“Because I said so”: Epistemic Access, Our Current Moral Debates, and a Trustworthy God

My college philosophy program was a deeply formative time for me theologically. Many of the conclusions I came to in those classes are still with me and exercise a deep influence on the way I process certain divisive theological issues today. What’s more, looking back on things, I probably couldn’t have predicted at the time which insights would stick with me and which wouldn’t.

a fawnOne concept that’s been particularly important I picked up in my undergrad class on the problem of evil: CORNEA. Coined by Stephen J. Wykstra in, as you might have guessed, a piece of analytic philosophy, it’s an acronym for a very lengthy, nerdy term “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access”. Wykstra was arguing against a very famous reformulation by William Rowe of the problem of evil, specifically the evidential one.

The gist of Rowe’s argument is this: think about a baby fawn dying in a forest fire somewhere all alone suffering miserably in the process. This seems to be an instance of suffering and evil where there is no possible point this could serve–at least not one that we can see. Countless situations like this mar our world daily. History is replete with apparently pointless evil. Therefore, on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that God exists.

Now, there are numerous problems with this, but Wykstra put his finger on what is to my mind the key one: the issue of epistemic access. It is here that he proposes CORNEA (forgive the philosopher speak):

We are, I propose, here in the vicinity of a general condition – necessary rather than sufficient – for one’s being entitled, on the basis of some cognized situation s, to claim “it appears that p.” Since what is at issue is whether it is reasonable to think one has “epistemic access” to the truth of p through s, let us call this “the Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access,” or – for short – CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

– “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils of Appearance

Think of it this way: say you walk into a room in a seminary and find a man speaking an indecipherable tongue. Now, also consider the fact that in this scenario you know nothing of other languages having spoken only English your whole life. Is it reasonable for you to walk out and claim “It appears to me that they’re teaching nothing but a load of gibberish in there”? It could be a course in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and yet, given your cognitive abilities–your total ignorance of other languages and such–you’re not really in a position to make that judgment. You have not, in Wykstra’s language, satisfied the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” So, the idea behind CORNEA is that you’re only allowed to say, “it appears that such and such” if you’re in an intellectual position to reasonably make that sort of call.

With respect to the problem of evil, Wykstra says we’re in a similar situation:

We must note here, first, that the outweighing good at issue is of a special sort: one purposed by the Creator of all that is, whose vision and wisdom are therefore somewhat greater than ours. How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.) If such goods as this exist, it might not be unlikely that we should discern some of them: even a one-month old infant can perhaps discern, in its inarticulate way, some of the purposes of his mother in her dealings with him. But if outweighing goods of the sort at issue exist in connection with instances of suffering, that we should discern most of them seems about as likely as that a one-month old should discern most of his parents’ purposes for those pains they allow him to suffer – which is to say, it is not likely at all. So for any selected instance of intense suffering, there is good reason to think that if there is an outweighing good of the sort at issue connected to it, we would not have epistemic access to this: our cognized situation would be just as Rowe says it is with respect to (say) the fawn’s suffering.

In other words, given the sort of suffering that fawn is going through, if God had a good enough reason for allowing it to suffer in the fashion, do you really think its the kind of thing you and I could possibly understand? Is it reasonable for a finite creature of limited wisdom to be able to rule out the possibility that the infinite God has a reason you in your present state couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around? Not really. You can barely wrap your mind around high school physics. In which case, mounting the sort of evidential case Rowe wants to is very problematic. In order to claim that omniscience couldn’t possibly have a good reason for something, you would have an awfully high opinion of your own ability to plumb the infinite depths of knowledge and truth. One that, honestly, it’s quite unreasonable to have. (Incidentally, this is an excellent example of someone using philosophical refinement to make an eminently biblical point. Compare Job 38-41.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s moral debates as I implied in the title? Well, the key comes in with this phrase asking about the difference between God’s knowledge as Creator and ours as creatures:

How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.)

In many of today’s moral debates, many of us think we’re a lot closer than that. The assumption many make is that unless God’s reasoning on a subject is absolutely transparent or immediately intuitive to postmoderns, it simply doesn’t exist or, or it is completely arbitrary. The most obvious example comes in the sexuality debates. Given our culture’s new presuppositions when it comes to sexuality and human identity construction, much of the biblical logic just seems opaque and incoherent. To attempt to appeal to a natural order  that doesn’t seem “natural” to us is arbitrary and obscurantist no matter that it’s revealed in Scripture.

infantvaccineWhile in the past there was probably greater comfort in appealing to God’s unfathomable wisdom, today we balk at the idea that there might be some things we just have to trust him on. Even now, I can hear critics objecting to the example Van Wykstra used above of a the difference between an infant and a parent. That’s an infantilizing cop-out! You have do better than a parent’s “Because I said so.”

