Theology: July 2006 Archives

My clone second cousin Danny has another post that I feel like I could have written. What I mean by this is that (1) I happen to agree with everything he says, (2) the things he's most interested in emphasizing are what I think is most important, and (3) the qualifications he makes to his major points are all things I would want to be clear about so that the major points wouldn't be misunderstood. It gets into the purpose of public worship, the connection of being filled with the Spirit and singing songs to each other, and the significance of all that for how we should do public worship. It's a thoroughly balanced post. Also, check out the comments to see why I think the view that public worship is about intimacy with God is not only wrong but even contrary to the real purpose of public worship.

Some people argue that contemporary science can't be right about how old the earth or the universe is, because an omnipotent being wouldn't need to take that long to make a universe. Thus the young earth must be true. Others argue from the opposite end that intelligent design arguments are inconsistent with an omnipotent being, because they involve God inputting information over a long process. (See, for example, SteveF's July 25 comment at 5:47 pm in this comment thread on this post.) I don't think this sort of argument works in either case.

If the designer is God, then God should be able to do something over a longer time or a shorter time. Young earth creationists are right that God could have created everything instantly. But the argument undermines the young earth view as much as any other, unless the young earth view holds God to have created everything instantly. It doesn't hold that but takes the period of creation to be six days. Why would God need six whole days to create everything? God could have created instantly. If it's implausible for God to do something over thousands or millions of years (because God could do it in a shorter time), then it's implausible for God to do it in six days (because God could do it in a shorter time). The mere possibility that God could have done it over a shorter time does not mean that God would have done so. A divine being with omnipotence could choose to work over a very long time or a very short time, and neither should seem more or less likely without an understanding of the purposes such a being might have for working over a longer or shorter time.

The hypothesis that there is a designer, particularly if one of the possibilities is that the designer is omnipotent, does not make it more or less likely that the designer worked over a long or short time. The length of time is not evidence against God. What's interesting is that the reverse is not true. Length of time issues may count as evidence against naturalistic explanations, precisely because they do not involve beings who can do anything (and thus can work instantly or over a longer time).

Mollie Ziegler of GetReligion wonders why Christians are cremating their dead in noticeable numbers all of a sudden, despite 2000 years of commitment to burial because of a doctrinal conviction about future resurrection. I do realize that it's possible to have a metaphysical conception of what persons are such that you think persons will survive the cremation process and be reconstituted in a resurrection. I think most people's views would actually allow that. But I very much doubt the 2000 years of tradition that Christians bury their dead is largely out of worrying that God couldn't resurrect you if you were cremated. It's more simply a symbolic demonstration of the faith that God would raise the dead in the end, indicating by your refusal to destroy the body that you believe this very body will one day be restored.

It's really unfortunate that Christians are rejecting this important symbol of a key Christian belief, one that long predates Christianity, going even back to the patriarchs of Genesis. This is somewhat like deciding we shouldn't waste water and therefore deciding to baptize people by lowering them below ground level in a hole and then pulling them back up. You can maintain the belief, but you lose a key piece of symbolism that's not some later tradition but is actually in the biblical texts.

One commenter in that thread complains that this point would seem to require Japanese people to break the law requiring cremation. I didn't see anyone arguing that Japanese Christians should break the law (though perhaps they should be arguing that it be changed to allow for exceptions for religious reasons). What people are arguing is that something is lost in the Christian witness, something that is symbolized by burial rather than cremation. We ought not to go along with social forces that move in that direction without serious consideration for what we're abandoning, which is a symbol present in the pages of scripture that illustrates a spiritual truth. Symbols in scripture that go back to the patriarchs should receive a strong presumption. That doesn't mean they override the law, since there is no direct command to bury your dead, but it does mean we shouldn't make our decision merely on considerations that are less serious than those involving how we represent the gospel in our lives and deaths.

