Friday, December 31, 2010

Across the Spectrum: Chapters 2 & 3 - Providence and Foreknowledge

This post is a continuation from the previous post...

Chapter 2: The Providence Debate

Position 1: God is sovereign over all things (Calvinist)
Position 2: God limits his control by granting freedom (Arminian)

The Calvinist position is, essentially, this: that everything that happens was pre-ordained and planned by God. If you are saved, it is because God chose you to be one of the 'Elect', if you are damned, this is because God created you to be a 'creature of wrath'. You have no say in the matter. The Arminian position is that while God could have supreme control of everything, he chooses not to, in order to allow us to have the choice to love him or reject him.

As will be repeated in future comments on later chapters, while I was raised a Calvinist, I have had much more of an Arminian outlook for many years now. I just don't find the Calvinist beliefs particularly consistent with life experience, common sense or, indeed, a belief in a loving and just God - which is supposedly what Calvinism is all about. The Calvinist stance seems to be based on the assumption that because God has complete sovereignty over everything, he must assert complete authority over everything. Why? There's lots of things I can do, but choose not to, or only do them occasionally. Why should it be any different for God? The Calvinist approach seems to limit God's own free will, by asserting that because he can act a certain way, therefore he must act that way. Surely God can choose how he wants to act?

I once started reading J.I. Packer's book on evangelism and sovereignty - basically, what is the point of evangelism if God chooses who will be saved anyway? - and got a couple of chapters in before I realised that I really wasn't interested in the 'problem' the book was addressing. God is God as he is, not as Calvin imagined him to be.

Chapter 3: The Foreknowledge Debate
Position 1: God foreknows all that shall come to pass (Classical view)
Position 2: God knows all that shall be and all that may be (Open view)

This is another debate that I'm actually not that interested in. It doesn't really question the nature of God, but rather questions the nature of reality. Is the future pre-determined or is probability real? In a moment, I am going to walk to my fridge and get a drink of fruit juice. In the fridge there is a carton of apple juice and one of orange juice. Some days I have one, some days I have the other. Is it predetermined that I will have one or the other today or are both futures equally real possibilities? Does God know which I will choose or does he simply know that I will choose one of them, because I'm thirsty? The classical view is that God knows exactly what will be because the future is predetermined and foreknown. The open view is that both possible futures are just that: possible. That is, both are potentially real. God knows both futures but doesn't (indeed, can't) know which it will be. The classical viewpoint is that this limits God's foreknowledge, so can't be the case.

Half a sec... Mmmm. Nice drink of orange juice... Now where was I?

The main objection to the 'open' view seems (to me) to be based on a false assumption. For example, the reasoning goes like this - God planned that Jesus would be crucified, in order to achieve the salvation plan, if probability was in play, there is a chance that Judas wouldn't have betrayed Jesus, or Pilate could have released him without charge, etc. Basically, if its all a mess of probabilities, then the crucifixion might never have happened, and then where would we be?

The false assumption in there is that all God's activity happened at the start of time when he set the ball rolling, and that he is not required to be an active participant in ongoing history. Why? If God decides to achieve something, I'm sure he's big and powerful enough to ensure it happens, even in the midst of messy probabilities. Maybe we view prophesy in the wrong way. Maybe its not predictions of the future, but rather declarations by God of what he will do, irrespective of the flow of probability.

So I don't really see a problem here. I'm happy to accept that much of the future is unwritten, but some important parts of it are pre-planned.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Across the Spectrum: Chapter 1 - The Inspiration Debate

I'm currently reading 'Across the Spectrum' by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy. The book is an overview of 'Evangelical' belief on most of the primary areas of belief in the Church today. Basically, for each topic covered, the book aims to describe each of the beliefs and justifications for holding to those beliefs, as if that section was written by a proponent of that position. Its quite interesting stuff and not as 'text book' as it sounds. Its certainly food for thought.

But, of course, the reason I am reading it is to figure out what I believe, and my reasons for believing what I believe, and whether my beliefs are justifiable and reasonable. And, of course, to have a critical look at the beliefs of others expressed in this book.

There's a lot in here, so I'll split this discussion across several posts. Here I'll look at the first chapter...

Chapter 1: The Inspiration Debate
Position 1: Without error of any kind (inerrantist view)
Position 2: Infallible in matters of faith and practice (infallibilist view)

I suppose I was raised with the 'inerrantist' belief, but I think I must have slid into the other camp as a fairly young Christian, possibly the first time I ever considered the issues. To me, the 1st position seems a bit blinkered, it basically says that the bible is right on all matters and if reality appears to disagree, then it is reality that has it wrong. Or rather, our perception of reality (whether through scientific or historical study, etc.) must be wrong.

The basic thing I find to be wrong with this point of view is that it does not allow you to question your pre-suppositions. It takes 'the bible' as its starting point, never questioning how that particular combination of 66 books came to be, or indeed, how those individual books came to be written or compiled. So all books in there are equally valid, and any excluded books are not at all valid. And yet the books of Revelation, James and the pastorals only made it into the canon by the skin of their teeth. And what about the Shepherd of Hermas? It was only just excluded.

