Theology

Psychology and Suicide in the Church

Saturday night I was surprised to read that Rick Warren‘s son, Matthew, committed suicide after a long struggle with mental illness.  You and I know Rick Warren as one of the most prominent pastors in America today.  He wrote the books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life. He is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and you may remember that he offered the inaugural prayer in 2009.

The statement given to his church community on Saturday reiterated that his youngest son, Matthew, was “an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man.”  He made special efforts to spot and encourage others who were struggling in the church.

But ultimately, he succumbed to his own anguish.  “In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided.  Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

I am glad to see that the church community at large is supporting Warren’s family during such a tragedy. I too am very sad to hear about the news, particularly because mental illness likely contributed to the suicide.

But I am also saddened for another reason.  I’m surprised that there are still a number of people within the church who champion archaic notions about psychology and about suicide.  When I read the reports of the suicide, saw several of the comments people left.  While most of them were supportive, others were just mean.

Some were from folks who simply hated Warren and his church. I doubt that anyone takes them seriously–after some of these comments, I wouldn’t take them seriously about anything from that time forward.  But I’m more concerned about the Christians who say things like:

“What’s really sad about all of this is that he went to hell because he committed suicide.”

What a heartless and mindless thing to say, especially in a public forum.  Though I don’t care to delineate the biblical reasons why I think this kind of theology about suicide is ridiculous, I will say this. A person who thinks that a vibrant relationship with Christ instantly becomes null and void because of one bad decision is a legalist.  He has a poor understanding of theology and probably sees God as more of an ice-cold robot in the sky.  As long as you are sort of good and never do really terrible things like suicide, you’re in good standing.  But, even if you walk with Christ your whole life and then in a wave of abnormal despair take your own life, do you think God would toss you aside in disgust?  That is not a good relationship.

Truthfully, I am sad for the people who think this way.  The kind of people who think that God has a list that you must keep.  He likes you if you do all of these things; but if you do one of the major bad things, hit the road, buddy! There is no room for love in a relationship that demands such strict obedience. Your behavior may indicate your affections for another person, but do you really think that we will always win every battle in this life?  Do you think that the type of battles that we win or lose has bearing on our eternity?  I was under the impression that it was really about one particular battle that Christ fought on our behalf.  I think I heard that in a sermon just over a week ago.

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Luther, where Martin Luther buried a boy who took his own life.  The church would not allow the boy to be buried on church property since they believed that victims of suicide go to hell.  Luther rejected that notion and dug the boy’s grave on church property with his own hands.  He explained that the Devil used despair to kill the boy, the same way a robber kills his victims in the woods.  To Luther, one who dies of suicide loses a battle, and that is not a damnable offense.  I think this approach works best.

There is another attitude in the church that bothers me.  It’s the notion that psychology, psychiatry, and (secular) counseling is somehow unbiblical or unchristian. I would like to be godly enough to say that this grieves me, but really it just ticks me off something awful, especially since some mainline churches still take this position.  I remember a church I attended some years ago was one of the most prominent in the area.  I went with one of the pastors to visit a church member at a local hospital.  The young lady we visited had struggled with depression for years.  Recently, it became very intense.  She couldn’t manage it on her own any more.  Now, thanks to the medicine and therapy she was clear-headed and on a stable road to recovery. That’s when my pastor said “Have you considered that you just need to pray more and meditate on the scriptures instead of taking medicine?”

I wanted to slap the man. Here is a woman who was living a godly life who got sick.  Now she is making huge strides in recovery and my pastor friend thinks that this is some kind of sin.  The truth is after she recovered, her godly life continued and she thanked God for the hospital and the medicine. She didn’t abandon the faith, she could now embrace it more.  Although I will say, she didn’t have much desire to attend that church anymore!

Part of the church’s mission is about physical and spiritual healing. I hope and pray that we can eventually weed out these erroneous notions which are counterproductive to the church’s pursuits.  Clinical depression and other forms of mental illness can and must be managed with counseling and even with medicine.  The church ought not be afraid of these things, because they work!  Isn’t that reason enough to do it?  And when some people lose loved ones to these diseases, we will not be judgmental.  Instead, we cover the family with love, prayer, and support. I’m very happy to see most of the church moving in the right direction.

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Non-Contradictions

You may have come across the “law of non-contradiction” in your religious readings. It appears frequently in apologetic writings that seek to defend certain religious doctrines. It is a simple rule that goes like this:

A concept or rule cannot be true and false at the same time.

Technically, it looks like this:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Now there are truck loads of articles and books addressing this rule, but all I’m really concerned about is how it is used by church apologists to make an argument. This rule was key for me as I developed my theology in college. I was a modernist who rejected all forms of postmodern thinking.

Ravi Zacharias

One of the main illustrations that made the law of non-contradiction clear to me was a story told my one of the heroes from my college years, Ravi Zacharias. It is often repeated in churches, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes; and is one that I have used frequently.

