Saturday, January 05, 2013

Are the Dogmas of Catholicism Divine Revelations?

Imaging the Trinity

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:3).

Commentators are divided on how best to render apaugasma in Heb 1:3. In principle, it could either be rendered actively–denoting radiant light, or passively–denoting reflected light. O’Brien offers a good, if pretty brief, defense of the active sense.

Similar ambiguities affect 2 Cor 4:18. Is it active (producing a reflection), middle (self-reflection), or passive (reflection)?

In think the choice in Heb 1:3 may present a false dichotomy. Let’s work our way to that conclusion by examining some other material.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13:12).

Some commentators think this involves a distinction between the blurry, distorted image (allegedly) produced by ancient mirrors, and seeing without a distorting medium. However, Senft and Fitzmyer think that’s based on ignorance of ancient mirrors, which could reproduce a fairly good likeness. Fitzmyer and Thiselton think this verse involves a distinction between direct and indirect knowledge. A reflected image involves indirect perception rather than direct perception of the object.

For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror (Jas 1:23).

Here the focus of the metaphor lies, not on indirect perception, but self-perception or self-reflection. Looking in the mirror was a metaphor for self-examination.

Seeing yourself in a mirror is a psychological paradox. It doubles you. Objectifies you. Suddenly, you–the perceptive subject–becomes the object of your own perception.

And before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal (Rev 4:6).

A sea of glass would be a huge mirror, reflecting the sky.

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known (Jn 1:18).

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15).

18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding [or reflecting] the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4,6,18).

Even though these passages don’t specifically use mirror imagery (although that may be implicit in 2 Cor 3:18), they dovetail very nicely with the notion mirror imagery.

In particular, it’s possible to see someone obliquely who’s out of sight. For instance, if two men are standing in front of a large mirror, with one behind the other, you can see the man behind you in the mirror. Even though your back is turned to him, he is visible in the mirror.

That would suit the contrast between the Father’s invisibility, and the visibility of the Incarnate Son, who mediates the Father in the person of the Son.

In addition to bronze and copper mirrors, you could have makeshift mirrors. When the lighting was right, you could see your reflection in a water basin.

Besides artificial mirrors, the ancients were acquainted with reflective phenomena in nature. A smooth body of water reflected the sky. Likewise, you could see your own reflection in water. In a boat. On the edge of a pond.

However, the natural world also presented more complex reflections. The play of light, rain, and water could produce primary, secondary (double), and tertiary rainbows; stacker (or supernumerary) rainbows; twined rainbows; reflected rainbows; and reflection rainbows. For instance:

Needless to say, Bible writers were quite familiar with rainbows (e.g. Gen 9:13-16; Ezk 1:28; Rev 4:30; 10:1). Keen observers of meteorological phenomena. This raises the possibility that when Scripture uses mirror imagery to illustrate the interrelationship between the Father and the Son, this could be a double reflection, like arranging two mirrors face to face. They mirror each other, in mutual reflection.

In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent

HT: Wenatchee the Hatchet

Paul and justification by faith

Fish out of water

 Cotton Comes to Harlem Poster

Some Clarkian Scripturalists are understandably embarrassed by Drake Shelton. The obvious solution is for them to sedate him with a chloroform moistened cloth, transport him to Central Harlem, deposit him on a sidewalk at night, wearing his cute little Confederate uniform, then let nature take its course. 

Haggling with Bryan Cross over Ecclesiology

In response to my comment here (which essentially is found in this blog post), Bryan Cross said:

No one is claiming that propagation of the apostolic deposit has been “left to chance.”

Perhaps you can be more consistent in the way you bring up “ecclesial deism”, especially with respect to the Reformed doctrine of the church.

And the fact that there is no opposition between nature and grace, (or between the natural and the supernatural) does not entail that necessarily all men are independently capable of understanding rightly God’s self-revelation.

I disagree. A God who makes “all men”, and who desires to speak to them, can and will do so (Romans 1). Unless they are impaired in some way, but even then you see stories of kids with Down’s syndrome, who are incredibly loving children.

Moreover, just because God chooses to speak through a prophet does not entail that that prophet is an idol.

Of course not. Your suggestion that I may be suggesting that there is any kind of “entailment” at all in that situation is way out of line. I am talking specifically in the instance of the Roman Catholic claims regarding authority, infallibility, and specifically to be “the sacrament of salvation”. That is what is idolatrous.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The immanent Trinity

Thomas Keningley

Given this distinction between Christ qua man and Christ qua God, how can we know what elements of the relationship between Christ and the Father revealed to us in the gospels are revelations of their intrinsic intra-trinitarian relationships and which are not and pertain to Christ qua man?

That’s a good question.

i) Keep in mind that the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity is an issue that all orthodox Trinitarians must deal with. We may draw the line at different places, but we all draw the line somewhere.

ii) Keep in mind that this distinction isn’t unique to the Trinity. It’s a special case of a larger distinction between what God is like in himself, and God’s self-revelation in and to the world. God often reveals himself in Scripture through metaphors, analogies, anthropomorphisms, angelomorphisms, &c. That’s not identical to what God is like in himself. So that’s comparable, on a broader scale, to the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity.

iii) Keep in mind that this isn’t distinctive to theology or theological knowledge. Most of what we know about the world is analogical. Human language is analogical. It doesn’t suddenly become analogical when we apply it to God. It’s already analogical when we apply it to the world.

Likewise, the Bible uses many theological metaphors, but metaphors aren’t confined to God. The Bible also uses metaphors for human beings. For the human condition.

So it’s not as if the analogical nature of God-talk presents a special problem for theological knowledge. Rather, this is a ubiquitous feature of human language and human knowledge.

iv) Apropos (iii), the Song of Songs uses a wealth of metaphors to depict male and female lovers, as well as lovemaking. Likewise, Eccl 12 uses the extended metaphor of a house to describe the aging process.

v) All metaphors are analogies, but not all analogies are metaphors. Metaphors are figures of speech. Mere rhetorical or literary artifacts. Moreover, metaphors typically compare different kinds of things. Indeed, what makes for an arresting metaphor is the juxtaposition of two disparate things.

Back to analogies: let’s take the following illustration:

And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks (Rev 1:12, KJV).

