Thursday, December 26, 2013

Liberal Theology and its Pantheizing Tendency

Ninety years ago J. Gresham Machen published Christianity and Liberalism (1923).  Machen was determined to show the differences between traditional Christian orthodoxy and self-confessed "liberal" theology.  On every major topic the differences were so vast as to justify the determination that "liberalism" was not Christianity at all but an alien philosophical system.  I think that some of Machen's most poignant words appear in his discussion about God.  I have found these words to be just as true today as they were almost a century ago.  Machen writes:
In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements. But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God. From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed. In modern liberalism, on the other hand, this sharp distinction between God and the world is broken down, and the name “God” is applied to the mighty world process itself. We find ourselves in the midst of a mighty process, which manifests itself in the indefinitely small and in the indefinitely great − in the infinitesimal life which is revealed through the microscope and in the vast movements of the heavenly spheres. To this world-process, of which we ourselves form a part, we apply the dread name of “God.” God, therefore, it is said in effect, is not a person distinct from ourselves; on the contrary our life is a part of His. Thus the Gospel story of the Incarnation, according to modern liberalism, is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the general truth that man at his best is one with God. It is strange how such a representation can be regarded as anything new, for as a matter of fact, pantheism is a very ancient phenomenon. It has always been with us, to blight the religious life of man. And modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp personal distinction between God and man. (pp 62-63)
The focus on God's transcendence is crucial.  In liberal theology this idea of transcendence is overthrown.  When Machen speaks of liberalism as identifying God with the "might world process" he is not engaging in reckless rhetoric.  This is, in fact, how modern theological liberalism understands the situation.  For example, consider the words of Gordon Kaufman from his work Theology for a Nuclear Age (1985).  Kaufman is seeking to "reconstruct the central Christian symbols" (p. xi) which includes the words "God" and "Jesus Christ."  Kaufman's denial of transcendence and his affirmation for radical immanence is stated clearly:
The theologically significant function of the symbol 'God', we noted, is not that it names an entity or being which we might otherwise ignore or overlook, but rather it focuses our consciousness and attention on that which humanises and relativises us.  The proper criterion for our talk about God, we decided therefore, is not the postulation of some being or reality beyond the world but rather concern with the relativising and humanising activity going on within the world.  (p. 37)
The "pantheizing" tendency that Machen spoke about is also seen in Kaufman's discussion.  Consider these words from Kaufman:
The divine activity which has given us our human being must apparently be conceived now as inseparable from, and as working in and through, the activity of the human spirit itself, as it creatively produces the cultures which make human life human.  (p. 40)
 God should today be conceived in terms of the complex of physical, biological and historico-cultural conditions which have made human existence possible, which continue to sustain it, and which may draw it out to a fuller humanity and humaneness...  Though we understand ourselves to have been brought into being by a complex configuration of factors, powers and processes (physical, vital and historico-cultural), it is appropriate to symbolise and hold all this together in the single symbol or concept, God.  (p. 42)
The symbol 'God' suggest a reality, an ultimate tendency or power, which is working itself out in an evolutionary process that has produced not only myriads of living species but also at least one living form able to shape and transform itself, through a cumulating history, into spirit, i.e., into a being in some measure self-conscious and free, living in a symbolical or cultural world which it has itself has created.  (p. 43)
Machen's argumentation about liberalism's pantheizing tendency are manifestly illustrated by Kaufman's conception of God.  For Kaufman, God is simply the symbol we used to describe the whole evolutionary process.  There is not transcendent Creator and the gap between Creator and creature is erased.  This liberal conception of God has profound implications for understanding Christ Jesus and the gospel message.  Kaufman, again, illustrates this dynamic:
The conception of sin as primarily a kind of personal disobedience or violation of the divine will, and salvation as being rescued from that condition of alienation and guilt, is rooted almost completely in the mythic picture which presents God as a divine king and father, and our relationship to God as the interpersonal and political one of subjects and children.  Similarly, the traditional notion that what is needed by women and men in their condition of alienation and disobedience is God's forgiveness, an act of love restoring them to communion with God, and that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross in some way makes this possible, is a direct expression of this same personal/political picture of human existence and its context.  But, as we noted in chapter III, human life can no longer be understood in terms of such an overly simplistic kind of personalism.  Today we must think of it as emerging out of a long and complex evolutionary and historical development which included creation of both the biological eco-system and a whole complex of socio-cultural systems capable of sustaining human existence.  Moreover, the most profound human problem today is not estrangement from God, as understood in such highly personalistic terms, but rather the steady undermining of the conditions that make meaningful and fruitful human life possible, through our pollution and poisoning of the eco-system, on the one hand, and through social and political and economic arrangements that are oppressive and dehumanising, on the other.  (p. 55)
When the transcendence of God is denied then the gospel message is lost.  There is no personal Creator from whom we are estranged by sin.  There is only the "world process" and our attempts to manipulate it for human flourishing.  This liberal gospel displaces the transcendent Creator and in so doing places humanity as the ultimate value.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Reincarnation: Letter to a Co-worker

