Thursday, March 9, 2017

The earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord

I noticed something interesting today in the book of Numbers that I hadn’t seen before (even though I’ve read the book, who knows how many times?), namely, the Lord swears by the fact that the earth will be filled with his glory:  “Truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord…” (14:21).

In Psalm 72, we find the idea stated as a petition:  “May the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (v. 19) This is something I find myself praying for on a regular basis. As a petition, it might seem as if there is an element of contingency implied. In Habakkuk, however, we find it stated as a fact:  “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (2:14; cf. Isa. 11:9).

What is noteworthy in Numbers is the strengthened certainty of the fact by the unique oath formula. It is so certain that the Lord himself swears by it. We frequently find the formula, “As I live, declares the Lord,” meaning, “As certainly as I live,” I will do what I have promised. In Numbers, however, we find the Lord swearing by two things which are to be regarded as equally and unquestionably true:  “Truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord…” (14:21) The second element of the oath formula is as certain as the first. The matter is not in doubt. It is inconceivable that the almighty and eternal God, the Maker of heaven and earth, should fail of his purpose in making his glory known, which largely consists in people acknowledging his sovereignty and goodness, and rendering him a free and joyful obedience. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Who do you say he is?

At one point during his ministry Jesus asked the twelve, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They reported that some claimed he was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the other prophets risen from the dead. Then he posed the question directly to them, “Who do you say that I am?”

This is THE question in the New Testament—the question of Jesus’ identity. Is he the Christ, the Son of the Living God? Or is he a fraud, an impostor? Or maybe it was as some in his own only family had thought, that he was delusional.

There are still many differences of opinion today. Some people say he was an ordinary rabbi who was misunderstood by the twelve; that they made claims for him that he never made for himself; that they put words in his mouth he never spoke; that he never claimed to be the Messiah or the Son of God, but in their zeal for him they made grand and exaggerated claims on his behalf.

Some people say that he did in fact make the claims the Bible says he made, but that he was something of a megalomaniac. He had delusions of grandeur, and his disciples were gullible enough to have believed him.

Others have claimed that there was no historical Jesus; that was is a creation of the early church. The idea is that somehow among the many variants of the Jewish faith in the first century, a group was formed that we now refer to as Christianity; that this group’s actual origins have been lost to us, but the group itself invented a mythic figure who it claimed was the group’s originator.

Muslims claim that Jesus was only a prophet, and nothing more. They are willing to concede that he was the greatest prophet until Muhammad came along, but still only a prophet. They claim further that much of his teaching was distorted by his followers so that the Bible cannot be trusted with regard to what it says about him.

Hindus are very happy to admit that Jesus was more than a prophet. They’re happy to add him to their pantheon of gods; but he is just one of many, and in no way unique.

There are as many, if not more, differences of opinion about him today as there were in the first century. And the question each one of us has to answer is the question he put to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” This question is the very point at issue in the most basic confession of the Christian faith:  Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9). And it’s important to add that the correct answer can be given in words and at the same time denied in practice. Jesus isn’t interested in a merely theoretical answer. He’s interested in the answer that comes from the core of our being. This answer is reflected not only in what we say, but also in our heart’s affection and in our behavior.

Who do you—by your words, affections, and behavior—say that he is?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Prayer for the President

Our Father in heaven, we confess that you alone are God and that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to you.[1] Your dominion is an everlasting dominion, and your kingdom endures from generation to generation.[2] You change times and seasons; you remove kings and set up kings.[3] You execute judgment, putting down one and lifting up another,[4] and no one on earth wields power without having received it from you.
Therefore, we acknowledge that it is by your will that Donald Trump has come to be the president of the United States. We pray that he may recognize this as well and that the thought of it would humble him and cause him to tremble under the weight of so great a responsibility, remembering that he shall one day have to give an account for the sacred trust you have given him. May he see himself as your servant, called to do your will. May he seek you with all his heart, and find you. Hear him, when he prays to you.[5] And please hear us, too, as we pray on his behalf.
Grant him wisdom, that he may know what is true and good and right in every circumstance.
Grant him the will—and the courage—to do what is pleasing in your sight, even if it is not politically expedient, or even if it works to his own personal disadvantage.
Grant him the grace to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you.[6]
May he administer the laws of the nation impartially, favoring neither the rich nor the poor, but seeking only to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.[7]
May he trust in you with all his heart, and lean not to his own understanding; may he acknowledge you in all his ways, so that he might walk in paths of truth and righteousness.[8]
Bless him and his family with good health and long life.
Protect him from those who would seek his harm.
May his presidency be a blessing to the nation; may it be a period of safety and peace, of prosperity and good will.
We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the ruler of the kings of the earth.[9] Amen.

