Sunday, June 17, 2012

Marriage: Theology in the Flesh

What does the modern, evolved, forward-looking Church of today do with Paul's seemingly archaic views on marriage, wives, and husbands? For many, the answer is simple: Disregard it entirely. We no longer force women to keep their heads covered, and many men wear their hair long. Women have makeup, do their hair, wear nice clothes, and none of this is deemed unChristian. What makes his absurd comments regarding marriage any different? For me, the answer lies in Paul's view of what marriage is. For Paul, marriage is not, primarily, a human thing. It is not first and foremost a human institution. It is, primarily, a symbol of divine mystery, a piece of theology "in the flesh," as it were. And theology is not bound by culture.

Paul speaks about marriage extensively in Ephesians 5. Wives are to submit to their husbands, husbands are to love their wives. But he does not leave these commands hanging by themselves: He explicitly links them to theological truths. Wives are to submit to their husbands "as to the Lord." He elaborates on what that means: "As the Church submits to Christ, so the wives should submit in everything to their husbands." Again: "As the Church submits to Christ." He distinctly ties this aspect of marriage to the Church's natural and eternal submission to Christ.

Then he moves on to the husbands: He says husbands are to love their wives "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her." In the same way and to the same degree that Christ loved the Church, the husband is to love his wife. And not just love, but self-sacrificing protection as well. This is just as vital to Paul's view of marriage as what he says about the wife: And yet there is no move by anyone to insist that this, too, is only cultural. And then Paul returns to what he said before, taking pains to clarify the relationship between the husband and wife: "For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church." All of these aspects of marriage--submission of the wife, headship of the husband, the self-sacrificing love of the husband for the wife, the relationship of Christ to His Church--are portrayed as equally true. There is no room to attack the legitimacy or objectivity of one without attacking the legitimacy and objectivity of all the others.

Paul is making it very simple: In the exact same way that Christ is the head of the Church, the husband is to be the head of the wife. "Even as Christ is the head of the Church:" That is, eternally, non-negotiably, on the basis of who Christ is and who the Church is. In the same way, on the same basis, for the same reason.

The best argument that I have heard against all this is  that Paul is merely following the culture of his time, with a slight improvement: He is giving women a slightly better lot in the Christian culture than outside of it, thereby continuing a cycle of betterment that we ourselves are to continue, culminating in that glorious day when women are hailed as the equals of men! It's a nice thought.  But is that what is happening? Does the way Paul phrases his statements leave that path open? Is Paul merely making a helpful parallel, instead of (as it seems) theologically linking the two?

Going a little bit further. Paul is still speaking about marriage, and he quotes probably the most well-known verse in the Bible: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is found in the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, and Jesus himself quotes it in Mark 10. If the reader knows anything at all about the Jewish/Christian view of marriage, they will recognize what Paul is talking about.

In quoting this passage from Genesis, he's saying, "This is what marriage has been since the beginning. This is what marriage is. Always." This is what marriage means to Paul. There is no "cultural" marriage, no shift in marital attitudes. The fact that marriage was corrupted in the O.T. does not change this. This is what it is.

But Paul goes still further. Speaking of marriage, the mystery of two becoming one, he says, "This mystery is profound." Amen! Alright, Paul, let's wrap it up... wait. You're not done? "And I am saying that it refers to Christ and his Church." The verse that defines marriage--that has defined marriage since the book of Genesis was written--is, for Paul, ultimately about Christ and His Church. Marriage is, ultimately, about Christ and His Church.

And yes, this verse says nothing about submission: But it tells us that marriage, fundamentally, is a mirror, a replica, a reenactment of the relationship of Christ and His Church. It should resemble that relationship in all possible particulars: Joyful submission and selfless love.

Here's what that means: To view marriage as strictly a human, cultural institution is to completely ignore what Paul says about it. To say that Paul is merely teaching a "cultural" definition of marriage is to completely ignore the obvious, explicit parallels he makes to the relationship of Christ and his Church. Paul does not mean to teach a cultural marriage. Paul means to show that marriage is nothing less than a reenactment in the flesh of Christ's relationship with His Church.

