You've reached the shared blog of Michael Mckay and Todd Frederick. Two friends who have worked together in ministry and labored in similar educational endeavors. Please join us as we consider the interaction of Christianity with modern culture...

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Omega and the Alpha

The final day of the year usually comes with reflections on the past and hope for the future. The ending of one event and the beginning of another. With Christmas having just finished, I have been thinking through the impact of the incarnation of God taking place in a humble manger. But the incarnation is not just about the Alpha and Omega becoming a human being and bringing salvation to us. The incarnation also effects God's future as well. Not only did the 2nd person of the Trinity feel the wrath of the 1st person of the Trinity (consider propitiation), but also the 2nd person of the Trinity is forever a human being - Jesus. It does not appear from Scripture that the God/Man reverted back to what He was prior to the incarnation. In fact the appearances of Jesus Christ point to the fact that He is forever Jesus. Just consider Stephen's sighting of Jesus in Acts 7 and John's vision of Jesus in Rev. 1. In both instances Jesus is a recognizable human. Now some may argue that God can assume human form, and that is certainly true. But a straightforward reading of the NT post-resurrection accounts of Jesus Christ indicate that He is forever the God/Man.

Honestly, I can't explain this. I don't think we know enough about God to be able to navigate intra-Trinitarian metaphysics. But I think there is still a good lesson we can draw from this: the permanent incarnation of God clearly shows the extent of the love, mercy and grace of God in the fulfillment of His plan of salvation.

My musings on the incarnation started with the manger but ended in Rev. 21 as the King of Kings is ruling the New Heavens and New Earth in righteousness. So even our futures are going to be affected by the incarnation, because Jesus is/will be our King.

I hope everyone has a great New Year! Thanks for being a part of this blog which started only 6 months ago!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Did God Learn Something?

Troubling verses are the biblical scholar's bread and butter. And it is amazing to me how a single verse or even a single word in the verse can be used (or maybe exploited) in opening up whole new vistas in thinking.

Here is one that I have been chewing on for the last few years: Genesis 22:12. Here is the scene: Abraham is obeying God on Mt. Moriah and offering up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. God tells Abraham to stop and provides a substitute ram. God comments on Abraham's obedience by saying, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God..." What?!? Now God knows that Abraham fears? This little, normal, common, everyday word, "now", causes the reader to pause and ask a question: did God learn something that day?

So how should we understand this verse? If God learned something that day, then we need to factor that into our traditional theologies which state that God is omniscient. This also impacts our views on whether God is "in" time or "outside" of time. It also impacts our views on whether God has direct, causal control over every detail in the universe. Here are three options for understanding this verse that I have considered.
1) One Option - Perhaps God did learn something that day and we should reevaluate our theologies on God's foreknowledge (as Open Theists do), God's sovereignty versus human free will, and also God's relationship with time. This has enormous ramifications.
2) Another Option - Perhaps God is using anthropomorphic language. In other words, God is communicating using human colloquialisms, and we should not read more into the word "now" then is needed. This opinion glosses over the word "now" and basically begs the reader to ignore it.
3) Another Option - Perhaps there is some literary purpose behind God/Moses inserting the word "now" in this place. Maybe if we were to read the preceding Abrahamic narratives and the remaining Abrahamic narratives, we would see that this word "now" functions to link segments together or to provide some rhetorical element. Perhaps someone who has spent some time in Hebrew narrative could shed some light on this (Coney, this is your open door :) )

I am a firm believer in hearing the voice(s) of the community of believers in regards to understanding a verse. So here is the question for readers of this blog: In what ways can this verse be legitimately understood? You are welcome to give your view and defend it, but I am also looking for legitimate options to understanding this verse. I have listed three ways to understand this verse above. Feel free to beat up on them or tweak them. I should also point out that in the Hebrew there is nothing fishy going on here. The word for "know" and "now" are common words that any first year Hebrew student would "know" "now" (sorry for the terrible word play).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Inigo Montoya needs a miracle. His hopes of avenging his father’s death ride on the resurrection of Wesley, also known as the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts.’ He takes the body to Miracle Max (of course) who needs a reason to perform the miracle. Inflating the dead man’s lungs he produces the reply: ‘true… love…’ After sufficient comedic hijinks, Max produces the miracle pill which begins the slow process of reviving Wesley and the story moves on, revenge is had and true love wins the day.

Many films capitalize on the idea of true love, and Hollywood understands the powerful human need for satisfying intimate relationships, which they present as some mysterious combination of chemistry and good luck. Stable marriages require more than warm fuzzies and good fortune. They need a love borne of commitment and sacrifice. It seems that everyone wants a lasting love, but no one wants to do the hard work of loving another lastingly. This problem is not new, as John Calvin notes in his polemical treatise, ‘Against the Libertines.’

Calvin’s scathing (and hilarious) evaluation of this situation goes like this:
"We have already seen how these wretches profane marriage, mingling men and women like dumb animals according to the lusts that drive them. And how, under the name of ‘spiritual marriage,’ they disguise this churlish corruption, labeling as a ‘spiritual movement’ that wild impetuosity that goads and inflames a man like a bull and a woman like a dog in heat."

We tend to idealize the past and see our current time as one of increasing corruption, but the reality is that the past is every bit as corrupt as the present. In the realm of marriage, Calvin points to people who excuse bad behavior by shifting the basis of behavior from objective standards to internal desires. These people then act according to whim, which applied to the realm of intimate relationships means that they pretty much had sex apart from a lasting marriage commitment. As we compare that situation to our contemporary culture, we have a lot in common and we need a miracle to fix it.

The miraculous fix for marital problems doesn’t come through a miracle pill from Miracle Max. Fixing our marriages relies on a restored relationship to God, through Christ and then taking the hard pill of personal responsibility. We first must think correctly about marriage and then act correctly with our partner. When we compare reality to the Biblical conception of marriage, we have a right foundation for the hard work of restoring our marriages according to the correct image, which Hollywood correctly presents, but incorrectly attributes to good vibes and good fortune.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Food flow control diagram.

