Friday, October 23, 2009

Mindless Scientist

I recently read a quote by Stephen Barr in Jon Levenson's book "Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel". The quote addresses the inadequacy of a purely materialistic approach to science and the human body, particularily the human mind, and - frankly - it is somewhat jargon filled and slightly daunting to read, yet the last sentence in this brief paragraph nicely ties everything together, and I thought it was humourous and poignant enough to quote here.

The concept "neuron" itself, in fact, is on this account nothing other than a certian pattern of neurons firing in the brain. Is there not something here to makes us vaguely uneasy? Is not the snake of scientific theory eating its own tail - or rather its own head? Traditionally, we explained the physical world, including the brain, using concepts. Now we are to explain the concepts themselves as being mere physical events in brains. In fact, this whole theory according to which the mind and all conceptual understanding are nothing but electro-chemical discharges of nerve cells is itself, by its own account, nothing but a discharge of nerve cells. This makes it, as far as I can see, no more significant or interesting than a toothache. We should listen to great scientific minds because they are great scientific minds. However, when they begin to tell us that they really have no minds at all, we are entitled to ignore them. [p.13 - italics original, bold mine.]

In case you missed it, what's at stake here is the whole concept of "concepts" in the first place. "concepts" don't really exist because our brains are nothing more then inanimate matter. Yet the phrase "great scientific minds" is a "concept" that means that so-and-so is brilliant. But when the so-called "great scientific minds" tell us that concepts such as have a "great mind" don't really exist, well then what that amounts to is these "great scientific minds" telling us that they really have no minds at all.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology

The following article was taken from and was originally published as an essay in the Grace of God and the WIll of Man (ed. Pinnock). This is a memoir of how Clark Pinnock journied from historic Calvinism to free-will theism.

From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology
by Clark H. Pinnock
A theological shift is underway among evangelicals as well as other Christians away from determinism as regards the rule and salvation of God and in the direction of an orientation more favorable to a dynamic personal relationship between God, the world, and God's human creatures. The trend began, I believe, because of a fresh and faithful reading of the Bible in dialogue with modern culture, which places emphasis on autonomy, temporality, and historical change. In this chapter I want to tell the story of my pilgrimage and struggle to understand these matters and thus perhaps to give voice to what I suspect is the experience of many others. The account may also serve as a case study about systematic thinking in theology, how it changes and works itself out in a person's life.

The great majority of theologians change their minds quite often. We often refer to their early work and their later work, and sometimes also to the middle stages of their thought. Karl Barth, undoubtedly the greatest theologian of our century, illustrates this very well, and he was not ashamed of changing his mind. It is better to change one's mind than to continue on a wrong path. Of course there are some who do not follow this rule: they refuse to change. Theologians like Bultmann and Van Til, for example, seem to have thought they possessed all the "right" answers from graduate school on and never saw any reason to change them afterward, though many of their readers saw reason to change. But such theologians are the abnormal ones, and it is rather hard for ordinary mortals to identify with them. The reason for this is that in theology we are dealing with great mysteries and intellectually complex problems that can be excruciatingly difficult to sort out and to understand. So almost anyone who seriously tries to resolve them will experience struggles in doing so and changes in his or her understanding. Not only are individual topics like predestination and election remarkably challenging in themselves, but also the interconnections between such themes and other topics in the total grammar of the Christian faith are tricky to establish and maintain in a balanced way.

So I do not apologize for admitting to being on a pilgrimage in theology, as if it were in itself some kind of weakness of intelligence or character. Feeling our way toward the truth is the nature of theological work even with the help of Scripture, tradition, and the community. We are fallible and historically situated creatures, and our best thinking falls far short of the ideal of what our subject matter requires. A pilgrimage, therefore, far from being unusual or slightly dishonorable, is what we would expect theologians who are properly aware of their limitations to experience.
This is particularly true when it comes to our present set of topics: how God relates to his human creatures in history and in redemption. Here the human mind is stretched to its limits and beyond when it dares to inquire how divine sovereignty and human freedom relate to each other. One is almost certain to change one's mind several times over a lifetime on mysteries as deep as these. In speaking of Augustine and Arminius in the title of this chapter, I am using the names of two famous theologians to symbolize two profound ways of structuring the answer--Augustine placing the emphasis on the sovereignty of God and Arminius putting it on significant human freedom. My pilgrimage can be described as a journey from Augustine to Arminius. But I could as easily have spoken of Calvin and Wesley, or Luther and Erasmus. Let us be aware too as I relate the story that it is not a one-way street. Many others, such as R. C. Sproul, will be able to write about their odyssey in the opposite direction. Well-meaning, thoughtful Christians can and do differ in their judgments on these important matters. Therefore, we need to listen to one another, hold back the recriminations, and see what we can learn from one another.

Brought up as I was in a liberal church and converted in my teens chiefly through the witness of my grandmother, I was introduced in a natural way during the 1950s to the institutions of what is inexactly called "evangelicalism" in North America, a quasi-denominational world furnished with its own publishers, magazines, conference centers, famous evangelists, youth organizations, and the like. Although there is a great and growing diversity theologically and otherwise in this coalition, the dominating theology is Reformed or Calvinian. Critics have not exaggerated much when they have wanted to call it "neo-Calvinism.

Certainly most of the authors I was introduced to in those early days as theologically "sound" were staunchly Calvinistic: John Murray, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Cornelius Van Til, Carl Henry, James Parker, Paul Jewett. Theirs were the books that were sold in the Inter-Varsity bookroom I frequented. They were the ones I was told to listen to; sound theology was what they would teach me. A simple fact, which I did not think much about at the time, was that Calvinian theology enjoyed an elitist position of dominance within postwar evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. This was due in part to the fact that it was and is also a scholarly and historic system of evangelical theology. Therefore, it is no surprise that I began my theological life as a Calvinist who regarded alternate evangelical interpretations as suspect and at least mildly heretical. I accepted the view I was given that Calvinism was just scriptural evangelicalism in its purest expression, and I did not question it for a long time.

I held onto this view until about 1970, when one of the links in the chain of the tight Calvinian logic broke. It had to do with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, likely the weakest link in Calvinian logic, scripturally speaking. I was teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at the time and attending to the doctrine particularly in the book of Hebrews. If in fact believers enjoy the kind of absolute security Calvinism had taught me they do, I found I could not make very good sense of the vigorous exhortations to persevere (e.g., 3:12) or the awesome warnings not to fall away from Christ (e.g., 10:26), which the book addresses to Christians. It began to dawn on me that my security in God was linked to my faith-union with Christ and that God is teaching us here the extreme importance of maintaining and not forsaking this relationship. The exhortations and the warnings could only signify that continuing in the grace of God was something that depended at least in part on the human partner. And once I saw that, the logic of Calvinism was broken in principle, and it was only a matter of time before the larger implications of its breaking would dawn on me. The thread was pulled, and the garment must begin to unravel, as indeed it did.

What had dawned on me was what I had known experientially all along in my walk with the Lord, that there is a profound mutuality in our dealings with God. What happens between us is not simply the product of a set of divine decrees that, written on an everlasting and unchangeable scroll, determine all that takes place in the world. I began to doubt the existence of an all-determining fatalistic blueprint for history and to think of God's having made us significantly free creatures able to accept or reject his purposes for us (Luke 7:30). Even the good news of the grace of God will not benefit us, as Hebrews says, unless "mixed with faith in the hearers." (Heb. 4:2) For the first time I realized theologically that the dimension of reciprocity and conditionality had to be brought into the picture of God's relations with us in creation and redemption and that, once it is brought in, the theological landscape would have to change significantly. The determinist model cannot survive once a person starts down this road, as scripturally I came to see I must.

As a Calvinist of course I had professed to believe in a kind of human freedom, a compatibilist kind that claims that our actions can be both free and determined at the same time. Sometimes I would try to explain it, other times I would give up and call it an antinomy, but deep down I knew there was something amiss. I was faintly aware that an action forever predetermined to be what it will be, however necessitated, whether by external factors or internal motives, did not deserve to be called a "free" action. Now, given my new discovery, I was able to move away from that construction and see the biblical view of human freedom in a different way. God made us "responsible" beings able to respond freely to his word and call. Of the essence of this creature that bears God's own image, marking it off from all the others in this world, is this wonderful capacity to relate or decline to relate to God, to love or not to love him. It was now open to me to regard people not as the product of a timeless decree but as God's covenant partners and real players in the flow and the tapestry of history. I hardly need to add that my reaction to this discovery was one of considerable relief.