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands (Rev 1:12, ESV).

The King James translators updated the original by replacing the archaic lighting device known as “lampstands” with the hitech lighting device known as “candlesticks.”

Of course, that’s anachronistic. If modern translators continued that trend, they’d render the verse:

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden light bulbs (or fluorescent tubes).

But the historical incongruity would be too jarring for modern readers. Because modern readers have grown up on historical films which try to reproduce period conditions, modern translators have reverted to the archaic original.

Now, lamps, candles, and light bulbs are analogous objects. They have both similarities and differences.

Lamps were made of metal or ceramic. Olive oil was used for fuel. Candles were made from tallow or bee’s wax. In that respect they’re disanalogous.

However, they both emit firelight, and they are both forms of artificial lighting. So that’s what they have in common.

In one respect, candles and light bulbs have very little in common. If you didn’t know what they were for, you’d think they were completely disparate objects. Candles and light bulbs have different shapes, and they are made of different materials.

Yet they have one thing in common: they were designed to perform the same function. To provide artificial illumination.

At that level of comparison, they are identical or univocal.

v) Let’s consider some metaphors: 

Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love (Ps 33:18).

The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous
    and his ears toward their cry (Ps 34:15).

Here the Bible is using the eye as a theological metaphor for divine omniscience. That’s combined with the idea of God’s providential care for his people. Providence based on knowledge.

Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment (Exod 6:6).

Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? (Deut 4:34).

And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders (Deut 26:8).

Here the Bible is using the image of an “outstretched arm” as a theological metaphor for God’s omnipotence, exercised in deliverance and judgment.

God doesn’t literally stretch forth his arm. However, the metaphor does contain a literal truth. We use our hands and arms to bring about a change in the world. At that level of abstraction, it’s a literally true statement about divine action in the Exodus.

vi) Apropos (iii), some of what we know is based on direct observation or personal experience, but most of what we know about the world is based on analogy. We extrapolate from our sampled experience to reality at large.

If you tell me that you own a dog, I extrapolate from my knowledge of dogs, based on dogs I’ve seen in pictures or real life. Likewise, when you use the word “dog,” that triggers my concept of dogs, based on the association of the word with a sampling of dogs.

vii) This raises the problem of induction. Am I justified in generalizing from my sample cases? How do I know that my sample cases are representative?

Here a Biblical doctrine of divine creation and providence can help to ground analogy. If God has created natural kinds, which he conserves over time, then we’re justified in extrapolating from sample cases to other cases.

viii) Likewise, I’m not suggesting that all knowledge is empirical. For instance, I don’t think we acquire a concept of numerical relations by observing groups of similar objects. If I didn’t already have the concept of two, I wouldn’t recognize a grouping of two ducks as two ducks. I don’t think it’s possible to bootstrap numerical concepts from induction. Rather, I think that conceptual apparatus must be innate.

ix) I’ve been using transparent metaphors like eyes and arms. It’s possible to analyze these metaphors. Indeed, I’ve done so.

However, the average Bible reader doesn’t need to analyze the metaphor to understand it. We enjoy an intuitive, instantaneous sense of what the figurative use of eyes and arms signifies. That’s something we grasp at a subliminal level without having to having to run through a conscious process of abstraction to filter out the extraneous, incidental connotations of theological metaphors. 

A Bible reader doesn’t have to have a theory of analogy or analogical predication to grasp the significance many Biblical metaphors and analogies.

x) The Bible uses a number of theological metaphors for the person or work of the Holy Spirit, viz. wind, breath, oil, dove, fire, first fruit.

Indeed, the name of the Spirit is, itself, a figurative name which trades on the metaphorical connotations of wind, breath, &c.

This is one of the problems with defining the ontology of the Holy Spirit by reference to “spiration.” That’s arbitrarily selective. For Scripture uses a variety of metaphors to describe the Holy Spirit.

Take the description of the Holy Spirit as a dove. The Holy Spirit isn’t literally a dove, although he can manifest himself in avian images. What does that signify?

a) Well, we can start with our general knowledge of doves. Our mundane knowledge of doves, which we derive from our empirical knowledge of the world. What are the physical and behavioral characteristics of doves? 

b) We can also study dovish symbolism in Scripture.

These are ways of honing in on the intended scope of the metaphor. Ways of isolating the point of analogy.

Same thing with the Trinity. There’s no shortcut for how to distinguish the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity. Rather, we have to roll up our sleeves and perform a detailed study of how various Bible writers use theological analogies and metaphors. How do they function? What facets of the analogy or metaphor do they single out–thereby discarding other connotations by process of elimination?

xi) I’ve given examples of theological analogies and metaphors where it’s possible, through abstraction, to isolate an identical or univocal element which two things share in common. But is that a requirement of analogical knowledge and analogical predication?

Take family resemblance. Children resembles their parents, or vice versa. A child may resemble one parent more than another. Likewise, sibling resemblance, both between brothers and sisters.

Is our ability to recognize family resemblance based on mentally breaking down the faces into identical features and differential features? Surely not.

Isn’t family resemblance something we take in at a glance? We instantly recognize the kinship. We don’t go through a process of abstraction to separate the identical features from the differential features.

Rather, we see each face as a whole. Indeed, that’s what makes it a face. The unified composition of all the different features.

Pattern recognition, by which we discern similarities and dissimilarities, seems to be based, not on isolating points of identity, but registering commonalities within a statistical spread.

Same thing if a teenager describes a girl to his friend. “She has long curly red hair, green eyes, and creamy skin.”

That’s a fairly vague description. Still, when his friend sees the girl, he can tell that she matches the description. He can recognize her from the description. The comparison is inexact, but so what? As long as the comparison is sufficiently accurate to successfully refer to the girl in question, it doesn’t need to be more exacting.

xii) Apropos (xi), we need to resist the temptation to concoct a religious epistemology based on how we’d like the world to be. We need to accept reality on its own terms. Accept the world as it comes to us from God’s hand. Our theory of analogy or analogical predication should takes its cue the nature of the world God has made for us and put us in, rather than dictating to the world what it must be like, or concocting an aprioristic theory which we use as a cookie-cutter to impose its outline on the world.