If you double click, it should open in a new window and you can read it. In an effort to control hungry teens, I have created a convenient diagram. They don't appreciate it, but it seems to have slowed the consumption of... everything.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Theological Emergency

“9-1-1, what is the nature of your emergency?” is the standard question when the emergency services operator answers your call for help. This phone call has the potential to unleash the power of the state in response to a diverse array of natural and man-caused disasters. The person on the other end has to digest the panic-driven information you give and send the appropriate authority.

“Yes…. I need help…”

“Go ahead, sir, what kind of help do you need?”

“I need the police… there’s been a… disturbance…”

“What kind of a disturbance, sir?”

The sensitive recording devices pick up the minute nuances of your tense breathing, ragged as you seek the words to describe in concise and exact detail the breach of public peace.

“It’s …. it’s….a dispute about theology…”

You can feel the deflation and confusion on the part of the operator. Poised to unleash the helping hands of the ambulance and the pacifying presence of the police department, no button exists to summon the doctors of theology to settle this manner of conflict.

While our modern world disconnects the exercise of church and civil authority, John Calvin’s world did not. Disputes over theology regularly boiled over into the realm of governmental authority as no real line separates church and state. Everyone was involved in the theological and political climate of the day and disagreeing with John Calvin publicly was, well, a bad idea.

Jerome Bolsec publicly disagreed with Calvin over the issue of predestination, identifying a dark side to the doctrine that makes God the author of evil. Whatever one’s opinion of the matter, what punishment should this man have received? This doctrine begs for controversy, even among the most zombie-fied bodies of churchgoers. Perhaps a sharp rebuke in public or a special business meeting of the church body addressing the wayward soul in fervent hopes of restoration? No such thing! In this case, Bolsec received a warning, but remained unrepentant. His arrest followed and he spent over a month in prison before being banished from Geneva. Seemingly harsh, at least he avoided execution; comparatively rare in Geneva, but a possible option in the sixteenth century. The tight connection between religious and civic life in Calvin’s world morphs into our post-modern abandonment of religious influence in public life.

Disconnecting religion and civic life creates a void in our discussion of public policy issues. Religion informs our total worldview, and our public discourse desperately needs a secure ethical (and perhaps even epistemological) foundation. But perhaps the relationship should only move one way: from religion to public life, with limited interference the other way. This allows the best of religion to inform public life and keep some of us out of jail.

“Sir, hang on… I’ve got the police coming out now… “

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Can Cultural Relativism help you in your dating relationship?

Cultural Relativism is the ethical belief that we should determine what behaviors are moral based on what our culture determines is moral. In other words what we "ought" to do and "ought not" to do are determined by the specific cultural group we live amongst. It seems that more and more Christians are being taught the problems and weaknesses of relativism. Most likely we identify the belief by the popular phrase, "That is true for you, but not for me."

Perhaps though you have found yourself in a conversation with someone who espouses Cultural Relativism and were at a lack for words to help them see the weaknesses of it. Even though we as Christians can identify ethical relativism when we spot it, we still may feel like we don't have an easy way to point out the weakness of this system in a conversation. Cultural Relativism is full of weaknesses, but I thought I would give one that can easily be used in conversation and provide an illustration as well.

1) The Weakness - Cultural Relativism can only describe moral behavior; it cannot prescribe moral behavior. Relativism can only tell us what is going on in any certain culture; much like an anthropologist would. It fails to be able to prescribe what we "ought" and "ought not" to do. This is a huge failure, because it means that ultimately I cannot make a moral decision because I have no standard that I "ought" to do.
2) The Illustration - Imagine an American man who travels to Kenya and meets a Japanese lady. They become romantically involved, and someone suggests that they move in together. Assuming the man and the woman are Cultural Relativists, how do they decide whether this is ethical? Do they use the man's North American model for dating? Do they use the woman's Asian model for dating? Or do they use the African model where they are living? All the Cultural Relativist can do is to describe the different beliefs that each of the three perspectives would have. In no way can it actually cut through the culture and say what "ought" to be done. In other words, epic fail.

Normally for a person to change their mind, they need to see some problem with the view they are holding. This is a fairly non-confrontational way to help Cultural Relativists see the non-sequitur nature of their ethical system. Hopefully, it can lead to a chance to share the Christian worldview, specifically the Gospel.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Calvin on Prayer...

It’s easy to understand where someone lands in the stratification of the middle class by applying a simple rubric. When a middle class person tells you they had to put a water pump on their vehicle, the upper middle class person is informing you that the dealer identified a problem with their water pump and replaced it, usually under warranty. A person in the middle of the middle class has a water pump put on by a mechanic, usually professional, but occasionally one who works from home at a discount. The lower end of the middle class replaces the water pump in the garage occasionally with help from neighbors and friends.

This is the situation I found myself in Thursday evening. I had a leaky water pump, and I usually take a little time off school work on Thursdays. What better way to enjoy a lower middle class night off than to replace the water pump on my truck? Taking my daughter’s boyfriend out to the cold garage, we began the project with an estimated time to completion of about two hours. Two hours came and went (along with the boyfriend) and there I sat. Everything had been completely disassembled except one nut, which refused to budge despite repeated efforts, larger tools and the application of salty language.

I needed help.

John Calvin identifies the hopeless state of the believer who recognizes that he greatly needs all that God provides. He says:
"We are taught by faith to know that all the good we need and which we lack in ourselves is in God and in His Son our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father has established all the fullness of His blessings and abundance so that we may draw everything from there as from a very full fountain."

The persistent fact that we need God often escapes our immediate notice as we hammer away at our problem. God does not always provide immediate solutions, but often uses difficult circumstances to reorient our attention from the earthly conundrum to His heavenly person. Communication with this heavenly person starts with a deep sense of need.

Releasing the stuck nut proved much easier once I took the water pump to the auto parts store. As the mechanic used an air hammer to knock it loose, he looked at me and said, ‘you know, this is easier when it’s on the truck.’ I thanked him for his help, humbly picked up my parts, went home and finished my project, learning a dual lesson in self-reliance and recognition of need.