But here’s the thing, is there an appropriate time for a parent to simply say “Because I said so”? When a  3-year-old child is too small to understand mom and dad’s logic for allowing them to get stuck in the arm with a needle, it makes sense for them to say “Because I said so” doesn’t it? They know that the child doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities of understanding germs, vaccinations, and so forth. This is not an act of arbitrary enforcement of an irrational will, but the reasonable response to the limits of their child’s reason. It is an appeal to something that the child ought to know and can trust: that loving character of the parent. It is “because said so and you know enough to know me.”

For Christians, there is an added dimension to this appeal. In those situations where the biblical logic seems unclear or arbitrary, when it appears to you that God is simply saying “Because I said so”, it pays to remember that the “I” who commands is the same God of whom Paul testifies:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

And again, of God’s wisdom he says:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

This is the God whose deepest wisdom for the salvation of the world–the mystery of God’s good purposes for those who love him–was one that the wisest of the day couldn’t recognize. This is the God who at times says “Because said so”, or “Trust and one day you’ll understand my very good reasons.” He has proven himself ultimately trustworthy through subjecting in Jesus to the apparently pointless tragedy of the cross. This is the good God with good commands even if we can’t always understand them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

love one anotherThe Bible’s a funny thing sometimes. It doesn’t always say what I expect it to. I mean, for instance, we all know that the Bible teaches us to love and not hate, right?

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”  (1 John 4:7-9)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” -(Matthew 5:43-44)

Texts like this could be multiplied a dozen times over. It’s pretty basic. God is love, so Christians love and don’t hate, right? Except for there are these other types  of verses I run across in the Bible (that could be multiplied) too:

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

 I hate them with complete hatred;

    I count them my enemies. (Ps. 139:21-22)

Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)

Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)

Welp. I guess it’s not that simple now is it?

I mean, with Psalm 139 you could point out that they have to do with Old covenant expressions of loyalty to a covenant Lord. He ‘loves’ his Lord, therefore he ‘hates’ his opponents in the sense that he will  oppose them insofar as they oppose God. Also, this could be the kind of thing that Jesus overturns in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above. That’s harder to do with Psalm 5 talking about God’s ‘hate’ for evil-doers, but you could write it off as hyperbole, or again, OT stuff. I’d be careful about that, but I can see the move being made with some plausibility.

But what about those next two? I mean, in Romans Paul explicitly tells us to let our love be sincere. Later in the very same passage he tells us to forgo vengeance and retaliation against our enemies, even quoting Jesus about ‘blessing those who curse you’ (12:14-21). So he clearly knows Jesus’ teaching. But here, in the same earlier verse, he tells us to ‘hate what is evil’ as a way of describing how we ought to love. Apparently the inspired witness to the Risen Christ saw no contradiction there.

And what about Jesus? Because you know that’s who is talking in Revelation chapter 2. Jesus is giving a message to the Church in Ephesus (the same church that is receiving the letter of 1 John, by the way), and the one thing that he commends them for is ‘hating’ the works of the Nicolaitan, “which I also hate.’ Evidently hating the right things was the only way they were properly imitating Jesus.

So what gives? Which is it? Love or hate? Because it’s not just Old Testament versus New Testament. The question is sharper. Is it Paul or Paul? Is Jesus wrong or is Jesus right?

Dead-End Distinctions?

The issue came up for me as I read an interchange of articles between Jonathan Parnell over at Desiring God and Micah Murray over at Redemption Pictures. Parnell made the argument that our love for sinners and enemies must, paradoxically must include a hate for sinners. It’s not so simple to separate out sinner from sin and so precisely because their sin contributes to their own destruction and self-damnation we must lovingly, in some sense, hate them. Murray then pointed to the clear testimony of God’s love and lovingness in Scripture and said that this is basically the kind of logic only a Calvinist who’d put system ahead of Jesus’ could embrace. The idea that love could include hate is such an obvious dead-end that should tip us off we took a wrong turn somewhere.

Now, initially I get Murray’s apprehension. Aside from the fact that he’s definitely not a Calvinist and predisposed to disagree with anything coming out of Desiring God, it’s initially an off-putting thought. For the most part, it seems like people don’t need to be taught to hate their enemies. That sort of comes naturally to sinners. Also, Parnell’s piece was rather a short, undeveloped article liable to confusion. Lord knows I’ve written a couple of those. I’m unsurprised there’s maybe some cross-talk going on. Still, both are good men trying to love Jesus, honor the Scriptures, and live the Christian life well. So what are we to think?

Given the biblical evidence I surveyed above, it seems worth analyzing the dispute at a few levels. One is how we understand the different senses of the term ‘hate’, how we understand God, and how we understand the nature of love itself.

‘Hate’ and Hate 

Jesus talkingOn the first point, it should be unproblematic to say that that the term ‘hate’ is used in different ways at different times for different situations. I mean, one of the most troubling texts in the Gospels has Jesus saying:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Most commentaries will point out that Jesus is using a hyperbolic idiom here that means something along the lines of “if you don’t love these things less than you do me.” It’s forceful, and shouldn’t be minimized, but Jesus isn’t straightforwardly commanding hate of our parents.