I've been married for six months. We talked about it going in, what our marriage was going to be like, how I was going to be the head of it. I suspected, even then, that I was not assuming the position through any sort of natural superiority on my part. Now, six months in, I know that I do not deserve, through merit or intrinsic worth, to lead Anna. I know that I am not better than her. And yet here we are, six months in, and it's going pretty well.

I think I'm going to write more on this later, but for now, I kinda want to take a nap before church. Pancakes make me tired.

Monday, June 11, 2012

How it works (predestination time!)

Note from 2014: This was written in 2012, two years before I discovered that in many ways, I'm pretty much Arminian. The Arminian view of corporate election does a pretty fantastic job of explaining all of this in a much more intuitive manner. This is one way to do it...but I think that corporate election is probably better.

A few days ago I posted a fairly large blog detailing my thoughts on the actual "mechanics" of prayer: How it interacts with the divine foreknowledge of God, as well as the divine plan for the universe. Today I want to talk about it some more, because I think it has a very important application for a very important--and divisive--topic: Predestination.

But we're not going to talk about Calvinism, or Armenianism, or any of the other "isms". We're going to talk about the possibility of a comprehensive and cohesive doctrine that ties the few verses speaking about predestination to the consistent, Bible-wide assumption of free will. 

I need to talk a little bit more about this. The assumption of free will extends throughout the entire Bible. From Job's ultimate steadfastness to Abraham's mingled faithlessness and faithfulness, from Moses' obedience and disobedience to Zechariah pissing off the angel Gabriel... all of these are portrayed as actions that may have happened differently, actions that are punished or rewarded precisely because the doer could have done otherwise. I pick my examples at random, off the top of my head, because I could literally open the Bible to almost any page and find that same implicit assumption of free will. From Adam to the seven churches in Revelations, the Bible clearly shows us that we can choose.

Let's look at Jesus. The Jesus who does not believe in free will is a monster: He proclaims the good news to people who are fundamentally incapable of acting on it, and he does nothing to help them. When he speaks to a totally depraved humanity without free will, saying, "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest," it is no different than if he told the lame man to get up and walk, without first healing the man's lameness. It is taunting, mockery of the worst kind, telling a quadriplegic how great it is to be able to walk.  The Calvinist Jesus does not truly love the young man in Mark 10: He merely pretends to love him, with a love that could be effective but is not, that willfully chooses to not be effective and, in doing so, dooms the young man whom Jesus loved to hell. That is not the Jesus I read about in the gospels, no matter how you twist his words, no matter how you twist Paul's words, that is not the Son of God that walked Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Ahem. Pardon me.

But then you have the few verses that explicitly mention predestination. God hardening the pharaoh's heart in Exodus, God foreknowing, predestining, and calling in Romans, and a few others. They are puzzling, to be sure... but they are not in and of themselves troubling, exactly because of the assumption of free will present in the gospels and each and every one of Paul's letters. They only become troubling when they are used, by Calvinism, to overturn the entire tone and direction of the New Testament. To say that there are verses that clearly teach predestination is only to say that the Bible teaches that predestination somehow coexists with free will. To say that we should take the verses of predestination and use them to completely overturn free will is, quite frankly, ridiculous. 

So. We find ourselves in the position of trying to reconcile free will and predestination. Jesus and Paul both take free will for granted: In calling to people and telling them and asking them to do things, they assume that their hearers can do those things, but are not forced to do them. But both also mention predestination. One might well look at this predicament and say, along with some of the internet's greatest scholars, "What is this I don't even?"

But there is a solution. We return to my blog on prayer, which, in hindsight, I shouldn't have linked so early in the blog before. Essentially, prayer  interacts with God's plan for the world, which, from our perspective, he set down before time itself. The Bible tells us to pray. More than that, it tells us to expect results. It tells us that we can choose whether to pray or not, and that there are consequences to praying and consequences to not praying. In short, it tells us that prayer changes things. 