After Zacharias had finished a lecture, a professor of philosophy challenged him on a significant point. Zacharias had pressed the law of non-contradiction. Putting it in simpler terms for his audience, he said that the law might be called an either…or system. Christian theology uses this system. For example,

Either Paul is an Apostle or he is not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God or he is not.

Either Christianity is true or it is not.

You see the rule here:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Paul cannot be an apostle and not an apostle.

Etc.

The irritated professor went to dinner with Zacharias and one other school administrator to talk things over. The philosophy professor insisted that the either…or system is exclusively a western philosophical idea while eastern philosophy uses more of an both…and system of logic. So…

A can be both B and not B at the same time.

Thus…

Paul can be both an apostle and not an apostle.

Jesus can be both the Son of God and not the Son of God.

Zacharias opposed this view with a simple statement: “So you are telling me that it’s either the both…and system or nothing else, is that right?”

The philosopher puzzled over this: “The either…or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

Zacharias added, “You know, even those in India look both ways before we cross the street, because they know ‘It’s either me or the bus, not both of us!'”

The main point is that the either…or system–the law of non-contradiction–is something that even Easterners use in their thinking. This is a very important distinction and has helped me a great deal over the years. It also tended to lock me in a modernist way of thinking, and I think it has done the same to several of my contemporaries.

What I erroneously took away from that illustration was that all legitimate ideas come from either…or thinking; the both…and system of thought is worthless and even deceptive. That worked for me for a while, but I started having some pretty big problems with it when I went to seminary. In my biblical and theological studies I found that you must employ the both…and system to make things work. Otherwise, those who champion the non-contradiction rule will actually contradict themselves!

Jesus is both God and man.

The church is both currently redeemed and not yet redeemed.

God is both a single person and not a single person.

A strict either…or approach would have to deny these principles, even though these concepts are central to historic church doctrines. To be sure, there are many who try to reconcile these doctrines with an either…or system; and it seems to me that the harder we try, the further we separate ourselves from the teachings of the text.

Ultimately, I think we need to learn to use both systems where appropriate (see what I did there?). It seems to me that the “either…or” system promotes a more mechanical and objective style of thinking while the “both…and” system is much more organic and subjective. There will always be a tension between the two of them, but they are both helpful.

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Incarnational Humanism by Jens Zimmermann–My Thoughts.

Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2012), pp. 357.

I must say, the book’s beautiful cover caught my attention, and then the title made me take it home. My recent reevaluation of Christian theology has me reading more philosophy and theology than usual these days, and I’m glad that this book was pretty enough for me to read (that’s why everyone reads philosophy books, isn’t it?).

All kidding aside, the book is well-written. Zimmermann teaches English and German at Trinity Western University, his main interests being literary theory, theology, and philosophy; so he knows what he’s doing. He argues that a great deal of Christianity has lost touch with its roots. The two thousand years of theological and philosophical thought from the first century until now has taken it’s toll. The western church seems confused about it’s main purpose. Is it exalting Christ? His birth? His life? His death? Is it saving lost souls? Is it feeding the poor? Is it retaining a traditional liturgy? Is it social action? There are many more possibilities, but Zimmermann recommends that the church re-embraces the incarnational humanism promoted by the church fathers.

Even uttering the word humanism concerns many of the laity, since they usually relate humanism directly to secular humanism. Though he doesn’t say it outright, I think that is part of Zimmermann’s point. The fact that this misconception is widespread indicates that the church has forgotten its most important mission: the restoration of humanity. The incarnation event heavily influenced the early church and promoted humanism. So Zimmermann spends most of his time tracing the main ideas about humanism from the early church to the present.

While the idea of a deity becoming flesh was certainly not new in the first century, the Christian story of the incarnation represented a tremendous paradigm shift: we are not like the gods, but the holy God–the one who is completely other and separate from humanity–has become like us. We are not like the gods, but rather God infinitely condescended to become like us. Not born to royalty, but to poverty. Not born to prestige, but to the lowly. Humanity had now achieved a special level of dignity because God had ensconced himself in a human form and triumphed over sin and death for the sake of the rest of the world. God had achieved the victory that man could never win. He did that while he was a human being made of flesh. Thus, Christianity promoted the dignity of humans. Christ had proved that the world can be redeemed, so Christians ought to redeem the world. They should seek the betterment of humanity through education and social action. Furthermore, the church fathers made a sharp distinction between Neo-Platonism and Christian humanism. The truth of Christianity was more relational than cerebral (though truth and facts were very important).

Later, the Enlightenment and Reformation championed personal knowledge and independence. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel equated knowledge and logical thought with humanity. Dignity had more to do with the cerebral instead of being itself. The reformers had legitimate and serious concerns with Rome, but also championed ideas and ideals over some of the more mysterious elements of Christianity. The Eucharist had to be modified in Protestant circles to accommodate to new ways of thinking. Even Luther modified his view of the bread and wine based on enlightenment thought. The center of Christian worship–the moment acknowledges the mysterious union between spirit and flesh–the Eucharist became segmented. To many, they became symbolic. The bread was just bread and wine was just wine. A Neo-Platonic separation between flesh and spirit thus became standard doctrine for many churches. So human beings were similarly segmented into flesh and spirit beings.

