Category Archives: Theology

An Apocalypse of Love

(This is my Christmas Eve meditation from this year’s Christmas Eve service at our church.)

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just over a week ago, there was the horrible shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 27 people, including 20 children, were killed. This last Friday was anticipated by some to be the end of the world, based on a particular interpretation and understanding of the Mayan calendar. People were buying bomb shelters, survival supplies, and some even stockpiling weapons. That same day, much closer to home, several Alberta school received what appeared to be threats of violence. Some of them were false alarms, but in Ponoka the school was locked down and a young man in possession of firearms was arrested in relation to this even–perhaps in imitation of Newtown, perhaps in anticipation of an apocalypse, perhaps for entirely different reasons.

It was a week or so of hatred, grief, and fear, and of nervous watching.

One question asked by many people this week was “Where was God?” It is a fair question and we are not the first to ask it. It is an ancient question. Biblical Israel used to ask essentially the same thing. “How long, O Lord?” is a question peppered throughout the Psalms and the prophets. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

* * *

We live between two Advents, two “comings” of Jesus. The last several weeks and especially tonight and tomorrow, we mostly look back at the first Advent, but–let’s not forget–we also look forward to the second Advent. The first coming and the second coming. Both those Advents mark the end of the world as we know it. This time of year we actually do anticipate an apocalypse, but not, perhaps, as popularly depicted or understood.

The first Coming–the one that was promised long ago, was announced to a young girl, began in her womb, and was revealed in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough–this first coming was the coming of Love, with a capital “L”, into the world. Not a sentimental love, not love as some kind of nice, but abstract idea, but a living, self-giving Love, which took on flesh, became human, became a baby, helpless and weak. And the world was changed. It was the end of the world as it was known.

Why did Love come down? “For God so loved the world,” it says in the Bible. Love came down because the world was and is messed up and God loves this messed up world–not because it’s messed up, not because it may have potential–but because God is love and so loves the world in spite of what it is. And God knew that no effort of our own would be able to clean up the mess, no sentimental love or goodwill, no sweet notion of making the world a better place. Only Love with capital “L”, only love in its greatest, holiest, and most powerful sense, only a love in its purest most uncompromising form–only a love that gave itself fully for others–could make things right. Humans all ultimately turn away from this kind of true love, so Love had to come to us. That Love became human–became the baby named Jesus.

We’ve heard a lot about “apocalypse” lately, in books, in movies, in this news. This first coming of Jesus was an apocalypse. See, the word “apocalypse” does not mean “a time of zombies and nuclear bombs” as popular use suggests. The word means, simply and literally, “reveal” or “revelation”. Biblically, apocalypse is about revealing reality and God–telling us about the way the world is and the way it will be and the God who’s in charge of it all. God revealed himself in Jesus–this weak, helpless baby, who in the name of love would give himself for us. God’s love was revealed in this first Advent, in Jesus’ first Coming.

It was an Apocalypse of Love.

It was the beginning of the end. The world would be transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who turned this world of revenge, injustice, and pride upside-down with God’s world of mercy, justice, forgiveness, and love. Mary saw this, as we heard in her song, read a few minutes ago: the hungry filled, the oppressors overthrown.

The birth of Jesus is the answer to the question of God’s whereabouts. He’s right here, at work in the world. And the birth of Jesus is also the answer to that similar question that Israel had been asking for generations: “How long, O Lord?” The answer, in the fullness of time, was both “Now” and “Not yet.”

We still, in weeks like this one particularly, cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

And so we anticipate the second Advent, the Second Coming of Jesus. That will once again mark the end of the world as we know it. Not the end of God’s good creation, but the end of “the world” as we know it–the world of hatred, fear, violence, grief, death. This, too, will be an Apocalypse of Love.

It’s interesting that The End of the World, the “End Times”, the Apocalypse (whatever you want to call it) has become a thing of fear. We see this every time someone predicts the end of the world, whether it’s the Mayans or some obscure Christian sect: people buying shelters, stockpiling food and weapons; images of fire, zombies, death. Popular depictions of the end are terrifying–nightmare-inducing, even. Yes, there are beasts and boils in the book of Revelation, and facing Almighty God could put a different kind of fear in a person, but that book is meant to be encouraging, not terrifying, precisely because Jesus has come and is coming. It’s supposed to be good news.

Why? Because it tells us that in the end evil doesn’t have its way, but that Good prevails; that the God of Love will have his way and set the world right.

The post-apocalyptic world won’t be a barren, smoky desert of bedraggled wanderers, who daily live in fear of violence and death. It will be a lush, healing garden, where fear and grieving and death will have no place, because they will have been done away with.

