Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

How About: Evolution…Maybe?

March 24, 2010

Today I want to come at this from a slightly different angle. Judging by the responses I got on Facebook and via email, many folks are willing to say the Earth is old but they’re still not cool with evolution. And that’s not even my main point. So how about this for a starting point:

If the book of Genesis had never been written, how would you believe the Earth and all that is in it were made?

As a theist, a person who believes in God, you would believe God made it. All this stuff had to come from somewhere, right? So God made it. But how did he make it? What did the creation process look like? How long did it take? Did he do it instantaneously, or did he do it gradually, over a really long period of time? And did he make our human race from scratch? Or did he mold us out of a previous species and develop us into something more aptly fitted for what he wanted to do with us?

If the Genesis creation account had never been written, you would not naturally conclude that God chose to do it in a matter of a few short hours. Not in this day and age, anyway. Nothing else in nature happens so quickly, and since nature is his handiwork, we learn much about how he works by simply observing how nature actually works, right? Things happen very gradually in nature, and big changes take a really long time to develop.

Before the dawn of a more scientific era, ancient people used to ascribe things like thunder and lightning to the gods. They didn’t know meteorological reasons for changes in the weather, nor astronomical reasons for changes in the seasons, so they blamed the gods. Monotheistic people just disagreed on the number of gods to blame, but they still saw things the same way in the end. Storms and tides and droughts and harvests were the work of God. Nothing else needed to be known.

Today we understand scientific reasons for all of these things that happen, but that doesn’t mean our faith is invalidated. Just because we understand now how a tree reproduces and grows, or how a mother’s body weaves together and nourishes the intricate parts of a fetus doesn’t mean we can’t give God credit for these incredible occurrences. On the contrary, we look, we marvel, and we worship. We say, “Look how elegantly God does his work!” You don’t have to discount the mechanics in order to honor the One Behind It All.

So why not conclude that God made our world very slowly over millions of years, as our science seems to clearly indicate?

The answer is that Genesis puts it differently. And many of us inherited a tradition of biblical interpretation which says that you should read those first few chapters very simplistically and forget anything else the rest of our scientific disciplines tell us.

My contention is that there are other ways to understand those first few chapters. They began as stories told by grandparents to their grandchildren in Mesopotamia many centuries ago. They are beautiful stories and they assert things about God and about his handiwork which distinguished those people from all the other people groups around them. Let’s celebrate that and receive it as inspired by God himself. But let us not insist that these stories overrule any other information we find in God’s creation, using the scientific lenses we’ve developed over the years. I don’t think that really does justice to the complexity of God’s handiwork, and it just makes us look a little dumb. I don’t think that honors him.

Does that mean we have to accept macroevolution? Must we accept that we came from monkeys? Well, I’m willing to suspend my judgment on that, but not on how long things seemed to have taken. I’m willing to concede that our fossil records are far from conclusive on the many transitions that this view assumes. But aside from trying to use Genesis 1-3 as a source of scientific information, would you naturally conclude something else? If you hadn’t been told that humans were made from scratch, would you feel so compelled to disbelieve the Darwinian outlook on biological development?

People addressing these questions generally fall into three broad categories. Young Earth creationists say it had to be six literal days, and it all happened a few thousand years ago. The flood buried a bunch of stuff deep in the earth and that’s why so much stuff seems to be older. Old Earth creationists still keep the framework of Genesis 1 and interpret the word “day” more figuratively, arguing instead that these may indicate really long phases of time. Thus the cosmos could be billions of years old but we’re still using Genesis as our guidebook for how it all happened.

Theistic evolutionists, among whom I guess I am now numbered, say that this is still trying to use Genesis as a science book. It still makes us do funny things with our scientific method. It’s like when certain middle eastern countries hold “elections” to determine the will of the people, but the outcome is so predetermined that everybody knows it’s not really an election. I think we fudge on the science way too much in order to preserve a way of interpreting Genesis which God simply is not demanding from us. I do not think he means for us to be so divided between our study of his creation and our study of scripture. I long for the day when we can just say, “Okay, so the world is really really old. Now let’s get on with understanding what he means to make of it all in the end.”

Now that‘s a question worth debating.

