Wednesday, July 28, 2021

I believe in micro physics, but not macro physics

I often hear from my Christian brothers and sisters that they accept “microevolution” but not “macroevolution”. In truth there is no difference. The processes are exactly the same. 1 However, we can, arguendo, adopt an artificial but common working definition: microevolution does not result in a new species; macroevolution does. 

Of course, we are then faced with the challenge of defining species, which is harder that it would seem. However, we can again, arguendo, agree (even though it has problems) to accept the common working definition: if two populations cannot successfully breed, then they are distinct species. 

I'll say from the onset there is no point is actually arguing with someone who affirms micro but not macro evolution. No amount of evidence will persuade them. Been there, done that, and didn't get as much as a T-shirt. I have never (and I have witnessed literally hundreds of such arguments) encountered someone who changed their position on macroevolution. This is not a debate that is approached with open minds. 

But for the sake of completeness: the evidence is overwhelming. There is the fossil record with millions of snapshots of macroevolution occurring as an aggregation of microevolutionary steps. For a “living” example, there are ring species. 2 There are also candidates for witnessing speciation in complex organisms in much smaller time scales than previously imagined. Birds that suddenly (from microevolution) split into populations with two very distinct migratory paths appear to be on the cusp of speciation. 

The purpose of this post is to present an analogy, which will convince nobody because, as already mentioned, nobody who says “micro-yes, macro-no” is actually willing to evaluate the evidence. So this is mostly for fun. 


Micro and macro physics evolution 


An astronomer with a telescope is a cosmic paleontologist. When an astronomer gazes at something a billion light years away, they are, given the finite speed of light, looking back in time approximately a billion years. 3 What they are seeing, in every sense of the word, is a fossil. The farther we look is just like the deeper we dig. 

Looking farther away we are seeing (a bit counterintuitively) younger things, in the sense they are as they were at a time closer to the creation event, the big bang. And what we see as we gaze from the farthest reaches to our local area is physics (cosmic) evolution. Far away we see nascent galaxies and stars made from the products of the big bang but with low metallicity (because metals, which to astronomers includes anything beyond helium, didn't exist when the star formed. Why not? Because it takes stars to manufacture metals and then die and obligingly seed space with these heavier elements that can then be incorporated in the next generation of stars.) 4  As we gaze closer to home we see more complex structures (such as mature galaxies) that formed later.

So we see fossils with a clear evolutionary process, from clouds of hydrogen and helium to the interstellar medium condensing to early stars and galaxies all the way to more recent (but older in terms of time from the big bang) complex galaxies and structures such as our Milky Way. We see fossils including transitional forms. 

So imagine this point of view:
Ken: I believe in micro physics evolution, but not macro physics evolution. If I drop my phone, the laws of physics cause it to fall and hit the earth. The screen might crack, but it’s still a phone. The earth might change ever so slightly, but it’s still the earth. 
Charles: But the very same process (gravitation) is what caused stars and galaxies to form from the primordial hydrogen and helium produced by the big bang, from a long drawn-out series of gravitational micro-steps. We see this evolution very clearly in our telescopes. 
Ken: How do you know there was a process? Has anyone seen it in real time? Maybe the distant galaxies look “young” not because we are looking back in time, but that’s how they will always look, even to their nearby observers, if there are any. They were just created that way. No, unless I see hydrogen and helium clouds form a spiral galaxy, I’m not going to believe it.
It’s the same argument, is it not?

 
1 I’m a theistic evolutionist. Which means that I accept the theory of evolution but add to it the supernatural presupposition that the process was/is never outside the domain of God’s sovereignty. Just like I accept the physics laws governing gravity, even though I don’t accept that they operate outside of God’s sovereignty. There is no scientific consequence of this presupposition. A practicing theistic evolutionary scientist would perform the same experiments and analyses as their atheistic colleagues. Science doesn’t give a rat’s derriere about your philosophical leanings. It only demands that you follow the rules of the scientific method. 

2 In a nutshell a ring species is like this: species A is thriving in California. Part of the population, for whatever reason, moves east to Iowa. After a while this B population is visibly distinct. But A and B can still breed. Same species. Now part of B migrates farther east, to Virginia. After awhile this group, call it C, is visibly distinct from both B and A. However, there is a lack of breeding transitivity. While A can breed with B, and B with C, A cannot breed with C. A and C are distinct species, arrived at by a series of microevolutionary steps, even though A (where it all began) is not extinct. 

