Monday, January 13, 2020

Biblicist or Confessionalist?

Reformed Baptist theologian Richard Barcellos’s book, Getting the Garden Right, is filled with mischaracterizations of the views of those theologians he is intending to refute. That is my opinion—you of course should read and decide on your own. That is, if the subject of whether or not the distinction between one camp (The New Covenant Theology Camp) and the other camp (The LBCF 1689 camp) on the topic of a Covenant of Works is important. [1] (It’s not, in my opinion. [2])

Here I only want to discuss the what Barcellos calls the “biblicist” mentality, which he uses perjoratively and ascribes to the NCT theologians. Barcellos defines biblicist mentality this way:
[Biblicist mentality] demands that a doctrine must be spelled out explicitly in the text of scripture. (GtGR, p. 35.)
This is a blatant mischaracterization. Such a hermeneutical strawman renders all biblicists as heretics, given that the doctrine of the Trinity is not spelled out explicitly in scripture. I believe I am on solid ground when I say that all NCT theologians affirm the Trinity. Therefore they cannot be biblicists from Barcellos's definition, even though he labels them as such.

At most you should claim a threshold definition: biblicist is the “mentality” that argues that more or less the level of extrapolation from scripture required to affirm the Trinity is about as far as it is safe to go. Doctrine that requires a greater extrapolation may be right, but it is certainly not cardinal.

Let us make a fairer distinction between the Reformed “biblicist” and, “confessionalist” [3] as it relates to the LBCF 1689.

(Baptist) Biblicist: The confession (LBCF 1689) is a marvelous document, and correct at, say, the 95% level.

(Baptist) Confessionalist: The confession (LBCF 1689) is 100% correct.

The biblicist, for example, is free to agree with
4. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, in whom, by the appointment of the Father, all power for the calling, institution, order or government of the church, is invested in a supreme and sovereign manner; neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof, but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming. (LBCF 26.4)
and also free to disagree, recognizing the paragraph as an anachronism—i.e. in 1689 most of us would have jumped on board calling the Pope the antichrist. In 2020 there are too many choices (e.g., Joel Osteen) to warrant singling out the bishop of Rome. Also, note that it is impossible from scripture to demonstrate the Pope is the antichrist. (Try proving it with the LBCF 1689 proof texts.)

In spite of the absence of proof, the confessionalist must accept LBCF 26.4. They often do so by insulting the writing ability divines, and claiming that they actually meant, even though they didn’t say it, was that it is the office of the Pope that is the antichrist.

It is clear that if one desires to be a confessionalist, then one must cast aspersions on the biblicists. This is because many of the statements in the confession require a fair amount of exegetical gymnastics. If you don’t believe me, go read the confession with “proof texts” and tell me what percentage of the proof texts are satisfying. (Some, recognizing this, say that the proof texts are merely starting points, which kind of makes my point.)

Now the topic of Barcellos’s book leads to a truly bizarre argument. Let us compare the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith and The LBCF 1689 on the subject of The Covenant of Works:
1. The distance between God and the creature is so great that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. 2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.. 3. Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved,b and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (WCF 7.1-3)
1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. 2. Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (LBCF 7.1-2)

There is a big problem. Do you see it?

Barcellos wants to demonstrate that, like in Presbyterian Covenant Theology, Baptist Covenant Theology includes a Covenant of Works. (He is right of course.) However, he also wants to demonstrate that the LBCF 1689 teaches of such a doctrine, when in fact the Baptist divines explicitly removed the reference. It is an impossible task, and in later chapters he fails rather miserably.

And it is so unnecessary. Many biblicists also affirm a Covenant of Works with Adam. But for those who place excessive esteem on the LBCF, it is a necessary stretch. Barcellos, I suppose, does as well as anyone could at an impossible task.


[1] FWIW, I once identified as a New Covenant Theology adherent. I don't anymore, although I am sympathetic with some of their views on the missteps of Covenant Theology.

[2] Both camps agree, for example, that Adam was promised eternal life in the presence of God on the condition of obedience. The disagreement is in the noise and of little significance, except for the mountain from a molehill crowd (on both sides.)

