Category Archives: Theology

Sunday thoughts on a Monday morning

Sometimes during a church service I become aware of what we are doing–the raw details of it, I mean. Usually this is during the singing time, when, depending on where I am, 50 or 100 or 120 men, women, and children stand and sing songs together, we stand reading words from a screen or from a book and sing. What a strange thing! What are we doing? Sometimes the songs are beautiful, sometimes the words seem meaningless, but always we sing. How strange!

This thought and feeling came over me again yesterday morning. I again became aware of how odd and unprecedented it and even not normal it seemed. People from 5 to 90 facing forward, singing songs.

And then it dawned on me. It’s not just the standing reading theological and worshipful words on a screen, it’s the whole package. We are singing together: people of all ages, genders, and races, singing together about and to a God they have gathered together to worship. People of different incomes, walks of life, opinions, histories, all gathered together to sing, to listen, to learn, to worship, to pray. This is remarkable, when you stop to think about it.

I realized that it’s not just the words we sing, but the act of singing together itself that is powerful and symbolic–no, even an enacting of the Kingdom of God.


Why did you doubt? (Walking on Water, part 2)

Some of you may recall a post I wrote more than 4 years ago, in which I described my extremely negative reaction when I began reading John Ortberg’s If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. That post generated more comments (42, though mostly a discussion between a handful of people) than most.

I came across a post today in which someone interprets the passage much differently than Ortberg does:

Within this story, we see that the actions of Peter are not that of faith – instead they have a foundation of doubt. His actions are not commendable: rather, his actions were cause for rebuke. It was only Peter who questioned whether it was Jesus or not on the water. It was Peter who questioned Jesus, telling him that he didn’t believe it was him. It was Peter who said, you know what, “I’m not going to believe it is you, unless you tell me I can come to you and walk on water also.”

… The boat was the destination where Jesus was heading for all along. It was in the boat where Jesus intended to meet up with his disciples. It was Christs intent for them to travel to the other side of the lake in the boat. It was never his intention for them to get out of the boat. It was never his intention for them to walk on water. And the only place he intended for them to get out of the boat, was once they reached the shore of where he had told them to go in the first place.

The Apostle Paul gives us good advice about staying in our boat. He says to the Corinthian Church in 1 Cor 7:17

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.

God never calls us to escape our boat. What ever situation we find ourselves in, this is where God has called us, and its where God has assigned us to live. And it is he, who will direct the course of our lives in him.

Good stuff. Read the whole post here. (But please don’t read something into his words that he isn’t actually saying. Read it to hear and listen and then weigh the words. I think one of the key points is that risk, even if we do see it as for God, is not in and of itself a virtue. Some of us may be called to something risky, but certainly not everyone and not always.)

Understanding wrath.

Via Jesus Creed, “Four Cringe-worthy Claims of Popular Penal Substitution Theology.” This in particular stood out to me:

The word wrath in Greek is [org?], the root for our word “orgy” in English. When you look at how this word is actually used in the Bible, it’s more mysterious than you might think. It’s not just a synonym for “anger.” Paul tells the Ephesians that they were “formerly by [their] nature children of wrath” (which the NIV theologically edits to say children deserving of wrath). To be a child of wrath according to Paul is to be owned by “the desires of our flesh and senses” (Eph 2:3). It has nothing to do with God being angry.

In Romans 1:18, Paul writes that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” If wrath were simply “anger,” we could expect Paul to elaborate on this statement by cataloguing a series of natural disasters with which God responded to punish humanity’s sin. Instead what we find is an account of the degeneration of humanity through the innate consequences of their sinful behavior. God “hands them over” to their lust, idolatry, etc, but He is not actively punitive independent of these innate consequences in His response to sin. This seems to suggest that God’s [org?] is the proliferation of sin itself.

I’m not sure we can separate God’s “emotions” from this entirely (and perhaps the writer doesn’t), but this is a point well worth considering.

Nestorius, The Pericope of the Adulteress (other writings)

A couple of more papers to add to the “other writings” list, which may or may not interest you.

The first is my first major research paper for seminary. It was actually a distance-learning class I took through Briercrest Seminary on the Patristic Fathers (basically early church history and theological development with a focus on the leading theologians of the time). Over the course of my reading I became fascinated by the Nestorian controversy, a famous (in church theological circles) heresy in the fourth century (I think) about the relationship between divine and human natures in Jesus. I was fascinated because it seemed like a fine example of hair-splitting and I couldn’t quite figure out why Nestorius got the treatment (excommunication) he did, particularly since some of what Nestorius argued for was affirmed in later church councils. In the last 150 years or so, theologians have been rethinking Nestorius’ status, wondering if he was himself in fact a Nestorian (in spite of the fact that that heresy will forever bear his name).

