Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Correct Time Scale

In science, we have the concept of the appropriate scale of the problem. When discussing astronomical distances we use lightyears or parsecs. When discussing human extents and movements we typically use meters. (Or, in what we officially denote as the bizarro system of units, feet and yards.) We could use lightyears, accurately, to describe how far a home run was, but it doesn't "smell" right: "what a blast! It went 1.803×10-14 lightyears!"

Young Earth Creationists have two common "proofs" that the days of Genesis One are ordinary days. One is based on an erroneous claim: that anytime the word yôm is used with an ordinal number, it always refers to a twenty-four hour day. (Excepting, of course, when it is and yet it doesn't.)

The other kevlar-lacking argument is in reference to the fourth commandment. For example, in Exodus 20 we read:
9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex. 20:9-11) 
Clearly, the argument goes, given that God is telling mankind to work six ordinary days and not six "ages" or six "indeterminate periods" before entering the Sabbath rest, the "days" in the analogy—which refer to God's activity, must mean the same thing.

Well, no—of course it doesn't demand any such thing. The bible is chock full of anthropomorphisms. God is longsuffering yet we do not believe that God suffers, in the sense that humans suffer, at all. Nor do we believe that God sits around hoping that humans will pleasantly surprise him until He finally says to himself "enough is enough." God hates Esau—but do we believe he hates in the same ugly visceral way that we hate? God "changes his mind" on numerous occasions—but do we not believe that God ordains what comes to pass, and that no argument from man can "hold back his hand?" (Dan. 4:35).

The same, I submit, is on display here. God has established by creation, and by providence, a six out of seven rule, a practice that is both honoring to God and beneficial to man.

In other words:

God worked, or at least described his work, as six periods followed by a seventh period of rest. (Which, by the way, is still continuing—a fact which does not fit the literal interpretation.)

God then applies that model to human activities. What is the correct time scale for human activities? Should humans work six minutes and rest the seventh? Six years and and take a year off? No, the correct and natural time scale for humans and their labors is the ordinary twenty-four hour day. The model, applied to humans, naturally uses days.

But the model is more general. This we can see in another passage in Exodus, but since it is also found in Leviticus we'll quote that book, since you always feel a minimum of 23% cooler when you use a passage from Leviticus:
1 The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, 2 "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. 3 For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Lev 25:1-4) 
Here the same six-of-seven creation principle is applied to the land, but for the land the appropriate time scale is a year. Note that it is not just an independent agricultural principle—it is connected directly to the concept of the Sabbath.

This passage is just as much a "proof" that the yôm  in Genesis One must be years as the Ex. 20:9-11 passage "proves" they must be days.

Finally, we note that the anthropomorphic nature of the creation analogy used in the forth commandment is more evident in the later rendition—not Exodus 20 but Exodus 31:
16Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.'" (Ex. 31:16-17)
Again, we do not believe that God has any sort of emotional or physical degradation from which he is literally refreshed. Instead, we understand that God is (through Moses) explaining his activity in human terms and instructing us to follow his model in a manner that is appropriate for our endeavors and limitations, and for our time scales.

That's all for today. God willing I'll post again in approximately 2.738×10-6 millennia.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A. H. Strong: Reformed Baptist, Flaming Liberal?

Theistic evolution, in its most basic form, is this: the scientific evidence for evolution, backed largely but not exclusively by millions of fossils of extinct species, dated as "old" (i.e., hundreds of thousands to billions depending on the species) by various different yet consistent means, is overwhelming. So, the theistic evolutionist argues, God must have used evolution (though never outside his control) as a secondary means to create the diversity of life.

Of course, as with everything, there is a liberal-to-conservative spectrum. Liberal theistic evolutionists do not affirm a historic Adam and Eve. Conservative theistic evolutionists affirm the historicity of the first couple. (They might differ at that point on their speculation--whether Adam and Eve were hominids that God "ensouled" or whether they were specially created.)

The advantages of theistic evolution include:

  • It is consistent with science which, by another name, is the study of General Revelation
  • Specifically it is consistent with (and a consequence of ) the science of genetics, which virtually all Christians accept, except for the necessary long-term prediction of genetics: evolution
  • Assuming that the offspring (i.e. the sons of Adam and Eve) mated with hominids, it explains a) where those mates came from and b) why human DNA does not point to a common set of parents 

It is not uncommon for me to meet Christians who, upon learning that I'm a physicist, will allow as to how my science is more-or-less acceptable, but soon reveal that any acceptance of evolution is outside the pale of orthodoxy.

For this, and other reasons, I find myself in the labelled, simultaneously, as a lunatic conservative, biblical-innerancy nutter, frozen chosen Ichabod Crane and as a Bishop-Spongian, flaming-liberal pointed head scientist. It's an amusing world.

But, I have company. (And proof that theistic evolution is as old as evolution itself.)

From the Wikipedia entry on Agustus Strong: Augustus Hopkins Strong (3 August 1836 – 29 November 1921) was a Baptist minister and theologian who lived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most influential book, Systematic Theology, proved to be a mainstay of Reformed Baptist theological education for several generations.

A. H. Strong is, it is fair to say, highly respected in Reformed circles, especially Reformed Baptist circles. This is what he wrote, using the phrase Christian conception of evolution rather than theistic evolution:
There is a Christian conception of evolution, and in light of it, I propose to interpret the fall and the redemption of man. To prevent misunderstanding, I must define what I mean by evolution. Evolution is not a cause but a method. God is the cause. He is in his universe, and he is the source of all its activities with the single exception of the evil activity of the human will. When I speak of evolution as the method of God, I imply that the immanent God works by law; that this is the law of development; that God, and the old the basis of the new, and the new an outgrowth of the old. In all ordinary cases God works from within and not from without. Yet this ordinary method does not confine or limit God. He is transcendent as well as immanent. His is not simply “in all” and “through all” but he is also “above all.” (Emphasis added.)

