Dear Sir: That’s not what the verse means

Dear Sir,

I’m not a reguar listener to your radio program, but I drop in from time to time just out of curiosity. Today I heard you quote Prove 29:18a as a way to explain the trouble we’re having in America:

Where there is no vision, the people perish {Prov 29:18, KJV}

Your point was that our country is in trouble because our leaders have no vision for the future and/or have abandoned the vision laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Politics aside, you have misinterpreted and misapplied this verse. Allow me to elaborate.

First, the OT meaning of vision means something completely different from what we modern Westerners mean when we talk about vision. We speak of vision as a product of creativity or imagination, especially as it expresses our goals and aspirations (e.g. CEO’s vision for where he wants to take the company; my vision for the future). The OT speaks of vision as divine revelation. In the case of Prov 29:18, the OT sense of the word is readily apparent when we read the entire proverb and find that vision is used in parallel with the law:

Where there is no vision, the people perish;
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he
.

Second, you quoted the KJV version which is arguably the pithier translation but also the poorer in this instance. Due to the surprising popularity of the KJV rendering, most people don’t even know that all of the other major English versions (i.e. ESV, NAS, NIV, NKJ, RSV) translate the line differently:

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)
Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained (NAS)

We can be more sympathetic with this misunderstanding due to an unfortunate translation, but a correction is still in order. You seem to take the proverb to mean something like “without a vision, the people will not prosper/thrive” when the author means something like “without divine revelation, the people have no inhibitions.”

In short, the proverb isn’t warning us about the dangers of doing business without a five-year plan; it’s telling us that blessing is found when we live in light of God’s revealed will.

I trust I haven’t come across as overly critical. Your misappropriation of the verse is far less irritating than when the error is made by someone who should know better—say, a Christian author or pastor. In fact, you’re probably just passing on what you heard from one of us in the first place. I suspect that if we handled our Scriptures more carefully, we both could’ve been saved the trouble of this letter.

Sincerely,

JM

What did Paul mean (and what do we infer)?

“In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” {Acts 14:16-17, NAS}

(1) Prior to Christ, God allowed nations to go their own way. What does that mean?

(2) [Implication] After Christ, God does not allow nations to go their own way. What does that mean?

(3)  Is God more righteous in #1 or #2? Is God more loving in #1 or #2?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Pascal: The gospel humbles & exalts

Pensees[The gospel] teaches the righteous that it raises them even to a participation in divinity itself; that in this lofty state they still carry the source of all corruption, which renders them during all their life subject to error, misery, death, and sin; and it proclaims to the most ungodly that they are capable of the grace of their Redeemer. So making those tremble whom it justifies, and consoling those whom it condemns, religion so justly tempers fear with hope through that double capacity of grace and sin, common to all, that it humbles infinitely more than reason alone can do, but without despair; and it exalts infinitely more than natural pride, but without inflating; thus making it evident that alone being exempt from error and vice, it alone fulfills the duty of instructing and correcting men.

Who then can refuse to believe and adore this heavenly light? For is it not clearer than day that we perceive within ourselves ineffaceable marks of excellence? And is it not equally true that we experience every hour the results of our deplorable condition? What does this chaos and monstrous confusion proclaim to us but the truth of these two states, with a voice so powerful that it is impossible to resist it?

–Pascal, Pensées, 123.

Quotes for COVID

A wise man once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” One of the great benefits of reading is finding counsel and encouragement to travel unfamiliar yet well-worn paths.