The position is defended by asserting that Jesus had a very high regard for 'Scripture' - this is certainly the case, but what was Jesus calling scripture? Certainly not any of the 27 books of the New Testament which hadn't even been written yet, possibly not even large chunks of what we now call the Old Testament. Jesus's quotes of scripture are fairly limited to Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy and a couple of prophets. There is good evidence that the 'canon' of the OT hadn't actually been settled upon by the time of Jesus, so we can't use this as evidence for a blanket acceptance of the 66 books we now have.

Also, the position tries to explain away some minor 'apparent errors' by blaming them on scribal and transmission errors. It is only the original manuscripts (which we don't have) that were inerrant, so what we are left with is a 'mostly inerrant' book. Hmmm. I'm not sure I can reconcile that. If God went to all the trouble of giving mankind a perfect book, why didn't he then take the trouble to make sure it was kept perfect. Surely he could have saved at least one copy for posterity?

But that's not to say that I hold to the infallibilist view either. This view has its problems too. Of course, given the nature of this book, these are discussed, but I'm still not left very satisfied. Here, at least, I think the inerrantist view is more defensible. The inerrantist view is internally consistent, if you accept the unquestionable presuppositions, the whole thing works. You have clear cut lines of guidance. Not so if you consider the bible to only be infallible with regard to matters of faith and practice. How does that work? Did God inspire part of the work and then, effectively, say to the authors "you fill in the blanks"? That's not very satisfying. What criteria do you have for deciding which bits are infallible and which aren't?

So what about me? What do I believe? Well, I guess if all of Evangelical Christianity falls into one or other of those positions, then I have fallen out of Evangelical Christianity.

What I find myself believing is that believers in God have honestly written what they believed to be right about their experiences of God and the way he dealt with his people. In some cases these writings have been taken by later believers and compiled into the documents we have, which may have been modified in relatively minor ways during transmission.

So what we have is a record of belief. It may contain factual errors, it may contain misunderstandings, but it also contains the honest beliefs of people like you and me, who encountered God in some way. This makes reading it both more interesting and more tricky as sometimes you have to read between the lines and search elsewhere for context that will make the meaning clear. There's an element of detective work in trying to piece things together.

God speaks through people. He has always spoken through people. None of them were perfect and some of them wrote things down. But don't worry, God can still speak to you through imperfect people, even the ones who wrote thousands of years ago.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Great Angel by Margaret Barker

Margaret Barker's book has, as its core thesis, a concept so heretical that it almost goes full circle and comes back to being 'sound' again. I find the theory fascinating, and reasonably convincing.

It is fairly widely known and agreed by scholars that much of what we call the Old Testament was compiled and edited around about the time of the return from the Babylonian exile, that is to say a little longer ago than 500 BC.

Barker's central thesis is that during this time of compiling, the 'redactor' who compiled the work rewrote or selectively edited significant portions of the text to give a very biased account. Her specific main claim is that the pre-exilic religion of Israel had not been monotheistic at all, but had worshiped at least two gods, but this fact was written out of history by the (monotheistic) redactor, although vestiges remain in the writings.

Very broadly speaking, she says, before this the temple worship was directed to Elyon, the 'Most High God' and to his son Yahweh, who went by a number of names and was understood by some to have both male and female aspects, resulting in the female personification of Ashera/Wisdom.

Erm, so the theory is that there was an ancient religion with a Heavenly Father, an incarnated Son and a less well defined third persona linked to wisdom. Does that sound at all familiar?

Barker, by drawing on the books of the OT and a lot of extra-canonical writings, both from the OT and NT eras, does a fairly convincing job of demonstrating that her thesis is at least worthy of serious consideration, even if she doesn't necessarily manage to prove anything.

I'll admit I got a bit lost in her explanations of how the female persona of Wisdom was understood to be a second aspect of the second God, but I find her evidence that the pre-exilic religion worshiped both the 'Most High' God and Yahweh as discrete and distinct gods as compelling and even convincing.

Why is it heretical - from a Christian viewpoint - to claim that the Jews misunderstood the nature of their God and mis-represent God in the OT? We believe that the Father God and Jesus His Son are discrete and distinguishable persons, and that the Jews are wrong in believing otherwise. What if they once had the right belief and rejected (or lost) it in favour of monotheism? Is it just because their (wrong) belief got incorporated in our Bible that we can't consider that maybe they knew the right stuff and then rejected it?

Barker claims (and provides evidence) that while the monotheism of the redactor is the dominant belief of the written texts (at least, the canonical ones) from the OT era, that the 'common people' (i.e. those who were never carried away to exile) continued to worship the plural Gods long after the exiles returned. Indeed, when Philo was writing 500 years later, there is clear evidence of a plurality of Gods in his (just pre-Christian) writings. He even uses the word 'Logos' to refer to the second God, something that the writer of the 4th gospel would use for Jesus 50 years or so later.

What she suggests (but does not explicitly say in this book, I believe this is the core of her other book 'The Older Testament) is that, basically, the ruling class of Judah/Israel was removed to Babylon and indoctrinated out of their pluralistic belief into a monotheistic one, and then they were returned to Judea to impose the same beliefs on the common people. But the common people never really lost these beliefs, only those who were the recorders of history lost them. So when, several centuries later, Jesus comes along claiming to be the 'Son of God', the common people understood this, and exactly who he was claiming to be. However the priests and rulers, who had long abandoned the pluralistic beliefs, were the ones who rejected Jesus.

