Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas Everyone!

May the Lord bless you all and thank you for the very interesting and helpful discussions that have happened here. May we remember Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world this day!


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 7 - HOW TO READ)

This series explores the nature of Scripture (specifically those aspects which many of us find uncomfortable) and what our approach to Scripture should be as a consequence. This exploration is needed because our intrinsic human biases cause us to assume that God's nature / aims / priorities / etc all line up with our modernistic worldview, which focuses on detailed accurate synergistic information. However such an approach to Scripture clashes with many of its properties. Our response tends to be to curate Scripture, or to minimize our engagement with the aspects we find difficult to explain. Instead, we should engage with all of Scripture as God designed it, and challenge our perspective on it when needed. What does it look like when we value the uncomfortable aspects of Scripture?

The series so far:

  1. Introduction
  2. Progressive Revelation
  3. Relationships and Cognition
  4. Morality and Evil
  5. Coping with Evil I
  6. Coping with Evil II
  7. How to Read (this post)
So far I've spent a long time justifying my belief that God is more interested in the meta-cognitive goals of person-hood, expression, and relationship. Now I want to start exploring the practical aspects of reading Scripture. 

Scripture's purpose, specifically, is to be a collection of some of the individual progressive revelations of God's person-hood throughout history, which taken together He has deemed to be the most universally useful expression toward encouraging relationship with Him. It does this in an incredibly dynamic way. If we focus on cognitive information and a harmonious synthesis of theology, we can miss a lot of what the Bible has to offer toward relationship with God, and at its worst it can lead us to minimize aspects of Scripture to the point that they are almost useless to us. How should we approach Scripture keeping relationship in mind, and balancing the usefulness and limitations of cognition toward this ultimate aim? I have some general principles to share, but this is something I'd like to grow in more, so please share your own thoughts!

How to Read Scripture:

1) Immerse yourself in the passage, allowing every aspect of yourself to be impacted by the experience. We don't expect each expression of a person to be perfect and balanced - and likewise with each revelation - but they are unique and beautiful and insightful. By reading Scripture and inviting the Holy Spirit to speak through it, you are touching an aspect God, a deliberately designed expression of Himself! Never let this slip by you. 

2) Utilize flawed cognition to your relational advantage. Despite its limitations - which I have emphasized in my defense of God's relational aims - cognition is central to our approach to Scripture for obvious reasons. Firstly, Scripture is written in a language, meaning cognition has to be engaged to even start experiencing it with your other non-cognitive faculties. Secondly, 'Immersing yourself in the passage' is something that's not under much of our direct control, since all our faculties are overwhelmingly influenced by external circumstances, our subconscious, and each other. However, cognition is unique in that it is also (at least partly) consciously controlled, which gives us an avenue to steer and focus our other faculties of experience. If we are discussing how we should control our approach to Scripture, this control has to occur through our cognition

3) Attempt to cognitively understand what God intended for people to experience from his designed expression in Scripture. How Scripture's designed relational purpose is realized - or whether it is realized at all - varies between individuals. Our cognition needs to understand the intended experience if it is to steer our experience in the right direction. 

4) Deliberately consider multiple different experiences of God from the passage in mind. I think this is one of the most productive ways to attempt to properly experience God's expression through Scripture. These different perspectives help us break out of our worldview and so avoid subconscious worldview hijacking of our cognition, so we can consider God's intentions for the passage more clearly. But more profoundly, they help us stick to the first principle of relational experience (rather than cognitive accuracy). If we understand another person's relational experience, it allows us to experience an echo of God ourselves. In addition to the hypothetical 'universal intended experience' we're trying to understand from a passage, it's as if we were experiencing a personalized expression of God by proxy (albeit one with greater potential for error in our understanding, and with less universal benefit than Scripture itself). 

5) Start with some 'high yield' perspectives. Perhaps most useful is that of the original intended audience or of the author, since these are clearly going to be integral to God's intended experience of his expression in that passage of Scripture[1]. Also helpful to consider are the experiences of early and/or orthodox church consensus[2]. A final group of helpful perspectives are those of individual saints who you discern to be relating well to God in a holistic sense - these may be dead or living saints, famous or privately known[3]. 

6) Allow your cognition to function naturally and form a harmonized view of God as a person. Try to see God through each of the expressions you experience which you deem to be intended by God, or genuine healthy relationships. Remember you are trying to understand a person in the light of all their complex expressions. Don't make a God up who wraps perfectly around all these 'experiences' (this can never take into full consideration the dynamics of person-hood). Instead try to understand the God who expresses Himself in these ways

7) Don't let our modernistic worldview hijack your cognition and make an idol of it. This is an imperfect process and does not define 'relationship', though it is useful and natural.  Do not be distracted away from the aim of relationship with God.  Remember that the hypothetical 'universal intended experience' is actually going to be a spectrum of experience, just like any public expression in earthly relationships. Do not become obsessed with the difficulties of forming a harmonized view of God. Focus on God's intentions for Scripture (rather than picking 'the best' interpretation), and focus on God as a person (where Scripture springs from Him, rather than the reverse). Where cognitive perplexity exists, relate to God through this (some perplexity is a normal part of any relationship).

