Archive for the ‘theology’ Category

In continuing effort to recommend quality resources that are available for cheap, I’m letting you know about two great resources available online for free.  And free is, as you know, the cheapest of cheap.

Craig Keener and The Pneuma Foundation have made available Keener’s notes for a class on Biblical Interpretation (link for zip file which can open into a Word Document, link for a pdf).  I think it turns out to be 88 pages of notes.  According to his website, he wrote this as a beginner’s class for work in Africa, so there is no required technical knowledge needed to use it.  This would be perfect for a small group or a church class.  You can also find translations of this material in French, Spanish, Russian and Bulgarian at The Pneuma Foundation site!  You may recall Keener from my “5 Good Read Bible Scholars (for the non-academic)” post- you can add this helpful work to the list.

Biblical Training has posted I Howard Marshall’s A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology for free at their site!  If printed out, this comes in at a mere 67 pages!  I own Marshall’s slightly larger (almost 800 pages) book, New Testament Theology, and have been very slowly reading portions of it.  At any rate, the Pocket Guide is a nice resource to have handy if you have basic questions on what the NT teaches. 

Happy reading!

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Complicated Ground

Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University’s department of religion, has written a short opinion article in response to a New York Times piece written by the Dalai Lama.  I think it is worth a read, though it may be a slight overreaction.  After reading the Dalai Lama’s article, it seems to me that Prothero is stretching the Dalai Lama’s argument beyond what he (the Dalai Lama) intended.

The Dalai Lama (whose name is Tenzin Gyatso) argues for mutual understanding between religions by finding common ground that will foster peace and tolerance.  “Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides,” writes Gyatso, and “These days we need to highlight what unites us.”  He submits that one of these common areas is compassion.

Prothero seems to take Gyatso’s article to advocate the claim that all religions are essentially the same, and have compassion at their core.  While there are certainly hints of this in Gyatso’s article, it is not what he’s saying (this time).  What he’s saying is that we should find common ground.  This is classic Buddhism: The middle way.  One of Gautama’s four great renunciations was that of extreme asceticism and extreme decadence.  And so Buddhism has always been marked by finding middle ground.

I agree with Gyatso that it is possible to respect other people’s choices, and even highlight common ground among faiths. However, some crucial caveats are in order:  (1)  Respecting other people’s spiritual choices is not the same thing as agreeing with those choices, or thinking that the object of their choice is wise, true, admirable, or in any way laudatory.  I can respect my friend’s choice to be a Buddhist because I honor and love him as a person, not because I honor or love Buddhism.  I can lament said choice just as well; wishing it were not so.  The fact that I honor the person means I stop there, and don’t move on to coercion or something worse.  (2)  Finding “common ground” among faiths can be a slippery slope, since said commonalities most often lie in the realm of moral injunctions (e.g., don’t murder).  Here is the root of the erroneous platitude that “All religions are basically the same: Just be a good person.”  Even more, the commonalities are found on the surface of the faith.  Perhaps many faiths enjoin us to respect life, but the reasons for these commands are starkly different, as are the implications and ostensible consequences for failing to keep them.  As such, (3) finding “harmony” among world religions is not possible; the various world views within are ultimately irreconcilable.  Finding harmony among the peoples of different religions is a more realistic goal, thought it will still be amazingly difficult, complicated, and ultimately imperfect.  Through our common ground, we can agree on a few broad constructs that can govern social behavior, not belief.  Said constructs will be very broad, and very few.  It seems that once details and specifics need to be fleshed out, the harmony will quickly become dissonance.

For example, let’s assume that one area of common ground among religions is indeed compassion.  How does this look in terms of social behavior?  What do Muslims do with the Koran (“Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day” At-Tawbah, 9:29) when they interact with Buddhists?  And does compassion extend to the unborn?  And how do we treat those who fail to live compassionately?  How shall Brahmins treat Dalits with compassion?  Do men and women have equal rights and roles to receive and give compassion?  You see where I’m going with this.  If you let men and women from various faiths answers these questions, you will get very different answers.  In fact, you will probably get different answers from people within the same faith.

I’m all for doing everything I can to live peacefully with everybody (e.g., Rom. 12:18).  The problem is that the answers are terribly complicated, even when we’re standing on this “common ground.”  The Prothero may misread Gyatso, his diagnosis is correct: the Dalai Lama’s suggestion, however admirable, is naive.  Furthermore, it is a slippery slope to dangerous misunderstanding of the world’s many faiths, and how the interact.