[3] Some confessionalists will argue that the biblicists cannot be truly reformed, because, well, they are not confessionalists. Of course John Calvin, for example, never saw the LBCF or the WCF, so we do not really know whether he would have been a confessionalist, but that camp more or less assumes (with no evidence) that he would have been.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Reformed Bapterian Denomination (Remix)

I am once again proselytizing for a new denomination that I started with a friend a few years ago: Reformed Bapterians. A Reformed Bapterian is, in a nutshell, one who enjoys a glass of wine with pot-luck. [1]

It took us a while to flesh out more details of this new denomination. For example, we developed the syncretic compromise of calling baptism and the Lord's supper Sacramental Ordinances, or Ordinary Sacraments, you choose.

As for baptism, we decided that we should have infant baptism, and a believer's dedication. That is, parents will present their child for the sign of covenantal inclusion, and then, when the child is able to make a credible profession of faith, he dedicates himself to the church. Why, it's perfect!

However, we also permit the reverse ordering, under the rather irrefutable two step logic:

1) If the manner and mode of baptism was important, God the Holy Spirit would have been clear when inspiring scripture. [2]

2) As Reformed Bapterians, we believe that baptism is a means of grace, and God (being God) can dispense it to infants or adults as he sees fit. [3]

We didn't get into the church government question—that might be the trickiest road to navigate on the way to unification. That, and the breakdown between wine and grape juice in the trays--should it be wine in the outer circle and grape juice in the middle, or vice-versa? These are vexing questions.

On a more serious matter, we discussed the real question: when should a baptism not "stick?" That is, suppose you were baptized as an infant in a Catholic church, but are now, as an adult, a Presbyterian. Should your baptism count?

Our view is that it should, the efficacy of the sacrament being separate from the spiritual state of the presiding official. After all, there are certainly unbelieving clergy from any denomination who have performed baptisms, weddings, and conducted the Lord’s supper. Upon discovery of their apostasy, we would not go back and re-baptize anyone whom they had baptized over the years.

On the other hand, we think the church should permit a person to be baptized again, if that makes them feel comfortable. This discussion started because one of my friends had been baptized in a Catholic church but was not a believer until she was an adult, at which time she joined a Presbyterian church. She wanted to be baptized again, but the church (correctly, I believe) told her it wasn't necessary. On the other other hand, the church should have said: but we will, if you feel it is important. There is a school of thought in some reformed circles that re-baptism is in some manner insulting to God. You are asking God to, once again, demonstrate his covenant, as if you don't believe he'll deliver on the basis of the first time the promise was made. Hmm--the story of God and Gideon leads me to believe that God doesn't mind if we ask him again and again. While (obviously) one shouldn't treat baptism willy-nilly, I see no scripture that supports the view that an adult, who for whatever reason feels uncomfortable about his baptism, cannot be baptized again. It appears to me to be a man-made restriction and, as such, is likely incorrect.

Similarly we believe that if a person was baptized as an infant and they want to, as an adult, join a Baptist church, their baptism should be accepted, lest the leaders decide for God that any grace he dispensed during the infant baptism was all for naught. Seriously, that is effectively the position of reformed Baptist churches that do not accept prior infant baptism. They are saying: God himself was not able to make this baptism legit, because it wasn't done the way we think it should have been done, even though we lack convincing scriptural proof for our practice. [4]

Nevertheless, we would encourage such a person to receive believers baptism by immersion as a sign of unity with the congregation they are about to join.

In short, a Bapterian church would surely allow a new member to be baptized if they desire, but would also recognize their previous baptism.

All denominations other than Bapterians place a greater emphasis on their man-made traditions of baptism, based (Presbyterian or Baptist) on disputable exegesis,  than on the actual scriptural promises related to baptism. They will claim, pietistically,  it is because they are taking baptism seriously. But don't listen! What they are doing is taking their theology seriously. Taking one's theology seriously is a good thing when the scriptural support is strong. Taking it seriously when the scriptural support is weak is asking for trouble.



[1] Bapterians have a regulative principle when it comes to potluck: It must include at least three versions of green bean casserole to be acceptable.

[2] The Bapterian hermeneutic is this: anything that serious God-fearing reformed evangelicals who affirm the inerrancy of scripture have been arguing about for more than a century is something we should stop arguing about and admit we don't know.

[3] So obvious it deserves a "duh".