[1] Ps. 135:6
[2] Dan. 4:34
[3] Dan. 2:21
[4] Ps. 75:7
[5] Jer. 29:12-13
[6] Micah 6:8
[7] Lev. 19:15
[8] Prov. 3:5-6; Ps. 23:3
[9] Rev. 19:16; 1:5

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A man and his oath

“It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”
~ Aeschylus

On Friday Donald Trump will take the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States, bringing unmitigated joy to some and plunging others into deep despair. Judging by social media, these two reactions exhaust the range of possibilities:  there are only lovers and haters.

In reality, many find themselves somewhere in between. I feel something like a man who has experienced a narrow brush with death, relieved that the republic avoided the almost certainly fatal wound of a Clinton presidency, and cautiously optimistic that the wound that is Trump, though serious, is curable. As I told my family on election night, “The good news is that Clinton is not president; the bad news is that Trump is.” It turns out that the most beatable Democrat lost to the most beatable Republican.

To be fair, I only had two objections to Clinton:  her character and her political vision. I am a bit more sanguine about the general tenor of Trump’s political vision than I could ever be about Clinton’s, especially the commitment he has expressed to appoint an originalist to the Supreme Court in the mold of Antonin Scalia.

My cautious optimism, however, is tempered by concerns about his character. He doesn’t have a very good track record with respect to keeping his promises. He has cheated on and divorced two women to whom he had sworn to be faithful “until death do us part.” His third wife has been spared divorce, but perhaps not being cheated on.[1] He has also shown little regard for the marital vows of others, boasting that he has bedded numerous married women.[2]

When I watch him this Friday taking the oath of office, I won’t be able to avoid remembering the words of Aeschylus, the 5th century BC playwright:  “It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”

I hope—and pray—that he will keep his presidential oath and turn out to be a far better man and a far better president than anyone expects. The Scriptures instruct us to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:2). Let us do so sincerely and fervently, remembering that the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord, and he can turn it wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1).

[1] His intentions for Ariane Zucker, as he described them to Billy Bush in the infamous Access Hollywood video were expressed when he had only recently married Melania:  “I've got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
[2] “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.” (The Art of the Deal)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Suffering and Glory

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
~ John 12:23 ~

In the fourth Gospel we frequently come across the mention of Jesus’ “hour.” This hour is sometimes referred to by the author (7:30; 8:20; 13:1), but more often by Jesus himself (2:4; 7:6, 8; 12:23; 17:1, 5; cf. 12:27, 28; 13:31).[1]

It is said several times over in the first half of the book that his hour had not yet come. But beginning in chapter twelve, his hour is impending.

His hour is the time that had been appointed by the Father for his suffering and death, to be followed of course by his resurrection and ascension. In several of these passages Jesus’ hour is mentioned in connection with him receiving glory from the Father (12:23, 27-28; 13:31; 17:1).

It is also worth noting that in all these passages Jesus looks past his suffering and death, and looks to receiving glory from the Father. He doesn’t say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be crucified,” but “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In his mind, the reward of his suffering far outweighed its sorrow. The writer of Hebrews says much the same thing, but in a slightly different way when he says, “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). He looked past the present suffering to see the glory that awaited. He knew that the sorrow of the cross would be swallowed up by joy.

This is also true of our trials and afflictions. No suffering is ever joyful in itself. We would never choose it for its own sake. But he who remains faithful in the midst of suffering can also hold in joyful anticipation what Jesus looked forward to—receiving glory from the Father. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that “there will be glory and honor and peace for everybody who does good” (Rom. 2:10). This is the joy that is set before us—obtaining glory and honor and peace from God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The glory that we are destined to receive will be different from that of Christ’s in kind as well as in degree. But it will nevertheless be true that God will glorify his saints. And when he does, we will be able to testify by our own experience what we now only confess by faith, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

[1] These last three passages do not explicitly mention his “hour” but nevertheless refer to it with the temporal use of the word “now.”

