Sunday, August 9, 2015

Calvinism, God's Goodness, and Alternate Interpretations

A couple days ago, I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine. The topic, as often is with this friend, was Calvinism. This same friend was the topic of an earlier post of mine, right here.

It started off as an observation on Dr. Who, explained in more detail here. I knew that this friend of mine was a fellow Dr. Who fan, and I asked them if they had ever drawn a connection between the state of The Master of Dr. Who (again, see the link) and the reprobate in the Calvinist system. They rewatched the episode, exclaiming how sad it was and that they completely agreed with me. Surprised, I asked "I can't imagine that you're agreeing with my comparison...just with the sadness of the episode?"

"The entirety of it," was the reply.

Then I asked if that mean that they were moving away from Calvinism...or if they still held to it but were just incredibly saddened by it.

"The latter", was the reply.

That broke my heart. To hold to a theological system that makes you sad the more you think about it, that distresses you when you dwell on the nature of God...that seems awful. I told them that, and their response was simple: Even though they personally couldn't make sense of it, other people seemed to be able to. Other people seemed to be able to hold to unconditional election and reprobation and still see God as loving and gracious, so the fault must not be with the system, but with them.

This theme continued throughout our discussion. This friend was thrown into distress and conflict because they were trying to reconcile the Calvinist reading of certain passages with the overall tone of the Gospel and New Testament. They were trying to reconcile the loving and graceful God that Jesus revealed to people with the picture of God that Calvinism presents, who creates billions of people just so he can showcase his own glory by damning them to an eternity of torment. They were worried about witnessing to people, and not knowing if they could actually say "God loves you" without fearing they were lying. They worried about having children, because this person knew they would constantly be worrying about their kids: "Are they chosen, are they going to be saved?"

And then came the worst bit: After thinking these thoughts, after feeling the distress and conflict and trying to figure it out, this person would feel guilty, because they felt like they were questioning God's goodness.

Again, that was heartbreaking to me. And segueing into CS Lewis' discussion on God's Goodness and how it relates to our conception of goodness, we discussed whether we could even mean anything by saying "God is good" if "goodness" could be reinterpreted so radically. This, they said, was "depressing", and if not depressing, then it's feeling guilty for feeling angry about it, or questioning it.

So I told them that they weren't questioning God's goodness. And that in my opinion, their distress came from a very simple thing: They were trying to hold to two completely contradictory opinions:

1: God is good and loving towards humanity, and he desires to save all people from their sins (see John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:4, for starters).

2: God is good and loving towards a very small portion of humanity, and desires to damn the vast majority of the human race to showcase his own glory.

So I gave them a bunch of resources to explore on their own, in the hopes that it would give them a better understanding of "the other side", in their words. I wanted to show them how smart, faithful, orthodox Christians had interpreted the typical Calvinist verses in a distinctly non-Calvinist way, without sacrificing the integrity of Scripture.

And then they said something very interesting: They said that they had tried learning other viewpoints before, but their former youth pastor, who had introduced them to Calvinism, had always had an answer and been able to re-show the Calvinist side of the passages. And that's when I made what I think to be a very crucial distinction:

"I'm not trying to make you believe that Arminianism is the ONLY option," I said. "I'm just trying to show you that it IS an actual option, and not some second-rate option that you can only get to by sacrificing Scripture."

I'm not trying to "disprove" Calvinism by saying that certain verses, taken in isolation, CANNOT be read in a Calvinist interpretation. Obviously, there are verses that can be read that way. However, those verses can also be read in a way that is not Calvinist, and it can be done in a way that doesn't sacrifice scriptural integrity or good interpretive principles.

And when you have two options - two REAL options - in interpreting certain verses when taken in isolation, the rest is a little more intuitive. You just take those two interpretations and you see which one better fits into the larger overall narrative of Scripture.