Its more (or less) intuitive

This approach is fairly intuitive and natural - read the passage for what it is, and consider the spectrum of legitimate ways to experience God through it (even if they contain different mixes of cognitive gaps). Despite its simplicity and intuitiveness, this approach IS difficult - because our worldview isn't happy with cognitive gaps, and because this approach requires us to put aside our preferred priorities and seek God as HE wishes to be found.[4][5]

Summary:

Reading Scripture should utilize cognition to focus the rest of our faculties and allow our whole being to experience God as He intends. At the same time we need to be vigilant not to focus excessively on our cognition, or elevate its importance above other aspects of relationship. One way to do this is to deliberately consider the spectrum of legitimate experiences of others through Scripture - including the original audiences and authors, church consensus, and individual saints. We should let our cognition form a harmonized view of God, a God who would express Himself through all these experiences. But there will always be perplexities of person-hood and relationship that our cognition cannot 'solve', and we need to be careful not to assume that this means something is 'wrong', and not to let this distract us from relationship.
  • Are there any other reading / interpretation techniques that you feel are important to enhance a proper relationship with God?
  • Do you agree that considering a variety of perspectives is important?
  • Do you agree that considering the whole experience - not just the cognitive aspects - is important?
  • When deciding which experiences are useful to consider in your interpretation of Scripture, how much attention do you pay to the cognitive aspects of that experience?
  • How do you feel about accepting inevitable perplexities when it comes to forming a harmonize cognitive view of God?

Coming soon...

  • Next I'll deal with some further issues people have with this approach to Scripture, specifically how it can seem to threaten traditional theological processes and the concept of 'inerrancy'.
  • After that we'll explore some specific examples of progressive revelation and how a relational approach to Scripture leads ancient and modern saints to Him, but through different cognitive paths. 

Footnotes:

[1 - When attempting to understand the experience of the original audiences and authors, it can be helpful to remember how progressive revelation functions to serve relationship with Christ. Each passage was written to enhance as much as possible the revelation of Christ to the intended audience, taking into account their interpretive bias, and the historical processes God intends to drive as part of his expression to mankind. Thus this consideration can be helped a lot by an understanding of the times and cultures and language etc (which can seem daunting), but a lot of this can be gleaned from the Scripture itself. Important things to remember is that these audiences did not have subsequent revelation to balance their cognitive experience of God, that they had different priorities and worldview to us, and that they had genres of language that we aren't too familiar with in our modernistic society .]

[2 - Church 'concensus' is clearly not unanimous, and has also frequently been plagued by political and selfish motivations. However, the greater unity there is among those who seem driven by a desire to relate to the God of Scripture, the more authority this consensus has as a legitimate intented experience of God.  After all, the church - functioning this way - is the means by which we trust God to have chosen and preserved Scripture in the first place. This kind of concensus can allowing many doctrines labeled as heretical by the modern American/Western church, and can also be troubled by the influence of the current worldview (e.g. Greek thinking paved the way for modernism and tended to idolise cognition).]

[3 - The more you know a person yourself and are persuaded of there relationship with God, the less 'orthodox' their cognitive views need to be in order to be useful. Conversely, some 'orthodox' saints may have an experience of God that is less than convincing, and so may not be worth considering.]

[4 - Our modernistic mind will search for reasons to avoid worldview reform - e.g. by disregarding it as 'post-modernism'. This view is post-modern in the sense that it recognises the problems with modernism, but it is NOT postmodern in the sense of denying the reality or importance of cognition, absolutes, truth, consistency, etc. This approach relies upon the essential foundation of absolute reality and consistency in the person of God - but our experience of God should not derive all its meaning from how well we grasps all the cognitive details of God's absolute reality and consistency. The incarnation reveals how God is more than willing to 'empty himself', forgoing some aspects of His reality in order to better express others (e.g. His willingness and ability to relate to us).]

[5 - Even if we agree with this approach to Scripture, it doesn't make the difficulties go away! Our preference for cognitive information is deeply ingrained in our culture, and makes us constantly think about how this approach deals with cognition. What a shame to miss the beauty of the big picture, because we are thinking too much about how the picture is bigger than the sum of its parts and can't be contained in a cognitive description of it! What a shame to miss Jesus because we're thinking about how a person can't be described well with words alone! It can be good to understand how cognition and relationship interact - but Satan can use anything to distract us from actually relating to Jesus.]

Friday, November 13, 2015

Expressing Doubt Builds Faith

Introduction

Many of us have felt guilty for feeling doubt regarding our faith, whether it be our whole faith or parts of it. I hesitated about using the word doubt in this article because of its potentially negative connotations. However, I choose to use it because it captures the emotion behind what many of us feel when we question or enquire about areas of our faith that we don't understand. Interestingly, Fuller Seminary completed a study on what is most helpful for young people to retain their faith and build maturity, and found that wrestling with doubts was a key. Experiencing doubt can be emotionally draining and a fearful experience, and this needs to be recognised and addressed. When looking at the Bible, it seems to portray God as being merciful (in some cases praising) towards those who express questions or doubts. Faith doesn't seem to be an unquestionable act of trust in God, but more a choice to trust God, whilst acknowledging and wrestling with our doubts.  



Opening questions to consider:

Is it right or wrong to question our beliefs?
Is it unhelpful or helpful to question our beliefs?

What does God expect us to do?
What does evidence suggest we do?