Driven by Scripture itself as I reflected on it, and not out of rationalist motives as some might unkindly suggest, I found myself having to push ahead and do more rethinking in several other areas of doctrine adjacent to this one in the years that followed during the 1970s. Just as one cannot change the pitch of a single string on the violin without adjusting the others, so one cannot introduce a major new insight into a coherent system like Calvinian theology without having to reconsider many other issues. Let me explain five of the doctrinal moves that logic required and I believed Scripture permitted me to make during this period.

1. The first and the best discovery I made was that there was no "horrible decree" at all. Calvin had used this expression in connection with his belief that God in his sovereign good pleasure had predestined some people to be eternally lost for no fault of theirs (Institutes, 3.23). Calvin was compelled to say that because, if one thinks that God determines all that happens in the world (his Augustinian premise) and not all are to be saved in the end (as he believed the Bible taught), there was no way around it. Calvin's logic was impeccable as usual: God wills whatever happens, so if there are to be lost people, God must have willed it. It was as logically necessary as it was morally intolerable.

Of course I had always known how morally loathsome the doctrine of double predestination is and how contradictory it is to the universal biblical texts, but I had not known previously how to avoid it. But now with the insight of reciprocity in hand, which had just surfaced for me in rethinking the doctrine of perseverance, it became possible for me to accept the scriptural teaching of the universal salvific will of God and not feel duty-bound to deny it as before. I was now in a position to rejoice in the truth that God's will is for all to be saved (I Tim. 2:4), and that God's grace has appeared for the salvation of all people (Titus 2:11).

The dark shadow was lifting; the logic of Calvinism could no longer blind me to these lines of biblical teaching. All mankind has been included in the saving plan of God and in the redemption of Jesus Christ. By the obedience of the Son, there is acquittal and life for all people (Rom. 5:18). Thus the invitation can go out to all sinners, sincerely urging them to repent and believe the good news that offers salvation to everyone without hedging. The banquet of salvation has been set for all people. God has provided plenteous redemption in the work of Christ, sufficient for the salvation of the entire race of sinners. All that remains for any individual to benefit from what was accomplished for him is to respond to the good news and enter into the new relationship with God that has been opened up for all persons.

2. I was then driven back to the Scriptures to reconsider what divine election might mean, if in fact God desires all to be saved and cannot be thought of any longer as selecting some to be saved and placing the others under wrath and reprobation, as in high Calvinism. How shall I understand those texts that I had always assumed said and meant exactly that?

One possibility that presented itself was to think of election as being based on the foreknowledge of God (Rom. 8:29); I Peter 1:2). This was the standard Arminian position--one favored by early Greek fathers--and it would deviate least from the Calvinian idea of the selection of a certain number of specific individuals from before the creation of the world to be saved. It would simply introduce, on the basis of divine omniscience, the element of conditionality into the idea of divine election and thus appear to rescue it from arbitrariness. Although at this time I had not yet come to reconsider the nature of the divine omniscience presupposed in this account, even then I found myself attracted to a second possibility--that election is a corporate category and not oriented to the choice of individuals for salvation. I knew that everyone admitted this to be the case in the Old Testament where the election of Israel is one of a people to be God's servant in a special way. Was it possible that the New Testament texts too could be interpreted along these same lines? Upon reflection I decided that they could indeed be read corporately, election then speaking of a class of people rather than specific individuals. God has chosen a people for his Son, and we are joined and belong to the elect body by faith in Christ (Eph. 1:3-24).

Viewed in this way, election, far from arbitrarily excluding anybody, encompasses them all potentially. As a corporate symbol, election is no longer a dark mystery, but a joyous cause of praise and thanksgiving. Not only so but this model has the distinct advantage of construing election as a divine decision and not the pale notion of God's ratifying our choices as in the standard Arminian interpretation. If election is understood as a corporate category, then it would be God's unconditional decision and be potentially universal as regards all individuals. All are invited to become part of the elect people by personal faith. In addition the idea of corporate election would have had the further advantage of not requiring absolute divine omniscience, which became an issue for me later on.

3. Predestination proved to be less of a problem, surprisingly enough. Familiarity with the dynamic character of God's dealing with human beings according to the biblical narrative had prepared me to see predestination in terms of God's setting goals for people rather than forcing them to enact the preprogrammed decrees. God predestines us to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). That is his plan for us, whether or not we choose to go down that path. God's plan for the world and for ourselves does not suppress but rather sustains and includes the spontaneity of significant human decisions. We are co-workers with God, participating with him in what shall be hereafter. The future is not stored up on heavenly video tape, but is the realm of possibilities, many of which have yet to be decided and actualized. Peter gives us a nice illustration of this when he explains the delay of Christ's return as being due to God's desire to see more sinners saved--God actually postponing the near return of Christ for their sakes (2 Peter 3:9).

Previously I had to swallow hard and accept the Calvinian antinomy that required me to believe both that God determines all things and that creaturely freedom is real. I made a valiant effort to believe this seeming contradiction on the strength of biblical infallibility, being assured that the Bible actually taught it. So I was relieved to discover that the Bible does not actually teach such an incoherence, and this particular paradox was a result of Calvinian logic, not scriptural dictates. Having created human beings with relative autonomy alongside himself, God voluntarily limits his power to enable them to exist and to share in the divine creativity. God invites humans to share in deciding what the future will be. God does not take it all onto his own shoulders. Does this compromise God's power? No, surely not, for to create such a world in fact requires a divine power of a kind higher than merely coercive.

When predestination is viewed in this light, there is immense relief also in the area of theodicy. The logic of consistent Calvinism makes God the author of evil and casts serious doubt on his goodness. One is compelled to think of God's planning such horrors as Auschwitz, even though none but the most rigorous Calvinians can bring themselves to admit it. But if predestination is thought of as an all-inclusive set of goals and not an all-determining plan, then the difficulty for theodicy is greatly eased. Later, I was to conclude that rethinking the divine omniscience would ease it still more.

Obviously what is happening here is a paradigm shift in my biblical hermeneutics. I am in the process of learning to read the Bible from a new point of view, one that I believe is more truly evangelical and less rationalistic. Looking at it from the vantage point of God's universal salvific will and of significant human freedom, I find that many new verses leap up from the page, while many old familiar ones take on new meaning. In the past I would slip into my reading of the Bible dark assumptions about the nature of God's decrees and intentions. What a relief to be done with them!

4. The depth of human sinfulness was another matter that demanded my attention. Calvinists, like Augustine himself, if the reader will excuse the anachronism, wanting to leave no room at all to permit any recognition of human freedom in the salvation event, so defined human depravity as total that it would be impossible to imagine any sinner calling upon God to save him. Thus they prevented anyone from thinking about salvation in the Arminian way. Leaving aside the fact that Augustinians themselves often and suspiciously qualify their notion of "total" depravity very considerably and invent the notion of common grace to tone it down, I knew I had to consider how to understand the free will of the sinner in relation to God.

Again, I had a choice of paths to follow. I knew that Wesley had opted for a doctrine of universal prevenient grace by which God enabled the spiritually dead sinner to respond to him in faith. The Fourth Gospel speaks of a universal drawing action of God (John 12:32). This move allowed him to retain his belief in total depravity and still avoid the Calvinistic consequences in terms of particularist election and limited grace. But I also knew that the Bible has no developed doctrine of universal prevenient grace, however convenient it would be for us if it did. Hence, I was drawn instead to question total depravity itself as a possible ambush designed to cut off non-Augustinians at the pass. Was there any evidence that Jesus, for example, regarded people as totally depraved? Does the Bible generally not leave us with the impression that one can progress in sin as in holiness, and that how total one's depravity is varies from person to person and is not a constant? Surely "total" depravity biblically would be the point beyond which it is not possible to go in realizing the full possibilities of sinfulness and not the actual condition of all sinners at the present time. In any case, what became decisive for me was the simple fact that Scripture appeals to people as those who are able and responsible to answer to God (however we explain it) and not as those incapable of doing so, as Calvinian logic would suggest. The gospel addresses them as free and responsible agents, and I must suppose it does so because that is what they are.

5. I also found I had to think about the atoning work of Christ. The easy part was accepting the obvious fact that contrary to Calvinian logic Jesus died for the sins of the whole world according to the New Testament. Exegesis stands strongly against the system on this point. I had no difficulty with the verses that asserted Christ's death on behalf of the whole race because they fitted so obviously into the doctrine of God's universal salvific will, which I had already come to accept. Even Calvin himself, if not all of his followers, was prepared to concede the universal extent of the atonement and view it as sufficient for the sins of the whole world.