Martin Luther in 1527, on his decision to stay & minister through an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Wittenberg:

“Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. [“Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”]

Charles Spurgeon in 1866, on the potential blessing of the London cholera epidemic:

But it is much to be feared that a constant run of prosperity, perpetual peace and freedom from disease, may breed in our minds just what it has done in all human minds before, namely, security and pride, heathenism and forgetfulness of God. It is a most solemn fact that human nature can scarcely bear a long continuance of peace and health. It is almost necessary that we should be every now and then salted with affliction, lest we putrefy with sin. God grant we may have neither famine, nor sword; but as we have pestilence in a very slight degree, it becomes us to ask the Lord to bless it to the people that a tenderness of conscience may be apparent throughout the multitude, and they may recognize the hand of God. Already I have been told by Christian brethren labouring in the east of London, that there is a greater willingness to listen to gospel truth, and that if there be a religious service it is more acceptable to the people now than it was; for which I thank God as an indication that affliction is answering its purpose. [“The Voice of the Cholera”]

Francis J. Grimké in 1918, on responding to quarantine orders from the civil authorities during the Spanish flu pandemic:

Another thing that has impressed me, in connection with this epidemic, is the fact that conditions may arise in a community which justify the extraordinary exercise of powers that would not be tolerated under ordinary circumstances. This extraordinary exercise of power was resorted to by the Commissioners in closing up the theaters, schools, churches, in forbidding all gatherings of any considerable number of people indoors and outdoors, and in restricting the numbers who should be present even at funerals. The ground of the exercise of this extraordinary power was found in the imperative duty of the officials to safeguard, as far as possible, the health of the community by preventing the spread of the disease from which we were suffering. There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being. If, as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in the theaters and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches. The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us. And so, anxious as I have been to resume work, I have waited patiently until the order was lifted. I started to worry at first, as it seemed to upset all of our plans for the fall work; but I soon recovered my composure. I said to myself, Why worry? God knows what He is doing. His work is not going to suffer. It will rather be a help to it in the end. Out of it, I believe, great good is coming. All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be the stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing. [“Some Reflections: Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza that Afflicted Our City”]

ht: @MarkDever and Kevin Martin

What some of us mean (and don’t mean) when we say that God is impassible

You, Lord God, lover of souls, show a compassion far purer and freer of mixed motives than ours; for no suffering injures you. – St. Augustine

I have not been a lifelong advocate for the doctrine of divine impassibility. I came across this divine attribute almost by accident and did some further investigating probably to satisfy my curiosity more than anything else. As is the case for many (or is it just some?), I found the essential claim of impassibility—that God neither experiences emotional change nor does he suffer—counterintuitive and easy to dismiss. But the inumerable & insurmountable objections I expected to find were far fewer and smaller on closer inspection. And now, several years later, I find myself disagreeing with the likes of N. T. Wright when he claims that God laments with us. I also discovered that some (or is it many?) of you now disagree with me.

As I move further up and further in, I don’t discover an impassible God to be distant and “above it all.” Far from it. What impassibility offers is a God more loving and compassionate than I can imagine because God can never become more (or less) than what he already and always is. My experience of God’s nature varies by time, place, and degree not because he changes but because I do. In the best of my fleeting moments these thoughts stoke wonder and worship.

Because I find impassibility so compelling, I offer here a sampling of quotes from Thomas Weinandy’s book Does God Suffer?.¹ Maybe these statements will shed some light on a strange doctrine and you’ll come to understand why some of us believe as we do. Maybe some of you will find a strange doctrine strangely compelling, too.

“God is impassible in the sense that he cannot experience emotional changes of state due to his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order.” (38)

“The traditional defense for God’s impassibility is simply to argue that the Bible in such passages [i.e. Judges 2:18; Psa 78:40; Hos 11:4, 8-9, etc] is using anthropomorphic language, and so cannot be taken literally. Therefore, it is argued, God does not actually ‘groan’ or ‘suffer,’ nor does his heart ‘grow warm.’ Undoubtedly, the Bible is using anthropomorphic language, but it, nonetheless, is attempting to say something that is actually true about God. Many contemporary theologians emphasize the latter, and so argue that God must be passible if his groaning, suffering, and love are to be actual and genuine. What both sides of the debate miss in the interpretation of these passages is that the one who is so filled with passion is the Wholly Other. It is Yahweh, ‘the Holy One in your midst.’ The very superlative, extravagant, and even excessive, expression of the love, the compassion, the forgiveness and, indeed, the anger, accentuates that the one who displays all of this intense passion is someone who transcends what is beyond the merely customary and human. . . Therefore, there is a legitimate literalness to what is being said, but it is a literalness that must be interpreted from within the complete otherness of God, for this is the manner in which this passion is expressed.” (59)