Two Mindedness is not Necessarily Helpful

I admit that the Bible does emphasise that it is not helpful to be two-minded in our beliefs according to James 1. After looking at many scriptures relating to uncertainty and faith, what James appears to be referring to here is a person who is permanently indecisive and without conviction in life. Most people would say that a person having no conviction about social injustice or various issues would be a person who is unhelpful and impractical to reality. Edmund Burke said "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".

Scripture and Doubt

There are many situations in the Bible where people experience a type of doubt and it is not always seen with disdain. What God appears to respect in His Word is the sincere seeking of truth that people partake in. As the Bible says "seek and you will find".  The prophets would repeatedly appeal to what God has done in the past as evidence of God's power and glory, rather than just claiming that God is God. This suggests that God does not expect blind faith, but faith based on evidence. Paul also took time to argue the gospel reasonably and based on evidence. If faith is based on evidence, then it is based on conviction of that evidence and not a fake conviction of nothing. God is more concerned about the sincerity of heart than about shallow publicly espoused allegiance to Him, as Jesus so often accused the Pharisees of doing. 

Mark 9 shares a story where Jesus answered a doubting man's prayer. Jesus said that he needed to believe in order to receive His assistance. The man replied that he believed, but also asked Jesus to help him with his unbelief! What the man requested seems to be an oxymoron, but Jesus had mercy on him and granted his request. It seems that an admission of faith while experiencing doubt can even have prayers answered! God doesn't seem to need our unwavering faith to bring about His purposes. This story suggests that Jesus is more interested in a sincere pursuit of Him, even if that pursuit involves admission of doubt.

Paul says at the end of Roman 14 that we need to be congruent (consistent) or true to ourselves. He says that if we go against our conscience, it is more or less akin to sin. In the context of doubt, this could mean that acknowledging the doubt and wrestling with it, rather than going on pretending it isn't there, is the more helpful way of living.

Matthew states that even Jesus expressed a form of "doubt" when He cried "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?". I am not saying that Jesus necessarily intellectually doubted His Father's existence, but that He existentially doubted (experiencing emotional or intellectual doubt) God's faithfulness to Him while He was on the cross. We all go through periods in our lives where we experience doubt about God's existence, goodness, or our understanding of "correct" doctrine - whether it be emotional or intellectual. Christ seemed to be free to express his anguish without worrying about the judgement of religious lofty eyes.

Jude 22 also chimes in on how to deal with doubt. He emphasises the mercy that we need to show to those who doubt. Rather than thinking less of those who experience doubt, he appears to imply being slow to judge and quick to hear. 

Expressing Doubt Builds Faith 

I have been reading a book recently by Nancy Pearcy called "Saving Leonardo: A call to resist the secular assault on mind, morals, & meaning".  In it she brings to our attention a fascinating study by Fuller Seminary that investigated High School graduate's tendency to lose their faith after school. In the study they found a key factor that influenced whether youth kept their faith or not. They found that the most effective factor was not prayer or Bible studies, but the safe exploration of questions before leaving home. The college students said that the more they felt they could safely express their doubts meant that they developed higher levels of faith and spiritual maturity. Pearcy believes that the best way for teens to be prepared to give an answer for their faith (1 Peter 3:15) is by personally wrestling with questions. Jesus interestingly said that we are to be child in like some way. Pearcy and Francis Schaeffer said that being childlike is not about believing the first thing we have been told, but about a tendency to ask questions! Pearcy concludes that we need to have the attitude of Paul "Test Everything; Hold fast what is good". 

As counselling theory has well established, safely and honestly exploring our realities (without fear of judgement) helps us to have a greater awareness and understanding which equips us to live more fruitful and sincere lives.   


Doubt and Fear

The alternative extreme to double mindedness is when people engage in a blind following of one belief without questioning it or hearing and entertaining another's viewpoint. I wrote a post recently on the subject of Group Think, its' dangerous tendencies, and how to combat it. I do believe in the usefulness of constructive talk around what we generally see as evidence for the faith (and there is a lot), but if this talk is not balanced it can produce fear amongst people when they doubt something that is taken for granted. Why do we fear? It could be because it has been ingrained into us to believe blindly or else be condemned, instead of engaging honestly with our doubt. I have felt at times that the attitude within church culture can be that to doubt is a sin or a weakness. However, there is a more helpful and God honouring way to view doubt.If I love truth, and God is truth, then I love God. The search for truth comes first, if it doesn't, then we just believe whatever we first come in contact with, or whatever suits our fancy. That would not be honouring God to believe something for the sake of it. On a similar note, if I expect someone else to question their world view in the humble pursuit of truth, then I must also too. God wants us to love Him with our heart, strength and mind. I am not saying that we blow about in the wind 24/7, but how C.S. Lewis put it: "Faith... is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods". People believe things for many reasons, and it would often take a huge amount of evidence before their belief would change anyway. I believe the honest pursuit of truth is the attitude that God would find most helpful to work with, rather than a dogmatic adherence to creeds with the suppression of doubt.    

Conclusion

Scripture suggests that it is not evil to experience doubt, but part of the process of finding out who we are and why we believe what we believe. Instead, we can be true to ourselves. The Fuller Seminary study shows that being real, and safely exploring our doubts leads to a stronger faith. It suggests it is more dangerous to not safely question your faith. However, it is not helpful to always be wavering and double minded, but instead having a humble conviction about what we do have evidence for. Experiencing doubt is not something people can always avoid due to the enquiring minds God has given us, but it can be extremely frightening and painful. One way to help relinquish this fear is by sincerely searching for truth while having an attitude of trust towards God, that if He is truth, He will guide our sincere searching in the most helpful direction. We cannot ever understand everything. Being true to ourselves is the best we can do, and what I believe God wants us to exhibit. I am not suggesting giving up on faith, but suggesting the necessity to express doubt as a part of our faith.