The difficulty arose at the point of the theory that would explain this universal atonement for me. Assuming, as any evangelical would, that the Cross involved some kind of substitution in which Christ bore the guilt of human sin, where then does the human response fit into that? One might easily suppose that all those who were substituted for in the death of Christ would necessarily be saved and have the guilt of their sins automatically removed without any action of theirs entering into it. So if Christ really took away the guilt of the sins of the race, is the whole race then not now justified by virtue of that fact? Has not Christ actually achieved their salvation for them? And would this not lead inexorably either to universal salvation or to the doctrine of limited or particular atonement (neither of which are biblically supported)? What kind of substitution, if unlimited in scope, does not entail absolute universalism in salvation?
Obviously it required me to reduce the precision in which I understood the substitution to take place. Christ's death on behalf of the race evidently did not automatically secure for anyone an actual reconciled relationship with God, but made it possible for people to enter into such a relationship by faith. Gospel invitations in the New Testament alone make this clear. It caused me to look again first at the theory of Anselm and later of Hugo Grotius, both of whom encourage us to view the atonement as an act of judicial demonstration rather than a strict or quantitative substitution as such. Paul's word in Romans 3:25-26 then became more important for me where the apostle himself declares that the cross was a demonstration of the righteousness of God, proving God's holiness even in the merciful justification of sinners.

Later on I became impressed with Barth's version of substitution in terms of a great exchange in which the last Adam proved victorious over sin and Satan by standing in place of the whole human race, bearing the wrath of God against all our sin, and achieving the reconciliation of mankind objectively. My main hesitation lay in the need to place greater stress on the human appropriation of this saving act, because Barth leans too far in the objective direction and needs to be better balanced. Faith, after all, is the condition for the concrete realization of this salvation in anyone able to respond.

More recently the course of my theological pilgrimage has taken me onto the territory of Christian theism itself. Although I had already come to a fresh understanding of the goodness and power of God, I realized in the early 1980s that there were still more implications to be drawn in the area of the divine attributes. It is understandable that they would dawn on me last rather than first because God who is the mystery of human life is also theology's greatest and most demanding subject. But I could not finally escape rethinking the doctrine of God, however difficult.

The basic problem I had to cope with here is the fact that the classical model of Christian theism, shaped so decisively by Augustine under the influence of Greek philosophy, located the biblical picture of a dynamic personal God in the context of a way of thinking about God that placed high value on the Deity's being timeless, changeless, passionless, unmoved, and unmovable. The resulting synthesis more than subtly altered the biblical picture of God and tended to suppress some important aspects of it. In particular it resisted hearing the Bible's witness to a God who genuinely interacts with the world, responds passionately to what happens in it, and even changes his own plans to fit changing historical circumstances. Augustine's idea that God knows and determines all things in advance and never has to adjust his planning is one that stands in obvious tension with the Bible and yet is deeply fixed in historic Christian thinking. It is due to the accommodation made in classical theism to the Hellenistic culture.

Although the Bible itself presents a very dynamic picture of God and the world, the Greek world in which Christianity moved in the early centuries had a very negative view of historical change and the passage of time and therefore preferred to conceptualize the Deity in terms of pure actuality, changelessness, timelessness, and the like--ideas that negate the value of history and historical change. Curiously, in this respect at least, modern culture, which values history so much, is closer to the biblical view than classical theism.

I soon realized something would have to be done about the received doctrine of God. I knew I would have to deal with the fact that God has made creatures with relative autonomy alongside himself and that I would have to consider what that implies for the nature and attributes of God.
1. First of all I knew we had to clarify what we meant by the divine immutability. I saw that we have been far too influenced by Plato's idea that a perfect being would not change because, being perfect, it would not need to change--any change would be for the worse. The effect of this piece of Greek natural theology on Christian thinking had been to picture God as virtually incapable of responsiveness. Creatures can relate to God, all right, but God cannot really relate to them. Christian piety has always assumed a reciprocity between God and ourselves of course, but the official theology had tended to undercut the assumption by declaring God to be unconditioned in every aspect of his being.

The way forward, I found, was to speak of specific ways in which the God of the Bible is unchangeable, for example, in his being as God and in his character as personal agent--and also of ways in which God is able to change, as in his personal relationships with us and with the creation. It is not a question of God's changing in the sense of becoming better or worse, but of his pursuing covenant relationship and partnership with his people out of love for them flexibly and creatively. Immutable in his self-existence, the God of the Bible is relational and changeable in his interaction with his creatures. The Word "became" flesh--praise God for his changing unchangeability!

2. Although thinking of God as timeless has some apparently positive advantages, I came to believe that it also posed a threat to the basic biblical category of God's personal agency. How could a timeless being deliberate, remember, or anticipate? How could it plan an action and undertake it? How could it even respond to something that had happened? What kind of a person would a timeless being be? I had known of these philosophical objections to a timeless deity for some time but had not previously given much thought to possible biblical objections. What I came to realize at this stage was how strongly the Bible itself speaks of God as operating from within time and history. He is always presented in the Bible as One who can look back to the past, relate to the present as present, and make plans for what is yet to happen. The alleged timelessness of God does not make a lot of sense to this way of portraying the deity. Of course I do not think God is threatened by time. He is the everlasting God, and his years have no end. But the Bible presents him as operating from within time. God is able to be inside time, and not only outside of it. If he were not able to be within time, he would not be able to be with us on our journey or freely relate to what goes on or make plans and carry them out or experience the joy of victory or the anguish of defeat, as Scripture says God does. Everything would be completely fixed and settled, and novelty would be mere appearance and unreal.

3. Finally I had to rethink the divine omniscience and reluctantly ask whether we ought to think of it as an exhaustive foreknowledge of everything that will ever happen, as even most Arminians do. I found I could not shake off the intuition that such a total omniscience would necessarily mean that everything we will ever choose in the future will have been already spelled out in the divine knowledge register, and consequently the belief that we have truly significant choices to make would seem to be mistaken. I knew the Calvinist argument that exhaustive foreknowledge was tantamount to predestination because it implies the fixity of all things from "eternity past," and I could not shake off its logical force. I feared that, if we view God as timeless and omniscient, we will land back in the camp of theological determinism where these notions naturally belong. It makes no sense to espouse conditionality and then threaten it by other assumptions that we make.

Therefore, I had to ask myself if it was biblically possible to hold that God knows everything that can be known, but that free choices would not be something that can be known even by God because they are not yet settled in reality. Decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God. They are potential--yet to be realized but not yet actual. God can predict a great deal of what we will choose to do, but not all of it, because some of it remains hidden in the mystery of human freedom. Can this conjecture be scriptural?

When I went to the Scriptures with this question in mind, I found more support than I had expected. Evidently the logic of Calvinism had worked effectively to silence some of the biblical data even for me. I began to notice how the prophets in the Old Testament would present God as considering the future as something he did not already know fully. God is presented as saying, "Perhaps they will understand," or "Perhaps they will repent," making it sound as if God is not altogether sure about the future and what he may have to do when it reveals itself (Jer. 3:7; Ezek. 12:3). I also detected a strong conditional element in God's speech; for example, "If you change your ways, I will let you dwell in this place, but if not..." (Jer. 7:5-7). These are future possibilities that are seen to hang upon the people's amendment of their ways, and what God will do (and therefore knows) depends on these outcomes. God too faces possibilities in the future, and not only certainties. God too moves into a future not wholly known because not yet fixed. At times God even asks himself questions like "What shall I do with you?" (Hosea 6:4).

Most Bible readers simply pass over this evidence and do not take it seriously. They assume the traditional notion of exhaustive omniscience supported more by the old logic than by the biblical text. Of course the Bible praises God for his detailed knowledge of what will happen and what he himself will do. But it does not teach limitless foreknowledge, because the future will include as-yet-undecided human choices and as-yet-unselected divine responses to them. The God of the Bible displays an openness to the future that the traditional view of omniscience simply cannot accommodate.

Thus it has become increasingly clear to me that we need a "free will" theism, a doctrine of God that treads the middle path between classical theism, which exaggerates God's transcendence of the world, and process theism, which presses for radical immanence.