Still, much of the time when God’s hatred is mentioned in Scripture it is a much stronger understanding than merely “like less.” It is his strenuous, moral disapproval or opposition to. It is his righteous, judicial displeasure at evil, often involving his desire to remove the object of his displeasure. Louw-Nida describes the word for ‘hate’ that Jesus uses in Revelation, this way:

μισέω: to dislike strongly, with the implication of aversion and hostility—‘to hate, to detest.’ οἱ δὲ πολῖται αὐτοῦ ἐμίσουν αὐτόν ‘and his fellow countrymen hated him’ Lk 19:14. [1]

The implication is the whatever the Nicolaitans are teaching, it’s detestable and the only appropriate response is the same extreme displeasure that Jesus has with it. James Dunn notes that Paul similarly uses a very forceful word in Romans 12:9, implying a clear, forceful rejection of evil in our use of the gifts in the community.

While we need to be careful about taking sinful, human ideas and experiences of hate into things, it appears that the Bible gives a place for it. Even Jesus does. So, I guess an appeal to language doesn’t quite get us off the hook.

God and ‘God’ 

One other part of the problem is that we have trouble thinking about God having anything more than a strict, black or white, love or hate relationship with creation. We have trouble thinking of him in more than one role at a time. We are people with flat imaginations and so we try to come up with a flat God that suits us.

Thing is, the Scriptures give us a multi-dimensional God, with multi-dimensional relationships to the world and his creatures. I mean, we see this right we when open up the first few pages of the Bible. We find out right off the bat that God is a Creator, one who speaks all things into existence out of love and delight (Gen 1-2). We also learn in very short order that God is also a Judge, discerning right and wrong, condemning and cursing rebellion and sin, while at the same time proving to be a merciful Redeemer (Gen 3). Creator. Judge. Redeemer. Three dimensions to his relationship to his Image-bearers right there in three short chapters.

I hold to at least some form of the doctrine of God’s simplicity. God isn’t something we can chop up in parts and say, “this is his love, and that part over there to the left is his holiness” or something. God’s love is holy; God’s righteousness is merciful; God’s power wise. Is it really that hard then to think describing the infinite God’s attitude towards us might require a more than one or two words, some of which might seem initially contradictory? As I noted the other day, God used more than one name to describe himself and we need all of them.

The other factor at work is that we must remember that God’s emotions are not strictly like our emotions. God is impassible, which means that his emotions are more appropriately thought of analogically as expressing his judgments about certain states of affairs, rather than adrenaline-laced flare-ups of the divine blood-stream.

Love and ‘Love’

Typically modern culture thinks of love in terms of total acceptance and affirmation. To love is to accept and affirm the beloved totally and without reservation. Following off of what we’ve seen above, the more we think about it, the more plausible it is that God’s love includes his intense displeasure towards some things in the world he loves. As I’ve noted before, Miroslav Volf  (not a Calvinist, btw) writes about the appropriateness of God’s wrath because of his love:

Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pg. 139

Christina Cleveland made much the same point in talking about the rage of some in the black community over the recent injustices in Ferguson, MO: “the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world.” It’s entirely appropriate to feel that same intense displeasure towards systemic racism that God does–to hate what God hates precisely because God is love.

Let’s push further, though, because the reality is that this injustice isn’t some abstraction floating off in the ether; it makes its dark home in our hearts.

God made us in his Image and so he does love us. And yet, there’s a point where it makes sense to say he hates what we’ve made of ourselves. It’s as if you knew a young man with scads of artistic potential, training, and a natural eye for beauty, who could reach the heights of a Rembrandt or a Picasso, and yet, because he took up with drugs, addiction followed and he’d be reduced to ravaged shell of his former self, barely able to scrawl out a stick figure. You still love him. You’d pity him as well. But there’s a very real, honest sense in which you could say that because you love him, you hate what he’s made of himself.

Or again, it’s like a master painter who works tirelessly on on a work of art, leaves it on a trip, and upon coming home he finds that it’s been smeared and torn up. He loves what he made, but he hates the smears and the tears that now form a part of it. Augustine says something similar here:

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

God loves us as his Image-bearers, and yet God is right to hate the way we’ve destroyed the Image. Think of it this way. Imagine God speaking to a young man in this fashion:

“You know little Johnny, that part of you that lies, is racist, and leads you to abuse women? You know what I’m talking about? Well, I want you to know it’s precious to me. I love it because I love you–all of you, just the way you are.”

