Nyssa: The Recovery Must Fit the Disease: (Or, Not Everyone Is A Youth Group Refugee)

nyssaEarly on in my theological reading, I gained the impression that contextualizing our presentation gospel was a new concept that Lesslie Newbigin came up with in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not. Understanding the unique challenges that each culture, or sub-culture, or philosophic and religious tradition poses to the gospel is a task that has been with the church since its inception.

Case in point: Gregory of Nyssa. Reading in preparation for my courses this week, I ran across this fantastic little passage on contextualizing our presentation of the faith in the prologue to his The Great Catechism.

The presiding ministers of the “mystery of godliness” have need of a system in their instructions, in order that the Church may be replenished by the accession of such as should be saved, through the teaching of the word of Faith being brought home to the hearing of unbelievers. Not that the same method of instruction will be suitable in the case of all who approach the word. The catechism must be adapted to the diversities of their religious worship; with an eye, indeed, to the one aim and end of the system, but not using the same method of preparation in each individual case…The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease. You will not by the same means cure the polytheism of the Greek, and the unbelief of the Jew as to the Only-begotten God: nor as regards those who have wandered into heresy will you, by the same arguments in each case, upset their misleading romances as to the tenets of the Faith. No one could set Sabellius right by the same instruction as would benefit the Anomoean. The controversy with the Manichee is profitless against the Jew. It is necessary, therefore, as I have said, to regard the opinions which the persons have taken up, and to frame your argument in accordance with the error into which each has fallen, by advancing in each discussion certain principles and reasonable propositions, that thus, through what is agreed upon on both sides, the truth may conclusively be brought to light.

Gregory is preparing this catechism to be used widely, so he reminds potential pastors and apologists they need to be flexible in their presentation. In their catechetical classes where inquirers and initiates come to learn about the faith they will be dealing with a wide variety of hearers. Some are traditionalist Jewish monotheists offended at the incarnation. Others are Greek, folk polytheists tempted to chop up God’s unity into a diversity of gods. While still others are semi-Christian heretics of various varieties, many influenced by leading philosophies of the day. Which means you can’t count on the same formula, the same order of presentation to work every time, even if you’re teaching the same truth at the end of it.

It is the same today. For some, you’ll have to tackle philosophical questions about ethics, while others are interested in the Bible and science, and still others care about where the gospel speaks to their deep, existential questions about meaning or the trauma they’ve suffered. Without ultimately surrendering the content, or key principles, we need to learn a certain flexibility as ministers of the gospel in our instruction and proclamation.

I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffles over how to present the gospel raised by the Tim Keller interview with Nick Kristof. There were plenty of complaints coming from all angles. For me, a lot of the complaints seemed variations of a frustration that Keller didn’t present things the way they would have to the particular audience they were concerned with. He’s speaking to progressive New Yorkers and they’re thinking about their friends in the conservative youth group they grew up in.

Pete Enns, for instance, thought Keller’s responses could be seen as dismissive towards questioners or skeptics wrestling with doubt. He thought he didn’t sufficiently empathize with questioners struggling with issues of recurring concern, or acknowledge the tension sufficiently. The kind of blunt, straightforward answers Keller gave seemed clipped, formulaic, and would likely turn off the hearers Enns had in mind.

Now, that may be so for a particular kind of skeptic. But when I read it, I thought of my aggressively skeptical classmates in my philosophy undergrad who probably would have rolled their eyes at a show of empathy. If you didn’t immediately follow it up with a straight answer to a straight question, or a respond to the challenge, they would probably see it as a squishy dodge and walk away convinced Christians really didn’t have anything to say. In which case, it’s precisely the sorts of answers Keller gave which would have at least made them stick around long enough to argue about them and hear more.

My point is not that Keller’s way in the interview is the only possible or right way to respond to skeptical questions. It’s not even a defense of his interview. (Though, I thought Scot McKnight’s response to most of the critics was well-put, and that most didn’t consider the nature of the interview carefully anyways.) My point is simply to highlight the fact that we need to take care to not reduce all those who we’re trying to reach for the gospel to one pure type. Nor should we imagine the apologetic tack you would use for one group is obviously suited for all.