The sensible world is a fractal world with ragged boundaries in space and time. Where patterns bleed into another patterns. A world of shared surfaces. A world where comparisons come down to degrees of similarity and dissimilarity rather than sharp-edged identity and alterity.

That’s why Plato retreated into an abstract world of perfect circles and mathematically straight lines. Sharp borders and discrete surfaces. But Platonism isn’t the word of God or the world of God.

‘The Church’ in Roman Catholic Ecclesiology: is it the ‘Universal Sacrament of Salvation’? Or merely an idol?

The Roman Catholic Church, at Vatican II, called itself “the universal sacrament of salvation”. Here is how they put it:

In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: “For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ.” The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation,… a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God….

This much is Rome’s paying lip-service to the concept that I’ll relate below. As such, it should be seen as external to the direct relationship of the believer to Christ.

But as I’ve written in the past, what Rome gives with one fork of its tongue, it takes away with the other.

Because men's communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. In her, this unity is already begun, since she gathers men "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues”; at the same time, the Church is the "sign and instrument" of the full realization of the unity yet to come.

As sacrament, the Church is Christ's instrument. “She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,” “the universal sacrament of salvation,” by which Christ is “at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God's love for men.” The Church “is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity,” because God desires “that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit.”

With this second fork, Rome is making itself not merely an external sign, but “the instrument” alone which through flow “sacramental graces” “in their fullness” – without which men are “sort of on their own” – they can’t get the grace of the other sacraments.

But in reality, here, it sets itself up as an idol opposed to the direct mediation by Christ alone. In effect, it claims to be a mediator of the Mediator.

Michael Liccione (278) follows through with some of the logical result of this model:

1. You cite mathematics and the natural law as fields in which we don’t need “interpretive paradigms,” and you present those as analogues to theology. Now I don’t happen to agree that some fields of human knowledge require no IPs, but I’ll grant that assumption anyhow for argument’s sake. The real problem with your argument is that it assumes there is no relevant difference between what’s knowable by natural reason and what can be apprehended only by the supernatural gift of faith (emphasis added).

Interesting the way you oppose “the supernatural gift of faith” with “what’s knowable by natural reason and what can be appended”.

My point is that God has given man the capacity to be a direct receptor of that revelation. The notion that man will somehow miss what God is saying, either through general or special revelation, is not something that God has left to chance, although, your model assumes that God can only mediate his revelation through the Roman Catholic Church. That is false. Rather, Rome has set itself up as an idol, claiming to represent God, but really only getting in the way.

Bavinck notes, “The revelation that appeared in Christ as such is absolutely not opposed to nature but only to sin, which as an alien element has insinuated itself into the world. Revelation and creation are not opposed to each other, for creation itself is a revelation.”

Thus Adam in his world knows God not only by speaking personally with him, but by correlating that knowledge with what he perceives of God in the world around him (Romans 1). These two things are consonant, not separate. Bavinck continues:

Revelation was present before the fall. Even now, revelation is still present in all the works of God’s hand in nature and history; his external power and deity are perceived and understood from his creatures. And even supernatural revelation as such is so far from being in conflict with nature that every human in the core of his or her being is a supernaturalist and believes in a direct operative presence of God in the world (emphasis added; from Bavinck, “Reformed Dogmatics”, Vol 1, pg 361).

This is what makes entirely superfluous your positing some sort of “authority” which can mediate “the formal proximate object of faith”.

In reality, “the formal proximate object of faith” is “Christ alone”. “The Church” in Roman Catholic doctrine is a substitute for Christ. As such, it is an idol.

This is my main objection to Roman Catholicism. You deflect the believer’s mind from God, and focus it on “the Church”. “The Church” as defined by Rome is not “the sacrament of salvation”. It is an idol that leads people to focus on things other than God in Christ.

That is what I’m saying all along. God has created human beings with a direct capacity not only to understand him, but to be in direct union with him. If we really believe that we are in “union with Christ”, then, this direct union with “the Mediator” makes every other relationship secondary. This includes the relationship with other Christians, including “the church” as Protestants describe it, and particularly “The Church”.

It works the other way around. Christ is in us; word, church, and sacrament function externally to “stir up the spirit that is within us”. This is why we don’t miss what God is saying to us.

You may have heard Bonhoeffer’s famous statement, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”.

Here is how that works:

Thus it begins; the cross [for Christians] is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

Communion with Christ is thus a form of isolation from the rest of the world – even from other Christians. Bonhoeffer continues with this concept:

We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life. But this barrier is no surly contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. By virtue of his incarnation [Christ] has come between man and his natural life. There can be no turning back, for Christ bars the way. By calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of the world. He wants to be the centre, through him alone all things shall come to pass. He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality. Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1:3, 1 Cor 8:6, Hebrews 1:2), he is the sole Mediator in the world. Since his coming, man has no immediate relationship of his own any more to anything, neither to God nor to the world; Christ wants to be the mediator. Of course, there are plenty of gods who offer men direct access, and the world and the world naturally uses every means in its power to retain its direct hold on men, but that is the very reason why it is so bitterly opposed to Christ, the Mediator.

The Roman Catholic Church says you can only come to Christ in a way that is mediated only through [or only in “fullness”] “the Church” and its sacraments. And this is why, as I’ve posted prominently at my site, “The Reformers’ forensic understanding of justification ... the idea of an immediate divine imputation [of righteousness] renders superfluous the entire Catholic system of the priestly mediation of grace by the Church.”

But Paul says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” And also, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

This is a one-to-one relationship. Your fear is, as you said in 281, “The problem with lacking such a distinction is precisely that we cannot distinguish between what God is saying to us and what we are saying to ourselves.”

But God himself does not leave this to chance. Your notion that we must accept some earthly authority “as divine” is a poor and idolatrous substitute for the one, unmediated (or “mediated by Christ alone”) divine authority.

Thus, as you build your argument:

We can know truths of mathematics and precepts of the natural law by natural reason, but we cannot know divine revelation by such means. In the very nature of the case, we can only accept and believe divine revelation by faith, which entails trusting some authority as divine…

You deny the very power of God. You remove God in Christ from the direct sight of the believer, and you place “the Church” as an alternative “divine authority”. A secondary “divine authority”.

Rome seeks to impose itself and its will between the believer and Christ. In that way, it is simply an idol.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Ecclesiology on the fly

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).