Whichever level of the middle class one identifies with, all commonly recognize need in different circumstances. While the lower middle class mechanic handles his own auto repairs, he or she seeks an upper middle class doctor for medical services. The reverse is also true. Everyone, regardless of socio-economic class must recognize their pervasive need of God. Without asking, one neither receives help nor effects growth.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Christianizing Politics

Having recently finished the election cycle, I’m hopeful that the influx of different people sends the right kind of message to the people who are still there. In the swirling mix of news items crying for desperate attention an article in a recent Christian publication reminds us of the importance of… food.

Yes, dear Christian reader, make sure that in your ongoing worship of God you pay close attention to the source and ‘fairness’ of the food you consume, the basic content of the article.

While the author offers important caveats and qualifications for her opinions, I can’t help but wonder if this is really the most important focus of Christianity’s global agenda? It seems to me that this is a political agenda which wants to wear the mantle of divine sanction, in this case from a left-leaning animal rights/distributive justice agenda. The political right does not remain immune to this kind of criticism. It looks like everyone wants to receive the divine unction and wear the robe of ‘Christianity:’ when wearing that suit suits the agenda.

The mantle of Christianity belongs to Christ alone. We would do better to wear it as his followers and interact with our culture intelligently. Perhaps the most important aspect of our lives as Christians is not what we eat, but a distinctively restored relationship to Him, to our families and to our communities. Instead of worrying about the content of the meal, we should share a meal with someone around us.

Talk about your faith…

and pass the sausage…

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Measuring theology

I’m very thankful for the opportunity to be in seminary. While I sometimes wish I had the advantage of youth, as some of my peers do, middle age brings important temperance to youth’s enthusiasm. As my friends and I discuss theological topics, one important fact continues to surface. When you are confronted with a decision about theology: it really depends on who you talk to. Just about every position claims Scriptural authority, interpretational superiority, historical precedent, logical consistency and resonance with real life.

Different theological perspectives rely on divergent interpretations of the same passages of Scripture. These interpretations and their consequences and logical implications become the bricks and mortar of systematic theologies. Many discussions, both lay and professional, take place in the realm of competing systems of theology and not at the level of biblical or exegetical theology. In order to arrive at a conclusion about the competing views of Calvinism and Arminianism, the discussion must move into exegetical and biblical theology.

Three key positions beg for validation from the biblical witness. The Calvinist position understands election as individual and arbitrary, predestination shows God’s meticulous control of all things, and His divine knowledge of the future determines what will or will not happen. As with any theology, problems arise from the consequences of these beliefs. Individual arbitrary election requires compatibilist free will; meticulous sovereignty assigns the cause of evil to God; foreknowledge as foreordination can lead to fatalism. The Calvinist position looks askance at the Arminian understanding of these doctrines and vice versa. For the Arminians, God elects based on foreseen faith, exercises more general sovereignty and knows the future without determining it. These positions attract criticism which posits a diminution of God’s sovereignty. Both perspectives strive to remain true to Scripture and history marshalling ranks of experts both historical and modern to debate, defend and explain the superiority of their position.

My personal perspective on this discussion requires a longer term project. This task starts by collating the competing passages of Scripture, understanding them in context, tracing historical development and discerning the competing interpretations before deciding which set of interpretations resonates best with the entire biblical witness. Perhaps I will be able to incorporate this into my degree program at some point, particularly since time is the graduate student’s most precious resource, even scarcer than money!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dad, why? Why, Dad? Dad... why?

I think every five year old child masters the infinite question loop. If you’re a parent, you know exactly what I am talking about. Asking a seemingly straightforward question the child says something like: ‘Dad, why is the sky red at sunset?’ After the parent brain-vomits something vaguely remembered from high school earth science, the child invariably responds: ‘why?’ Thus begins the nightmare. As the near-infinite regress regresses, the parent must invoke a level of causality beyond explanation. Usually God enters the picture as the parent notes that the consistent behavior of celestial bodies represents a manifestation of the divine will. To which the child replies… well, you know.

John Calvin faces a similar situation as he examines God’s role in predestination and providence. He has searched the ancient writings and considered the opinions of the sages. As he opens the topic to his audience, he warns:

"Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in a matter where there is an ignorance which is more learned than knowledge. Instead, let us be quite content to abstain from desiring a knowledge which it is mad and dangerous and even deadly to pursue."

I think Calvin makes an important statement here: At some point, we have to recognize our limitations. For literally thousands of years, philosophers, theologians and regular people have considered the person of God and placed their thoughts on scrolls, papyri and paper. Libraries are packed to overflowing with both good and bad information, enough to spend a thousand lifetimes reading, sifting and debating. At the same time, the advance of theological knowledge often comes from people who question established dogma, asking one more question and spending a lifetime pursuing the answer.

While Calvin warns us to acknowledge our limitations, the absoluteness of his remarks stifle further investigation and should be tempered. Instead of commanding abstinence, he should have urged caution for anyone attempting to understand God’s rule further. Perhaps Calvin’s greatest weakness stems from his inability to accept some who disagreed with him. Sebastian Castellio was one such dissenter on minor points of theology and Bible. As an educated man with considerable facility in the ancient languages, his criticism of Calvin may have opened further investigation. Instead of considering his input, Calvin marginalized him politically and financially.

The unwillingness to accommodate dissent represents a key weakness for Calvin. In a way, it is as if a frustrated father tells his child to stop asking ‘why?’ While we should all recognize Calvin’s important contributions to theology, there may be further questions to ask which don’t actually lead to madness, danger and death.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Competing Views of Religious Works

The Reformation sought to correct grievances against the Roman Catholic Church which had drifted away from Scriptural authority. The Reformers returned to the source languages of the Bible to reestablish its key role in the development of theology. The developing theologies interacted forcefully with established dogma and John Calvin was a leading voice for change.