Later, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Heidegger negated the “spiritual” side of humans. Beforehand, people assumed that there was a common and even divine expectation for all human beings to fulfill, but these philosophers identified such expectations as elements of control that impeded the freedom of human beings. Thus, the cerebral element to humanity is really irrelevant; being is the only issue relevant to humans. So, expression becomes important for humans with no prescription for normality. Humans are not obliged to be anything or to act in any specific way. They simply are what they are. Later postmodern philosophers developed these concepts even more. As a result, the uniqueness and dignity of humanity became a misnomer. Humans no longer had innate value or dignity.

Zimmermann argues for a return to an incarnational humanism promoted in the Christian Church. Such an approach emphasizes the Eucharist as the embodiment of human dignity. It is the center of Christian worship which reminds the congregation of the incarnation event when God became human. This event brought ultimate victory for all humanity. It also represented divine struggle with human travail. It is God’s goodwill toward humanity. It teaches us that all human beings are valuable because all are in God’s image and God became flesh to save us all. God’s efforts should be our own. We should take on a similar mission when we partake in the Eucharist.

Zimmermann is quite fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s approach to humanity and the Church’s mission. The Church must participate in the current state of the world (the penultimate) with a view to bring about the world’s ultimate redemption (the ultimate). Thus, the church seeks to bring about common good and divine good in the world, unabashedly involved in social action. We ought not be legalists who consistently separate ourselves from the world and huddle triumphantly in our local congregations; neither should we be antinomians who have no stance on morality.

What a great aspiration! Zimmermann points us in a nice direction, but what kind of that church would that be? How does that look practically? Zimmermann doesn’t offer much practical guidance with these questions (except for some broad comments here and there). He remains philosophical overall.  I also wish that Zimmermann interacted with the theologians who had similar concerns in the twentieth century. There are no references to Barth or Tillich, for example. That was very surprising for such a well-documented book! There are also very few biblical references. To make his case among those who hold the scriptures in high regard, Zimmermann would need more biblical support to make his case.

On the other hand, Incarnational Humanism, represents a fantastic history of humanism from the first century until now. The writing becomes rather heady at times, particularly when he discusses the postmodern period, but the discussions are rich and enlightening. It is a strong philosophical argument that modern church academics should consider in an era where church identity can be hard to define.

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A Good Parent Condescends, God Does too


You probably won’t answer your son as elaborately as the dad in this commercial, but I wonder if you condescended in a similar way when your 4-year old asks where babies come from. Why do you do that? Why don’t you just come on out and talk about sexual intercourse and all the things around it? Well–duh!–he’s four years old! It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to learn about all the aspects of human sexuality (which you, of course, have mastered)! I’m not a child psychologist but I think I know why you might do it:

-For one thing, he won’t really understand what you’re talking about.
-It will introduce him to concepts that are either inappropriate or irrelevant to his current lifestyle (let’s hope!).
-Also, he might not be emotionally ready for full-disclosure on the topic.

So maybe you’ll just be as vague as possible. That’s a safe move. You don’t want to bring out the textbooks and talk anatomy. You don’t want to use dolls for any illustrative purposes. You’d rather not use specific terms. The main thing you try to do is condescend to your son. You want to put complex matters into understandable terms. And why would you do such a thing to your son? Are you trying to lie to him? Confuse him?

Just the opposite, actually. You want to answer his questions in a way that is relevant to his life experiences and his current mental acumen. This is a little heavier than working with fractions and pie charts, after all.

As you explain some things, you’re holding back. You’re not being dishonest or deceptive. You are giving him the amount of information that he can handle. He uses some terms that are not technically correct, but you’ll overlook that and actually use his terminology to communicate the main point clearly. As he grows up, you’ll talk about these things more and correct some of his misconceptions.

So we condescend to our children because we love them and want them to understand matters that are relevant to their current situation.

In the same way, God the Father is the best dad of all (Matt. 7:11) and condescended to answer people’s questions. The ancient Hebrews wondered where they came from and where they were going. God answered with the creation narrative–Gen. 1-3. The Hebrews weren’t asking questions about science–at the time, nobody was! So God answers their questions in ancient symbols that they would understand. He could have told them how old the earth was. He could have described the creation in much more scientific detail. He could have explained how there could be light before any sun existed, or how a day could pass before the sun even existed (Gen. 1:14). But apparently, those things didn’t matter to the Hebrews.

Instead they asked, “Are we special?” And God said that he created them in His image and ordained them to rule the earth in his place. They learned that they are included in a divine struggle between the serpent and God. They learned that their disobedience leads to separation from God. They learned that sacrifice would be necessary to cover their shame before the Almighty. God was answering their questions based on the terms and knowledge they had. That’s what a good dad does. God condescends, he does not lie.