This is often though to document the origin of the deaconate. I suppose we could quibble over terminology, but that’s secondary.

What’s striking about this account is how the Apostles are making up church polity on the fly. There’s no preexisting office that deals with this contingency. So they simply create one on the spot to deal with the situation. It’s a pragmatic solution to a practical problem. . The Jerusalem church didn’t have the internal organization already in place to fix this problem, so the Apostles do what’s necessary to address the need. They don’t even consult with God beforehand. They adapted to the demands of the situation.

This is very different from the traditional Roman Catholic notion where God handed down a complete ecclesiological package.

"The head of Christ is God"

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor 11:3).

Some unitarians and Nicene subordinationists cite this verse to prooftext their respective positions. But that falls well short of what they need.

In the economy of salvation, the Incarnate Son submits himself to many things. He submits himself to Joseph and Mary. Does that make him intrinsically subordinate to his mother and stepdad? He submits himself to Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin. Does that make him intrinsically subordinate to Roman and Jewish authorities? He submits himself to the Mosaic Law. Does that make him intrinsically subordinate to the Mosaic Law?

1 Cor 11 is dealing with church order. That pertains to the economy of salvation, not the immanent Trinity.

God is not some kind of loon

In response to my comment here, Michael Liccione said:

What you’ve done is interpret some biblical texts and present that as evidence that the Bible supports your interpretive paradigm (IP) over against the Catholic. Now I could reply by offering my own, Catholic interpretation of the texts you select. But I can find no good reason to so. For when the very question at issue is which IP, the conservative-Protestant or the Catholic, supplies a principled way to distinguish divine revelation from human theological opinion, neither of us can answer the question just by offering our own favored interpretation of selected biblical texts. You have interpreted, and I would be interpreting, the texts already in terms of our own respective IPs, which begs the question and gets us nowhere. So it is incumbent on anyone debating said question to argue, on grounds independent of the particular biblical interpretations he adopts, that his IP has a principled distinction between divine revelation and human theological opinion, so that by deploying it, he at least has an argument that his particular interpretations are reliable expressions of divine revelation, not just opinions. But if you deny that you or anybody else enjoys the gift of infallibility, and thus admit that you could be wrong, you have no way of making that argument.

For several years now, I’ve been waiting for you to engage the essentially philosophical issue I’ve posed for you. If and when you do, our discussions might move forward.

I responded:

Your appeal to “philosophical issues” is an evasion, and your concept of “interpretive paradigm” is a subterfuge.

Here’s why.

Consider the world of math. Math has rules, and you can, if you make up your mind that you are going to be as honest as possible in your understanding of math, it won’t take you long to understand that 2+2=4. With a bit more work, you’ll find out that 9x9=81, and with not too much more difficulty, you can go to a smart guy and understand that a2xb2=c2 and someone may even be able to figure out the square root of a number like 5,237.

This is because we are talking about numbers, and numbers have properties that are constant, and they can be learned.

Keep in mind that God is a God who created math, with its properties unique to math.

Knowing what I do about math, it is very hard for me to imagine an “interpretive paradigm” (IP) in the universe that is going to make 2+2=5 a true statement. If there is one, it is going to be something very twisted and counterintuitive.

Even such concepts as “relativity”, as complicated as they are, are merely extensions of the “paradigm” that causes 2+2=4 to be true.

That’s the problem with the Roman Catholic “IP”.

If you consider, too, that God has properties, he tells us what these properties are, [we know them because he reveals them], and that he honest with us and is not some kind of loon, then understanding God’s revelation to us is not too different from understanding math.

Further, since we live in the universe that God created, and that he created us, it is no stretch at all to consider that he has made us with “receptors” to what he is “transmitting”. Turretin said it with a bit more precision:

…it is even most absurd that the rational creature as rational should not be subject to him [God] in the genus of morals and not be governed by him suitably to his nature (i.e., by moral means) by the establishment of a law. Hence it follows either that man ought to have been created independent by God (which is absurd) or that he has a natural law impressed upon him, in accordance with which he may be ruled by him

God is not going to make creatures that can’t hear and understand him. That’s the point of my comment 233 above.

Let’s look at this. God reveals something to Adam; Adam does something, and there is a consequence. God says more. Then he talks to different people – Noah, Abraham, Jacob. There is more history. We know the words, and we know the history.

If your “interpretive paradigm” is to be as honest with those statements, and with the history, as you can possibly be (and knowing that our understanding of both the languages of those statements, and the history, especially moving closer to our time), you are not going to have a difficult time understanding the basics.

The fact that many people aren’t good at math doesn’t make math untrue.

Now Mike, you want an “interpretive paradigm” that runs extremely counterintuitive to not only the “relativity” that has been calculated out, but counterintuitive to the 2+2=4 and the 9x9=81 statements.

Look at the other side of this: What kind of “interpretive paradigm” does the “infallible magisterium” use to come up with the things it comes up with.

The deliberations over the Trinity and Christology required no “infallibility”. It required [and Athanasius and others are clear about this] an honest look at Scripture. Athanasius Contra Arianus contains Athanasius’s “proof” of the Trinity.

We know too the sources of some of the uniquely “catholic” items and the uniquely “Roman” doctrines that you say are “materially present” “in the original deposit of faith” [and one might add, “somehow”, “implicitly”].

We know, for example, that there is no historical record for the Assumption of Mary. There are no numbers of any kind that add up to “Assumption of Mary”. Assumption of Mary is a 2+2=5 statement. Consider:

Tertullian can write a long treatise of sixty-three chapters On the Resurrection of the Dead, mentioning and discussing the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the raising of Lazarus, the translation without death of Enoch and of Elijah, the returning from the dead of Moses for the Transfiguration, and even the preservation from what was humanly speaking certain death of the three young men in the fiery furnace and of Jonah in the whale’s belly. He does not once even slightly mention, he does not once remotely and uncertainly hint at, the resurrection or corporeal assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Tertullian quite clearly, like all his contemporaries and predecessors, had never heard of this story (R.P.C. Hanson, “Tradition in the Early Church”, SCM Press, ©1962, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers edition, pgs 258–259).

Tertullian was one of the most well-informed of the writers of the early (late 2nd, early 3rd century) church. If anyone had the slightest hint in his day that it had happened, he would have known about it.