The Fall and the Redemption of Man in light of Evolution, Augustus. H. Strong, A paper read at the Baptist Congress, Buffalo NY, November 15 1898. Reprinted p. 163, Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism, Augustus. H. Strong, Roger Williams Press, Philadelphia, 1899.

Hat Tip: Charles Taylor, great teacher, great friend, greatly missed.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Short Meandering on the Atonement

The Puritan theologian John Owen, in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:
First, If the full debt of all be paid to the utmost extent of the obligation, how comes it to pass that so many are shut up in prison to eternity, never freed from their debts? Secondly, If the Lord, as a just creditor, ought to cancel all obligations and surcease all suits against such as have their debts so paid, whence is it that his wrath smokes against some to all eternity? Let none tell me that it is because they walk not worthy of the benefit bestowed; for that not walking worthy is part of the debt which is fully paid, for (as it is in the third inference) the debt so paid is all our sins. Thirdly, Is it probable that God calls any to a second payment, and requires satisfaction of them for whom, by his own acknowledgment, Christ hath made that which is full and sufficient? Hath he an after-reckoning that he thought not of? for, for what was before him he spared him not, Rom. 8:32. Fourthly, How comes it that God never gives a discharge to innumerable souls, though their debts be paid?
Owen is addressing the problems associated with an Atonement that is not limited, given the solid assumption, based on scripture, that some are indeed lost. If Jesus, in any form of universal redemption, paid the debts of all, then how are some still found with uncovered obligations? Owen also addresses the payment for future sin, for if total satisfaction was granted on Monday, how then can a second helping be demanded on Tuesday? Did God, Owen asks rhetorically, get caught by surprise by an unforeseen sin?

All non-universalists agree that Christ's Atonement was sufficient for all, but efficacious only for the faithful. Who are the faithful? The debate among non-universalists is between those who believe (as I do) that faith is a gift from God to His elect, and therefore all of salvation is of God. Put differently: grace is necessary and sufficient. Those who oppose this view argue that the faithful are those who, while in their fallen unregenerate state, manage to summons a sufficient quantity of vestigial, inherent goodness that, in cooperation with God's grace (which is then necessary but not sufficient) achieves their salvation. It's the 100% solution vs. the (99% + 1%) solution.

Again put differently, it's (what I believe) that God regenerates you, then you come to faith, vs. You come to faith, then God regenerates you. A before B, or B before A?

Put still differently, did (as I believe) Christ's Atonement achieve salvation for some, or did it make salvation possible for all?

The formal response to the Remonstrance  was the 1618 (Second) Synod of Dort convened to counter the rise of "Arminianism" and its oppositions to the teachings of Calvin and others. J. I. Packer summarizes the synod's teaching on the Arminian view of the  Atonement:
Christ's death did not ensure the salvation of anyone, for it did not secure the gift of faith to anyone (there is no such gift); what it did was rather to create a possibility of salvation for everyone if they believe.
To the Calvinist, the position of the Remonstrance is tantamount to salvation of works--at least that one tiny (but oh-so-crucial) work of a free-will, self-mustered, positive response to the Gospel call in an unregenerate person. To us this is contrary to rest of scripture, especially scripture that speaks of the utter hopelessness of man's fallen state.

The debate continues. The pendulum swings. At the moment, there is some indication that among the young and biblically conservative, Calvinism is gaining ground.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

In Honor of the Eclipse: An End Times Prediction (Modified)

In honor of the upcoming eclipse which brings out the end-times prophet in all of us, This is a repost (slightly modified) predicting exactly when the events of the Olivet Discourse, also known as the Great Tribulation, will start. Are you ready for the prediction! Hold me to it!

Prediction: Great Tribulation to start in -1947 Years!

Mark the date on your calendar. It will happen -1947 years from now, or 70 AD.

The Olivet Discourse: Preterist View of Matthew 24.

Preterism refers to the view that many of Jesus’ prophecies found the gospels as well as in the apocalyptic books such as Daniel and Revelation, including what is commonly referred to as the Great Tribulation, have already been fulfilled. In a nutshell:
  • Unlike Dispensationalism (the futurist view with the capital 'R' Rapture, the seven year tribulation, the rise of the antichrist, and the 1000 year earthly kingdom), preterism does not view the "Kingdom of God" as something occurring in the future, but as something that has already been initiated. The Gospel references to the Kingdom of Heaven, (or Kingdom of God), when given with an accompanying time frame, teach of the imminence of the Kingdom (c.f., Matt 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, 12:28; Mark 1:15, 9:1, 12:34; Luke 9:27, 10:9-11, 17:20-22).
  • Preterism attaches great prophetic and redemptive significance to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
  • Preterism presents a harmonious explanation of the Olivet discourse, taking the time references at their plain meaning and references to cosmic cataclysm as prophetic poetry. This is both its greatest success (for all other explanations of the Olivet discourse suffer from some sort of difficulty in the time-related aspects) and its greatest provocation, for the preterist must acknowledge that the Parousia (second coming, or more accurately the Coming of the Son of Man) has already happened. The "sense" in which it has happened, and whether or not there is still a future glorious return of Christ in the clouds and a resurrection of the saints, separates hyper-preterism from partial or moderate preterism.
  • The Olivet discourse contains timelines, apocalyptic prophesy, and descriptions of the fulfilling of prophesy. In some sense, preterists and dispensationalists (futurists, left-behinders) choose opposite hermeneutics: The preterists take the time references literally and the apocalyptic descriptions as imagery, while the dispensationalists do the reverse.
  • The preterist views the Olivet discourse as a continuous exposition on a single time period: from the time Christ spoke the words to about one generation (40 years) later (when some of those present would still be alive). The terminus of the discourse’s prophesy is AD 70 when the Temple was destroyed.
  • The most important thing to keep in mind is that to the preterist, everything discussed in the Olivet discourse happened within about forty years after Christ delivers the prophecy.