Why I’m no longer “Young Earth”

March 23, 2010

Today I will try to explain why I believe in evolution. You have to realize, though, that saying I believe in evolution is for me like saying I believe in orbits or reproduction. Whether or not I believe it doesn’t make much difference. These are things that I’m pretty sure just are.

I should probably begin by saying that I used to be a “Young Earth” creationist. The approach to the Bible that I learned taught me to read the first chapters of Genesis and take them at face value. If they say God made everything in six days, then by golly that’s what he did. God said it; I believe it; that settles it. Considering the genealogies of the chapters which follow, it would then appear that humankind has only been around for a few thousand years. One guy even calculated quite confidently that the earth was created on October 23rd, 4004 BC, and it stuck. So the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Alright, if that’s what the Bible says, then I’ll believe it.

But then I look around and consider a few things. Stars, for example, shine their light down on us from a very, very long distance away. We know how fast light travels, and we use the term “light year” to indicate the distance light travels in a year. We know that many of those stars and galaxies are hundreds of thousands of light years away. Some are millions of light years away (we now know the universe is very, very big). That means their light is only now arriving after traveling for millions of years. Our stars are snapshots of the past–the very distant past. And they prove the world is older than that guy said.

That didn’t use to mean much to me. God could create a universe already “in maturity,” right? I mean, Adam wasn’t born a baby, was he? He was created already a grown man. If he were to cut down a tree in the garden, it would probably have rings, right? How old would they be? You see my point. The Genesis creation account seems to indicate that the world was created already old, in a sense. The stars that Adam saw even then were not as old as they looked. I can buy that.

But then there’s more. Looking for other evidences of age, I see things like our Grand Canyon, which is a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. It’s got this river at the bottom of it, and it obviously was cut slowly by that river over a very long time. Estimates for that time period range from 5 million years to 17 million years. Besides things like this, we also have devised dating techniques that measure the steady decay of certain isotopes and other things that, frankly, are out of my pay grade. There’s a bunch more things like this, but you get the picture. Appearances can be deceiving, but if our world is only a few thousand years old, then this is starting to look like a really massive trick.

Besides this, we keep digging up bones which paint a picture of a gradual development of the many species of living things around us (including our own species). Judging from their depth in the ground, many of these species appear to have predated us humans by quite a bit. The point is, however, that every branch of science we have indicates the earth is billions of years old, and that the human race developed from more primitive species over millions of years.

That’s not what the Bible says. I know that. And I could go along with the “created in maturity” concept up until a certain point. I could believe that the world just looks older than it is because God made it to look older than it really is. Much, much older. But if that’s the case, then people should be forgiven for studying the Earth and the cosmos and deciding that they are as old as they seem. They should be forgiven for seeing evidences of gradual development of all living things, including ourselves (What the heck is an appendix for, anyway? Or a tailbone?).

But they are not forgiven, are they? At times, in fact, they are angrily chastised for not believing the clear Word of God in these matters. They are shamed and excluded from our schools and churches because they contradict the biblical testimony, choosing instead to cling to their ungodly scientific beliefs. We don’t want them poisoning our children with their spurious logic and their anti-Christian worldviews.

Only now there are believers as well, like myself, who are starting to see the world as old. Many of them are way more qualified than I am to study these things and they don’t see what the big deal is. They’re starting to say, “Hey, we believe the Bible. We love it. We just don’t think it was intended by God to be used as a textbook for astronomy, geology, or biology. It wasn’t written in a scientific context and we shouldn’t superimpose our very modern scientific mentality into it. That does violence to the text.”

I’m with those guys at this point. I think you can be quite faithful to the Bible and yet not use it as a science textbook. Some people in the medieval times tried to do that when someone suggested the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. They tried to do it when someone suggested the earth is flat and stationary. Both times they were wrong, and both times they were certain they were being faithful to the text. But they weren’t. They were treating the Bible like it’s a different kind of book than it really is. N.T. Wright said some good stuff about that once.

Well this raises plenty of questions, of course, like “How do we accept Paul’s typology and his view of the fall of mankind if we don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve?”

Those are good questions. I’m still working on that. Anybody got any good ideas about that?

I’ve got more to say, so keep checking back.

Thinking about Creation

March 18, 2010

As I often do with Scot McKnight’s blog posts, I will be closely following one of his current threads pertaining to evolution and its relationship to the Christian faith.