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Authority: Who Has It and How Should It Be Handled? (Emergence Christianity Once More)

This should be my last post on my interactions with the Emergence Christianity conference a few weeks ago.  I keep thinking of everything I’d like to say, but can’t manage to get it in one entry.  So here is one more bite at the elephant.

I think Phyllis Tickle put her finger on one of the biggest issues in Christianity today: authority.  Authority matters have divided Christians since the first century.  Divisions over circumcision between Christians at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a good example.  Should the Gentiles be circumcised since the first century bible (the Old Testament) required it?  The Christian literalists thought this was a slam dunk (v. 5): the Bible requires all believers to be circumcised.  That’s it. Game over.  The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.  But Peter disagreed.  So did Paul and Barnabas.  All these guys used their personal experiences an argument.  At this point, a Bible literalist’s head will explode.  Personal experience should always bow to the Bible; and in the first century, that was the Old Testament.  What’s worse is the fact that James quoted Amos 9:11-12 (LXX) [and alluded to Isaiah 45:21] which have nothing to do with circumcision.  A Bible literalist, would have to say that James, Peter, Paul and Barnabas lose and the Pharisee Christian converts win.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead the church issued a statement freeing the Gentile converts from the circumcision requirement.  Consequently, I’m sure the circumcised Gentiles were pretty peeved.

Who had the authority to decide what God required and what he did not? The leaders of the church: apostles and the elders (15:22-23).

During the 1500s, corruption in the church went unchecked until the Protestant Reformation opposed the church’s authority.  The basis for their revolt was that the Roman Catholic church was contradicting the Bible, which should be man’s sole source of divine authority.  Thus, Sola Scriptura was one of the enduring battle cries of Protestants.  The printing press made it possible for more people to have the Bible and to see clearly what it required.  Now that people had the complete Bible translated in a their native language, they could hold the Church accountable to do what it required.  God wrote the Bible, so it is infallible; there can be no contradictions in it (if you think there are, you have either misunderstood or are rebelling against God).  If we all study the Bible correctly, we will see the one message that God wants to convey.  As Phyllis Tickle stated, the Protestants exchanged a physical Pope for a “Paper Pope.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  Each and every Christian is a priest with that right  (1 Peter 2:9).

Centuries later, the Catholic church made their own rule about infallibility.  The rule of ex cathedra, the Pope’s infallible utterance, was dogmatized during Vatican I (1869-70) and reaffirmed at Vatican II (1962-65).

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church leaders who are approved to interpret the text correctly, and infallible statements may come from the Pope via ex cathedra.

These days postmodernism has affected us all.  We acknowledge that there is more than one approach to truth because all our perspectives will always influence how we see and interpret information.  The Protestant idea of the Bible being the only source of divine truth is still a pleasant idea–it is comforting to know that something is in black and white–but the fact that there are thousands of protestant denominations in the world today is certainly not encouraging.  Many of these denominations evangelize by saying things like “Do you know for absolute certain that you will go to Heaven when you die?  I mean, do you know that you know that you know?  Is there any doubt in your mind?”  Well, considering the fact that there are 6 different Christian churches on this street alone, and that I have about 5 different English translations of the Bible on my shelf…there is at least a little doubt.  But I trust Christ and participate with him in worship.  I’m certain that is enough–relatively speaking.

Tickle mapped this framework out in her lectures and suggested that we are currently in a Wikipedia kind of Church age, where authority is really a matter of public discourse than determining who has the right to give us direction.  So Christianity becomes much more broad, we listen to those other Christ-followers who have different ideas, learning to love and respect their views even if we disagree.  Pledging allegiance to Christ and participating in worship is the center of gravity.  We must allow the latitude for others to disagree.  Let the Spirit of God work in that person and stop thinking that you will turn argue that person out of their “wrong thinking.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church community via discourse.  Regularly engage in respectful dialogue and let authority take care of itself.

I found these ideas very intriguing and wonder where we will be in the next 10 years.

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More Thoughts on Emergence Christianity

My last post gave a cursory description of the Emergence Christianity conference I attended which featured Phyllis Tickle.  Here are some more concepts I learned there, with my responses:

“Emergence Christianity” or the “Great Emergence” is a recent phenomenon among many Christian denominations (and perhaps other religions), so it is not confined to a few denominations only.  It is a new attitude about religion and spirituality that represents, as she described, a probable and major shift in history.  It is one that is more sensitive to the spirit of God who reveals truth to local congregations.  It values one’s experience in life and with the spirit of God alongside a reverence for the Bible and tradition.   Tickle suggested the beginning of this movement sparked at the Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival, referencing the efforts of Charles Fox Parham and Bill Seymour.  Tickle showed no skepticism to the miraculous gifts supposedly manifested there.  The implication is that some congregations might receive specific direction from God–theological, social, or practical–communicated through these gifts.  Thus, prophecy is an important spiritual gift.

Response: I’ve left my old circles which tended to have cessationist views regarding the charisma (charismatic spiritual gifts–tongues, healing, etc.), but I still have reservations about it.  I think most people do.  This is because many a charlatan has mimicked them to take advantage of people.  Those gifts given for building others up twisted to manipulate the congregation is more than a little detestable.  So I have some hope that people genuinely practice these gifts in humble ways.  So you can imagine, I am very suspicious of new social and theological direction coming from these kinds of divine utterances.

