western post-modernity, most human beings I meet are not walking around saying, “I feel terribly guilty. How can I get rid of this?” That’s simply not the way they’re asking the question. And I don’t believe it is necessarily part of the task of either the apologist or the evangelist first to make them feel a guilt which they didn’t feel and then to show Jesus as the answer to that. It feels like a con trick.

I’m not saying that we go soft on sin – far from it. I’m saying that all people are aware of a major problem at some point. They may blame everyone else for it. They may blame the politicians, the economists, whatever. But to be able to say, “Actually, the whole world is in a mess and we share that messiness, that brokenness, that sinfulness. And God has dealt with the whole cosmic problem and he’s dealt with your problem in the middle of it.”

We’ve got to do both. And I have a sense that people … there’s a sort of sigh of relief when they realize that the church isn’t just interested in them as an individual, as maybe another scalp to be yanked in. But actually that we in the church are concerned with the whole creation, the whole world, with, to be sure, every single last human being as part of that…

I wonder if Ray Comfort would meet with more success if, instead of trying to persuade people of a personal guilt problem, he sought first to persuade them of a corporate guilt problem. I wonder if my neighbors’ consciences aren’t more attuned to the world’s need for a savior than to their own need for a savior.

I’m increasingly persuaded that the evangelical emphasis on embracing Jesus as a “personal Lord and Savior” represents an impoverished understanding of the kind of savior Christ was meant to be.

Perhaps spreading the euangelion (good news) is not so much about throwing life preservers to individuals who have fallen overboard as it is about enlisting our fellow deckhands into the captain’s plan for righting our listing ship.

***

[Click here to watch the 4 sessions from Wright’s visit to Moody. The above quotation is from the final video.]

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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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Did the Demons Fall or Just Get Traded?

May 7, 2011

I’m intrigued by Zoroastrianism. Not because I think it’s some hip alternative religion that I want to sign up for. Rather, I think it’s interesting because of the potential impact Zoroastrianism may have had on post-exilic Judaism and, by extension, Christianity.

Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Persians. After defeating the Babylonians, the Persians allowed the Jews the freedom to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. Second Isaiah goes so far as to call Cyrus the Great the LORD’s “Messiah” (Isa. 45:1). Matthew would later depict magi, likely Zoroastrian astrologers, as attendees at Christ’s baby shower.  I don’t think it too large a stretch to assume that some segments of Judaism may have had a soft spot for their Persian liberators.

What’s interesting to me is the difference between pre-exilic Judaism and post-exilic Judaism. Many of the ideas that show up for the first time in 2nd Temple literature bear resemblance to aspects of Zoroastrian thought (eg. the resurrection of the dead, the apocalyptic destruction of evil, etc.). One has to be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that Judaism simply borrowed from Zoroastrianism. Our Zoroastrian sources are relatively late, so it’s not entirely clear what the religion looked like at the time of Persian rule. And of course one shouldn’t overlook the influence of Greek thought following years of Judean Hellenization. Nonetheless, there does appear to be a relationship of some sort between Zoroastrian thinking and some novel aspects of 2nd Temple Jewish thought.

At pages 187-189 of Thom Stark’s critique of Paul Copan, Stark has occasion to reproduce the entry for “demon” in the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. The gist of the entry is that the exile brought about a shift in Jewish thinking from cosmic monism to cosmic dualism and that this shift is likely attributable to the influence of the thoroughly dualistic worldview of Zoroastrianism.

Pre-exilic Israelite religion, like its near eastern neighbors, was monistic in the sense that it “viewed the universe as a unified system in which each member, divine and human, had its proper domain and function above, upon, or below the earth.” There was no band of demons, led by Satan, fighting against God and seeking to undermine his purposes. Rather, God had at his disposal both benevolent spirits and spirits of calamity. The significant point is that the malevolent spirits were not fighting against God; they were doing God’s bidding.