Wouldn’t that be terrible? Does anybody imagine that a good, kind, gracious, just God would ever love the part of me that leads me to self-destruction? Can he? Can we? No. It’s precisely because he loves little Johnny that he is completely and bitterly opposed to that part of his character that is abusive to women, lies, and loves violence. He loves Johnny though he is racist, though he deplores the reality of his racism. Precisely because he’s good and loving he has to deplore that part of his current character. Most moral education presupposes this. I may love my little son, but I hate that he lies and will lovingly discipline that lying streak out of him if I can so that he doesn’t ruin his own life.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis (also not a Calvinist) says something similar in The Problem of Pain about what we know to be true in our own experience of guilt:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God – it is like wishing that every nose in the universe were abolished, that smell of hay or roses or the sea should never again delight any creature, because our own breath happens to stink. (pg. 51)

Or again, I love my wife soul and body and because of that, I would hate any cancer cells that were a part of her threatening to destroy her. In that sense I could say that I hate her body that was destroying her. But I only do so because I love her and her body. Actually, my wife has said that during the years when my body had been breaking down and was causing me a good deal of pain, stress, and was a continual burden, she hated my body as it currently was precisely because of her love for me.

Take Care

We need to take real care about these things and a blog post, even a long one, can’t treat the subject with the patience it deserves. A full discussion would need to address ideas like the jealousy of God as well as the very prominent theme of God’s particular love for his people Israel.

That said, language about hate and God are both dangerous when taken out of their proper biblical context. Whatever Paul means by ‘hate’, he is very clear in the passage that he doesn’t mean it to lead to retaliation or violence, but rather prayer and good in response to evil.  What’s more, I don’t really see much in the way of Scripture commanding Christians cultivating hate in their heart for persons. In fact, most of it, quite intuitively, runs the other way. The real danger of distortion and abuse means we need to tread lightly here.

At the same time, we need to take care that we don’t dispense with proper biblical teaching because of over-quick reactions to counter-intuitive truths. Some might be sniffing saying, “Really? This sounds like a roundabout defense of the despicable old ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ canard.” And you may be right to a degree. Separating sin from sinner is a difficult business. But are our other options much better? “Hate the sinner and the sin”, full stop? No, that’s not right. Or, even more foreign to biblical thought, “Love the sinner and love the sin?” You can hear Paul crying from heaven “May it never be!”

I suppose I’ll end where I started: the Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to, even when it comes to love. Then again, I’d be suspicious if it did. My love is so weak and so paltry at times. It’s really a tired, half-hearted thing if I’m honest. When I come to the love of God, the surprising, counter-intuitive love of Jesus displayed on the cross, the cross which exposes all my darknesses and shames, should I not expect to find some edges I’d never imagined?

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (762–763). New York: United Bible Societies.

Dating Advice You Actually Need (TGC)

I’ve been working in youth ministry in some capacity for roughly eight years, and this is one of the most common questions I’ve fielded from young Christians: “How can (insert boyfriend/girlfriend) and I have a Christian dating relationship? How do we keep it centered on Christ?” As often I’ve heard it, I still love the the heart behind the question. A couple of youngins’ get to dating, and they want to “do it right.” They realize that God is concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our romantic involvements, so they’ve resolved to have a “Christian” dating relationship and sought guidance.

Realizing that practical steps matter, most often they want tips or steps they can take to build their relationship in Christ. “Should we call each other and pray daily? What about a devotional? Should we buy a devotional and go through it together? Maybe have a weekly Bible study?” If the young man’s of a theological bent, he shows up with a potential 10-week preaching series already outlined. (Protip: this last one is definitely not a winning approach.)

At that point, one of the first things I usually tell them is that there’s really no “biblical theology” of dating tucked away the book of Relationships 4:5-20. There are some rather obvious tips like praying for each other in your daily devotions, encouraging each other to read the Scriptures, setting appropriate boundaries (emotional, spiritual, and so on), and pursuing sexual holiness. But aside from that, there’s no real, hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing.

Still, over the years I’ve come to see that there is one key mark of a maturing relationship centered and continually centering itself on Christ: both of you are absolutely committed to each other’s involvement in the local church.

You can read the rest of this over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

After the Disco (Or, Some Augustinian Reflections on a Trip to Vegas)

vegas anniversaryThis last week my wife and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary. By the grace of God we’ve managed, however imperfectly, to honor our vows, love each other, point each other to Christ, share a bank account, learn to clean up beard clippings, and put the clip back on the tortilla chips after using them. While there’s plenty to say about three years of marriage learnings, I’d rather take some time to reflect on our celebration–in Vegas.

Yes, just a couple of days after taking our college students on a retreat to focus on the Holiness of God, my wife and I hopped in my parents’ minivan (which, let me say, has legit acceleration and handling) and headed out to the bright lights of Vegas for a couple of nights relaxation and celebration. And yes, for those wondering, there’s enough non-compromising stuff to do there that even a college pastor and his wife can have a good time. Though, I must confess, we lost $1 in the I Love Lucy slot machine out of principle. In any case, we stayed at the Vdara, in the City Center (thank you Hotwire.com!), which was nice because it was in the middle of everything, but as a non-gaming hotel, was still pretty clean and quiet. All in all, it was a lovely little break after a pretty crazy June.

