Now May the God of Hope…. The Biblical Obligation to Hope in Suffering, Part II

 Photo by  Jake Blucker  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

Consequential Nature of Hope in Suffering

Despair and Hope: A Contrast

The word hope itself appears for the first time in the book of Ruth, but it is the absence of hope in suffering that is noted rather than the existence of hope. Having come under horrendous grief, Naomi’s soul is embittered toward God. She has lost her husband and her sons, and with them, she has buried all natural hope for safety and prosperity. As could only be expected, she despairs in sorrow, but her despair is particularly characterized as bitter and hopeless.[1] She proclaims herself to be a victim of God’s cruel treatment (Ruth 1:12-13; 20-21). Having adopted this filter through which she sees reality, Naomi inadvertently positions herself against God and speaks out as a perpetrator of his goodness. Through her story, the Bible attests to the fact that experiences with deep sorrow and tangible evil are powerful enough to serve as blinders to all hope; in fact, in this scenario, Naomi rejects hope as an offensively unrealistic mindset and an intentional, disregarding assault toward her pain. Yet, biblically, hope is neither artificially constructed nor dismissive of suffering, and hope in suffering does not preclude grief. Naomi’s rejection of hope is tied to her fundamental misunderstanding of God’s character in light of his dealings with her (Ruth 1:12-13). Though enduring life-altering and heart-breaking suffering is sufficient to produce hopeless bitterness in any soul, the biblical narrative indicates that in view of God and his mercies, it need not, and it must not.

Hannah, too, “was in bitterness of soul,”[2] (1 Sam. 1:10), but rather than resenting God as the cruel catalyst of her pain, she laces her sorrowful cries with confessions of hope. Hannah not only prays, but she weeps, continually pouring out her soul (1 Sam. 1:15), “an involvement of the whole being.”[3] The sufferings of both Naomi and Hannah affronted the core of their beings, and each woman writhed in anguish. Even so, Hannah was unable to relinquish her hope in God. She unleashed the cry of her anguished soul with the confidence that God would not treat her grief casually, nor would he dismiss it flippantly.[4] Hannah’s heart was weighed with her grief, but as her prayer reveals, it was lined with a hope that properly positioned her to receive a response. To this point, it is interesting that though Eli blessed Hannah according to the formal appellation, “God of Israel” (1 Sam. 1:17), a reflection of his deity and authority over the nation, Hannah prayed to “Lord of Hosts” (1:10-11), referencing the personal, covenantal name of the one who revealed himself as compassionate and loving to her ancestors at Sinai (Ex. 34).[5] She knew the one to whom she prayed, and she boldly appealed to him with hope that he would display his goodness in her situation. Even before Samuel was conceived, Hannah’s grief was turned to joy because she received God’s promise by faith and anticipated it in hope.

 

Culminating Value of Hope in Suffering

The grief of both Hannah and Naomi was answered through miraculous means of unexpected provision; both women tangibly received the desires of their hearts in this life, which is certainly not promised or universally experienced (John 16:33; 2 Cor. 12:9-10). Ultimately, God will right every wrong, and though justice and vengeance may not abound until this world has been purged of evil (2 Pet. 3:10), he guarantees that he will wipe every tear and renew all that is groaning under the curse of sin (Heb. 6:19). It is the biblical intent to inspire hope.[6]

In light of God’s revelation, there is a biblical obligation to hope, yet the inescapable reality is that each person will suffer and make a choice as to how he suffers. To this end, we are implored to pour out our anguish before the Lord of Hosts, even through tears of bitterness, and emerge as those who, through storm, wind and fire, have been unmoved from the rock that is Christ (1 Cor. 15:58). Yet, just as mankind was free to choose the road of sin that led to suffering, we are free to suffer apart from God and void of hope; we are free to turn from him in hopelessness, embittered by the conclusion that evidently, circumstances have revealed him to be less loving than he promised. In either case, and in any case, God will make all wrongs right (1 Cor. 15:24-28), but a choice has to be made whether the claims of the biblical narrative will be believed and its God trusted by faith. G. K. Chesterson summarized the rejection of God, and the rejection of hope, in these words: “When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from him; but in heaven’s name to what?”[7] It is imperative that we hear the biblical command to hope, for without it, the one suffering will be deceived into constructing a distorted view of a distant and unfeeling God. This misconception is fatal to the soul. In light of the Savior, this must not be the experience of the Christian. The Bible answers the cries of human suffering with a depiction of a God whose nature and ways among men validate humanity’s sorrowful cries while answering them with a proclamation of consoling hope.

Surely, hope trusts in the goodness of God’s character and the reliability of his word, and it submits to the process by which he promises to produce perfection. While bitter grief is laced with anger, resentment and a latent distrust of the one who could allow such seemingly unjust treatment, hopeful grief is paradoxically “sorrowful, yet rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10), expectant and confident in God’s goodness. It is essential that the biblical obligation to hope not be mistaken as an attempted means of escaping suffering. God’s love is enduring and perfecting, and it must be distinguished from weaker forms that dilute genuine love with permissive kindness that stiff-arms all sources of discomfort, no matter its value in the end.[8] The biblical narrative witnesses much too loudly to suffering for Christian theology to be distorted according to moralistic therapeutic deism. Though pain and suffering are the unavoidable byproducts of a sinful existence, the character and promises of God, as revealed through the biblical narrative, offer an unshakable source of enduring and eternal hope that is anchored in God’s commitment to create good out of present evil and pain.

 

Conclusion

Though traces of this transformative goodness can be detected in this life, suffering will finally give way to glory in eternity, and the moral knowledge of God, his character and his promises, obligates hope in the present (Rom. 8:18). Rather than simply commanding the Christian to endure suffering, the biblical narrative implores him to do so with hope because hope distinctly validates the conviction that all is not yet well, while simultaneously appropriating God’s strength to be sustained through suffering. Paul encouraged the church in Thessalonica, “We remember before our God and Father … your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). His prayer must be appropriated by every generation of Christ-followers.

When suffering threatens to capsize the believer, hope anchors him in the person and promises of God. To Abraham, God “swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13) and established his person as the grounds for Abraham’s hope. His specific promises were filtered through the reliability of God’s person, so hope was sustained through years of silence, and Abraham “against hope in hope believed… according to that which had been spoken” (Rom. 4:18). Regardless of how outlandish the content of the promise sounded to Abraham’s reason, he instead reasoned through eyes of hope, because it was God’s unchanging character that was the backdrop to each of his promises. Having received inspired accounts of God’s faithfulness to reference, and having seen in Jesus the full and perfect revelation of God’s character, we now, with even greater confidence, must flee to God for refuge “to lay hold of the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18). Hope certainly is the graciously ordained “anchor for the soul” (Heb. 6:19).

 

 

[1]  Ruth 1:20: “The Almighty has dealt to me very bitterlyהֵמַ֥ר שַׁדַּ֛י לִ֖י מְאֹֽד.

[2] נָ֑פֶשׁ מָ֣רַת וְהִ֖יא. The same root word found in Ruth 1:13 and 1:20 and is found here: מָר, “bitter.”

[3] David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 121.

[4] “Then Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’” (1 Sam. 1:8). Hannah sought consolation that validated her suffering.

[5] Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, 122.

[6] “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

[7] Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart, 65.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 33.

 

Now May the God of Hope…. The Biblical Obligation to Hope in Suffering, Part I

 Photo by  Hillie Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hillie Chan on Unsplash

 

Introduction

One need not search the Bible long before finding honest interaction with the concept of unexplained suffering. The biblical narrative unapologetically attests to the sufferings of mankind. It does not posit a quip response or simplistic answer to humanity’s hardest reality, nor does it suggest that the problem can be diffused, avoided or ignored. Rather, the biblical response is one that dignifies a world that suffers under the weight of sin and the threat of death. The biblical response to suffering is embodied in the suffering Son of Man, who paved the road to eternity by way of the cross. In his paradoxical example, the believer is granted a vision of the divinely extended gift of meaningful, absolute and certain hope in the midst of suffering. Biblical hope is neither wishful thinking nor blind optimism; it is reckoning in the present what is guaranteed in the future. Hope actively and expectantly waits for what is assured but not yet realized. While faith believes in God’s revelation and trusts in his declarations, regarding the past, present or future, hope is exclusively anticipatory. The biblical call to hope, then, is distinct from the call to have faith.[1]

With a compassionate and courageous voice, the biblical narrative affirms the pain of suffering, while in the same breath repeatedly and distinctly beckoning the Christian to hope. The reason is clear: Christian hope is contingent upon the unchanging character of God. Faith in the reliability of God’s nature and the immutability of his word is foundational for Christian existence, and hope for their future realization is the bedrock for fruitful endurance in times of suffering. The Bible presents a God who is essentially loving, and the unflagging, immovable conviction in his goodness produces hope. To hope in suffering is meaningfully and personally to internalize and respond to biblical revelation and directives. If the God of the Bible is to be trusted and his promises believed, hope in suffering is not just an invitation but an obligation; hope is the silver cord that tethers a suffering world to a loving God.

 

Biblical Reality of Hope in Suffering

Human Examples of Hope in Suffering

The Psalter walks the reader through national and personal journeys of pain, loss, betrayal, joy and victory, and more than any other canonical book, it contains frequent references to hope. The psalmists reflect on the way that blessing and suffering seem to travel along parallel tracks in the lives of the righteous ones, and though confounded by suffering, they attest to an obligation to hope. Interestingly, the Psalms reiterate an enduring hope in God’s promises to the house of David, though the Psalter was arranged after the exile when there was no trace that Israel would ever see another Davidic King. Despite this reality, the Psalter finally concludes in a proclamation of hope and a call to praise, though the Davidic throne sat empty (Ps. 146-150). God is celebrated as Israel’s king, and there is the certain hope that he will, as promised, assume rule over Israel in a tangible way (Ps. 145). In light of Israel’s national suffering and apparent abandonment, hope for a Davidic king should have been forsaken in spiritual disillusionment, and individual Psalms that reminded God of his commitment and celebrated the future realization of these promises should have, at least, been arranged less prominently in the Psalter.[2]

Yet, proclaiming hope in the midst of suffering characterizes the Psalter and emerges as a distinctive marker of those who know God. The psalmists frequently rejoice in God’s promise never to forsake those who hope in him (Ps. 21:7; 22:4-5; 26:1; 31:6, 14; 52:8; 56:4, 11).[3] Their endurance in suffering was fueled by hope that they would again see the outworking of God’s unending, unfailing love. They were persuaded to hope in suffering because of the one whose goodness was unaffected by the forces that threatened them, and their hope was fueled as they constantly rehearsed this truth. They hoped not simply because they had a God, but because they knew precisely what he was like (Ps. 33, 36, 100, 117, 118, 136). The Psalmists, and the community of faith whom they represented, were unable to lose hope (Ps. 43:5).

The ability to express genuine hope in the midst of suffering is not unique to the psalmists; the biblical witness presents it as the paradigmatic experience of God’s people.[4] As he lamented the destruction of Jerusalem and the seeming hopelessness of rebellious Israel’s future, Jeremiah’s despair was turned to joy when he remembered God’s goodness: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: It is of the Lord’s great love that we are not consumed…‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him,’” (Lam. 3:21-24). When the prophet recalls the steadfast love and faithfulness of God and the commitments that he made to his people, a remarkable transformation occurs and the hopelessness of the previous chapters give birth to hope.[5] Though the circumstances causing his suffering were unchanged and his pain was no less tangible, the shift in his spiritual and emotional disposition is due to a shift in his perspective. The prophet’s bitterness and despair gave way to renewed hope when his vision cleared and he caught sight of the Lord and his “great love.”[6] As Heaven’s spokesman, Jeremiah had faithfully proclaimed God’s love and faithfulness to Israel, but sitting in the midst of deep suffering, he experienced it, and his head that hung in despair was then lifted in hope.

The book of Job famously paints the Bible’s first picture of a righteous, innocent sufferer who all but loses hope. Yet in the midst of Job’s confused and pained lament, the book is second only to the Psalms in its references to hope. Long before a robust hope of resurrection appears in the Bible, there is hope in the person of God (Job. 14:7, 10).[7] Though Job despaired of the brevity of life and the inexplicable depth of human suffering, he found the courage to confess, “Though he slay me,” said Job, “yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). God’s face was hidden and his ways looked dark, but Job’s knowledge of God and experience with him prevented total despair from consuming the God-fearing sufferer. Though Job’s friends were incorrect in their estimation that a righteous person is surely shielded from such an unimaginable amount of suffering, their proclamation that “there is hope” (Job 11:18) does attest to the truth that God does not abandon his people. Having given him room to grieve, God finally responds to Job’s cries not by dictating an explanation, but by revealing a vision of the one in whom Job could surely trust (Job 38-41). Before God restores Job’s life, he restores his hope, not by answering his complaints, but by answering the single cry of a heart shattered by pain (Job 42:5). Realizing how suffering had accentuated his mortality and weakness, Job despaired that God “is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,” and he cried out for “someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together” (Job 9:32a, 33); Job’s cry likely sounded pitiful and futile in the moment, but it was not. The Old Testament dynamically paints a picture of a God who is present and responsive in suffering, and though Job certainly never envisioned the astounding extent to which his plea is answered, this picture is ultimately given flesh and breath in Jesus Christ.