This question is very close to my heart at the moment, as I have run up against it a number of times over the last few years. Personally, I have become convinced that the cosmos is as old as our scientists tell us it is. And I see consistently logical reasons to believe what paleontologists and geologists and astronomers have been telling us about the age of the earth and about the gradual development of our species over hundreds of thousands of years. But as a Bible-believing Christian, I have some wrestling to do with the creation account of Genesis 1-3 (really even through chapter 11). How can I decide that these chapters are not to be taken as historical (even if some of the biblical writers may have thought it was, given their historical context) and yet accept Paul’s discussion in Romans 5 of the fall of Adam and our fate as his descendants? How would it affect my understanding of the accomplishment of the Second Adam, Christ, on my behalf?

I have plenty to write about this, but right now I’ve got to go corral a classroom full of teenagers (most of whom have criminal records), so maybe watch this space and pitch in your thoughts when you have time.

What is a Cross?

February 18, 2010

Not all suffering is meant to be embraced.

I know that may seem like an odd declaration to make. But I’ve recently come from a tradition which looks at things pretty differently from most corners of Christendom. In the circles I’ve been running in the last few years, suffering is seen as a doorway to a deeper relationship with God. Those who have influenced me most make much of the daily work of the cross in the life of a believer. For what it’s worth, I’m convinced there are clear scriptural reasons for seeing suffering as a way to grow faith and dependence on God.

HOWEVER…

I must also say that you can easily go overboard with this idea. There are those among us, in fact, who naturally gravitate towards dark expectations. Some of us slip easily into fear and dread of God’s next move in our lives, and that’s not the way he wants us to relate to him. I’m fairly sure of that.

Some people, of course, don’t have to deal with this at all. If your theology has God in a reactionary position toward history/world events, then he’s never to blame for anything bad that happens. The world just does what it does and God takes what happens and makes good stuff happen out of it. Even then, of course, you have to grapple with the idea that God allows certain things to happen while he prevents some other things from happening. One way or another you still have to reckon with God’s level of involvement in the hard times.

But a funny thing happens once you’ve decided you believe in a totally sovereign God: You feel the need to make sense out of everything that happens, because everything ultimately is in his control. For the record, I think the sovereign view matches the views of the key players in the Bible better than the reactionary view. Those people had astounding things to say about God’s absolute power over even the littlest details of our lives. But then you have to reconcile a belief in a good and loving God with all the terrible things that happen in life. Thus we have the age-old problem of evil, and I’m not gonna try to resolve that one, thank you.

There is, however, an additional problem that develops once you’ve embraced Jesus’ call to take up your cross and suffer for his name’s sake. You start to think all suffering is somehow for his name’s sake. You think every hardship is “the cross.” But it’s not. Some suffering is just wrong and needs to be resisted or overcome. Or maybe it’s not wrong — maybe it’s just more fallout from the world being the way it is. Either way, nothing says you have to just shrug your shoulders and say, “God wills it.” When you get a headache, you take something for it, don’t you? When you get an infection, you take antibiotics. That doesn’t mean you don’t have faith. It just means you intend to use the good sense that God gave you to solve a problem. I trust that’s exactly what God wills for you to do.

Now let me repeat a question that was once posed to me:

What does it mean to take up your cross and follow Jesus?

Well, like most questions of biblical interpretation, your best bet is to start by asking what it meant in its original context. What did that sentence mean to the people who first heard it? Once we answer that question, then we can start to figure out what it means to us today.

The answer is that Jesus wanted his followers to know that following him meant they would encounter the same response from the world that he would encounter. In fact, many of those original followers met with an untimely death at the hands of the very same people who rejected Jesus. His warning proved true. Beyond that, many who followed him came to sacrifice other things for his name as well: food, shelter, warmth, safety, financial stability, family loyalties, you name it. For example, Paul spent most of his later life traveling the Empire, preaching the gospel and getting beaten for it. For him, the cross meant a really hard life.

But it was purposive. These people who were suffering knew that what they were doing was serving the cause of Christ. That’s what enabled them to press on through their hardships. They endured their trials because they knew it was accomplishing something redemptive. It was constructive suffering. When you look at it that way, a cross makes much more sense. It’s not just any random hardship. It’s suffering for someone else’s sake.

It was for the joy set before him that Jesus endured the cross. There was a goal. There was a redemptive end to his pain and suffering. And there was a resurrection on the other side of his dying.