Furthermore, I’m concerned about how one can validate the legitimacy of a prophecy these days.   The Torah called for some pretty severe consequences on those bearing empty prophecies (Deut. 13:5); but the New Testament doesn’t seem to call for such harshness.  Paul instructed the Corinthians to evaluate prophecies but didn’t even hint at what to do if they were illegitimate  (1 Cor. 14:29).  What standard might one use?   Obviously, the Lordship of Christ was a standard that prophecy could never violate (1 Cor. 12:3).

_____

Tickle argued that history works in cycles (see my earlier post) but also suggested a view of all religious history that references the Trinity.  The Old Testament time period was the time of the Father who focused more on judgment.  The New Testament time period (I suppose CE 33 to present?) is a time that emphasized experiences with God the Son.  The present is a transition into the time of the Spirit which will see much more spiritual activity.

Response: I’ve heard this kind of thinking before.  It sells well, but it suggests Modalism (Sabellianism), that God has presented himself in three different modes throughout history, and that each mode is a different personality.  It suggests that each member of the Trinity behaves differently in each time period.  On the other hand, it may not be that they each act differently, but rather that they each interact  differently with humanity.  That would have some clout, but there should be a distinction here to ensure that all three members of the Trinity were simultaneously involved with human history.

On the other hand, I agree completely that something big seems to be happening in Christianity.  Regular church attendance is way down, but people desire spirituality.  Many believe in Christ but have been burned by the church.  They prefer sincerity over strict dogma because, like the Pharisees of the first century, religious leaders often sacrifice goodness and common decency for the sake of religious ideas.  So in this “post-postmodern” environment, I’m sure that the face of Christianity will change.  How it will ultimately look is something that none of us can really predict.

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Isaiah 9: the Warrior-King and Christmas

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For a child has been born to us,
a son has been given to us.
He shoulders responsibility
and is called:
Extraordinary Strategist,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
9:7 His dominion will be vast
and he will bring immeasurable prosperity.
He will rule on David’s throne
and over David’s kingdom,
establishing it and strengthening it
by promoting justice and fairness,
from this time forward and forevermore.
The Lord’s intense devotion to his people will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7, NET)

Isaiah 9:6 is a favorite passage quoted by Christians just before Christmas, predicting the coming of Messiah. It’s one of my favorites, too. It is difficult for us to look at the passage in its original context, but let’s give it a try.
In the 8th century BCE, Judah was in trouble. Ephraim and Syria were a new threat just to the north and the Assyrian Empire was a terrible juggernaut gobbling up all the surrounding territories. These days, commentators say that Judah was under the “Assyrian Crisis.” The Assyrians were a pretty ruthless people who demonstrated their cruelty in some terrifying ways. Impalement and dismemberment were just a few ways they proved their power to their enemies.
In this cultural and historical setting, Isaiah gave a prophecy of great hope to a people under enormous pressure. A child would be born who would set all things straight. Isaiah’s audience were under Ahaz’s rule, but his actions were less than ideal. But this child would be a king who rules on David’s throne and would bring about a definitive order in the middle of the political chaos.
The birth announcement foretold a human event with divine intention. The child is a human conception, though God has determined its happening and purpose.
He will be one that bears a great weight of responsibility as a political leader, but will be renown for his technique and ability, because he will be called “Extraordinary Strategist” by many. I think the NET Bible communicates this well. Oftentimes we see the popular gloss “Wonderful Counselor” and think that he will be someone that will give great advice or direction in a personal matter. Instead, Isaiah’s audience was more interested in a leader who could get them out of their terrible predicament; someone who could save them from forces like Assyria.
As was common to the ancient Near East, kings were representatives of a nation’s deity. The kings embodied the authority of the gods. They were even considered the very presence of a deity on earth. The title “Mighty God” points to this divine embodiment, but it isn’t an outright incarnation that the New Testament teaches. Instead, a king who accomplished the great things destined for him would obviously be driven by the deity. His authority would be synonymous with the authority of the deity, and so he would represent the divine.
The title “Everlasting Father” really doesn’t have anything to do with deity. Instead, it refers to the fatherly provision and protection of this coming king. A Christian appeal to the Trinity would be problematic here, especially since Christian see the king as the Son and not the Father. The metaphor of a kingly father is also found in Isaiah 22:21 (esp. ESV or NIV). Of course, the duration of his protection will be “everlasting,” which fits the theme of this pericope nicely. This kind of forever language is almost always hyperbolic, not referring to a literal eternity, but is instead a magnanimous description of the coming king. It also fits the language of the promise made in 2 Samuel 7 where God promised David that one from his lineage would establish a kingdom of peace that would endure forever.
He’ll be a “Prince of Peace.” How can a king in that environment establish peace? He’ll be a supreme and unbeatable warrior-king who will force the bad guys into submission and so take care of his people. His concern for his people is clear in verse 7. He’s David’s son, he brings peace and justice to his kingdom, and that kingdom is one of great prosperity. It’s YHWH’s passion that motivates and drives him. He’s the perfect king, truly the Messiah.