P.S.


Joshua Griffiths is currently doing a series talking about how relationship and the existence of knowledge gaps is essential for a full understanding and experience of faith - Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 3 - RELATIONSHIPS)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 6 - COPING WITH EVIL II)

This series explores the nature of Scripture (specifically those aspects which many of us find uncomfortable) and what our approach to Scripture should be as a consequence. This exploration is needed because our intrinsic human biases cause us to assume that God's nature / aims / priorities all line up with our modernistic worldview, which focuses on detailed accurate synergistic information. However such an approach to Scripture clashes with many of its properties. Our response tends to be to curate Scripture, or to minimise our engagement with the aspects we find difficult to explain. Instead we should engage with all of Scripture as God designed it, and challenge our perspective on it when needed. What does it look like when we value the uncomfortable aspects of Scripture?

The series so far:

We've discussed how Scripture suggest that God is more interested in the non-cognitive goals of personhood, expression, and relationship, and deliberately utilises a thoroughly human Bible along with cognitive 'gaps' (biases or 'errors', according to our modernistic perspective) to achieve these aims. 

Many cognitive / experiential 'gaps' can be considered normal or conducive toward relationship. One challenge to this view is that not all 'gaps' easily line up with this supposed aim of God's - some gaps can legitimately be called 'evil' even from a relational perspective. We've been discussing how our relationship copes with these gaps in the form of faith, which again is not primarily cognitive. One strategy faith uses is to wrestle with God's purposes for these gaps, and to provide potential answers which sustain our relationship through these 'evil' gaps. These answers also demonstrate that 'evil' gaps do not ultimately conflict with God's relational aims. 

This discussion has led us to analyse 'progressive revelation' (with its obvious cognitive 'deficiencies') as a specific form of 'evil', recognizing that it still specifically serves God's relational aims, and discussing how faith grapples with Scripture.

We've already covered how the these 'gaps' are required for the expression of faith, which is the most vivid display of the authenticity and health of any relationship. To round off my defence of God's relational aims, we'll explore a couple of other potential 'answers for evil' that faith can grapple with.

Full Expression

First, In a broad sense Evil allows a more complete expression of God's character. God is not merely good, He is ANTI-evil - meaning ultimate evil (real persisting gaps in the expression of God) cannot exist. This very impossibility - God's anti-evil nature - itself needs expressing, and what better way than to give evil the opportunity to assert its own existence, only to be gloriously and satisfyingly overcome by Gods goodness?{1} Sometimes this is obvious and temporally relevant (i.e. God meets our needs when we pray to Him), but other times it is more subtle and eternally focused (i.e. by some of the other purposes for evil, discussed below). 

Progressive revelation likewise allows the more full expression of God's character. The ANTI aspects of God's nature need revealing - including the faults  of the previously biased views, which requires their existence to start with. Harmonious summary statements about God are not enough - certain aspects require a full and mature dealing, which may require a partially biased expression for a time. If these biases also produce evil gaps, it is so that they can be overcome by integration into the whole goodness of God, and so that we can enjoy the full spectrum of views and perspectives on our unified God. And the unity of God's people - under a common spirit-wrought love for Christ, in varying states of cognitive awareness - is meant to demonstrate the impossibility of evil ultimately winning, even if it is given opportunity (through the existence of cognitive bias and disagreement). 

Specific Effects

Second, evil performs its own specific purposes more directly. Some events - which are required in Gods expressive narrative - require evil in order to occur, or require evil to setup the context for another expression of God's character. Examples of these kinds of evil include huge parts of Israel's story (which gives so much meaning to the rest of God's revelation in Scripture), and the murder of God's son (which was ordained before the world was even created). Another big class of specific purposes for evil, is the individual development of our characters as free agents. Some character developments REQUIRE the existence of evil.{2} Gods relational nature wants a large number of different characters in heaven, which require various patterns of mixed experience, including (temporary) evil which is ultimately overcome by God's goodness.

Progressive revelation has direct effects as well, in terms of intended messages, directing historical events, and molding specific characters. Each revelation had an intended message and intended effect, which might change with the historical context. The bias, the truth content, and the omissions all have a necessary role in accurately conveying the message and creating the intended effects. 

Summary

Even 'evil' experiential gaps in God's expression are readily assimilated by God's relational aims. Relationships persist in the form of faith, a valuable self-evident manifestation of the health of any relationship. Faith can sustain itself by grappling with some of God's purposes for evil (such as allowing alternative expressions of God's goodness), and how it fits with his relational aims. Faith can also grapple with God's purposes for the 'evils' of progressive revelation, which (like all 'evil' gaps) allow the goodness of God to take on alternative expressive forms, enhancing relationship rather than posing a challenge to God's relational aims.


  • Does it feel wrong to attribute deliberate good original purposes to 'evil'? 
  • Do you agree that the it is better if you are given a chance to express your relationship in faith? Does this 'purpose' for evil give you any comfort?
  • Are there other purposes for evil you can think of?
  • Do you think that having good 'purposes' for evil, is enough to justify its existence? Or the existence of 'gaps' within progressive revelation?

