Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Very Confusing Book

I'd like to do a post on the book of Revelation, particularly on some of the hermeneutical guidelines that can help us avoid the interpretive pits into which we as contemporary readers easily slip. I thought it might be interesting to see what different people (if there are any of you out there!) have experienced in the way of troublesome and even dangerous readings of Revelation. I hope this won't encourage ridicule of different teachers (even if their last name is LaHaye!) but will serve as a bit of a runway for more positive reflection.

So what interpretive decisions have crossed your path and left you feeling exegetically exasperated?

I'll go first, first confessing my own sins and then mentioning a second interpretation not of my own making. First, picking up on Joel 2:31, several New Testament texts (for example, Acts 2:20; Rev. 6:12) mention something about the moon becoming like blood. For some reason I used to speculate that this might entail humanity colonizing the moon in the future and having a great war there, thus staining it with blood! The key word here is "speculated" (in the worst sense of the word). Lord, have mercy.

Yet that interpretive blunder at least didn't have all the negative ramifications of the popular one that I'll mention next. Many Christians have been led to believe that the "mark of the beast" (Rev. 13:16-18) consists of some technological device (a super duper microchip, etc.). "They" (whoever that may be) will be able to "track" those who receive the mark. Put gently, this is not a strong reading of the text....but more on why later. For now, what other things come to mind?

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Perseverance of the Saints

After a few posts of a programmatic nature, we dive into a specific material issue in theology. Why not a sticky one that hits home for many of us?!

The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is a crystallization of the belief that genuine Christians cannot (or at least do not) turn away from the faith and so forever cut themselves off from Christ. This is a major issue with which many believers are wrestling and it’s not difficult to discover why that’s the case. So many of us have seen a friend or loved one who seemed to be following Christ meander away from the narrow path of discipleship. Inevitably, we ask, “What’s happened to them? Were they a genuine Christian and are they now genuinely an object of God’s wrath? Were they never truly ‘in’ and thus have only shown their true colors?” Pastors need an extra measure of clarity here. What would you say to the concerned parishioner who is worried about a friend or family member’s faith? What would you say to the person who himself or herself seems to be flirting with apostasy? How would you respond when someone turns away after you’ve invested time and energy and prayer in their spiritual health?

We find different answers in different pockets of Protestant Christianity. The Reformed and Presbyterian traditions have argued that genuine Christians cannot (or at least do not) apostatize. Upon examining the life of a person who seemingly has rejected Christ, they are likely to say either that he or she never was a true believer or that they have not truly turned away and ultimately will come around. This is, briefly, the Calvinistic perspective on things. Wesleyans and Methodists have argued that genuine Christians can and tragically sometimes do turn away from the Lord and thus fail in the end to inherit salvation. So they are ready to say that someone who has apparently apostatized may well have been a genuine Christian and now is not. This is, briefly, the Arminian perspective on things. Biblical texts have been used to support both positions. Romans 8:28-39, for example, has been said to point toward the Calvinistic view. The warning passages of Hebrews have been used to support the Arminian position.

Before we go any further, it’s important to note two pastorally significant features common to both views (at least in their theologically robust forms). First, only if we persevere in faith for all our days will we in the end inherit salvation (see Mt 10:16ff.; 1 Cor. 9:24ff.; 1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 4:6-8; Heb. 6:1-8; 10:19-39; for the Greek geeks out there, see Jas. 2:5 where the kingdom is promised to those who continually love God [present participle w/ imperfective aspect]). This is to confront some of the ways in which “eternal security” and “once saved, always saved” can be misconstrued. Rightly understood, the phrase “eternal security” indicates the belief that God makes sure we press on in faith, not that we can make a profession of faith only to abandon it and still somehow receive salvation. Thus I think it’s preferable to speak in terms of the “perseverance of the saints.” The validity of this belief is what we’re exploring in this post. Note also that the requirement of perseverance is different from saying we must perform x number of good deeds to be accepted by God. Perseverance is simply a matter of ongoingly fearing and trusting the Lord, which of course will produce all sorts of good deeds over the long haul. Second, if a believer were truly to reject the faith and become alienated from Christ, he or she would forego the hope of salvation. In other words, we’re not talking about missing out on a few extra perks in the life to come (a 40” vertical with the resurrection body instead of a 48”); we’re talking about missing out on salvation itself and the enjoyment of God’s presence in the new creation. With the stakes so high, we need to help one another persevere to the very end! Hence the exhortation of Hebrews 10:24-25: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Now for a proposal. My own view is that genuine Christians can turn away but don’t turn away. I appreciate how Millard Erickson unpacks this way of looking at the topic, especially when he offers the helpful illustration that I’ll adapt here. If a couple has a child whom they want to keep from wandering into the danger of the street, they could either simply build a fence around the yard that would make it physically impossible for the child to leave or they could so train up the child that she learns not to leave the safety of the yard. Erickson believes that the latter option depicts how God works with his sons and daughters in the life of faith. Rather than simply removing the danger of apostasy, God effectually instructs and equips us so that we continually choose not to reject him. Strictly speaking, we can turn away, but God sees to it that we don’t.