This viewpoint is quite foreign to us, because we’re far more familiar with the dualistic worldview that emerged post-exile in which Satan and his demons are thought to be rebellious angels battling against God. But recognizing that this was not the way pre-exilic Israel thought helps to explain a number of passages that tend to bother us moderns. Among the examples cited by the Dictionary of Dieties entry are the following:

1 Samuel 16:14

Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him.

1 Kings 22:19-23

… I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.”

Exodus 12:23

For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.

I can’t help but think also of the portrait of Satan in the book of Job, where ha-Satan (“the Accuser” or “the Adversary”) appears in the heavenly council of Yahweh and gives a report of his activities. As a kid, I always imagined this as an incredibly tense scene in which God’s arch-nemesis boldly ventures into enemy territory. But this simply isn’t to be found in the text. As many biblical scholars have noted, the Adversary here is to be understood as part of God’s retinue – God’s prosecutor, if you will.

In the 2nd Temple period, this idea of dark powers acting at the behest of God begins to give way to the idea of evil forces struggling against God. The Dictionary of Deities explains Zoroastrian dualism and its influence on Judaism as follows:

This cosmology postulated two warring spiritual camps controlled by their leaders, the Zoroastrian God and Devil, and commanded by archangels and archdemons and their descending ranks of lesser spirits. They fought over the loyalty of humans, loyalty expressed in righteous or unrighteous behavior and eventuating in eternal life or fiery destruction. The old gods of the nations and their servant divinities, the lesser spirits of nature and cosmos, were ‘demonized,’ demoted to the class of wicked spirits, tempting humans to sin and enticing them from the true faith by the false doctrines of other religions. Eventually, however, there would be an End, a victory by God, a savior to bring the opposing powers to destruction, a Last Judgment, and a New Age. Circles within Judaism used this framework to revalue older myths and produced after the Exile the dualistic strains of Judaism visible in post-exilic and intertestamental literature and in Christianity.

[To read the entry in its entirety, click here for Stark’s review and scroll to page 187.]

In other words, once dualistic notions of a cosmic conflict between good and evil emerged, some within Judaism began to read their holy texts in this light. Satan, competing deities and other dark powers were reassigned to the evil camp. The notion of a “fall from heaven” emerged to explain (I assume) how this competing camp arose. Verses such as Isaiah 14:12, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn!”, which was originally a prophecy against the king of Babylonian, were co-opted in support of the new narrative. By the time we get to the New Testament – take the book of Revelation, for example – the dualism is fully developed and Satan is “that ancient serpent” whom God will finally destroy.

All of this does leave me wondering. Did Satan and the demons really fall from heaven or did they just get traded to the new expansion team? Or is the need for personified evil a leftover bit of ancient thinking that we no longer need? Your thoughts?

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Phil Harland’s podcast episode devoted to the issue of Zoroastrianism and its potential impact on Judaism.

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The High Price of Inerrancy

March 21, 2011

Steve Douglas at Undeception has a thought-provoking post titled, “We might not like it, but it’s in the Bible, so …”

He questions whether those who defend the inerrancy of Scripture or certain prized doctrines do so at much too great a cost to the character of God. Here’s a taste:

… I am convinced that we need to be willing to question things that conflict with our conscience. In some cases, we may have to disagree with Scripture; in many others, we may find that we have simply been forcing something unnatural onto the text.

Regarding the atrocities of the Canaanite conquest: do you think it’s better to worship a God whose morality requires exceptions and redefinitions of key concepts than to live with the uncertainty that perhaps even the biblical authors were not fully aware of the depths of God’s grace? Are you content to excuse even the worst charges against God if by any means it vindicates your Bible and the comfortable theological confidence it gives you?

Steve goes on to suggest that there may be portions of the Bible that we should hope are wrong.

For Christians taught to believe that their entire faith rests on the unassailable reliability of the Bible, questioning the Bible in order to defend the character of God would seem like an inherent contradiction. But are the biblical texts the true foundation for faith? Steve argues otherwise:

My faith is in a God whose soul is more lovely than ours, who has a higher, more wholesome sense of love and justice than we are able to walk in as humans. My hope is built on nothing less than this!