As Calvin dialogues with the Roman Catholic scholars, he vehemently opposes their view of justification by works. Forming a cornerstone of his theology, he defends the idea that no one can earn a right standing with God by performing good deeds. The Roman Catholic view involves the grace of God enabling works to effect a right standing before God, while no value inheres in the works themselves. Reacting strongly to this view, Calvin advances faith in the person and work of Christ as the sole condition to enter a right standing with God. For Calvin, the works done after coming into the right standing earn a form of righteousness which does not cause a right standing before God.

The role of good deeds takes advantage of human self-interest in both theologies. For the Roman Catholic, the works bring release from penalty through divine-human cooperation. Calvin rejects this view of justification, believing that the works of a believer provide the imputation of righteousness only after he or she already has a right standing. The appeal to self-interest catches my attention, but the contrast in both theologies intrigues me even more.

Catholic theology, from Calvin’s perspective, seeks the avoidance of punishment through good works while Calvin’s theology sees works as a way to earn rewards. Human motivation comes from a complex of emotional, volitional and practical causes and I think many would agree that the highest moral motivation comes through love. I do or do not do something on the basis of my intense affection and commitment to another. At the same time, the most common and perhaps the strongest practical motivation stems from self-interest. I can see the benefits which accrue, now or in the future as a direct or indirect result of my actions. Another common, but weaker motivation develops through a sense of duty or obligation. Avoidance of punishment represents perhaps the weakest of all motivations.

I can see these varying degrees of motivation play out in the extra chores I assign my children. Regular chores done to avoid punishment generally receive less attention to detail along with a lower degree of enthusiasm. Additional work for which my children receive pay generates added enthusiasm, but I still must follow up to correct their oversights. Perhaps the highest level of enthusiasm and attention to detail obtains when they directly perceive the benefit of their labor.
The best example of my kids enthusiastic profiteering comes courtesy of a pair of black walnut trees in my front yard. The first time we cleaned walnuts it was done as a regular aspect of home maintenance with no extra pay. The work required my supervision and was done to avoid trouble with dad. I dislike riding herd over my kids, so the next time I decided to offer pay per walnut. (Thinking a few hundred walnuts would not cost much at 5 cents per nut). The yard was picked clean of over two thousand walnuts in record time. The same task took on a completely different perspective when self-interest came to bear.

Both Calvin and the Catholics see the value of self-interest with different intended results. Acting to receive benefit seems to be criticized today for the sake of ‘justice’ or ‘loving your neighbor’ by equalizing outcomes and not opportunities. Perhaps a more balanced view of Biblical perspectives on the role of self-interest will do more to create a workable economic equality.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Yes, it is possible.....but is it probable?

In the last 6 months or so, I have found myself having a similar conversation with different people in different places. The conversation is about the trustworthiness of the Bible or the truthfulness of Christianity. The person I am talking with will usually make some statement to the effect that we can't trust the Bible/Christianity because we just can't know for sure whether what it is saying is true or not. They usually go on to say that it could be aliens that gave us the Scriptures, or that humans have just been adding to the biblical story for ages and now we have the result. In their words, "All these options are possible." In their minds they then sit back with the hopes of watching me squirm because they have apparently presented an insurmountable argument. Surely no one can "prove" the Bible is true, can they?

One paper I graded recently went along this trail. My comment back to him on his paper is the heading for this blog, "Yes, this is possible, but is it probable?" When we realize that we live in a world where daily we make decisions based on probability, then the felt need for absolute proof for anything starts to die down. Perhaps I can word this another way, "What do you know that has absolute proof for it?" The answer is, "not much" (for those into philosophy, I am aware of Rene Descartes "I think therefore I am" which in his mind provided absolute knowledge of at least one thing: He existed). We all live in a world of probabilities. It is probable that the sun will shine tomorrow; probable that I will go to work; probable that this Sunday I will go to Church; probable that the person running for political office is not entirely a squeaky clean candidate; probable that there is not an invisible unicorn under my bed; probable that my company will pay me on pay day; probable that when I hit "post" this blog entry will actually post, etc. In other words, we make decisions (many of them important ones) based on reasons that help tip the scale in favor of one option over another. When we realize how many good reasons there are for seeing the Bible as God's inspired Word and taking it as truth, the scale in favor of it actually being what it claims to be is enormous; the alien option? not so much.

It is unfortunate that our friends, family and acquaintances have bought into this shallow, deadly shadow of thinking. It has a faint ring of true thinking, but is far from it. And unfortunately the consequences are not trivial. If this shadow thinking keeps people from the Gospel, then the consequences are eternal. As Christians we should not be stymied by this apparent "silver bullet" against Christianity. Nor should most of us spend our time looking for the Holy Grail of apologetic slam-dunkery. Instead we should help unbelievers to see that most of their life is lived in the realm of probabilities. Since their views about Jesus Christ are going to be formed the same way their views about anything else are formed, they need to start examining the reasons for the Scriptures validity. If they don't do this then they are lazy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Over-awed by God

As John Calvin comments on Scripture and produces his Institutes, a sense of awe and distance pervades his writing. He clearly understands and communicates the ‘transcendence’ of God, who exists beyond our understanding. This pervasive focus on distance represents Calvin’s earnest desire to honor God and understand our proper place before Him. This emphasis minimizes how close God comes to us, His immanence. As Calvin comments on faith, he clearly expresses our weakness in light of God’s majesty.

"It is indeed true that the world considers it very strange when we say that no one can believe in Christ except the one to whom that is particularly given. But this is partly because people do not consider how high the heavenly wisdom is and how difficult it is to grasp, and they do not consider their own ignorance and weakness in grasping God’s mysteries; partly also it is because they pay no attention to the resoluteness of heart which is the principal part of faith."

Calvin recognizes how difficult it is for his contemporary audience to accept this idea. He explains that they do not understand how far above us God’s wisdom is and the intense stupidity that afflicts mankind. These two positions demonstrate underlying influences in his thought: his theological predecessors and contemporary opponents.