 

Divine Example of Hope in Suffering

Biblical hope in suffering is personified by the divine, innocent and victorious sufferer. Though fallen men try in vain to escape suffering, God actively pursued it. Though it was human freedom that chose, against the will of God,[8] the path of sin and suffering, the cross climaxes the biblical presentation of a God who shares in pain to offer humanity hope, deliver it from sin and rescue it back to himself (Col. 1:13). Though the concentrated echo of humanity’s cries would deafen mortal ears, “there is a place where there is an aggregate of human suffering and questioning. That place is the heart of God.”[9] The creator God is the suffering Savior who wept, grieved and sweated drops of blood in sorrowful dread of the inexplicable pain he would endure. Yet, “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2), he did endure. With assured expectation of his glorious exaltation, Jesus was sustained in suffering with unwavering hope that was born out of his unflinching, perfecting and unrelenting love (Phil. 2:8-11; Is. 53:10-11).

It is of optimum importance that Jesus bore both humanity’s sin and suffering on the cross. As James Stewart of the Church of Scotland reflected, “He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it,”[10] and he emerged on the other side as the single source of hope for those still journeying to join him.[11] Though the suffering that men experience is paralyzing at times, “Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God.”[12] The hope of complete reunion with the God of love promises that every cry will be answered with a greater response of glory on the day of reckoning. Jesus bowed under the weight of death in order to defeat it, so that rebellious humanity would only have to walk, for a short time, through its shadow (Ps. 23:4). He now compels his followers to consider his example and endure, with hope, as he did, for those who do so will not be put to shame (Phil. 3:10, 2:5; Rom. 5:3; Rom. 8:18).

It is the character of God, seen most clearly at the cross, that is both the inspiration and actualization of hope. The biblical narrative pays witness to hope that exists in both the objective sense, as that for which we hope, and the subjective sense, as an attitude of hope, and God is both the source and the anticipation of hope in suffering.[13] It is from the foundation of God’s character that hope arises, because hope is effected in the hearts of those who know the love of God (1 John 4:8, 18). God’s supreme love commissions hope to preserve a suffering humanity, and it is to Love himself that hope ultimately returns (Rom. 5:5). Love is both the road that hope travels and the destination it reaches (Ps. 25:3, 7; Ps. 31:24; Ps. 40:1, 11-12; Ps. 103:5-6). The love of God is the very foundation and anchor of hope, which awaits the future realization of glory, the full expression of God’s love.[14] Whereas faith will give way to sight and hope will give way to reality, love will never give way (1 Cor. 13:13).

Since hope is a crucial means of experiencing God’s love in suffering, the biblical narrative treats hope neither as a peripheral byproduct of robust Christianity, nor as the preferred attitude that may soften life’s blows. Rather, to endure with hope is the obligation of those who know “the God of hope,” the one who gave himself at the cross and gives of himself through his Spirit so that his people will attest to the reality of the faith and supernaturally anticipate his promises by “abound(ing) in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). It is God himself, and the word he speaks, that is the cause for hope, and he obligates himself to answer the hope which he inspires (Ps. 119:49; Ps. 33:4; Num. 23:19).[15] By virtue of his experience, God relates to suffering men, and by virtue of his character, he consoles them with hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] Though faith precedes hope, it does not necessarily guarantee it. For instance, the suffering Christian can simultaneously affirm by faith that “the universe was formed at God’s command” (Heb. 11:3) while despairing in hopelessness.

[2] The opening of the Psalter includes Psalm 2, a celebration of the Davidic King’s special relationship with God and cosmic rule. This Psalm is referenced and quoted at Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, as well as in Acts and Hebrews.

[3] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs 5, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 102.

[4] The book of Micah contains a beautiful example of the proclamation of hope in the midst of suffering. Though he can only see judgment and suffering for Israel (Micah 3-4), Micah had been assured of future salvation, so he proclaims his confidence that God would transform his current suffering: “But as for me, I will look in hope to the Lord, for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light” (Micah 7:7-8). Though he suffered, he was anchored in God’s promises.

[5] F.B. Huey Jr. Jeremiah, Lamentations NAC 16 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 473.

[6] Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 473.

[7] Job lments, “At least there is hope תִּ֫קְוָ֥ה for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail…but a man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more” (Job 14:7, 10).

[8] Genesis 2:17; 2 Peter 3:9.

[9] Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002), xiii.

[10] Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 174.

[11] “We who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf,” (Heb. 6:18b-20a).

[12] Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Penguin Group, 2013), 181.

[13] Ibid., 522.

[14] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 651.                     

[15] VanGemeren, Psalms, 746.

 

Fear of Giants, or Faith in God?

 John Martin - Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still - Google Art Project

John Martin - Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still - Google Art Project

Giants threaten.  How do you respond to them?  With fear?  Or with faith?  In July 1739 John Wesley was just getting untracked in outdoor preaching.  Joining with George Whitefield the two began advancing England’s eighteenth century awakening.  Giants menaced their mission.   Bishop Joseph Butler was aghast at their unauthorized preaching.  He confronted John Wesley. Bishop Butler was no slouch.  He was the Bishop of Bristol and the renowned author of The Analogy, a hallmark defense of orthodoxy.  Their interview was often in my mind as I frequented Bristol City Library just yards away from the once episcopal residence.  The Bishop spoke plainly to John Wesley:  ‘You have no business here; you are not commissioned to preach in this diocese, therefore I advise thee to go hence.’

How John Wesley would respond to the bishop would have historic consequences. Would he respond with fear?  Would he stop offering Jesus Christ to church outsiders?  Would he respond in faith?  Would he trust God for the call on His life? Would he continue to preach salvation in Jesus Christ in the highways and by-ways?  What ‘giants’ threaten you?  What threats would deter you from fulfilling God’s purposes in your life?  Are you responding with fear? Or with faith?

Moses and the children of Israel are in the Sinai desert at the borders of the Promised Land.  Moses sends twelve men into Canaan to assess the land.  They bring back a mixed report.  The report’s positive is the land is great.  It flows ‘with milk and honey’.  The report’s negative is the people are great too!  They are physically strong.   Their towns are fortified.  The people are of ‘great size’.  Literally, they are ‘men of measurement’:  ‘Giants!

The majority of Israel’s spies came to this conclusion:  ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.’  In some sense, this was the right conclusion.  They ‘were not able’.  The Canaanites had well-defended towns.  They were more powerful people.  Israel was ‘grasshoppers’ next to these giant Canaanites.

Jesus was talking to his disciples about how hard it is for the rich to be saved.  He told them it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom.  He disciples shot back, ‘Who then can be saved?’  Jesus led them to recognize salvation is not the province of humans, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible’.  We are not able!

King Jehoshaphat had Moabites and Ammonites threatening war.  He stood at the temple with the Israelites assembled together praying to God, ‘For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us’.  We are not able!

The kernel of the Gospel, Martin Luther insisted, included this point:  ‘In fact, we are not sick and in need of healing.  We are dead and in need of resurrecting.’  Luther said if we don’t recognize we need eternal life from the hand of God, we remain in our sins and are eternally dead.  We are not able!

The children of Israel came to the right conclusion but made the wrong response.   They said ‘we are not able’ and responded with fear.  They weighed the strength of the towns.  They noted the size of the inhabitants.  They feared.  Fear supplants God with the threat.  It deifies the threat.  The threat carries more gravitas than God.  The Israelites responded with fear to Canaan saying, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we…Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword’?  Let us choose a captain and return to Egypt.

Had not God told them many times what he told the Israelite spies before he sent them out, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites…’  The Israelites overvalued the threat and undervalued God. 

Remember when disciple Peter got out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus.  When Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink.

A second respond to the conclusion ‘we are not able’ is faith.  Both Caleb and Joshua saw the same threat as the other Israelite spies.  They responded to the Canaan giants with faith.  They believed God was able.   Caleb said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’  Joshua joined in with Caleb and said, ‘If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us.’  Faith puts a threat in God’s perspective.  Yes, we are not able…but God is.

When Bishop Butler said to John Wesley, ‘You have no business here’, John Wesley stood his ground.  He argued that since he was a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, he had a commission to preach the word of God in any part of the Church of England.  Therefore, he did not conceive that in preaching in the brickyards in Bristol that ‘I break any human law’. 

This was John Wesley’s argument not ecclesial policy!  The greater point for John Wesley was if the Bishop’s protestation prevailed, he would effectively not be able to offer Christ outside church walls!  This would annul God’s call on his life.  Giant of a bishop or not, John Wesley told a friend, ‘God being my helper, I will obey Him (Jesus Christ) still, and, if I suffer for it, His will be done.’  John Wesley did not fear Bishop Butler.  He put His faith in Jesus Christ.

The threat of giants can be watershed moments.  Israel’s refusal to go into Canaan was a momentous watershed moment.  The children of Israel listened to their fears. They paid dearly for it.  After this, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  Worse yet, they never made it into the Promised Land.  Caleb and Joshua believed God.  They did enter Canaan.  John Wesley believed God rather than fear Bishop Butler.  Consequently, he entered a historic ministry of preaching Jesus Christ to persons who never darkened a sanctuary door.

Is there a ‘giant’ threatening you?  ‘We are not able’…but God is.  Respond not with fear.  Respond with faith.  The way of fear leads to the way of curse.  The way of faith leads to finding your providential way!

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Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Dead but not Deaf

 Photo by  Greg Rakozy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

The lord of Saxony Germany, Frederick the Elector, saved Martin Luther from execution.  He protected Luther for a year in his castle.  In the coming years, Frederick died, grieving Luther.  Luther moaned, ‘Death is oh so bitter – not so much to the dying as to the living whom the dead leave behind.’ ( Luther, Metaxas, 340)  Many of us have grieved over the death of a loved one.  We know the pangs of being left behind.  Good Friday and Easter Sunday are just passing in the rear view mirror.  Like me, maybe you have reflected on death and resurrection.  Let me share a Scriptural text that has consoled me in the wee hours of the night on death and life.

Jesus speaks it to you and me as he did to the onlookers at the Pool of Bethsaida.  He just healed a man lame for thirty eight years.  He says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’

Jesus introduces his word saying, ‘Very truly’ or, ‘verily, verily’ as in the King James Version.  In the New Testament text it is literally, ‘amen’, ‘amen’.  A teacher says, ‘Class, y’all listen up’.  Perk up your ears.  Listen carefully.  Trust what I’m going to tell you.  It is the truth. Guaranteed.   You can ‘take it to the bank’.  It will be on the exam.  

‘The hour comes’.  In fact, ‘the hour is now.’  The tense is ‘progressive present’.  The ‘hour’ was present when Jesus spoke.  The ‘hour’ is still present - at this very moment.  It is a special hour, a rare time. It will not always be here.  It is here now.  It is the juncture of circumstances that have been ripening to a purpose - n o w.   It is five minutes to midnight Christmas Eve.  You’ve been preparing for the stroke of midnight for weeks.  You have been anticipating it for months.  It has now arrived!

What hour is it?  The hour ‘when the dead will hear’.  Has not the hour for the dead past?  Why should the ‘dead’ concern us?  Jesus is referring to you and me.  Jesus can use the word ‘dead’ for both the biologically and the ‘spiritually’ dead.  Here Jesus is speaking of the spiritually dead.  It is not applicable to the biologically dead.  Have you ever thought of yourself as ‘dead’?  Every person either was, or, is, dead.  It is the default human state.  The apostle Paul tells the Ephesian Christians to remember ‘you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked’.  We either were, or, are, dead?  Can I own it?

My wife Pam lived in Haiti.  Her Haitian friend Vivi knew a Haitian girl the witchdoctors made a ‘zombie’.  The witchdoctors made this girl a ‘zombie’ by giving her a potion – a powdered drug.  It puts the victim in a paralyzed state, a ‘zombie’ state.  Though she was fully conscious, she was buried alive on top of the ground.  At night the witchdoctor took her out of the grave.  She did not die.  But she was not the same. She lived in a disoriented state.  She was what the Haitians call a’ zombie’ – the walking dead.  You are not a Haitian zombie.  But you were or, are, the walking ‘dead’.

The hour comes ‘when the dead will hear.’  Who can speak to the dead?  Is it not a contradiction in terms?  The dead are dead!  Are they not incapable of either having sounds directed at them or receiving them?  There is One who speaks to them.  He spoke to the possessed woman, Mary Magdalene and to Zacchaeus. What amazes me is He even wants to speak to the dead! Jesus says, ‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners.’

What will the dead hear?  ‘The hour is now when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God.’ The dead will hear the Voice of the Son of God.  Last summer my recent retirement was haunting me.  In the wee hours, retirement felt too much like death.  I was meditating on this phrase ‘the dead will hear’.  I cried to Jesus as a suppliant in the dark, ‘I want to hear your Voice…speak to me…I want to hear…I want to live’.  Hallelujah!  He speaks to the dead!  What is the effect of his speaking to the dead? 

‘The dead will hear …and those who hear will live’.  ‘Will live’ is contingent.  Living is dependent on listening.  The dead will hear with their ears.  Sounds will go in.  They must listen with their hearts.  They must consent to, own, obey, keep, treasure, and actively trust in what is said.  Those who hear say, ‘Yes, I will!’

I will never forget Harry R. Truman.  This is the other Harry Truman.  Harry and his wife operated for forty years the Spirit Lake Mountain Lodge at Mt. Saint Helen’s, Washington.  In 1980 the once dormant volcano began volcanic activity.  Scientists began to caution an explosion was imminent.  Officials warned people to get off the mountain.  ‘This is an extremely dangerous place to be’ said a USGS volcanologist.  Harry Truman was not going to hear of it.  He said, “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow…But I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up…the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.’  Law officials were incensed he refused their last warning.  The next morning the entire northern flank blew off.  Harry was never heard of again.