This paper was particularly helpful for me because it made me realize that “heresy” is not necessarily an evil thing. That is not to say that I affirm heresy. What I mean is that we tend to think of heretics–the purveyors of heresy–as people intent on destroying the church. What I discovered during the course of writing this paper was that those who have been branded “heretics” by the church (often rightfully so) were in fact sincerely wrestling with their faith in and understanding of God. They were often (always?) concerned with believing rightly and faithfully and honouring God.

This is often true, I find, even among the more serious heresies, such as Arianism or the teachings of Marcion. These men were trying to be faithful. That doesn’t mean that they were right–sincerity is not a guarantee of theological correctness–but it also doesn’t mean that they were intent on destroying the church.

I haven’t re-read this paper in more than three years, so I have no idea what I think of it now. But I do remember that the professor said it was a delight to read. Here it is: “Personality and Terminology: The Nestorian Controversy” (terrible title– pdf, 15 pages).

The second paper I want to link to today is the longest I’ve ever written. The pericope of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:11) came up several times in 2011. You’ll notice that your Bible, if it was published in the last 40 years or so, marks off this passage saying in a footnote or elsewhere that “the oldest and most reliable manuscripts” do not include this passage. The New English Bible omits the passage altogether and places it in a footnote at the end of John. One of my professors said that he would not preach this passage because he did not believe, based on the evidence, that it is original to the text. Most text critical scholars feel the same way (hence its marking off in our Bibles).

The fact is, this passage appears in various forms in different places in the New Testament manuscripts as well as in other writings. However, I don’t think simply saying “the oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not include this passage” tells the whole story accurately.

The paper is 31 pages long (plus bibliography) and it still does not fully engage everything I think is worth engaging on this topic. It’s quite technical, as it covers all of the manuscript evidence, but it also engages (though not as much as I would have liked) questions of inspiration and the source of scriptural authority.

Here you go: “Pericope Adultera (John 7,53-8,11).”

Again, if you read either of these, let me know what you think.

(I have now started a page of “other writings,” where I will, from time to time, post additional papers, publications, etc. Of course, the best laid plans, the road to hell, etc.)

God’s Love and God’s Wrath (Other writings)

After the discussion that arose with the post about being unwittingly Orthodox (“Unwittingly Orthodox?“), I thought it might be interesting to post my paper on God’s love and wrath, which was the last major research paper I wrote for my degree. It then occurred to me that there are a number of other papers I could make available here for posterity’s sake. I will begin to do so today–feel free to read them or not read them as you will.

The paper on God’s love and God’s wrath and how they relate developed out of a question that came to mind during one of our seminary chapels, in which Romans 5:6-11, or a portion of it, was quoted. It says this:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (NRSV)

There is a tension in this passage between God’s love and God’s wrath that I could not resolve. Not that all tensions in scripture need or can be resolved, but something about the tension between needing to be saved from God’s wrath and God saving us from his own wrath bugged me enough to pursue the question. Originally it was going to be an exegetical paper, limited to interpreting this passage, but it soon became clear that it needed to be more theological.

The response to the paper, which I had to present to the class and defend, was generally positive. While most seemed to agree with my conclusions, I sensed some discomfort (though nothing specific was expressed) at the possible implications of those conclusions. There was also a question about the way the paper was organized, which I acknowledge could have been better–my organizational choices were made for aesthetic reasons rather than for the natural/rational flow of the argument.

Anyway, here it is: “Love Wins? God’s Love and God’s Wrath in Romans 5.6-10” (pdf, 20 pages plus bibliography).

If you do read it, tell me what you think.

Unwittingly Orthodox?

Scot McKnight posted this video of an (Eastern) Orthodox (EO) priest (? possibly not a priest) explaining the difference between the Protestant view of the atonement and the Orthodox view:

What’s interesting about this video is that the EO view presented is more or less the view I argued for (without knowing it is EO) in my final major paper for seminary. Additionally interesting is that my thought was informed by T.F. Torrance, a Reformed (that is, Protestant) theologian.

So, either Torrance and I are unwittingly EO Christians or this video has a narrow view of Protestant atonement theology.* I’m guessing it’s the latter.

* I’d say there are several Protestant views on the atonement, not just one.

On theological mumbo-jumbo.

I don’t have a habit of giving myself theological labels. But I have said that, insofar as I know what it means, I am not a Calvinist. I am deeply troubled by Calvinism’s notion of predestination, whether it is double predestination or single (which, in my view, is by implication the same as double predestination). It may well be that I simply don’t understand the nuances of Calvinist thought, but, Calvinism having been explained to me a number of times, it never gets any clearer.