This only makes sense once you recognize that God does not, primarily, experience time. I'm just going quote a paragraph from my last blog: feel free to skip it if you've already read it:

"The way we experience reality is a series of successive events, one after another: 6:00 a.m. is followed without fail by 6:01 a.m., and no amount of effort can prevent the eventual progression to 6:02 a.m., nor wind the clock back to 6:00 a.m. But that is merely a way of seeing reality, not reality as it really is. God sees everything as it really is: NOT as a series of linear, successive events, but as one utterly cohesive NOW; Thus God does not have to "wait" to experience 6:00, 6:01, and 6:02 in succession: He experiences them all at once, without confusion. (This is important: Otherwise God would be bound by time just as much as we are.) Thus the results of an answered prayer for rain made at a particular point in world history--say, June 4, 2012--would be visible and present in the world long before the prayer was even thought of. Because we experience reality through time, it seems to us as though the effect comes before the cause. But in actuality, God has merely seen the prayer and adjusted reality in the same cohesive, unbounded, endless Now."

 That is the only way prayer can work: The only way prayer can be effective and free, which is how the Bible always portrays it. 

So why not apply it to salvation?

If reality is truly governed by Time, if God himself is governed by time, and exists and works only in time, then of course predestination must override free will. But if God is not bound by time, if time is merely the way we perceive reality and not the way reality actually is, then it immediately becomes obvious that the mechanics of predestination vs. free will present no greater problem than that of prayer. Having (apparently) found a solution for one, it seems as though we have found a solution for the other.

Can God  receive a prayer, made on June 7, 2012, for rain on June 8, 2012, and as a result of that prayer, shape the weather patterns for the preceding however many thousands of years so as to make it rain on that particular day? I see no reason why not: And is it not obvious that this case flawlessly allows free will to coexist with the divine predestination of weather patterns, without either being overridden by the other?

If this is the case, then surely we can say that someone can make a decision to follow Christ, of his own free will, at a particular point in world history, and that God, as a result of and in conjunction with that prayer, foreknows that person and his decision to follow Christ: Before time yet in conjunction with that man's decision in time, God predestines and calls them... and yet free will, by the grace of our loving God, remains intact, remains perfectly consistent with God's loving and all-powerful governing of the universe and everything in it.

Clarification Edit: We've gotten really used to conflating a person deciding to follow Christ with salvation: The one logically leads to the other. But here's the thing: Accepting the freely-offered gift of salvation is NOT meritorious. It does not deserve the gift, it does not earn the gift. Therefore, without the grace of God, merely confessing Christ as Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead (as Paul says in Romans 10:9) would not naturally lead to salvation.

Without the grace of God, that decision would not lead to salvation. So let's go to Romans 8:29: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son." Paul himself puts foreknowledge as a basis for predestination. But foreknowledge of what? I am saying that God's foreknowledge extends to the decision, the proclamation, the belief: In his endless NOW, God sees a man saying, "Christ is Lord, and God raised him from the dead." Knowing this, having already freely offered the gift of life to anyone who accepts it, God predestines the man to receive salvation, to be adopted and conformed to Christ's image.

I am no longer troubled with how to reconcile predestination and free will. This is a way in which they can coexist without conflict, without one swallowing up the other, and that is enough for me. I should clarify something: I have no doubt that the scope of predestination here will not be robust enough for entrenched Calvinists to accept. I do think, however, that it meets the biblical criteria for predestination. Entrenched Calvinists are not my audience here: This is for those who, like myself, have struggled to reconcile the concept of predestination with the belief that God has given us free will (as befits creatures made in his image).

Monday, June 4, 2012

How it works (I think)

If you haven't read my posts on prayer, you might want to skim them real quick before reading this one, because they're pretty integral to what I have to say. In this post, I talk about how awesome it is that prayer has the power to change the world: In this post, I go even further and talk about how prayer can even change the future. It's well established in the Bible that prayer changes things: Today I want to work through how that actually works.

So God has a plan for how the world is going to go, right? "God's in control" is what we say when the world is falling apart. We're comforted because we know that God has a plan that can't be derailed. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.'"