As Calvin engages the achievement-oriented Roman Catholic Church, he reacts strongly to any form of human works. In this reaction, he follows Augustine, who engaged the excessive reliance on human achievement taught by Pelagius. Both of these men focus on the transcendence of God at the expense of His immanence. They diminish human ability to the point that man has no participation in the process of salvation unless enabled by God to hear and respond by faith.

Thus opens the wormhole of Calvinistic determinism. As I gaze into the swirling vortex of ideas about the rule of God over creation and man’s ability or inability there are two things that I want to stop and consider: who are the theologians who have gone before me and engaged these same ideas? Writing about the tension between the manner of God’s sovereignty and the extent of human ability has destroyed forests of trees for paper and dried up rivers of ink. Who are these historical sources and what were the tensions they felt? Asking the historical question leads to the contemporary: Who are my opponents and why do I oppose them? Both Calvin and Augustine before him responded to opponents in their time and culture based on their understanding of Scripture and in opposition to ideas that assaulted the Christianity of the time.

I think the first sentence of Calvin quoted above pertains directly to contemporary outreach. We have a dual responsibility to explain God (as best we can) to the world around us and to encourage believers to reach out to those outside Christianity. Along the way, a self-conscious understanding of our forebears and opponents may help us maintain the tension between immanence and transcendence: the distance and closeness of God. While I respect both Calvin and Augustine’s high view of God, I don’t want to diminish how low He stoops to interact with humanity.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exploding the Sin Scale

The latest weekly installment on John Calvin. The close observer may note that it's posted at a decent hour of the day and two whole days before my prof sees it. I seem to have caught up on short-term projects and can devote some time to the long-term projects... Oh, balance you elude me.

Two years ago we experienced a fire that completely consumed my personal library. Over three thousand volumes perished in the blaze and ever since I’ve been carefully re-building my ‘precious,’ taking careful note of the recommendations of friends and professors. Each volume on the shelf, from the weighty tomes to the small handbooks represents not only the treasure of its content, but also the story of its acquisition. Every time I devote financial resources for the sake of literary expansion, I consider the loss of one well worth the gain of the other.

One of my most recent acquisitions occupies a place of honor on the reference section of my bookshelf. It even has an impressive title; it’s the ‘Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains’. I can be a bit of a snob about my books and I began my quest for this particular gem looking for a new copy. I found one online for the low, low bargain price of 480.00. Choking and spitting, I laid my snobbery aside and began perusing the used copies from various resellers. Descending from three hundred into the two hundreds I began to despair of finding an affordable copy of this must-have resource. Digging deep, I finally found a copy for sixty bucks, shipping included! In my mind, I saved a bundle of money, got the book and preserved a happy marriage.

Everyone uses comparisons to judge the value or cost of economic items. We compare every item we consider purchasing against an internal scale of value, often set by an ‘anchor,’ which can be quite arbitrary. In the case of my dictionary purchase, the new price set the anchor by which to compare other copies. Choosing one thing over another, we decide that possessing it brings us greater utility (value) than retaining the money we use to buy it. Billions of times every day, purchases and trades occur according to that internal value scale.

Comparing the cost of my book to other prices convinced my internal value scale that I had found a bargain, but the scale doesn’t only work for economic costs. We determine the cost of moral behavior in much the same way. As we compare ourselves to others around us, we pleasantly evaluate our good behaviors and decry our weaknesses, the few that we actually find. We even use the Ten Commandments as a set of moral guidelines by which we measure our success or failure. Reading “you shall not murder” leads us to a positive evaluation of our character. This positive evaluation assumes, of course, that we have not taken the life of another human being. John Calvin points out that the negative command also assumes a positive character; and the degree of the command extends in proportion to the prohibition. Wordy, I know, but the meaning is this: If I must not kill, then I must do my utmost to promote life. This expansion of the value scale places comparatively minor sins on the losing side of the equation. Calvin says this:

"In considering vices we are often deceived because we reduce their importance if they are a a little bit hidden; so the Lord draws us back from this deception and accustoms us to putting each fault under a category by which we can better understand how we ought to loath it."

The question for us all is not, “Have I killed anyone today?” nor is it “Have I hated anyone?” These may not be exactly equal, but they exist on the same side of the value scale: the bad side. The real question is, “have I done my utmost to love my fellow man today?” Against this standard, we deeply feel our need for God’s grace and enablement to fulfill the absolute opposite of killing, namely, love our fellow man or woman so much that we do all we can to promote life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Whipping pigs for tastier bacon?

I am currently teaching an Ethics course at Indiana State Penitentiary. It has been a fun course to teach to that audience. Last week I brought in some ethical dilemmas so that we could test a few ethical theories and see where they took us. One of the dilemmas was whether it was morally acceptable to whip pigs to death if the result was tastier pork meat. Tastier meat would make eaters of pork happy. So, for example, utilitarian ethical theory would state that whatever brings happiness to the most amount of people is the ethically correct thing to do. If the group is pleased by tastier bacon then whipping pigs to death is the right thing to do. What is interesting here is that utilitarians cannot ultimately answer the question of, "is this decision morally correct?" until after they have tasted the bacon. The reason being is that they wont know if the happiness the group experienced from eating the bacon outweighed the potential pain their consciences may feel at torturing pigs. It is very possible that a group would salivate over tasty bacon and then as the whipping goes on, feel nauseated at what they are doing. As they eat the bacon, they may regret what they have done. So what started out as a "moral" thing to do (because the group thought it would make them happy), has now become immoral because of the pain it brought (the group is very unhappy). This is an incredible weakness in the utilitarian argument. If I cannot know my decisions are moral until after the event, then what help is it in deciding which course of action to take before the event?

From a Christian perspective, we are able to utilize God's commands which are based off of his revealed character in His Word. One of the problems for this ethical theory is that the Scriptures do not address every single ethical decision we might need answered. We often have to extrapolate God's ancient commands to today's situations (i.e. think hermeneutics and application of Scripture). I am curious to know how Christian readers of this blog would answer the question, "is it morally correct (from a Christian perspective) to whip pigs to death if it produced tastier pork?" Since the Scripture is quiet about this specific act, what should we base our decision on? I have some thoughts that I will post later.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Punking John Calvin

This latest installment considers the second chapter of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: 'Of the Knowledge of Man and Free Will.' Calvin has a pretty low view of man's ability to understand the gospel apart from God's direct action. I'm not so sure, so I examined two of the references he uses to prove his point. I think he misses the Apostle John's use of light and darkness as demonstrated below.

The second chapter of Calvin’s Institutes concerns the abilities, or rather disabilities of man. Here’s a paraphrase of one part: You suck at thinking, especially about God. In this section, Calvin considered the philosophers attempts to understand God, and recognized their inability and recommends considering Scripture as more valuable than reason.

As Calvin considers passages in the gospel of John to establish his point, he cites John 1:4-5 and 1:10. The conclusion he draws from these portions reads thus:

"For by these words he (John) well teaches that the human soul is somewhat illuminated by the light of God so that it is never devoid of some flame, or at least of some spark. But likewise he notes that it cannot understand God by this illumination [Jn. 1:10]. Why not? Because with regard to the knowledge of God all its spirit is pure obscurity, for when the Holy Spirit calls people ‘darkness’ He strips them of every faculty of spiritual understanding."

If I understand his point correctly, Calvin stated that (1) the light of God attempts to illuminate man’s darkened mind and (2) the darkness equals a complete absence of spiritual understanding. Checking all of Calvin’s Scripture references daunts the hardiest of souls, but this one struck me as important. How did Calvin understand the Apostle John? Does John use the idea of ‘darkness’ in as absolute a sense as Calvin seems to? How does John use the idea of ‘light’? Fortunately, John uses the idea of darkness in only a few places, often in contrast to the idea of light.

The specific word for darkness used in Calvin’s citations occurs as a figurative usage for ‘darkening of the mind or spirit’ . John seems particularly fond of this usage and it occurs in Jn. 1:5ab, 8:12, 12:35a and perhaps b, and 12:46. Similar usage is rare outside John, one usage in Matthew 4:16 and several further usages in 1 John. John uses the term literally twice, to refer to actual darkness (Jn. 6:17, 20:1 and perhaps 12:35). John consistently uses this word for opposition to ‘the light’ which he explicitly reveals in several contexts.

John 8:12: “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 12:46: “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me will not remain in darkness.”

The concept of darkness as spiritual understanding presented in John does resonate with Calvin’s usage to a point. Those who are outside the light remain in spiritual ignorance. There may be an inconsistency in Calvin’s usage of ‘the light.’ Calvin presents the light as a general illumination from God with no mention of the person of Christ, a usage foreign to John. In John, the light specifically refers to the person of Christ. Calvin presents darkness as man’s stubborn ignorance that resists illumination. John presents darkness as a condition of men who reject the person of Christ. When John writes in his first chapter that: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (Jn 1:5), he specifically refers to the rejection of Christ by the spiritually darkened men of the time. This cursory examination of a small portion of the available data suggests further study of Calvin’s use of darkness in John's Gospel.

In order to properly consider how Calvin understands John, I would need to refer to Calvin's commentaries, research journals and scholarly commentaries. The tentative conclusion at the end reflects the need for further study.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Glenn Beck of the Sixteenth Century?

I'm taking a class on John Calvin and our weekly reading summaries take the form of a blog post highlighting something that 'struck' us from the reading. Here's the latest installment:

John Calvin’s world was filled with turmoil. Religious tensions in France forced him into exile in Geneva, where he wrote a pastoral and theological guide called: Institutes of the Christian Religion. He wrote it originally in Latin, the scholarly language of the day and translated it into French to be an aid to his countrymen. In the Dedication to the French king, Calvin describes these tensions, which had political, economic and religious facets like this:

"Thus from the individual vices of a number of people have come public error, or rather a common consent to vice which these valiant men want now to consider as law. Those who are not completely blind will see that practically oceans of evil have inundated the earth and the whole world is infected by a number of deadly plagues – in short, that everything is fallen into ruin so that one must either despair of the human condition, or put such evils in order even by extreme remedies."

Wait a minute?! Is that John Calvin or Glenn Beck? The modern and pre-modern political commentators note the importance of individual virtue for public good, an idea that echoes throughout human history. Individuals harbor their little vices, which then bleed into public errors and the culture shifts to an expectation of vice. The expectation of vice grows and infects everything that it touches, until the culture eats itself and like the proverbial Phoenix, and a new culture (political, religious, or social) rises from the ashes. It’s nothing really new, just history.

I’m no saint, nor am I a politician, but I have seen the face of evil by dealing daily with my adopted daughter’s mental illness, caused, at least at some level, by the abuse she suffered as a little girl. The financial, personal and societal costs continue to mount in the application of hoped-for remedies to close this one little part of the destruction wrought ultimately by a culture which turns a blind eye to ‘little’ problems. Little gaps in virtue… downloading music because ‘everybody does it’ means that it’s okay to steal. Stealing a little bit of data might lead into stealing love from our spouse: an ‘acceptable’ level of lust. The lust that gnaws at the fabric of marriage until the basic unit of society shifts from a lifelong commitment to a social contract open to all, dropped as quickly as the deposit on your apartment and for about the same cost. The destruction of family…

John Calvin’s alienation from his homeland resulted from the long, slow corruption of the Roman Catholic Church that led to war, exile, death and homelessness. At long last, the ‘extreme remedies’ were applied: intellectually by scholars and practically by pastors and the laity. He died in exile from his homeland, paying that price and more for his contributions to the Christian faith. He quoted Habbakuk 1:2, “How long, O Lord?” on the title page of the Institutes. As I view the political, religious and social problems in our society, Habakkuk resonates with me, too.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Intensity vs Apathy?

Reading Bruce Gordon’s Calvin, I’m struck in the first few chapters by the intensity of the 1500’s. Political and religious forces work together attempting to forge a unified society wherein every religious choice has political implications, and vice versa. Ideas rock the foundations of society as new forms of Christianity fight for intellectual and political credibility. These ideas spring forth from a renewed interest in the original languages of Scripture and more reliable understanding of its meaning.