The book bombards the reader with evidence. To be honest, I'd have been just as convinced if about half of the stuff was removed - the chapter covering the writings of the gnostics, for example, was more confusing to me than revealing, as were some of the other chapters on "The Name" and the non-canonical 'Wisdom' writings.

However, the final two chapters (where she addresses the writings of the early Christians and the books of the New Testament) are probably the best demonstration of her thesis. Reading the final chapter is an ongoing 'why had I never noticed that before' revelation to the reader and more than convincingly demonstrates that, whatever else the early Christians believed about Jesus, they equated him (God the Son) with Yahweh (the God of Israel in the OT). This is demonstrated by comparing numerous NT passages about Jesus with OT equivalents about Yahweh. Its not that they saw Jesus as being like Yahweh, it is clear that they saw him as being Yahweh.

So even if the reader is not convinced by the other evidence (although I am, reasonably) then you still are faced with the final conundrum. If the first Christians believed Jesus to be Yahweh, and were taught by Jesus to pray to His Father, then who is the Father? The Father cannot be Yahweh, as he is the Son. Ancient traditions, although obscured in the OT, still clearly make reference to the Father of the gods, the Most High God. This is the Father of Jesus.

All this will make me read both Old and New Testaments in a new light...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Elijah and John the Baptist

I was listening to a podcast this morning which touched upon the expectation of the Jews, in New Testament times, that 'Elijah must come first'.

This comes from the incident in the gospels immediately after the transfiguration.

In Matthew 17v9 and Mark 9v9, Jesus tells his disciples:
“Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Following this, in both accounts, the disciples ask the following question:
“Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
This strikes me as a very odd question, in context. It doesn't appear to follow from what has gone before. It could be that the disciples are thinking "We've just seen Elijah. He's supposed to come before the Day of the Lord. Therefore, the Day of the Lord is coming. Should we not tell people about this?" but that is perhaps stretching the written story too far.

Its interesting that Luke, in his telling of the transfiguration story (chapter 9), completely omits this discussion. In his telling, the disciples simply do not tell anyone about the transfiguration, even though Jesus never prohibits this, and the disciples do not discuss Elijah further.

I guess the disciples are thinking about the last two verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4v5&6) which read:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
In Matthew & Mark, Jesus's answer to their question also raises a few issues, he says:
“To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”
Then Matthew goes on to say that the disciples then understood that Jesus was talking to them about John the Baptist, but Mark's version of the story does not.

It is interesting to note that in John 1v19, John the Baptist is quoted as explicitly denying that he is Elijah.

So what's going on here? Was John the Baptist, in any way, Elijah?
  • Matthew says Yes
  • Mark implies Yes
  • Luke says nothing
  • John says No
Erm, that doesn't really help much. But assuming, for the moment, that Matthew has it right, in what way was John the Baptist Elijah?
  • Reincarnation? Seems a bit unbiblical... but what other options are available?
Skipping past that issue for now, what did John do that "restored all things"? Did he do what Malachi predicted and "turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents"?

Going by what is recorded in the gospels, no. John preached a message of repentance, which is about 'turning hearts' - but this was about people turning back to God, and was nothing to do with child-parent relationships. I might be inclined to read into this story something of the God as Father and us as his children reasoning, were it not for the fact that Malachi's 'parents' are emphatically plural, and something Elijah was going to do involved the parents having a turn of heart. Elijah wasn't about to turn the heart of God, was he?

But what did John the Baptist achieve? A handful of people repented and turned back to the Lord. Hardly restoring 'all things'. OK, so John baptised Jesus, but that raises more issues than it solves, and that also isn't restoring all things.

For now, the only conclusion I can come to here is that the whole thing is a mess. There is no consensus amongst the writers of the gospels as to whether or not John was Elijah or what John achieved if he was.

But the words attributed (by Matthew & Mark) to Jesus are interesting. How can anyone reconcile "Elijah comes and restores all things" and "Elijah has already come" and "They did not recognise him"? Surely if he came and was not recognised then he did not restore all things? If Elijah's mission failed, does that mean that the Day of the Lord cannot come? Or if he did come, does that mean that all things have already been restored? Confused.

Even the passage in Malachi itself is confusing. It says that:
  • Elijah will come before the dreadful day of the Lord comes
  • His mission will be to restore families back to loving relationships with each other
  • His mission will be accomplished
  • If his mission fails then the Lord will strike the land with total destruction

How can the mission fail if it will be accomplished? And what is the threat here anyway? These verses imply that 'the Day of the Lord' is not as bad as total destruction. What exactly is the 'dreadful' Day of the Lord as described here?

You know, the whole thing appears to be a confusing mess. I'm not sure any of it actually can be reconciled by someone who believes all these passages are inspired and infallible. It only makes sense using the understanding that all of these writings were written by fallible people with different (perhaps half-baked) ideas about what was going on.