But then there's prayer: Petitionary prayer, specifically. Where we ask God for something in the hope that he will give it to us. But wait. What about the plan? How does that work with prayer? Does prayer even matter? What's the point of asking for something if it's already been decided what's going to happen? But the Bible specifically links the answering of the prayer to the prayer itself (James 1:5, 1 John 5:14, Daniel 10:12). So what about the plan?

This is a problem (click there if you want to see the problem articulated by dinosaurs). In a nutshell, the question is this:

Does God already know that the prayers were going to be made? If so, was the prayer made out of free will or was it predestined from the beginning? How does prayer interact with God's predetermined will for human history? Does prayer really matter?

The only answer that seems to, well, answer the question has to do with time and eternity. The answer--the only answer I have found that is satisfactory--is found, as is so often the case, in the writings of C. S. Lewis.

In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes from the perspective of a senior demon advising a younger demon, and at one point he focuses on how to discourage people from their prayers by introducing to them this very problem. The answer, Lewis believes, is so very obvious once you stop thinking of Time--a series of successive events, some past, some future--as the way things actually are. One you realize that God is not bound by Time--that time is something that belongs strictly to created beings--the answer is clear.

Speaking of weather, in particular, then making the jump to time/reality/free will overall, Screwtape says:

"What he ought to say, of course, is obvious to us; that the problem of adapting the particular weather to the particular prayers is merely the appearance, at two points in the human's temporal mode of perception, of the total problem of adapting the whole spiritual universe to the whole corporeal universe; that creation in its entirety operates at every point of space and time, or rather that their kind of consciousness forces them to encounter the whole, self-consistent creative act as a series of successive events. 
Why that creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems, the secret behind the Enemy's nonsense about "Love". How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it."

The way we experience reality is a series of successive events, one after another: 6:00 a.m. is followed without fail by 6:01 a.m., and no amount of effort can prevent the eventual progression to 6:02 a.m., nor wind the clock back to 6:00 a.m. But that is merely a way of seeing reality, not reality as it really is. God sees everything as it really is: NOT as a series of linear, successive events, but as one utterly cohesive NOW.  Thus God does not have to "wait" to experience 6:00, 6:01, and 6:02 in succession: He experiences them all at once, without confusion. (This is important: Otherwise God would be bound by time just as much as we are.) Thus the results of an answered prayer for rain made at a particular point in world history--say, June 4, 2012--would be visible and present in the world long before the prayer was even thought of. Because we experience reality through time, it seems to us as though the effect comes before the cause. But in actuality, God has merely seen the prayer and adjusted reality in the same cohesive, unbounded, endless Now

Here's what is so unbelievably cool about this: God has so designed creation so that free will and divine providence can coexist without clashing or elimination. Free will is not absorbed into divine providence, making free will essentially meaningless because it was planned "from the beginning." But neither does free will overthrow divine providence and mean that God really has no control over anything. By the grace of God, they coexist in perfect balance--Our all-powerful creator designed the universe so that we, like him, could have free will. 

So God  receives the prayer, which was made of our own free will. He acts on that prayer in His divine sovereignty. And so, by the love and grace of God, the prayers of the saints find their way into the divinely ordained workings of the universe, ranging from celestial battles (Daniel 10:12) to the day-to-day requests of seemingly unimportant people (1 John 5:14). Here's the really important bit: This seems to be the only possible way prayer can work. This seems to be the only possible way prayer can matter, the only possible way prayer can be both free and meaningful. Any other way ultimately results in prayer being unmeaningful as something that was always going to happen, or as something meaningless because God's plan cannot be changed, and the Bible never treats prayer like that. Prayer is treated as something that may or may not happen, that has consequences for not being made and consequences for being made. It is always shown to be a free action that effects the will of God. And this, to me, seems the only way that is possible.

I appreciate you guys bearing with me on this. This was a tough post to write, and it is probable that some parts remain unclear, confusing, or outright erroneous. If you are unsure of something, or even if you vehemently disagree with me, let me know. Proverbs 27:17: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." I want to be sharpened.

So come at me, bro.