Saturday, January 15, 2011

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?

Luke 11v11-13 says this:
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Numbers 21v4-6 says this:
The Israelites had to go around the territory of Edom, so when they left Mount Hor, they headed south toward the Red Sea. But along the way, the people became so impatient that they complained against God and said to Moses, " Did you bring us out of Egypt, just to let us die in the desert? There's no water out here, and we can't stand this awful food!" Then the LORD sent poisonous snakes that bit and killed many of them.
Erm, is it just me or is there a hint in the gospel passage to the Numbers one?

The Israelites asked for food and got snakes.

There was a faction in the early church which believed that the 'Father' Jesus spoke about and the 'LORD' in the OT were two different characters. Is this gospel passage Marcionite?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Across the Spectrum: Chapter 9 - The Salvation Debate

Previous posts have commented on:
Chapter 1 -
The Inspiration Debate
Chapter 2 -
The Providence Debate
Chapter 3 -
The Foreknowledge Debate
Chapter 4 - The Genesis Debate
Chapter 5 - The Divine Image Debate
Chapter 6 - The Human Constitution Debate
Chapter 7 - The Christology Debate
Chapter 8 - The Atonement Debate

Chapter 9: The Salvation Debate
Position 1: TULIP (Calvinist)
Position 2: God wants all to be saved (Arminian)

So here we have another Calvinist vs. Arminian debate. As I said before, I was - more or less - raised a Clavinist and my beliefs have shifted very much towards Arminianism as time has gone on. Much of the material in this chapter parallels previous ones on the Calvinist/Arminian debate. Basically, the Calvinist position is that God chooses the 'elect', all of the elect will be saved, none of the non-elect will be saved, and nothing we humans can do will change that. If God elected you to be saved, you're going to heaven whatever you do, if God did not choose you, you're damned, even if you live a blameless life and seek to follow God's ways. The Arminian position is the flip side of this and claims that people are - in part - responsible for making the choices which determine if they will ultimately be saved or not.

I don't have much to offer on this topic that I haven't said in previous posts. As far as I am concerned, Calvinistic reasoning relies on a few concepts which simply make no sense. The one which makes me most annoyed is the idea that God decides who will be sin, and yet the sinners are held morally responsible for the sins that God decided they would do, so he damns them (eternally) for it. There is no justice or morality in that belief and I must reject it.

The only option that makes rational sense to me here is that people are responsible (at least in part) for their own choices. The way of salvation must be open to all, even if the majority reject it or do not find the path.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Across the Spectrum: Chapter 8 - The Atonement Debate

Previous posts have commented on:
Chapter 1 -
The Inspiration Debate
Chapter 2 -
The Providence Debate
Chapter 3 -
The Foreknowledge Debate
Chapter 4 - The Genesis Debate
Chapter 5 - The Divine Image Debate
Chapter 6 - The Human Constitution Debate
Chapter 7 - The Christology Debate

Chapter 8: The Atonement Debate
Position 1: Christ died in our place (Penal Substitution)
Position 2: Christ destroyed Satan and his works (Christus Victor)
Position 3: Christ displayed God's wrath against sin (Moral Government)

This is an interesting one. There are aspects of all three positions that appeal to me, and other aspects of all three positions which I can't agree with. I was surprised to learn that Position 1 (which is the dominant view in the Evangelical world these days) was, essentially, an invention of the Reformation and was not how the church viewed the atonement for the first 1500 years of its existence. When you come across statements like that you have to sit back and think (although, to be fair, the introduction to the chapter was written by someone who holds to Position 2, so maybe a bias crept in).

The Penal Substitution view holds that we all need to die to pay for our sins against God. "The wages of sin is death". What I've noticed for a long time is that we all do die eventually, so we all get those wages! Maybe we all deserve a horrible death to atone for our sins, and Jesus did this in our place so that some of us can die peacefully in our sleep, but I don't think that's what's going on here. Somehow, the death of a perfect sacrifice is required to pay for our sins. That it is the one who has been wronged (God) who pays the debt (to himself) makes no sense. I'm sorry, it just makes no sense. However you phrase it, there is always an element of non-sense in there. Once again, I've got to the point of rejecting the beliefs I was raised with.

At the core of the Penal Substitution view is the understanding that we are fallen and so our understanding of the atonement is fallen - it seems unjust to us and yet, in reality, it was perfect and just from God's point of view. So we have a theory that believes itself to be corrupted and flawed, and yet this is the theory we are asked to believe. In our fallen-ness, we cannot understand it, so we are asked to just believe? Sorry. I can't go for that. If you want me to believe something it has to at least be internally consistent, and preferably consistent with my perception of reality too. This view isn't.