Is Scripture about a God who, from the very beginning of the world, irresistibly decrees that his creation will fall? Is Scripture about a God who rages at his creation, when that creation is only ever doing the thing that God himself made the creation to do? Finally, is Scripture about a God who so loved the elect that, after irresistibly casting them into sin, he irresistibly caused them to believe in his son, while leaving the others to perish in their divinely-ordained sin?

Or is Scripture telling a different story altogether, about a God who created free creatures who sinned, but who loved those creatures so much that he gave grace to them anyway? Is Scripture about a God who means what he says when he claims to hate evil? Is Scripture about the God who weeps over his creation when they are not willing to come back to him? Is Scripture about a God who really did so love the world that, despite their sin, he sent his Son to save them and offer them salvation?

That's the choice. What is the overall trajectory of Scripture, and which interpretation of particular verses fit better into that trajectory? I don't know which one my friend will choose. But I know this: I know they have a choice. And now, I know that they're legitimately invested in exploring alternate interpretations, and I have great hope that they will be set free by the truth that God loves them, and will love their children, and loves their neighbors and anyone they witness to, and that they have a choice to follow God...and that if they take that choice, God will not reject them.

"You made me wrong"

"You did this to me! All my life...you made me WRONG!"
-The Master, screaming at Rassilon in Dr. Who's "The End of Time" Pt 2

Some context (and spoilers): In Dr. Who, one of the main villains of the series, The Master, is a constant thorn in the Doctor's side. In the two-part episode "The End of Time", it's revealed that rather than choosing to be evil, The Master was actually deliberately driven mad by his superior, who used a pivotal point in The Master's life to imprint a maddening drum-beat inside his head...a drum-beat designed to make him insane, violent, and power-hungry. (And did I mention this happened when he was about 8 years old?)

The Master had no choice in the matter. And while he did technically "choose" all the evil actions that he committed as The Master, he chose them under an influence that he had no control over...an influence that was specifically designed to cause him to "choose" those evil actions.

And to me, that sounds exactly like the reprobate in Calvinism.

The reprobate in Calvinism are born into depravity...depravity that God specifically ordained and caused to happen, according to Calvin himself. God created Adam to need grace to resist temptation, and deliberately withheld that grace just when Adam needed it. To the Calvinist, nothing happens outside the direct will of God (even though they'll often downplay this in conversations with non-calvinists).

And as a result of Adam's divinely-decreed, irresistible fall, all humans are born into depravity. God willed for humans to be born into depravity, without any outside circumstance or necessity, and he so ordered the universe to accomplish it. And for the vast majority of humanity (the reprobate), it is God's will that they should remain in that depravity. He makes them the way they are...that is to say, in the words of the Master, he makes them "wrong."

In fact, the only difference between The Master and the reprobate is this: The Master wasn't corrupted until he was 8, and he retained enough goodness to recognize that he was, in fact, "wrong." But in Calvinism, people are corrupted from birth (technically before birth), and their corruption is so complete that they never even realize that they're wrong.

In the Calvinist system, God creates people so wrong and corrupted that they never even realize it...making them an even sadder case than the Master.

Of course, as a purely logical exercise, this is no argument against Calvinism. As the omnipotent creator of the universe, God has a right to do with his creation as he wills. The question, of course, is whether this depiction of God is in harmony with the image of God we see in Jesus Christ. And if you know me at all, you know that my answer to that question is "Not even a little bit."

Anyway, quick post, mostly just as a precursor to the post after this. See you then!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Put away all malice and slander...except on Facebook?

A few days ago, I unfriended someone on Facebook, right after they posted this image on their wall.

If you don't feel like clicking on that, let me describe it: It's an african-american man in what appears to me to be full marine dress uniform, with a caption that reads "If Obama had a son, I bet he wouldn't look like this."

What the hell, guys? Honestly? I mean, what's wrong with politically conservative Christians that they would see this and think "Yes, this is something I want to be associated with?"

Normally, I wouldn't think I'd need to explain what's so awful about this...but unfortunately, it appears that's not the case.