And yet, the “infallible Magisterium” of the 20th century knows enough about this non-event to include it within the “formal proximate object of faith”. There is now [for Roman Catholics] no question, it was a true event. Even though, as Hanson says, “this idea first made its appearance in the fifth-century Coptic Christianity under marked Gnostic influence.”

What kind of magic dust gives the “infallible Magisterium” the “authority” to make a non-event into a dogma? What kind of magic dust makes “2+2=5” into a true statement?

This is one event, and one of the most egregious, but it is standard operating procedure for the Roman “teaching authority”.

Do we start with simple math and work our way up to calculus? Or do we commit our lives and eternal destinies to the “interpretive paradigm” that makes 2+2=5?

Should you cross yourself left to right? Or right to left?

Susan 242, you said:

I am a brand new convert to the Catholic Church(12-16-2012)

I am very sorry to hear this. It’s not too late for you to leave. I did leave, too, after a number of years. Those years now seem like wasted time, much damage having occurred, except that, you know, God has a purpose for everything. I did manage to learn where the exits are, in such a way that I could help people find them.

You asked:

I asked my pastors directly, “which church should I submit to?”, and everytime they answered my question with the question, ” So you believe that Rome has an infallible interpreter?” Well, I hope somebody’s got some definate answers otherwise Christ left us oprhans! I went as far as to assert that they(Reformers) were relying on Reformed formularies much in the same way that Catholics rely on bishops and popes, for they are absolutely not relying on scripture to serve as the sole informant of their doctrines, but on men who believe that they were interpreting correctly whether you say they are infallible(not erring) or not. Further, if Reformers are not interpreting without any error in regards to faith and morals, why should I trust them and be required to submit to their authority?

Susan, we are not orphans in the world that we should run around blindly with our arms raised, asking, “who is my rightful parent, who is my rightful parent?”

God created us “in his image”, with the capacity to understand what He says to us [whether you know it or not] and with the ability to reflect His glory in the world.

We do have the ability to understand Him if we will stop and focus on Him, on hearing His voice.

Your pastors were right to ask you to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Rome. If Rome’s story is not true, all the disorganization in the [Protestant] world does not make Rome’s story about itself true. I’ve written elsewhere, “Too often, an argument is put forth in this form: “Protestantism has lots of problems. Therefore, Catholicism.”

That’s not what they’re saying here, precisely, but that was how you looked at it.

In defense of Roman Catholicism, now, you see a philosophy professor positing that “it is incumbent on anyone debating said question to argue, on grounds independent of the particular biblical interpretations he adopts, that his IP has a principled distinction between divine revelation and human theological opinion, so that by deploying it, he at least has an argument that his particular interpretations are reliable expressions of divine revelation, not just opinions”

That’s gobbledygook. What he is saying is that you (nobody) can understand what God is saying to you. You can’t trust your own judgment as to what God’s word is and what it is saying to you. What he is saying further is that God does not have the ability to communicate directly with you. Now, you may still be confused, but is that your fault, or God’s fault?

At it’s heart, the Gospel is the reporting of an event. I like to cite some of the sermons in Acts because they’re so straightforward:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

No epistemological conundrum there. Was it because Peter had some kind of mysterious “authority” to “define” a “formal proximate object of faith”? Or was he just simply telling folks about Jesus, the one the Jews had been waiting for. [Is Acts not a book of the Bible?]

Or Paul:

When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Roman Catholics have this concept of a “formal proximate object of faith” as if it had some kind of hard-edged boundary that you dare not cross, lest you miss out on “the fullness of the faith”. But do you know what “the faith” is?

Jesus Christ was the one who was prophesied and promised to the nation of Israel. He died for your sins; therefore, trust and believe, turn and be healed.

Yes, learn everything that Jesus did and said. Then “go and do likewise”.

Then what should I do, what should I do? Should I get baptized by sprinkling or dunking? When I bless myself, should my hand cross from left to right or right to left? Sola Scriptura doesn’t tell me!!!!

Well, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, we “get to” do good works, not “we got to”. Continuing that thought:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

We are at peace, end of story. Yes, we live our lives in tension; we are healed but we carry around sinful flesh.

The Lutherans have a concept, adiaphora (from the Greek ἀδιάφορα “indifferent things”). You have very many questions – “when I fold my hands, which way do I cross my thumbs?” – but these are adiaphora. That’s a fancy way of saying, “who cares?”

I’ll tell you who cares. Rome cares. The Roman Catholic Church is not descended from the Apostles who said “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” It is descended from the Roman empire, which, to say it bluntly, “wants to be the boss of you”. The Roman tendency is just the tendency of sinful man. “I want to be in charge”. I’m the authority, I’m the boss of you, you have to listen to me. Only I can tell you the boundaries of “the formal proximate object of faith”. “Only I can tell you whether to bless yourself left to right, rather than right to left”.

Someone has to tell you that, if you are an orphan in the world, running around blindly with your arms raised, asking, “who is my rightful parent, who is my rightful parent?”

But if you know God is your Father, and Christ has made things right for you, that you are not a blind orphan, you need not run around looking for “the right” parent. You simply need to look to the one true parent that you have, the Father, and his ONE mediator, Jesus Christ, and understand with your heart and turn and be healed, and know that He is a God who is good for His Word, which you now conveniently [thanks to Godly and careful believers before you, who worked to understand the calculations needed to discern the canon of Scripture, to learn the languages that others, who had heard directly from God, spoke, to trace the history of how it occurred] have in the form of a single book, “God’s word to mankind”.

There is your “formal proximate object of faith”. If you believe God’s word tells you to cross yourself left-to-right, and some other believer says “no you must do it right-to-left”, when you stand before God to give an account, do you think He really cares about that?

Meanwhile, thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Rome. Is the story of their “authority” a true one? Or is it full of falsehoods?

People now need to ask the one question: “Did the Roman church come by its authority in a legitimate way?” Was its authority “divinely instituted,” as it never tires of reminding us that it is? Or was this authority accumulated through less-than-honest means?

Does Rome really get to retrospectively say what happened in history, even if it didn’t? Is retrospectively determining what happened in history a matter of authority? Or is it a matter of understanding? Nevertheless, they will tell you they have the authority to take a non-event and make it a dogma that you must believe lest you “incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.”