“Thus there is no passion in God, not in the sense that he does not love, but because, being pure act, there is no need for an arousal of his will to love the good and so to come to desire the good and rejoice in it. God’s arousal to the good as loved, and so rejoicing and delighting in it, is eternally and perfectly in act. . . . God is impassible precisely because he is supremely passionate and cannot become any more passionate. God simply loves himself and all things in himself in the one act which he himself is.” (126-27)

“Actually, since God does not suffer, his love becomes absolutely free in its expression and supremely pure in its purpose. If God did suffer, it would mean that God would need not only to alleviate the suffering of others, but also his own suffering, and thus there would be an inbuilt self-interest in God’s love and consolation. However, since God does not suffer, his care for those who do suffer is freely given and not evoked by some need on his part. His love is freely expressed entirely for the sake of those he loves.” (160-61)

“While compassion is defined as ‘suffering with,’ the heart of compassion is the love expressed within the suffering and not the suffering itself. Thus, God is perfectly compassionate not because he ‘suffers with’ those who suffer, but because his love fully and freely embraces those who suffer. What human beings cry out for in their suffering is not a God who suffers, but a God who loves wholly and completely, something a suffering God could not do.” (164)

“God truly grieves over sin and actually is sorrowful over injustice not because he has lost some good (which would imply a self-centered grief and sorrow) and so suffers, but rather because, in his love, he knows that the one he loves is suffering due to the absence of some good. Sadness and grief do not spring from or manifest suffering within God, but rather they spring from, manifest, and express the fulness of his completely alltruistc, all-consumming and perfect love for his creatures.” (164-65)

“Sorrow and grief are attributed to God not by way of predicating a passible emotional change within him, but rather by way of denoting that he is all-loving and good. Because he is perfectly loving and good, he finds sin and evil repugnant, and so he can be said to sorrow and grieve in the light of their presence. God does not grieve or sorrow because he himself experiences some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been affected, within his inner being, by some evil outside cause, but rather he grieves or sorrows only in the sense that he knows that human persons experience some injury or the loss of some good, and so embraces them in love.” (169)

“Even if one did allow the Son of God to suffer in his divine nature, this would negate the very thng one wanted to preserve and cultivate. For if the Son of God experienced suffering in his divine nature, he would no longer be experiencing human suffering in an authentic and genuine human manner, but instead he would be experiencing ‘human suffering’ in a divine manner which would then be neither genuinely nor authentically human. If the Son of God experienced suffering in his divine nature, then it would be God suffering as God in a man.” (204)

“Strange as it may seem, but not paradoxically, one must maintain the unchangeable impassibility of the Son of God as God in order to guarantee that it is actually the divine Son of God, one in being with the Father, who truly suffers as a man. As man the divine Son of God was deprived, as we are, of human goods which did cause him, like us, to suffer.” (205)

“This is the marvelous truth of the Incarnation. God from all eternity may have known, within his divine knowledge, what it is like for human beings to suffer and die, and he may have known this perfectly and comprehensively. But until the Son of God actually became man and existed as a man, God, who is impassible in himself, never experienced and knew suffering and death as man in a human manner. In an unqualified manner one can say that, as man, the Son of God had experiences he never had before because he never existed as man before – not the least of which are suffering and death. This is what humankind is crying out to hear, not that God experiences, in a divine manner, our anguish and suffering in the midst of a sinful and depraved world, but tht he actually experienced and knew first hand, as one of us—as a man—human anguish and suffering within a sinful and depraved world.” (206)


¹Weinandy’s book is a great survey of the doctrine (see his article by the same name listed below). Although I don’t provide the quotes in this post, he covers all if the essentials: God’s revelation in Scripture, church fathers & Greek philosophy, redemption, our suffering in the light of Christ, etc.

