Why Blog?

10 August 2009

Whoa! It’s been a little while since I’ve visited this blog—much less posted. Now that I’ve broken the Cardinal Rule of posting regularly, I am less bothered by breaking another in apologising for it. Sorry.

I was recently challenged about my motivation for blogging. (Although to be fair: I haven’t exactly been keeping it up). It came from the minister of my church, Andy Gemmill. Essentially, Andy said that it is very difficult indeed to blog without being self-promoting.

He started off by countering the common view that technology is neutral (ie morally). He made the point that we, as rebels before God in our natural state, are not spiritually neutral; therefore anything we produce cannot be neutral—but will more easily be used for harm than good. Although he was clear that technology can be used for good, as well as bad.

I am inclined to agree with him, although I am not sure to what extent. Can a mere artifact, lacking moral capacity, have a moral implication (without a person acting upon it or with it)? Or does the very act of creating an artifact impress some moral aspect? Andy leaned towards the latter. And the more I think about it, I do as well—though I am not sure how it works. What do you think?

Anyway, he made a good point: whilst a blog can be a very good thing indeed, it will be an uphill struggle to do it right. He noted that blogs will easily—naturally—be full of triviality and self-promotion. And before you think that self promotion need not be a bad thing, take a look at the following verses from 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

How is that self-promoting? Wouldn’t you rather read a blog (or be friends with someone) like that?

I know I have fallen into the trap of self promotion often, and I will have to think carefully about when and what I write. Feel free to call me out when you think I am promoting myself too much.


Did you Know that You are a Philosopher?

23 November 2008

Everybody has a philosophy. You are no exception.

Maybe a better way to put it is that you have a ‘world-view’. A world-view, simply put, is a lens through which you and I view and experience “life, the universe, and everything”. It is unfortunate that many of us do not notice the lens. But it’s there all right.

Not sure? Then consider a little illustration, curtesy of a friend at church.

One day a young boy of six said to his father, “why does the world not fall down?”

To which his father explained in simple terms that the Earth orbits the Sun. He even referred to Newton’s universal law of gravitation (as he was a physics teacher).

The boy – ever inquisitive – then asked, “well, how do you know?”

His father, rubbing his hands and getting into his element, noted that many astronomers have observed this phenomenon in different parts of the sky. And these observations can be used to derive the law.

Beginning to sound like a philosopher or a good physicist, the boy then asked how astronomers could know that gravitation is a universal law?

Impressed now, the father explained that the law is constant throughout known reality (as far as we can tell, and assuming Newtonian physics for now).

Now sounding suspiciously older than six, the boy asked why this is the case. To which the father replied as best he could: he said, “it just is”.

At that point, the boy’s father revealed to his son part of his own world-view. The moment his father said “it just is”, is when we can see one of his father’s most fundamental assumptions.

Now, this simple story may not be realistic, or apply to everyone. But the point remains: we all have fundamental assumptions about reality. And that’s all they are: assumptions. And we can easily discover some of them by allowing ourselves to reach a similar stage where we must simply say, “it just is”.

What is your philosophy, what is your lens? Do you like what you discover? Are you confident in your assumptions? It is important to know what you assume, and why you assume it.

I leave you with a quote by Eric Hoffer:

“What monstrosities would walk the streets were some people’s faces as unfinished as their minds.”


Why do Some Christians Reject Evolution?

14 November 2008

I don’t want to debate the empirical matters of the theory of evolution. I’m neither a geneticist nor a biologist, so I gave that up ages ago. But it is my impression that most Christians who disagree with evolution do so on a basis that has nothing to do with the actual scientific merit of the theory anyway.

So why do some Christians reject the theory?

I think most would say that evolution is contrary to the first chapter of Genesis. But while I disagree with this sentiment, I won’t address it here (maybe another post).

What I want to do is discuss another possible reason, one that has cropped up in a few conversations. That is: some Christians think that the philosophical theories/statements founded on, and related to, evolution are synonymous with the theory itself. This appears to me to be absurd, very much throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The theory of evolution is a scientific theory, not in itself philosophical (though I suppose it depends on how broad your definition of ‘philosophy’ is). You may as well reject the theory of relativity for philosophical reasons! So some Christians may have rejected the theory of evolution needlessly.

I think it may be helpful for all of us to understand, and make clear in our conversations, when and where we make the journey from science to philosophy.

My view on this is a work in progress, as it were; so I welcome your thoughts and comments. By all means disagree! But let me know, and expect a little discussion.


Church History (What is it good for?)