Now, on to the scripture (Taken here from Matthew 24):
1 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2 And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down." 
There is universal agreement that this refers to the destruction of the temple in AD 70. This is such an amazing prophesy that biblical critics argue that it "proves" that either the gospels were written after the event or that its description was a later addition designed to give Christ more credibility.
3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" 
According to preterism, The disciples are asking about closely related events, or different aspects of the same event: these things refers to what was just discussed, the destruction of the temple, your coming refers to the Parousia, and the end of the age refers to the end of the Jewish dispensation. (note: the word at the end of v. 3 [aion] is more properly translated as age, rather than world [kosmos].) Calvin (who was neither a preterist or a dispensationalist, but a historicist) taught that the disciples, finding the destruction of the temple to be utterly inconceivable, erroneously assumed that it would not happen until the end of the world. Preterists disagree, pointing out that Jesus took no steps to correct the false assumption, and indeed He answers as if these events occur in a single time frame.

What age is being discussed? Scholars know that Jewish apocalyptic literature of this era divided history into two great ages—the age of the law and the age of the Messiah. What is ending is the age of the law—or the Jewish age. N. T. Wright comments:
The present age was a time when the creator god seemed to be hiding his face; the age to come would see the renewal of the created world. The present age was the time of Israel's misery; in the age to come she would be restored. In the present age wicked men seemed to be flourishing; in the age to come they would receive their just reward. In the present age even Israel was not really keeping the Torah perfectly, was not really being YHWH's true humanity; in the age to come all Israel would keep Torah from the heart. (N. T Wright, New Testament and the People of God, 299-300.)
Let’s move on to Jesus’ answer.
4 And Jesus answered and said to them: "Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, "I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows. 
Preterists point to historic accounts from the 1st century historian Josephus and other contemporary writers affirming that all these things occurred in the vicinity of Palestine during the period in question. For example, Josephus writes,
Now, as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually; for the country was again filled with robbers and impostors, who deluded the multitude. (Josephus, Antiquities 20.8.5)
Calvin agrees that all these events happened in the approximately 40 years from the time Christ spoke these words until the destruction of Jerusalem, but points out that they all would happen to some degree in virtually any 40 year period. I think what Calvin was really saying is that for the Lord to give a specific warning about such matters, they must not be, for example, your garden variety false Christ but deceivers extraordinaire. The preterist response (in regards to the false prophets) is that while in its infancy, the church was extremely vulnerable to false prophets and so a specific warning is in order, whereas today the maturity of the church makes it less susceptible to such an attack.

Preterists also point out that Christ says Take heed that no one deceives you. The plain reading is that "you" refers to the disciples, not some far future group of believers. This is further evidence that Jesus is talking about something imminent, and has not segued into a discussion of far distant prophesy.
9 "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.  15 "Therefore when you see the "abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened. 23 "Then if anyone says to you, "Look, here is the Christ!' or "There!' do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 "Therefore if they say to you, "Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or "Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. 
There is more in this part of the discourse about false prophets, to which the previous comments once again apply. More importantly, this passage talks about what is usually believed to be the great (and future) Tribulation with a capital 'T'. However, to the preterist, this tribulation refers to the persecution endured prior to the "coming of the Son of Man" (again: about 40 years hence, to the preterist). Verses 9-11 offer no problem; surely a case can be made that such things happened during this period.

During the Jewish rebellion against Rome, there was documented, widespread slaughter of the Jews for several years in the countryside and small towns. Many of the Jews fled to Jerusalem for safety.

After the Roman armies reached Jerusalem a lengthy siege ensued. The Romans bombarded the city with 90 pound stones hurled as far as 1200 feet by catapult.

When the food ran out, civil war broke out among three Jewish factions. Murder and starvation were rampant. Josephus wrote that civil war inside the walls of Jerusalem wrought more carnage than the conquering Romans. People who were thought to have consumed food were sometimes killed and disemboweled in search of food within their stomachs. There were many reports of cannibalism. Many tried to escape starvation by sneaking out of the city. Most were captured by the Romans, killed on the spot and disemboweled: the Romans believed that the Jews hid their valuables by swallowing them. If a father was killed searching for food, his wife and children became targets within the city.

In Jerusalem alone, Josephus records that 100,000 were captured, and 1.1 million killed. This does not include the Jews killed in other cities (as mentioned above) as the Roman juggernaut pushed forward.

It is interesting to read Josephus’ accounts of the events leading up to the war. In addition to "rumors of wars", Josephus records that there was a rise of false Christs and prophets.
There was also another body of wicked men gotten together, not so impure in their actions, but more wicked in their intentions, which laid waste the happy state of the city no less than did these murderers. These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of Divine inspiration…. But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives…( Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.13.)
Note that the Egyptian false prophet appears to be corroborated by the bible, Recall that Paul was arrested in his last trip to Jerusalem. The commander mistakes Paul for the false prophet Josephus described: "Do you speak Greek?" he replied. "Aren't you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?" (Acts 21:38).