For further reading:

Books
Does God Suffer? (Thomas Weinandy)
None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God
 (Matthew Barrett)

Online Articles
Does God Suffer? (Thomas Weinandy)
Credo Magazine (vol 9, issue 1): The Impassibility of God (various authors)
On Divine Impassibility: Carl Trueman Talks with Father Thomas Weinandy (Trueman & Weinandy)
The God Who Hears Our Laments (Derek Rishmawy)
Undying Love: In Our Suffering, We Find Comfort in God’s Impassibility (J. Todd Billings)
Tis Mystery All, the Immortal Dies: Why the Gospel of Christ’s Suffering is More Glorious Because God Does Not Suffer (Kevin DeYoung)
Is Jesus Weeping for Us in Heaven? (Kevin DeYoung)

A hot take on that N. T. Wright article

N. T. Wright’s recently published article on the Christian response to the Coronavirus is generally good counsel built on bad theology.

After diagnosing our present situation as “a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow,” Wright advises we learn to lament rather than search for an explanation for our sorrow:

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?

So far, so good. I would be a little more charitable to the “usual suspects,” allowing them to fall along a spectrum from silly to sage; and I wouldn’t label every attempted explanation as a “knee-jerk would-be” Christian reaction. But I take his point. In a time like this, the better part of wisdom is to admit that we don’t know why this is happening.

Wright goes on to cite the psalms of lament as models of an appropriate Christian response:

At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).

No argument here. We might also consider some of the laments we find in our own hymnbooks.¹

The trouble comes when Wright explains the part God plays in our lament:

The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.

Now that’s problematic on two fronts. First, Wright essentially denies that God is omniscient, sovereign, and immune to suffering. Better we have a frustrated Lamenter-in-Chief than an incomprehensible, transcendent God who is nevertheless near to the brokenhearted. Second, Wright claims only “some” Christians view God as omniscient, sovereign, and impassible when, in fact, this is how most Christians have understood God for almost 2,000 years.²

Following N. T. Wright, some Christians will like to think of God as one of us, but the effects of that doctrinal distancing may be felt long after COVID-19.


¹ see A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Abide with Me, Be Still My Soul, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, He Will Hold Me Fast, I Will Wait for You (Psalm 130), It Is Well with My Soul, etc. etc.

² For a helpful introduction to some of the neglected and/or misunderstood divine attributes in “classical theism,” see Matthew Barrett’s recent book None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God

Social distancing as church discipline

socialdistancingRecently, I’ve had a couple of discussions about the meaning & application of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5. Of particular interest was v11: But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler– not even to eat with such a one.

What follows is an edited bit of email correspondence on the subject.


The practical application of church discipline, particularly after someone has been excommunicated, is a significant challenge. . . .

Church discipline is the means by which a church recovers a straying member. When correction & recovery becomes impossible (serious, unrepentant sin), a church will remove a member to publicly declare that, absent repentance, the wayward member is no longer considered to be in the faith. Even in the worst cases, the goal of excommunication is redemption, not judgment (1Cor 5:5).

On attending services – This provision is not about remaining friendly but about allowing a presumptive unbeliever to sit under the preaching of the word. I would allow [Bill] to sit in on a service in the same way that I would allow any other unrepentant sinner to enter our gathering (1Cor 14:24-25). While I would consider him to be an outsider (Mat 18:17), is there a better place for this man to be than sitting under the authority God’s word?

On not associating – Wise application on this point can be tough, especially since there’s debate over interpretation. I think we need to start with the broader context which is Paul’s shock that the Corinthians are tolerating flagrant, unrepentant sin as if they’re big enough to handle it (1Cor 5:2, 6). In that light, Paul’s instruction to “not associate” and “not even eat” with the individual is an especially strong response to the church’s inaction. That said, I don’t think Paul is simply writing for rhetorical effect, I think he means what he says. But what does he mean?