[4] I say this, mind you, as one who affirms credobaptism.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Is the Sabbath a Creation Ordinance?

Many argue that observation of the Sabbath is a creation ordinance. [1] This view is (in my opinion) on very shaky ground. Nobody should even try to argue that it is an explicit creation ordinance, in the same vein as “be fruitful and multiply.” A command to “work six days and rest the seventh” is not mentioned anywhere in Genesis.

The sole basis for calling the Sabbath observation a creation ordinance comes thousands of years after Adam and Eve, even if you are a young-earther. It is in Exodus, when the fourth commandment (the Sabbath commandment) is given, and the reasoning is tied to creation:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Ex. 20:8-11)
Of course, even before diving deeper into the question, the argument takes at least a glancing blow when we read the parallel version of the decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, when the explanation for the fourth commandment is tied not to creation but to the rescue from slavery in Egypt, and later tied more specifically to the provision of manna in the wilderness.

Leaving aside the Deuteronomy problem, the Exodus version might indicate it was a creation ordinance, or might mean that the creation account was simply used as an analogy.

Keep in mind there are some substantive theological stakes involved. If the Sabbath day pattern was an instruction given at creation, there is no debate about whether or not it is a timeless commandment. Any such debate would end before it started. However if it was not a creation ordinance, then the debate continues: was it a commandment made to signify the old, Mosaic covenant with Israel, or was it a timeless commandment but not, explicitly anyway, in place from creation?

The point I will try to make in this short post is that there is no strong argument that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, and so the debate about its cessation is, unfortunately unresolved. It would be a neat solution if we could trace it back to creation--but I have already given the only argument for doing so, and it is not very satisfying. Calling the Sabbath a creation ordinance is, I'm afraid, wishful thinking.

Let's look at why I think so. And let's do so by looking at what is actually in the bible--what it actually says, not what we want it to say to fit a particular school of theology.

It is good to start with the creation account, and the well-known fact that the seventh day is never formally terminated by the "evening and morning" pattern of the first six. This is consistent with the view that Adam and Eve, before the fall, did not enjoy the seventh day off (the next day after being created) only to go back to work on the eighth day. Rather it appears to me that they were in a state of continuous rest for however long it was between the seventh day and the fall. Whatever work they had, such as tending the garden, was not labor in the way we think of it, and would have required no physical or mental rest. That need came only after the fall. [2]

Before the fall a day of rest, as in rest from labor, was not needed. After the fall it would certainly be desired. But nowhere, before or after the fall, do we read any indication that Adam followed the pattern working six and resting the seventh.

Keep this in mind: There is no mention in scripture of the Sabbath being kept by anyone prior to its introduction in Exodus 16. Here is the very first mention the sabbath in the bible: [3]
Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. (Ex. 16:23)
There is no indication here that the Jews were being reminded of a lost practice of observing the Sabbath. No, the text reads as the initiation of the Sabbath. For further evidence we read from the prophet Nehemiah:
13 You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. (Neh. 9:13-14)
Here again is the indication that the Jews of the exodus were the first humans to know of the Sabbath. [4]  And so, in my view, it is very hard to designate the Sabbath observation as a creation ordinance.

As I mention earlier, failure to prove that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance leaves us with a debate about the continuance of the observation. There are, in my opinion, two serious views:

1. Observation of the Sabbath never ended, it continues to this day [5]

2. Observation of the Sabbath was a a symbol of the Mosaic covenant, a holy reminder that they had lost true rest in God and would have to make do with a type. [6]


[1] See, for example, this Founder's Ministries post.

[2] I'll speculate that an oft-stated purpose of the sabbath, i.e., a divinely-wise healthy, restful restoration, is no doubt true but probably not the primary reason. The sabbath was not made first and foremost to recover from work or even as a "go to church" day. It was meant to give Israel a taste what was lost at the fall and what it would take a savior to restore: endless rest in the goodness and mercy of God.

[3] The context of the very first mention of the Sabbath is the collection of manna. For whatever it is worth, the first mention of the Sabbath is more aligned with the introduction of the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy than in Exodus.

[4] And the special mention of the Sabbath against the backdrop of generic commandments indicates a "one of these things is not like the others" quality of the fourth commandment.

[5] Which leads to further debates, which often devolve into rank absurdity, hypocrisy, inconsistency, and self-righteousness, as to how one properly observes the Christian Sabbath.