Peter and Paul had no knowledge of such an event, and the Scriptures say that God is rather angry with people who inventively “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” to say precisely where the authority comes from to create such a heavy burden in the first place.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Son is over all

One argument deployed by unitarians and Nicene subordinationists is to assert a fundamental asymmetry between the Father and the Son: the Father sends the Son, but the Son never sends the Father. The Father tells the Son what do to, but the Son never tells the Father what to do.

Let’s examine the first claim first. The problem with the first claim is the inference that being sent connotes a subordinate status. No doubt there are examples in which that’s the case. A centurion dispatches a lower-ranking officer.

However, in Johannine usage, the sending of the Son is linked to where he comes from. For instance:

3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.

6: 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

7: 33 Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me.”

10: 36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

13:3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God.

The point is to accentuate the fact that the Son is not from this world. The Son is not a creature.

This is reinforced by a further fact. The passages I quoted are book-ended by these statements:

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

17:5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

The Son doesn’t come from heaven the way an angel comes from heaven. He isn’t sent in that sense. Rather, he is from heaven in the same sense that the Father is from heaven, as well as the Spirit (e.g. Jn 1:32-33). I don’t mean the Father comes from heaven. Rather, the Father is from heaven.

We need to distinguish two differences senses of heavenly language:

i) Oftentimes in Scripture, heaven is a part of the created order. A place where exalted creatures (saints, angels) dwell with God.

ii) However, the Fourth Gospel also uses heavenly language, not to describe a created place, but to distinguish God’s exclusive domain from the world. In this sense, heaven is not a part of the world. It doesn’t belong to the created order. Rather, it’s a spatial metaphor for God’s unique mode of subsistence. That which is only God, in distinction to that which is not God (i.e. the world). The Son is a heavenly being, just like the Father (and the Spirit).

Now let’s examine the second claim. Is it true that the Father always tells the Son what to do, while the Son never tells the Father what to do? In Jn 17, isn’t the Son telling the Father what to do?

17:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.”

5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 

I think Christian readers miss that accent because we tend to unconsciously turn the imperatives into petitions, as if Jesus is merely asking the Father to do these things. And that’s because, when Christians pray to God, we are making requests. We are supplicants. Sinners. Creatures. We adopt a submissive posture in prayer.

But it’s a mistake to reinterpret the imperatives in Jn 17, as if the Son speaks to the Father in the same way a Christian speaks to the Father.

One might object that Jesus isn’t barking orders at the Father. Agreed. But by the same token, the Father isn’t barking orders at Jesus.

Finally, it’s striking to compare these two passages:

3:31 He who comes from above is above all.

10:29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.

If we take 10:29 to mean the Father is superior to the Son, then, by parity of argument, we should take 3:31 to mean the Son is superior to the Father. If the Father being greater than all includes the Father being greater than the Son, then the Son being over all includes the Son being over the Father.

Clearly this should caution us against absolutizing comparative statements about the Father in relation to the Son, for the logic is reversible.

Indeed, we also have a specific assertion of the Son’s equality with the Father:

5:18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

How did Trent’s Doctrine of the Eucharist Foster Disunity?

Paul Bassett explores this question at Reformation500.

The background leading to The Council of Trent is an intricate patchwork of political maneuvering, self-interest and preservation. The fact that the north German princes had adopted Lutheranism in their territories was an irritant to Emperor Charles for it provided them a club with which to keep him at bay. And this was a vexing annoyance because the Emperor’s attention was drawn continually to the threat of Islam to the east. The more he had to deal with intransigent Lutherans, the less he could focus on the march of the Saracens.

The growth of Protestantism was also a concern for Rome because the more territories that became Protestant the less cash flowed to the Vatican and the more doubt was cast on Rome’s claim to universalism. Additionally, Rome had been selling bishoprics to the highest bidder as a standard practice for a long time. Rich bishops, having procured multiple sees, were simply absent from their dioceses; a situation which caused the locals to wonder what, in the end, they were really paying for. This was another practice badly in need of reform.

Against this backdrop, Trent’s deliberations on the Eucharist were not an attempt to articulate what Catholic doctrine had been. Paul makes that clear at several points:

Trent dealt with the doctrine of the Eucharist in two of its sessions: XIII and XXII. In the former it formalized the doctrine of transubstantiation; in the latter it asserted the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. Transubstantiation was one of several competing doctrines of the age. It “was never made official in the medieval Church, but got weighty backing even before Aquinas’s time when it was used in documents of the Lateran Council of the Church in 1215.” And this fact, that of competing Eucharistic doctrines, goes to the heart of our investigation. At the time of Trent, there was a lack of unity from Rome on this crucial matter. And transubstantiation itself required a foundation in the pagan philosophy of Aristotle, a philosophy that was not universally accepted even within the fold of Rome:
From the fourteenth century, most philosophers and theologians, particularly in northern Europe, did not in fact believe this (Thomistic doctrine). They were nominalists, who rejected Aristotle’s categories… Nominalists could only say of transubstantiation as a theory of the Mass that it was supported by the weight of opinion among very many holy men in the Church, and therefore it ought not to be approached through the Thomist paths of reason, but must be accepted as a matter of faith. Once that faith in the Church’s medieval authorities was challenged, as it was in the sixteenth century, the basis for belief in transubstantiation was gone, unless one returned to Thomism, the thought of Aquinas. Those who remained in the Roman obedience generally did this; but in sixteenth-century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burnt at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of the Tridentine declaration on transubstantiation was almost certainly motivated by politics and not strictly theology.

And as a result, “Reacting against the Reformers, Trent defined the Mass as a “true and proper sacrifice…but left it to the theologians…to argue over what sacrifice is….”:

And argue they did! In fact, [Robert Daly, S.J.] outlines four competing theories of “sacrifice” that resulted from the Tridentine proclamation in the fifty years following Trent; all with notable Roman Catholic theologians in support and none [of] which received magisterial approbation or rejection.

He says: “We can clearly see that the doctrine of ‘sacrifice’ as imposed by the Council of Trent resulted in more diversity of opinion, and not less. And rather than clarifying what had gone before, the Magisterium simply allowed theologians to ‘work it out’. When the theologians produced more diversity in doctrine Rome did not correct them or create any unity at all.”