Friday, December 23, 2016

On the Virgin Birth

Recently, a popular evangelical preacher, Andy Stanley, dismissed the importance of the virgin birth by claiming that “Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus.”

Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries, a network of six churches in and around Atlanta, attended by 30,000 people each week. In a message he gave on December 3, he said:

A lot of people just don’t believe it [i.e., the virgin birth]. And I understand that, and maybe, you know, the thought is, hey, you know, they had to come up with some myth about the birth of Jesus to give him street cred, you know, later on. And maybe that’s where that came from.

He stops short of claiming this as his own view. But he goes on to say something which seems to indicate he believes the position has some plausibility:

It’s interesting because Matthew gives us a version of the birth of Christ; Luke does; but Mark and John, they don’t even mention it. And a lot has been made of that.

Regardless of whether or not he’s suggesting that he finds this reasoning plausible, it’s true that many have argued the case in just this way:  “It’s only Matthew and Luke who mention the virgin birth.”

One wonders how many times, and by how many different people (according to this line of reasoning), God must say a thing before we have a duty to believe it. If twice is insufficient, how about three times? What if, say, Mark had also mentioned it? Would that have been enough? Or must John have done so too? Maybe we wouldn’t be warranted to believe it unless it had been mentioned in all four Gospels plus one or two of Paul’s letters? But then what are to make of the fact that Peter is silent on the subject? Does his failure to weigh in on the matter throw it into doubt?

God forbid! (As a certain apostle might say.) Among men, the testimony of two or three witnesses is necessary to establish a controversial point, but one word from God is enough. He “is not a man that he should lie” (Num. 23:19). If Adam and Eve had thought of it, it would surely have done them no good to plead, “But Lord, you only told us once.”

Stanley continues by discussing what he believes to be the relative importance of Jesus’ birth and his resurrection:

If somebody can predict their own death and then their own resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world, because the whole resurrection thing is so amazing, and in fact…and you should know this…that Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus; it really hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”

The importance of the resurrection should, of course, never be underestimated; but neither should the importance of the virgin birth. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, but by means of ordinary human reproduction, then he was only a man and we must therefore reject the numerous passages that bear witness to his deity (e.g., Jn. 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Phil 2:6; Col. 2:9). And if he was only a man, then he was a sinful man (Rom. 3:23), and we must reject all those passages that affirm otherwise (e.g., Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). And if he was a sinful man, then he was doomed to die for his own sins and therefore couldn’t die for ours.

But if by some further convoluted reasoning he is said to have been sinless (even though he was an ordinary man), he would still have been unable to make atonement for our sins because the death of an ordinary human being, even a sinless one, would be of insufficient worth to “take away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). It is the incarnation (God becoming man, Jn. 1:14) that makes our salvation possible. It is our Lord’s humanity that qualifies him, in his death, to act on man’s behalf; and it is his deity that makes his death of infinite worth. If we reject the virgin birth, we reject not only the reality, but the very possibility of our redemption.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Why lies he in such mean estate?"

This line from the Christmas carol, What Child is This?, draws attention to the seeming incongruity of the Son of God being laid in a manger. Have you ever considered how the whole narrative of our Lords birth shows us that God delights to do great things by humble means? 

Think, for example, of this prophecy from the book of Micah, delivered some 700 years before the event:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
           who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
           one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
           from ancient days (Micah 5:2)

There are several important truths that can be gleaned from this prophecy, but one that is often overlooked is what it says about Bethlehem itself, namely that it was “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (v. 2a). Literally, it reads, “too little to be among the thousands of Judah.” The tribes of Israel were divided for military purposes into thousands, with a head or a chief over each thousand. These thousands were reckoned according to city and town. But Bethlehem was too little to be reckoned among them. It was a tiny little town; a village, really—and a rather obscure one at that. It had nothing to commend itself as Messiah’s birthplace except that it was the birthplace of the great King David. Only in this did it have any significance. It never was a city of any importance, either before or after David. It wasn’t a commercial center. It wasn’t politically influential. It had no strategic significance. It was a sleepy little farming village.

We might have thought the Messiah should have been born in some great city, Jerusalem perhaps, the center of Israel’s religious life. Jerusalem was known as the city of God. It was home to the temple, the place where God had chosen to put his name. It was the center of Israel’s economic activity, too. It had a market that ranked in the top ten of the Roman Empire. It was the center of Israel’s political life, as well, the place where the Great Sanhedrin met, the place where Herod had his palace and held his court, and where the later procurators would exercise their authority.