* I wrote the following to a co-worker years ago.  I post it here for some of its reasoning and questions regarding the issue of reincarnation.  My co-worker never responded to my letter.

                                                                        October 31, 2000


I’ve been thinking of our conversation a few days ago concerning politics, religion, Buddhism, reincarnation, absolute truth, etc.  I was particularly struck by your comments how many people do not want to think about their beliefs because they may find them to be incorrect and thus forced to deal with doubt.  I couldn’t help but think about your belief in reincarnation and karma.  Have you ever thought you might be incorrect about these ideas?  How do you know these are correct notions?  I thought I might try to stimulate your thinking by stating some problems I see in reincarnation.  I will be brief (my goal is no more than one page!) so perhaps we can pick up the discussion over a beer sometime when we have more time than we do at work.

1.     I see no reason to consider reincarnation to be true.  What reasons or types of evidence convince you that such a belief is true and rational?

2.     The whole notion of reincarnation seems inconsistent because there does not seem to be sufficient continuity between the lives of the incarnations.  Mark Albrecht in his book Reincarnation states the problem this way: "The individual personality never reincarnates; only his or her karma survives death and comes to rest on a totally different personality who is alleged to have similar characteristics but has no memory that he or she ‘was’ another person."  

3.     The idea of karma seems to be an incoherent bundle of inconsistency.

a.     Karma doe not effectively deal with moral evil.  It seems, instead, to perpetuate evil.  If a person does evil then in his or her next incarnation an appropriate amount of evil must come back upon that person.  But then that evil that was done to the first person must be punished and so there is never an end to the evil.  There is no way to break the cycle.

b.     How does one discover the moral requirements of karma?  Are these requirements absolute?  Do these moral requirements hold in all lifetimes or just in a few?  If the karmic law is evolving then how is one to keep up with the current system of morality that karmic law is following?

c.      Karma leads to fatalism and a lack of compassion for others.  If I see a person suffering it is reasonable to assume that they must be working off karmic debt.  If I intervene and help such a person I am not allowing them to work off their karmic debt.  Therefore the best thing to do is to leave them alone and not help them.  Norman Geisler and J. Yutaka Amano in their book The Reincarnation Sensation state the objection this way:

"Fatalism, lack of concern for the suffering of others, and general inaction are often traced to the two doctrines of reincarnation and karma.  If one attempts to alleviate the burden of the sufferer, then the sufferer must endure greater hardship in the next life because she did not ‘pay off’ her prescribed karmic debt."

The way the caste system in India has functioned is ample proof of the bad effects that this doctrine has had in that country.

d.     Karmic law is impersonal.  But the notion of law is meaningless with a personal lawgiver behind the law.  Where does karmic law come from?  Upon what is this law founded?

4.     Toward what is reincarnation moving?  What is the goal?  When all the karmic debt is paid off (if such a thing can happen at all!) then what?  Most Eastern religions see the end as some sort of dissolving of the individual personality into the basic Oneness of reality.  Thus the goal is the obliteration of human personality.

Well, I am almost out of space so I had best be stopping.  I mean no offense by the above.  I am seeking some rational understanding.  I’m also seeking some good conversation—here’s hoping you do too!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris: Epic Splits

I know these are making the rounds but I still think they are awesome!