Vespasian arrived to lead the Roman response in the spring of A.D. 67. Nero was emperor (he dispatched Vespasian to squelch the revolt). In A.D. 68, Nero died at his own hand. The following year was a bad one for Rome, the "year of the four emperors" viz. Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and finally stability with Vespasian. When Vespasian returned to Rome, his son Titus took over the military campaign. It was Titus who led the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The siege began in April A.D. 70 and by the end of August the Temple was first occupied then destroyed. Josephus describes the actual attack on the temple:
WHILE the holy house was on fire, every thing was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity, but children, and old men, and profane persons, and priests were all slain in the same manner;

AND now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy. And now all the soldiers had such vast quantities of the spoils which they had gotten by plunder, that in Syria a pound weight of gold was sold for half its former value.
The preterists argue that the advice provided in Matthew 24—flee to the mountains, leave your belongings, etc., is more appropriate as instructions for refugees fleeing the conquering Romans—that what the dispensationalist believes—that it is for those caught by surprise by the trumpet announcing the second coming.

How does the preterist claim a fulfillment of verse 14, that the gospel will be preached in all the world? He claims it is substantiated by none other than the Apostle Paul:
5 because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth; (Col 1:5-6)
if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Col 1:23)
Whatever Paul meant by “all the world” and “every creature under heaven” used in the past tense, indicates that Paul taught that Matthew 24:14 was already fulfilled.

As for the tribulation, preterism draws this conclusion from verses 14-27: it is localized in the region of Judea (culminating with Roman invasion). References to those who are in Judea and the holy place (the temple) and the overall description bespeaks of a localized, imminent event, not a far-off world-wide cataclysm.

The parallel passage in Luke strengthens this view:
They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:24)
Luke anticipated a fulfillment in terms of Jerusalem only -- the final Diaspora, and the trampling down of Jerusalem by the Gentiles.

In v. 22, the argument given by dispensationalists is that no flesh would be saved means “no flesh in the world”, and hence this points to a world-wide tribulation. But biblical analysis shows that this needn’t be the case, we read in Jeremiah:
Upon all the bare heights in the desert destroyers have come, for the sword of the LORD devours from one end of the land to the other; no flesh has peace. (Jer. 12:12)
This similar passage, it is agreed by all, refers to the Jews only.

As for the coming of the Son of Man, the preterist view varies, but I think the most common view is that the destruction of Jerusalem is in some sense the result of "the coming of the Son of Man". Whether there is a future, literal return in-the-clouds is part of what separates hyper from moderate preterism. In any case, preterists of all stripes agree that for preterism to be the self-consistent exposition it claims, then everything in the Olivet discourse including "the coming of the Son of Man" had to have occurred within a generation. For support, they turn to some other scripture:
When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matt 10:23). 
This verse states that the Son of Man will come when the disciples had visited the cities of Israel. That would seem to be a task that would fit nicely into the timeframe of a generation and not require thousands of years.

Another relevant passage is:
27 For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. 28 Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (Matt. 16:27-28)
Here the preterist can again assume a plain reading: some of the disciples would still be alive when they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom, which is in fact the end of the Jewish age and the onset of "The age of the gentiles" (Matt. 21:43).

Non-preterist views of this passage sometimes border on (in my opinion) the absurd. For example, many argue that in this context the "Son of Man coming in His kingdom" refers to the transfiguration, which occurs about six days later. (Some bibles inject, between verses 16:27 and 16:28, a heading: The Transfiguration.) But this interpretation implies that verse 16:28 can be paraphrased: "Some of you will still be alive six days from now" which hardly seems worthy of divine mentioning.

The preterists claim that the carcass of verse 28 is the Jewish dispensation which is about to end, and the eagles refer to the agent of destruction, specifically the standard of the invading Roman legions.

The end that will come is not the end of history resulting in the eternal state, but the end of the Jewish age.
29 "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 
This is assumed to be the biggest problem for the preterist. While historians of antiquity have given accounts of false prophets, earthquakes, famines, and wars, no one has described what would seem to be an unraveling of the space-time fabric of the universe. Josephus has no description of the cosmological upheaval alluded to in verses 29-31.

Here is where the preterist appeals to poetic language. The destruction of Jerusalem, according to preterists, is so "big" that it requires, in the tradition of the East, apocalyptic symbolism. As proof, they site strikingly similar passages from the old testament, for example regarding the destruction of Babylon:
9 Behold, the day of the LORD comes, Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it.  10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, And the moon will not cause its light to shine. (Isa. 13:9-10)
Therefore I will shake the heavens, And the earth will move out of her place, (Isa. 9:13).
Add to this, the destruction of Bozrah:
3 Also their slain shall be thrown out; Their stench shall rise from their corpses, And the mountains shall be melted with their blood.  4 All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; All their host shall fall down As the leaf falls from the vine, And as fruit falling from a fig tree. (Isa. 34:3-4)
If the destruction of Bozrah warrants such language, then even more so, says the preterist, the destruction of Jerusalem.

We will conclude with the next passage from the Matthew 24:
32 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. 
The preterist is on the highest of his high ground here, for he accepts the phrase this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place as having its simple meaning: generation means generation, not race or type of people as some viewpoints require. Preterists point out that wherever else Christ used the word generation, he meant it in the plain sense of those living at that time. (c.f., Matt. 11:16, 12:39, 12:41, 12:42, 12:45, 16:4, 17:17). The fig tree analogy also implies near term fulfillment.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Thank you for mooning us!

In anticipation of the solar eclipse about cut a swath across America, it is a good time to take a look at our friend the moon. In doing so we can ask the metaphysical question: was it luck or was it providence?

First of all we note that we should not at all take solar eclipses for granted. It requires something that there is no a priori reason to expect: the sun and moon are the same size in the sky. Our moon is 400 times smaller than the sun. The sun, conveniently, is 400 times farther away. That makes them the same apparent size and voilà!  perfect eclipses. No other planet in our solar system has perfect eclipses.

The moon orbits around the earth in a plane different from the earth (and the planets) about the sun, a clear sign that the moon was not formed at the same time as the earth. (If it were in the same orbital plane, we'd have eclipses  once a month!)