Jesus’ word to mortals is heartening:  ‘those who hear will live’!  They will live now, and into eternity.  Jesus promises, ‘Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life’.   Be sure of this - you can take it to the bank- those who hear will live! I want to live!  I want to live now!  I want to live into eternal life!  Don’t you?!  Repent, and put all your confidence in Jesus’ word.  Martin Luther’s 13 year old daughter Magdalena lay dead in her coffin.  Luther said, ‘Go ahead and close it! She will rise again on the last day’.  After the coffin was carried away, he said, ‘Do not be sorrowful.  I have sent a saint to heaven.’

Do not be dead - and deaf!

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

The Always Scandalous Cross

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The pagan Celsus was the earliest infamous, literary critic of Jesus Christ.  He blistered Jesus for suffering on the cross. He railed against Christians’ affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son – even God himself.  When Jesus was on the cross, why did he receive no assistance from the Father? Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Underneath Celsus’ criticisms are assumptions humankind has shared across the ages.  If God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so ignominiously? Would not God have foreseen such a tragedy and planned to avoid it? Furthermore, would the all-powerful God allow his power to be impugned and subverted by plotting priests, and his supremacy to be bested by Roman power?  These questions and assumptions may be roadblocks for some in considering Jesus’ death. Let me consider them briefly.

The explanatory meaning of the Cross takes Celsus’ assumptions and turns them on their head!  Scrutinizing Celsus’ criticisms gives us a singular portal into God and the cross. First, if God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so scandalously?  Yes. The foreordained coming of a suffering servant-champion who would redeem humankind from the ghastly effects of the Fall begins as a thin red line in Genesis chapter three and runs through Isaiah chapter 53.  The suffering and death which Adam and Eve’s sin caused has to be born. God’s coming Servant Prince takes this sin with its suffering upon himself in order to redeem humankind from it. Neither is God’s dignity offended nor is He blindsided by his Son’s cross.  God knows with full intention the Serpent ‘will strike his heel’. ‘He was crushed for our iniquities’ and ‘by his wounds we are healed.’ Celsus says a god knowing this would not rush headlong into it. Oh no? Since when do champions, much less God, shrink from a noble end charged with pain and suffering?  The very confrontation with suffering and victory over it is what gives champions their character. Olympic Half Pipe icon, snowboarder Shaun White, overcame a devastating, face-altering snowboarding accident last fall to win a gold medal in the 2018 Olympics. This made him an even stronger champ. Contrary to weakness and cowardice, Jesus’ conquering of the cross demonstrates the very heroic redemption of suffering and shame.

Take another of Celsus’ criticisms of Jesus. If Jesus were God’s Son, why did he receive no assistance from his Father?  Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Celsus deliberately echoes the chief priests’ mockery as they looked on the dying Jesus.  ‘He saved others; is he unable to save himself? He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now….’ In my youth, I wondered the same thing.

Power is the ability to get something done.  It may also be the ability to choose not to do something.  Would not the killer by restraining himself from the impulse to gun down seventeen Stoneman Douglas’ students have shown greater power than by pulling the trigger?  Choosing not to save himself on the cross enabled Jesus to demonstrate more power. Power is also the rate at which work gets done. A Corvette ZO6, going from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds, gets work done faster than an Aston MartinV12 Vantage that takes 4.1 seconds.  Jesus could have saved himself in three hours by coming down from the cross. In those three hours he would have saved only himself from death. He would have saved only himself from death but not conquered it. However, by waiting some thirty nine hours till Sunday morning to rise from the grave, he conquered death, saved millions, and all creation!  Which is the greater display of power?

Celsus’ attacks perennially play to the lust for a momentary flash of brute muscle.   The prideful lust for superiority and the diabolical wish to cut God down to size are perpetual temptations.  Twenty one centuries later, what Salvation Army founder William Booth said remains true, ‘It is precisely because He would not come down that we believe in Him.’

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Wonder Bread

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In the eighteenth century, a French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote a book on the pleasures of cuisine.  He made this memorable argument:  ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ The food you eat is directly linked to your physical and mental state.  Yes, tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you what you are:  dead or alive.  Listen to what Jesus tells you: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.(John 6:51, 53-54)  This is a mouthful.

Jesus equates himself with ‘bread’.  Then, He connects his being bread with His flesh and blood.  Let consider:  First, what does Jesus mean by comparing and contrasting himself to breadSecond, how do you eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood?

What does Jesus mean by saying He is the ‘bread of life’?  He is comparing himself to ‘bread’.  ‘Bread’ had special meaning for a Jew.  Consider this background.  Jesus has just fed the thousands with a few fish and five barley loaves.  This reminded the Jews of how God fed their ancestors in the wilderness after the Exodus.  God gave them bread-like substance ‘manna’.  To the Jew, bread was a staple of life.  Bread and drink were life’s two ‘must – haves’.  Meat and vegetables were mere supplements.

In the wilderness God’s people experienced great hunger and need.  They lacked the ‘must-haves’ (Exodus 16: 3).  They learned God wanted them to trust Him to supply their need.  ‘You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing’ says Psalm 145: 16.  Likewise, as ‘the bread of life’, Jesus wants persons to see their great need.  He also wants us to trust Him to supply our need.

Jesus shows up in the Galilean shoreline hills multiplying bread and fish.  He says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.’  On the one hand, He likens himself to ordinary bread.  On the other hand, He also distinguishes Himself from ordinary bread.  I prayed this morning, ‘Thank you for this bread that keeps us alive today; feed us also with the bread that will keep us alive forever.’

Ordinary ‘bread’ is necessary for natural life.   Jesus is the bread necessary for eternal life.  He is not just another loaf of bread.  He is ‘wonder bread’.  In 1931, the ‘Wonder bread’ Company did a ‘blind promotion’:  they marketed their new bread with an ad campaign that simply said: ‘Wonder is coming May 21’.  Wonder came to the shores of Galilee.  Jesus is distinct from every other bread – even manna.  He is bread from another world.  He says, ‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died’ (John 6:48).  In contrast, ‘This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die’.  In fact, ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.’  Do you want to live forever?  Try this wonder bread.  It is of a different origin, of a different essence, and of a different reality.  He is the Bread of heaven!

After Jesus fed the thousands, the Jews searched for him.  They saw in him a perpetual bread machine.  Crank out bread like that and we won’t have to plow, or plant, or reap.  We can have an unlimited supply of loaves of bread!  Yippee!  The woman at the well wanted similar: endless well water.

Jesus called them out.  “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves.’ They wanted endless materiality in this world.  Jesus had something better in mind.  Ordinary bread won’t keep you from dying.  The Bread of life will.  My sixty one year old first cousin Elizabeth Archer lay in ICU in Lewis Gayle Feb 23.  Growing up she wouldn’t eat green beans or vegetables.  On my first visit to her I said, ‘Archer, I brought you some string beans.’  She said, ‘No Brussel sprouts?!’  No food on earth could keep her alive.  In fact, Dr. Haney said there is nothing we can give Archer to keep her alive.  Jesus gives bread that whoever eats won’t die.  Give me this Bread!  You too?

Jesus said, ‘You can believe this.  It is certain, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’  Jesus transposed ‘bread’ into His ‘flesh and blood’.  His statement is startling.  It’s downright repulsive: ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’.  Here He doesn’t even try to soften our squeamishness.  His statement is even more graphic than you imagine.  Jesus uses the word for ‘eat’ that suggests the audible sounds of an animal munching and gnawing its food.  Critics slam Christianity for this imagery.  Contemporary atheist Sam Harris says if you take the Bible literally you’d be a cannibal.  An ancient second century church critic already said this.  He told Christians: ‘Nobody likes you…we hear that you are cannibals.’

Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  What is he telling us to do?  He can’t mean we are to eat his arms and legs raw, baked or fried!  There wasn’t enough of his flesh to go around to his 12 disciples, much more for the world. The word ‘eat’ is used figuratively.  If you ‘swallow’ an insult, you submit to it.  If you ‘eat up’ a novel, you can’t put it down.  In the early American colonies they’d say ‘to eat earth’.  ‘To eat earth’ meant to ‘possess oneself of the land’.   ‘To eat’ can mean ‘to take something into you’, make it all yours.

To ‘eat’ Jesus flesh and drink His blood can mean ‘to take Jesus into you’; to possess Him; and to make all of Him all of yours.  Having said this, Jesus’s command to eat and drink Him is more than just a figure.  It may not be literal, but it is objectively real.  To take into you and possess the flesh and blood Jesus shed physically on the Cross really procures God‘s forgiveness; it really releases you from the law of death; it really makes you friends with God; and it really invests you with eternal life.

To eat His flesh and drink His blood then equals to believe in Him (John 6: 29).  Jesus says, ‘This is the work of God that you believe in Him’.  To eat Him is to believe in him is to take Him into yourself is to own Jesus in all He is and does for you.  It is to possess Him and His flesh and blood given for you on His atoning cross.

When you eat a Porterhouse steak, your body breaks down the steer’s DNA.  Your body then rearranges the animal DNA into human DNA.  The DNA is integrated into your body.  The animal’s protein becomes your energy to power your bodily processes.

If you will eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood, you will believe in Him.  You will take Him into you so He becomes identified with your body and you with His.  You become united with His death so that His death is yours.  You become united with Him in His resurrection so His resurrection is yours.  His death releases you from the judgment of death for your sin.  His resurrection invests you with eternal life.

What you eat determines what you are: dead or alive!  Repent of your sin; believe in Jesus Christ and eat to live forever!

 

2 Comments

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

United or Untied?

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The second largest denomination after the Southern Baptists, The United Methodist Church (UMC), is schismatized.  For almost a decade some bishops and pastors have been defying church law and electing, ordaining and solemnizing the marriages of homosexuals. The issue finally came to a tipping point in 2016 when the church’s ruling body, General Conference, formed a commission to provide a plan to the bishops to resolve the matter in 2019. Last November 2017, President Bishop Bruce R. Ough envisioned the way forward in his address to the Council of Bishop’s (COB).   In his message, ‘In Love with Union’, he said the church may be divided theologically, but unity can trump it. He repeated the word ‘unity’ no less than twenty five times.   He told the Bishops, ‘I have focused nearly all of this President’s address on the theme of maintaining unity.’ He reminded them what the COB told General Conference in 2016 when they formed the Commission on a Way Forward.  The COB is committed to maintaining the unity of The United Methodist Church.[i] Bishop Ough is telegraphing that unity is the guiding principle which will determine the proposed model the COB will offer as a way forward to the 2019 General Conference.

This focus on unity prompted a question in me, ‘What does the New Testament say about ‘unity’?  In the following I want to consider three New Testament words regarding ‘unity’.  I will organize them under two headings, horizontal and vertical unity.   In light of this, I want to show how the prevailing talk of unity leaves out the most crucial factor in the unity equation.

The word ‘unity’ (enotas) appears but four times and the term ‘united’ seven in the Holy Scriptures.  This is few in comparison to such key terms as ‘truth’ which appears approximately seventy times.  In each of the four occurrences ‘unity’ speaks of the saints in Christ’s Body having a oneness of spirit.  Peter exemplifies its meaning when he exhorts believers to have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Pet 3:8). This ‘unity’ is horizontal.  It speaks of ‘unity’ on the human plane.  It talks of human inter-relationships and the nature of saints’ attitude, mind and purpose among themselves.  This is the plane in which Bishop Ough operates.

The word ‘united’ is used to mean being ‘joined’.  Persons are ‘united in love’ if they are connected and brought into close association with another. One use of ‘united’ speaks of our being ‘united’ to the Lord.   This conception of our being united to the Lord is more fully expressed by another term which I am coming to now.  (1 Corinthians 6:17, Colossians 2:2).

I asked myself, is this all the Bible has to say about ‘unity’ and being bound together as one?  The Bible talks also of ‘unity’ in speaking of ‘being one’.   The Greek New Testament word for ‘one’ is eis.  Eis can mean the quality of being one in mind, feeling, opinion, purpose and spirit.  Indeed, the word ‘one’ is the Bible’s richest word for ‘being one’ or ‘unity’.

Let me organize ‘one’ under two large headings: (1) ‘vertical’/ transcendent oneness (2) horizontal oneness.  What do I mean by ‘vertical’ or transcendent oneness?  This is the oneness the believer experiences in ‘being one’ in the Father and Son.  The believer can be one in the Father and Son as the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son.  Jesus prays in John 17:21, ‘…that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….’  In John17:23, Jesus prays, ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….’  This oneness and unity comes only by believing in Jesus Christ.  ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….’ (John 17: 20).  Only through saving faith may the believer be one with the Father and Son.

Constituent of being one in the Father and Son is sharing: sharing their glory and the Son’s blood.  Jesus prays, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ (John 17: 22).  Believers share also in Christ’s blood.  Paul says, ‘The cup of blessing…is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)

Being one with the Lord is further fleshed out by the Apostle Paul.  Being one with Him is being ‘united to the Lord’ and one spirit with him.  Paul says, ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.’ (1 Corinthians 6: 17).    The word ‘united’ is ‘kollao’.  ‘Kollao’ means ‘to cling close to something or someone’ or ‘to come into close, intimate contact with’.  ‘Kollao’ can picture sexual union where ‘the two shall be one flesh’ embodying the higher, spiritual union of believer with Christ.  Being one spirit with the Lord means the ‘believer’s “spirit” has been joined indissolubly with Christ’[ii]

One would like to go on, but suffice to say, the believers’ oneness with the Lord is oneness and unity of the first order.  Oneness as revealed by the Lord Jesus originates in being one in the Father and the Son.   Vertical, transcendent unity issues in horizontal unity.  Grace through faith shares in the blood of Christ reconciling antitheses – uncircumcision and circumcision, and Gentile and Jew.  ‘In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…’ (Ephesians 2: 13-16)  We, the Body of Christ ‘though many, are one body’.  By grace through faith we share in Jesus’ blood (1 Corinthians 12: 12).  Each in the Body is one because each is reconciled with God through Christ.  Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one (John 17: 21) only works in this light.  The reconciled are many different members with different gifts in one Body because each is one with the Father and Son through the Spirit.  The meaning of ‘we who are many are one body’ only now has reality and power.