Now don’t get me wrong: That knowledge doesn’t remove the pain. Jesus asked that this cup pass from him because it was still more than any mortal could bear. But he ultimately embraced it because there was something waiting for him on the other side.

That something was us. That boggles my mind. But that’s what the New Testament says.

But that’s not my point right now. My point is that not all dying results in resurrection. And some suffering is not purposive. Sometimes difficult times come and you’re not supposed to just lie down and let it roll over you, saying “God wills it.” In our attempt to embrace the work of our own personal crosses in our daily lives we must not slip into that crazy place where every bad thing is called good, or every wrong thing is called right.

The cross is about enduring the shame of being rejected by a world that rejected Jesus, too. It’s about enduring hardship whenever it serves a redemptive end for the sake of the gospel. And sure, a whole lotta things can fall into that category, but some of us go a little crazy with this. We take everything anyone does to us, including the dumb things we do to our own selves, and we say that anything bad that happens is just the cross.

No, it’s not. That was never Jesus’ intention when he called us to follow him and take up our cross. The cross is a purposeful embracing of hardship for the sake of loving God and loving one another. It’s ultimately productive. It bears fruit. It brings life, in the end.

So let THAT be your yardstick from now on. Does it produce life in someone else for you to embrace whatever it is that you’re trying to embrace? Or does it just make you an even more difficult person to be around? Does it make you feel like you’re a pitiable victim, a doomed scapegoat for other people’s faults? Chances are, if that’s how it affects you, it’s not accomplishing what you think it’s accomplishing. If it just makes you a cranky, dismal person, please just say “NO.” That’s not a cross.

But if it communicates love to God’s people, and if it produces fruit in their lives, then isn’t it suddenly more worth it? Just stop and think for a second. Take a second look at what you’re up against, and act accordingly.

Nine Marks and Reformed Stepchildren

October 10, 2009

rip-van-winkleReturning to Baptist life after almost ten years away, I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle.  Apparently, while I was gone Southern Baptists found something new to fight about.  Back in the day, the fight was over biblical inerrancy.  Then it was over speaking in tongues.  Then they decided to crack down on women in ministry.  I don’t really know what else–I lost interest nearly 15 years ago.  In fact, I left the SBC fold entirely.  I did something that, to my mind, was the most historically Baptist thing I could do:  I forsook denominational life and went primitive, meeting in homes with other non-conformists like myself.  We devoted ourselves to a thoroughly consistent belief in the priesthood of believers.  We had a great run for a while, too.  But the time eventually came when my wife and I needed to move on to something else (still not sure what!).  But I’m going to miss them and I know I’ll always thank God for my time with them.

By the way, have you heard the one about the guy who tried to start a Non-conformists Club?  He couldn’t get anyone to join.

Well, back to Dever’s book.  It turns out that while I was away, Southern Baptists got bit by the Reformed bug.  Not all of them, mind you.  Many of them vehemently oppose this new development.  They see Calvinism as a mortal enemy of evangelism, which is the Baptist’s main focus.  But huge swaths of young Southern Baptists have begun reading Puritans for their devotions.  They’re downloading John Piper and C.J. Mahaney messages.  They’re reading R.C. Sproul.  The’re reading Jonathan Edwards for fun!  What happened?

Well, I know the story, some of it.  A Calvinist became president of Southern Baptist Seminary and he cleaned house.  I read that 96% of the faculty got replaced in just a few years.  Small wonder, then, that tulips are blooming now in Baptist pulpits all over the country.  I’m sure there’s more to it than that, of course.  Ultimately I suspect Reformed theology has gained ground lately because it has substance and depth to it.  It has intellectual bite.  In an age when people know less and less what they believe, this tradition gives people something solid to stand on.

Incidentally, I happen to agree with much of Reformed theology, and not just because I studied at Reformed Seminary.  For all the things I don’t like about most Calvinists (like intellectual arrogance and a strong clergy/laity distinction).  I still believe in a sovereign God.  I still believe he had to quicken my heart before it could even sense its own need for him.  I’m at least a four-point Calvinist myself.  That won’t satisfy hardcore Calvinists, of course (I’m convinced that, unlike the other four,  one of the five points doesn’t come from scripture at all–it is inferred from the other four).  But I’m not that befuddled by a grassroots return to what Reformed folks call the “doctrines of grace.”  To my mind, most of this stuff just comes from reading the New Testament.  The idea of election, for example, comes from Paul, not from some French guy in the 1500’s.

