Assumptions are hard to break

In what looks to be an otherwise solid book for those preparing for marriage, I found a curious explanation of the meaning behind God’s declaration that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). In fairness, the author’s presentation falls comfortably within the bounds of popular consensus in spite of the broad assumptions:

Here is my question: in light of all we just said, why is it not good for the man to be alone? What is God seeing and talking about?

The problem that God identifies, and wants us to see, is that Adam has no one of his nature and substance to think about. He has no one in his likeness to love, serve, and honor. Left alone, his thoughts would be too wrapped around himself. This was a problem. This is what God called “not good.” In his alone state, Adam could not reflect the complete image that God wanted him to reflect. He was not as full an image-bearer of God’s glory as God desired.

Two questions. First, where is the support for this interpretation in the text? Second, if this is the problem that God identifies in 2:18, what does this mean for the singles in our midst?

Maybe we assume too much in this verse.

The idolization of Eros

“We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present.”

Eros2I’ve been reading through some marriage books lately and, since most of the material was on the current end of the timeline, I thought it would be good to go back and hear Lewis in The Four Loves. I’m nearly certain that my first reading of the book was over 20 years ago, before marriage and pastoral ministry, so this fresh reading has been immensely rewarding.

Two quick observations before I get out of the way. First, although the “Eros” chapter has the most to do with marriage, Lewis’ “Friendship” chapter is surprisingly relevant for married couples. I couldn’t help but think that all the talk we hear these days about “marrying one’s best friend” is a good thing so far as it goes, although I suspect we have a pretty weak grasp on what that actually means (or ought to mean). Second, Lewis’ dissection of Eros deserves a broader audience not only because he gets so much right (I speak as a husband) but because it exposes the shallowness of so much of our post-modern romanticism (I speak as a husband and a pastor). That said, here is Lewis describing the ebb and flow of Eros:

In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the center of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbor as ourselves.

and

Can we be in this selfless liberation for a lifetime? Hardly for a week. Between the best possible lovers this high condition is intermittent. The old self soon turns out to be not so dead as he pretended–as after a religious conversion. . .

But these lapses will not destroy a marriage between two “decent and sensible” people. The couple whose marriage will certainly be endangered by them, and possibly ruined, are those who have idolized Eros. They thought he had the power and truthfulness of a god. They expected that mere feeling would do for them, and permanently, all that was necessary. When this expectation is disappointed they throw the blame on Eros or, more usually, on their partners. In reality, however, Eros, having made his gigantic promise and shown you in glimpses what its performance would be like, has “done his stuff.” He, like a godparent, makes the vows; it is we who must keep them. It is we who must labor to bring our daily life into even closer accordance with what the glimpses have revealed. We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. . . And all good Christian lovers know that this program, modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity, and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle.

An egghead says “sorites”

Perhaps this isn’t the best time to profess my love, admiration, and (occasional) envy of academic elites. That kind of sentimentality could get you tarred and feathered in these days of fervent populism. But as Dave Shive said after being told that his eclectic theology would cripple his chances for fame and renown: What have I got to lose?

Admittedly, we are neither worse if we do not attain an academic degree, nor the better if we do. Even so, ignorance is no virtue for the Christian which is at least one reason why we need our egghead brothers and sisters. Their knowledge lends precision to our understanding and stokes our love for the Scriptures and, ultimately, God.

Consider 2 Pet 1:5-7 and its seemingly random list of Christian character traits:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence,
[by] your faith supply moral excellence,
and [by] your moral excellence, knowledge,
and [by] your knowledge, self-control,
and [by] your self-control, perseverance,
and [by] your perseverance, godliness,
and [by] your godliness, brotherly kindness,
and [by] your brotherly kindness, love.{NAS}

Most of us probably read this passage and find ourselves unable to get beyond two related questions: (a) why these characteristics? (b) what, if any, logic lies behind the chain? Speaking for myself, I found that my inability to discern any meaningful significance beyond the bare text actually dissuaded me from lingering over the text.