3 This is only approximate because of the expansion of space (which is really, in some sense, the continuous creation of space which leads to the appearance of expansion). The range of our vision (a physics limit, not a technology limit) is about 43 billion light years, at which point we see objects as they were very shortly after the big bang, a bit shy of 14 billion years ago. 

4 Astronomers designate the generations of stars by Population 1, 2 or 3. But astronomers are crazy people who do everything bass-ackwards. The first stars created are Population 3.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Raiders of the Lost Ark of the Moral Law

Viewed against the span of Christian history, Dispensationalism is very new, and Covenant Theology only a little older. Though both, along with the General Baptists, have deluded themselves and claim they have been around since apostolic times, if not earlier. 

As I have written many times, I am in closer agreement with Covenant Theology, though I have many disagreements. 

I certainly disagree with the way they often simply make things up. Then they attempt to justify what they make up using classical philosophy while calling those who disagree with them biblicists (a term I embrace, but not in the form of the grotesque caricature they use as a straw man) antinomians, and other types of heretics. 

In truth (and acknowledged by some of their own, such as Bavinck[1]) the development of Covenant Theology had at first a singular purpose: to preserve paedobaptism. To accomplish this goal, they developed the concept of a single over-arching covenant (of grace) that spans human history. This is in spite of the fact that the bible makes no reference to such a covenant, and in fact makes plain reference to the old and new (and better) covenants as being utterly distinct. But only simpleminded biblicists point that out, for we are somewhat incapable of invoking Plato to tease out new doctrine that is not only not present but actually superficially (to us chowderheads) at odds with scripture. 

Once you have a single over-arching covenant, you are forced into a theology that stresses continuity. Over stresses continuity—all so that infant circumcision can morph into infant baptism.[2] (Dispensationalism, on the other hand, over-stresses discontinuity.) 

We must admit that covenant theologians are among the cleverest people who delve into theology. When they invent something to fit their theology, they make it sound like something that you could not possibly be against unless you were a minion of the antichrist. 

One complex invention of Covenant Theologians are the (not found anywhere in scripture—sorry that’s again the biblicist within) arbitrary divisions of the law. They were created when their zeal for continuity came face to face with the reality of all the covenantal laws the Jews were under. We want continuity, but we don’t want circumcision

Well, to satisfy their continuity lust, they relabeled the Decalogue the “Eternal Moral Law of God” and the other laws became “ceremonial” or “civil” or “positive”. This satisfied most (but not the theonomists, who in some ways are the most self-consistent covenant theologians) as it allowed them to be “as continuous as they could be.” 

Some even argue the that Decalogue was the law written on the hearts of all people, even before the fall. But there is not one jot or tittle of scripture to support this. The Decalogue is never referred to as the moral law of God, let alone the fully revealed eternal moral law of God. It is referred to as law of the covenant, and the box that carried around the tablets as the ark of the covenant, not the ark of the moral law

Here we summarize some distinctions: 

Covenant view: There were many types of laws given to the Jews. There were positive laws, there were ceremonial and civil laws, and there were moral laws. And the moral laws are either entirely found in the Ten Commandments, or there is a subset of the moral laws, those that are eternal, that are the Ten Commandments. And these eternal moral laws (since they are eternal) simply must be the laws that were written on hearts going back to the garden. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is not giving new law, he is merely correcting bad teaching. 

Biblicist View: All of God’s laws are moral. Jews were not morally obliged to obey the Decalogue and ceremonially obliged to obey the law on circumcision. They were morally obligated to obey both and all other laws of their covenant. These old covenant laws went away with the onset of the new covenant, and Mosaic law was replaced by a new and better revelation of the law given by Jesus. 

It is actually quite strange, when you think about it, to call only a subset of God’s law moral.

Interestingly enough, the great confessions are quite revealing in this matter. For example, in the WCF we read:
Beside this law [the Decalogue], commonly called moral, (WCF 19.3)
Even by the rather weak standard of scriptural proof texts for the pronouncements of the confession, none is provided to justify renaming the Ten Commandments as the moral law of God. The only justification provided is that it was “commonly called” such. By whom we are not told. And since the confession was written, the rather mild “commonly called” has evolved an understanding more in line with: “Thou Shalt Call it the Eternal Moral of God and Nothing Less.”