But in the Baptist world I grew up in, this kind of talk would have made me the butt of many jokes.  I didn’t know of any Calvinists in the large SBC church I grew up in, nor had I even heard of them anywhere else except in Presbyterian churches.  I remember how amazed I was when I first read through the New Testament and discovered verses like Acts 13:48:

“When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (emphasis mine).

I brought that verse to Sunday School one morning and everyone insisted I must have been reading from a bad translation.

dever_9marks1But now as my wife and I have started church hunting among Baptist churches, we’ve discovered that most of them around here are preaching Reformed theology from the pulpit!  It’s like Bizarro world for Baptists!  One of those pastors handed me Mark Dever’s Nine Marks book and said, “Here is basically what I believe.”  I open the book and read him affirming the following:  “The history recorded in the Bible shows us very plainly that God is a creating God and that He is an electing God” (62).  He does not see a contradiction between election and evangelism.  He rather asserts that “God used the doctrine of election as an encouragement to Paul in evangelism” (143), citing as his proof Acts 18:9-10, which says:

And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.‘”

Belief in election isn’t the only evidence of the Reformed influences on Dever’s thinking.  One of his main points is that churches should be receiving a steady diet of systematic theology (a clear mark of a Reformed influence) and that they should learn a biblical view of God.  He then summarizes this biblical view of God by including a long excerpt from the classic statement of Reformed theology, the Westminster Confession (see 84-85).  He closes his extensive quote by saying, “This is the God who reveals himself in the Bible” (85).  That’s some pretty hearty props for Reformed theology there!

Then there is the notion of elders.  In the Baptist world of my growing up days, nobody had elders.  They had pastors, ministers of this and that, and then there were deacons.  But deacons just do grunt work for the church–taking care of practical needs and such.  Most of the time they don’t have any real authority in the church, like elders would.  Dever, however,  cites “a growing trend to go back to this biblical office”.  He contends that “the Bible clearly models a plurality of elders in each local church” (229).  My own reading of the New Testament reinforces this for me.  I’ve like the idea of a plurality of elders (grown locally) for a while now.  I just can’t believe the idea is gaining popularity among modern Baptists!

Dever points out that Baptist churches used to have elders, back in their earliest days.  He even says the first president of the SBC wrote a book advocating a plurality of elders in church life (229).  The idea just never got universal acceptance and it eventually fell by the wayside.  Now here we have a stirring of writers and influential preachers calling for a return to ways of thinking and governing which will strike many people as thoroughly un-Baptist.

For example, Monday night a local pastor paid me and my family a visit.  We have been visiting his church and he maintains the unheard-of habit of personally visiting every prospective member in his or her home at some point.  We chatted, discussed common acquaintances, talked theology a bit, then he prayed with us and for us.  I was impressed with the pastoral faithfulness that showed.  It went a long way toward making me like him.  So it didn’t bother me that much when I figured out that his views about the second coming are very different from mine and that he has no warm feelings for Reformed theology.

Sometimes I think those folks should just go ahead and become Presbyterians,” he said finally.

But wait a second.  I know just enough history to be dangerous, and I know that many, if not most, of the earliest Baptists were thoroughly Calvinistic in almost every way.  They just disagreed with the notion of an unregenerate church membership.  They believed in a believer’s church, where only professing believers get baptized (e.g. not infants) and where the State doesn’t own the church, or vice versa.  This put the earliest Baptists (and their ideological grandparents, the Anabaptists) at odds with the established churches of the Colonial (or Reformation) Era.  It got them exiled, arrested, or killed, depending on which country they inhabited.

Baptists have been called the “Stepchildren of the Reformation.”  That’s because Baptists really were like an offshoot of the Reformation–Calvinistic in theology but Anabaptist in church practice.  They saw churches as self-governed and composed of only regenerate believers, so they weren’t really Presbyterian to begin with.  And that’s not what people like Dever are after, either.  They belong to a committed minority of people who read the Scriptures for themselves and find there a set of teachings which do not fit perfectly with either the Established Churches of the Reformation or with the revivalistic churches that sprung up later in the U.S.  I don’t think they’re so crazy because “I is one myself.”

