Theology: March 2004 Archives

Calvinists have long had 5 points (spelling TULIP) to explain the basic doctrines of Reformed thinking (many of the terms of which are quite misleading):

Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints

Discoshaman has posted the five points of Arminianism, DAISY:

Diminished depravity
Abrogated election
Impersonal atonement
Sedentary grace
Yieldable justification

Of course this only works for 5-point Arminians (i.e. those who deny all five points of Calvinism, which most Arminians I know wouldn't do, and many more combinations of some of the points but not others are at least consistent than most people have thought).

Mark at Hyleninja suggests that, with a few tendentious premises (one extremely tendentious, given the thousands of years of work on the problem of evil, another less so given theism but still weird), we can get the conclusion that this world isn't the actual world, just one world among many that God considered, and thus we're just God's thoughts. I think this view makes a lot of sense, at least on some readings without these premises. In fact Berkeley had similar enough views, and Malebranche wasn't far from this sort of thing. My friend Wink (who sometimes comments here) at least at one point wanted to say that we are in fact God's thoughts, but not in the way Mark's post offers. Wink's view is that God's creative powers are something like storytelling, and God is telling a story through creation. We're the characters in the story, and he's writing our lives out (though in the story we have freedom, which was one of the motivations for this metaphor -- which I think he took to be not a metaphor at all but more proximate to reality than the way we often think). In a way, if this view is right, then we are God's thoughts, but it's not as if there are realities that God did create while not creating us, as Mark's proposal goes. According to Wink's view, God did create us by thinking about us, and the only thing that makes us real is that God is still thinking us. It gives new meaning to the doctrine of continuous creation.

I've been wanting to write something with deeper significance for my 200th post. I've been working on this for a couple days and haven't wanted to post anything else because that would then have been the 200th post. I've been meditating on the consequences of the fall in the world, and I'm not talking about sinful and immoral actions or thoughts. I'm just thinking about negative effects in creation that Christianity attributes to the effects of the fall. A number of events in the near past have brought me to these thoughts, and I'll mention some of them as I go. When most people raise questions about God and evil, the issues I'm considering right now are among the foremost in their minds. (After all, evil actions are done by evil people, who then take the blame. The sort of badness I'm thinking of for this post is often even classified under the category of acts of God.)

Here's another oldie, this one only from about a year ago, 13 March 2003.

Some people say yes, but can there be if theological determinism is true? The idea is that if God stands behind every action in some way, good or evil, then there cannot be potentiality in God. It�s somehow inappropriate to say that something different could have happened, I could have done something different, etc. I am the one who did it, and I am responsible for doing it, but could it have been different if God stands behind it in some fundamental sense? Many Reformed thinkers will say no. There is no potentiality in God.

I disagree with the conclusion, though I think the general picture behind it is correct. To get a sense of why I think the fundamental picture behind it is correct, read through chapter 10 of Isaiah�s prophecy and Peter�s speeched in Acts 2 and Acts 4. Evil actions are described � first the king of Assyria and his attack on God�s people, then Judas� betrayal of Jesus and the Jewish leaders� follow-through that led to his being put to death. These are evil actions. There�s no question about that in the minds of Isaiah (who gave the prophecy from God but presumably through his own mind and ways of expressing things, including through his own divinely inspired theological reflection), Peter (who gave the speech in the Acts narrative), and Luke (who gave us the Acts narrative). These people are blamed by the biblical writers for their evil actions. However, it�s also true that God stands behind these events. The actions of Judas and the Jewish leaders, while evil, were necessary for God�s plan of salvation. They are, in effect, part of that plan. Similarly, the actions of the Assyrian king are evil but are part of God�s process of judging Israel. Isaiah goes so far as to call him a tool in God�s hands, and yet somehow he�s responsible for what he did! There is a mystery here. I�m not trying to sort it out, but its background is important for this issue.