I’m reading an article by D. A. Carson–“God’s Love and God’s Wrath”–for a major paper due in a couple of weeks. It occurred to me as I read that I cannot deny the general notion of “election” because it’s there in scripture. Whether it is “clearly” in scripture is debatable. In fact, how we understand election is one of the foundational differences between Calvinists and Arminians. The notion is there. We’re just can’t agree on what it means.

As much as I cannot deny the notion of election, I equally feel like I am not in a place to take that notion much further than that: there are “elect”. Beyond that we start getting into the question of who’s “in” and who’s “out”, which, while not completely inappropriate, too easily devolves into sectarianism and a level of dense and nit-picky theological mumbo-jumbo that exhausts me in its sheer unhelpfulness. As if we can have any degree of certainty about who “the elect” might include. Even if we do manage to define every theological concept relevant to “election” to its finest point, so little of it (if any at all) is, in the end, in our control, that thinking about it seems like an exercise in futility.

I guess it’s a pastoral bent in me that rails against this kind of discussion. The gospel is not about who is “elect”, it’s about Jesus Christ as (and currently Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel is influencing my thought) the fulfillment of God’s work to set the world right through his covenant promises to Israel (or something like that). That leads to salvation. We can’t determine with a great deal of certainty whether or not we are among the elect who will be saved until it’s too late to do anything about it (if indeed we could do anything about it!). So what’s the point of worrying about who is “elect”? All we can do is trust in and follow the example of the one who lived, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, and will return. Never mind “elect”.

Maybe I’ve missed the point of Calvinist “election” entirely. Or maybe this makes me an Arminian.

Not that it matters.

Who can be saved?

Something Christians don’t pause to consider enough is what the Bible does and does not say. An obvious example is “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” This sounds biblical, but it’s found nowhere in the pages of scripture.

Most other examples are not as obvious. Terry Tiessen, professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics here at Providence Seminary, wrote an interesting post about why there are so many differing conclusions about scripture when most of those conclusions are arrived at by a similar method of interpretation.

His post deals in particular with the question of who can be saved (about which he has published a book through IVP). Tiessen is an accessibilist. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I think it is essentially the same as inclusivism (but Tiessen does not like that term). It has something to do with the wideness of God’s salvation (vs. exclusivism) in terms of an individual’s context and level of received revelation (he is not a universalist).

Anyway, he had this to say about what the Bible does and does not say about who can be saved:

I find no texts in the Bible that state explicitly that only the evangelized will be saved, nor any that state explicitly that any of the unevangelized will be saved. Although gospel exclusivists cite numerous texts which appear to them to affirm explicitly what they assert, four problems are common in their interpretation of these texts: first, texts asserting the uniqueness of Christ as the world’s only Saviour are read as assertions that knowledge of Christ is necessary to benefit from his saving work (eg. Acts 4:12); second, texts asserting the saving efficacy of belief in Jesus are read as assertions that only such fully informed faith can save (e.g. the citation of Joel 2:32 in Rom. 10:13); third, Scripture is clear that all who believe in Jesus are saved and that all who reject Jesus remain condemned. But it is often not observed that texts which speak of not believing (i.e. rejecting) Jesus are in contexts where knowledge of him is assumed, and so these cannot be extended to refer to the unevangelized (e.g., Jn 3:16-18); and fourth, the context of texts is ignored, as in Romans 10, where Paul rejects, as a possible explanation for widespread unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, that Jews were ignorant of him. So, this much cited text is not speaking of the unevangelized, though it does state clearly the necessity of revelation for saving faith.

I posit that this absence of texts explicitly stating gospel exclusivism is probably the main reason for widespread agnosticism on this point among evangelicals these days.

(Read the whole post here.)

Is Mystery a third theological option?

ONE post in October? Mother of pearl. What has happened to the good ship The Eagle and Child?

So I took a break from reading the fascinating A Brief History of Tea (which I was reading while drinking tea and listening to CBC classical online–very refined, folks), which I bought for all of $2 at Indigo Books today, and came across a new blog post from the theologian Roger E. Olsen.

Apparently somewhere, to someone, Olsen said, “if somehow it were revealed to me that God is as TULIP Calvinism says and as its good and necessary consequences imply, I would not worship that god.” This apparently caused some controversy and his post seeks to explain his position.

I’ve never given a whole lot of thought to Calvinism or Arminianism (which is Olsen’s position). Two of my theology of professors here are Calvinists. I think there are also some Arminians on staff. But I won’t come away from my seminary studies with a detailed knowledge of either theological position. It seems to me that the difference between them comes down to how they understand divine sovereignty and human freedom intersect.