This is a brief and inadequate description of ‘being one’.   Nevertheless, I hope it is enough to contrast the biblical witness on first-order unity with ‘unity’ being promoted by UMC leadership today.  The prevailing view of the vanguard leading the way forward virtually ignores the vertical union. The stress is horizontally on a theologically diverse church (‘the many’) being ‘one’.  Yes, so the argument goes, we may differ on the sufficiency and authority of Holy Scripture, on the nature of God and Jesus Christ, on the nature of salvation, and on human sexuality.  These should not divide us because we the ‘many’ are one Body bound by a common purpose and mission.  Do we believe in Jesus Christ so that we are one in the Father and in the Son?

The prevailing view is keeping alive yesteryear’s conception of ‘theological pluralism’.  ‘Theological pluralism’ is doctrinal diversity in unity.  It harks back to theologian Albert Outler’s revision of John Wesley’s theological approach.   ‘Revision’ it is because it is a misuse of John Wesley’s approach.  Indeed, John Wesley argued for unity on theological ‘essentials’ and liberty on theological ‘opinions’.  However, he argued for it among a pre-selected group whom he knew was already united by an inner experience of conviction of sin and of saving faith in Jesus Christ.  ‘Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God over all, blessed forever?  Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified?’ he asked those of ‘catholic spirit’.[iii]

What Albert Outler revised and, subsequently, several generations of pluralists have ignored, is that ‘unity’ begins with intimate union with the God/Man Jesus Christ and the Father through saving faith.  Vertical oneness cannot be assumed or ignored.  It is first-order business.  Horizontal oneness only works in unity with vertical oneness!

Martin Luther became almost violently exasperated with ‘the Prince of the Humanists’ scholar Erasmus.  Luther felt Erasmus with great subtlety and tenacity promoted church unity but neglected Jesus Christ.[iv] What value is ‘unity’ if we ignore Jesus Christ?  What value is ‘unity’ if we are not united first with the Savior Jesus Christ?  No transcendent union, no unity!

 

[i] Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops The United Methodist Church President’s Address: ‘In Love with Union’, Nov. 6, 2017, http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/news-media/press-center/documents/BishopOughAddressNov62017.pdf

[ii]F. F. Bruce, gen. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 19 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), The First Epistle to the Corinthians by Gordon D. Fee,  p. 260.

[iii] Frank Baker, editor in chief, The Works of John Wesley, 34 vols. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1975 - ), Vol. 2: Sermons II, ed. by Albert C. Outler, pp.  87, 90, 94.  See, Howe O. Tom Thomas, ‘John Wesley: Concept of “Connection” and Theological Pluralism’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 36: 2(Fall, 2001), p. 98.

[iv] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), p. 368.

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

 Photo by  Hieu Vu Minh  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

It may surprise those outside of the field of biblical studies that there has been intense debate in recent decades over the meaning of the handful of passages in the Bible which seem to condemn same-sex sexual activity. These passages, sometimes referred to as “clobber” texts, since it is often said they have been used to “clobber” LGBT persons (and they unfortunately have), have maintained a fairly stable interpretive history (at least as far as these things go) in the church until the sexual revolution resulted in their revisitation. It may also be surprising that with several of these passages there are legitimate questions regarding the meanings of words and phrases, as the terminology is not always completely clear, even from the context of the passage. Thus there have been some good reasons for the debate, even though there have also been some overly-creative interpretive approaches attempted as well. Having done a fair amount of reading on the matter (though by no means considering myself an expert on all things related), I remain convinced that the texts do indeed forbid same-sex sexual activity.

Notice I did not say they forbid “homosexuality.” The way that term is used today usually refers to sexual orientation, or to one’s basic sense of attraction. While conversion therapy in its heyday sought to redirect homosexual attractions into heterosexual attractions, most now recognize that the therapy largely did not work, and that orientation is not easily changed.[1] Though some still suggest the possibility of conversion therapy’s success,[2] most within the evangelical community have abandoned it. While I do not think the Bible speaks clearly (if at all) about “sexual orientation,” it does speak (and I think with greater clarity) concerning same-sex sexual activity.

To recognize this distinction is to recognize a difference between our context and the biblical context(s). The Bible was written in places, times, and cultures vastly different from our own. When we come to the text, our goal should be to interpret it, as much as we are able, in its own context rather than ours. This does not remove its relevance for today’s Church, but it does mean we must consider that relevance with a great deal of thought and care. Though I can develop the case only briefly here, I wish to suggest that it is that very ancient context which makes it highly plausible that the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself, would have understood same-sex sexual activity as sinful.

Texts Addressing Same-Sex Sexual Activity

First, and perhaps most famously, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 state:

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22, NASB).

If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them (Lev 20:13).

Leviticus 18 and 20 are both concerned with inappropriate forms of sexual activity. Forbidden here are various forms of incest, adultery, and bestiality. The basis for the condemnation of this behavior is that it is an abomination (Heb: ʿēbâ; Gr: bdelugma). This term, which has been argued is restricted to a cultic/purity usage and thus is not applicable to Christians, refers to something offensive to God which makes a person unclean. Such activity would defile Israel in ways the surrounding nations had been defiled (cf. Lev 18:4ff.). Language of “clean” and “unclean” is less common in the New Testament than the Old, and is indeed transformed in a sense (e.g., Mark 7:19; Acts 10:11-15; 1 Tim 4:1-5), but this in and of itself does not mean the entire passage is no longer applicable (more on that below). The term (ʿēbâ; bdelugma) also carries a similar ethical connotation in Revelation 17:4, where it is connected with “sexual immorality” (more on that notion below as well).

Often what constitutes “sin” in the Old Testament (and the New) is that which disrupts the intended function given by God. We learn in Levicitus that it is not just the individual, but the community and the land itself, which would be corrupted by these forbidden activities. There are communal and ecological consequences for disrupting the divinely established parameters for human flourishing. Just as God is “otherly,” his people must act “otherly,” distinguished from the surrounding societies, as he has set them apart to do (cf. Lev 20:26).

Second, while it is frequently claimed that Jesus is silent on issues concerning same-sex sexuality, there are implicit indications in Jesus’ words which indicate otherwise. Two texts (among a few others) in the Gospels seem to point in a different direction.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Mark 10:6-9, NASB).

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt 19:3-12, NASB).

What makes us think Jesus here is implicitly (NOT explicitly) suggesting same-sex sexual activity, or more broadly, any form of sexual activity outside of a male-female marital relationship (which, for Jesus, would include sexual activity among the illegitimately divorced)[3] is condemned? If we remind ourselves that Jesus was a first century Jew, who grew up within Second Temple Judaism and shared major affinities with Judaism[4], we can see that Jesus shared a common thread with traditional Jewish beliefs about sexual activities. These beliefs, largely derived from Leviticus 18-20, among other places, viewed all forms of incest, adultery, and same-sex sexual activityas causing defilement and out of step with the divinely intended pattern. They were actions which, if not repented of and “put off,” merited consequences, both immediate and eschatological. As Preston Sprinkle has summarized succinctly, “Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations.”[5] Jesus, within the context of first-century Judaism, and only validating male-female marriage (cf. Mark 10:6-9) or celibacy (cf. Matt 19:10-12) as the available options, stood squarely within that Jewish context. There is no hint that Jesus deviated from the traditional, widespread Jewish belief. None.

Much also has been made of the Pauline passages which touch on the subject of same-sex sexual activity (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10). We should remind ourselves, before attending briefly to these texts, that Paul shared this same first century Jewish context with Jesus. If Paul deviated significantly from the standard, traditional Jewish sexual ethics, we would expect to find a great deal of effort and care exerted in order to accomplish that end. What we find instead are numerous affirmations of that ethic.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom 1:26-27, NASB).

Perhaps the most famous Pauline condemnation of same-sex sexual activity comes here in Romans 1. There are, however, a handful of real interpretive issues related to this passage. Some have suggested that 1:18-32 actually sets out the opinion of Paul’s interlocutor, and thus is not even Paul himself speaking.[6] Romans is frequently recognized as a diatribe, where Paul interacts with his interlocutor (whether imagined or real), and so it is possible that he presents his interlocutor’s position here (an ancient rhetorical strategy known as prosopopoeia) at the beginning of the letter and begins his own response in 2:1. We do not have time to chase that rabbit here, but suffice it to say that if that is the case, Romans 1:26-27 loses considerable (i.e., all of its) force as it relates to our question about same-sex sexual activity. Second, there is also the question of what Paul means here by exchanging natural relations with unnatural ones. It has been suggested that Paul has something in mind here other than consensual same-sex sexual activity. If, however, pederasty, oppressive same-sex practices, or cultic sexual practices are in view, Paul has used rather obscure terminology to indicate this when clearer words were available to him. There would be clearer ways to express that idea than the way Paul has done here. That withstanding, legitimate questions persist concerning this particular text and its relation to our topic. In my estimation, other passages in Paul are clearer.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31, NASB).

In terms of a positive example, Paul (who I take to be the voice of Ephesians) uses male-female marriage as a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church and also affirms here the male-female nature of that union. For Paul, like Jesus, there was no consideration given to recognize same-sex unions or to validate same-sex sexual relations.

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:8-10, NASB).

The NASB does not render the key words here as clearly as it could. The terms here are likewise debated. The Greek word for “homosexual” is arsenokoitais. The term here is a compound of two terms found in Leviticus 20:13 and refers to a man who engages in sexual activity with another man. This same term appears also in 1 Corinthians 6, where it is paired with another debated term.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11, NASB)

Here again a certain deficiency plagues the translations chosen by the NASB (I used it here simply because I used it elsewhere). The words for “effeminate” and “homosexuals” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. The terms in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both have been questioned as to whether they refer to same-sex sexual activity in general, or to the practice of pederasty in the ancient world, where older men would engage in sexual activity with boys.  Both BDAG and Louw-Nida (two standard NT lexicons) suggest the terms refer to the passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in a male same-sex sexual encounter. The term arsenokoitai was likely coined by Paul on the basis of Leviticus 20:13, which suggests Paul has in mind here the context of the Law of Moses rather than Greco-Roman practices. Nothing in the context indicates Paul has a more specific, restricted application of the term in mind, and his inclusion of sexually immoral persons (pornoi), idolators, and adulterers, strengthens the possibility that Leviticus is informing his thinking all the more. The other major category mentioned in Leviticus is incest, which Paul has addressed quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it seems quite plausible that Paul is bringing Leviticus 18-20 to bear on the Corinthian congregation in order to set out the proper sexual pattern for followers of Jesus. It seems no small coincidence that Paul also lays out two possibilities in the next chapter (1 Cor 7) for his audience. All forms of sexual immorality (porneia) must be avoided, and the two options set forth are male-female marriage among believers and celibacy. Like Jesus, and like the Jewish world around them, Paul imagines no other alternatives for sexual activity.

This all raises a flag for how the debate often goes concerning how we should understand Leviticus’ application for today. Because Christians often view the Law in negative terms (i.e., it represents unattainable moral perfection) or as something which was discarded (though numerous NT texts indicate otherwise), there is a challenge in understanding how Leviticus might be relevant for a Christian’s sexual behavior. The question of the role of the Law is a complex and sticky one, and I cannot do complete justice to it here. The fact of the matter is that Jews continued to keep the Law. The whole point of the Acts 15 council was to consider what expectations Gentile Jesus-followers should keep and which ones they were exempted from following. Their conclusion is that Gentile Jesus-followers were to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood or meat from animals which had been strangled. In other words, no keeping the feasts, no circumcision, no following Jewish purity rights, etc. (all of which are issues which Paul addresses in his letters, meaning some Jews apparently did not get the news or ignored it). This does not mean the Law did not apply to them, but rather that the Law was not what centrally defined their identity. Jesus did. Throughout Paul’s letters, we find Paul grounding both his instruction and ethical teachings in the Old Testament in general, and the Law specifically. This issue provides a clear example. Paul expected the ethical guidelines concerning sexual behavior to still be binding on Gentile Christians, which meant incest, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions were forbidden. This was true of Jews and was to be true of Gentiles as well. Leviticus 18-20 still applied.

Furthermore, the term porneia, which we have mentioned several times now, was a bit of a “catch all” term for all kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. It, along with its cognate terms, is used 55 times in the NT. It is used in various places in the NT to refer to adultery, prostitution, and incest, yet is also distinguished at times from those categories, indicating again that it could be a bit of an “umbrella” term for inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., that occurring outside of a male-female marriage union). All this should weigh heavily in favor of the fact that both Paul and Jesus very likely viewed all forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions as sinful and forbidden.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who supports same-sex unions, notes,

The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says [i.e., the NT authors condemned same-sex sexual activity]. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself.”[7]

Johnson argues from the movement of God in human experiences, using the analogy of the Spirit-led work of the inclusion of the Gentiles to what we see occurring in same-sex relationships today. He does not see a basis in the NT itself for declaring same-sex sexual activity as good. Rather, he suggests the cultural movement afoot today and the stories of LGBT persons show us that the opinions of the NT writers are no longer valid for our understanding of sexual ethics today.