[6] This view can be purely practical: "The Sabbath is over, deal with it" or it can be pietistic: "Observation of  the Sabbath is over now that the type has become the reality: because of the finished work of Christ we are once again in the eternal  rest of God." Note that this view does not preclude treating the first day as holy, and engaging in something indistinguishable from Sabbath observation, but it justifies it as tradition and worship, not as obeying a commandment.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Reading aloud is a good thing!

As Christians we (very properly) like to look at Old Testament prophecy and discover how it finds its fulfillment in Christ. In particular, we see Jesus as the suffering servant of Isaiah and the Davidic messiah. And we wonder... how was this missed by so many in first century Palestine? At the same time, we understand that we, on our own, would have been among those who did not see.

Supernatural eye-opening aside, one tidbit, if it is true, that would have made recognition difficult in human terms is this: There is no evidence before Jesus that anyone made a firm connection between the two; the suffering servant and the messiah. Some may have been looking for a suffering servant, many more were looking for a messiah king, but nobody was looking for what is superficially a contradiction—a suffering servant who was also an absolute ruler and liberator.

It appears that it was Jesus himself who first taught the connection, with the help of the Father. At his baptism royalty was firmly established as the "beloved son of God" (Mark 1:11). And Jesus himself would repeatedly make the connection to the suffering one, for example announcing that he should “suffer many things, and be treated with contempt.” (Mark 9:12).

This brings us to the Ethiopian treasurer, a Gentile pilgrim who worshipped the God of Israel, who was reading aloud [1] of the suffering servant of Isaiah on the road to Gaza. Philip, upon hearing the reading, more or less accosted the dignitary, and was invited by the Ethiopian to provide an explanation of the passage.

Ironically the treasurer needed a "modern" man to explain that for which the prophetic author of the manuscript would have been at a loss. Philip had no trouble identifying Jesus as the one of whom the Ethiopian read.

Philip's teaching hit home, and upon coming to some water the Ethiopian queried as to what might be preventing him from being baptized? [2] Philip told him: "you must study the bible for several years and then give a credible testimony to a board of elders." Okay, of course Philip did not say that. Luckily for the Ethiopian, that invention (good or bad) would have to come later. So no, there was nothing at all preventing the baptism, and so Philip administered the ordinary means of grace. God's purpose in sending Philip was accomplished, aided in part (providentially) by the fact that the reading was not done silently.


[1] The reading aloud was some combination of providential and cultural. Both the language and the necessity to "spell out" the handwriting on ancient manuscripts (in a foreign language)  made reading more interrogative, which is facilitated by reading aloud. In Confessions, Augustine somewhat marvels that Ambrose of Milan read silently.

[2] How the man, just exposed to Christianity in the previous the hour or so, knew that he should be baptized is not recorded. Most likely Philip told him after seeing that his evangelism was generating a positive response.

[3] The older manuscripts end the conversation as described. A well-meaning (aren't they always?) editor, not satisfied to infer that Philip trusted in the Ethiopian's sincerity, inserted a testimony into newer manuscripts which made its way into the KJV and derivatives. This added text was an additional requirement for baptism: "If you believe with all your heart, you may." (Acts 8:37, NKJV) Some places in the New Testament make a similar demand, such as: if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom.10:10), but nowhere else, thankfully, do we find the rather impossible demand to "believe with all your heart".

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Revisiting Creation

For some reason I am in the mood to reestablish my views on creation. They have always been (from the perspective of some of my brothers and sisters) problematic [1], even to the extent where at one point a reason given for my disqualification for leadership was that my creation views might be a stumbling block for prospective members. [2]

Let me begin with what I believe is my most important view on creation: It is a secondary issue. It should not divide us. We should, as the creeds do, agree on the who (God) and the what (created) and not on the when (other than the fact that there was a beginning) or the how, or how long it took, about which they (the creeds) wisely ignore.

So much for the preamble.

My main “hermeneutic” (if I can call it that) for my creation viewpoint is founded on these observations from scripture, which I present as axioms:

Axiom 1: Creation is good; good enough to teach us something about God’s attributes.

Axiom 2: Creation proclaims the glory of God.

