Theology: August 2005 Archives

When we consider Jesus' parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, we usually think about the father's love for his son. We less often think of the second major point of the parable, the older son's refusal to accept his brother back. One element of the first part that I think we think about even less is the reason for the father's love. He doesn't love this son and accept him based on what the son has done. That much we do think about. Why does he do it, then? He loves him because it's his son.

Now consider this not in terms of what the son has done but in terms of what the son believes. Does he love him because his son has the correct view on what the father's character is like? Hardly. The son thinks the father will perhaps allow him to become one of his slaves so that he can work his way back into his father's good favor. He doesn't think he'll welcome him the way he does with no works to earn it. The father's welcome for the prodigal son is thus not based on the son's works or on the son's theology. The son's theology is in fact very much like the theology that many Protestants consider heretical. He thinks that he might be able to earn his father's good favor back. What is the import of this?

Suppose I'm driving down the road, and my son wakes up after sleeping for a while. He really needs to go to the bathroom, and he's likely to go in his pants if we don't find a bathroom really soon. Suppose I'm also in an unfamiliar area with exits that are quite far apart. I don't remember when the last exit was. What might I do? Well, I might pray that the next exit is soon. What would it take for the next exit to be soon?

The most likely way for God to answer such a prayer positively would not involve miraculous transportation of our vehicle to a place near the next exit or miraculous creation of an exit near our current location. It would involve God's orchestration of events such that his awakening and need to use the bathroom would have happened at a point when we were nearing an exit. The prayer is thus retroactive, though it seems not to be on the surface. The same thing can be true of someone asking God for a parking spot to be available upon arrival at a full-looking lot or a prayer that a medical diagnosis will turn up a less severe condition than one might have thought it would turn up (while still being a true diagnosis). People pray like this all the time. I've given three examples. It shouldn't be too hard to think of more.

This means there's a kind of prayer that people engage in fairly frequently that is a sort of disguised retroactive prayer. I've argued previously that retroactive prayer makes perfect sense as long as God has perfect foreknowledge, and this post isn't to repeat what's already in that post. It just hadn't occurred to me that prayers like this are retroactive. Retroactive prayer is much more common than I'd thought.

As anyone who's been reading this blog for a little while knows, I think most of the venomous language from those who are more conservative about gender issues against inclusive translations is just thoroughly immoral. This includes the literature produced by the Society for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose worthwhile original goal of defending complementarianism has been greatly damaged by their vehement ignorance on this issue. I think the overall argument for not wanting any inclusive language is linguistically insensitive. It involves cultural reactionism against what is perceived as a new phenomenon that in reality is so entrenched that anyone resisting it now just seems 19th century. The issue is basically over linguistic facts, and some of the people involved have raised it almost to the level of a gospel issue. That's just incredibly sad.

Still, I don't think all the points against inclusive language are wrong. On some particular issues, the criticism is sound. Some decisions the NLT, TNIV, NRSV, and other translations have made in the attempt to ensure gender neutrality have disguised important theological points. Of course, all translations have that sort of thing. To preserve one element of what a text means, you end up losing another, and sometimes that's something important. The NIV, for instance, translates a word in Philemon 6 that means fellowship in a way that almost guarantees younger evangelicals to interpret it as being about evangelism. It was supposed to make one element of the meaning of that word clearer, and it ended up masking what the passage is really about. One element of the gender neutrality movement in translation does exactly that, and a thoughtful post by Carolyn Custis James at Common Grounds Online points out what that issue is.

Sam has a nice post in response to someone who asked her why God would give us two autistic children. I should first note that we have no idea why Isaiah is just beginning to talk as he approaches age three. Most of what we understand is largely repetitive but indistinctly enunciated. Most of it sounds like gibberish, but he might be saying things, and he might not be just repeating things but simply can't say them in a way we can understand. It may just be that the ones that sound like repetition are the only ones we can understand because they occur in a context when we've just heard the thing he's repeating. It might be autism-related, and given Ethan's diagnosis of autism it's more likely that than any one other explanation, but we have no idea. He might just be delayed in speaking with problems enunciating. He doesn't have any other indications of autism besides some signs that there might be sensory issues, and those may explain the delay in speech on their own.