Relating my pilgrimage would not be of much importance if it did not represent the experience of other evangelicals also, but I think it does. It is my strong impression, confirmed to me even by those not pleased by it, that Augustinian thinking is losing its hold on present-day Christians. All the evangelists seem to herald the universal salvific will of God without hedging. The believing masses appear to take for granted a belief in human free will. It is hard to find a Calvinist theologian willing to defend Reformed theology, including the views of both Calvin and Luther, in all its rigorous particulars now that Gordon Clark is no longer with us and John Gerstner is retired. Few have the stomach to tolerate Calvinian theology in its logical purity. The laity seem to gravitate happily to Arminians like C. S. Lewis for their intellectual understanding. So I do not think I stand alone. The drift away from theological determinism is definitely on.

At the same time, however, the Calvinists continue to be major players in the evangelical coalition, even though their dominance has lessened. They pretty well control the teaching of theology in the large evangelical seminaries; they own and operate the largest book-publishing houses; and in large part they manage the inerrancy movement. This means they are strong where it counts--in the area of intellectual leadership and property. Thus one comes to expect evangelical systematic theology to be Reformed as it usually is. The key theological articles in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1984) are Calvinian, for example. Although there are many Arminian thinkers in apologetics, missiology, and the practice of ministry, there are only a few evangelical theologians ready to go to bat for non-Augustinian opinions. The Reformed impulse continues to carry great weight in the leadership of the evangelical denominations, though less than it did in the 50s.

Therefore, it was in part a sense of frustration that prompted me initially to edit Grace Unlimited in 1975 and the present volume now. I wanted to do something, however modest, to give a louder voice to the silent majority of Arminian evangelicals, to help them understand the theological route they are traveling, and to encourage others to speak up theologically.

Every generation reads the Bible in dialogue with its own vision and cultural presuppositions and has to come to terms with the world view of its day. Augustine did this when he sought to interpret the biblical symbols in terms of the Hellenistic culture and became the first predestinarian in Christian theology. The church fathers before him had denied fatalism, but Augustine out of his experience and intellect devised the system I have been struggling with. Today, like Augustine, we are reading the Bible afresh but in the twentieth-century context and finding new insights we had not noticed before. Just as Augustine came to terms with ancient Greek thinking, so we are making peace with the culture of modernity. Influenced by modern culture, we are experiencing reality as something dynamic and historical and are consequently seeing things in the Bible we never saw before. The time is past when we can be naive realists in hermeneutics; who we are influences what we see. It is no different now than it was before in this respect. And the rich diversity of biblical doctrine means that changes in orientation are always going to be possible, enabling us to communicate in fresh tones to our contemporary hearers.

I do not think we should feel we have lost something of absolute value when we find ourselves at variance with some of the old so-called orthodox interpretations. There is no need to ruminate darkly about the cause of Arminian thinking being satanic malice or the natural darkness of the human mind. Rather, it is a day of great opportunity for the gospel to be heard in exciting new ways and to become effective as never before. Of course there will be some nostalgia when we leave behind the logically and beautifully tight system of determinist theology. But that will be more than matched and made up for by a sense of liberation from its darker side, which (to be honest) makes hell as much the divine purpose as heaven and the fall into sin as much God's work as salvation is. It is in fact an opportunity to be faithful to the Bible in new ways and to state the truth of the Christian message creatively for the modern generation.

One thing I am asking people to give up is the myth that evangelicals often hold--that there is such a thing as an orthodox systematic theology, equated with what Calvin, for example, taught and which is said to be in full agreement with the Bible. As if theology itself were an immutable system of concepts not relative at all to the historical context in which they are conceived and framed! Granted, the idea holds great appeal for us, not because it is our experience, but because it delivers such a delicious sense of security and gives us such a great platform from which to assail those dreadful liberals who are such historicists. By this means we can try to insulate ourselves from the dizziness one feels when too many concepts are being questioned and called in for review and revision. I guess it is time for evangelicals to grow up and recognize that evangelical theology is not an uncontested body of timeless truth. There are various accounts of it. Augustine got some things right, but not everything. How many evangelicals follow him on the matter of the infallible church or the miraculous sacraments? Like it or not, we are embarked on a pilgrimage in theology and cannot determine exactly where will it lead and how it will end.
I have no remedy for those who wish to walk by sight because they find the way of faith too unnerving, or for those who wish to freeze theological development at some arbitrary point in past history. I have no comfort for those who, afraid of missing eternal truth, choose to identify it with some previous theological work and try to impose it unchanged on the present generation or desire to speak out of the past and not to come into contact with the modern situation. I have no answer for those who are frightened to think God may have more light to break forth from his holy Word.

But there is true comfort in the gospel and in the promise of our Lord to preserve his church through time and give to her the Spirit of truth to guide her in the midst of her struggles. Jesus assured us that the Paraclete would be with us forever and would be guiding us into all the truth. God's people will persist in the truth in spite of all our errors. If an Augustine had the courage to deal with the culture of his day and come up with some dazzling new insights, then we can do the same in our own setting. Just repeating what he said isn't good enough anymore. We have better news to tell than his rendition of the Christian message.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Witness of Jesus, Paul and John

I'm going to be honest with you as I have endeavered to be all along; I mostly blog for me, not for you. What I mean is that, with all the books I read and the passion I have to learn and seek after truth I was in desperate need for an outlet, and so began to blog. My hope of couse has always been that others will read my musings - however unorthodox and emotionally charged they may seem at times - and be encouraged to reflect in their own theology. That being said, this post (and others like it) will no doubt bore most people as I am simply blogging my way through a text book on theology called The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John by Larry Heyler. In doing so as a personal exercise I hope to retain some of what I read and maybe share some fascinating and/or interesting tid-bits of information by way of gleaning Heyler's book. I can no means mention every fascination I would like, so what I do bring up is simply those random "cuts" (or quotes) that interest me.

Introductory Remarks

Over the past two years or so I have been on an adventure of exploring theology without a "tour guide" as such. I have, for example, discovered Christus Victor or Open Theism or Covenantal Theology by reading authors who have written on the subject, by reading others who have written against them and – through rigorous biblical searching – have formulated certain positions of my own. For example, I am not quite ready to accept Open Theism hook line and sinker, yet I feel the force of its arguments and have not been persuaded in the least by those who have pulled out all the stops to write against it. I have fully excepted Christus Victor as the overarching scheme of the atonement, but I have not set it about as a dichotomy over against Penal Substitution as some have (Boyd); the issue isn’t either or/but both/and; with emphasis on Christus Victor. And I have fully embraced Covenantal Theology against my own dispensational heritage.

Today I do have a guide. His name is Larry Helyer. He was written a book which is designed essentially to be an Introductory Text Book on Biblical Theology for undergrad or seminary students. You could say that in exploration of theology I have jumped the gun and have had to do a lot of reverse engineering to understand terms and such. I have finished part one of Helyer’s text and find myself well aware of much of what he says and teaches, I am also leaning much and I have decided to post certain things from his book which call for special attention.

Why the BIG Picture:

In chapter one, what is biblical theology, Helyer makes a few comments which drive home well much of what I have tried to argue in my own head in recent months: the importance of not detaching individual “systems” from the overarching scheme of the Bible. He says,

Cut 1: “A merely ad hoc reading of Scripture – searching Scripture with a particular issue in mind while failing to grasp the overarching themes and ideas – obscures the essential message of the Bible. To put it another way, one loses the forest in all the trees.” [p.21]
I have tried to argue this very point in my recent discussion with Calvinism; that it is my view Calvinism is supremely guilty of this very thing – though I understand Calvinist’ like MacArthur would disagree. Yet for him, the only way for a Calvinist to read the Bible is as a Dispensationalist! I know more than a few Calvinist’ who would love to take MacArthur to task. Helyer goes on:

Cut 2: “I also deem inadequate the venerable dogmatic approach. This approach dominated during the medieval era and is characterized by the search for proof text (dicta probantia). That is, the Bible is ransacked for texts that can reasonably (and sometimes not so reasonably) support teaching (dogma) already held to be biblical by the church [or a particular group in the church]… In our own era so much more has been learned about the world in which the Scriptures were originally written that was unavailable to the church fathers and scholars of previous times. This new information throws welcome light on both familiar and obscure passages. These insights are available through the grammatical-historical method.” [p.32]
In this cut there are two elements we need to understand: 1) proof-texting is not an adequate approach to good biblical theology and 2) because we know more now and have greater resources then our predecessors we can understand better than previous generations “both familiar and obscure passages”. This means we should not venerate any previous generation or tradition and be open for our traditions to be changed in light of further biblical study utilizing the resources we have today. As he again says; cut 3: “I must have the courage of my convictions when it comes to interpreting the details of the Bible’s theology, even if that means going against my received theological tradition” [p.38, italics added]. On that note, Helyer is also wise to put forth this advice: “A completely novel interpretation or doctrine calls for caution” [p.24] – agreed.