So there.  I admit it.  I’m a Reformed Baptist in my theology.  But I’m also organic/house/simple church in my ecclesiology, which means that I chafe when Dever goes on to claim that “In the New Testament, we find hints of the main preacher being distinct from the rest of the elders” (230).  I’m gonna need more than hints to buy that idea.  His only noteworthy evidence for this is Paul, who was a preacher but not a pastor by any means.  So he doesn’t really count.

Dever does what many pastors and theologians do:  He confuses the function of an itinerant apostle/church planter with that of a local pastor.  I know he does this because he did it earlier with Timothy and Titus.  He calls Timothy the pastor of Ephesus and assumes Titus must have been a pastor of  a church somewhere as well (177).  But the letters he cites make it clear that these guys were supervising large clusters of churches, and it fell to them to appoint pastors in each city where they planted a church.  Does that sound like the function of a local pastor to you?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.  All I can figure is that it has always been customary to call these letters “pastoral epistles.”  But that’s misleading.  And it seems to have misled Dever as well.

Here we find ourselves bumping up against the most sacred cow of evangelical church practice:  the single pastor tradition (by that, I don’t mean unmarried ones…I mean singling out one leader over all the others).  Even in a book that advocates a plurality of elders, we seem unable to conceive of a church without a main guy up front, doing all the teaching and preaching for the church.  It simply baffles me.

But I’ll take a shot at that in the next post:  Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher.

Nine Marks and Real Conversion

October 9, 2009

dever_9marksHere’s another place where my concerns and Mark Dever’s concerns are similar:  Neither one of us likes the “once saved always saved” doctrine.

My issue with this is not that we are not saved by grace.  I’m a firm believer in that.  I don’t believe you earn your way into God’s good graces by self effort or keeping the Law.  But being saved through faith alone doesn’t mean your faith should be alone.  Real faith produces real change in the heart of the believer.

I don’t think we make this clear enough when we stress that you just pray this certain prayer and now you’re in.  In fact, I think the whole invitational setup is flawed, because it reinforces this notion that you enter the kingdom of heaven by making a once-for-all crisis decision during a semi-pressured moment in a worship service.  In many cases, this is a highly choreographed moment, perhaps accompanied by soft music, punctuated by impassioned pleas from the preacher to get up out of your seat and “come forward to make a decision.”  I know the historical roots of this practice well, and it carries no magical aura for me at this point.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I know a great many lifetimes of following Jesus began at moments just like this.  But it’s still just the beginning.  That’s what we don’t stress enough.  We’re beginning a lifetime of following Jesus, honoring his name and knowing him in an ongoing relationship.  That just doesn’t always get communicated, so all the emphasis seems to be on making this one move at a particular point in time.  That’s just too shallow an understanding of what it means to “get saved.”

I’ve often said it before:  I don’t like saying that I “got saved” when I was 16.  I’m still getting saved even as I type this post.  You better believe I still need it.  Does that mean something shifted and now I’m earning it, even though it originally was by grace?  Absolutely not!  It’s still by grace, every day.  His grace didn’t check out after I made a crisis decision as a hormonal teenager.  His grace is what keeps me believing even now.  Were he to remove it, you would see just how unChristian I really am deep down.  It’s like my old friend Joe Shelton used to sing, “I need a Savior/All the time!”

Dever says, “We need to see an end to a wrong, shallow view of evangelism as simply getting people to say yes to  a question, or to make a one-time decision” (143).  Real evangelism, he asserts, includes a call to real conversion.  “Scripture presents us as needing to have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life” (143).  But as he goes on to say, “evangelical churches are full of people who have made sincere commitments at some point in their lives but who have not experienced the radical change that the Bible calls conversion” (113).  He argues that this lies at the root of the immaturity of evangelical churches.  An abbreviated gospel produces shallow churches, with immature members.

I want to write some more about maturity, maybe comparing his definition with my own.  But for now, I’ll have to agree with Dever, who, even though he didn’t explicitly say so in this book, apparently holds to the more typically Reformed doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints”.  That’s a little different from “once saved always saved” because the implication is that a person who has genuine  faith and repentance will continue to have such as long as he or she lives.  “Once saved always saved” implies that as long as you did this one thing at some point, you’re done.  You’ve got your ticket.  You’re in.  But what does the rest of life look like from that point on?  Real conversion changes a person.  And it keeps on changing them.