Please comment below! I need feedback to tailor my views and stay faithful to Scripture...

Coming Soon...


  • Next I'll attempt to summarise how to approach Scripture, with everything we've already discussed in mind.
  • After that we'll explore some specific examples of progressive revelation and how a proper approach to Scripture leads ancient and modern saints to Him, but through different cognitive paths. 
  • We'll also reverse course a little, discussing some cognitive 'gaps' that WE impose on Scripture (making progressive revelation seem more full of gaps than it really is, or than ancient readers saw it).

Footnotes:

1 - Some will object that God's goodness can't require even a temporary experience of evil for it to be expressed, as this would make Him dependant on something other than Himself for full expression of His goodness. This view has several problems, one of which is that it defines evil as something that does not originate with God. The Bible's definition of evil, however, includes things that originate from God. Also, this view simplifies the concept of God's expression down to a single mode (where everyone is aiming for an identical relationship, which includes only an abstract understanding of any evil and God's victory over it). I agree that God does not require every person to experience every form of evil and His victory over it, but people will experience varying degrees of isolated goodness vs. its victory over evil in a wide spectrum. This is a beautiful thing in the end, when we consider the natural and desirable variety of relationships God desires.

2 - God can't simply create specific characters from thin air, just like he can't perform other logical contradictions. Strength, experience, maturity, and other aspects in our souls exist precisely BECAUSE of how they are formed. They can't exist in isolation of their development - that doesn't make sense, and to try and fake them would result in poor substitutes, and we would easily and quickly discover that they lack any basis.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Knowing How You Know Something

Retrieved From http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/10/12/the-trouble-with-physics-another-branch-of-science-captured-by-groupthink/

Introduction

Years ago, I remember attending an R.C. Sproul Jr camp here in New Zealand. Though I may not agree with his theology, he did have much to offer. He talked about the importance of knowing how you know something (Epistemology). "Knowing how you know something" is something that sometimes we as members of today's society can ignore due to fear or laziness. However, knowing how you know is an important exercise that challenges dangerous thinking. There is safety in hearing and wrestling with multiple interpretations. Not only is it important to wrestle with various interpretations, but it is also important to formulate narratives for which we live. This post will address the value of challenging Groupthink in Christianity, but also emphasising the importance of narratives or beliefs that we live by.


Dangers of Groupthink

So what on earth is important about needing to know how we know something? Many movements throughout history were characterised by "groupthink", which is the concept that people tend to fall into groups and believe something just because it is the norm. We may not feel like we accept group thought just because it is the norm, but because there is safety in the group. We think that because everyone else thinks so it must be true. That is why it takes so long for societies to change. Once we get into a pattern of thinking, it can be hard to be free from that linear thinking.

Christianity is no exception from this problem, and yes, I call it a problem. It is a problem because we can so tightly hold to one particular way of thinking and entertaining other ideas may threaten our perceived reality. Questioning our perceived reality is a scary exercise but an exercise that does not need to bring fear. Alternatively, it should be a scary thought to believe in somethings without questioning why we believe it. For example, look at the Crusades, Nazis, racism in America, or even stereotypes we should be aware of in New Zealand. All of these groupthink situations create dangerous movements that do not lead to truth but away from it. 

What we believe can depend on the time that we are born in. Christianity is rich in diverse thought over the last two thousand years. Today, because people are less isolated due to globalisation, we are opened to various viewpoints. This causes growth in varying beliefs. Yet because there are so many various beliefs this can also cause some of us to essentially give up in looking at what others think - especially in our fast paced world that lives in the “now”. I think because of this fast paced world we live in, we have lost the deep value in knowing why we believe something. We can just pick a group and stick to it, often in fear of someone who may think differently. Yet there is safety in the diversity of thought - especially in Christianity.


Valuing Diversity

Proverbs 11:14 talks about the safety in the abundance of counsellors and illustrates the importance of self-reflecting why we believe something. Why would an abundance of counsellors be recommended if there was only one way to view something? The value with seeking advice is that we can check our reasoning with other people. If there is value with a multitude of people in order to get varying viewpoints, this means not surrounding ourselves with people who only agree with our thinking. Now this can be hard and tiring! However, it is necessary for the purpose of finding what is true. Truth should not need to be militantly proclaimed (except for possibly combating a groupthink situation), but will speak for itself amongst truth seekers - especially in regards to seeking God. If we seek truth, and God is true, then we seek God. This also applies to various interpretations of what God looks like. Paul also talked about the “good Bereans” who would check their beliefs about the scripture when they heard something different.

However, this does not mean living in a permanent negative vacuum of scepticism. We must all live by narratives or beliefs about our lives and our connection to the world. For example, a Calvinist, an Arminianist and a Universalist would have very similar yet different outlooks on the world around. It is important what we believe, because what we believe influences how we live in the world. For example, since believing in the sovereignty of God I have found a new confidence in Him, and because of this, confidence in my interactions with the world. Earlier I did not have such a faith in God’s sovereignty, and felt weaker because I felt that my interactions with the world were totally up to my Freewill, and I could mess things up. I do not deny that my actions are still very important, but now I feel like I can trust God to work with my failings.