Of course, the key figure giving us warrant for “contextualizing” the gospel in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul. To Jews, he quotes Scripture to prove the Messiah; to Greeks, he engages in a bit of “worldview” evangelism before he comes to the figure of Christ (both in Acts 17). In the freedom of the gospel and under the Lordship of Christ, he makes himself all things to all people for the sake of reaching some (1 Cor. 9). But I would imagine that to those trying to reach Greeks, his approach with the Jews would seem narrowly Biblicistic and dogmatic. While to those concerned with Jewish outreach, his broad philosophical appeal might seem too initially accommodating.

Not every skeptic is a youth-group refugee. Nor are they hard-core atheist apologists. Some are squishy, New-Agers. Others are pragmatic, business-types. Still others are people who already think themselves properly “religious” and chafe at the notion they need an upgrade. And in our post-Christian society, some are just curious inquirers without all the hang-ups about which we might be worried. We need, then, to heed Gregory’s wisdom: “The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease.”

In which case, some of us should be slower to condemn those who are skilled in administering the medicine of the gospel to patients different than those we typically treat.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Making Sense of God Interview with Tim Keller

tim-keller-12-10We are delighted to have a preacher some of you might have heard before on the show: Tim Keller. He joins us to discuss his (excellent) new book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical. We had a blast chatting with him. He answered all of our questions, some of which tried to get into the nuts and bolts of apologetics, the difficulty of Christian belief, and how we should go about sharing the good news of the gospel with our skeptical neighbors.

We hope you enjoy and are challenged by the conversation.

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

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Soli Deo Gloria

The Paradox of Spiritual Hindsight (We Only See Sin in Light of Christ)

danger in the rearviewKierkegaard said that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. More popularly, “hindsight is 20/20.” I think there is no place this holds more truly than in the spiritual life. We’re finite beings, never more than marginally aware of the far-reaching impact upon the future of any single one of our choices. As Pascal said, if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch shorter, her fateful love affair with Mark Antony might never have happened, and the face of the ancient world might have been completely transformed.

But it’s not only finitude that affects our spiritual perception, but the state of our souls themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the knowledge of sin. Sin is an active and malevolent evil that persists precisely because it hides itself. One of its marks is occlusion and confusion to hide in the shadows of our self-perception. The folly of sin isn’t restricted to the unintelligent either–indeed, at times is worse with the intellectually gifted. The smarter you are, the more complex and clever your self-justifications and rationalizations. Total Depravity, in case you were wondering, is really about this sort of dynamic–there’s no part of your self that’s pure, clean, and unaffected by sin. Even the more “noble” bits of you like the intellect have been corrupted by sin.

This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity–the reality is that we only see our sin truly once we’ve begun to repent of it. Of course, someone could easily object that it’s unsurprising that once you become a Christian you begin to find more sins than you did before–that’s how brainwashing works! If we reflect on it, though, we can see the way this paradox makes quite a bit of sense without resorting to the brainwashing interpretation.

C.S. Lewis shed some light on the dynamic in his classic Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Many of you have seen this, right? The friend who has maybe had one or two drinks will listen if you tell them to slow down, but if they’ve had four or five, they’re not as likely to see the need.

Or again, if you’ve ever gotten new glasses, you know that you might have some sense of the fact that your vision has trouble for a while. But after getting your glasses for the first time, or the next prescription, you put them on and marvel at how clear the world becomes. It’s only after you begin to see clearly that you exclaim, “I never knew my eyesight was so bad!”

Karl Barth, in his own, inimitable way, painted a vivid picture of the paradox in a sermon on Ephesians 2:8 that he preached to inmates in his hometown of Basel:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross…Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our  — because of our sin — sharing our captivity — burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”

Lewis shows us the way sin clouds our sense of sin, our conscience, or judgment about these things in ourselves, but while he hits on the subjective dimension, to the knowledge of sin, while Barth points us to the objective side. You see, while it’s possible to begin to recognize the reality of sin, the fact of sin, and even our own complicity, it’s not until we see Christ crucified for us that we truly understand the magnitude of it. The Son of God, murdered, hanging from the executioner’s gibbet is what my sin cost.