I’ve never been able to align myself fully with either position. This is no doubt largely because I know little of both beyond the notions of freedom and sovereignty (and I can almost list all of the words that make up the TULIP acronym). My non-partisan theology (in this regard) is also partially due to the fact that from what I do know of the two theologies, I agree and disagree with both on various points.

And the truth is, I’ve never seen the need to make a choice between the two.

The idea of prevenient grace–of God always acting first–makes sense to me. On the other hand, I find the notion of double predestination (it’s in Calvinism at least by implication)–that some are elected for salvation and some (again, at least by implication) elected for damnation–problematic at best and horrific at worst. Olsen argues that taken to its necessary conclusions, the Calvinist God would not be good, faithful, etc. Ah, but! A Calvinist might say, You are going by human standards of good, faithful, etc. Well, I say back to the Calvinist, so are you.

Calvinism also seems to go against the grain of Jesus’ mission during his time on earth.

On the other hand, the Arminian position seems to jive more with Jesus’ mission and activity, as well as his commands. And somehow it doesn’t seem all that irrational to think that human freedom can fall within the realm and boundary of God’s sovereignty.

But something Olsen says in his post startled me. As a counter example, he shares an argument John Piper (a Calvinist) gave him against Arminianism. According to Piper, ‘Arminians “must say” that the cross did not save anyone but only gave people an opportunity to save themselves.’ In other words, Arminianism leads to the Pelagianism, that ancient heresy that states that it is within an individual’s capacity to save him or herself.

Maybe it does. I can see how Arminianism might get you to this point. And maybe I really do need to brush up on my knowledge of Calvin and Arminius. Maybe it is important for me to make a choice–and one not based on the overwhelming personalities one sees online coming from one of these camps.

On the other hand, maybe the quest for a neat-and-tidy theology is a futile one. Calvinists and Arminians both bandy about all manner of scripture in support of their position. This suggests at least two possibilities: both sides are reading scripture incorrectly or scripture allows for both. Alternatively, my limited understanding of both is just a caricature.

Is Mystery a legitimate third theological option?

Evil, suffering, beauty, goodness.

It’s pretty common in film and television to see people who are functionally atheistic or non-religious to turn to God when it suits them. For instance, a character who under normal circumstances does not profess belief in God or practice any sort of religious observance, will begin to pray when there is an in-flight emergency or when they are up for a big promotion. I’ve been watching through the Seinfeld series again and noticed an unusual twist on this theme.

In the season 4 episode entitled “The Pilot, Part 1”, NBC finally confirms that they will begin shooting the pilot for the sitcom George and Jerry have been writing. George begins to panic about what might happen, so he visits his therapist. They have the following conversation:

George: What if the pilot gets picked up and it becomes a series?

Therapist: That’d be wonderful, George! You’d be rich and successful!

George: That’s exactly what I’m worried about. God would never let me be successful–he’ll kill me first! He’ll never let me be happy.

Therapist: I thought you didn’t believe in God?

George: I do for the bad things!

This is a clever observation about how we approach the subject of God. When bad things happen, the question of God inevitably arises. Under normal circumstances–when things are “good”–God rarely comes to mind.

I’m not suggesting that the question of a loving, all-powerful God allowing pain and suffering isn’t problematic or important to consider. I do think that the question is rather lop-sided. The question is always fundamentally, Can I believe in a God who allows these things to happen? or Can such a God be good? Beauty and goodness, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, come into the conversation. I’ve never heard anyone ask, Can I believe in a God who creates such profound beauty?

It seems to me that a balanced approach to the question must include not only evil and suffering, but also beauty, goodness, and from a Judeo-Christian perspective, redemption–that is, God’s response to evil and suffering.

I realize, of course, that God’s love and goodness is itself in question. What I’m talking about, however, is not God’s own goodness per se. Instead, just like the existence (for lack of a better term) of evil and suffering raise questions about God, so should the existence of goodness, beauty, and love.

I don’t know precisely how we bring these things into the discussion. I don’t like the idea of weighing evil and suffering against goodness and beauty, as if they were on a scale, and answering the question based on which “weighs” more (even if one could argue that, at least in the long run, goodness and beauty win out).

Still, it seems to me that if we are talking about a God who creates and exists–which I think we are when we ask about evil and suffering–then we must equally consider goodness and beauty. If we don’t, evil and suffering seem to become issue conveniently chosen simply to support a foregone position. The issue isn’t completely dealt with if beauty and goodness are not included.