God seems to allow various interpretations of Himself in Scripture. Each person, depending on where they are in their lives, finds different concepts about God helpful. I highly doubt that any one person have always had the same view of God. Experiencing other points of view has enabled ourselves to check our beliefs and align with what is more true. Yet, the gradual journey of finding further revelation in God’s mysteries is a process that also holds its own value. We all start as infants, knowing nothing of the world, but as we grow and constructively critique each other, we can build narratives that more fully align with what is true.


Conclusion

Groupthink can be dangerous, because we end up following untested and unwise beliefs. However, we can avoid succumbing to groupthink by seeking alternative viewpoints. The Bible talks about seeking many counsellors and being “good Bereans” rather than ignoring or being afraid of alternative ideas. But being forever a sceptic is impossible - we need to construct narratives about our reality in order to function as people. So, when we hear something new and either agree or disagree with it, it would be helpful to find out what it is before prejudging it for what it appears to be. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Biblical Support for Universalism - Part 6


Previously we looked at how ambiguous the Greek and Hebrew words for "forever" are in both the Old Testament and New Testament. It seems wise to interpret them as indefinite periods of time rather than strictly "forever". Doing this means that it is unnecessary to conclude that people will be in hell forever and opens up God’s potential activities in the future aions that make up eternity. What I would like to address now is various scriptural support that suggests that all people will eventually be saved. I emphasise again that this does not mean that I am suggesting people don’t go to hell, only that we have misinterpreted the length of “punishment” or “rehabilitation” within hell.



Photo retrieved from: http://jesus-photos-pictures.blogspot.co.nz/2010/11/god-holding-world-in-his-hands-photos.html

Both Calvinists and Arminianists talk about God’s heart and his desire to save all people, but don’t really go much further than that. Alternatively, Universalism emphasises God’s will and determination to save all people.

Here are some verses that emphasise God’s determined will to save all people:


Romans 5:15-19 is an amazing passage exclaiming the power and extent of Christ’s death in comparison to Adam’s sin. The wording here is extremely fascinating and seems to point towards Universalism. The passage states more than once that Adam brought death to the many, but Christ’s death brought the gift of life to the many. In Arminian and Calvinist tradition one would think that it should say "through Adam death came to the many and through Christ life to the elect few". But no, Paul illustrates that Christ’s impact is just as big and if not bigger than Adam’s impact on humanity. Isaiah 53:11 also emphasises the many and not the few that Christ will save.


1 Corinthians 15:20-26 has another direct comparison between those that are brought to death through Adam and those through Christ. Although this one is even stronger because this time it says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”. This passage also states, “the last enemy that will be destroyed is death”. The Bible talks about the lake of fire as the second death in Revelation. Therefore, I ask, if death is destroyed then how can it survive in the greater part of humanity… for eternity? Will hell fire reign forever or will Christ rule with all things under His feet and destroy death altogether? Oh death where is your sting…


At this point, I would like to be intellectually honest and point out that the Greek word pás meaning “all”, which is often used in the New Testament, actually could mean “all”, or “all types of”. From what I found there is disagreement about what it means generally speaking and therefore people say that the context should interpret its meaning. In this context, it would not make much sense to suggest that through Adam all types of people die, and through Christ all types of people shall be made alive. As with the following verse in 2 Peter 3:9 where pás is interpreted as “everyone”… it does not make much sense to say that God is not willing that any soul should perish but that “every type” of people be saved. It appears the word “any” would directly interpret what is meant by “everyone”.


The classic verse 2 Peter 3:9 is often interpreted as an expression of emotion by many, but the Greek suggests that it is so much more than that. It says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfil His promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but wants everyone to repent”. The Greek word for “wishing” is boulomai, which actually means "to determine". HELPS Word-studies is worth quoting:

1014 /boúlomai (“resolutely plan”) is a strong term that underlines the predetermined (and determined) intention driving the planning (wishing, resolving). In contrast, 2309 (thélō) focuses on the desire (“wishfulness”) behind making an offer (cf. TDNT, 1, 629).
[While God’s “thélō-offers” can be rejected (see 2309 /thélō), His 1014 /boúlomai (“planning”) always works out His purpose, especially in conjunction with presetting the physical scenes of history.]

This word seems much stronger than what many translators have put into English. If God intends or determines that not any should perish, I ask, who could possibly thwart the determined plans of God? Unless of course God is deceiving Himself that He is able to save everyone, but He actually cannot and is grasping at the wind.


Colossians 1:19-20 is one of my favourites because it exclaims the supremacy of Christ and His mission to reconcile all things to Himself. It says that God is pleased to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ, both on earth and in heaven. Once again, here is very broad universal language seeming to include all things. Not only does it say all things but it specifies what it means by all things - and includes both heaven and earth.


On a similar note, we also have Ephesians 1:7-11

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will”. 

The Greek for unite in this passage, anakephalaioó, means to “sum up” or “bring a head to”, which implies that Christ is in the business of reorganising everything in Him. I would question God allowing sin and death to reign in hell as a means of summing up everything in Him. Interesting though how at the end it says that God works everything according to the counsel (Greek is boulé = God’s resolved plan) of His will (Greek is thelo = desire), which has huge implications for verses such as 2 Peter 3:9 and many others which use stronger words than thelo. It does not sound like God is intending to fail at completing what He desires to happen.