Enter Richard Bauckham and his research in NT and early Christian literature. His expertise uncovered so many features of the text that I felt as if I had been granted access to a previously hidden venue for meditation:

  • on the structure — 2Pet 1:5-7 uses a literary device known as sorites, a set of statements that progress, step by step, to a climactic conclusion. Not only was it “widely used and recognized in the early Christian period” but “there is some evidence that a catalogue of virtues beginning with pistis (“faith”) and ending with agape (“love”) was an established Christian form.”
  • on the significance of faith being listed first — By occupying first place in the list, faith represents “the root of all the virtues.” [Me: I couldn’t help but notice that Peter already referred to our faith as something we have received (1:1), which means that even the root of our virtue has its origin outside of us.]
  • on the (dis)placement of knowledge — “. . . in the non-Christian lists [knowledge] was usually first or last in the list [i.e. the root or the climax of all the virtues]. In most Christian lists it has been displaced from these positions by “faith” and “love.”
  • on the significance of love being listed last  — “the last, climactic term of a sorites is not of equal weight with the others” which means that Peter has preserved “very faithfully the place of love in Jesus’ ethical teaching, as the virtue which encompasses, coordinates, and perfects the others.”
  • on similarities with non-Christian philosophy — Although some of the virtues are found in Stoicism, in Peter’s list they “are not only rooted in Christian faith but also encompassed by Christian love. The borrowings testify to the fact that Christian ethics cannot be totally discontinuous with the moral ideals of non-Christian society, but the new context in which they are set ensures that they are subordinated to and to be interpreted by reference to the central Christian ethical principle of love.”

So if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and befriend a Christian egghead even if vicariously through a book. Though shy and perhaps socially awkward, the best of them labor as technicians for the soul.

Marriage as a discipleship-free zone

Married for GodIt is too easy for Christians to think of marriage as a discipleship-free zone. So that outside of marriage we talk about sacrifice, taking up our cross, and so on. But inside marriage we just talk about how to communicate better, how to be more intimate, how to have better sex, how to be happy. . . . Instead we should want marriages that serve God. If they are sexually and personally fulfilled, well and good. But if they do not serve God, no amount of personal fulfillment will make them right. After all, so far as we can see, Ananias and Sapphira had a marriage with excellent communication and shared values; each understood the other perfectly; and yet they died terrible deaths under the judgment of God (Acts 5:1-11).

–Christopher Ash, Married for God, 40.

Proclamation in light of the consciousness of our age

We must put the stress where the decadence of the religion of our times has failed to put it, yet always so as to keep from discarding the other side.

A month ago I shared the link to an interesting blog post by Ian Paul (IP)–“Should We Proclaim that ‘God is love’?”. Based on a handful of responses I concluded that (a) most answer this question in the affirmative and (b) most didn’t actually read the post. Now the average person doesn’t care what I think about what other people think, but since my dog grows weary of his master’s whining my only recourse is to alternate between the canine and, well, you. [If you only knew how much droning I’ve endured over the years. Nakod]

First, I should say up front that in this clickbait age it’s not surprising that some would assume the point of a post based on the title. If I were on the other side I would be suspicious, too. It’s also possible that some of the respondents skimmed, checked the TLDR box, and missed IP’s “answer” at the end.

Second, it’s only fair to note that IP was interacting with another pastor-blogger’s writing here. Pastors (smh)–#amIright

Third, and this is the real point, as provocative as the titular question appeared, the ensuing post struck me as an eminently reasonable. In short, IP would have us consider the (biblical-theological) distinction between motivation and message in evangelism:

Jesus’ motivation in his ministry to individuals and crowds was compassion, but his message was of the coming kingdom and the need to respond to it. We find the same dynamic in Paul. In his extended (and most personal) reflection on ministry in 2 Cor 3–5, his motivation is love (‘the love of God compels us’, 2 Cor 5.14) but the message is about the need to respond and turn from sin (‘We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus as Lord’  2 Cor 4.5). We are used to making a different alignment: we often think that loving people will proclaim God’s love, and only grumpy people will talk about judgement and the need to respond! And because we want to be loving, we align our message accordingly.

IP tentatively concludes that the way forward is to give more thought to the gospel’s balance between love and lordship:

One way of beginning to resolve this dilemma of the gap between most preaching today and what we find in the New Testament might be to consider the nature of the lordship of Jesus—that those around us are subject to the ‘lordship’ of powers that are anything but loving, and the invitation is to submit to the lordship of one who loves us.