David Wayne (Jollyblogger) has an excellent post on N.T. Wright, specifically on Wright's views of Jesus's divinity and of Jesus' self-understanding of his divinity. Wright holds to an orthodox view of Jesus' divinity but then suggests that Jesus was not aware of his divinity in any propositional way. He knew he had a calling, and he fulfilled his calling, without realizing the implications of what his calling meant for his own divine nature. I guess it's something like that anyway. The post is worth reading if you think these are issues worth thinking about. I believe I agree with everything David says.

A common urban legend in evangelical circles (and probably elsewhere too) is that 'ekklesia' in the New Testament (the word usually translated as "church") means "called out ones". This is simply false. It means "assembly" or "congregation". Its etymology derives from the sense that you can call together or call forth a group of people to gather for a purpose, but its meaning in the time of the Hellenistic period, when the NT was written, is simply a group of people gathered together. The literal translation should be "gathering" rather than "called out ones". See Jollyblogger's recent post on this for more information, with some careful nuance about various ways this etymological fallacy can occur. Note carefully his point that this has some relevance to George Barna's "assembly that never assembles" movement. He also makes several other nice little points in the process.

Josh Claybourn and co. at In the Agora have brought in a new blogger, Seth Zirkle. Along with Jollyblogger, who gets the tip of the hat on this one, I very much appreciate Seth's call to recognize the importance of the local church in a time when there's a serious fad to abandon it on grounds that are downright contradictory, i.e. a pretense that someone can be a Christian without being part of the church, which defies the very definition of the church. The church is manifested locally, and each local body is the church. Thus rejecting what is sometimes called the organized church is rejecting God's people as a whole. [For more on this, including more careful support of the fundamental premise, see my Organized Religion and the Church from two years ago.]

For similar reasons, I have an extremely strong presumption against leaving a local body except for reasons of serious heresy or immorality among the leadership, and even then only when the church as a whole refuses to confront that issue or the relevant people. Of course if you are leaving the area and wouldn't be present to attend your local congregation's meetings, it's a pretty good idea to commit to a different congregation. For reasons other than those sorts of things, leaving a local body is tantamount leaving the church, even if where you end up is also the church. What you left was the church, fully the church, and not just a part of the church. The New Testament knows nothing of local bodies that are just part of the church, and what you do to any local body you therefore do to the church. For these reasons, I greatly appreciated the main point of Seth's post.

Yet there's this one line that sort of spoils it for me. One of his points is that no local congregation is perfect. It's hard to find a local congregation that teaches the Bible rather than just giving topical sermons. In the same breath, Seth also says that it's hard to find a local congregation that avoids "secular instruments, such as pianos, guitars, and drums". If I hadn't been warned by Jollyblogger, I would have been stopped in my tracks.

This idea for this post occurred to me when reading this post, at Pseudo-Polymath, which reviews a Christian science fiction novel. I wanted to expand a little on a comment I left on that post. The novel in question involves people from Earth colonizing other planets, with no clear indication of why they are doing so. What I'm wondering is if this is in conflict with the creation mandate of the early chapters of Genesis. God gives the Earth over to humans to take care of as stewards. It's God's Earth, but humans now have the responsibility to care for it as representatives of God, which is what being an image of God primarily means. There's no indication that anything else in the universe is given to humanity to steward, which suggests to me that going beyond the boundaries of this planet is going beyond our jurisdiction. I've never been opposed to the space program, but I don't have any sense of how it's supposed to fit with the creation mandate. It seems counter to the very intent.

C.S. Lewis avoids with this in his Space Trilogy by not having the people out there be humans descended from Adam and Eve. I don’t mind scifi that has humans colonizing other planets or even with only faint memories of Earth. Firefly was exactly that, and it was excellent. But it’s a little strange to write it as a Christian novel and not even deal with the issue of God telling Adam that he was being given the Earth to steward and care for, without any indication that it would be ok to go other places and care for things not given to us. If the reason for going out is because of a failure to steward the Earth properly, that's even worse. Don't take care of what God lets you manage for him, and then go hang out somewhere else instead once his planet is no longer inhabitable. But even without that, there seems to be a serious question that Christian science fiction of this sort ought to address. Maybe there's a good way to do this without avoiding it the way Lewis did, but I'd be curious to hear what that would be.

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