For those who do not accept the Bible as authoritative, discussing exegetical nuances (see Parts 1 and 2) likely offers little reason to change their view. I would not expect it to, nor would that be my intent. However, for those who do believe in the authority of the Bible for faith and yet would challenge its prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior, I think we must ask, in what sense, then, does the Bible offer any ethical norms? In other words, if cultural movements and individual stories can override the prevailing opinion of Second Temple Jews (the NT’s context), Jesus and Paul (the NT’s central sources of doctrinal information), the earliest “Christians,” and the majority view of the Church throughout its history, in what sense can we find any ethical norms in Scripture or tradition? Is it all fair game and to be redefined as culture changes? Would the same principle apply, for example, to illegitimate divorce, or lying, or stealing, or drunkenness?

A possible retort might be here that what is being argued for (same-sex unions) falls under the hermeneutic of “love,” which Jesus (Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:37-39; Luke 10:27), Paul (Rom 13:8-10 ; Gal 5:14), and James (Jas 2:8-13) all affirm as central to Christian obedience. However, these commands come from a combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love neighbor). The irony here is Jesus, Paul, and James affirm the validity of Leviticus 19 for Christian practice. If their basis for establishing the centrality of love for Christian obedience is rooted in Leviticus 19, would we expect them to then be ignoring Leviticus 18 and 20? Clearly not. If these three chapters informed both their sexual ethics and their commitment to the centrality of love, can we so readily rend them apart? It seems to me this runs roughshod over sound and sensible hermeneutical principles. To claim the centrality of love is to stand upon Jesus, James, and Paul and Moses (cf. Lev 19). Erasing the validity of Leviticus from the foundation of ethical norms likewise erases the foundation for the centrality of love of neighbor which permeates the New Testament. Let’s not throw Moses out with the bathwater.

This does not mean, of course, that the Church, even if it stands on reasonable ground historically and exegetically for holding that same-sex sexual activity, and all sexual activity outside of male-female unions, has handled these matters well. The numerous failings, offenses, and outrages are well-documented. In fact, we have inverted the matter entirely. It appears that both Jesus and Paul value the primacy of celibacy for religious service and offer marriage as a concession. Jesus seems to imply this in Matthew 19:10-12, which we examined above, and Paul states it outright in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 (“Now I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire” (LEB).).

In our efforts to establish the validity of our position on marriage, we have established it as the norm to be attained and ignored completely the value of celibacy, perhaps even reinforcing the misguided idea that the primary function of marriage is sexual pleasure and gratification. Celibacy is to be praised rather than seen as an unfortunate outcome for those unfit for marriage. Celibacy frees followers of Jesus to dedicate their life and relationships to ministry and service. Celibacy does not entail loneliness. It entails a sacrifice, of course, but the Christian life is paradigmatically a life of sacrificial cruciformity. In fact, as Joseph Hellerman has argued,[8] we seem to have gotten Jesus’ (and Paul’s) priorities out of order. For Jesus, the “fictive kinship” offered in the family of God was to be the central place of community and relational nourishment for God’s people. The Church was the family. When Jesus places following him over blood-relation ties, this is what he means. We frequently hear it said that our priorities should be God-family-church, but Hellerman argues Jesus’ priorities were God-church-family. This does not mean the family is to be neglected, and ideally the biological family will overlap with the spiritual family. However, the New Testament suggests, perhaps clearer than we have recognized, that the primary place of relational sustenance was to come from the community of faith. The Church family. We do not offer the church, then, to those who we think should pursue celibacy as the way to follow the teachings of Scripture, as a lesser good. Rather, it is the primary good which we have regrettably made secondary.

The Church for too long has singled out same-sex sexual activity as the ultimate offense. If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity. Perhaps we have found the LGBT “other” an easier target than the offenses of adultery, pornography, and cohabitation which permeate the church in the West today. Whatever the case, this lopsided aggression toward same-sex sexual activity in the larger culture at the expense of ignoring more prevalent issues in the Church must end. This means we should openly acknowledge that the Church has regrettably promoted disrespect, hate, and an unequal measure of condemnation on the LGBT community. Repentance is in order. We can and should maintain our position, but we should maintain it with consistency, taking into account the entire biblical witness and the whole picture of what human flourishing should look like. And we should maintain it with love. We need not separate Leviticus 19 from 18 and 20.

Rather than maintaining a theologically informed and balanced sexual ethic, too often evangelical believers have depended on a “yuck” factor to bolster their negative depictions of homosexuality. Without a more biblical and rigorously honest rationale undergirding their proscription of homosexual practice, there is little wonder that so many Millenials today (even professing Christians among them) have been remarkably resistant to the idea that same-sex sexual activity is a sin.

Our society largely judges “freedom” as the ability to follow one’s every whim and desire. As Christians, we rightly view this as bondage. Unfettered freedom is ultimately destructive. The teachings of Jesus and his apostles and the rich traditions of the Church, like the Law before them, provide parameters for human flourishing. We err when we selectively pursue the parameters which best serve our purposes or are most easily implemented. Full human flourishing requires full submissive obedience to the revelation of God and to the Revealed One.

 

[1] See Bobby Ross Jr., “No Straight Shot: More Evangelical Therapists Move from Changing Orientation to Embracing Faith Identity for Gays,” Christianity Today, September 14, 2009, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/october/1.10.html and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Gay, Christian, and Celibate: The Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate,” On Faith, August 4, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/08/04/gay-christian-celibate-the-changing-face-of-the-homosexuality-debate/33482 and “Evangelical Leader Russell Moore Denounces Ex-Gay Therapy,” Religion News Service, October 28, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/28/evangelical-leader-russell-moore-denounces-ex-gay-therapy/.

[2] John Piper, “Same-Sex Attraction and the Inevitability of Change,” Desiring God, September 19, 2012, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/same-sex-attraction-and-the-inevitability-of-change.

[3] To flesh this out would take us too far afield of our topic. I bring this up since the New Testament makes concessions for divorce in certain cases (i.e., sexual unfaithfulness). I think theologically a case can also be made for abusive relationships and perhaps other situations. Beyond this, divorce because “it didn’t work out,” or “we grew apart,” or “we fell out of love” is simply not allowed in the New Testament view of marriage. Jesus says this is a hard teaching for a reason.

[4] He does not reject Judaism as a failed religious system as older Lutheran and Bultmannian traditions assumed.

[5] Preston Sprinkle, “The Sin “of” Homosexuality?” Theology in the Raw, April 20, 2015, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theologyintheraw/2015/04/the-sin-of-homosexuality/

[6] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528ff.

[7] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” Commonwealth Magazine, June 11, 2007, accessed June 30, 2015, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-1.

[8] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

Comment

Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill

Dr. A. Chadwick Thornhill is the Chair of Theological Studies and an Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies for Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. Chad completed his PhD in Theology and Apologetics through LBTS with an emphasis in biblical studies. His areas of academic interest include ancient Christianity, apologetics, biblical languages, Second Temple Judaism, New Testament studies, Old Testament studies, and theology. He is the author of a forthcoming title (IVP Academic) on the Jewish background of the apostle Paul’s election texts. Dr. Thornhill lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife Caroline and their two children.

Top 10 Posts for 2017

 Photo by  Jez Timms  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Thank you for supporting Moral Apologetics in 2017! We have had an exciting year and it has been a privilege to host some exciting content in 2017. As a way of looking back, we wanted to share with you the list of the most read posts for the year.

1. "On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics"  By David Baggett

2.  "Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity"  By David Baggett

3.  "God’s Goodness and Difficult Old Testament Passages"  By Michael Austin

4.  "The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage"  By David Baggett

5.  "The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights" By Angus J. L. Menuge

6.  Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig

7.  "What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall"   By Corey Latta

8. "Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s 'Holy Sonnet 15'" By Holly Ordway

9.  "Hosea and Polyamory: The Sufficiency of Scripture" By Joshua Herring

10. "Living Life All the Way Up”: Hemingway’s Moral Apologetic from Absence" By Corey Latta

 

Image: "Happy New Year" by A. Verde. CC Licence. 

Incarnation: The Intersection of Two Universes

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A Twilight Musing

The word “incarnation” gets a lot of use this time of year, and like most frequently-used terms, its full meaning tends to get lost in its commonness. Literally, it means “being manifest in bodily form,” and it can refer to any disembodied entity assuming physical shape. However, when Christians say “The Incarnation,” they are of course talking about the Son of God being born and living out an earthly life as a human being. That bare fact would be astounding even if God had taken human form in the perfect world of the Garden of Eden; but His being incarnated in a world corrupted by sin betokens a cosmic intersection between changeless Divinity and the ever-changing sin-diseased heavens and earth. When the apostle John wrote the prologue to his Gospel account (John 1:1-18), he called the part of God that took human form “the Word,” which “was God” and was “with God” (v. 1) before He “became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14). Deathless Eternity was enveloped by mortal flesh, locking them in a battle from which either Eternal Life or endless Death would emerge victorious. Praise be to God, we know the outcome of that battle won by the Savior Jesus, whose incarnated flesh suffered death, but was raised in glory, the firstfruits of the victory over Death.

Both of the poems below reflect the process of the Word being encased in flesh, but then also emerging from flesh to become the Eternal Word again, having triumphed over Sin and Death. In the first poem, I have assumed a symbolic correspondence between the “swaddling clothes” in which Mary wrapped Jesus at His birth and the customary shroud in which His crucified body was buried. Although there was great rejoicing at Jesus’ birth because of the promises associated with His Advent, the lowly circumstances surrounding that birth indicated that His earthly existence would not fulfill the conventional expectations of powerful king and conquering hero. Just as His birth hid the death embedded in it, so His death was the womb of the Life embedded within it.

The second poem traces the same cycle of progress from the absolute and timeless Presence of God, to the extension of His Essence into the original creation of Earth, and finally to that Essence taking on human form, but without the corruption of sin. Through that Birth, Earth will be delivered from its corruption once again to embody the Essence of God’s original purpose for it, thereby empowering it to be the dwelling place for God’s eternal Presence.

"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)

When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.

Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.

Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.

1985

Immanuel

In God's Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God's Presence.

Elton D. Higgs

Nov. 12, 1977

May the wonder of the Word becoming flesh be made real to each of those who rest in its redeeming power; and may each of those inhabited by the Spirit of Christ know with assurance that “this flesh . . . clothed in wordless death” is being transmuted to the “Word restored.”

 

Image:"Gerard van Honthorst - Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)" by Gerard van Honthorst - Google Art Project. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg#/media/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Social Media, Immanuel Kant, and the Church

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What on earth do these three things have to do with one another? Well, I recently found myself looking at the work of Immanuel Kant, particularly his Religion within the Bounds of Reason, and a few thoughts occurred to me to pass along. In the third section of the book, Kant extends the discussion beyond the need for individual forgiveness and moral transformation to a more communal matter: participation in a community and its role, among others, to furnish eminently teachable moments.

It’s easy to think we’ve morally arrived when we’re sealed in like a hermit away from others, but we acquire patience when we actually have to practice it among other people. We learn love when we strive to have it for people not always easy to love. This is an important reason why community is vital as a sanctification tool.

Kant recognized that victory of the good over evil, and the founding of the kingdom of God on earth, occurs only in the context of community. He thought of such a “community of ends,” or “ethical commonwealth,” as a necessarily religious institution. Why?

When we live in proximity to others, we all too easily have a corrupting influence on each other. Consistent with Christian theology, Kant thought that, despite our potential for good, we’re all also afflicted with radical evil. Believers are in the process of being extricated from our “dear self” that can so easily beset us and derail our best efforts, but we remain susceptible to its allure. Only God’s grace can ultimately liberate us from it.

As I reflected on this, it dawned on me that we live in an interesting historical moment in this regard. Until about a decade ago, social media didn’t exist like it does now, and it has thrust us all, however unwittingly, into a novel relational paradigm, a new robust community. High school reunions don’t mean what they used to; rather than being out of touch with old friends and hankering to reconnect, we get hourly updates about their goings on. Much of this is wonderful, even charming, but it has its downside, and Kant can help us see why.

“Familiarity breeds contempt” is an oft-repeated adage for good reason. The more we’re around others—virtually or otherwise—the greater the temptation to find them a bit wearisome. Patterns emerge; idiosyncrasies begin to grate; and interpersonal conflicts owing to jealousy, selfishness, and a million other causes can easily ensue. This is unfortunate, but Kant also saw such inevitable conflicts in community as potentially redemptive, for they can reveal to us new things about ourselves—our need for deeper transformation, for learning to live with others despite their (and our) moral frailties and failures, and for coming to understand what it means to treat others as ends in themselves rather than as mere means.

Kant thought such communities are forged by a willingness to come together and agree to cooperate based on moral laws. He saw these communities as a kind of church in which we have the chance to learn and grow, becoming better, not worse. The possibility for both exists.

And the context of social media ratchets it all up a notch. Here the ugly underside of the human condition is often on full display: indulgence, rabid partisanship, off-putting communication styles, sophistry, dehumanization, unchecked incivility, shoddy argumentation, disingenuousness, putting on airs, projecting impressions, self-aggrandizement, addictive tendencies, unfiltered commentary, unprovoked tendentiousness, and the list goes on.

The littered trail of not just lost Facebook connections, but ruined friendships—even among strong professing Christians—is adequate commentary that too often social media has brought out our worst, not our best.

To my fellow believers, in particular, I’d like to say this as a word of encouragement and exhortation: of course social media isn’t the (or even a) local church, but we’re all part of the Church universal, and biblical truths apply. If social media is going to serve as a redemptive presence in our lives, we have to remember something that Kant recognized clearly. The ethical commonwealth—the contexts to which we belong, even on social media—is insufficient for true religion. We have to learn to allow God to guide all the members of a group together, all the disparate parts of His body. He’s the Head of the Kingdom of Ends able to coordinate and make cohere all the different roles we’re meant to play.

