Scaring the theologian

As a theologian, I regularly hear scary things. Of course there is plenty of scary theology going around, but I’m not talking about that in this short post. I get scared other ways, too!

Scary thing the first: People ask me what I do, and when I tell them, they ask me what I teach. After I say theology, they will frequently ask, “Oh. Does that have to do with the Old Testament or the New?” It’s scary that many Christians don’t know that there’s a thing called “theology” or anything to learn about our faith besides the Bible.

Scary thing the second, related to the previous scary thing: As before, I give the answer, “theology.” Once a woman immediately replied, “Be careful with that, or you’ll miss the Kingdom of God!” She must have had a scary idea of what theology is!

Scary thing the third: I’ll admit that, when called upon to preach, I will frequently “sermonize” a theology lesson. I change the presentation and delivery, remove jargon, and build up the practical application part. Believe it or not, usually it’s very well received. After the message, people will tell me, “Brother, I enjoyed that very much!” That’s the nice part; here comes the scary part: “I’ve never heard anything like that before!”

So many people and churches are thirsting for good, sound theology, but they are not getting it. Frankly, it’s a scary situation!

Dr. House’s bookshelf: December 2013 edition

My reading has slacked off this month due to travel and several writing projects (unfortunately not ones directly related to my theological publishing ambitions, but the work has to be done). It being Christmas, however, I did acquire some nice new volumes.

This month, on the same day in fact, I finished reading both Wright’s The resurrection of the Son of God and the second volume of Bavinck’s Reformed dogmatics. Wright I had read before and enjoyed it, so I wanted to go through it again before tackling his next volume, Paul and the faithfulness of God. Resurrection is a wonderful work on what I consider to be the true doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. On the second reading I found portions of it somewhat tedious; Wright’s review of the relevant ancient literature is almost exhaustive. On the other hand, his discussion of the Gospels’ account is exhilarating; by the end of it I’m wanting to give a fist-pump “Yeah!” The biggest thing I learned from this reading was how deeply gnosticism has permeated certain wings of contemporary critical scholarship. Wright’s whole aim is to show (1) that by “resurrection,” the church meant the Jesus rose bodily from the grave; (2) that they really believed that it had happened; and (3) that it is the best explanation for the existence of the Christian church. I had not realized that (1) was so widely disputed today. Too many try to explain Easter as “Jesus dying and going to heaven,” by which they mean a “spiritual” resurrection, by which they ultimately mean “nothing really happened.” Wright does a tremendous job of destroying that whole line of thought.

Moving on, I like Bavinck, though not quite as much as a thought I would. His second volume added further weight to a hypothesis of mine: once you’ve read one classic reformed systematic theology, you’ve read them all. While Bavinck is certainly more readable than Hodge and much deeper than Berkhof, I can’t say that I have seen anything that’s really different in this particular volume. The main topic of interest in it is the “decrees” of predestination, and Bavinck takes the standard reformed path; there really isn’t any other one available to him. I still cannot accept the idea that “predestination and foreknowledge are really the same thing.” If that were so, there’d be one word used, not two. A simple substitution in a verse like Rom. 8.29 shows how silly this idea is: “For those whom he predestined he also predestined.” Bavinck tends to lump, well, everyone who’s not a Calvinist into the category of “Pelagian.” Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Also, he tries to do too much with natural theology. Along with his biblical and theological discussion, he’ll quote ancient Greek philosophers as if that proves something; I find this jarring in a reformation perspective. Still, it’s a valuable work of systematics, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it frequently. I plunging right ahead into the third volume; I want to see it through.

For light reading, on my phone I’m going through Immortality and the future by H. R. Mackintosh. It’s part of a large bundle of public domain eschatology books from I got through community pricing. Eschatology is always interesting, but I haven’t read any for quite a while.

I mentioned this earlier, but from Logos’s Black Friday sale I got a complete set of Schaff’s edition of the Church fathers. This was a bit of an indulgence; these are available for free online, but they are a pain to navigate. As a very long term goal, I’ve decided to attempt to read through the entire set, though I’m not pushing myself to keep any particular schedule and might skip boring parts. The Logos edition is really nice. I’ve got a layout set up where, if I click on a Bible reference in the Fathers, it opens an English translation of the Septuagint (the version they used) as well as other versions for comparison.