Read more about it here.

The First Adam, Sola Scriptura, and his Commission as King, Priest, and Protestant

I’m continuing to work with Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic ©2011) in looking at the question, “what is the church?”

Here’s God’s creation of, and charge to the first Adam:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Beale notes that this breaks out into the following separate elements:

The commission of Gen 1:26–28 involves the following elements, especially, as summarized in 1:28: (1) “God blessed them”; (2) “Be fruitful and multiply”; (3) “fill the earth”; (4) “subdue” the “earth”; (5) “rule over … all the earth.”

Adam being made in the image of God “is what enables Adam to carry out the particular parts of the commission” (30).

God’s creation of Adam in his image as the crown of creation is probably to be seen as the content of the “blessing” at the beginning of verse 28. The “ruling” and “subduing” “over all the earth” expresses Adam’s kingship and is plausibly part of a functional definition of the divine image in which Adam was made. This functional aspect is likely the focus of what it means that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image.

After a brief discussion of how “image” and “function” were related in the ancient Near East (ANE), and noting that “Adam represents God’s sovereign presence and rule on earth”, Beale expands this to say “there is an additional ontological aspect of the “image” by which humanity was enabled to reflect the functional image”:

Adam was made in the volitional, rational, and moral image of God, so that, with regard to the latter, he was to reflect moral attributes such as righteousness, knowledge, holiness, justice, love, faithfulness, and integrity (for the first three attributes as part of the divine image, see Eph 4:24; Col 3:10), and above all he was to reflect God’s glory….

Adam’s commission to “cultivate” (with connotations of “serving”) and “guard” in Gen 2:15 as a priest-king is probably part of the commission given in Gen 1:26–28. Hence, Gen 2:15 continues the theme of subduing and filling the earth by humanity created in the divine image, which has been placed in the first temple [i.e., Eden. For Beale’s complete argument on this, see his work The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God].

Adam was to be God’s obedient servant in maintaining both the physical and spiritual warfare of the garden abode, which included dutifully keeping evil influences from invading the arboreal sanctuary. In fact, the physical and spiritual dimensions of Adam’s responsibilities in relation to the Genesis 1 commission are apparent from the recognition that Adam was like a primordial priest serving in a primeval temple. Adam was to be like Israel’s later priests, who both physically protected the temple and spiritually were to be experts in the recollection, interpretation, and application of God’s word in the Torah. Accordingly, essential to Adam and Eve’s raising of their children was spiritual instruction in God’s word that the parents themselves were to remember and pass on.

In this respect, it is apparent that knowing and being obedient to God’s word was crucial to carrying out the task of Gen 1:26–28 (and disobedience led to failure [cf. Gen 2:16–17 with Gen 3:1–7], pgs 32–33).

Roman Catholics are fond of asking, “where is Sola Scriptura in the Bible?” The first instance of it is right here, at the beginning, establishing the principle from the start. Adam and Eve had a word from God (though no “infallible canon”), and they were simply expected to understand and obey.

One should note that, according to Michael Liccione, this is “the very essence of Protestantism. One assumes that the deposit of faith is knowable independently of ecclesial authority, and that one knows its content.” So we have the formal principle of the Reformation right here starting with God’s word to Adam. One might say that God himself was the first to articulate the principle.

With respect to Roman Catholic ecclesiology, this requirement to know what God’s word was saying, perspicuously, and in an unmediated way, was taken for granted. There is no provision for an “infallible interpreter” at this point.

Thus, knowing God’s will as expressed in his word of command (Gen 2:16–17) is part of the functional manner in which humanity was to reflect the divine image, which assumes that Adam was created with the rational and moral capacities to comprehend and carry out such a command. The first two humans were to think God’s thoughts after him. Thus, Adam and his wife’s “knowledge” of God also included remembering God’s word addressed to Adam in Gen 2:16–17, which Adam’s wife failed to recall in Gen 3:2–3. After God puts Adam into the garden in Gen 2:15 to serve him he gives Adam a positive command, a negative command, and a warning to remember: “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge [LXX: infinitive of γινώσκω] of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:16–17).

When confronted by the satanic serpent, Adam’s wife responds by quoting Gen 2:16–17 but changes the wording in at least three major places (Gen 3:2–3). It is possible that the changes are incidental and are a mere paraphrase still retaining the same meaning as in 2:16–17. It is more likely, however, that she either failed to remember God’s word accurately or intentionally changed it for her own purposes. The telltale sign of this is that each change appears to have theological significance. First, she minimizes their privileges by saying merely, “We may eat,” whereas God had said, “You may eat freely”; second, she minimizes the judgment by saying “You will die,” whereas God said, “You will surely die”; third, she maximizes the prohibition by affirming, “You shall not … touch,” whereas God originally said only, “You shall not eat.” (33)

In effect, Eve has given us the very first instance of “the development of doctrine”, and the consequences of an improper “interpretation” are quite severe.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Love endures

37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” 39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him any question (Lk 20:37-40).

This passage has puzzled commentators. They aren’t clear on how Jesus derives his conclusion from his source material.

I suspect the explanation is hiding in plain sight. The problem is that commentators need to use a wide-angle lens rather than a close-up shot. They need to back up.

Scripture calls Abraham God’s friend or God’s beloved (cf. 2 Chron 20:7; Isa 41:8; Jas 2:23). The point is not that Abraham was a friend to God, but that God was a friend to Abraham. God befriended Abraham. God took the initiative.

When God called Abraham out of Ur, God was befriending Abraham. Making Abraham his friend. When God entered into covenant with Abraham, God was being a friend to Abraham. When God forgave him and justified him, God was showing love for Abraham. Had God not called Abraham out of Ur, Abraham would have lived and died in paganism. Ignorant of the true God. Sunken in sin. Mired in idolatry.

Was God merely using Abraham as a means to an end? No. God cared about Abraham.

God uses some people as merely a means to an end. Pharaoh is a case in point. But Pharaoh never was God’s friend. Rather, he was God’s foil.

What does it mean to be a friend to someone? You care for them. You’re concerned for their welfare. You care about what happens to them. You try to spare them from harm.