Axiom 3: God is not a god of deception or confusion, nor a god of testing our faith to see if we’ll deny our senses.

Axiomatically then, I conclude that creation is as "true" and reliable as scripture, and the two can never be in conflict. Science and theology, the human endeavors which study these two inerrant revelations can be in conflict [3], and neither can claim a priori supremacy. When they are in conflict it has to be resolved on a case by case basis. Neither gets a pass. If we always gave theology the advantage, we’d still be claiming geocentricism.

Here is the list of observations that I believe must be reconciled:

Observation 1: The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the universe and earth are billions of years old.  The physical laws that led to the development of the solid-state electronics that allow some Christians to write and blog about the dangers of pointy headed scientists are the very same physical laws that teach us about the antiquity of the cosmos.

Observation 2: The scientific evidence is overwhelming that evolution has occurred (a fake fossil record would violate Axiom 3), including so-called “macro” evolution (there really is no difference between micro evolution and macro evolution.)

Observation 3: God is sovereign, from scripture.

Observation 4: Adam is historic, from scripture. Numerous references to Adam outside of Genesis make this clear. Death entered through Adam, but given that a truthful God said that Adam would surely die the very day he sinned, and yet Adam lived for another nine centuries, leads to the inescapable conclusion that the death was spiritual. Any other conclusion implies that God either lied or changed his mind.

Here is how I reconcile these, and my conclusions are subject to change:
  • God created the universe, ex nihilo, some 14 bya. 

  • God generally allows the natural laws he decreed to “run the show” as secondary means, such as gravity, not angels, moving the planets. This does not mean (may it never be) that he is a deistic god. He is free to intervene supernaturally as he sees fit, and certainly has done so by the evidence of the miracles of scripture. It should be noted about said miracles: they are never described as deceptions or willy-nilly, rather they are up-front isolated events seen as integral parts of his redemptive plan. 

  • It the same way that gravity moves the planets, it appears that God used evolution to create the diversity of life. God still gets the credit for both orbital stability and biodiversity. However what we can see are the secondary means from which, along with scripture, we infer the primary means. 

How often did God intervene in the evolutionary process? Was it zero times or many times? There is no way of saying or discovering through observation. From God’s sovereignty we can be sure that the ultimate goal of this process was our species.

Here it gets very speculative. I believe there were soulless hominids genetically (but not morally) compatible with us (souled humans, or personkind). Whether or not God ensouled two of them, or specially created two of them who were genetically compatible is impossible to say. But through some supernatural intervention Adam and Eve came on the scene. Their sons took mates from the coexistent hominids, but the pure hominid line, those with no lineage traceable to Adam, supernaturally died out. Again this is wild, unscientific speculation. I’m just trying to reconcile. Young earth proponents must also speculate wildly about where wives were found for the sons, and also about the speciation of the planet.

More speculation: Eden was a supernaturally protected enclave, a safe zone. But outside its confines the planet, which already knew sin given the presence of Satan, was red in tooth and claw.

After the fall the story reconnects with Genesis 3.

I cannot get perfect reconciliation with the literal, plain reading of Genesis. I can get decent reconciliation with a number of old earth views, and personally I favor the Framework view of Meredith Kline and others. While not all the ducks are in a row, most of them are, and I’m willing to change my view if you can convince me that you can do better. But to do so you must reconcile both general revelation and special, and not just ignore the former as if it were something of an embarrassment.


[1] Weirdly I get criticized by some of my fellow Christians for not affirming a young earth, and from atheists for my attempts to reconcile science and Christianity. At first the latter surprised me, naively thinking unbelievers would welcome believers who embrace science, but many of them do not, for it robs them of the stereotype.

[2] Self-serving position: I consider it a blunder for leadership to use the reason “new members might not like that [whatever position]”. If the view, per se, is disqualifying. i.e. it is in the mind of the leadership a first-tier issue, then for crying out loud have the courage to say so, don't conveniently pass the buck. If the view is not in and of itself disqualifying, except that it may be offensive to some, then it is irresponsible not to tell prospective members that alternate views on such non-essential issues are acceptable, even in the leadership, and to educate the congregation as such. Coddling rather than correcting the conviction that a secondary belief (for example, a particular creation viewpoint, typically a young earth) is cardinal is bad judgement. You are not doing the prospective members a service, your are only doing your membership rolls a service. In short, you're not doing your job or meeting your fiduciary responsibilities.