But the Christus Victor view doesn't cut it for me either. The main thing Jesus apparently did on the cross was destroy the works of Satan. Now I've been through this before. Satan in the old testament is not a fallen angel, he is 'the adversary', the accuser who works for God but tests God's people, on behalf of God. This continues into the gospels - when Jesus says to Peter 'get behind me Satan', he is saying 'stop playing the role of the accuser, I'm not going to give in to this temptation'. So there is no demonic Satan to be defeated on the cross! The NT understanding of 'the Devil' is a melding of Satan, Baal-zebub (God of the Philistines) and Ahriman (the evil God of Zoroastrianism), and we only view it all through the lens of the superstition of the middle-ages. Now I am not saying that there are no demons (more on that in a future post), but I am disputing the very existence of the 'Prince' of demons. But if you take him out of the picture, the whole concept of Christus Victor falls apart. What remains is quite a vague 'Christ destroyed the works of evil' concept, that I actually quite like, but the theory that goes with it is far from compelling.

Finally we get the Moral Government view - that Christ's death was to 'show righteousness'. Of the three positions, I find this the most compelling in all aspects apart from the central one. How does Jesus's death show God's righteousness? How is God's righteousness demonstrated by the death of a sinless man? It is certainly not demonstrated if you hold that God required the death of Jesus, that only seems to show injustice. Maybe (though this is not explained in the book) the point is that it shows the depravity of humanity, through the way humanity deals with the only truly righteous man - by killing him in a terrible way? Maybe I need to read that explanation again...

So what did Jesus achieve by dying on the cross? That is still unclear to me, but none of the proposed answers is fully compelling.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Across the Spectrum: Chapter 7 - The Christology Debate

Continuing the thread started in this post and continued in this post, this post and this one.

Chapter 7: The Christology Debate
Position 1: The unavoidable paradox of the God-man
Position 2: Christ relinquished his divine prerogatives

This is an interesting one, and again I am not completely convinced by either side in the debate. If you hold the God-man position firmly, it leads on to a number of other beliefs that are apparently contrary to scripture - such as the ability of Jesus's disciples to do 'greater things' than he did. If his power was his divine power, then nobody who followed after could do things like he did, let alone transcend them. This leads to a cessasionist stance, which we will come to in a future post. It also makes it impossible for us to follow his example. WWJD? Use his divine power to resolve a situation... Not very useful as a guide to living.

Also, this leads to a very complicated 'two minds' belief in which Jesus had two distinct minds (personalities?) in his make-up, and the divine one wouldn't let the other know certain things. Eh? This just leads to inconsistencies.

But, the other position ('Kenotic') leads to the problem of what happened after the ascension (as I blogged about a few months back) - if Christ had to 'empty himself' of his divinity to become human, then either he still is a limited human (which nobody seems to believe) or he ceased to be human after the ascension (which nobody seems to believe either). So some serious 'explaining away' has to be done.

For what its worth, I find the Kenotic view more compelling, even if it raises as many issues as it solves. Once again, I find an agnostic position ('I don't know') is the best stance to take.

The more I work through these issues, the more compelled I am to talk in terms of 'hope' rather than certainty and the happier I am to say 'I don't know' on the big issues. We don't always need to hold on tightly to certainty in the face of limited (and sometimes conflicting) information.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Across the Spectrum: Chapters 5 and 6 - Divine Image and Human Constitution

Continuing the thread started in this post and continued in this post and this one.

Chapter 5: The Divine Image Debate
Position 1: The image of God is the soul
Position 2: The image of God is our God-given authority
Position 3: The image of God is our rationality

The odd thing about this chapter is that it completely side-steps the issue of what did the original author mean? The simplest reading of the Genesis text suggests that the original author of those words thought that God was bipedal, humanoid and created mankind in his physical image - to look like him. But of course, we don't view God in those terms today, so can't possibly read the bible as meaning that. (Although, see the book I recently commented upon regarding the role of the Great Angel in creation...)

So what is it about us that bears the 'image' of God? I don't know, and none of the three options presented here is entirely compelling. Is it that we have a soul? Well, that belief is largely based on Hellenistic thinking and was bolted onto Jewish/Christian thinking, rather than coming out of it.Or is it that we have the dominance of the planet? Surely that is our status, not our image? Or is it that we are rational? Well that seemed the most compelling to me until I actually read the supporting arguments, which quickly got bogged down in arguments about the Trinity.

Does it actually matter anyway? Whichever option you choose, how does it influence the way you live?

Chapter 6: The Human Constitution Debate
Position 1: The twofold self (body & soul)
Position 2: The threefold self (body, soul & spirit)
Position 3: The unitary self

This is something that I'd never really thought about before reading this book, and it certainly isn't a major issue. Indeed, the Kindle edition of this book (which I'm reading) is the 1st Edition of it, and the 2nd Edition of the print book doesn't feature this chapter at all. Its not really an issue.