John 12:32 is straightforward when it says that when Christ rises up He will draw all men to Himself. I assume He means women also… J


1 Timothy 4:9-11 is an extremely odd verse to read when not read from a Universalist perspective. It says that God is the Saviour of all people (there it is again), and especially of those who believe. It seems strange to me to talk about God being the Saviour of all people, but then talk about how He is the Saviour especially of those who believe. To me this sounds like it could be a grand plan of salvation that is in the process of saving all people, but has not yet saved all.


1 John 2:2 also is fascinating because he is reminding us believers that Christ died for the wider whole. In it John states that Christ’s death was not just for the propitiation of our sins but for the whole world.


Lamentations 3:31-33 is a powerful few verses talking about God’s longsuffering. It says,

“For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not afflict from His heart or grieve the children of men”. 

This is further evidence that God is not in the business of eternal conscious torment, but instead to reconcile all back to Him.


Acts 17 states that God determined the boundaries of the nations so that they would seek Him. Here is a different Greek word, horizō, which also means “to determine” and the passage states that the purpose of determining the nations is that they would seek Him. Once again, it says nations and not the elect. Verses such as Luke 11:9-13 say that if we seek we will find, and therefore illuminates the potential that God determined all nations would seek Him.


It is interesting that God says that He does not take delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11 & 18:32). Alternatively God desires and commands that all men everywhere come to repentance (Ezekiel 33:11, Acts 17:30).


Last, but not least, comes an amazing chapter from Paul - Romans 11. Some of you may be surprised this contains evidence for Universalism, but on the contrary it is full of it. In the beginning, Paul talks about how God has reserved a remnant of Israel for Himself and these select few are ones that follow Him. In v7 Paul calls them the elect, and refers to the non-elect as the “others”. Paul refers to how God caused these non-elect to stumble and fail to see. However, in v11 Paul asks, “Have they stumbled that they should fall?” He goes on to answer his own question. “By no means,” he says, but that through their trespass salvation shall come to the Gentiles to provoke them to jealousy. It would not make much sense for Paul to be talking about the elect stumbling and falling. What Paul seems to be saying is that the non-elect or non-chosen have stumbled, but will not fall. Paul says this is because of a grand plan to bring in the Gentiles also. The point of this is that Paul includes the non-elect into at least a position for potential salvation. Paul gets firmer later in the chapter. He says:

"For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all."

Here Paul expresses God’s ultimate grand plan, that through a process of experiencing sin and disobedience everyone can experience mercy and reconciliation with God - the Jew, the Gentile, the elect, the non-elect… everyone. Paul finishes with an open-ended exclamation about how wondrous and unsearchable are God’s ways… let him speak for himself:

"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgements and how unscrutable His ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid?" For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen." 

The final verse completes the evidence provided in this part of the series. There are many more concepts and verses in support of Universalism, but these scriptures stood out the most as providing clear examples. All things are from God, through God and to God, and I would suggest that sometime in the future aions, all things includes all people.


Conclusion:
We have seen how the Bible has many passages suggesting that all people will be saved. It suggests it by the language its uses such as “all”. It suggests it through God’s determining language used to speak about saving all people. It suggests it by direct comparisons between the many who have sinned through Adam and the many who have life through Christ. It suggests it through the salvation of the non-elect and ultimate mercy shown to all people. Last but not least, it suggests it through the all-encompassing power and extent of God’s control and grasp of all things. 


Next, I plan write a post that seeks to philosophically pull the idea of Universalism into a systematic theology. I welcome any thoughts and comments from people who may agree or disagree with something I have said. We are all a work in progress and hopefully we all seek Truth.

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Monday, October 5, 2015

A Biblical Universalism - Part 5

In Search of a Coherent Narrative



Introduction

At the beginning of this series, I mentioned trying to reconcile the disparities of two dominant theologies in Christianity - Arminianism and Calvinism - but with little success. This led me down a rather different path to what I had expected. I wanted to know what could be strong Biblically, and hold the logical prowess of Calvinism at the same time as keeping to the Arminian values of a God who has good will towards all men. For me, there were not many options, and I supposed that I must resolve myself to accept paradox and essentially give up. That is, until it crossed my mind to look into “Universalism” - basically the belief that all people will be reconciled with God. 



Photo retrieved from http://gdwm.org/2012/04/reconcile-with-one-another-2/

I had never previously looked into Universalism because I had the idea that it was an obscure, unbiblical belief that people held simply because they wanted to. I thought it was one of those beliefs that tickled people’s ears (2 Timothy 4:3) and nothing more. However on the contrary, after some research, I found that there is evidence that it was a belief widely held by the early church. There is also evidence of Universalism being taught by theological seminaries in the early church, and not only that, but it was not even mentioned as a heresy for the first three hundred years. You can find this information here - (scroll to the end and there is a tidy summary of this book). I would like to find a more recent assessment of the records of Universalism in the early church, though it is still thought provoking. 


I still think that some of the thoughts around Universalism are potentially unbiblical or illogical, especially the idea that all roads lead (in their own right) to God, even roads apparently going in opposite directions. However, what I did find were groups dedicated to scripture such as the “Evangelical Universalists”.