What would this mean for our interpretation of pertinent biblical texts? I think it helps us take seriously the teaching of Jesus in John 6 and 10. In particular, at one point in John 6, Jesus says that it’s his responsibility not to lose those whom the Father gives to him (Jn. 6:39). This seems to indicate (as D. A. Carson argues in his commentary on the Gospel of John) that, if someone turns away from the faith, Jesus has not fulfilled the will of the Father. If we believe Jesus always does the will of the Father (see Jn. 8:29), and if this is the correct interpretation of John 6:39, then genuine Christians do not apostatize.

Erickson’s view also helps us take seriously the warning passages of Hebrews. The threat of apostasy is a true danger and such stern warnings are actually part of God’s program for prodding us to remain in the faith. Yet we still have one issue to deal with: biblical texts that apparently name Christians who have turned away (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:19-20; the “some” of Heb. 10:25). My view is that we don’t have enough insight into their spiritual condition to say with certainty that they were genuine Christians. This could be viewed as a sore spot for the position advocated here, but I think it’s at least a viable explanation. And it should be noted that we are seeking the position that best explains what we find in Scripture (even if some questions may remain). I think this position has fewer problems than one that denies the perseverance of the saints and has to grapple with, say, John 6:39.

How does all of this look when related to our questions about friends who are straying? The perspective outlined here leads us to say that a person who seems to have turned away either never genuinely embraced the gospel or did so but is in a fleeting phase of rebellion and will come around. Either way, we do well to pray for them and encourage them to press on. Here I think the Calvinistic view is actually more hopeful than the Arminian, for the Arminian may need to say that the person was a genuine Christian and now has so hardened their heart that they cannot turn back to God (Heb. 6:4-6).

What do you make of it?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Listening Theology as Via Media (cont.)

The last post unpacked how a listening theology avoids the blunders of modernism. But for thoughtful Christians postmodernism also has its problems. How might a listening theology address these?

The term postmodernism is used in several ways, but here I mean a cluster of philosophical emphases held together by a tendency toward conceptual relativism and linguistic constructivism. Conceptual relativists argue that, because we use our communally-devised conceptual resources to investigate reality, we are encased in them and do not have access to the world in itself but only the world as our concepts allow us to see it. Our knowledge is merely relative to our conceptualizations of things. This commitment may be wedded to linguistic constructivism, the belief that our linguistic constructs actually construct the world around us. This is to move away from metaphysical realism, belief in mind-independent reality. These emphases, though not adopted uncritically by them, have found a place in the works of Stanley Grenz and John Franke. Grenz and Franke have several beneficial things to say about the task of theology (e.g., it must be done in and for the body of Christ, it is not enshrined in any one systematic presentation and so must be ongoing), but I have concern about their openness to conceptual relativism and linguistic constructivism (even if they would prefer not to speak in those terms when describing their approach to theology).

A listening theology differs in a couple of ways. First, it affirms that we can in fact listen to reality and the canonical exposition of it without our use of concepts automatically distorting it as it comes before our minds. We can 1) have some pre-conceptual experience and knowledge (the epistemological distinction between belief de re and belief de dicto is helpful here) and/or 2) in virtue of the God-givenness of our noetic equipment faithfully conceptualize things as we experience them. With respect to (2), we of course have great intellectual limitations as finite creatures who have plunged into sin, but our Creator desires for us to obtain genuine knowledge of the way things are. In sum, we listen and reply to reality and what God has to say about it; we don’t necessarily do conceptual violence to it every time we seek to understand it.