The question is whether or not we are divisible into parts. If my body dies but something lives on, is that thing that lives on 'me' in any way, or is my identity reliant on having a body? Also, the bible occasionally makes distinction between the spirit and the soul, but are these two discrete parts of me?

For me, I'm happy to understand things in terms of computer science - the body is hardware, the 'spirit' or 'soul' is software, which needs the hardware to run on. Maybe at the point of death God will do a 'backup' of my software and will then be able to download it into a new piece of hardware, but if not, I cannot see how the software can continue to run without hardware. I am a composite being and need both components. But this isn't an issue I stay awake at night pondering...

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Across the Spectrum: Chapter 4 - The Genesis Debate

This post continues the discussion from this post and this one.

Chapter 4: The Genesis Debate
Position 1: Created in the recent past (young earth)
Position 2: A very old work of art (day-age view)
Position 3: Restoring a destroyed creation (restoration view)
Position 4: Literary theme over literal chronology (literary framework view)

And so we come to the creation vs evolution debate. Except that we don't really. Here we have four different views of creation, some of which are incompatible with both the theory of evolution and the evidence of geology, while others attempt to accommodate modern scientific thinking in some way or another.

Of course, if you were to take the bible as your only source of truth in this matter, it is highly unlikely that you would arrive at any position other than the young earth view. At face value, the first chapter of Genesis looks like it is trying to be an accurate presentation of what actually happened. So positions 2, 3 and 4 are, in some sense, already compromises. And yet the young earth view requires its adherents to deny modern scientific thinking and evidence. What I find fascinating about this is that the young earth creationist view essentially sees the physical world as something that God created directly, without any possible human tinkering, and sees the bible as something God created directly, using fallible humans to write it, and yet they take the evidence of the one that would have been possible to corrupt over the evidence of the one that would be impossible to corrupt or fake. Whichever way you slice it, the geological record contains more than 10,000 years of history.

But what of the other three positions? Well, the day-age view - which is probably the most common view among evangelicals and most other theists for that matter - says that the first chapter of Genesis uses a poetic framework to describe the various ages of creation in terms of days. All well and good and I don't really have much comment to make. Except that if you take this chapter as non-literal, how do you decide which other (apparently literal) bits of the bible are also non-literal?

The Restoration view fascinated me. I actually hadn't come across the 'gap' theory before reading this, but I like it. It is an imaginative and consistent way of reconciling the apparent age of the earth and the geological record with a literal 6 day creation. Basically, the theory is that there is a giant gap (of several hundred million years) between Genesis 1v1 and Genesis 1v2. The 6 day creation described in Genesis 1 is not the first creation, but rather a re-creation of the earth out of the destroyed chaos of the previous creation. Which may also have been made out of the destroyed remains of a previous creation, and so on. Thus, when we dig up dinosaur bones, these are from previous - otherwise completely destroyed - creations. The theory goes that God created something, it went wrong, he destroyed it and started again. Repeat as necessary. Luckily for us, we live in a creation that God has chosen not to destroy completely (see the Flood story) and has, instead, provided a salvation and redemption path for us. Lucky us, unlucky dinosaurs.

The problem with this is that it doesn't quite fit with current scientific knowledge, or with current theology. Science tells us that we (and all other contemporary animals) are decended from the ancient ones. We can track the divergence of genes etc. by comparing our DNA with that recovered from ancient fossils. In other words, there is a continuity path between the allegedly completely destroyed creation and us. It couldn't have been completely destroyed. Genetic material survived, and survived in such a way as to suggest that there was no total destruction which the gap theory needs. Also, we believe God to be the kind of God who seeks to redeem and restore his creation, not destroy it and start again. So all in all, this is a good effort, but ultimately an unsatisfying theory.

Finally, the literary framework position suggests that the author of Genesis 1 had other points to make than what actually happened. Its all about God and not all about creation, it would seem. While, for the most part, I agree with this, it does seem to be dodging the issue a bit.

So, after all this, what do I think? I don't know.

I mean, I really don't know. I am happy to accept scientific thinking on this and accept the scientific picture of how this earth came to be. Science, of course, still can't explain the origin of life, but aside from that the explanations are OK. But where does God fit into this picture? Is he a deist God who starts the whole ball rolling then stands back and watches the whole thing unravel? Is he a tinkering God who continually adjusts and tweaks his creation as it continues? Is he (somewhat controversially) a part of this 'creation' rather than being the creator? I do not know. I have no good evidence to hold to any of these positions, or any of the countless others I haven't presented. But I'm happy to be agnostic on this issue. It doesn't really matter one way or the other, does it?

Surely the present and the future are more important than the distant past?