Updates Anyone?

September 25, 2008

I’ve gotten requests to send out email alerts when I update the blog.  In response I’ve added the little email link over there on the right, under the “Contact” category.  If you want to be added to the email list and notified whenever I publish new posts, shoot me an email.

A few of you have already been getting email updates.  If you want to continue to receive these, you will need to click the link and let me know, since I’ll be starting the list from scratch.

Allegro, for Dummies

September 24, 2008

I have made it a personal goal to familiarize myself with (and cultivate an educated appreciation for) the works of J.S. Bach.  Now part of this goal — appreciating Bach on some level — isn’t really hard for me at all.  The stuff sounds great.  The relatively limited exposure I’ve had to Bach in the past has been enough for me to find the mathematical aspects of his works intriguing and appealing.  So I’ve always “liked” listening to Bach.  But an educated appreciation?  I think that’s going to be a tall order.  There are so many layers of complexity here.  I’m gonna be at this for a while.

I recently purchased the Brandenburg Concertos, performed by the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields & Sir Neville Marriner.   I’ve listened through the whole collection several times, but honestly — I’ve only really absorbed a small part of it.  These britches are a bit too big for me, but I’m trying to grow into them.

So far my favorite movement is Concerto No. III in G, BWV 1048: I. Allegro.  (Heh — I don’t even know what all that means, but I’m sure it points y’all to the right movement.)  Now I’m no expert on Bach (duh), but I swear the man must have been Trinitarian to the bone.  The concerto itself has 3 movements, and the theme (motif?) of the 1st movement is a little 3-note job.  And the movement consists of this 3 note theme being tossed around between 3 (whaddya call em?) voices.  But the way it’s tossed around is absolutely amazing.  The internal tension, mutual support of the voices, the perfect artful blending of apparently incompatible forces — it’s like a window into the internal workings of the Godhead.  A little 6 minute sermon on Trinitarian theology.

Oh, and then there’s that surprise didn’t-expect-it-right-there-did-ya glorious resolution of the whole mess near the end of the movement.  The movement gets as tense and dark and messed up as it gets, and you’re thinking, “Okay, it’s going to take a while to work itself back out of this hole,” but just then it pops right up out of the grave in full splendor, surprising everybody, because it wasn’t suppsed to happen then.  We didn’t expect it there.  I guess that’s how resurrections work, right?  The audacity!  Fantastic.

In the comments section of the “What Makes Him So Sure?” post, I acknowledged my own inability to diagram exactly how God can both ordain whatever comes to pass and remain untainted by the guilt of sin.  I believe He can and does, just to be clear, because I believe this to be the undeniable declaration of scripture.  But don’t ask me for a schematic.  And, as I said in my comment to Kevin, the same goes for the Trinity.
I bring attention to this now because I just so happened to get into an after-dinner discussion with a Roman Catholic priest the other day about the Augustinian/Calvinistic view of Divine Sovereignty, during which I made the same reference to the Trinity.  I don’t know how it is, says I, but I can’t deny that it is.  I’d like to share part of his response to this, and why I found it blogworthy.
The priest asked if I wouldn’t rather hold a view that I thought was more intellectually satisfying.  I had to admit that I would prefer to have a schematic rather than not, if given the choice, but that we’re not always given the choice, as with the doctrine of the Trinity.  The priest replied by saying he could think of an illustration that was analogous to the Trinitarian view of God, but could think of no analogous illustration of Calvinistic sovereignty.  And his for-example illustration of the Trinity was this:  The Father is the sun in the sky, the Son is the reflection of it on the windowpane, and the Holy Spirit is the bright spot on the hardwood floor.
Now unfortunately our conversation had to be cut short, so in fairness to the priest, know that he hasn’t had a chance to respond to what follows.  Stay tuned for updates on that.  But since I’ve got your attention, here’s my reaction.  I think this is a terrible illustration of the Trinity, and I do not find it intellectually satisfying in the least.  And the great big day-glow orange warning flag that for the life of me I can’t figure out why isn’t flapping wildly in the priest’s head is homoousios.  As any Roman Catholic apologist will gladly tell you, the Nicene Creed formally defined what we nowadays call the Trinitarian nature of God, testifying that this was the truth to which revealed scripture demanded we submit.  The controversy driving the council of Nicea was the teaching of Arius, that heretic who denied the Deity of Christ.  It was chiefly Athanasius the bishop of Alexandria who, in order that the church leave no room for Arius’ heretic views, tirelessly insisted the phrase homoousios (of one substance) be included in the description of Christ: “We believe in… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…”   The problem I have with the priest’s sunspot illustration of the Trinity is that it appears to leave no room at all for homoousios.  The reflection of the sun is NOT the sun, any more than the air warmed by the sun is the sun.  For this and many other reasons, I find this illustration decidedly not intellectually satisfying.
Now I mention this here because, at the premature closing of our conversation, the priest promised me an intellectually satisfying way to illustrate the nature of Divine sovereignty.  I’m all ears, and I mean that sincerely.  I mean, hey — if you say you got a map, I’ll look at it.  But I have learned the hard way that the sin of presumptuousness grows on theological systemization like gangrene on a bullet wound.  We must be always mindful that we cannot know the mind of God unless He reveals it to us by His Spirit, and there are just some things that He plays close to the chest.  Quite often the fact is revealed, but not the how-to manual.  That’s not our end of the stick to whittle on.  God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.