Here’s a cut that I appreciate very much and wish all church leaders would take to heart; cut 4: “A special burden of mine is that pastors will incorporate biblical theology into their preaching and pastoral duties.” – I feel Helyer’s heart on this one. And on that note, what is biblical theology?

Cut 5: “Traditionally, theology has been divided into four major areas: exegetical theology, historical theology, practical theology and systematic theology… The culmination of exegetical theology is biblical theology.” [p.22-23]
I found this discussion to be very helpful as over the years I have been confused as to the difference between these types of theology. 1) Biblical theology summarizes the teaching of the Bible, 2) Historical theology looks at the development of doctrines and creeds throughout the history of the church, 3) Practical theology seeks to apply the truths of Christianity to everyday life, mission and maintenance of the Church, and 4) Systematic theology “has the enormous task of articulating the truths of Christianity both for the church and over against the competing worldviews and non-Christian theologies of the contemporary world. Therefore, it is both didactic (intended to teach and instruct) and apologetic (giving defense and proof)”. [p.24]

The difference between Systematic theology and biblical theology is thus: Biblical theology serves as a bridge between both systematic theology and practical theology. Good preaching should reflect the fruit of biblical theology. Helyer quotes Krister Stendahl to the effect of: “our only concern [in biblical theology] is to find out what these words meant when uttered or written by the prophet, the priest, the evangelist, or the apostle, and regardless of their meaning in later stages of religious history, our own included” [p.26]. This articulation of biblical theology lies close to my own developing theology over the past several months and is even evident in the debates between N.T. Wright who argues correctly that we must understand the use of the word when it was first used (in agreement with Krister Stendahl, Larry Helyer and D.A. Carson) verses John Piper who (perhaps in hindsight, embarrassingly so) said what really matters is not what a word meant when it was written, but the word itself (essentially tossing out good biblical theology).

The Problem of the Unity of the Bible

The second chapter of Helyer’s text focuses on the church’s historic struggle on how best to articulate the unity between the Two Testaments. There are only a few cuts that are interesting enough to draw attention to (given the space).

Under the heading “The Allegorical Method” which arose quickly within early gentile Christianity and has survived in some form to this very day, Larry Helyer takes a step back to build a context not recalled enough within Christian dialogue. The context of the Hellenistic world. I must insist that the reader keep in mind that no theology or system – not even the scriptures themselves – grew up in a bubble.

During the age of Classical Greece the philosophers philosophized by way of reasoning that there must be one deity, and that this god must be distant and impassible among other attributes. Soon this belief in one supreme impassible being became accepted among the elite of Hellenistic society but not among the common populous who continued to embrace a pantheon of gods who’s attributes are decidedly antithetical to the “god” of Plato. So how did the philosophers reconcile the two opposing belief systems so that they both may be accepted by all?

Cut 5: “Basically, the canon of Homer was read employing a two-level hermeneutic. On the surface of the text lay the literal meaning. At this level, which surely was the intention of the original writer(s), we move in the world of Greek mythology… On the other hand, so the argument went, a deeper level of meaning existed just below the surface of the text. The literal meaning contained a sort of code that, when translated, yielded a meaning in consonance with the thought of the Greek philosophers. One might cynically characterize such an approach as “having your cake and eating it too””. [p.52]
Helyer comments further down the page regarding the famous Jew, Philo, living at the same time of Jesus and Paul; “Phil drank deeply from the wells of Greek philosophy and sought to reconcile it with his revered tradition of Judaism rooted in the Hebrew Bible”. In other words, the philosophers believed in what the ancient authors wrote about the gods, but they also believed that below those words was a secret meaning about the “true” nature of god, a nature that can only be known by way of philosophy. Many Jews in the Hellenistic world embraced the philosophy of the neo-Platonism and (frankly) a great deal of the early church Father’s were neo-Platonist’s! They accepted the philosophy of the god of the Philosophers but, much in the way Paul did on Mars Hill, they proclaimed this god to be the God of the Christian and Jewish scriptures.

As good as this sounds the early Father soon ran into the same dilemma of the Classical Philosophers: how do we reconcile our philosophical idea of a distant and impassible God with what the ancient Hebrews actually wrote about Him? Their answer was much the same: while believing in what the ancient Hebrew writers wrote, beneath those words lie the secret meaning about the “true” nature of God. And it is exactly here – where my own theology has been bursting with excitement – that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “Much classical Christian theology (of a scholastic bent or of a popular understanding of classical theology), “God” can be understood in quite settled categories that are, for the most part, inimical to the biblical tradition. The casting of the classical tradition in a more scholastic category is primarily informed by the Unmoved Mover of Hellenistic thought and affirms… a Being completely apart from and unaffected by the reality of the world” [An Unsettling God, p.1]. And in the call to throw off the restraints of nearly 2000 years of philosophical ideas imbedded deep within the Christian psyche Brueggemann writes, “such an open and thick articulation of faith may be threatening to some and may require unlearning by us all”. (I know I have run amuck on a tangent here, but only because this recognition is crucially important to understanding the scriptures! For anyone interested in learning more about how neo-Platonic thought has shaped Christianity I suggest as a primer, Why You Think the Way You Do by Glenn S. Sunshine.)

Dispensationalism at its most curious!

The historic beginnings of Dispensationalism is most certainly with John Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century. Yet despite this most obvious fact dispensationalist often try and claim historic roots by mudding the waters between Dispensation Premillennialism and Historic Premillennialism. But in Helyer’s book I have been informed of a most ambitious attempt by a dispensationalist – and mentor to Charles Ryrie – to claim the roots of this system to be none other than God himself back in the six days of creation! Who can argue with that? I add this because I think it is a funny trivia of knowledge! He writes:

Cut 6: “Arnold Ehlert and Charles Ryrie both argue that one finds dispensational elements long before the Brethren and Darby. Ryrie claims that pre-millennialism was the faith of the apostolic and postapostolic church, since he virtually equates premillennialism with Dispensationalism. Ehlert attempts an even more ambitious enterprise. He traces the roots of Dispensationalism back to Jewish Cabalists who inferred from the creation narrative of Genesis 1 that human history would last six thousand years because the letter aleph is found six times in the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 and aleph = 1,000 in the Hebrew language. Coupled with this is Psalm 90:4: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like the watch in the night.” Since the Sabbath follows the six creative days, the Sabbath in similar fashion represents a millennial era of rest and peace…. He cites D.T. Taylor, who sets out evidence that such a theory of earth history goes back to the Chaldeans, Zoroastrians, Tuscans, Egyptians, and Etruscans”. [Ever see Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson? Good movie.]
So if the Zoroastrians, the Tuscans and the Etruscans were dispensationals like Tim Lahey, Hal Lindsay, and Mark Hitchcock, well then it certainly must be true. ;-p

And now you know.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Time To Unlearn A Few Things

I suggest that if we put the question of Calvinism and Arminianism aside for a time and study God as he has revealed himself in the scriptures we will not discover Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover as Calvinism has always espoused; in fact we may not even discover God as the Arminian understands him. It may be, after seeking to discover the God of the scriptures on their own terms, that we may discover the God of Open Theism quite by accident! Not of Calvin’s Unmoved Mover, but of Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover. We will, in all probability, discover as John Sanders said, a God Who Risks. This – I believe – is the truth we all must wrestle with whether or not we embrace Open Theism.

Walter Brueggemann, one of the foremost Old Testament scholars, seems quite disinterested in questions of determinism and foreknowledge – except when specific texts’ call attention to such speculation – and in the debates between Calvinism and Arminianism (and Open Theism). But in his studies of the God of the Old Testament, the “Hebrew testimony” and portrayal of YWHW, he writes: “the defining category for faith in the Old Testament is dialogue, whereby all parties – including God – are changed in a dialogic exchange that is potentially transformative for all parties… including God.” And again, “The Old Testament is an invitation to reimagine our life and our faith as an on-going dialogic transaction in which all parties are variously summoned to risk and change.” He goes on:

“When we are freed of static categories of interpretation that are widely utilized among us, we are able to see that the articulation of God in the Old Testament partakes exactly of the quality of complexity, dynamism, and fluidity that belong to the post-modern world… such an open and thick articulation of faith may be threatening to some and may require unlearning by us all”. An Unsettling God; 2009, p.xii; italics added.