Now about the conclusion many Reformed thinkers draw � does this mean that only one thing is possible? After all, God has his one plan, which includes evil things in it, so we can�t insist that the evil things are not part of God�s plan and say that they allow for the various possibilities. If it�s possible that God can in some way stand behind evil actions without himself being morally responsible for the evil people do, then we don�t need to insist on human free action as something outside God�s control. Then there really only needs to be one possible outcome, and it seems as if there aren�t real possibilities. I once thought this was a good argument, but I�m now convinced that it�s not. The biblical data from above points us one way. What you�ll find is another set of passages in tension with the ones above, pushing us in a different direction. First let�s consider those, and then we�ll move on to discuss the philosophical implications.

In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Mulims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.

I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.

Perseverance

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Here's another discussion from my old website. I originally wrote it on 15 April 2002 and it was last modified on 28 February 2003. I wrote it in the context of an off-topic debate on whether Christians can lose their salvation on an email list (composed mostly of Christians) created to discuss music, of all things. I haven't changed anything except to put links in for the scripture references. The price of the book at the bottom, predictably, has changed. It's now $17.49.

I guess I wanted to suggest some thoughts for sorting out this issue. I think there are things to be said for both sides, and both sides to have some tendency to ignore the passages that cause problems for their position or to explain them away with implausible interpretations. However, I don't see these passages as contradictory to begin with.

There are tensions within scripture on this issue. That's because the truth of God's salvation isn't so easy to put into a human system. When we try, we often end up going beyond what scripture requires us to say, and that often leads us to deny things in other parts of scripture. It also means that it takes quite some time to explain fully what all these different sorts of passages are getting at and how they fit together, so bear with me.

One of the email discussion groups I'm in went into an off-topic diversion about politics, and someone raised the following arguments against Christians participating in politics (after giving some purely secular arguments against siding with a political party):

I also prescribe to Jesus words to not be any part of this world. He didn't
participate in politics when he was on earth even though many of his
followers wanted him to. His kingdom was not of this world, so why should
mine be? It doesn't matter what country you live in or what party you
belong to, we are supposed to be Christians. We should follow Christ and
not politicians that claim to be Christians.

I think this is an unfortunate attitude. I would say not just that it's not wrong to vote, but that I as a Christian have a responsibility to vote. There's enough to suggest that Jesus' command not to be of the world doesn't mean not voting, because how you vote might just be one way of being in the world but not of it.

Roundup

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I'm afraid I've found myself once again with a bunch of stuff I feel like linking to but without the time to say much about them, so it's time for another roundup.

A politically-motivated policy (and I would argue one of ill will, since 'pro-choice' is at least as much of a euphemism as 'pro-life') has led a copy editor on the Los Angeles Times to replace 'pro-life' with 'anti-abortion' when the opera being described was, quite literally, pro-life and not about abortion at all.

La Shawn Barber has some nice balance to the Memogate charges. Her conclusion? They're all deceitful snoops on both sides, and this is just about one person who got caught. This was a dishonest crime that found out the culprits anyway, and why isn't that being investigated?

The new Spare Change (formerly Clarity Amidst Chaos) has a comparison of John Kerry before and after in a nice chart. Some of these are legitimate changes of mind on the issues, but I have a hard time believing this many serious differences could be from that. As I think I've said before, I think he's in the upper class of the Democratic party, voting according to the current political wind to retain the lower elements of the party and not caring as much about the issues. (See this post for more on the class structure of the parties.)

I never knew that John Kerry had once realized the negative consequences of affirmative action for the very underrepresented minorities it's supposed to be helping. I wonder how many liberal politicians know this but won't admit to believing it due to their desire to maintain control over black voters (also in the above-linked political party class structure post). For those who want arguments for my view on affirmative action, you'll have to wait until I come to it after I finish my posts on separatism and anti-intellectualism, which I will get around to soon but have been putting off.

On the topic of the Democratic enslavement of the black vote, Baldilocks has two posts, one on her frustrations of being assumed to be a Democrat by voting officials simply because she's black and another on the issue that may cost the Democrats their loyal slaves. (This is probably one reason John Kerry, who condescendingly wants to be considered the second black president, as if there has already been one, won't say anything on the issue.)

Instapundit has a large amount of information (unusual for him) on the people complaining about Bush's commercials. Lots of interesting stuff.