Read the rest of Steve’s post here.

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A Christian Response to Tyranny

February 28, 2011

A few days ago Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk provided as fodder for discussion an excerpt from a recent interview given by John MacArthur.

MacArthur was asked for his thoughts on the “revolution in the Middle East with protesters opposing authoritarian rule.” MacArthur’s responses included the following:

I think there are a lot of ways to approach that but if you just talk about a biblical thing, they are all in violation of a biblical command – to submit to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.

… whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.

But biblically speaking, I would have wished the American government, which has a history of Christianity, would have risen up and said “this is wrong, this is forbidden for people to do this, this is intolerable.”

The full interview is here if you’re interested.

MacArthur seems to take the view that, irrespective of how brutal and despotic the governing authority, even rallying in opposition in an attempt to topple that authority is forbidden. And he’s got Bible verses to prove it.

The problem with trying to use the Bible to condemn the protesters is that you have to rely on a few verses while largely ignoring one of the major themes of the Bible, namely, God’s opposition to oppression and injustice. The OT is replete with condemnation of injustice. The prophets continually warned that if nations persisted in oppressing the vulnerable within them, God’s justice would see to it that their regime was overthrown, trampled, destroyed.

God didn’t suddenly stop caring about injustice and oppression when Christ stepped on the scene. From Luke’s standpoint, this Old Testament theme is the essence of Jesus’ ministry. In Christ’s inaugural sermon, he quotes Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Freedom for the oppressed is central to Christ’s Kingdom message.

But what about the passages that MacArthur alludes to? They certainly do sound as though they endorse a strict political quietism. Why does MacArthur’s response just feel so … wrong?

I’ll share with you my thoughts and I’ll let the biblical scholars out there tell me if I’ve missed the mark.

It seems to me that to understand Paul’s direction to live in submission to the authorities, you have to understand his eschatology. Paul was clearly persuaded that the end of the age was at hand. In a dramatic reversal, God was about to enter the fray, destroy the Roman empire and establish fully the Kingdom of God on earth. There was no need to fight or resist the Romans because God was about to overthrow their empire at any moment.

Paul’s expectation of an imminent end is on full display in his advice in 1 Corinthians 7. Don’t worry about changing your station in life. Don’t sweat being a slave. Don’t marry if you can avoid it. Why? At verses 29-31:

What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

When Paul tells Christians to live in submission to the Roman authorities, he’s doing so from the perspective of one who believes that the whole order is about to be overthrown in any event. This is not a long-range perspective. It’s not that God suddenly decided that oppressive empires weren’t deserving of destruction. It was precisely because God was about to overthrow this unjust regime that Paul could recommend that God’s people just wait it out.

In fact, in Romans 13, after calling for submission to the authorities, Paul goes on to say in verse 11:

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

The NT ethic of submission to any and all authority arises in a context of temporary instruction for a people who are about to be given a total victory over their oppressors. That’s a sensible strategy if the hour of God’s intervention is near. It’s not such great advice if you’re living 2000 years later in North Africa with no sign of divine intervention in sight.

All of this reminded me of something I recently read in Thom Stark‘s book, The Human Faces of God. At pg. 227, he writes:

Time and again, the Christian commitment to justice has been undermined by the expectation of an imminent end. Generation after generation, those who suffer are told to wait it out; authentic justice is impossible this side of the eschaton, but there is hope to be had in the conviction that the end is nigh. Yet the end has never been nigh, and there is no reason to believe that it is nigh today. Meanwhile, human beings continue to suffer and many Christian institutions can do little more than to bandage wounds and send victims back into the very political and economic environments that wounded them in the first place. … That [charity] may be all very well when the consummation of the kingdom of God is expected to take place within a few decades, but with a two-thousand-year margin of error, such charity itself becomes an injustice.