What a powerful statement from a man who is not interested in sustaining “static categories of interpretation” such as Calvinism or Arminianism; neither, it is prudent to add, is he interested in Open Theism. When Brueggemann approaches the scriptures he does not ask, is the God of Calvin here or the God of Arminius or the God of Pinnock? When Brueggemann approaches the Old Testament he asks the question to the ancient Hebrews, “Who do you say that He is?” Sometimes we see the categories of Calvin and sometimes we see the categories of Arminius, this is partly what makes God “unsettling”, because YWHW cannot be made to easily fit into our “static categories of interpretation” – He is too big, and we are too fallible. Yet it is a fearful road Brueggemann offers, it is a road of discomfort; because in asking the Hebrews and not the Greeks “Who is YWHW?” he finds himself immediately at odds with classical Christian theology. “In… much classical Christian theology, ‘God’ can be understood in terms of quite settled categories that are, for the most part, inimical to the biblical tradition. The casting of the classical tradition… is primarily informed by the Unmoved Mover of Hellenistic thought… a Being completely apart from and unaffected by the reality of the world” [p.1]

We have come to a point – or perhaps we have always been there – where the God revealed by the Hebrew testimony is rather embarrassing to our sensibilities. The Hebrews speak of a God affected by the passing of time; a God emotionally invested in his creation and sometimes those emotions are even mixed. They speak of a God whose mind is not settled and what’s worse, they don’t seem to mind this God at all! This God repents, He laughs, He tests, He changes His mind and what’s more, He allows his creation to move Him to action and at other times, they have the power to stay His wrathful hand. “It is common to be embarrassed about the anthropomorphic aspects of this God, so embarrassed as to want to explain away such a characterization or at least to transpose it into a form that better serves a generic notion of God…. All such embarrassments, however, fail to do justice to the scriptural tradition.” [p.2]

Again, Walter Brueggemann has called us out on the carpet; all of us! Classical Christianity cannot escape the ugly reality that we have since near the beginning been embarrassed of the Hebrew testimony of God and so silenced it. It does not jive well with our sensibilities, our Hellenistic sensibilities. But who is the guilty one; are they or are we? It is not they who are being unfaithful to the scriptures; indeed they wrote them! And instead of being embarrassed of the Hebrew testimony of YWHW we ought to be embarrassed of our selves. It will no longer do, in my mind, to dismiss the challenge of the Old Testament as embarrassing “anthropomorphic” ramblings of ancient people. Christianity needs – to some extent – to put Classical Christian Theology on trial and the judge ought not to be Aristotle, but Abraham. Classical Christian Theology is in need of purification, and its filter ought to be the scriptures.

In Christ,

Friday, September 18, 2009

Unsettling Theology

The idea first came in to my mind to write a blog series called, "Why I Am.." when I saw a similar list of "Why I Am's..." on the cover of a popular author's book. This approach to blogging has proved to be unfruitful and unproductive. While labels are unavoidable and not always a bad thing, to write a series like this suggests that a) I am settled in my theology, b) that I am dogmatic in my positions, and it immediately sets up barriers between myself and others who - quite naturally - have differing views. None of this was my intention and in hindsight I would have never begun this series. I am not dogmatic toward "labels" or "traditions" as some, and so I abandon this series on "Why I Am..." with a few prepositions of "I believe" with the hopes of undoing some of what has resulted from that series.

I believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and have allowed that fact to change me; if that makes me a "Christian" then so be it. I shy not away from that label.

I believe that our ultimate authority on all matters pertaining to the faith is God and that he has revealed Himself and his will in and through Jesus Christ and through the writings of his Apostles and Prophets by the Holy Spirit; if that makes me "Protestant Reformed Evangelical" then so be it.

I believe that my commitment to God's authority exercised through the scriptures to be over and above all traditions necessitates - in my opinion - remaining in an attitude of "Reformed and Always Reforming"; if this places me under the label of "Post-Conservative", then so be it.

I believe in the biblical doctrines of Election, Predestination and Foreordination to be understood in the Hebrew context of Covenant and Incorporation and - as it is revealed in the New Testament - to be Christocentric; I believe Romans 9-11 is to be understood properly only with the context of Romans 1-8 in which the Righteousness of God - his faithfulness to his covenant with Israel - is on trial, and that predestination in that context is in keeping with the Hebrew idea of Covenantal Election; if that makes me "Arminian", then so be it.

I believe that the Hebrew idea of "Time" is linear and unending, that the idea of "timelessness" is a neo-Platonic pollution into historic Christianity and that "eternity" should be understood and defined as, "time-unending" not "timelessness"; furthermore I believe that God is passionate, near, able to be influenced by his children to either be moved to action or else to stay his wrathful hand as the scriptures attest; that the ideas of God being an "Unmoved Mover", Impassionate, Distant and Immutable are all neo-Platonic ideas that have polluted classical Christian theology and are inimical to the testimony of scripture; if all of this presents me with "Open Theistic" tendencies, then so be it.

I believe that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead, that in this return both righeous and wicked will experience a resurrection and that afterwards God will destroy (but not destroy) the earth and re-create it amalgamating Heaven and Earth where the righteous will reign with him forever in time unending eternity; if this makes me "Amillennial", then so be it.

I believe that in the fall three evils were created; 1) the devil is now the ruler of the air during this present evil age and his Kingdom is dominant in this world presently; 2) mankind have been separated from God by sin and an exilic curse and 3) as a result of this the world is prone to destruction and death is the result of all things cursed! Yet I believe that God set into motion a plan to defeat all three (not just sin) of these enemies. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have the defeat of the Devil, Sin and Death; this is the biblical doctrine of Christus Victor! That Christ did not just die to "cover our sins", rather he also defeated the powers and effects of Sin and those elements that keep us separated from God. It isn't just "you are forgiven" (Penal Substitution), it is also, "now go and sin no more"; if this places my over-arching view of the Atonement under the umbrella of "Christus Victor", then so be it.

And finally, I believe that "a mere ad hoc reading of the scripture - searching Scripture with a particular issue in mind while failing to grasp the overarching themes and ideas - obscures the essential message of the Bible" and results in a misunderstanding of those particular issues. It is with this "overarching theme" in mind that the above beliefs have been formed, and it is because of this overarching theme that I have rejected the dichotomies of those beliefs. This overarching theme is called "Creation and Covenant"; and if this makes me a "Covenantal Theologian" today then so be it.

Everything that I have just covered presents in a nutshell where I presently am in my theological pilgrimage with or without labels; labels do not define me they only serve to help in giving definations and "shorthand" to my ever fluid and unsettled and ever grow understanding of God and his Word. May I - and may you - forever grow and remain unsettled in our theology as we follow the lead of an Unsettling God. And with that, let me make a suggestion by way of a book I recently read. If what follows sounds detached from what I have written so far or somewhat redundant it is because I originally planned on presenting it as an introduction to a post on Open Theism; I have mildly edited it. I should note that the blog on Open Theism was one of the few blogs I was actually looking forward to writing; alas it will have to wait for some future unknown date ;-)

The next post is called, "Time to Unlearn A Few Things"


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why I Am Amillennial: Part 2 (The one to read)

“Jesus is coming back! On this issue Evangelicals are united.” You can find this quote on the back of the late Stanley Grenz’s book, The Millennial Maze: Sorting out Evangelical Options. It is my opinion that differing historic “End Times” systems should be an issue of no-division. The early Church seemed completely comfortable with allowing each other to hold differing views of eschatology, specifically Amillennialism (hereafter: “Amill”) and Premillennialism (hereafter: “Premill”) – Postmillennialism (hereafter: “Postmill”) came about at a later time.

Search as you will in all of the historic creeds of Christendom and you will not find (at least not before Augustine) a single creed to narrow down Christian belief to a particular End Times system. You will not find – for example – in the Apostles Creed a statement to the effect of, “We believe in a literal millennial reign of Christ on the earth” or any variation thereof. For this reason I don’t believe we should allow our differing views – amill-premill-postmill – to divide our churches; we should not – in my opinion – have these views as a part of our denominational statements of faith. Each Christian should be allowed freedom to wrestle through these issues without having to conform to one view over the other at the compulsion of a denomination. Preach what we know for sure – Christ is Coming Back! – and leave the ambiguous details to God.