Of course, even though it was a vacation, in the middle of the pool-sitting, eating, walking around, people-watching, and so forth, I was still me, which means that the theological gears kept churning the whole time. What follows are a few, rough thoughts that popped into my head as we Vegased about.

after the disco 2After the Disco: Visions of the Good Life. One of the lessons repeated over and over by types like James K.A. Smith and Kevin Vanhoozer, is that culture is a force that constantly responds to as well as reshapes our desires. One of the main ways it does that is by holding out a vision, or rather various visions, of the “good life”, the life which is truly life, before our eyes and our hearts. These visions are not so much propositional statements like “sex is the meaning of life”, or “money will fulfill you”, but rather they’re portraits, pictures, narratives, and songs that invite you in, and capture your imagination and the affections of your heart. Intellectually you know that statements of the sort made above are shallow and false, and yet, when presented with ads filled with laughing, beautiful, sensual people, clothed in modern finery, cavorting in exotic place, your heart stammeringly mumbles “I want to go to there.”

I go into all of this simply because if it is anything at all, Vegas is one big, high-octane, cocktail of all our culture’s most popular visions, shaken up, stirred, poured out across a city landscape and then lit on fire.

  • Vegas is Money: Cash gets you luxury, the finest suites, the best food, the nicest drinks, and the best entertainment. If you gamble, it even gets your more money!
  • Vegas is Comfort: You deserve the spas, the pools, the comfy beds, and everything that goes into being pampered and all that goes into really living.
  • Vegas is Sex: Just look on the sidewalk, the billboards, the servers, the ads, the clubs, the shows, the…
  • Vegas is Youth: Go to the pool, look at the ads, and everything tells you, to truly enjoy life, you need to be young.

I could go on and on, but, I’ll be honest, when you’re there, in the middle of the beating heart of it all, it’s easy to find your heart starting to beat in sync with the city.

It was fitting, then, that on the way out there, we turned on Broken Bells’ latest album After the Disco, which ended up being a fun yet reflective soundtrack to much of our time there. The title track “After the Disco” in particular caught my attention, especially this one line: “After your faith has let you down / I know you’ll want to run around /And follow the crowd into the night / But after the disco /All of the shine just faded away.” This is the sordid truth behind all other visions of the good life apart from that of the Kingdom of God: eventually the glitz and the shine fades away. If you’ve given your heart over to drink deeply of these visions, eventually the hangover comes, and nothing looks quite as pretty anymore.

StAugustineUse and Enjoyment. All of which reminded me of St. Augustine. See, while I was out there, I actually did a little theological reading (it was vacation!) and was reminded of a very important distinction in Augustine’s thought between uti and frui:

Augustine distinguishes between the final goal of human life, the enjoyment (frui) of God, and the means we use (uti) in order to arrive at that goal (I, i, 1–iv, 9). All that we do or decide not to do must aim at love of God. Everything else we may use only in order to attain that goal. Augustine employs an image to explain what he means. Exiles who wander outside of their homeland are happy only once they are back in their homeland. They do everything in order to return to that land (I, iv, 8). With humankind it is the same. They wander about outside of God, and they must use everything in this world.

–Maarten Wisse, in Willem J. Van Asselt ed. Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Kindle Locations 973-977).

As I sat there eating a very nice breakfast one morning with my wife, it struck me that this was at the heart of what had been nagging at me all weekend as I looked around. See, although Vegas often holds out distorted versions of the various goods mentioned above, most of those goods themselves aren’t bad inherently. Money used wisely and generously can be a blessing. Sex between a husband and wife can be life-giving and joyous. Youth is a gift with particular joys given to all to be valued alongside Age. Comfort can be, well, comforting after hard work and exertion. To be very clear: my wife and I had a lot fun in Vegas. The food was good, the bed was comfy, and we had a lovely time spending time with each other out on the town.

The problem wasn’t so much with the things themselves, but with the place they’re given. In Augustine’s theology, all of these things are good gifts to be used in order to enjoy God as the giver of these gifts. Instead, if Vegas acknowledges God at all, he is the one to be used to enjoy the various gifts as ends in and of themselves. Actually, that’s the source of the distortions. When Sex is the ultimate good to be enjoyed, you eventually come to the point where its natural use reaches its limit; it was never supposed to be more than a gift pointing beyond itself. But when it becomes ultimate, well then, there are no bounds to be observed in your pursuit of it–you have to wring the juice out in every unlawful, twisted fashion you can imagine.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sex. It’s with anything. If food, or the experience, or comfort, is the ultimate you’re chasing in Vegas, there’s buffets, show upon show upon show, and exclusive spa upon exclusive spa. Incidentally, that’s how they can charge so much–if your coffee is the beginning to your perfect experience, then you’re going to pay the two bucks extra for the exact same cup you get at home.

This is why the lights eventually fade–it never lives up to promise, and the cost eventually takes its toll.

Three shorter observations.

Marriage Changes Things. I felt like marriage changed things for me a bit this time around. Walking around with my wife, my biggest partner in the faith, helped keep the both of us grounded as we saw the beautiful shops and the beautiful people with the beautiful things. Having someone with you who can remind you of the fading and temporal character nature of the things we were enjoying (in the non-Augustinian sense), really makes a difference. I’m not saying that singles can’t go there and have fun without falling into gross sin or something. Still, having the person who most knows your heart, your struggles, your fears, and has your faith in mind can make a world of difference in the way you approach diversion and rest.