 
[1] “The covenant was the sure scriptural objective ground upon which all the Reformed, together and without distinction, based the right to infant baptism. They had no other deeper or more solid ground." (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics.) 

[2] That’s not to say I disagree with infant baptism. I disagree that the justification for infant baptism is connected to circumcision.

Monday, June 07, 2021

THE Reformer did not teach that the Christian Sabbath must be on Sunday

1Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. (1 Cor 16:1-2., NKJV)
The literal translation of the start of verse 2 is along the lines of “On one of the Sabbaths.” By tradition, it gets translated as “on the first day of the week” and is then taken (incorrectly, in my opinion) to mean that Paul is prescribing that Sunday is to be the Christian Sabbath. John Calvin disagreed. He argued that what Paul meant was the literal: That on one of the Sabbaths (or more) before Paul arrives they should collect an offering for Jerusalem. A day of the week is not in mind. Given that Paul was coming at some indeterminate time in the future and not the following week, the literal interpretation is a better fit.

Calvin writes:
The clause rendered on one of the Sabbaths, (κατὰ μίαν σαββάτων,) Chrysostom explains to mean — the first Sabbath. In this I do not agree with him; for Paul means rather that they should contribute, one on one Sabbath and another on another; or even each of them every Sabbath, if they chose. For he has an eye, first of all, to convenience, and farther, that the sacred assembly, in which the communion of saints is celebrated, might be an additional spur to them. Nor am I more inclined to admit the view taken by Chrysostom — that the term Sabbath is employed here to mean the Lord’s day, (Revelation 1:10,) for the probability is, that the Apostles, at the beginning, retained the day that was already in use, but that afterwards, constrained by the superstition of the Jews, they set aside that day, and substituted another. Now the Lord’s day was made choice of, chiefly because our Lord’s resurrection put an end to the shadows of the law. Hence the day itself puts us in mind of our Christian liberty. We may, however, very readily infer from this passage, that believers have always had a certain day of rest from labor — not as if the worship of God consisted in idleness, but because it is of importance for the common harmony, that a certain day should be appointed for holding sacred assemblies, as they cannot be held every day. For as to Paul’s forbidding elsewhere (Galatians 4:10) that any distinction should be made between one day and another, that must be understood to be with a view to religion, and not with a view to polity or external order. (Calvin's Commentary on 1 Cor., emphasis added)
Regarding the Lord’s Day, Calvin is arguing that the early church held it on Saturday, but to avoid confusion with the Jewish Holy Day they moved it, as one might naturally expect if you are going to move it, to the next day, Sunday, or the first day. Not because scripture mandated that the day of corporate worship to coincide with the day of the week of our Lord's resurrection (although that's certainly a wonderful alignment) but because it was convenient.  In that view, this passage:
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. (Acts 20:7, NKJV)
is describing, not prescribing. Which is how it reads.

R. C. Sproul was, as far as I can tell, in agreement with Calvin and summarizes Calvin’s position this way:
John Calvin argued that it would be legitimate to have the Sabbath day on any day if all of the churches would agree, because the principle in view was the regular assembling of the saints for corporate worship and for the observation of rest.
Modern uber-reformed confessionalists argue that worship must be on Sunday, not as a matter of convenience or tradition (which are perfectly fine reasons to hold worship services on Sunday, not to mention most people have the day off) but for incorrect legalism-- that is they falsely teach that scripture calls for Sunday worship. What choice do they have? Many take an all or nothing approach the a giant uninspired confession that calls for prescribed Sunday worship, with scriptural proof texts that, is often the case, fall short of living up to their billing. 

Many of the uber-reformed agree with Calvin except when they don't, such as his position on the necessity of Sunday Worship, the perpetual virginity of Mary (and consequently that Jesus had no blood brothers--Calvin affirmed this) and, if they are Baptists, on paedobaptism. When they lament "what has happened to the Reformation?" what they really mean is "What has happened the part of the Reformation we agree with?"

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Sin that does not lead to death, vs. sin that does.