Things that are truly alive, grow.  That’s just the way it is” (216).

I agree.

I desperately  need the Lord to provide that growth now just as much as I needed it almost 20 years ago.   You do, too…

The Dancing God

February 26, 2007

Once again, I find that C.S. Lewis put his finger on things that I didn’t realize he had.

The words “God is Love” have no real meaning unless that one person contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.

I came across this idea first in the writings of Norman Grubb. I’m sure the realization didn’t originate with either of these two British gents.

What both of them are saying is that if God is Love, then He must be plural. He must be a community of at least two. One person alone cannot be Love, because there must be an object for His affection other than Himself. As it turns out, our scriptures describe three persons of God. The Father and the Son we understand (sort of). But this third Person evades description. Trying to describe our God strains our language beyond what it can handle, because even our concept of a “person” leaves some things unexplained here. Lewis goes on to say:

God is not a static thing–not even a person–but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person.

A dance. Now that’s beautiful. My apologies to all the old school Southern Baptists out there. But this is a truly charming and illustrative image. So much of my confusion cleared up once this idea got a hold of me.

It works for understanding the union of the Trinity, as my theology professors once pointed out. When they said it, they had to use a fancy Latin word for it (circumincessio) so that they wouldn’t feel irreverent. Everything feels more legitimate once it’s put in Latin, you know. Circumincessio indicates a kind of mutual enfolding which expands and contracts, so that they are one, and two, and one again. As if one Latin term doesn’t cut it, my professors felt the need to bolster this concept with a second, Greek term (perichoresis), which essentially means the same thing. But now it’s in both Latin and Greek, so it’s gotta be okay to believe, right?

But the Dance extends beyond the inner relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus said that we would come to know the same kind of relationship (it’s at the end of John 17, I’m not making this up). We are becoming one with God in the same way that He is already one with Himself (!)

If you think about it, this explains a lot. I have always gotten confused about whether I am separate from God or one with Him. Sometimes I pray to Him. Other times I feel like He is praying through me. But which is right? Which is better?

It’s a dance. You get what I’m saying? Watch two people dancing. They are two, then they are one. Then they are two again. Back and forth. Around and around. In front of, behind, between, above, below, apart, and together again. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? When two are joined in a dance, something arises between them that is more than simply the sum of two parts.

And that is what’s happening with us and God. Christ is in us, then He is above us. He is our every breath and heartbeat, then we turn and address Him as if He were with us instead of in us. We are meant to enjoy and preserve both. Sometimes we lose consciousness of His separateness from us, because we are so one. But then He comes to us and gets our attention as if He were introducing some side of Himself that we’ve never seen before.

There will always be more. His dance has spins and steps you’ve never seen. But always He brings us back into who He is, so that folks looking on will hardly be able to tell where He ends and we begin.

It’s a Dance.

The Imitation of Christ…(not)

February 6, 2007

Since I am not greatly bothered by movies that are “dark,” I happen to like a movie called The Game, starring Michael Douglas. In this movie, a mysterious business establishment provides their clients with carefully-staged situations that push them to their personal limits. It’s called “The Game,” and it freaks Douglas out. It’s like they know everything he is going to do before he does it. Before the game begins, they study their clients so thoroughly that they can predict with astounding accuracy what they will do under any imaginable circumstance. In a sense, they can control every detail of his or her life for a time, but without ever actually tampering with their ability to choose what they will.

Phillip Yancey once said that a master chess player can determine the outcome of a match by knowing his opponent so well that he can anticipate his next move. Yancey suggests that this may help explain how a God who is technically “supposed to” avoid tampering with our free wills could make all things work according to His will anyway. He’s smart enough to know exactly what we would do in any situation, and therefore can lead us where He will without actually “making” us do anything.

Of course, the whole “foreknowledge” thing is just a human idea anyway, since time means little to a God who is both Alpha and Omega. He could just as well be working backwards from the end. All of our causal relationships (that’s causal, not casual) presuppose time. This thing happens first, so then this thing happens next. But what if you lived life backwards, like Merlin on The Sword in the Stone? You’d get mixed up about what “causes” what after all.

But I suppose, to some degree, God’s timelessness helps us understand how He can do what he does. If you’ve ever seen Groundhog Day, you may remember the scene where Phil can tell Rita everything about everyone in Punxsutawney.