This image has no purpose whatsoever, other than to offend. It has no message. It presents no argument. It does not make a political point. It doesn't even have to do with current reality. It merely posits a hypothetical situation and makes a defenseless claim, for the sole purpose of offending those who think differently (and no, it doesn't make it better if it's actually to "rally the troops" instead).  What's more, it takes a political disagreement and makes it personal. This isn't an attack on Obama's policies, or his political savvy, or even his fitness for the presidency: To the extent that it has any form at all, this is a baseless attack on his fitness as a father, and the hypothetical values he would hypothetically instill in his hypothetical son.

That's what really gets me. It's one thing to "offend" people as you're preaching the Gospel, or engaging in reasoned argument with them, or giving a defense for your faith or your worldview or even your politics. But this is none of that. This is noise. It has the same amount of content as an empty radio station or TV channel...except it's worse, because this is noise that is designed solely to give offense...well, that and maybe gaining a couple "likes" from people who agree.

I'd probably unfriend anyone, conservative or liberal, who posted that kind of garbage. But when that kind of distilled, content-less hatred and disgust comes from a Christian, it honestly makes me a little sick.

All that stuff in the Bible about living at peace with all men, and not speaking careless words, and putting away malice and slander, and destroying your neighbor with your mouth...we're meant to take that seriously, guys. And the manner in which God commands us to communicate with people absolutely prohibits this kind of thoughtless, slanderous, malicious garbage. There's no verse that says "Except when on Facebook." There's no loophole that says "unless you think it's funny", or "unless you really disagree with their political views."

The world is watching you, Christians on Facebook. What are they seeing?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Humour and Proportion"

"I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, "By jove! I'm being humble", and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed."

-CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It's funny how our fallen minds work, isn't it? At least, I know my mind works in funny ways. As though it's determined to leach virtue out of everything I do, to take generosity and turn it into a roundabout way of gratifying and congratulating myself.

Yesterday I found myself in a grocery store, insistently reassuring a young woman that she should "buy whatever you need, don't worry about it!" And then she came to the register with her cart, laden with food for her and her two younger siblings, and a part of me thought, Hmm...that's a little full, isn't it? And then I was watching the cashier scan the items, and that same part of me thought, Hmm...do they really need meat? Couldn't they get by on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? After all, she's buying this with your money, and you can't keep on doing this sort of thing forever. Think of Anna, after all, and your child on the way! Shouldn't you be saving more money for...

And then, thank God, another part of me spoke up. And it said, Oh yeah, shame on her! Shame on her for taking you at your word! Shame on her for assuming that you really meant to be generous, and not just buy a few token groceries to make yourself feel better.  Yeah, you're stretched for money  alright...after all, you spent more money than this on hot wings a few weeks ago. God forbid that on top of that immense hardship, you buy someone groceries -- you might not be able to buy as many hot wings next time!

And that was that...for a while. And then, of course, afterwards, that thought: That was a good thing you just did. Good job! And the way you got rid of those ungracious thoughts? Great work, dude! That was super generous of you. Most people probably wouldn't have been that generous. Isn't it nice, thinking of how generous you are?

And then, on quashing those thoughts: Man, you are so humble. Not many people would have gotten rid of that so quickly. You're the man! Isn't it cool how humble you are? Isn't it...


Honestly, I had to laugh at myself. And I think "humour and proportion", as Lewis points out, really are some of our most potent weapons against the enemy - and ourselves. It's a constant battle not to take myself too seriously, to laugh at my sheer ridiculousness, to mock the part of me who sticks me up on a pedestal.

So I laugh at my sin, and in doing so try to get rid of it. I don't laugh at it because sin is trivial -- it certainly isn't! But I laugh at it because it is concerned with trivialities. It consists of taking a small act of charity and making a mountain of it - not for the benefit of others, but for my own. It consists of taking a small attempt at humility and making that the basis for a statue built in my honor.