People With Stories. That kind of came out as we walked around various shops and restaurants. In one particular case, we sat down for dinner at this hip burger place at the bar (there were no tables available), and had a very lovely time chatting with our bartender. She was a sweet lady, six-months pregnant who talked to us about our marriage, anniversary, time in Vegas, and the blessings of the last few years. It’s easy to forget, everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to run into people with stories and souls who want to be known, loved, and heard. What’s more, even though we didn’t get to share it then and there, opportunities for the Gospel abound–even on vacation.

Stress and True Peace in God. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, though, like my wife and I came off scot-free, using things to enjoy God and loving random strangers for Jesus, as perfect little Christians. Our hearts had to fight off a little Vegas arrhythmia of their own, only in our case, I think we had both temporarily bought into the vision of situational peace. Though everything had been going smoothly enough, there came a moment in the middle of our trip when we realized we weren’t experiencing the peace we thought some time by the pool, maybe a purchase or two, and a nice dinner out were going to provide. Work still loomed. Bodies still ached. The bright lights hadn’t been enough to drown out the dark shadows of certain fears.

So, right there in the middle of the vacation we found ourselves giving it to God and reminding ourselves that He Himself is our peace. Funny enough, it was a little after that we started to enjoy ourselves more freely. Once the expectations of existential peace had been lifted off our vacation, we were to able to receive it for what it was: a good gift pointing to a much greater God. It sounds too picture perfect, but honestly, we enjoyed cheaper food more, laughed easier, stayed out later, and slept deeper that night as Augustine’s exiles, knowing these things were but the tiniest little foretaste of rest to come.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is There Such a Thing as ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?

Heston, bro. 'Nuff said.

Heston, bro. ‘Nuff said.

Note: The following is a somewhat tentative post. It is offered in a spirit of exploration and invitation to conversation, not as a definitive pronouncement or prescription on the issue.

Just yesterday, in a post on the Future of Protestantism (#protfuture), I raised the issue of what we might term “moral orthodoxy.” In the contemporary Evangelical discussion about sexuality, marriage, and the moral permissibility of same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, one of the big issues that’s been toyed around with is whether or not differing sexual ethics is a “gospel issue” and so forth.

The question has become, “Is rejecting the traditional position with respect to the status of same-sex relationships an issue of orthodoxy? Especially given that it’s not something explicitly referred to in any of the creeds? Is it appropriate to call an Apostolic-, Nicene-, Chalcedon-affirming Christian, who nonetheless changes their mind on this issue heterodox? Or is this more in the adiaphora category? Or maybe it’s not something that will brand you a heretic, but certainly not an Evangelical? Are the creeds sufficient to define the faithful, then?” Or something on that order.

Also, note, before somebody launches off into a tangent, the issue isn’t whether someone is saved, but of the category of seriousness, or the classification of the sort of error (assuming a revisionist position is in error), this happens to be.

Now, to be honest, I find myself sympathizing in both directions. While I would never say that the issue is adiaphora–a departure of this nature is far more serious than that–I initially have trouble reconciling myself to calling a resurrection-affirming, Trinity-praising, even justification-by-faith confessing believer a heretic because of their position on gay marriage. I tend to think heresy is a heavy word to be used mostly with reference to the classic heresies (Arianism, Pelagianism, Doceticsm, etc)–errors with a council condemning it or something.

That said, I do wonder how much of that tends to reflect a rather modern split between theology and ethics. “As long as you get your Christology right, then most of the rest of it we can discuss.” Being more of a dogmatics guy, I’m probably even more bent in that direction. The problem is, I’m not sure I really see that kind of divide countenanced in Scripture. Indeed, thinking of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he moves seamlessly from correcting doctrinal deviancies to ethical ones and drawing a number of connections in between. Chapter 6 ties a tight knot holding the resurrection of the body together with its sexual uses.

Which, as I begin to think of it, reminds me of Alastair Roberts’ suggestion that such a demarcation of creedal sufficiency isn’t really even how creedalism works.

Affirming the Creeds
In a thoughtful post on what it means to be a creedal Christian, Roberts examines what that actually involves. Does being a creedal Christian simply mean that one happens to affirm the content of, say, the 12 articles of the Apostles’ creed as a summary? A lowest, common-denominator of faith? Or is it more than that? Does affirming the creed actually involve posture of humility and commitment towards believing and living within them as norm (normed under the Word of God, of course)? Possibly accepting it as firm yardstick of orthodoxy and so forth? Is there a depth beyond the surface?

Those are leading questions, of course. Roberts answers them quite clearly and suggests that mere affirmation of the words of the creed isn’t really enough. No, indeed, a certain level of adherence to accepted interpretation is involved:

The creed is given to us as a tool by which to discern error and as a form within which to recognize shared truths. Much is implied within the creed that is not explicitly stated. Various theological stances adopted by people who express the creed may be discovered to be unorthodox as their positions are revealed to be contrary to the creed on account of their hidden implications.