Not surprisingly, I think he’s right. I’d even go one underwhelming step further in saying that this discussion is essential for Christians living in a culture where love has become formless and void. But just to show that we stand in good company when we wrestle with the implications of proclaiming that “God is love,” consider this passage from Geerhardus Vos published some seventy years ago in his Biblical Theology:

It must be acknowledged that, taking all in all, there is a preponderance in bulk and emphasis on the side of divine love. Nevertheless this phenomenon also should be historically explained and not be abused for reducing everything in Jesus’ message to the one preaching up of love. . . Jesus thus brought forward that side of the divine character which was suffering eclipse in the consciousness of the age to which He was addressing Himself. It would be a poor application of this method were we to condense the entire gospel to love and nothing else. Since at the present time the atmosphere is surcharged with the vague idea of an indiscriminate love, and all punitive retribution held at a discount, it is not following the example of Jesus to speak of nothing but the divine love to the obscuring of all the rest. We must put the stress where the decadence of the religion of our times has failed to put it, yet always so as to keep from discarding the other side. Thus alone can the mind of Jesus be faithfully reproduced.

Sin & sympathy

A few weeks ago I said goodbye to a biblical caricature. Our Sunday morning Bible study had brought us to Jeremiah 37-38, usually noted for Jeremiah’s brief imprisonment in a muddy cistern during the latter years of the last king of Judah. The king was Zedekiah and until recently he was a cookie-cutter character of no more than two dimensions–one more rotten king in a long list of rotten monarchs from Israel’s divided kingdom.

In Jer 37:1-2 we’re told that:

. . . neither [Zedekiah] nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet.

And 2 Chron 36:12 corroborates:

[Zedekiah] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD.

If statements like these were all we had to go on it would be easy to assume–as I have–that Zedekiah was just another arrogant, hard-hearted rebel who ignored the word of the Lord. But the picture of Zedekiah we find in Jeremiah 37-38 requires we leave room for the fear factor in his disobedience:

37:17 — King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, “Is there any word from the LORD?”

38:5 — King Zedekiah said, “Behold, [Jeremiah] is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.”

38:16 — Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the LORD lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

38:19 —  King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.”

38:24 — Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know of these words, and you shall not die.

In A History of Israel, John Bright ties these biblical strands together and presents us with a more complex, if not sympathetic, character:

Nor was Zedekiah the man to guide his country’s destinies in so grave an hour. Though he seems to have been well intentioned (cf. Jer. 37:17-21; 38:7-28), he was a weakling unable to stand up to his nobles (ch. 38:5), and fearful of popular opinion (v. 19). Furthermore, his position was ambiguous in that his nephew Jehoiachin was still regarded as the legitimate king by many of his subjects and, apparently, by the Babylonians as well. . . . The ambiguity of Zedekiah’s position undoubtedly undercut whatever authority he may have had. (328)

This view of Zedekiah is what the French call nuanced. [His erudition is astounding. -Shive]

But seriously, reconsidering Zedekiah offered some good reminders:

  1. Our sin isn’t always simple. Selfishness, deceit, doubt, pride–on their own any of these impulses are potent catalysts for sinful behavior. But the spiritual heart is a complex organ and often lies beyond our ability to diagnose (Jer 17:9), especially when our examination consists of little more than a passing glance.
  2. Sin is no less damnable when it solicits our sympathy. While we might consider Zedekiah’s fear of man to be a mitigating factor in his disobedience, the divine pronouncement is unswerving: Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. This isn’t to suggest that God judges all men the same (Jer 17:10), but that all sin is equally damning no matter the circumstances.
  3. Sympathy can still be an appropriate response to sin. Although every sin leads to death not every sin requires the same treatment (Gal 6:1; Jude 22-23). The classic example is Prov 26:4-5 which offers two contrasting instructions on how to respond to a fool–don’t answer him (v4), give him an answer (v5)–leaving the reader to draw on wisdom for the appropriate action for the moment at hand. We might also consider that our monotonous mantras concerning another man’s sin betray our ignorance of the weakness of our own hearts. So I’ll just say I have a little more sympathy for Zedekiah these days.