14 September 2008

I am almost finished reading a superb book about Church history by Bruce L. Shelley. It is called ‘Church History in Plain Language’ – and it’s most certainly that. It is written in a wonderfully narrative-ish style, and is gripping enough for me to get through the 490 or so pages.

Before I began the book, a Christian friend of mine expressed surprise that I would bother to read up on such a topic (especially such a lengthy one). He was also unconvinced about the usefulness of Church history knowledge – particularly for the layman. So the question I’d like to address is: what is Church history good for?

To begin with, I’d like to use the reasons that Shelley himself outlined in the prologue. He wrote that “many Christians today suffer from historical amnesia. The time between the apostles and their own day is one giant blank. That is hardly what God had in mind. The Old Testament is sprinkled with reminders of God’s interest in time…” Shelley further pointed out that ignorance of our history leads to vulnerability to cults (distortions of Christianity), a “shocking” case of spiritual pride (our way is the only way), and a lack of a wider context for any work in the Church (e.g., “how shall we use our time and effort?”). Shelley pointed out that study of Church history can give us the means to separate the “transient from the permanent, fads from basics”.

In addition, I would like to add that although we have the Bible for our own study today, our interpretations of the writings are coloured and shaped by our Christian ancestors. Why do we take this passage to mean one thing, that passage another? A quick glance into the past can make it clearer. There are also many valuable lessons to be learned looking though the corrective lens of hindsight. We don’t want to make the same mistakes again, do we?

For me personally, it has been a humbling experience. As I glimpsed into our past, it became surprising to me that God would choose to get anything done by us at all! We made so many stupid mistakes. It became obvious that God has his plan (whatever it may be), and manages to accomplish his will through us, by his choice.

My study also gave me an appreciation for the wider body of Christ, which is the true Church. I was suffering from some of the spiritual pride Shelley described. Now, I am in favour of denominationalism, but I was interested to discover that this idea came about in order to encourage unity though diversity (or at least, it stopped those who differed from killing each other). A denomination, by its original definition, did things the way it felt was right, but at the same time recognised that Jesus’ Church is much bigger – and there may be other ways of doing things. It seems now that I had too high a view of my particular way of doing things, and too high a view of mankind’s capability in the Church.

With this in mind, I encourage any Christian, even the layman, to investigate our Church history.


God Ordained that Evil Be

14 September 2008

I recently read a very intriguing article entitled, ‘Is God less Glorious Because He Ordained that Evil Be?’ by John Piper. The paper seeks to reconcile a Sovereign God and the inescapable presence of evil in the world; without implying that God is not fully in control, or that he does not see all ends. The following is a summary of the article (including direct quotation).

“God does not delight in evil as evil; rather, he wills that evil come to pass” (as evidenced by his control over natural and moral evil in this world) that good may come of it.

What good?

“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionally effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all…

Thus it is necessary that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not e, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also that the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.

If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired. . .

But is this beneficial to us? Piper explains that because our happiness consists in the knowledge of God and the sense of his love (he made it that way), evil is necessary as the means by which we gain the greatest insight and knowledge of God.

But if God ordains evil, is he evil himself? The short answer is no. “God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his ‘positive agency’”.

But is permitting evil, evil? Again, Piper explains: “God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet . . . it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences. . . . God doesn’t will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he doesn’t hate evil, as evil: and if so, then it is no reason why he may not reasonably forbid evil as evil, and punish it as such.”

So we have a God who is in control of everything, and knows everything that will pass; who, in his perfection ordained that evil come to pass in order that his character may be perfectly manifest, resulting in his highest glory, and our greatest capacity for happiness. In that light, it seems possible to conclude that (considering all ends) the entirety of human history has been wrought by God to display his glory in the most perfect manner.

Remarkable – and challenging at that! It is not easy to accept first hand; so please study the topic further if you need to. Let me know what you think…


Penal Substitution as a Valid Theory of Atonement

14 September 2008

I am writing in response to posts about the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’ (hereafter referred to as, p.s.) on the anti-NUCU facebook group. For all the posts up to this one, please go here

I am aware of my limitations regarding theology (a number of you are far more well read than I), and so I would point you to a book by John Stott entitled, ‘The Cross of Christ’ (IVP). It is a book that addresses all of the issues raised thus far. However, not having the book at home, I can’t use it for this post. I have instead ripped off whole sections (some parts word for word) from a reference book called ‘Evangelical Dictionary of Theology’, edited by Walter Elwell, Baker Book House.

The following list comprises a summary of the arguments raised against p.s., and the reasons behind them. I will attempt to address each of them in turn. If I misrepresent any of the following arguments supplied by Andrew and Alex, please inform me.