Biblical scholar Ben Witherington and John Dominic Crossan (who is something else but says he's a biblical scholar -- I think he's more of speculative fiction writer about historical matters -- he seems to think Jesus was just a political revolutionary whose death was later reinterpreted to have spiritual significance and whose followers concocted most of the teachings we have from him to fit this theory instead of continuing the revolution he started and would have wanted them to continue) have a discussion about The Passion of the Christ. I give Crossan credit for giving the most serious real criticism of the film I've seen yet (though he said it for all the wrong reasons) about how people would misunderstand the cross without the context of the rest of the gospels, though I don't think that's a problem in itself. One focal point of Witherington's response to Crossan is Crossan's repetition of concerns I've pointed out before raised by Andrew Sullivan that in fact reveal a prejudice against an orthodox Christian theology of the cross. They also consider whether Mel Gibson did enough to remove the anti-Semitism objections. At the end Witherington lists some unhistoricalities that bothered him. I should say that Crossan's final comment about how Mulsims respond is just stupid. Muslims won't use this movie to blame Jews for the death of a prophet that the Qu'ran says didn't die (because prophets can't die, according to Islam).

Adrian Warnock has challenged my claim in this post that, despite the fall, humanity still has anything at all good before being redeemed. I think it's quite obvious from the biblical picture that the image of God gets twisted in the fall but not removed, but one person in the comments section of his blog seems highly resistant to this idea. Adrian also has a whole bunch of posts from the last few days responding to objections against "the church" (although I somehow get the feeling they aren't using that term as the biblical writers used 'ekklesia' for the gathering of believers).

Disney is backing the first Narnia movie. So much for that one.

I've seen relatively little criticism of Mel Gibson's new film from Christian quarters. By far most Christians are excited about the film, even using it as an opportunity to initiate conversations about spiritual things with friends who don't believe. The ones who don't want to see it are just intimidated by the violence they keep hearing about. I have seen a few worries raised about this film, sometimes being put quite strongly. Two pieces that have been brought to my attention come from sources I very much respect. One is on the website of the Presbyterian Church in America. I'm not a Presbyterian (I disagree quite strongly with their views on sacraments and baptism), but I very much respect the PCA. They tend to be one of the strongest advocates for Reformed views, which I tend to share with them, in our time. The other is from the website of Alpha & Omega Ministries, the organization James White works with. I appreciate his work for the same reasons. I have chosen to interact with these arguments mainly because I very much appreciate that Christians are thinking critically about this film but also because I'm fundamentally in agreement on the basics of the Christian faith with these people. I don't think all their conclusions are warranted, as I will explain, but I do think these arguments deserve to be aired, and in some cases I think they should affect how someone views the film. I also feel obliged to link to a very positive review by a Christian who emphasizes things not covered in most of what I've read. I happen to be acquainted with the reviewer through our both being on a music discussion list, but I don't really know him. I highly recommend his thoughts.

The arguments I'm considering seem to involve some mix of the following conclusions: Christians shouldn't see it, no one should see it, it was wrong for Gibson to make it at all, and it was wrong for Gibson to make it the way he did. Different arguments seem aimed at different conclusions (and from different people who have given these arguments).

The piece from Alpha & Omega included the following arguments. Some of Gibson's Catholic theology has been missed by Protestants who have assumed these elements of the film were just artistic license. According to the argument, this is not just about minor disagreements but about doctrines Protestants should find horrific, a focus on suffering for its own sake rather than seeing ourselves as the ones for whom and because of whose sin he suffered, a focus on the passion with such small concern for the resurrection that it might as well not have been there, and that there are only a few hints of the gospel message itself in the film with no clear sense of why Jesus died, why he had to die, and what our response should be. The conclusion of this piece is that it's going to be of no value to someone who doesn't already know the background but that someone who has the grid to impose on it will be benefited greatly.

The piece on the PCA website is more strongly against the film. The primary reason is that it violates the second commandment (of the ten commandments given to Moses, not the second of Jesus' two greatest commandments). It makes a graven image to be worshiped. This is a much more serious charge (one the first author dismisses without argument), and if it's true it deserves a more serious response. I'm not exactly sure what the author concludes in the end, but I'm quite sure that I don't think the conclusion is justified.

Let's look at each argument in turn.

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