 

I’ll take another dose of that, please

The Church has had greater intellects but I doubt she’s ever had a better counselor than John Newton.

In a letter to Lord Dartmouth, Newton addresses the universal plight of every Christian–that our actual lives fall far short of our convictions and desires. Newton illustrates the disparity between our desires and practice by considering the essential practices of prayer and Scripture reading.

Concerning prayer:

[The Christian] would willingly enjoy God in prayer. He knows that prayer is his duty; but, in his judgment, he considers it likewise as his greatest honor and privilege. In this light he can recommend it to others, and can tell them of the wonderful condescension of the great God, who humbles himself to behold the things that are in heaven, that He should stoop so much lower, to afford his gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon the earth. . . And in this light he would consider it and improve it for himself. But, alas; how seldom can he do as he would! How often does he find this privilege a mere task, which he would be glad of a just excuse to omit! and the chief pleasure he derives from the performance, is to think that his task is finished…

And Scripture reading:

He believes it to be the word of God: he admires the wisdom and grace of the doctrines, the beauty of the precepts, the richness and suitableness of the promises; and therefore, with David, he accounts it preferable to thousands of gold and silver, and sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. Yet, while he thus thinks of it and desires that it may dwell in him richly, and be his meditation night and day, he cannot do as he would. It will require some resolution to persist in reading a portion of it every day; and even then his heart is often less engaged than when reading a pamphlet.

What are we to make of these pitiful performances in our Christian lives? Rather than make light of our sin Newton would have us make much of Christ:

But though we aim at this good, evil is present within us: we find we are renewed in part, and have still cause to plead the Lord’s promise, to take away the heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh.

…Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! How much weakness and inconsistency, even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord! and what reason have we to confess that we are unworthy, unprofitable servants!

It were easy to enlarge in this way, would paper and time permit. But, blessed be God, we are not under the law but under grace. And even these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are overruled for good. By these experiences the believer is weaned more from self, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely rely on him, who is appointed to us of God, Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption. The more vile we are in our own eyes, the more precious He will be to us; and a deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts is necessary to preclude all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our salvation to where it is due. Again, a sense of these evils will (when hardly anything else can do it) reconcile us to the thoughts of death; yea, make us desirous to depart that we may sin no more, since we find depravity so deep-rooted in our nature, that, like the leprous house, the whole fabric must be taken down before we can be freed from its defilement. Then, and not till then, we shall be able to do the thing that we would: when we see Jesus, we shall be transformed into his image, and have done with sin and sorrow forever. [John Newton to Lord Dartmouth, Letter 1, February 1772 in Letters of John Newton, pp 88-92]

That is good medicine for the soul and I need more.

Andy Stanley’s new sola

if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

By now you’ve probably heard about Andy Stanley’s latest theological faux pas in which he deduces from Acts 15 that “Peter, James, and Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures.” This, he claims, is proof that Christianity is able to “stand alone” without being “propped up” by the Old Testament.

Considering that the NT has some sixteen hundred quotes from and allusions to the OT (a conservative estimate) some find this claim more than problematic. In fairness, Stanley would have everyone know that he hasn’t changed his views on inspiration and inerrancy but that he has changed the methods behind his messaging. His emphasis on Christ’s resurrection to the exclusion of the OT was a reaction to the success he believes the new atheists have enjoyed by riding a new wave of biblical criticism. On Stanley’s assessment, many people today stumble unnecessarily over something in or about the Bible–especially when they come to the OT. So while traditional Christians find his detachment from the OT disturbing, Stanley assures us that this disassociation is liberating for those who can’t get past the “dynamic, worldview, and value system depicted in the story of ancient Israel.” In short, Stanley believes that to reach future generations Christians need to trade in a culturally adulterated sola Scriptura for an apostolic sola anastasis.

What shall we say to these things?

1. People will always have reason to stumble over the Christian faith.
I appreciate Stanley’s desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to the faith but a singular focus on Christ’s death and resurrection (“Christianity is able to stand on its own two nail-scarred feet.”) is not the clean, simple solution he supposes. Stanley extols the good ol’ days of the early church when they preached an event rather than the Bible, failing to mention the offense of the cross and the dubious character of the resurrection in the first century (see Acts 17:18, 32; 1Cor 1:18, 23; 15:12). Christ’s resurrection had its own cultural baggage in the apostolic age as it does in today’s technological age.