A History of the End of the World

Well actually this is a misnomer. I do not believe the world is going to end per se, neither has the Church throughout it’s’ history, and neither – I might add – does the scriptures. If by “end” we mean in the sense that the world “ended” once before by being destroyed or cleansed by water in the Flood and then recreated (Genesis 6-9) then I would agree, the earth will be destroyed and purified as in the days of Noah, only this time by fire and then it will be recreated (2 Peter 3). But if by “end” we mean that the space-time continuum will cease along with all physical matter and that we will spend eternity floating about in heaven, well that is not biblical. As Ben Witherington said, “It is never adequate theology to say ‘this world is not my home, I’m just passing through’ as if heaven were all that really mattered” (Imminent Domain p.53), because when heaven and earth become one (Revelation 21-22) then we shall forever be with the Lord… on this little round ball we call “earth”. But I’m getting off course; allow me to give a brief overview of the history of eschatology in the Church.

Amill is essentially (though sometimes debatably) the earliest and longest held view of End Times in the history of the Church. All of the Apostolic Fathers (first generation removed from the Apostles) were Amill save one – Papias. That is, Clement of Rome (after Paul), Polycarp (John’s disciple. Yup, that John), Ignatius, the Shepherd of Hermes, and the Didache were all Amill. Papias, whose writings we no longer have, was decidedly Premill – taking Revelation 20 literally (Premill here – and throughout this post – is to be understood as Historic Premillennialism, which is vastly different from the Dispensational Premillennialism which was invented around the year 1830). During the period of the Apostolic Fathers and Augustine individuals in the Church variously held one view or the other without contention. It was not until Augustine – who was decidedly Amill and wrote against Premill – that the Premill position was (in my opinion wrongly) declared heresy. For the next thousand years the Church universally held – more or less – to Amillennialism (as the Catholic Church remains today, though they probably wouldn’t call it that).

The Reformers where predominately Amill; though it was during this period that Postmill begins to enter the picture. Postmillennialism began to build major steam during the Enlightenment (naturally) and became the predominate view of End Times until their hopes seemed shattered with the onset of WWI. All of a sudden people began to see the world as getting worse (Amill and Premill) and not better (Postmill). Premill began to make a comeback – sort of, but not really. Actually, just before WWI broke out C.I. Scofield published his wildly popular Dispensational Premillennial Study Bible which would (unfortunately) become the number one selling bible in North America. With the sales of this bible, of Hal Lindsays Late Great Planet Earth, two World Wars, several block buster movies, bestselling novels, video games, TV evangelists’ shows, and the re-establishment of a nation called Israel among other factors; all of these worked together to fester a Dispensational “Premillennial” understanding of End Times in the twentieth century. Yet in the past twenty five years there have been some more popular attempts by writers of all Historic End Times perspectives to try and curve the Dispensational monopoly of our Americanized Evangelical cultural understanding of End Times. One just has to site books like End Times Fiction (by Postmill, Gary Demar), End Times Delusions (by Steve Wohlberg), A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An alternative for “Left Behind” Escahtology (edited by Craig Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung) and A Case for Amillennialism (by Kim Riddlebarger).

But who’s going to read these books? What exciting story to they have to offer? We are saturated in entertaining action packed thriller style End Times scenarios which excite our senses. It has not (and will not) be easy to dethrone Left Behind eschatology, not even with the scriptures in hand. But that is not to say it will be impossible, in fact if any of the historic systems are making a comeback today, I believe it is some variation of Amillennialism. We began this Church Age with this view, perhaps the Church Age will end with this view as well.

Why I Am Amillennial

What are our options? Postmillennialism has many similarities with Amillennialism, the big one being a symbolic interpretation of Revelation 20. Both these positions understand the 1000 years of Revelation 20 to represent symbolically the age of the Church in which Christ is seated on his throne at the right hand of the Father, while the Devil is bound in some way. What distinguishes the Postmill from the Amill is the nature of the millennium. For Postmill, the millennium is the Age in which the Gospel will spread successfully until the entire world – all nations – is converted. Four out of every five people worldwide will be committed Christians by the Return of Christ.

Postmill prides itself on having a “positive” approach to eschatology. They refer to themselves as the only tradition that can rightfully be called an “Eschatology of Hope”; that “hope” being that the Gospel will be effective worldwide, that the Great Commission will in fact succeed. I have two primary difficulties with this position: a) all traditions, even Postmill’s, acknowledge the fact that before the Return of Christ there will be a “Great Falling Away”. So no matter how “positive” Postmill’s believe their position to be, they must deal with this very negative reality. And b) history itself has (so far) attested against this interpretation. This is not to say the Postmill is wrong by default of not yet succeeding, it only adds doubt to this positions future. It could be that sometime in the future there will be a Holy Ghost fired up revival that engulfs the world thus proving the Postmill position to be right. Yet after reading several books by Postmills, I have not yet been convinced.

I could also add that Postmills have no right to claim a monopoly on the phase “Eschatology of Hope”. The Christians’ “hope” is not found in the success of the Gospel worldwide (though of course all Christians ‘hope’ for this among many other ‘hopes’ he have); in the context of eschatology, that is, in the context of the Return of Christ and the consummation of all things, the Christian Hope is found, not in a converted world, but in “the glorious appearing” of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Titus 2:13. This, according to Paul, is where all Christians should place their eschatology of Hope, and indeed we all do.

Like Amillennialism, Premillennialism recognizes that things are not going to get better, but that things will grow worse and worse culminating with the Return of Christ. The big difference between Amill and Premill, again is not that there is no millennium, but rather what is the nature of the millennium? As stated, Amill believe that the millennium is a symbolic period ranging from Christ’ first coming to his second; Premill on the other hand, while interpreting the bulk of Revelation much the same as Amill’s, read Revelation 20 literally. After Christ returns there will be a literal 1000 years in which Christ will rule on the earth with Satan bound. At the end of the 1000 year period the devil will be released, a rebellion will ensue and be crushed by Christ who then destroys the world and culminates all things.

I have several problems with this interpretation: a) the book of Revelation is the most symbolic book in the entire Bible. Why, out of every symbol in Revelation, is chapter 20 alone taken literally? This to me seems to be an inconsistent interpretative method; furthermore, b) if it is true – and it surely is – that Revelation more than any other book in the bible is dependent upon “the analogy of faith” (let scripture interpret scripture), then we have a problem with any interpretation of Revelation 20 that takes this passage literally: no other place in the scriptures is a literal millennial reign of Christ mentioned! There is also the problem of the Resurrection; c) other clear portions of the scriptures teach that we await one single resurrection of both the righteous to everlasting life, and the unrighteous to everlasting damnation, yet this passage in Revelation 20 seems to represent two (or more) resurrections; how is this reconciled with other portions of scripture (1 Cor. 15 et cetera)? The Amill’s answer is that there are in fact two resurrections, the first being Jesus’ own, and those who are “in Him” are also seated in heavenly places and “reigning” with him throughout this Church Age (as Paul says). We have also been given the Holy Spirit (who raised Christ from the dead) as a guarantee that we too will rise. This is the second resurrection.

So what does Amillennialism teach? I’ll allow another to define Amillennialism for me:

“When the trumpet sounds, things will take place simultaneously. Our Lord will begin his descent to the earth, the brightness of this event will put down Satan, and all the graves will be opened…. All the saints together will go out to meet the Lord and to escort him to the earth…. The unsaved… will be forced to bow the knee and acknowledge that this is of a certainty the Christ…. They will see the suffering Servant of the cross reigning now as Judge of the quick and the dead, and they will seek a place of hiding but will find none.” William E. Cox, (quoted in Grenz’s book p.152)

Of the three positions crudely surveyed here I find the Amill position to have incorporated the best of both. Furthermore, because this subject is so difficult to interpret I find the simplicity of the Amill position attractive, as Grenz says, “of the major eschatological chronologies, theirs [Amillennialists] is the simplest” [p.152]. To be sure this is not a simpleton understanding of things, but it is an honest one. I said earlier that I believe Christians should preach what we know – that Christ is Coming Back! – and leave the ambiguous details to God. But when you do this you may discover that you have become an Amillennialist by quite the accident. And when you factor in the archaic roots of this position it is difficult to not give the Amillennial tradition at least the consideration and respect it deserves even if, at the end of the day, it is to be rejected. But in the meantime, I find the Amillennial understanding of God’s word to be as consistent with them as Covenant Theology itself.