One would think, then, that the Messiah would be born in Jerusalem. But God loves to do great things by humble means. Jesus would not be born in a great metropolis, but in a sleepy little village of no significance.

Not only so, but he would be born to a poor virgin, engaged to be married to an ordinary workman, a carpenter. They were nobodies. They were unknown outside their own family and community. The movers and shakers of Jewish society certainly took no notice of them. When the magi came from the east to inquire about the birth of the Messiah, the Jewish leaders were able to determine that he was to be born in Bethlehem, but no one seemed to know to whom he would be born. Joseph and Mary both were descendants of David. But the ancient and once glorious family of David had been cut down to a stump (Isa. 11:1). So much so, that his descendants, even Joseph, the very heir to the throne, was unknown in Israel.

Joseph and Mary’s humble means is amply illustrated in the offering that Mary brought for her cleansing after giving birth. She gave the poor woman’s sacrifice (comp. Lk. 2:22-24 with Lev. 12:6-8). 

God delights to do great things by humble means.

Consider, too, that Jesus was not born in the comforts of a palace, but in the filth and stink of a stable. He was laid in a manger, not in a bed. There were no trained attendants ministering to him and to his mother; they were surrounded by livestock. Not exactly the kind of entrance into the world one might expect for the Son of God. But this is how God would have it. And it’s fitting that it should be so, for it shames and rebukes human pride, the mother of all sin. We put so much stock in pomp and circumstance, in glitz and glamour, in noise and attention. But here, in a remote corner of the Empire, nearly as far from Rome as it was possible to get, in a sleepy little village, in a stable, laid in a manger, was the promised Messiah, who was destined to rule the world.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Christian Mind in the Christian Life

The apostle Paul speaks a great deal about the importance of the mind in the Christian life. For example, he contrasts the mind set on the flesh with one set on the Spirit. The former, he tells us, leads to death, while the latter leads to life and peace (Rom. 8:5-6). He admonishes us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Elsewhere he urges us to set our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2).

The mind is the Christian’s battleground. What we choose to do with it, how we choose to employ it, determines everything. Sin begins first with the suggestion, proceeds to the imagination, from there to desire, then to the deed, then to the habit, and finally to destruction. We must resist at the point of suggestion. We cannot always prevent the suggestion from arising—whether it arises from the world, the flesh, or the devil is immaterial—but we can (by God’s grace) refuse to entertain it, refuse to dwell upon it. A wise old preacher once said, “You can’t prevent a bird from flying over your head, but you can prevent it from building a nest in your hair.”

If we don’t deal with sinful thoughts at the point of suggestion, once we allow them to enter the imagination, they become increasingly difficult to resist. The thing to do is not seek to empty the mind of sinful thoughts, but to fill it with worthy ones. Paul says in yet another place,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A lesson in logic

I saw this gun control meme the other day. We shall call it the “kid on the playground” argument. It’s meant to be a rebuttal of the gun rights argument, “Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.” What do you think? Is it a valid rebuttal?

The “kid on the playground argument” is an argument from analogy, comparing one situation to another. But it fails in a number of ways. An argument from analogy is only effective if the two things being compared are similar in their most essential points. But this is not the case with the “kid on the playground” argument and the “good guy with a gun” argument.

First, a kid on the playground throwing rocks is not very similar to a man firing a gun in terms of their effects. We’re comparing cuts and bruises to lethal wounds. This is a fatal flaw in the analogy.

But there is more. In the “good guy with a gun” argument, there is no one analogous to the teacher in the “kid on the playground” argument. There is no one who gives guns to all the good guys. Good guys choose for themselves whether or not to acquire/carry/use a gun (that is, where good guys are not prohibited by law from doing so).

The “kid on the playground argument” also fails because the assertion that “only a good kid with a rock can stop a bad kid with a rock” is false, whereas the assertion that “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun” is (for the most part) true. Would it not be possible for another kid or group of kids or a teacher to physically restrain the bad kid with a rock with very little risk of injury? But the risk is tremendously high for an unarmed man or group of men to attempt to physically restrain a man with a gun.

The “kid on the playground argument” is thus shown to be a false analogy.