More broadly, it’s not as if it’s only the OT that suffers from a credibility gap. The NT has similar problems in modernity’s public square. Has Stanley never heard of Bart Ehrman’s work? Will the people who object to the historicity and miraculous elements of the OT be more willing to affirm a virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, feeding five thousand, exorcisms, walking on water, a voice from heaven, bodily resurrection and a physical ascension through the clouds? (And we haven’t even gotten to the NT epistles and Revelation!) If Stanley can overcome the skeptic’s veto for the NT, he can certainly do the same for the OT. I’m all for keeping the focus on Christ but Stanley’s approach sounds more like capitulation than contextualization.

2. Both Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection by the OT. I honestly don’t know how Stanley can declare the Christian faith unhitched from the OT on a straight reading of Acts. Let’s start with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 which he portrays as Christianity’s official break with the OT. In a shocking disregard for the risks associated with aggressive facepalming, Stanley quietly passes over the point at which James supposedly “unhitches” the church from the OT by appealing to the OT (Acts 15:15-19). He also neglects to mention the conspicuous presence of OT texts in the apostles’ resurrection proclamations  (Acts 2:25-28, 30-31, 34; 3:18, 22; 4:11; 10:43; 13:32-35; 17:2-3, 24-26; 24:14-15; 26:6-8, 22-23; 28:23ff).

And it’s not as if Peter and Paul kept returning to the OT because they just didn’t know any better. Their sermon template was set by Jesus himself in his post-resurrection appearances. As Luke makes abundantly clear, Jesus explained (see #3) his death and resurrection by utilizing every part of the OT–the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 44-47). Even if we were to limit our critique to the biblical evidence that he draws upon, the biblical support for Stanley’s claim is non-existent. His is not even an argument from silence and to call it cherry picking might be too generous.

3. The resurrection needs an explanation. Christ and his apostles built their preaching around the OT because the resurrection was an event that required an interpretation. To claim that something happened is only the first step in declaring what happened. That is, even if everyone agreed that Christ was raised we must still explain what it means that Christ was raised (i.e. why is it significant?). Ironically, Stanley seems to assume the revelatory meaning of the resurrection even as he treats it as self-explanatory. But if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

Good intentions notwithstanding, there’s just no way to make sense of the resurrection without “hitching it” to the OT story. According to Paul, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” and he was buried and “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3-4). If Paul & Co. unhitched the Christian faith from the “Jewish Scriptures” as Stanley claims, to what Scriptures did the resurrection adhere? Jesus said that “these [OT Scriptures] testify about me” (Jn 5:39) and Paul makes it clear that the OT moves progressively toward the NT along a line of promise-fulfillment that culminates in Christ (Rom 1:1-2; Gal 3:8; Titus 1:2-3). These claims are in stark contrast to Stanley’s contention that the OT and NT stand as two covenants in conflict with each other. Any report of the OT’s theological expiration is greatly exaggerated (Gal 3:24; 1Tim 1:8ff; 2Tim 3:15).

Stanley is to be commended for his intention to “resist anything that makes faith in Jesus unnecessarily resistible. But following his counsel concerning the OT would be disastrous.

Although I am in the wilderness

Help me to see that although I am in the wilderness
it is not all briars and barrenness.

I have bread from heaven, streams from the rock,
light by day, fire by night,
thy dwelling place and thy mercy seat.

I am sometimes discouraged by the way,
but though winding and trying it is safe
and short;

Death dismays me, but my great high priest
stands in its waters,
and will open me a passage,
and beyond is a better country.

While I live let my life be exemplary,
When I die may my end be peace.

The Valley of Vision, “Shortcomings”

Grace changes the person

…grace does not simply jump to move us to action without first moving us as persons. Sanctifying grace changes the person, not merely the aggregation of their actions. Grace transforms the very character of the person, leading not only to increasing action in a holy direction but to growth in the very self.

— Michael Allen, Sanctification