14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. (1John 5:14-15, NKJV)
This passage provides the context for the discussion to follow. These two verses reemphasize our “First Amendment Rights” when it comes to God. We have a God we can approach with confidence, and a God who can multitask—while maintaining the universe he will hear our prayers.
16 If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death. (1John 5:16-17, NKJV)
With the context and principle provided by verses 15 and 16, we have in the next two verses an application: pray for a fellow believer who is in spiritual distress due to sinning. This presumably means a believer who has, for a season, descended into a lifestyle besotted with sin. (I’ve lived in that zip code). 

However, this passage (which could be so simple!) also makes a seemingly mysterious distinction between sin that does vs. sin that does not lead unto death. To me, an unexpected and unwelcome complication. 

Our Catholic friends might readily find in this the difference between venial and mortal sin, but in truth that dogma would not be developed for centuries. Even more to the point, there is no prohibition (in fact, quite the contrary) in Catholicism regarding praying for someone who has committed a mortal sin. Abortion is a mortal sin according to Roman Catholicism, yet the Catholic Church does not instruct its adherents to avoid praying for the women involved. 

Nor does “unto death” versus “not unto death” seem to refer to sin that leads to actual and immediate physical death, a la Ananias and Sapphira. It would be rather pointless to tell us not to pray for someone who just dropped dead after committing a sin. I think we'd intuitively "get it" if, while watching an ISIS terrorist about to behead an innocent person, a consuming fire rained down from the sky and took him out. Nor would it be worth mentioning such a rare (if ever) occurrence, one that (even in less spectacular form) virtually no believer will never have to be equipped to handle. 

At the (always real) risk of pulling verses out of context,  let us add two others to the discussion:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, (Heb 6:4, NKJV)
But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Matt 18:17b, NKJV)
Adding these along with our difficult passage from 1 John, I personally arrive at somewhat unsatisfying (as in, I’m not confident I’m right, but it’s the best I got) view that “sin leading to death” refers to someone who, after our best intentions and fervent prayer over an extended period, appears to be absolutely unmovable, unrepentant, and unashamed in regard to their sin. In other words, we are literally instructed to (in extreme cases) give up on some, in regard to our finite prayer budget. 

In simpler terms, “sin leading unto death” is synonymous with the condition leading not to reconciliation, but excommunication, at which point we stop praying for the person. (It sounds wrong, but I think it just might be right.) 

This does not mean that we do not give them food, water, clothing, shelter, etc. if they have the need. I think it means what excommunication means, that they are not entitled to the benefits of members of the body including prayer. In crude terms, they had their chance, in fact many, many chances, and they blew it. (We would not withhold prayer regarding those for whom we have reason to hope may some day join. They have not been excommunicated.) 

It is a judgment call, as excommunication always is, and we may get it wrong, but it is nevertheless a difficult duty we are instructed to perform and a frightening assessment we are called to perform. Of course, such a person, though dead to us, can be resurrected by God without our help and in spite of our failings. And we can take comfort that God will present such a person to be welcomed back to the body.

But for the love of all that is holy, the conscious decision to withhold prayer and its cousin (excommunication) are to be done ever so sparingly.         

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Paul at Lystra, where there's a first time for everything

Paul’s (and Barnabas’) first missionary journey is one eventful stop after another. But the most interesting (or at least the most unique) stop may have been in Lystra in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Lystra is also (many speculate) the hometown of Timothy. There, in Lystra, Paul (well not really Paul, but you know what I mean) heals a lame man. This was a seriously lame man, as we see from the somewhat redundant description of his condition:
And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. (Acts 14:8, NKJV)
So far, so good. But things are about to go squirrely. After the miracle is observed by the natives, they expressed their marvel in their native language, which neither Paul nor Barnabas understood:
11 Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. (Acts 14:11-12, NKJV)
We surmise the missionaries lack of understanding of the Lycaonian dialect by the fact that they did not object to being identified as Greek gods. 

So we have good news and we have bad news. The good news is that Paul and Barnabas started a revival! The bad news is that it was in the wrong religion. 

 Only later, when they surmised that plans were being made for an unholy and idolatrous sacrifice (to them!) did Paul and Barnabas realize what was happening, and of course they then objected strenuously:
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, 16 who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” 18 And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them. (Acts 14:14-18, NKJV)
Luke refers to Paul and Barnabas as apostles in v14. A factoid: this is the only place in Acts where Luke uses that title for either of the men. 