[3] Although not nearly as much as people think, since the bible has very little to say in the way of definitive scientific statements. Perhaps only its first three words, which were indeed confirmed by the scientific observation of a beginning, i.e., the Big Bang.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Tenure and the Gospel

A couple of my colleagues (congratulations) were just awarded tenure. I recall the feeling of receiving that letter. You are expecting good news, everyone tells you not to worry, but you still worry until you see it in writing. Then a cool wave of relief washes over you. 

By the way, there are arguments for and against the tenure system, but one argument against, namely that professors don’t have to do anything (i.e., research) after tenure, because they can’t be fired, is nothing but a stereotype.  It is not to say that it never happens, that a prof decides to do the bare minimum after tenure, but true deadwood cases are outliers. First of all, most academics who are awarded tenure are quite driven, or they wouldn’t have made it that far in the first place. They tend not to turn off that drive. And on a more pragmatic level, you will be competing for merit pay raises and promotion to full professor (at tenure,  in the US system, you are typically promoted from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor), which has a nice salary bump. If you go into a cocoon after tenure you will get the minimum cost of living increases (and no merit increases) and you’ll never get promoted. Integrated over your career, that is a significant monetary hit.

But I’m not here to discuss tenure per se. Rather, I want to draw an analogy between tenure and the gospel.

Both are good news. Both represent something you can’t lose. Both give you an unparalleled sense of security. In both cases, relaxing, enjoying, and basking in that security is good, but slipping into inactivity as a result of the security should be avoided at all costs.

But the analogy is far from perfect. Tenure is based your works. The Gospel is based on someone else’s works. 

I recently heard sad news (arrest and jail) about a man I like very much and who used to attend my former church. He was a man who, sadly, never understood the Gospel, even as he could recite it. He constantly tried to merit his salvation, and every time there came the inevitable crash and burn, he'd sink deeper into the “I am not deserving” pit, and would have a harder time extricating himself. I pray that God uses someone to reach him. I pray for him to grasp, finally, that the Gospel is joy, not condemnation. I pray for him to be tenured.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Anselm the Straightforward

The church's long acceptance of impassibility (in all its forms) is rooted in the early fathers' schooling and embrace of Greek philosophy. In particular, the concepts of apathy (apatheia) and sufficiency (Autarkeia). [1]

Divine apathy implies that God can feel no pain or emotion. Divine sufficiency is the notion that no external force can affect God.

In the knowledge of Christ's suffering on the cross, an antinomy is evident. The apathy of God presents an intellectual stumbling block: How can God suffer and yet not suffer?

Another conflict arises with the sheer number of passages in scripture that attribute emotions to God. The bulk of these are swept under the rug with a blunt instrument: the declaration that they are naught but anthropomorphisms. This is fine and dandy when we are talking about God being angry or remorseful. Those are easy to dismiss. It is a little more problematic when we get to God loving us and God having mercy and compassion  on us.

The modern so-called scholars sense that it is impolitic to say that God does not love or display compassion. (I say God does both.) They tend to deal with this non-trivial problem in a variety of unsatisfying ways. Some tend toward a Nestorian solution, for example by asserting that only the humanity of Christ suffered, not the deity. In doing so they get quite close to a denial of the hypostatic union. Others solve it with gobbledy-gook word salad, usually in support of their ultimate slam-dunk solution that sounds like it is saying something deep but is not really saying anything at all. What is this magic, explain-it-all solution? How does an impassible God love us without having an actual unseemly affection, a feeling not fit for any stoic god of Aristotle and Plato? Easy-peasy! God doesn't love, God IS love! God doesn't dispense mercy, God IS mercy!, etc.  (The capitalized "IS" appears to be required for this argument.) Exactly what this means--that God doesn't have attributes, God IS attributes--how that is explained as anything beyond a distinction without a difference--well  do not expect clarity, just prepare yourself for another hefty helping of word salad.