The same Being or Source is at the root of the moral deliverances to which we all need to heed, especially when it’s tempting not to. From this perspective, the level of cooperation between the members of the groups thus banded together will be a function of how faithfully they follow His lead in their lives. Garden variety conflicts are still sure to arise, but they needn’t—and they mustn’t—irremediably divide; they can instead be means of grace.

Kant offered a good test for actions when it comes to religious practice that would also serve as a useful rule for engagement on social media: Asking whether the word or action conduces to virtue, in oneself and others. If it doesn’t, best to refrain from it.

The Bible would up the ante even more: Is it an expression of love? Is it a way to obey the most important command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? If we speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, we are a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. And though we have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though we have all faith—so that we could remove mountains—and have not love, we are nothing.

In this wonderful and special time of year, a season of soaring hope and charity, and at the precipice of a new year, let’s do something countercultural: let’s allow a spirit of generosity to replace any animus and invective, exchanging harsh tones and cutting comments for words of healing and edification, renewal and mercy, reconciliation and restoration—extending to others the grace that’s been offered to us.

From all of us at MoralApologetics.com, blessed Advent, and Merry Christmas.

 

Image: Telephone exchange by Cristiano de Jesus. CC License. 

Jack Reacher, Superheroes, and Jesus Christ

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Jack Reacher is a former military policeman. With neither permanent address nor credit card this formidable 6’5” martial arts tactician drifts in anonymity. Wherever he goes he finds helpless victims caught in powerful webs of evil. Against insurmountable odds Reacher comes to their aid.

Author of the super popular Jack Reacher novel series, Lee Child, discussed with writer Steven King at Harvard University the derivation of his character ‘Jack Reacher’. ‘Jack Reacher’, he said, is his iteration of the ageless longing for the superhero.

This Advent season we Christians reflect on the coming into the world of the promised Prince-King-Savior, Jesus Christ. Is he, like Jack Reacher, just another construct of wishful human thinking? So skeptical critics since the nineteenth century have argued. They discount Jesus Christ as just another myth in the long line of human longing for the super hero – the deified Man. Such critics have taken their cue from the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who said God—substitute Jesus Christ—is a human invention. He is the deified essence of Man. Jesus Christ is humankind’s highest ideals, hopes, and imaginations fictionally personified. Namely, Jesus, just like Jack Reacher, is a projection of the human imagination.

Feuerbach’s and the skeptical critics’ contention is as unsuitable as it is an inadequate explanation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was enough unlike the profile of a hoped-for messiah-savior that not only his own Jewish people but the world did not recognize him. Let me point out why Feuerbach’s claim is off base and show the disparity between the human, idealized super-hero and Jesus Christ.

The imagined deified heroes embody what we are not but wish we were. They fill up our cosmic inadequacies. Fantasize with me about an archetypical super-human. What is your god or goddess’s profile? The idealized deified idol is endowed with super-human strength. Muscular, attractive, with enhanced intelligence, he or she is a champion who knows what to do in all circumstances. Endowed with an indomitable spirit, the conqueror is virile, generous, and has a streak – just a streak – of good. With death-defying acts, the divine hero surmounts improbable odds to triumph over every impossible predicament to save helpless persons. In the superhero, evil meets its match. They right wrongs, fight for justice, and defend the public from the catastrophic machinations of tyrannical, psychopathic villains. You know their names: Hercules, James Bond, X-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, et cetera. We cannot forget Superman! In 1935, two New York City taxi-cab-drivers imagined a superman who could defeat crime and fight for truth and justice. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. “Is it a bird? – Is it a plane? – No, it’s SUPERMAN!” Possessing X-ray vision, he has extraordinary, muscular strength, good looks, and, yes, he is honest and humble.

He was a model for this American male. I had my Superman suit with the big ‘S’ on my chest. I waited for that suit to arrive for two months. Mom said it was only two weeks. I went “flying around” – I mean, running around – our backyard. I could not bend steel, or outrun the dog, but I was hopeful.

Superman is made to be seen! His stupendous saving acts are performed before the eyes of the watching world. Who can miss a man flying down Wall Street in royal blue tights, a giant red ‘S’ centered on his chest, and a red cape flapping behind him? Humankind dreams of heroes who flex their muscles, and make the spectacle of their superiority resoundingly clear. At the end of the day, no one is left in doubt who wields the greatest strength, the superior intelligence, and the supreme prowess.

Contrast the hero tradition with the coming Ruler, Messiah-King, Jesus Christ. Does Jesus match their profile? He is born in an animal shelter to a craftsman family in an obscure country. The prophet Isaiah says of him, “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He did not possess the unusually attractive Grecian star-quality looks of Hercules. We’re told nothing of his looks, or the color of his skin, in fact, but plenty about his character. Moreover, contrary to Superman, his great works were performed not in the great cities like Rome or Athens but in the rural, country villages of Galilee … the Big Islands and Tight Squeezes of this world. His miracles were always awesome, but often not sensational. He was not Hercules holding up the world or Batman swooping down from a skyscraper in Gotham City’s searchlight. Though there were exceptions, He worked in understated and invisible ways to leave room for doubt … and faith. Though the results were overwhelming, one saw very little flash. When religious or secular leaders asked him for the spectacular sign of a ‘superman’, he refused to give it.

The Gospel writers make clear in Jesus’ own as well as the Gospel writers’ minds his culminating glory was the scornful cross! What human fantasy would ever conceive it? What hoped-for human imagination would envision the ideal hero-god’s climaxing achievement a humiliating public execution by his enemies on a cross? Shall the ideal superhero die like a dog an excruciating and humiliating death stretched out naked publicly in front of his enemies?

Jesus Christ is distinctly different from human fictions. Contra Feuerbach and the skeptical critics, human authors could not imagine him. His profile is not a construct of wishful, human thinking. He is not the fantasized superhero. Jesus Christ is beyond human fantasies. He is from elsewhere. ‘Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He.’

And yet none like Him so deeply satisfies our yearning for a Savior, for in allowing Himself to be broken, He offered the world its only chance to be healed.

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.2 “Novak”

In the second section of his chapter on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores David Novak’s Natural Law in Judaism. Hare sees Novak as trying to find a “middle way” between grounding moral knowledge and ontology in revelation or reason. If ethics is grounded solely in revelation, it will be arbitrary and inscrutable apart from revelation. If grounded merely in nature or reason, it will not need a personal, immanent God. Besides this general concern, Hare also sees Novak as specifically motivated by the testimony of the Hebrew Bible and a desire to make Jewish thought relevant to public life. This latter concern is what drives Novak to make moral precepts accessible and discernible by reason.

Novak considers a challenge from Richard Rorty. Rorty has said that appealing to the will of God is a “conversation stopper” in democratic society. Novak accepts Rorty’s claim and tries to overcome it. His first step is to draw a distinction between the command of God and the wisdom of God. God commands the Jews to not eat pork, but the command to refrain from murder is the wisdom of God. Novak thinks that the commands God gives to Noah after the Flood represent “divine wisdom.” God’s command is grounded in revelation while the God’s wisdom in nature or reason. The wisdom of God can be introduced into public dialogue because one need not appeal to the will of God to show it is true, but God’s commands cannot be.

Hare objects to Novak’s reply to Rorty. Hare thinks that Rorty is simply mistaken and that one can appeal to the will of God and make societal progress. Following Miroslav Volf, Hare suggests that Christians have a unique vision of the good life that is helpful to society, but that potentially Christians can benefit from open conversation with other faiths and worldviews. It is precisely because of the different understanding of revelation in different religions that conversation is beneficial. History also shows that faith often unites people in a common cause, like civil rights, rather than divide them.

Hare also criticizes Novak for misinterpreting the account of Abraham “bargaining” with God at Sodom and Gomorrah. Novak sees this account as implying that Abraham had prior knowledge of “divine wisdom” and this is the basis for God’s knowing Abraham and blessing him. What God knows is that Abraham knows the divine wisdom and will keep the natural law. However, Hare points out that the basis of the blessing is Abraham’s faith in God; it is primarily relational and personal, rather than rational (though it is not inconsistent with reason).

Next, Hare turns to Novak’s interaction with Maimonides. Novak’s work tries to take seriously this idea from Maimonides: “Therefore I say that the Law, although it is not natural, enters into what is natural.” Novak thinks this means that one can only receive the Law given in the Torah when it can be shown to be rational. Reason precedes revelation and makes it possible. Novak, following what Hare thinks is a misinterpretation of Maimonides, argues this view coheres with the Torah because creation and revelation are single act. The moral law and creation are the result of the same divine act, so they are intimately intertwined. One may discern, then, the moral law from creation or nature. Hare argues that this is not what Maimonides had in mind; all he meant was that creation and revelation are the same kind of act, and not numerically the same. Further, if morality can be totally deduced from creation, then this results in a reductive view of God, perhaps even a view that eliminates God entirely. God’s commands may be consistent with nature, but it is not deducible from nature, even the Noahide commands. Hare points out that this is not Novak’s intention, but Novak’s view has been compromised by conceding too much to Rorty. Hare thinks that, epistemically, revelation should be sufficient for justifying moral knowledge.

Novak, again, is trying to find a “middle way” between revelation and reason. So far, he only tried to show how revelation is consistent with reason, but he also suggests some ways it is limited. To this end, Novak identifies three “teleological errors,” one of which will always occur in rationalistic attempts to ground moral knowledge. The first is the error of Saadiah. According to Novak, Saadiah mistakenly thinks that humans only relate to God through creation, and thus moral knowledge is discernible fully in the world. But God is not merely relating to humanity through, but also within it. The second error is from Maimonides, whom Novak thinks is guilty of making the human telos too rationalistic. Novak understands Maimonides as saying that the human telos is contemplation, but this is inconsistent with the reality of a meaningful, intricate material world and humanity.  Kant is the proponent of the final error. Novak thinks of Kant as setting morality over God, but Hare thinks this is bad reading of Kant. Kant, per Hare, thinks that Kant repeatedly appeals to God’s commands as grounds for morality, at least ontologically.

Instead of thinking that human nature will provide complete moral knowledge, Novak suggests that nature, properly understood, provides only moral limits and these limits are outlined in the Noahide laws. In other words, Novak thinks that the prescriptions of the Noahide laws are discernible by reason and form the precondition for more developed morality. Hare thinks this view is problematic for two reasons. First, the Noahide laws give much more than merely human dignity (the content of the precondition) and they also give less. They give more in the sense that articulate specific institutions that are not likely explained just by facts about human nature. Hare cites as examples private property, marriage, and a legal system, all of which are at least implicit in the Noahide laws. If human beings behaved in a way that was fully consistent with their nature, possibly none of these intuitions would be needed. They give less in the sense that they do not seem to meet the demand of universal discernibility by all rational creatures.  Novak thinks that there are clear facts about human nature which entail these moral values, but in human history these moral values are frequently ignored or violated. In hunter-gather societies, it may have seemed more natural to value the lives of one’s own tribe over the lives of the other.

The bottom like for Hare is that Novak ends up collapsing the distinction between revelation and reason, even though that was not his intention. The result is a contradictory position. The remedy, according to Hare, is recognizing the validity of natural law because it is verified by special revelation, and not the other way around.

Image: By Spaceboyjosh - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38705275

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.3 "Rosenzweig"

In his final section on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores the thought of Franz Rosenzweig as it is found in his important work, The Star of Redemption. Before offering his analysis, Hare thinks it is important to provide some context for understanding Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig was deeply attracted to Christianity and nearly converted; the impact of Christian thought is evident in his ideas. Also, Rosenzweig has some of the same philosophical influences as Barth and works to address some of the same challenges, especially the challenge of idealism. It was within this context that Rosenzweig wrote The Star and Hare picks out three central themes from that book in his analysis: creation, revelation, and redemption.

Rosenzweig thinks that idealism results in a deficient view of God and his creation. The idealist position implies that God emanates or overflows as some static object and this is the cause of creation, but Rosenzweig is committed to the idea that God freely acts to create and to love. God is “absolute spirit” or the “unmoved mover” for the idealists; God is a concept or force and not a personal agent. He is not the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible. But idealism also flattens out the particularity of God’s creation. On idealism, the moral life is highly generalized and does not take into account the distinctiveness of created things. There is not a good for an individual as that particular creature, but only the good in totality. Hare describes this conclusion as resulting in the “disappearance of God.” Hare further argues that this sort of critique can be applied to any view that seeks to ground the moral law in creation, as some natural law theorists claim to do. If it is true that nature grounds all there is to morality, then it is not clear why morality need go any further and posit the existence of God.

In contrast, Rosenzweig offers a view that emphasizes the substantive reality of particular things. There are real distinctions between objects. He also holds that God freely chose to create, though the act of creation itself is necessarily righteous. In his creation, God continually acts towards humanity in love.

It is partly because of Rosenzweig’s strong view of the distinction between God and creation that he needs an equally strong view of revelation. Rosenzweig thinks that the primary message of revelation is of a love as strong as death. Significantly, Rosenzweig holds that death is part of the intended created order and not a consequence of sin. Thus, apart from this revelation, man would conclude that his end is death. God reveals himself in an event where he loves a particular person at a particular time; a deeply personal and intimate act. When we find ourselves being loved by God, this frees us from being “merely created” and the cycle of death. This revelation produces a change in us from “self to soul” and occurs in four stages. The first stage is self-enclosure; we become aware of being loved by God. Then we react in defiance, valuing our own freedom over the love of God. Third, we become aware of the implications of God’s love for us. Hare says this results in both pride and humility. We are proud because we are protected by the love of God and humbled because we are what we are only because of love. Finally, we allow ourselves to be loved; this is faithfulness and turns our proclivity for defiance into devotion to God.