And finally, yesterday I purchased Michael F. Bird’s Evangelical theology on Kindle for $5.99. Logos had this in prepub for several times the amount so I passed on it then, but for $6 I’ll give any systematics a whirl. (I’m a little concerned about this development. I’ve got a lot invested in Logos and will always prefer it, but it really needs to do something about its high prices considering the competition it’s getting from Amazon now.) It’s around 800 pages; it will be nice to see if it supports or undermines my other hypothesis, that a good systematics cannot be done in under 1,000 pages. What’s interesting about this one is that the author is a New Testament scholar, not a theologian. (I’m not sure when I’ll start it; I’ve got quite a few other works in the queue first.)

Christmas is as important as Good Friday.

A few days ago I came across a quote from Billy Graham I wanted to comment on:

The very purpose of Christ’s coming into the world was that He might offer up His life as a sacrifice for the sins of men. He came to die. This is the heart of Christmas.

With all due respect to the great evangelist, this is not very good theology. There is so much more to the incarnation of our Lord and his saving work than just his death, important as it is. This is a major problem in Western (i.e., Latin, both Roman catholic and protestant) theology and its interpretation of the cross: it simply does not know what to do with Christ’s life and ministry and thus assigns it little significance–Jesus could have just come to earth on Thursday night at Gethsemane and been done with it. Another quote, from Adolf von Harnack of all people, gets straight to the heart of the problem of this theological tradition:

[It] holds it as superfluous to accentuate any one personal feature in the picture of Christ; the sinless man with the infinitely valuable life is enough. The death of Christ is entirely severed from His life-work on earth, and isolated. This God-man need not have preached, and founded a kingdom, and gathered disciples; he only required to die.

My doctoral thesis, available from the link in the header above, primarily concerns addressing this deficiency in Western theology. I encourage you (of course!) to go through it if you are interested further. Here I’ll just mention a few points about why Christmas is as important as Good Friday:

First, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, which is what Christmas is really all about, is God’s resounding “Yes!” to humanity. God loves us and accepts us enough to become one of us in order rescues us from our fallen and pitiable state.

The incarnation is, in the words of the Athanasian creed, the “taking of humanity into God.” In Christ, God has taken on human nature by lifting it up and uniting it with himself. Theologians don’t like to say things like this, but it is not wrong to say that at Christmas God changed: he now is, and will be throughout eternity, both God and man in Jesus Christ. (That says a lot about he feels about humanity.)

This union, moreover, is with humanity as a whole. There is one human nature shared by all human beings, and this is what Christ took on himself. Thus, humanity is also changed by the incarnation, which is the beginning point of our salvation for all who receive him (John 1.12). (Significantly, this is why, besides its flat contradiction by scriptures such as John 3.16 and 1 John 2.2, the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement cannot possibly be correct. Jesus was united with all human beings, not just the elect, and he did not become disunited with them on the cross.)

All of Christ’s life was a saving work. From his birth onwards, he began the recapitulation, or summing up, of humanity as the second Adam (Rom. 5.12-21). Where Adam had sinned, Christ obeyed, and each step of the way along his life he worked towards the restoration and healing of Adam’s line.

Finally, the incarnation ensures the efficacy of Christ’s saving work on the cross and in the resurrection. Again, it is by our union with him that he could bear our sins away into death and that his rising from the dead communicates eternal life to us.

Much more could be said about this subject—a whole book, in fact. I’ll close with Rom. 5.10:

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Christmas is important too!

I did it!

Hours before taking delivery of my electronic copy of N. T. Wright’s latest addition to his series, Christian origins and the question of God, I finished reading the first three volumes! As stated before, I had read the third volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God, before, but I wanted to read it again 1) in the light of the two previous volumes and 2) because it is so good. (More on this at a later date.) I’m not sure how long it will take me to burrow through all 1,700 pages of volume four, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I’m not in a hurry; this will (probably) be my next “phone book.” Unlike the resurrection, and unlike most who discuss Wright, Pauline theology is not an area of huge interest for me. I’ll have to wait till I examine the text to determine how high to prioritize it.

NB: This is not an N. T. Wright blog, and I am not a fanboi. (Okay, I am a big fan of his third volume and very envious of how he writes.) Nor am I a detractor. I just happen to be reading through his works now. Just be grateful I wasn’t blogging when I was going through Barth’s Church dogmatics. (Yes, I have read the entire thing, and yes, I am a fanboi.)

Book notes: Wright and the intermediate state

As mentioned below, I’m presently rereading The Resurrection of the Son of God
by N. T. Wright. The main subject, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus, but while going through the first 200 pages, I’ve learned a few things about the intermediate state—the state of existence between death and the resurrection.