Apart from being mistaken for human manifestations of Greek gods, what is interesting is the “sermon” Paul preaches in verses 15-17. This is Paul, the master of being all things to all people, morphing to fit his audience. On previous stops in their trek, the audience (found at synagogues) was knowledgeable about the God of Israel and Old Testament prophecy. (Even the Gentile listeners, who were typically “God Fearers”.) Not so here; this rambunctious crowd was purely pagan. In fact, this is the first time Paul preaches to a purely pagan gathering, with the only other recorded occurrence being his preaching at the Areopagus (Acts 17). 

Paul has a simple message, appropriate for a crowd of pagans, namely that they should turn from useless and dead idols to the living God, who cared for them even when they knew him not. 

And if Paul then launched into a deep academic discussion of metaphysics and epistemology, and using such philosophical tools went on to derive (through infallibe extrapolation) strict divine aseity, immutability, impeccability, and impassibility, well for some reason it was not recorded by Luke.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Hey Paul, while you're here, can you do us a favor?

There are some passages of scripture that for many of us are indirect testimonies to its trustworthiness simply by their presence. While not an actual proof of anything, we read something and (properly) comfort ourselves that if this were all fiction, who would have thought to include this particular account? For me there are many examples of this, and the one I’ll discuss today is the arrival of Paul in Jerusalem with a gift from the Gentile churches, as described by Luke in Acts 21:
17 And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; 21 but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come. 23 Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. 24 Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law. (Acts 21:17-24, NKJV)
First, allow me to point out something that I overlooked the first N times I read this. The brethren received Paul and his entourage gladly (v17), and the next day (v18) James (the brother of Jesus) and the elders (whoever they were) were called upon. They are (what I always missed) two distinct groups. Of course James and the elders also received Paul warmly, although they are unwittingly about to give him some nearly fatal advice.

There were scurrilous rumors circulating that Paul was teaching the Jewish converts to turn away from Moses and the national customs. At some level this was true, and at some level it wasn’t. Paul never forbid the practice of circumcision or Jewish customs, he denied the necessity thereof. He was quite happy to leave their practice to one’s conscience. And he in fact was quite willing, as we see here, to follow Jewish customs when among Jews (and Gentile customs when among Gentiles.) For the sake of the gospel, he was all things to all people, a lesson today’s legalists, including those found among the uber-reformed, have largely forgotten or willfully ignore.

So that James and the elders could avoid the embarrassment of having to defend him to the outraged Jews, and to demonstrate that he was not forbidding circumcision or the practice of customs, Paul readily agreed to their dog and pony show. He would partake in a very public and very Jewish custom of ritual purification, and even to pay the fees for four other men requiring purification, an act of charity that was considered especially pious and praiseworthy.

It all backfired, of course, when a riot broke out because certain Asian (as in from Ephesus, not Viet Nam) Jews, likely there for the feast of Pentecost, and possibly harboring resentment for Paul’s successful evangelistic activities in their homeland, created a fake-news bulletin that Paul had committed an act that was unspeakable (for the Jews it was a capital offense, to me it wouldn’t seem so bad), namely that he had escorted a Gentile member of his entourage into the inner courts of the temple. Luke tells us:

the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.) 30 And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut. (Acts 21:27b-30, NKJV)
Paul is rescued from injury (or death) by the Romans, all of which will lead to a fascinating set of legal battles for Paul. But if you are left wondering why this happened, some (I buy this, I think) have pointed to the end of v30:
immediately the [temple] doors were shut.
Paul had done nothing wrong, and yet the temple was now closed to him, and by (symbolic) extension closed to all Jewish Christians. A further indication that the providential grace period wherein Christianity hid in safety behind a thin veneer of being mislabelled as a “misguided Jewish sect” was coming to an end. Christianity would soon have to stand on its own.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Scripture and Josephus agree on Agrippa's fatal intestinal problem

The first wave of persecution [1] against the early Christians ended when its chief prosecutor was converted on the road to Damascus. After that there was a period of relative peace and calm towards the Christians that, I believe, was due in large part to their being viewed as an oddball sect of Judaism. They may be crazies, but they’re our crazies, so they were tolerated. Now Stephen had recognized that Christianity was not merely a misguided sect of Judaism, as did Saul, but in large part this does not appear to have been the case.