Pelagianism isn’t explicitly contrary to, say, any of the big three creeds or definitions I named earlier, and yet the Church later saw that it was in fact deeply destructive to the faith, constituting a fundamental denial of the truth of salvation in Christ. Tied to this point also is the fact that the creeds don’t deal with a number of issues of great importance (creation in the Image of God, etc.)

Finally, and crucially for my point, it must be noted that some can even affirm the creeds verbally while substantially denying them. It’s easily possible to see someone confessing the Apostles Creed while being a Trinity-denying heretic. Actually, in the 4th century there were teachers who held variations of Arianism that still affirmed the first Nicene creed. Their interpretation of the received text is rightly deemed to be a false one, contrary to the content it was designed to protect. So, while affirming Nicaea, they weren’t actually properly Nicene. Therefore, heretics.

The same would hold true today. Someone may come along and claim to affirm Nicaea, and yet reinterpret it–honestly, in good faith–along Arian lines, and we would say, “No, I know you think you’re affirming the creed, but really, you’ve changed it and filled it with new meaning.” It would be a verbal affirmation, but a substantial denial.

So what does this have to do with moral orthodoxy?

The Commandments as a Moral Creed
Well, Roberts goes on to discuss the “sufficiency of the creed”, pointing out that the creeds themselves were never actually designed to function on their own as sufficient to define the faithful apart from the liturgy and the rest of the church’s moral instruction. It’s at this point that the very unremarkable thought occurred to me that, despite the fact that there was no major ecumenical council adopting it as such, Christians have had a basic, unquestioned moral creed we’ve used for 2,000 years–indeed, the Jews for a 1,000 before that–the 10 Commandments.

As far as I can tell from the study of church history, alongside the early baptismal confessions, and the later expanded creeds, the 10 Commandments have functioned as an effective moral creed for the whole of Christendom. Catechism in the early church would have included teaching on the commands (See article links below.) Moving through the Middle Ages on into the catechisms and confessions of the Reformation (Luther’s, Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) all have large sections devoted to them as they were seen as the basic skeleton of Biblical piety and ethics. As I understand it, they’re similarly central for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic catechisms. As Roberts pointed out without quite making this point, the Commandments function as the creed does for the doctrinal storyline, standing as the summary of the rest of Torah, and really, Biblical ethics as a whole. Denying any of them, then, along with being a clear denial of Scripture, would be an unthinkable denial of the core of the faith.

If I’m correct, then it’s just here that Roberts’ comments about the creed become relevant. It’s not that anybody in the revisionist camp actually explicitly denies the 10 Commandments. All but the most extreme liberal fringe would probably be horrified at the suggestion of such a repudiation; there’s no need to impugn motives here. Still, the question is whether or not this constitutes something similar to one of those unintentional, yet ultimately destructive, moves on the order of affirming Nicaea while actually holding beliefs that lean or are Arian. It could very well be that when properly understood there are revisionist positions–not only on same-sex issues, but with respect to premarital sex, divorce, etc.–that constitute a functional denial of the command against adultery as it sums up and embodies the biblical sexual ethic as a whole.

Any revision, then, of the traditional interpretation that has crossed confessional boundaries of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox thought for 20 centuries, if wrong, is not likely to be a mere adiaphora.

This seems like a plausible line of thought to pursue. In fact, I’m quite sure someone already has.

Is There a Middle Category?
All the same, while I’ve floated this suggestion out there for discussion, I still find myself uneasy calling someone a heretic while they still hold the basic theology of the creeds in a fairly conservative form. Perhaps I’m too slow to call a spade a spade. It’s precisely here where I wonder, though, if there is possibly some third category between heresy and adiaphora. I don’t have a fancy name for it, but possibly something along lines of  “really, really, serious theological error.” As in, excommunication probably isn’t fitting for the person who holds this, but then again, neither should you be signing them up to teach Sunday School for the kids.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. I suppose I’m floating the idea that, no, bare-bones creedal affirmation is not enough. But then again, it doesn’t seem to have ever been–the Christian tradition has always said there was a bit more, especially in regards to biblical morality. Nor has that standard been an arbitrary one, but an ethic at the heart of biblical revelation.

As I said, this is all somewhat tentative. I think it makes sense, which is I why I wrote it, but I welcome your gracious corrections, thoughts, and comments. Please do be respectful of each other, though, and pleased don’t be offended if I don’t respond.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update:

1. Interesting post on the possible (non)-use the 10 commandments in early church catechesis. I don’t think it changes the usefulness of the proposal, but still a thing.
2. Post by Brad Littlejohn on Hooker’s distinctions when it comes to adiaphora. Longish, but helpful read.
3. Andrew Fulford has an especially instructive discussion on the difference between essential beliefs and beliefs that one is culpable or not culpable for holding. 

How Can A Blogger Love?