Mary: An Evangelical Appreciation

I am impressed by Mary.  This was not always the case.  Up until about two years ago I thought of Mary as passive, sort of weak, and a little insipid.  She was a place holder in the story who was trotted out every December but she wasn’t someone I looked to in admiration.  Reading Scot McKnight’s The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2007) was an eye-opener.  When Mary responds to the angelic message with, “May it be done to me according to your word” I had always heard these words as passive resignation.  What I failed to see was her courageous stance to accept all the consequences associated with the path before her.  She would be slandered and her son would be cursed as a mamzer.  This courageous faith that actively takes up the mantle of suffering was challenging and alluring.  I found myself wanting to be like this teenage girl who so faithfully responded to God. 

I also find Mary’s scripturally soaked Magnificat to be exciting and challenging.  To consider that these words were spoken by a pious Jewish teenager is sobering.  This is to take nothing away from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit but it is to recognize the human author.  Mary is steeped in the Scriptures and she has a confident, God-centered defiance against all that is opposed to God’s kingdom—he has brought down rulers from their thrones (Luke 2.52).  McKnight captured my imagination with these words about Mary:

“It may seem counter-intuitive to say so, and I mean this all respect: Mary was not a ‘nice’ girl.  If ‘nice’ means meek and mild and mind-your-own-business, then Mary was not nice.  In fact, Mary scared ‘nice’ passive girls because she was dangerously active.  Instead of minding her own business, Mary was minding Herod’s and, as we will see, Caesar Augustus’s.  And well into Jesus’ own ministry, we will see that Mary minded Jesus’ business, too.”

McKnight goes on to add:

“Mary was a muscular, wiry woman whose eyes were aglow with a dazzling hope for justice and whose body evoked a robust confidence in the God who was about to turn the world upside down through her son.”[1]

This kind of courageous faith with a scripturally soaked social-conscience is powerfully moving to me.

     [1] Scot McKnight, The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2007), 26, 27.

Old Testament Quotations in Matthew 2: Some Comments

Matthew is very keen to see the life of Jesus in relation to the prior scriptural witness.  This is demonstrated by his quotation of the Old Testament and by his use of the word “fulfill.”  Matthew has, however, been accused of mishandling the Old Testament.  This is usually a result of his handling of the Old Testament in a manner modern interpreters find incompatible with their exegetical techniques.  Two references in Matthew chapter two provide a reference point for the discussion: Matthew 2.15 and 2.17-18.

In Matthew 2.15 there is a quotation from Hosea 11.1 which Matthew utilizes: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  In the context of Matthew two this is in reference to Jesus being taken into Egypt by Joseph and Mary to avoid the persecution of Herod (Matt 2.13-14).  In the original context of Hosea 11.1 the Lord is not offering a prediction of the future but, rather, speaking of the past event of the exodus when he delivered his people from Egypt.  Is Matthew misreading Scripture?  Has he misunderstood the original context or does he show a complete disregard for the original context? 

It seems as though this citation is “a classic example of pure typology.”[1]  Matthew has noticed a correspondence between the events that Israel as a nation has undergone and the events happening to Jesus.  Craig Blomberg exlains:

“The original event need not have been intentionally viewed as forward-looking by the OT author; for believing Jews, merely to discern striking parallels between God’s actions in history, especially in decisive moments of revelation and redemption, could convince them of divinely intended ‘coincidence.’”[2]

Matthew is not trying to exegete Hosea 11.1 in an attempt to get at the authorial intention of Hosea.  He is attempting to draw broad parallels with Jesus and Israel.  This paralleling of Israel and Jesus comes out especially in chapters three and four in the baptism and temptation narratives.[3]  By quoting Hosea 11.1 Matthew wants his readers to grasp the larger context of that single verse.  Hosea is referencing the exodus—the redemption of God’s people in the past.  By linking this passage with the birth of Jesus Matthew intends to signal a new exodus—a new redemption—that is to come through Jesus Christ.

The same dynamics are at work in Matthew’s citation of Jeremiah 31.15.  In the context of Matthew chapter two this verse is cited in reference to the slaughter of the sons by Herod.  There is obviously a correspondence of emotion in that both the text of Jeremiah 31.15 and the event of the death of these children will call for weeping.  But there is more.  Matthew, in all liklihood, has his eye on the larger context of Jeremiah 31.  The citation occurs in a section of Jeremiah often called the “Book of Consolation.”  This is a section of Jeremiah speaking of God’s gracious removal of his judgment and restoration of his people Israel.  In the specific context of Jeremiah 31.15 there is God’s command to stop weeping (verse 16) because “there is hope for your future…and your children will return to their own territory” (verse 17).  This “return-from-exile” theme is important for Matthew.  In the same way that he sees a new exodus so does Matthew present the ministry of Jesus as providing an ultimate answer to the end of exile.

Can we adopt Matthew’s hermeneutical principles today?  Greg Beale takes up this question and answers in the affirmative in his essay “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?”[4]  He points to the way in which the New Testament authors consistently utilize the broad redemptive-historical framework in which to understand the Old Testament and its relationship to Christ Jesus.  He articulates five crucial presuppositions that are shared by the writers of the New Testament:

1.     the assumption of corporate solidarity or representation;
2.     that Christ is viewed as representing the true Israel of the Old Testament and true Israel, the church, in the New Testament;
3.     that history is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the latter parts (Matt. 11:13-14);
4.     the age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ;
5.     as a consequence of (3) and (4), the fifth presupposition affirms that the latter parts of biblical history function as the broader context to interpret earlier parts because they all have the same, ultimate divine author who inspires the various human authors, and one deduction from this premise is that Christ as the centre of history is the key to interpreting the earlier portions of the Old Testament and its promises.[5]

To the extent we share these presuppositions we also can engage in their hermeneutical techniques.  Beale makes a helpful distinction between reproducing apostolic exegesis (which he affirms) and the ability to reproduce “the inspired certainty of our typological interpretations as either the Old Testament or New Testament writers could.”[6]  This seems to me to be a helpful distinction that provides direction for both our exegetical efforts and our tentativeness with which we ought to hold our exegetical conclusions.

     [1] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 8.
     [2] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 8.
     [3] David E. Holwerda Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995)—see especially chapter two entitled “Jesus and Israel: A Question of Identity.”  For a chart reflecting these parallels see my blog post entitled Jesus and Israel Parallels.
     [4] G. K. Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?” in in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (ed. G. K. Beale; Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1994), 387-404; reprint from Themelios 14 (1989).
     [5] G. K. Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?” 392.
     [6] G. K. Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?” 402.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

New Testament Documents and Other Ancient Literature

Here is a chart I created for my New Testament class when discussing the reliability of the New Testament documents:
Comparisons with Other Ancient Literature[1]

When Written
Earliest Copy
Time Span
Number of Copies
Caesar (Gallic Wars)
100-44 B.C.
900 A.D.
1,000 years
59 B.C. – A.D. 17
4th cent. Partial
mostly 10 cent.
400 years
1,000 years
1 partial copy
Plato (Tetralogies)
427-347 B.C.
900 A.D.
1,200 years
Tacitus (Annals)
100 A.D.
1100 A.D.
1,000 years
Pliny the Younger (History)
61-113 A.D.
850 A.D.
750 years
Thucydides (History)
460-400 B.C.
900 A.D.
1,300 years
Suetonius (De vita Caesarum)
75-160 A.D.
950 A.D.
800 years
Herodotus (History)
480-425 B.C.
900 A.D.
1,300 years
496-406 B.C.
1000 A.D.
1,400 years
54 B.C.
1550 A.D.
1,600 years
480-406 B.C.
1100 A.D.
1,500 years
383-322 B.C.
1100 A.D.
1,300 years
200 (all from one copy)
384-322 B.C.
1100 A.D.
1,400 years
5 (of any one work)
450-485 B.C.
900 A.D.
1,200 years
Homer (Illiad)
800 B.C.


New Testament
50-100 A.D.
100-150 (P52)
200 (book)
250 (most NT)
325 (full NT)
+/- 50 years
100 years
150 years
225 years

[1] Information in chart compiled from Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix A General Introduction to the Bible rev. and expanded (Moody Press, 1986), p. 408; J. P. Moreland Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Baker, 1987), p. 135.