Rosenzweig thinks that the personal nature of the revelation is important for a few reasons. First, the revelation of God is both the epistemic and ontological grounds for human virtue. God must first love us before we can love him and we must assume this is so. Second, he argues that it is only in the encounter with God that we are given a “name.” That is, God reveals to us who and what we are and frees us to live as we ought. Third, God’s love for us as individuals grounds and motivates his command to “love the Lord they God with all the heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might.” Love demands reciprocation and it because God loves us that we ought to respond in the way he requests. Love of neighbor is an extension of our love for God. If another is made in the image of God, then we ought to love the other because of God’s love for us. This is also means that God’s love should result in a practical, outward response to the world; the revelation of God requires that we move beyond mystical experience and act with love toward our neighbors.

The final theme explored in this section is redemption. Rosenzweig holds that the word is created teleologically, but that this telos is not discernible by mere human reason. We are only becoming what we were intended to be, and are not yet transformed into our intended form of life, which Rosenzweig calls, “immortality,” “eternal life,” or “soul.” Our true nature is hidden and if we were to ground our moral vision on only what we can discover on our own steam, we “disenchant” ourselves and the world. Our true nature is mysterious, “uncanny.” However, this is not to say that Rosenzweig thinks there is a break between what we are and our eschatological end. What we are now is the raw material of what we will be. We will endure through the change, even if we could not see final destination by our own dim lights. God’s command is consistent with nature, though it is not determined by it.

Thus, Rosenzweig’s view of the moral life is one that takes seriously both nature and divine command without collapsing one into the other. God's creation is rich with telos, but that telos can only be understood and obtained by divine revelation or grace. Apart from providence, we cannot know or become what we were intended to be. Further, Rosenzweig suggests that it is the love of God that provides sufficient motivation to be moral. God is the right kind of person in the right kind of relation to us to ground a robust moral realism.

Image: By Frank Behnsen at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11214437

Great Truths, Great Division

  "Luther at the Diet of Worms" by Anton von Werner

 "Luther at the Diet of Worms" by Anton von Werner

Editors' Note: One necessary condition for doing moral apologetics as Christians is having a clear understanding of the requirements of Christian morality. We are thankful for Dr. Thomas' piece clarifying for Christians the importance of the objectivity and authority of the biblical teaching on sexual ethics. The recognition of these features of Christian morality are critical both for apologetics and the life of the church, at least as critical as the issues that divided the Christian church in the the time of Martin Luther, as Thomas reminds us in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation.  

Some call it ‘The Great Schism’.  At issue are articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclesiae (articles, biblical truths, ‘by which the church stands or falls’).    Are there such biblical truths for which you will risk everything, even schism of the church, even your life?  I have been reconsidering the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary.  On October 31, 1517, Halloween, an unknown monk-pastor-professor Martin Luther posted ninety- five points, ‘The Ninety- Five Theses’, for university debate.  It set off a chain reaction of church reform and renewal resulting in the Roman Catholic Church split.  Some refer to it as ‘The Great Schism’.

Namely, by 1532 Europe was divided in two:  territories and churches which were Protestant; and territories and churches who were Roman Catholic.  Both sides were readied for armed warfare.   They stood down when the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 allowed each other to exist as Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches.

‘The Great Schism’ began with a presenting issue: the sale of ‘indulgences’.  The presenting issue was serious enough in itself.  However, it would not be called an ‘articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclessia’.  Over this alone the Church might not have split.  Nonetheless, lurking underneath and supporting the practice of selling indulgences were biblical truths upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.  These truths constitute Christianity.  They could not be compromised!  They could not be conceded short of subverting salvation itself.

As I have reflected on the Reformation, fascinating parallels with our own Church situation light up.   Acceptance of the practice of homosexuality is the presenting issue today.  It’s a serious issue in and of itself.  However, some on both sides argue it’s not an article over which to split the church.  I submit to you underneath, supporting, and entangled in the argument for allowing the practice of homosexuality are matters involving deep, biblical truths, ‘essentials’, as John Wesley called them, upon which the very essence of the Christian faith depends.  Under no circumstances can they be compromised!  If they are, the foundation of Christian experience falls.  I ask myself, I ask you:  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’!

The presenting issue arousing Martin Luther’s ire was the church’s sale of ‘indulgences’.  An ‘indulgence’ was a paper certificate church officials offered parishioners for a fee that granted forgiveness of their sin.  Usually after committing a sin a parishioner confessed and did acts of ‘good works’ (penance).  These acts merited good credit and paid the penalty for their sin. The good works restored them to favor with God.  Buying an ‘indulgence’ itself was considered a good work and qualified as penance which restored one to favor with God.  The money from the indulgences went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

‘Indulgences’ were the manifesting issue for Martin Luther.  Just the same, the extending roots under the surface were the most foundational biblical truths. They were at the root of biblical Christianity.  What is the nature of repentance? How does one gain acceptance with God?  How can I be forgiven my sin?   What is required of a guilty sinner to be justified by a holy and just God?  What is the nature of heart religion and holy living? What is the Word of God? By whose authority am I forgiven?  The Church? The Pope?  Or Jesus Christ alone?

The acceptance of homosexual practice with marriage and ordination has been the presenting issue in mainline churches.  This alone is serious enough.  Bound up inextricably with it lurking deeper underneath are the most profound biblical and theological essentials.  I can only briefly touch on three/four of the most fundamental.

(1) As it was with indulgences, the question of how can I be acceptable to God is primary.  Martin Luther and classic Protestants answered this as the apostle Paul did:  ‘He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3: 26); ‘we are justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1); ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2: 8).  One repents of one’s sin with a sorrowful conviction for snubbing God and turns away from the sin. One receives by faith, with a confidence in the heart, Jesus the Son of God who by his atoning death pardons the guilt and sin.  One is then declared acceptable and righteous before God.

You do not see mainline centrists and progressives making room for a definitive moment of salvation where a guilty sinner crosses from a state of sin and death into a state of saving grace.  You will not hear them call persons to repent of their state of revolt from God; you will not hear them call persons to receive saving faith which will make them acceptable and righteous before God; and you will not hear them proclaiming the God-Man Jesus Christ by which faith in His saving blood alone merits our acceptance with God.

No, ‘centrists’ and progressives assume ‘universalism’.  “Universalism’ is the belief all persons are elected to salvation.  ‘Centrists’ and progressives use Scriptural verses like Hebrews 2: 9 to say Jesus ‘tasted death for everyone.’ In every religious speech for homosexuality advocates say God’s grace extends to all persons.  All are included.  No one is excluded.  Magisterial twentieth century theologian Karl Barth argued saving grace applies to everyone.  He declared through the Son the whole of creation is elected to salvation.  Everyone is elected. Election is not to shut but to open; not to exclude but to include; not to say ‘no’ but to say ‘yes’.   Like indulgences to Martin Luther, homosexuality is to the mainline church today.  The offshoot takes us to the root.  We are not at the periphery.  We are at the heart.  Without this, there is no Christianity!

(2)  The presenting issue of the acceptance of homosexual practice is inextricably bound up with another essential biblical truth:  the sufficiency of Holy Scripture alone for eternal salvation.  What is the supreme authority for the way to eternal salvation?  Everything necessary for your and my eternal salvation is in Holy Scripture.   The Roman Catholic Church held two authorities:  Holy Scripture and the Catholic Councils’ decision over the centuries.  These great ecumenical Councils’ teaching was deemed as authoritative as Holy Scripture.

The watchword for Martin Luther and the Protestants was sola Scriptura, ‘Scripture alone’.  Mainline centrists and progressives say they believe the authority of Scripture.  Do they believe Holy Scripture is supreme above all authorities? For them, something outside and in addition to Scripture comes into play.  They say Scripture is to be submitted to the judgment of ‘the sum total of human experience.’ Scripture is one authority among other authorities of human experience, emotivist sentiment, and scientific consensus.  That means, the Word of God is subjected to an authority higher than itself:  human beings.  On the contrary, we declare ‘the sum of human experience’ must be submitted to the criterion of Holy Scripture.  We reaffirm the slogan of the Reformation, ‘sola Scriptura’, ‘Scripture alone’!

(3) The acceptance of homosexual practice is also bound up inextricably with another foundational issue:  does biblical teaching refer to objective realities which exist outside of human thought and experience? In contrast, is biblical teaching relative and dependent on the subjective person who creates it out of his or her mind and experience?  This latter view of relativism is the assumption of those in the mainline calling themselves ‘centrist’ and progressive.  On the surface, ‘centrists’ argue in God’s church both views (a) homosexuality is blessed by God and (b) homosexuality is forbidden by God belong together in Christ’s church.  They assume a God who wills two mutually exclusive things: (a) God wills homosexuality is a pleasing practice in His church (b) God condemns homosexual practice as having no place in His church.  The same act is both good and evil.  This makes God arbitrary and irrational like the pagan god Zeus.

We Scriptural Christians say homosexuality is sinful.  God can do no other than will against it because it is intrinsically contrary to God’s objective nature of goodness and love.  God wills what He wills because it agrees with His character and the objective nature of His created order.  Present underneath the ‘centrist’ and progressive claim is moral relativism.  Moral relativism says ‘no one moral claim is true for everybody’.  Morality is different for different people, in different times, and in different places.

This is wrongheaded.  This view is in total opposition to Scriptural Christianity.  If conceded, the demise of Christian salvation follows.  ‘Absolutists’, those who accept morality is true always, everywhere ,and at all times, believe the ‘centrists’ view is false.  ‘Centrists’ believe their view to be true.  By their own view, ‘centrists’ have to believe our view to be true which says God condemns homosexual practice always, in every place, and for all people.   The wrinkle is, by their own view, therefore, ‘centrists’ must believe their own view to be false.  If ‘centrists’ are true to their relativist view, they must accept the rejection of their own view.  They have to allow that our view is right which says their view is wrong!  In making their case for relativism, they undermine and refute their own assumption.  They have to allow our view is true which says God wills only one thing:  homosexual practice is sin and wrong.

Can we be united with ‘centrists’ and progressives in Christ’s Church?  Only if we concede conceptual and moral relativism; only if we allow Holy Scripture must be subjected to a higher authority; only if we give up ‘justification by grace through faith’; and, only if, we are ready to forfeit Christianity.  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’?

 

Image: By Anton von Werner - https://www.staatsgalerie.de/en/g/collection/digital-collection/einzelansicht/sgs/werk/einzelansicht/0B0D3C944C3810077954978B36F59919.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62481320

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

All Hallows Eve

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  By Tom Thomas

What if on ‘All Hallows Eve’ you were revisited by spirits of the ghoulish dead?  Or in the witching hour of midnight, the murderous Jezebel entered your house? Or the fierce barbarian Genghis Khan, communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Jack the Ripper, or hockey-masked Jason – even one of your difficult, dead relatives – paid you a visit?  So people in the distant past believed happened on October 31st.

On October 31st, the Celts, the ancient Britons, observed the Samhain festival.  The Samhain festival marked the return of the herds from summer pasture and bringing the field harvest home.  The final night of October marked the last night of summer and the eve of the New Year ushering in darkness and dismal, winter days.  The departing summer light cast a sinister shadow on the festival.  The ancients believed departed spirits of the dead – occult ghosts, witches, and hobgoblins – haunted their earthly homes.

How could people protect themselves from these unwanted intruders?  They lit bonfires and masqueraded as fiends to disguise themselves from these returning supernatural prowlers.

The Christian church tried to redeem this pagan interest in the departed dead by redirecting people to remember the Christian saints and martyrs past.

So, October 31st has become known by its Christian name, ‘All Hallows Eve’ or ‘All Saints Eve’.  Still, ‘Halloween’ has become a tangled mix of all the influences above and other folklore.

How should Christian believers view it?  For sure, we take the satanic netherworld with utter seriousness.  The devil is an active agent on the prowl seeking to destroy.  Jesus has come to deliver us from this underworld of Satan.  The Son of God was revealed ‘to destroy the works of the devil’.

On the one hand, we stay away from the occult of scary ghosts, witches, demons, macabre horror and terror.  On the other hand, many grew up not attaching long forgotten ancient preternatural meanings to Halloween. They have seen it as an autumn night children dress up in their favorite character’s dress and ask for treats.  With the paganization of society in recent decades, emphasis on the occult and macabre seems to have returned. Let our informed consciences guide us.

Of course, the great Protestant event of October 31st , of which we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary, was Martin Luther’s posting of his ninety five theses (more on that in another post). Also, with a wider understanding of the biblical term ‘saints’ than Roman Catholics, we Protestants can use the season to remember the witness of men and women gone on to glory who with victorious, saving faith and love have left us a lighted path.

Comment /Source

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Interview with Dorothy Greco, Author of Making Marriage Beautiful

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Making Marriage Beautiful stands apart from the many marriage books that flood today’s publishing markets. In its pages, Dorothy Greco draws on her twenty-five plus years of marriage and her wealth of experience in writing and ministry to highlight essential components of a healthy marriage and exhort readers to aspire toward inculcating such a vision in their own relationships. Greco’s book and the principles she offers are motivated and undergirded by her Christian convictions, and reading the book is pure joy. With its lived wisdom and gracious tone, Making Marriage Beautiful is a unique and important resource. And, as our interview below demonstrates, there is plenty of overlap between our concerns here at MoralApologetics.com and the issues Dorothy considers in this volume, most especially questions of the value of persons and God’s provisions for meeting the moral standard. Marybeth Baggett: Based on what I’ve heard from you and on the book itself, it seems that writing Making Marriage Beautiful is something you felt called to do. On a Christian picture, this idea of calling is connected to the notion of human dignity, that God has created each one of us for a purpose, a specific way in which we image him. Can you talk a little about that in regards to your writing of this book? How do you feel that God prepared you to do this work? I’m especially interested in how he made this charge clear to you.