Finally, I should remark that to world reduce religions to codes of conduct is to misunderstand my own.  Christianity is not another ethical framework to which humankind must comply in order to be blessed after death.  Christianity is not about following a great leader (Jesus) who came to show us the way.  Jesus is the way (Jn. 14:6).  Jesus is the one who lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died.  His sacrifice on our behalf is what releases us from the need to comply to another set of rules and human striving to reach God.  Christian faith isn’t placed upon the hope that we got our theology right, or that our performance will bring us reward, or that we have a better worldview than others.  Christian faith is placed in a person.  Even if the commandments of each world religion were identical, we could never say they are the same, because in Christ, these commandments are already met.  Christianity is the only faith where the “doing” is already done.

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Knowing God: God Only Wise

Wisdom can be a slippery word to define these days.  I suspect that most Americans would equate wisdom with intelligence or sagacity.  More practically, wisdom might be defined as the ability to make “good” choices.  Most of the time when I say that I made a “wise” choice, this is all I really mean:  It was a good one, viz., it brought about the results I sought.

Along this line of thinking, wisdom is more or less morally neutral.  What constitutes “wise” or “unwise” is largely subjective.  I could say that I was wise in lying to the police officer about my expired registration, because it spared me the displeasure of a ticket.  Biblically speaking, however, I’d be wrong.  Packer corrects this perception of wisdom in the 9th chapter of Knowing God, defining wisdom as “the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means for attaining it.”  It is “the practical side of moral goodness” (p.90).  Biblical wisdom, Packer notes, is not morally neutral.

God’s wisdom, unlike ours, is perfect, and not limited by a lack of foresight, intelligence, or moral goodness.  His choices are always the best means of realizing his perfect will.  Packer is quick to point out what the ultimate aim of this perfect will is.  This is a crucial point, given our tendency to think that any act of God which brings about personal unhappiness or discomfort is not good (i.e., unwise).  God’s ultimate aim is his glory (p.92):

[God’s] ultimate objective is to bring [humankind] to a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love – people rejoicing in the saving love God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing the responsive love of people, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel.  This will be God’s glory, and our glory to, in every sense which that weighty word can bear.

Packer lets the Bible illustrate God’s wisdom in action, through a few brief surveys of the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.  This is Packer’s springboard to the important point that our own lives can take odd twists and turns, including hardships, that God is working towards his very good ends.  Writes Packer, “We may be frankly bewildered at things that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs” (p.98).

I once heard Tim Keller remark that our own “books” have not been written yet.  In the case of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, we can look back at the story of their lives and see how God worked his great plans through them.  But when Joseph was locked up in Egypt, he didn’t have that perspective.  Nor do we, as we face trials and odd turns of circumstance.  What we do have, is the blessed assurance of God’s perfect wisdom.  Our grief, confusion, or pain, then, can always be framed with trust.  We may not know what the reasons are, but we do know what they are not:  Our suffering is not because God doesn’t care, because he’s made a mistake, because he’s forgotten, overlooked, or miscalculated.  God is perfectly wise, and therefore perfectly trustworthy through any circumstance.

As much as I’d love to close this post on the note above, I can never escape the fact that great theological propositions are often cold-comfort when we’re smack in the middle of a trial.  Most of us have had the experience of a well-meaning friend reciting Rom.8:28 to us when we’re in such a place, and most of us have had to nod politely (at best).  Belief in God’s wisdom doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, nor (I would argue) is it meant to.  What it does do is give us hope.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Without it, all suffering and confusion is ultimately unbearable.  We may hurt and weep, but we needn’t despair.  A bright future awaits all of God’s children, and we can count on it.

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To Err Is Human… or Is It?

It’s an agreed upon assumption by pretty much every person alive that no human is perfect.  Even the non-religious have some view of sin, not just that people make mistakes (like providing an incorrect answer on a math test) but that they make moral errors as well (I realize this could lead into a number of debates, but for the sake of brevity I’ll pass them by).  In Christian theology, this belief is in many ways central to our understanding of who we are (anthropology) and how we relate to God (sinners in need of forgiveness). 

Along with this belief, I’ve heard expressed many times that “if we were perfect (morally speaking), we’d be God.”  The correct assumption behind this sentiment is that God alone is perfect.  What makes humans not-God is that they are sinful.  Christian orthodoxy has always held that people are inherently sinful, even if there is not always perfect agreement on the particulars (or, more specifically, how God overcomes that sinful nature in His saving grace is seen slightly differently between Calvinists and Arminians).  All this to say, in the minds of many, what makes us human is that we, unlike God, sin.

But is this really what makes us human?  Are we ultimately defined by our sin that separates us from God?  I tread lightly here for fear that I’ll end up sounding heretical, so hear me out before you travel to Boston with a load of stones in your trunk.  I firmly believe in the inherent sinfulness of all people, and we are desperately in need of God’s grace.  But let me ask a couple questions to demonstrate where I’m going with this:

Were Adam and Eve human before the Fall?

Will we cease to be human in the New Heavens & New Earth, when sin shall no longer exist?

I think the answer to the questions are ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ respectively.  In other words, humans were human before the first sin, and will continue to be human after sin is long gone.  I’m not disagreeing that all people sin; it’s a fact of living between the Fall and the Consummation of the Kingdom.  What I’m saying is that sin is not the primary thing that makes us distinct from God.  If it were, then I’d have to wonder if we believe we will become God when our bodies are raised, creation is restored and all evil and sin are abolished.  I doubt any of us will go that far.

My point is this: to be created is human.  What separates us, and everything else, from God is that He is Creator and we are creatures.  Humans have always been created beings and will always exist as created beings. 

Let me go one step further.  If human beings are defined primarily as created beings, then what separates us from the rest of creation?  The answer is found in the very first chapter of the Bible: “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).  What makes us human, and not some other creature, is the we alone were created in the image of God.  The Fall may have tarnished that image, but it does not remove it entirely.  When sin is completely eradicated, and “death itself turned backwards” (to borrow from C S Lewis), we will not cease to be human, but conformed to the image of Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God.

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Knowing God: The Majesty of God

“Today, vast stress is laid on the thought that God is personal, but this truth is so stated as to leave the impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are- weak, inadequate, ineffective, a little pathetic.”

In chapter 8 of Knowing God, J I Packer discusses the often overlooked subject of the majesty of God.  Packer doesn’t downplay the personal nature of God, nor does he think we should either.  But he does believe, and I think he’s right, that we have so stressed this point that we forget that God is not like us.  He is not a created being.  He is not limited in wisdom.  He does not confuse evil and good.

So how do we rediscover the majesty of God?  Packer gives two suggestions.  First, “remove from our thoughts of God limits that would make him small.”  He looks briefly at Psalm 139 “where the Psalmist meditates on the infinite and unlimited nature of God’s presence, and knowledge, and power, in relation to people.”  I found this particular quote convicting: “I can hide my heart, and my past, and my future plans, from those around me, but I cannot hide anything from God.”

Packer’s second suggestion for rediscovering the majesty of God is “to compare him with powers and forces which we regard as great.”  For this, he looks at Isaiah 40, where God invites us to look at 5 things: the tasks he has done, the nations, the world, the world’s great ones (rulers), and the stars.  All of these fall short of the majesty of God.  In fact, none of these would have their existence if it weren’t for the majestic and powerful God of the universe.

In response, Packer gives 3 points drawn from Isaiah 40 (I’m using the translations offered in the book).

1) When God asks, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about God.

2) When God asks, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord and my judgment is passed away from my God?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about ourselves– specifically that God has abandoned us.

3) When God asks, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faintest not, neither is weary?”, this question rebukes our slowness to believe in God’s majesty.

I appreciate Packer’s emphasis on the majesty of God.  While I completely agree with the belief that God is personal and cares for the littlest details of our lives, we cannot lose sight of the majestic glory of God.  In fact, God’s personal nature is made all the more amazing when I remember just how great he truly is, yet cares for me.

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Joel Willits over at Euangelion had an interesting post yesterday regarding the presence of God and charismatic theology.  I was simply going to leave a comment, but it was going to be too long, hence this post.  He starts by asking the question: “How much of the modern charismatic movement’s stress on the ‘tangible presence’ of God in the form of signs, wonders and individual manifestations is the result of a non-sacramental theology?”

For those who aren’t familiar with the term “sacramental theology,” Dr Willits is referring to those Christian traditions who believe that Christ is, in some sense, present in the sacraments (Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, and Anglican- though they all nuance it differently).  There should probably be more to this definition, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll start with that.  He observes that charismatic churches tend not to emphasize the sacraments in terms of Christ’s presence, and I think he’s probably right. Most charismatic/pentecostal churches tend to be “non-sacramental,” along with Baptists and a few other groups (Nazarenes?, Congregationalists?, not sure).

He also relays a conversation he had with a friend who is part of a “supernatural boot camp” (Willits’ term).  This friend expressed a desire to feel the presence of God and experience intimacy with God,  giving a couple examples of this happening, such as feeling a warm sensation in his hands.

I encourage you to read Willits’ entire post, because he discusses a couple other things that provoke good thought, but I wanted to focus on his original question: is the desire to experience the presence of God a result of a non-sacramental theology?

There are probably a number of factors that are at work in the desire for the tangible presence of God, some good and some bad.  Some have a desire for something new or cool.  Some have seen the faithful lives of those who seek after these things and want whatever it is that those people have experienced.  And, as Willits suggests, they may be seeking the tangible presence of God because they don’t have any other room in their theology to have that experience (that is, being non-sacramental).

But I think there is something more crucial here that Willits does not mention, and does not crop up in the comments (at least not yet).  Once again, I appeal to what Gordon Fee has emphasized on many occasions: in the earliest churches, the Holy Spirit was an experienced reality.  Many of us charismatics read 1 Corinthians 12-14, Galatians 3 and the entire book of Acts and note there was something about the presence of the Spirit that manifested itself in the community, and, with maybe a couple exceptions (Acts 2:42?), those passages are not connected with sacraments (or ordinances, as my inner Baptist prefers to call them).  That, of course, doesn’t mean that those holding to a more sacramental theology are wrong to do so (they do have biblical justification in the gospels); it simply means that the presence of God can be manifested apart from them.

To be sure, charismatics hardly have the monopoly on experiencing the presence of God.  I’ve written a bit about this before.  Needless to say, a warm feeling in the hands may indeed be from God, but it most certainly does not exhaust what the NT has to say about God’s presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit.  In fact, I’d say it barely touches on the amazing things we see in Scripture.  My point here, though, is simply to note that there is a biblical and theological justification for the charismatic’s desire to “feel the presence of God,” even if that can be awfully hard to define.

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Knowing God: God Unchanging

Why in the world would we read a text written thousands of years ago for knowledge of God?  Even if they are accurate in their teaching, why would we think that they are still applicable today?  As we read the Bible, we are confronted with cultures vastly different from our own.  How can we bridge that gap?  Should we even seek to build a bridge?

A great start at an answer can be found in Chapter 7 of Packer’s Knowing God.  In short, the linchpin to Biblical relevance and interpretation is the fact that “God does not change in the least particular” (p. 77).  The theological term in mind here is God’s immutability.  Packer expands on this in six ways:  God’s (1) life, (2) character, (3) truth, (4) ways, (5) purposes, and (6) Son do (does) not change.  (Sidebar:  Coming on the heels of a chapter about the Holy Spirit, this reader would have appreciated His appearance in Packer’s list as well as (7).  Of course it follows that if God is immutable, the Holy Spirit is immutable, but why not say it explicitly?)

We trust Scripture, then, because it is a faithful revelation by the God who does not change about Himself.  The culture and context of Scripture might often differ widely from our own, but the God who acted and spoke in that context is no different today than He was then.  This is one of the reasons why I believe that one of the safest questions ever to ask of the Bible is, “What does this say about God?”  You can’t miss, because if something was true of God then, it is true of God now, and will be true tomorrow.

We must always bear in mind, however, that inasmuch as God does not change, He is also a personality.  As such, He is dynamic and relational.  He responds to us, our circumstances and our prayers, this fact the Bible readily asserts.  It is possible to get so wrapped up in God’s immutability that we forget that His actions do change; only they change in ways that do not violate His character, purposes, ways, etc. (e.g., God relents from destroying the Israelites at Sinai upon Moses’ intercession in Ex. 32:14).  Interesting enough, this is foundation to one of the (manifold) reasons why we pray.

I found Packer’s concluding paragraphs among the most convicting in his book (p. 81):

If our God is the same as the God of the New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?  If God is the same, this is not an issue that any one of us can evade.

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