And that is why I am Amillennial today.


P.S. I welcome your questions.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Why I Am Amillennial: Part 1

The last post and the current one are inseparably connected, this is because Dispensationalism was rooted in a particular End Times theory that, in effect, created in itself a novel way to read the bible as a whole. I tried to explain – no matter how unsuccessfully – why I rejected the Dispensational approach to the scriptures and this has resulted in a necessary shift of “End Times” views. In fact, my rejection of Dispensationalism was not simply because the scriptures as a whole failed to make any coherent sense – though that is half the reason; I reject this view also because its’ approach to End Times itself was quite unsatisfactory. Even if Dispensationalism did make some attempt to answer the Big Questions of the last post, it is certainly crushed to powder – in my mind – under the weight of the innumerable “small questions” and interpretative acrobatics which is used to try and answer them. In effect, Dispensational End Times – for me – died the death of a thousand unanswered questions and questionable interpretations.

The first Christian movie I saw after becoming a Christian was a film put out in the ‘70’s called A Thief in the Night, a precursor to the modern Left Behind films. (I find it laughable today that in the film an elderly couple who received the “mark of the beast” was walking around with barcodes tattooed on their foreheads – but I’ll get to that ridiculous notion and its’ contemporary counterparts in a moment.) The movie essentially put the fear of hell in me. I determined in my eleven year old head that I was going to begin digging a giant pit in my backyard, cement the walls and ceiling, cover it with mud and begin stocking up on can goods! I was prepared for the “Great Tribulation”. But then I discovered in Church (thanks to a graphic bed sheet strung up across the platform) that I hadn’t understood the movie correctly. If we are Christians we won’t go through the Great Tribulation because we will all disappear to heaven before it starts. The people in the film who went through the Tribulation were people who knew better and became a Christian after the Rapture… people like my cousin who is now a practicing Homosexual with his “lover”, he used to be a Christian, and so he assured my mom that after he sees her “disappear”, he’ll know that the rapture has occurred and that it will be time to repent (according to Calvinist’ like Charles Stanley, my cousin won’t even need to repent: go ahead Troy, be ‘gay’, and not just in the ‘happy’ sense, because you know, ‘once saved always saved’ - but that's another post).

My mind travelled back and forth over the years between whether Christians will have to go through the Tribulation or not (pre- or post-tribulation). Ultimately I accepted the Pre-Tribulation theory albeit uncomfortably so. For that reason I want to (tongue-in-cheek) define this particular belief system by quoting Jason Boyett in his hysterical book, Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse:

Because the Tribulation will be no fun at all, what with all the destruction and pain, believers catch major air before it all goes down. Which sounds great, but Jesus doesn’t really seem to have gotten the memo about this plan when he details the end of the world in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). Because he makes it pretty clear in this passage that the Rapture follows the Tribulation. Uh-oh. So pretribs ignore Jesus here and suggest that he’ll actually return twice. Once before the Tribulation, to “secretly” take us all to heaven via the Rapture. Then he jets back to his Father’s house to hang out for, oh, seven years or so. When things cool back down at the end of the Tribulation, he returns to earth again—this time in a highly visible, physical sense—to usher in his millennial reign. Nice. (p.115)

I realize that this is a crude articulation of Left Behind theology, but it essentially hit the big points that distinguish it from the other views – the secret Rapture and the Great Tribulation. There is also a mid-tribulation theory, and a theory that suggests that there will be many raptures throughout and a post-tribulation theory. All of these theories have one thing in common: A Seven Year Tribulation! But… what if I told you that biblically speaking, this concept does not exist in the bible! We have so taken it for granted that it is high time we return to the subject: where does the bible speak of a “Seven Year Great Tribulation”. Saying, ‘well there it is in Revelation’ or ‘there it is in Daniel’ is not good enough. Simply put: neither Daniel nor Revelation teach a Seven Year Tribulation. And as far as a “Great Tribulation” goes, the phrase is only used in Matthew – once – and even their there are two factors to consider: 1. the context is clear, explicit and specific: the generation of the disciples, “that generation” will be the ones to go through this tough period, not some future unknown generation! And 2. why is it that no one ever takes into consideration the great conditionality of “IF”? The passage doesn’t even give us a guarantee! It says that IF a specific event happens in winter, and IF someone is pregnant or nursing during this specific event, THEN it will be a Great Tribulation and presumably only for the pregnant or nursig mother or those who endure the winter (unless seven years are to pass without any summer, spring or fall)!

I do not want to get tangled up in explaining all the nonsensical things which Left Behind asserts. I want to move on quickly into why I am Amillennial. But here are a few food for thoughts I want to leave you with before I continue this post in the next blog: Revelation more than any other book in the Bible is dependent upon the rest of the scriptures for interpretation.

Left Behindists always assert that there will be a physical mark of the beast on the right hand, without which no one can buy groceries. In the seventies the mark of the beast was envisioned as a bar code, in the nineties it was envisioned as a computer chip, and in the new millennium it is often seen as a retinol scan (but most often still the computer chip). But the text is clear; the mark will be on the right hand AND THE FOREHEAD. Who on earth would get a tattoo of a bar code or a computer chip on their forehead. Can you imagine grocery shopping and having to run you forehead along the scanner – absurd. In the book of Joshua the Israelites were commanded to bind God’s word to their right and their forehead, indicating that they were to think (head) and do (right hand) what God’s Word said. By Jesus’ day the religious leaders took this spiritual command and made it so literal that they put little pieces of scripture in phylacteries (boxes) and tied them to their heads. Dispensationalists have the same interpretive mind set, resulting in the same error of missing the point of the scriptures!

Could the mark of the beast be indicating those who think (head) and do (right hand) what the beast wants? Wouldn’t this indicate that those who do the things of the Lamb have also a “mark” from God, marking them out as belonging to God? Hadn’t Jesus told the Pharisees that if they were Abraham’s children they would do (right hand) as Abraham did, but in fact they were doing as their father the devil (marked out by their actions). Didn’t God give Cain a “mark” which protected him from others in the world? But it is always God’s children – Abel – who are not accepted and thus persecuted (to buy or sell symbolizes acceptance in a society). As Jesus said, the world loves their own but they hate those who belong to God.

The Left Behind literal interpretational technical has another more serious consequence I just want to momentarily mention: if in the 70’s the mark of the beast was ‘bar codes’, if in the 90’s it was computer chips, and if in the new millennium it is retinol scanners; that is, if interpretation of biblical text is dependent upon forever changing current events then on what grounds does the bible retain any meaning? God’s eternal Word is drained of its substance.

Another ‘obvious’ issue I had as a young Christian – and it always blew my mind that nobody addressed this most obvious ‘hiccup’ of a literal and sequential interpretation of Revelation – involves the “last trumpet”. I was taught to read Revelation in chronological order. Paul teaches that the Resurrection and the “rapture” both occur “at the last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15). The phrase “last trumpet” presupposes that there a series of trumpets, because how else could there be a “last” one unless there were some before it. In Revelation there just happens to be such a sequence of trumpets, but the “last trumpet” occurs not in chapter 17, 18 or 19, but rather back in chapter 11. And with this “last trumpet” the scriptures proclaim: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he will reign forever and ever.” And yes that is back in chapter 11.

These represent just two of the countless hiccup’s which I, a late teen early twenty something, easily observed without having to be taught otherwise. If Left Behind theology didn’t tell such a great story it probably wouldn’t be around today accept as a fringe system where it belongs, and as it is it has no respect in the academic halls of credible biblical institutes.

It was out of necessity that I had to deal, albeit shallowly, with a dispensational approach to End Times. Most folk (i.e. the common folk who only read fiction, watch movies and read current event prophecy books) and who listen to pastors – who themselves simply know no better thanks to their traditio – speak as though Left Behind theology is simply the end times theology of the bible and of Christian history. A pastor once sat down with a friend of mine after overhearing that he thought my friend was teaching a mid-trib rapture theory. The pastor tried to correct my friend by tell him that their denomination is pre-trib, not mid-trib. My friend – well versed in the denomination's statement of faith – informed the pastor that their denomination only says that they must be Pre-Millennial, it says nothing about pre-mid-or-post- tribulation. The conversation ended abruptly, evidently because the pastor had no idea what my friend was talking about.

So then, with the Left Behindism behind us, what options remain for the Evangelical Christian?

To be continued…