Is it any wonder that the first century Jews expected a warrior king that would utterly demolish Rome? It makes a lot of sense when you hear Peter’s revolutionary language and see him charge the crowd who came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane.

But what do we do with this Isaiah 9 passage this Christmastime? The people who walked with Christ experienced a paradigm shift and interpreted these passages like this one differently and we do it too.

A child was born by human effort and divine intention. This child would set things straight and we would save us from a war going on between all humanity and God himself: this king would save us from our own sins (Matt. 1:21). The king will be not simply be a representative of God, but will be the actual incarnation of God Himself. He will not just be a symbol of God’s presence among us (Isaiah 7), but will actually be God in human flesh. He will be Immanuel in substance, and not just in spirit. His kingdom will expand as the Gospel message moves across the globe. Our reasons for fear–death, sickness, and divine retribution–will fade. In him, we got more than was originally expected. With him we gain victory over the grave and death. Political aggressors are really secondary when it comes to the issues of sin and death; and the latter are the most important things in our lives that the Messiah came to correct. The culmination of all God wants to accomplish on earth are found in the Christ child.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Christian Calendar, Christmas, Practical, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas: God became Meat

The title of this post is somewhat offensive.  It’s supposed to be.  The incarnation is simultaneously profane and profound.  Christmas is the time Christians remember that God the Son took on human flesh.  Well, that sounds nice and sterile, doesn’t it?  As we say here in the South: “That’ll preach!”  It is an interesting phrase; but these days it does not have the pathos it used to.  The idea of God becoming a human being was sheer blasphemy to the first century Jew.  The English term flesh is rather benign, and so when Christians hear that God took on human flesh there is often a ho-hum attitude.

But in my classes I take a different approach to the incarnation.  I ask students if they have ever eaten “chili con carne,” asking them what that is exactly.  Of course, it is chili with meat.  Then the follow-up question: “Then what do you think the incarnation might be?”  Of course, it refers to God becoming flesh.  A deity became meat, bone, sinews, organs.  It is a kind of mnemonic device students can use to remember the term and its definition.  But I always get strange looks and questions about this.  It seems profane to put the incarnation this way, and I am aware that the English word meat is not a perfect equivalent to the Latin caro/carn- (though the Spanish carne and English meat are pretty close).  Yet I believe it is important to help people recognize the original offense of the incarnation.

From the pages of the Bible we learn that God is not a man.  He is not made of flesh and blood.  He has no need of sleep.  He does not puzzle over things.  He does not need education or advice.  He does not have fear or dread.  He does not need nourishment.  The epitome of the word almighty, God is simply untouchable.  He is infinite.

Theologically, the Christian Church would say that God is wholly other.  He is perpetual.  He is omnipresent, omnipresent, and omniscient.  But perhaps most importantly, God is holy.  He has nothing to do with sin.  If and when he makes his appearance, no one can look at him directly and live.  Even angels cover their faces in his presence.

The birth of Christ actually put limits on the unlimited.  The God of all creation (specifically the second member of the Trinity) was born to a teenage girl in a cave-like stable.  Ultimate royalty, the holy God was wrapped in poor swaddling clothes.  Wrapped snugly, keeping his arms from flailing about, held in a mother’s embrace, being rocked when he cried, the creator of the world became a human.  Not just a human, but the most vulnerable child in need of, well…everything!  A completely independent God had become utterly dependent.  God had become flesh, organs, a starving stomach, weepy eyes, rooting mouth, and on occasion would produce a foul odor!  This scandal is not easy to accept to those who had held so strongly to Old Testament theology.  If we are honest, it may not be easy for us to accept either.

Categories: Christmas, Theology | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks–Comments from a Former Fundamentalist

When I returned from the SBL annual meeting a few weeks ago, I told lots of folks about my experiences and about a few of the books that I purchased or had hoped to purchase in the near future. The one I began reading on the bus ride home was Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks. I posted the picture of the book on my Facebook account, which led to a flurry of mostly negative comments. I don’t suppose most of the folks knew Sparks or anything about his book. They might have reacted to the title which calls the Bible both sacred and broken, and I’m sure Sparks’s quote from Bonhoeffer that I posted helped egg on the discussion:

“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Sparks, 1; Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible)

A former fundamentalist, I understand the concern. People assume (as I did once) that any insinuation about the Bible’s brokenness is simply an attack on the Bible’s authority. Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me uneasy, but it is also one of the more wonderful and refreshing things I’ve heard about the Bible in a long time. The more I study the Bible through an academic and critical lens, I am less convinced by the traditional ways to reconcile Bible contradictions and difficulties. It is one reason I could no longer tow the fundamentalist party line. But old habits and theological positions die hard, and Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me nervous yet hopeful in my search for a different approach to Bible interpretation. But Sparks intrigued me with his first quote, so I eagerly dove into the rest of the 156 pages for the next week. I read it slowly, marking it up in several places with some !’s, some ?’s and a whole lot of circles, underlines and comments. Overall, I was enthusiastic about the message.