Of course, we only see that once we’ve come to see Christ crucified for me–that is, once we are Christ’s.  Not only was my sin that costly, my danger that pressing, my guilt that grotesque, so also was God’s love for me that magnificent. It is precisely in this way that God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8).

Pascal was caught up with the beauty and mystery of this paradox. He constantly spoke of the necessity of recognizing our greatness as created in God’s image and our wretchedness as sinners without God. In fact, part of our greatness is in the fact that we know we’re wretched! A tree can’t know it’s wretched, but we can. Of course, part of our wretchedness comes with the fact that we don’t know we’re wretched. And when you do know that you’re wretched, well, it’s crushing.

Pascal realized there’s only one way to know them both properly and that is in the light of Christ:

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.

Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. –Pensees, (527)

Coming to know Christ helps us come to a knowledge of sin that simultaneously lifts us up and humbles us. He shows us our greatness and our wretchedness. He gives us God and a right recognition of our sin at once in light of his own glorious and horrible cross.

Or, as Tim Keller often puts it, “We’re far worse than we ever could have imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Won’t Get Fooled Again? Machen on Old-School “Jesus v. The Bible” Liberalism

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Machen(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The Teacher was a bit of a pessimist, so we might be prone to suspect he’s engaging in a bit of dour hyperbole. And certainly, with respect to things of the gospel, this is not strictly true. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. He creates righteousness out of sin, life out of death, and makes saints out of sinners. That said, taken at a this-worldly level, he’s got a good point. Natural patterns progress, currents come and go, winds maintain fairly regular rhythms, and so forth. What’s more, even at the historical level, yes, there are changes, differences made, breaks and developments, because humans are thinking, choosing, acting beings who can diverge from the script—and yet one constant that remains is basic human nature.

I bring all this up simply to make the point that the history of philosophy and theology, while constantly progressing, developing in a bewildering variety of forms and particular details, exhibits a series of repeating patterns. A burst of rationalism and confidence usually sets the prelude to a wave of skeptical criticism. Derrida is not Montaigne is not Pyrrho, but we’d have to be blind to not see some line of continuity and familiar elements even though we can find significant differences between the thinkers. Ideas tend to make a comeback.

This is one of the reasons it’s so instructive to study the conflicts in our church history—the same mistakes tend to crop up on a regular basis, even if they do happen to show development in terms of sophistication or contextual concerns. The battles of our theological forefathers, while not an exact match for our own, can often shed light on the structure of our current debates.

Gresham Machen’s classic piece of polemics Christianity and Liberalism is one such text. Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict, Machen set out to clearly set out the choice before the Church. But it wasn’t so much a choice between two variations of Christianity as so many thought, but between two different faiths altogether, with different doctrines of revelation, salvation, God, Christ, and more. In other words, it wasn’t just a dispute about variations in our understanding of the incarnation, but whether there was an incarnation!

One of the key battle-grounds, of course, was Scripture: what is its nature and authority? Is it inspired or infallible? If so, how so? If not, why not? Modernists were critical for what had become the usual reasons: science, historical criticism, the moral character of the OT, and so forth. I revisited the text recently, though, and was surprised (and yet not surprise) to find Machen critiquing one very familiar argument forwarded by the liberals of his day:

The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion? The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.

So, here we are, some ninety years ago facing the now-familiar “Jesus over the Bible” view of authority and revelation. Of course, Machen was unimpressed with its earlier version, “This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus.”

Why does he say this? For two reasons that I can see. First, excerpting Jesus from his narrative setting in both Old and New Testaments limits our ability to actually understand him. Much as T.F. Torrance argues, Jesus only makes sense (his works, his deeds, his aims) only against the backdrop of Israel as well as the witness of the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles through whom we receive our witness about him. What’s more, this runs against the practice of Jesus who both affirmed the Old Testament as the word of God and appointed his apostles to authoritatively teach concerning him and his works in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The second point, though, is that even still, without these considerations, the vaunted allegiance to Jesus’ unique authority begins to erode upon closer inspection:

As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the “historical” Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.