(1) P.s. is “a recent phenomenon”, an orthodoxy that was never meant to be.

(2) P.s. contradicts the ‘revelation of God in Christ’. (i.e. it is not consistent with Biblical teaching). The following points comprise the working out of this statement.

(3) P.s. entails a conflict between the Godhead (in particular the Father and the Son). In a sense, the Son insists on mercy, and the Father insists on justice.

(4) P.s. implies a justice system, independent of God, that he “is subject to”.

(5) P.s. fails to account for the fact that “forgiveness is God’s nature”, and that “blood is not necessary to obtain forgiveness”. Further, the Old Testament (OT) understanding of sacrifice is not of substitution, but of identification and public repentance. And sacrifice was not necessary for forgiveness in the OT.

Alex and Andrew subsequently made some further points:

(6) Substitution is not a Pauline doctrine.

(7) Jesus never said that it is his death that saves us.

(8) Jesus could not take eternal punishment, as he was on the cross for a few hours, and indeed, did not suffer eternal punishment.

The crux of the matter is, is there only one valid atonement model (Section A)? And is penal substitution a valid Biblical atonement model (Section B)? These two questions are addressed in the two sections below. Section C addresses points (7) and (8).

SECTION A
In this section, I outline the Biblical basis for the atonement, and attempt to show the need for many different atonement models. This section addresses point (1) above (quotes are from Evangelical Dictionary of Theology).

“Throughout the Bible, the central question is, “how can sinful man ever be accepted by a holy God”? The Bible takes sin seriously, it sees sin as a barrier separating man from God (Isaiah 59:2), a barrier that man was able to erect, but is quite unable to demolish. But the truth on which the Bible insists is that God has dealt with the problem. He has made the way whereby sinners may find pardon, God’s enemies may find peace. Salvation is never seen as a human achievement. In the OT sacrifice has a large place, but it avails not because of any merit it has of itself (cf. Hebrews 10:4) but because God has given it as the way (Leviticus 17:11). In the New Testament (NT), the cross plainly occupies the central place, and it is insisted upon, in season and out of season, that this is God’s way of binging salvation. There are many ways of bringing this out. The NT writers do not repeat a stereotyped story. Each wrote from his own perspective. But each shows that it is the death of Christ, and not any human achievement that brings salvation.

“But none of them sets out a theory of atonement. There are many references to the effectiveness of Christ’s atoning work and we are not lacking in information about it’s many sidedness. Thus Paul gives a good deal of emphasis to the atonement as a process of justification, and he uses such concepts as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. Sometimes, we read of the cross as a victory or as an example. It is the sacrifice that makes a new covenant, or simply, a sacrifice. There are many ways of viewing it. We are left in no doubt about its efficacy, and it’s complexity. View the human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the need. But the NT does not say how it does so.

“Through the centuries there have been continuing efforts to work out how this was accomplished. Theories of atonement are legion as men in different countries and in different ages have tried to bring together the varied strands of scriptural teaching and to work them into a theory that will help others understand how God has worked to bring us salvation. The way has been open, in part at least, because the church has never laid down an official, orthodox view. In the early centuries there were great controversies about the person of Christ and the nature of the Trinity. Heresies appeared, were thoroughly discussed, and were disowned. In the end the Church accepted the formula of Chalcedon as the standard expression of orthodox faith. But there was no equivalent with the atonement.

“People simply held to the satisfying truth that Christ saved them by way of the cross and did not argue about this salvation was effected.

“Thus there was no standard formula like the Chalcedonian statement, and this left men to pursue their quest for a satisfying theory in their own way. To this day no one theory of the atonement has ever won universal acceptance. This should not lead us to abandon the task. Every theory helps us understand a little more of what the cross means and, in any case, we are bidden to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Theories of the atonement should attempt to do just that.

“Penal substitution is one of many theories that tries to do this. Other theories include: the subjective view, or moral influence theory; the victory model; Anselm’s satisfaction theory; the sacrifice theory; and the governmental theory.

“All those views, in their own way, recognise that the atonement is vast and deep. There is nothing quite like it, and it must be understood in its own light. The plight of sinful man is disastrous, for the NT sees the sinner as lost, as suffering hell, as perishing, as cast into outer darkness, and more. An atonement that rectifies all this must be necessarily complex. So we need all the vivid concepts: redemption, justification, propitiation, and all the rest. And we need all the theories. Each draws attention to an important aspect of our salvation and we dare not surrender any. But we are small-minded sinners, and the atonement is great and vast. We should not expect that our theories will ever explain it fully. Even when we put them together, we will no more than begin to comprehend a little of the vastness of God’s saving deed.”

SECTION B
In this section, I attempt to summarise p.s., pointing out some strengths and weaknesses and also addressing common misconceptions. This section attempts to address points (2), (3), (4), (5), and (6). (The following quotes are from Evangelical Dictionary of Theology).

“The Reformers agreed with Anselm that sin is a very serious matter, but they saw it as breaking God’s law, rather than as an insult to God’s honour. The moral law, they held, is not to be taken lightly. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and it is this that is the problem for sinful man. They took seriously the scriptural teachings about the wrath of God (as described a bit by Dani) and those that referred to the curse under which sinners lay. It seemed clear to them that the essence of Christ’s saving work consisted in his taking the sinner’s place. In our stead Christ endured the death that is the wages of sin. He bore the curse that we sinners should have borne (Galatians 3:13). The Reformers did not hesitate to see Christ as having borne our punishment or as having appeased the wrath of God in our place.

“Such views have been widely criticised. In particular it is pointed out that sin is not an external matter to be transferred easily from one person to another and that, while some forms of penalty are transferable (the payment of a fine), others are not (imprisonment, capital punishment). With regard to point (3) above, it is urged that this theory sets Christ in opposition to the Father so that it maximises the love of Christ, and minimises that of the Father.

“Such criticisms may be valid against some of the ways in which the theory is stated, but they do not shake its essential basis. They overlook the fact that there is a double identification: Christ is one with sinners (the saved are “in” Christ, Romans 8:1) and he is one with the Father (he and the father are one, John 10:30; “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”, 2 Corinthians 5:19). They also overlook the fact that there is much in the NT that supports the theory. It is special pleading to deny that Paul, for example, puts forward substitution. It may need to be carefully stated, but this view still says something important about how Christ has won our Salvation.”

I believe a further misconception about modern penal substitution theories is as summarised in point (4) above. As set out by Stott, the idea that there is a standard of Justice that God must obey or align with is heresy. He explained that Justice is not merely something that God does, but is something that he is. His justice, like his love, is not independent of himself. God IS justice. Therefore, when it is said that God must fulfill justice, it means that God must act consistently with his very self.

I am not sure how to address point (5), because I am not quite sure what is meant. I do not know if it is completely true to say that it is God’s nature to forgive. I have never heard that before… Does God have to forgive? I am not sure that he does! However, it is clear that he can and desires to forgive.

I understand that God’s nature includes mercy, grace, and love; as well as holiness and justice. It is obvious that the atonement is the prime revelation of all of these: how a God of holiness could remain consistent with his own justice, and at the same time express his love for sinners, giving them grace and mercy. The different theories of atonement set out to explain how this can happen. P.s. emphasises God’s judgment as well as his sacrificial love.

It can be said that the Father’s love is somewhat under-represented in p.s. However consider the following verses:
– The Father’s love for us: (John 3:16) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
– The Father’s love for his Son: (John 10:17) “For this reason the Father loves me [Jesus], because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.”

Andrew pointed out that in the OT people are forgiven without reference to the sacrificial system. He also said, in effect, that “blood was [and is]” not necessary for forgiveness. However, consider the following.

As I wrote above, in the OT sacrifice has a large place, but it avails not because of any merit it has of itself (cf. Hebrews 10:4) but because God has given it as the way (Leviticus 17:11).

Hebrews 9:22 outlines the importance of blood, particularly Christ’s (see also the whole section). It says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” We are told that Christ’s sacrifice was the final and effective one. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” (Ephesians 1:7).

How were people in the OT forgiven, particularly out of the sacrificial context? It is my understanding that the arguments Paul applies (particularly to Abraham, as he was saved before the Levitical sacrificial system) in Romans applies to these people.

Paul says that all are saved (past and present) by grace: (Romans 3:23) “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Remember again that the sacrificial system was a symbol, among other things. It pointed towards Christ. Galatians 3:24 states that the “law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith”. The old covenant was to point to Christ. This understanding is prevalent throughout the NT. It seems therefore, that the people in the OT who were forgiven by God were saved by their faith in the saving ability of God as brought out in the cross. This is often manifested in the sacrificial system.

It is clear throughout the whole Bible, that a sacrifice is needed for the forgiveness of sins. But simply stating that a sacrifice is needed is not complete. How does the sacrifice save? I believe that penal substitution is a helpful explanation.

I think that considering the above, statement (6) is a huge leap into the dark. While not completely explicit, Paul repeatedly uses substitutional themes. The verses quoted above are quite substitutional in nature. The verse from 1 Peter is also unmistakably substitutional, the “righteous for the unrighteous” (italics mine). Read the rest of this entry »