But not from Anselm, one of the early champions of impassibility--he did not mince words. He did not try, as the moderns do, the approach of saying something without really saying it. He surely had the courage of his convictions and should be admired in that regard. For example, how could an impassible God be compassionate? Anselm did not give the modern cop-out: God IS compassion!, as if that answered anything. Nope, Anselm tells that as a natural consequence of impassibility, God, in fact, has no compassion:
BUT how art thou compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless? For, if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched ; but this it is to be compassionate. But if thou art not compassionate, whence cometh so great consolation to the wretched? How, then, art thou compassionate and not compassionate, O Lord, unless because thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being. 
Truly, thou art so in terms of our experience, but thou art not so in terms of thine own. For, when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling. Therefore, thou art both compassionate, because thou dost save the wretched, and spare those who sin against thee; and not compassionate because thou art affected by no sympathy for wretchedness. [2]
Anselm tells us straightforwardly that God is not compassionate. It is only that we experience the salvation of the cross as if God was compassionate toward us--when in actuality he was not. You have to respect him for  not running away from the doctrine's clear implication.


[1] Dennis Ngien, "The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther's Theologia Crucis", p. 8.

[2] Anselm, Proslogion, ch. 8.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

When Theology is like Evolutionary Psychology

More and more, academic theology is reminding me of evolutionary psychology. If you don’t know what evolutionary psychology is, here is a classic example:

 Question: Why do men prefer blonde women?
[T]he skins of blonde women do age faster BUT their fair skin makes dermal signs of aging such as dark age spots and wrinkles easier to detect. A woman’s fertility and offspring viability decreases with age. As such, men prefer blondes because the signs of aging are much easier to detect. This would enable men to predict the age of a woman fairly accurately to ensure that they mate with a young, fertile woman which would in turn increase their reproductive success.
The criticism of evolutionary psychology is not that it reaches wrong conclusions (though surely it often does), but rather that there is no way to test its conclusions. There is no falsifiability. How do you test whether men prefer blondes because of fertility cues? This is what we call a “just-so” story. To varying degrees it may sound reasonable, but there is no way to be sure. I see this more and more in theology. Take this passage:
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exod 3:14-15)
What can you really make of this, credibly? In v.14 the first answer to Moses speaks of God’s self-existence, the very meaning of his name. We can easily understand it this way: “Tell the people of Israel that Jehovah has sent you.” The second answer, in v. 15, perhaps necessitated precisely because v. 14 did not simply use the name, or maybe just to drive a point home, is that it is not just any self-existent god who sent Moses, but their God, the God who made promises to the patriarchs. In other words, without much speculation or extrapolation, with firm purchase, I believe we can all agree that these two verses can be paraphrased minimally with a high degree of certainty (qualities that are correlated) as “Tell them Jehovah, the God of their fathers sent you.” End of  story.

In contrast,  here is what Samuel Renihan, in his book “God without Passions, a Primer” says about this passage:
There are many interconnected ideas at play here. [0]  Because God is what he is [1] he is simple. God does not have parts. [2] He is not a composite being [3]. You cannot add up anything in God that constitutes his existence. [4] He simply is. That is why you cannot classify God in any category. [5] There is no higher cause dictating God’s being. [6] And this must be so because any composition, any time two things are put together, implies a higher cause governing the composition. [7] God cannot be God if he is caused. [8] Thus God is simple, spiritual essence. [9] He is not becoming. [10] He is pure being. [11]  (God without Passions, p 53. Footnotes are to my commentary.) 
Renihan bases an entire doctrine of God’s simplicity on this passage. But does this passage really lead, inexorably, to such an extensive, detailed,  and comprehensive conclusion about the very nature of God? Do you really feel comfortable extracting so much from this passage? Well, maybe. But to me it smells just like Evolutionary Psychology explaining why men prefer blondes. It is just an untestable assertion. It's a just-so story. Which is okay, fun, provocative, and instructive even.

Until it becomes dogma and someone gets hurt.

I would whether take when I can reliably take out of this passage, and leave the details about God's, nature, beyond those that are plainly revealed, as mystery.

There is no indication that God is, in this passage, giving us instruction on intimate details of his nature. There is, however,  every indication in this passage that God is given us instruction on his name.


[0] Not necessarily. The only idea that is certain is that God tells Moses, “Tell them Jehovah, the God of their fathers sent you.”There may be no other ideas at all involved in this passage. Perhaps you are reading  too much into it.

[1] What to make of  this? Of course God is what he is. Everything is what it is.