Dorothy Greco: Much like the story of Joseph, it can often seem that the place of our greatest pain or wounding intersects with our calling. I can see this clearly in my own life.

I believe that every follower of Christ must yield to the call to love their neighbors. Some of us are called to love specific people for a life-time. Neither of these invitations has come easily for me. Due to a challenging childhood, my highly sensitive nature, and some deep relational hurts, by the time I graduated from college, I had the emotional EKG of a cadaver. I mistrusted others and chose independence, rather than healthy interdependence.

I know it’s unusual, but I did not grow up inserting myself into romantic Disneyesque plots or dreaming of being swept off my feet by a knight in shining armor. About seven years after choosing to follow Jesus, I began to detect something stirring in my soul for my now husband. Because I was both guarded and insecure, we had an incredibly tumultuous dating relationship and engagement round one. He eventually broke up with me, and we did not speak to each other for nearly two years. When we finally reconnected, it was obvious that we had both changed.

In round two of our relationship, there’s been no shadow of turning, but we have also had to be intentional and work hard in order to have a solid, fulfilling marriage. We are both strong-willed, stubborn people who seem to have opinions about everything from the bathroom wall color to where the Christmas tree should go. Additionally, life has thrown us some long-term vocational and health challenges. As a result, sparks fly on a regular basis, and we have had to learn how to have productive conflict.

Throughout our 26 years together, we have both felt impressed and emboldened by the Lord to believe that Scripture is true and to step out in that truth. Practically speaking, that means though we’ve had a great deal of conflict, many disappointments, and significant loss, we continue to trust that because God called us to commit our lives to each other, He will empower us to love well.

When I approached my agent about writing a marriage book, she warned me that they are one of the most difficult genres to break into, especially if one does not have a substantial platform. My platform is modest, I am not married to a famous athlete or movie star, and I had no intention of doing anything scandalous in order to sell books. Despite her dire predictions, I strongly believed that God was nudging me to go for it. I felt a divine compulsion to write this book (maybe because I needed it)! After following Jesus for nearly 40 years, I’ve learned to trust the impulses and believe in his provision.

Baggett: Morality may involve rules and law, but as we know, guidelines and prescripts do not exhaust what living a moral life requires. As scripture teaches, love is the animating force behind the law (Matthew 22:40) and its fulfillment (Romans 13:8-10). In writing a book on marriage, did you find it challenging to balance offering particular advice, rules for readers to follow, with exhortations toward love, more holistically understood? If so, how did you address this tension? How do you understand the relationship between following rules and the law of love?

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Greco: I really chaff at books with titles such as Forty Days to Transform Your Husband or Ten Steps to a Perfect Marriage. Though we might want it to be, life is not formulaic. We should not assume our relationship with God will be formulaic either. I certainly rely on both the specifics and the abiding principles which undergird certain rules (e.g. the Ten Commandments), but I have not found a rule-based approach to relationships at all helpful. It was not really a struggle for me to approach writing this book in a more nuanced and organic fashion.

I am, first and foremost, a sinner saved by grace. As such, I am always aware of my sinful tendencies whether it’s to curse someone who cuts me off in Boston traffic, or to withhold love as a passive-aggressive retaliation for a minor infraction committed by my husband.

In the case of marriage, it’s quite clear from both the Old and New Testaments that God is about monogamy. The clarity of Jesus’ words on marriage (e.g., Matthew 5:27-32) awaken me to God’s high standards, which exist for my own good, and then simultaneously reorient me toward Him. So if I’m being mature and living in a posture of humility, God’s rules strengthen and empower me to love more like Jesus.

Baggett: A point you made in some of the marketing material you sent along before this interview struck a nerve with me—you said that one of the hardest things you faced writing the book was ensuring that you had the integrity to do so, if any marital struggles you went through somehow undermined your credibility. This resonated with us at Moral Apologetics, since we’re writing about morality and ethics, and some might think that, in doing so, we’re claiming we’ve arrived. Of course we know we have not—as you know that sanctification is an ongoing process. Can you talk a little bit about how you dealt with this doubt while writing your book? Did this self-reflection reveal anything new to you about that process of sanctification? For purposes of this interview, I’m wondering especially how you think God uses marriage in that process.

Greco: It would have been super easy to write a book on having an awesome marriage while mine was less than awesome. (Who would know other than my husband?) The idea for this book actually emerged when we were going through one of the most painful seasons in our lives together. The crisis was not marital, but of course it deeply affected us as individuals and as a couple.

Because we had already been married for 20+ years and had been doing pastoral care for almost that whole time, I could have gone through the motions of being married and simply relied on my experiences to pull this book together. That felt rather disingenuous to say the least. As followers of Christ and leaders, my husband and I have always felt that our offering will be tainted and perhaps even poisonous if we lack integrity. We’ve each benched ourselves from doing ministry at various times along the way, knowing that we were not in a good place and needed to take a break.

I can assure you, I expediently confessed and repented of my sins when I was writing Making Marriage Beautiful. I have enough fear of the Lord and enough knowledge of Scripture to know that how we live matters a great deal to Him.

As I was polling friends about possible titles for this book, one response really struck me. This woman, who is in mid-life and has been married for more than thirty years, wrote, “I have been married a long time and don’t feel the need to learn more. I’m good.” I literally gasped and then started to cry. I immediately prayed, “God, don’t ever let me become complacent. May I always be willing to keep learning and keep growing.”

One of the most significant lesson I learned when writing this book (other than that writing books is so much more difficult than I ever imagined!) is that I have not arrived: I am not a marriage expert and never will be. I’m simply a middle-aged woman who endeavors to love her husband with a fierceness and consistency that allows him to flourish. Though we have experienced glimpses of God’s sublime love breaking into our marriage, learning how to love my spouse is a life-long process.

Baggett: Lately I’ve been meditating on scripture passages that explain fear and love as opposing forces (I John 4:18, for example), and so (in reading your marketing materials) I was especially interested in your description of newly married self as fearful. Can you talk a little about how you opened yourself up to your husband’s love? What risks did that involve, and how did you gain the courage to take that risk? Have you found that love itself, as you grow deeper in it, has given you more moral courage?

Greco: By the time I turned 21, I assumed that people were generally not trustworthy and if I made mistakes, I would be abandoned. That’s a lot of fear—and a lot of pressure to make no mistakes. Early on in our marriage, I attempted to be perfect in an effort to quiet my anxieties. Of course, anyone who goes down that road knows that not only is it impossible, but the pressure to be perfect causes more anxiety.

One of the ways I learned to trust was by incorporating confession as a regular discipline into our marriage. By committing to confess my sins, no matter how small, my facades fell. My husband saw me as the broken, weak woman that I truly am. Miraculously, he kept loving me. One of his greatest gifts to me has been a constant reassurance that he’s not looking for or expecting perfection. He has always been quick and gracious to extend forgiveness to me. Over time, we have accumulated a great deal of relational equity which we draw upon as needed.

And yes, feeling secure in his love and in the Father’s love has definitely allowed me to be more courageous in all aspects of my life. The deeper my identity in Christ and the more confident I am of my husband’s love, the more risks I can take—like writing a vulnerable marriage book! Truth be told, this level of freedom is exhilarating.

Making Marriage Beautiful can be purchased at Amazon.com. There is currently a special running for the Kindle version, selling for $2.99.

"Signs of His Presence" A Sermon by Dennis Kinlaw

"Signs of His Presence"  is a sermon by Dennis Kinlaw. Dr. Kinlaw was president and chancellor of Asbury College; he also taught Old Testament. He is also the author of many books, including This Day with the Master, Let’s Start with Jesus, Preaching in the Spirit, The Mind of Christ, We Live as Christ, and Malchus’ Ear and Other Sermons. In this sermon, Kinlaw explains how human relationships image the kind of love that God has for humanity. The best of human love points beyond ourselves and to the ultimate ground of love and goodness in God.  "The end is going to be family in the full sense of the term."

 

Image: Return of the Prodigal  By Axel Kulle 1846-1908 - www.auktionsverket.se, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10248000

"Consumed by Christ" A Sermon by Dennis Kinlaw

"Consumed by Christ" is a sermon by Dennis Kinlaw. Dr. Kinlaw was president and chancellor of Asbury College; he also taught Old Testament. He is also the author of many books, including This Day with the Master, Let’s Start with Jesus, Preaching in the Spirit, The Mind of Christ,We Live as Christ, and Malchus’ Ear and Other Sermons.

In this sermon, Dr. Kinlaw explains what it means to be "consumed by Christ." Kinlaw offers worthwhile insight into why a person would want to follow Jesus when he demands so much. First, Christ has given all of himself as the Lamb and so he does not ask for something he has not also provided. Second, though his way may seem hard, in the end, it will be the only thing that can truly satisfy the human soul.

 

New Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

From the Preface to the 2017 Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty It has been nearly ten years now since the first edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. That decade has seen only growing interest in the philosophical aspects of Lewis’s work. What at the time seemed to us to be a rather novel approach to Lewis has become much more common, unsurprising because by both training and temperament Lewis often exhibited the earmarks of a first-rate philosophical mind. It was likely his amazing and eclectic range of interests and talents that concealed his philosophical acumen.

Some books have taken the project further than we were able, like Adam Barkman’s excellent and wide-ranging Philosophy as a Way of Life, a trend that we think is excellent. Stewart Goetz has recently argued in his A Philosophical Walking Tour with C. S. Lewis that Lewis was first and foremost a philosopher, and he is currently writing another book in which he will explain in depth Lewis’s philosophical views.

Our original collection was the result of several philosophically themed essays read at Oxbridge 2005—including keynote addresses by the likes of Peter Kreeft and Jean Bethke-Elshtain—but almost inevitably this genealogy meant that there would be gaps in our treatment. Because we didn’t make comprehensiveness our goal, however, we didn’t let this dissuade us. The collection that resulted was, in the estimation of many, a needed contribution to the literature irrespective of its limitations. InterVarsity Academic made possible the book coming to the light of day, and it enjoyed a solid run for a decade. It has been adduced by several researchers in the literature, and some of its chapters, like David Horner’s on the Trilemma or Bethke-Elshtain’s on The Abolition of Man, have been cited prominently quite a number of times. We are deeply grateful to Liberty University Press for catching the vision of and making possible a new edition.

We do not claim that this new expanded edition fills in all the various gaps in our treatment of Lewis as philosopher. It remains only one contribution toward this ambitious living research agenda. However, we have intentionally added five major new chapters that, each in its own way, contribute to a fuller picture of Lewis the philosopher. Our goal remains not to cover all the traditional areas of philosophy, but to show more intentionally some of the rich insights of Lewis’s writing that reveal aspects of philosophy and the human condition that, too often in contemporary times, go unaddressed, or at least under-addressed.

For example, Bruce Reichenbach has written an epistemology essay that reveals the way Lewis recognized some aspects of knowledge that often go overlooked. Among such features of knowledge are the ways in which it is perspectival, value-laden, and personal, but without any of these aspects of knowing detracting from objective truth or the propriety of deeply held convictions. Lewis could adroitly integrate subtle aspects of postmodernity with those of premodernity, like perhaps no other, holding in synergistic balance insights often mistakenly conceived as contradictory or in irremediable tension.

Another example is Will Honeycutt’s chapter that discusses Lewis’s penetrating engagement with various pagan myths. Rather than gravitating toward a simple “disassociationist” model in which there is only or primarily a disconnect or dissonance between Christianity and the pagan myth stories, Honeycutt reveals the way Lewis had the mind of both a philosopher and a poet, a logician and a classicist. The resonances and points of connection between the pagan myths and the “true myth” of Christianity are just as if not more evidentially important to Lewis than the differences and disanalogies.

One of Lewis’s most important and repeated apologetic arguments went unaddressed in the first edition, and we came to see that it deserved a serious and sustained treatment, namely, the argument from desire. To this end, we commissioned Sloan Lee to write an essay on it, and in his characteristic and charming zeal he ended up writing two terrific chapters. Not only does he meticulously spell out what the argument says and what motivates it; he brilliantly and carefully subjects to withering critical scrutiny no less than five significant objections to the argument.

Stew Goetz wrote the fifth new chapter, in which he discusses the hedonistic elements of Lewis’s work. He rightly points out a recurring theme in Lewis: that God’s intention is that we experience joy and pleasure. To the contrary of this lending itself to a crass sort of hedonism, however, Lewis’s understanding of our high calling in Christ elevates the kinds of pleasure that should satisfy. Rather than settling for base pleasures or ones that don’t fit our deepest nature or ultimate end, we need to undergo a transformation of character, indeed a death to self, that enables us to develop a taste for the higher and better pleasures for which we were designed.

In sum, this book has about 35,000 entirely new words of analysis and commentary on Lewis that, combined with all of the original essays in the collection, will hopefully result in a book that will feature prominently in the library of every Lewis aficionado. Once more the labor that made this edition possible was a labor of love, done in the earnest hope and prayer that the result will be a blessing to many.

Image: "Lamp Post of Narnia?" by K. Franklin. CC License.