  1. Option 1: total separation– on this view Paul means that whether inside or outside of the church gathering, Christians are to have no contact with the excommunicated member. Your break off all contact/communication.
  2. Option 2: congregational distancing – on this view Paul is instructing the corporate body and he means that the gathered church is to separate from the excommunicated member. This would include the fellowship meal of which communion was a part.

My view is closer to Option 1 but I would leave room for personal interaction so long as my interaction was for the purpose of communicating my sorrow and their need for repentance.

Having said all of that, the practice of excommunication is a challenge for three reasons. First, a local church needs to nail down what they understand the Scriptures to teach concerning church discipline and that’s hard because of the interpretive issues with the text and because no two cases are exactly the same.

Second, the pastors need to clearly communicate to the body in every scenario so as to minimize misunderstandings. [I take it that excommunication is a decision for the church to make (Mat 18:17) but pastors will lead the body through the process.] For example, what do the pastors mean if they were to encourage the body to “reach out” to the excommunicated—have them over for dinner? check in with them over a cup of coffee? contact them to let them know I’m praying for them?

Third, even if there is clear teaching & communication on the case at hand, members have the challenge of wisely responding to a host of situations/tests/opportunities that will come to them as they move forward. Life won’t be simple and neat––especially for those who previously enjoyed a close relationship with the former member. . . .

I deserve death & hell. What of it?

“When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also’.”

–Martin Luther, in Theodore G. Tappert, editor, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 86-87.

A reflection on God’s goodness & mercy

It gives us occasion to admire the wonderful patience and mercy of God. How many millions of practical atheists breathe every day in his air, and live upon his bounty who deserve to be inhabitants in hell, rather than possessors of the earth! An infinite holiness is offended, an infinite justice is provoked; yet an infinite patience forebears the punishment, and an infinite goodness relieves our wants: the more we had merited his justice and forfeited his favor, the more is his affection enhanced, which makes his hand so liberal to us. At the first invasion of his rights, he mitigates the terror of the threatening which was set to defend his law, with the grace of a promise to relieve and recover his rebellious creature. Who would have looked for anything but tearing thunders, sweeping judgments, to raze up the foundations of the apostate world. But oh, how great [is his compassion] to aspiring competitors! Have we not experimented his [works] for our good, though we have refused him for our happiness? Has he not opened his arms, when we spurned with our feet; held out his alluring mercy, when we have brandished against him a rebellious sword? Has he not entreated us while we have invaded him, as if he were unwilling to lose us, who are ambitious to destroy ourselves? Has he yet denied us the care of his providence, while we have denied him the rights of his honor, and would appropriate them to ourselves? Has the sun forborne shining on us, though we have shot arrows against him? Have not our beings been supported by his goodness, while we have endeavored to climb up to his throne; and his mercies continued to charm us, while we have used them as weapons to injure him? Our own necessities might excite us to own him as our happiness, but he adds his invitations to the voice of our wants. Has he not promised a kingdom to those who would strip him of his crown, and proclaimed pardon upon repentance to those who would take away his glory? and hath so twisted together his own end, which is his honor, and man’s true end, which is his salvation, that a man cannot truly mind himself and his own salvation, but he must mind God’s glory; and cannot be intent upon God’s honor, but by the same act he promotes himself and his own happiness? . . . All those wonders of his mercy are enhanced by the heinousness of our atheism; a multitude of gracious thoughts from him above the multitude of contempts from us.

–Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God

God’s compassion for Lot

Today’s Bible reading had me in Genesis 19. Two quick reflections concerning Lot’s salvation:

(1) “Lot hesitated” in the face of certain destruction but was saved (in spite of himself) because “the compassion of the Lord was on him” (Gen 19:16). I can identify with Lot more than I would ever want to admit. Shamefully reluctant to abandon the domain of sin while God compassionately compels me to find joy in another place.

(2) God’s compassion for Lot is a result of Abraham interceding on his behalf (Gen 16:19 cf. 18:22ff). How much of God’s compassion toward me is due to the faithful prayers of my parents (& grandparents)? I want to pray for my kids like they prayed for me.