He began his book by affirming that the Bible is God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, and written by those who were moved by that Spirit (8-9). It contains God’s truth and elements of divine beauty. Yet it also contains some features that are very disturbing to modern readers–to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is pretty clear that one of the basic messages in the Bible is that the world was created by God and yet contains a great deal of pain and evil. Sparks touches on different theological approaches to the creation narrative and the effects of the Fall on the universe, probably to show the theological complexity of the issue. He also offered a very brief argument himself, but ultimately stated that no one can really prove conclusively that the Christian view of evil is correct (17-19). I agree, especially since the Bible itself offers several approaches to the problem of evil (compare the messages of Job and Ecclesiastes for example). Furthermore, Sparks observed that God expresses himself through creation even though it is fallen and warped (20-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-3). I had never considered this before; and so as I read I could feel my hope grow. The Bible can and does reflect a redemptive message through the pens of depraved authors.

Next Sparks devoted a few pages to Christology..which is a little weird until you see where he is going with it. The coming of Jesus is an example of how God seeks to communicate with mankind. God became incarnate, taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” to redeem and communicate with those people who were condemned (Rom 8:3-4). Therefore, the fallen world is only redeemed when God interacts with it (27). But unlike the nature of Christ himself, the scriptures were written by sinful men whose works were adopted or sanctified for God’s uses. To claim the scriptures themselves were sinless all together, insinuates a kind of hypostatic relationship between God’s divine perfection and text or its authors. Since none of the human authors have a simultaneously divine and human nature, a perfectly written text seems unlikely. This was a difficult section for me, but I largely agree with Sparks and I think that it honors God more to separate him from the text in this way. An inerrantist view of Scripture seems to idolatrously elevate the Bible to a divine status.

After giving some samples of the “broken” elements in the Bible, including logical and theological inconsistencies along with moral difficulties such as genocide and slavery, we get to the heart of the book where Sparks makes his main arguments. The fact that some of the laws of the Old Testament codify actions that are morally troublesome these days, indicates that the Bible is not simply a divine yardstick to measure all morality for all people. In Sparks’s estimation, “biblical error became God’s wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience” (53). The idea that the text cannot have errors because it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) cannot stand since, “the Greek word itself does not really imply anything in particular about how the transaction between God and the human authors took place” (56). Strengthening his case, Sparks shows that other key theological figures have made similar remarks in Church history.

At this point, I’ve agreed with Sparks a great deal, though I feel some trepidation. When he states, “By virtue of its human form and character, Scripture is an adequate human voice that does not fare so well when judged by the yardstick of divine perfection” (61, emphasis his), I must wonder if there is a yardstick at all. What makes Scripture so special? Should we trust the Bible’s documents with the fate of our souls if it doesn’t fare so well against divine perfection? It’s here my hope begins to fade, giving way to despair. But Sparks doesn’t leave me entirely dead in the water. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is a divinely motivated witness to God’s work of redemption in the world through Christ (63). But this still doesn’t answer my questions.

The chapter on epistemology was foundational to the book and one of the most intriguing parts in my reading, probably because I’ve been exploring postmodern ideas on my own. It is important because the way a person determines truth has direct bearing on that person’s ethics. Sparks promotes what he calls “practical realism” (73), which is a tempered postmodernist view. He acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence in the pursuit of truth, but recognizes that personal experience, culture, and traditions carry a great deal of weight as well. Thus, church tradition and history inform and guide church theology and ethics.

With this in mind, Sparks then revisits some of the diversity of ideas and difficulties in the Scripture again. In anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, Paul stated that people should avoid marriage (1 Cor. 7), but Sparks states that these days one is better off looking to Genesis 2 when deciding to marry (115). Good advice, I think. Regarding slavery: “We should not try to argue that biblical laws which allowed Israel to buy foreign slaves (Lev 25:44) fit very nicely with biblical texts that call for justice, equality, freedom and love of neighbor. At a crucial point the two views are simply incommensurable” (105). These slavery texts may have more self-serving purposes for the human authors than divine mandate. And, of course, there’s the church’s old view of geocentrism they finally had to abandon based on new scientific evidence.

Okay! I get it! But how can I know if my reading of the Bible is correct? I’m a Reformed Protestant, so I cry “Sola Scriptura!“and have placed little emphasis on church tradition for my hermeneutics. But recently I have joined a church that does place a great deal of weight on church tradition; so his points resonate with me now. Sparks notes that more Protestants are like me are recognizing the importance of church traditions in Bible interpretation (125). And so my hope grows even more! (FYI: See also the emphasis on tradition in 2 Thesselonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2) We also have confidence that the Spirit of God guides the church as she interprets the Bible. As mentioned earlier, we should also consider the natural world and scientific knowledge, since God also reveals himself in nature. Furthermore, Sparks argues that we should always consider our own experiences. He notes that he was taught as a child that Catholics could not be Christians, but working with several devout Catholics over the years has taught him that this is not the case. The church should take a similar approach when reading the Bible. Sparks also gives a list of guidelines and principles for validating one’s interpretation of the text. Part of it includes the mystery of God’s Spirit interacting with the church throughout history, and part of it recognizes one of the most obvious points of all the canon: God is on a mission to redeem the world.