But the argument fails in another way, too. Even though good kids armed with rocks are not the only way to stop a bad kid armed with a rock, it is nevertheless one way to do so. Whether the good kids got their rocks from a teacher or acquired them for themselves, the bad kid would think twice before throwing his rock if he knew there were dozens of other kids on the playground who might pelt him back. Bullies thrive when their victims have no means to defend themselves. So do criminals. And both bullies and criminals are deterred when they know their potential victims are armed with equal or superior force.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When Self-Description Trumps Reality

We owe Andrej Pejić a debt of gratitude. He has expressed perhaps as succinctly as possible the political end game in the battle over sexual identity.

Pejić, who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later emigrated to Australia, first made a name for himself as an androgynous male model. Describing himself as “living between genders,” he has at times appeared on the runway in both men’s and women’s clothing in the same show. In 2014, he underwent “sex reassignment surgery” and changed his name from Andrej to Andreja.

In a public statement following his surgery, he said, “To be perceived as what you say you are is a basic human right.” This concise statement is a perfect summary of the goal of the “transgender” movement. But it’s a troubling statement for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is the business of governments to protect and defend basic human rights.[1] If Pejić has a right to be perceived as a woman, what legal obligations does this impose on his perceivers (i.e., the rest of us)? What if some of them do not perceive him to be a woman, but only as a man pretending to be a woman? Will they be punished for their refusal to go along with the pretense? Apparently, in New York they will. And other jurisdictions are likely to follow suit.

There was a time when a man passing himself off as a woman or a woman as a man might have been thought quirky at best, sexually deviant at worst, but at least it was left up to the observer as to what to make of it. That time is no more.

Other questions arise, too. Is this basic human right to be perceived as what you say you are limited only to “transgenders”? If so, on what grounds? Why might the principle not also apply to race? Rachel Dolezal thinks it should. She’s the white woman who for years passed herself off as black, even becoming president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. She admits that she was “biologically born white” but says that she identifies as black. Does she also have a basic human right to be perceived as what she says she is? Many have said no, she is illicitly transferring to race what only properly applies to “gender.” But if one person’s self-description must govern another person’s perception in the matter of gender, why should it not do the same with respect to race?

And then there is the issue of age. A 52 year-old Canadian man identifies as a six-year-old girl, making him—according to the current vernacular—both “transgender” and “trans-age.” If he has a basic human right to be perceived by others as a female (à la Pejić) does he also have a basic human right to be perceived as a child? If not, why not? If so, does this right to be perceived as a child impose an obligation upon the rest of us—his perceivers—to treat him as one? And how consistently does he want us to do so? Must local officials in his case enforce compulsory school attendance laws and age restrictions for working, driving, smoking, and drinking alcohol? If he has sex, would his partner be charged with statutory rape? If he has a right to be perceived as what he says he is, it seems that logical consistency requires us to treat him as a child in all these ways and more.

On the other hand, what if a thirty-year-old identifies as seventy? Does this impose an obligation on the federal government to treat him as a senior, so that he could draw social security and use Medicare? Would restaurants and hotels be required to give him a senior discount or be threatened with a lawsuit for discrimination if they offer the discount to seniors who really are seniors but not to him?

And what about a man who identifies as a dog? Does he have a right to be perceived and treated as such by the rest of us? And if so, we have to ask again about the matter of consistency. Would local leash laws apply? Must he be neutered? Would the law require him to be vaccinated like a dog? If he has sex with a human being would his partner be prosecuted for violating anti-bestiality laws? May he use the fire-hydrant like a dog, or would he be charged with public urination like a man?

What about an able-bodied person who identifies as disabled? Does such a person have a basic human right to be perceived as disabled? And would he be eligible for disability pay?

Perhaps Pejić would say I am taking matters too far. Perhaps he would say that his comments should only be understood with regard to the perception of “gender” and that applying them to race, age, species, and disability is unreasonable. But why is it any more unreasonable than applying them to “gender”?

[1] We can think of the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men

In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes his journey by stages from materialism, to idealism, to theism, and finally to Christianity. The account is too long to reproduce here; but I quote below what I find to be some of his most powerful observations along the way.

The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up to Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done (p. 224).

I was allowed to play at philosophy no longer. It might, as I say, still be true that my “Spirit” [i.e., a merely philosophical conception of God] differed in some way from “the God of popular religion.” My Adversary waived the point. It sank into utter unimportance. He would not argue about it. He only said, “I am the Lord”; “I am that I am”; “I am.”