[2] This is a leap. The passage says nothing about parts. What do "parts" even mean as applied to a spiritual being? And how simple is God? Too simple to be trinitarian? Is God as featureless as white noise?

[3] I think this is a false dichotomy (and a straw man), God being without parts or God being non-composite, when we only really understand what "composite" means in the material realm. We all agree that God is not put together like an Ikea television stand. However, we have no clue that a spiritual being cannot have features.

[4] What does that even mean?

[5] And what does that even mean?

[6] No Christian of any stripe would claim that there is a higher cause.

[7] How do we know this? Here is some speculation: God is self-caused, and that includes a type of spiritual self-composition, such as (in however this works in a spiritual being) God has self-composed himself as a trinity, or, if we want to set aside the trinity for a moment, he has self-composed himself with the features analogous mind and heart, or intellect and affections.

[8] Nobody is saying otherwise.

[9] The word "Thus" is totally unwarranted. "Thus" implies something has been demonstrated. Something has been proved. But nothing has been demonstrated, only speculated, with a great deal of word-salad.

[10] What does that even mean?

[11] And what does that even mean?

Monday, December 09, 2019

It really is that simple

Most of my six or seven readers might, by now, think I have nothing but utter disdain for philosophers. But that's not true. It's not utter. Seriously though, I do admire some Christian philosophers, for example Francis Schaeffer. Consider this little gem:
When we come to a problem, we should take time as educated people to reconsider both the special and general revelations; that is, we should take time to think through the question. There is a tendency among many today to consider that the scientific truth will always be more true. This we must reject. We must take ample time, and sometimes this will mean a long time, to consider whether the apparent clash between science and revelation means that the theory set forth by science is wrong or whether we must reconsider what we thought the Bible says. [1]
This is so simple, and yet so hard to do.

Let me rewrite in a clumsier way:

Lemma 1: 
P1) The bible (special revelation) is the inerrant word of God
P2) The universe (general revelation) is the inerrant creation of God
P3) God is not a god of deception who creates fake evidence to test us
C: The bible and the material universe cannot be in conflict

Lemma 2:
P1) Theology is how men and women study special revelation
P2) Science is how men and women study general revelation
P3) Men and women are fallible [2]
C: Theology and science can be in conflict

Lemma 3: 
P1) Theology can be wrong
P2) Science can be wrong
P3) Theology and science can be in conflict (by Lemma 2)
C: When they are in conflict, one or both must be wrong, and the only way to resolve the conflict is to examine both, and not assume that one's theology or one's science is beyond reproach.

Why can't we follow Schaeffer's simple advice?


[1] No Final Conflict, Francis A. Schaeffer, p. 24
[2] I'll take understatements for $1000, Alex.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Weirdness: The Tower of Babel

1 Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. 3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen. 11:1-9, NKJV)
The Tower of Babel has always been, for me, among the more vexing accounts in scripture. Now, I have no problem with God's supernatural power, so his confusing of the language is an easy pill to swallow.  It's "just" another miracle that God produced--not willy-nilly like a parlor trick-- but as part of his overall redemptive plan, a plan that would take advantage of if not require, millennia later, the existence of many diverse nations. (I believe Gen. 10, the descendants of Noah, includes the timeline of the Strange Incident at Babel.) God needed a chosen people, so in order to have an in-group he is here setting the stage for an out-group.


The problem I had with the account has never been the supernatural, but the natural. I had always imagined, influenced by both the words and the Cecil B. Demille depictions, that the people built a tower with the actual intent of reaching the heavens. How did a Bronze Age (at best) culture have the technology to build a tower that "reached the heavens?"

I don't think they did. I think a tower that "reached the heavens" was both hyperbolic and relative to other construction of the age. I suspect that they were indeed employing bleeding-edge building techniques which to the populace would have been worthy of the hyperbole, but the actual height of the tower was probably on the order of, at most, 100 ft, not the thousand or so feet of my imagination. One age's "reaches the heavens" is another age's "meh."

It's pure speculation, but what may have happened at Babel, in addition to the sowing of seeds for a multicultural, multinational earth, was, as a bonus, the curtailing of a nascent version of "We don't need God" secular humanism. Nipped in the bud in a most efficient manner, although in truth (and alas) only placed in abeyance.