In addition to the undeniable aesthetic quality of a perfect eclipse, it is of significant scientific benefit. A solar eclipse provide the first great test of Einstein's General Relativity, for it allowed us to see a star behind the sun. The gravity of the sun, as Einstein predicted, bent the starlight like a lens. The test required an eclipse because normally the sun is (of course) too bright to see the feeble starlight.

Furthermore, the study of the chromosphere, made possible by solar eclipses, has been instrumental in the advancement of the field of astrophysics.

But Wait, There's More!

Without our moon it is not at all certain that the earth could support complex life. Consider:

  • Generally, the greater a planets gravity and distance from the sun, the thicker its atmosphere. Earth violates this rule, with an atmosphere 40 times lighter that Venus.
  • Usually moons are much smaller than the planet and are formed of the same material. Earth has a huge moon which is not made of the same material as the earth.

What happened? It would seem that object the size of Mars collided with the young (250 My) earth, and was mostly absorbed into the core. The collision blasted most of the original overly-thick atmosphere into space. The cloud of debris coalesced into the moon. 1

What are the fortuitous results of this cataclysm? Well, the collision:

  • Destroyed a thick, poisonous atmosphere.
  • Increased in the earths mass just enough; its gravity can retain necessary water vapor (mass = 18), but not the lighter poisonous ammonia (mass = 17) or methane (mass = 16).
  • Boosted iron content of the earth (magnetic field) and made the oceans nutrient rich. Without the earth's magnetic field we'd be dead. The magnetic field deflects dangerous radiation around the earth.
  • Slowed the earths rotation rate, which stabilized weather patterns.
  • Because the resulting moon is big, its tidal effect cleans coastal waters and replenishes ocean nutrients.
  • However the moon is not too big –no excessive erosion, no excessive alteration of earths orbit.2
  • The moon also stabilized the tilt of the earths axis, preventing climactic extremes.

No matter how you look at it, we are so lucky to have been mooned.

1 Belbruno and Gott, The Ast. J., 129, 1724-1745, 2005 
2 A fairly recent calculation shows that if the moon were slightly bigger, the earth-moon system
would go unstable.  See Dave Waltham, Astrobiology 4, No. 4: 460-468 (2004) 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Rise and (unfortunate) Fall of Original Sin.

Teasers: This post is juicy--touching upon the fall, infant baptism, homosexuality, free will--just a little bit of everything!

We begin at the turn of the fourth century, when one of the most important controversies in the history of the church erupted. It was a debate between St. Augustine (354-430) and a British monk by the name of Pelagius (ca. 354 - ca. 420/440). Such a big controversy—such an innocent catalyst. The event that launched the brouhaha was a modest sounding prayer penned by Augustine:
God, Command what you desire, and grant what you command.
This prayer encapsulates what we now call the doctrine of Original Sin. I believe it to be biblical, easily demonstrable by scripture, but in human terms, as a church doctrine, it is usually credited to (or blamed on) St. Augustine.

Augustine’s prayer acknowledges that man does not have the power, without God’s help, to obey God’s commands. Augustine’s prayer, paraphrased,  is this:
God, I recognize that you are sovereign and can command of me whatever you want. I also recognize that I am unable to do what you command, apart from divine assistance—i.e., apart from grace. Help me.
It is important to recognize what original sin means and what it doesn't mean. Original sin means, quite simply, that we are born to sin. We sin because we are sinners; we are not sinners because we sin.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)
Original sin does not (in my opinion) mean we stand charged with Adam's sin. Lead a sinless life and God will not keep you out of heaven on a technicality: True you committed no sin, but you forgot that Adam's sin was in your debit column. Gotcha! Such a concept impugns God's justice. No, original sin means something much worse, something that Augustine recognized. It means that we are such a corrupted race that in our natural state we have no choice but to sin. That is the dire consequence of the fall. Whatever we do as natural men, no matter what its outward appearance, is but filthy rags in God's eyes. Adam, as we will see, was our representative. He sinned, and the race suffered for it.

Draw up you list of sins, and Original Sin does not mean that somehow, including in the womb, you committed at least one of them. That is unless you included on your list that you are in rebellion to God and have no desire for Him. That's what is in our nature, our inheritance from Adam.

It is the worst of doctrines; it is the best of doctrines. It is the worst of doctrines because it paints a hideous picture of human nature. But we have to be careful here--that ugly picture is in God's eyes. It is not a predictor of future sinning in human terms. It doesn't mean that all men are "born to raise hell." Though it does mean that all men are born heading in the direction of hell. It is (ultimately) the best of doctrines, because it means that our situation is so hopeless that we cannot save ourselves. Which means that if we are to be saved it must come as an unearned gift from God. Just like Augustine's little prayer teaches. Just like the Gospel teaches.

Augustine (and Reformed theology) teaches this: you have moral responsibility but, in your natural state, you lack the moral ability. In other words, apart from grace, you cannot choose not to sin. The fall did not change the requirement of obedience, but it changed us radically. So, apart from grace, we are doomed.

Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise on Original Sin. At one point he argued that even if the bible never taught the doctrine of original sin, human experience common sense would demand it. Why? Because if we are born innocent, then occasionally we would expect to find someone, be it one in a thousand or one in a million, who remained pure—but we never encounter such a person.

Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, arguing that Adam’s sin affected Adam alone. He believed that, at birth, infants are in a state identical to Adam and Eve’s before the fall. Consistent with this view, he looked at baptism of infants as not in a cleansing of them from sin, but in imparting a higher sanctification through union with Christ. He didn’t really have a developed theology of baptism—it was a simple matter that it did not cleanse you of original sin because original sin did not exist. Augustine, in contrast, taught that infants are baptized to purge them of the sinful nature inherited from Adam.