What Makes Him So Sure?

September 10, 2008

Part of the self-identity of Restoration theology is that it intentionally non-Calvinistic.  But this non-Calvinism is not consistently applied, and that’s part of what I’m driving at in this series.  Anabaptists have an interesting habit of needing to be Calvinists in spite of themselves.
Here’s an example.  God has made quite an impressive collection of promises to His people, promises which are to be fulfilled in the future.  How do we know that God will fulfill His promises?  Well, in a nutshell, we know because God declares His absolute faithfulness, and redemptive history supports His claim.  But how does God know that He will fulfill His promises to us?  What makes Him so sure?  When God says that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, how can He know this confidently enough to say it with a straight face?  Does He look back on His winning record and figure that the odds are pretty favorable?  I say that God is not guessing, or lying, but that He knows with absolute certainty that He will accomplish all His decretal will.  But I also say that He cannot know this unless He holds all things, including evil, in the palm of His sovereign hand.  If God does not control evil, then neither He nor we can be sure of His ability to keep His promises regarding our salvation from evil. 
But hold on — can’t we just say that God is stronger than evil, so that while He does not ordain it in any sense, He is still always able to overcome it as it occurs?  Well, yeah, we can say it, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.  First of all, if we mean that God doesn’t know what’s going to happen ahead of time, but fields the ball flawlessly anyway, we’ve denied a basic biblical attribute of God (foreknowledge), and that won’t do.  Second, if we mean instead that God foreknows but doesn’t ordain, then we’re talking nonsense, because we’re talking about a foreknowing God who created this world instead of, say, a world without evil (see here).  Third, if God doesn’t ordain evil, then who does?  Satan?  Okay, fine — let’s go with that.  But then, to whom is Satan subordinate?  Who sets the bounds for Satan’s activities?  Who determines the extent of Satan’s evil schemes?  Why, God of course.  And how does God determine the extent to which He is going to limit Satan at any given time?  By the council of His own will.  So then there’s no entity outside of God governing how much He has to limit Satan?  No, of course not.  God and God alone is the sole determiner of the extent of Satan’s efficacy.  God could, if He wanted to, snuff Satan right now.  But He doesn’t, and that’s got to be either because He can’t, or because He has decided not to for a reason.  Translation: we either answer like flaming heretics, or we answer like Calvinists.  And most days, anabaptists answer like Calvinists.
Not surprisingly, there are some who try to invent a third option.  God can know the future, the argument goes, but He chooses not to.  I swear, I am not making this up.  This argument is meant as an attempt to dodge the obvious exegetical difficulties of Open Theism while also keeping one untainted by that horrible stench known as Calvinism [boooo, hisss].  But instead it manages to have all the difficulties of both, for it describes a God who could secure His promises, but refuses to, and then lies about it.
Continuing from the previous post in this series: God is everywhere, God knows everything (ahead of time), and God is all-powerful, and in a world where all these things are true, evil occurs.  I maintain that this cannot be explained in terms of restorationist theology, and of course this means that restorationist theology, biblical attributes of God, and the fact of evil simply cannot stand being in the same room together, and they’re certainly not going to shake hands.  Now as I mentioned before, there are retorts to this from the restorationist point of view, and I’ll spend some time interacting with some of them here.  If you find I’ve misrepresented the arguments, feel free to enlighten me in the comments section. 