What kind of friend would God be to Abraham if, after coming into his life, awakening him, making himself known to Abraham, he let Abraham suffer the ultimate calamity of oblivion? What kind of friend would God be to Abraham if he allowed Abraham to pass into nothing, like dry, burning grass? Why befriend Abraham, only to let that goes to waste?

In human relations, we can’t anticipate the outcome. Some friendships end badly, in betrayal. Animosity. We feel worse about them than if we never got to know them. If we’d known that’s how it was going to turn out, we wouldn’t befriend them in the first place. Wouldn’t invest all that emotional capital in a doomed relationship.

Some friendships end sadly. We may have known a person since kindergarten or first grade. He lived just up the street. We used to be so close.

But then, in junior high, he got hooked on drugs. He was in and out of rehab, but never able to shake the habit. We watch him commit slow-motion suicide. We watch him self-destruct, as we stand by helplessly. We see him cease to become the person we knew, except for painful moments when his old self briefly emerges. If we’d know that’s how it was going to end, we’d keep our distance. Unfortunately, the best we can do is often not enough. Not nearly enough.

But God knows, when he befriends someone, how that will come out. Indeed, how that comes out is up to God. God can prevent Abraham from perishing. Save Abraham from annihilation.

Would God permit his friend to face the Last Enemy alone? Defenseless? Would God permit the Last Enemy to win?

Godlesspell: the two faces of atheism

Richard Dawkins can’t quite make up his mind on how were supposed to feel about our godless existence. On the one hand there’s Dawkins in his sour dour drill sergeant mode, who tries to shame us into accepting our sorry lot. That’s the manly, heroic posture to adopt:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting–it might be more comforting, for all I know. But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it's true.

If it's true that it causes people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth. The universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it.  

On the other hand there’s Dawkins in his euphoric, Summer-of-Love mode, who tries to inspire us to embrace the sheer wonderfulness of our godless existence. Follow your bliss:

 Godspell, 35th Anniversary Edition DVD   -

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

Jesus for men

Jesus is tenderly calling you home
Calling today, calling today,
Why from the sunshine of love will you roam,
Farther and farther away?

Jesus is waiting, O come to Him now,
Waiting today, waiting today,
Come with your sins, at His feet lowly bow;
Come, and no longer delay.

Jesus is pleading, O list to His voice,
Hear Him today, hear Him today,
They who believe on His Name shall rejoice;
Quickly arise and away.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that this hymn was written by a woman. It reflects a very feminine view of Jesus. This is Jesus seen through a woman’s eyes.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We’d expect a woman to see Jesus through a woman’s eyes. That’s only natural. Mind you, I happen to think this hymn is theologically deficient, but that’s an argument for another day.

Male hymnodists, especially Victorians, could also write hymns in this dainty vein. They could psych themselves into that mindset.

But as a rule, it doesn’t work for a man to see Jesus through a woman’s eyes. That’s off-putting. Men need to relate to Jesus as men, not women.

Now, there’s some value in both sexes learning how to perceive things the way the opposite sex perceives them. Being able to assume that viewpoint is important in marriage.

But I’m dealing with male Christian piety. Christian men ought to love Jesus. But what does that mean? How should men love Jesus?  What’s the frame of reference?

Actually, there’s nothing unusual about men loving other men. That’s perfectly normal and commonplace. Paradigm-cases include fathers loving sons. Sons loving fathers. Brothers loving each other.

Another example is male friendship. Players on a high school football team may form strong emotional bonds. A junior high or high school football team can function like a surrogate family.

Men in combat units may form strong emotional bonds. A policeman and his (male) partner may become best friends.

There’s nothing the least bit “gay” about this type of male bonding.

The Bible itself has examples of fatherly love, filial love, brotherly love, and amicable love. The Bible also uses these examples as theological metaphors.

One way for Christian men to foster their love for Jesus is to think of Jesus as a big brother or a best friend. Of course, Jesus is far more than that. But that’s a start. Right now I’m stressing masculine models of affection for other men. And Scripture itself utilizes these models–as well as other models.

We can also reflect on Jesus’ friendship with the twelve disciples. For three years straight, they were inseparable. They did everything together. Went everywhere together. Ate together. Slept together. Slept out in the open, under starry skies. Huddled by a makeshift campfire for warmth on a chilly desert night. Or sweated on hot dusty roads.

They went through everything together. The highs and the lows. They were loved for his sake and they were hated for his sake. Where he was loved, they were loved. Where he was hated, they were hated. 

Moreover, when Jesus called the disciples, it’s unlikely that he was calling perfect strangers. He probably knew most of them from childhood, growing up together in fishing communities along the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Childhood playmates. Adjacent villages within walking distance of each other–up and down the shoreline. They went fishing together. Swimming together. Caught lizards. Surveyed the countryside from the surrounding hills.

They probably came of age together. Attended marriages and funerals together. Shared the mournful death of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Mothers dying in childbirth.

As boys they probably went to Jerusalem on extended family pilgrimages. Explored the city together.

That’s why the Ascension is such a wrenching experience for them. They are losing him. Like the untimely death of your brother or your best friend. The separation is devastating. In this life they will never see him again.

Of course, you and I lack that direct experience. But even though you and I weren’t one of the twelve disciples, we can see Jesus through the eyes of his disciples, as if we were one of the Twelve. When we read the Gospels, we see Jesus through the vivid recollection of those who saw him, heard him, walked with him, and talked with him. 

When we read the Gospels, we eavesdrop on these ancient scenes. Overheard these ancient conversations. We step into a time machine. We travel back in time to Jesus’s time. We stand where the disciples stood.

We can also mediate on the sonship of Christ. Christ is the incarnate Son of God. That’s a masculine role. More than a role. Every man is someone’s son.

Of course, his sonship differs from our sonship. From how we relate to our earthly fathers. And his filial relationship with the Father differs from our filial relationship with the Father, through him. But there are similarities as well as differences.

Jesus can help us understand what it means to be a son. What it means to have a father.

In a fallen world, some sons are a great disappointment to their fathers–while some fathers are a great disappointment to their sons. Jesus can bring healing to our damaging experience by modeling the exemplary Son of the exemplary Father.

The example of Christ can show men how to be better fathers, sons, and brothers. And that prepares us to be better husbands as well. He teaches us how to be loving men, beginning with himself.