People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat (p. 227).

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed:  perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation (pp. 228-229).

He describes all this as his conversion “to Theism, pure and simple, not to Christianity.”

My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life. I now number it among my greatest mercies that I was permitted for several months, perhaps for a year, to know God and to attempt obedience without even raising that question… I had been brought up to believe that goodness was goodness only if it were disinterested, and that any hope of reward or fear of punishment contaminated the will. If I was wrong in this (the question is really much more complicated than I then perceived) my error was most tenderly allowed for… God was to be obeyed simply because he was God. Long since, through the gods of Asgard, and later through the notion of the Absolute, He had taught me how a thing can be revered not for what it can do to us but for what it is in itself. That is why, though it was a terror, it was no surprise to learn that God is to be obeyed because of what He is in Himself. If you ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, “I am” (pp. 231-232).

Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to “Spirit” and from “Spirit” to “God,” had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive. At each step one had less chance “to call one’s soul one’s own.” To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found, was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. And it was, like that moment on top of the bus, ambiguous. Freedom or necessity? Or do they differ at their maximum? (p. 237)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Crown of Creation

I love these observations by Matthew Henry on the creation of Adam and Eve: 
"Creation of Eve"
Wiligelmus*Modena Cathedral
“Yet man being made last of the creatures, as the best and most excellent of all, Eves being made after Adam, and out of him, puts an honour upon that sex, as the glory of the man (1 Co. 11:7). If man is the head, she is the crown, a crown to her husband, the crown of the visible creation. The man was dust refined, but the woman was dust double-refined, one remove further from the earth.... The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Suffering, Affliction, and the Love of God

We find a rather peculiar thing in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel. The chapter recounts the incident of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the first few verses we’re told that Mary and Martha sent messengers to tell Jesus that their brother, who was very dear to him, was ill. And then we read the following:

The Raising of Lazarus
by Juan de Flandes (1465-1519)
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 
John 11:5-6

What a very odd thing to say. We would have expected something quite different. After saying, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” we would have expected John to have said, “So, Jesus hurried off to their home to heal him.” But, no, it says, “He loved them, so he stayed two days longer where he was.”

What’s going on here? Because Jesus loved them, he wanted to teach them something that would prove to be an immeasurable comfort to them (and to us as well), namely, he is the resurrection and the life. Now, he could have merely stated the fact and it would have been no less true; but he wanted this truth to be so deeply impressed upon their minds that it could never be forgotten. He wanted them to experience it. He allowed the illness to take its natural course. He allowed Lazarus to die. He could have healed him, of course. He could have rushed to their home and laid his hand upon him, and the illness would have been immediately healed. Or he could have stayed where he was and simply spoken the word, and the illness would have been healed. Distance was no obstacle to him in such matters (cf. Matt. 8:5-13; Jn. 4:46:53). But instead, he let him die. And he did this because he loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. He loved them too much to heal him when there was another, higher, and more important object to be gained—their knowledge of him as the resurrection and the life.

For some of us, perhaps, this saying carries little power, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. It’s no more than a pleasant sounding religious platitude. But Jesus wanted them—as he wants us—to understand that the resurrection is a reality that changes our entire outlook on life. 

Jesus allowed those whom he loved to suffer a temporary sorrow in order to teach them a lesson of eternal value. May I suggest to you that this is how we should look upon all of our trials and afflictions? In his great love for us, he sometimes allows us to suffer things we would never have chosen for ourselves, but which are nevertheless for our good. There is some lesson to be learned, some grace of the Spirit, or some character trait to be formed in us; or perhaps some good to be accomplished in someone else by what we suffer, and so he allows us to suffer it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray—and pray fervently—that we might avoid suffering, or pray to be delivered from suffering; but it does mean that if God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way or in the time we think he should, we should remember that he is nevertheless dealing with us in love. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"A Perpetual Forge of Idols"

Some wit once observed, “In the beginning God created man in his own image; and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”[1] This is a humorous way of making the point that Calvin made in his Institutes:  “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.”[2]  The advantage the first saying has over the second is the addition of the fact that the idols men forge tend to look an awful lot like their forgers.  