A popular objection to my position is that God is not the author of evil, and therefore does not ordain it.  This argument will not withstand biblical scrutiny, and falls under the category of denying biblical attributes of God, as I will show.  There are  basically two kinds of evil (natural evil and moral evil), and scripture is clear on God’s control over them both.  An example of natural evil would be a hurricane, or an earthquake, or some kind of freak accident that kills people.  Biblically speaking, God is in complete control of natural evil (Matthew 8:27, Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6). This means for example that during a flood nobody drowns outside of God’s control.  If we say that God does not control natural evil, then we have denied God’s claim of omnipotence.  I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of me.
But the bible is equally clear that God is also in control of moral evil.  For two examples, it is God who sent Joseph into Egypt (Psalm 105:17, Genesis 50:20), and God who predestined the actions of Pilate, Herod, and the crucifying mob (Isaiah 53:10, Acts 4:27-28).  Now some may be quick to point out that in those two examples God only ordained the glorious end of the event, and not the sinful means; He just kinda worked with what was given to Him.  But I say that those glorious ends could not have been accomplished without evil (try brutally shaming and killing an innocent man without sinning).  But if you don’t buy that, then you have to explain why God chose the evil route over the alleged evil-free option.  Good luck with that.  So, for us to deny that God controls moral evil is to again deny God’s claim of omnipotence.  I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of you.
But does all this mean that God is the author of evil after all?  To quote Jonathan Edwards, “If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.”  But it cannot be denied that at the very least God makes the choice to allow the evil to occur, having at all times the power to stop it.  It is under His sovereign control, and He lets it happen.  (More on the implications of this allowance in a minute.)
Now in my experience, many restorationists will not be comfortable with this “allowance” business, and will insist that God doesn’t proactively allow sin at all, but yet does work His sovereign will in spite of it.  Now in addressing this it’s important that we keep our eye on the ball: God foresees moral evil, and God controls moral evil, as we’ve already established.  This means that if God doesn’t want the evil to be there, He has the opportunity and ability to avoid it.  He could head it off at the pass, so to speak.  Given this, God not avoiding evil is a choice, such that not avoiding evil is exactly the same as choosing to allow evil.  There isn’t any way around this.  In the Bible, God repeatedly accomplishes His eternal purposes through both natural and moral evil, and His involvement in it cannot be described as reluctant or forced.  
But allowance is not the same thing as ordination, right?  Can’t we say God allows evil to occur without saying that He ordains it?  Not if we believe in creation ex nihilo.  God is not the sovereign over a world that was handed to Him.  he wasn’t appointed to His post by somebody else.  God, who has always been, determined to create this world from nothing.  Nor was it a surprise to Him what He’d get when the egg-timer dinged.  God knows and has always known everything. 
So now imagine, if we can presume to oversimplify the thing, a snapshot in the thoughts of God.  He desires to create the world, and He prepares to speak it into existence, having in mind of course the exact nature of the thing He intends to create.  “But wait,” He realizes, “I foresee evil in this scenario.”  What does He do?  Does He scrap that draft and formulate a new one?  He certainly could, but as we know very well He did not in our case.  And the point I’m trying to make from this foolish thought experiment is this: God knew evil would occur before He created the evildoers. He could have chosen to alter the creation, to tweak it a bit, maybe add a little something over here just so, way back when the lump of clay was still soft and moist in His hand.  But He did not.  God had all the options available to Him, and out of them all He chose to make this world, knowing everything about it.  Now the restorationist can talk all day long about allowance vs ordination, but at the end of the day, creation ex nihilo makes everything fall into the category of foreordained.