Providentially speaking, this inability to see Christianity as wholly different from Judaism provided protection for the early Jewish Christians, giving them a chance to reach a critical mass. But that could not continue indefinitely, and the façade began to crumble when the church began welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles, not as second class “God fearers”, but as equals, a movement begun by Peter who under divine command baptized the Gentile household of Cornelius. This acceptance of the Gentiles cost the church much favor among the Jews, and this shifting of sentiments made it politically possible for the right ruler to launch a new wave of persecution.

The man for the job was Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great.

First, he beheaded James, son of Zebedee. Seeing that the Jews found this acceptable (Acts 12:3) Agrippa then cast his eyes upon Peter and had him arrested, most likely with the intent of putting him to the sword as well. But as we know, Peter’s work was not yet done, and God engineered a miraculous liberation of his incarceration.

Agrippa was not pleased. But Peter’s escape was actually the least of his problems. Not long afterwards we read of his fate:

20 Now [Agrippa] was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and with one mind they came to him, and having won over Blastus the king’s chamberlain, they were asking for peace, because their country was supported with grain from the king’s country. 21 On an appointed day, after putting on his royal apparel, Herod took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. 22 The people repeatedly cried out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:20-23)

Becqause of ill-advised actions unknown to us, the people of Tyre and Sidon had bitten the hand that fed them. Realizing their mistake, they attempted to ingratiate themselves to their meal ticket by proclaiming him a deity. It would seem that Agrippa’s fatal error was that he accepted their worship.

What is interesting here is the independent corroboration of this story by the great contemporary historian Josephus, who wrote of a visit to Caesarea by Agrippa:

[Agrippa came to the Cæsarea] and there he exhibited shows in honor of Cæsar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, [though not for his good,] that he was a god; and they added, "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature." Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, "I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner." When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad every where, that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age (Joseohus, Antiquities, 19.8)

The two accounts are quite similar with no real conflict. Perhaps the intestinal pain was due to a parasite (worms). Who knows?


[1] It was relatively mild stuff like death by stoning. Nothing like the Great Persecution of 2020-2021, where Christians had to obey public health regulations that applied equally to other assemblies.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Saul's Conversion (with conflicts!)

 Now as he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told to you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. (Acts 9:3-7, NASB) 

If I never knew what Calvinism was, then reading the account of Paul’s conversion would have led me inexorably to some primordial form.

 

Paul was not seeking the Lord.


Paul was not being divinely wooed to come to Christ.


Paul was not being proselytized.

 

No, Paul experienced literally what most of us experience metaphorically: We are knocked to the ground; we are dragged and compelled. Any feeling that we had something to do with our conversion is simply an attempt at after-the-fact rationalization. It's illusory. It's our effort to drape a worldly context on what amounts to a supernatural intervention, a miracle if you will. We contribute naught but our sin.

 

In the case at hand, the utterance of the Lord begins with the object's name repeated: Saul, Saul. This is a common feature when God deigns to speak audibly to a creature. Saul recognizes the divine authority of the voice but not the specifics, as he asks: “Who are you, Lord?” He received an answer that he could not have possibly expected (or wanted). We would all love to hear the first part: “I am Jesus.” We would rather not have to hear the rest: “whom you are persecuting.” Yikes. I'd be expecting something unpleasant at that point. But then again, this is Jesus we are talking about.

 

The account does not tell us that Saul saw Jesus. That's not a conflict, just a factoid. That particular detail is added later, first by Ananias in 9:17, and then by Barnabas in 9:17, and again later by Paul’s retelling (e.g., 1 Cor 9:1). 

 

There are some conflicts perhaps worth mentioning. In 9:7 we are told a) Saul’s companions stood speechless and b) they heard the voice.  The first is superficially in conflict with Paul’s retelling in Acts 26:14

And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me 

The second is in apparent conflict with, again, Paul’s own words, this time from Acts 22:9

And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.

The first conflict is usually explained by the possibility that while Saul remained on the ground his companions, somewhat stunned by the light, went to the ground, but not being the target of the act of divine sovereignty were less affected, and so they quickly recovered and got up. So they were sort of down and not down (Schrödinger companions.) That is, by the time we get to v7 of the primary account, the companions have already stood up.


The second conflict is often explained away with the argument that the companions heard something but unlike Saul what reached their ears was not discernable, it was just thunderous noise.