This is true, not only with respect to the false conceptions people have of the Father, but also of the Son. Not finding the real Jesus (the one presented to us in the pages of Scripture) much to their liking, they refashion him into their own image. They don’t like Jesus as he is, and so they imagine him to be what he is not. This imaginary Jesus, not surprisingly, is one who happens to agree with them and endorse their agenda. Thus, we find Jesus re-imagined as a woman, as a homosexual, as an animal rights activist, as a card-carrying Democrat, as a flag-waving Republican, as the original socialist. Sometimes he is re-imagined along racial lines. There is a black Jesus, where the gospel is reinterpreted in terms of black history and culture. There is also a Hispanic Jesus and an Asian Jesus. And lest we feel too indignant about this, let’s recognize that there is also a white Anglo-Saxon Jesus, complete with golden hair and blue eyes that is every bit an idol as any Jesus other than the first century Jewish Jesus, “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1).

The latest effort to re-imagine him comes from the keyboard of one Suzanne DeWitt Hall, who last week wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled, Jesus:  The First Transgender Man. She accuses Christians who take the Bible literally of doing nothing of the sort, but rather “imposing their own filters on stories and phrases to fit their particular ideology.” One can only smile and respond, “Physician, heal thyself.” She seems to have a penchant for imposing plenty of filters of her own.

So how does she go about justifying her claim that Jesus was the first transgender man? She sets the stage, strangely enough, by discussing Eve. “The Bible tells us she is the first example of human cloning.” It does no such thing, of course, but this doesn’t seem to bother her. She adds,

If we take the Genesis account in it’s [sic] literal meaning,[3] as conservative Christians demand that we do, she is also the first case of a transgender woman. God reached into Adam, pulled out a bit of rib bone, and grew Eve from that XY DNA into Adam’s companion. She was created genetically male, and yet transformed into woman.

She was created genetically male? The author pulled that one out of thin air. The text neither says this nor implies it.

Let us be clear. A transgender woman is a man—genetically, biologically, functionally, really, a man—who thinks of himself as (or wishes himself to be) a woman. This was not true of Eve. Ever. She was created genetically, biologically, functionally, and really, a woman. There never was a time when she was anything other than a woman. God performed a supernatural act in the creation of Eve and was not limited to the genetic material of Adam. To assert otherwise is to be guilty of the worst form of reductionism.

The author goes on to say,

Then along comes Jesus and the whole pattern is both repeated and reversed… the second act of cloning occurs. The Holy Spirit comes upon the second Eve [Mary], and the child takes flesh from her and is born. Born of her flesh. Born with XX chromosome paring. Born genetically female, and yet trans-formed into man.

Yes, these really are her words. No kidding.

Her error lies in supposing that God was limited in the incarnation to the genetic material of Mary (as she had previously supposed he was limited to Adam’s genetic material in the creation of Eve). Jesus’ rebuke of the Sadducees is appropriate here, as well:  “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). God did something wonderful, something supernatural, something miraculous in preparing a body for Jesus (Heb. 10:5). But it did not involve transforming him from female to male. The author says Jesus was “born genetically female, and yet transformed into man.” We might ask, when exactly did this happen? Presumably, sometime in the eight days between his birth and circumcision?[4]

[1] I have seen this quote, or some variation of it, attributed to Voltaire, Rousseau, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and some fellow named Anonymous, a very copious writer of quotes.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.8, translated by Henry Beveridge.
[3] She has a rather strange notion of what it means to take the Bible literally. Interpreting the Bible literally means interpreting it according to its own particular style of literature (from the Latin litera). We interpret the Bible literally when we interpret poetry as poetry, historical narrative as historical narrative, parable as parable, symbols as symbols, etc. I don’t know of anyone who interprets the Bible literally as she uses the term.
[4] I should add that it is possible to read her post as a reductio ad absurdum argument in the form of a modus tollens:

If P then Q.
Not Q (because Q is absurd).
Therefore not P.  

Thus, “If the Bible is interpreted literally (as so many conservative Christians claim to do), these are the absurd results that follow (Eve would have to be regarded as a transgender woman and Jesus a transgender man). Eve is not a transgender woman and Jesus is not a transgender man. Therefore, the Bible cannot be interpreted literally.” The problem is that it is not clear she’s offering a reductio. From some of her other posts it seems she regards the creation narrative as ahistorical, and so since Eve (in her view) was not a real person in history, she was neither a real woman nor a transgender woman. The author does seem to believe the incarnation to be historical, however, and also to believe that Jesus was a transgender male.