So, even after declaring our allegiance to Jesus, we sometimes find that the words of Jesus as we actually have them in the Gospels—his pronouncements on eschatology, marriage, his exclusive authority, etc.—must be cleaned up. So, how did they deal with such a challenge to their claim that they follow Jesus? Machen elaborates:

So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church. The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus − isolated and misinterpreted − which happen to agree with the modern program.

We might paraphrase and say that for the liberals of Machen’s day, the central truth of Jesus’ story, his life, his consciousness is what mattered. Some of the details, certain specific teachings, or doings, if they’re not part of this central story, can be discarded or relativized without much harm done. Of course, the question becomes how you decide what counts:

It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas. It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching − notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.”

Now, of course, this not an exact parallel with the kinds of arguments we find today. Downstream from the Liberal/Fundamentalist debates, our culture has shifted, and the more explicit liberalism with its anti-supernaturalism, its platitudes about universal truth, and so forth don’t set as well. We don’t mind the resurrection—we love it, in fact. As Trevin Wax has recently pointed out, old school liberals had more problems with the Creed than with the 10 Commandments, but we’ve sort of switched that up. All the same, this is one of those important moments to remember that a historical “precedent” need not be exact in all of its details and may have serious, significant differences. (In other words, Hus really was a precursor to Luther, despite their differences.)

If you look at it, though, it’s not hard to look around the theological landscape (internet or otherwise) to recognize many of the same old moves being made. We have a core Jesus consciousness, or “story” being appealed to over and against the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles that he authorized to interpret and tell us that story. Some parts of Jesus’ teaching (the ones that happen to fit really well with left and center-left, progressive ethical or theological sensibilities) are upheld as the core of the message and life of Jesus and then used as a rule, a canon within the canon, to determine what really counts. Machen draws out some more of the problems with that:

But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.

In a sense, I’m sort of repeating myself. But the fact is that history seems to be repeating itself. With variations, of course, but still, the pattern is there, plain as day, for all to see.

And please hear me, I really don’t want to dismiss the differences. The ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed without crossing your fingers, affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection, his Messiahship, and so forth, are not small, theological potatoes. This is not exactly your grandfather’s liberalism. Thank God for that.

All the same, many of the same root problems with your grandfather’s liberalism are there, nonetheless, simply with different symptoms. They haven’t gone away, nor are they any less corrosive in the long run.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Spirit of the Red Letters and “Progressive Evangelicalism”

Daniel Kirk has moved to the Progressive Channel at Patheos. And that’s great for him. Really, I’m happy. It seems like it will be a good fit for him.

That said, without wanting to pick on him, I had a quibble about his recent post on why he’s a “Progressive Evangelical.” You can read the whole thing, but here’s the conclusion that sums it up:

In the end, I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative articulation of the word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken, that the final, liberating action of God has yet been taken.

So a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible means that I must continue to enact the progressive ministry of Jesus and those who followed him.

Okay. At first this sounds like an old-school, Red-Letter Jesus approach to things that pits the Red Letters of Christ over and against the Black letters of the average apostles and certainly the Old Testament. We follow Jesus, the true Word, who has the authority to interpret, fulfill, and even correct Scripture, moving us along in God’s plans and so forth. I think it’s wrong, but it makes a certain sense.

jesusbuddyjesusExcept there’s a quirk with Kirk’s position. He’s already on record saying that the Jesus of the Gospels got some things wrong. And not insignificant things, either. The meaning and nature of marriage is at the heart of the moral order of the universe.* And yet Kirk says we need to move past Jesus at this point.

In which case, it seems like reading the Bible in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is more than having Jesus as your authority over the Bible.

It’s not just the Red Letters v. the Black Letters. At this point, it appears we’ve got a Red Letters v. Red Letters situation. Or rather, a Red Letters v. “Spirit of the Red Letters as Read By Progressives At the Beginning of the 21st Century” situation.

Here I’m reminded of the quote often attributed to Albert Schweitzer, but which was apparently actually coined by George Tyrell, speaking of liberal theologian and church historian Adolf Von Harnack:

The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.

Conservatives have most certainly been guilty at times of recreating Jesus in their own image. (My buddy Dan Darling has a great little book chronicling a number of the ways we do that, by the way.)  So it’s not that this is only a danger with progressive theology. Far from it.