The Triune God simply is love, and it is out of the love that he is that he condescends to save sinners through the obedience of the Son. Unsurprisingly, then, he commands his children who have been adopted and are being transformed into the image of the Son, to love one another (John 15:12).  But what does that love look like?

Paul offers us a punchy little summary at the center of  his extended meditation on love in the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.love one another

I got to thinking about this last weekend at our staff retreat during our hour of meditation, and my mind took a strange turn. As I began to reflect on what this would look like concretely in my own life, I started wondering what it would look like specifically in the area of blogging.

What would it look like to blog with love? To approach writing and the entire range of social media practices that accompany it, as an aspect of my Christian discipleship submitted to the loving lordship of Jesus? To undertake blogging in dependence on the Spirit, so that when people look at me, they see glimpses of the love of Jesus?

As an exercise, I wrote some brief, meandering reflections on each phrase in those verses. Since I think I’m not the only one out there who ought to be struggling with that question, I offer them up here:

Patient and Kind- I imagine blogging with patience might include the practice of waiting to write and post. There are times when quick responses are possible, but slowing down to make sure the words we write are true, both in content and form, takes the patience of love–both of people and the cause of truth itself. Given its pairing in the text with kindness, I suspect it likely includes patience with others on the internet. Patience when their writing is mediocre. Patience when their theology needs some tuning up, but they’re clearly on a trajectory. Patience to remember that you were once such as these (and to someone you still are.)

Arrogant or Rude – I don’t have the space to go into the radical change eliminating arrogance and rudeness in our blogging habits would have. It is a common-place that internet culture, even certain wings of Christian blogging culture, is infected with coarseness and a total lack of respect for dialogue partners. The Christian looking to imitate Jesus, to love the way Jesus would, must put aside all false judgments of superiority that lead to the condescension and contempt polluting our posts, tweets, and comments.

Lack of Envy or Boasting – Blogging with love would exclude both envy and boasting.  Initially, that means some of us might write a lot less, given how much is written or posted as a response to the success of others.  Also, we’d be more likely to rejoice when a friend’s article goes viral instead of mourning our own that lies ignored in its respective corner of digital space; when we truly love the way Christ does, the good of our sister is our own good. There’d probably be a lot less humble-bragging as well, and a lot more encouragement of our brothers and sisters who labor alongside of us. What’s more, we’d trumpet our own successes a bit less, and be little more circumspect about re-tweeting all of our positive mentions, in an attempt to build our reputation and platform.

Doesn’t Insist on its Own Way – This one wasn’t as obvious at first. On a surface-level reading it would probably mean listening to my editors with greater humility. While that’s something I probably should do, it seems this has more to do with cutting out the self-serving way we approach our blogging. Our blogging will be less about our self, our name, our platform, our glory, and our self-interest. We don’t have to entirely neglect our own interests, of course, but our object will be to lift up Christ’s name and to forwards the interests, good, and welfare of others in our community. We will write for the common good of others and the church, not merely our own.

Not Irritable and Doesn’t Keep a Record of Wrongs- When we cease to place ourselves at the center of our hearts in our blogging, irritability and resentment will hopefully fade away as well. When I am at the center of my affections, every post I disagree with seems to have been written specifically to annoy me and cross my will. Because of my pride, I find myself writing or commenting out of irritation with a post, or an author, instead of a heart of love. Beyond that, much of the pointless internet drama happens because So & so is still grieved over the critical review Such & such gave his book, would settle down. Or that one time there was the week-long shenanigans over the tweet you swear everyone misinterpreted? Yeah, we’d finally let go of animosities we built up in that battle too.

Does not Rejoice in Wrongdoing, but Rejoices at the Truth - This one’s big. So often our rejoicing comes from the wrong reasons. We rejoice when we see an opponent put in their place, or a favored position trumpeted loudly. And, honestly, that’s not always bad–sometimes these positions ought to be trumpeted and these persons do need to be set in their places. But all too often, our concern isn’t about the truth being championed, but about our own vindication over against those with whom we disagree. Because of that, we don’t really mind that an argument was straw-manned, or someone was mildly slandered–but we should. Blogging that rejoices at the truth is one that takes delight in the truth being known, even when that means being proved wrong.

Bears all Things, Hopes all Things, Endures all Things – Finally, blogging with love means bearing, hoping, and enduring all things. It means bearing insults and misunderstandings, at times–not passively submitting, but steadfastly refusing to return evil for evil in the Spirit of our Savior. It means hoping the best of people, reading charitably, and receiving honest criticisms in the best possible light. Or, when the best possible light is still darkness, trusting that this same Spirit is at work in their heart and mind. It means enduring through the empty days, the lonely days, the quiet times when no one seems to read or care, except for your heavenly Father above, whose eye is ever watchful on the works of his children.

Of course there’s more to life than blogging, and more to love than the paltry reflections I’ve offered up here. Still, for those of us who desire our words to be more than a noisy cymbals or clanging gongs, they’re probably a decent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria