I was walking down the street with a homeless gay man. My college roommates and I had been letting him crash on our couch for a few weeks while he put his life together. We left my apartment and headed for the coffee shop down the street.
He walked with a limp.
It bothered me how slowly I had to walk in order for him to keep up with me. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. I was irritated.
“Sit down right here on the curb. I’m going to pray for you.”
I put my hand on his leg and commanded it to be healed in the name of Jesus.
“Get up. How does it feel?” I asked.
“It feels better!” he exclaimed. He started jumping up and down. He was immediately able to walk at regular speed, completely without a limp. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. For me, this was just normal Christianity.
We proceeded to walk to the coffee shop where we sipped our flavored coffees and inhaled the perfect aromas that wafted over to us from behind the counter. I counseled him that he needed to yield his life completely to God, give up homosexuality, and follow the Bible.
The Bible as Foundation
Through my 20s, my faith was grounded my personal experience that the power of the Bible is real. I saw miracles, received amazingly answered prayers, and had God reveal things to me that I couldn’t have known any other way.
Experientially, I knew the power of Christian faith was real.
If I encountered something in the Bible I disagreed with, I would yield my belief and conform to the Bible.
But I began to ask myself how did I know that it was true?
These Simple Questions Devastated My World
Couldn’t it be that lots of what we believe about God is wrong, but that God meets us where we are at anyway?
And couldn’t God meet other people in other religions where they were at too?
How did I know they were wrong just because I had seen miracles?
Those questions started to bother me. A lot.
I couldn’t seem to find any answers that satisfied me. If experience alone can’t prove the truth of the Bible, then there must be other good reasons for believing the Bible. But none of the reasons on offer seemed very compelling to me.
- You can look at fulfilled prophecy. But most of the prophecies in their original contexts seemed to be talking about something else.
- You can look at the historical accuracy of the Bible. But being historically accurate does not make something the Word of God. We have lots of history books which are historically accurate.
- You can look to the resurrection of Jesus. But I found that the evidence for the resurrection was not nearly as strong if I didn’t already have a reason for believing in it. And since belief in the Bible was the very question on the table, my previous reasons for believing were quickly evaporating.
I almost lost my faith.
How My Faith Was Saved
Then I encountered George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. It reoriented my entire understanding of faith.
Drawing on the work of modern religious anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, Lindbeck observes that religions are social constructs which provide religious rules for the members of the community.
He compares doctrine to the grammatical rules of a language. Members of a religious community must be taught the “language” of the religion in order to function within the community.
He calls this a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of doctrine.
What struck me about Lindbeck’s proposal was that it was grounded in our best anthropological insights. In other words, it is very difficult to disagree with him without also completely ignoring a vast body of anthropological evidence. Religion may well be more than just a cultural-linguistic system, but it is certainly not less.
When I combined this insight with my experience of God, I came to see the Bible as a cultural-linguistic system that, regardless of whether it was true, it presented us with a covenant between God and humanity that God appears to honor.
Instead of functioning like a science or philosophy book, I began to see the Bible functioning more like the Constitution for the church. Whether it is “true” is much less important than whether we live by it.
But what if the Bible is wrong?
This new understanding of the Bible potentially placed every other religious community’s holy book on par with the Bible. After all, the Book of Mormon functions as the constitution for Mormons; the Qu’ran functions as the constitution for the Muslim community; and even Anton LeVey’s Satanic Bible functions as the constitution for a group of occultists. What sets the Bible apart?
As I thought about it, I had two realizations:
First, you don’t have to have all knowledge of every religious system in order to follow your own. You don’t have to know why another holy book is wrong, or even assume that it must be wrong, in order to follow your own holy book.
Second, a reasonable requirement of any holy book, whether theirs, mine, or someone else’s, was that it must not require its followers to do anything that is morally wrong. It can’t violate your conscience.
A Trial Case: Terrorism
The terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center should have known better. It is self-evident.
They knew in their hearts that it was wrong.
If they had quieted themselves before God instead of submitting uncritically to their interpretation of their holy book and drowning out the voice of God, they would have had to acknowledge that what they were about to do was evil.
I will be the first to admit that placing conscience above scripture is far from being comprehensive or perfect. Our consciences are not always reliable guides. Just because our conscience isn’t warning us doesn’t mean that something is okay.
But the opposite is usually true: if your conscience is going off, it is a good bet that the thing in question is probably wrong.
So our conscience is the only internal guide we can have. If we don’t submit our scriptures to our consciences, what would prevent us from flying airplanes into buildings if we really believed our holy book said to do it?
The Man With a Limp
So finally I came to a place of peace with my faith. Regardless of whether the Bible is true, I came to believe that at the very least, God honors the covenant it offers. So long as it does not require me to do anything that is morally wrong, I can follow it with all my heart. I think it would be fair to challenge a Mormon, Muslim, or occultist to submit to this simple rule. Therefore I ought to be willing to submit to it also.
This whole ordeal had been the most difficult time I had ever gone through in my life until then, and I didn’t come through unchanged. Like Jacob, I had wrestled with God and came away with a own limp. Unlike my homeless friend, that limp didn’t get healed.
It was a limp that would set me up for another crisis of faith a few years later…
I have so many things I want to tell you.
And a lot of questions I want to bring up again.
It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. In the meantime, I’ve been doing most of my writing in other forums and places where I could be anonymous.
I think most writers do their best writing anonymously.
I started this blog anonymously. But then it all changed.
The problem with writing anonymously is that, once you start writing things you’re proud of, you want to show your friends what you’ve written. So eventually you break the barrier and tell them about it. But then you can’t be anonymous anymore, and you start to feel the pressure that you can’t write the kinds of things you used to write.
I’ve changed a lot since I stopped posting here. I came to some surprising conclusions about my view of the Bible. That led me to rethink my conservative beliefs. A couple months ago I voluntarily gave up my ordination. I’m rethinking the ethics of sexuality, particularly in regards to sexual orientation. And I’m sorting through some personal issues in regards to my own gender identity.
Yeah, I’ve got some stuff to talk about. Am I ready to come back? I think so.
I thought about starting a new blog from scratch. But I’ve getting between half-a-dozen and a dozen random visitors a day to this blog. I hate to just let it go.
And I think I’m done with trying to hide this stuff. It’s time for me to start talking about it. That’s one of the reasons I gave up my ordination, so I can deal openly with this stuff without feeling the pressure that I need to “be someone.”
So here I am back again, blogosphere. Time for a restart. I’m finally ready to get real with you. I’ve missed you, old friends.
I started taking a course on logic through Coursera. Ah, the internet, how cool. Free classes with amazing quality. The class is called “Think Again” and it is taught by Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, a philosopher whom I respect. The class started at the end of November and must be completed by mid March. I didn’t sign up until about a week ago, but I’m cruising through it. So far this is literally the best class I’ve ever had on logic. And to think, it is completely free.
I’m still figuring out how Coursera works, but it doesn’t look like it is accredited, but it is the same course taught by accredited programs (in this case, Sinnot-Armstrong is from Duke). At the end of the class you get a certificate of completion. So really, how is it different from a paid University, where you get the same thing at the end? And did I mention it’s free? If anyone else would like to join me, let me know. I think it would be fun to connect with someone else. The forums seem daunting. I posted an introduction, but I’m like one of 2 gazillion people. So it really didn’t work for me. Plus, since I started late, I have to catch up.
There’s another cool class coming up with Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational. The course is called A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior. It begins March 25 and goes for 6 weeks. It’s harder for me to justify taking the free courses at the same time I’m taking “real” (=paid) courses for my M.Div. program. But we’ll see. It’s not really too much of an investment other than watching the videos and doing multiple-choice forms afterwards.
When someone is presented with the gospel and asked to respond, is that person really free to accept or reject the message?
Well that depends on what you mean by “free.”
We could ask whether we are really free to do anything. This the question of free will in the “formal” sense, and it is primarily a philosophical question. But it is not really a very useful question. Even if it were not logically possible for any human to ever make a “free” decision, we would still be presented with choices, and many of these choices have the appearance of requiring a free will decision.
Ultimately the real question is: Are we free to respond to the gospel in the same sense as we are free to choose chocolate rather than peach gelato? This is the question of free will in the “material” sense.
Historically there have been three major families of theological answers on this topic.
1. The Calvinist answer. Following John Calvin (1509-1564), this position fully accepts the implications of Total Depravity. God chooses or elects some individuals to receive grace which empowers them to receive the gospel. God’s grace is said to be both irresistible and efficient, meaning that it always accomplishes salvation in the individuals God chooses. On this view, you are not free to accept or reject the gospel in the same sense as you are free to make other kinds of day-to-day choices.
2. The Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian positions. The Pelagian option is to deny or temper what we have said about Total Depravity. Pelagians, who derive their name from Pelagius, a fifth century British ascetic, deny the doctrine of Total Depravity altogether. Semi-Pelagians argue instead that humans are only partially depraved. For Semi-Pelagians, individuals have a real choice when presented with the gospel, but they are predisposed against it. Their choice, though free, is perhaps more like choosing between chocolate gelato and rice patties.
3. The Arminian answer. Following Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), Arminians also fully affirm the doctrine of Total Depravity. The effects of depravity can only be overcome by God’s grace, but on the Arminian view, this grace, called prevenient grace is given freely to all of humanity. In contrast to the Calvinist view, God’s grace can be resisted but it empowers people to be able to respond to the gospel despite the effects of Total Depravity. The final result is to affirm both material free will and Total Depravity.
Can I ask you for a favor? I’m really trying to restart this blog, and what makes blogging exciting is the comments. You’ve taken the time to read the post, so now please take an extra minute and leave a comment.
What do you think? Which answer makes the most sense to you? Have these three exhausted all the options?
Photo by madmannova
The concept of free will is one of the thorniest and most difficult for both theologians and secular philosophers. To complicate matters, within Christian theology, there is not just one problem of free will. There are two.
And lots of smart people who should know better regularly get them confused.
1. The formal problem of free will
The formal problem of free will is the question of how human will is related to the divine.
In philosophy, the question is whether our choices are really our own, or whether they are dictated by genetics, environment, and conditioning.
In theology, the question is how our decisions can really be our own when God is in control of everything.
In his entry on “Will” in the New Dictionary of Theology, Paul Helm states that no matter how one chooses to understand free will, “there is a prima facie problem of reconciling the activity of the human will with the divine. Those who have attributed powers of contrary choice or self-determination to the human will have often attempted to effect such reconciliation by limiting the scope of the divine decree in some respect… Others have rested content with maintaining that while God foreordains all human actions he is not the author of sin.”
The position that we have true freedom to choose any option when given a choice are often called libertarian free will.
The position that we are free only to choose according to our motives and personality is usually called compatibilist free will because it is this view is said to be “compatible” with God’s divine choice as the ultimate cause of all of our human choices.
2. The material problem of free will
The material problem of free will is the question of whether we have the ability or power to follow through on a choice we have already made.
You might choose to start a new, aggressive plan for working out. But that doesn’t mean you’re really going to do it.
So even if you are logically free in a libertarian sense, you still may lack the material willpower to follow through on my decision, a commitment to exercise for instance. Likewise, even if the compatibilist position is true and your will is logically constrained, you may still have the discipline or “freedom” to follow through on your decisions.
What does gelato have to do with it?
Let’s put it in more concrete terms.
Let’s say my wife and I decide to get gelato from the Millstone, a popular mom-and-pop restaurant in Iola. Let’s say I have a choice between chocolate and peach.
I sit and stare at the choice. I go back and forth because they both look good. Finally I decide upon chocolate.
As I’m eating my gelato, I muse philosophically, “Was I really free to choose peach, or did I choose chocolate because God wanted me to choose chocolate?”
My wife turns to me and says, “You think too much.”
That’s because whether we have free will in the formal sense is really irrelevant in our day-to-day lives. What we care about on a day-to-day basis is whether we have free will in the material sense: we all know that I could just as easily have chosen peach, but for whatever reason I chose chocolate.
The good news
Christians believe that our material will is naturally constrained because of sin. Through faith in Jesus, you can be transformed so that you are finally free in every sense that matters.
If you have been “freed from sin and enslaved to God” (Romans 6.22), you receive the benefits of true freedom, to live as God intended and designed you.
Photo by pierofix
We can feel it. We know that this is not how things are supposed to be, but we can’t explain what the problem is.
Morpheus in The Matrix put it this way:
You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave… Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.
Of course this is real life, not a movie. The matrix is not our problem. The ancient Christians said the problem goes much deeper than that.
Why should we care what ancient Christians said?
The views of the ancient church are recorded in the Bible. I have close friends who don’t accept the Bible. They believe they have good reasons for rejecting the Bible. Why, they ask, should we take the time to listen to what the Bible has to say?
I would give two answers.
For one thing, even if it was merely written by men, it is a classic of Western literature. Until a couple hundred years ago, it served as the foundation for the fundamental ideas of the leaders of our society. That alone should count for something.
Beyond that, there’s the fact that countless Christians, both modern and ancient, have had their lives completely transformed by it. It’s worth looking at.
The Bible consists of 66 very diverse books written by multiple authors and complied into the book we have today. The statement of the problem is surprisingly consistent. Consider the following sampling of verses from nearly every strand of biblical material:
- Genesis 8.21: “[T]he Lord said to Himself, ‘…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth…’”
- 2 Chronicles 6.36: “…for there is no man who does not sin…”
- Isaiah 53.6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…”
- Rom 5.12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
- 1 Cor 2.14: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
- 1 John 1.10: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”
The ancient Christian believers taught that the main problem is that humans are dead in sin. The conventional name for this doctrine is Total Depravity.
Loraine Boettner, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, describes the doctrine of Total Depravity in his book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (X.2). Though he is from a stream of the Christian tradition that I would disagree with on many points, I agree with him on this point:
…since the Fall, man [sic] rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation.
How bad is it?
It is somewhat unfortunate that we have inherited this particular term in the Christian theological tradition because the word “total” would seem to imply that humanity could not be any more depraved, and that we are as wicked as we can possibly be.
Boettner says that the doctrine, “does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that any one is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil… His corruption is extensive but not necessarily intensive.”
Total Depravity means that every aspect of our character has been infected by sin, and on our own we can make no decision apart from its influence.
Anthony Hoekema suggests that the alternate term, “Pervasive Depravity” would be more appropriate. But that would spell complete and utter disaster for the five points of Calvinism, which would become PULIP instead of TULIP. For the sake of continuity, and so as not to tick off the AAAAA (American Association Against Acronym Abuse), it is perhaps best to retain the traditional term.
The doctrine of Total Depravity sums up several key themes. Humans, in their natural state, are dead in sin, unable to obey God, unable to please God, unable to free themselves, and unable to understand the things of God.
The doctrine of Total Depravity is another way of stating the need of every single person to be transformed. It is the doctrine that is necessarily entailed whenever someone says you should be “born-again.” The ancient Christians believed that this could only happen through the power of Jesus.
Before you write it off, ask yourself: Are you disagreeing because you have evidence that it’s not true, or are you disagreeing because you don’t want it to be true?
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There are a lot of passages in scripture that have puzzled me.
Perhaps the most puzzling is Paul’s allegorical use of the story of Isaac and Ishmael in Galatians 4.
Paul’s goal in the letter is to convince the Gentiles that gentile converts did not need to be circumcised. His opponents have been arguing strongly that they do.
Here is the argument that Paul uses in Galatians 4.21-31:
21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.
24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; For more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.” (Isaiah 54.1)
28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” (Gen 21.10-12) 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
Would that convince you? Paul pulls out a random story from the Penteteuch, reads a foreign and arbitrary meaning into it, and then expects that his critics will buy it? I don’t think so.
“You who want to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” Oh sure, all they need to do is re-read the passage about Isaac and Ishmael and they will suddenly understand that gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. No, I don’t think so.
If you have read this passage in the past and it has never bothered you, I want to suggest that perhaps you are not taking your Bible seriously enough.
Has Paul distorted scripture and gotten away with it? Is he asserting some apostolic right to read into the scriptures any interpretation he feels the Holy Spirit has shown him? Some interpreters have given up and accepted that he did.
Other commentators speculate that perhaps Paul’s opponents were using the Sarah-Hagar story in their own rhetoric, and Paul is attempting to turn their own logic back at them. If so, he did a lousy job. Using an allegory to try to convince someone who disagrees is a stupid argument.
I have come to think there is a better explanation.
Context, context, context
We must start by recounting Paul’s argument so far, beginning back in 3.6. He has been arguing that those who have faith are Abraham’s true descendants according to the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12. They are therefore no longer slaves, but are now Abraham’s heirs.
Here are the relevant verses leading up to our passage:
3.7 – Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
3.9 – So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
3.14 – …in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
3.29 – And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
4.7 – Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
So what’s going on in this passage?
The first thing to notice is that the use of Isaac and Ishmael is not a “random story,” as I suggested above. Paul has been talking about being Abraham’s true descendants. This story is about Abraham’s first descendants. Isaac and Ishmael literally embodied the point Paul was making. Isaac was born in accordance with the promise of Genesis 12; Ishmael wasn’t. What happened to Isaac is paradigmatic for what it means to be Abraham’s descendant by faith through the promise.
The second thing to notice is that, in typical Pauline style, he states his conclusion at the beginning of the passage, and then jumps back to show the logic that leads to the conclusion. In this case, his summary statement (v.21) is, “Do you not listen to the law?” The only quotation from the law (the Penteteuch) will not come until the end of the passage (v.30): “Cast out the bondwoman and her son. For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”
The argument is that Abraham’s children are not all Abraham’s heirs – only the sons of the promise are heirs. Paul uses this verse to confirm the argument he has been making thus far. It is theologically relevant to his overall argument. Believers are brothers with Isaac in some true sense that is not merely metaphorical (v.28). Just as Paul applies Abraham’s blessing to believers (3.9), so he also applies Isaac’s promise to believers.
But there is still the question of the gap between v.21 and v.28. Why didn’t he go straight to this verse? Why digress into a discussion of Sarah and Hagar? And why complicate it by saying they are allegorical?
The answer, I believe, is best found by starting at the end of the passage and tracing Paul’s logic backwards.
The first clue is to notice that Paul has altered the Genesis quotation in v.30 by replacing the phrase “my son Isaac,” with “the son of the free woman.” Of course this does not change the sense of the passage, since both phrases refer to the same person, Isaac. But Paul uses the new vocabulary to draw out the implicit dichotomy between bondslave and free. The language of “bondslave” in reference to Hagar was already explicit in the Genesis text.
The dichotomy between slave and free is exactly the theme he has been discussing until this point in the letter. But Genesis 21.10 introduces a new element into Paul’s discussion – two mothers. So before he can give the quotation, he must first set up the significance of the mothers for Abraham’s heirs. After all, believers may be Isaac’s brothers, but they are not Sarah’s sons. This part of the verse would be meaningless in the Galatian’s context – unless Paul can find a valid scriptural interpretation of the mother that applies theologically to believers.
What does Isaiah have to say about it?
Paul finds just such an interpretation in Isaiah 54.1 (v.27), where Jerusalem is depicted as a barren woman who suddenly has numerous children. This provides Paul with theological grounds for associating “the free woman” with “Jerusalem” in reference to believers.
But everybody knows that gentile believers are not accepted by the Jews in Jerusalem. So before he can introduce the Isaiah passage, he must make one more move. Paul looks to Jewish theology that says that the earthly temple is a copy of the heavenly temple (cf. Ex 25.12, Is 6), and thus the earthly Jerusalem is a copy of the heavenly Jerusalem. He calls them the “Now-Jerusalem,” (Νυν Ἰερουσαλήμ) and the “Above-Jerusalem,” (Ἄνω Ἰερουσαλήμ). So he explicitly links the bondwoman with the earthly Jerusalem and the free woman with the heavenly Jerusalem (v.25-6).
At the same time, he ties all of this back to his argument in chapter 2, that Abraham and Moses represent two covenants (v.24). Notice that this is not a contrast between a new and an old covenant, since Abraham’s covenant of faith is older than the Mosaic covenant.
The important thing to recognize is that every logical move makes is theologically justified, either by (a) the argument he has already made in the earlier part of the letter, or (b) interpretations made by the prophets, specifically Isaiah. But while it is theologically justified, it is not textually justified by the Genesis text alone. Paul is aware that his argument is not exegetically sound apart from the theological argument. Thus he introduces this section of Galatians (v.24) by declaring that he has allegorized (ἀλληγορούμενα) the account.
So Galatians 4.21-31 is allegory but it is not fanciful allegory. It is an interpretation that is theologically warranted by an intertextual reading of scripture. Paul was merely drawing out implications which were inherent in the Old Testament itself. It is not the stupid argument I once thought it to be.