Sin makes us think so small...when the things that God wants us to aspire to are so large. And when confronted with that smallness, with a desire to substitute it for the largeness up ahead, I think the only appropriate response is laughter.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cats and Friendship

"If, nevertheless , the strong conviction which we have of a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood in the higher animals, and specially in those we tame, is not an illusion, their destiny demands a somewhat deeper consideration. The error we must avoid is that of considering them in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God....Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal— the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.
...
You must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that. You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood— namely ‘The–goodman–and–the–goodwife–ruling–their–children–and–their–beasts–in–the–good–homestead’....If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead , where its personal identity resides, I answer ‘Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life— in its relation to the Body and , specially , to the master who is the head of that Body.’ In other words , the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself."

CS Lewis, "The Problem of Pain"

Maybe it's just me, but these words ring true to me. I think any pet owner will insist on some sort of "personality" in their pet, something that makes the animal something more than an animal...not a person, perhaps, but something similar. I think about pets a lot, and their proper place in the world and in families. And I've come to a few conclusions:

  • Tame animals are, indeed, "natural" in the divine sense. As a cat owner, it pains me to see stray cats wandering streets and parking lots, knowing that they could at any moment meet their end by a careless driver. While such loss might be natural to a fallen world, it is most assuredly unnatural in the divine sense...it is a symptom of creation being "subjected to futility" and groaning in pain. The proper place of animals is in the care of - and under the authority of - humanity. And the proper place of Rory in particular is either purring on my lap, or sitting on his cat tree in a sun beam. 

  • Pets are NOT children, and shouldn't be treated as such. I think that any pet relationship that ends up essentially treating the pet as a substitute for children is disordered, an example of misplaced affections that will likely result in some degree of harm or distress. The pets will not be able to do what children do, and they lack the capacity to return the care and affection that child-rearing is supposed to result in. Child-rearing has a goal that pet-keeping is unable to fulfill.

  • However, as any pet owner will tell you, pets are friends and companions. Anna and I joke that a tired soul can be revitalized merely by rubbing one's face on a soft cat belly. Rory and Martha are our friends. We play with them, we talk to them, we sit with them, we miss them when we're away...the are our friends, in just about every sense of the word. 

  • Finally, I will insist that Rory and Martha have personality. They might not be persons...but they are more than mere beasts. And I tend to agree with Lewis that what they get in personhood, they get through being part of a human family. 
Had you asked me, before I got married and we got Rory, if I would EVER feel this attached to any animal, let alone a cat, I would have laughed at you. But now...it's different. I think that pets have a valid role and significance to us specifically as Christians, and that properly keeping a pet can be a microcosm of humanity's intended role for all of creation. Also, it's really fun. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Will God Save My Kids? A Response

This post was originally sparked by this article, titled "Do you believe God will save your kids?" It's written by blogger Tim Challies, who happens to be a Calvinist, as is evident from his article.

Challies pulls out all the stops on this one. He opens by stating that "There are few things I pray for with greater frequency or intensity than the salvation of my children." And he doesn't just pray for it...he believes it. "I believe God will save them. I believe he will save them because that is what he does—he saves. I believe he will save them because that is who he is—he loves to save."

And he continues believing and praying, all through the post. And in the end, "I entrust their souls to him. I put my confidence in him, and in his character, and in his Word." And again, at the closer, "And I pray—I pray that the God who graciously extended favor to undeserving me, would extend it to my undeserving children as well."

Now, there's a lot in between those statements: About trusting God, about how God "uses" prayer and the Bible and the Gospel to save his people. But in the end, it ultimately comes down to trusting that God will save them.

And I thought...How absolutely horrifying it would be to read this, as the parent of a child who had died un-saved.

Don't get me wrong: It's good to pray for the salvation of your children. And it's good to trust in God. And it's good to believe that God is the God who saves, who desires and loves to save people. All of that is good and true...but in the Calvinist scheme, that's only one side of the coin.