Near the end of the book of Revelation, God says, “Look, I am making everything new!” And that work began with the baby in the manger, the Christ-child, the first of many brothers and sisters. God becomes human, born a baby–new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving–so that we can once again become children: reborn new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving.

There’s an apocalypse we can look forward to!

* *

We live between two Advents. We remember and celebrate the first Advent; we watch and wait for the second. In the meantime, God is at work in the world, and in and through us. When Jesus left the first time, he promised not only that he would return, but that his Spirit would come and live in us, that in this way he would remain with us. And so he did, and so he does, and while we wait, with the Spirit’s help we can each be a little apocalypse of God’s self-giving love.

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

“That’ll do”: God’s Grace in the Old Testament

“I have no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.

I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,

for every animal in the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?”

– Psalm 50:8-13 (NIV)

I read the above Psalm this morning and it got me thinking again about animal sacrifice in the Old Testament. I have never understood what it was about the blood sacrifice that could possibly atone for individual or corporate human sin. What strange ancient magic in the universe could this be? From my 20th/21st century vantage point, that sort of thing has always seemed archaic, a relic from the ancient world that made sense in a particular context but not a whole lot in our own. And yet there it is: sacrifice, the shedding of blood in atonement for sin, is embedded the Christian meta-narrative. An essential aspect of Christian theology and doctrine that I don’t fully understand. I’m okay with that, actually. I don’t need an answer to all my questions to be compelled by the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And yet the mystery remains. Atoning sacrifice still doesn’t make complete sense to me. And to complicate matters, there are plenty of scriptures like the above Psalm which indicate that sacrifices are not needed by God or, in some cases, wanted by him. There are a couple of instances in the Psalms and perhaps most famously, Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, / and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” So we have a situation where sacrifice is necessary for atonement, but a God who does not desire those sacrifice.*

BUT… I’ve been reading John Stackhouse’s book Can God be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. Later in the book he gives an overview of the Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption. He briefly covers the topic of sacrifice and I was struck by this passage:

Two principal images have been used by Christians to explain what Jesus accomplished on the cross: Christ as Sacrifice, and Christ as Victor. The former harks back to the extensive symbolism of Israelite temple worship, in which animals were killed and offered to God as substitutes for the human sinners who gave them up. “Life for life” was the basic principle, because sin at its root is the enemy of life. The Hebrew prophets themselves made clear that these rituals together formed an elaborate picture of God’s holiness (God views sin as mortally serious, and therefore the most graphic symbolism of life and death was necessary to portray its cost and its redemption) and God’s mercy (God was willing to accept animal substitutes, although it makes no logical or moral sense to do so: how can the blood of bulls and goats possibly make up for human sin?). The ultimate payment for, the ultimate cost of human sin, had to be borne by human beings. (133-4 in the 2nd edition)

What particularly struck me about this paragraph was animal sacrifice as a picture of God’s mercy. I have often been reminded that grace is not a concept limited to the New Testament and the coming of Jesus. The Old Testament is also filled with God’s grace to humankind. Looking at the story of Israel in particular, we see God repeatedly calling the wayward Israelites back. The Israelites were constantly breaking their covenant with God and therefore constantly placing themselves under God’s judgment. God is the giver and sustainer of all life and to sever our relationship with the Life-Giver means the end of life. God was perfectly within his rights to let Israel perish on any number of occasions. But God is slow to anger and rich in love, mercy, and forgiveness, and each time Israel severed their ties with him and walked away from the Life-Giver, God pursued and called them back to life and wholeness.

So grace and mercy are there in the Old Testament; Jesus didn’t bring in anything new in that regard. But I had never thought of the sacrificial system as a grace-filled thing. It was about restitution, atonement, making things right, and even (in my tradition) salvation by works. But the reality is that animal sacrifice itself does not forgive sin–only God forgives sin. And in his grace and mercy he provided Israel with a way to enact their repentance–to show that they acknowledged God–which, though not in itself sufficient to forgive sin, moved him to forgive.

Perhaps I’m taking Stackhouse’s words farther than they should be taken. Fair enough; what he said simply set my mind to thinking about grace. It makes a great deal of sense to me that, even though human sin is serious enough that death is a legitimate result, God, because he loves humankind so much and wanted things to be right between himself and Israel and the world, set up what was in fact a sub-par arrangement to atone for sin and said, “That’ll do,” and restored his wayward people.

Yes, things did change significantly with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We no longer need to offer blood sacrifices because the Final Sacrifice has been made. But God has always been full of grace and mercy, even in the Old Testament.

________

* This leads to a tangent issue, of course: if we were merciful and truly acknowledged God, sacrifice for sin probably wouldn’t be needed.

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.)