The problem is that Kirk’s approach virtually guarantees it.

When a conservative runs up against Scriptures that press on their economic preferences, or sexual hang-ups, or what-have-you, they at least have to go through the gymnastics of trying to explain them differently. The Jesus of the text is someone determinate to be wrestled with. His words and deeds must be reckoned with.

But once you decide that even they can be corrected, then what does it actually mean that Jesus is your authority, let alone the Bible which testifies him? Which Jesus is this? How can your admittedly fallible Jesus allow you to correct your fallible Bible? Which bits of Jesus’ teaching and life do you appeal to against the parts you’re suspicious about? I mean, what if it turns out you should be using the exact opposite parts of Jesus’ teachings and work to correct the parts you like, the way someone using the same method on a different continent might?

In other words, “Progressive Evangelicals” using Kirk’s same theological principles in Latin America, Africa, or Asia might correct the Bible in light of Jesus far differently than a White Westerner steeped in identity-politics. And at that point, how do you adjudicate in a way that isn’t just a blatant appeal to cultural prejudice? Or variable human reason? Or different human experiences?

To put it bluntly, the only real Jesus we have intellectual access to is the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible. Kirk’s model functionally ends up coming to something like, “God is still speaking, through people like me, who are inspired by our take on Jesus but not limited by the actual teaching of the actual Jesus.”

For that reason, I’m skeptical about the possibility of a progressive Evangelicalism with “a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible” when both the pages of the Bible and the Jesus you meet there are subject to your judgment.

Again, I say this with no spite or hostility. I really just want us to deeply consider what we’re signing on for when we adopt these positions. Their consequences are deep and far-reaching, and I think in the long-term, they’re inevitably corrosive to the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. Jesus says there is blessing for those who hear his words and keep them (Matthew 7:24). That’s pretty hard to do when you’re deciding which ones actually count.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Eyebrows have been raised about this phrase. Suffice it to say that from Genesis 1-2, onwards, the nature of male and female, marriage, and family are central to the biblical account of anthropology, society, and politics. Marriage is a main (though not sole) metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and his people (both OT & NT), and caught up in the warp and woof of biblical theology. So, if “heart” of the moral universe is a bit much, it’s certainly central and not merely tangential. For Jesus to get this subject wrong, then, is not a minor point.

Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

JobMost of Christian theology, one way or another, is caught up with the problem of evil–what it is, where it comes from, how will it be defeated, and how do we live with it in this world. God’s providence, though, is one of those doctrines that seems to uniquely impinge on the question of evil. How could a good, all-powerful God allow the amount and kinds of evil we see and experience in the world? Is it possible to speak of his control and sovereignty, his foreknowledge and wisdom, in a way that’s consistent with the world as we know it.

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating that one of the key points made in recent, philosophy of religion (especially of the analytic sort) is that if God had a good enough reason, then it’s possible for a good, powerful God to allow evil to exist for a time. One of the key issues distinguishing different forms of Christian theology is which kinds of reasons are deemed to be sufficient to justify the sorts of evil we see in the world. Your overall theology of salvation and providence plays out in your view of the problem of evil.

Arminian and Wesleyan (and open or relational) theologies typically appeal to the good of libertarian free will (the ability to do otherwise in any decision, without being ultimately or finally determined by situation, disposition, or metaphysical constraint) at this point. On their account, it is supposed to be necessary to the nature of love, and the good of freely-chosen love, significant moral choices, etc. Because of that, it’s worth the risk, the possibility, and the actuality of evil in the world. More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.

Instead, Reformed theologians have offered a couple of different, interlocking considerations. Some, appealing to Romans 9, say that God’s deepest reason for allowing all that he does is the display of his own glory in human history (through his work of creation, judgment, redemption, etc). If some tragedy befalls, then, we can know that its direct purpose is to somehow glorify God.