For quite a while now I’ve had problems with popular Christians notions of the intermediate state. Too many versions of the faith have an unhealthy focus on it—almost like, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to hurry up and die so that I can go to heaven!” Reading the New Testament, I don’t see that as the focus of salvation at all. It’s about being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in the present life and the transformation it brings, and the future hope of the Christian is the complete transformation of the entire person, body and soul, in the renewal of all things that is yet to come. The Bible itself tells us very little about the intermediate state between the two—the Old Testament says hardly anything at all, and the New reveals little more. Yes, it’s probably there in 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23, but Paul doesn’t explain at all what “at home with the Lord” means or is like. Our sermons, books, and tracts of heaven almost invariably grab and (mis)use resurrection passages to fill in the missing details.

In an early part of this book, Wright examines ancient Greek beliefs about life after death. By and large they believed that the soul lives on apart from the body; resurrection was impossible to them. From Plato onwards, many longed for the release of death, which freed the soul from the prison of its body. Wright explains Plato’s belief:

[D]eath is not something to regret, but something to be welcomed. It is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body. (48)

For Plato, the soul is the non-material aspect of a human being, and is the aspect that really matters. Bodily life is full of delusion and danger; the soul is to be cultivated in the present both for its own sake and because its future happiness will depend upon such cultivation. The soul, being immortal, existed before the body, and will continue to exist after the body is gone….Because the soul is this sort of thing, it not only survives the death of the body but is delighted to do so. If it had known earlier where its real interests lay it would have been longing for this very moment. It will now flourish in a new way, released from the prison that had hitherto enslaved it. Its new environment will be just what it should have wanted. Popular opinion would attempt to bring the dead back if that were possible, but this would be a mistake. Death is frequently defined precisely in terms of the separation of soul and body, seen as something to be desired.

Hades, in other words, is not a place of gloom, but (in principle at least) of delight. It is not terrifying, as so many ordinary people believe, but offers a range of pleasing activities—of which philosophical discourse may be among the chief, not surprisingly since attention to such matters is the best way, during the present time, of preparing the soul for its future. The reason people do not return from Hades is that life is so good there; they want to stay, rather than to return to the world of space, time and matter. (49)

To my ears, popular Christian focus on the intermediate state (“He’s in a better place now!”; “You are/have a soul; you live in a body”) sounds far more like this description of Plato (excepting, of course, his belief in the pre-existence of the soul) than anything I read in the Bible. Wright’s section here confirms what I had already surmised: so much of the folk piety that has been handed down to us, at least in this area, is far more Greek philosophical than biblical.

Further on, however (and this is the new thing for me), Wright shook away a fair portion of my skepticism about the intermediate state. As I noted above, there’s almost nothing in the Old Testament about it and only shadows in the New. I have difficult reading much of this tradition back into it; I think it has distorted a lot of our understanding of soteriology. Yet, the biblical silence is not the only factor that should be taken into account. As is well known, Jewish belief in the resurrection grew during the intertestamental period. What I was not so aware of was how belief in an intermediate state, of life after death before the resurrection, grew alongside it. After documenting it copiously, Wright summarizes:

Likewise, any Jew who believed in resurrection, from Daniel to the Pharisees and beyond, naturally believed also in an intermediate state in which some kind of personal identity was guaranteed between physical death and the physical re-embodiment of resurrection. This, too, is a form of ‘immortality’. Unless we were to suppose that ‘resurrection’ denoted some kind of newly embodied existence into which one went immediately upon death—and there is no evidence that any Jews of this period believed in such a thing—it is clear that some kind of ongoing existence is assumed. (164)

This widespread belief in the future resurrection naturally generated a belief in an intermediate state. There were different ways of expressing this: it could even sometimes look fleetingly like a hellenistic, perhaps Platonic, theory of a continuing soul, without (as has often been suggested) strain or contradiction. ‘Resurrection’ entails some kind of belief in continuing post-mortem existence; this need not mean a belief that all humans have an immortal soul in the Platonic sense, since the belief in YHWH as creator which is necessary for belief in resurrection is also a sufficient explanation for the dead being held in some kind of continuing existence, by divine power rather than in virtue of something inalienable in their own being. (203)

In this light, the New Testament’s relative silence about this doctrine becomes easier to handle. Some form of intermediate state—whatever exactly that might be; the details aren’t so important—for the righteous was widely believed by the Jews of Jesus and Paul’s time. It went hand in hand with belief in the resurrection, the unique eschatology of the Jewish people. It is therefore relatively safe to assume that it also stands in the background of Jesus and Paul’s preaching even though not explicitly mentioned or explained in any depth; they never denounce the idea, and the veiled hints of texts such as 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23 are perfectly congruous with the theological reasoning outlined here by Wright. Although Christian eschatological hope is focused on the future resurrection of the body, I’ve generally inferred that some form of conscious intermediate existence is necessary as part of the promise of eternal life (John 3.16). Wright’s study here demonstrates the appropriateness of that belief while proving that it’s not necessary to import the change of focus and all the additional beliefs of folk piety that feel more philosophical than biblical.

Dr. House’s bookshelf: November 2013 edition

I usually have at least two to three theology or biblical studies books going at the same time. The first is a core book in my discipline, systematic theology, which I read on my computer for easy note taking and quoting, as continuing education. The second is a “phone book” I read on my phone, more for fun and (relatively) casual interest and so that I’ll never be stuck somewhere waiting without something to do. The third (and so on) will be on dead tree, for when I’m not wired or my phone is charging, and usually related to something I’m working on. These days I usually read 1,000 to 2,000 pages in theology books each month, which does not count journal articles, class selections, or non-theological books. (Lately I’ve been a little obsessive about measuring these sort of things.)

(Nothing about lupus. It’s never lupus.)

My present core book in systematics is the second volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (4 Volume Set). Bavinck is an important Dutch theologian from the turn of the (20th) century, recently translated into English. His is a very thorough but relatively advanced work; for example, the chapter on the Trinity, which is where I’m presently at, is probably the most detailed and comprehensive I’ve come across in a systematics of the “survey of doctrines” type. It reminds me of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which I see as the most useful (which is not at all the same thing as “best”; it’s not) one-volume systematics. Bavinck is like Berkhof on steroids, though the direction of authorial inspiration is the other way around (Berkhof owes a lot to Bavinck.) Bavinck is better too.

Continuing my N. T. Wright kick, my “phone book” is his The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3). I’ve read this one before on dead tree. I’m reading it again for 1) enjoyment) and 2) to review its ideas now that I’ve completed the first two volumes in the series and am eagerly awaiting the new fourth volume. Wright’s presentation of the rock of Christian belief is exceedingly thorough; “unabridged” or “exhaustive” might be better descriptors. Wright’s case against the opposition’s viewpoint is utterly devastating. Whatever faults he may have (fewer than many), all is forgiven for the greatness of this work.

Both of these I’m reading on Logos via reading plans; I think I’m scheduled to complete them by the end of the year.

Over a short trip this weekend, I just read on dead tree the very brief Christ the Center by (kind of) Dietrich Bonhoeffer. About it I don’t know what to say; it was rather different than I expected. It mostly a survey of the traditional doctrine of the person of Christ from Bonhoeffer’s unique but thoroughly Lutheran perspective. This work was a reconstruction from the notes of students who attended his lecture; his original notes are not extant, and the final part of the series was never given. With Bonhoeffer, one always has to think: what if?

Next up on dead tree is Bread Not Stone by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. I’ve already read her vital work, In Memory of Her. She’s sharp as a tack and definitely makes you think.

On my personal Bible reading, as the year winds down I’m winding up a lengthy reading program. I’m going through my once-a-decade reading of the apocrypha, presently in Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), in the NRSV. To keep it real, I’m also reading the Gospels in the ESV with an eye to evaluating Wright’s thesis against them (in other words: is Wright right?) For next year I want to do something different but am not totally sure what yet. I recently got an English translation of the Septuagint and might give that a go.

Strange phenomena and the ministry of the Holy Spirit

Related to the topic at hand—the charismatic movement and its criticism—I have a story that is interesting, at least to me. I don’t want to give all the details, partially to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent, partially because long blog posts don’t get read.

During a time of major transition in my life and ministry, I was invited to attend a conference held by a small apostolic “network” (we say “network” now because “denominations” are bad, mkay?) in a Southeast Asian country. The attendance was about evenly split between Asians, mostly Indian and Chinese, and Westerners, mostly Americans.

Seeing this was an apostolic network, the head apostle started it off by introducing himself:

Some people are apostles and prophets.

Some people are apostles and evangelists.

Some people are apostles and pastors.

Some people are apostles and teachers.

I am an apostle and a drunk.

That statement set the tone for the whole conference and put me off of it from the start. The main emphasis of the meetings was on spiritual phenomena—falling down, shaking, and what is called “spiritual drunkenness.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. That’s what these people were all about. (That, and networking.) These are the sort of thing John MacArthur means by “strange fire.”

And a lot of phenomena took place. People spontaneously twitched, trembled, and fell down. Ministry time consisted of the leaders of the network—all Americans—laying hands on people and praying for them until they fell over. A lot of people spent considerable time on the floor.

Here’s the thing: those who experienced the phenomena were all Westerners or American-returned Asians. The local Asians didn’t.

For example, people took turns introducing themselves at the microphone. The Asians would get up and quickly say whatever they needed to and be done. The Westerners would start trembling the moment they touched the microphone and soon be on the floor. During prayer time, again, the Westerners would quickly fall as soon as they were touched. The Asians—again, unless American-returned—had to be pushed—and pushed they were. (As for me: I allowed myself to be prayed for but was determined not to let anyone push me over. The night before the conference I picked up numerous bad mosquito bites right in the center of my forehead. Boy, did it ever hurt when they started pushing on it!)

What gives here? Why did only certain ethnic groups experience the phenomena? If you think they come from the Holy Spirit, then was God being racist? If you think they are from, um, someone else, why did that someone only attack the white people?

How about a third answer? I would suggest that most of these phenomena are from neither God nor the devil but are learned (human) behaviors. People fell down not because God or the devil knocked them over but because they wanted to (excepting those who were successfully pushed over). Also, culture plays a big role: Americans tend to be emotionally exuberant, sometimes to the point of mania, especially when overseas. Asians, by contrast, are generally more reserved.

I have seen and felt some unusual things in my time as a Christian. I have seen people fall in connection with true healings. Once, after the service was over and you’d think everything would be quiet, a warmth and energy flooded the front of a church, and multiple people were knocked to their knees. Although such experiences have never been a routine part of Christian practice, they are not without historical precedent (see: “enthusiasm”), and I think you can find some indicators of them in the Bible as well. Now is not the time to go into such things, however.

I think a lot of what occurs today in the renewal movement is an attempt to reproduce such experiences. Good things happened when these phenomena took place, therefore if we recreate the conditions in which these occured by replicating the phenomena, the good things will also happen again. (This, I firmly believe, explains a lot of the current “worship” movement.) One time when the Holy Spirit “showed up,” people fell down; therefore, they should fall down again if He is really there.

These practices can be both harmless and harmful. Harmless, because they represent a genuine, psychospiritual response (religious feeling/Gefühl?) to the word and work of God. A woman living in an oppressive situation, for example, may look forward to a Friday night revival service. In response to prayer, she has an ecstatic experience, falling to the floor. There she feels rest and peace, the most she’s had all week, and is renewed in her knowledge that whatever else is going on, God loves her. Much could be said about this, but if it gives her a better life and makes her a better Christian, who has the right to judge it? Moreover, who can confidently conclude that God can’t (always a dangerous phrase) work in, through, and over such a human experience? (I am not a monergist.)

Harmful, for several reasons. Openness to spiritual experiences may lead to putting God in another kind of box; that God did something once may lead to an expectation that it must always happen that. People confuse phenomena for spiritual gifts or, worse, the Holy Spirit himself. A manufactured spirituality is about as good as it sounds, and the routinization of manifestations can open the door to charlatans and all sorts of abuse. The whole idea of the “spiritual drunkenness,” mentioned above, as a good thing is utter nonsense. A failure by charismatic leadership to discern and discipline abuses can lead many people to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject the renewal movement altogether (see again: MacArthur). Openness and patience are necessary, but as is said, we need to keep the main thing the main thing, and falling down isn’t it.

A closing note on my Southeast Asian conference: had I known in advance what it was going to be like, I probably wouldn’t have attended. (On other hand, free ticket!) I remember almost nothing that was said there except for one teaching by the “drunk apostle.” Quite soberly, he explained a simple, reflective exercise for finding God’s will for your life and invited us to go through it. I spent some time in prayer by myself, thinking over the questions he raised. At that point I was going through a major time of transition and really didn’t know what to do with my life. In completing that exercise, I began to get answers, and I felt as though God were giving me a new plan and direction for my life.

I’ve been following that plan and direction ever since. That exercise was what led me to realize my calling to theological education and ministerial training. Although it has not always been easy, it has been good to know what I am to do to my life. All credit and thanks goes to the Holy Spirit, but he used that drunk apostle to communicate to me.

And that’s why I don’t rush to judge my brothers and sisters, even when they’re nutty.