The awakening of interest in the original sources and languages of the Christian faith leading up to the Reformation reveals contradictions between the source of the faith (the Bible) and the practices of Catholic Christianity. These contradictions led to an unsuccessful attempt at reform within the Roman Catholic Church. Convinced of the need for a Bible-based Christianity, reformers begin rending themselves from the Catholic Church. While this sounds to modern ears as a simple transition from the one church to another church across town (or across the street), in the 1500’s you were either in the church or outside it. There were no options within Christianity; only hell itself awaits those who step away from the church.
As the ideas of the Reformers percolate through society, the Roman Catholic Church is losing her grip on the enforcement of doctrinal unity over the common people, the intellectual classes and the political leadership. Wealthy and influential political leaders risk power and position to protect leading Reformation thinkers and sway public opinion toward the burgeoning Reformed faith(s). Political power and influence combine with religious ideology in an environment where your religious beliefs could cost your position, your economic security, or your life. In this intense political and religious environment, several leading thinkers achieve both notoriety and fame engaging these ideas -and occasionally each other- in the pulpit and in print.

The intensity of the time is matched by the intensity of personality and intellect among the Reformers. John Calvin is one of these men, whose plans for the career of a scholar and author transmogrify into the leadership of one faction within the larger Reformation movement. This man, who desired literary study became a powerful force in the rupture of Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church.

Does contemporary Christianity lack this intensity? Perhaps we don’t have the same critical need for theological reform, but it seems that our focal points lack the intense intellectual study of the Bible that made the Reformation such a resonating force in the history of the church. It seems the best we can muster is passion for the loving Christ at the expense of the doctrinal Christ. You remember, don’t you? The Christ who overturned tables and made a whip to drive out the money-changers in the temple? What about His mild-mannered followers? No confrontation there, right? What about the screaming mob in Ephesus, shouting out blasphemous adoration of their false goddess, Aphrodite? Paul had to be stopped from going into the amphitheater to defend (argue intellectually for) Christianity.

While I’m sure that John Calvin and I would disagree theologically on many points. I sure do admire the man’s passionate commitment to his ideas and to his Lord. In our emasculated Christian love-fest, perhaps it’s time we grew a pair, hit the books, and engaged in vigorous debate about things that really matter.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Ubiquity of Self-Interest

I recently purchased a gently used car from a fellow student who was in a bit of a jam. The balloon payment for the car had wiped out his savings and he faced an oncoming school year in need of a job and short on resources. He had a variable asking price and offered me the lowest price he was willing to take. I made a larger counter offer. You might accuse me of arrogantly proclaiming my virtue, but in all honesty, offering a larger price was still in my own self interest.

Economists discuss the value one places on something using the neutral term, ‘utility.’ Utility is the value someone places on an object, a principle or an action. Just about any interaction between people can be assigned a ‘utility’ value. How many ‘utils’ of value would you place on the time you are spending to read this? Obviously, it is of greater utility to you than (insert alternative activity), because you are still reading… Perhaps you just stopped, realizing that the utility value of reading about utils is less valuable than the next episode of Top Chef. I certainly won’t try to make a persuasive case against good cooking, but the idea of utility is important. Several research questions come to my mind: Does God act in His own self interest? Does God appeal to our self-interest to influence our relationship with Him? Are our sacrificial acts really in accord with a different self-interest?

I’ll take shot at the last question and leave the others for another time. When I paid more than my friend’s asking price was I ignoring my own self interest? I could have made a lower offer… In actuality, I wanted to make sure that my friend did not feel that I had taken improper advantage of our relationship in a business transaction. The utility value of fair dealing with a good friend was of greater value to me than the money charged in the transaction. I paid a slightly higher price than I could have, but gained a necessary vehicle in good condition and ensured good relations with my friend. All in accordance with my own selfish desires. Can you think of an example where you cannot identify some aspect of self-interest in an interaction with another person? I’m starting to think that self interest is ubiquitous.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Disney Will Never Make a Movie about Athanasius...

If you have young kids than you have probably become an expert on Disney films and have been able to see the patterns and guess the moral of the story before the denouement occurs. Normally a marginalized character faces adversity and overcomes in the end. With the mantra of "just believe in yourself" being the key to the solution of the protagonist's problems, we leave the experience with renewed expectations on our own life. As a sidenote, I credit American Idol's success to this mantra. Especially in the early stages of the season when the audience gets to see deluded people who genuinely believe in themselves and yet unfortunately cannot combine that belief with any talent.

With this in mind, Athanasius may seems like a shoe-in for a Disney film. Athanasius was a Church Father who was influential in the 4th century. He was marginalized throughout his life by being repeatedly banished by the emperor and being called "the black dwarf", because of his skin color and short stature by those who opposed him. If I were to stop here, I think everyone would agree that this has all the necessary ingredients of a Disney movie.

But I doubt we will ever see a Disney movie about Athanasius, and here is why; Athanasius was one of the primary advocates against Arianism (the belief that Jesus Christ was not divine), and argued relentlessly for the scriptural teaching that Jesus was not only divine but also that unless Jesus was divine he could not have procured our salvation. This is a powerful argument which casts the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in a cosmic redemptive context and keeps us from falling into the trap that Jesus was a just a good man or a good teacher or a good martyr who "believed in himself."

We owe a lot to Athanasius for the work he did in arguing for this biblical position amongst the believers of his day. Arianism still exists today in various forms. Hopefully, the theological descendants of Athanasius will continue to argue, persuade and suffer so that the whole world will come to a clear understanding of the scriptural doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Corporate Prayer Behind the Scenes

I recently read an article by Dr. Grant Osborne in the current Journal of Evangelical Theology entitled, "Moving Forward on Our Knees: Corporate Prayer in the New Testament." It was a very good article tracing corporate prayer in Second Temple Judaism, the Gospels, Paul's epistles, general epistles and Revelation. I have had questions about the benefits, importance and power of corporate prayer for years. Probably most of these questions came from times I have actually prayed corporately at church and felt like it was more trial than victory. There is always the person who feels obligated to pray their knowledge of an OT story (whereas I am praying for a smiting), or the seemingly trivial requests for pet health (I know I am being overly critical here), or the simple fact that we often spend more time sharing requests than praying. All of these experiences together have probably made me groan inwardly about attending group prayer times and then feel guilty about why I don't see it as more important. I greatly appreciated Dr. Osborne's article. It was substantive and gave me several points to ponder. I want to share one of them.

Osborne points out that much of the prayer in the NT is corporate, but it seems masked by the English language's inability to distinguish between singular "you" and plural "you" (this is my summary of several of his observations). Readers from the South will feel they have an advantage here in the word, "You'all" and they do. But since the "Cotton Patch" Bible is not widely read, the advantage is minimal. So as we read a text on prayer and see the word "you", we assume it is speaking to us individually when in reality it is a plural "you" and may be referring to the local assembly.

Here is an illustration. James 4:3 states, "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (TNIV) All the verbs here are 2nd person plural which means it is more a comment on corporate prayer (although I don't want to rule out the principle applying individually as well). Local churches are not getting what they ask for because they are asking amiss. This fits the context as well because James addresses the church's squabbles in verses 1,2. It is seeing passages like this in a new light that has really challenged me to want to engage in more corporate prayer. I feel like I am missing out on what could be happening. What new ministry could be started based on this passage of corporate prayer? What old ministry can be invigorated or empowered because of this passage? Perhaps our (my) American individualism is ruining an opportunity for the Lord to work through his people in a mighty, corporate way.

Friday, July 9, 2010


The above title is what you might hear at a bar at closing time. It is also the name of a book I am reading by Daniel Okrent. It is called “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” The book is a fascinating read so far. I say ‘so far’ because I am only a small portion of the way through it, but it has already gotten me thinking of many things.

There have been two constitutional amendments which have limited the rights of individual citizens (the others limit the rights of the government): the 13th amendment forbids slavery and the 18th amendment (now repealed) made it a crime to buy and sell alcohol.

What is fascinating in the book so far is how influential American Christianity was to the whole temperance/prohibition movement for almost a whole century before the 18th amendment came into being. Christians were tired of the ‘demon’ alcohol and eventually wanted to remove it from society with the hopes that families would be healthy, prisons would be empty and members of society would be productive.

What strikes me as odd is how it seems (I say ‘seems’ because I am only a portion of the way through the book) that their theology was missing a critical understanding of the source of broken families, prison overpopulation and members of society being detrimental; they forgot about what the Bible calls personal sin, Calvinists call Total Depravity and Sirius Black (think “The Order of the Phoenix” movie) calls the “dark”ness in each person. Instead, legislation and government were turned to in order to correct humanity’s ‘demons’.

There are many parallels today with issues such as “medical” marijuana, gay marriage, abortion rights, etc. Is it really a good solution for Christians to expend time, money and energy influencing government in these issues when a lasting solution can only be found by a change of heart? (I should make a clarifying note here; the topic of abortion does not fit with the other two because government should limit the ‘rights’ of people to kill.) If the Church does not learn how to reach people by correctly identifying the problem, then how can we offer a meaningful solution which is found in Jesus Christ? The Mosaic Law was ineffective against curbing the sinful desires of humanity; will U.S. law be any better?

I am definitely not against Christians being in government, but I do think that if Christians only promote legislation with biblical precepts and do not at the same time share humanities need regarding sin and the Gospel then it will be a waste of time, money and energy. There needs to be a robust theology with a biblical sense of legislation (if at all) and its purpose. Personally, I wonder if some of the issues Christians are pushing for legislatively would be better left alone.

The irony of the prohibition amendment is that it caused tons of problems. People created a black market for liquor and syndicated crime (i.e. Al Capone) came into existence. Thankfully our government realized these problems and repealed the amendment.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Last night, I watched The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic quest movie. The lead character, played by Denzel Washington has a command from God to take the last remaining Bible to a safe place in 'the West.' To make a long story short, through many trials, he delivers the content of the Bible from his memory to the printing press of a colony dedicated to preserving books (a.k.a. my people). The movie ends with shots of the printing press making copies of the Bible. Commentators are divided as to whether or not the movie is explicitly, implicitly or incidentally Christian... I suppose a lot depends on your perspective.

The greater question, in my humble opinion, concerns how I, as a Christian, should respond to this movie and to movies in general? I think my response should be this: whenever Hollywood creates a cultural nexus to Christianity, I should have enough knowledge, ability and experience to influence another person toward faith in Christ, or to deeper faith in Christ. I should clarify where Hollywood's caricature of Christianity fails to match reality and where Christians objectively fail to measure up to a Biblical understanding of Christianity.

creates an opportunity to talk about how God actually did preserve His Word in the past and will preserve it in the future. I'm sure there are many inside and outside of Christianity who remain uninformed of the early church's struggle to preserve, copy and disseminate what we take for granted today, a complete Old and New Testament in our choice of translation.

The most disturbing element of the movie was the main character's hatred toward cats. The movie opens with the demise of a hairless cat, later consumed as food and shared with a mouse (sick irony!). Another scene shows the graphic shoving of a cat from a bar. What's up with that? If you love a tasty barbecued cat, no worries. But if you are the other kind of cat lover, be warned.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The first post:

Staring at the blank screen, I turned to my friend Michael and asked, 'what do we say?' He replied, just talk about the brain child.... Why are we saying anything at all?
We have enjoyed challenging and encouraging each other over the course of diverse ministry and educational endeavors and this blog becomes an extension of that encouragement and challenge. Our intention is to dialogue with each other (and any wandering souls who happen by) over things we care about deeply. Our common faith in Jesus Christ, our endeavors to study and learn about Him and how that understanding influences our lives.
The name 'metachoi' comes from the Greek word used to describe the 'act of sharing or participating.' It also has the meaning of 'business partner or companion.' For us, it carries the idea of colleagues. Partners who work together toward common goals.