Others, more modestly (I think), confess that while in the end all things will redound to the glory of God, we simply don’t know what his reason is for various, specific events or the way they fit into the broader tapestry of the Triune God’s purposes for history. We are finite, small, and too sinful to expect to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. That said, we view all things in light of God’s work in the tragi-comedy of the cross and resurrection, wherein the Son came in the power of the Spirit at the behest of the Father to give himself up into the hands of sinful men on our behalf, so that one day we might be raised with him. Because of that we know that our good God is loving, powerful, and does have purposes in all of human history, even the darkest and most opaque of our trials. And these are purposes that, if we knew all that God knows, were as good as God is, and saw all that he sees, we would see that he is right to allow all that he has and redeem it in all the ways that he eventually will.

I bring all of this up because of a recent conversation about the problem of evil and what it means to assert that God has a good enough reason to justify and allow the evil that we see in the world.

Some see this sort of defense as a rationalizing system that calls evil good and good evil. Or it’s a cold comfort that alienates the truly broken-hearted with bland pieties about “God’s plan.” Or even more, a possible attempt to act as God’s spokesman, because if you’re the one who can say that God has purposes for all things, then you’re the mediator of God’s purposes. An appeal to God’s sovereignty over all things and inscrutable purposes puts you in danger of becoming one of Job’s friends, offering up proverbs of ashes and unwitting condemnation.

I simply want to make a few points by way of clarification and response here.

First, it should be obvious that to say that God has a purpose for all things is not to say that I have any clue what those specific purposes are from case to case. It’s simply to point out that a God of infinite goodness, wisdom, and love doesn’t simply let evil befall the world for no good reason, or only general ones. It is an affirmation that God is not careless, nor is he asleep at the wheel but is attentive to the plans he has for all of his creatures. If anyone is tempted to claim that kind of specific knowledge, they have missed the point of Job and are probably at the risk of coming under judgment themselves. It’s the difference between saying that you believe the Bible is inerrant and claiming that your own interpretations of it are also inerrant. It is by no means the case that the one follows logically from the others. It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things.  In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.

Second, to claim that God has specific purposes for what he permits is not to claim that evil isn’t really evil. That’s a very sloppy, unbiblical claim. It is only to say that God means something good to come out of the evil which he still calls evil. As with the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery, God still condemns the hatred and jealousy of his brothers and their sale of Joseph as evil, though God permitted and even decreed it so that one day he could save Jacob’s family and the birth-line of the Messiah through Joseph. Saying that God doesn’t allow the evil of cancer for no good reason, by no means commits me to saying that any case of cancer is a positive good. We have to have a space for the infinite, Creator God to view a single event or activity from a far more expanded, complex, unified perspective than you or I typically do. For more on this, see here.

Third, to say that God has purposes for all things in no way necessitates that God’s providence is the only doctrine we can appeal to in the context of pastoral comfort. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how little attention we give to the fact that not only is right doctrine a matter of chief importance, so is the proper use of doctrine. Just as having a high view of Scripture won’t save you from a misuse of Scripture, neither will having correct doctrine always mean you’re applying it properly. But this is of chief importance. Being a good doctor is not simply a matter of knowing varieties of good medicines, but the ability to prescribe the right medicine at the right time, because even good medicines misapplied can do harm. There are dozens of other glorious, comforting truths such as the resurrection, God’s atonement, his grace, etc, that you can apply to people in times of suffering and pain beyond the issue of the providence of God.

As always, there’s more to say, but hopefully these considerations offer some clarity as to what we are and are not saying when we claim that our sovereign God has a good reason for all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

Really Elisha? Bears Attacking Children? This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

bearsOne of the weirdest stories in the narratives of the Old Testament comes at the end of 2 Kings 2 with Elisha and the bears. The deal is that the prophet Elisha has just been anointed by God through his old master the prophet Elijah to succeed him after God took Elijah up to heaven in a vision of God’s holy chariot. Just prophet stuff. In any case, 2 Kings tells of a number of incidents where Elisha is confirming his role as God’s holy prophet by performing similar, miraculous works as Elijah did. As he’s going along, this weird thing happens:

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:23-25)

Now, there are several reactions you can have to this story about bears mauling youths for bald jokes. First, if you’re a teenager or something, you can think, “Sweet! Bears!” Or, as a balding man, you can think, “Well, there’s justice.” Finally, as just a normal person you can think, “Whoa. Seriously? Bears? Against children? For a bald joke? That’s fairly horrifying.” Of course, if you’re prone to trust the prophets of Scripture as being not terrible, various answers start to suggest themselves as to whether one should really take the text at face value.