Rita: Is this some kind of trick?

Phil: Maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long, He knows everything.

I love it. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. And it’s not dark. Phil uses his knowledge of people to accomplish just about everything he can imagine. That’s a powerful position to be in.

But we’ve got more than a God who can just predict our every move. We have a God who comes to indwell us. Like my wife who has a little someone indwelling her right now 🙂 (Carter #4) Over time it gets difficult to say what’s happening because she wants it and what’s happening because the baby wants it. The two are mixed together for a time so that whatever happens to one happens to the other. She’s not just being “indwelt;” their lives are joined together. It’s really a beautiful thing.

Now for my C.S. Lewis quote of the day:

You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together…. But this way of thinking breaks down. God is not like that. He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it.

It won’t stop us from trying to explain it though. As Norman Grubb used to say, we’ve got God within and without. That pretty much puts Him on the throne.

And it should caution us against trying too hard to figure out whether our actions are our own or God’s. In the end, they both look the same. They even feel the same most of the time. About the only difference is that Life results from His activity in and through us. If Life comes out of what we did, you can bet He was hiding in there somewhere.

With all due respect to Thomas a Kempis, never mind the imitation of Christ. This is better than that… It’s Christ’s imitation of you.

Becoming a child again

November 27, 2006

When I was in college I used to imagine that each day of my life rolled out from God’s mind like a scripted scene in an extended-length movie. All the events of the day, down to each line spoken by each person, were planned and placed exactly where God intended. I saw my life as an intricately woven play written by God. This charged each moment with purpose and meaning, and I learned to refer to him internally as things were happening since He was the one sending it all in the first place.

I don’t remember when or why I stopped thinking that way. Maybe it felt so egocentric–everything happening in the whole world arranged just for my advancement in His grace. How “me-centered” is that? Or perhaps I was afraid that thinking that way would cause me to relinquish responsibility for my actions. If the Lord brought it, then there’s nothing I can do in response, right? I don’t know which, if either, of these things led me to drop my little daydream. But somewhere along the line I did.

I’m getting the notion lately that I need to recover this perspective once again. I can’t even say for sure if it’s right, although I can quote a bunch of biblical passages that hint that it is. My favorite is when David said that every day of his life was written out like a book before one of them came to be. When Job lost everything he cared about by both nature and by human conquest, God alone received credit for what happened. And when Jesus hung on the cross before a screaming mob of his own people, he turned to His Father and asked why His Father was forsaking Him. Apparently folks in the Bible share something like this view in which everything that happens is from the hand of God.

But we’re too sophisticated for that, right? I mean, we live in the twenty-first century now, and we understand that things happen by random chance. We don’t need to invoke God when something dramatic happens, right? Aren’t we a little too old for that?

I think I want to go back to being young. And naive. I’m thinking about going back to a time when I had a simple outlook on life, and saw each day as a gift from my Father. That caused me to see Him intimately involved in every second, present beside me (or within me, or me in Him) no matter what was going on. That worked pretty well for me, and I’m not convinced I should have ever dropped that viewpoint.

Is it technically true? I don’t really know. Part of me doubts. Part of me sees that as childish, like God’s got nothing more important to deal with than my petty little life experiences. But then again, I’ve got a strong biblical precedent for this very thing. Anyway, God can multi-task, right? Can’t He simultaneously weave billions of stories intricately together like a vast tapestry?

If He had all the time in the world, He could do it. If time stood still for Him, He could fill every life that has ever been lived with all the events He desires, and each one could connect with billions of other lives in ways we little humans could scarce understand. If I could think like God, I might not even see this as a challenge.

Maybe the folks who don’t see each moment as the product of God’s creative mind are the ones who are thinking too simplistically. Maybe it’s those whose minds are “stuck in time” who have it wrong. They tend to think that God was involved at the beginning, but since then things have managed to operate on their own. But what if God didn’t just create the beginning? What if, when He created, He made everything, including today? What if, when He created, He simultaneously painted a picture of all of history from beginning to end, crafting each stroke and each event down to the falling of a single sparrow?

Now that would make me feel very close to him at this moment. Right now He’s telling a story–your story–and it involves reading this blog right now. Man, that would make Him really close. Right there with you. Don’t you think?