Whose baptism view do you believe? A) Pelagius's (Pelagius' ?) view, B) Augustine's view? or C) Neither? Good question, fascinating even, but not relevant for this post. We are concerned with the two ancient theologians' views on man's state at birth, not how baptism does or does not affect that state.

According to Pelagius, there was no imputation of Adam’s sin onto his descendants. But scripture makes the symmetry plain: We are made righteous through imputation: Christ, as our representative, has abounding righteousness which is credited to us through imputation. It is not a fiction, and it is not a meaningless legal technicality: we are changed as a result. 1 Likewise Adam’s sin, as he was our representative 2, is imputed to us. (Only later to be imputed from us to Christ on the cross.) It is not that we are charged with Adam’s sin, but that we are deeply affected by it. The physical result of the imputation is that we are incapable of seeking or desiring or obeying God. We are dead in our trespasses. At best, in our fallen state,  we might seek what we perceive God has to offer, giving the illusion of a desire for God himself.

So Pelagius argued that it is unnecessary for God to “grant” what he commands of us. Instead, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man, on his own, to fulfill God’s commandments. Pelagius believed that moral responsibility implied moral ability; it would be unjust for God to demand that we obey and yet arrange it so that we are born with the inability to do so. He argued that we must be born morally neutral—or innocent. This, though wrong,  is still a compelling and common argument today.

Pelagius had a role for grace: it facilitates our quest for moral perfection, but it is not required. In principle, at least, we can make do without grace. And, in fact, Pelagius argued that some people do, in fact, live a perfect life. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that grace is not only helpful but required.

Attacking Augustine and his doctrine on original sin, Pelagius argued that human nature was created good. In fact, we stay good. Sin does not change our essential human nature—we always will be “basically good.”

At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine is the thorny issue of free-will. (I posted on this never-ending topic recently). Pelagius argued that Adam was given a free will, and his free will was not corrupted by the fall, nor was man’s moral character affected by the fall. Everyone, according to Pelagius, is born free of a predisposition to sin. Augustine agreed than man had a free will, but that man, on his own, was unable to use his will to choose God. Augustine believed that sin is universal and that man is a “mass of sin.” Man cannot, according to Augustine, elevate himself to doing good without benefiting from God’s grace.

Harnack (German theologian, 1851-1930) summarizes Pelagian taught:
Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God - were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man's own effort.
R.C. Sproul writes:
Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices. He argued that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed. It is freedom without liberty, a real moral bondage. True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul. Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace.
Pelagius was condemned at the synod of Carthage in 418. Subsequent councils affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy and reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin.

So Augustine won the battle, but Pelagius may have won the war. Because we are a race of beings that doesn’t like dependency on grace, but with a religion that is only grace with no way to work your way to heaven. Strangely we have a natural affinity for the idea of salvation by works, so we try to sneak it in at every opportunity. And so the church, from the time the battle was won by Augustine, has faced a constant assault of Pelagian thought.

Sproul writes:
Humanism, in all its subtle forms, recapitulates the unvarnished Pelagianism against which Augustine struggled. Though Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by Rome, and its modified form, Semi-Pelagianism was likewise condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, the basic assumptions of this view persisted throughout church history to reappear in Medieval Catholicism, Renaissance Humanism, Arminianism, and modern Liberalism. The seminal thought of Pelagius survives today not as a trace or tangential influence but is pervasive in the modern church. Indeed, the modern church is held captive by it.

Pelagianism in Reformed Churches

Do you think Reformed churches, at least, have a handle on Pelagianism--which as a matter of check-boxing doctrines they will surely affirm as a heresy?

The Presbyterian theologian John Gerstner told this story, which I'll relate by memory. He was a guest at a conservative Presbyterian (an thus uber-Reformed) church on the day of an infant baptism. Upon entering the church he, and everyone else, was given a white rose. Upon asking for the reason, he was told that the white rose represented the innocence of the baby being baptized. At that point he asked: "You do know what the water represents, don't you?"

Not convinced? Well here is a little test. Think back over time, when the question arose in Sunday school or small group or informal coffee discussions, and ask how many of the Reformed claim that people are born homosexual as opposed to it being purely and solely a lifestyle choice? In my experience a fair number if not an overwhelming majority of good-ole Calvinists, who would never dare to dream a Semi-Pelagian let alone a full Pelagian thought, will instinctively say that people are not ever born gay. Now imagine Augustine and Pelagius debating the question. I think it would go something like this, assuming that both Augustine and Pelagius agreed that homosexual activity is sinful:

Pelagius: Man is never born gay. God would not punish you for the way you are born.

Augustine: It wouldn't surprise me at all if some are born gay. And, contrary to your argument, God, apart from mercy and grace, would punish each of us for no other reason than how we are born. "How we are born" is not a "get out of jail free" card. "How we are born" is not an excuse, it's the problem.

And, looking forward to the modern church, Augustine might say to us: I though this was settled a millennium and a half ago? Did you forget?

1 "Forensic" justification, taken too far, would say that a Christian is potentially no different than he or she was as an unbeliever. This is not true and was the root of the Lordship Salvation controversy. When justified you still have no inherent righteous standing before God. You will always rely on God accrediting Jesus' "alien" righteousness to you. However, you are not the same person as before.

2 And no whining about this. Adam was not a poor choice for our representative. On the contrary, given that he was chosen by God for the task, he was best of all possible representatives.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Poe du Jour. (Or is it?)

John Hagee's new book. This sounds plausible!

The Importance of Stephen Lesson 3: Stephen before the Sanhedrin

The Importance of Stephen 
Biblical text: Acts, Chapters 6 and 7 
Primary extra-biblical source: The Book of Acts, F. F. Bruce, Rev. Ed., 1988.

Previous lessons in this series:

10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.(Acts 6:10-14)
Unable to out perform Stephen in a debate, (v. 10) a more insidious line of attack was initiated. Witnesses were coerced into charging Stephen with blasphemy. What they claimed to have heard may in fact have been accurate.

Here we note the evolution of the world blasphemy. Later, in the Mishnah it would be rendered as uttering the name that only the High Priest could speak on the Day of Atonement 1. However, applied at the time of Stephen it could mean a wider range of offenses. The blasphemy indictment of Stephen was twofold. In the first, it was quite similar to the failed charge brought against Jesus-- it was a threat to the temple. Recall the clumsy witness-tampering attempt at the arrest of Jesus: 
“We heard him [Jesus] say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” (Mark 14:58) 
(Of course the Sanhedrin then did an end-around to accomplish their "justice" with Jesus.) Secondly, Stephen appears to have spoken about the abrogation of the Law of Moses--at least the ceremonial law. All this would have incensed not just the powers, but also the common people. As previously mentioned, a threat to the temple and its practices was also a threat to the region's economy. This likely emboldened the officials, who had little reason to fear a popular backlash.

The witnesses, though described as false, probably gave accurate testimony. They are described as false either because they were not giving eyewitness accounts, or as F.F. Bruce put it, "anyone who testifies against a spokesman of God is ipso facto a false witness. 2  These witnesses testified that Stephen had threatened the temple ("holy place") and the customs of Moses. Furthermore,  he invoked the name of Jesus as the instrument for this catastrophic prediction, fueling the prosecutorial fire by identifying Jesus as the Messiah.

Stephen was not giving prophecy--he was just paying closer attention than anyone else to what Jesus himself had said.

As F. F. Bruce wrote 3:
The apostles and many of the rank and file of the Jerusalem church might continue to attend the temple services and to be respected as devout and observant Jews; Stephen held that the gospel meant the end of the sacrificial cultus and all the ceremonial law.
It is as if only Stephen paid close attention to some of Jesus' own words, such as I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. (Matt 12:6). Stephen, uniquely as far as we know--with the sole exception of Saul, discerned that the temple worship and the ceremonial law was irreconcilable with the gospel. Stephen's teaching, paraphrased, was that the followers of Christ were not a sect of Judaism, but something else altogether--in appearances an entirely different religion 4. While the prosecution of Jesus on similar charges of threatening the temple failed, the strategy would succeed with Stephen. No doubt he could see the worldly hopelessness of his situation. Yet he did not face the Sanhedrin with any of the range of dispositions that others might have drawn upon. Not sadness, fear, anger, vengeance, indignity, etc.,--rather he presented what must have been the most disarming of appearances, that of an angel, glowing and (we presume) filled with the spirit, in as close proximity to his God and Savior as any living man could be.

1 "The blasphemer is not guilty until he expressly uttered the Name" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.5) 
2 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, p. 126. 
3 Ibid., 127.
4 We could argue semantics here about whether the term "new religion" is accurate. From an anthropological standpoint, I think it is. As for theological, it depends on the eyes of the beholder. But (in my opinion) both Stephen and Saul, to use a biological analogy, would agree that Christianity and 1st century Judaism, though sharing a common ancestor, were not distant cousins but two different species.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ouch one and ouch two

  1. It's parody but it makes me wince. I guess that is what good parody does--especially if there is a chance that somewhere it's not parody, but real. Yikes.

  2. I am having a tooth extracted today. A root canal gone bad. I'm calling it the West Virginia Diet. I am looking forward to when it's all over, so I can walk through the waiting room with a big wad of bloody gauze, moaning and mumbling: Run away! Get out while you still can!

Penal Substitutionary Atonement: It's about Holiness, not Justice (modified)

One doctrine that is under attack in liberal circles is the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).

What PSA teaches is that Christ was punished in our place. That is, upon the cross, Christ actually received our due punishment. Have you (or will you) commit adultery? If so, Christ was punished as an adulterer in your place. PSA, fully developed during the Reformation, doesn't replace but rather incorporates older views that emphasized that Christ was victorious on the cross—victorious over sin and Satan—by adding the concept of how God's wrath against the elect was fully satisfied.

The clarification was that this satisfaction was not as a reward, if you will, for Christ's victory over sin and Satan—but God's satisfaction actually required the suffering Christ endured for the sins of the world. This view of the Atonement forms a pleasing symmetry with the Reformed view of justification—namely that we are justified before God by an alien righteousness, that of Jesus. So we have a two-way imputation. Our sins are imputed to Christ, while his righteousness is imputed to us.

That's a pretty good deal, and if you haven't yet taken advantage of it, I suggest you do. It is, as they say, a limited time offer.

The scriptural support for PSA is impressive. From Isaiah's Messianic prophecy:
But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. (Is. 53:5)
to Paul's letter to the Romans:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:23-25)
to many other passages. The message seems clear that Christ received actual punishment on the cross. Since Christ didn't deserve it, it follows that either God is a sadist or it was punishment due to someone else (us.) And since he paid it, we won't have to, lest we accuse God of double billing.

Now an unbeliever can argue (and they often do) that our God, as described in scripture, is indeed a sadist. But remember, this is an in-the-family debate. A believer (like Neufeld) might argue against PSA, but no believer will argue that God is a sadist or that he'll double charge for sin.

The liberal attacks against PSA, at least the more ridiculous ones, follow the formula that most liberal attacks take, the if I were God, I wouldn't do that, therefore God wouldn't do that line of reasoning.† The expression of this formula is typically found in liberal insistency that conservatives spend way too much time on the ideas of sin and wrath and not enough time on the nice passages about love and forgiveness. The most notorious fairly recent "in the family" criticism of the PSA is from Steve Chalke, who, in his book The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan 2003) famously characterized it as "Cosmic Child Abuse."

Here  is a reasoned discussion against PSA from the liberal Christian Henry Neufeld. Neufeld argues that God's love and forgiveness, not the PSA, are central to the gospel. I really don't have much to say about that, because I don't have a clear understanding of what he means by "central." God has love. God forgives. The Atonement happened. At the risk of arguing by platitude, it is not that there are bits and pieces here that may be central to the gospel, but instead the gospel in central to all.

But let's examine some specific criticisms. Neufeld, in arguing how PSA proponents address the greatest commandment, writes: "Well, we have at the foundation of PSA, God's essential revulsion at human sin, and even his inability to look at it."

Actually, we have no such thing. This is taken from a very bad Sunday school lesson. There is nothing quite so easy to demonstrate in scripture as God's ability to look at sin with ease. In the garden, after the fall, it was Adam and Eve in apparent distress, not God. In Job, we have Satan involved in a heavenly conference with God, and God doesn't seem to be covering his eyes or in any obvious pain, even in the presence of the very Prince of Lies. If anything, we can demonstrate that it is human sin that abhors and runs from God, not the other way around. For example, recall the famous unclean-lips reaction of Isaiah.

Neufeld then applies this mistake concerning God's supposed weakness in the face of sin: "So how does this evoke my love for God? I am to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, even while he loathes me, a sinner, with everything in his being."

Friends, there is no lesson from the PSA that would even remotely imply that God loathes Neufeld, who is a believer. On the contrary the lesson is that Neufeld is a believer because God loves him (He first loved you), he doesn't loathe him. We are not taught Jacob I loathed, but Esau I loathed even more, but Jacob I loved. Is there any indication that God loathed David, or Abraham, or Paul? Of course there is none whatsoever. The fact that it is so obvious from scripture that God loves believers should alert the reader that Neufeld is misrepresenting the PSA—because there could never be a doctrine that could achieve any traction at all if it was based on God loathing believers.

Neufeld's entire post, in my opinion, can be summarized by saying the PSA is bad because if focuses on God's loathsomeness for man. But that is simply wrong—the PSA focuses on God's love for believers. Even if the PSA is wrong, it seems a little foolish to deny that as a doctrine it in fact emphasizes God's love—otherwise you are left with no motivation for the suffering it supposes Christ endured. Did he endure suffering the punishment the PSA claims because he loathed mankind? It makes no sense whatsoever.

Neufeld goes on to argue that another problem with the PSA is that it is too man centered. I suppose that's in the eyes of the beholder. It is man centered in Neufeld's view because it allows man to escape punishment. But the punishment escaped is hell—and here I presume that Neufeld also accepts that believers escape hell (even if one's picture of hell is annihilation) by any view of the atonement, including his own—so how "avoiding punishment implies man centeredness" is especially a problem for the PSA is not clear.

PSA proponents argue, correctly I would say, just the opposite. It is God centered in that it affirms that the only thing man can successfully contribute to his own salvation is his sins. Man is not good enough to bring anything meritorious; all must be supplied by God.

Reading between the lines, it seems to me that Neufeld is not so much against the PSA but against a different Reformed doctrine: Total Depravity. There is where we indeed find the language of loathsomeness and wrath that Neufeld so dislikes (and who can blame him.) But Total Depravity reflects God's view of the unregenerate, not his view of believers. And the Atonement reflects God's plan for those he loves, not those he hates. The two doctrines do not overlap much, but Neufeld, it seems to me, conflates them.

As for love and forgiveness, wonderful things to be sure, the plain truth is the only group that can self-consistently claim the centrality, to use Neufeld's language, of God's love and forgiveness are the Universalists. Because if you allow that some are lost—some are not forgiven, and clearly you must unless you just want to toss out the whole bible, then you certainly must conclude God's love and his forgiveness cannot be ultimate. They don't trump other attributes of God. If they did then all would be saved. That would be fine by me, but it doesn't reflect scriptural teaching.

However, of those attributes of God that might trump his love and forgiveness, God's justice isn't one of them. God's love and forgiveness do in fact take precedence over his justice—because some receive mercy rather than justice. It seems to me that the confusion of PSA arises because both sides accept that the pro-PSA side should be argued in terms to God's justice. And once the pro-PSA side argues that the PSA is true because God demands justice, the anti-PSA side argues, rather convincingly, that the PSA represents a rather perverse form of justice.

Perhaps the problem is we focus on the wrong attribute of God. It is not God's justice—which we know he routinely sets aside in the form of mercy—that is relevant. It is a more mysterious attribute: God's holiness. It is God's holiness that trumps all. It is God's holiness that is ultimate. And it is his most mysterious attribute. One can, perhaps by this "trick," sweep the mysteries of the Atonement into a deeper mystery, God's holiness. It may be sleight of hand, but it succeeds in removing from the Atonement the tension that develops when you claim that it is all about the fact that God's justice demands punishment. Why, for example, does the bible tell us that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood, and that the blood of animals or fallen man will not suffice? I really cannot comprehend why God cannot simply forgive everyone (he clearly relaxes justice by giving mercy to some—why not all?) And why must blood be shed? Why not some other form of punishment? The answer, I believe, is found in God's incomprehensible holiness. The reconciliation that must be made is not because God demands justice, and not because God cannot bear the presence of sin, but rather because in his holiness it pleases God to spend eternity in the presence of a people whom he has cleansed. This cleansing, for some reason we cannot hope to fathom, requires the shedding of perfect blood. It is no use to characterize it as barbaric—-it is simply the way it is, and on this side of eternity believers might as well just accept the fact.

† Another form of liberalism, fundamentalism, takes its "liberties" with the bible this way: Well God didn't actually get around to putting that—typically some prohibition—in the bible, but I'm sure he would have if he had thought about it a little more, so we'll add it for him.