For instance, you might wonder, “Are those ‘little boys’ really ‘little boys’? What if that’s a translation issue and we’re talking about a street gang or something? And is this really about a bald joke, or is something else going on here? Maybe the 3,000 year cultural gap is playing with our perceptions?” Once again, I ran across a stimulating passage in Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, shedding some contextual light on the bizarre passage.

One point I have to make before sharing, though, is that Leithart has earlier identified a key typology or resemblance in the story of Elijah and Elisha with that of Moses and Joshua. Elisha is to Elijah as Joshua is to Moses, the latter carrying on the conquest into the Holy Land after Moses leads the people out of slavery to idolatry and gives them the Law on the mountain. Alright, back to the bears:

In 2:3 and 2:5, the sons of prophets inform Elisha that “Yahweh will take your, master from over your head today”. Elijah is Elisha’s protector, guide, and “head,” and Elisha is about to lose that leadership. As Elisha’s head, Elijah enters heaven, while Elisha continues the work of his master in Israel, just as the church’s head is enthroned victorious in heaven as it suffers, serves, and overcomes on earth (Eph. 1:20-23).

This repeated statement from the sons of the prophets helps to explain the story at the end of 2 Kgs. 2, one of the most controversial passages in Scripture. The phrase “little boys” in 2:23 can mean “young men” or “subordinates.” Bethel is the site of Jeroboam I’s golden calf shrine, and the context suggests that these are not children, but “Levites” of the idolatrous shrine. Elisha’s curse is an act of warfare, a Joshua-like attack on a center of idolatry. This is reinforced by the chiastic structure of the chapter:

A removing the “head” (2:1-6)
B fifty men (2:7)
C cross Jordan: Elijah divides waters (2:8)
D Elisha requests spirit (2:9-10)
E chariot separates them (2:11a)
F Elijah by whirlwind into heaven (2: lib)
E’ Elisha sees, calls to chariot, tears clothes (2:12)
D’ mantle (2:13)
C’ divides water (2:14)
B’ fifty men (2:15-18)
A’ bald head (2:23-25)

The young men mock Elisha because his “hairy head,” his “baal of hair” (1:8), is taken from him. Perhaps he literally shaves his head in mourning over Elijah’s departure, but it is also possible that they are mocking Elisha because they assume he is unprotected without Elijah. Their taunt to Elisha to “ascend” also points back to Elijah: “You know where you can go, Elisha!” Elisha again demonstrates that he bears the spirit of Elijah, which is the Spirit of Yahweh, for he can call out bears from the forest as readily as Elijah can call out fire from heaven to consume the soldiers of Ahaziah…., as readily as Yahweh can unleash lions against disobedient prophets (1 Kgs. 13:20-25; cf. Lev. 26:22). –1 & 2 Kings, 175-176

Elisha’s opponents are not toddlers with bold mouths, then, but a large band of hostile, adult priests serving the idolatrous shrine of the Northern Temple in Israel. For myself, I believe the context of the earlier story of King Ahaziah sending out a troop of soldiers to attack and lay hands on the prophet of God, Elijah, makes it likely that this “taunt” was more than a simple act of name-calling, but an expression of hostility, spiritual warfare, and a present threat to Elisha’s person. This is not an exaggeration when considering the various, deadly fates the prophets of Israel had suffered throughout her history and even Elijah’s own generation in the time of Ahab and Jezebel.

Of course, this may not solve all the difficulty of the passage for you. I’m not sure it does for me, either. It is one more example, though, of what a willingness to sit and wrestle with the Scriptures instead of simply turning from them when they’re difficult or offensive. That’s not a recipe for accepting any and every interpretation that comes along. There are a lot of bad ones that, in an attempt to “preserve” the Scriptures, end up betraying the character of God. All the same, trusting in the character of God as revealed in Scripture will give us the interpretive resilience needed to struggle with the text long enough to win a blessing and gain new light for the path.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: As it turns out, my friend Seth T. Hahne has written on the passage in a similar and complementary way, adding some broader canonical considerations that reinforce the reading offered above.