Evangelical Universalism seems to be a belief based on a dedication to scripture. Even though there are various sub groups under this “banner”, it was their way of looking at scripture that caused me to view scripture from a new perspective. I took off my long held Arminian glasses and tried to look at scriptures differently to how I had always read them. Within Universalism there are various points of view and with caution I use the term “Universalism” because of the stigma that it holds. I merely use it as a reference to believing that all people will be saved and reconciled with God. From a Universalist point of view, the only major difference to modern mainstream Christianity is that it anticipates the reconciliation of all people before God at some point in the future.



Basic Framework

To believe that all things are reconciled to God does not mean that the core framework of Christianity is changed. Like Calvinism and Arminianism, my understanding of Universalism believes the core fundamentals of mainstream Christianity and holds to nearly all of the common characteristics of the Christian faith, including:

- God is all-powerful, all knowing, and all loving (and I am sure there are many other characteristics, but these are key).

- God created the universe as He desired it to be.

- Humankind is sinful and is in need of redemption.

- God used the Israelites to bring about his redemption plan for the world. Jesus Christ the Son of God then lived, died and rose again to make atonement for the sins of all humankind.

- Some people will believe in Christ for salvation in this current world, and some will not. Those who put their trust and faith in Christ will be resurrected to life and those who do not, will not be.

- There is a “heaven” and a “hell”. Some people will go to one and some to the other.


So what is the difference between Universalism and mainstream Christianity? The difference is that Universalism posits that all people will eventually be reconciled to God, or in other words, people will not necessarily be in hell forever.


Those ambiguous words

Photo retrieved from http://www.writeawriting.com/academic-writing/literary-criticism/

One of the key areas of confusion for people is around the word “forever”. People read “forever” and instantly think (as I did) that its meaning is clear. However, it is not that simple. Take the Hebrew word for "forever" - olam. In Jonah chapter 2, the prophet is praying in the belly of the fish, and in his prayer he used the word olam to speak of the time he spent in the “pit” (supposedly the belly of the whale or the depths of the sea). God rescued him from this pit by causing the whale to spit him out. Clearly, olam did not mean the “forever” that we normally think of. There are three ways that this could be interpreted to make sense for the use of this word. One is that Jonah was speaking figuratively and taking artistic licence. Secondly, that Jonah, being Jewish, had a completely different understanding of that word than what has been translated down to us in English. Thirdly, Jonah was in this “pit” conditionally, based on his repentance or unrepentance. In other words, Jonah could have potentially been in the belly for “forever” - as long as he was unrepentant. Jonah was not continuously unrepentant and was therefore released. It is interesting that in this passage the use of the word olam seems ambiguous and brings to light the dangers of interpreting English words at face value.

Let us go to the Greek word for forever - aion, which is commonly used in the New Testament. Revelation 14:11 and Matthew 25:46 talk about the “forever” or aion punishment of people. Interestingly, aion is a word that is even more ambiguous than olam. Strong’s provides us with the meaning of aion. Two words are used in those verses - one a noun and the other the adjective derived from the noun. Strong’s concordance states that the noun aion means an age or ages long rather than “forever”. Even the adjective aionious (which is shortly translated “forever”) does not focus on the future per se but on the quality of the age it relates to (according to HELPS Word Studies). The Greek for “forever” or “everlasting” when considering the root word meaning of aion, actually seems to mean an indefinite long period of time with connection to its context. The word is used widely throughout the Bible. As I have generally researched out there, there is much debate about the meaning of the word, which in itself implies ambiguity and requires caution. For example, aion has been interpreted to mean life, world, old, age or forever. Ultimately, aion is not conclusive about its meaning. It would be more helpful to interpret it more as an indefinite period of time, letting the context interpret the word.

Feel free to check out this great resource for the Greek and Hebrew translations as well as commentaries - Bible Hub

Also here is a collection of quotes from scholars that seem to support the notion that aion does not necessarily mean forever but an indefinite period of time - Definition of forever

The ambiguity of aion should throw up warning signs. It suggests that mainstream Christianity potentially has assumed a reality based on theological “group think” passed down through the ages. Some may say that aion has to mean “forever” because it is also used regarding the righteous having “eternal” life. Yes, this is a valid point – however, it is not based on any understanding of the word itself but on a presumed theological worldview. Just because the meaning of the word threatens our current understanding of our time spent in heaven, for example, does not mean that we reject the meaning of the word. If the word means more or less an indefinite period of time, it may be that even the righteous will not live forever. However, there is no real reason to consider that potential reality because being indefinite, it could mean that we do live forever. God seems to desire an ongoing relationship with people, and there is no reason (that we know of) for Him to cut that relationship short. Either way, the word relates to a quality of time and needs to be read with reference to the current context.

Even if aion meant forever literally, there is no reason to think that it could not be interpreted like olam was by Jonah. “Forever” in hell could mean a condition upon continued dissonance with God. I note that there is no verse that I know of that speaks directly about people “getting out of hell” (please share if you do know), but there is much Biblical evidence that suggests that people will, as we shall see in the next post.

Conclusion


As we have discussed, reconciling all people to God does not necessarily mean rejecting the notion of a hell-like existence, but merely asserts that God will be successful in reconciling all people with Himself at some time in the current/future aion/s. There is much discussion out there about the words assumed to mean “forever” in the English. On closer observation, these words have multiple meanings and are interpreted in multiple ways. These interpretations depend on the contexts they find themselves in and the predisposed theological doctrines of the reader. It would be helpful to not be dogmatic about our preconceived realities, but accept that truth may actually look different to what we have always thought.      

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