She asks a few questions that people don't tend to think about, and I want to reiterate some of them but also introduce some elements that seem to me to make it a much more complicated issue. We tend to wonder why people might have bad things happen to them, but we don't wonder why good things happen. When this comes from a sense of deserving the good things, it explains why people do one and not the other. Sam says:

How often do you hear someone speculate about why God allowed them to wake up in the morning? Or why God gave them a roof over their head? Or provided them with good health and daily sustenance? Just about never. Why? Because we consider these things to be our due. If we were a little less self centered I think we'd realise that we don't deserve any of the good in our lives.

She goes on to point out that it's radical patience on God's part to spare us at all and allow things to go on long enough for people to repent and for more people to come into existence who will repent.

Declared Righteous

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God has declared us righteous. What is going on when He does this? It is clear that we were once unrighteous and that now were are considered righteous. What is going on in this transition and how does it happen? There are three explanations (that I know of) which try to describe what happens in this declaration.

It is fairly clear that giving of our firstfruits to God is a moral action. Poll question: is it also a moral obligation? That is to say, it is good to give to God; is the converse also true--it is bad to not give to God?

For the sake of simplicity, we'll use the word "tithe" to mean the firstfruits which we give to God, and "tithing" to mean the givign of said firstfruits. Understand that this is a rather broad use of the word and it can include but does not imply the narrower meaning of the Jewish commandment/cultic obligation nor does it imply any percentage of income.

For the record, I think that we do indeed have a moral obligation to tithe. What do you guys think?

[Note: I'm just looking for a yes/no with an optional short rationale. I'm not really looking for discussion on this one. We can save the persuading and refuting for a subsequent post.]

Jonathan Edwards saw self-examination as an important part of life. Not only did he want unbelievers to examine themselves and realize their need to come to Christ for salvation, but he wanted Christians to examine themselves and see where they fell short, to be brought to humility, repentance, and dependence upon God. And this wasn't just something he wanted for others -- he himself regularly set aside times of self-examination, to see where he fell short and be brought to humility. He saw these as an important part of his Christian life.

A hint of Edwards' focus on self-examination pops up in the sermon I recently blogged about, on the Preciousness of Time. I think if you read the sermon, or even my notes on it, with any degree of honesty, you'll begin to realize how much we have failed to value time, and how much of it we have wasted. I know I was greatly challenged by this. Edwards' application points seem aimed to incite self-examination, and probably spring from his own self-examination. For instance, he asks, "Have you not wasted your precious moments, your precious days, yea, your precious years? ... What is become of them all? What can you show of any improvement made, or good done, or benefit obtained, answerable to all this time which you have lived?"

I'm not sure why this never occurred to me before, because it just seems obvious now that I've realized it. Open theists are constantly complaining that classical theism takes its view of God not from the Bible but from Greek philosophers. For a couple reasons why this makes no sense, see this old post. The classical theistic picture of God bears little resemblance to anything the Greeks believed.

What didn't occur to me until just now is that the open theists' picture of God really does bear a striking resemblance to some things the Greek philosophers said. Aristotle, for instance, spends a great deal of time struggling through how there can be true statements about contingent events in the future. On one interpretation, he never solved the problem, but on the most popular view he denies that such statements are even true. It's the latter picture that forms the basis of open theism. Their entire view begins with Aristotle, a Greek philosopher. Alexander of Aphrodisias, a follower of Aristotle, clearly held the view that Aristotle may have held. He doesn't just discuss truth about future contingents but even brings in foreknowledge. He makes it explicit that foreknowledge about future contingents is impossible, so the gods can't have it no matter how perfect they are.

Faith is not a Choice

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Just as I don't believe that Love is a choice, similarly I believe that Faith/Belief is not a choice.

Again, the proof is simple: try to believe something purely by willpower. I challenge you to believe that the Earth is Flat, or that George W. Bush is your biological father (note: this example doesn't apply to Bush's actual biological children). If belief and faith really were choices, then we would be able to beleive such things. But we can't.

I know I am going against typical Reformed teaching here, but I think that Love is not a choice. So, although I don't want to pick on people's children, when Adrian's daughter (asked if Love is a feeling) responds "Love is not a feeling. Its a decision.", I do have to say that I think she is only partially correct.

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