The other side, of course, is that God is the one who deliberately doesn't save everyone. That God is the one who desires and loves to save some people, and desires and loves to damn the rest of them. That God is the one who takes many kids from Christian families and deliberately withholds the grace they so desperately need. That God is the one who created billions of people for the express purpose of not saving them...and that your child could easily be one of those people. 

That's the other side of the Calvinist coin here, and it's just as necessary as the first side. And one necessary consequence of this is that in the case of non-elect children, the parents will love their children better and more fully than God ever did. Love is, after all, to desire the Good of the beloved, and while the parents will pray, will desire and work towards the good of their children, God will actually do the exact opposite: God will so order the universe as to render their salvation impossible. That may well be justice. That may well be his right as the supreme ruler of all. But it is not loving...not to the reprobate.

That's horrifying to me. That's unacceptable. I don't understand how you could read the Bible and arrive at an understanding of God whose love towards the reprobate is surpassed by the love of human friends and family. And I can't comprehend what that would be like...to be the parent of a dead child, knowing that somehow, you loved your child more and better than your God ever did.


Anna and I are trying to get pregnant. Every day, the enormity of that hits me a little more. Every day, the possibility that today or tomorrow could be the day when we discover that two-become-one has actually become three...that possibility is awesome: It is awe-inspiring. And when it comes to the question, "Will God Save My Kids," I only have a few thoughts:

I believe that God will desire to save my kids, and consequently, I reject any notion that he desires, or plans, or ordains, or decrees for them to be damned.

And I also believe that since God desires them to choose him, he will leave them the possibility of not choosing him - although I reject that he gets any pleasure from the agony of those who reject him. 

Finally, I believe that he will create them with the express purpose of having them consciously choose to follow him, and to have them join him in paradise, and that despite our rebellion and captivity, he has already affected their rescue, and beyond that, he will woo and call them in various ways throughout their lives.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Thoughts on Scripture (Following my message to Jr. High/HS)

I just did the Jr High/High School message at my church this morning. We're in the middle of a short series called "Bible 101", and my topic today was Divine Inspiration. While writing the message, I had a few thoughts that I don't recall having before, and I wanted to share them here.

First off, while researching "God-breathed", I discovered that the Greek word is the√≥pneustos (theh-op'-nyoo-stos). It comes from “theos” – God – and “pneo” – meaning “breath” or “to breath out.” A couple of the sources I looked at speculated that Paul had actually coined this word, creating it to describe Scripture in just the right way.

And in thinking about the breath of God, my mind suddenly snapped to Genesis 2...the creation of man.

"Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." - Genesis 2:7

God breathed into Adam and made him live. None of the other animals are created this way, which tells me that this is where get not just our life, but our souls and spirits: From the very breath of God. God took an earthly thing – a pile of dirt – and made it something more, something spiritual and living.

And I don’t think it’s an accident that we see Paul describing Scripture in the same terms. They are God-breathed, and that’s what the breath of God does. God’s breath makes things come alive. It makes them more than what they should be. God breathed into Adam and he became a living being, and he breathed into the words of Scripture and they became the words of God.

That was the first thing that struck me. And the second?

I think that Scripture is a kind of incarnation.

In discussing the relationship between Scripture being the words of God, and also the words of man, it struck me that the reasoning was somewhat similar to that of Christology, and the relationship between Jesus' divine and human natures. And just as the ultimate baseline of orthodoxy is to affirm that Jesus is both 100% man and 100% God, I think the same holds true for the Scriptures.

They are both the writings of human authors about God, as well as God-breathed Truth that we can trust and rely on. Scripture was written by the people of God in a variety of situations by a variety of different people, all bringing their own experiences, voice, and personality to the table. And at the same time, it is timeless truth about the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and it remains true and relevant for us today.

It is both at the same time: An incarnation. But instead of The Divine Word becoming flesh, it is the words of God becoming the words of man, entering our reality as this Book of books.

That was how I ended the message on Sunday, and I hope it was helpful to them. It was definitely a lot of fun to prepare the message... Let me know what you think!