If I could, I would thank Dr. Sparks personally for writing such a great book! It stretches the limits of my accepted doctrines and has given me the groundwork for an alternative to an inerrantist position. I had abandoned this position a few months ago, but Sparks’s writing has given me a nice blueprint for constructing a new hermeneutic. To me, the Bible remains authoritative even though it has clear evidence of human frailty behind it. Sparks affirmed my suspicions about the Scriptures, pointing out some difficulties I had never considered, and then gave me some guideposts with which I can chart a better hermeneutical method that still shows great reverence to Gods word. Now, I feel that I have stronger supports for my position.

Yet, I do have some criticisms and points of disagreements, but there is really only one matter I care to address. As a former fundamentalist, I was drilled with one doctrine above all: the Bible is inerrant. Without the Bible’s inerrancy, I had supposed with everyone else that all was lost. Without inerrancy, we can’t know God and his requirements. With an inerrant view, we can be certain who God is and what he requires. So when my friends saw the title “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and the Bonhoeffer quote, some felt two things: anger and despair. Anger because to question inerrancy is to question God himself, and despair because the recognition of errors in the Bible can feel like the foundation of one’s faith has been compromised. I’m a trained Biblical scholar, and I felt it even while reading Sacred Word, Broken Word; I can only imagine the layperson’s struggle through such a text. Sparks doesn’t seem to anticipate this tremendous emotional and existential struggle. Simply put, he is not pastoral anywhere in his approach. To be fair, he is a theologian and does a great job arguing his point. But this is a sensitive issue for some, and I didn’t see that he is aware of that.

The model I was taught as a fundamentalist is like that of so many: the Bible is my one foundation for truth. Sparks doesn’t replace that foundation with another, instead giving principles for good Bible interpretation via the church, tradition, experience, and nature. After reading Sparks’s book, there is no more singular foundation upon which a Christian can build his house (life). Thus, despair or anger for the fundamentalist reader. As one who has a so-called Calvinist perspective on the sovereignty of God, I find that this is a great replacement foundation to fill the fundamentalist void. The Spirit of God sovereignly moves through the church and through its members to eventually redeem us. We get it wrong sometimes, but through those errors, shortcomings, and even sins, God will be faithful to accomplish his purposes. A little emphasis on something like this would have been appreciated!

 

 

Categories: Biblical Studies, Calvinism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Practical, Theology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Diet of Pasta and the Diet of Worms

Pasta again!

Pasta again! (Photo credit: HatM)

What better place to discuss a break from Rome than in an Italian restaurant?  I connected with a couple of fellas at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and later we went to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Chicago.  It was one of those great evenings of conversation that theologues savor.  I knew one of the guys already, and the other was a newer acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while.  We talked about the so-called ‘quests for the historical Jesus‘ all down the sidewalk until we decided on where to eat.  After sitting down and placing our order, we talked about the weather, food, and drink.  Then, the three of us got into a rather aggressive theological debate about Luther’s break from the Roman Catholic Church.

Can you see the picture?  Three of the most un-Italian guys you can think of raising a ruckus about the Roman Catholic Church in an Italian restaurant.  The thought still makes me chuckle.

Anyway, the food was good and the conversation stimulating.  The question we addressed was this: Was it right for Luther to create a new ecclesiastical body separate from that of Rome?  Why divide the church again?  Of course, I thought this was a no-brainer, and one fellah agreed to a point.  Luther was excommunicated.  What else could he have done?  But the other gentleman disagreed.  His argument went something like this (my responses follow each):

(1) Luther was a nut. –I have no disagreement there.  Luther was probably one of the smartest and strangest dudes in church history.  Some of his actions were comical, others were just downright macabre.  But it takes an eccentric personality to make the bold history-changing moves he did.

(2) Why didn’t Luther use proper channels to seek reform? — I’m no church historian, but I thought he tried.  Furthermore, when you’re being excommunicated from the church, that pretty much stops your in-house efforts.

(3) If Luther sought to create a comparable church (a true church), then why did he make it look so very different from the Roman Catholic Church?  The protestant churches were different from Rome on virtually every level.–I think the coming of modernism and individual thought had something to do with that.  In Rome, you’d be struggling to change pre-established tradition.  The Protestants had a clean slate to start over with no traditions to stop them.  The decisions they made reflect Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms: the new doctrines were based on reason and Scripture instead of traditions.  Obviously, that would make the church look much different.

No one won our little Diet of Pasta that evening.  But it was a stimulating conversation nonetheless.

Categories: History, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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