Second, a listening theology rejects the idea that our conceptual-linguistic construals construct reality. (The exception would be the case of performative speech, speech by which we do bring into being certain states of affairs. A classic example is the case of a minister pronouncing a couple to be husband and wife. This state of affairs does not obtain before the minister says so.) A listening theology gives more weight to the fact that there is already an objective world created by God, a world which he describes in the canon of Scripture. We listen to God speaking and, in turn, do not presume that our theological statements in themselves actually create things. Rather, if they are faithful to God’s self-communication, they help us see who God is and what he is up to and help us properly to engage reality and join in the drama of redemption. This is less a matter of creating reality and more a matter of finding our place in it as creatures of the living God. Having said this, we should always remember that, while our use of language does not create the world around us, Christian leaders still have the joyful responsibility to describe and illumine the contours of reality such that the church is prodded to go out and serve others with the result that the world does look different for the glory of God.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Listening Theology as Via Media

Karl Barth was relentless in insisting that theology consists in listening and replying to the Word of God. I think we do well to ponder the power of a listening sort of theology to forge a path through some of the problematic features of modernism and postmodernism. In this post, let us explore a listening theology vis-à-vis the former.

Many Enlightenment-driven thinkers have overemphasized the prowess and place of human rationality and this often goes in one or both of the following directions. First, only those truths accessible to all cognizant human beings (the so-called truths of reason) are deemed worthwhile. This amounts to a rejection of the “scandal of particularity” inherent in the Christian claim that God speaks and acts decisively in specific situations, most importantly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, if the particulars of God’s special self-presentation are in fact given consideration, they are subjected to judgment by the canons of secular reason, in which may be included, a priori, commitments such as belief in the sheer impossibility of something like the incarnation.

Now a word of affirmation followed by a word of criticism. As David Clark argues (see his To Know and Love God) there are such things as “worldview-transcending rational principles” which we find sweepingly assumed and embedded in the epistemic endeavors of human beings. These would include rudimentary laws of logic such as the law of (non)contradiction. Colin Gunton remarks (see his essay “Historical and Systematic Theology” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine) that the importance of rationality in this sense is quite mundane and uncontroversial. But problems come when we 1) think too highly of our rational powers and/or 2) incessantly pile up, a priori, guidelines to which all doxastic candidates must conform in order to be acceptable. Regarding (1), John Webster reminds us (see his book Holiness) that human rationality is itself caught up in the history of sin and redemption, meaning that we must avoid exalting it and make sure we intentionally consecrate the use of it to the God who sanctifies his people and is the object of our theological reflection. Regarding (2), Alister McGrath’s Scientific Theology project helps us by stressing the value of viewing theology as a primarily a posteriori discipline. I am inclined to cast my lot with McGrath and suggest that, rather than stringently limiting out of the gate what can and cannot be the case, we focus more on listening to reality. In particular, we do well to be open to the possibility of God speaking and acting on the stage of world history. And, in fact, such is the case! The triune God has come on the scene and communicated with humankind, necessitating that we do theology as listeners, a posture very different from that of those who are convinced that they are able to discern from the start the impossibility of a God who reveals himself to men and women in pursuit of their redemption.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Getting Started

The Reformed scholastic theologians mapped out the discipline of theology in terms of theologia archetypa and theologia ectypa. The former pertains to theological knowledge only God can possess, the latter to a creaturely theological knowledge that we human knowers can gain as we attend to God’s self-revelation. Theologia ectypa is further unpacked by distinguishing between two subspecies: theologia viatorum (theology of travelers, of saints on the way) and theologia beatorum (theology of glorified saints). So theologia viatorum denotes the kind of theology that we do in the midst of our present limitations, but it is no less exciting for that! To borrow terminology from Kevin Vanhoozer (see his Drama of Doctrine), Christian doctrine is much needed for us to know how to participate fittingly in the drama of redemption. It serves to guide the church in putting on “local productions of the kingdom of God.” In light of the high importance of Christian theology, I look forward to doing a bit of theological blogging and (hopefully) conveying something of the life-giving character of thinking theologically.

Thanks to Bobby for creating a design and setting things up!