 

That works for me. These are not important (apparent) discrepancies.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

How could they see and not believe?

We often ask the question: how could those ancient people witness the miracles of Jesus and not believe? It seems incomprehensible. 

It is incomprehensible for good reason. Because they did believe. But their belief was not a faith reckoned to them as righteousness. We see this in several passages. Most clearly, I would say, at the end of John 2:
23 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. 24 But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, 25 and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25, NKJV)
Here we have a group who are observing Jesus’ wonderous signs, and scripture does not tell us “and amazingly they did not believe! Nope, they believed, but it was not the right kind of belief. 

The text doesn’t say how they were deficient, but I’m willing to speculate they merely had an intellectual assent that Jesus was a sort of holy man  or prophet capable of miracles. Maybe at the level of Moses or Elijah. But not the Son of God who came to die and take away the sins of the world. Like Nicodemus, they knew something, but they were not (at least yet) born again. Jesus did not commit himself to them. At least at that time. 

We also see this in Simon the Magician of Acts 8, who (seeing wonderous deeds done in Samaria in the name of Jesus) believed and was even baptized, only later to be excommunicated. He believed, but he didn’t understand. 

We even see the same pattern with his close disciples. In Mark 8, Jesus reminds them that they had witnessed the miraculous feeding of thousands, but yet he felt compelled to ask: “How is it that you do not understand?” They had seen. They believed. But they did not understand. And Jesus did not commit himself to them. That is, until they did (imperfectly) understood, when Peter, speaking for the group, answers the direct question with “you are the Christ.” Then they believed and (somewhat) understood, and only then did Jesus commit himself and reveal the greatest mystery, that he must suffer and die. 

So when a skeptic says that he would believe if God rearranged the stars to spell out “Hello World!” in ten languages, he is telling the truth. He would believe, but it wouldn’t be enough.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Peter before Paul: the small p pentecost of the Gentiles

Paul is the "apostle to the Gentiles" but it was Peter who blazed the trail. While Paul was, as far as we know, languishing in obscurity back in Tarsus, Peter had the privilege of leading a second Pentecost of sorts, this time to the Gentiles. Let's call it the small-p pentecost: 

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days. (Acts 10:44-48, NKJV) 
If we compare this to the Pentecost, we find something interesting: a different ordering of events. Of the Pentecost of Jews in Jerusalem we read: 
38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39, NKJV) 
So the ordering for those in attendance in Jerusalem at the official launch of the New Testament church was: 1) repent 2) receive water baptism, and only then 3) receive the Holy Spirit. The pentecost of the Gentiles was much more like the pregame-pentecost of the apostles themselves, with the Holy Spirit leading the show, complete with visible supernatural manifestations: 
1When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4, NKJV) 
In both cases, visible manifestations of the Spirit play an important role. In the Pentecost it certainly made Peter’s sermon more effective and the listeners more attentive. [1] And in the pentecost for the Gentiles it made it quite clear to the Jewish witnesses that the unthinkable had happened, the Spirit of God had indeed descended upon the race about whom association was more or less forbidden, just as it had on the chosen race. [2] Their world changed in an instant, and without the supernatural expressions they quite possibly would not have taken Peter at his word that the conversion of the Gentiles was real, and Peter’s later defense in Jerusalem would have been much more likely to fail. 

Instead, Peter asks if anyone can find a reason why baptism should not be permitted, and nothing but crickets could offer an answer. 

Of course, in many modern evangelical churches none these baptisms, either at Pentecost or the Gentile pentecost would be accepted as valid. The apostles (bad Peter, bad Paul! ) had a terrible habit of baptizing in the name of Jesus, rather than in the name of the triune God. And many modern evangelical churches understand that unless you say it in a prescribed manner, like a chant or incantation, God has to sit on his hands. He cannot dispense sacramental grace unless we humans say the right words to free his hands. We are so important!

 
[1] Read Peter's sermon, arguably the most inportant sermon offered by a human in history. It doesn't take 45 minutes. Modern sermons are too long. Pastors: we love you but there is much zoning out in the pews. Less is more. Redirect some of that sermon time to what is often missing: fellowship. 

[2] We understandably tend to dwell on the effect of this event on the Gentiles, but really just as important was the effect on the Jews.